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GURNEL DUKE'S FIRST VALENTINE.
A STORY IN FOUR CHAPTERS, BY WINIFRED SOUTH.
THIS is a story told over the fire
was staying the fourteenth of February of a year ago.
It was the hour after dinner, and the children were in the drawingroom. For some time previous it had been as though all the bells in the house were gone wild, as though all the spirits in the world and under the world had taken to rapping at doors, as though all the fairies, good and bad, had gone about to shower their gifts on the various members of the family, from Mr. Heath, squire, downwards, through Gooch, butler, to John Sims, stable boy. The wild clangour had now ceased, however; the uproarious mirth subsided, the contemplative mood was coming on.
It came thus on one member of the circle. Something of a collection, certainly! Enough to set Lory up in a fancy goods' shop. Lory, ten years of age, with fourteen; Sissy, fourteen, with eleven; Cecil, six, with thirteen; Fan, five, with sixteen; Lennard, fifteen, with six; Flo, nineteen, with twelve; Miss Wilton-with three.'
silent merriment, for Gurnel Duke had inadvertently touched on what was a sore point; at least, so the youngsters averred, youth being magnanimous only by fits and starts. Ah, children, I was twentyeight before ever I had a valentine.'
And what was that, uncle?' cried ever so many voices.
'And what was that, Mr. Duke ?' said young Ferrers, seated very close to Florence Heath.
'Ah, that's a story a long story,' he answered, looking halfhumorously, half - gravely round the group, his eye resting longest on a lady some nine years his junior, into whose face there came the brightest blush and the wickedest smile.
'Then tell us it, uncle, there's a
VOL. XV.-NO. LXXXVI.
dear,' said Sissy, of fourteen, with fourteen's good appetite for stories. And all seconded her.
But Gurnel Duke shook his head, and appeared nowise inclined. A man of some four-and-thirty years, with broad, large forehead, dark, penetrative eyes, mouth steadfast in itself a man, written within and without, was Gurnel Duke.
'Come, Duke,' said Mr. Heath, good-humouredly backing up the young people, perhaps himself a little curious.
'It's not a story that can well be told-not a story at all easy to tell.' A second chorus of entreaty. A dozen characteristic speeches in a dozen characteristic tones of beseeching, assertion, disappointment, confidence, hope.
'If Uncle Gurnel tells it in his way, we must tell it in ours also, must we not, my pet?' said the lady whom his gaze had distinguished, taking little May on her lap, her voice as bright and sweet as her sweet, bright face. The saucy face and voice incited them not a little.
'Come, Duke,' reiterated Mr. Heath, who was getting an inkling of what the story might be, that admission was half permission, eh?"
'Well, see here, a compromise. I don't know what induced me, but last year I drew up a true and authentic account-of-a very singular episode in a man's life. I have it amongst my papers in the library.'
As Mr. Duke walked to and from the library, it was with a scarcely perceptible halt. Strangely, nothing about him became him so well. The slight stoop it occasioned gave him an air of continual courtesy, and a gentleness to an otherwise decided, authoritative bearing. We girls were enthusiasts about him, with about as much, or as little, discrimination as commonly belongs to girls.
When he returned, it was with a manuscript of many closely-written pages in his hand. This paper was not meant for so many ears. I scarcely know how much is told.' And he turned over a page or two doubtfully. Well, if I begin to use the scissors and amend, it may not be genuine; it is that now. So, young folks, come fence round your poor old uncle; a bold thing he's in for, I can tell you,' with a sly face for some of the elders. Lennard is appointed reader. Fire away, Lennard. The Story of Gurnel Duke's First Valentine.'
My father was a captain in the Royal Navy, and my mother the daughter of another-the last of the old Gurnels of Berkshire. But at eight years of age I had neither father, mother, nor penny in the world wherewith to help myself. From eight to twenty I lived by the grace, or charity, of a rich relative. But it is a libel on either word; for if you would know what his charity was like, I can only say, like the big, ostentatious, sordidlooking, ugly crown pieces which invariably accompanied his responses to my periodic holiday letters-as big, ostentatious, sordid - looking, ugly. These very periodic holidayletters were a part of it. My schoolmaster was post-diluvian in his opinions, and made strong objection, but had to content himself with leaving me entirely to my own devices in the matter, which devices at first consisted of obtaining such assistance as was to be obtained from the elder boys, and gradually, as I myself grew into an elder boy, of speaking my mind on various points after a fashion very unusual in the holiday-letter era.
The responses were offensive enough; but by the time I perceived it I had grown so accustomed as to suppose it a privilege of relationship.
I thank God there were other influences at work; for such culture as Richard Duke desired for me, and supposed himself to have provided, makes a man either crossgrained or without any grain at all -unworthy, any way. My schoolmaster gave me of his best, partly
because he was a conscientious man, partly because of a personal liking for me, partly because I promised to be a credit to the school. My comrades, too, stood by me, and I never lacked an invitation for holidays, which I must otherwise have spent at the school. With one thing and another my uncle's crop of tares, sown with half-yearly punctuality, bore but little fruit. In my visits to my schoolfellows I was familiar with that form of irritating speech in which, however much it is to be deplored, the most affectionate of relatives do at times indulge. It was not difficult to confound the spirit of my uncle's contumelious alms with this.
It is hard on a young fellow to have the solid ground-so solid it seems to him-open under his feet, as it did under mine. There are many veritable meanings that will not bear abrupt disclosures; God is merciful, and mostly the young are graduated in them. I don't say I was not a little uneasy and semiconscious of an injurious element, but it came hard on a young fellow.
Not long after I commenced my college career a competition was announced for undergraduates (of a year's standing, the prize a scholarship of one hundred pounds a-year. When, eager and hopeful, I stated my intention of competing, I was given in a roundabout way to understand that I should be running dangerously counter to my uncle's wishes; that he had formerly privately objected to my entrance for any of the school exhibitions. Which roused me to put my independence to the test. I said, in public, it was strange, after this, if I did not succeed. And I did-to receive a letter by the next post after the public announcement withdrawing my allowance, with not a single reason assigned.
'What do you do now?' asked a friend, to whom I read the communication.
'Do? Why, please God, get my name into the Wranglers' list this time three years.'
That speech and my story were carried to the head of my college. He sent for me, and offered to see
me through my academical course. I gratefully declined pecuniary assistance; he had given me the only aid I needed in keeping up in me a great respect for my kind. As has been said, 'It is not absolutely necessary that a man should see many men whom he can respect.' I obtained an amount of literary employment, and with a five-pound note here and a ten-pound note there, pulled through, to see myself in the three years' time third Wrangler.
Next was a fellowship, and the post of travelling tutor to Viscount Narboyne, Lord Uxford's only son. Lord Uxford was, you know, a great man in the government of that day.
A gentle-minded, delicately-nurtured fellow was my charge. A milksop, some said; but I had seen in him the lion-heart and the right instinct. I did love that fellow. Well, it is the often-repeated story. I, the friendless, penniless man, whose death might momentarily affect a classfellow or two-but even that, in my obscurity, doubtful— went scathless through perils many; he, the petted boy, heir to broad acres, to a vast influence, of a long patrician line, the only son of his parents, fell ill of a low fever, that has its haunts peculiarly with penury and care, and died. I did my best by him, but he died. It was in a small village on the nearer Italian coast. On the first tidings of his illness Lady Uxford was herself too ill to travel, and Lord Uxford so greatly engaged in public affairs as only to arrive the day before his son's death.
On my return to England, which was delayed until the spring by my own state of health, my first visit was to Somersley, the Uxfords' Hampshire seat. He had withdrawn from the government shortly after his bereavement, and they were living in strict privacy. Both Lord and Lady Uxford were lavish with their kindnesses. They treated me almost as a son, and on the last evening of my month's visit Lord Uxford, whilst knowing the element of independence so harshly evoked in my character, ventured to offer
me a thousand pounds besides my salary up to the very date. I am an old traveller, and I assure you there is a wonderful deal in the way a knapsack is packed. Not one man in a thousand could have offered that thousand pounds-a great sum to me in those days-so as to have it accepted. But I took it from Lord Uxford. For this is how he gave it.
'Our obligation to you neither this nor anything could remove and, indeed, my wife and I both feel it to be the dearest thing remaining to us. We know-Hugh told me that time-you are saving money for two purposes; the one I commend, the other I do not commend. Think it over, Duke.'
I did think it over, and the next morning, in bidding him farewell, I asked his advice. Some years ago, my lord, as you know, I registered a resolve to repay to my uncle every farthing I ever cost him. Principal, interest, compound interest, collateral gains, I reckoned them all at fifteen hundred pounds. Your thousand has made up the sum, and a little to spare. But now it seems not a good thing to pay it. You know my provocation, my lord, and yet I am reluctant.'
'When you speak of provocation, I think, Duke, you have answered yourself.'
'But then,' said I, in extreme perplexity, if I don't, it helps me on so with these projects that have been my waking and sleeping dream these two years and more. And so it can look ugly, even to myself.'
'It's just one of those cases in which you are the only judge of yourself.'
And I did not repay it. Instead, I offered myself as a candidate for the mastership of an endowed school in the small town of Cumberley, in the county of Reepshire. The only difficulty the trustees made was over the excessive superiority of my testimonials. There must be something against me, or I couldn't want to come there. But a chance word in a letter of Lord Uxford's to a gentleman, a trustee, in the neighbourhood, settled that point for me. I was to have two
hundred and a house; but by the terms of the trust I was not to take boarders, nor, indeed, any pupils other than foundation scholars. These very terms, with their means of subsistence and promise of a good margin of leisure, were my inducements. But the good people of Cumberley were so amazed at my choice they set me down from the first in the category of eccentrics; and the character clung to me, as characters will cling, no more to be shaken off than the grasp of a drowning man, when they came to know more of me and my pursuits -when they came to know that I was making delicate and costly experiments towards some great mechanical discovery.
My self-imposed exclusion had a contrary effect to that intended. I had any number of invitations, I might have been intimate at any number of houses; I was decided to be quite presentable, and I had no peculiar relatives to turn up unawares. It came even to be whispered about that it was a very great man who occasionally visited me, who came and went so unostentatiously, as great men do come and go. (Lord Uxford, who, having an estate in the next county, would take me in his way.) I by no means debarred myself from society; I simply refused it ascendency over me: I was even intimate with one family, finding many points in common with its head, Mr. Frekeston. Similarly, I never resolved, as some men do, that I would not marry, or rather attempt to marry; at the same time it always remained a thing of to-morrow with me.
Three years' sojourn in Cumberley found me in my twentyeighth year. Three years they were of intense application, carrying me on and on, until my goal was well in sight. I had come to the end of my fifteen hundred pounds, but I reckoned, almost confidently, that in the next year's estimates my Lords of the Admiralty would ask something on my account. I had had no communication with my uncle from the time of his casting me adrift. Stay, though; I was once even introduced to him. I was
present at the evening conversazione of a great London society, before whose members I had that morning read a paper. There was a little talk about me and this paper, which my uncle, also present, heard without hearing my name. Fond of the rôle of the rich connoisseur, he requested an introduction. I, in equal ignorance up to this point, stood bowing before a tall, fine man, with perfectly white hair, and a calm, courteous face, only when he smiled it looked as liable to breakage as china.
'Are not the Mr. Dukes relatives?' asked a gentleman near, supposing the introduction superfluous.
'Relatives? yes,' replied my uncle; uncle and nephew indeed -but not acquaintances.'
And asking an indifferent question or two in the most collected voice, he bowed himself away. Now, you know, I, on the contrary, felt foolishly embarrassed for some time after.
The next I heard of him was his death. I was mentioned in his will, for he left me a picture of my father by Opie, and nineteen guineas wherewith to buy a mourning ring. But all his other property went to Edmund Duke's children: the money to the younger sons and daughters, the freehold estates to the eldest now the representative of the eldest branch of the Duke family.
This Edmund Duke, now dead some three years, was another brother of my father's, more wealthy even than Richard, and married to Lady Frances Heriot, a daughter of the Marquis of Mainwaring. had been estranged from my father -the only cause an hour's hot words; but grown men don't come easily together again. I had understood that after my father's death he expressed regret that it should have been so. Therefore my one impression of him was better than my one impression of Richard Duke. When I heard how the money was left, I thought of for he that hath, to him shall be given.' But I was very resolved my one talent should not be hidden in a napkin.
It was the Valentine's day after my twenty-eighth birthday. I was freed from my pupils, it, as Founder's day, being distinguished by a whole holiday. All the morning I had been toiling over my work, as to myself I always called it; doing too much perhaps, for I had come to one of those full stops which used so to harass and depress me when I first commenced my researches, but which I now knew to be as much physical as mental. So I planned to take a smart gallop, return home to a light luncheon-I had respect for the saying, 'a full head, an empty stomach, and reapply myself to my labours with what new lights I might be blessed with.
This programme in view, I left my papers just as I rose from them; somewhat rash perhaps with one precious document of which I had no duplicate, the fruition of the whole, amongst them. But my housekeeper would have deemed it as much as her place was worth to introduce unauthorized visitors to my study.
I returned from my six-mile gallop without any definite train of thought, but in splendid trim for thinking. Braced up, and all a-glow with the exercise of riding, I walked briskly into my study. Conceive my amazement at sight of a hat, cloak, a lady's travelling gear, in fact, lying carelessly, as thrown off, on the table where my papers had been; and coiled up on the rug before the fire the owner thereof-coiled up I call it, because when she rose it was with a languid, supple motion. As I stood with the door in my hand, gazing with all my eyes, as we provincials say, and she tranquilly turned her face my way, she looked so entirely at her ease, and yet the whole tableau was so unreal, or rather, so confounding, I involuntarily thought of the witch-woman I had read of in old romances-the witch-woman who comes upon one unawares and steals away one's senses.
When she rose, which she was in no haste to do, she showed herself to be of about middle height, of a
beautiful figure-the sort of swaying, balanced figure which, if the back be turned to you, makes you curious to see the face going with it. And her face was pale, and almost oval, with dark eyebrowsor eyebrows, the rather, dark by contrast with her complexion-darkgrey eyes and long dark lashes; but the hair was lighter than chestnut, of a profound colour; that is, mostly all shade, but sometimes all brightIf you saw her in a crowd
you would look after her. The long black lashes and the eyelids drooped very much, except on the rare occasions when she gave you a wide, quick glance; but yet you knew the great grey eyes were lying in wait behind them, either indifferent, or insolent, or wicked, as her mood might be. Her dress was of a delicate grey-ribbed material; on the little white hands flashed brave rings; indeed everything about her though quiet, as was suitable for travelling, was also rich and costly.
From her post on the rug, and from under the haughty, drooping lids, she surveyed me as critically as though I was the intruder and she the intruded upon. And as nonchalantly as possible she followed my glance to the escritoire, where I was thankful to see my papers in not so very great disorder -one gets to be thankful for small mercies. 'I suppose,' said she, rising to her feet with just so much haste as suited her, I ought to apologize for trespassing.'
'I suppose so, too,' was on my tongue's end, for not a shade of apology did she so much as affect.
Your housekeeper warned me out of this room as if-as if there were spring-guns or infernal machines in it,' looking to some queer, outlandish models in one corner.
'Mrs. Pell had her orders undoubtedly, but—'
'Yes, it was her orders; but I gave mine, you see, so it does not signify.' She had a trick of pouting her lower lip, especially when she ceased speaking, and she carried her head a little back, so you may know she had not much humility about her.