- CHAPTER III ENTER LORD WESTERHAM
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ENTER LORD WESTERHAM
"I AM very glad to see you, my dear," said Lady Westerham, embracing her elder daughter; "and how are Tammy and the boys? " The Duke of Mershire was known as Tammy by his intimate friends.
"Very well, thank you, Mamma. At least the boys were when last they wrote; and as Tammy has never referred to his inside for at least five days, I conclude there is no cause for anxiety. Men never make a secret of their ailments."
The Marquis of Tamford was now in the Guards, and Lord Archibald Oldcastle still at Eton.
"Esther and I are settling down quite comfortably here," said Lady Westerham; "it is really an excellent house, and a delightful garden. The gardens at Wyvern's End were always on too large a scale for me to feel that they were really my own; but here I can put on my garden gloves and potter about to my heart's content."
"I know: I feel the same about the gardens at Tamford. I should as soon think of gardening myself there as I should of gardening in Hyde Park; and I no more dare plant a flower in my own garden than I dare wash up a dish in my own kitchen. The deprivations of the rich are really very hard to bear!"
"Still the present Government is doing all in its power to lighten them," remarked Lady Esther, with her sweet smile; "I think you will admit that."| | 30
"Yes, the wretches!" replied the Duchess, sitting down on a sofa beside her mother.
"But you ought to approve of them," continued Esther; "you said you were marching with the times."
"So I am, but I never said that I liked marching: I only prefer it to sitting down in the middle of the road and being trampled to death. But I didn't come here to talk politics with you, Esther; I think it is the most dreadful waste of time for women to talk politics with one another. They have to talk politics with men—just as they have to play games with children—because men seem able to talk about so little else; but to do it with each other seems as absurd as to bring out a Noah's Ark in the drawing-room after dinner, and arrange the animals two and two."
"But I thought you said you liked men better than women," persisted Esther, who, for all her sweetness, was quite human enough to enjoy tripping up her more lively sister.
"No, I didn't. I said I understood them better, which is quite a different thing. And I'm not sure that even that was correct. I always know what a man will do, but I haven't a notion why he does it. When you come to consider the matter, the only really interesting subjects for conversation are dress and scandal: and for them give me my fellow-women!"
Lady Westerham looked grieved. "My dear Eleanor, I do not like to hear you say such things. Suppose Perkins or one of the footmen heard you—and they easily might, as they will be bringing tea in at any minute now—it would have such a bad influence upon them. I cannot bear foolish or frivolous conversations before servants, as I think one is responsible for the moral welfare of all the dwellers under one's roof."| | 31
"But I wasn't talking foolishly or frivolously before the servants, or even before the tea-things, as neither are in the room yet. And if Perkins and the footmen never hear anything worse than my conversation, they won't be led far astray."
"And that reminds me," continued Lady Westerham, "that Mrs. Brown told me this morning that some of the younger servants go to the Free Library at Severnashe and get novels from there to read. Did you ever hear of such a thing? I told her to put a stop to it at once."
"But they must read something, Mamma," pleaded Esther, "to rest and divert them after their work is done."
"I fail to see the necessity," replied Lady Westerham haughtily; "but if it is so, I will give them permission to borrow some of the books which came from the schoolroom at Wyvern's End and which are now in the workroom upstairs:Ministering Children, and The Daisy Chain, andThe Wide, Wide World, and many others, which you two had when you were little girls."
The Duchess began to laugh. "And there wasNettie's Mission, and The Golden Ladder, and Stepping Heavenward. Oh, Mamma, how priceless you are! Think of Perkins reading aloud Ministering Children and The Golden Ladder to the footmen in the pantry after they'd washed up the dinner things! You really are as good as a play—a regular dress-piece, with a minuet in it, and wigs and swords."
"You are mixing up your dates, Eleanor," said Esther demurely; "minuets and wigs and swords aren't at all of the same period as Ministering Children and The Daisy Chain."
The Duchess fairly groaned. "If you begin worrying | | 32 about things being of the same period, you'll become insufferable! There is nothing so tiring! The last time we were at Tamford an artist person came over to see the gardens, and objected to something (I forget what) because it wasn't of the same period as something else (which I forget also), and I told him he might just as well object to apple-trees and potatoes being in the same kitchen-garden, because apple-trees were in the Garden of Eden and potatoes were invented by Sir Walter Raleigh. He'd no answer to that!"
"Hush, my dear; they are just bringing the tea in," murmured Lady Westerham, who was always devoured by the dread of what her elder daughter might say in the presence of her domestics.
But it was not the tea after all: instead of ushering in the tea-tray the butler announced "Lord Westerham."
The man who entered the room, and was greeted by two of the ladies present and presented to the third, was the Wilfred Wyvern of the journalist's office; but Wilfred with a difference. He looked older than he had looked then, and was infinitely better dressed; and there was an assurance about him which had been lacking in his earlier and less prosperous days. The combined effects of the improved dress and the acquired dignity contributed to a decided increase in the good looks of the new peer; and prosperity sat well upon his broad shoulders. His manners were—as they always had been—admirable, being thoroughly self-possessed, and yet free from the slightest taint of self-consciousness—the typical manner of the born artist. He was one of the few Wyverns—the Duchess being another—endowed with the indefinable gift of charm, and he possessed it in a marked degree.
By the time that Lord Westerham had been duly welcomed, the tea followed in his wake; and Lady | | 33 Esther began to pour it out, and at the same time to pave the way for friendly relations between her sister and her cousin. Esther Wyvern was one of those absolutely unselfish people whose unselfishness is never noticed until it is removed: and may Heaven help those who are left to get on as well as they can without it! Her quick sympathies and her social gifts enabled her almost unconsciously to select a conversational platform whereon her companions for the time being could meet as equals. Had she been born in the eighteenth century instead of the nineteenth, she could have held a Salon with the best, being endowed with the sympathetic perceptions and the exquisite tact which make for perfection in such holding. She was not a great talker herself, but she could always make other people talk, and—what is more—talk their best.
Almost instinctively she knew the points of contact between her sister and Wilfred, and at once made for them. "Eleanor was just saying, when you came in, that she had no patience with people who were so artistic that they insisted on having their houses and their gardens all modelled and furnished according to the same period. What do you think?"
Wilfred, who might have been shy at this first meeting with his somewhat august and terribly out-spoken relation, swallowed the bait at once: "I am afraid I must disagree with the Duchess: I confess I like to see everything harmonious and in keeping. I couldn't be happy in a room that was furnished half in Chippendale and half in carved oak."
The Duchess sighed. "Oh, dear, dear, how fussy of you!"
"Not at all," replied Westerham. "I'm sure you couldn't be happy in an early-Victorian dress and a Gainsborough hat."| | 34
"I couldn't be happy in an early-Victorian dress anyhow, because it is so unbecoming. But I could be radiantly happy in the Gainsborough hat without the dress—given, of course, that some other dress were substituted for it."
"Not if the dress were a modern Harris tweed, with a shirt-blouse?"
"That might possibly dim my radiance, I admit."
"Then you have proved my argument. Harmony is the essence of beauty. That is the whole point of having what are called regular features, features which harmonize with one another."
"Is it?" replied the Duchess; "I can't speak from experience, as I never had any. Wyverns never do."
"But that doesn't prevent our admiring the regularity of other people's features," replied Westerham, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Oh yes, it does; or, at any rate, it prevents our admitting that we admire them."
"Eleanor, you do yourself an injustice there," exclaimed Lady Westerham, who always took everything au pied de la lettre; "I have always said that I never knew any girls so little jealous of other girls' beauty as my daughters. Even when you and Esther were quite young you were invariably generous about other girls' good looks."
"It is always easy to be generous with what you don't possess," retorted the Duchess; "I've often noticed it. The Vicar of Tamford is most frightfully generous with our money: much more so than we are ourselves. He sets us quite a good example."
Lady Westerham looked distressed. "My dear, you are doing both yourself and your husband an injustice now. I always consider—and your father thought the same—that you and Tammy regard your | | 35 wealth as a sacred trust, and treat it accordingly. It would greatly distress me to think otherwise."
Then Esther as usual came to the rescue. "Never mind what Eleanor says, Mamma: she is only trying to tease you and to shock Wilfred at the same time. She doesn't mean a word that she says."
"Who does, when you come to that? " retorted the maligned one.
Esther held her own. "I thought that you generally did; and that it was your pose to say what you mean and to mean what you say. You always say you hate humbug, and it is just as much humbug to pretend you are worse than you are as to pretend you are better."
"Hear, hear!" exclaimed Westerham, glancing with approbation at Esther. " I think Esther has got you there, Duchess!"
"She has: I own the soft impeachment. That is where I am no true Englishman; I always know when I am beaten. But though I am beaten by Esther, I don't admit that I am beaten by you as well; I still stick up for the irregular Wyvern profile, and for the mixture of Chippendale with carved oak. I can't, for the life of me, see why everything should be en suite it makes me feel that the world has been entirely furnished by Maple's in dining-room and drawing-room suites."
"I think," replied Westerham, warming to his subject, "that the reason why a confusion of periods is inartistic is that it isn't true, and I suppose we may take it as an axiom that beauty is truth and truth is beauty. Different periods were not coexistent with each other, and it is a sham to pretend that they were."
"But I contend that they are coexistent, provided that they are all past—just as part of a house that is standing to-day may have been built in the fifteenth | | 36 century and part in the eighteenth. Nobody objects to living in houses of that kind; we don't, and Stoneham is one of them. I shouldn't care to live in a house of which part was built in the nineteenth century and part in the twenty-second, I admit—at least not in the twenty-second century wing: it would be too cold for me, being at present unbuilt. I maintain that it is quite artistic to mix two pasts: it is only inartistic to mix a past and a future, because it is impossible."
"You are very ingenious, Duchess, and there is certainly something in what you say."
"Of course there is, because I am speaking the truth. In a sense, all the past is present; or at any rate can be fricasseed up for present consumption. Look how proud people are of having a nose that came into their family at the time of William the Conqueror, and an instep that was imported from the Low Countries in the reign of George the First; but I'll grant that they might object nowadays to being born with wings, which will be quite normal in the reign of Edward the Twelfth, or with ears ready equipped for wireless telegraphy of the time of George the Sixteenth."
"I think Eleanor's theory is rather nice," remarked Esther, "and that it is a comfort to feel that all the past belongs to us equally."
"Especially as only half the present does, and none of the future will," interpolated her sister; "at least, not to such of us as belong to the upper classes! Let us cling to our Plantagenet noses and our Hanoverian insteps, for they'll soon be all that's left to us of our ancestral possessions—and I dare say we shall have to pay death-duties upon them!"
"Eleanor," said Lady Westerham, "I never like to hear any one speak lightly of death. Pray do not do so in my hearing."| | 37
"I wasn't speaking lightly of death, Mamma, I was only speaking of death-duties, and not lightly at all: far from it! And now, Westerham, tell me what you think of Kent in general, and of Wyvern's End in particular. I adore Kent, and I believe Stoneham is my favourite of all our houses."
The Duke of Mershire had four homes: a fortress in Scotland, a palace in London, Tamford Castle in Mershire and Stoneham Abbey in Kent.
"I feel quite a different character in each of our houses," continued the Duchess, as usual not waiting for the answer to her question; " I am fierce and historical in Scotland, worldly and frivolous at Mershire House, practical and sensible at Tamford, and calm and religious at Stoneham."
"I should hope you are religious at all your homes, my dear," said Lady Westerham.
"So I am, more or less: but in London considerably less. And even the religion is different, at the different places."
"As how?" asked Wilfred. "This is distinctly interesting."
"Well, I feel that the religion in the Highlands is the sort of religion that makes you want to pray at shrines, and the religion in Mershire is the sort that makes you want to give at collections, and the religion in London is the sort that makes you want to put on your Sunday clothes, and the religion in Kent is the sort that makes you long for the Millennium to begin at once."
"I know the Millennium feeling," said Esther, "I often have it when I look at that wonderful view from the top of Grotham Hill. Do you remember when we were children how we used to laugh at Mrs. Sherwood's Henry Milner, because he once said, when | | 38 asked what he would like to talk about, 'In such a beautiful spot as this, how can we talk about anything but the Millennium?' Of course, it was an absurd and unnatural remark for a child to make; and we, as children, naturally laughed at it. But now I see what the authoress had in her mind when she put such a remark into the mouth of a little boy: the idea was right, though the setting was wrong."
"Ah, my dear!" exclaimed Lady Westerham, "I am so glad to be reminded of that book, Henry Milner; it will be another excellent one to lend to the younger servants. I believe it is still in the old schoolroom bookcase that we brought from Wyvern's End."
"Mamma is full of a plan," the Duchess explained to Westerham, "for Perkins and Mrs. Brown to read aloud Ministering Children and The Golden Ladder to the footmen and housemaids in the housekeeper's room in an evening after dinner. She thinks they will all enjoy it."
"At any rate, it will be better for them than reading the trash out of the Severnashe Free Library," said Lady Westerham.
"Much better for them, Mamma; I never denied that. It was their enthusiasm that I doubted, not their improvement. But now," added the Duchess, turning again to Westerham, "tell me if you, too, adore Kent, and share the Millennium feeling when you look at the view from the top of Grotham Hill."
And then Wilfred proceeded to give her Grace as much as she would let him of his impressions of his new home and surroundings until it was time for her motor to be ordered and for her to depart.
After the Duchess had gone, Westerham turned to Esther: "Come out for a walk," he begged, "it is such a beautiful evening, and there is a touch of spring in | | 39 the air; just that early touch which makes us all agog with expectation of the summer that is coming."
"I know it; it comes when the bare trees have turned from black to a pinky brown, before they break out into green. Shall you mind being left alone, Mamma, while I go for a little walk with Wilfred?" asked Esther, the dutiful daughter. Esther never spoke of her cousin as Westerham in her mother's presence, for fear it might hurt the Countess's feelings to hear a comparative stranger called by her late husband's name. Such an idea had not occurred to Eleanor, and never would: that was just the difference between the sisters.
"Certainly not, my love," replied Lady Westerham, "you look a little pale, as if a walk would do you good. Eleanor is very good company, but I always think she is slightly fatiguing, she talks so much and passes so rapidly from one subject to another." The mother might admire her elder daughter most, but she loved the younger best: Esther had so much more in common with her parents than Eleanor ever had. "But you must not let my idle words give you a wrong impression, Wilfred," added Lady Westerham, fearing that she might be guilty of injustice towards her female Esau; "Eleanor is a most admirable wife and mother, and her kindness to all the poor people on the Duke's estate is beyond expression. I often feel rebuked when I compare my conduct with hers."
But Esther would not allow this. "Oh, Mamma, that is nonsense Nobody could be kinder to the poor on the place than you have always been and still are; and whatever good there is in Eleanor has been inherited from and taught by you and dear Papa."
Lady Westerham rose from her seat, and placed a | | 40 caressing hand on her younger daughter's shoulder. "My little Esther is very good to me," she said to Wilfred; "her dear father and I always found her a child after our own hearts. I can truly say that from the day she was born until now she has never given us a moment's pain or anxiety. Eleanor is a good girl, but she is a little headstrong and wilful, and perhaps rather too fond of her own way. But she is very affectionate, and always so bright and cheerful." And the mother smiled fondly at the recollection of her daughter's high spirits. To Lady Westerham, the brilliant Duchess of Mershire was still a lovable and troublesome girl. Such are the delightful anachronisms of parents.
Having received her mother's permission to go out for a walk, Esther started with a light heart. It is more than a little pathetic to see how certain unmarried daughters of the risen generation never quite leave their girlhood behind. The daughters of the rising generation are not hampered in this way; they leave it—with all other forms of dependence—behind them as snakes cast off their outer skins.
But Esther Wyvern belonged to the Victorian type of maidenhood, which never really grew up until it was married, and which—if it never married—never really grew up at all. The shallow observer sees something ridiculous in the spectacle of a middle-aged woman still hampered by the limitations of a girl; but to the understanding heart there is something infinitely pathetic in the sight. For such a woman has lost her youth, and has gained nothing in its place. The garlands that bound her in her girlhood, bind her still; but the flowers on them are faded, and only the dried stalks and withered leaves remain. The dreams of youth no longer enchant her, but she has not awakened | | 41 to the realities of the morning; she is still wandering in a misty twilight, uncheered by the radiance of dreamland or by the light of common day.
Of course neither Lady Westerham nor the Duchess understood anything of all this. To her mother Esther was still a girl, and to her sister she was an old maid, and neither of them had an idea that the tragedy of Esther's life lay in the fact that she was both. But Wilfred understood, and herein lay the secret of his intense fascination for Esther. This distant kinsman, whom she had never seen until a week or two ago, knew her and appreciated her as her own people had never known and appreciated her. And herein lay also Esther's attraction for him. He was conscious that his hand, and his alone, held the clue to the bower where the soul of Esther was concealed—that his eye, and his alone, could read the cypher which laid bare the secrets of Esther's heart; and the mystery which no one but ourselves has solved is dear to every one of us.
We are all conversant with the common—but always strange—experience of meeting a stranger who sees our views and thinks our thoughts and talks our language as our own familiar friends have never been able to do. Some think that this is a proof that the stranger and we have known each other in a former existence, and are only renewing old and prehistoric ties; some think that it is merely a sign of mutual affinities recognizing one another; but whatever be the reason the fact remains that this sudden and inexplicable sympathy does spring into being between persons who meet each other for the first time, and this rapid mutual understanding had established itself in full force between Lady Esther Wyvern and the new Lord Westerham.
In spite of the fact that she was surrounded by loving | | 42 parents and an affectionate sister, Esther's youth had been a very lonely one. No one understood her, and as none of her circle had any idea that they did not understand her, no one attempted to do so. The Victorian Age had many excellencies, but it was not a subtle or a discriminating age. What was on the surface it saw, and what was not on the surface it did not believe existed. This limitation of vision saved it from certain errors and led it into others. Nowadays we have fled to the opposite extreme: we not only see all there is to be seen, but a great deal that there isn't. The Victorians did not perhaps pay enough attention to the feelings of the young; but we pay a great deal too much to their fads. The Victorians certainly underrated the loneliness of a girl who was misunderstood by her parents; but we just as certainly overrate the loneliness of a wife who imagines she is misunderstood by her husband.
But though Esther had lived so completely under her parents' sway that she had never yet developed an opinion of her own, but had merely assimilated theirs, she had, nevertheless, any amount of thoughts and ideas and dreams which would have been utterly incomprehensible to the excellent and prosaic Earl and Countess. She felt vague and formless yearnings after Something which she had never known, and yet which she had a subconscious certainty existed somewhere; Something which had nothing to do with rank, or wealth, or social distinction, but which haunted the woods in springtime, and hovered over the horizon of the distant hills; Something which dimly and intangibly contradicted the stern and narrow theology in which she had been reared, and which faintly hinted at things too beautiful to be dreamed of in its philosophy.| | 43
She had been trained to worship a stern and jealous God, Who put no trust in His servants, and charged even His angels with folly; Who overturned the very mountains in His anger, and laid burdens grievous to be borne upon the shoulders of men; nevertheless, unknown to herself (and greatly to her horror had she known it) Esther had raised an altar, in the inmost recesses of her heart, to an Unknown God—the God of Beauty and Joy and of all the glories of Nature, the God before Whom the moutains [sic] and the hills broke forth into singing, and all the trees of the field clapped their hands; the God Who stretched out the heavens like a curtain, and called all the stars by their names.
And this God, Whom she had so long ignorantly worshipped, Wilfred had been now sent to reveal unto her; and she was just beginning to recognize the message, and to realize the gospel which he brought. But—alas for her!—she was not yet ready to accept it.
While the new peer was being sampled by the quality in the drawing-room of Wyvern Dower House, he was likewise being commented upon at the upper servants' tea-table in the housekeeper's room, where Mrs. Brown was pouring out tea for Perkins, and for their two ladyships' respective maids. Mrs. Brown had been with Lady Westerham ever since her ladyship's marriage, with the exception of a couple of lurid years when the good woman so far forgot herself and her high calling as to enter into the holy estate of matrimony with Brown, the head coachman of that time. Before that interval her name had been Cozens, her condition single, and her calling that of first housemaid; after that short lapse, her condition had been changed to that of widowhood, her name to that of Brown, and her calling to that of housekeeper of Wyvern's End.| | 44
According to Mrs. Brown's own account, those two years had been to her an undeserved and an unendurable Purgatory, and the intervening decades had added to, rather than detracted from, her memories of misery. What the departed Brown's view of the matter was has not been recorded in history, so nobody ever knew whether Mrs. Brown gave a Purgatory as good as she got. For the last five-and-thirty years Brown had slept with his forefathers and his first wife in Wyvern churchyard, and his widow had surrounded herself with a sort of halo of bygone conjugal unhappiness. When the late Earl died, Mrs. Brown elected to accompany his widow to the Dower House, as did also Perkins, a retainer of equally long standing. They were both too old to tolerate the initiation of a new régime, or the regulations of a young master. So they stayed on with the widowed Countess, and carried out at Wyvern Dower House the domestic traditions of Wyvern's End.
Perkins was a bachelor, a condition of life which, in its own way, carried with it almost as much social prestige as did Mrs. Brown's unhappy marriage. He was, moreover, a man of means, and had saved enough to retire whenever he liked; but his devotion to what he called "The Family" was so intrinsically a part of his being, that to leave their service would have been to him as the bitterness of death. His life literally was bound up in theirs. The fact that he was a single man—and, moreover, a single man of means—greatly contributed to his popularity, and consequently to his comfort, in the housekeeper's room. By this time the women servants had reluctantly accepted and circulated the fact that "Mr. Perkins was not a marrying man," and each had forgiven him for not marrying herself as long as he did not marry one of the others.| | 45
He was rather like the country of Belgium on the map of Europe: as long as he remained an independent State, all went well; but should any other country so much as attempt to annex him, there would immediately be war among the Great Powers.
The two maids who completed the partie carrée at Mrs. Brown's tea-table were respectively named Parker and Clark: the former being Lady Westerham's somewhat sour-faced tirewoman of uncertain age, and the latter a girlish and sentimental creature in her early thirties, whose vocation it was to attend upon Lady Esther. Mrs. Brown and Parker made it their combined duty to quench the smouldering ashes of youth which still lingered in the sweet nature of the gentle Clark, and Perkins took equal pains to fan those dying embers whenever he found an opportunity of so doing unbeknown to the Allied Powers.
"Well, for my part, I like the new lord," remarked the hostess, as she put a pinch of bi-carbonate of soda into the teapot in order to correct the hardness of the Kent water; "and in spite of him having written books and newspapers and goodness knows what, I consider him quite the gentleman."
"Not to be compared to the Captain," sighed Perkins, who, like his late lordship, had never quite forgiven Wilfred for Algy Wyvern's death.
"I think his present lordship is very handsome," simpered Clark, "such fine, expressive eyes."
"Not at all handsome, decidedly plain," retorted Parker, whose thin lips always seemed to open and shut by means of a spring; "and too broad in the shoulders. I can only say I am surprised at your taste, Miss Clark, if that is what you admire."
"Come, come," said Perkins, endeavouring to throw | | 46 oil on the troubled waters, as was his wont; "surely personal beauty is, to a great extent, what we might call a question of taste. What one thinks handsome another thinks plain, and vice versa, and there's no blame attached to either side—none whatsoever." Then, seeing the cloud still hovering on Parker's wrinkled brow, he hastily added, "For my part, I always admired Master Algy's looks, he was so gay and soldier-like, and had such a way with him. But though his present lordship isn't altogether what you might call my style, I cannot deny that there is something rather chick and distangay about him." Perkins had a charming habit, which never failed to impress his fellow-servants, of interlarding his conversations with phrases from the French, but he always pronounced them—as philologists tell us that the Norman nobles did during the Middle Ages—according to the English form of pronunciation.
"Too broad in the shoulders," repeated Parker, in whose ethical code thinness came next to godliness.
"Surely not for a gentleman," argued Clark. "I do like to see gentlemen broad in the shoulders, I think it looks so noble and manly." And the artless damsel gave an admiring glance at the butler's portly form, which sent a thrill through the spot at which it was aimed. True, it was not in the shoulders that Perkins' chief breadth lay; but that was a mere matter of detail. He took the speech in the spirit in which it was uttered, and smiled benignly upon the speaker.
"Is your tea to your taste, Mr. Perkins?" the hostess inquired politely. "I trust it isn't too strong."
"Not at all, Mrs. Brown, thank you. Chicken a song gout, as the French have it, and I must confess that I fancy a bit of body in my liquor."| | 47
"And is yours to your taste, Miss Parker?"
"Quite so, thank you, Mrs. Brown."
"And yours too, Miss Clark?"
"Well, Mrs. Brown, if I might have just a teeny weeny bit more sugar; perhaps Mr. Perkins wouldn't mind the trouble of passing it."
"Sweets to the sweet," cried the gallant butler, gracefully handing the sugar-basin to Clark, who helped herself with a becoming blush.
But this was too much for the Allied Powers.
"You take too much sugar, Miss Clark, to my thinking; it will make you stout," snapped Parker, who considered that the whole duty of women lay in the successful preserving of youthful slimness far into middle age.
Perkins was not generally brave enough to take Miss Clark's part when either of her elder rivals was present; but in the present instance the admiring glance which the young lady had cast at his waistcoat some minutes previously had roused all the latent manliness which that waistcoat covered. "I do not think that Miss Clark need have any anxiety on that score for many years to come," he genially remarked; "and even if she had, I must confess that a certain amount of embongpoint is not unbecoming in a lady. I admire a fine figure of a woman myself." Brave as this was, Perkins' valour was not unallied to discretion; for whilst a carping critic might have considered Parker too thin, the most catholic taste could not have denied that Mrs. Brown erred on the other side, so that there were still two to one in favour of Mr. Perkins—a good working majority.
"I'm always sorry when titles and estates have to go out of the direct line," said Mrs. Brown; "it often upsets establishments something terrible, and is | | 48 dreadfully inconvenient to the older servants. But since it was to happen, I don't know but what his present lordship isn't a good deal better than he might have been, all things considering." This was handsome praise from one who was soaked and saturated with the customs and traditions of the late rulers of Wyvern's End.
"It was a great pity that his late lordship never had a son," sighed Perkins, who had adored his master.
"That's all over and done with," replied Mrs. Brown, with some asperity and more truth, "and I don't see what call you have to pass a remark upon the subject, Mr. Perkins, even if it wasn't. Surely Providence knows what is best, even for the great families, and wants no advice either from you or me." She adored her mistress as much as Perkins had adored his master, and the mere shadow of any criticism on what Lady Westerham had either done or left undone always brought Mrs. Brown on to the warpath at once.
Perkins at once succumbed to her righteous anger, and handsomely expressed his confidence in the ability of Providence to carry on the house of Wyvern unassisted by any interference from the pantry. Then he added, "For my part, I always wish that the Colonel had married again and had another family; he was a widower for a great number of years. And that would have kept up what you might call the ancient re-gime." Perkins laid the accent of this last word on the first syllable, and made the second to rhyme with time.
"That is as may be," said the housekeeper darkly. Fearing that he had again blundered, Perkins hastened to retrace his steps. "But I forgot that you do not approve of second marriages, Mrs. Brown," he | | 49 remarked, as if that consideration satisfactorily explained why the late Colonel Wyvern had never made a second entry into the holy estate.
"I didn't approve of Brown's second marriage, if that is what you mean," retorted Mr. Brown's widow; "but I've no objection to any man marrying again as long as he doesn't marry me."
"Some second marriages turn out very well," the romantic Clark ventured to remark.
"And some don't," snapped out Parker with asperity.
Clark could not refute this statement, so she continued amiably: " I wish that Lady Esther could find a nice husband, some splendid, manly gentleman, with a title for choice, for I'm sure a sweeter lady never drew breath."
"You're right there, Miss Clark," said Perkins; "I've known her ladyship as child and woman for five-and-thirty years, and never once have I heard a sharp word from her—not even when we've had foot-men whose waiting-at-table was enough to upset an angel from heaven. I daresay you recall Charles, Mrs. Brown, the second footman who used to be always bowling for Master Algy instead of washing-up, and whose mind was more set upon cricket than upon the sauces and gravies that it was his duty to hand round?"
Mrs. Brown nodded a sorrowful acquiescence; the shortcomings of the aforesaid Charles had been as thorns in the side of herself and Perkins.
"Times without number," continued the butler, "have I seen that young nincompoop stand idly thinking about runs and catches, with the sauces and gravies cooling on the sideboard and fairly crying out to be handed round and me and the first footman | | 50 trying in vain to catch his eye. His lordship and her ladyship used to look round a little impatient, as you might say, and no wonder; but Lady Esther would say, 'Bread sauce, please,' as sweet and gentle as if it had come round at the right moment, and hadn't had time to stiffen into a cold poultice. Do what you could, nothing seemed to put Lady Esther out, and she is the same to this day."
"So she is," agreed Clark warmly; "never all the years I've been with her have I ever had a cross word from her ladyship. And I'm sure to hear her giving orders is more like hearing her ask for favours. It is 'Please, Clark, will you do this?' and 'Please, Clark, would you mind altering that? 'for all the world as if she was one of ourselves instead of an earl's daughter born."
"Her ladyship brought up both her daughters beautifully," said Mrs. Brown. "I always said that though there might be handsomer young ladies in the county, there were none with such elegant manners as ours."
"Nor with better figures," added Parker. "Her Grace has grown too stout now for my thinking, but she still pays for dressing, and knows how to carry off her gowns. But Lady Esther's back view even now isn't a day over five-and-twenty; I'm sure I often envy Miss Clark the dressing of her, so long-waisted, and such a refined and aristocratic back."
"I cannot agree with you, Miss Parker, that her Grace is too stout," demurred the faithful Perkins, to whom "The Family" was a religion, and any word spoken against it rank blasphemy; "as I said before, I admire a fine figure in a lady, and in a lady of her Grace's exalted position one looks for a certain amount of what I may call presence. Duchesses are not made | | 51 to slip through crevices, like chimney-sweeps, Miss Parker: grand dames they are, and grand dames they ought to look."
"And her Grace does look it—every inch of her, agreed Mrs. Brown, who evidently measured her inches in two dimensions, including breadth as well as height; "and do you remember what a merry little girl she was, Mr. Perkins, and what a high-spirited young lady, and how the young gentlemen used to come after her, like flies round a honey-pot? And how proud his lordship used to be of her? And how he hid his pride for fear it should be sinful, and something dreadful happen to her to punish him for it?" Mrs. Brown had received the pure milk of the Word as prepared by the late Lord Westerham, and had never dreamed of refusing to assimilate any portion of it. His lordship had always looked well to the religious training of his household, and had led them in those thorny paths that he trod himself.
"And did her Grace have many admirers before she was married?" asked the sentimental Clark, always agog to hear of matters connected with the romantic side of life.
"My word, she did!" exclaimed Perkins; "rich and poor and some of all sorts. And she smiled on 'em all when the others weren't looking, and laughed at 'em all behind their backs. Oh! but she was a caution was the Duchess when she was young; I never knew her equal in affairs do cure."
"Well, I wish Lady Esther would pick up a young man!" remarked Clark, with a sigh.
Mrs. Brown was not slow to reprove her. "Excuse me, Miss Clark, but I do not think that is a proper way to speak of the quality. Lady Esther may be so sweet and nice-spoken that she never seems to remember | | 52 the difference between her position and ours; but it is not for us to forget it."
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Brown," replied the culprit with becoming meekness, "I spoke without thinking. I'm sure nothing could be farther from my thoughts than to speak disrespectfully of my dear lady."
"Granted, Miss Clark; pray don't say another word about it," was the housekeeper's gracious response. "I felt sure that no disrespect was intended; but in these terrible days of Socialism and goodness knows what—and all this stuff of pretending that we are as good as our betters, which I call nothing short of blasphemy, and a direct flying in the face of the Bible and the Church Catechisms—I think it behoves us all to show our reverence and respect for the Upper Classes, and to say nothing that could be mistook for anarchy or dynamite. I am sure Mr. Perkins will agree with me."
"I do, Mrs. Brown: oh peed de la letter. And permit me to add that I think your sentiments do you credit."
But the housekeeper was superior to such blandishments. "Not at all, Mr. Perkins; there is no credit in doing one's duty in the state of life to which we have been called: it is simply what is expected of us: unprofitable servants are we all."
"There's the drawing-room bell," exclaimed Perkins, rising from the table. "I must go and help these young fellows to take the tea-things away." Whereat he hastened to collect his satellites from their tea in the servants' hall, saying "Oriver" to the ladies as he departed.
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