Mount Royal: A Novel. Volume 1 of 3
THE DAYS THAT ARE NO MORE
"And he was a widower," said Christabel.
She was listening to an oft-told tale, kneeling in the firelight, at her aunt's knee, the ruddy glow tenderly touching her fair soft hair and fairer forehead, her big blue eyes lifted lovingly to Mrs. Tregonell's face.
"And he was a widower, Aunt Diana," she repeated, with an expression of distaste, as if something had set her teeth on edge. "I cannot help wondering that you could care for a widower – a man who had begun life by caring for somebody else."
"Do you suppose any one desperately in love ever thinks of the past?" asked another voice out of the twilight. "Those infatuated creatures called lovers are too happy and contented with the rapture of the present."
"One would think you had tremendous experience, Jessie, by the way you lay down the law," said Christabel, laughing. "But I want to know what Auntie has to say about falling in love with a widower."
"If you had ever seen him and known him, I don't think you would wonder at my liking him," answered Mrs. Tregonell, lying back in her armchair, and talking of the story of her life in a placid way, as if it were the plot of a novel, so thoroughly does time smooth the rough edge of grief. "When he came to my father's house, his young wife had been dead just two years – she died three days after the birth of her first child – and Captain Hamleigh was very sad and grave, and seemed to take very little pleasure in life. It was in the shooting season, and the other men were out upon the hills all day."
"Murdering innocent birds," interjected Christabel. "How I hate them for it!"
"Captain Hamleigh hung about the house, not seeming to know very well what to do with himself, so your mother and I took pity upon him, and tried to amuse him, which effort resulted in his amusing us, for he was ever so much cleverer than we were. He was so kind and sympathetic. We had just founded a Dorcas Society, and we were muddling hopelessly in an endeavour to make good sensible rules, so that we should do nothing to lessen the independent feeling of our people – and he came to our rescue, and took the whole thing in hand, and seemed to understand it all as thoroughly as if he had been establishing Dorcas Societies all his life. My father said it was because the Captain had been sixth wrangler, and that it was the higher mathematics which made him so clever at making rules. But Clara and I said it was his kind heart that made him so quick at understanding how to help the poor without humiliating them."
"It was very nice of him," said Christabel, who had heard the story a hundred times before, but who was never weary of it, and had a special reason for being interested this afternoon. "And so he stayed a long time at my grandfather's, and you fell in love with him?"
"I began by being sorry for him," replied Mrs. Tregonell. "He told us all about his young wife – how happy they had been – how their one year of wedded life seemed to him like a lovely dream. They had only been engaged three months; he had known her less than a year and a half altogether; had come home from India; had seen her at a friend's house, fallen in love with her, married her, and lost her within those eighteen months. 'Everything smiled upon us,' he said. 'I ought to have remembered Polycrates and his ring.'"
"He must have been rather a doleful person," said Christabel, who had all the exacting ideas of early youth in relation to love and lovers. "A widower of that kind ought to perform suttee, and make an end of the business, rather than go about the world prosing to nice girls. I wonder more and more that you could have cared for him." And then, seeing her aunt's eyes shining with unshed tears, the girl laid her sunny head upon the matronly shoulder, and murmured tenderly, "Forgive me for teasing you, dear, I am only pretending. I love to hear about Captain Hamleigh; and I am not very much surprised that you ended by loving him – or that he soon forgot his brief dream of bliss with the other young lady, and fell desperately in love with you."
"It was not till after Christmas that we were engaged," continued Mrs. Tregonell, looking dreamily at the fire. "My father was delighted – so was my sister Clara – your dear mother. Everything went pleasantly; our lives seemed all sunshine. I ought to have remembered Polycrates, for I knew Schiller's ballad about him by heart. But I could think of nothing beyond that perfect all-sufficing happiness. We were not to be married till late in the autumn, when it would be three years since his wife's death. It was my father's wish that I should not be married till after my nineteenth birthday, which would not be till September. I was so happy in my engagement, so confident in my lover's fidelity, that I was more than content to wait. So all that spring he stayed at Penlee. Our mild climate had improved his health, which was not at all good when he came to us – indeed he had retired from the service before his marriage, chiefly on account of weak health. But he spoke so lightly and confidently about himself in this matter, that it had never entered into my head to feel any serious alarm about him, till early in May, when he and Clara and I were caught in a drenching rainstorm during a mountaineering expedition on Rough Tor, and then had to walk four or five miles in the rain before we came to the inn where the carriage was to wait for us. Clara and I, who were always about in all weathers, were very little worse for the wet walk and the long drive home in damp clothes. But George was seriously ill for three weeks with cough and low fever; and it was at this time that our family doctor told my father that he would not give much for his future son-in-law's life. There was a marked tendency to lung complaint, he said; Captain Hamleigh had confessed that several members of his family had died of consumption. My father told me this – urged me to avoid a marriage which must end in misery to me, and was deeply grieved when I declared that no such consideration would induce me to break my engagement, and to grieve the man I loved. If it were needful that our marriage should be delayed, I was contented to submit to any delay; but nothing could loosen the tie between me and my dear love."
Aunt and niece were both crying now. However familiar the story might be, they always wept a little at this point.
"George never knew one word of this conversation between my father and me – he never suspected our fears – but from that hour my happiness was gone. My life was one perpetual dread – one ceaseless struggle to hide all anxieties and fears under a smile. George rallied, and seemed to grow strong again – was full of energy and high spirits, and I had to pretend to think him as thoroughly recovered as he fancied himself. But by this time I had grown sadly wise. I had questioned our doctor – had looked into medical books – and I knew every sad sign and token of decay. I knew what the flushed cheek and the brilliant eye, the damp cold hand, and the short cough meant. I knew that the hand of death was on him whom I loved more than all the world besides. There was no need for the postponement of our marriage. In the long bright days of August he seemed wonderfully well – as well as he had been before the attack in May. I was almost happy; for, in spite of what the doctor had told me, I began to hope! but early in September, while the dressmakers were in the house making my wedding clothes, the end came suddenly, unexpectedly, with only a few hours' warning. Oh, Christabel! I cannot speak of that day!"
"No, darling, you shall not, you must not," cried Christabel, showering kisses on her aunt's pale cheek.
"And yet you always lead her on to talk about Captain Hamleigh," said the sensible voice out of the shadow. "Isn't that just a little inconsistent of our sweet Belle?"
"Don't call me your 'sweet Belle' – as if I were a baby," exclaimed the girl. "I know I am inconsistent – I was born foolish, and no one has ever taken the trouble to cure me of my folly. And now, Auntie dear, tell me about Captain Hamleigh's son – the boy who is coming here to-morrow."
"I have not seen him since he was at Eton. The Squire drove me down on a Fourth of June to see him."
"It was very good of Uncle Tregonell."
"The Squire was always good," replied Mrs. Tregonell, with a dignified air. Christabel's only remembrance of her uncle was of a large loud man, who blustered and scolded a good deal, and frequently contrived, perhaps, without meaning it, to make everybody in the house uncomfortable; so she reflected inwardly upon that blessed dispensation which, however poorly wives may think of living husbands, provides that every widow should consider her departed spouse completely admirable.
"And was he a nice boy in those days?" asked Christabel, keenly interested.
"He was a handsome gentlemanlike lad – very intellectual looking; but I was grieved to see that he looked delicate, like his father; and his dame told me that he generally had a winter cough."
"Who took care of him in those days?"
"His maternal aunt – a baronet's wife, with a handsome house in Eaton Square. All his mother's people were well placed in life."
"Poor boy! hard to have neither father nor mother. It was twelve years ago when you spent that season in London with the Squire," said Christabel, calculating profoundly with the aid of her finger tips; "and Angus Hamleigh was then sixteen, which makes him now eight-and-twenty – dreadfully old. And since then he has been at Oxford – and he got the Newdigate – what is the Newdigate? – and he did not hunt, or drive tandem, or have rats in his rooms, or paint the doors vermilion – like – like the general run of young men," said Christabel, reddening, and hurrying on confusedly; "and he was altogether rather a superior person at the university."
"He had not your cousin Leonard's high spirits and powerful physique," said Mrs. Tregonell, as if she were ever so slightly offended. "Young men's tastes are so different."
"Yes," sighed Christabel, "it's lucky they are, is it not? It wouldn't do for them all to keep rats in their rooms, would it? The poor old colleges would smell so dreadful. Well," with another sigh, "it is just three weeks since Angus Hamleigh accepted your invitation to come here to stay, and I have been expiring of curiosity ever since. If he keeps me expiring much longer I shall be dead before he comes. And I have a dreadful foreboding that, when he does appear, I shall detest him."
"No fear of that," said Miss Bridgeman, the owner of the voice that issued now and again from the covert of a deep armchair on the other side of the fireplace.
"Why not, Mistress Oracle?" asked Christabel.
"Because, as Mr. Hamleigh is accomplished and good-looking, and as you see very few young men of any kind, and none that are particularly attractive, the odds are fifty to one that you will fall in love with him."
"I am not that kind of person," protested Christabel, drawing up her long full throat, a perfect throat, and one of the girl's chief beauties.
"I hope not," said Mrs. Tregonell; "I trust that Belle has better sense than to fall in love with a young man, just because he happens to come to stay in the house."
Christabel was on the point of exclaiming, "Why, Auntie, you did it;" but caught herself up sharply, and cried out instead, with an air of settling the question for ever.
"My dear Jessie, he is eight-and-twenty. Just ten years older than I am."
"Of course – he's ever so much too old for her. A blasé man of the world," said Mrs. Tregonell. "I should be deeply sorry to see my darling marry a man of that age – and with such antecedents. I should like her to marry a young man not above two or three years her senior."
"And fond of rats," said Jessie Bridgeman to herself, for she had a shrewd idea that she knew the young man whose image filled Mrs. Tregonell's mind as she spoke.
All these words were spoken in a goodly oak-panelled room in the Manor House known as Mount Royal, on the slope of a bosky hill about a mile and a half from the little town of Boscastle, on the north coast of Cornwall. It was an easy matter, according to the Heralds' Office, to show that Mount Royal had belonged to the Tregonells in the days of the Norman kings; for the Tregonells traced their descent, by a female branch, from the ancient baronial family of Botterell or Bottreaux, who once held a kind of Court in their castle on Mount Royal, had their dungeons and their prisoners, and, in the words of Carew, "exercised some large jurisdiction." Of the ancient castle hardly a stone remained; but the house in which Mrs. Tregonell lived was as old as the reign of James the First, and had all the rich and quaint beauty of that delightful period in architecture. Nor was there any prettier room at Mount Royal than this spacious oak-panelled parlour, with curious nooks and cupboards, a recessed fireplace, or "cosy-corner," with a small window on each side of the chimney-breast, and one particular alcove placed at an angle of the house, overlooking one of the most glorious views in England. It might be hyperbole perhaps to call those Cornish hills mountains, yet assuredly it was a mountain landscape over which the eye roved as it looked from the windows of Mount Royal; for those wide sweeps of hill side, those deep clefts and gorges, and heathery slopes, on which the dark red cattle grazed in silent peacefulness, and the rocky bed of the narrow river that went rushing through the deep valley, had all the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands, all the pastoral beauty of Switzerland. And away to the right, beyond the wild and indented coast-line, that horned coast which is said to have given its name to Cornwall – Cornu-Wales – stretched the Atlantic.
The room had that quaint charm peculiar to rooms occupied by many generations, and upon which each age as it went by has left its mark. It was a room full of anachronisms. There was some of the good old Jacobean furniture left in it, while spindle-legged Chippendale tables and luxurious nineteenth-century chairs and sofas agreeably contrasted with those heavy oak cabinets and corner cupboards. Here an old Indian screen or a china monster suggested a fashionable auction room, filled with ladies who wore patches and played ombre, and squabbled for ideal ugliness in Oriental pottery; there a delicately carved cherry-wood prie-dieu, with claw feet, recalled the earlier beauties of the Stuart Court. Time had faded the stamped velvet curtains to that neutral withered-leaf hue which painters love in a background, and against which bright yellow chrysanthemums and white asters in dark red and blue Japanese bowls, seen dimly in the fitful fire-glow, made patches of light and colour.
The girl kneeling by the matron's chair, looking dreamily into the fire, was even fairer than her surroundings. She was thoroughly English in her beauty, features not altogether perfect, but complexion of that dazzling fairness and wild-rose bloom which is in itself enough for loveliness; a complexion so delicate as to betray every feeling of the sensitive mind, and to vary with every shade of emotion. Her eyes were blue, clear as summer skies, and with an expression of childlike innocence – that look which tells of a soul whose purity has never been tarnished by the knowledge of evil. That frank clear outlook was natural in a girl brought up as Christabel Courtenay had been at a good woman's knee, shut in and sheltered from the rough world, reared in the love and fear of God, shaping every thought of her life by the teaching of the Gospel.
She had been an orphan at nine years old, and had parted for ever from mother and father before her fifth birthday, Mrs. Courtenay leaving her only child in her sister's care, and going out to India to join her husband, one of the Sudder Judges. Husband and wife died of cholera in the fourth year of Mrs. Courtenay's residence at Calcutta, leaving Christabel in her aunt's care.
Mr. Courtenay was a man of ample means, and his wife, daughter and co-heiress with Mrs. Tregonell of Ralph Champernowne, had a handsome dowry, so Christabel might fairly rank as an heiress. On her grandfather's death she inherited half of the Champernowne estate, which was not entailed. But she had hardly ever given a thought to her financial position. She knew that she was a ward in Chancery, and that Mrs. Tregonell was her guardian and adopted mother, that she had always as much money as she wanted, and never experienced the pain of seeing poverty which she could not relieve in some measure from her well-supplied purse. The general opinion in the neighbourhood of Mount Royal was that the Indian Judge had accumulated an immense fortune during his twenty years' labour as a civil servant; but this notion was founded rather upon vague ideas about Warren Hastings and the Pagoda tree, and the supposed inability of any Indian official to refuse a bribe, than on plain facts or personal knowledge.
Mrs. Tregonell had been left a widow at thirty-five years of age, a widow with one son whom she idolized, but who was not a source of peace and happiness. He was open-handed, had no petty vices, and was supposed to possess a noble heart – a fact which Christabel was sometimes inclined to doubt when she saw his delight in the slaughter of birds and beasts, not having in her own nature that sportsman's instinct which can excuse such murder. He was not the kind of lad who would wilfully set his foot upon a worm, but he had no thrill of tenderness or remorseful pity as he looked at the glazing eye, or felt against his hand the last feeble heart-beats of snipe or woodcock. He was a troublesome boy – fond of inferior company, and loving rather to be first fiddle in the saddle-room than to mind his manners in his mother's pink-and-white panelled saloon – among the best people in the neighbourhood. He was lavish to recklessness in the use of money, and therefore was always furnished with followers and flatterers. His University career had been altogether a failure and a disgrace. He had taken no degree – had made himself notorious for those rough pranks which have not even the merit of being original – the traditionary college misdemeanours handed down from generation to generation of undergraduates, and which by their blatant folly incline the outside world to vote for the suppression of Universities and the extinction of the undergraduate race.
His mother had known and suffered all this, yet still loved her boy with a fond excusing love – ever ready to pardon – ever eager to believe that these faults and follies were but the crop of wild oats which must needs precede the ripe and rich harvest of manhood. Such wild youths, she told herself, fatuously, generally make the best men. Leonard would mend his ways before he was five-and-twenty, and would become interested in his estate, and develop into a model Squire, like his admirable father.
That he had no love for scholarship mattered little – a country gentleman, with half a dozen manors to look after, could be but little advantaged by a familiar acquaintance with the integral calculus, or a nice appreciation of the Greek tragedians. When Leonard Tregonell and the college Dons were mutually disgusted with each other to a point that made any further residence at Oxford impossible, the young man graciously announced his intention of making a tour round the world, for the benefit of his health, somewhat impaired by University dissipations, and the widening of his experience in the agricultural line.
"Farming has been reduced to a science," he told his mother; "I want to see how it works in our colonies. I mean to make a good many reformations in the management of my farms and the conduct of my tenants when I come home."
At first loth to part with him, very fearful of letting him so far out of her ken, Mrs. Tregonell ultimately allowed herself to be persuaded that sea voyages and knocking about in strange lands would be the making of her son; and there was no sacrifice, no loss of comfort and delight, which she would not have endured for his benefit. She spent many sad hours in prayer, or on her knees before her open Bible; and at last it seemed to her that her friends and neighbours must be right, and that it would be for Leonard's good to go. If he stayed in England she could not hope to keep him always in Cornwall. He could go to London, and, no doubt, London vices would be worse than Oxford vices. Yes, it was good for him to go; she thought of Esau, and how, after a foolish and ill-governed youth, the son who had bartered his father's blessing, yet became an estimable member of society. Why should not her boy flourish as Esau had flourished? but never without the parental blessing. That would be his to the end. He could not sin beyond her large capacity for pardon: he could not exhaust an inexhaustible love. So Leonard, who had suddenly found that wild Cornish coast, and even the long rollers of the Atlantic contemptibly insignificant as compared with the imagined magnitude of Australian downs, and the grandeurs of Botany Bay, hurried on the preparations for his departure, provided himself with everything expensive in gunnery, fishing-tackle, porpoise-hide thigh-boots, and waterproof gear of every kind, and departed rejoicing in the most admirably appointed Australian steamer. The family doctor, who was one of the many friends in favour of this tour, had strongly recommended the rough-and-tumble life of a sailing-vessel; but Leonard preferred the luxury and swiftness of a steamer, and, suggesting to his mother that a sailing-vessel always took out emigrants, from whom it was more than likely he would catch scarlet-fever or small-pox, instantly brought Mrs. Tregonell to perceive that a steamer which carried no second-class passengers was the only fitting conveyance for her son.
He was gone – and, while the widow grieved in submissive silence, telling herself that it was God's will that she and her son should be parted, and that whatever was good for him should be well for her, Christabel and the rest of the household inwardly rejoiced at his absence. Nobody openly owned to being happier without him; but the knowledge that he was far away brought a sense of relief to every one; even to the old servants, who had been so fond of him in his childhood, when the kitchen and servants' hall had ever been a happy hunting-ground for him in periods of banishment from the drawing-room.
"It is no good for me to punish him," Mrs. Tregonell had remonstrated, with assumed displeasure; "you all make so much of him."
"Oh, ma'am, he is such a fine, high-spirited boy," the cook would reply on these occasions; "'tesn't possible to be angry with him. He has such a spirit."
"Such a spirit" was only a euphemism for such a temper; and, as years went on, Mr. Tregonell's visits to the kitchen and servants' hall came to be less appreciated by his retainers. He no longer went there to be petted – to run riot in boyish liveliness, upsetting the housemaids' work-boxes, or making toffy under the cook's directions. As he became aware of his own importance, he speedily developed into a juvenile tyrant; he became haughty and overbearing, hectored and swore, befouled the snowy floors and flags with his muddy shooting-boots, made havoc and work wherever he went. The household treated him with unfailing respect, as their late master's son, and their own master, possibly, in the future; but their service was no longer the service of love. His loud strong voice, shouting in the passages and lobbies, scared the maids at their tea. Grooms and stable-boys liked him; for with them he was always familiar, and often friendly. He and they had tastes and occupations in common; but to the women servants and the grave middle-aged butler his presence was a source of discomfort.
Next to her son in Mrs. Tregonell's affection stood her niece Christabel. That her love for the girl who had never given her a moment's pain should be a lesser love than that which she bore to the boy who had seldom given her an hour's unalloyed pleasure was one of the anomalies common in the lives of good women. To love blindly and unreasonably is as natural to a woman as it is to love: and happy she whose passionate soul finds its idol in husband or child, instead of being lured astray by strange lights outside the safe harbour of home. Mrs. Tregonell loved her niece very dearly; but it was with that calm, comfortable affection which mothers are apt to feel for the child who has never given them any trouble. Christabel had been her pupil: all that the girl knew had been learned from Mrs. Tregonell; and, though her education fell far short of the requirements of Girton or Harley Street, there were few girls whose intellectual powers had been more fully awakened, without the taint of pedantry. Christabel loved books, but they were the books her aunt had chosen for her – old-fashioned books for the most part. She loved music, but was no brilliant pianist, for when Mrs. Tregonell, who had taught her carefully up to a certain point, suggested a course of lessons from a German professor at Plymouth, the girl recoiled from the idea of being taught by a stranger.
"If you are satisfied with my playing, Auntie, I am content never to play any better," she said; so the idea of six months' tuition and study at Plymouth, involving residence in that lively port, was abandoned. London was a far-away world, of which neither aunt nor niece ever thought. That wild northern coast is still two days' journey from the metropolis. Only by herculean labour, in the way of posting across the moor in the grey dawn of morning, can the thing be done in one day; and then scarcely between sunrise and sunset. So Mrs. Tregonell, who loved a life of placid repose, had never been to London since her widowhood, and Christabel had never been there at all. There was an old house in Mayfair, which had belonged to the Tregonells for the last hundred years, and which had cost them a fortune in repairs, but it was either shut up and in the occupation of a caretaker, or let furnished for the season; and no Tregonell had crossed its threshold since the Squire's death. Mrs. Tregonell talked of spending a season in London before Christabel was much older, in order that her niece might be duly presented at Court, and qualified for that place in society which a young lady of good family and ample means might fairly be entitled to hold.
Christabel had no eager desire for the gaieties of a London season. She had spent six weeks in Bath, and had enjoyed an occasional fortnight at Plymouth. She had been taken to theatres and concerts, had seen some of the best actors and actresses, heard a good deal of the finest music, and had been duly delighted with all she saw and heard. But she so fondly loved Mount Royal and its surroundings, she was so completely happy in her home life, that she had no desire to change that tranquil existence. She had a vague idea that London balls and parties must be something very dazzling and brilliant, but she was content to abide her aunt's pleasure and convenience for the time in which she was to know more about metropolitan revelries than was to be gathered from laudatory paragraphs in fashionable newspapers. Youth, with its warm blood and active spirit, is rarely so contented as Christabel was: but then youth is not often placed amidst such harmonious circumstances, so protected from the approach of evil.
Christabel Courtenay may have thought and talked more about Mr. Hamleigh during the two or three days that preceded his arrival than was absolutely necessary, or strictly in accordance with that common-sense which characterized most of her acts and thoughts. She was interested in him upon two grounds – first, because he was the only son of the man her aunt had loved and mourned; secondly, because he was the first stranger who had ever come as a guest to Mount Royal.
Her aunt's visitors were mostly people whose faces she had known ever since she could remember: there were such wide potentialities in the idea of a perfect stranger, who was to be domiciled at the Mount for an indefinite period.
"Suppose we don't like him?" she said, speculatively, to Jessie Bridgeman, Mrs. Tregonell's housekeeper, companion, and factotum, who had lived at Mount Royal for the last six years, coming there a girl of twenty, to make herself generally useful in small girlish ways, and proving herself such a clever manager, so bright, competent, and far-seeing, that she had been gradually entrusted with every household care, from the largest to the most minute. Miss Bridgeman was neither brilliant nor accomplished, but she had a genius for homely things, and she was admirable as a companion.
The two girls were out on the hills in the early autumn morning – hills that were golden where the sun touched them, purple in the shadow. The heather was fading, the patches of furze-blossom were daily growing rarer. Yet the hill-sides were alive with light and colour, only less lovely than the translucent blues and greens of yonder wide-stretching sea.
"Suppose we should all dislike him?" repeated Christabel, digging the point of her walking-stick into a ferny hillock on the topmost edge of a deep cleft in the hills, on which commanding spot she had just taken her stand, after bounding up the narrow path from the little wooden bridge at the bottom of the glen, almost as quickly and as lightly as if she had been one of the deeply ruddled sheep that spent their lives on those precipitous slopes; "wouldn't it be too dreadful, Jessie?"
"It would be inconvenient," answered Miss Bridgeman, coolly, resting both hands on the horny crook of her sturdy umbrella, and gazing placidly seaward; "but we could cut him."