Fated to be Free (2)

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CHAPTER V.

OF A FINE MAN AND SOME FOOLISH WOMEN.


"For life is like unto a winter's day,
 Some break their fast and so depart away;
 Others stay dinner, then depart full fed;
 The longest age but sups, and goes to bed."

ANON.


MR. JOHN MORTIMER, as has before been said, was the father of seven children.  It may now be added that he had been a widower one year and a half.

    Since the death of his wife he had been his own master, and, so far as he cared to be, the master of his household.

    This had not been the case previously: his wife had ruled over him and his children, and had been happy on the whole, though any woman whose house, containing four sitting-rooms only, finds that they are all thoroughfares, and feels that one of the deepest joys of life is that of giving dinner-parties, and better ones than her neighbours, must be held to have a grievance―a grievance against architects, which no one but an architect can cure.

    And yet old Augustus, in generously presenting this house, roof and all, to his son, had said, "And, my dears, both of you, beware of bricks and mortar.  I have no doubt, John, when you are settled, that you and Janie will find defects in your house.  My experience is that all houses have defects; but my opinion is, that it is better to pull a house down, and build a new one, than to try to remedy them."

    Mr. Augustus Mortimer had tried building, rebuilding, and altering houses more than once; and his daughter-in-law knew that he would be seriously vexed if she disregarded his advice.

    Of course if it had been John himself that had objected, the thing would have been done in spite of that; but his father must be considered, she knew, for in fact everything depended on him.

    John had been married the day he came of age.  His father had wished it greatly: he thought it a fine thing for a man to marry early, if he could afford it.  The bride wished it also, but the person who wished it most of all was her mother, who managed to make John think he wished it too, and so, with a certain moderation of feeling, he did; and if things had not been made so exceedingly easy for him, he might have attained almost to fervour on the occasion.

    As it was, being young for his years, as well as in fact, he had hardly forgotten to pride himself on having a house of his own, and reached the dignified age of twenty-two, when Mrs. John Mortimer, presenting him with a son, made a man of him in a day, and threw his boyish thoughts into the background.  To his own astonishment, he found himself greatly pleased with his heir.  His father was pleased also, and wrote to the young mother something uncommonly like a letter of thanks, at the same time presenting her with a carriage and horses.

    The next year, perhaps in order to deserve an equally valuable gift (which she obtained), she presented her husband with twin daughters; and was rather pleased than otherwise to find that he was glad, and that he admired and loved his children.

    Mrs. John Mortimer felt a decided preference for her husband over any other young man; she liked him, besides which he had been a most desirable match for her in point of circumstances; but when her first child was born to her she knew, for the first time in her life, what it was to feel a real and warm affection.  She loved her baby; she may have been said, without exaggeration, to have loved him very much; she had thenceforward no time to attend to John, but she always ruled over his household beautifully, made his friends welcome, and endeared herself to her father-in-law by keeping the most perfect accounts, never persuading John into any kind of extravagance, and always receiving hints from headquarters with the greatest deference.

    The only defect her father-in-law had, in her opinion, was that he was so inconveniently religious; his religion was inconvenient not only in degree but in kind.  It troubled her peace to come in contact with states of mind very far removed not only from what she felt, but what she wished to feel.  If John's father had set before her anything that she and John could do, or any opinion that they might hold, she thought she should have been able to please him, for she considered herself quite inclined to do her duty by her church and her soul in a serious and sensible manner; but to take delight in religion, to add the love of the unseen Father to the fear and reverence that she wanted to cultivate, was something that it alarmed her to think of.

    It was all very well to read of it in the Bible, because that concerned a by-gone day, or even to hear a clergyman preach of it, this belonged to his office; but when this old man, with his white beard, talked to her and her husband just as David had talked in some of his psalms, she was afraid, and found his aspiration worse to her than any amount of exhortation could have been.

    What so impossible to thought as such a longing for intercourse with the awful and the remote―"With my soul have I desired thee in the night;" "My soul is athirst for God;" no, not so, says the listener who stands without―I will come to his house and make obeisance, but let me withdraw soon again from his presence, and dwell undaunted among my peers.

    There is, indeed, nothing concerning which people more fully feel that they cannot away with it than another man's aspiration.

    And her husband liked it.  He was not afraid, as she was, of the old man's prayers, though he fully believed they would be answered.

    He tried to be loyal to the light he walked in, and his father rested in a trust concerning him and his, which had almost the assurance of possession.

    She also, in the course of a few years, came to believe that she must ere long be drawn into a light which as yet had not risen.  She feared it less, but never reached the point of wishing to see it shine.

    At varying intervals, Mrs. John Mortimer presented her husband with another lovely and healthy infant, and she also, in her turn, received a gift from her father-in-law, together with the letter of thanks.

    In the meantime her husband grew.  He became first manly, more manly than the average man, as is often the case with those who have an unusually long boyhood.  Then by culture and travel he developed the resources of a keenly observant and very thoughtful mind.  Then his love for his children made a naturally sweet temper sweeter still, and in the course of a very few years he had so completely left his wife behind, that it never occurred to him to think of her as a companion for his inner life.  He liked her; she never nagged; he considered her an excellent housekeeper; in fact, they were mutually pleased with one another; their cases were equal; both often thought they might have been worse off, and neither regretted with any keenness what they had never known.

    Sometimes, having much sweetness of nature, it would chance that John Mortimer's love for his children would overflow in his wife's direction, on which, as if to recall him to himself, she would say, not coldly, but sensibly, "Don't be silly, John dear."  But if he expressed gratitude on her account, as he sometimes did when she had an infant of a few days old in her arms, if his soul appeared to draw nearer to her then, and he inclined to talk of deeper and wider things than they commonly spoke of, she was always distinctly aggrieved.  A tear perhaps would twinkle in her eye.  She was affected by his relief after anxiety, and his gratitude for her safety; but she did not like to feel affected, and brought him back to the common level of their lives as soon as possible.

    So they lived together in peace and prosperity till they had seven children, and then, one fine autumn, Mrs. John Mortimer persuaded her father-in-law to do up the house, so far as papering and painting were concerned.  She then persuaded John to take a tour, and went herself to the sea-side with her children.

    From this journey she did not return.  Their father had but just gone quite out of her reach when the children took scarlet fever, and she summoned their grandfather to her aid.  In this, her first great anxiety and trouble, for some of them were extremely ill, all that she had found most oppressive in his character appeared to suit her.  He pleased and satisfied her; but the children were hardly better, so that he had time to consider what it was that surprised him in her, when she fell ill herself, and before her husband reached home had died in his father's arms.

    All the children recovered.  John Mortimer took them home, and for the first six months after her death he was miserably disconsolate.  It was not because they had been happy, but because they had been so very comfortable.  He aggravated himself into thinking that he could have loved her more if he had only known how soon he should lose her; he looked at all their fine healthy joyous children, and grieved to think that now they were his only.

    But the time came when he knew that he could have loved her much more if she would have let him; and when he had found out that, womankind in general went down somewhat in his opinion.  He made up his mind, as he thought, that he would not marry again; but this, he knew in his secret heart, was less for her sake than for his own.

    Then, being of an ardently affectionate nature, and having now no one to restrain it, he began to study his children with more anxious care, and consider their well-being with all his might.

    The children of middle-aged people seem occasionally to come into the world ready tamed.  With a certain old-fashioned primness, they step sedately through the paths of childhood.  So good, so easy to manage, so―uninteresting?

    The children of the very young have sometimes an extra allowance of their father's youth in their blood.  At any rate the little Mortimers had.

    Their joy was ecstatic, their play was fervent, and as hard as any work.  They seemed month by month to be crowding up to their father, in point of stature, and when he and they all went about the garden together, some would be treading on his heels, the select two who had hold of his arms would be shouting in his ears, and the others, dancing in front, were generally treading on his toes, in their desire to get as near as possible and inform him of all the wonderful things that were taking place in this new and remarkable world.

    Into this family the lonely little heir of the Melcombes was shortly invited to come for awhile, but for some trivial reason his mother declined the invitation, at the same time expressing her hope that Mr. Mortimer would kindly renew it some other time.

    It was not convenient to John Mortimer to invite the boy again for a long time―so long that his mother bitterly repented not having accepted the first invitation.  She had an aunt living at Dartmouth, and whenever her boy was invited by John Mortimer, she meant to bring him herself, giving out that she was on her way to visit that relative.

    Who knew what might happen?

    Mr. John Mortimer was a fine man, tall, broad-shouldered, and substantial-looking, though not at all stout.  His perfect health and teeth as white as milk made him look even younger than he was.  His countenance, without being decidedly handsome, was fine and very agreeable.  His hair was light, of the Saxon hue, and his complexion was fair.

    Thus he had many advantages; but Mrs. Peter Melcombe felt that as the mother of a child so richly endowed, and as the possessor of eight hundred a year in order that he might be suitably brought up, she was a desirable match also.  She did not mean the boy to cost her much for several years to come, and till he came of age (if he lived) she had that handsome old house to live in.  Old Augustus Mortimer, on the other hand, was very rich, she knew; he was a banker and his only son was his partner.  Sure to inherit his banking business and probably heir to his land.

    Mrs. Peter Melcombe had some handsome and becoming raiment made, and waited with impatience; for in addition to Mr. John Mortimer's worldly advantages she found him attractive.

    So did some other people.  John Mortimer's troubles on that head began very soon after the sending of his first invitation to Mrs. Melcombe, when the excellent elderly lady who taught the little Mortimers (and in a great measure kept his house) let him know that she could no longer do justice to them.  They got on so fast, they had such spirits, they were so active and so big, that she felt she could not cope with them.  Moreover, the three eldest were exceptionally clever, and the noise made by the whole tribe fatigued her.

    John sent his eldest boy to school, promised her masters to help her, and an assistant governess, but she would not stay, and with her went for a time much of the comfort of that house.

    Mr. Mortimer easily got another governess―a very pretty young lady who did not, after a little while, take much interest in the children, but certainly did take an interest in him.  She was always contriving to meet him―in the hall, on the stairs, in the garden.  Then she looked at him at church, and put him so out of countenance and enraged him, and made him feel so ridiculous, that one day he took himself off to the Continent, and kept away till she was gone.

    Having managed that business, he got another governess, and she let him alone, and the children too, for they completely got the better of her; used to make her romp with them, and sometimes went so far as to lock her into the schoolroom.  It was not till this lady had taken her leave and another had been found that Mr. John Mortimer repeated his invitation to little Peter Melcombe.  His mother brought him, and according to the programme she had laid down, got herself invited to stay a few days.

    She had no trouble about it.  Mr. John Mortimer no sooner saw Mrs. Melcombe than he expressed a hospitable, almost a fervent hope, that she could stay a week with him.

    Of course Mrs. Melcombe accepted the invitation, and he was very sociable and pleasant; but she thought the governess (a very grand lady indeed) took upon herself more than beseemed her, and smiled at her very scornfully when she ventured to say sweet things to John Mortimer on her own great love for children, and on the charms of his children in particular.

    Peter was excessively happy.  His mother's happiness in the visit was soon over.  She shortly found out that an elderly Scotch lady, one Miss Christie Grant, an aunt of the late Mrs. Daniel Mortimer, was to come in a few days and pay a long visit, and she shrewdly suspected that the attractive widower being afraid to remain alone in his own house, made arrangements to have female visitors to protect him, and hence the invitation to her. But she had to leave Peter at the end of the week, and which of the two ladies when they parted hated the other most it might be difficult to determine.

    It cannot be said with truth that Peter regretted his mother's departure.  The quantity of mischief he was taught (of a not very heinous description) by two sweet little imps of boys younger than himself, kept him in a constant state of joyous excitement.  His grandmother having now been dead a year and a quarter, his mourning had been discarded, and his mother had been very impressive in her cautions to him not to spoil his new clothes, but before he had been staying with his young friends a fortnight he was much damaged in his outer man, as indeed he was also in his youthful heart, for the smallest of all the Mortimers―a lovely little child about three years old―took entire possession of it; and when he was not up a tree with the boys in a daring hunt after bergamy pears, or wading barefoot in a shallow stream at the bottom of the garden catching water-beetles, caddis-worms, and other small cattle for a freshwater aquarium, he was generally carrying this child about the garden pick-a-back, or otherwise obeying her little behests, and assuring her of his unalterable love.

    Poor little Peter!  After staying fully six weeks with the Mortimers his time came to be taken home again, and his mother, who spent two days with them on her way northwards, bore him off to the railway, accompanied by the host and most of his children.  Then he suddenly began to feel the full meaning of the misfortune that had fallen on him, and he burst into wailings and tears.  His tiny love had promised to marry him when she was grown up; his two little friends had given him some sticklebacks, packed in wet moss; they were now in his pockets, as were also some water-beetles in a paper bag; the crown of his cap was full of silkworms carefully wrapped in mulberry leaves; but all these treasures could not avail to comfort him for loss of the sweet companionship he had enjoyed―for the apples he had crunched in the big dog's kennel when hiding with another little imp from the nurse―for the common possession they had enjoyed of some young rats dug out of the bank of the stream, and more than all, for the tender confidences there had been between them as to the endless pranks they spent their lives in, and all the mischief they had done or that they aspired to do.

    John Mortimer having a keen sympathy with childhood, felt rue at heart for the poor little blinking, sobbing fellow; but to invite him again might be to have his mother also, so he let him go, handing in from his third daughter's arms to the young heir a wretched little blind puppy and a small bottle of milk to feed it with on the way.

    If anything could comfort a boy, this precious article could.  So the Mortimer boys thought.  So in fact it proved.  As the train moved off they heard the sobs of Peter and the yelping of the puppy, but before they reached their happy home he had begun to nurse the little beast in his arms, and derive consolation from watching its movements and keeping it warm.


 
CHAPTER VI.

THE SHADOW OF A SHADE.


"The world would lose its finest joys
 Without its little girls and boys;
 Their careless glee and simple ruth,
 And innocence and trust and truth;
 Ah! what would your poor poet do
 Without such little folk as you?"

LOCKER.


"WELL, anyhow," observed Mr. Nicholas Swan, the gardener, when the children came home and told him how Peter had cried―"anyhow, there's one less on you now to run over my borders.  He was as meek as Moses, that child was, when first he came, but you soon made him as audacious as any of you."

    "So they did, Nicholas dear," said one of the twins, a tall, dark haired child.

    "Oh, it's Nicholas dear, is it, Miss Barbara?  Well, now, what next?"

    "Why, the key of the fruit-house―we want the key."

    "Key, indeed!  Now, there's where it is.  Make a wry path through your fields, and still you'll walk in it!  I never ought to ha' got in the habit of lending you that key.  What's the good of a key if a man can never keep it in his pocket?  When I lived up at Mr. Daniel Mortimer's, the children never had my key―never."

    "Well, come with us, then, and give us out the pears yourself.  We won't take one."

    Nicholas, with a twin on each side, and the other children bringing up the rear, was now walked off to the fruit-house, grumbling as he went.

    "I left Mr. Mortimer's, I did, because I couldn't stand the children; and now the world's a deal fuller of 'em than it was then.  No, Miss Gladys, I'm not a-going any faster; I wouldn't run, if it was ever so.  When the contrac' was signed of my wages, it was never wrote down that I had to run at any time."

    And having now reached the fruit-house, he was just pulling out his big key, when something almost like shame showed itself in his ruddy face, as a decided and somewhat mocking voice addressed him.

    "Well, Nicholas, I'm just amazed at ye!  I've lived upward of sixty years in this island, Scotland and England both, and never did I see a man got over so by children in my life!  Talking of my niece's children, are ye―Mrs. Daniel Mortimer's?  I wonder at ye―they were just nothing to these."

    Here Mr. Swan, having unlocked the door, dived into the fruit-house, and occupied himself for some moments in recovering his self-possession and making his selection; then emerging with an armful of pears, he shouted after Miss Christie Grant, who had got a good way down the walk by this time.

    "I don't deny, ma'am, that these air aggravating now and then, but anyhow they haven't painted my palings pink and my door pea-green."

    Miss Christie returned.  She seldom took the part of any children, excepting for the sake of argument or for family reasons; and she felt at that moment that the Daniel Mortimers were related to her, and that these, though they called her "aunt," were not.

    "Ye should remember," she observed, with severity, "that ye had already left your house when they painted it."

    "Remember it!" exclaimed the gardener, straightening himself; "ay, ay, I remember it―coming along the lane that my garden sloped down to, so that every inch of it could be seen.  It had been all raked over, and there, just out of the ground, growing up in mustard-and-cress letters as long as my arm, I saw 'This genteel residence to let, lately occupied by N. Swan, Esq.'  I took my hob-nailed boots to them last words, and I promise you I made the mustard-and-cress fly."

    "Well, ye see," observed Miss Christie, who was perfectly serious, "there is great truth in your saying that those children did too much as they pleased; but ye must consider that Mr. Mortimer didn't like to touch any of them, because they were not his own."

    "That's just it, ma'am, and Mrs. Mortimer didn't like to touch any of them because they were her own; so between the two they got to be, I don't say as bad as these, but―" Here he shook his head, and leaning his back to the fruit-house door, began diligently to peel the fruit for an assembly, silent, because eating.  "As for Master Giles," he went on, more to torment the old lady than to disparage the gentleman in question, "before ever he went to school, he chalked a picture that he called my arms on the tool house-door, three turnips as natural as life, and a mad kind of bird flourishing its wings about, that he said was a swan displayed.  Underneath, for a morter, was wrote, 'All our geese air swans.'  Now what do you call that for ten years old?"

    "Well, well," said Aunt Christie, "that's nearly twenty years ago."

    Then the fruit being all finished, N. Swan, Esq., shut up his clasp-knife, and the story being also finished, his audience ran away, excepting Miss Christie, to whom he said―

    "But I was fond of those children, you'll understand, though they were powerful plagues."

    "Swan," said the old lady, "ye'll never be respectit by children.  You're just what ye often call yourself, soft."

    "And what's the good of being rough with 'em, ma'am?  I can no more make 'em sober and sensible than I could straighten out their bushes of curly hair.  No, not though I was to take my best rake to it.  They're powerful plagues, bless 'em! but so far as I can see, we're in this world mainly to bring them forrard in it.  I remember when my Joey was a very little chap, he was playing by me with a tin sword that he was proud of.  I was sticking peas in my own garden, and a great hulking sergeant came by, and stopped a minute to ask his road.  'Don't you be afraid of me,' says Joey, very kind.  'I won't hurt 'e.'  That man laughed, but the water stood in his eyes.  He'd lost such a one, he said.  Children air expensive, but it's very cutting to lose 'em.  I've never seen any of the Mortimers in that trouble yet, though."

    "And you've been many a long year with them too," observed Miss Christie.

    "Ay, ma'am.  Some folks air allers for change, but I've known when I was well off and they've known when they were well off."  Mr. Swan said this in a somewhat pragmatical tone, and continued, "There's nothing but a long course of just dealing and respect o' both sides as can buy such digging as this here family gets out of my spade."

    "Very true," said Miss Christie, who did not appear to see anything peculiar in this self-eulogy.

    "But some folks forget," continued Mr. Swan, "that transplanted trees won't grow the first year, and others want too much for their money, and too good of its kind; but fair and softly, thinks I; you can't buy five shillings with threepence-halfpenny in any shop that I ever heerd of; and when you've earned half-a-crown you can't be paid it in gold."

    The next morning, while Peter sat at breakfast revolving in his mind the delights he had lost, and wondering what Janie and Bertie and Hugh and Nancy were about, these staunch little friends of his were unconsciously doing the greatest damage to his future prospects―to their most important part, as he understood them, namely, his chance of coming to see the Mortimers again.

    Miss Christie Grant always presided over the school-room breakfast, and John Mortimer, unless he had other visitors, breakfasted alone, generally coming down just after his children's meal was over, and having a selection of them with him morning by morning.

    On this occasion, just as he came down, his children darted out of the window, exclaiming, "Oh, there's Mr. Brandon down the garden―Mr. Brandon's come."

    John walked to the window, and looked out with a certain scrutinising interest; for it was but a few weeks since a somewhat important visitor had left old Daniel Mortimer's house―one concerning whom the neighbourhood had decided that she certainly ought to become Mrs. Giles Brandon, and that it would be an odd thing if Mr. Brandon did not think so.  If he did, there was every appearance that she did not, for she had gone away all but engaged to his young brother Valentine.

    "He looks dull, decidedly dull, since Miss Graham left them," soliloquised John Mortimer. "I thought so the last time I saw him, and now I am sure of it.  Poor fellow," he continued with a half smile.  "I can hardly fancy him a lover, but, if he does care for that graceful little sea-nymph, it is hard on him that such a shallow-pated boy as Valentine should stand in his light;" and he stepped out to meet his guest, who was advancing in the midst of the children, while at the same time they shouted up at the open schoolroom window that Nancy must come down directly and see her godfather.

    The grand lady-governess looked out in a becoming morning costume.

    "A fine young man," she remarked to Miss Christie Grant.

    "Yes, that's my oldest nephew, St. George they call him.  Giles Brandon is his name, but his mother aye disliked the name of Giles, thought it was only fit for a ploughman.  So she called him St. George, and that's what he is now, and will be."

    Miss Christie Grant said this with a certain severity of manner, but she hardly knew how to combine a snubbing to the lady for her betrayal of interest in all the bachelors round, with her desire to boast of this relative.  So she presently went on in a more agreeable tone.  "His mother married Mr. Daniel Mortimer; he is an excellent young man.  Has no debts and has been a great traveller.  In short a year and a half ago he was shipwrecked, and as nearly lost his life as possible.  He was picked up by Captain Graham, whose grand-daughter (no, I think Miss Graham is the old gentleman's niece) has been staying this summer with Mr. Daniel Mortimer.  Mr. Brandon, ye'll understand, is only half-brother to Valentine Mortimer, whom ye frequently see."

    Valentine was too young to interest the grand lady, but when by a combined carelessness of manner with judicious questioning she had discovered that the so-called St. George had a moderate independence, and prospects besides, she felt a longing wish to carry down little Anastasia herself to see her godfather, and was hardly restrained from doing so by that sense of propriety which never forsook her.  In the mean time Brandon passed out of view into the room where breakfast was spread and the little Anastasia, so named because her birth had taken place on Easter day, was brought down smiling in her sister Barbara's arms.

    Peter's little love, a fair and dimpled creature, was forthwith accommodated with a chair close to her godfather, while the twins withdrew to practise their duets, and more viands were placed on the table.

    The children then began to wait on their father and his guest, and during a short conversation which ensued concerning Mrs. Peter Melcombe and her boy, they were quite silent, till a pause took place and the little Anastasia lifted up her small voice and distinguished herself by saying―

    "Fader, Peter's dot a dhost in his darden."

    "Got a ghost!" exclaimed John Mortimer, with a look of dismay; for ghosts were the last things he wished his children to hear anything about.

    "Yes," said the youngest boy Hugh, "he says he's going to be rather a grand gentleman when he's grown up, but he wishes he hadn't got a ghost."

    "Then why doesn't he sell it, Huey?" asked the guest with perfect gravity.

    The little fellow opened his blue eyes wider.  "I don't think you know what ghosts are," he remarked.

    "Oh yes, I do," answered Brandon.  "I've often read about them.  Some people think a good deal of them, but I never could see the fun of having them myself, and," he continued, "I never noticed any about your premises, John."

    "No," answered John Mortimer, following his lead; "they would be no use for the children to play with."

    "Do they scratch, then?" inquired the little Anastasia.

    "No, my beauty bright, but I'm told they only wake up when it's too dark for children to play."

    "Peter's ghost doesn't," observed Master Bertram.  "He came in the morning."

    "Did he steal anything?" inquired Brandon, still desirous, it seemed, to throw dirt at the great idea.

    "Oh no, he didn't steal," said the other little boy, "that's not what they're for."

    "What did he say then?"

    "He gave a deep sigh, but he didn't say nothink."

    "Ghosts," said Bertie, following up his brother's speech as one who had full information―"ghosts are not birds, they don't come to lay eggs for you, or to be of any use at all.  They come for you to be afraid of.  Didn't you know that, father?"

    John was too much vexed to answer, and Peter's chance from that moment of ever entering those doors again was not worth a rush.

    "But you needn't mind, father dear," said Janie, the eldest child present, "Peter's ghost won't come here.  It doesn't belong to 'grand,' or to any of us.  Its name was Melcombe, and it came from the sea, that they might know it was dead."  John and Brandon looked at one another.  The information was far too circumstantial to be forgotten by the children, who continued their confidences now without any more irreverent interruptions.  "Mrs. Melcombe gave Peter four half-crowns to give to nurse, and he had to say 'Thank you, nurse, for your kindness to me;' but nurse wasn't kind, she didn't like Peter, and she slapped him several times."

    "And Mrs. Melcombe gave some more shillings to Maria," said Bertie.

    "Like the garden slug," observed Brandon, "leaving a trail of silver behind her."

    The said Maria, who was their little nursemaid, now came in to fetch away the children.

    "Isn't this provoking," exclaimed John Mortimer, when they were gone.  "I had no notion that child had been neglected and left to pick up these pernicious superstitions, though I never liked his mother from the first moment I set my eyes on her."

    "Why did you ask her to stay at your house then?" said Brandon, laughing.

    "Giles, you know as well as I do."

    Thereupon, having finished their breakfast, they set forth to walk to the town, arguing together on some subject that interested them till they reached the bank.

    Behind it, in a comfortable room fitted up with library tables, leather chairs, and cases for books and papers, sat old Augustus Mortimer.  "Grand," as he was always called by his descendants, that being easier to say than his full title of grandfather; and if John Mortimer had not taken Brandon into this room to see him, the talk about the ghost might have faded away altogether from the mind of the latter.

    As it was, Grand asked after the little ones, and Brandon, standing on the rug and looking down on the fine stern features and white head, began to give him a graphic account of what little Peter Melcombe had been teaching them, John Mortimer, while he unlocked his desk and sorted out certain papers, now and then adding a touch or two in mimicry of his children's little voices.

    Old Augustus said nothing, but Brandon, to his great surprise, noticed that as the narrative went on it produced a marked effect upon him; he listened with suppressed eagerness, and then with a cogitative air as if he was turning the thing over in his mind.

    The conclusion of the story, how Janie had said the name of the ghost was Melcombe, John Mortimer related, for Brandon by that time was keenly alive to the certainty that they were disturbing the old man much.

    A short silence followed.  John was still arranging his papers, then his father said deliberately,―

    "This is the first hint I ever received of any presence being supposed to haunt the place."

    The ghost itself had never produced the slightest effect on John Mortimer.  All he thought of was the consequence of the tale on the minds of his children.

    "I shall take care that little monkey does not come here again in a hurry," he remarked, at the same time proceeding to mend a quill pen; his father watching him rather keenly, Brandon thought, from under his bushy, white eyebrows.

    "Now, of all men," thought Brandon, "I never could have supposed that Grand was superstitious.  I don't believe he is either; what does it mean?" and as there was still silence, he became so certain that Grand would fain ask some more questions but did not like to do so, that he said, in a careless tone, "That was all the children told us;" and thereupon, being satisfied and willing to change the subject, as Brandon thought, the old man said,―

    "Does my brother dine at home to-day, St. George?"

    "Yes, uncle; shall I tell him you will come over to dinner?"

    "Well, my dear fellow, if you are sure it will be convenient to have me―it is a good while since I saw him―so you may."

    "He will be delighted; shall I tell him you will stay the night?"

    "Yes."

    "Well done, father," said John, looking up.  "I am glad you are getting over the notion that you cannot sleep away from home.  I'll come over to breakfast, St. George, and drive my father in."

    "Do," said Brandon, taking his leave; and as he walked to the railway that was to take him home, he could not help still pondering on the effect produced by the mention of the ghost.  He little supposed, however, that the ghost was at the bottom of this visit to his stepfather; but it was.


 
CHAPTER VII.

AN OLD MAN DIGS A WELL.


"And travel finishes the fool."    GAY.


MRS. PETER MELCOMBE, all unconscious of the unfavourable impression her son had made on his late host, continued to think a good deal of the agreeable widower.  She made Peter write from time to time to little Janie Mortimer and report the progress of the puppy, at the same time taking care to mention his dear mamma in a manner that she thought would be advantageous.

    It cost Peter a world of trouble to copy and recopy these epistles till his mother was satisfied with them; but she always told him that he would not be remembered so well or invited again unless he wrote; and this was true.

    His little friends wrote in reply, but by no means such carefully-worded letters; they also favoured him with shoals of Christmas cards and showers of valentines, but his letters never got beyond the schoolroom; and if John Mortimer's keen eyes had ever fallen on them, it would have availed nothing.  He would have discovered at once that they were not the child's sole production, and would have been all the more decided not to invite him again.

    When first Mrs. Melcombe came home she perceived a certain change in Laura, who was hardly able to attend to Peter's lessons, and had fits of elation that seemed to alternate with a curious kind of shame.  Mrs. Peter Melcombe did not doubt that Laura fancied she had got another lover, but she was so tired of Laura's lovers that she determined to take no notice; and if Laura had anything to say, to make her say it without assistance.  It seemed to her so right and natural and proper that she should wish to marry again herself, and so ridiculous of Laura to fancy that she wished to marry also.

    On Valentine's day, however, Laura had a letter, flushed high, and while trying to look careless actually almost wept for joy; for the moment Mrs. Melcombe was thrown off her guard, and she asked a question.

    Laura, in triumph, handed the valentine to her sister-in-law.  "It's strange," she said tremulously, "very strange; but what is a woman to do when she is the object of such a passion?"

    It was a common piece of paper with two coloured figures on it taking hands and smiling; underneath, in a clear and careful hand, was written―


    "What would he give, your lover true,
      Just for one little sight of you?

"J.S."


    "J.S.?" said Mrs. Melcombe, in a questioning tone.

    "It's Joseph, dear," replied Laura, hanging down her head and smiling.

    Joseph was the head plumber who had been employed about the now finished house, and Mrs. Melcombe's dismay was great when she found that Joseph, having discovered how the young lady thought he was in love with her, was actually taking up the part of a lover, she dreaded to think what might occur in consequence.  Joseph was a very clever young workman, of excellent character, and Laura was intolerably foolish and to the last degree credulous.

    If the young man had been the greatest scamp and villain, but in her own rank of life, it would have been nothing to compare with this, in the eyes of Mrs. Melcombe, or indeed in most people's eyes.  She turned pale, and felt that she was a stricken woman.

    She was not well educated herself, and she had not been accustomed to society, but she aspired to better things.  The house was just finished, she had written to Mr. Mortimer to tell him so.  She thought of giving a house-warming; for several of the families round, whose fathers and mothers had been kept at arms' length by old Madam Melcombe till their children almost forgot that there was such a person, had now begun kindly to call on the lonely ladies, and express a wish to see something of them.

    Also she had been rubbing up her boarding-school French, and hoped to take a trip to Paris, for she wanted to give herself and her son all the advantages that could be got with money.  She knew there was something provincial about herself and her sister-in-law, as there had been about the old grandmother; and indeed about all the Melcombes.  She wished to rise; and oh what should she do, how could she ever get over it, if Laura married the plumber?

    Her distress was such that she took the only course which could have availed her―she was silent.

    "I was afraid, dear, you might, you would, you must think it very imprudent," said Laura, a little struck by this silence; "but what is to be done?  Amelia, he's dying for me."

    Still Mrs. Melcombe was silent.

    "He told me himself, that if I wouldn't have him it would drive him to drink."

    "Laura!" exclaimed Mrs. Melcombe with vehemence, "it's not credible that you can take up with a lout who courts you in such fashion as that.  O Laura!" she exclaimed in such distress as to give real pathos to her manner, "I little thought to see this day, I could not have believed it of you;" and she burst into an agony of tears.

    "And here's a letter," she presently found voice enough to say, "here's a letter from Mr. Mortimer, to say that his brother's coming to look at the house.  Perhaps Mr. John Mortimer will come with him.  Oh, what shall I do if they hear of this?"

    Laura was very much impressed.  If scorn, or anger, or incredulity had confronted her, she would have held to her intentions; but this alarm and grief at least had the merit of allowing all importance to the affair, and consequently to her.

    Her imagination conjured up visions of her sister-in-law's future years.  She saw her always wringing her hands, and she was touched for her.  "And then so happy as we meant to be, having a foreign tour, and seeing Paris, and so as we had talked it over together.  And such friends as we always are."

    This was perfectly true; Mrs. Melcombe and Laura were not of the nagging order of women, they never said sarcastic or ill-natured things to one another, the foibles of the one suited the other; and if they had a few uncomfortable words now and then between themselves, they had enough esprit de corps to hide this from all outsiders.

    An affecting scene took place, Laura rose and threw herself into Amelia's arms weeping passionately.

    "You'll give it up, Laura dear, for my sake, and for our poor dear Peter's sake, who's gone."

    No; Laura could not go quite so far in heroic self-sacrifice as that; but she did promise solemnly, that however many times Joseph might say he was dying for her, she would―what?  She would promise to decide nothing till she had been to Paris.

    She was very happy that morning; Amelia had not made game of her, and there had been such a scene.  Laura enjoyed a scene; and Amelia had pleaded so hard and so long with her for that promise.  At last she had given it.  If she had not been such a remarkably foolish woman, she would have known she was glad on the whole that the promise had been extorted from her.  As it was she thought she was sorry, but after a little more urging and pleading she gave up the precious valentine, and saw it devoured by the flames.  It had a Birmingham postmark, and Mrs. Melcombe heard with pleasure that Joseph would be away at least a fortnight.

    Laura had wanted a little excitement, just the least amusement; and if not that, just the least recognition of her place in nature as a woman, and a young one.  At present, her imagination had not been long at work on this unpromising payer of the tribute.  If some one, whose household ways and daily English were like her own, had come forward she would soon have forgotten Joseph; for he himself, as an individual, was almost nothing to her, it was only in his having paid the tribute that his power lay.

    Late in the afternoon Mr. Augustus Mortimer arrived.  He was received by Mrs. Melcombe almost, as it seemed, with the devotion of a daughter.

    The room was strewed with account-books and cards.  It had been intended that he should make some remark about them, and then she was to say, with careless ease, "Only the accounts of the parish charities."  But he courteously feigning to see none of the litter, she was put out.

    He presently went to inspect the repairs and restorations, to look over the garden and the stables; and it was not till the next morning that she found occasion to ask some advice of him.

    The cottages on the land were let with the farms, so that the farmers put their labourers into them, charged, it is true, very little rent, but allowed them to get very much out of repair.  It was the farmers' duty to keep them in repair; but there was no agent, no one to make them do it.  Moreover, they would have it that no repairs worth mentioning were wanted.  Did Mr. Mortimer think if she spent the money she had devoted to charity in repairing these cottages, she could fairly consider that she had spent it in charity?

    It was a nice point, certainly, for it would be improving her son's property, and avoiding disputes with valuable and somewhat unmanageable tenants; and, on the other hand, it would be escaping the bad precedent of paying for repairs out of the estate; so she went on laying this casuistry before the old man while he pulled down his shaggy white brows, and looked very stern over the whole affair.  "Some of the poor old women do suffer so sadly from rheumatism," she continued, "and our parish doctor says it comes from the damp places they live in, and then there is so much fever in the lower part of the hamlet."

    "You had better let me see the farmers and the cottagers," said old Augustus.  "I will go into the whole affair, and tell you what I think of it."

    Accordingly he went his way among the people, and if he had any sorrowful reason for being glad of what rendered it his duty to pick up all the information he could, this did not make him less energetic in fighting the farmers.

    Very little, however, could be done with them; an obvious hole in a roof they would repair, a rotting door they would replace, but that was all, and he felt strongly the impolicy of taking money out of the estate to do all the whitewashing, plastering, carpenters' work, and painting that were desirable; besides which, he was sure the water was not pure that the people drank, and that they ought to have another well.

    When Mrs. Melcombe heard his report of it all, and when he acknowledged that he could do hardly anything with the farmers, she wished she had not asked his advice, particularly as he chose to bring certain religious remarks into it.  He was indeed a most inconveniently religious man; his religion was of a very expensive kind, and was all mixed up with his philanthropy, as if one could not be religious at all without loving those whom God loved and as if one could not love them without serving them to the best of one's power.

    She listened with dismay.  If it was useless to expect much of the farmers, and impolitic to take much out of the estate, what was the use of talking?  But Mr. Augustus Mortimer did talk for several minutes; first he remarked on the expressed wish of his mother that all needful repairs should be attended to, then he said his brother began to feel the infirmities of age, and also was a poor man; then he made Mrs. Melcombe wince by observing that the condition of the tenements was perfectly disgraceful, and next he went on to say that, being old himself, he did not wish to waste any time, for he should have but little, and therefore as he was rich he was content to do what was wanted himself.

    "This house," he continued, "is a great deal too large for the small income your son will have.  Very large sums have been spent, as the will directed, in putting it into perfect repair.  I am not surprised, therefore, that you have felt perplexed, but now, if you have no objection, I will have estimates made at once."

    Excessively surprised, a little humiliated, but yet, on the whole, conscious that such an offer relieved her of a great responsibility, Mrs. Peter Melcombe hesitated a moment, then said in a low voice―"Thank you, Mr. Mortimer, but you will give me a little time to think of this."

    "Certainly," he answered, with all composure, "till to-morrow morning;" then he went on as if that matter was quite settled, and enough had been said about it.  "There is one person whom I should much like to point out to you as an object for your charity―the old shepherd's wife who is bedridden.  If you were inclined to provide some one to look after her――"

    "Oh, Becky Maddison," interrupted Mrs. Melcombe; "the dear grandmother did not approve of that woman.  She used to annoy her by telling an absurd ghost story."

    "Indeed!"

    "But still, as you think I ought to do something for her, I certainly will."

    "I shall go and see her myself this afternoon," answered Mr. Augustus Mortimer hastily.  "I will not fail to report to you how I find her."

    "Her talk was naturally painful to the dear grandmother," continued Mrs. Melcombe.

    Mr. Mortimer looked keenly attentive, but he did not ask any question, and as she said no more, he almost immediately withdrew, and walked straight across the fields to the cottage of this old woman.

    Nothing more was said that evening concerning the repairs, or concerning this visit; but the next morning Mr. Mortimer renewed his proposition, and after a little modest hesitation, she accepted it; then, remembering his request concerning old Becky, she told him she had that morning sent her a blanket and some soup.  "And, by-the-bye, Mr. Mortimer, did she tell you the story that used to annoy the dear grandmother?" she inquired.

    Mr. Mortimer was so long in answering, that she looked up at him, and when he caught her eye he answered. "Yes."

    "He doesn't like it any more than his mother did," she thought, so she said no more, and he almost immediately went away to give orders about the proposed estimates.

    Mrs. Melcombe and Laura made Mr. Mortimer very comfortable, and when he went away he left them highly pleased, for, having been told of their intended journey to Paris, he had proposed to them to come and spend a few days at his house, considering it the first stage of their tour.

    So he departed, and no more dirt was thrown at him.  The tide began to turn in favour of the Mortimers, people had seen the mild face and venerable gentleness of the Mortimer who was poor, they had now handled the gold of the one that was rich.

    "Old Madam was a saint," they observed, "but she couldn't come and look arter us hersen, poor dear.  Farmers are allers hard on poor folk.  So he was bent on having another well atop o' the hill 'stead o' the bottom.  Why let him, then, if he liked!  Anyhow, there was this good in it―the full buckets would be to carry down hill 'stead of up.  As to the water o' the ould well being foul and breeding fevers, it might be, and then again it might not be; if folks were to be for ever considering whether water was foul, they'd never drink in peace!"

    The moment he was gone, Mrs. Melcombe turned her thoughts to Laura's swain, and excited such hopes of pleasure from the visit to Paris in the mind of her sister-in-law, that Joseph's devotion began to be less fascinating to her, besides which there was something inexpressibly sweet to her imaginative mind in the notion of being thwarted and watched.  She pictured to herself the fine young man haunting the lonely glen, hoping to catch a sight of her, and smiting his brow as men do in novels, sighing and groaning over his lowly birth and his slender means.  She wished Joseph would write that her sister-in-law might rob her of the letter; but Joseph didn't write, he knew better.  At the end of the fortnight he appeared; coming to church, and sitting in full view of the ladies, looking not half so well in his shining Sunday clothes of Birmingham make, as he had done in his ordinary working suit.

    Laura was a good deal out of countenance, but Mrs. Melcombe perceived, not without surprise, that while she felt nothing but a feminine exultation in being admired, the young man's homage was both deep and real.  Nothing was either fancied or feigned.

    So by Monday morning Mrs. Melcombe had got ready a delightful plan to lay before Laura―she actually offered to take her to London, and fired her imagination with accounts of the concerts, the theatres and all that they were to do and see.

    No mortal plumber could hold his own against such a sister-in-law.  Laura let herself be carried off without having any interview with Joseph, who began to think "it was a bad job," and did not know how his supposed faithless lady wept during the railway journey.  But then he did not know how completely when she went to her first oratorio she was delighted and consoled.

    The longer they stayed in London the more delighted they were; so was Peter; the Polytechnic alone was worth all the joys of the country put together; but when they came back again at the end of April, and all the land was full of singing-birds, and the trees were in blossom, and the sweet smiling landscape looked so full of light, and all was so fresh and still, then the now absent Joseph got hold of Laura's imagination again; she went and gazed at the window that he had been glazing, when, as she passed, he lifted up his fine eyes and looked at her in such a particular manner.

    What really had taken place was this.  Joseph, with a lump of putty in his palm, was just about to dig a bit out of it with a knife that he held in his other hand.  Laura passed, and when the young man looked up, she affected to feel confused, and turned away her face with a sort of ridiculous self-consciousness.  Joseph was surprised, and the knife held suspended in his hand, he was staring at her when she glanced again, and naturally he was a little put out of countenance.

    So Laura now walked about the place, recalled the romantic past, and if Joseph had appeared (which he did not, because he had no means of knowing that she had returned), it is highly doubtful whether Laura would ever have seen Paris.

    As it was, with sighs and smiles, with regrets over a dead nosegay that the young man had given her, and with eager longings to see Paris, and perhaps Geneva, Laura spent the next fortnight, and then, taking leave of Melcombe again, was received in due time by Mr. Augustus Mortimer on the steps of his house, his son being with him.

    It was nearly dinner-time, she and her sister-in-law were delighted to meet this gentleman, and find that he was going to dine that day with his father.  Peter, too, was as happy as a king, for he hoped Mr. John Mortimer would and could give him information concerning all the well-remembered puppies, kittens, magpies, and white mice that he had made acquaintance with during his happy visit to the little Mortimers.

    Mr. Augustus Mortimer's house was just outside the small town of Wigfield; it appeared to be quite in the country, because it was on the slope of a hill, and was so well backed up with trees that not a chimney could be seen from any of its windows.  It was built with its back to the town, and commanded a pretty view over field, wood, and orchard, and also over its own beautiful lawn and slightly-sloping garden, which was divided from some rich meadows by the same little river that ran nearly two miles further on, past the bottom of John Mortimer's garden.  "And there," said John Mortimer, after dinner, pointing out a chimney which could be seen against the sky, just over the tops of some trees―"there lives my uncle Daniel, in a house which belongs to his stepson, Giles Brandon; his house is just two miles from this, and mine is two miles from each of them, so that we form a triangle."

    Mr. Mortimer's daughter came the next day to call on the relatives from Melcombe; she brought his step-daughters with her; and these young ladies when they returned home gave their step-brothers a succinct account of the impressions they had received.

    "Provincial, both of them.  The married one looks like a faded piece of wax-work.  Laura Melcombe is rather pretty, but unless she is a goose, her manners, voice, and whole appearance do her the greatest injustice possible."

    Mrs. Melcombe and Laura also gave judgment in the same manner when these visitors were gone.

    "Mrs. Henfrey looks quite elderly.  She must be several years past fifty; but I liked her kind, slow way of talking; and what a handsome gown she had on, Laura, real lace on it, and a real Maltese lace shawl!"

    "She has a good jointure," said Laura; "she can afford to dress well.  The girls, the Miss Grants, have graceful, easy manners, just the kind of manners I should like to have; but I can't say I thought much of their dress.  I am sure those muslins must have been washed several times.  In fact, they were decidedly shabby.  I think it odd and old-fashioned of them always to call Mrs. Henfrey 'Sister.'"

    "I do not see that; she is older than their mother was; they could not well address her by her Christian name.  They do not seem to be a marrying family, and that is odd, as their mother married three times.  The Grants are the children of the second marriage, are they not?"

    "Yes; but three times!  Did she marry three times?  Ah, I remember―how shocking!"

    "Shocking," exclaimed Mrs. Melcombe, "O, Laura, I consider it quite irreligious of you to say that."

    Laura laughed.  "But only think," she observed, "what a number of names one must remember in consequence of her three marriages.  First, there is Uncle Daniel's own daughter, Mrs. Henfrey; I do not mind her; but then there is Mr. Brandon, the son of Aunt Mortimer's first husband; then these Grants, the children of her second husband; and then Valentine, uncle's son and hers by this third marriage.  It's a fatigue only to think of them all!"


 
CHAPTER VIII.

THEY MEET AN AUTHOR.


"People maybe taken in once, who imagine that an author is greater in private life than other men.  Uncommon parts require uncommon opportunities for their exertion."

DR. JOHNSON.


MRS. HENFREY in taking leave of Amelia had expressed her pleasure at the prospect of shortly seeing her again.  They were all coming by invitation to lunch, the next day, at her Uncle Augustus Mortimer's house, because in the afternoon there was to be a horticultural show in the town.  They always went to these shows, she continued, and this one would have a particular interest for them, as John Mortimer's gardener, who had once been their gardener, was to carry off the first prize.  "And if you ask him what the prize is for," said one of the girls, "he will tell you it is for 'airly 'tates.'"

    Accordingly the next day there was a gathering of Mortimers and their families.  Augustus Mortimer was not present, he generally took his luncheon at the bank; but his son John, to Peter's delight, appeared with the twins, and constituting himself master of the ceremonies, took the head of the table, and desired his cousin Valentine to take the other end, and make himself useful.

    Peter asked after his little love, Anastasia.

    "Oh, she is very happy," said Gladys Mortimer; "she and Janie have got a WASH."

    "Got what?" asked Mrs. Henfrey.

    "A wash, sister," said Valentine.  "I passed through the garden, and saw them with lots of tiny dolls' clothes that they had been washing in the stream spread out to bleach on the grass."

    "It's odd," observed Brandon, "that so wise as children are, they should be fond of imitating us who are such fools."

    "Janie has been drawing from the round, in imitation of her sisters," observed John Mortimer.  "She brought me this morning a portrait of a flat tin cock, lately bought for a penny, and said, 'I drew him from the round, father.'"

    By this time the dishes were uncovered and the servants had withdrawn.  Laura was very happy at first.  She had been taken in to luncheon by the so-called St. George, he was treating her with a sort of deference that she found quite to her mind, and she looked about her on these newly-known relatives and connections with much complacency.  There was John Mortimer, with Amelia at his right hand, in the place of honour; then there were the two Miss Grants (in fresh muslin dresses), with a certain Captain Walker between them, whose twin brother, as Laura understood, had married their elder sister.  This military person was insignificant in appearance and small of stature, but he was very attentive to both the young ladies.  Then there was Valentine, looking very handsome, between Mrs. Henfrey and Miss Christie Grant, and being rebuked by one and advised by the other as to his carving, for he could not manage the joint before him, and was letting it slip about in the dish and splash the white sauce.

    "You must give your mind to it more," said Mrs. Henfrey, "and try to hit the joints."

    "It's full of bones," exclaimed Valentine in a deeply-injured voice.

    "Well, laddie," said Miss Christie, "and if I'm not mistaken, ye'll find when you get more used to carving, that a breast of veal always is full of bones."

    "Nobody must take any notice of him till he has finished," said Brandon.  "Put up a placard on the table, 'You are requested not to speak to the man at the veal.'  Now, Aunt Christie, you should say, 'aweel, aweel,' you often do so when there seems no need to correct me."

    "Isn't it wonderful," observed Valentine, "that he can keep up his spirits as he does, when only last week he was weighed in the columns of the Wigfield Advertiser and True Blue, and expressly informed that he was found wanting."

    "If you would only let politics alone," observed Mrs. Henfrey, "the True Blue would never interfere with you.  I always did hate politics," she continued, with peaceable and slow deliberation.

    "They are talking of some Penny Readings that St. George has been giving," said John Mortimer, for he observed a look of surprise on Laura's face.

    "'Our poet,' though, has let him alone lately," remarked Valentine.  "Oh I wish somebody would command Barbara to repeat his last effusion.  I am sure by the look in her eyes that she knows it by heart."

    "We all do," said John Mortimer's eldest daughter.

    "Ah! it's a fine thing to be a public character," observed her father; "but even I aspire to some notice from the True Blue next week in consequence of having old Nicholas for my gardener."

    "I am very fond of poetry," said Laura simpering.  "I should like to hear the poem you spoke of."

    Thereupon the little girl immediately repeated the following verses:―


"If, dear friends, you've got a penny
     (If you haven't steal one straight),
 Go and buy the best of any
     Penn'orth that you've bought of late.

"At the schoolroom as before
 (Up May Lane), or else next door
 (As last Monday) at the Boar,
 Hear the Wigfield lion roar.

"What a treat it was, good lack!
 Though my bench had ne'er a back,
 With a mild respectful glee
 There to hear, and that to see.

"Sweetly slept the men and boys,
     And the girls, they sighed meanwhile
 'O my goodness, what a voice!
     O my gracious, what a smile!'"


    The man with no ear for music feels his sense of justice outraged when people shudder while his daughter sings.  Why won't they listen to her songs as to one another's?  There is no difference.

    With a like feeling those who have hardly any sense of humour are half-offended when others laugh, while they seem to be shut out for not perceiving any cause.  Occasionally knowing themselves to be sensible people, they think it evident that their not seeing the joke must be because it is against them.

    Laura and Mrs. Melcombe experienced a certain discomfort here.  Neither would have been so rude as to laugh; in fact, what was there to laugh at?  They were shut out not only from the laugh, but from that state of feeling which made these cousins, including the victim, enjoy it, against one of themselves.

    As for Mrs. Henfrey, who also was without any perception of the humorous side of things, she looked on with a beaming countenance; pleased with them all for being in such good spirits, whatever might be the reason, for, as she always expressed it, she did so love to see young people happy.

    "It's capital," said John, but not so good as the prose reviewing they give you; and all this most excellent fun we should lose, you know, Giles, if you might have your way, and all sorts of criticism and reviewing had to be signed with the writer's name."

    "But it would make the thing much more fair and moderate," said Brandon "(not that I intended to include such little squibs as this); besides, it would secure a man against being reviewed by his own rivals―or his enemies."

    "Yes," said Valentine; "but that sort of thing would tell both ways."

    As he spoke with great gravity Mrs. Melcombe, mainly in the kind hope of helping dear Laura's mistake into the background, asked with an air of interest what he meant.

    "Well," said Valentine, with calm audacity, "to give an example.  Suppose a man writes something, call it anything you please―call it a lecture if you like―say that it is partly political, and that it is published by request; and suppose further that somebody, name unknown, writes an interesting account of its scope and general merits, and it is put into some periodical―you can call it anything you please―say a county paper, for instance.  The author is set in the best light, and the reviewer brings forward also some of his own views, which is quite fair――"

    As he seemed to be appealing to Laura, Laura said, "Yes; perfectly fair."

    "His own views―on―on the currency or anything else you like to mention."  Here John Mortimer asked Mrs. Melcombe if she would take some more wine, Valentine proceeding gravely: "Now do you or do you not think that if that review had been signed by the lecturer's father, brother, or friend almost as intimate as a brother, it would have carried more weight or less in consequence?"

    As several of them smiled, Mrs. Melcombe immediately felt uncomfortable again.

    "If what he said was true," she said, "I cannot exactly see――" and here she paused.

    "Well," said John Mortimer, observing that the attention of his keen-witted little daughter was excited, and being desirous, it seemed, to give a plainer example of what it all meant, "let us say now, for once, that I am a poet.  I send out a new book, and sit quaking.  The first three reviews appear.  Given in little they read thus:―

    "One.  'He copied from Snooks, whose immortal work, "The Loves of the Linendraper," is a comfort and a joy to our generation.'

    "Two.  'He has none of the culture, the spontaneity, the suavity, the reticence, the abandon, the heating power, the cooling power, the light, the shade, or any of the other ingredients referred to by the great Small in his noble work on poesy,'

    "Three.  'This man doesn't know how to write his own language.'

    "As I am a poet, fancy my state of mind!  I am horribly cast down; don't like to go out to dinner; am sure my butler, having read these reviews, despises me as an impostor; but while I sit sulking, in comes a dear friend and brother-poet.  'How do you know,' says he, 'that Snooks didn't write number one himself?  Or perhaps one of his clique did, for whom he is to do the same thing.'  I immediately shake hands with him.  This is evidently his candid opinion, and I love candour in a friend; besides, we both hate Snooks.  'And it is a well-known fact,' he continues with friendly warmth, 'that Small's great work won't sell; how do you know that number two was not written by a brother or friend of the publisher's, by way of an advertisement for it?'  By this time I am almost consoled.  Something strikes me with irresistible force.  I remember that that fellow Smith, who contested with me the election for the borough of Wigfield in eighteen hundred and fifty or sixty, has taken to literature.  He was at the head of the poll on that occasion, but my committee proving that he bribed, he lost his seat.  I came in.  It was said that I bribed too; but to discuss that now would be out of place.  I feel sure that Smith must have written number three.  In fact he said those very words concerning me on the hustings."

    "Gladys," said Brandon, observing the child's deep attention, "it is right you should know that the brother-poet had written a tragedy on tin-tacks.  Your father reviewed it, and said no family ought to be without it."

    "But you didn't bribe father, and you didn't copy from Snooks, I am sure," said Gladys, determined to defend her father, even in his assumed character.

    "What was the name of your thing, papa?" asked Barbara.

    "I don't know, my dear, I have not considered that matter."

    "It was called 'The Burglar's Betrothal,'" said Valentine.

    "And do you think that Snooks really wrote that review?" she continued, contemplating her father through her eyeglass, for she was shortsighted.

    "If you ask my sincere opinion, my dear, I must say that I think he did not; but if some other man had signed it, I should have been sure.  Which now I never shall be."

    Here the door was slowly opened, and the portly butler appeared, bearing in his own hands a fine dish of potatoes; from the same plot, he remarked to John, with those that had obtained the prize.  The butler looked proud.

    "I feel as much elated," said John, "as if I had raised them myself.  Is Nicholas here?"

    "Yes, sir, and he has been saying that if the soil of your garden could only be kept dry, they would be finer still."

    "Dry!" exclaimed Valentine, "you can't keep anything dry in such a climate as this―not even your jokes."

    "Hear, hear," said John Mortimer; "if the old man was not a teetotaler, and I myself were not so nearly concerned in this public recognition of our merits, I should certainly propose his health."

    "Don't let such considerations sway you," exclaimed Valentine rising.  "Jones, will you tell him that you left me on my legs, proposing his health in ginger-pop―'Mr. Nicholas Swan.'"

    Mr. Nicholas Swan.  Not one word of the ridiculous speech which followed the toast was heard by Laura, nor did she observe the respectful glee with which the butler retired, saying, "I think we've got a rise out of the True Blue now, sir.  I'm told, sir, that the potatoes shown by the other side, compared with these, seemed no bigger than bullets."

    Mr. Nicholas Swan.  A sudden beating at the heart kept Mrs. Melcombe silent, and as for Laura, she had never blushed so deeply in her life.  Joseph's name was Swan, and it flashed into her mind in an instant that he had told her his father was a gardener.

    She sat lost in thought, and nervous, scarcely able to answer when some casual remark was made to her, and the meal was over before she had succeeded in persuading herself that this man could not be Joseph's father, because her coming straight to the place where he lived was too improbable.

    "There goes Swanny across the lawn, father," said one of the twins, and thereupon they all went to the bow-window, and calling the old man, began to congratulate him, while he leaned his arms on the window-frame, which was at a convenient height from the ground, and gave them an account of his success.

    They grouped themselves on the seats near.  Mrs. Melcombe took the chair pushed up for her where, as John Mortimer said, she could see the view.  Laura followed, having snatched up a book of photographs, with which she could appear to be occupied, for she did not want to attract the gardener's attention by sitting farther than others did from the window; and as she mechanically turned the leaves, she hearkened keenly to Swan's remarks, and tried to decide that he was not like Joseph.

    "The markiss, sir?  Yes, sir, his gardener, Mr. Fergus, took the best prize for strawberries and green peas.  You'll understand that those airly tates were from seedlings of my own―that's where their great merit lies, and why they were first.  They gave Blakis the cottagers' prize for lettuce; that I uphold was wrong.  Said I, 'Those lettuce heads that poor Raby shows air the biggest ever I set my eyes on.'  'Swan,' says Mr. Tikey, 'we must encourage them that has good characters.'  'Well, now, if you come to think, sir,' says I, 'it's upwards of ten years since Raby stole that pair of boots,' and I say (though they was my boots) that should be forgot now, and he should have the cottagers' prize, but stealing never gets forgiven."

    "Because it's such an inconvenient vice to those that have anything to lose," said Miss Christie.

    "Yes, that's just it, ma'am.  You see the vices and virtues have got overhauled again, and sorted differently to suit our convenience.  Stealing's no worse probly in the eyes of our Maker than lying and slandering; not so bad, mayhap, as a deep sweer.  But folks air so tenacious like, they must have every stick and stone respected that they reckon theirs."

    "We shouldn't hear ye talking in this pheelosophical way," said Miss Christie, "if yere new potatoes had been stolen last night, before ye got them to the show."

    Laura took a glance at the gardener, as, with all the ease of intimacy, he leaned in at the window and gave his opinion on things in general.  He was hale, and looked about sixty years of age.  He was dressed in his Sunday suit, and wore an orange bandana handkerchief loosely tied round his neck.  He had keen grey eyes.  Joseph's eyes were dark and large, and Joseph was taller, and had a straighter nose.

    "Swan's quite right," remarked Valentine; "we are a great deal too tenacious about our belongings.  Now I've heard of a fellow who was waiting about, to horsewhip another fellow, and when this last came out he had a cane in his hand.  His enemy snatched it from him, and laid it about his back as much as he liked, split it and broke it on him, and then carried off the bits.  Now what would you have done, Swan, in such a case?"

    "Well, sir, in which case?  I can't consider anyhow as I could be in the case of him that was whipped."

    "I mean what would you have done about the cane?―the property?  A magistrate had to decide.  The man that had been horsewhipped said the other had spoilt his cane, which was as good as new, and then had stolen it.  The other said he did not carry off the cane till it had been so much used that it was good for nothing, and he didn't call that stealing."

    "Well, sir," said Mr. Swan, observing a smile on the face of one and another, "I think I'll leave that there magistrate to do the best he can with that there case, and I'll abide by his decision."

    "When ye come out in the character of Apollo," said Miss Christie to Valentine, "ye should compose yourself into a grander attitude, and not sit all of a heap while ye're drawing the long-bow.  Don't ye agree with me, Mrs. Melcombe?"

    Mrs. Melcombe looked up and smiled uneasily; but the gardener had no uncomfortable surmises respecting her, as she had respecting him, and when he caught her eye he straightened himself up, and said with pleasant civility, while putting on his hat on purpose to touch it and take it off again, "'Servant, ma'am; my son Joseph has had a fine spell of work, as I hear from him, at your place since I saw you last autumn, and a beautiful place it is, I'm told."

    Mrs. Melcombe answered this civil speech, and John Mortimer said, "How is Joseph getting, on, Swan?"

    "Getting on first-rate, thank you kindly, sir," replied Swan, leaning down into his former easy attitude, and keeping his Sunday hat under his arm.

    "That boy, though I say it, allers was as steady as old Time.  He's at Birmingham now.  I rather expect he'll be wanting to settle shortly."

    As he evidently wished to be asked a further question, Mrs. Henfrey did ask one.

    "No, ma'am, no," was the reply; "he have not told me nor his mother the young woman's name; but he said if he got her he should be the luckiest fellow that ever was."  Here, from intense confusion and shyness, Laura dropped the book, St. George picked it up for her, and nobody thought of connecting the fall with the story, the unconscious Nicholas continuing.  "So thereby his mother judged that it would come to something, for that's what a young chap mostly says when he has made up his mind; but I shall allers say, sir," he went on, "that with the good education as I gave him, it's a pity he took to such a poor trade.  He airly showed a bent for it; I reckon it was the putty that got the better of him."

    "Ah," said John Mortimer, "and I only wonder, Swan, that it didn't get the better of me!  I used to lay out a good deal of pocket-money in it at one time, and many a private smash have I perpetrated in the panes of out-houses, and at the back of the conservatory, that I might afterwards mend them with my own putty and tools.  I can remember my father's look of pride and pleasure when he would pass and find me so quietly, and, as he thought, so meritoriously employed."

    And now this ordeal was over.  The gardener was suffered to depart, and the ladies went up-stairs to dress for the flower-show.

    "Oh, Amelia!" exclaimed Laura, pressing her cold hands to her burning cheeks, "I feel as if I almost hated that man.  What business had he to talk of Joseph in that way?"

    Amelia, on the contrary, was very much pleased with Swan, because he had clearly shown that he was ignorant of this affair.  "He seems a very respectable person," she replied.  "His cottage, I know, is near the end of John Mortimer's garden.  I've seen it; but I never thought of asking his name.  It certainly would be mortifying for you to have to go and stay there with him and Joseph's mother.  I suppose, though, that the Mortimers would have to call."

    Amelia felt a certain delight in presenting this picture to Laura.

    "I would never go near them!" exclaimed Laura, very angry with her sister-in-law.

    "Why not?" persisted Amelia, determined to make Laura see things as they were.  "You could not possibly wish to divide a man from his own family; they have never injured you."

    "Oh that he and I were on a desert island together," said Laura.  She had often said that before to Amelia.  She now felt that if Joseph's father and mother were there also, and there was nobody else to see, she should not mind their presence; besides, it would be convenient, they would act almost as servants.

    Amelia very seldom had intuitions; but one seemed to visit her then.  "Do you know, Laura, it really seems to me less shocking that you should be attached to Joseph (if you are, which I don't believe), than that you should be so excessively ashamed of it, with no better cause."

    This she said quite sincerely, having risen for the moment into a clearer atmosphere than that in which she commonly breathed.  It was a great advance for her; but then, on the other hand, she had never felt so easy about the result as that old man's talk had now made her.  Laura never could do it!

    So off they set to the flower-show, which was held under a large tent in a field.  Laura heard the hum and buzz about her; the jolly wives of the various gardeners and florists admiring their husbands' prizes; the band of the militia playing outside; Brandon's delightful voice―how she wished that Joseph's was like it!―all affected her imagination; together with the strong scent of flowers and strawberries and trodden grass, and the mellow light let down over them through the tent, and the moving flutter of dresses and ribbons as the various ladies passed and repassed, almost all being adorned with little pink and blue flowers, if only so much as a rose-bud or a forget-me-not―for a general election was near, and they were "showing their colours" (a custom once almost universal, and which was still kept up in that old-fashioned place).

    Wigfield was a droll little town, and in all its ways was intensely English.  There was hardly a woman in it or round it who really and intelligently concerned herself about politics; but they were all "blues" or "pinks," and you might hear them talk for a week together without finding out which was the Liberal and which was the Conservative colour; but the "pinks" all went to the pink shops, and the "blues" would have thought it WRONG not to give their custom to those tradesmen who voted "blue."

    You might send to London for anything you thought you wanted; but the Marchioness herself, the only great lady in the neighbourhood, knew better than to order anything in Wigfield from a shop of the wrong colour.

    The "pinks" that day were happy.  "Markiss," in the person of his gardener, had three prizes; "Old Money-Bags" (Mr. Augustus Mortimer's name at election time) had two prizes, in the person of his son's gardener; in fact, the "pinks" triumphed almost at the rate of two to one, and yet, to their immortal honour, let it be recorded that the "blues" said it was all fair.

    John Mortimer shortly went to fetch his father, and returned with him and all his own younger children.  Mr. Mortimer had long been allowed to give three supplementary prizes, on his own account, to some of the exhibitors who were cottagers, and on this occasion his eyes, having been duly directed by his son, were observed to rest with great admiration on the big lettuces.  Raby's wife could hardly believe it when she saw the bright sovereign laid on the broad top of one of them; while Mr. Swan, as one of the heroes of the day, and with Mrs. Swan leaning on his arm, looked on approvingly, the latter wearing a black silk gown and a shawl covered with fir-cones.  She was a stout woman, and had been very pretty―she was supposed by her husband to be so still.  On this occasion, pointing out the very biggest and brightest bunch of cut-flowers he saw, Mr. Swan remarked complacently―

    "They remind me of you, Maria."

    "And which on 'em came from our garden, dear," said Mrs. Swan, meaning which came from Mr. John Mortimer's garden.

    Swan pointed out several.  "Mr. Fergus came to me yesterday, and said he, 'We want a good lot of flowers to dress up the tent.  You'll let us have some?'  'Certain,' said I; 'we allers do.'  Then he marches up to my piccotees.  'Now these,' said he, 'would just suit us.  We could do very well with pretty nigh all of 'em.'  'Softly,' said I; 'flowers you'll have; but leave the rest to me.  If I'm to have one of my teeth drawn, it's fair I should say which.'  Yes, William Raby air improved; but I shall allers say as nothing ever can raise that idle dog Phil. Raby.  I don't hope for folks that take parish pay."

    The said William Raby came in the evening and brought the big vegetables, wrapped in an old newspaper, for Mr. Mortimer's acceptance, and when the old man came out into his hall to speak to him, Raby said―

    "It wer' not only the money.  My wife, her feels, too―when a man's been down so long―as it does him a sight o' good to get a mouthful o' pride, and six penn'orth o' praise to make him hold his head up."

    "St. George was dull yesterday," observed John Mortimer, when he and his father were alone the next morning in the bank parlour.  "He was not like himself; he flashed out now and then, but I could see that it was an effort to him to appear in good spirits.  I thought he had got over that attachment, for he seemed jolly enough some time ago."

    "When does he sail for Canada?" asked the old man.

    "At the end of this week, and I believe mainly for the sake of having something to do.  It is very much to be lamented that my uncle did not manage to make him take up some profession.  Here are his fine talents almost wasted; and, besides that, while he is running about on his philanthropic schemes, Valentine steals the heart of the girl he loves."

    "But," said his father, "I think the young fellow is quite unconscious that St. George likes her."

    "My dear father, then he has no business to be.  He ought to know that such a thing is most probable.  Here is St. George shipwrecked, floating on a raft, and half starved, when this impudent little yacht, that seems, by the way she flies about, to know the soundings of all harbours by special intuition―this impudent little yacht comes and looks round the corner of every wave, and actually overhauls the high seas till she finds him, and there the first time he opens his eyes is that sweet, quaint piece of innocence leaning over him.  He is shut up with her for ten days or so; she is as graceful as a sylph, and has a tender sort of baby face that's enough to distract a man, and I don't see how he could possibly leave that vessel without being in love with her, unless some other woman had already got hold of his heart.  No, even if St. George did not know himself that he cared for her, he ought to have been allowed time to find it out before any one else spoke.  And there is Val in constant correspondence with her, and as secure as possible!"

    Conversation then turned to the Melcombes.  Old Augustus spoke uneasily of the boy, said he looked pale, and was not grown.

    "He gets that pallor from his mother," said John.  "I should not like to see any of my children such complete reproductions of either parent as that boy is of her.  Family likeness is always strongest among the uncultivated, and among lethargic and stupid people.  If you go down into the depths of the country, to villages, where the parents hardly think at all, and the children learn next to nothing, you'll find whole families of them almost exactly alike, excepting in size."

    His father listened quietly, but with the full intention of bringing the conversation back to Peter as soon as he could.

    "It is the same with nations," proceeded John, "those who have little energy and no keen desire for knowledge are ten times more alike in feature, complexion, and countenance than we are.  No! family likeness is all very well in infancy, before the mind has begun to work on the face; but as a man's children grow, they ought to be less and less alike every year."

    "That little fellow," said the father, "seems to me to be exactly like what he was a year ago."

    "I observe no change."

    "Do you think he is an average child, John?"

    John laughed.  "I think that little imp of mine, Hughie, could thrash him, if they chose to fight, and he is nearly three years the younger of the two.  No, I do not think he is an average child; but I see nothing the matter with him."

    Grand was not exempt from the common foibles of grandfathers, and he was specially infatuated in favour of the little Hugh, who was a most sweet-tempered and audacious child, and when his son went on, "Those two little scamps are getting so troublesome, that they will have to be sent to school very shortly," he said, almost in a grumbling tone, "They're always good enough when they're with me."

    So, in course of time, Mrs. and Miss Melcombe set forth on their travels; it was their ambition to see exactly the same places and things that everybody else goes to see, and they made just such observations on them as everybody else makes.

    In the meantime Brandon, not at all aware that several people besides John Mortimer had noticed that he was out of spirits―Brandon also prepared to set forth on his travels.  He had persuaded several families to emigrate, and had also persuaded himself that he must go to their destination himself, that he might look out for situations for them, and settle them before the winter came on.  He was very busy for some days arranging his affairs; he meant to be away some time.  Mr. Mortimer knew it―perhaps he knew more, for he said not a word by way of dissuasion, but only seemed rather depressed.  The evening, however, before Brandon was to start, as, at about eight o'clock, he sat talking with his step-father, the old man lifted up his head and said to him―

    "You find me quite as clear in my thoughts and quite as well able to express them as usual, don't you, St. George?"

    "Yes," answered the step-son, feeling, however, a little dismayed, for the wistful earnestness with which this was said was peculiar.

    "If you should ever be asked," continued Daniel Mortimer, "you would be able to say that you had seen no signs of mental decay in me these last few months?"

    "Yes, I should."

    "Don't disturb yourself, my dear fellow.  I am as well as usual; better since my illness than I was for some time before.  I quite hope to see you again; but in case I do not, I have a favour to ask of you."

    The step-son assured him with all affection and fervour that he would attend to his wish, whatever it might be.

    "I have never loved anything that breathed as I loved your mother," continued the old man, as if still appealing to him, "and you could hardly have been dearer to me if you had been my own."

    "I know it," said Brandon.

    "When you were in your own study this morning at the top of the house――"

    "Yes, my liege?"

    "I sent Valentine up to you with a desk.  You were in that room, were you not?"

    "Oh, yes."

    "A small desk, that was once your mother's―it has a Bramah lock."

    "I noticed that it had, and that it was locked."

    "What have you done with it?"

    "Valentine said you wished me to take particular care of it, so I locked it into my cabinet, where my will is, as you know, and where are most of my papers."

    "Thank you; here is the key.  You think you shall never forget where that desk is, Giles?"

    "Never! such a thing is quite impossible."

    "If I am gone when you return, you are to open that desk.  You will find in it a letter which I wrote about three years ago; and if I have ever deserved well of you and yours, I charge you and I implore you to do your very best as regards what I have asked of you in that letter."



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