H. Rider Haggard.

Dawn online

. (page 5 of 43)
Online LibraryH. Rider HaggardDawn → online text (page 5 of 43)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

himself. But Philip was growing hardened to deception, and found it
possible to read it from end to end, and speculate upon its contents
with Maria without blush or hesitation.

But he could not always expect to find Miss Lee in the custody of such
an obtuse friend; and, needless to say, it became a matter of very
serious importance to him to know how he should treat her. It occurred
to him that his safest course might be to throw himself upon her
generosity and make a clean breast of it; but when it came to the
point he was too weak to thus expose his shameful conduct to the woman
whose heart he had won, and to whom he was bound by every tie of
honour that a gentleman holds sacred.

He thought of the scornful wonder with which she would listen to his
tale, and preferred to take the risk of greater disaster in the future
to the certainty of present shame. In the end, he contrived to
establish a species of confidential intimacy with Maria, which, whilst
it somewhat mystified the poor girl, was not without its charm,
inasmuch as it tended to transform the every-day Philip into a hero of

But in the main Maria was ill-suited to play heroine to her wooer's
hero. Herself as open as the daylight, it was quite incomprehensible
to her why their relationship should be kept such a dark and
mysterious secret, or why, if her lover gave her a kiss, it should be
done with as many precautions as though he were about to commit a

She was a very modest maiden, and in her heart believed it a wonderful
thing that Philip should have fallen in love with her - a thing to be
very proud of; and she felt it hard that she should be denied the
gratification of openly acknowledging her lover, and showing him off
to her friends, after the fashion that is so delightful to the female

But, though this consciousness of the deprivation of a lawful joy set
up a certain feeling of irritation in her mind, she did not allow it
to override her entire trust in and love for Philip. Whatever he did
was no doubt wise and right; but, for all that, on several occasions
she took an opportunity to make him acquainted with her views of the
matter, and to ask him questions that he found it increasingly
difficult to answer.

In this way, by the exercise of ceaseless diplomacy, and with the
assistance of a great deal of falsehood of the most artistic nature,
Philip managed to tide over the next six months; but at the end of
that time the position was very far from improved. Hilda was chafing
more and more at the ignominy of her position; Maria was daily growing
more and more impatient to have their engagement made public; and
last, but by no means least, his father was almost daily at him on the
subject of Miss Lee, till at length he succeeded in wringing from him
the confession that there existed some sort of understanding between
Maria and himself.

Now, the old squire was a shrewd man of the world, and was not
therefore slow to guess that what prevented this understanding from
being openly acknowledged as an engagement was some entanglement on
his son's part. Indeed, it had recently become clear to him that
London had developed strange attractions for Philip. That this
entanglement could be marriage was, however, an idea that never
entered into his head; he had too good an opinion of his son's common-
sense to believe it possible that he would deliberately jeopardize his
inheritance by marrying without his permission. But Philip's
reluctance and obstinacy annoyed him excessively. "Devil" Caresfoot
was not a man accustomed to be thwarted; indeed, he had never been
thwarted in his life, and he did not mean to be now. He had set his
heart upon this marriage, and it would have to be a good reason that
could turn him from his purpose.

Accordingly, having extracted the above information, he said no more
to Philip, but proceeded to lay his own plans.

That very afternoon he commenced to put them into action. At three
o'clock he ordered the carriage and pair, a vehicle that was rarely
used, giving special directions that the coachman should see that his
wig was properly curled. An ill-curled wig had before now been known
to produce a very bad effect upon Mr. Caresfoot's nerves, and also
upon its wearer's future prospects in life.

At three precisely the heavy open carriage, swung upon C-springs and
drawn by two huge greys, drew up in front of the hall-door, and the
squire, who was as usual dressed in the old-fashioned knee-breeches,
and carried in his hand his gold-headed cane, stepped solemnly into
it, and seated himself exactly in the middle of the back seat, not
leaning back, as is the fashion of our degenerate days, but holding
himself bolt upright. Any more imposing sight than this old gentleman
presented thus seated, and moving at a stately pace through the
village street, it is impossible to conceive; but it so oppressed the
very children that fear at the spectacle (which was an unwonted one,
for the squire had not thus driven abroad in state for some years)
overcame their curiosity, and at his approach they incontinently fled.

So soon as the carriage had passed through the drive-gates of the
Abbey, the squire ordered the coachman to drive to Rewtham House,
whither in due course he safely arrived.

He was ushered into the drawing-room, whilst a servant went in search
of Miss Lee, whom she found walking in the garden.

"A gentleman to see you, miss."

"I am not at home. Who is it?"

"Mr. Caresfoot, miss!"

"Oh, why didn't you say so before?" and taking it for granted that
Philip had paid her an unexpected visit, she started off for the house
at a run.

"Why, Philip," she exclaimed, as she swung open the door, "this _is_
good of you, o - oh!" for at that moment Mr. Caresfoot senior appeared
from behind the back of the door where he had been standing by the
fireplace, and made his most imposing bow.

"That, my dear Maria, was the first time that I have heard myself
called Philip for many a long year, and I fear that that was by
accident; neither the name nor the blush were meant for me; now, where

"I thought," replied Maria, who was still overwhelmed with confusion,
"I thought that it was Philip, your son, you know; he has not been
here for so long."

"With such a welcome waiting him, it is indeed wonderful that he can
keep away;" and the old squire bowing again with such courtly grace as
to drive what little self-possession remained to poor Maria after her
flying entry entirely out of her head.

"And now, my dear," went on her visitor, fixing his piercing eyes upon
her face, "with your permission, we will sit down and have a little
talk together. Won't you take off your hat?"

Maria took off her hat as suggested, and sat down meekly, full under
fire of the glowing eyes that had produced such curious effects upon
subjects so dissimilar as the late Mrs. Caresfoot and Jim Brady. She
could, however, think of nothing appropriate to say.

"My dear," the old gentleman continued presently, "the subject upon
which I have taken upon myself to speak to you is one very nearly
affecting your happiness and also of a delicate nature. My excuse for
alluding to it must be that you are the child of my old friend - ah! we
were great friends fifty years ago, my dear - and that I have myself a
near interest in the matter. Do you understand me?"

"No, not quite."

"Well then, forgive an old man, who has no time to waste, if he comes
to the point. I mean I have come to ask you, Maria, if any
understanding or engagement exists between Philip and yourself?"

The eyes were full upon her now, and she felt that they were drawing
her secret from her as a corkscrew does a cork. At last it came out
with a pop.

"Yes, we are engaged."

"Thank you, my dear. How long have you been engaged?"

"About eight months."

"And why has the affair been kept so secret?"

"I don't know; Philip wished it. He told me not to tell any one. I
suppose that I should not by rights have told you."

"Make yourself easy, my dear. Philip has already told me that there
was an understanding between you; I only wanted to hear the
confirmation of such good news from your own lips. Young men are great
coxcombs, my dear, and apt to fancy things where ladies are concerned.
I am rejoiced to hear that there is no mistake on his part."

"I am so glad that you are pleased," she said shyly.

"Pleased, my dear!" said the old gentleman, rising and walking up and
down the room in his excitement, "pleased is not the word for it. I am
more rejoiced than if some one had left me another estate. Look here,
Maria, I had set my heart upon this thing coming to pass; I have
thought of it for years. I loved your father, and you are like your
father, girl; ay, I love you too, because you are a generous, honest
woman, and will bring a good strain of blood into a family that wants
generosity - ay, and I sometimes think wants honesty too. And then your
land runs into ours, and, as I can't buy it, I am glad that it should
come in by marriage. I have always wanted to see the Abbey, Isleworth,
and Rewtham estates in a ring fence before I died. Come and give me a
kiss, my dear."

Maria did as she was bid.

"I will try to be a good daughter to you," she said, "if I marry
Philip; but," and here her voice trembled a little, "I want to make
you understand that, though this engagement exists, I have sometimes
thought of late that perhaps he wanted to break it off, and - - "

"Break it off?" almost shouted the old man, his eyes flashing. "Break
it off; by God, the day he plays fast and loose with you, that day I
leave the property to his cousin, George; - there, there, I frightened
you, I beg your pardon, but in his own interest, Maria, I advise you
to hold him fast to his word. To change the subject, your news has
freshened me up so much that I mean to have a little company; will you
come and dine with me next Thursday?"

"I shall be very glad, Mr. Caresfoot."

"Thank you; and perhaps till then you will not, unless he happens to
ask you, mention the subject of our conversation to Philip. I want to
have a talk with him first."

Maria assented, and the squire took his leave with the same
magnificence of mien that had marked his arrival.


That evening his father astonished Philip by telling him that he
intended to give a dinner-party on that day week.

"You see, Philip," he said, with a grim smile, "I have only got a year
or so at the most before me, and I wish to see a little of my
neighbours before I go. I have not had much society of late years. I
mean to do the thing well while I am about it, and ask everybody in
the neighbourhood. How many can dine with comfort in the old
banqueting-hall, do you suppose?"

"About five-and-forty, I should think."

"Five-and-forty! I remember that we sat down sixty to dinner when I
came of age, but then we were a little crowded; so we will limit the
number to fifty."

"Are you going to have fifty people to dinner?" asked Philip aghast.

"Certainly; I shall ask you to come and help me to write the
invitations presently. I have prepared a list; and will you kindly
send over to Bell at Roxham. I wish to speak to him, he must bring his
men over to do up the old hall a bit; and, by the way, write to
Gunter's and order a man-cook to be here on Tuesday, and to bring with
him materials for the best dinner for fifty people that he can supply.
I will see after the wine myself; we will finish off that wonderful
port my grandfather laid down. Now, bustle about, my lad, we have no
time to lose; we must get all the notes out to-day."

Philip started to execute his orders, pretty well convinced in his own
mind that his father was taking leave of his senses. Who ever heard of
a dinner being given to fifty people before, especially in a house
where such rare entertainments had always been of a traditionally
select and solemn nature? The expense, too, reflected Philip, would be
large; a man of his father's age had, in his opinion, no right to make
such ducks-and-drakes of money that was so near to belonging to
somebody else. But one thing was clear: his father had set his mind
upon it, and when once that was the case to try to thwart him was more
than Philip dared.

When the notes of invitation arrived at their respective destinations,
great was the excitement in the neighbourhood of Bratham Abbey.
Curiosity was rampant on the point, and the refusals were few and far

At length the eventful evening arrived, and with it the expected
guests, among whom the old squire, in his dress of a past generation -
resplendent in diamond buckles, frilled shirt-front, and silk
stockings - was, with his snow-white hair and stately bearing, himself
by far the most striking figure.

Standing near the door of the large drawing-room, he received his
guests as they arrived with an air that would have done credit to an
ambassador; but when Miss Lee entered, Philip noticed with a prophetic
shudder that, in lieu of the accustomed bow, he gave her a kiss. He
also noticed, for he was an observant man, that the gathered company
was pervaded by a curious air of expectation. They were nearly all of
them people who had been neighbours of the Caresfoot family for years
- in many instances for generations - and as intimate with its members
as the high-stomached stiffness of English country-life will allow.
They therefore were well acquainted with the family history and
peculiarities; but it was clear from their faces that their knowledge
was of no help to them now, and that they were totally in the dark as
to why they were all gathered together in this unwonted fashion.

At length, to the relief of all, the last of the chosen fifty guests
put in an appearance, and dinner was announced. Everybody made his way
to his allotted partner, and awaited the signal to move forward, when
a fresh piquancy was added to the proceedings by an unexpected
incident - in which Maria Lee played a principal part. Maria was
sitting in a corner of the drawing-room, wondering if Philip was going
to take her in to dinner, and why he had not been to see her lately,
when suddenly she became aware that all the room was looking at her,
and on raising her eyes she perceived the cause. For there, close upon
her, and advancing with majestic step and outstretched arm, was old
Mr. Caresfoot, possessed by the evident intention of taking her down
in the full face of all the married ladies and people of title
present. She prayed that the floor might open and swallow her; indeed,
of the two, she would have preferred that way of going down to dinner.
But it did not, so there was no alternative left to her but to accept
the proffered arm, and to pass, with as much dignity as she could
muster in such a trying moment, in front of the intensely interested
company - from which she could hear an involuntary murmur of surprise -
through the wide-flung doors, down the great oak staircase loaded with
exotics, thence along a passage carpeted with crimson cloth, and
through double doors of oak that were flung open at their approach,
into the banqueting-hall. On its threshold not only she, but almost
every member of the company who passed in behind them, uttered an
exclamation of surprise; and indeed the sight before them amply
justified it.

The hall was a chamber of noble proportions, sixty feet in length by
thirty wide. It was very lofty, and the dark chestnut beams of the
beautiful arched roof were thrown into strong relief by the light of
many candles. The walls were panelled to the roof with oak that had
become almost black in the course of centuries, here and there
relieved by portraits and shining suits of armour.

Down the centre of the room ran a long wide table, whereon, and on a
huge sideboard, was spread the whole of the Caresfoot plate, which,
catching the light of the suspended candles, threw it back in dazzling
gleams till the beholder was positively bewildered with the brilliancy
of the sight.

"Oh, how beautiful!" said Maria, in astonishment.

"Yes," answered the old gentleman as he took his seat at the head of
the table, placing Maria on his right, "the plate is very fine, it has
taken two hundred years to get together; but my father did more in
that way than all of us put together, he spent ten thousand pounds on
plate during his lifetime; that gold service on the sideboard belonged
to him. I have only spent two. Mind, my love," he added in a low
voice, "when it comes into your keeping that it is preserved intact;
but I don't recommend you to add to it, there is too much already for
a simple country gentleman's family."

Maria blushed and was silent.

The dinner, which was served on a most magnificent scale, wore itself
away, as all big county-dinners do, in bursts of sedate but not
profoundly interesting conversation. Indeed, had it not been for the
novelty of the sight, Maria would have been rather bored, the squire's
stately compliments notwithstanding. As it was, she felt inclined to
envy the party at the other end, amongst whom, looking down the long
vista of sparkling glass and silver, she could now and again catch
sight of Philip's face beaming with animation, and even in the pauses
of conversation hear the echo of his distant laughter.

"What good spirits he is in!" she thought to herself.

And, indeed, Philip was, or appeared to be, in excellent spirits. His
handsome face, that of late had been so gloomy, was lit up with
laughter, and he contrived by his witty talk to keep those round him
in continual merriment.

"Philip seems very happy, doesn't he," said George, _sotto voce_ to
Mrs. Bellamy, who was sitting next to him.

"You must be a very bad judge of the face as an index to the mind if
you think that he is happy. I have been watching him all dinner, and I
draw a very different conclusion."

"Why, look how he is laughing."

"Have you never seen a man laugh to hide his misery; never mind his
lips, watch his eyes: they are dilated with fear, see how he keeps
glancing towards his father and Miss Lee. There, did you see him
start? Believe me he is not happy, and unless I am mistaken he will be
even less so before the night is over. We are not all asked here for

"I hope not, I hope not; if so we shall have to act upon our
information, eh! But, to change the subject, you look lovely

"Of course I do, I _am_ lovely; I wish I could return the compliment,
but conscientiously I can't. Did you ever see such plate? look at that

"It is wonderful," said George. "I never saw it at all out before. I
wonder," he added, with a sigh, "if I shall ever have the fingering of

"Yes," she said, with a strange look of her large eyes, "if you
continue to be guided by me, you shall. I tell you so, and I _never_
make mistakes. Hush, something is going to happen. What is it?"

The dinner had come to an end, and in accordance with the old-
fashioned custom the cloth had been removed, leaving bare an ancient
table of polished oak nearly forty feet in length, and composed of
slabs of timber a good two inches thick.

When the wine had been handed round, the old squire motioned to the
servants to leave the room, and then, having first whispered something
in the ear of Miss Lee that caused her to turn very red, he slowly
rose to his feet in the midst of a dead silence.

"Look at your cousin's face," whispered Mrs. Bellamy. George looked;
it was ghastly pale, and the black eyes were gleaming like polished
jet against white paper.

"Friends and neighbours, amongst whom or amongst whose fathers I have
lived for so many years," began the speaker, whose voice, soft as it
was, filled the great hall with ease, "it was, if tradition does not
lie, in this very room and at this very table that the only Caresfoot
who ever made an after-dinner speech of his own accord, delivered
himself of his burden. That man was my ancestor in the eighth degree,
old yeoman Caresfoot, and the occasion of his speech was to him a very
important one, being the day on which he planted Caresfoot's Staff,
the great oak by the water yonder, to mark the founding of a house of
country gentry. Some centuries have elapsed since my forefather stood
where I stand, most like with his hand upon this board as mine is now,
and addressed a company not so fine or so well dressed, but perhaps - I
mean no disrespect - on the whole, as good at heart as that before me
now. Yes, the sapling oak has grown into the biggest tree in the
country-side 'twixt then and now. It seems, therefore, to be fit that
on what is to me as great a day as the planting of that oak was to my
yeoman forefather, that I, like him, should gather my ancient friends
and neighbours round me under the same ancient roof that I may, like
him, make them the partakers of my joy.

"None of you sitting at this board to-day can look upon the old man
who now asks your attention, without realizing what he himself has
already learned: namely, that his day is over. Now, life is hard to
quit. When a man grows old, the terrors of the unknown land loom just
as large and terrible as they did to his youthful imagination, larger
perhaps. But it is a fact that must be faced, a hard, inevitable fact.
And age, realizing this, looks round it for consolations, and finds
only two: first, that as its interests and affections _here_ fade and
fall away, in just that same proportion do they grow and gather
_there_ upon the further shore; and secondly that, after Nature's
eternal fashion, the youth and vigour of a new generation is waiting
to replace the worn-out decrepitude of that which sinks into oblivion.
My life is done, it cannot be long before the churchyard claims its
own, but I live again in my son; and take such cold comfort as I may
from that idea of family, and of long-continued and assured
succession, that has so largely helped to make this country what she

"But you will wonder what can be the particular purpose for which I
have bidden you here to-night. Be assured that it was not to ask you
to listen to gloomy sermons on the, to others, not very interesting
fact of my approaching end, but rather for a joyful and a definite
reason. One wish I have long had, it is - that before I go, I may see
my son's child, the little Caresfoot that is to fill my place in
future years, prattling about my knees. But this I shall never see.
What I have to announce to you, however, is the first step towards it,
my son's engagement to Miss Lee, the young lady on my right."

"Look at his face," whispered Mrs. Bellamy to her neighbour, during
the murmur of applause that followed this announcement. "Look quick."

Philip had put his hands down upon his chair as though to raise
himself up, and an expression of such mingled rage and terror swept
across his features as, once seen, could not easily be forgotten. But
so quickly did it pass that perhaps Mrs. Bellamy, who was watching,
was the only one in all that company to observe it. In another moment
he was smiling and bowing his acknowledgements to whispered and
telegraphed congratulations.

"You all know Miss Lee," went on the old squire, "as you knew her
father and mother before her; she is a sound shoot from an honest
stock, a girl after my own heart, a girl that I love, and that all who
come under her influence will love, and this engagement is to me the
most joyful news that I have heard for many a year. May God, ay, and
man too, so deal with my son as he deals with Maria Lee!

"And now I have done; I have already kept you too long. With your
consent, we will have no more speeches, no returning of thanks; we
will spare Philip his blushes. But before I sit down I will bid you
all farewell, for I am in my eighty-third year, and I feel that I
shall never see very many of your faces again. I wish that I had been
a better neighbour to you all, as there are many other things I wish,
now that it is too late to fulfil them; but I still hope that some of
you will now and again find a kind thought for the old man whom among
yourselves you talk of as 'Devil Caresfoot.' Believe me, my friends,
there is truth in the old proverb: the devil is not always as black as
he is painted. I give you my toast, my son Philip and his affianced
wife, Maria Lee."

The whole company rose, actuated by a common impulse, and drank the
health standing; and such was the pathos of the old squire's speech,
that there were eyes among those present that were not free from
tears. Then the ladies retired, amongst them poor Maria, who was
naturally upset at the unexpected, and, in some ways, unwelcome

Online LibraryH. Rider HaggardDawn → online text (page 5 of 43)