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CHAPTER XVIII.

"NO SUDDEN FANCY OF AN ARDENT BOY."

It was Christmas Eve. All things were arranged for departure on the 28th, which would give time for their arrival at San Remo on New Year's Day. They were to travel by easy stages, by Amiens, Basle, and Lucerne. A[Pg 208] good deal of luggage had been sent off in advance, and trunks and portmanteaux were packed ready for the start; so that the travellers could take their ease during the few days of Christmas church-going and festivity. Isola's spirits had improved wonderfully since the journey had been decided upon.

"It seems like beginning a new life, Martin," she told her husband. "I feel ever so much better already. I'm afraid I'm an impostor, and that you are taking a great deal of unnecessary trouble on my account."

It was such a relief to think that she would see Vansittart Crowther no more, that she could wander where she pleased without the hazard of meeting that satyr-like countenance, those pale protruding eyes, with malevolent stare—such a relief to know that she would be in a new country, where no one would know anything about her, or have any inclination to gossip about her. Something of her old gaiety and interest in life revived at the prospect of those new surroundings.

They were to put up at an hotel for the first few days, so as to take their time in looking for a villa. Two servants were to go with them—the colonel's valet and handy-man, who was an old soldier, and could turn his hand to anything in house, or stable, or garden; and the baby's nurse, a somewhat masterful person of seven and twenty, from the Fatherland, surnamed Grunhaupt, but known in the family by her less formidable domestic diminutive L?ttchen. Other hirelings would be obtained at San Remo, but these two were indispensable—Holford, the soldier-servant, to bear all burdens, and L?ttchen to take charge of the baby, to whom life was supposed to be impossible in any other care.

It was Christmas Eve—the mildest Christmas that had been known for a long time, even in this sheltered corner of the coast. Allegra had been busy all the morning, helping in the church decorations, and co-operating with Mr. Colfox in various arrangements for the comfort of the[Pg 209] old and sick and feeble, among the cottages scattered over the length and breadth of a large parish. She had walked a good many miles, and she had stood for an hour in the church, toiling at the decoration of the font, which had been assigned to her, and which she covered with ferns, arbutus, and berberis foliage, in all their varieties of colour, from darkest bronze to vivid crimson, starred with the whiteness of Christmas roses; while the Miss Crowthers lavished the riches of the Glenaveril hothouses upon the pulpit, keeping themselves studiously aloof from Miss Leland.

Not a jot cared Allegra for their aloofness. She disliked their father, and she knew that her brother detested him, without having any clear idea of the cause. She was so thoroughly loyal to Martin that she would have deemed it treason to like any one whom he disliked; so had the daughters of Glenaveril been the most companionable young women in Cornwall she would have considered it her duty to hold them at arm's length. Glenaveril and all its belongings were taboo.

She was very tired when she went home at four o'clock, just on the edge of dusk here—pitch dark, no doubt, in London and other great cities, where the poor, pinched faces were flitting to and fro in the fitful glare of the butcher's gas, intent on finding a Christmas joint to fit the slenderest resources. Here, in this quiet valley, the reflected sun-glow still brightened sky, sea, land, and river, and the lamps had not yet been lighted in hall or drawing-room at the Angler's Nest.

There was a pleasant alternation of firelight and shadow in the long double room, the flames leaping up every now and then, and lighting wall and bookcase, picture and bust, the blue and red of the Mandarin jars, and the golden storks on the black Japanese screen; but it was such a capricious light that it did not show Allegra some one sitting perdu in Martin Disney's deep elbow chair, a person who sat and watched her with an admiring smile, as she flung off her little felt hat and fur cape, and stretched her arms above her[Pg 210] head in sheer weariness, a graceful, picturesque figure, in her plain brown serge gown, belted round the supple waist, and clasped at the throat, like Enid's, and with never an ornament except the oxydized silver clasps, and the serviceable chatelaine hanging at her side.

The tea-table was set ready in front of the fire, the large Moorish tray on bamboo legs. But there was no sign of Isola; so Miss Leland poured out a cup of tea and began to drink it, still unconscious of a pair of dark eyes watching her from the shadow of the big armchair.

"And am I to have no tea, Miss Leland?" asked a voice out of the darkness.

Allegra gave a little scream, and almost dropped her cup.

"Good gracious!" she exclaimed. "How can you startle any one like that? How do you know that I have not heart disease?"

"I would as soon suspect the goddess Hygeia of that, or any other ailment," said Captain Hulbert, rising to his full six feet two, out of the low chair in the dark corner by the bookcase. "Forgive me for my bearishness in sitting here while you were in the room. I could not resist the temptation to sit and watch you for a minute or two while you were unconscious of my presence. It was like looking at a picture. While you are talking I am so intent upon what you say, and what you think, that I almost forget to consider what you are like. To-night I could gaze undistracted."

"What absolute nonsense you talk," said Allegra, with the sugar-tongs poised above the basin. "One lump—or two?"

"One, two, three—anything you like—up to a million."

"Do you know that you nearly made me break a tea-cup—one of mother's dear old Worcester tea-cups? I should never have forgiven you."

"But as you didn't drop the tea-cup, I hope you do forgive me for my stolen contemplation, for sitting in my corner there and admiring you in the firelight?"

[Pg 211]

"Firelight is very becoming. No doubt I looked better than in the daytime."

"And you forgive me?"

"I suppose so. It is hardly worth while to be angry with you. I shall be a thousand miles away next week. I could not carry my resentment so far. It would cool on the journey."

"A thousand miles is not far for the Vendetta, Miss Leland. She would make light of crossing the Pacific—for a worthy motive."

"I don't know anything about motives; but I thought you were fairly established at the Mount, and that you had made an end of your wanderings."

"The Mount is only delightful—I might say endurable—when I have neighbours at the Angler's Nest."

"Martin will let this house, perhaps, and you may have pleasant neighbours in the new people."

"I am not like the domestic cat. It is not houses I care for, but individuals. My affections would not transfer themselves to the new tenants."

"How can you tell that? You think of them to-night as strangers—and they seem intolerable. You would like them after a week, and be warmly attached to them at the end of a month. Why, you have known us for less than three months, and we fancy ourselves quite old friends."

"Oh, Miss Leland, is our friendship only fancy? Will a thousand miles make you forget me?"

"No, we could not any of us be so ungrateful as to forget you," answered Allegra, struggling against growing embarrassment, wondering if this tender tone, these vague nothings, were drifting towards a declaration, or were as simply meaningless as much of the talk between men and women. "We can't forget how kind you have been, and what delightful excursions we have had on the Vendetta."

"The Vendetta will be at San Remo when you want her, Allegra. She will be as much at your command there as she has been here; and her skipper will be as much your[Pg 212] slave as he is here—as he has been almost ever since he saw your face."

This was not small talk. This meant something very serious. He had called her Allegra, and she had not reproved him; he had taken her hand and she had not withdrawn it. In the next instant, she knew not how, his arm was round her waist, and her head, weary with the long day's work and anxieties, was resting contentedly on his shoulder, while his lips set their first kiss, tenderly, reverently almost, on her fair broad brow.

"Allegra, this means yes, does it not? Our lives have flowed on together so peacefully, so happily, since last October. They are to mingle and flow on together to the great sea, are they not, love—the sea of death and eternity."

"Do you really care for me?"

"Do I really adore you? Yes, dear love. With all my power of adoration."

"But you must have cared for other girls before now. I can't believe that I am the first."

"Believe, at least, that you will be the last, as you are the only woman I ever asked to be my wife."

"Is that really, really true?"

"It is true as the needle to the north."

"Yet they say that sailors——"

"Are generally tolerable dancers, and popular in a ball-room, especially when they are the givers of the ball—that they can talk to pretty women without feeling abashed—and that they contrive to get through a good deal of flirting without singeing their wings. I have waltzed with a good many nice girls in my time, Allegra, and I have sat out a good many waltzes. Yet I am here at your side, honestly and devotedly your own; and I have never loved any other woman with the love I feel for you. No other woman has ever held my whole heart; no, not for a single hour."

"You make nice distinctions," said Allegra, gently disengaging herself from his arm, and looking at him with a faint, shy smile, very doubtful, yet very anxious to believe.[Pg 213] "I am dreadfully afraid that all this fine talk means nothing more than you would say to any of your partners, if you happened to be sitting out a waltz."

"Should I ask any of my partners to be my wife, do you think?"

"Oh, you can withdraw that to-morrow—forget and ignore it. We may both consider it only a kind of under-the-mistletoe declaration, meaning no more than a mistletoe kiss. I believe when English people were domestic and kept Christmas, the head of the family would have kissed his cook if he had met her under the mistletoe."

"Allegra, is it not cruel of you to be jocose when I am so tremendously serious?"

"What if I don't believe in your seriousness?"

"Is this only a polite way of refusing me?" he asked, beginning to be offended, not understanding that this nonsense-talk was a hasty defence against overpowering emotion, that she was not sure of him, and was desperately afraid of betraying herself. "Am I to understand that you don't care a straw for me?"

"No, no, no," she cried eagerly, "as a friend, I like you better than any one else in the world; only I don't want to give you more than friendship till I can trust you well enough to believe in your love."

"Prove it, Allegra," he cried, clasping her waist again before she was aware. "Put me to any test or any trial—impose any duty upon me. Only tell me that if I come through the ordeal you will be my wife."

"You are not in a great hurry to fetter yourself, I hope?" she said.

"I am in a hurry—I long for those sweet fetters by which your love will hold me. I want to be anchored by my happiness."

"Give me a year of freedom, a year for art and earnest work in Italy, a year for Martin and Isola, who both want me; and if this night year you are still of the same mind, I will be your wife. I will not engage you. You may be as[Pg 214] free as air to change your mind and love some one else; but I will promise to be true to you and to this talk of ours till the year's end—one year from to-night."

"I accept your sentence, though it is severe; but I don't accept my freedom. I am your slave for a year. I shall be your slave when the year is out. I am yours, and yours alone for life. And now give me that cup of tea, Allegra, which you have not poured out yet, and let us fancy ourselves Darby and Joan."

"Darby and Joan," echoed Allegra, as she filled his cup. "Must we be like that: old and prosy, sitting by the fire, while life goes by us outside? It seems sad that there should be no alternative between slow decay and untimely death."

"It is sad; but the world is made so. And then Providence steeps elderly people in a happy hallucination. They generally forget that they are old; or at least they forget that they ever were young, and they think young people so ineffably silly that youth itself seems despicable to their sober old minds. But you and I have a long life to the good, dear love, before the coming of grey hairs and elderly prejudices."

And then he began to talk of ways and means, as if they were going to be married next week.

"We shall have enough for bread and cheese," he said. "I am better off than a good many younger sons; for a certain old grandfather of mine provided for the younger branches. It is quite possible that Lostwithiel may never marry—indeed, he seems to me very decided against matrimony, and in that case those who come after us must inherit title and estate in days to come."

"Pray don't talk so," cried Allegra, horrified. "It sounds as if you were speculating upon your brother's death."

"On Lostwithiel's death? Not for worlds. God bless him, wherever he may be. You don't know how fond we two fellows are of each other. Only when a man is going to be married it behoves him to think even of the remote future. I shall have to talk to the colonel, remember; and he will expect me to be business-like."

[Pg 215]

"I hope you don't think Martin mercenary," said Allegra. "There never was a man who set less value on money. It wouldn't make any difference to him if you had not a penny. And as for me, I have a little income from my mother—more than enough to buy frocks and things—and beyond that I can earn my own living. So you really needn't trouble yourself about me."

There was a touching simplicity in her speech, mingled with a slight flavour of audacity, as of an emancipated young woman, which amused her lover, reminding him of a heroine of Murger's, or Musset's, a brave little grisette, who was willing to work hard for the ménage à deux, and who wanted nothing from her lover but love. He looked into the candid face, radiant in the fire-glow, and he told himself that this was just the one woman for whom his heart had kept itself empty, like a temple waiting for its god, in all the years of his manhood. And now the temple doors had opened wide, the gates had been lifted up, and the goddess had marched to her place, triumphant and all-conquering.

The clock on the mantelpiece struck six, and the old eight-day clock in the hall followed like a solemn echo. Captain Hulbert started up. "So late! Why, we have been talking for nearly two hours!" he exclaimed, "and I have a budget of letters to write for the night mail. Good-bye, darling—or I'll say au revoir, for I'll walk down again after dinner, and get half an hour's chat with Disney, if you don't think it will be too late for me to see him."

"You know he is always pleased to see you—we are not very early people—and this is Christmas Eve. We were to sit round the fire and tell ghost-stories, don't you remember?"

"Of course we were. I shall be here soon after nine, and I shall think over all the grizzly legends I ever heard, as I come down the hill."

He went reluctantly, leaving her standing by the fire, a contemplative figure with downcast eyes. At a little later stage in their engagement no doubt she would have gone with him to the door, or even out to the garden gate, for a[Pg 216] lingering parting under the stars—but there was a shyness about them both in this sweet dim beginning of their union, when it was so strange to each to have any claim upon the other.

"How lightly she took the whole business," Captain Hulbert said to himself as he went up the hill. "Yet her voice trembled now and then—and her hand was deadly cold when first I clasped it. I think she loves me. A year,"—snapping his fingers gaily at the stars—"what is a year? A year of bliss if it be mostly spent with her. Besides, long engagements are apt to dwindle. I have seen such engagements—entered on solemnly like ours to-night—shrink to six months, or less. Why should one linger on the threshold of a new life, if one knows it is going to be completely happy?"

The blissful lover had not been gone five minutes when Isola came creeping into the room, and put her arm round Allegra's neck and kissed her flushed cheek.

"Why, Isa, where have you been hiding all this evening?"

"I had fallen asleep in my room, just half an hour before tea, and when I awoke it was five o'clock, and L?ttchen told me you and Captain Hulbert were in the drawing-room. And as I know you two have always so much to talk about, I thought I wouldn't disturb you. So I let L?ttchen make tea for me in the nursery, and I stayed there to play with baby. And here you are all in the dark."

"Oh, we had the firelight—Parker forgot to bring the lamp."

"And you forgot to ring for it," said Isola, going over to the bow-window, and drawing back a curtain. "What a lovely sky! Who would think it was Christmas-time?"

Tho moon was in her second quarter, shining brilliantly, in the deep purple of a sky almost without a cloud.

"Will you put on your hat and jacket and come for a stroll in the garden, Isa?" asked Allegra. "It is a mild, dry night, and I don't think the air can hurt you."

[Pg 217]

"Hurt me! It will do me all the good in the world. Yes, I shall be ready in a moment."

They went out into the hall, where Allegra packed her sister-in-law carefully in a warm, fur-lined jacket, and flung a tartan shawl round her own shoulders. Then they went out into the garden, and to the lawn by the river. The moon was shining on the running water, brightly, coldly, clear, while the meadows on the opposite bank were wrapped in faint, white mists, which made all the landscape seem unreal.

"Are you not too tired for walking here after your long day, Allegra?" Isola asked, when they had gone up and down the path two or three times.

"Tired, no. I could walk to Tywardreath. I could walk to the Mausoleum. Shall we go there? The sea must be lovely under that moon."

"My dearest, it is nearly seven o'clock, and you have been tramping about all day. If you are not very tired, you must be very much excited, Allegra. I am longing to hear what it all means."

"Are you really, now? Do you care about it, Isola? Can you, who are firmly anchored in the haven of marriage, feel any sentimental interest in other people, tossing about on the sea of courtship? Martin is to be told everything to-night—so you may as well know all about it now. You like Captain Hulbert, don't you, Isola?"

"I do, indeed. I like him, and believe in him."

"Thank Heaven! I should have been miserable if you had doubted or disliked him. He is to be my husband some day, Isa, if Martin approve—but not for a year, at least. Tell me, dear, are you glad?"

"Yes, I am very glad. God bless you, Allegra, and make your life happy—and free—from—care."

She broke down with those last faltered words, and Allegra discovered that she was crying.

"My dearest Isa, don't cry! I shall fancy you are sorry—that you think him unworthy."

[Pg 218]

"No, no, no. It is not that. He is worthy. He is all that I could desire in the man who is to be your husband. No, I was only thinking how completely happy you and he must be—how cloudless your life promises to be. God keep you, and guard you, dear! And may you never know the pain of parting with the husband you love—with your protector and friend—as I have known it."

"Yes, love; but that is all past and done with. There are to be no more farewells for you and Martin."

"No, it is past, thank God! Yet one cannot forget. I am very glad Captain Hulbert has left the navy—that his profession cannot call him away from you."

"No, he is an idle man. I dare say the time will come when I shall be plagued with him, and be almost obliged to suggest that he should keep race-horses, or go on the Stock Exchange, to occupy his time. I have heard women say that it is terrible to have a stay-at-home husband. Yet Martin is never de trop—but then Martin can bury himself in a book. He has no fidgety ways."

"How lightly you talk, Allegra."

"Perhaps that is because my heart is heavy—heavy, not with grief and care, but with the burden of perplexity and surprise, with the fear that comes of a great joy."

"You do love him, then?" said Isola, earnestly. "You are glad."

"I am very glad. I am glad with all my heart."

"God bless you, dearest! I rejoice in your happiness."

They kissed again, this time with tears on both sides; for Allegra was now quite overcome, and sobbed out her emotion upon her sister's neck; they two standing clasped in each other's arms beside the river.

"When I am dead, Allegra, remember always that I loved you, and that I rejoiced in your happiness as if it were my own."

"When you are dead! How dare you talk like that, when we are taking you away to get well and strong, and to live[Pg 219] ever so many years beyond your golden wedding? Was there ever such ingratitude?"

Tho odour of tobacco stole on the evening air, and they heard Martin's firm tread approaching along the gravel path.

Isola put her arm through his, while Allegra ran into the house, and husband and wife walked up and down two or three times in the darkness, she telling him all about the wonderful thing that had happened.

"You are glad, are you not, Martin? You are as glad as I am?"

"Are you so very glad?"

"Yes, for I know that Allegra loves him, has loved him for a long time."

"Meaning six weeks or so—allowing a fortnight for the process of falling in love. Is that what you call a long time, Isola?"

"Weeks are long sometimes," she answered, slowly, as if her thoughts had wandered into another channel.

"Well, if Allegra is pleased, I suppose I ought to be content," said Disney. "Hulbert seems a fine, frank fellow, and I have never heard anything to his discredit. He was popular in the navy, and was considered a man of marked ability. I dare say people will call him a good match for Allegra, so long as Lostwithiel remains a bachelor."

"No one can be too good for Allegra, and only the best of men can be good enough. If I had my own way, I should have liked her to remain always unmarried, and to care for nothing but her nephew and you. I should have liked to think of her as always with you."

The triangular dinner-party was gayer that evening than it had been for a long time. Isola was in high spirits, and her husband was delighted at the change from that growing apathy which had so frightened him. The ladies had scarcely left the table when Captain Hulbert arrived, and was ushered into the dining-room, where Martin Disney was smoking his after-dinner pipe in the chimney corner—[Pg 220]the old chimney corner of that original Angler's Nest, which had been a humble homestead two hundred years ago.

The two men shook hands, and then John Hulbert seated himself on the opposite side of the hearth, and they began to talk earnestly of the future, Martin Disney speaking with fond affection of the sister who had been to him almost as a daughter.

"Her mother was the sweetest and truest of women," he said, "and her father had one of the most refined and delicate natures I ever met with in a man. I do not know that he was altogether fitted for the Church. He was wanting in energy and decision, or force of character; but he was a firm believer, pure-minded and disinterested, and he was an artist to the tips of his fingers. It is from him Allegra inherits her love of art; only while he was content to trifle with art she has worked with all the power of her strong, resolute temperament. She inherits that from her mother's line, which was a race of workers, men with whom achievement was a necessity of existence—men who fought, and men who thought—sword and gown."

Disney smiled at the stern condition of a year's probation which Allegra had imposed upon her lover.

"Such sentences are very often remitted," he said.

"I own to having some hope of mercy," replied Captain Hulbert. "People have an idea that May marriages are unlucky; and perhaps we had better defer to a popular superstition. But it seems to me that June is a capital month for a yachtsman's honeymoon; and if I can persuade my dearest to remit half my period of probation, and fix the 1st of June for our wedding, I should be just half a year happier than I am now."

"Have you any notion yet what kind of life you are to lead after your marriage? I hope it will not be a roving life. Isola and I would like to have our sister near us."

"And Allegra and I would like to study your liking," laughed Hulbert. "We may wander a little on summer seas, but we will have our fixed abode, and it shall be near[Pg 221] you. So long as Lostwithiel is a bachelor, we can make our home at the Mount; but fond as I am of that dear old place, I should be glad to see my brother married. There is something amiss in his present mode of life; and I have but too strong reason to fear that he is not a happy man."

"Have you any idea of the cause of his unhappiness?"

"Only speculative ideas—mere theories that may be without foundation in fact. I fancy that he has burnt the lamp of life a little too furiously, and that the light has grown dim in the socket. The after-taste of a fiery youth is the taste of dust and ashes. There may be memories, too—memories of some past folly—which are bitter enough to poison his life. I know that he is unhappy. I have tried to find out the cause; and it all ends in this—an obstinate reserve on his part, and mere theorizing on mine."

"I have heard that he lived in a bad set after he left the University?"

"A bad set—yes, that is it. A man who begins life in a certain circle is like a workman who gets his arm or his leg caught unawares in a machine worked by steam power. In an instant he is entangled past rescue. He is gone. A man takes the wrong road. Ten years afterwards, perhaps, when he is bald and wrinkled, he may pull himself up on the downward track and try to get rid of a bad reputation and make a fresh start; but those fresh starts rarely end in a winning race. I am very sorry for my brother. He is a warm-hearted fellow, with a good deal of talent; and he ought not to have made a bad thing of his life."

"Let us hope that he has pulled up in time, and that he may get a young wife before he is many years older. I have no desire that my sister's son should be a peer. I only want to see her happy with a husband who shall be worthy of her."



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