- CHAPTER XI. MAJOR CRAVEN ARRIVES AT THE COURT.
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MAJOR CRAVEN ARRIVES AT THE COURT.
THE next morning the sun was shining gloriously over the Court and its surroundings, and every one was in good spirits once more, and anxiously looking out for the arrival of Cecil Craven from Aldershot. Mrs. Craven had a double reason for longing to see her son again. It was not only that her maternal affection was eager to be gratified with the sight of his face, but she was anxious to be assured that he looked happy and like himself; for of late Cecil's letters had not been written in the same light-hearted, confidential strain that he usually affected. Some of them appeared to have been penned under depression of spirits, although he never hinted at any reason for his being low; and although he had continued to detail all the news of Gibraltar and his regiment, Mrs. Craven felt, whilst perusing them, that something was kept back, and something also that was a cause of trouble to himself.
She had fancied, too (but this might have been the exaggeration of a mother's fears), that his letters during the last few months had been colder than heretofore; less full of inquiries after home and herself; more barren of terms of affection and anticipations of a happy meeting. But if this were true, there appeared little trace of such a feeling in his countenance or manner when Cecil Craven walked into the Court breakfast-room about eleven o'clock that morning, and returned his mother's embrace of welcome and fond salutation.
It there had been a cause for more constraint in his correspondence with her—a reason for him to feel colder and less affectionate towards her, it melted away before the sunshine of her smile and the warmth of her tears; for, in one sense, Cecil Craven loved his mother more than Raymond Norreys did his, although the latter man had a heart which could burn like fire, and Cecil was almost unimpassioned in his disposition, although where he chose he could be very fond. But the secret of the difference lay in the fact that Mrs. Craven had a mind superior to that of her son, and to
115 Major Craven at the Court.which his, when brought in contact with it, bowed; and the mother of Raymond Norreys looked up to him for advice, as a woman should look to a man, and was dependent upon him, and he knew it. If Raymond's own mind told him that such and such a course was the right one to pursue, no earthly power, no opposing intellect, could turn him from it; but Cecil's was a facile temperament and easily led wrong, even though he desired to do what was right and best.
He had come to Craven Court that morning, not feeling in his heart quite so cordial towards his mother as he had ever felt before, and he had determined that he would show her that it was so, and come to an explanation with her in consequence; but when he saw her handsome, kindly face beaming upon him, and felt the motherly hands caressing his head and figure, his resolutions all faded away, and he returned her greeting as warmly as it was given. His character, compared with that of Raymond Norreys, was doubtless the most amiable of the two—some people might think, the most lovable; but if he possessed the art to attract the affection of others, he had no power to fix it, unless he were aided by adventitious circumstances; whilst Raymond was a man for a woman to love once, to love for himself alone, and to love for ever.
"You will be terribly disappointed, mother," said Cecil, as having shaken hands with Cousin Gus, and received an introduction to Lady Frances Morgan, he turned again to Mrs. Craven; "you will be terribly disappointed, I am afraid, to hear that I must be back at Aldershot to-night. But," he went on to say, not permitting himself to be interrupted by the pantomimic expressions of annoyance and surprise displayed in the countenances of his listeners, "when you know the reason you will dry your tears. I have got my majority, mother, and without purchase, though I wish I could have purchased it a dozen times over, and saved his life instead. We lost poor Arundel coming over."
"What! the Major Arundel you were so intimate with, Cecil?" exclaimed his mother.
116 Woman Against Woman.over. It was a lovely night, with a strong breeze on, and we had all been sitting smoking together on the hencoops by the side of the vessel, you know—steamer going then at ten knots an hour. I had walked over to the other side of the poop to speak to a friend, when there was a cry of 'Man overboard!' A boat was lowered immediately, but the captain said from the first there was no chance of saving him, whoever he might be, in such a running sea. Well, after a little, we slackened our speed to let the boat come up with us, which she did, as she went, no trace of the man having been seen, so then the ship's company was called over; they were all right, so then I called over our fellows, and sure enough, poor old Arundel was missing, and has never been seen or heard of, from that time to this. Of course, I had to assume the command at once, and I shall have very little holiday-making until the head-quarters make their appearance. Poor old Jack! his death was downright ill-luck. Every one in the corps feels it so."
And there was something so like a tear in Cecil's own honest blue eyes as he finished his recital that his listeners all looked very grave, and any way but in his face, for fear of increasing his emotion.
"And so I stepped into my majority," he went on, after a pause, "and of course I'm glad to get it, though I wish any one else had given it me. I shall be in orders in the next 'Gazette.'"
"Has Major Arundel left any family?" inquired Mrs. Craven.
"Yes; a wife and three children—a very fine woman, too. She will be badly off, I expect, for I don't think she will have anything but her pension to keep herself on."
"Poor thing!" said Mrs. Craven, compassionately. "Is she young, Cecil?"
"Something over thirty, I believe—by-the-bye, a bosom friend of Rachel Norreys, mother. You haven't asked any questions about your favourite, Dr. Browne, yet. Were you not very sorry to hear of his death?" And Cecil right-about faced, and confronted his mother as he spoke.
117 Major Craven at the Court.Still more sorry for his young daughter left without him. Is she with the regiment at Aldershot, Cecil?" and as Mrs. Craven put the question, she busied herself looking for some work, wherewith to occupy her fingers whilst listening to her son's news.
"She is not," he replied; "her husband, Norreys, arrived at Gibraltar just before we started, and they are coming on in the next steamer."
"I am glad of that," said Mrs. Craven. "I am glad her husband is with her, poor child, she will be happier."
"Yes," said Cecil, "she has few enough to care for her, God knows! fatherless and motherless—poor Rachel!"
He laid such emphasis upon the adjectives that his mother, raising her eyes from her occupation, regarded him fixedly for a few seconds, and then quietly dropped them on her work again.
"What is Raymond Norreys like?" asked Cousin Gus. "I knew his father many years ago. We were young men together, and had many an escapade in company. Fine fellow he was, too, by Jove! What is his son like?"
"A fine fellow, also, from the little I saw of him," replied Cecil. "A small man rather, but with a bright, clever face, and very winning manners; a man, I should think, to make his wife happy."
"I thought so—I thought so," returned Cousin Gus, rubbing his hands together. "Just what his father was, by Jove. He's the fellow to make her happy. I knew it; I knew it long ago;" and Cousin Gus appeared quite excited as he walked up and down the room, rubbing his hands, and saying, at intervals, that he "knew it all along." The mention of the son of the companion of his early days, had waked up old memories from their store, and carried him back to those times, until he felt almost young again.
But it must not be supposed that Cecil Craven had all this time been neglectful of the charms of Lady Frances Morgan. The young lady was no stranger to him by name, for his mother, in pursuance of that great plan whereby these two were to be made one, had filled her letters to Gibraltar with glowing descriptions of the amiable qualities and personal charms with which her young friend was endowed, And,
118 Woman Against Woman.for a wonder, Cecil Craven, with such descriptions fresh in his mind, still did not feel disappointed when he saw the original; for there something very taking about the exterior aspect of Lady Frances Morgan, particularly to a man who had seen a good deal of life—so called—and the meretricious beauty which haunts the world. There was an air of repose about her fair placid features; an appearance of innocence and freshness about her, which would be very pleasant to see always at one's own hearthstone, and to feel one had ever to turn to when the outer life and the outer pleasures had wearied and sickened the heart. There are women in this world who are content to be so considered; who see nothing galling in being "turned to" when excitements more engrossing fail, and pursuits more solid weary; and long may the race be kept up, for there will always be men who are the better for such resting-places. There is another genus of the same sex, who show their power by preventing the sickness and weariness from ever making its appearance; but all are not so gifted, and the next best thing to prevention is certainly cure; and the Lady Frances belonged to the former class. She had no idea of argument, and few powers of persuasion, even for the right, but she had a short, sweet memory for wrongs received, an easy judgment for offences committed, and full ripe lips ever ready to seal the forgiveness she was so quick to bestow. And to read all this at a glance in her fair facile face, and even in the tranquil disjointed play of her dimpled white hand, was as easy to test the truth of the assertion.
Lady Frances, on her part, was just as favourably impressed with her first view of Major Craven, for, as it has been before stated, she had already thought a great deal more of him, and the chances of his falling in love with herself, than was at all necessary; and her foolish little heart was quite ready to succumb directly the sultan lifted his hand to throw the handkerchief at her.
She was one of a large stock-in-trade which had belonged to the Earl of Riversdale; and her mother, the Countess, having been left with very inadequate means to keep up her exalted station and educate her family of daughters (of which Lady Frances was the eldest), it was pretty generally
119 Major Craven at the Court.known that no reasonable offer would be refused for the hand of that young lady. Indeed, so many county squires risen from nothing, and younger sons without sufficient to support themselves, had already put in their claims, that the Countess of Riversdale was quite thankful to get her daughter out of the way, under the safe chaperonage of Mrs. Craven, not being without an eye herself to the coming home of the handsome and only son with the liberal income. And for that reason Lady Frances Morgan, who had seen very little society in her own county since her father's death, and to whom the gaieties of Craven Court almost ranked as dissipation, was permitted to visit at her friend's as often as she pleased, and Mrs. Craven and the Countess of Riversdale corresponded together about their "dear Frances" and their "dear Cecil," and understood each other's plans perfectly well, and were equally anxious for the success of their issue.
Of course Cecil was made a great deal of for that day, and as he promised to return as soon as he could get leave, and make a long stay at the Court, a great many plans were laid for enjoying the summer weather by means of picnics, f#x00EA;tes champ#x00EA;tres, and boating excursions.
"Perhaps," said Mrs. Craven, during one of these discussions—rather timidly her son thought—"perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Norreys may be of our party then. I shall ask them to stay here, Cecil, as soon as they return to England."
"Shall you?" he replied, but almost curtly. "I don't think they'll come."
"Why not?" inquired Mrs. Craven, with surprise.
"Rachel is not like other girls," said Cecil, evasively; "and she is unhappy just now about her—about Dr. Browne, and, I fancy, will try and shut herself up."
"Oh, I hope not!" put in Lady Frances. "I am so anxious to know Rachel Norreys. I am sure I should like her so much, because Mrs. Craven has told me so many things about her when she was in England." (For, as I have before mentioned, Rachel, when a girl at school, had, in consequence of Dr. Browne's intimacy with the Cravens, paid several visits to Craven Court, and had been made much of whilst there.)
120 Woman Against Woman.Lady Frances to his mother. "I am glad to hear that. I am glad to think Rachel is not quite forgotten by you: I confess I have thought she was."
"Why, Cecil?" demanded Mrs. Craven, eagerly. "Why should you have thought so? Have I ever said as much? I continued my correspondence with Dr. Browne up to the time of his death, and received my last letter from him only a few days before I heard the news."
"Did you?" said her son, drily. "I had imagined other wise, that is all."
She appeared about to press the point, but something in Cecil's face stayed the words upon her tongue, and some remark from the unconscious lips of Lady Frances diverted her attention. Not only hers, but his, for the girl was quite ready to be flirted with, and her cavalier was quite ready to flirt with her. They were in the garden at the moment of this discussion, and in the exchange of compliments and badinage, the young people seemed to be such excellent company for one another, that the mother slipped away unseen and left them together.
So pleasantly indeed did their conversation wile away the summer afternoon for Lady Frances and Cecil Craven, that the first dinner-bell had sounded before they thought of returning to the house. As they entered it, Mrs. Craven met them, looking weary, and as if she had been waiting to see them again.
"I thought you were never coming," she said, almost fretfully, as they gained the hall.
Where was her anxiety gone, that these two should fall in love with one another, and make a match of it? Her face looked careworn and harassed, and dark lines had already appeared beneath her eyes. Perhaps, if questioned, however, she might have answered, that her eagerness did not extend to the very first day her son had been restored to her. Lady Frances blushed and looked timidly at Cecil, and murmured something about having had no idea it was so late; and he stood up for her as a lover, however incipient, should do, and said, firstly, that it was his fault that they had been so long, as he had refused to let his companion know the time when she demanded it; secondly, that he had never looked to see
121 Major Craven at the Court.how it went himself; and, thirdly, that he didn't consider that it was late. For all of which, he received bright, grateful glances from Lady Frances' bronze-coloured eyes, as she tripped past his mother and himself, and made her escape to her dressing-room.
But the weariness in Mrs. Craven's eyes did not disappear with their excuses, and as she followed her son to his apartment it was still there.
"Are you not well, mother?" he inquired, kindly, as she commenced to busy herself about his room, to see that all he required had been provided for him.
"Only a headache, dear; my eyes look heavy, I suppose, don't they? I often have them so in the hot weather." And then, coming closer to him, and looking him earnestly in the face, she added, "What made you think I had ceased to take an interest in Rachel Norreys, Cecil?"
The question was so sudden, and the revival of the subject so unexpected, that Cecil was quite taken aback. He stuttered, and stammered, and reddened, before he had framed an answer to it, and then broke out with the not unusual one, "I don't know, I'm sure, mother; only because I did."
"Listen to me, Cecil," she went on to say, impressively; "don't think such a thing again, or say it, my dear, if you please, either to her or others, because it hurts me to hear it. I shall always take an interest in, and feel an affection for, Rachel Norreys, for her father's sake, if not her own."
At this juncture Cecil turned and kissed his mother.
"God bless you, mother, for saying so," he whispered; "for I love the girl!"
"Cecil!" she almost screamed.
"Hush!" he said, smiling; "not in that way: as a sister, mother—nothing more."
"Oh! thank Heaven!" she murmured; and laying her head upon his shoulder, wept.
"Come, come," he said, soothingly; "don't give way. You have been excited to-day, and it is too much for you. If you knew Rachel as I have done, you would feel how capable she is of attracting one's affection; and she is not happy, mother; her husband is a good-enough fellow, doubt-
122 Woman Against Woman.less, and she will come to love him in time, perhaps; but she was married far too young, and she knows it.
"God pity her!" exclaimed his mother, some recollection, perhaps, of her own married life weighing heavily upon her mind. "God help her, poor child!"
"If I thought," her son went on to say, "that in your multifarious cares and engagements you had forgotten Rachel Norreys, forgive me. I ought to have known you better, poor mother!" And he laid his hand almost compassionately upon the dark hair which still lay upon his shoulder.
"Dr. Browne was one of my earliest friends, Cecil," she said, presently; "one (I need not mind telling you now that he is gone) of my most faithful lovers. I had several offers at that time"—and here the natural vanity of the ci-devant beauty made her droop her eyes; "but I do not think I ever had one made in so sincere a spirit as poor Alfred Browne's, nor the vow of constancy which followed it, kept with so much faithfulness.
"And yet he married," observed Cecil.
Her eyes drooped still lower.
"Marriage is not always accompanied by love," she whispered.
"True, true!" he answered. "I never dreamt of this, mother, it accounts for all the poor doctor's interest in me and in——"
"In whom!" said his mother.
"It is nothing—I was dreaming," replied her son.
"For his sake," resumed Mrs. Craven, as if she had never broken off the thread of her narrative, "for the sake of one Who loved me so dearly, and whose friendship I so much valued, I should be sorry to be accused of want of interest in his daughter—and a child whom he loved so much, did he not, Cecil?"
"Devotedly!" was the reply.
"Poor Alfred," said Mrs. Craven again, with tears. "How good, how kind, how unselfish he was! God rest his soul! I had intended asking the young couple to stay here as soon as they conveniently could after their return to England," she resumed, after a pause, "but you seem to think that Rachel would object to going into society so soon, and yet this house-
123 Major Craven at the Court.hold can scarcely be called society; we would be quiet during their stay."
"I said I thought she would object to it," he answered, "and I think so still."
"Will you do me a favour," said his mother, hastily "will you go and meet them at Southampton, find out their plans, and, if possible, sound her on the subject?"
"I could go and see them at Brompton," he answered, evasively.
"No, no! at Southampton, because I ask you, Cecil; and bring me word how she is and looks."
"I will, since you wish it," he replied.
Then she kissed and thanked him, and said he was her dearest, only boy, and her great comfort. And as Cecil felt her womanly caresses and tears, all the coolness (if there had been any) in his heart melted away again, and he only felt that she loved him better than any one else on earth did.
He was obliged to return to Aldershot almost directly after the late dinner, and, although Lady Frances had emerged from that mysterious dressing-room, robed in a dress which so ravishingly became her, that her admirer felt as though he could never tear himself away; yet the requirements of the service were inexorable, and he had to take his departure again, long before their usual hour of retiring to rest; but left behind him such bright promises of return—such visions of prospective parties of pleasure—of waltzes upon well-waxed floors to the strains of well-trained bands—of picnics to Virginia Water, and whole days in Windsor Forest—of visits to town, and the fast-fading delights of operas, theatres, and concerts—that Lady Frances had plenty of matter to dream upon until such moment as the dreams should be fulfilled, to say nothing of a certain white rosebud and sprig of verbena which were nestling in her bosom somewhere, not apparent above the top of her low dress, and which had certainly not been gathered by herself.
Life was just then couleur de rose for pretty Lady Frances Morgan; why was it not so for every one? But the body re-acts too often upon the mind, and the hot July weather was very trying, and fully accounted for the constant headaches from which poor Mrs. Craven suffered, and the low
124 Woman Against Woman.state of spirits which their pain engendered. Indeed, so harassed did she constantly appear, so visible became the lines in her face, which had been only waiting for care or sickness to call them forth, that she looked during the week or ten days which succeeded her son's first visit to his home, as if ten years had passed over her head, and written her age upon her features as they went.
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