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It was a dull autumnal afternoon when Maurice paid his final visit to the Manor House. That brilliant summer, which had lasted in all its heat and glory to the end of August, and even extended to September, had vanished all at once, and had given place to a bleak and early autumn. Stormy winds by night, and dull grey skies by day, had prevailed of late; sad stories of disaster at sea filled many a column in the newspapers—to the relief of editors, who must needs have had recourse to gigantic gooseberries, or revivified the sea-serpent, but for these catastrophes.

Even the Manor House had a gloomy look under this leaden sky. Pyramids of scarlet geraniums, thickets of many-coloured dahlias, lent their gaudy hues to the scene; but the lack of sunlight made all dull. The gilded vane pointed persistently northeast. Gardeners and underlings had laboured in vain to keep the paths and lawns clear of dead leaves. Down they came, in a crackling shower, with every gust, emblems of decay and death. Maurice Clissold, sensitive, as the poet must ever be, to external influences, felt depressed by the altered aspect of the place.

Within, however, all was mirth and brightness. There was the usual family group in the hall, where a mighty wood fire blazed in the antique grate, with its massive ironwork, and two burnished brazen globes, on iron standards—golden orbs that reflected the ruddy glow of the fire. The billiard-players were at work. A party of young ladies playing pool industriously, under the leadership of Mr. Tresillian, J.P., who was in great force in feminine circles where there was not much strain upon a man’s intellect. Lady Cheshunt was in her pet chair by the fire—her complexion guarded by a tapestry banner-screen—deeply absorbed in that very French novel the iniquity whereof she had seen denounced by the critical journals. Viola Bellingham was working point-lace at a little table by the central window, and listening with rather a listless air to Sir Lewis Dallas’s discourse. Neither Madge nor her husband was present.

Lady Cheshunt closed her novel with a faint sigh, leaving a finger between the pages. Mr. Clissold was not so interesting as the last and worst of French novelists; yet she felt called upon to be civil to him.

‘How is Mrs. Penwyn?’ he asked, when he had shaken hands with, and duly informed himself as to the health of, the distinguished dowager.

‘That poor child is not very well,’ replied her ladyship. ‘East wind, I suppose. I don’t think we were created for a world in which the wind is perpetually in the east. On such a day as this I always wish myself in the torrid zone, the centre of Africa, anywhere where one could feel the sun. To look at that grey sky and those falling leaves is enough to give one the horrors. It’s as bad as reading Young’s “Night Thoughts,” or staying at a country house with goody-people, who insist upon reading one of Blair’s sermons aloud on a wet Sunday afternoon.’

‘I hope it is nothing serious,’ said Maurice, meaning Mrs. Penwyn’s indisposition.

‘Oh dear no, not in the least. She is only a little out of spirits, and has been spending the morning in her own room with the baby. I dare say she will come down presently. I think she worked a little too hard last season, giving dinners to all the people Mr. Penwyn wanted to conciliate, and going everywhere he wished. She would make an admirable Cabinet minister’s wife, I tell her, so devoted and self-sacrificing; and I suppose, at the rate Mr. Penwyn is going on, he is sure to be in the Cabinet sooner or later. A very wonderful man—so serious and self-contained—a man who never wasted a minute of his life, I should think.’

Madge entered at this moment, a little paler than in the days of old, but very beautiful. Her flowing grey silk dress, with broad sash and gimps and fringes of richest violet, became her admirably. Not a jewel or ornament, except the single amethyst stud which fastened her plain linen collar, and the triple band of diamonds on her wedding finger. The plenteous dark hair wound coronet fashion round the small head. A woman for a new Velasquez to paint, just as she stood before Maurice to-day in the soft grey light.

‘I am so sorry to hear you have been ill,’ he said, as they shook hands.

‘But you must not be sorry, for I was not really ill. I was a little tired, perhaps a little idle, too, and I wanted a morning alone with my boy. What have you done with Churchill, Lady Cheshunt?’ with a little anxious look round the room—empty for her, lacking that one occupant.

‘What have I done with him?’ ejaculated the dowager. ‘Do you suppose your husband is a man to be kept indoors by any fascinations of mine? I should as soon expect to see Brutus, or Cassius, or any of those dreadful Shakesperian persons in togas, playing the tame cat. I asked your husband to read aloud to us, thinking that might please him—most men are proud of their elocution,—but you should have seen his look of quiet contempt. “I am so sorry I am too busy to allow myself the pleasure of amusing you,” he said, and then went off to superintend some new plantation of Norwegian firs. Wonderful man!’

‘You have come to spend the rest of the day with us of course, Mr. Clissold?’ said Madge, with that pleasant cordial manner which was one of her charms, and in no wise out of harmony with her somewhat queenly bearing. Who more delightful than a queenly woman when she desires to please?

‘I shall be only too happy if I may, and if you will excuse my appearing at dinner in a frock coat. I reserved this day for my visit here. It is my last day but one in the west.’

‘I am so sorry,’ said Madge. ‘Well, since we have you for so short a time we must do our best to amuse you. Perhaps,’ with a happy thought, ‘you would like to go and see Churchill’s new plantation. We might go for a drive and join him.’

Maurice understood the wife’s desire to be near her husband, a new proof of that love which had an element of pathos in its quiet intensity.

‘I should like it of all things,’ he answered.

‘But are you sure you have lunched?’ It was between three and four in the afternoon.

‘Quite sure. I joined Mr. Trevanard at his early dinner.’

‘Clara—Laura, which of you will come for a drive?’ asked Madge, indiscriminately of the pool-players. ‘I know it would be useless to ask you, dear Lady Cheshunt.’

‘My love, I would as soon drive across the Neva in a sledge for pleasure. I never stir from my fireside, except to go out to dinner, when the wind’s in the east. Setting aside the discomfort, I can’t see why one should make a horror of one’s self by exposing one’s complexion to be rasped as the bakers rasp their rolls.’

The pool-players were too deeply involved in their game to care about leaving it, unless dear Mrs. Penwyn particularly wished them to go out.

‘Let me come, Madge,’ said Viola, ‘and let us take Nugent.—You won’t mind, will you, Mr. Clissold?’

‘Do you think that I am such a barbarian as to object to that small individual’s society?’ asked Maurice. ‘He shall sit on my knee, and pull my beard as hard as he likes.’

Sir Lewis Dallas asked to be allowed to join the party, so the sociable was ordered, and Mrs. Penwyn and her sister retired to put on their hats.

‘She is not looking well,’ said Maurice.

‘No, she is not,’ answered Lady Cheshunt, with more earnestness than was common to that somewhat frivolous dowager. ‘She has never been quite the same since that burglar business.’

‘Indeed! The alarm caused her a great shock, I suppose.’

‘Well, she knew nothing about the attempt until it was all over; but I suppose the worry and excitement afterwards were too much for her. The man turned out to be a son of the lodge-keeper, and the woman came whining to Mrs. Penwyn to get him let off easily; and Madge, who is the most tender-hearted creature in the world, persuaded Churchill to use his influence with that good-natured Mr. Tresillian, whom he can wind round his finger,’ in a whisper, ‘and the man got off. It was particularly good of Mrs. Penwyn, for I know she detests that lodge woman.’

‘Really!’ said Maurice, affecting ignorance. ‘Then I wonder Mr. Penwyn keeps her on his premises, now that he knows her son to be such a dangerous character.’

‘Yes, it’s just one of those absurd things men do for the sake of having their own way. I’ve talked to Mr. Penwyn about it myself ever so many times. “Why do you annoy your poor wife by keeping a horrid creature like that?” I have asked him. “Suppose I know your horrid creature to be deserving of protection and shelter, Lady Cheshunt? Should I not be unmanly if I were to sacrifice her to a foolish prejudice of Madge’s?” he retorts. So both Madge and I have left off talking about the creature; but I must say that it always makes me feel uncomfortable to see her squatting on the threshold in the sunshine, like an overgrown toad.’

‘Perhaps I could tell Mr. Penwyn something about his protégée’s antecedents that would make him change his opinion.’

‘Then pray do. But is it anything very dreadful?—murder, or anything of that kind?’ asked Lady Cheshunt, with a scared look. ‘You make me feel as if we were all going to have our throats cut.’

‘It is nothing very dreadful. Perhaps hardly enough to cause any change in Mr. Penwyn’s opinion. I remember that woman plying her trade as a gipsy fortune-teller at Eborsham, the day before my poor friend, James Penwyn, was murdered. She in a manner—by the merest accident, of course—foretold James’s early death.’

‘Dear me, what an extraordinary thing! And you find her, two years afterwards, in Churchill Penwyn’s service. That is very curious.’

‘The whirligig of time brings many curious things to pass, Lady Cheshunt. But here are the ladies.’

They went to the porch, where the sociable was waiting for them with a pair of fine bays, impatient to be gone. It was not an inviting day for open-air excursions, but just one of those grey afternoons which have a kind of poetry—a sentiment all their own. The sombre expanse of moorland, dun colour against the grey, had a fine effect.

They took a longish drive, made a circuit, and came round to the new plantation, where Churchill was superintending the work, seated on his favourite, Tarpan, an animal which had of late shown himself unmanageable by any one except his master, and had been the cause of more than one groom’s retirement from a service which was in every other respect admirable. Churchill seemed to have a peculiar fancy for the somewhat ill-conditioned brute, though he did not often ride him, on account of Mrs. Penwyn’s apprehensions.

‘My dear love, he will never throw me,’ Churchill said, in answer to his wife’s request that Tarpan should be disposed of. ‘If I were not thoroughly convinced of that I would part with him. The brute understands me, and I understand him, which neither of those fellows did. And I like his pace and action better than those of any other horse in the stable. Nothing revives me like a gallop on Tarpan.’

Wonderful to see the influence of Madge Penwyn’s presence on her husband, as Maurice saw it to-day. The moody brow relaxed its contemplative frown, the thoughtful eye brightened, while a gentle pressure of the hand and a fondly whispered greeting welcomed the wife.

‘This is an unexpected pleasure, Madge,’ he said. ‘I did not think you would drive to-day.’

‘I wanted to show Mr. Clissold your new plantation, Churchill.’

They all alighted, and Churchill showed them his newly planted groves, the graceful feathery Norwegian saplings, a ship-load of them brought from Norway for his special benefit, rhododendrons planted in between, and here and there a mountain ash or a copper beech to give colour and variety.

While they were walking in the plantation, Maurice and Churchill side by side, the former seized the opportunity of speaking of the gipsy woman whose presence at Penwyn Manor was a perplexity to him. It might possibly be an impertinence on his part to call in question Mr. Penwyn’s domestic arrangements, but Maurice felt that there were circumstances in this case which fully justified a breach of manners.

‘Do you know that I have made a curious discovery about a person in your employment, Mr. Penwyn?’ he began.

‘Indeed, and pray who and what is the person?’ asked Churchill, with the slightest possible change of manner, from cordiality to reserve.

‘Your lodgekeeper,’ replied Maurice; and then he proceeded to relate the circumstances of his first meeting with Rebecca Mason.

Mr. Penwyn received the information with supreme indifference.

‘Curious,’ he said, carelessly, ‘but I have long since discovered that life is made up of curious coincidences, and I have lost the faculty of astonishment. Multitudinous as the inhabitants of this globe are, we seem to be perpetually moving in circles, and knocking our heads against some one or other connected with our past lives. If I had wronged a man in Otaheite twenty years ago, it would not in the least surprise me to meet him at Seacomb Corn Exchange to-morrow. With regard to the woman Mason, I found her in circumstances of extreme distress, and offered her a home. It was one of those rare occasions on which I have indulged in the luxury of doing good,’ with an ironical laugh. ‘I knew, when I did this, that Rebecca had gipsy blood in her veins, and had led a roving life. But I had reason to believe her an honest woman then, and I have never found any cause for thinking her otherwise since. And this being so, I have made up my mind to keep her, in spite of the vulgar prejudice against her tawny skin—in spite even of my wife’s dislike.’

‘You are not alarmed by the idea of her relationship to a burglar?’

‘No. First and foremost, I am not prepared to admit that the man is a burglar; and secondly, if he be, I am as well able to defend the Manor House from him as from any other member of his profession.’

‘Except that he would have the advantage of his mother’s lodge as a base of operations, and his mother’s knowledge of your domestic arrangements,’ remonstrated Maurice, determined to push the question.

‘I have told you that I know Rebecca to be an honest woman, whatever the son may be. Come, Mr. Clissold, we may as well drop this subject. You are not likely to influence me upon a point which I have maintained against the wish of my wife.’

‘So be it,’ said Maurice, closing the discussion, with the conviction that there was some hidden link between the gipsy and the Squire of Penwyn; some influence stronger than philanthropy which secured the wanderer’s home. The fact that it should be so, that there should be some secret alliance between the woman who had foretold James Penwyn’s death and the man who had been so large a gainer by that early death, impressed him strangely. He was thoughtful and silent throughout the homeward drive; so thoughtful and so silent as to arouse Madge Penwyn’s curiosity.

‘I can hardly compliment you upon being the most amusing of companions, Mr. Clissold,’ she said, with a forced smile, as they approached the Manor House. ‘There was a time when your conversation used to be amusing enough to enliven the dullest drive, but to-day you have been the image of gloom.’

‘Black care sits behind us all, at odd times, Mrs. Penwyn,’ he answered, gravely. ‘Be assured I must have cause for serious thought when the charm of your presence does not put me in spirits.’

‘Thanks for the compliment; but you talk rather too much like a Greek oracle,’ retorted Madge, lightly, but with an uneasy look which did not escape Maurice’s observation.

‘There is a cloud hanging over this house,’ he said to himself. ‘A trouble in which husband and wife share. But it can be no such dark secret as Justina’s suspicions point to, or Mrs. Penwyn would know nothing about it. No husband would reveal such guilt as that to his wife.’


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