Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler.

Fuel of fire online

. (page 4 of 22)
Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerFuel of fire → online text (page 4 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


degree, with few acquaintances among boys of his
own age and no friends. Even then he gave evidence
of a pride which seemed to have been his by birth
— pride in the long line of Baxendales, stretching
back until it was lost in the dim mist of bygone cen-
turies ; pride in the ancestral Hall, whose red bricks
and square windows he so much loved; pride even
in the family curse which filled him when a child
with a most delightful dread, a most fearful joy.
As he grew older and found that despite this terrible
curse no one grew the penny the worse, he would
look back with a smile at the time when he feared
to go to bed at night, fully expecting to be burnt
alive before morning; yet, for all that, he hugged
the ancestral imprecation to his breast as a most cher-
ished possession. But as a boy he chiefly showed
his pride to the outside w^orld in what seemed a stud-



54 FUEL OF FIRE

ied reserve. Part of this was, no doubt, shyness;
but, in addition, he intentionally held aloof from
companions of his own age. The Baxendales, even
then, were not able to mix much in society, so that,
except when he paid a rare visit to Drawbridge Cas-
tle, he did not come across boys who by birth were
his equals. Yet in spite of his pride and reserve, in
spite of his unsociable reticence, he was a refined,
well-bred boy, with great capacities for good. For
his father he had a passionate love and devotion, and
it was his father who chiefly influenced his early
years. Lady Alicia was fond of her child, proud
of his good looks and distinguished air ; but she paid
far more attention to his clothes than to his char-
acter. She was only one of those women who look
on the outward appearance of their darlings, but
who never win, or even care to win, their children's
confidence. From his father Laurence had inherited
/two excellent gifts : a quick feeling for the humour-
ous and a strong sense of humour. ; He seemed
instinctively to Tshrink from anything mean and
underhand ; a hater of cruelty and naturally disposed
to be lenient in his judgments in any matter touch-
ing honour, he was pitiless in condemnation, and
never would allow mercy to temper justice.) Having
no companions of his own age, he would have found
time hang heavily on his hands but for his love
of books; hour after hour did he spend in the
magnificent library of the Hall. He would prob-
ably have turned into a desultory bookworm, as



LAURENCE BAXENDALE 55



his father could not afford to send him to a
pubHc school, had not the then vicar of Tetleigh
happened to be an admirable scholar. When Lau-
rence grew too advanced for his father, he was sent
for three or four hours every day to the Vicarage
to be instructed in Latin and Greek and other excel-
lent things. He was a clever boy, and the vicar took
the greatest delight in his instruction. His tutor not
only laid the foundation of accurate scholarship, but
also instilled into him a love for the English classics,
cultivating his naturally good taste until it became
almost fastidious, and not only taught him the knack
of producing passable Latin and Greek verses, but
also the art of writing excellent English prose. Nev-
ertheless, Laurence did not grow up a milksop. He
had a great love of fresh air, and rode his pony daily,
and took long walks in Baxendale Park and the maze
of adjacent lanes. Moreover, he had boxing and
fencing lessons from the retired sergeant who was
engaged at the Grammar School of the neighbouring
town of Silverhampton. Wherefore, though slight,
he was strong, healthy and active. He had his
faults, no doubt, as so many of us have; his pride in
his race bred in him a certain tolerant scorn for those
of humble birth ; his pride in his intellect was accom-
panied by something like contempt for his less gifted
brethren; his finished culture shrank from contact
with people whose manners were less perfect than
his own. Again, his delicate sensitiveness in all
matters affecting honour gradually developed into an



56 FUEL OF FIRE

excessive scrupulousness. In his anxiety to avoid
anything to which the most exacting morahst could
take exception, he invented scruples where none
could be fairly said to exist. He was an adept in
finding a lion in the path in all matters affecting his
own pleasure or advantage, and he elevated con-
science to a position of such eminence that it became
almost a bogey. With all this he was not a prig;
he was saved from that by the quickness with which
he saw the ridiculous side of things, and it is only
fair to acknowledge that he was as ready to laugh
at himself as at another. From the humourous to
the pathetic it is only a step, and Laurence had a vein
of tenderness and sympathy, which he strove man-
fully and not unsuccessfully to conceal, but which
was evident enough to the few who knew him well.
He loved dumb animals, especially horses and dogs,
but he was never much at home with children. An
only child himself, and avoiding through both pride
and shyness the companionship of others, he had
lived a more or less solitary boyhood, and knew little
and understood less of children. Which, perhaps,
accounts for the fact that he quite ignored the short-
frocked Nancy and her sister when he met them tak-
ing their walks abroad under the protecting wing
and vigilant oversight of their governess, and was
quite unconscious that their eyes were not only blue
but uncommonly bright and pretty. He had a quick
eye for the flight of a bird or ? '-r;oVet ball, but in



LAURENCE BAXENDALE si

things which really matter he was in those days as
blind as a bat.

In due course Laurence went to Oxford, having
won a postmastership at Merton, thanks to the ad-
mirable coaching of the vicar. His father was only
able to make him a scanty allowance, so that even
with his scholarship he had to lead a very quiet life
and to indulge in few luxuries. Yet he enjoyed his
college days ; better, perhaps, than if he had been able
to gratify expensive tastes and frequent frivolous (if
not rowdy) society. He read hard, and rode hard,
and had plenty of friends of a quiet sort. He had
not much difficulty in securing a First in both Mod-
erations and Greats ; moreover, he won the Gaisford
Prize for Greek Verse, a feat which greatly delighted
his quondam tutor, the vicar.

During his last year at Oxford, Laurence made
his first real acquaintance with sorrow. His father,
whose finances had been straitened for some years,
owing to agricultural depression and the extrava-
gance of Lady Alicia, found that he could no longer
maintain his position at Baxendale Hall. He de-
cided to move to a small house — but this decision
was never carried into efYect : grief at leaving his an-
cestral home broke his heart ; and his last days were
rendered more wretched by the selfishness of his fool-
ish wife, who was continually bemoaning her hard
fate in having to resign the position in the county
which was her due. Thus a narrower home than



58 FUEL OF FIRE

even the one he had contemplated claimed the
broken-hearted man — a home of quietness and peace,
where he found rest for his soul.

Mr. Baxendale's death was a terrible blow to Lau-
rence. He had always been devoted to his father,
who had made himself a companion and friend to his
son. That a time would ever come when that com-
panion and friend should be no more had never oc-
curred to Laurence, and when the blow fell it
crushed him. He could not believe at first that it
could be true; it seemed to him as though his father
had gone on a journey and would soon come back.
Then, as he began to realise that it really was true,
that never again on this earth would he see his
father's smile or clasp his father's hand, his faith
was staggered. It could not be true that God was
a loving Father if He could thus deal with His chil-
dren. How could He (so Laurence cried in his an-
guish) permit His creatures to be thus tormented?
Why should He have thus cruelly deprived him of
his father, in the plenitude of that father's powers,
with so much good left undone which he alone, it
seemed, could accomplish — so much duty neglected
which he alone could fulfil. If God were indeed
pitiful and compassionate, why did He permit such
misery and unhappiness to innocent men and
women ? Where was the justice, where was the love
of the Creator?

For a time the mystery of pain and of human sor-
row and grief overwhelmed Laurence's soul. But



LAURENCE BAXENDALE 59

he faced his doubts, and came through the darkness
into hght at last. It was the remembrance of
the father he had lost that was his sheet-anchor in
this time of storm-tossed doubt ; until he eventually
realised the profound truth that the full influence
of a man is never felt until his bodily presence has
been removed; that, great though the grief may be,
yet it is in truest love and divinest knowledge that
God sometimes decides that it is expedient for us that
our dear ones should go away.

Shortly after his father's death Laurence took his
degree. Meanwhile his mother had gone to her
brother, Lord Portcullis (whose wife had just died),
and had taken charge of his household. As a tutor
was required to teach the rising Drawbridge how to
shoot, it occurred to the heads of the family that
Baxendale might undertake the post. He was not
specially attracted by the prospect, but his pockets
were so empty that there was room in them for his
inclinations as well as his salary; so he was com-
pelled to pocket both, on the same principle that
thrifty persons drink inferior tea because they there-
with receive a book as a bonus.

Meanwhile the Baxendale estates were managed
by an agent ; but when the agent had been paid his
salary, and the heavy fire insurance which the owner
was bound to maintain had been discharged, there
was not very much left from the diminished rent-roll.
The residue, such as it was, was given to Lady Alicia
by her son for her apparel, which was by no means



6o FUEL OF FIRE

that of a meek and quiet spirit, but was after a
much more expensive, if more effective style.

So time rolled on until Drawbridge was ready for
Eton, and as a consequence his cousin's services were
no longer required. It so happened at about this
time it occurred to Drawbridge's father that Lady
Sarah Sassenach had a pretty face and a charming
manner. On pursuing the train of thought thus
suggested, he began to speculate how the same face
would look at the head of his table. On the whole,
he came to the conclusion that he should prefer it to
his sister's. In his case, for once, the course of true
love ran smooth; as a consequence, Lady Alicia, as
well as her son, found her occupation gone.

It would have been well for Baxendale if he had
withstood the allurements of the immediate income
he secured by becoming his cousin's tutor; and in-
stead of devoting such money as he possessed to the
decoration of his mother's person, he had spent it
on the preparation of himself for the learned pro-
fession of the Law.

This at the time had to his scrupulous conscience
savoured too much of selfishness ; whereas if he had
only used common sense, he would have seen that
in the long run his mother would have benefited by
a temporary restriction in the number and expensive-
ness of her gowns. But it is so difficult to use a
sense that one does not happen to possess; and few
of us care to borrow another person's for the occa-
sion — to which minority Laurence did not happen



LAURENCE BAXENDALE 6i

to belong. As things were now, he had lost precious
years; moreover, he had to find a home for his
mother, whose exodus from Drawbridge Castle was
necessitated by the advent of the new Countess. His
opportunity was therefore lost; and as the idea of
another tutorship was distasteful to him, he deter-
mined to dispense with the services of an agent and
manage his estate himself. So he betook himself
and his mother to Poplar Farm, which happened
to be vacant at the time; and — having learnt much
while he was at Drawbridge from his uncle's agent —
found himself quite competent to manage his own
property. With the salary saved, and the rent of
the house occupied by former agents added to his
assets, his income was brought up to a few hun-
dreds a year — sufficient for the needs of himself and
his mother, but quite inadequate to the introduction
of a Mrs. Laurence Baxendale. He tried of course
to let the Hall ; but it was a large, rambling building,
too old-fashioned for the modern merchant-prince;
moreover its proximity to the town of Silverhamp-
ton was against its being let, as it is a notorious
theory — which no amount of fact can controvert —
that the surrounding country is as dark as Erebus;
although any one who has sojourned in South Mer-
shire knows full well that the much-maligned coun-
try is — like a certain distinguished personage — not
nearly so black as it is painted.

The management of an estate is a healthful occu-
pation, as was evidenced by the bloom upon Baxen-



62 FUEL OF FIRE

dale's face and the easy carnage of his sHght but
athletic frame. Yet it did not occupy his time to
the full. The above mentioned personage is cred-
ited — and there are apparently some grounds for
the persuasion — with the knack of finding occupa-
tion for idle hands. This potentate has many local
agents — some paid and some honorary — whom he
engages to carry out his designs. On this occasion
the vacant post fell to Miss Nancy Burton. Nancy
herself was nothing loth to fulfil this useful office.
She had an appetite, which would have done credit
to Alexander himself, for new worlds which should
finally be conquered by her bow and spear. There
was nothing of the ''little Englander" about Miss
Burton ; in her policy there was no continent too vast
to be annexed, no tribe too unmanageable to be added
to her dependencies. Therefore she hailed Laurence
Baxendale as one of those unknown yet conquer-
able spheres for which her great prototype sighed
in vain. She was very adaptable, and had no diffi-
culty in charming all with whom she came into con-
tact and in persuading them that they and their con-
cerns were objects of absorbing interest to her.
There was no insincerity in this ; as long as she was
in the company of any person, however dull, her
desire to put that particular person at ease, and to
find topics of conversation agreeable to him or her,
led to this result.

Baxendale was an exceedingly clever man, but un-
fortunately he had the knack of hiding his light



LAURENCE BAXENDALE 63



under the bushel of shyness. Now Nancy did not
know what it was to be shy; more than that, she
defied any one to be shy when in her company.
Wherefore, as the two met not infrequently, she
quickly discovered Laurence's abilities, and found to
her delight that he was very different from the
average man of her acquaintance, whose super-
abundance of health was more than balanced by a
plentiful lack of wit, not to say brains. Like other
men, Laurence found it impossible to be shy in her
presence, though he still maintained a reserve which
Nancy thought as extraordinary as it was unneces-
sary. Yet they became close friends in spite of scru-
ples and of struggles on the man's part. Nancy did
not exactly set her cap at the impecunious owner of
Baxendale Hall. But she dearly loved power; and
finding (she was exceedingly quick in discerning
feelings) the man resisting her influence, she de-
termined that she would conquer his indifference.
She had no intention of breaking his heart, still less
her own ; but she decided that he should be made to
care for her sufificiently to satisfy the point of hon-
our, and then he might depart with slightly scorched
fingers but otherwise unhurt.

As for Laurence, he began by thinking he disliked
Nancy ; her very frankness he critically put down to
forwardness, her wit he regarded as pertness, her
good-humour as casual indifference. But he soon
found himself convinced of folly; he began to rec-
ognise the charm of this brilliant young woman; to



64 FUEL OF FIRE

see that her frankness was the result of absence of
self-consciousness, her easy tolerance the ^erTection
of good manners. From this he rapFdly progressed
to a recognition of the brightness of her wit and the
fascination of her strong personality. A day seemed
lost if he did not see her; a day appeared well-spent
if he had but five minutes of her charming society.
Yet, strange to say, the more he was attracted the
more reserved he himself became. This puzzled
Nancy, who was perfectly aware of his being at-
tracted, and equally conscious of his studied reserve.
Laurence himself knew, but he was unable to gratify
the girl's natural curiosity. Li short, he had fallen
in love with Nancy, and his sensitive conscience
would not allow him to mention the fact to her. If
he had done so nobody would have been more sur-
prised than she.

No one knew what a struggle he had with himself.
Day by day as he saw her he fell deeper into the
coils. He knew what he was doing; yet he made no
effort to escape. He knew that so far as he was
concerned Nancy was the only woman in the world,
and he accepted this elementary truth without a mur-
mur. Yet his conscience told him that he could
never marry her. She was a girl accustomed to
walk delicately along the luxurious ways of life; he
— with his ancient birth and pride of race — had noth-
ing to offer her but a rambling mansion, with a
superb library which the terms of his grandfather's
will had made it impossible for him to sell ; a large



LAURENCE BAXENDALE 65

estate that brought him in a scanty income, made
scantier by the fact that this same will stipulated
that both Laurence and his father could only succeed
to the property on condition that they paid a heavy
fire insurance to protect the Hall from the conse-
quences of the old curse. Moreover he had a mother, ^ >
with by no means inexpensive tastes, to support.

So it came to pass that in his relations with Nancy
he was a man of many moods. Sometimes he would
yield to the seductive charm of her bright talk. At
such moments he would unbend and become his own
natural self; he would allow his pleasant vein of
humour and natural kindliness of heart full play.
Then would Nancy regard him as the most delight-
ful of men. And then, all at once, he would freeze
up and become stiff and affected, to Nancy's great
astonishment. She would ask — and ask with rea-
son — what she had done or said to justify such a
change. But to this Laurence would only reply with
stately reserve that she had done and said nothing;
and would even deny a reserve which no one felt
more strongly than himself. When he was in this
mood Nancy thought with some justice that Lau-
rence was the most disagreeable of men, and deter-
mined that she would drop his acquaintance. She
would perhaps have passed a gentler judgment on
the unhappy prisoner at the bar if she had only
known that these sudden fits of chilling reserve were
simply signs of a devotion and a love which Lau-
rence felt were getting beyond his powers of self-



66 FUEL OF FIRE

control. If Nancy at such times was irritated almost
beyond measure, it is equally true that the man whom
she regarded as absolutely devoid of human feelings
was suffering the tortures of a self-made Inquisition
which would have put to shame most of the inven-
tions of mediaeval Spain.



CHAPTER IV.



MRS. CANDY.



A husband, even though a fool,

Teaches far more than any boarding-school.

The post of caretaker of Baxendale Hall was
filled by a worthy couple of the name of Candy.
Candy himself had been head-gardener while the
house was yet inhabited : and he still pottered about
the neglected old garden, picking up a stick here and
a weed there, as the fancy took him. His better half
was a Norfolk woman; and had been wooed and
won at Cromer when Candy was an under-gardener
at one of the big houses near that delightful town.
She always felt herself to be a stranger and a so-
journer in Mershire : for she had left her heart with
her two little children in Overstrand churchyard,
amid the poppies which keep guard over the
slumbers of them that await the great awakening
within the sound of the blue North Sea. At least
she had left half of her heart there; the other half
was filled to overflowing with respectful admiration
of her lord and master, who was the greatest and
wisest man in the kingdom, according to Mrs.
Candy. It is a great satisfaction to every woman
to have a final court of appeal for the settlement of
all doubtful questions ; and it is a still greater satis-



68 FUEL OF FIRE

faction to be married to this court. Which blessing
was Mrs. Candy's in full measure.

It was a day in the early summer, before the snow-
drifts of May blossom had quite melted from off the
hedges, when Nancy crossed the fields lying at the
back of Wayside and went through the iron gate
into the lanes. To her (apparent) surprise whom
should she meet there but Mr. Baxendale, who —
strange to say — had of late contracted a habit, in
common with the elder Miss Burton, of perambulat-
ing — nominally in search of exercise — those particu-
lar lanes!

''Good afternoon,'' said Laurence, also trying to
show a decorous amount of astonishment at finding
Nancy in the very place where he had come to look

for her. i'v^^.^A"'- ^ V' v^ -

**Good afternoon. I was just going to the post-
ofiice," explained Nancy, ignoring the impertinent
fact that it took twice as long to go thither by the
lanes as by the high road.

"So was I," exclaimed Laurence, likewise ignoring
the equally impertinent fact that he was walking in
precisely the contrary direction; but which of us,
who has learned anything at all, has not discovered
that very often the shortest way to a place takes us
several miles in the opposite way ? County Councils
would compute distances more accurately than they
do if they measured by companions instead of by
mile-stones.

So Laurence turned with Nancy and walked be-



MRS. CANDY 69

side her: which was the only sensible thing to do if
he were really aiming at the post-office: he would
never have reached it by his original route — at least,
not without going right round the world.

''After I have been to the post I want to walk up
to Baxendale to speak to Mrs. Candy about some-
thing," he continued; ''won't you come with me? It
is a perfect afternoon for a walk."

"All right," agreed Nancy. (She was a very
obliging young woman.) "I am always glad of an
excuse to cultivate Mrs. Candy — or, rather, to let
Mrs. Candy cultivate me."

"Mrs. Candy certainly repays research."

"Doesn't she? And I always make it my duty
and my delight to research her."

"To dig for knowledge out of Mrs. Candy's stores
is not an elaborate mining operation," said Laurence
drily. "I never met a woman who found it so easy
to begin talking and so difficult to stop."

"I never try to stop her : I feed upon every word
she says."

"But don't you want to put your own oar in some-
times. Miss Burton? I should have imagined that
silence was hardly your favourite role."



"Oh ! I'm not a great talker."



Ah ! how appearances sometimes deceive,"
murmured Laurence under his breath.

Nancy laughed : ''Well, not such a very great
talker: at least, I've met greater ones — once or
twice."






70 FUEL OF FIRE

"So have I; my dear mother, for instance, and
the excellent Mrs. Candy; but that doesn't entirely
exonerate you from the charge."

"You are very rude!"

"Indeed, I'm not : I'm exactly the reverse. I don't
know which is the greater — my pleasure in the feats
of great talkers, or my wonder at how the dickens
they do it."

Then don't you find it easy to talk ?"
'By no means. You can't think how often I am
on the verge of brain fever through scouring the
hidden places of my mind for something to say and
finding nothing."

"Poor thing! Now, I never have to scour the
hidden places of my mind for something to say."

"So I should have supposed."

"Every drawer and cupboard in my mind is so
full of remarks that it simply won't shut; and the
more I try to empty it by making the remarks, the
fuller it seems to get."

"My envy of you even surpasses my admiration."

"But I know why you find it difficult to talk," re-
marked Nancy thoughtfully: "it is because you are
so reserved, and reserve is the scourge of conversa-
tion."

"Ah !"

"I disapprove of reserve on principle," continued
Nancy, shaking her head reprovingly; "and I con-
sider it your besetting sin."


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryEllen Thorneycroft FowlerFuel of fire → online text (page 4 of 22)