Charlotte Mary Yonge.

My young Alcides : a faded photograph online

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while the kind old earl was doing his best that he
should not feel neglected. Eustace had learnt



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN. 165



dancing for that noted ball at Government House,
but Harold had disavowed the possibility. He had
only danced once in his life, he said, when Dermot
pressed him, "and that counted for nothing/'
To me the pain on the bent brow made it plain
that it had been at the poor fellow's wedding.

However, he stood watching, and when at the
end of our quadrille Dermot said, " Here lies the
hulk of the Great Harry,'' there was an amused
air about him, and at the further question, " Come,
Alison, what do you think of our big corroborces,
he deliberately replied, " I never saw such a pretty
sight!" And on some leading exclamation from
one of us, " It beats the cockatoos on a cornfield ;
besides, one has got to kill them!''

'' Mr. Alison looks at our little diversion in the
benevolent spirit of the giant whose daughter
brought home ploughman, oxen, and all in her
apron for playthings," said Viola, who with
Eustace had found her way to us, but we were all
divided again, Viola being carried off by some
grandee, Eustace having to search for some noble
damsel to whom he had been introduced, and I
falling to the lot of young Mr. llnrsman, a nice
person in himself, but unable to surmount the
overcrowing of the elder sisters, who called him
Baby Jack, and publicly ordered him about. Even
at the end of our dance, at the sound of Hippa's
authoritative summons, he dropped me suddenly,
and I found myself gravitating towards Harold
like a sort of chaperon. I was amazed by his
observing, " 1 think I could do it now. Would you
try me, Lucy ? "



i66 MV YOUNG ALCIDES,

After all, he was but five-and-twenty, and could
hardly look on anything requiring agility or dex-
terity without attempting it, so I consented, with
a renewal of the sensations I remembered when,
as a child, I had danced with grown-up m^en, only
with alarm at the responsibility of what Dermot
called "the steerage of the Great Harry,^^ since
collision with such momentum as ours might soon
be would be serious ; but I soon found my anxiety
groundless ; he was too well made and elastic to be
clumsy, and had perfect power over his own weight
and strength, so that he could dance as lightly and
safely as Dermot with his Irish litheness.

"Do you think I might ask Miss Tracy ?^'
he said, in return for my compliments.

" Of course ; why not ? "'''

When he did ask, her reply was, " Oh, will
you indeed ? Thank you/^ Which naivete ac-
tually raised her mother^s colour with annoyance.
But if she had a rod laid up, Viola did not feel
it then ; she looked radiant, and though I don^t
believe three words passed between the partners,
that waltz was the glory of the evening to her.

She must have made him take her to the
tea-room for some ice, and there it was that, while
I was standing with my partner a little way off,
we heard Miss Avice Stympson's peculiarly pene-
trating attempt at a whisper, observing, *'Yes,
it is melancholy ! I thought we were safe here,
or I never should have brought my dear little
Birdie. . . . What, don't you know } There's
no doubt of it — the glaze on the pottery is dead
men's bones. They have an arrangement with



ThE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN. 167

the hospitals in London, you understand. I can't
think how Lord Erymanth can be so deceived.
But you see the trick was a perfect success.
Yes, the blocking up the railway. A mercy no
lives were lost ; but that would have been nothing
to him after the way he has gone on in Aus-
tralia. — Oh, Lord Erymanth, I did not know
you were there.^^

"And as I could not avoid overhearing you,'*
said that old gentleman, "let me remind you
that I regard courtesy to the guest as due re-
spect to the host, and that I have good reason to
expect that my visitors should have some con-
fidence in my discrimination of the persons I
invite them to meet.^''

Therewith both he and Miss Stympson had
become aware of the head that was above them
all, and the crimson that dyed the cheeks and
brow ; while Viola, trembling with passion, and
both hands clasped over Harold's arm, exclaimed,
in a panting whisper, "Tell them it is a wicked
falsehood — tell them it is no such thine ! '^

" I will speak to your uncle to-morrow. I
am obliged to him."

" Everybody heard that, and all who had
either feeling or manners knew that no more
ought to be said. Only Lord Erymanth made
his way to Harold to say, " I am very sorry this
has happened.''^

Harold bent his head with a murmur of
thanks, and was moving out of the supper-room,
when Dermot hastily laid a hand on him with,
" Keep the field, Harry ; don^t go.'^



1 68 MV YOUNG ALCIDES,



*' Fm not going/^

"That's right. Face it out before the hags.

Whom shall I introduce you There's Birdie

Stympson — come/'

" No, no ; I don't mean to dance again/'

" Why not ? Beard the harpies like a man.
Dancing would refute them all."

"Would it.?" gravely said Harold.

Nor could he be persuaded, save once at his
host's bidding, but showed no signs of being
abashed or distressed, and most of the male
Stympsons came and spoke to him. The whole
broke up at three, and we repaired to our rooms,
conscious that family prayers would take place
as the clock struck nine as punctually as if
nothing had happened, and that our characters
depended on our punctuality. Viola was in
time, and so was Eustace ; I sneaked in late and
ashamed ; and the moment the servants had filed
out Viola sprang to Eustace with vehement
acknowledgments ; and it appeared that just
before she came down her missing box of gifts
had been brought to her room, and she was told
that Mr. Alison had sent for them. Eustace
smirked, and Lady Diana apologised for her little
daughter's giddy, exaggerated expressions, by
which she had given far more trouble than she
ever intended.

" No trouble," said Eustace. " Harold always
wants to work off his steam."

"What, it was he?" said Viola.

" Yes, of course ; he always does those things,"
said Eustace, speaking with a tone of proprietor-



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN. 169



ship, as if Harold had been a splendid self-acting
steam-engine. " I am very glad to have gratified
you, Miss Tracy ''■'

''Only he did, and not you/' said Viola, boldly,
luckily without being heard by her mother, while
Eustace murmured out, rather bewildered, "It is
all the same/'

Viola evidently did not think so when Harold
came in with beads of wet fringing his whiskers,
though he had divested himself of the chief
evidences of the rivers of muddy lane through
which he had walked to Arked House, full four
miles off.

Viola's profuse thanks were crossed by Lady
Diana's curt apologies; and as poor Piggy, who
had genuinely overslept himself, entered with his
apologies — poor fellow — in a voice very much as
if he was trying to say ** Grumph, grumph,'' while
he could only say " Wee, wee,'' they were received
solemnly by his uncle with, "The antipodes are
a rebuke to you, Pigou. I am afraid the young
men of this hemisphere have no disposition to
emulate either such chivalrous attentions or exer-
tions as have been Mr. Harold Alison's excuse."

When so much was said about it, Harold pro-
bably wished he had let the whole matter alone,
and was thankful to be allowed to sit down in
peace to his well-earned breakfast, which was
finished before Dermot lounged in — not waited
for by his uncle, who offered an exhibition of his
model-farm-buildings, machines, cattle, &c. Fain
would Viola and I have gone in the train of the
gentlemen, but the weather, though not bad enough



lyo MY YOUNG ALCIDES.



to daunt a tolerably hardy man, was too damp
for me, and we had to sit down to our work in
the drawing-room, while Piggy, always happier
without his great-uncle, meandered about until
Lady Diana ordered off Viola to play at billiards
with him, but kept me, for, as I perceived, the
awful moment was come, and the only consolation
was that it might be an opportunity of pleading
Harold's cause.

With great censure of the Stympsons' ill-breed-
ing and discourtesy to her brother (which seemed
to affect her far more than the direct injury to
Harold), and strong disclaimers of belief in them,
still my mother's old friend must inquire into the
character of these young men and my position
with regard to them. If she had been tender
instead of inquisitorial, I should have answered
far more freely, and most likely the air of defiance
and defence into which she nettled me had a par-
tisan look ; but it was impossible not to remember
that Miss Woolmer had always said that, however
she might censure the scandal of the Stympsons,
they only required to dish it up with sauce piquant
to make her enjoy it heartily.

And really and truly it did seem as if there
was nothing in the whole lives of those poor
youths on which those women had not contrived
to cast some horrid stain ; working backwards
from the dead men's bones in the pottery (Der-
mot had told her they used nothing but live
men's bones), through imputations on Mr. George
YoUand's character, and the cause of the catas-
trophe at the " Dragon's Head ; " stories of my



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN, 171



associating with all the low, undesirable friends
they picked up at Mycening, or in the hunting-
field ; and as to the Australian part of the his-
tory, she would hardly mention to me all she
had heard, even to have it confuted.

I was not sure how far she did believe my
assurances, or thought me deceived, when I
strenuously denied all evil intent from Harold
towards his poor wife, and explained that he had
merely driven over a precipice in the dark, and
had a brain fever afterwards ; all I could see
was that, though not perfectly satisfied or con-
vinced, she found that her brother would not
allow the separation to be kept up, and therefore
she resumed her favourite office of adviser. She
examined me on the religious habits of my
nephews and niece, impressing on me that it was
for the sake of the latter that my presence at
Arghouse was excusable ; but insisting that it
was incumbent on me to provide her with an
elderly governess, both for her sake and my own.
I was m.uch afraid of having the governess at
once thrust upon me ; but, luckily, she did not
happen to have one of a chaperon kind of age
on her list, so she contented herself with much
advice on what I was teaching Dora, so that
perhaps I grew restive and was disposed to think
it no concern of hers, nor did I tell her that much
of the direction of Dora's lessons was with a view
to Harold ; but she could not have been wholly
displeased, since she ended by telling me that
mine was a vast opportunity, and that the pro-
priety of my residence at Arghouse entirely de-



17 2 MY YOUNG ALCIDES.



pended on the influence I exerted, since any ac-
quiescence in lax and irreligious habits would
render my stay hurtful to all parties. She worried
me into an inclination to drop all my poor little
endeavours, since certainly to have tried to follow
out all the details of her counsel would have
alienated all three at once.

Never was I more glad than when the luncheon-
bell put a stop to the conversation, and the sun
struggling out dispensed me from further endur-
ance, and set me free to go with Viola to bestow
her gifts, disposing on the way of the overflow
of talk that had been pent up for months past.
In the twilight, near the lodge of a favourite old
nurse of Dermot's, we encountered all the younger
gentlemen, and not only did Viola drag her
brother in but Harold also, to show to whom
was owing the arrival of her wonderful tea-pot

cozy.

The good woman was just going to make her
tea. Viola insisted on showing the use of her cozy,
and making everybody stay to nurse's impromptu
kettledrum, and herself put in the pinches of tea.
Dermot chaffed all and sundiy ; Viola bustled
about; Harold sat on the dresser, with his blue
eyes gleaming in the fircli'dit with silent amuse-
ment and perfect satisfaction, the cat sitting on
his shoulder ; and nurse, who was firmly persuaded
that he had rescued her dear Master Dermot from
the fangs of the lion, was delighted to do her best
for his entertainment. Viola insisted on displaying
all the curiosities— the puzzle-cup that could not
be used, the horrid frog that sprang to your lips



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN, 173



in the tankard, the rolling-pin covered with senti-
mental poetry, and her extraordinary French pic-
tures on the walls. Dermot kept us full of
merriment, and we laughed on till the sound of
the dressing-bell sent us racing up to the castle
in joyous guilt. That kettledrum at the lodge is
one of the brightest spots in my memory.

We were very merry all the evening in a
suppressed way over the piano, Viola, Dermot,
and I singing, Harold looking on, and Eustace
being left a willing victim to the good counsel
lavished by my lord and my lady, who advised
him nearly out of his senses and into their own
best graces.

But we had not yet done with the amenities
of the Stympsons. The morning\s post brought
letters to Lady Diana and Lord Erymanth, which
were swallowed by the lady with only a flush on
her brow, but which provoked from the gentle-
man a sharp interjection.

"Scandalous, libellous hags!"

"The vara Avisf inquired Dermot.

And in spite of Lady Diana's warning, "Not
now,'' Lord Erymanth declared, "A vice, yes! A
bird whose quills are quills of iron dipped in
venom, and her beak a brazen one, dis-tilling gall
on all around. I shall inform her that she has
made herself liable to an action for libel. A
very fit lesson to her."

" What steps shall I take, my lord ? " said
Eustace, with much importance. " I shall be
most happy to be guided by you."

" It is not you," said Lord Erymanth.



174 J^^y YOUNG ALCIDES.

" Oh ! if it is only he, it does not signify so
much/^

"Certainly not/' observed Dermot "What
sinks some floats others/'

Lady Diana here succeeded in hushing up the
subject, Harold having said nothing all the time ;
but, after we broke up from breakfast, I had a
private view of Lady Diana^s letter, which was
spiteful beyond description as far as we were
concerned ; making all manner of accusations on
the authority of the Australian relations ; the old
stories exaggerated into horrible blackness, besides
others for which I could by no means account.
Gambling among the gold-diggers, horrid frays
in Victoria, and even cattle-stealing, were so im-
possible in a man who had always been a rich
sheep farmer, that I laughed ; yet they were told
by the cousins with strange circumstantiality.
Then came later tales — about our ways at Arg-
house — all as a warning against permitting any
intercourse of the sweet child's, which might be
abused. Lady Diana was angered and vexed,
but she was not a woman who rose above the
opinion of the world. Her daughter, Di Enderby,
was a friend of Birdie Stympson, and would be
shocked ; and she actually told me that I must
perceive that, while such things were said, it was
not possible — for her own Viola's sake — to keep
up the intimacy she would have wished.

For my part it seemed to me that, in Lady
Diana's position, unjust accusations against a poor
young girl were the very reason for befriending
her openly ; but her ladyship spoke in a grand,



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN. 17 5



authoritative, regretful way, and habitual sub-
mission prevented me from making any protest
beyond saying coldly, "I am very sorry, but I
cannot give up my nephews/'

Viola was not present. It was supposed to be
so shocking that she could know nothing about
it, but she flew into my room and raged like a
little fury at the cruel wickedness of the Stymp-
sons in trying to turn everyone's friends against
them, and trumping up stories, and mamma giving
up as if she believed them. She wished she was
Dermot— she wished she was uncle Erymanth—
she wished she was anybody, to stand up and do
battle with those horrid women !— anybody but a
poor little girl, who must obey orders and be
separated from her friends. And she cried, and
made such violent assurances that I had to
soothe and silence her, and remind her of her

first duty, &c. .

Lord Erymanth was a nobler being than his
sister, and had reached up to clap Harold on
the shoulder, while declaring that these assertions
made no difference to him, and that he did not
care the value of a straw for what Avice Stymp-
son might say, though Harold had no defence but
his own denial of half the stories, and was forced
to own that there was truth in some of the others.
He was deeply wounded. "Why cannot the
women let us keep our friends?" he said, as I
found him in the great hall.

" It is very hard," I said, with grief and anger.

"Very hard on the innocent," he answered.

Then I saw he was preparing to set off to



176 MY YOUNG ALCIDES,

walk home, twelve miles, and remonstrated, since
Lake Valley would probably be flooded.

" I must," he said ; " I must work it out with
myself, whether I do Eustace most harm or good
by staying- here."

And off he went, with the long swift stride
that was his way of walking off vexation. I did
not see him again till I was going up to dress,
when I found him just inside the front door,
struggling to get off his boots, which were per-
fectly sodden ; while his whole dress, nay, even
his hair and beard, was soaked and drenched, so
that I taxed him with having been in the water.

"Yes, I went in after a dog," he said, and
as he gave a shiver, and had just pulled off his
second boot, I asked no more questions, but
hunted him upstairs to put on dry clothes with-
out loss of time ; and when we met at dinner,
Eustace was so full of our doings at the castle,
and Dora of hers with Miss VVoolmer, that his
bath was entirely driven out of my head.

But the next day, as I was preparing for
my afternoon's walk, the unwonted sound of our
door-bell was heard. " Is our introduction working
already.^" thought I, little expecting the announce-
ment — "The Misses Stympson."

However, there were Stympsons and Stympsons,
so that even this did not prepare me for being
rushed at by all three from Lake House — two
aunts and one niece — Avice, Henny, and Birdie,
with "How is he .^'^ "Where is he.? He would
not take anything. I hope he went to bed and
had something hot."^ " Is he in the house ? No



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN, 177



cold, I hope. We have brought the poor dear
fellow for him to see. He seems in pain to-day ;
we thought he would see him.'''

At last I got in a question edgeways as to the
antecedents, as the trio kept on answering one
another in chorus, '' Poor dear Nep— your cousin-
nephew, I mean— the bravest "

Then it flashed on me. '' Do you mean that
it was for your dog that Harold went into the
water yesterday V

"Oh, the bravest, most generous, the most
forgiving. So tender-handed ! It must be all a
calumny. I wish we had never believed it. He
could never lift a hand against anyone. We will
contradict all rumours. Report is so scandalous.

Is he within ?'"

Harold had been at the Hydriot works ever
since breakfast, but on my first question the chorus
struck up again, and I might well quail at the
story. ''Lake Mill; you know the place. Miss

Alison V

Indeed I did. The lake, otherwise quiet to
sluggishness, here was fed by the rapid little
stream, and at the junction was a great mill, into
which the water was guided by a sharp descent,
which made it sweep down with tremendous
force, and, as I had seen from the train, the river
was swelled by the thaw and spread far beyond
its banks. '' The mill-race !" I cried in horror. ^

"Just observe. Dear Nep has such a passion
for the water, and Birdie thoughtlessly threw a
stick some way above the weir. I never shall for-
get what I felt when I saw him carried along. He



178 MY YOUNG ALCIDES.

struggled with his white pav/s, and moaned to us,
but we could do nothing, and we thought to have
seen him dashed to pieces before our eyes, when,
somehow, his own struggles I fancy — he is so saga-
cious — brought him up in a lot of weeds and stuff
against the post of the flood-gates, and that
checked him. But we saw it could not last, and
his strength was exhausted. Poor Birdie rushed
down to beg them to stop the mill, but that
could never have been done in time, and the
dear dog was on the point of being sucked in
by the ruthless stream, moaning and looking
appealingly to us for help, when, behold ! that
superb figure, like some divinity descending, was
with us, and with one brief inquiry he was in
the water. We called out to him that the cur-
rent was frightfully strong — we knew a man's
life ought not to be perilled ; but he just smiled,
took up the great pole that lay near, and waded
in. I cannot describe the horror of seeing him
breasting that stream, expecting, as we did, to see
him borne down by it into the wheel. The
miller shouted to him that it was madness, but
he kept his footing like a rock. He reached the
place where the poor dog was, and the fury of
the stream was a little broken by the post, took
up poor Nep and put him over his shoulder.
Nep was so good — lay like a lamb — while Mr.
Alison fought his way back, and it was harder
still, being upwards. The miller and his m.en
came out and cheered, thinking at least he would
come out spent and want help ; but no, he came
out only panting a little, put down the dog, and



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN. 179



when it moaned and seemed hurt he felt it all
over so tenderly, found its leg was broken, took
it into the miller's kitchen, and set it like any
surgeon. He would take nothing but a cup of
tea, whatever they said, and would not change
his clothes — indeed, the miller is a small man,
so I don't see how he could — but I hope he
took no harm. He walked away before we could
thank him. But, oh dear ! what a wicked thing
scandal is ! I will never believe anything report
says again.^'

To the end of their days the Misses Stympson
believed that it was the convenient impersonal
Rumour which had maligned Harold — not them-
selves.

I was just parting with them when Harold
appeared, and they surrounded him, with an
inextricable confusion of thanks — hopes that he
had not caught cold, and entreaties that he
would look at his patient, whom they had brought
on the back seat of the barouche to have his leg
examined. Harold said that his v\^as self-taught
surgery, but was assured that the dog would bear
it better from him than any one, and could not
but consent.

I noticed, however, that when he had to touch
the great black Newfoundland dog, a strong
shudder ran through his whole frame, and he had
to put a strong force on himself, though he spoke
to it kindly, and it wagged its tail, and showed
all the grateful, wistful affection of its kind, as he
attended to it with a tender skill in which his
former distaste was lost ; and the party drove



i8o MY YOUNG ALCIDES.

away entreating him to come and renew the
treatment on the Monday, and asking us all to
luncheon, but not receiving a distinct answer in
Eustace's absence, for he was very tenacious of
his rights as master of the house.

I was quite touched with the dog's parting
caress to his preserver. " So you have conquered
the birds with iron quills ! '' I cried, triumphantly.

" Who were they '^. " asked Harold, astonished.

" Surely you know them .'* I never thought of
introducing you.''

" You don't mean that they were those
women t "

'* Of course they were. I thought you knew
you were performing an act of heroic forgiveness."

Harold's unfailing politeness towards me hin-
dered him from saying " heroic fiddlesticks," but
he could not suppress a " Faugh ! " which meant
as much, and that mortified me considerably.

" Come now, Harry," I said, " you don't
mean that you would not have done it if you
had known } "

" I should not have let the poor beast drown
because his mistresses were spiteful hags." And
there was a look on his face that made me cry
out in pain, " Don't, Harry ! '^

" Don't what ? "

" Don't be unforgiving. Say you forgive
them."

" I can't. I could as soon pardon Smith."

" But you ought to pardon both. It would
be generous. It would be Christian."

I was sorry I had said that, for he looked



THE BIRDS OF ILL OMEN,



i«i



contemptuously and said, "So they teach you.
I call it weakness."

*'0h, Harry! dear Harry, no! The highest

strength ! "

"I don't understand- that kind of talk," he

said. "You don't know what that Smith is to


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Online LibraryCharlotte Mary YongeMy young Alcides : a faded photograph → online text (page 11 of 24)