- CHAPTER X. INTRODUCES US TO CRAVEN COURT.
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INTRODUCES US TO CRAVEN COURT.
THE dinner-hour at Craven Court was seven o'clock, but it was now a quarter past that time, and the second bell had not yet sounded. Mrs. Craven rang that of the drawing-room rather impatiently, and asked the reason of the delay.
"Mr. Northland is not in yet, ma'am."
"Oh," ejaculated the mistress of the house, as if the circumstance were nothing out of the common way, and the excuse perfectly valid. But Lady Frances Morgan, a young and frequent visitor of Mrs. Craven's, arched her eyebrows in surprise at the nonchalance which her hostess displayed, and re-betook herself to her book with an expression on her face very like disdain, to think that ladies should be quietly kept waiting for their dinner because a middle-aged man was forgetful enough to let the usual hour pass unobserved. But Lady Frances was sufficiently intimate with the manners and customs of Craven Court to know that Mr. Northland was a privileged person there, and that until he made his appearance no dinner would be served; and so all she had to do was to pray for his speedy return. In the meanwhile she read her book, and thought it (the foregoing circumstance, not the volume) "very tiresome."
Other people had thought about it before her, and voted it not only tiresome but strange; for Mrs. Craven was not a woman to defer to most of the fancies of her guests—in fact, if any one else but "Cousin Gus" (as she invariably styled Mr. Northland) presumed to disturb the regularity of her meals, she was wont to be very much disturbed herself: not that Cousin Gus could be exactly styled a guest, as he had resided at Craven Court for the last five-and-twenty years—indeed, ever since the owner of it had given up the ghost. Some of Mrs. Craven's kind friends had hinted that it was not at all proper that Mr. Northland should take up his quarters under the same roof as the young widow; had raked up long-forgotten stories of an old engagement between them, or if not an engagement, at least a love-making which bid fair to end in one, until Mr. Craven came with his thousands and tens of thousands, and separated them.| | 104
Some had shaken their heads (it would seem as if the operation mentioned was a pleasurable one, considering the promptitude with which the world is ever ready to exercise it), and said it was a pity Mrs. Craven did not marry her handsome cousin, for both young and handsome he was when first he became an inmate of her house; others wondered she did not, but these last were strangers only, for every one who knew anything about the matter had heard the conditions of the late Mr. Craven's will, and had no wonder to bestow upon it, for the late Mr. Craven, who held a rental of something over ten thousand a year, and who must have possessed an inkling during his lifetime that his wife had not married him for love alone, had made a provision in his last testament against her enjoying herself after his death, whatever she had done before, by a clause wherein, in the event of her re-marriage, every halfpenny of the liberal settlement he had made upon her, as well as the property of Craven Court, should pass into the hands of his son's guardians, and be kept in trust for him until he should come of age. If she remained a widow, she was amply provided for, for life, whilst Cecil's income amounted also to several thousands a year; if she married again, she was left penniless, not even the possessions she called private being admitted to be legally hers. The opinions upon this voice from the grave were various. Old men with gay young wives, and commonplace men with pretty wives, compressed their lips and nodded their heads, and said it was a good will, an excellent will, and Craven was a man of sense; men secure of the hearts of their bosom-partners, who knew that a mention of the probability of their own death would bring the ready tears into bright eyes, and make the rosy lips they loved tremble, said the late Mr. Craven was a selfish brute, and it would have served him right if his wife had bolted from him. Old maids couldn't see what there was to find fault with, for Mrs. Craven would be very well off if she remained single, and what on earth a woman could want with a second husband was beyond them; and wives who had lived to bitterly regret the day they became so, said the young widow ought to think herself a very lucky woman, and that if she were wise she would be in no hurry to quarrel with the conditions of her | | 105 husband's will. But what the person most interested in the arrangement, Mrs. Craven herself, thought of it, no one ever knew, for she never discussed the point in public. Evidently she had considered it politic, if not pleasant, to comply with its dictates, for she was Mrs. Craven still, mistress of Craven Court, and likely to remain so. When his father died, Cecil had been an infant of three or four years old, and it was not for a twelvemonth after that event that Mr. Northland had paid his first visit to his widowed cousin, a visit which was often repeated, and lengthened each time, until it only seemed natural that he should take up his abode permanently in the bedroom which had come to be considered his own. Not that he did so with any parade or public notification that he was about to settle down for life; on the contrary, to the day he first appears in these pages, he had always spoken of himself as a visitor at the Court, and as if his residence there was only a temporary one. Cecil Craven was his mother's darling and delight; apparently she cared for the welfare of no other creatures in the world but this son and "Cousin Gus." For them she gave up her own will and pleasure; occupied her fingers and her mind, and—waited dinner with equanimity. With others she was naturally rather sharp and dictatorial in manner, although she was too well-bred often to permit her friends to see when she was annoyed. In appearance, although now fifty years of age, she was universally acknowledged to be still charming. In her girlish days she had been a beauty, and, unlike most beauties, had retained her good looks as the years advanced, having preserved to perfection her figure, which was tall and slight, and the clear white skin with which she used to charm her admirers thirty years before, so that these attractions, added to dark eyes and hair and regular features, made Mrs. Craven appear ten or fifteen summers less than her real age.
In disposition she was light-hearted and fond of society; a woman to talk to, and also to engage a listener; in a few words, a woman of the world. But for all her gaiety there were moments when those who knew Mrs. Craven best, said that she had not always a mind entirely at ease; there were times when a dark shadow would suddenly flit across her face, although it might as soon depart; a shadow | | 106 which told of more than a passing annoyance, which bore the burden of a bitter memory, or the recalling of a lost and regretted joy.
Cecil Craven returned all his mother's love, and apparently with interest, for his was an affectionate and out-going heart, though it possessed none of the deeper feeling of hers. The news of the arrival of the transport from Gibraltar, with the 3rd Royal Bays on board, had reached Craven Court that morning, and raised a half hope that Cecil himself might make one of the party at dinner; but his mother knew that until his regiment was fairly settled in quarters at Aldershot the senior captain would scarcely be spared from the scene of action, and that therefore she must wait patiently till he could get leave. But it was tantalizing to think he was so near, and yet not with her, for the Court was not far from Weybridge, and it was more than a year since her son had paid his last visit to England. But as Mrs. Craven was musing on these things, and contemplating her own fashionably-attired figure in the glass, another quarter of an hour slipped away, and Lady Frances Morgan became impatient. She gave something very much like a yawn as she closed her book, and addressing Mrs. Craven, said—
"Do you think Mr. Northland intends coming to-night at all?"
Which hint was so strong that her hostess could only ring the bell again, and tell the butler he had better send out one of the servants to see if Mr. Northland was in the grounds, or anywhere near the Court.
"Mr. Northland has just come in, ma'am," replied that dignitary, "and the second bell is about to ring."
And indeed at that very moment the loud clanging sound was heard, which Let all Weybridge know that the residents of the Court were about to discuss one of their numerous meals.
"Come along then, Frances," exclaimed Mrs. Craven, gaily. "We will not wait for Gus any longer. Take my arm, and I will be your cavalier for this evening."
And arm-in-arm the ladies descended together to the dining-room, where the style of everything denoted that the want of money was a thing unknown. Mrs. Craven took the | | 107 head of the table, and the chair at the foot was reserved for Cousin Gus, who was never displaced from his ordinary seat and office of carver at the family board, even by the rightful lord of the domain, Cecil himself. Before the soup had been carried away, Mr. Northland made his appearance, full of apologies for his late arrival, although, to judge from the look of self-satisfaction on his features, he did not take his own defection very much to heart. Handsome features they still were, though the wreck of what they had been. Of almost the same age as his cousin, Mrs. Craven, he appeared much older, from the fact of his hair and beard being plentifully sprinkled with grey. With soft brown eyes, a small aquiline nose, and a sweet, womanish, undecided mouth, Gustavus Northland, with the weight of half a century upon his brow, looked no wiser and no more fit to take care of himself than he had done at five-and-twenty, or fifteen. He was exceedingly quiet, almost shy in his manners, utterly unable to sustain a conversation, which always dropped stillborn from his hands; but very sweet tempered and obliging, caring for no particular hobby except smoking, which he pursued to an inordinate degree, being seldom seen, except at meals, without his meerschaum in his hands. Gentlemanly and polished in his address, he was yet never happy in society; but lounged about all day in an elaborate dressing-gown and smoking cap, in which guise he would haunt the garden, looking more like a Turk than an Englishman; and even when he was attired in ordinary clothes, there was an air of dressing-gown hanging about them, which the man carried into everything he said or did. Those who had penetrated the depths of Mrs. Craven's clear bright mind and quick understanding wondered what she found so reciprocal to her feelings in the intercourse she maintained with this supine, inactive intellect, and these opposite tastes, for she was bright, lively, and energetic in the extreme. But the widow did not associate with her cousin, and no one who had followed and observed them through a single day would have said that she did so.
She watched over him and his interests much in the same manner as she had watched over and cared for little Cecil when he was left, some five-and-twenty years before, fatherless. | | 108 Greater minds than hers hare taken pleasure in the same solicitudes before now, and for the benefit, in the eyes of the world, of creatures as responsible. If there was a deeper feeling mixed with her care for Gus Northland—a memory connected with the long-past years which time had no power to uproot—no living soul had any right to whisper it, for Mrs. Craven had never confessed to its existence by word or look; and the days for making the subject one of scandal wore at last happily ended.
As Mr. Northland began to make his excuses to Lady Frances Morgan, on the present occasion, Mrs. Craven cut him short, though not unkindly, but as though she feared that he might play his part tamely, and with ill-effect.
"Never mind, Gus; Frances will forgive an old gentleman for once, for forgetting the dinner-hour. What have you been doing with yourself all the afternoon?"
"Well! my dear, I can't say; an afternoon is such a length of time to get rid of; I have been strolling by the lake, and sitting on the grass, smoking. Very pretty it is down there too. I wanted you talk to me, Margaret, and then I should have been quite comfortable, by Jove."
"Why didn't you send for me, or come for me?" she said, looking affectionately at him across the table. "I would have been glad to sit with you, Gus, if I had known you wished it."
"But we had business to do in Weybridge, Mr. Northland—shopping—and we did it," interposed Lady Frances, with rather an air of defiance at that gentleman, as if she would say, "the convenience of other people in this house is to be studied occasionally, sir, as well as your own."
Cousin Gus laughed under his breath, in a tone of feeble commiseration for the lower intellect. "That is the only thing you ladies ever think about, I do believe," he said, tittering; "give you an hour's shopping, and you imagine that you have done a good day's work, now don't you?"
For Mr. Northland, in common with most empty-headed men, professed to consider women soulless animals, created for the pleasure of the nobler sex alone, and fit for nothing else but dressing, looking pretty, and making love. He professed, but only so, for in reality he was the most de- | | 109 pendent man that ever breathed, upon the aid of women; as to his cousin, he could scarcely eat his breakfast, or retire to his couch, without an appeal to her superior judgment as to the nature and quantity of the aliment he should consume, or the hour he should disappear. He hung upon her words as if she were an oracle, and was lost and incapable without her constant advice and direction, but he never acknowledged her to be his guide and counsellor, even to himself; men who need a woman's superintendence never do.
Lady Frances, who was a belle in her own county, and used to a great deal of homage, resented Mr. Northland's last remark, and the conversation thenceforward ran in a very ordinary channel until the dessert was placed upon the table, and the little party found themselves alone. Then Mrs. Craven said—
"I almost hope we may see Cecil to-night, Gus: if he can get leave before the last train starts, he will certainly be here."
"I am quite anxious to see this famous Cecil," exclaimed Lady Frances Morgan, "though I feel quite nervous of undergoing his lordly scrutiny, since you say he is so fastidious in his tastes."
"I do not think you need have any fear, my dear, of what he will think of you," remarked Mrs. Craven, significantly.
"No, indeed, you needn't," said Gus, with a glance of admiration at her blooming contour; for notwithstanding his low appreciation of their mental powers, Mr. Northland was a universal admirer when the sex was fair.
And, indeed, Lady Frances had no reason to put down the assurances of her friends as empty flattery, for she was a very pretty blonde of about twenty years of age, with a pink and white complexion, bronze-coloured hair and eyes, and a plump trim figure. And Mrs. Craven was exceedingly anxious that her young guest should look her best in Cecil's eyes, whenever he might arrive, and viewed her present becoming attire of blue silk with great complacency, for Cecil's mother had a future for him hatching in her brain, a great to-be, in which Lady Frances Morgan's aristocratic birth was to be pitted against his thousands, and the latter were to win the day.
"But he must have seen so many different styles of beauty | | 110 during his travels, sighed the girl, who was romantically disposed, and not disinclined already to fall in love with Cecil Craven before she had seen him, from the glowing description his mother had given her of his various qualifications; "and our English type must appear very insipid beside the remembrance of the charms of the Spanish ladies."
"I do not think Cecil has met many Spanish beauties at Gibraltar," replied Mrs. Craven, "at least not of the best style; but whenever I have heard him compare the ladies he has met abroad with those of his own land, his argument has always been in favour of his countrywomen. I am sure you will like Cecil, Frances, he is so perfectly free from the mannerisms of most young men of the modern age, at the same time that he has learnt all that is to be learnt from mixing in the world and good society; and with it, he is such a home bird; I do not believe, with all his love of gaiety, Cecil is ever really happier than when he is sitting here in the evenings quietly with us. Oh! he is such a fine fellow, and such a dear, good son!" And Mrs. Craven's eyes felt unaccountably moist as she spoke of her absent one, and recalled his perfections to her visitor.
"Dear Mrs. Craven," said Lady Frances, who had observed the slight emotion, "how very fond you must be of him! I only wish my mother cared half as much for me. I have often thought what a pity it is that you have not a daughter to be always at home with you. A daughter would have been such a comfort to you, and nearly as lovable as a son—would she not?"
Pretty Lady Frances had stretched out her plump white hand as she spoke, and laid it, with a gesture half caressant, half sympathizing, upon that of her friend, turning her eyes upon her as she did so, and put her playful question.
What was it that made Mrs. Craven, usually so eager to respond to any expression of affection on the part of her young guest, snatch away her prisoned hand and raise it, with us fellow, to try and hide the rapid changes in her face?
What was it that made her presently burst forth in a hurried, agitated voice, as if she could keep silence no longer, and must speak or die?
"A comfort? I should think she would have been, a joy! | | 111 a blessing! an angel from heaven! Oh! I wish I had had one—I wish I had had a daughter to love, and cherish, and protect—I wish I could have had one to keep by me always! God knows, I should have been a better, happier woman than I am, if He had given me a daughter for myself."
She spoke so rapidly, and with so many tears, that Lady Frances could barely catch the import of her words. But the girl was frightened at her mood, so unusual and so strange, and did not know what to do or say. Was this the gay, insouciante mistress of the Court, who was always as eager to forward any amusement, or even to join in it, as a girl might have been—certainly as equable in her temperament, as unvarying in her good spirits, and as cheerful in general society as any woman of half her age. But as Lady Frances was about timidly to approach her friend, and try to say something commonplace, as if a violent fit of weeping was nothing unusual in the middle of dinner, she was surprised to see Cousin Gus, after looking at Mrs. Craven for a few seconds from the opposite side of the table, suddenly rise and seek her side. When there he put one of his hands nervously upon the drooping head and the other round her figure.
"Come, dear Margaret," he said, "you are forgetting yourself. You are not alone—you have your guests with you. Rouse yourself, my dear—remember where you are. Come, Meg, be calm—for my sake."
He seemed to hesitate at first whether he should put in the last clause; but when he had decided, he said it firmly. Lady Frances was quite taken by surprise. He no longer looked like the indolent, fine gentleman, who appeared indifferent to everything but his pipe and his dinner. On the contrary, his voice was more than persuasive: it had in it almost an air of command, notwithstanding that his words were so gentle; and the manner in which, when he had concluded his speech, he put his hands beneath his cousin's arms, and forcibly raised her into an upright position, was as much as to say, "I have asked you to be calm, but I expect you to comply."
Stranger still, Mrs. Craven did not seem to resent the action, nor to think it out of the common way. She did as Cousin Gus desired her: she sat upright, dried her eyes, and | | 112 was smiling again, almost before he had accomplished the proceeding.
"Thank you, Gus," she said, as she did so. "You know the queer moods I have sometimes, and how to treat them. Thank you, my dear. The heat has been great to-day, and I dare say I have overtired myself. Come, dear Frances, if you have finished your dessert, we will take our departure for the drawing-room. It is nine o'clock, I see; but I do not quite despair yet of having my boy here to-night, and I must give some orders about the preparation of his room."
And the ladies left the dining-room, as they had entered it, together. But when they had mounted half of the broad staircase which led to the upper apartments, and found themselves upon the landing, Mrs. Craven drew Lady Frances into a small conservatory which adjoined it, and said, nervously—
"I hope I didn't frighten you, my dear child, just now; but I am a little excited, I think, in the prospect of Cecil's arrival. I have not seen him, you know, for more than a year."
"Oh, no!" said Lady Frances, feeling she must say something; "and I am sure it is very natural, dear Mrs. Craven; but I never would have said what I did if I thought you would have minded it. And you will have a daughter some day, I dare say," added the girl, blushing, "when Captain Craven takes a wife to himself."
"Yes," replied the mother, but mechanically, and as if her thoughts were far away, and then said, hurriedly, "the fact is, Frances, I had a little daughter once, and lost her, and the subject is painful to me; so don't mention it again, please."
"Had you really!" exclaimed the girl, her eyes opening wide with a feigned surprise. "I thought you had never had any other child but Captain Craven."
Then Mrs. Craven's countenance fell, as if she already regretted that she had made the avowal.
"I had; but it is long ago, and forgotten by all but me. Never mention it to any one, Frances; promise me that you will not. I could not bear to have the subject revived. I am sorry that I told you."
Lady Frances thought the matter could not be one of very | | 113 great consequence, but still she gave the promise, not once, but a dozen times over, in deference to the mother's wounded feelings; then they went into the drawing-room together.
The evening wore away, and still no Cecil made his appearance; and poor Mrs. Craven had looked so sad since dinner-time, and so weary as night advanced, that it was almost a relief when the clock announced that the last train must have come in without bringing the expected arrival, and that, therefore, the household might retire to rest as soon as was convenient to it.
Lady Frances was young, and not used to find any difficulty in falling asleep, and so it startled her greatly, when she had been slumbering for about half an hour, to find herself suddenly roused by a light in her eyes, and a voice in her ear, and waking to see Mrs. Craven, in her robe-de-chambre, bending over her bed. At first she imagined something must be the matter, and started up in alarm; but her hostess soon quieted her.
"Don't be frightened, Frances. If I had known you were already asleep, I would not have come in. I only want to warn you again about repeating what I told you to-night upon the landing. You are too young to understand how much trouble and annoyance I might have to encounter if the memories of those old times (very painful ones to me, my dear, you must be aware) were raked up again by my officious friends. Don't mention it anywhere, Frances, not to your mother, nor Cecil, nor even to myself. Try to forget I ever said such a thing. I cannot think how I came to trouble a child like yourself with the story of my old griefs. You wont forget, Frances?"
And Lady Frances, who had been very tired and very sleepy when Mrs. Craven first disturbed her, gave the required promise over and over again; and when she was left once more to darkness and repose, found that sleep had been chased from her eyes before the strange wonder that had arisen in her breast as she pondered on the midnight visit which had been paid her, and tried to puzzle out the reason why it should have been thought necessary to pay it.
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