The Project Gutenberg EBook of That Unfortunate Marriage, Vol. 2(of 3), by 
Frances Eleanor Trollope

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Title: That Unfortunate Marriage, Vol. 2(of 3)

Author: Frances Eleanor Trollope

Release Date: April 24, 2011 [EBook #35944]

Language: English

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Four months in their passage leave traces, more or less perceptible, on us all. On the first evening of May's arrival, her grandmother drew her to the window, where the rosy light of a fine summer evening shone full on her face, and scrutinized her long and lovingly. Then she kissed her grand-daughter's cheek, and tapping her lightly on the forehead, said, "This is not the big baby I parted from. You're a woman now, my lass. God bless thee!" May stoutly declared that she was not changed at all; that she had returned from all the pomps and vanities just the same May as ever. But on her side she found changes.

On her first view of it in the glow of a rosy sunset, Jessamine Cottage had been looking its best. The little parlour was fragrant with flowers, and May's tiny bedroom was a pleasant nest of white dimity, smelling of lavender and dried rose-leaves. She thought the house delightful. But a very brief acquaintance showed it to be badly built and inconvenient—one of those paltry "bandboxes" of which Mrs. Dobbs had been wont to speak with contempt. Moreover, there was an indefinable air of greater poverty than she remembered in Friar's Row; and—last and worst of all—she thought granny herself looking ill. When she hinted this privately to Uncle Jo, he scouted the idea. Ill? No, no; Sarah was never ill. There was nothing amiss with Sarah. But the suggestion made him look at his old friend with new observation, and he was forced to acknowledge to himself that she was not quite so active as formerly. But he still would not admit the idea of illness. "She'll be all right now she's got you back again, Miranda," said Mr. Weatherhead, incautiously. "It's the sperrit, you see—the sperrit has been preying on the body. There's where it is."

The idea that granny had been fretting at her absence strengthened May in her resolution not to return to London. If it were absolutely insisted upon she must, she supposed, keep the compact and pay her visit to Glengowrie. But after that she would resume her place by her grandmother's side—the place to which duty and affection equally bound her. She wrote to her father announcing this intention. And she suggested that the money spent on her expenses in London would be far better employed in paying granny handsomely for her board. "I do not think she is so well off as she used to be," wrote May in simple good faith. "And I am sure, my dear father, you will feel with me that we are bound to do anything in the world we can to help her, after all her goodness to me."

The subject which mainly occupied Mrs. Dobbs's waking thoughts after May's arrival was the unknown "gentleman of princely fortune" who might turn out to be May's fate. But, try as she would, she could find no clue to May's feeling about this individual, nor could she discover who he might be. Once she tried a joking question of a general kind about sweethearts and admirers, but May's response was as far as possible from the tone of a lovelorn maiden.

"Oh, for goodness' sake, granny, don't talk of such things. It makes me sick!" was her very unexpected exclamation. And then, with a little judicious cross-questioning, the story of Theodore Bransby's wooing came out.

"Well, well, well, child, you needn't be so fierce! Poor young man! I can't help feeling sorry for his disappointment," said Mrs. Dobbs.

"Don't waste your sorrow on him, granny; he ought to have known better."

"Well, as to that, May——" began her grandmother, with a slow smile spreading over her face.

"Now, granny dear, only listen! At any rate he might have known better when he was told, mightn't he? But he would not take 'no' for an answer; and when Uncle Frederick spoke to him the next day, he was quite rude, and declared—it makes me so hot when I think of it!—declared he had been encouraged! The idea of his daring to say such a thing! And, you know all the time I quite thought he was as good as engaged to Conny Hadlow. Everybody said so in Oldchester."

"'Everybody' is a person who makes a good many mistakes about his neighbours' affairs, May. Mrs. Simpson says that young Bransby is not coming down here this summer."

"So much the better! However, in any case, he would not honour you with one of his condescending visits now. Do you remember that evening when he called in Friar's Row? How little we thought——"

May chatted with as much apparent candour and frankness as ever. But in all her descriptions of the people whom she met in London there was not one who seemed to fit Mrs. Dormer-Smith's unknown.

"Maybe her saying no word is a sign she likes him," reflected Mrs. Dobbs; "girls will keep a secret of that kind very close. They are shy of it even in their own thoughts. If I saw him and her together, I could make a shrewd guess as to how things are."

But there was no chance of her seeing them together, and the gentleman of princely fortune remained wrapped in mystery.

Meanwhile, May went to see her old friends, and was pronounced by most of them to be quite unspoiled by her London season. But one critical spirit, at least, there was in Oldchester, who did not look on Miss Cheffington with unmixed approbation: Mr. Sebastian Bach Simpson declared that she gave herself airs.

One of the first visits which May paid was to the old house in College Quad. The Canon received her with his former paternal benevolence; but, at first, a slight indefinable chill was perceptible in Mrs. Hadlow's usually cordial manner. A little maternal jealousy on the subject of Theodore Bransby rankled in her mind. It was true that Constance did not seem to care for him; would not probably have accepted him had he asked her. But, under all the circumstances, Mrs. Hadlow was strongly of opinion that he ought to have asked her. And then a rumour reached Oldchester of Theodore's attentions to Miss Cheffington. But there was no resisting May's warm and single-minded praises of her friend. It seemed that Conny's prospects had grown unexpectedly brilliant. Mr. Owen Rivers, who had recently reappeared in Oldchester after his own erratic fashion, walking in one morning unexpectedly to his aunt's quaint old sitting-room, pronounced his cousin to have made a great social success. "You know my opinion of the worth of that game, Aunt Jane," said he. "But, such as it is, Conny has won it. Old Lord Castlecombe is in love with her. And—which is far more important—so is Mrs. Griffin. You and I always knew she was handsome. But there are certain people to whom the evidence of their senses is as nothing compared with the evidence of peers, and griffins, and such-like heraldic creatures."

"My Aunt Pauline is in love with Conny, too," declared May. "I ought to be jealous; for Aunt Pauline is always quoting Constance Hadlow to me as an example of everything that is delightful in a girl. But I knew it before. I didn't wait for the heraldic creatures, did I, Mrs. Hadlow?"

And so the old affectionate, familiar intercourse was resumed, and May was welcomed in the old way. The Canon missed his daughter, and had not consented easily to her prolonged absence. He liked to see young faces around him; and May's face was particularly pleasant to him. At first May had refused to leave her grandmother. But Mrs. Dobbs urged her to spend some hours every day with the Hadlows. "I have my own occupations in the daytime," she said; "and when you come home of an evening, and tell me all your sayings and doings, I can enjoy it comfortably. I don't want you hanging about this poky little place all day, my lass."

The girl was the more easily persuaded to do as her grandmother wished in this matter from her own secret resolve to fix herself in Oldchester. She did not grudge the hours given to her friends. There would be plenty more time to be spent with granny. So she thought; reckoning on the morrow with the assurance of youth. Day after day she sat during the hot afternoon hours under the black shadow of the old yew tree in the Canon's garden; sometimes volunteering to do some task of needlework for Mrs. Hadlow, sometimes winding wool for the Canon's grey socks, sometimes making up posies for the adornment of the sitting-room. And there was Fox, the terrier, dividing his attentions between her and his mistress; the peaceful Wend flowing by on the other side of the hedge; the garden blooming, the birds twittering, the distant schoolboys shouting, the sweet cathedral bells chiming,—everything as it had been last summer.

And yet not quite as it had been. There was some subtle difference between these afternoons and the afternoons of last summer.

It was not merely that Constance was missed, nor that Theodore Bransby no longer made one of the group beneath the yew tree. Of these changes one was scarcely to be regretted—for Conny was enjoying herself extremely, and only desired to prolong her leave of absence—and the other was undoubtedly satisfactory. But this could not surely suffice to make it a deep delight to sit silent and wind balls of gray worsted for half an hour at a stretch! Was it the negative joy of Theodore's absence which caused May to look forward with her first waking thoughts to those hours in the garden, and to live them over again in her mind when she lay down to rest at night? It seemed as if the London season, far from spoiling her for simple things, had marvellously enhanced the quiet pleasures of her home life, and given them a new intensity.

They were very quiet pleasures, truly. Mary Rayne and the Burton girls seldom appeared in College Quad now that Constance was away. Mrs. Hadlow had no lawn-tennis court, as has already been set forth; and persons who gave up their garden-ground to the frivolous purpose of growing flowers could not expect their younger friends to spare them many minutes out of a summer's day. Visitors of the sterner sex were chiefly represented by Major Mitton and Dr. Hatch, with a liberal sprinkling of the elder cathedral clergy.

The eldest Miss Burton said to May once, "I can't imagine how you stand the dull life down here after your aunt's house in town! But I suppose you are simply resting on your oars. We hear you are to go to Glengowrie in the autumn. How delicious! The Duchess is sure to have her house filled with nice people."

May emphatically denied that she was dull in Oldchester. Dull! She had never, she thought, been so happy in her life. "I wonder," said she to Mrs. Hadlow that same afternoon, "whether Violet Burton feels Oldchester to be dull. And if not, why should she assume that I do?"

"Violet has a serious object in life, you know. She is the best tennis player in the county. One cannot be dull with an absorbing pursuit of that sort," answered Mrs. Hadlow, who, with all her genial benevolence, had an occasional turn of the tongue which proved her kinship with her nephew Owen.

"The fact is," observed the latter, who was lying under the yew tree with a pipe in his mouth, and an uncut magazine in his hand, "that each of us carries his own supply of dulness about with him independently of external circumstances. Not but what there are conceivable cases where external circumstances would have a tremendous dulness-producing power; such as being banished to a desolate shore beyond the reach of 'baccy;' or having to read the Parliamentary debates right through every day."

"Or being obliged to attend a musical afternoon at Miss Piper's London lodging three times a week," put in May, laughing. "You don't know what a hopeless heretic he is, Mrs. Hadlow. Even amiable Mr. Sweeting gave him up in despair. And Lady Moppett thinks he ought to be excommunicated."

"Well, I suppose he need not have gone to Miss Piper's unless he had chosen to do so," said Aunt Jane. "Owen is rather fond of being pitied for having his own way. He ate his cake in the shape of enjoying Miss Piper's music, and had it in the shape of declaring himself a victim."

"Enjoying——? Good heavens!" exclaimed Owen, waving his pipe in protest.

"Why did you go, then?"

To this simple query Owen made no other response than muttering, with his pipe between his teeth again, that there were "compensations."

"Owen," said his aunt abruptly, after a long silence, "you are a most unsatisfactory spectacle to behold."

"That's disappointing, Aunt Jane. I flattered myself that I was a thing of beauty and a joy for ever."

"I shouldn't care about your not being ornamental, if only you were useful. But it is dreadful to see you wasting your life."

"I assure you I am employing my life in a very agreeable manner just now," answered Owen, resting on his elbow, and glancing up from under the shadow of his straw hat.

"Agreeable! That is not the point."

"It's my point."

"Ah! Well, we won't begin a wrangle, Owen; but——"

"My dear Aunt Jane! Do I ever wrangle with you?"

"You do worse. I'm afraid you are incorrigible. But every one else sees that I am right. Ask May what she thinks."

May started, and coloured violently; but she kept her eyes on the needlework in her hand, and said nothing.

"No; I shall not ask Miss Cheffington. She is a partisan, and would be sure to side with you."

"Not at all. May has her own opinions; haven't you, May?"

"One can't help having opinions," returned May shyly.

"Good gracious! Miss Cheffington, what an extraordinarily wild assertion! 'Can't help having opinions——'? One might suppose you had been nurtured among sages, and had never heard of Mr. Thomas Carlyle's celebrated majority."

"I have been nurtured by Granny," rejoined May, lifting her eyes for the first time with a bright, brief glance.

"Ay," exclaimed Mrs. Hadlow, "I'd advise you to ask Mrs. Dobbs what she thinks of a young man with your education and talents—oh, you need not disclaim having brains, it only makes your case so much the worse!—sitting lazily in his form, and letting all sorts of dunderheaded tortoises win the race."

"Bravo, Aunt Jane! I like 'dunderheaded tortoises.' 'Mobled Queen is good.'"

"You wouldn't enjoy hearing Mrs. Dobbs's opinion, I can tell you. I know very well what she would say," pursued Mrs. Hadlow, more than half angry.

"I should like to ask her myself," said Owen, rising to his feet. "Do you think I might, Miss Cheffington?"

"Of course! If you have courage!" answered May, looking up with a smile.

"I'm quite in earnest; I have long wished to know Mrs. Dobbs. Do you think she would consider it a liberty if I were to call?"

May cast her eyes down again, and became very busy with her needlework. "No," she answered; "I don't think Granny would consider it a liberty; she knows about you. I mean she knows you are Mrs. Hadlow's nephew."

Mrs. Hadlow gave no more thought to this conversation, and May, although she gave many thoughts to it, told herself that Mr. Rivers had only been jesting, and that nothing was more unlikely than that he should fulfil his words. She told herself so, with all the more insistence because at the bottom of her heart she longed that he and "Granny" should know each other.

Nevertheless, on the very next afternoon, when May was absent, Owen Rivers did call at Jessamine Cottage.

He was at once received with cordiality for his aunt's sake, but he soon earned a welcome for his own. Jo Weatherhead took to him amazingly. "That's what I call a gentleman," said he, "a real gentleman—sterling metal, and not Brummagem electro-plating. What a difference from that young Bransby! A stuck-up, impudent—but, Lord! what could one expect from an old Rabbitt's grandson! There's where it is."

"Mr. Rivers is a good Radical, Jo," Mrs. Dobbs answered slyly. Whereupon Jo nodded his head with undiminished complacency, and declared that if it wasn't for such Radicals as them, Radicalism might soon shut up shop altogether; concluding with his favourite apophthegm that many good things came down from above, but very few mounted up from below.


Owen Rivers was greatly attracted by Mrs. Dobbs. He admired her uprightness of character, and downrightness of speech; her shrewd common sense, combined with unpretending simplicity; her indomitable strength of purpose, tempered by broad good nature. At the very beginning of their acquaintance, he told her that he had been recommended by his aunt Jane to take her (Mrs. Dobbs's) opinion as to his mode of life. And when Mrs. Dobbs tried to put him off by declaring that Mrs. Hadlow must have been joking, he answered that he, at any rate, was not joking; and begged her to speak candidly.

"If I speak at all, I shall speak candidly, you may depend," said Mrs. Dobbs.

And, in truth, Owen soon found that he had no cause to complain of her lack of plain speaking. Mrs. Dobbs was wholly and heartily on the side of Aunt Jane, and held many a stout argument with the young man.

"But, pray, how is one to manage?" asked Owen. "My aunt says, 'Go into a profession.' Easier said than done! Besides, although I might not object to be Lord Chancellor—or even, perhaps, Admiral of the Fleet—I have no relish for the intermediate stages, which makes a difficulty."

"That's all stuff and nonsense," said Mrs. Dobbs bluntly. "It's a shame to see a gentleman with your book-learning, and good gifts, wasting the advantages God has given him."

"Wasting my advantages! That's Aunt Jane's pet phrase. But those are mere words, you know."

"Words are words, for certain. And nuts are nuts. Only some of 'em hold sound kernels, whilst others have got nothing inside but dust."

"Well, come now, let us get at the kernel," said Owen, half earnest, half amused. "What would you have me do, Mrs. Dobbs?"

"Do! Any honest work that's of use to your fellow creatures."

"Such as stone-breaking, for instance?"

"Better than nothing."

"And my 'advantages' would not then be wasted, I presume?"

"You might be getting a quarter per cent. for 'em—or maybe less—instead of doubling your capital. But that would be better than keeping all you've got in a stocking, like some ignorant old woman, and pulling out a shilling at a time whenever you happen to want it."

Many such passages of arms did they have; and Owen told himself that Mrs. Dobbs was a very interesting study. Meanwhile, from the superior vantage ground of her seniority, she had been making one or two studies of him; and the result of them induced her to give him a hint as to May's prospects. "I shall let him know how the land lies," said she to herself. "Very likely he's in no danger. So much the better. But I'll act fair by the young man. He's one of them quiet-looking sort that feels very deeply; though, for all his humble-mindedness, he's a deal too proud to show it."

Accordingly Mrs. Dobbs took her opportunity one afternoon when Owen strolled in somewhat earlier than usual. He and his hostess were tête-á-tête; for May had gone to lunch with Mrs. Martin Bransby, and to enjoy a romp afterwards with the children, who adored her.

"Do you know this Duchess my grand-daughter is going to visit, Mr. Rivers?" began Mrs. Dobbs abruptly.

"To the best of my belief I never saw her in my life. My acquaintance among duchesses is not extensive."

"Nor yet her mother—Mrs. Griffin?"

"Mrs. Griffin I have seen; and I make her a bow when we meet. That's about all."

"They are very kind to May."

"Small blame to them! And yet I don't know; it is to their credit, when one comes to think of it."

"May talks of wishing to give up her visit."

"She is unwilling to leave you, I believe."

"Yes; bless her! But I mustn't give in to that." Then with a little air of hesitation very unusual with her, Mrs. Dobbs proceeded: "I want you and Mrs. Hadlow and all her friends not to encourage her in that idea. The fact is, it is very important that May should not miss going to Glengowrie this autumn. More important than she knows."

Owen Rivers leant forward with a sudden attentive contraction of the brows. "What is it?" he asked brusquely. Then, remembering himself, he added, "I beg your pardon. I didn't mean to put a conversational pistol to your head; nor to demand any secrets from you."

"I don't know that there are any secrets, Mr. Rivers. But you understand there are certain—certain opportunities which I am bound to give May, if I can. I'm not one for forcing buckets of water down any horse's throat, but unless you take him to the water he can't drink if he would. The truth is, that I am anxious about my grandchild's future. When I am gone, she will be left very desolate, poor lamb!" She paused suddenly, and pressed her lips together. Then, after a minute's silence, she went on more firmly, "God knows I never wished my poor daughter to marry above her station; her marriage was a sore stroke to me. But now, whatever you and me may think about distinctions of rank, it's certain that May has a right to a lady's place in the world, through her father's birth and family. I sacrificed a good deal in parting from her at all—sacrificed my feelings, I mean—and I don't want it all to be wasted. I want the child to get some good out of it, do you see, Mr. Rivers?"

"I see."

"And don't you think I'm right?"

"Yes; the horse ought to have his choice in that matter of drinking."

"I'm glad you agree with me. My dear old friend Jo Weatherhead is half inclined to think me wrong. He says I ought to consider the child's happiness first and foremost, and that, if being with fine folks don't make her happy, I ought to let her give them up. But May is very young still—barely eighteen; she hasn't had time to judge. I wouldn't have her think, later on, that this or that good thing might have befallen her if she had had her chance and seen more of the world. It's bitter to look back on opportunities lost or wasted, and that," added Mrs. Dobbs, changing her tone, and shaking hands with the young man, who had risen to go away, "is why I take the liberty of scolding you now and then. But I hope an old granny like me may speak her mind without offence? That's one of our privileges."

It seemed clear that Owen Rivers, at all events, was not offended. His visits to Jessamine Cottage grew longer and more frequent. It became an established custom for him to drop in at tea-time. Very often when May had been spending the afternoon at the Canon's house, he would escort her home through the fields. That was a longer way than by the streets; but so much pleasanter, that their preference for it was surely very natural.

Oh, those rambles by the Wend, with the pearly evening sky above them, the dewy, flower-speckled grass under foot, and in their ears the sound of the sweet chimes, which seemed but to accompany some still sweeter melody, felt not heard. May gave herself no account of the charm which encompassed her. She looked not "before and after," but was happy, as youth alone can be happy, in the intense sweetness of the present. Later life has happiness of its own; but not that. It may be more or less, but it is different. Those young delights can no more return than a rose can furl itself again into a rosebud. And as to Owen, if his day-dream was sometimes pierced by a sharp ray of common sense from the work-a-day world, he turned his eyes away, and plunged still deeper into the rainbow-tinted cloudland of young love.

It could not hurt her, he argued. It could hurt no one but himself, and he was prepared to suffer. She was sweet and kind; but she had not—she could not have—any special feeling of tenderness for him. If, indeed, that could be possible——! But what was there in him to attract so lovely and lovable a creature as May Cheffington? A strongly-marked trait in Owen's character was what Mrs. Hadlow, being hotly provoked by some manifestation of it, had once designated as "pig-headed modesty!" It was obstinate enough, truly, at times; and it had a warp of inflexible pride in the woof of it. But it was genuine modesty for all that. Still he would not so resolutely have shut his eyes to the possibility that this matter of falling in love might be mutual, but for Mrs. Dobbs's well-meant words of warning. May was going away in a week or two—away out of his reach, perhaps for ever. Since she was in no danger, he need, surely, have no scruple in enjoying these few happy moments in her company. They would probably be the last. No one suspected his feeling, and he could keep his own counsel.

He honestly believed that no one suspected him. His Aunt Jane, whose observation might have been the most to be dreaded, was in truth blind to what was going on under her eyes. In the first place, it was nothing new or unusual for Owen to spend his afternoons under the yew tree in her garden; nor for May Cheffington to be there also. And it did not occur, it scarcely could have occurred, to Conny's mother, that Conny was being a second time supplanted by this girl so much her inferior in beauty. And then, too, it must be acknowledged, that neither May nor Owen thought it necessary to trouble Mrs. Hadlow with any detailed report of the number of visits which her nephew paid to Jessamine Cottage; nor with a chronicle of their many evening strolls beside the Wend. Such strange tricks does love play with all: making the simple cunning, and the straightforward wily, almost in spite of themselves! While as for Mrs. Dobbs, her usual keenness with regard to her grand-daughter was baffled by a vision of "the gentleman of princely fortune" on whom May had been said to look favourably; and there were but few opportunities for other eyes to note the behaviour of Owen and May towards each other.

The custom of the Saturday evening whist-parties, at which Mr. and Mrs. Simpson and Mr. Weatherhead were the only guests, had been unavoidably broken through at the time of Mrs. Dobbs's removal from Friar's Row: and, although efforts had been made to renew it, it had somehow languished, like a plant whose roots have been disturbed. Sometimes two or three weeks would elapse without the Simpsons appearing at Jessamine Cottage on the accustomed Saturday evening. The amiable Amelia tried to compensate for these gaps in their social intercourse by running in at odd moments to see Mrs. Dobbs. She would frequently call on her way home from Mrs. Bransby's, or some other house where she gave lessons, and chat in her discursive style: smilingly unconscious, for the most part, whether Mrs. Dobbs vouchsafed her any attention or not; but always too sweet-tempered to resent it, if she chanced to discover that Mrs. Dobbs had not heard three sentences of all she had been saying. On one topic she was, at any rate, sure of being listened to: the words "our dear Miranda" were certain to arouse Mrs. Dobbs from her deepest fit of musing; and fits of musing had become more and more frequent with her of late.

It was not clear whether Mrs. Simpson had taken to call May "Miranda" by way of ceremoniously acknowledging her place in the world as a young lady who had been presented at Court; or whether she considered three syllables to be intrinsically more genteel than one; or whether she had simply caught the word from the fashionable journals which had chronicled the appearance of Miss Miranda Cheffington at various festivities of the season. Mrs. Simpson's reasons for doing or leaving undone were usually of a tangled kind, and an endeavour to extricate one of them often resulted in pulling up a number of others by the roots. At all events, Mrs. Simpson had taken to speak of May as "our dear Miranda," and the words infallibly insured her an attentive hearing from Mrs. Dobbs for whatever might follow them. If Mr. Weatherhead chanced to be present at any of Amelia's erratic visits, he listened willingly to all the gossip she might pour forth. It was always good-natured gossip. Sebastian might bear a grudge here and there, and might impute shabby motives to the conduct of his fellow-creatures; but Amelia never. There seemed to be an excess of saccharine matter in her disposition which flavoured every word she said. This species of excess being somewhat uncommon, many persons pronounced poor Mrs. Simpson to be an arrant humbug. But, had she been consciously a humbug, she would assuredly have distributed her sweet speeches with more discretion; for nothing is less popular than uncritical eulogy—of other people.

There was an unusual air of excitement about her when she appeared one afternoon in Jessamine Cottage. She found its mistress knitting in her accustomed arm-chair, with Jo Weatherhead seated opposite to her reading aloud paragraphs from a local newspaper.

"My dear Mrs. Dobbs," cried Amelia, bursting in breathlessly, "how do you do? And Mr. Weatherhead! Now this is quite against rules—or, at least, against custom; for I am sure you would never make such a rule. You are far too hospitable. But as I was passing—so nice to be neighbours instead of Friar's Row, though I shall ever look on Friar's Row with affection for the sake of old times. What is it the poet says about 'portions and parcels of the dreadful past'? Only there was nothing dreadful in our little suppers; and Martha's stewed tripe beyond praise."

"I hope you are going to eat some of our little supper to-night," said Mrs. Dobbs, composedly. "It's Saturday, you know."

"How odd you should say that! It is exactly the remark I made to Bassy this morning! Oh yes; certainly. And, as I was saying just now, it's quite hors ligne, as the French express it, to inflict myself on you twice in one day."

"You know you are very welcome."

"You're always so kind, dear Mrs. Dobbs! I have been busy teaching all the morning. This very moment I have come from Miss Piper's and——"

"You are not giving her lessons, are you?" asked Mrs. Dobbs, looking up with a smile.

"Oh dear, no! Not, I'm sure, that she would not be an excellent pupil; indeed, both of them in their different styles. One the accomplished musician, and the other so domesticated. No doubt you will hear of it from our dear Miranda, for of course she will be invited. But I thought I would mention it."

"Mention what?—eh?" asked Jo Weatherhead, with impatient curiosity.

"The party. They are going to give a musical party. Though really I might omit the adjective, for who could imagine the Miss Pipers giving a party that wasn't musical? To be sure some persons find it rather trying. Bassy, for instance, cannot altogether approve the new school. But then he was brought up in the strictest classical principles, and he is so very clever himself, that of course——!"

Some native gift of incoherency which distinguished Mrs. Simpson's mind enabled her to reconcile the most conflicting claims on her admiration.

"Ho, ho! a party, eh? A musical party?" said Mr. Weatherhead.

"Yes; but of course there is nothing remarkable in that," replied Mrs. Simpson, very unexpectedly.

"Nothing at all remarkable, I should think," assented Mrs. Dobbs.

"Ah! But the point is—oh, pussy! Poor old pussy, did I hurt her? Dear, dear, dear!"

In the act of throwing herself forward from her place on the sofa, in order to touch Mrs. Dobbs's arm, and thus emphasize her communication, Amelia had accidentally set her foot on the tail of the old tabby cat, who at once protested in the frankest manner.

"I'm so sorry! I am so very nearsighted. Poor old pussums! Come and let us make it up—won't you, like a dear?"

Poor old pussums, however, declined these advances, and took up her position on the other side of her mistress's ample skirts; whence for some time she glared distrustfully at every fresh manifestation of Mrs. Simpson's playful vivacity.

"Well, for goodness' sake tell us the point, if there is one!" cried Mr. Weatherhead, who had been irritably rubbing his nose during this episode.

"Ah! Naughty impatience! That is so like a gentleman! Gentlemen are dreadfully impatient in general; don't you agree with me, Mrs. Dobbs? However, it really will be quite a musical treat. Mr. Cleveland Turner is one of the most rising musicians of the day; I believe nobody can understand his compositions without severe preliminary training. Mr. Sweeting, too, is most amiable; he has taken a country house in the neighbourhood. And Miss Piper has invited a young lady down to stay with her who sings divinely—quite divinely, Miss Piper says; and, indeed, I have no doubt she does, for I saw her name mentioned in the Morning Post at a very aristocratic soirée. And Bassy and I are to be invited!"

"Are you, now? Well, I'm glad of it," said Mrs. Dobbs heartily. She knew this was a distinction which would give her friends pleasure.

"Yes; Bassy is to accompany the young lady's songs on the piano. Mr. Cleveland Turner will not accompany;—or, at least, not anything of a tuneful sort. He doesn't like it. Well, you know, there's no accounting for tastes, is there? Most people think strawberries delicious. But I have known a person who couldn't touch them—invariably produced a rash!"

With which lucid illustration Mrs. Simpson rose, and declared she must positively be going. After an effusive leavetaking—in the course of which the old tabby leaped on to the back of Mrs. Dobbs's chair, where she sat arching her spine and growling—the good lady set forth on her way down the little garden-path in front of the house. But scarcely had she reached the gate, when she turned and tripped back again with a girlish step, which neither increase of years nor flesh had much sobered. "I never delivered my message," she said; "and really it is an extraordinary instance of my absence of mind, for that was the chief reason why I came at all at this hour. I was at Mrs. Bransby's about four o'clock, and left our dear Miranda there."

Here she paused so long that Mrs. Dobbs replied, "Yes; I knew May was going to call there."

"Now I dare say you will scarcely credit it," said Amelia, with her head on one side, her spectacles glistening, and an arch smile illumining her countenance, "but, for the moment, I had totally forgotten again what I was going to say!"

"Lord bless the woman!" muttered Jo Weatherhead, in a tone not, perhaps, quite so inaudible as politeness required.

"But I have it now. This is the message; our dear Miranda begged me to tell you that she will remain at Mrs. Bransby's for afternoon tea, and come home in the cool of the evening. Mrs. Bransby—indeed, all the family—are most kind to her. Of course I don't mean to say that after the brilliant scenes of London society it can be any particular treat to her, although anything more truly elegant than Mrs. Bransby's new cream broché I never beheld in my life. However, they pressed our dear Miranda to stay. And she remarked to me that 'Granny would not be left alone, for she knew Mr. Weatherhead was coming.' And now"—looking at her watch—"I must fly, or I shall be too late for tea; and then what would Bassy say?" She tripped once more down the garden path, stopped at the gate to wave her hand, and at length finally departed.


Meanwhile, May was playing with Mrs. Martin Bransby's children, in the delightful old walled garden; and Mrs. Martin Bransby herself was looking on from the shade of a trellised arbour. These two had become very good friends. Whether Mrs. Bransby was or was not aware of her stepson's rejected suit, May had no means of knowing; but she felt instinctively that Mrs. Bransby was not likely to be super-sensitive on her stepson's behalf, nor to bear her a grudge for having refused him. Theodore's absence was not lamented in his own home. His young half-brothers and sisters openly rejoiced at it; and even his father felt that life went on more pleasantly without him.

May's popularity with the children was a sure passport to their mother's heart; while on her side Mrs. Bransby had developed a most endearing trait of character: she liked Owen Rivers, and was always happy to welcome him to her house. Although Owen admired her beauty and elegance extremely, there was no alloy of coquetry in the preference she showed for his company. Indeed, Owen told his Aunt Jane that Mrs. Bransby's delight in adorning her graceful person came nearer to being a pure case of l'Art pour l'Art than any he had ever witnessed. Nevertheless, the most transcendental of artists enjoys appreciation. So it chanced that on this special afternoon, Mr. Rivers being announced just when she was urging May to remain and drink tea with her, Mrs. Bransby at once suggested that perhaps Mr. Rivers would stay too, and be kind enough to see Miss Cheffington home. Mr. Rivers handsomely acceded to the proposal; and these three persons passed a very agreeable afternoon together.

The romping, happy children, with that disregard for any "plurality of worlds" theory which belongs to their age, accepted the whole arrangement as being ordained for their sole and peculiar enjoyment. Under this impression they declined to allow Owen to remain lounging beside their mother in the shade, but imperiously required him "not to be lazy," but to "come and play." He withstood the clamour of the boys for some time; but when three-year-old Enid toddled up to him, and gravely seized one of his hands with both hers, evidently under the conviction that she was quite able to drag him off with her by main force, it was impossible to resist any longer. A very noisy game—known to the younger Bransbys under the alliterative appellation of "Tiggy, Tiggy, touchwood," and which involved a great deal of confused rushing about, and shrill vociferation—was proceeding in the liveliest manner, when forth from the long window of the drawing-room stepped a figure at sight of whom Martin, the eldest boy, stopped short in a headlong course, and Bobby and Billy were so surprised that they checked a wild halloo in their very throats.

It was Theodore. He was dressed in travelling garb (Theodore had appropriate costumes for every department of life; and adhered to them as punctiliously as a Chinese), and was advancing with his usual erect gravity towards his step-mother, when, catching sight of May and Owen, he stopped, surprised in his turn.

"Dear me, Theodore, is that you?" said Mrs. Bransby, rising and coming forward. "When did you arrive? We did not expect you. You did not write, did you?"

"No; I took a sudden resolution to run down for a week. I wished to consult my father about a little matter of business, and I wanted change of air besides."

In answer to Mrs. Bransby's nervous inquiries whether the servants had attended to him, and whether she should order his room to be prepared, he replied—

"Thanks; I have given the necessary orders. My valise has been carried upstairs. I will go and wash my hands, and then I shall ask you for a cup of tea, if you please," glancing at the table already spread beneath the trees. Then he marched up to May, who was standing on the lawn, with a look of little less dismay than the children ingenuously exhibited. He raised his hat with one hand, and shook her reluctant hand with the other, saying in his deliberate accents—

"This is truly an unexpected favour of Fortune. I knew you were in Oldchester, but I scarcely hoped to find you here. How do you do, Rivers?" (This in an indefinable tone of condescension.) Then again addressing himself to May, he said, "You have not had any communication from town this morning?"


"Nor from Combe Park?"

"Oh no!"

"Ah! I imagined not. May I beg the favour of a word with you presently? I am only going to get rid of some of the dust of travel. You will still be here when I return?"

May was tempted to declare that she positively must go home immediately. But before she could speak Mrs. Bransby answered for her: "Oh, of course Miss Cheffington will be here still. I do not mean to let her run away just yet."

Then, with another formal bow, Theodore returned to the house and disappeared through the drawing-room window.

There was an awkward silence, broken by Martin's exclaiming, in a solemn tone, "He's just like the vampire."

The laugh which followed came as a relief to the embarrassment of the elders.

"Martin!" exclaimed his mother reprovingly.

"Well, mother, he is," persisted Martin, who was unspeakably disgusted at the sudden quenching of the festivities. "What does he come stalking and prowling like that for? He's exactly like the vampire!"

May and Owen avoided each other's eye, feeling a guilty consciousness that Martin had in a great measure expressed their own sentiments. Certainly, the whole party appeared to have been suddenly iced. The three younger children were dismissed to the nursery; and Martin and his sister Ethel voluntarily withdrew, feeling that all the fun was over. A large slice of cake apiece was looked upon as very inadequate amends, and accepted under protest.

"I should think he might have stayed in London when he was there," grumbled Martin, as he walked away, viciously digging his heels into the turf at every step by way of a vent to his injured feelings. "Nobody wants stalking, prowling vampires here. Why couldn't he stop in London?"

As though "stalking, prowling vampires" were generally admitted to be popular members of society in the metropolis.

Mr. Rivers and the two ladies beguiled the time until Theodore should return, by drinking tea and discussing Miss Piper's forthcoming musical party. Curiously enough no one said a word about young Bransby. They all seemed to avoid the topic by a tacit understanding. But though out of sight, he was not out of mind—at any rate, he was not out of May's mind. She was secretly wondering what he could have to say to her. Could he possibly intend to renew his offer of marriage? The idea seemed a wild one; nevertheless, it darted through her mind. One could never tell, she thought, what his obstinate self-conceit might lead him to do. However, May resolved, come what might, to cling tightly to Mrs. Bransby's sheltering presence so long as she remained in that house; and in going home she would have the protection of Mr. Rivers's escort. Even Theodore Bransby could scarcely propose to her before these witnesses!

At length Theodore reappeared, brushed and trim, in speckless raiment. He took his place at the tea-table; and after the exchange of a few commonplace remarks, silence stole over the company. Theodore seemed to be waiting for something; and from time to time he looked at Owen as though expecting him to take his leave. Finally he cleared his throat, and said gravely, "Miss Cheffington, I see you are not taking any more tea; may I crave the favour of a few words with you?"

"Oh, please, I think I will have some more tea," said May, hastily pushing her cup towards Mrs. Bransby. Theodore, who had half risen from his chair, bowed, resumed his seat, and folded his arms in a waiting attitude. Then May added, with desperate resolution, "Will you not be kind enough to say what you have to say, now? I must be going home immediately; and I'm sure there can be no secrets to tell." She buried her face in her teacup to hide the colour which flamed into her cheeks as she said the words.

"If you desire it," returned Theodore stiffly, "of course I shall obey. I merely thought you might prefer to receive painful tidings in——"

"Painful!" cried May, turning pale, and suddenly interrupting him. "Is anything the matter with Granny?"

A glance at his raised eyebrows reassured her, for the next moment she said, "Oh, how stupid I am! Of course you could know nothing, you have only just arrived. It isn't—it isn't my father, is it?"

"Pray do not alarm yourself, Miss Cheffington. Captain Cheffington is, so far as I know, perfectly well."

"Wouldn't it be better to speak out?" said Owen. As soon as he had spoken, he felt that he had no right to put in his word. But he could not help it; Theodore's self-important slowness was too exasperating.

"Yes; do, please," said May.

"There is no cause for alarm, as I said," returned Theodore, trying to look as if he had not heard Owen's suggestion. "But a shock—a slight shock—is apt to be felt at the announcement of sudden death, even in the case of a total stranger."

"Sudden death!"

"Yes; I regret to inform you that your cousin, George Cheffington, has been killed by the accidental discharge of a gun, when he was on a shooting expedition up the country."

All three of his listeners drew a deep sigh of relief.

"Oh!" sighed May, the colour returning to her cheeks and lips, "I felt a horrible fear for the moment about Aunt Pauline!"

"This is a very important event," said Theodore, looking over his cravat with his House-of-Commons air, and indicating by his tone that the fate of Aunt Pauline was a matter of comparative insignificance.

"I am sorry for poor old Lord Castlecombe," said May.

"It will, of course, be a severe blow to your great-uncle; all the more so that Mr. Lucius Cheffington is in deplorably weak health."

"Lucius is never very strong, is he?"

"He is never robust, but this season he has been extremely delicate. I have reason to believe that a very high medical authority has expressed considerable anxiety about him."

"Does Aunt Pauline know?—I mean about George Cheffington's death?"

Theodore drew himself up even more stiffly than usual as he answered, "I am not aware what means Mrs. Dormer-Smith may have had of hearing the news; but my impression is that it can scarcely yet have been communicated to her. The original telegram to Lord Castlecombe only reached him yesterday."

"Did they—Lucius, or any of them—ask you to tell me?" inquired May. It now for the first time struck her as being odd that Theodore Bransby should have been selected for such an office.

"Ahem! No. I was not precisely commissioned to inform you. But I was anxious to spare you the shock of hearing of this disaster accidentally."

The fact was that Theodore had seen the telegram in a London newspaper of that morning.

There ensued a short silence. Then Theodore said to his step-mother, with an elaborate shivering movement of the shoulders, "Don't you think it grows very damp and chilly? I cannot consider it prudent to remain here whilst the dews are falling."

No one was sorry for this excuse to break up the sitting. Mrs. Bransby made a move towards the house; and May said it was time for her to be going home.

"With your permission, I will have the pleasure of escorting you, Miss Cheffington," said Theodore.

"Oh no, please!—thank you. Mr. Rivers said——"

"I have undertaken to see Miss Cheffington safe home," said Rivers. And Mrs. Bransby suggested that Theodore must be tired with his journey; and, moreover, that dinner would be ready at eight. But he disregarded both suggestions. "I shall enjoy a stroll at this cool hour; and I don't mean to dine. I lunched rather late, and will have something light cooked for my supper about ten. Do you mean to go, Rivers? Oh! well, I'll join you as far as Mrs. Dobbs's house."

Of course, under the circumstances it was impossible for May to say a word to prevent him. And accordingly he walked from his father's door on one side of her, while Owen strode on the other. As for May, she had been ready to cry at first with vexation and resentment; but after a while the sense of something ludicrous in the behaviour of her bodyguard so overcame her, that she was very near bursting out into a fit of almost hysterical laughter.

The two young men were full of smouldering animosity towards each other. But they both manifested this feeling chiefly by a severe, and almost sullen, demeanour towards May. She felt that she was being marched along between them more like a detected malefactor than a young lady whom one of them, at least, had besieged with tender proposals. If she addressed a word to Owen, he answered her in dry monosyllables; if she spoke to Theodore, he replied as from a lofty pinnacle of freezing politeness.

"It only needs a pair of handcuffs to make the thing complete," said May to herself. Then she finally gave up all attempts to be conversational, and so they arrived at Jessamine Cottage in solemn silence.

As they walked up the little garden-path in the gathering dusk, they were overtaken by Mr. and Mrs. Simpson. The latter, as soon as she recognized them, began to pour forth a fluent stream of talk, which did not cease when Martha opened the door; and then, in some confused way which neither May nor Owen could afterwards account for, they all found themselves crowding into the little parlour together. As for Theodore, he had from the first resolved to go in if Rivers went in, and to remain as long as Rivers remained.

Mrs. Dobbs looked up astonished at sight of Theodore. She glanced inquiringly at May, who had a queer look on her face, half-distressed, half-amused. Jo Weatherhead rose, staring glumly at the new arrivals, of whom Sebastian brought up the rear, with an expression of countenance which showed that his temper was bristling like his hair. But Mrs. Simpson's sprightly eloquence spread itself impartially over all these shades of feeling, as water makes a smooth and level surface above the roughest bottom.

"So astonished, dear Mrs. Dobbs, to find Mr. Bransby, junior! Having not the slightest idea that he was in Oldchester, you know; and what a singular coincidence our coming upon them all three just at your very door, was it not?"

"Well," observed Sebastian in his rasping voice, "considering that we were coming to sup with Mrs. Dobbs, and that Miss May was on her way home, it would have been stranger if we had met at any one else's door."

"Now, Bassy, I will not be overwhelmed by your stern logic. Ladies are privileged to indulge in some little play of the imagination. Besides"—with an arch smile of triumph—"it really was the fact in this case. Oh! thank you, Mr. Weatherhead; any chair will do for me. Don't let me disturb——! I suppose I may venture to make a shrewd guess, Mr. Bransby, that you have come down to attend Miss Piper's musical party? A great compliment, indeed, when one considers your professional occupations. But the bow cannot always be bent. Even Homer, I believe, is said sometimes——Oh, no; he nods, I fancy: which, of course, is different. I really believe that Miss Hadlow will be the only star of our Oldchester firmament absent from the festive scene. Now acknowledge, dear Mrs. Dobbs, that you were surprised as I was. You did not expect this addition of 'youth at the prow'—if I may venture on the expression—to our little circle this evening. At the same time I must confess that three such sober young persons I never beheld. They were all as silent as——It put me in mind of those beautiful lines: 'Not a drum was heard; not a funeral note, As his——' Not, of course, that there was anything of a funereal nature. Far from it."

This last touch overcame May's self-command. She burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter; breaking out afresh every time she glanced at Owen's face, provoked and frowning (though with a twitch at the corner of the mouth which showed he had to make an effort not to laugh, too); or at Theodore's, solemnly bewildered. She laughed until the tears poured down her cheeks; and her grandmother exclaimed, "May, May! Don't be so silly, child! You'll get hysterical if you go on that way." But the outburst relieved the nervous tension from which the girl had been suffering; and as she wiped her eyes she was conscious that the laughter had saved her from shedding tears of a different sort.

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Simpson," she said. "I don't know what possessed me."

"Don't think of apologizing, my dear Miranda. Indeed, why should you? Nothing is more delightful than the unaffected hilarity of youth. I'm sure I always enjoy it," returned the good Amelia, with a beaming glance around her.

"It's lucky Amelia doesn't mind being laughed at," said Sebastian bitterly.

"Oh fie, Bassy! We must distinguish, love. That all depends on who laughs, and how they laugh," observed his wife, with unexpected perspicuity.

"No doubt," said Theodore, "Miss Cheffington's nerves have been agitated by the sad news which I brought her this evening." He spoke in a low mysterious tone, addressing himself apparently to Mrs. Dobbs, although he did not do so by name. At these words Mr. Weatherhead pricked up his ears; and, although he had previously made up his mind not to say a word to this "young spark" until the "young spark" should speak to him, his curiosity so far overcame his dignity that he could not help ejaculating—

"Sad news, ha! What news? What sad news,—eh?"

Theodore turned to Mrs. Dobbs, and pointedly ignored poor Jo, as he said, "Miss Cheffington will doubtless take a fitting opportunity of speaking with you about this event in her family."

"It's nothing that deeply concerns us, Uncle Jo!" broke in May, flushing indignantly, and speaking with impetuosity. "A certain Mr. George Cheffington has been accidentally killed out in Africa. But since neither you, nor I, nor Granny ever saw him—nor even heard of him until quite lately—we cannot pretend to be overwhelmed with grief."

"Nay! George Cheffington killed?" exclaimed Mrs. Dobbs.

Theodore had turned very pale, as he always did when angered. (May had certainly meant to hit him, but she had no idea that the unkindest cut of all had been her publicly addressing Mr. Weatherhead as "Uncle Jo.") He answered slowly, "I should not have chosen this moment when you are—er—entertaining these—ahem!—your friends, to impart the intelligence. But Miss Cheffington has taken the matter out of my hands."

"George Cheffington," repeated Mrs. Dobbs, pondering. "Why, let me see, now; he'll be Lord Castlecombe's eldest son. Poor old man! Oh, I'm sorry to hear it: very sorry. It's hard for the old to see their hopes die before them."

"I'm sorry for him, too, Granny," whispered May, somewhat penitent and ashamed of her vehemence. She had certainly betrayed a touch of the Cheffington imperiousness, and had spoken in a manner quite inconsistent with meek amiability. She had also made Theodore Bransby feel considerable resentment. Nevertheless, he had never been less inclined than at that moment to relinquish the hope of making her his wife. Our passions have various methods of special pleading. But if reason presses them too hard, they will boldly substitute an "in spite of" for a "because," and pursue their aim as though, like Beauty, they were "their own excuse for being."

"Don't let us intrude on a scene of family affliction," said Mr. Simpson dryly. "Now, Amelia! We had better withdraw, I think."

"Don't you talk nonsense, Sebastian Simpson," returned Mrs. Dobbs, without ceremony. "Sit down, Amelia. I'm sorry I can't ask you young gentlemen to stay and share our plain supper, for the truth is I don't know that there's enough of it. But my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, would break an old charter if they didn't remain."

After that the two young men had, of course, nothing to do but to take their leave. Owen's good humour had quite returned. Wisdom and virtue should, no doubt, have made him disapprove of Miss May's little outbreak of hot temper. But the truth is, that this fallible young man had enjoyed her attack on Bransby. When the latter approached May to say "Good night," he murmured reproachfully, "You were rather severe on me, Miss Cheffington. I had no idea of displeasing you by what I said."

She was conscience-stricken in a moment, and answered quite humbly, "I beg your pardon if I offended you. But I thought you were not civil to Mr. Weatherhead, and that vexed me. Please forgive me." And she endured the tender pressure of her hand which immediately followed, as some expiation of her offence.

Mrs. Dobbs detained Jo Weatherhead that night for a moment, after Mr. and Mrs. Simpson had gone away, and May was in bed.

"I say, Jo, the death of yon poor man in Africa may bring about strange changes," said Mrs. Dobbs, looking at him gravely.

"Changes! How? What changes?"

"Well, not changes for me and you, except through other folks. But do you know that after Lucius Cheffington—who, they say, is but sickly—Lord Castlecombe's next heir is my precious son-in-law?"

"No!" exclaimed Mr. Weatherhead, making his mouth into a perfect round O of astonishment.

"Ay; but he is, though."

"Next heir! Viscount Castlecombe, of Combe Park, and all the property!" gasped Jo.

"I don't know about the property. Only what's entailed, I suppose. But if Lucius was to die, Augustus would be next heir to the title, as sure as you stand there, Jo Weatherhead."


Probably of all the persons in Oldchester who knew or cared anything about the death of George Cheffington, May was the only one who did not immediately begin to make some calculations based on that event. The contingency of her father's succeeding to the family honours had not occurred to her. And her thoughts and feelings were now occupied with other things. But Oldchester gossips discussed it with gusto; or, at least, that small minority of them who interested themselves in the fortunes of the Castlecombe family. The old lord was little personally known in Oldchester, and the city had long outgrown any sense of the overweening importance of a Viscount Castlecombe of Combe Park, which it might have had a century earlier. To most of the rich manufacturers of the place (whether they really thought themselves "as good as a lord" or not) a lord whom they never beheld, and into whose house neither they nor their children had the remotest chance of being admitted, was, at any rate, genuinely uninteresting.

In the rural parts of the county it was otherwise. People there could not be indifferent to the domestic history of a large land-owner who resided during the greater part of the year on his estate. In many a country dwelling, from luxurious mansions down to mere labourers' cottages, George Cheffington's untimely death was canvassed. From a matrimonial point of view he had been considered the best match in the county, and dowagers with daughters to marry had looked forward to the time (often spoken of, but always postponed) when he should give up his colonial appointment, settle down on his inheritance, and choose a wife. And there was a large number of persons (tenants and dependents) to whom the heir's character and conduct were matters of deep importance. To these, Mr. Lucius Cheffington suddenly became an interesting personage. Lucius had been very little at Combe Park since his boyhood, and the report which gradually spread in the neighbourhood that he was a chronic invalid, was received with many head-shakings and long faces. It seemed impossible that a Cheffington should be delicate or weakly. "Look at the old lord," people said; "why, he was sound and tough as a yew-tree!" And the last time Mr. George was at home he had proved himself a true chip of the old block by out-riding, out-walking, and out-cricketing all his contemporaries.

But that was years ago. Now George was stricken down in his strength, Lucius lay ill of a low fever in London, and Lord Castlecombe sat lonely and sorrow-laden in the home of his fathers.

The old man was not one to seek for sympathy, nor even to tolerate much manifestation of it. The only being to whom for many weeks he mentioned his dead son's name was a superannuated stable-helper, who had set "Master George" on his first pony, and in whose mind that somewhat selfish and hardhearted individual had never outgrown the engaging period of boyhood. "Master George" was the old man's idol, and "Master George" had, to a great extent, reciprocated the man's liking, partly, perhaps, from the sort of gratified vanity which makes us all prize the exclusive attachment of any generally unamiable creature, biped or quadruped. Old Dick was characterized by his fellow-servants as a crusty old curmudgeon, and was notorious for a formidable power of swearing, which he wielded freely, without much respect of persons.

The first day after receiving the news of his son's death, Lord Castlecombe towards evening walked out in a very unfrequented part of the grounds, a path between two high holly hedges, leading by a back way to the stable-yard; and there, with his hat pulled low on his brow, his head bent, and his hands clasped behind him, he paced slowly, plunged in bitter meditation. When he came to the corner whence the stables were visible, he caught sight of old Dick seated on an ancient horse-block, and busily rubbing at something in his hand. Lord Castlecombe stopped short, and looked at the man, who evidently saw him, but made no sign, neither ceased a moment from his occupation. After a minute or so Lord Castlecombe called to him to ask what he was doing, and received no answer. He repeated his question. Still no reply. A third time he spoke, in a harsh, angry tone. And then Dick turned round upon him, and, with a tremendous volley of oaths, answered furiously, "What am I doing of? I'm a rubbing up Master George's little silver spurs as you gave him first time he ever rode to hounds. I've allus kep' 'em bright from that day to this. And I arn't a-going to leave off now, because some d——d blundering fool as didn't ought never to have been trusted with a gun—I wish I'd the rewarding of him, curse him!—has been and put an end to the boy. That's what I'm a doing of, if ye must know!"

A tear fell on the little burnished spur; and then another, and another. But old Dick rubbed on. And his master, after a short silence, came and laid his hand upon his shoulder, and then walked away without a word.

After that Dick was privileged to do what the boldest parson's wife in the county dared not attempt:—talk to Lord Castlecombe about his son George.

Most of the letters of condolence which he received Lord Castlecombe tossed aside contemptuously after glancing at the first line. But one letter he read through, with a heavy frown on his face, and an occasional drawing down of the corners of his mouth into a bitter smile, far more sinister than the frown. It was from his niece Pauline; and its composition had cost her much thought and anxiety. She flattered herself that she had avoided saying a word which could jar on her uncle's irascible temper. And the letter in itself was a good letter enough; but it was a letter which should not have been written at all, if her object were to soothe and conciliate Lord Castlecombe. Pauline did not allude directly to her brother Augustus; but the very fact of her writing seemed to bring his existence offensively into notice. She refrained from expressing any special anxiety about the health of her cousin Lucius. Yet the few words in which she "hoped to hear of his speedy recovery," made the old man writhe as he read them. Pauline had tried to combine duty with policy. It was, of course, her duty to condole with her uncle in his bereavement, and it was clearly desirable not to irritate the dislike with which, as she more than surmised, he regarded Augustus. But the whole calculation was based on a misapprehension of Lord Castlecombe's feeling towards her brother. It was neither more nor less than hatred. And now jealousy was added to it:—a strange, savage jealousy, on behalf of his sons. George—his strong, healthy, hardy eldest-born—was gone. And Lucius—Lucius was not dying! No, no; not so bad as that. But he was very weakly. And to think for one instant of the possibility that Augustus Cheffington might some day reign in their stead—might lord it over the heritage which he had so carefully garnered for his own sons—was maddening. Any one but Augustus, he said to himself. Any distant scion, the son of some impoverished far-away cousin, parson, lawyer, apothecary. Any one, any one, but Augustus!

But of the passionate intensity of this hatred Pauline had no suspicion. A cleverer and more acute woman than she might not have guessed it. No one, in fact, ever guessed it; unless it were Lucius, and he only in part. His own sensitive antipathy to Augustus was an incomparably feebler sentiment. Lucius had no strain of his father's vigour, whether for good or ill.

Mrs. Dormer-Smith had also written by the same post to May. This epistle was more hastily dashed off, and faithfully reflected the wavering mood of the writer. One of her first preoccupations was whether, under the circumstances, it would or would not be desirable for May to pay the promised visit to Glengowrie at this juncture. She did not disguise from herself that George Cheffington's death opened up the possibility of a very different future for May from any which could hitherto have been contemplated. It became a question whether it would be prudent to accept Mr. Bragg. At all events it would be well to avoid precipitation. Mr. Bragg was a fine match for a dowerless girl:—even for a (dowerless) Miss Cheffington. But what if May's father were destined to become a wealthy Peer of the realm? That might be still but a distant possibility. Lucius was not thought to be in any present danger, and certainly might recover. Of course he might recover. And he might marry, and transmit the title and estates in the direct line. But—Pauline felt that there was a "but" of vast import.

And then there were minor cares connected with that great duty towards "society" which she so diligently endeavoured to perform.

"I am most anxious about your mourning," she wrote to May. "It is positively preying on my mind. Of course, nothing could be in worse taste than any assumption of woe in this case. You never saw poor George, and the kinship is not a very close one. In fact, had it been one of the Buckinghamshire Cheffingtons, to whom you are related in exactly the same degree, I do not know that any mourning at all would have been necessary for you. But, of course, the heir to the head of our family occupies a different position. At any rate, do not err on the side of exaggeration. White, with nœuds of pale heliotrope, and jet ornaments; or some black fabric of light texture, with a little jet beading, would probably meet the case. But it is impossible for me to give you precise directions. I am too far away to know what is bien porté at this moment. Would that I could be near you! But I cannot break my 'cure' at this point. Carlsbad has done me good, on the whole; although, of course, the anxiety on your account, connected with this painful news, has to some extent thrown me back. Mrs. Griffin's taste might be thoroughly trusted; and, if she would undertake to order your mourning from Amélie——. But now I think of it, Mrs. Griffin will not return to England until she leaves the Engadine for Glengowrie. And here, again, I am greatly perplexed what to advise in your best interests. All things considered, it might be well for you to put off going to the Duchess. There will be the excuse of this terrible news about poor George, you know.

"I fear that I have written in a sadly décousu fashion; but I cannot help it, and my poor head warns me to leave off. As usual, I have to pay for intense mental effort. Carlsbad has not altered that." And the letter concluded with a postscript: "Pearl-gray gloves."

The only clear idea which May gathered from this letter was that her aunt virtually held her released from her promise to go to Glengowrie, and left her free to do as she pleased. She carried the letter to her grandmother, saying, "Granny, I shall not go to Scotland after all. I shall stay with you, whether you like it or not. Oh, don't ask me to explain. I often feel with regard to Aunt Pauline like a deaf person watching dancers. There is something which regulates her movements, no doubt. But it is generally mysterious to me."

Mrs. Dobbs privately thought that in this case she held a clue to the mystery. "Ay," she said to herself, "Mrs. Dormer-Smith sees, just as I saw from the first hearing of it, that great changes may come to pass from this poor man's death. And she don't want May to commit herself too soon. Lord save us! 'tis a sad, low, worldly way of looking at such a matter." At this point some scarcely-articulate whisper of conscience made Mrs. Dobbs's brow redden; and she added mentally, "Well, but if May likes him? If the man's in earnest, and she likes him, it'll all come right in the end." Nevertheless, Mrs. Dobbs had begun to entertain shrewd doubts as to May's caring one straw for the unknown gentleman of princely fortune.

May, meanwhile, made haste to put her escape beyond the danger of Aunt Pauline's changing her mind. She wrote to Mrs. Griffin, saying that she should not be able to accept the Duchess's kind invitation to Glengowrie. She gave no reason. The excuse which Aunt Pauline had suggested she could not find it in her conscience to put forward. "If I had wished very much to go, that would not have stood in my way," she said to herself. "And it would be base and shocking to play the hypocrite about such a tragedy."

Neither did she think for a moment of refusing Miss Piper's invitation. There had not been wanting a hint that she ought to do so. Mrs. Bransby asked her if she meant to go to the musical party at Garnet Lodge; and, being answered in the affirmative, said, "Well, it seemed to me that it would be quite overstrained to refuse. But Theodore persisted that you would not go; said it would be inconvenable. He almost quarrelled with me about it. You know Theodore's infallible way of laying down the law."

It need scarcely be said that if anything could have strengthened the young lady's determination to attend Miss Piper's party, it would have been hearing that Theodore Bransby took upon himself to object to her doing so.


Like the fairy Pari-Banou's magic tent, which could shelter an army of ten thousand men, and yet was capable of being folded into the smallness of a handkerchief, what one calls "the world" shrinks and stretches to suit the individual case. Into the world of Polly and Patty Piper Lord Castlecombe and his family sorrows entered not at all. They might occasionally be viewed afar from the tent door; but even that distant recognition was not vouchsafed to them now, when the great event of the musical party absorbed the attention of the two sisters.

In addition to Miss Clara Bertram and Mr. Cleveland Turner, the occasion was to be graced by the presence of Signor Vincenzo Valli. He was on a visit to a noble family in Mr. Sweeting's neighbourhood, and had volunteered to accompany that gentleman and his protégé to Miss Piper's party. This honour, like other honours, was somewhat of a burthen as well as a distinction. The programme of the evening's performance, so carefully and anxiously arranged beforehand, must be modified to suit Signor Valli; who, if he condescended to sing at all, would do so only in accordance with his own caprice. And this would probably occasion difficulties; since, although Miss Bertram's amiability might be reckoned on, Mr. Cleveland Turner took a more stiff-necked view of his own importance, and would not be disposed to yield the pas to Valli. Still Miss Piper had no cowardly regrets on hearing of the distinction which was to befall her. She rose to the occasion, and was prepared to undergo almost any impertinence from the popular singing master with a Spartan smile.

"I ought to understand how to manage artists, if anybody does," said she, remembering the many cups of tea she had poured out for that irritable genus in old times.

But the crowning interest and glory of the evening to her would be the performance of an air from "Esther," which Miss Bertram had promised to sing. The Misses Piper had invited her to visit them at first from disinterested kindness; the young singer being tired with the work of the season, and in need of rest and change of air. Under these circumstances, both the sisters were too thoroughly gentlewomen to hint at her singing for them. But Clara Bertram, casting about in her mind for some way to show her gratitude to the kindly old maids, had herself proposed to sing "something from 'Esther.'" And the offer was too tempting to be refused.

The composition selected was of the most infantile simplicity, and could have been learned by heart in ten minutes. But a copy of it had been sent to town a fortnight ago for Miss Bertram to "study." And Mr. Simpson had been supposed to be "studying" the accompaniment for an equal length of time. In fact, the performance of the air from "Esther" was the original germ out of which the musical party at Garnet Lodge had been developed.

Clara Bertram arrived in Oldchester the morning before the great day: partly in order that she might not be over-tired, and partly to give the opportunity for a rehearsal of the air with Mr. Simpson. "Oh, I'm sure we need not trouble Mr. Simpson," Clara began thoughtlessly. "It is certain to go all right." But Miss Polly would not allow such a lax view of responsibility.

"Excuse me, my dear," she said, "but the music of 'Esther' is not quite a drawing-room ballad. Not that you will not sing it charmingly—perfectly! There is no doubt about that. But there is a certain breadth—a certain style of phrasing, necessary for sacred music. It is most important that the accompanist should understand your reading of the air. Indeed, I am anxious to hear it myself. I have my own idea as to the proper rendering of the opening phrase, 'Hear, O King, and grant me my petition!' But I shan't say a word until I have heard you. Your idea may be better than mine; Ha, ha, ha! Who knows? 'Hear, O King, and grant——?' My own notion would be to begin softly—almost sotto voce—in a timid manner: 'Hear, O King;' and then to rise into a crescendo as the strain proceeds 'and grant me my Petition!' But I won't say a word. You must sing it as you feel it."

May was, by special favour, admitted to the rehearsal. She had called to see Clara Bertram on the afternoon of her arrival, and was ushered into the long, low, old-fashioned drawing-room, where she found Miss Piper seated at one end of it, amid a wilderness of rout-seats, and Mr. Sebastian Bach Simpson at the piano, near to which Miss Bertram was standing.

"Oh, it's dear May Cheffington!" said Miss Piper, who had turned round sharply at the opening of the door. "Yes, yes; come in, my dear. Not at home to anybody else, Rachel! Not to anybody, do you hear? Now come and sit down by me, my dear. She is going to try 'Hear, O King.' Very glad to see you; you are so sympathetic, and such a favourite with Clara! There now, don't make her talk! Nothing worse for the voice than talking. Come and sit down."

May was, indeed, scarcely allowed to exchange greetings with her friend, who whispered smilingly, "We'll have our chat by-and-by."

Then Mr. Simpson struck up the first chords of the symphony, and there was breathless silence. He had not played three bars, however, before Miss Piper jumped up and ran to the piano.

"Oh, I beg pardon, Mr. Simpson, for offering a suggestion to so sound a musician as yourself, but don't you think a little more stress might be laid on that chord of the diminished seventh? It prepares the way, you see, for the pleading tone of the composition. Le-da, de-da—like that! Oh, thank you! Quite my meaning. Please go on."

But Mr. Simpson did not proceed far without receiving another "suggestion."

"A little more force and fulness, don't you think, in that resolution of the discord? I should like a richer effect."

"I don't know how to make it richer," rasped out Mr. Simpson. "It is the simple common chord, just four notes—C, E, G, C. I sounded 'em all. I can play the bass as an octave, if you think that'll be any richer."

"Oh, thank you! Yes, I really think it will. You see 'Esther' was scored for full orchestra, and the composer's ear hankers after the instrumental effects. But that octave in the bass is a great improvement. Many thanks!"

And in this fashion the symphony was at length got through.

Then Clara uplifted her pure, clear voice, and sang. May listened in delight. Surely Miss Polly must be enchanted! Even Mr. Simpson's hard visage relaxed, as the thrilling notes rose in sweet pathetic pleading. When they ceased, he wheeled round on the music-stool, and exclaimed with the most unwonted fervour, "It's the loveliest soprano voice I've heard since your great namesake, Clara Novello. Some of your notes remind me of her altogether. Not that I expect to hear anything quite like her 'Let the Bright Seraphim,' on this side of paradise."

May turned to Miss Piper. But, to her astonishment, Miss Piper's face did not express unmingled delight. There was some slight and indefinable shade on it.

"Well, I do think that is most beautiful," said May.

"Do you, my dear? Do you really?"

"Why, how is it possible to think otherwise, Miss Piper? No one could, surely!"

"Well, it is very kind of you to say so, my dear; and, to be frank, it shows a power of appreciation not quite common at your age. Of course it would be affectation on my part, at this time of day, and with my reputation behind me, to say I am surprised. But I am gratified, very much gratified. And don't you think Miss Bertram did her part delightfully?"

May looked at her blankly, unable to say a word in reply. Fortunately, no reply was needed, for Miss Piper bustled up to Clara and thanked her, and praised her. But still her manner fell decidedly short of its usual cordial heartiness. At length, with many apologies and flowery speeches, she begged that the air might be repeated, if Clara were sure it would not tire her; and, this being at once conceded, she asked, hesitatingly, "And would you mind if I offered a little suggestion? Just a hint!"

"Certainly not, dear Miss Piper! I will do my best to carry out your idea."

"Oh, that is so sweet of you! Thank you a thousand times! If Mr. Simpson will kindly oblige us once more——? Now, you see, it is just here, on that G in alt, where the voice rises on the words, 'Grant, oh, grant me my petition!' The sound 'grant,' according to my original conception, should be given with a sort of wail—not, of course, an unmusical sound, but just with a tinge of sadness expressive of the then miserable and depressed condition of the Jewish nation, and at the same time with a tone—an underlying tone, as it were—conveying the latent hope (which really was in Queen Esther's mind all along, you know) that by her efforts brighter days might yet be in store for them. You feel what I mean?"

"I will try my best," answered Clara gently. And then she sang the air again—precisely as she had sung it before.

"Now," cried Miss Piper, jumping up and clapping her hands in an ecstasy of triumph, "it is perfect—absolutely perfect!"

She poured out unstinted thanks and compliments to both singer and accompanist, observing to the latter that this recalled the great days of the public performance of "Esther," and that she considered Miss Bertram's rendering of "Hear, O King," far superior to that of the well-known vocalist who had sung it originally. "But then, you see, she could not, or would not, take a hint. Consequently—although, of course, she sang the notes perfectly—she never fully mastered my conception. Now a word has been enough to show Miss Bertram the inner meaning of my music; and she interprets it in the most exquisite manner."

Before going away May contrived to have a few words with Clara Bertram in her room.

"It is such a pleasure to hear you sing again," said May. "How I wish Granny could hear you!"

"Will not your grandmother be here to-morrow evening?"

"Oh no," answered May, colouring. "She does not go out to parties. Granny does not belong to the class of the ladies and gentlemen who come here. Her husband was a tradesman in this town. But she is the finest creature in the world. And she has more real dignity than any one I know."

"Your grandmother lives here? But then—how is it—your mother is not a foreigner?"

"A foreigner? Good gracious! No. My mother was Miss Susan Dobbs. She died years ago, when I was a little child. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, nothing. I fancied—Valli said something about having known Madame Cheffington abroad."

"That was possible. My parents lived abroad for years. My father is on the Continent now. I and the two little brothers before me were born in Belgium."

"Oh! I suppose that must be it," said Clara slowly. "Valli talks at random sometimes."

"Signor Valli talks very much at random if he ever said my mother was a foreigner. By the way, do you know he is to be here to-morrow evening?"

"Yes; so I hear."

"You do not hear it with rapture, apparently."

"No; I do not like him very much."

"He likes you very much, if appearances may be trusted," said May laughingly.

"He is always making love to me after his fashion. That is why I do not like him."

Clara spoke gravely, but with her habitual serenity. There was something in her manner which seemed to be akin to her voice; something clear, but not cold: a crystal with the sun in it.

"Oh, that is hideous, isn't it?" cried May, with eager fellow-feeling. "When people want to marry you, and you shudder at the bare idea of marrying them."

"I don't think Valli wants to marry me," answered Clara calmly. "Indeed, I believe he feels a great deal of hostility towards me at times. He is never satisfied unless his pupils will, more or less, flirt with him—a kind of philandering which I object to. Besides, it wastes one's time. But he has been spoiled more than you would believe by fashionable ladies. I suppose you never read much of George Sands' writings?"

"No," answered May, opening great eyes of wonder.

"Nor I, except 'Consuelo,' and the sequel to it. I read them for the musical part, which is wonderfully good. Well, in the 'Comtesse de Rudolstadt' there is a certain Monsieur de Poelnitz, of whom it is said that en qualité d'ex-roué il n'aimait pas les filles vertueuses. It always seems to me that Valli, in his quality of philanderer, dislikes women who won't flirt, whether he wants to flirt with them himself or not."

"How odious! How despicable!"

"And yet he has his good qualities. He is very faithful and generous to his family, and sends a great part of his earnings to them in their little Sicilian village."

Then, seeing that May still looked very much shocked and astonished, Clara added, in a lighter tone, "But let us talk of something more pleasant. You were speaking of your grandmamma. If you think she would like it, I should be so glad to go and sing to her at her own home."

"Like it! Of course she would like it! And I scarcely know how to thank you as you ought to be thanked, for fear of sounding like Miss Piper!"

Clara smiled. "Miss Piper and her sister are both very kind to me," she said.

"Yes; but I wish Miss Polly wasn't so ridiculous. Of course, her music is poor and silly. It is only your beautiful singing that makes it sound well. But then you could make 'Baa, baa, blacksheep,' sound well! And then to hear the outrageous, conceited nonsense she talks——! I wonder that you can endure it so meekly. I couldn't!" answered May, with the trenchant intolerance of her eighteen years.

"Oh yes, you could, under the circumstances. I am only too glad to give the kind old lady any pleasure. And she is not so outrageously conceited—for an amateur. But now I fear I must turn you out, much as I should like you to stay; for Miss Piper sent me upstairs to lie down; and if she finds I am not doing so, I shall have to drink another cupful of Miss Patty's excellent beef-tea, which is so strong, it makes me feel quite tipsy!"


On the following evening Garnet Lodge wore a brilliantly festive appearance. Miss Polly was dressed betimes. An unprecedented variety of geological specimens adorned her wrists and fingers, and hung over the bosom of her lavender satin gown. She was walking up and down the drawing-room, surveying the rows of empty rout-seats, fully three-quarters of an hour before the earliest guest could be expected to arrive. She was strung up for the great occasion; but, although excited, she was not apprehensive. Miss Patty, on the other hand, was very nervous.

"I am a little anxious about the jellies, Polly; and about that new waiter from Winnick's. But I could face all that, if it wasn't for 'Hear, O King!' To think of hearing it again after all these years! I'm afraid it will upset me. I'll take a back place near the door for I'm sure to cry; and then I can slip out if necessary."

"You need not be ashamed of your tears, my dear Patty. Very probably you will not be the only person powerfully affected."

"Well, I don't know. I don't remember that anybody cried when 'Esther' was brought out at Mercers' Hall," returned Miss Patty thoughtfully.

The first persons to arrive were Mr. and Mrs. Simpson. Amelia was resplendent in a new pink silk gown, which seemed to magnify her florid proportions, and made her a conspicuous object from every part of the room. She was beaming with delight; and her gratification at finding herself in Garnet Lodge under the present circumstances was so frankly and exuberantly expressed, as to cause some mortification to her husband.

"This is, indeed, a memorable evening, dear Misses Piper," she began; for Patty had by this time joined her sister in the drawing-room. "I was telling Bassy that he ought to feel himself honoured by being selected to officiate—if I may so express it—at the pianoforte on this extremely interesting and auspicious occasion."

"The honour is to me, Mrs. Simpson," answered Polly Piper politely.

"There!" turning suddenly round with such vehemence as to sweep down a rout-seat with her pink silk skirts. "What did I tell you, Bassy? Whatever may be the opinion of certain persons enriched by manufactures—and yet, after all, what should we do without manufactures? How many of us would be capable of dealing with the raw material? Blankets, for instance: take a sheep! But still I always say to Bassy, 'Believe me, the real gentry acknowledge and revere the position of the Fine Arts!'"

"Now, Amelia; hadn't you better mind what you're doing?" said Mr. Simpson, setting the fallen rout-seat on its legs again. She irritated him occasionally, but he admired her smart gown very much nevertheless, and thought she looked remarkably well in it, and "quite the lady."

Other guests arriving now claimed the hostess's attention. And presently Clara Bertram, in her simple black evening dress, came into the room. Then appeared Mrs. Martin Bransby on the arm of her stepson, and bearing excuses from her husband, who was not feeling well enough to come out that evening. Her appearance called forth ejaculations of admiration from Mrs. Simpson, which, however exaggerated they might sound, were quite sincere. Mrs. Simpson gave utterance to a kind of prose rhapsody on the subject of Mrs. Bransby's dress; and then, bowing graciously to Theodore, said, "And Mr. Bransby Junior, too. When I had the pleasure of unexpectedly, and, indeed, fortuitously, meeting him the other evening at the house of a mutual friend, I remarked that he was paying Miss Piper a high compliment in abandoning Thetis" (the good lady probably meant Themis) "for the seductions of Apollo. But we are told, on the poet's authority, that 'music hath charms to soothe the savage——' Not, of course, that the epithet is applicable in this case. Quite the contrary." Then, turning her glistening spectacles on the young man, she playfully added, "But, in addition to the magic of the lyre, we have what Hamlet—if I mistake not—so eloquently characterizes as 'metal more attractive:' a collection of youth and beauty which might really, without hyperbole, be termed a bevy."

"That is an intolerable woman," muttered Theodore between his teeth, as he conducted his step-mother to a seat.

"Oh, poor Simmy!" remonstrated Mrs. Bransby. "She is a good creature. But to-night she is in what Bobby and Billy call one of her 'dictionary moods.'"

Rapidly the room filled up. Besides many other Oldchester notabilities with whom this chronicle is not concerned, there were present Major Mitton, Canon and Mrs. Hadlow (the latter bringing May under her wing), Owen Rivers, who came alone, Dr. Hatch, and Mr. Bragg.

Mr. Bragg, after paying his respects to the ladies of the house, and standing for a few minutes in his silent, forlorn-looking way, went up to May, and said, "Will you come and have a cup of tea, Miss Cheffington? They say hot tea cools you. That seems strange, don't it? But I believe it's true. Rule of contraries, I suppose."

May did not wish for any tea; but she saw Theodore Bransby hovering in the distance, and she accepted Mr. Bragg's proffered arm almost eagerly. She rather liked Mr. Bragg. His slow, quiet, common-sensible manner was soothing. And she knew enough of his unostentatious good works in Oldchester to have a considerable esteem for him.

He piloted May into the dining-room, where tea and coffee were being served, and where the new waiter from Winnick's was, so far, conducting himself in an exemplary manner.

"Have one of those little cakes, Miss Cheffington? They look very good."

"No, thank you."

Mr. Bragg provided May with a cup of tea, and then took one of the little cakes himself. "They eat uncommonly short," said he with strong, though quiet, approbation. "All the eatables seem good."

"Not a doubt of it. Miss Patty is a wonderful housekeeper."

"Now, do you suppose she made those little cakes herself?"

"I cannot tell; but I am sure she could if she chose. She makes excellent cakes."

"Ah! I remember her giving me some very good ideas about a beefsteak pudding. I tried to make my cook do one according to her receipt; but it didn't answer," said Mr. Bragg with a sigh. Presently he remarked, as he slowly stirred his tea round and round, "This is a bad job about Mr. George Cheffington."

"Yes; I am very sorry for Lord Castlecombe."

"Ah, your uncle—or great-uncle is he?—I'm not much of a hand at remembering the ins and outs of families—is hard hit. But he bears up wonderfully, to outward appearance."

"Have you seen him, Mr. Bragg?"

"Yes; saw him o' Monday about some business. He's a keen hand at a bargain, is Lord Castlecombe. I don't know that I ever met with a keener."

"Poor old man!"

"Ay, that's what I say, Miss Cheffington. Keenness and all that is very well, so long as you've got somebody to be keen for. But it's a dreary thing to be alone in advancing years. I feel it myself, though I'm—well, I dare say nigh upon twenty years younger than his Lordship."

There was a little pause, during which Mr. Bragg sipped his tea and ate another cake. Then he repeated, "It's a dreary thing to be alone."

"Are you alone, Mr. Bragg?" asked May, feeling that she was expected to say something. "I thought you had sons and daughters."

"Only one son, and he's away in South America—settled in Buenos Ayres years ago. He's a rich man already, is Joshua. I started him well, though I hadn't so much money in those days as I have now, not by a deal, and he's done well. And he married a lady with money—a Spanish merchant's daughter. No; there's no likelihood of Josh coming home to England to keep me company, even supposing I wanted him to."

Then ensued another pause. Then Mr. Bragg said, "I'm to have the pleasure of meeting you at Glengowrie this autumn, I understand."

"No; I have decided not to go. I have written to Mrs. Griffin to say so."

"Oh! What—on account of this death in your family?"

"No, I cannot say that. It would be mere pretence. I never saw George Cheffington in my life; and he was not a very close relation." Mr. Bragg nodded approvingly. "That's a straightforward way of looking at it," he said. "But I'm disappointed you ain't to be at Glengowrie."

"Thank you. But my absence will not make much difference, I should say."

"I don't know. It might make a deal of difference," returned Mr. Bragg, speaking even more slowly than was his wont. "But where shall you be then?"

"Where I like best to be; here, with Granny."


"My grandmother, Mrs. Dobbs. You must know her by name, at all events, for you are her tenant."

"What! old Dobbs the ironmonger's widow?—begging your pardon."

May drew herself up with a proud movement of the head, which might have satisfied even the deceased dowager that there was a strong strain of the Cheffington nature in her. "There is nothing to beg pardon for, Mr. Bragg," she said haughtily. "You cannot suppose that I am ashamed of my grandparents."

"You've no call to be ashamed of them; but people don't always see things in the right light," answered Mr. Bragg composedly. "Yes; to be sure, now I come to think of it, Mrs. Dobbs's daughter did marry—Ah! Of course, Susan Dobbs was your mother! I never knew her to speak to; but I remember her. Uncommonly pretty she was, too. Why I might ha' known—But, you see, your aunt, Mrs. Dormer-Smith, never mentioned your mother's family."

At this moment Owen Rivers approached them. He said he had been sent by Mrs. Bransby to look for May; and, thereupon, carried her off to the drawing-room. Mr. Bragg remained behind, pondering for a minute or so. "To think of this girl being Lord Castlecombe's grand-niece and old Dobbs's grand-daughter! Well, things do turn out queer in this world!" Then Mr. Bragg also repaired to the drawing-room.

The musical portion of the evening went off brilliantly. But the great success was undoubtedly Clara Bertram's performance of "Hear, O King!" She sang poor Polly Piper's bald and jejeune phrases in a way which made such of the elder auditors as remembered its first performance ask themselves, wonderingly, if this were indeed the music they had listened to long ago. And she concluded with a cadenza, so expressive and beautiful that Mr. Simpson, raptly listening, very nearly omitted to play the final chords.

When the song was over, there was a burst of applause, and an unusually loud clapping together of kid-gloved palms. But, from the doorway, where he had stood to listen, Valli precipitated himself through the crowd like some swift missile; clearing his way, utterly regardless of intervening backs and shoulders, male or female, and rushing up to Miss Bertram, he exclaimed, "Divinamente!"

"I am glad you are content," she answered in English.

But Valli went on volubly in his own tongue, "Content? No; 'content' is not the word. I am enchanted. You sang divinely! Demon of a girl, never in all your life did you sing a song of mine like that! What possessed you?"

"Gratitude," answered Clara quietly.

Miss Piper now came up and kissed her effusively. Composer and singer were soon surrounded by a little crowd, to whose polite exclamations of "Charming!" "Immense treat!" "Really delicious!" and so forth, Miss Polly kept replying, with lofty magnanimity, "Oh, but you must not attribute all the honour to me! I assure you that more depends upon the execution than you are, perhaps, aware of."

This first triumph had a subtle effect on Mr. Cleveland Turner. He was moved by it to play a dashing valse de concert in place of a composition of his own, modelled on a great original, which he entitled "Twilight in the Gardens of Walhalla." It had been much praised in esoteric circles. But it was somewhat trying to the unregenerate ear; so much so, that a profane and flippant outsider had rechristened it "Feeding Time in the Gardens of the Royal Zoological Society." Mr. Sweeting afterwards mildly reproached his young friend for not having performed it, and thus doing something towards improving and elevating the taste of Oldchester.

"It's no answer, my dear boy, to say they wouldn't have liked it," said Mr. Sweeting. "No answer at all!"

But it is to be feared that Cleveland Turner had some depraved enjoyment of the applause which resulted from his lapse into heresy.

Signor Valli, determined not to be eclipsed in popularity, and utterly indifferent to the improvement of Oldchester's musical taste, made himself unprecedentedly amiable. He sang vivacious Neapolitan street songs, quaint Tuscan stornelli, pathetic Sicilian airs. And these tuneful productions were greatly relished by that vast majority of the listeners, who had not progressed so far as to connect ugliness with righteousness—in music.

When Valli at length rose from the piano, Mrs. Simpson made a sudden plunge across the room, and presented herself breathlessly before him. He was in a group of persons, among whom were Mr. Sweeting, Cleveland Turner, and Miss Piper. Amelia's round, plump face was flushed by heat and excitement to a rose-pink hue, several shades deeper than that of her gown; and her spectacles glittered with a blank and baffling brightness.

"I cannot," she said, "quit this elegant scene of the Muses without offering my poor tribute to you, Signor" (which she pronounced "senior"), "for the delightful addition your performances have contributed to refined enjoyment."

Valli looked up rather bewildered, and, not knowing what else to do, made her a profound bow.

"I trust," continued the lady, "that I may be allowed to congratulate you, signor, in the harmonious words of our great poet, upon your 'linked sweetness, long drawn out'—not, I'm sure, that any one present considered for a moment that you were drawing it out at all too long!" And with a sweeping curtsey, in the performance of which she overwhelmed Mr. Sweeting's legs in a flood of pink silk skirt, and backed heavily on to Mr. Cleveland Turner's toes, Amelia withdrew, beaming.

At supper Valli was in high good humour. He had been presented to Mrs. Bransby, and was gratified to find himself placed beside her at the supper-table, she being incontestably the most beautiful woman in the room. Major Mitton sat near them, and pleased Valli by praises of his singing—a pleasure not at all diminished by his quick perception that the good major had no knowledge whatever of the subject.

"It's a real treat, I assure you," said Major Mitton, "to hear a toon. I don't pretend to be a great connoisseur, but I can enjoy a toon. Ah, they may say what they please, but there's no music like Italian music, and nobody can sing it like Italians."

This led to some reminiscences of the major's garrison life in Malta; and to the mention of the prima donna Bianca Moretti. Mrs. Bransby recognized this name as that of the heroine of Miss Piper's story, told at her dinner-party several months ago.

"Oh, you have heard the Moretti?" said Valli. "Yes; she could sing. By the way, I hear she is a kind of marâtre—how do you call it?—to that pretty Miss Cheffington."

"Miss Cheffington? Oh, impossible!"

"Pardon! Not at all impossible! I mean the young lady opposite, at the other end of the table, sitting between those two young men. I know one of them—the one with the blonde smooth head. I meet him in society. He is tremendously annoying—nojoso—what you call a bore."

"That is Miss Cheffington, certainly. But you don't mean to say that Signora Moretti has married her father?"

"Oh, married!" answered Valli, with a shrug. "She has been living with him for years; that is what I mean. I hear la Bianca has grown steady now. But she had a jeunesse pas mal orageuse."

Major Mitton tried to change the subject, glancing uneasily at Mrs. Bransby. But Valli was impervious to the hint. Not that he had any intention of outraging the proprieties, or any suspicion that he was doing so. Mrs. Bransby was not a jeune meess. He had heard of English cant and hypocrisy long before he came to England. But he had been agreeably surprised to find them conspicuous by their absence in the section of London fashionable society which he chiefly frequented. So he went on narrating anecdotes of la Bianca and her adventures, until Mrs. Bransby rose, and quietly left the table. Upon this, Major Mitton and several other men drew closer to Valli. And the consequence was that, not only the mess-table, but other circles in Oldchester, were regaled the next day with some choice morsels of scandal, in which the name of Gus Cheffington figured conspicuously.

But whatever might be the subsequent results of that talk, Miss Piper's musical party had undoubtedly turned out a great success.

That night, when the sisters were alone together, they sat up for an hour discussing the events of the evening in a glow of pleasurable excitement. Every point was remembered and dwelt upon, but of course their interest centred in the song from "Esther."

"It was a real triumph, Polly," said Miss Patty. "There can't be two opinions about that. But—there, I thought I wouldn't tell you; but I can't help it—I overheard Signor Valli and that Cleveland Turner, whom I never did like, and never shall, speaking of 'Hear, O King,' in a sneering, slighting manner."

Quoth Miss Polly with a lofty smile, and laying her hand on her sister's shoulder, "My dear Patty, I am not at all surprised to hear it. I have experience of artists, if anybody has, and in the best of them I have always observed one defect in judging my music—professional jealousy!"


The day after the party at Garnet Lodge Mrs. Dobbs was surprised by the announcement from her old servant, Martha, that Mr. Bragg was at the gate, and would be glad to speak with her if she was at liberty.

"Quite at liberty, Martha, and very happy to see Mr. Bragg. Now what can he want?" said Mrs. Dobbs to the faithful Jo Weatherhead, who was in his usual place by the hearth.

"Something about the house in Friar's Row?" suggested Jo.

"Ah! I suppose so. Though I don't know what there can be to say. However, it's no use guessing. It's like staring at the outside of a letter instead of reading it. He'll speak for himself."

Meanwhile Mr. Bragg had alighted from the plain brougham which had brought him from his country house; and, walking up the garden path, and in at the open door, presented himself in the little parlour.

"I hope you'll excuse my calling, Mrs. Dobbs. You and me have met years ago."

"No excuse needed, Mr. Bragg. I remember you very well. This is my brother-in-law, Mr. Weatherhead. Please to sit down."

Mr. Bragg sat down; and he and his hostess looked at each other for a moment attentively.

Mr. Bragg was a large, solidly built man, with an impression on his face of perplexity and resolution subtly mingled together. It is a look which may be often seen on the countenance of an intelligent workman, whose employment brings him into conflict with physical phenomena—at once so docile and so intractable; so simply and so eternally mysterious. The expression had long survived the days of Mr. Bragg's personal struggle with facts of a metallic nature. In his present position, as a man of large wealth and influence, he had to deal chiefly with the more complex phenomena of humanity, and very seldom found it so trustworthy in the manipulation as the iron and lead and tin and steel of his younger days.

Mrs. Dobbs marked the changes wrought by time and circumstances in Joshua Bragg. She remembered him—he had even been temporarily in her husband's employment, at one time—in a well-worn suit of working clothes, and with chronically black finger-nails. She saw him now, dressed with quiet good taste (for he left that matter to his London tailor), with irreproachably clean hands—on which, however, toil had left ineffaceable traces—and a massive watch chain worth half a year's earnings of his former days.

"You're very little changed in the main, Mr. Bragg. And the years haven't been hard on you," said Mrs. Dobbs, summing up the result of her observations.

"No; I believe I don't feel the burthen of years much; not bodily, that is. In the mind, I think I do. You see, I've come to a time of life when a man can't keep putting off his own comfort and happiness to the day after to-morrow. Which," added Mr. Bragg thoughtfully, "is exactly where young folks have the pull, I think."

"That's queer, too, Mr. Bragg!" remarked Jo Weatherhead. "Putting off your own comfort and happiness seems a poor way to enjoy yourself, sir."

"Ah, but what you only mean to do, always comes up to your expectations; and what you do do, doesn't!" rejoined Mr. Bragg, with a slow, emphatic nod of the head.

"Well, but as to 'feeling the burthen of years,' that's putting it too strong," said Mrs. Dobbs. "You have no right to feel that burthen yet awhile. Why, you must be—let me see!—under fifty-three."

"Fifty-three last birthday."

"Ay; I wasn't far out. Lord, that's no age! I might be your mother, Mr. Bragg."

"I'm glad to hear you say so!—I mean, I'm glad you don't think me too old—not quite an old fellow, in short."

"No; to be sure not!"

Mr. Bragg was silent for fully a minute. Then he said, "Well, whether I'm quite an old fellow or not, I'm too old to trust much to the day after to-morrow. So, if not inconvenient to you, Mrs. Dobbs, I should like to say a few words to you about a matter that has been on my mind for some little time."

"Certainly, Mr. Bragg. I'm quite at your service."

Mr. Bragg looked slowly round the little parlour; looked out of the window at the tiny garden; looked at Mr. Weatherhead; finally looked at Mrs. Dobbs again, and said, "It's a private matter."

"I had better go, Sarah," said Jo. "I shall look round again at tea-time;" and he made a show of rising from his chair, very slowly and reluctantly.

"Oh, perhaps you've no call to go away, Jo. I have no business secrets from my brother-in-law, Mr. Bragg. He is my oldest and best friend in the world."

Mr. Bragg rubbed his chin slowly with his hand, and answered with a certain embarrassment, but quite straightforwardly, "It's a matter private to me."

After this Jo Weatherhead had nothing for it but to take his departure, and to endeavour to calm the fever of his curiosity with tobacco.

Mrs. Dobbs remained alone with her visitor, wondering more and more what could be the subject of his proposed communication. Her thoughts, in connection with Mr. Bragg, persistently hovered about the house in Friar's Row. But his first words scattered them in widespread confusion.

"Your grand-daughter, Miss Cheffington, tells me that she is not going to Glengowrie Castle this autumn, Mrs. Dobbs."

"Why—no—I believe not," answered Mrs. Dobbs, looking at him curiously.

"In that case I don't think I shall go there myself. I'm no sportsman. I always feel lonely in a house full of strangers. And, besides—I was invited partic'larly to meet Miss Cheffington."

Mrs. Dobbs preserved her outward composure; but something seemed to whirl and spin in her brain; and, although she kept her eyes fixed on Mr. Bragg, she saw neither him nor anything else in the room for several seconds.

"I was asked through Mrs. Griffin. You may have heard speak of her?"

Mrs. Dobbs made an affirmative movement of the head. She could not have articulated a word at that moment to save her life.

"Mrs. Griffin is a well-meaning lady. But she's a lady who now and then gets out of her depth, along of not—what you might call minding her own business. But she always means to be kind. And the best of us make mistakes."

"Ah, that we do!" assented Mrs. Dobbs huskily.

"Well, Mrs. Griffin is always telling me that my money—'a princely fortune' she calls it: but it's a good deal more than that, by what I can hear about princes—lays me under an obligation to marry again."

At the words "princely fortune" Mrs. Dobbs winced, and a deep red flush came into her face; but she answered quietly, "Wealth has its responsibilities, of course, Mr. Bragg."

"Yes, it has; and its troubles. But when all's said and done, it's pleasanter to be rich than poor. I've tried both."

"No doubt. Only—one may pay too dear even for being rich."

"Well, I should be sorry for any lady I married to consider that she paid too dear for being rich."

"Oh, I meant no offence, Mr. Bragg."

"There's nothing you may not pay too dear for, I suppose; except a quiet conscience. You may pay too dear for a wife. And there's two sides to every"—he was about to say "bargain," but he substituted the word "arrangement."

Mrs. Dobbs had taken up her knitting, and was twisting and pulling it with her fingers in a restless, nervous way. When Mr. Bragg made a pause, and looked at her, she said, "Of course, that's quite true."

He went on, "I make bold to hope, Mrs. Dobbs, that you'll give me credit in what I'm going to say, for having some serious reason, and not talking idly, out of pride and vanity; in short, for not being what you might call a fool."

"Yes, I will, Mr. Bragg."

"Thank ye. On that understanding I may say, between ourselves, that Mrs. Griffin has mentioned to me several quarters where I shouldn't meet with a refusal in case I went to look for a wife. I couldn't have supposed it myself—at least, not to the extent it really does run to. But the fact has been brought to my knowledge, so that there's no possibility of making any mistake about it. More than one young lady—some of 'em titled, too," said Mr. Bragg, with an odd glimmer of complacency flitting for a moment like a will-o'-the-wisp above the solid terra firma of his native good sense. "More than one, and more than two, have been what you might call trotted out for me."

Mrs. Dobbs's fingers twitched and pulled at the wool on her knitting-needles, and the muscles round her mouth seemed to tighten. But she said not a word.

Mr. Bragg continued, "Now, perhaps you think I have no business to take up your time with all this, when it's no concern of yours?"

Still Mrs. Dobbs did not speak; so he added—

"But it does concern you in a way."

She made a visible effort to say, quietly, "Ah, indeed! How's that?"

But this time she was perfectly sure beforehand of what he was going to say.

"I'm coming to that in one moment." Here Mr. Bragg paused, took out his handkerchief, and passed it over his face before proceeding. "I mentioned that Mrs. Griffin sometimes gets out of her depth (with the best of intentions) when minding other people's business. She got a little out of her depth when attending to mine. She somehow took it for granted that I should be quite content to marry any lady of high family, who would look handsome in my diamonds and spend my money in the fashionablest style. She was consequently a good deal taken aback when I offered some objections to one or two parties of her recommendation. But I managed to make her understand at last. Said I, 'Mrs. Griffin, I don't undervalue the honour; but I'm too old to wear a tight shoe for the sake of appearances.' The fact was, I did not feel myself what you might call drawn towards any of these young ladies. I couldn't fancy them sitting opposite to me at my own fireside with a kind look on their faces. Now, the reason I say all this to you," continued Mr. Bragg, laying his massive hand on the elbow of Mrs. Dobbs's chair, "is because there is a young lady that I do feel drawn towards—a young lady I've had opportunities of observing at home and abroad. And it was talking of this young lady that I said one day to Mrs. Griffin, 'Now, if you could find some one like Miss May Cheffington who'd condescend to have me, I should think myself a very fortunate man.' She quite jumped at the idea."

"Jumped, indeed!" burst out Mrs. Dobbs, indignantly. "Then she took a most unwarrantable liberty. She could know nothing about Miss May Cheffington's feeling in the matter. What business had she to jump?"

"Nay, nay, my good lady! My good lady! You don't understand. She jumped at the idea on my account. Why, Lord bless me, you couldn't suppose——! She told me at once that May Cheffington was the purest-minded and most unworldly girl she ever knew. I remember her very words; for I couldn't help thinking at the time how queer it was that Mrs. Griffin should admire unworldliness so much."

There was a long pause. Mrs. Dobbs was greatly moved from her usual self-possession. She could not trust herself to speak, while Mr. Bragg was surprised, and somewhat offended, by her reception of what he had to say.

He had really, all things considered, very little purse pride. But he had been accustomed for many years to be dumbly conscious of the power of his wealth, as an elephant is dumbly conscious of the power of his weight; and for a few moments he felt as the elephant might feel if he were subjected to the mysterious process which we hear of as "levitation," and suddenly found himself brushed aside like a fly. Mr. Bragg did not wish to bear down his fellow-creatures unduly by force of wealth. But wealth had come to be a large factor in his social specific gravity.

After a while, Mrs. Dobbs said tremulously, and by no means graciously, "Well, I don't see what I can do for you in the matter."

"I am not asking you to do anything for me, Mrs. Dobbs. I was not aware till last night that you were any relation to Miss Cheffington, or, leastways, I had forgotten it, for I believe I did hear of your daughter's marriage years ago. When I became aware of it, I thought you would take it as a mark of respect and goodwill if I came and spoke to you confidentially. But you don't appear to see it in that light."

Mrs. Dobbs turned round and offered him her hand, saying, "I ask your pardon if I have said anything to offend you. You don't deserve it; you are very far from deserving it. But I'm shaken; my nerve isn't what it was. I haven't been so upset since my poor dear daughter Susy ran away and got married." She was trembling, and her restless fingers were making sad work with the knitting.

"Well, well, there's no occasion for you to put yourself about, you know. I should like you to tell me just this—under the circumstances I think there's no objection to my putting the question—is there anybody else in the field before me?"

"N-no; I think not. I can't say."

"If the young lady has no other attachment," said Mr. Bragg, in his slow, pondering way, "I don't see why I should not be able to make her happy. What do you think?"

"You're a deal older than the child: there's a great disparity, Joshua!" answered Mrs. Dobbs, reverting, in her agitation, to the familiar form in which she had addressed him thirty years back.

"So there is, but that can't be helped; we must just reckon with it as so much alloy. There wouldn't be much romance—couldn't be; but a vast number of people get on very well without romance, and are useful and happy. I have some reason to believe," added Mr. Bragg, looking at her a little askance—for there was no knowing whether this fiery old woman might not take offence again—"that certain members of Miss C.'s family would approve."

Mrs. Dobbs answered with unexpected meekness. "There's no need to tell me that. And you mustn't suppose, Mr. Bragg, that I don't appreciate—that I don't know how the world in general would look upon your offer."

"Why, you see, it doesn't amount exactly to an offer. I thought I would talk matters over with you, and, what you might call, put the case. You see," said Mr. Bragg, placing the forefinger of his right hand upon the thumb of his left, "for my part I could undertake that any lady who did me the honour to marry me should have steady kindness and respect. I wouldn't marry a woman I didn't respect, not if she was the handsomest one in the world and a duke's daughter. Then," placing his two forefingers together, "I ain't a bad temper, nor a jealous temper. Lastly," here he shifted the forefinger of his right hand to the middle finger of his left, "though I don't want to lay too much stress upon money, yet it's a fact that my wife, and, in the course of nature, my widow, would be a very rich woman."

"I suppose you know," said Mrs. Dobbs, leaning her forehead on her hand, and letting the knitting slide from her knees to the floor, "that May's father is alive?"

"Yes; I do know it. And I've got something to say to you on that score. And I'm sure you will agree with me that it is very desirable for Miss C. to have protection and guidance. I'm not speaking for myself now, you understand. Her aunt, Mrs. Dormer-Smith, is a very genteel lady, with very high connections. But—quite between ourselves, you know—I wouldn't give much for her headpiece."

Mrs. Dobbs was looking at him eagerly, and scarcely allowed him to finish his sentence before she said, "But you have something to say about Captain Cheffington?"

"Well, perhaps you know it. If you don't, you ought to. He has been travelling about for years with an Italian opera-singer. She is with him now in Brussels. And people say he has married her."

Mrs. Dobbs clasped her hands together, and ejaculated, almost in a whisper, "Oh, my poor child!"

Mr. Bragg could not tell whether she were thinking of her daughter, or her grand-daughter. Perhaps the images of both were in her mind.

"You had not heard of it, then? Ah! It's a bad prospect for Miss C."

"But is it true? So many stories get about. It seems incredible to me that Augustus, so selfish as he is, should have bound himself in that way."

"I hear it confirmed on all hands. It's an old story now, and pretty widely known. But, look at it which way you will, it's an ugly, disreputable kind of business, Mrs. Dobbs."

She was silent for a while, sitting with her head sunk on her breast, and her hands clasped before her. Then she said, almost as if speaking to herself, "God knows! The woman may not be bad or wicked. How are we to judge?"

Mr. Bragg drew his hand away from the elbow of Mrs. Dobbs's chair, where it had been resting, and said, in a tone of solemn disapprobation, "I don't think there can be much doubt as to the character of the—person, Mrs. Dobbs. I understand she became so notorious in Brussels through keeping a gaming-house, or something of that kind, as to call for the interference of the police."

"May I ask how this information reached you?" said Mrs. Dobbs, turning round and looking full at him.

Mr. Bragg hesitated for a few moments before answering. "It has come to me from various quarters; but the latest is an Italian singer, who has been chattering a good deal. He was at Miss Piper's. There's always a certain amount of risk in having public performers in your house. I don't encourage 'em myself—never did from a boy; and I think it a pity that Miss Piper does. Her sister and me are quite agreed on that point." Mr. Bragg here pushed back his chair and stood up. "I should wish you to understand," he said, "that I should have thought it my duty to tell you this, feeling the interest I do in Miss C., quite independent of our previous conversation."

"I understand. Thank you."

"With regard to that conversation, you can, if you think it advisable, what you might call sound your grand-daughter. I think that might avoid disagreeables for both parties. It can't be pleasant for a sensitive young lady to refuse an offer. And I don't mind saying that it would be extremely unpleasant to me to be refused. A man of my age and—well, I may say my position, don't like to look ridic'lous. Of course you don't care much for my feelings: can't be expected to; but I think, on reflection, you'll see that by coming to you first in this way, I've also done the best I could to spare the feelings of Miss C."

With that Mr. Bragg shook hands with his hostess, and, quietly letting himself out of the house, walked to his brougham, and was driven away to the office in Friar's Row.


To one so habitually resolute, sagacious, and self-reliant as Mrs. Dobbs, the shock of discovering that she has been living under a delusion is severe. It is not merely mortifying—it is alarming. After her conversation with Mr. Bragg, Mrs. Dobbs felt like a person who, walking along what seems to be like a solid path, suddenly finds his foot sink into a quagmire. The firmer and bolder the tread, the greater the danger.

She had not been conscious, until the disenchantment came, how much hope and pride she had lavished on the image conjured up in her fancy by Pauline's "gentleman of princely fortune." The image had been vague, it is true, but brilliant. All that she knew of Mrs. Dormer-Smith's pride of birth, her contemptuous rejection of young Bransby's suit, the importance she attached to introducing her niece into the "best set," and so forth, served to strengthen Mrs. Dobbs in all kinds of delusions. She had taken it for granted that the sort of person whom Pauline could approve of as May's husband must possess certain qualifications. She no more thought, for instance, of doubting that he would be a gentleman, than that he would be a white man. The "princely fortune" added something chivalrous to the idea of him in her mind, since he was ready to share it with portionless May. And now these airy visions had been rolled aside like glittering clouds; and the solid, prosaic, ugly fact presented itself in the form of Joshua Bragg!

Mrs. Dobbs sat for more than an hour after he had left her, with bowed head and hands clasped, scarcely stirring. For a while she could not order her thoughts. Her mind was confused. Images came and went without her will. Under all was a bitter sense of disappointment, and a vague disquietude for the future. At first she had dismissed the notion of May's marrying Mr. Bragg, as one too preposterous to be entertained for a moment; but by degrees she began to ask herself whether she might not be as mistaken here as she had been in other undoubting judgments. Mr. Bragg was a man of probity, and—or so she had hitherto thought him—of excellent sense. Oldchester held many substantial proofs of his benevolence. Could it be possible that girlish May was willing to think of this man for a husband? Mrs. Dobbs tried to look at the matter judicially.

There were many instances of happy marriages where the disparity in years was as great as in this case. Who could be happier than Martin Bransby and his beautiful young wife? But this example had not the effect of reconciling Mrs. Dobbs to the possibility of May's accepting the great tin-tack maker. Martin Bransby was a man whom any woman might love—well educated, clever, genial, of a handsome presence, and with manners of fine old-fashioned courtesy. There could be no comparison between Martin Bransby and Joshua Bragg.

No, no, no! Such a match would be a mere coarse bargain. The very thought of it was an outrage to May. And yet—the pendulum of her thoughts swinging suddenly in the opposite direction—she remembered that neither Mrs. Dormer-Smith nor Mrs. Griffin had so considered it. And was it not true what Mr. Bragg had said—that many people did very well without romance, and were useful and happy? Self-distrust, once aroused, became wild and uncontrollable. She fought against her better instincts; telling herself that she was a fool, and that the world was no place for story-book sentimentality. If May married this man she would be safe from the gusts of fortune; she would be honoured and caressed (for it was clear that society accepted Mr. Bragg without qualm or question), and she would have boundless possibilities of doing good. This, surely, at all events, was a worthy aim!

At this point—just as after a conflict between winds and waves there sometimes comes a sudden calm and the serenity of sunshine—the turmoil of her mind was stilled all at once, and she saw clearly. She lifted up her head and said aloud—

"'What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Lord, forgive me! I was arguing on the devil's side every bit as much as that poor creature, Mrs. Dormer-Smith. And without her excuse of knowing no better! The whole thing is plain enough. If May could bring herself to care for the man—and such unlikely things happen in that line that one daren't say it's downright impossible!—she'd do right to marry him; if not, she'd do wrong. And that's all about it."

Here, at least, was a firm foothold. And having struggled out of the quagmire, Mrs. Dobbs was able to consider the other subject of Mr. Bragg's talk with her—the rumour that Captain Cheffington had married again. If it were true, and, above all, if his new wife were such a one as Mr. Bragg had described, there was a new source of anxiety as to May's future.

As she was meditating on this point, Jo Weatherhead returned, eager to hear all about her interview with Bragg, and to impart to her something he had just heard himself. Mrs. Dobbs was glad to be able to feed Jo's hungry curiosity by telling him the reports about her son-in-law, since she could not betray Mr. Bragg's confidence respecting May. She found that he had been hearing a version of them from Mr. Simpson, whom he had met in the road. Valli's utterances at Miss Piper's supper-table had already revived all kinds of obsolete gossip about Captain Cheffington.

"It'll be terrible for my poor lamb if half the bad things they say are true," said Mrs. Dobbs, shaking her head.

Jo's private opinion was that Captain Cheffington's conduct under any given circumstances was pretty sure to be the worst possible; but he tried to comfort his old friend, as he had succeeded in comforting himself, by setting forth that her father's behaviour, be it what it might, could scarcely affect May's happiness very deeply, seeing that she had been entirely separated from him for so long.

"And as to her position in the world, that you think so much of"—Mrs. Dobbs winced at this, and turned her head away—"why, I shrewdly suspect, Sarah, that a deal worse things than ever reached you and me have been known about Captain Cheffington in aristocratic circles this long time back. And yet Miranda has been received among the tip-toppest people as if she belonged to 'em. And there's her own great-uncle, the Lord Viscount Castlecombe of Combe Park, a nobleman notorious for his heighth" (Jo did not mean his stature), "has quite taken to her, by all accounts."

After some consultation, they agreed together that it would be well for Mrs. Dobbs to tell her grand-daughter something of the reports which were flying about, lest they might reach her accidentally, or, in a still more painful way, through malice, and find her unprepared. Moreover, Jo urged his old friend to write boldly to Augustus demanding an answer as to the truth of the statement that he had married a second wife. Mrs. Dobbs at length consented to do so, although she had little hope of eliciting the truth by those means. But Jo was strongly of opinion that if Captain Cheffington were not married he would be desirous, for many reasons, of repudiating the statement; and if he were married he might not be displeased at this opportunity of saying so, although pride, or indolence, or a hundred other motives, might prevent him from making the opportunity for himself.

The communication was made to May when she came home from College Quad that afternoon. And, although greatly surprised at first, it did not produce so much effect as her grandmother had anticipated.

May had enough of the healthy, unquestioning veneration of a child for its parent to take her father on trust; and Mrs. Dobbs had always been careful not to lower Captain Cheffington in his daughter's esteem. But May did not—naturally could not—feel for him any of that strong personal attachment which is apt to look jealously on interlopers. She regarded him with a somewhat hazy affection, largely compounded of imagination and dim childish traditions. Some added tenderness sprang, perhaps, from the notion that "poor papa" had been unfortunate, and that the world had treated him below his deserts.

After the first surprise was over, she said, "But why should he keep it secret? Wouldn't he have told you, granny?"

"Perhaps not, May; I hear from him very seldom, as you know."

"Very seldom! Yes; but in such a case as this! Perhaps, though, papa thought it might hurt your feelings, on account of mamma."

"Perhaps," returned Mrs. Dobbs drily.

"People are unreasonably sensitive sometimes, are they not? As for me, it never entered into my head to think of my father's marrying again; but now I do think of it, it seems to me that it would be a very good thing."

"Its goodness or badness would depend, of course, on—circumstances."

"I do really think more and more that it would be a good thing, granny. Papa must have many lonely hours, you know. He likes Continental life best, to be sure; but still he is far away from his own country and his own people. It seems almost selfish in us not to have thought of it for him. Oh, I hope she is a nice, kind woman, who will be good to him and take care of him. I think I ought to write at once and assure him that I have no grudge in my heart about it. And I'm sure you have none either; have you, granny dear?"

Mrs. Dobbs found it at once more painful and more difficult than she had foreseen to breathe degrading suspicions into this frank, pure mind. But it was necessary not to allow May to cherish what might prove to be disastrous illusions.

"It isn't all such plain sailing, May," she answered slowly. "I will write to your father, and you had better wait for his reply. We don't know that he is married at all. And if he is, we don't know that there's much to be glad about. They do say that the lady is not a fit match for your father."

"He is the best judge of that, I should think," returned May. Then she added, her young face flushing with a generous impulse, "I dare say people may have said the same of my own dear mother."

"No, May. No one ever said of your own dear mother what is said of this woman."

There was a sternness in her grandmother's voice and face which startled the girl.

"What do they say, granny?" she asked quickly.

Mrs. Dobbs checked herself. "Oh, I cannot tell you exactly. There are lots of stories about. Some will have it that—her character is not quite blameless."

"Who dares to say so of my father's wife?"

"Hush! May. There's no need to call her your father's wife yet. Signor Valli says the person in question——"

"Signor Valli? Then I don't believe a word of it. Not one word. I know he talks wildly, and jumps at things. Why, he told Clara Bertram that my mother was a foreigner, and that he had met her. So you see how accurate and trustworthy Signor Valli is." Then, after a moment, as if struck by a sudden thought, she asked, "Is—she a foreigner?"

"I believe so."

"Then that is what he meant, I suppose."

"It's right to tell you, May, that Signor Valli is not the only one who has heard disagreeable things."

"Oh, of course, they all baa' one after the other! You have no idea, granny, what foolish back-biting talk goes on among the people whom Aunt Pauline calls 'society.' I've seen them roll a morsel of gossip over and over, while it kept growing all the time like a snow-ball—or a mud-ball. And no doubt many people whom Aunt Pauline doesn't call 'society' are as bad. A sheep is a sheep, whichever side of the hedge it is on," said this young censor with fine scorn.

Mrs. Dobbs in her heart did not put implicit faith in the stories which reached her. The young and the old—when they are sound-hearted—are both prone to disbelieve slander—the young from innocence, the old from experience; for there is no lesson more surely taught by life than the evil lightness with which evil is attributed.

But with regard to these particular stories, unwelcome corroboration was given to Mrs. Dobbs by Clara Bertram. Clara carried out her proposal of going to sing at Jessamine Cottage. She went there one afternoon when May was absent at the Hadlows', and introduced herself. There were only Mrs. Dobbs and Mr. Weatherhead to listen to her; but she sat down at the old square piano—feebly tinkling now, but tinkling always in tune, like the conscientious ghost of a defunct instrument—and sang her best. Her audience, though limited, was highly appreciative; and she soon found that their applause was not given ignorantly.

Apart from the charm of her singing, Clara won their sympathies by her kindly, unaffected simplicity. She inspired trustfulness. One must have been blindly false one's self to doubt her truth. Mrs. Dobbs was moved to question her a little about Valli.

"Of course, you have heard this gossip about May's father?" she said.

"Yes. To say the truth, I almost hoped you might speak on this subject; and so I purposely came when I thought May would not be here. I hinted to her something that Valli had said to me; but I saw she knew nothing."

"I have told her. At least I have told her enough to prevent her being taken by surprise."

"I am glad of that. I think you have done very wisely."

"This Signor Valli, now," said Mrs. Dobbs musingly. "I suppose he tells lies sometimes, eh?"

Clara reflected for a moment before she answered. "In one way—yes. That is to say, if he hated you, and saw you give a penny to a beggar, he would impute some nefarious motive for the action, and say so without scruple; but I don't believe he would be likely to invent circumstances."

Then she went on to tell how Miss Polly Piper remembered a dreadful story about some gambling transactions; and how Major Mitton had furbished up his Maltese reminiscences; and how everybody found something to say, and not one good thing among them all.

Jo Weatherhead listened with a kind of dread enjoyment. So much curious gossip could not but be interesting; yet he wished with all his heart, for May's sake, that it were not true.

"I speak openly to you," said Clara; "but I am reticent about all this with other people. Pray believe that."

Mrs. Dobbs did believe it. Clara seemed to have become intimate with them all at once.

"May I come again?" asked the young singer as she took her leave.

"May you come! Will you come? I didn't ask you, because, when a person generously gives me one pearl of price, it is not my way to snatch at the whole string. Your time is precious; your voice is precious."

"Dear Mrs. Dobbs, your kindness is precious. Not that I am ungrateful for the kindness bestowed on me by—other people; but there is such a delightful feeling of homeliness here. And then, although you have praised me too much, I must say that you and Mr. Weatherhead are good judges of music."

"Well, I won't go so far as to deny that you might strew your pearls before certain animals who would value them less," replied Mrs. Dobbs.

As for Jo Weatherhead, he became so enthusiastic in Miss Bertram's praises behind her back, that Mrs. Dobbs laughingly declared he was in love with her. And perhaps he was, a little. Many more such humble innocent "loves" spring up and die around us every day than we reck of. They do not ripen into fruit, but simply blossom like the wayside flowers; and the world is all the sweeter for them.

When May came home that evening, she was delighted to hear of the favourable impression her friend had made; although she declared it was shabby of Clara to have come in her absence. May brought the news from College Quad that Constance had written home for a prolonged leave of absence, having been invited by the duchess to accompany Mrs. Griffin to Glengowrie.

"Canon Hadlow grumbles a little," said May; "but he will let her go. And I am so glad; I hated the idea of going; but Conny will enjoy it, and everybody else will soon find out that she is the right girl in the right place—which, I am sure, I should not have been."

"Mr. Bragg is not going to Glengowrie either, I understand," said Mrs. Dobbs, growing very red, and coughing to hide her embarrassment.

"No; Mr. Bragg and I are quite agreed in not liking that sort of thing. He says he feels lonely in a strange house; and so do I. If the duke and duchess were my friends, it would be different."

"Mr. Bragg has a good deal of sense, I think."

"Plenty of common sense."

"And—ahem!—and good feeling—don't you think?"

"What's the matter with your throat, granny? Shall I get you a glass of water?—Oh yes; he does a great deal of good with his wealth. Canon Hadlow was saying only this afternoon that Mr. Bragg gives away very large sums in private, besides the public subscriptions, where every one sees his name."

"Mr. Bragg was here the other day to speak to me—on business—No, no; I don't want any water! Sit still, child. And I think you are a great favourite of his."

"It's quite mutual, granny. Often and often, in London, I used to prefer a quiet talk with Mr. Bragg to the foolish chatter of smart people."

"Ay, ay! But 'smart people' need not be foolish, May."

"N—no; they need not. Only so many of them—especially the young men—seem to think it part of their smartness to put on a kind of foolishness."

Mrs. Dobbs looked wistfully at her grand-daughter. In that process of "sounding" May, which Mr. Bragg had recommended, and which Mrs. Dobbs was endeavouring to carry out, there arose this difficulty: the chords gave forth a full response to every touch; but who should interpret the meaning of the notes? Mrs. Dobbs had been accustomed to read May's feelings by swift intuition. She was now afraid to trust to that. Her interview with Mr. Bragg had upset so many of her preconceived ideas as to what could be considered probable, or even possible, in the matter of her grandchild's marriage, that her judgment seemed paralyzed. And then to risk a mistake which should involve May's life-long unhappiness, would be too tremendous a responsibility!

Measured by Mrs. Dobbs's unquiet thoughts it seemed a long time, but in reality less than a minute elapsed between May's last words and her saying—

"Talking of smart people, granny, don't you think Aunt Pauline is sure to know the truth about papa?"

"I cannot tell. There might be reasons why she should not have heard it, May."

"Well, at all events, I have been thinking that I will write to her and ask. If she does know, and is keeping her knowledge back from me for any reason—some of Aunt Pauline's mysterious dancing before deaf people, you know—that will make her speak out."

"I don't see why you should not write to her, if you choose, May."

Mrs. Dobbs had little doubt that Mrs. Dormer-Smith would be annoyed and perturbed by May's writing to her on the subject, whether the story of the marriage were true or false, and whether she herself had or had not heard of it. But Mrs. Dobbs was in no mood to shield Pauline from annoyance or perturbation.

"She and her 'gentleman of princely fortune,' indeed!" said Mrs. Dobbs to herself. "Why couldn't she say old Joshua Bragg? and then one would have known where one was."

So it was settled that May should write to her aunt.


Theodore Bransby at first indignantly repudiated Valli's scandals about Captain Cheffington. He was quite unprepared for them, having, it may be remembered, heard nothing of Miss Piper's story, told at the dinner-party in his father's house; and having, moreover, loftily snubbed every one in Oldchester who ventured to hint anything to the disparagement of his distinguished friend. What could Oldchester know about such persons as the Cheffingtons?

But general testimony and public opinion were too strong for him, and he was forced to give up his distinguished friend. He fell back on mysterious hints of sympathy and intimacy with "the family," and allusions to what "poor dear Lucius" had said to him on the last occasion of their dining together at Mrs. Dormer-Smith's.

In his heart, Theodore was deeply annoyed. He considered that Captain Cheffington (supposing report to speak truly) had not only derogated from his proper place in the world, but had, in some sense, personally injured him (Theodore) by forming a connection so far beneath him. Nevertheless, it was very possible that Captain Cheffington might some day come to be Viscount Castlecombe, and much would be forgiven to a wealthy peer of the realm. Theodore was conscious that he himself could forgive much to such a one. He was not prone to indulge in idle fancies, yet he caught himself once or twice writing on a corner of his blotting-pad the words "Hon. Mrs. Theodore Bransby," with pensive sentiment. But let her father's fate and fortunes be what they might, Theodore felt that he must still desire to marry May Cheffington. The recognition of this feeling in himself gave him an agreeable sense of his own elevation of soul. That fellow Rivers talked a vast deal of flashy nonsense, which dazzled people; but it was possible to take a serious and sensible view of life without being commonplace. Theodore did not by any means wish to be, or to be thought, commonplace.

He had just been called to the Bar, and ought by this time to have begun his professional career on the Midland Circuit. But he lingered in Oldchester on the plea of delicate health. It was not so much the presence of May Cheffington as that of Owen Rivers which chained him there. If Rivers would but have left Oldchester, Theodore would have turned his back on it also with small reluctance. The dull, vague jealousy of Rivers, which he began to feel long ago, had become acute. Rivers would have been a distasteful personage to him under any circumstances; but viewed as a rival, he inspired something like loathing. And yet the desire to watch him—not to lose sight of him so long as May should be in Oldchester—was irresistible. Theodore had never come so near quarrelling with his step-mother as on the subject of Owen Rivers; but he had failed in causing the latter to be excluded, or even coldly received, by Mrs. Bransby.

There was a painful scene one day at luncheon, when Martin, Mrs. Bransby's eldest boy, vehemently took up the cudgels in defence of his absent friend, Owen, of whom Theodore had been speaking with sneering contempt. Martin was ordered away from the table for being impertinent to his half-brother. But general sympathy was with the culprit; and Mr. Bransby said when the boy had left the room—

"Of course, it would not do to allow Martin to be saucy; but you are too hard upon Rivers, Theodore. He may have his faults; but, if he be idle, he is not self-indulgent. Rivers has a Spartan disdain of personal luxuries; and although he doesn't work, no one suffers by that but himself. He is incapable of a mean thought, has a most noble truthfulness of nature, and is a gentleman to the core."

Theodore turned deadly white, and answered, "I am sorry not to be able to agree with you, sir. To be a lounging hanger-on, as Rivers is at the Hadlows', is not compatible with my conception of a gentleman."

He rose as he spoke, and left the room, so as to cut off any possibility of a reply.

Mrs. Bransby had sat by with downcast eyes, parted lips, and beating heart. She was divided between delight at hearing her husband assert his own opinion against Theodore and her constitutional timidity and dread of a quarrel. When Theodore was gone, she put her hand on her husband's shoulder, and said—

"It is like you, dear Martin, to stand up for the absent. We are all—the children and I—so fond of young Rivers."

"I hate priggishness, and I hate spitefulness," rejoined Martin Bransby, with a sparkle in his fine dark eyes.

The old man's face had flushed when he uttered his protest. It was an unusual outburst; for of late—whether from failing health, or from whatever cause—Mr. Bransby had more and more shrunk from opposing or contradicting Theodore. He seemed almost timidly anxious to conciliate him; and was evidently distressed by any symptom of ill-will between his eldest son and the rest of the family. After a while the flush died from his cheek, and the fire from his eye. He sat with bowed head, softly caressing the white jewelled hand which had slidden down from his shoulder. Presently he said—

"Don't let us cherish feuds, or blow up resentment, Loui. If there are subjects on which Theodore thinks differently from you—and me; and me, too, my dear—let us avoid them. He has his good points, though he has weak ones—as we all have. Let us spare them. Theodore may be very helpful to the boys when I am gone. And I have it very much at heart that there should be peace and goodwill between them."

In Theodore's mind, however, the little incident rankled. He was silent about it. But that was no indication that he had either forgiven or forgotten it.

He was also annoyed and disappointed at seeing May Cheffington so seldom during this sojourn at home. He had formerly met her constantly at College Quad; but he could not now frequent Canon Hadlow's house as he had done in old days, even had he wished it. And although it appeared that Mrs. Bransby had struck up a great friendship with May during his absence, May's visits to her were very brief and rare. Theodore half suspected that his step-mother perversely stinted her invitations to the girl, for the express purpose of vexing him, and at length he plainly asked her how it was that Miss Cheffington came to their house so seldom. Mrs. Bransby was tempted to give him her real opinion as to the reason, but she refrained. She would not vex Martin by saying sharp things to his son. So she answered vaguely that Miss Cheffington now passed a good deal of her time at Garnet Lodge with her friend, Clara Bertram.

"Excuse me," said Theodore, tilting his chair, and looking down as from the summit of Mont Blanc upon his step-mother. "The Dormer-Smiths were very kind to that little Bertram girl in town, and Mrs. Dormer-Smith launched her in some of the best houses; but—pardon me for setting you right—she is not quite on such a footing as to be a friend of Miss Cheffington's."

However, he acted on the hint accidentally given, and began to honour the Miss Pipers with frequent visits.

The good-natured old maids received him very kindly; but it may be doubted whether he were particularly welcome to any of the persons who had taken the habit of dropping in nearly every evening at Garnet Lodge.

Major Mitton and Dr. Hatch were old habitués; but the circle now included some new ones. Mr. Bragg was often there. (Theodore considered it a striking proof of the incurable commonness of Mr. Bragg's tastes—already illustrated, to Theodore's apprehension, by a memorable instance—that he, to whom some of the best county society was accessible, and who had even been invited to Glengowrie, should prefer the middle-class sitting-room, and the middle-class gossip of Polly and Patty Piper.) There was, too, the inevitable Owen Rivers, and occasionally Mr. Sweeting and Cleveland Turner would drive over from the country-house which the former had hired in the neighbourhood. Miss Bertram's visit was prolonged; in Theodore's opinion very unduly. It might be all very well to invite her for professional purposes; but, once the musical party was over, it was absurd to keep the girl as a visitor in the house. Altogether, there was much that Theodore disapproved of at Garnet Lodge; but, as he told himself, he went there for a purpose totally disconnected with its owners. And if he did some violence to his social principles by condescending to frequent such an undistinguished and bourgeois set of people, he was resolved to make amends by totally dropping their acquaintance in the, not distant, future.

As to May, although he genuinely believed that the Dormer-Smiths had influenced her against him, he was not so foolish as to think that she had been coerced, or that she was at all in love with him. Nevertheless, a vast deal might depend on the influence of those around her, in the case of a girl so young, so fresh-hearted, and so inexperienced. He had faith in his own perseverance and constancy. The main point—the only vital point—was to prevent any rival from succeeding. So long as May were free he had good hope. It was quite certain that the Cheffington family would never sanction her marrying Owen Rivers. That must be taken as absolutely sure. And, indeed, Miss Cheffington herself would probably scout the idea. But with regard to what Rivers hoped and intended Theodore could not be mistaken. There, at least, he was clear-sighted. It was disgraceful on the part of a fellow like Rivers, subsisting in idleness on a beggarly pittance, and without prospects for the future, or advantages in the present, to aspire to such a girl as May Cheffington. Of course, Rivers knew very well that it would prove a good speculation. May might prove to be the sole heiress of a rich nobleman. At any rate, she would certainly inherit her grandmother's money. Mrs. Dobbs's savings, however paltry, would be a sufficient bait for Rivers, who had none of that ambition for fine tailoring, upholstery, and the paraphernalia of fashionable life which becomes a gentleman. Jealousy apart, perhaps that which made Owen peculiarly offensive to him was to see a man at once so poor, so contented, and so free from any misgivings as to his right to be generally respected.

On his side, it must be owned that Owen wasted no cordiality on Theodore. To see May speaking civilly to that correctly dressed and dignified young man caused Mr. Rivers a certain irritation which occasionally manifested itself in the most unreasonable ill-humour towards her.

"I really believe you like his empty arrogance," he said to her once. "Why else you should sit and listen to him with that complacent air, I cannot conceive."

"Oh, I enjoy it of all things," answered May mischievously; "otherwise I should, of course, cut him short by remarking, in a loud voice, and with a ferocious glare, 'Mr. Bransby, I look upon you as a tedious prig.' How delightful social intercourse would become if we had all reached that fine point of sincerity!"

But there were other causes of dislike between the young men unconnected with May Cheffington. Owen felt not only admiration, but regard, for Mrs. Bransby, and resented her stepson's demeanour towards her, while Theodore was embittered by hearing Owen's praises in his own family.

The perception of this lurking enmity between them made May anxious to smoothe asperities and prevent a rupture. In her heart, although she admitted he had done nothing to startle or offend her of late, she intensely disliked Theodore Bransby; yet she found herself in a position of taking his part against Owen. Owen was too absolute, too inflexible, too implacable, she said. After all, Theodore had always conducted himself irreproachably. He might not be agreeable to them (May had innocently come to join herself with Owen in this kind of partnership in sentiment), but probably they were not always agreeable to other people; they ought to be tolerant if they wished to be tolerated—and the like sage reflections. All which pretty lectures, though they made Owen no whit less obdurate towards Theodore, melted his heart into ever softer tenderness for May.

She had not gone to Glengowrie. The reprieve he had allowed himself, after which she was to depart, and he must steel himself to endure her absence for, probably, the remainder of his life, had expired. But May was still there. And there, too, was he. He was free to go away at any moment. But he lingered. He began to suffer sharp pangs of regret when he thought of the lost opportunities which lay behind him; for now sometimes it seemed to him as if this sweet, pure girl might come to love him. And what had he to offer her? How could he ask her to share such a life as his? Owen had held certain uncompromising theories: such as that a woman who hesitated to partake poverty with the man she professed to love was not worth winning; and that a man must be but a poor creature who should weigh a woman's fortune against himself, and fear to woo a well-dowered girl lest he might be thought to love her money bags and not her. And he had long ago decided that with his marriage, at least (supposing that unlikely event ever took place), considerations of money should have nothing to do on either side. But theories—even true theories—are apt to find themselves a little out of breath when suddenly confronted with the fact.

The advice so vigorously given by Mrs. Dobbs to do some honest work, if it were but breaking stones upon the road, took a new significance when he thought of May. That on this point May agreed with her grandmother's view he had ascertained, although a shy consciousness restrained her from urging him to change his course of life. He began to cast about in his mind for some possible employment; but he found, as so many others had found before him, how difficult it is to turn "general acquirements" into a definite channel.

A chance word of Mr. Bragg's at length suddenly suggested a hope to him.

Mr. Bragg mentioned one evening at Garnet Lodge that he purposed making a journey into Spain, partly on matters connected with his son's business; and said that he should like to find some trustworthy person to accompany him as secretary and interpreter.

"I don't speak any foreign language myself," said Mr. Bragg. "Of course, there's always somebody that knows English; and pounds sterling are a pretty universal language, I find, and make themselves understood everywhere. But still, you're at a disadvantage with people who can talk your tongue while you can't talk theirs."

"But you could send somebody, couldn't you?" suggested Miss Patty. "Spain, I've heard, is such a horrid country."

"Horrid!" cried Major Mitton indignantly. (He was strong in recollections of sundry youthful escapades and excursions from "Gib.") "Most delightful country! Most picturesque, poetical, and——"

"Oh yes; but I meant the cooking," explained Miss Patty.

Mr. Bragg, however, valorously declared himself ready to face the perils of Spanish cookery. His son was not satisfied with his correspondent at Barcelona. Mr. Bragg wanted change of air; and since he had given up the idea of visiting the Highlands this autumn, he would take this opportunity of seeing foreign parts, and at the same time looking into matters at Barcelona for his son.

Owen's heart beat fast as the thought occurred to him of offering himself to Mr. Bragg as secretary for this journey. He hurried after Mr. Bragg when the latter's carriage was announced, and stopped him in the hall to ask when and where he could have a private interview with him. Mr. Bragg answered in his slow, ruminating way, as he took his coat from the servant—

"An interview with me? Oh, well, why not come over to lunch? My house ain't beyond a pleasant walk for your young legs."

"No, thank you; I won't come to luncheon. But I want an appointment—I shall not take up much of your time—on business."

"Oh, on business, is it?" said Mr. Bragg. It was curious to note how evidently the sound of the word made him bring his mind to bear on what was said to him, with a new and keener attention. "On business! It's nothing you could write, I suppose."

"Yes; I could write it. Shall I?"

"I think it would be the best plan, if you don't mind. You see I find, in a general way, that talk—what you might call, branches out so. Now a letter limits a man. I don't mean this for your partic'lar case, you know, but speaking in a general way. Perhaps, if we find afterwards that there is anything to talk over, you might look me up at my office in Friar's Row. It'll be easier to settle all that when I know what the business is. Good night. My respects to your aunt."

Owen hastened to his lodgings, and set himself at once to compose a letter to Mr. Bragg. Seeing that it was then past eleven o'clock at night, and that Mr. Bragg had set out for his country-house, it was scarcely probable that he should have found a secretary between that hour and the following morning. But Owen felt as if every moment's delay might be fatal. Oldchester persons, who had seen him lounging on Canon Hadlow's lawn, and merely knew him as a young man fond of smoking, and reading, and such unprofitable employments, would have been amazed at the impetuous energy he threw into the writing of this letter. But the same weight of character which gives massiveness to repose adds a formidable momentum to action.

The main difficulty, he soon found, was to make his letter short. This, after several failures, and the tearing up of three copies, he accomplished to a fair extent, if not wholly to his own satisfaction. When he had finished the letter, he put it into a cover, stamped and addressed it, and went out to post it with his own hand. By that time it was considerably past midnight. The letter could have been delivered by hand in Friar's Row next morning, and would probably have reached Mr. Bragg equally soon. But it was a relief to Owen in his restless, impetuous mood to have done something irrevocable. And there are few actions in life so obviously irrevocable as posting a letter. This is what he had written—

"Dear Sir,

"I venture to offer myself for the post of your secretary during the journey you propose making to Spain.

"My qualifications are—Honesty; a fair knowledge of the Spanish language; and considerable experience of travelling in Spain, where I have made two long tours on foot. Perhaps I ought to add to these good health, and willingness to be useful. My disadvantages are—Ignorance of the forms of mercantile correspondence, and inexperience of the duties of a secretary. I believe I could learn both very quickly.

"I have hitherto been a man without occupation. I am now anxious to have one by which I can earn money. Should you, on inquiry and consideration, think I could honestly earn some as your secretary, I should be grateful if you would give me a trial.

"I am ready to wait on you at your office, or elsewhere, in case you wish for an interview, and remain,

"Dear Sir,

"Yours truly,

"Owen Rivers."

The following afternoon Owen was summoned to see Mr. Bragg at his office. The old house in Friar's Row had been painted and varnished inside and out. Plate glass glittered in the window panes, and elaborate brass handles shone on the doors. Owen had never been in the house during the days of Mrs. Dobbs's occupation. But he knew that May had spent much of her childhood there; and he looked round the private room into which he was shown with a tender glance such as probably never before rested on those mahogany office fittings, morocco-covered chairs, and neatly ranged account-books.

Mr. Bragg was sitting at a writing-table, and held out his hand without rising, when Owen entered.

"Sit down, Mr. Rivers," he said, pointing to a chair opposite to his own, on the other side of the table.

Owen sat down, and remained waiting in silence.

"Well, so you think you'd like to go to Spain with me?" said Mr. Bragg, slowly rubbing his chin, and looking thoughtfully at the young man.

"I should like to get work to do, Mr. Bragg. I don't care much where it is. But it struck me that I might be useful to you in Spain."

"Ah! Well, I was surprised at your letter."

"Nothing in it that you object to, I hope?"

"Oh no. Oh dear, no. Only I didn't know you was in want of employment. And I should have thought——"


"I should have thought you'd ha' liked some more—what you might call professional employment."

"A man can't step into a profession from one day to another. And besides, the professions are overstocked. There's no elbow-room in any of them—especially for a poor man."

"Ah! Yes; I hear that sort of thing is said a great deal; but it seems to me that might be a reason for giving up living altogether. There's a good many of us in all classes, one way and another; but a man has got to make room for himself."

"You have a right to say so, Mr. Bragg, and I have no right to dispute it: for you have tried and succeeded, and I have not even tried."

"Ah! That seems a pity—with your education, and all. However, I didn't intend to branch out, as I said to you last night. With regard to the point in hand, I would just say at once that this situation would be strictly tempor'y, you understand. It couldn't be looked on in the light of what you might call an opening."

"I understand."

"At the same time it might—I don't say it would—lead to an opening," continued Mr. Bragg, indenting the paper before him by drawing his thumb-nail along it with a strong, steady movement, as though he mentally saw the opening in question, and were mapping out the way to it.

"I quite understand that if you engaged me as secretary for this journey, you would not bind yourself to anything beyond. Whether anything further came of it, or not, would depend, first, on my suitableness; and next, on circumstances."

"That's it," said Mr. Bragg, leaning back in his chair, and nodding slowly.

"Well, Mr. Bragg, I can only say I would do my best. As to my knowledge of Spanish, I'm not afraid. I began to learn the language first for the sake of reading Cervantes, as so many people have done before me; but since then I have acquired a colloquial knowledge of it by talking with all sorts of Spaniards when I was tramping about their country."

"I have heard," said Mr. Bragg, not displeased to show himself acquainted with the literary aspect of the matter, "of a man that learned Spanish in order to read a book called 'Don Quixote.'"

"Just as I did."

"Oh! Did you? I thought you mentioned a different name. And can you write it?"

"Fairly well; but I should have to learn the commercial style."

"There'd be more need, perhaps, for you to understand it than to write it yourself. All communications with my son in Buenos Ayres could, of course, be written in English."

Mr. Bragg here made a long, thoughtful pause. It was so long a pause that Owen at length broke it by saying with a smile, though the colour rose to his brow—

"As to my character, I can't give you one from my last place, because I never had a place; but my uncle, Canon Hadlow, will, I believe, guarantee my trustworthiness."

He felt a queer little shock when Mr. Bragg, instead of protesting himself fully satisfied on that score, answered in a matter-of-fact tone—

"Ah! yes, I dare say he will. I make no doubt but what that'll be all right." Then, after a second, shorter pause, he continued, "There's one point, Mr. Rivers, that I must put quite plain. I expect everybody in my employment to obey orders. Now, you see, you, having been what you might call brought up a gentleman, might not——"

"Oh, I hope you don't think that insubordination is part of a gentleman's bringing up?"

"It hadn't ought to be; but it's best to be clear."

"Clearly, then, I can undertake to obey your orders; and I would only warn you to give them carefully, because I shall carry them out to the letter. If you ordered me to make a bonfire of your bank-notes, I should burn 'em all without mercy."

Mr. Bragg laughed his quiet, inward laugh. There was something in the conception of himself ordering bank-notes to be burned, which keenly touched his not very lively sense of the ludicrous.

"All right," said he. "I'll take that risk."

"Then am I to conclude—may I hope that you will engage me?" asked Owen, with nervous eagerness.

"Why, I shall ask leave to turn it over in my mind a little longer. But I'll undertake not to keep you waiting beyond to-morrow morning. You see, if I do make an offer, it's best you should have it in writing. And sim'larly, if you accept it, I ought to have that in writing."

"Thank you. Then I need not intrude longer on your time."

"No intrusion at all, Mr. Rivers. Good morning to you."

Owen turned round at the door, and coming back to the writing-table, said, "May I ask you to keep my application to yourself for the present?"

"Certainly," answered Mr. Bragg. But he looked slightly surprised.

"Of course, I don't mean the thing to be secret so far as I am concerned."

"Why, no; we couldn't hardly keep it secret," said Mr. Bragg gravely.

"Of course not. But if your answer should be favourable, I should like to be the first to tell—a—a person—the one or two persons who take any interest in me."

"But I shall have to say a word to your uncle; and that's pretty well the same thing as saying it to your aunt, I take it."

"Oh yes; to be sure. I didn't mean you not to mention it to them."

"All right. I certainly shall not mention it to anybody else," returned Mr. Bragg.

And when the young man was gone, he said to himself, "I wonder who else there is I could mention it to that would care two straws one way or the other. I like his way. He don't jaw like that young Bransby. And he didn't try to soap me."

The next day Owen Rivers was formally engaged as travelling secretary to Mr. Bragg for three months, beginning from October, which was now near at hand.


Mrs. Dobbs had judged rightly as to the effect of May's letter on her Aunt Pauline. That sorely tried lady was overwhelmed at this time by various troubles. She did not write to May, but addressed a very long and somewhat rambling letter to Mrs. Dobbs. After the strongest expressions of dismay and horror at the rumour of her brother's marriage, Pauline proceeded—

"I really cannot answer May's letter—at all events, not at present. I am deeply distressed that she should have addressed me on the subject at all. It is such terribly bad form in a girl of her age to appear cognisant of anything not brought to her knowledge by the proper channels. I had heard a vague report of the connection—which was bad enough. But who could have supposed that Augustus would have degraded himself to the point of marrying such a person! But I ought not to trouble you with my feelings on this matter, for I am very sure you cannot imagine one tithe of the various distressing results to the family which will flow from it. It is much to be regretted that May so precipitately decided not to go to Glengowrie; particularly under recent untoward circumstances. I learn from a friend in town that my cousin, Mr. Lucius Cheffington, is much better. I do not mean, of course, that this is an untoward circumstance; but it alters the position of affairs. I scarcely know what I write. You may not be aware—few persons are aware—of the delicate state of my nervous system. I suffer keenly from any mental pressure. And of late I seem to have had nothing else! My cure at this place has been sadly interfered with by anxiety for others. But, really whether poor dear Lucius recover or not, if this story from Belgium is true, my niece's position will be a most painful one. From the tone of her letter to me, I can see that she does not at all take in the situation. You can tell her one thing from me: If my brother were to succeed to the title to-morrow, he would have nothing but what the entail gives him. So if she imagines otherwise it would be well to undeceive her. You won't mind my saying that in this respect the circumstances of my brother's first marriage were peculiarly unfortunate, since they prevented any settlement being made for the children."

"Ay," said Mrs. Dobbs, interrupting her reading at this point, "not to mention that by that time Augustus had nothing left to settle!"

Then she resumed the letter—

"You and I, my dear Mrs. Dobbs, must join our forces in face of these new and trying circumstances. The more I think of it the more I regret that my niece has missed the opportunity of going to Glengowrie, especially since I have learned that Mrs. Griffin is going to chaperon another young lady in her stead. In society it is fatal to drop out of sight—you are forgotten immediately—and I cannot expect Mrs. Griffin to do more than she has done. Indeed, both she and the dear duchess have been extraordinarily kind—I fear May scarcely appreciates how kind; but the truth is that she is singularly—I scarcely know what word to use—not dull, but indifferent on certain points. There is an apathy about her sometimes which has caused her uncle and myself a great deal of distress. But really she must rouse herself from it now. It is a great comfort to us to know that you, my dear Mrs. Dobbs, take a sound view of my niece's position, and have her best interests at heart.

"Believe me,

"Very truly yours,

"P. Dormer-Smith.

"P.S.—I have this moment received a letter from Miss Hadlow, in which she mentions, amongst other items of news, that the gentleman whom I wrote of as being interested in May has declined his invitation to Glengowrie, and is now in Oldchester! There appears to be something absolutely providential in this. I know you have great influence over May. Pray exert it to make her see what is right. I have never been able to get her to look on her social position as involving certain duties. But, indeed, in her case, the duty immediately before her of obtaining a splendid settlement and a fine position is an easy one. I have seen cases of real sacrifice to this social obligation endured without murmur. Since they are both in Oldchester, it must surely be easy to give the gentleman every opportunity of presenting his suit. Indeed, there may be better opportunities than at Glengowrie. The longer we live the more we realize how everything is overruled for good.

"P. D. S."

"I reopen this to write an essential word:—The name of the gentleman I have alluded to! You may form some conception of the pressure on my brain from my having omitted to do so before. He is a Mr. Bragg—a man of very large wealth, and received everywhere. I know that my uncle has more than once received him at Combe Park. And he would, I dare say, have got some chaperon there, and had May down for a time; but, of course, under the bereavement we have all just suffered in the death of my cousin George, this cannot be at present. But there surely must be, among the better families in Oldchester, some whom Mr. Bragg visits? Possibly the bishop, if he is there; or, perhaps the dean? I know Lady Mary slightly. Pray lose no time, my dear Mrs. Dobbs, in ascertaining this."

Mrs. Dobbs pondered long after reading this epistle. In May's absence she often turned over in her mind the advantages of an alliance with Mr. Bragg; remembered favourable precedents; and taught herself to think that it might be. The sight of the girl's face, and the sound of her voice, were apt to scatter these fancies as sunrise scatters the mists. But they returned when May disappeared again, and haunted all the old woman's lonely hours.

One morning, after an evening spent at Garnet Lodge, when Mrs. Dobbs was alone with her grandchild, and was meditating how she should approach the subject chiefly in her thoughts, May unexpectedly began—

"Granny, do you know I have something to say that will surprise you."

"Have you, May? Nothing ought to surprise me at seventy odd. But, somehow, things do surprise me still."

"Of course they do, granny! I think it is only blockheads who are never astonished, because one thing is much the same to them as another."

"Well, I'm glad I can prove myself no blockhead at such an easy rate. What is your surprise about, May?"

"It's about—Mr. Bragg."

The colour came into May's cheeks as she looked up with a bright, shy glance from her favourite low seat beside granny's knee. But it was nothing to the deep, sudden flush which dyed Mrs. Dobbs's face. She looked at her grandchild almost vacantly for a moment, and then grew paler than before. But May did not observe all this. She sat smiling to herself, with the colour varying in her face, as it so easily did on the very slightest emotion, her hands clasped round her knees, and her bright head bent down, as she continued—

"I have had my suspicions for some time past; but I said nothing until last night. Then, when I went into Clara's room to put my hat on, I just gave her a tiny hint; and she said very likely I was right, and did not laugh at me a bit. But I dare say you will laugh at me, granny."

"Let us hear, my lass," said Mrs. Dobbs, moistening her lips, which felt parched.

"Well—I think that Mr. Bragg has a motive in coming so often to Garnet Lodge."

"I suppose he has."

"Ah, but a very special motive—a matrimonial motive. There, granny!"

Mrs. Dobbs looked down with a singular expression at the shining brown hair so near to her hand which rested on the elbow of her easy-chair. But she did not caress it as she habitually did when within reach. She sat quite still, and merely said—

"So you think it surprising that Mr. Bragg should have matrimonial intentions, do you?"

"Oh no. It isn't that. Mr. Bragg is a very kind-hearted man, and would be sure to make a good husband. And, do you know, he is very far from stupid, granny."

"I dare say. Joshua Bragg always had his head screwed on the right way."

"His manner is against him. Of course, he is uneducated; and rather slow. But, after all, that doesn't matter so very much."

"And he's rich," added Mrs. Dobbs in a dry tone.

"Ever so rich! I am sure he must have heaps and heaps of money, or else Aunt Pauline would not approve of him so highly."

"And not quite decrepit."

"Decrepit! What a word to use, granny! No; I should think not, indeed!"

"H'm! Neither a brute, nor in his dotage; and immensely rich—I don't know what a woman can wish for more!" said Mrs. Dobbs, with increasing bitterness.

"Why, granny!" exclaimed May, looking up. "I thought you rather liked Mr. Bragg! I have always heard you speak well of him."

The hand on the chair-arm clenched and unclenched itself nervously, as Mrs. Dobbs answered in short, jerky sentences, and as though she were forcing herself with an effort to utter them, "Oh, so I do. Joshua Bragg is an honest kind of man. I've nothing against him. Don't think that, my lass."

"Well, granny, but now for the surprise. I wonder you have not guessed it by this time. Who do you think is the lady?"

"I can't guess. Tell it out, May, and have done with it."

"To be sure there is not much choice. If it were not one, it must be the other! But I have made up my mind that Mr. Bragg and Miss Patty will make a match of it! What do you say to that, granny?"

Mrs. Dobbs said nothing; but gasped, and laid her head back on the cushion of her chair.

"I thought you would be surprised! But when one comes to think of it, it seems very suitable, doesn't it? Mr. Bragg admires Miss Patty's cookery above everything. And she is such a kind, charitable soul, she would do worlds of good with riches. And they agree on so many points—even their crotchets. And, do you know, Miss Patty would look ten years younger if she would leave off that yellow wig. She has such nice soft grey hair that she brushes back! I have settled that she is to leave off the wig when she marries Mr. Bragg, and take to picturesque mob caps. I have been arranging all sorts of things in my own mind. I'm quite coming out in the character of a matchmaker, granny!"

In the midst of her chatter the girl looked up, and uttered an exclamation of dismay. Her grandmother's head still lay back against the cushion of the chair; her eyes were closed, and she seemed to be laughing to herself. But the tears were pouring down her cheeks. At May's exclamation she opened her arms wide, and then pressed the girl's bright brown head against her breast, saying brokenly—

"Don't be feared, child! I'm all right. I couldn't help laughing a bit. It's so—so funny to think of old Joshua and—and Miss Patty!"

"But you are crying, too, granny! Is anything the matter? Do tell me."

"Nothing, child; I'm all right. Poor Joshua! He was a good lad when he worked for your grandfather. And—and—I remember her a little miss in a white frock and blue sash. It brings up old times, that's all, May. Lord, what fools we are when we try to be cunning!" and Mrs. Dobbs went off again into a fit of laughter, interspersed with sobs.

"I didn't try to be cunning!" said May indignantly.

"You, my lamb! Whoever thought you did?" returned her grandmother, wiping her eyes and kissing May's forehead.

By and by she resumed her usual solid self-possession. She told May that she did not agree in her view of the state of the case, and advised her not to hint her matchmaking project to any one. "You have said a word to Miss Bertram, and that can't be taken back; but she is wise beyond her years, and will not chatter."

"But there's nothing wrong in the idea, granny," protested May, who was considerably puzzled by her grandmother's unusual demeanour.

"No, no, nothing wrong; only Mr. Bragg might not like it—he might be looking after a young wife, who knows? Anyway, we will keep our ideas to ourselves."

As she spoke, the latch of the garden-gate clicked, and, following May's glance, Mrs. Dobbs saw from the open window Owen Rivers advancing up the path towards the house.

The "gentleman of princely fortune," whose image had interposed between her shrewd apprehension and the facts before her, having melted away like a phantom, she perceived that here was a new influence to be reckoned with—a new force which, whether for good or ill, might help to shape her grandchild's future.

"May I come in?" asked Owen.

"Come in, Mr. Rivers."

Mrs. Dobbs felt as though she had invited embodied Destiny to cross her threshold—Destiny, in the prosaic guise of a blue-eyed, square-built young man, in a shooting-jacket and a wide-awake hat. But that Power does not often appear to mortals with much outward pomp and circumstance. We are like children who think a king must needs go about in royal robes, crowned and sceptred. But the decree which changes our lives is mostly signed by some plain figure in everyday clothes, whom we should not turn our heads to look upon.

Owen entered the little parlour, and came and stood opposite to Mrs. Dobbs's chair, without any of the customary salutations. "Well," said he eagerly; "I have some news for you."

"Lord, ha' mercy! This is a day of news," muttered Mrs. Dobbs under her breath. Then she said aloud, "I hope it's good news?"

"I have found some work to do. Is that good?"

Mrs. Dobbs clapped her hands softly. "Very good," she said. Half an hour ago her approbation would have been more heartily expressed; but she was looking at him now with different eyes, and considering his prospects with a new and serious interest.

"You haven't asked me what the work is," said Owen, just a little disappointed by her quietude.

"I suppose it is not stone-breaking? But if it is, I stick to my colours. Better that than nothing."

"You will say, Mrs. Dobbs, that I am luckier than I deserve to be. I am engaged as secretary to a man who is about to travel in Spain. I happen to know Spanish. Luck again; for I learnt it merely to amuse myself."

"Yes; I do think that isn't bad for a beginning, and I hope it will lead to something more. Who is the gentleman, if I may ask?"

Before Owen could answer, May, who had perched herself on the elbow of Jo Weatherhead's vacant chair, said, "I think I can guess. It's Mr. Bragg."

"Mr. Bragg!" echoed her grandmother, as if doubtful of having heard aright.

"I remember hearing him talk of a journey into Spain, and of wanting to find a gentleman to go with him. Am I not right?"

"Quite right," answered Owen.

"Mr. Bragg! Well, that is strange!" whispered Mrs. Dobbs to herself.

Owen had taken a chair, and sat bending forward, with his elbows on his knees, pleating and puckering in his fingers the brim of his soft felt hat. He had not hitherto so much as looked towards May; now he straightened himself in his chair, and, fixing his eyes on her earnestly, asked—

"And what do you say to my news, Miss Cheffington?"

"I say, as granny says, that I am very glad," she answered, smiling, but speaking in a subdued tone.

"It's more to the purpose to ask what Canon and Mrs. Hadlow say to it," put in Mrs. Dobbs. "I hope they are pleased?"

"I dare say—I have no doubt—I—I have not seen Aunt Jane yet. The fact is, I am on my way to College Quad; but I thought I would look in here as I passed, and tell you that I have followed your advice, Mrs. Dobbs."

The direct road from Owen's lodgings to College Quad was a short, and nearly straight, line. To visit Jessamine Cottage "on the way" from one to the other was analogous to going round by Edinburgh on a journey from London to Leeds.

"I wanted a little patting on the back and cheering up, you see," continued Owen.

"Cheering up!" cried May. "Oh! but I remember that Mrs. Hadlow said you always liked to be pitied for having your own way. You must require a great deal of consolation, truly, for the prospect of travelling in that delightful country!"

Owen nodded, and carefully fitted one pleat of his hat-brim into another, as he answered, "I dare say my appetite for consolation is bigger than you imagine."

"I think it is Mr. Bragg who needs cheering up. Poor man, he little knows what a peremptory, protestant, and positive secretary he will have!" retorted May, with a half shy, half saucy, wholly mischievous, glance.

"Not at all! Now, that is just the kind of mistake which Aunt Jane so often makes. But if I serve, I mean to serve honestly, and to be thoroughly obedient; I have told Mr. Bragg so." And Owen proceeded to justify himself, and to develop his views as to the duties of a secretary, with superfluous energy and earnestness.

The old woman sat watching them, and, as she looked, she was amazed at her own previous blindness. How could she—how could any one—have seen them together without perceiving that they were falling over head and ears in love with each other? These two young creatures seemed, in her old eyes, like a couple of children playing in a pleasure-boat. But she knew that the river was running towards the sea—widening and deepening with an irrevocable current. There was room for anxiety about the future, no doubt. Yet a sense of relief in her mind—as if she had escaped out of some oppressive atmosphere—revealed more and more distinctly how repugnant the idea of May's marrying Mr. Bragg had really been to her.

"Sarah Dobbs," said she to herself severely, "you're a worldly, false old woman! You're a nice one to find fault with that poor creature Pauline! What were you doing, pray, but sacrificing your conscience to the mammon of unrighteousness? The Lord be praised, the dear child is better, and purer, and honester than either of us old harridans!"

Then she broke into the conversation between May and Owen, which by this time had sunk into a low murmur, and asked abruptly whether the engagement with Mr. Bragg was to lead to any further employment.

Owen repeated what Mr. Bragg had said to him, as nearly as he could remember it; and Mrs. Dobbs thought it hopeful.

"Joshua Bragg is an honest man—a man to be relied on: one of the few who generally means what he says, all that he says, and nothing but what he says," said she, nodding thoughtfully.

May was glad to find granny doing justice to Mr. Bragg; and remarked to herself that, if it were possible to conceive granny's ever being capricious, she would have called her capricious to-day in her varying tone about that worthy man.

"I shouldn't wonder," pursued Mrs. Dobbs, "if he put you in the way of getting permanent employment—supposing you please him. He might get you a place out in South America with his son. Young Joshua is in a great way of business there, I'm told. Would you go if you had the chance?" she asked suddenly, looking at Owen with a searching gaze.

"Undoubtedly," he replied at once.

"And you wouldn't mind being—being banished like from England?"

"Mind? Oh, well, of course I should prefer a thousand a year and a villa on the Thames; but a fellow who has been an idler up to four and twenty must take any chance of earning something, and be thankful for it."

"That's right." Mrs. Dobbs drew a long breath of relief.

"It would only be for a year or two; I should come back," added Owen wistfully.

Then he shook hands and went away, and Mrs. Dobbs and her grand-daughter were left to discuss the news he had told them. May chatted away cheerfully, even gaily. When Mr. Weatherhead arrived the subject was talked over again. Jo's pleasure in the prospect opening before Mr. Rivers was somewhat tempered by his sense of the incongruity involved in "a gentleman like that, brimful of learning, and belonging to the old landed gentry," being under the orders of Joshua Bragg!

"There's no contradiction at all, Jo, if you look at it fairly," said Mrs. Dobbs. "Mr. Bragg will command where he has a right to—that is, in matters that he knows better than Mr. Rivers, for all his book-learning. It isn't as if Joshua wanted to teach the young man how to be a gentleman. I don't say it's not a good thing to be a gentleman, but it ain't exactly a paying business nowadays, if ever it was, which I doubt."

"Ah, more's the pity!" said Jo, shaking his head.

"Why, if I was a gentleman—or a lady—I shouldn't agree with you there, Jo. If gentlehood don't mean something above and beyond what can be paid for, 'tis a poor business. It seems to me just as pitiful for gentry to expect money's worth for their old family, high breeding, and fine manners, as it is for the grand workers of the world to grumble because they can't have power over the past, as well as the present and the future. Mr. Bragg ain't one of that sort. You'll never catch him inventing a family crest, or painting wild beasts on his carriage."

Jo took his pipe out of his mouth, and looked with solemn approbation at his old friend. "Sarah," said he, "you're right; and I believe you're a better Conservative than me, when all's said and done."

May had been silent during this discussion. She held some needlework in her hands; but they were lying idly on her lap, and she was gazing out of the window as intently as though the small suburban garden offered a prospect of inexhaustible interest. The cessation of the voices roused her. She looked round, and said softly—

"It's a good climate, isn't it, granny? Where Mr. Bragg's son lives, I mean."


Before going to bed that night Mrs. Dobbs sat down and wrote a letter, marked "private and confidential," to Mr. Bragg.

"Dear Mr. Bragg" (she wrote),

"I think it my duty to let you know at once that the idea mentioned in your conversation with me must be given up. I have made quite sure in my own mind that there is no chance of its coming to anything. I feel very much how right you were to speak to me first. You have spared other people's feelings as well as your own. When you asked me the question, I answered you truly, to the best of my belief, that there was nobody else in the field. But since our talk together I have found out that I was wrong there. There is another attachment. It may come to something, or it may not. And you will understand that I am putting a great confidence in you. But I know I can trust to your honour as you trusted to mine. Not a word has passed my lips of what you said to me, and never will. Of course, you may think me mistaken, and choose to find out the state of the case for yourself at first-hand. If you do so I shall not have a word to say against it. Anyway, I know you will act upright according to your conscience, as I have tried to act according to mine. I want to tell you that I appreciate how generous your intentions were, though I'm afraid I did not show it at the time, being surprised and upset.

"Believe me,

"With sincere respect,

"Yours truly,

"Sarah Dobbs."

Shortly after that, Mr. Bragg came and called upon her. He thanked her for her letter, and spoke in a friendly tone. But he seemed indisposed to consider the matter as finished.

"Young people sometimes don't know their own minds," he said. He further declared that he had no present intention of speaking to May; but that, as he was going abroad, he might—if nothing were settled meanwhile—resume the subject on his return to England.

"I'm quite sure in my own mind that it's no use," said Mrs. Dobbs firmly. "And it's only fair to tell you so as strong as possible. However, of course, you must act according to your own judgment."

"There is one question I should like to ask if I might," said Mr. Bragg, lingering at the door on his way out. "You and me can trust each other. And, if you feel at liberty to tell me, I should like to know whether the—the party you alluded to in your letter is Mr. Theodore Bransby."

"Certainly not!"

"Well, I'm glad of it. There was a talk of his paying Miss C. a great deal of attention in town. In fact, I did hear she had refused him. Understand, I'm not fishing as to that. It's no matter to me one way or the other, so long as he is not the party. I can't say that I know any harm of the young man; but he's what you might call a poor sort of metal: not pleasant to handle, and, I should fear, brittle in the working. I really am relieved in my mind to know that he is not the party. Thank ye."

The news of Owen's engagement to Mr. Bragg was variously received by his various acquaintances in Oldchester. Some laughed good-naturedly, some ill-naturedly; some said it was a good thing the young man had at last seen the necessity for exerting himself; some wondered why on earth he had accepted such a position; and some—a good many those—wondered why Mr. Bragg had accepted him. Mrs. Hadlow did not feel unmixed satisfaction by any means.

"It's just like Owen," she said to her husband. "There is such a singular perversity about him! He has thrown away one straight stick after the other, and now all of a sudden he clutches at this crooked one, as eagerly as though his life depended on getting hold of it."

Canon Hadlow, for his part, was well pleased enough. The sentiment at the bottom of his wife's heart was that to employ a Rivers in any such base mechanic business as writing commercial letters was like harnessing a thoroughbred Arab to the dust-cart. But the canon could not, in the nature of things, fully share that feeling. Nevertheless, he had a strong regard for Owen, and spoke of him in high terms to Mr. Bragg.

But the testimony in Owen's favour which chiefly impressed Mr. Bragg was the testimony which Owen gave himself—by deeds, not words.

Being moved by a certain energetic simplicity which belonged to him, to perform the duties he had undertaken with the most complete thoroughness he could command, he got a clerk who conducted the foreign correspondence of a great Oldchester manufacturer to give him lessons after business hours. He worked away evening after evening at the composition of mercantile letters in Spanish until he succeeded in producing epistles so surprisingly technical that his instructor declared he went far beyond what was necessary in that line, and would do well to mitigate his business style with a little good Spanish! He studied, also, to improve his handwriting. It was a legible hand already, since he wrote with the single-minded aim of being read. But he strove to make it distinctly commercial in character, and succeeded.

All this became known to Mr. Bragg, who said nothing. But, when it got wind among the little circle of persons who frequented Garnet Lodge, it was the subject of some raillery from Owen's friends. So long as the raillery proceeded from such persons as Dr. Hatch or Major Mitten, there was no offence in it; but with Theodore Bransby the case was different.

Theodore was, in truth, delighted: first of all, because Rivers had, as he phrased it, "entered Mr. Bragg's service" (a step which must for ever disqualify him for aspiring to ally himself with the Cheffingtons, supposing he were not disqualified already); and, secondly, because his engagement would take him out of England for three months. So delighted was Theodore, that his spirits rose to the unwonted pitch of attempting some pleasantries. Now, there is nothing which more surely reveals the quality, if not the quantity, of a man's mind than his notion of a joke. Laughter, like wine, is a great betrayer of secrets; and for incurable coarseness of feeling a stout cloak of gravity is "your only wear."

Theodore would tilt his head, and say with a sneering smile, "Burton's clerk declares that Rivers is as thorough-going as the man who blacked himself all over to play Othello! Do you write a page of round-hand copies every morning before breakfast, Rivers?" or, "I hear that Rivers has taken to frequent the commercial 'gents'' ordinary at the Bull in order to pick up the correct phraseology."

Owen paid very little attention to these sparkling sallies; but Mr. Bragg, after listening for some time, broke silence one evening by saying, in his quiet, ponderous way—

"You're rather hard on me, I think, Mr. Bransby."

Theodore looked at him with sudden gravity and unfeigned surprise. "Hard on you?" he exclaimed.

"Oh, when a young gentleman is what you might call satirical, he's apt to be harder than he means. You needn't look so serious. I'm not offended."

The moment Mr. Bragg declared he was not offended, Theodore began to fear that he was; and, whatever might be his private opinion of the millionaire, he had no intention of affronting him. So he protested that Mr. Bragg must be under some misapprehension, and that he (Theodore) could not even guess what he meant.

"Oh, come, Mr. Bransby! It's pretty clear. I am but a plain business man, but it isn't necessary to copy the company at the Bull in order to come down to my level."

"Good heavens, my dear sir! You can't suppose——! I was—ahem!—merely——" Theodore paused an instant, and then went on with a little disconcerted laugh. "Ha, ha, ha! I was merely paying my humble tribute of admiration to Rivers's energy!"

"Oh yes; I quite understand that. You appreciate seeing how a honourable gentleman sets to work to keep his part of a bargain; whereas a half-and-half chap, like that little clerk of Burton's, don't see the highmindedness of it."

Theodore was so entirely taken by surprise, and so uncertain how far Mr. Bragg was in earnest, that he could but stammer out renewed assurances that he had been misunderstood. And after that, he subsided into a glum and dignified silence for the rest of the evening.

He would probably have cut short his visit and gone away early but for his persistent resolution never to leave Owen in possession of the field when May was present. There was no question of seeing her home now; for either old Martha was sent to fetch her, or one of Miss Piper's servants walked with her to Jessamine Cottage. But, nevertheless, Theodore made a point of outstaying Owen; or, at the very least, going away simultaneously with him. On this particular evening, however, Dr. Hatch interfered with this practice by requesting Theodore to accompany him when his carriage was announced.

"I want to have a word with you quietly," whispered the doctor, "and it is almost impossible to do so in your father's house without alarming Mrs. Bransby. Come along with me, and I'll give you a lift home."

There was no refusing this invitation. But Theodore withdrew, comforted by the conviction that his rival would have no chance of profiting by his absence.

Here, however, he reckoned without his hostess; for, Martha failing to appear at her accustomed hour, and the maid who usually supplied her place being ill, Miss Piper bustled into the drawing-room, after a brief absence, demanding which of the gentlemen present would volunteer to escort Miss Cheffington home.

Mr. Bragg, who kept early hours, had already departed; and only Mr. Sweeting, Major Mitton, and Owen remained. Mr. Sweeting begged to be allowed the honour of lending Miss Cheffington his carriage. But May declined the offer, saying that Mr. Sweeting's horses had a long enough journey before them, and that, moreover, it being a lovely moonlight night, she would prefer to walk. Upon this, Owen offered his services, and Miss Piper at once accepted them.

"It is a good deal out of your way," she said; "but I am sure you will not mind for once, Mr. Rivers. I am responsible to Mrs. Dobbs for sending her grand-daughter safely home."

Owen assured Miss Piper that he should not mind at all.

While May was putting on her wraps, Miss Polly and Miss Patty jocosely reproached Major Mitton for not having displayed his usual gallantry in offering to escort the young lady.

"Major, Major, you are growing terribly lazy!" said Miss Polly.

"You will lose your reputation for being the most devoted Squire of Dames in Oldchester," added Miss Patty.

"I'm getting to be an old fellow," returned the Major quietly. Then, as they all three stood for a moment in the porch, watching the two young figures pass down the garden in a glory of moonlight, the good Major whispered to Miss Patty, "Do you think I was going to spoil that? Lord bless me, one has been young one's self!"

As soon as May and her companion had got clear of Garnet Lodge, the girl said, "I find that I had never thoroughly done justice to Mr. Bragg. The more I know of him, the more highly I think of him."

"Lucky Mr. Bragg!"

"But, now, did he not administer an admirable rebuke to Theodore Bransby?"

"Never mind Theodore. Let us talk about more interesting things."

"What can be more interesting?" asked May, laughing.

"Ourselves." As she remained silent, he went on, "Do you know that we have not had one opportunity for a quiet talk together since I got this engagement?"

"Haven't we?"

"Ah! you don't remember so accurately as I do. But that was not to be expected. Take my arm."

She obeyed as simply as a child. She had been drawing on her gloves when they left Garnet Lodge, but the operation had not been completed, and it chanced that the hand next to Owen was ungloved. She laid her fingers, which gleamed snow-white in the moonlight, on his sleeve.

"You think I have done right in taking this employment?" he said.

"Quite right." She turned her young face, and looked at him with a sweet fervour of sympathy and approval.

Owen raised the white, slender fingers to his lips, and then, replacing them on his arm, laid his own warm, strong hand over them with a gentle pressure. "You know why I did so, don't you, darling?" he said.

"Yes, Owen," was the answer, given in a shy whisper, but with innocent frankness.

"My own dear love!" he exclaimed, pressing her arm strongly and suddenly to his side. "There is no one like you in the world. Look at me, May. Let me see your sweet, honest eyes."

He caught her two hands in both his, and they stood for a moment at arm's length, facing each other, and holding hands like two children. The moonlight shone full on the young girl's fair face, and glittered on the bright tear-drops in her eyes, as she raised them to Owen's.

"What can I do to deserve you?" he said. "But why do I talk of desert? You are God's gift, May, and no more to be earned than the blessed sunshine."

He put her arm under his once more, and they paced on again without speaking. But to them the silence was full of voices. It was the silence of a dream. They might have wandered Heaven knows whither had not their feet instinctively carried them along the right path, and they found themselves, almost with a start, arrived at the white palings in front of Jessamine Cottage.

"We must tell granny, mustn't we?" said May, looking up at Owen, with a delicious sense of implicit reliance on him.

"Yes; but I am terribly afraid. I hope she will not be angry."

"Angry! How can you think so? Granny is fond of you."

"But she is fonder of you, and she knows your value, although, thank God, you don't! If you did, what chance should I have had? You know how poor I am—not quite penniless, but very poor."

"Not so poor as I, since I am really and truly quite penniless; but I don't mind that, if you don't."

Owen felt a desperate temptation to fold her in his arms and beseech her to marry him to-morrow, throwing prudence and pounds sterling to the winds. But the ardour of a genuine passion purifies the nobler soul, as fire purifies the nobler metal, and burns away the dross of self. He answered gravely—

"Our positions are very different, darling. I hope I have not done wrong to tell you how dear you are to me?"

"I think it would have been unkind and cruel to go away without telling me," she answered bravely, though the sound of the words as she said them brought the hot colour into her cheeks.

"Thank you, dearest; that is the best comfort I could have, if I may dare to believe it. But it does seem so wonderful that you should care for me!"

The contemplation of this wonder might have occupied them both for an indefinite time but that they saw a light begin to shine through the fanlight of the little entrance-hall of Jessamine Cottage. In the stillness of the night the sound of their voices, subdued though they were, had reached the ears of Mrs. Dobbs. She presently opened the door, and stood looking at them as they hurried up the garden path.

"Oh, granny dear, I'm afraid I'm late!" said May. "I did not guess that you were sitting up for me."

"Martha had a touch of her rheumatism, so I sent her to bed. I did not mind waiting. I suppose Miss Piper's maid couldn't come with you? Was that it?" asked Mrs. Dobbs.

She lingered at the open door, expecting Owen to say "Good-night." But May took her grandmother's hand and pulled her into the house, while he followed them. When they reached the lamp-lighted parlour, May, still holding her grandmother's hand with her left hand, stretched out her right to Owen, and gently drew him forward. Then she flung her left arm round the old woman's neck, and kissed her. There was no need for words. Mrs. Dobbs sank down, white and tremulous, in her great chair, while May nestled beside her on her knees, and tried to place Owen's hand, which she still clasped, in that of her grandmother. But the old woman brusquely drew her hand away.

"You have done wrong," she said, turning to Owen, and scarcely able to control the trembling of her lips. "I didn't think it of you. But men are all alike; selfish, selfish, selfish!"

"Why, granny!" exclaimed the girl, breathless with dismay. Then she started up with a flash of impetuous indignation, and stood beside her lover. "He is not selfish!" she said vehemently.

"Hush, May! Granny is right," said Owen in a low voice. "I told you that I feared I had done wrong."

Mrs. Dobbs still trembled, but she was struggling to regain her self-command. "You might have waited yet awhile," she said brokenly. "The child is young! You ought not to have bound her until you see your way more clear."

"Oh, believe me, I will not hold her bound," answered Owen. "I never meant that. I ought not to have spoken yet. I feared so before, and now that you say so, I know it. But I am not wholly selfish."

May had stood listening silently, looking, with wide eyes and parted lips, from one to the other. She now fell on her knees again beside her grandmother, and, clasping the old woman's hands in both her own, cried eagerly—

"But listen! If there was any fault, it was mine. I love him so much! And he's going away. Think of that, granny! Come here and kneel down beside me, Owen, and let her look you in the face. Think, if he had gone away and never told me! And I so fond of him! You didn't guess how I cried that night when I heard he was to leave England. He has made me so happy—so happy! And we can wait. We don't mind being poor. You said you were fond of him. And he is so good—and I love him so—and you to speak to him so cruelly! Oh, granny, granny!" The tears were pouring down her face, and dropping warm upon the wrinkled hands she held.

Suddenly Mrs. Dobbs opened her arms, and folding May in one of them, laid the other round Owen's shoulder as he knelt before her, and drew them both into her embrace.

"Come along, you two!" she said, sobbing and smiling. "I've got a precious pair of babies to look after in my old age. No more common sense between you than would lie on the point of a needle! No prudence, no worldly wisdom, no regard for society—nothing but love and truth; and what do you suppose they'll fetch in the market?"

After a few minutes she ordered Owen away. "I'm tired," she said. "And we have all had our feelings worked up enough for one while. Go home now, Mr. Rivers—well, well, Owen, then, if it must be!—go home, Owen, and sleep, and dream. And to-morrow, when you're quite awake—broad, staring, work-a-day-world awake, which you're not now, either of you,—come here, and we will talk rationally."

Owen obeyed heroically, and marched off without a word of remonstrance. But May kept her grandmother listening and talking, long after he had gone. She made Mrs. Dobbs go to bed, and sat by her bedside, pouring out her young heart, joyfully secure of granny's understanding and sympathy, until at length Mrs. Dobbs inexorably commanded her to go to rest.

"Good night, dear, dearest, good, goodest granny!" said May, leaning down to kiss her grandmother's broad, furrowed brow. "Only this one last—very last—word! Do you know, I am very hopeful about Owen's future, because I am sure that Mr. Bragg has taken a great fancy to him, and appreciates him. And Mr. Bragg can make Owen's fortune if he likes."

"Mr. Bragg," murmured Mrs. Dobbs, turning her head on her pillow. "Ah, there's a nice kettle of fish! I'm as big a baby as the children, for up to this very instant I'd clean forgotten all about Mr. Bragg!"


Before they parted Mrs. Dobbs had arranged with Owen that he should come and have an interview with her at ten o'clock the following morning. But as she desired to speak with him privately, she resolved to go to his lodgings early enough to catch him before he should leave home.

She found Owen already at his writing-desk, and, as he turned a startled face on her, briefly assured him that all was well with May.

"But I must have a private talk with you," she said. "And I can't get that in my own house, without fussing and making mysteries."

Owen was already acquainted with the main incidents in May's young life; but Mrs. Dobbs proceeded to give him the history of her own daughter's marriage, and a sketch of her son-in-law Augustus.

"I'm not speaking in malice," she said; "but the real truth about Captain Cheffington must always sound severe. As a general rule, I never mention his name. But it is right and necessary that you should know what manner of man May's father really is; because only by knowing that can you understand how it is that the responsibility of guiding her rests wholly and solely on my shoulders."

"It could not rest on worthier ones," said Owen.

"Ah! There we differ. It's a shame that the darling girl—such a lady as she is in all her ways and words and innermost thoughts—should have no better guidance than that of an ignorant old body like me. However, 'tis as vain to cry for the moon to play ball with, as to get honour or duty, or even honesty, out of Augustus. There's the naked truth."

"Mrs. Dobbs, I can say from the bottom of my heart, that if ever good came out of evil it has come to May. She has been thrown out of the hands of a worthless father into those of the best of grandmothers. But I suppose I ought to write to Captain Cheffington under the present circumstances?"

Mrs. Dobbs shook her head. "I wouldn't if I was you," she said.

"I only thought that, since with all his faults he is fond of his daughter——"

"Is he?" interrupted Mrs. Dobbs, opening her eyes very wide. "Oh! Well, that's news to me."

"Of course, his fondness is not judicious. But still, as he has not much money, he must make some sacrifice to pay a handsome sum to Mrs. Dormer-Smith for having May with her in London."

"He pay! Lord bless your innocent heart!"

"Does he not? May told me he did."

"Ah! May thinks so. You see I have thought it right to keep some respect for her father in her mind—for her sake."

"Then if Captain Cheffington did not furnish the money, who did?" asked Owen.

Had May been present, one glimpse of "granny's" face, blushing like a girl's to the roots of her hair, would have betrayed the truth to her. But Owen did not guess it so quickly. After a minute or so, however, as Mrs. Dobbs remained silent, he added rather awkwardly—

"Did you pay the money?"

"Look here, young man," answered Mrs. Dobbs. "You must give me your word of honour that you'll never let out a syllable of this to May, without I give you leave;—else you and me will quarrel."

Owen took her broad, wrinkled hand in his, and kissed it as respectfully as if he had been saluting a queen. "I promise to obey you," he said. "But you make us all look very small and selfish beside you!"

"We old folks, that have but a slack hold on life, must lay up our stores of selfishness in other people's happiness. It's a paying investment, my lad. I'm Oldchester born and bred, and you don't catch me making many bad speculations." The old woman laughed as she spoke, but a tear was trembling in her eye. "Come," said she. "We needn't go into all that. There isn't much time to spare. I want to be back to breakfast before May misses me."

Then she proceeded to impress on Owen that she could not at present sanction an engagement between him and her grand-daughter. Each must be held to be free, at least until Owen should return from Spain, and be able to see his future course a little more distinctly. This he promised without difficulty. Next, Mrs. Dobbs insisted that May should go back to her aunt's house, when the Dormer-Smiths returned to London for the winter. May had shown great reluctance to do this; but Mrs. Dobbs believed she would yield, if Owen backed up the proposal. With regard to Captain Cheffington, Mrs. Dobbs recommended that secrecy should, for the present, be preserved towards him, as well as towards the rest of the world.

"He cares not a straw for his daughter. Of that I can assure you. Indeed, lately, since the dear child has taken her proper place in the world, he has shown a strange kind of jealousy of her. He wrote me a regular blowing-up letter, demanding money, and saying that since I was so rich—Lord help me!—as to keep May in London in luxury, I ought at least to assist May's father in his unmerited distress. And he made a kind of a half-threat that he would come to England, and drag her away, if he was not paid off."

"The scoundrel! But you didn't—"

"Didn't send him any money? No, my lad, I did not. First, because I wouldn't; next, because I couldn't. But 'wouldn't' came first. There's no use trying to put a wasp on a reasonable allowance of honey; you must either let him gorge himself, or else keep him out of the hive altogether. So now you know my conditions:—Firstly, no binding engagement for three months at least; secondly, we three to keep our own counsel for that time, and say no word of our secret to man, woman, or child; thirdly, you to urge May to go back to London, and see a little more of the world from under her aunt's wing. I make a great point of that," added Mrs. Dobbs, looking at him searchingly; "but I see you're rather glum over it. Are you afraid of May's being tempted to change her mind?"

"It isn't that," answered Owen, with unmistakable sincerity. "If she is capable of changing her mind, I should be the first to leave her free to do so. I don't say that it wouldn't go near to break my heart, but I need not be ashamed as well as wretched; whereas, if I took advantage of her innocence, and generosity, and inexperience to bind her to me, and found out afterwards that she repented when it was too late——! But that won't bear thinking of! No, I see nothing to object to in your conditions; only I was thinking that it will be hard on you to part from her again this winter."

Mrs. Dobbs suddenly stretched out her hand towards him, with the palm outward. "Stop!" she said. "I can go on all right enough if you don't pity me." She set her lips tight, and stood for a few seconds breathing hard through her nostrils, like a tired swimmer. Then the tension of her face relaxed; she patted Owen's head, as if he had been six years old, saying, "You're a good lad, and a gentleman; I know one when I see him."

Before Mrs. Dobbs went away, Owen said a word to her on two points—the probability that Augustus Cheffington might eventually be his uncle's heir, and the rumour of his second marriage. As to the first point, although she allowed it seemed likely that Augustus might inherit the title, yet Mrs. Dobbs assured Owen (speaking on Mrs. Dormer-Smith's authority) that he would certainly get no penny which it was in Lord Castlecombe's power to bequeath.

"If you're afraid of May being too rich," said Mrs. Dobbs, with a shrewd smile, "I think I can reassure you."

"Thank you," said Owen simply. He was struck by her delicacy of feeling, and thought within himself, "That well-bred woman, Mrs. Dormer-Smith, would have suspected me, not of fearing, but of hoping, that May would be rich; and she would have hinted her suspicions in terms full of tact, and a voice of exquisite refinement."

With regard to the question of Captain Cheffington's second marriage, Mrs. Dobbs declared herself utterly in the dark.

"But," said she, "if I was obliged to make a bet, I should bet on no marriage. Augustus is too selfish."

When, later, Owen went to Jessamine Cottage, he found May very unwilling to return to London for the winter. But she yielded at length. The other conditions she acceded to willingly. But she made one stipulation; namely, that "Uncle Jo" should be admitted to share their secret.

"You know you can trust him implicitly, granny," said May. "He likes news and gossip, but he will be true as steel when he once has given his word to be silent."

So it was agreed that Mr. Weatherhead should be taken into their confidence.

When May and Owen were alone together afterwards, he asked why she had so specially insisted on this point.

"Don't you see, Owen," she answered, "that it will be an immense comfort to granny, when she is left alone, to have some one whom she can talk with about—us?"

Meanwhile no answer arrived from Captain Cheffington to the letter which Mrs. Dobbs had written about the report of his marriage. May might have been uneasy at his silence but for the new and absorbing interest in her life, which confused chronology, and made time fly so rapidly that she did not realize how long it was since her grandmother had written to Belgium.

The gossip set afloat by Valli at Miss Piper's party gradually died away, being superseded in public attention by fresher topics. One of these was the disquieting condition of Mr. Martin Bransby's health. The old man had seemed to recover from the serious illness of last year. But it must have shaken him more profoundly than was generally supposed at the time; for after the first brief rally he seemed to be failing more and more day by day. Dr. Hatch kept his own counsel. He was not a man to interpret the code of professional etiquette too loosely on such a point; but besides professional etiquette old friendship moved him to be cautious and reticent in this case. He had some reasons for uneasiness about Martin Bransby's circumstances, as well as his bodily health. This uneasiness was vague truly; but it sufficed to make the good physician keep a watch over his words. So all those who listened curiously to Dr. Hatch's voluble, and apparently unguarded, talk about the Bransbys went away no wiser than they came as to old Martin's real condition.

To Martin Bransby's eldest son, however, Dr. Hatch did not think it right to practise any concealment. On the evening when he invited Theodore to drive home with him from Garnet Lodge, the doctor plainly told the young man that he had grave fears for his father's life.

Theodore seemed more moved than the doctor had expected. He was not demonstrative indeed; but his voice betrayed considerable emotion as he said, "But you do not give him up, Dr. Hatch? There surely is still hope?"

"There is hope. Yes; I cannot say there is no hope. But, my dear fellow"—and the good doctor laid his hand kindly on Theodore's shoulder—"we must be prepared for the worst."

"You have not, I gather, mentioned your fears to Mrs. Bransby," said Theodore, after a pause, during which he had been leaning back in the corner of the carriage.

"No, no, poor dear! No need to alarm her yet."

"She must know, however, sooner or later," observed Theodore coldly.

"I'm afraid she must. But why protract her misery? She is very sensitive, devotedly attached to your father, and not too strong."

"Mrs. Bransby always appears to me to enjoy good health enough to take any exertion she feels inclined for."

"I was not alluding to muscles, but nerves," returned the doctor drily. "There is a little hysterical tendency. And her health is too valuable to her children to be trifled with."

They drove on in silence to Mr. Bransby's garden gates. Theodore alighted, and stood at the carriage door.

"Does my father know?" he asked in a low voice.

"There, I confess, I am puzzled," said Dr. Hatch. "I have never told him his danger in plain words; but he is too clever a man to be hoodwinked. My own impression is, that your father suspects his state to be critical, but shrinks from admitting it even to himself. I think there must be some private reason for this," added the doctor, leaning forward and peering into Theodore's face as he stood in the moonlight: the moonlight which at that same moment was shining in May's eyes, looking at her young lover. "It certainly does not arise from cowardice. Your father is one of the manliest men I have ever known."

If Theodore knew, or guessed, that his father had any secret reason for anxiety, he did not betray it.

"I have observed increasing weakness of character in him lately," he said.

The words might have been uttered so as to convey perfect filial tenderness. But there was a subtle something in the tone suggestive of contempt; or at least of remoteness from sympathy, which jarred painfully on Dr. Hatch. He said "Good night" abruptly, and gave his coachman the order to drive on.

After this conversation, it somewhat surprised the doctor to learn that Theodore meant to leave home at the beginning of October, although he was not to enter on his practical career as a barrister until the winter. He had accepted one or two invitations to country houses during the pheasant shooting; and gave, as his reason for going at that time, that his health required change of air.

"His health!" growled Dr. Hatch, when Mrs. Bransby gave him this piece of news. "I should have thought he might stay and be of some use to his father in business."

"Oh, we are rather glad he is going," exclaimed Mrs. Bransby impulsively. Then she said apologetically, "Martin does not want him at home. Theodore has never taken any interest in office matters; and Tuckey manages capitally. Tuckey is Martin's right hand."

Mr. Tuckey was the confidential head clerk in the office which still retained the name of the firm, "Cadell and Bransby," although Cadell had departed this life twenty years ago, and the business had been, ever since that time, wholly in the hands of Martin Bransby.

Mrs. Bransby did not hint at one motive for Theodore's departure which her woman's wit had revealed to her; namely, that Miss Cheffington would be leaving Oldchester about the same time. It was true that Theodore had calculated on this; and also on the fact that Owen Rivers would be safely out of the way across the Pyrenees. But there was another motive which lay deeper; and, indeed, formed a part of the very texture of Theodore's temperament:—he shrank from the idea of being present during his father's last illness.

It has already been stated that he was subject to the dread of having inherited his mother's consumptive tendency, and he shunned all suggestions of sickness and death with the sort of instinct which makes an animal select its food. The very mention of death produced the effect of a physical chill on his nervous system. He was not without affection for his father; although it had been much weakened by Mr. Bransby's second marriage. Many persons who knew Theodore's tastes for gentility, assumed that Miss Louisa Lutyer's descent from a good old family would be gratifying to him, and help to make him accept the marriage good-humouredly. But the fact was quite otherwise. Theodore constantly suspected his step-mother of vaunting the superiority of her birth over that of her predecessor. He had never seen either of his maternal grandparents, and did not know all the details which Mrs. Dobbs could have given him about the history of "Old Rabbitt." But he knew enough to be aware that his mother had been a person of humble extraction. And he could more easily have forgiven his father had the latter chosen a person still humbler for his second wife. It was chiefly his ever-present consciousness that Louisa was a gentlewoman by birth and breeding, which made him jealously resent the luxuries with which his father surrounded her, and even the fastidious elegance of her dress. And, apart from all other considerations, it would have given him sincere satisfaction to marry a wife who should have the undoubted right to walk out of a drawing-room before Mrs. Martin Bransby.

One of the many points of antagonism between Owen and Theodore was the opposite feeling with which each regarded Mrs. Bransby. Owen had a chivalrous devotion for her; Theodore was nothing less than chivalrous. Owen's admiration was made tender and protecting by a large infusion of pity; Theodore held that in marrying his father Miss Louisa Lutyer had met with good fortune beyond her merits. As to his step-brothers and sisters, Theodore's feeling towards them was one of cool repulsion, with the single exception of little Enid, the youngest, whom he would have petted, could he have separated her in all things from the rest.

As soon as Owen's engagement with Mr. Bragg was assured, Owen called at the Bransbys' to tell his news in person. On inquiring for Mrs. Bransby, he was told that she was with her husband in the garden, and, being a familiar visitor, the servant left him to find his way to them unannounced.

It was a warm September afternoon; everything in the old garden—the lichen-tinted brick walls, the autumnal flowers, the deep velvet of the turf, the foliage slightly touched with red and gold—looked mellow and peaceful. Under the shadow of a tall elm-tree, whose topmost boughs were swaying with the movement, and resounding with the caw of rooks, Martin Bransby reclined on a long chair, and his wife sat on a garden bench a yard or two away. When she saw Owen approaching, Mrs. Bransby laid her finger on her lips, and then Owen saw that Mr. Bransby was asleep.

The old man lay with his head supported on a crimson cushion, against which his abundant silver hair was strongly relieved. The brows above the closed eyelids were still dark. The placidity of repose enhanced the beauty of his finely moulded features; but he was very pale, and his cheeks and temples looked worn and thin. Mrs. Bransby welcomed Owen with a smile and an outstretched hand. At the first glance he had thought that she, too, looked pale and suffering, but the little glow of animation in her face when she spoke effaced this impression.

"Am I disturbing you?" asked Owen in a whisper.

"No, no; sit down. You need not whisper, it is enough to speak low; he sleeps heavily. I am so glad to see him sleep, for his nights have been restless lately." As Mrs. Bransby spoke, she pushed aside a heap of gay-coloured silks with which she was embroidering a rich velvet cushion, and made room for Owen on the garden-seat beside her. "I know your news already," she continued, "and I must congratulate you, although you will be sadly missed. My boys will be in despair; we shall all miss you."

"I am glad, at all events, that you seem to approve of the step I have taken."

"Of course. All your friends must approve it.

"Well, they are not so numerous as to make their unanimity absolutely impossible."

Then, after a short silence, during which Mrs. Bransby resumed her embroidery, and Owen thoughtfully raked together some fallen leaves with his stick, he said—

"But you don't know the extent of my good fortune. There is a chance—rather a remote one, but still a chance—that this employment may lead to more, and that I may get some work to do in South America."

She started, and the gay embroidery fell from her hands on to the grass, as she exclaimed with plaintive, down-drawn lips, like those of a child, "Oh, not to South America! Don't go so far away!"

He merely shook his head.

"Oh, that is terrible!" she said. "I never thought of that! But, perhaps, you will not go."

"Very much, 'perhaps.' It would be better luck than I could expect."

"And you really could have the heart to leave us all, and go off to the other side of the globe? Oh, I can't bear to think of it!"

"Don't speak so kindly! You will take away all my courage," he said, looking for a moment at the beautiful eyes fixed on his face.

"Ah, I am very selfish. Of course you ought to go, if going will lead to a career for you. Although one can't help feeling that you will be, somehow wasted in mere commercial pursuits. Yes, yes, of course, I am wrong!" she added, hastily anticipating his rejoinder. "It is all very proper and Spartan, no doubt. But I am not in the least Spartan, you know."

"People usually find it easy to be Spartan for their friends. Very few keep their stoicism for themselves, and their soft-heartedness for others—as you do!"

He glanced involuntarily at Martin Bransby, as he spoke; and she followed his glance with instant quickness of understanding.

"How do you think he is looking? You do not think he seems worse, do you?" she said.

"No, indeed, no!"

"I was afraid, when you talked about stoicism——"

"No, I only meant that you always show great courage when Mr. Bransby is ill."

"I don't think I am naturally courageous. But love gives courage."

"Yes,—the genuine sort of love."

"Although it makes one frightened, too, in one way. I am sometimes very uneasy about him." She turned a gaze of profound tenderness on her husband's sleeping face.

"I trust your uneasiness is needless," said Owen. "Mr. Bransby seems to be going on well, does he not?"

"Oh yes, I hope so. But he does not gain strength. His rest is very troubled, and he talks in his sleep. And I think his spirits are much less cheerful than they were. He has a great regard for you. He will approve of what you are doing, I know. But he will be as sorry as the rest of us to think of your going so far away."

She said all this in her usual sweet voice, and with her usual soft grace of manner. Then all at once she broke down in a sudden passion of tears, and burying her face in her handkerchief, she sobbed out, "If you go to South America he will never see you again;—never, never! I know his days are numbered. They think they keep me in ignorance; but I know it, I know it!"

Owen was melted by her grief. In the eyes of sound-hearted manhood, beauty, while it attracts, adds a sort of sacredness to a pure woman. To see that lovely face convulsed with weeping made an impression on his senses, such as he might have felt at seeing an exquisite work of art defaced or mutilated. And beyond that, there was the warm human sympathy, and the feeling of compassionate protection due to her sex.

"Dearest Mrs. Bransby," he said, looking at her piteously, "pray, pray take comfort. Oh, how I wish that I could give you any help or comfort!"

She continued to weep softly and silently for a little while longer. Then she wiped away her tears, and spoke with calmness. "Forgive me! It was selfish to distress you," she said. "But it has relieved my heart to cry a little. And you have always been so friendly. I have as great reliance on you as if I had known you all my life."

"As far as the will goes, you cannot over-rate my friendship. But the power, alas! is small; or rather none."

"No; don't say that. Whenever I have forced myself to look forward to the great sorrow which may soon come upon me, I have said to myself, 'I know Mr. Rivers would be good to me and the children, and would help us with honest advice.' I have no one belonging to me—of my own family—left to rely on. The boys and I would be very desolate and forlorn, if we were left to guide ourselves by our own wisdom."

"There is Theodore," said Owen. But he said it with dry awkwardness, as though there were something in the words to be ashamed of.

"Theodore does not love us," returned Mrs. Bransby quickly. "You were praising me just now for caring about my friends. But you see how selfish my thoughts were all the time! It does seem so dreary to imagine you far away out of our reach!"

She wore on her wrist a bracelet consisting of a broad gold band, in which was set the portrait of her youngest child. Now, little Enid had a special affection for Owen. She caressed him and tyrannized over him. And whenever Bobby and Billy desired to coax Mr. Rivers into playing with them, they conspired to make Enid prefer the request, secretly agreeing that Mr. Rivers spoiled Enid, and would never resist her. In short, Mr. Rivers was Enid's sworn knight, and did her suit and service. The sweet, baby face looked out of its gold frame, with large, grave eyes, and faintly smiling mouth, and soft yellow hair like the down on a nestling bird. Owen took Mrs. Bransby's hand, and bent over it until his lips touched little Enid's portrait. "Near or far," he said, "you and your children may always count on my faithful affection."

When he raised his head again, Theodore was standing in front of them.

He had come noiselessly along the grass, and halted a little behind his father's chair. Mrs. Bransby's head was turned in the opposite direction, and she did not see him immediately. But Owen saw him, and caught a singular expression on young Bransby's face which made his own blood run swiftly with a confused sense of furious anger. It was an expression of mingled surprise, suspicion, and an indescribable touch of exultation. But even as Owen fixed his eyes on him sternly, the look was gone; and Theodore's smooth face was as coolly supercilious as usual.

"Your father has been having a good sleep, Theodore," said his step-mother, when she saw him.

"So I see," he answered. And, again, something singular in his tone made Owen long to seize him and hurl him away out of Mrs. Bransby's presence.

"Mr. Rivers has been telling me his news," said Mrs. Bransby. "We ought to rejoice, I suppose. But I can't help feeling selfishly sorry."

"We must hope that our loss will be his gain," replied Theodore. He felt instinctively that Owen's eyes were still fastened on him. And Owen's eyes, like many light-blue eyes, had the power of expressing an intensity of fierceness when he was thoroughly incensed which few persons would have found it easy to support. But Theodore had averted his own gaze, and was looking down on his father with ostentatious solicitude.

The old man slightly moved his head, and Mrs. Bransby was by his side instantly. "Are you refreshed by your sleep, dear Martin?" she asked as he opened his eyes.

"Yes, Loui, yes. Oh, there's Rivers! How are you, Rivers?" He rose from his chair and shook hands with Owen, asking him to come to the house and have tea. Mrs. Bransby offered her husband her arm, but he took her hand and laid it tenderly upon his sleeve. "Not yet, Loui; not yet!" he said, smiling down upon her. "I needn't lean upon you yet." Then the two walked slowly side by side towards the house, leaving the young men to follow.

As they did so, crossing the wide lawn side by side, it suddenly occurred to Theodore, with a shock of surprise, that he and Owen had not exchanged any sort of greeting or salutation whatever.


The Dormer-Smiths arrived in London early in November, and May joined them almost immediately. Her aunt was delighted to find May looking remarkably well.

"Some good has come of her vegetating in Oldchester," said Pauline to her husband. "Her complexion is radiant. Also I think her figure has improved. If she would but consent to have her stays taken in! Smithson could manage it half an inch at a time; and might easily get her waist down to eighteen inches. But there is that lamentable touch of self-indulgent apathy about May! However, she has really a great deal of charm; and, in spite of all the drawbacks connected with poor Augustus's unfortunate marriage, she looks thoroughbred."

The two little boys, Harold and Wilfred, had returned from their sojourn in a farm-house so much strengthened that their father seriously talked of sending them into the country altogether for a couple of years. Even Mrs. Dormer-Smith, although unwilling to relinquish her character of chronic invalid, confessed that Carlsbad had done her good. In fact, the whole family returned to London in improved health and spirits. A great many "nice people" were to be in town for the winter; and the excuse of May's presence, and the assistance of May's allowance, would enable Pauline to enjoy society, and at the same time to satisfy that singular worldly conscience of hers with the sense of duty fulfilled.

There was a little disappointment at Mr. Bragg's absence from England. But even here Mrs. Dormer-Smith had the not inconsiderable consolation of knowing that if he were far from May's attractions, he was also far from those of Constance Hadlow. And she more than ever rejoiced at that providential interposition in the interests of the Cheffington family which had kept Mr. Bragg away from Glengowrie. Another symptom which filled Aunt Pauline with complacent hopes, was May's newly developed interest in Mr. Bragg, and her eager willingness to talk about his Spanish tour. Pauline was inclined to attribute something of this improved state of mind to Mrs. Dobbs's influence; and confessed to herself that the old woman was doing all she could to compensate the House of Cheffington for the injury done to it by the disastrous mésalliance.

Mrs. Dormer-Smith's cheerfulness at this time would have been absolutely unclouded but for the dread hanging over her about her brother. She had given May to understand that the rumours spread by Valli and others were based on error. And she even conveyed the idea to her niece (although scrupulously abstaining from explicit falsehood) that Captain Cheffington himself had denied those rumours in private communications to her and Frederick. But the fact was that Augustus had remained inflexibly silent. The Dormer-Smiths knew nothing of him. And so completely had he dropped out of the society of all with whom they were likely to consort, that a doubt sometimes crossed Pauline's mind as to whether her brother were still living or not.

Meanwhile, every week May received a letter from Owen, forwarded by Mrs. Dobbs. The latter had restricted the correspondence to one letter a week on each side. Owen wrote very joyously. His work was easy—too easy, he said; and he was constantly seeking opportunities to be useful to his employer. Mr. Bragg he pronounced to be an excellent master: clearheaded in his commands, and reasonable in his exactions. He seemed to approve of his secretary so far; and although he was rather taciturn, and not prone to encourage sanguine expectations, yet Owen began to have good hope that Mr. Bragg would not turn him adrift when the three months' engagement should be at an end.

May now became decidedly more popular in society than she had been during the height of the season. Happiness, like sunshine, beautifies common things; and the new brightness of her outlook on it was reflected by the world around her. That feeling which she had expressed in writing to her grandmother—the forlorn feeling of a child who, in the midst of some gay spectacle, wearily cries to go home—had disappeared. She knew that when the curtain should fall on the puppet-show in Vanity Fair, her own true love was waiting to welcome her.

Sometimes she speculated on how Aunt Pauline would take the revelation of her attachment to Owen Rivers. That she should have had any doubt on the subject proved her ignorance of Aunt Pauline's views. Mrs. Dormer-Smith would not for the world have expressed to May any gross or sordid sentiments about marriage. She had not the slightest idea that she entertained any such herself! But, as she had long ago said, there are many things—never put into words—which "girls brought up in a certain monde learn by instinct." Now in that kind of instinct May was greatly deficient.

May reflected that her aunt had spurned Theodore Bransby's proposal on the avowed ground of his being "nobody." And she understood—or thought she understood—that Aunt Pauline accorded a tangible existence only to such persons as could be proved by genealogical records to have had a certain number of great-grandfathers. Now, thus considered, Owen was very undeniably and solidly "somebody." He was poor, certainly; but how often had Aunt Pauline mingled her plaintive regrets with Mrs. Griffin's about the increasing worship of Mammon which vulgarized London society! And although Aunt Pauline sometimes showed a deference for wealth which was rather puzzling in the face of these utterances, yet May observed that her personal liking and admiration were given on very different grounds. Witness her regard for Constance Hadlow!

Mrs. Dormer-Smith even kept up an intermittent correspondence with that young lady. Constance's letters were precisely of the kind which Mrs. Dormer-Smith delighted in—budgets of social gossip selected with unerring tact. Constance had returned to Oldchester, but she did not spend many consecutive weeks in her parents' house, being invited to visit among "the élite of the county aristocracy," as Mrs. Simpson phrased it. Miss Hadlow had, in fact, achieved what might be called, all things considered, a brilliant social position. Her visit to Glengowrie had been a great success. She had made a conquest of the duchess; and also—though that was comparatively of small consequence—of the duke. Mrs. Griffin was charmed that her protégée had done her so much honour; and promised to take her into society the following season, if Canon and Mrs. Hadlow would give her leave to come to town. Indeed, Mrs. Griffin began seriously to revolve in her mind whether she could not contrive to marry Charley Rivers's grand-daughter, and secure her a fine establishment. Mrs. Griffin was proud of her achievements in that line, which, though few, were brilliant. Like a certain famous Italian singing-master, who was wont in his old age to decline unpromising pupils on the ground that it was not worth his while to make seconde donne, Mrs. Griffin practised only the higher branches of matchmaking; and refused to fly her falcons at anything under twenty thousand a year—or a peerage.

What made Miss Hadlow's letters particularly interesting to Mrs. Dormer-Smith at this time, was that the former was frequently staying in the neighbourhood of Combe Park, and occasionally met Lord Castlecombe and Lucius, whom she reported to be constantly ailing—as, indeed, he had been since before his brother's death. But his state did not seem to inspire any immediate apprehension. And Constance even said a word now and then about "creaking wheels," and intimated her belief that Mr. Lucius Cheffington would probably outlive many more robust-looking persons.

But it was not only these polite chronicles which kept the Dormer-Smith household informed as to the doings of Oldchester people. Mrs. Dobbs, of course, wrote frequently to her grandchild. The saddest news which she had to give May was the continuous and rapid decline of Mr. Bransby's health. Theodore was still away from home, Mrs. Dobbs wrote, and she commented severely on his heartless neglect of his father. She had learned through Mrs. Simpson that old Martin Bransby showed great anxiety for his son's return; and it was reported that he had caused a letter to be written, telling Theodore that he desired to speak with him, and urging him to come home without delay.

In the first days of December the end came. Martin Bransby died—rather suddenly at the last—and his eldest son was not with him. On being telegraphed to he arrived in Oldchester with the utmost possible despatch—but too late to see his father alive.

"People are very sorry for the widow and her children," wrote Mrs. Dobbs; "for it's beginning to be said now that they're left rather badly off, and that the bulk of everything will go to Theodore. I don't know any facts, one way or the other; but I do know that foolish folk cackle louder over a grave than almost anywhere else. So we may hope things are not so bad with that pretty, gentle woman as Oldchester gossip makes out."

One of May's first thoughts on reading this letter was, "How grieved Owen will be!" She grieved herself for the kindly old man who had always been good to her, and for the grief of those who loved him. And she incurred a mild rebuke from her aunt by appearing at a dinner party that evening with pale cheeks and red eyelids.

Contrary to Mrs. Dobbs's hope, it turned out that the gossip had for once been correct. Martin Bransby's affairs were left in a strange entanglement. There were many debts, and, as it seemed, very little money to meet them. People inquired how he had got rid of the handsome property left him by his father. He had not got rid of it in the ordinary sense of the words; but the bulk of it was as far beyond his control as though he had thrown it into the sea.

At the time of Martin Bransby's first marriage, old Rabbitt had made most stringent arrangements in his daughter's interest. Not only her own dowry (which was a handsome one), but nearly the whole of Martin's property was strictly settled on her and her children. Mr. Rabbitt was enabled to drive a hard bargain by his command of ready money. He advanced a large sum to his son-in-law for the purchase of Cadell's share in the firm. Mr. Cadell was old, and wished to retire; the opportunity was favourable, and promised brilliant results. Nor were these promises belied by experience. The old-established solicitor's business was a very flourishing and lucrative one. Martin Bransby was soon able to pay back the loan to his father-in-law with interest. Old Rabbitt observed that this was only taking from one hand to give to the other, for it would all come back to him and his in the end. As a matter of fact, old Rabbitt left every penny he had in the world to his daughter and her children after her; but the money was strictly tied up out of her husband's reach.

This seemed a trifling matter in those days to Martin Bransby. Whom should he desire to enrich but his own children? and things were going so well in the office that it seemed probable he might amass another fortune. But when, after his second marriage, a young family began to gather round him, he could not help regretting the terms of his original marriage settlement. As soon as Theodore came of age Mr. Bransby made an attempt to induce him to relinquish some part of the property in favour of his younger brothers and sisters; but the attempt failed, and was never repeated. Mr. Bransby was deeply wounded by Theodore's attitude, and, on his side, Theodore considered his father's request unreasonable and unfair.

"If I might venture on a suggestion, I would advise your retrenching a little, sir," he had said with icy politeness; "in that way you would soon save enough to provide for Mrs. Bransby and her children in a style fully equal to what they have any right to expect from you."

The remembrance of that interview was a thorn in the flesh of Martin Bransby, and it left in Theodore's mind increased resentment against his father's second marriage.

But Theodore's advice, however unfilially proffered, was sound enough. Retrenchment in the daily expenses of that easy-going and lavish household would have been judicious; but then to retrench would have been to deprive Louisa of the luxuries and elegancies which so became her, and which gave her so much pleasure. Instead of taking this disagreeable method, Mr. Bransby tried speculation. He made one or two lucky strokes, but at the first loss became panic-stricken, and threw good money after bad in a kind of desperation.

After his death something of all this leaked out in a confused way, to the public astonishment. "To think of Martin Bransby's money matters being in a bad way!" people said. "There must be more in this than meets the eye, for he was acknowledged to be a first-rate man of business."

In brief, as much amazement was expressed as though "men of business" were commonly infallible, and the world had never heard of a man of business whose conduct was not ruled by self-restraining prudence. At the same time many persons declared they had long ago prophesied disaster, and had even warned Martin to put some check on his wife's extravagance. But such little inconsistencies as these are but pebbles in the stream of general gossip; diversifying it with an agreeable ripple, but never checking its flow.

May wrote an affectionate letter of condolence to Mrs. Bransby. She received no answer to it; and presently she learned that Mrs. Bransby and her children had left Oldchester, and gone to London. Constance Hadlow did not mention the family at all in writing to Mrs. Dormer-Smith. They had fallen out of the sphere of her observation; and no one can be expected to turn away his telescope from contemplating the fixed stars in order to stare at common terrestrial phenomena—especially phenomena of a non-metallic and unproductive nature.

About Christmas time Theodore Bransby called unexpectedly at Mrs. Dormer-Smith's house in London. He came early in the forenoon—so early, indeed, that Mrs. Dormer-Smith was not yet visible. On asking to see Miss Cheffington, he was shown into a room where May was sitting with the children. (Harold and Wilfred were now permitted to spend part of the morning with their cousin, at her particular request. And it was found that this arrangement answered the double purpose of delighting the boys, and leaving Cecile more leisure for needlework.)

May started and flushed on hearing Mr. Theodore Bransby's name announced. But the first glimpse of Theodore disarmed her wrath. He was paler than ever—or seemed to be so, in his deep mourning, and there was unmistakable sorrow in his face. May rose quickly, and gave him her hand in silence. There were tears in her eyes, and the unexpected sight of tears in his, made her forgive him for pressing her hand harder, and holding it longer than mere politeness warranted.

"I have been so sorry!" said May.

"Thank you," he answered. "You are always kind and good."

"So sorry for you all—the widow—the poor children—!" added May, as a bright drop brimmed over, and rolled down her cheek.

Theodore relinquished her hand, and rapidly passing his handkerchief across his eyes, gave a dry, husky, little cough in his throat. It was a sound which curiously repelled sympathy.

"You were not in Oldchester when your dear father died," said May. She did not intend any covert reproach. Her words were prompted by a pitying thought of the undying regret which must haunt Theodore on this score.

"No; I was not there. I know I have been blamed for that."

"Oh, indeed I had no such meaning!"

"I well believe it. But I have been blamed—most unjustly. I went away with my father's full consent; indeed, he thought I needed the change. He wrote to me when he found himself growing worse, to ask me to come back. Of course I meant to comply with that request. You cannot doubt it?"

"I have no right to doubt it," answered May gently.

"No, but pray listen! I wish to justify myself in your eyes. The truth is, I was in the act of packing my valise to return to Oldchester when a telegram reached me, saying that my father's danger was imminent. I was in Yorkshire, in a country house, where there was but one postal delivery a day. Letters were often delayed, and, in fact, my father's letter had preceded the telegram only by a few hours."

"Oh, how sad! I am so sorry for you!" cried May, clasping her hands. She felt some generous compunction for having done him injustice.

"Yes; I have lost a good father," said Theodore.

"You have, indeed. And what a loss is Mrs. Bransby's!"

A subtle change came over his face, although he did not seem to move a muscle, and he made no answer.

"How is she?" asked May, leaning forward eagerly.

Theodore's eyebrows took their old supercilious curve, as he replied, "Mrs. Bransby? Oh, she's quite well, I believe."

"Believe! Have you not seen her lately?"

"Oh yes; I have seen her. She appeared perfectly well. I did not at first quite take in the sense of your question; but I see now what you meant. Every one has not such keen sensibilities as you, May."

Even this familiar use of her name she let pass, although it jarred upon her.

"I am sure Mrs. Bransby is not insensible," she answered. "And she loved your father dearly."

"I am not disputing it. But she was, and is, a doating mother, and her feelings are greatly engrossed by her children. In one way this is happy for her. She does not feel the void, the loneliness, which oppresses me."

It seemed to May that there might be some truth in this. Theodore was not generally beloved. Cold as he seemed, he doubtless missed his father's affection. He would feel isolated and forlorn. This might be in great part his own fault; but May pitied him. She softened towards him still more when he went on to speak of his plans for assisting his young step-brothers. He had already offered to send Martin to school at his own expense. He was endeavouring to be of use to Mrs. Bransby. She was, unfortunately, very unpractical, and rather impracticable; but he hoped that, when her grief calmed down, she would listen to reason and take advice.

"Is she not well off?" asked May, moved by genuine interest in the widow and her family.

Theodore shook his head. "I may tell you," he said, "that she is in very straitened circumstances. I do not proclaim this generally, because people who know how indefatigably my poor father worked, and what a large income he earned, are apt to blame her, and accuse her of extravagance."

While he was still speaking, a message came from Mrs. Dormer-Smith asking Mr. Bransby to go to her in the drawing-room. She, too, was touched by his mourning garb and pale face, and received him with sympathetic gentleness. May's report of his behaviour in Oldchester had been favourable, in so far that he had not attempted to renew his suit. But what most of all conciliated Mrs. Dormer-Smith was the thought of Mr. Bragg. Now that her niece was so near making a splendid marriage, it was easier to forgive Theodore's presumption. Doubtless the young man had already seen his error; and really, putting aside that one aberration, he was very nice!

Her good opinion was increased in the course of their private conversation, which turned on matters very interesting to Pauline. Theodore had seen her uncle lately; he had, moreover, had a good deal of talk with him about matters political. A vacancy was likely to occur shortly in the representation of that division of the county where Lord Castlecombe's landed property was situated. The Castlecombes were anxious to oppose a threatened Radical candidate, and Theodore had offered to stand.

On his elder brother's death, Lucius Cheffington had resigned his post in the Civil Service, and, under normal circumstances, his father would have desired that he should return to the House of Commons; but his health was at present too feeble to warrant his attempting any exertion. Then old Lord Castlecombe thought it would be well to put some one into the vacant seat who might be willing to resign it whenever Lucius should be able and willing to come forward again as a candidate. This was not expressed, but understood; and Lord Castlecombe had approved of Theodore's ready comprehension of the state of the case, and his clear view of the advantages such an arrangement would afford to himself. Election expenses, even in these days of purity and the ballot, retain as mysterious a rapidity of growth as Jack's beanstalk, and the assistance of Lord Castlecombe would be very solidly valuable. On the other hand, Theodore considered that, ambition apart, it would be useful to him in his career as a barrister to write M.P. after his name, and was willing to assume some share of the cost of the canvass. The old lord discovered in this sententious young gentleman two merits—the possession of money, and the knowledge how to spend it advantageously.

Lucius acquiesced passively in all his father's arrangements; but he could not be induced to thaw half a degree in his personal relations with Theodore.

"The fellow is an intolerable prig," he said to his father; "and his vulgarity is of a particularly objectionable kind—the fine pretentious kind."

"Oh, of course, he's a d—d snob," answered my lord, with cheerful candour. "But what the deuce does that matter? We are not going to take him to our arms; only to throw him into the arms of the voters! And I can tell you, it will be a vast deal better to have him for our member than Mr. Butter, the Radical button-maker. At any rate, this young Bransby won't go in for abolishing the Peers, or starting a Separatist crusade in the Scilly Islands."

In the course of his talk with Mrs. Dormer-Smith, Theodore hinted to her as much of his political outlook as seemed good to him. The account of his relations with Lord Castlecombe greatly impressed her; for she was very sure her uncle would not waste any of his time and attention on an entirely insignificant person. And Theodore's tone in speaking of the political position of the Castlecombe family was such as to win her complete approval and sympathy.

When Pauline talked over his visit with her husband, after narrating that part of it which concerned Lord Castlecombe, she added, "And the young man has a great deal of proper feeling. I really begin to think that mistake he made must have been in some way May's fault:—oh, not intentionally, Frederick; but she is so—so unformed in her ideas! However, we need not discuss all that; for I am convinced Mr. Bransby is quite safe now. I was going to say that he told me confidentially that he would not advise us to encourage any intimacy between May and his step-mother. She is in London, I believe; letting lodgings, or some dreadful thing of that sort. It is just the kind of thing May would delight in, if I would let her—visiting and championing people who are in impossible positions, and talking all kinds of Quixotic nonsense about them! However, this Mrs. Bransby is not the kind of person who can be encouraged. She is very handsome, I understand, and tant soit peu, coquette. There was some not too creditable flirtation with young Rivers before her husband's death; and Mr. Bransby evidently thinks she is the kind of woman always to have some one dangling after her. He spoke really very nicely, and said he hoped she might soon marry again, as she is scarcely fit to be trusted with the responsibility of bringing up a young family. You are so apt to indulge May in her whims, that I thought it necessary to repeat all this with distinctness. You must see, as I do, that it would be quite disastrous for May to keep up any intimacy with such a person as this Mrs. Bransby—a handsome, flirting, needy widow! If she were even in society——!"


The sale of Martin Bransby's handsome furniture, books, plate, carriage, and horses realized a considerable sum; but only a small portion of that sum remained when all debts were paid. Theodore made all the arrangements, and Mrs. Bransby passively acquiesced in them. She was crushed by grief, and timidly acknowledged herself to be sadly helpless and ignorant of business matters.

It was Theodore who had decided that the family should leave Oldchester. It was Theodore who had taken a house for them in a northern suburb of London. It was Theodore who suggested that Mrs. Bransby might eke out her income by receiving one or two lodgers. For Martin's schooling he promised to be responsible; and he would also guarantee the rent of the London house for one twelvemonth. But he could promise no further assistance, giving as a sufficient reason for not doing more the heavy claims on his purse which would result from his forthcoming political candidature.

A tiny annual sum was secured to the widow—a sum smaller than that which she had been in the habit of spending on her dress; and this was all she had to rely on to keep herself and her five children. It was clear that an effort must be made to earn some money.

Some articles of furniture remaining from the Oldchester sale nearly sufficed to furnish the small London dwelling. The house, fortunately, was clean, freshly painted, and in good repair; but the vulgar wall-papers were an affliction to Mrs. Bransby's eyes, and the dimensions of the rooms seemed to her painfully cramped. When she ventured to hint as much to her stepson he gave her a severe lecture, and begged her to understand that the days when her whims could be lavishly indulged were over.

"But it can scarcely be called a whim to want air for my children to breathe!" returned Mrs. Bransby, with a flash of indignation which she repented the next moment. And when Theodore pointed out that the house was a remarkably airy one for the rent; and that he, in his kind consideration, had taken a great deal of trouble to find a dwelling for them in a healthy locality, she meekly apologized for having been betrayed into any expression of impatience, and promised to make the best of her new circumstances.

They were such as might have depressed a stronger and less sensitive person. When Theodore had gone away, and the children were in bed, and the widow sat alone in the mean little room which, small as it was, was but dimly illuminated by one candle, the sense of her forlorn position weighed her down, and seemed to make the atmosphere thick with misery. It was not the loss of material luxuries which afflicted her. A month ago she would have felt that keenly; but now her great sorrow had absorbed all minor troubles. Poverty! What was poverty, compared with desolation of spirit? How willingly would she have faced severer bodily hardships than any which threatened her if her lost husband could be restored to her!

She dropped her head on her folded arms resting on the table. The widow's cap slipped aside, and a veil of bright, brown, waving hair fell over her bowed face. She had been forced to restrain her tears all day. There were the children to be thought of. There were Theodore's cold, clear questions and suggestions to be answered. But now, in solitude, her tears gushed out. She wept with long, deep-drawn sobs. The words of the Litany seemed to be repeated over and over again, as by a voice whispering in her ear, "The fatherless children, and widows, and all who are desolate and oppressed." She rocked herself from side to side, and moaned out, "Oh, come back to us! Come back, Martin—Martin!"

A hand was gently laid on her shoulder. With a great start she raised her head, and saw her eldest boy standing by her side.

He was a handsome boy, very like his father. But now his naturally ruddy face was pale, and his eyes had a depth of yearning tenderness in them which went to his mother's heart.

"Don't cry so, mother dear!" he said. "Father couldn't bear to see it, if he knew."

She clasped the boy in her arms; and, although she still wept, her sobs were less convulsive, and she gradually grew calmer. Martin stood beside her very quietly, occasionally stroking back the pretty soft hair which strayed over her face, and was damp with tears.

Presently Mrs. Bransby said, "I thought you were in bed, Martin. How silently you came downstairs!"

"I took off my shoes, mother," he answered, showing his feet. "I didn't want to disturb the others. The children are asleep, and Phœbe is snoring away."

Phœbe was their one servant, a housemaid from their Oldchester home—who had volunteered to remain with them and follow their fortunes.

"Poor Phœbe! I dare say she is tired," said Mrs. Bransby.

"I should think she was rather. She has been working like a brick all day," returned Martin.

There was a little silence, during which Mrs. Bransby dried her eyes, put up her dishevelled hair, and replaced her cap.

"Ought you not to go to bed, my boy?" she said, looking wistfully at him.

"I want to stay and talk to you quietly a little, mother."

Mrs. Bransby hesitated. "I should dearly like you to stay awhile, Martin," she answered; "but I'm afraid it would not be right. You look pale and worn out. You and I must help each other now to do what is right;—and what—what he would have wished," she added with quivering lips.

"Yes, mother," answered the boy eagerly. "That's just what I want; and I know he would have wished me to spare you all the bother I can. So now just listen, mother; indeed, indeed I couldn't sleep if I went to bed now—and it's far wearier work to lie awake than to sit up and talk. Look here, mother; Theodore has offered to send me to school, hasn't he?"

"Yes, Martin. I am very thankful for that. I don't see how I could have afforded it."

"Well, but now, I've been thinking that it would be better if Theodore would give you that money, instead of paying for my schooling, and for me to get a situation and earn something."

"Earn! My darling boy, how could you earn anything?"

"Why, mother, I could do all that the office boy did at Oldchester. Old Tuckey told me once that he earned fifteen shillings a-week. Just fancy, mother! That's a good lot, isn't it?"

It looked a very childish face that he turned towards his mother: a face with frank, sparkling eyes and rounded cheeks, to which the excitement of making this proposition had brought back the roses.

"Oh, Martin, my dearest boy, it is sweet of you to think of this! But you are too young, darling."

"I'm going on for thirteen, mother!" interrupted Martin.

"Yes, dear; but still even that is very, very young," answered his mother gravely, although the phantom of a smile flitted across her pale face.

Martin looked disappointed, and, for a moment, almost angry. He had a naturally hot temper. But he battled down the temptation, and merely said, "Well, mother, you need not decide anything to-night. You can think it over. I believe I could earn something; and I'm sure that if I can, I ought."

"But your education, Martin!"

"I might, perhaps, go on learning a little at home—in the evenings," he rejoined, but more slowly, and less confidently than he had spoken before.

"You know, Martin, he wished you to study. He was so proud of your abilities—so fond of you——" Her voice broke, and she turned away her head.

"Yes, mother; but he was fonder of you," answered Martin simply. "I know quite well that if father could speak to me now, this minute, he would say, 'Martin, take care of your mother.' That's what he did say one day when I was alone with him, only a week before——" The boy paused, made a violent struggle to master his emotion, and then went on bravely, though his young face grew white to the lips, "And I'm going to do it, please God!"

The tears that poured down his mother's cheeks as she embraced him and kissed his forehead were not all bitter. "Not desolate—not wholly desolate," she murmered, "while I have you, my precious, precious son!"

They sat awhile, talking of their means, and their plans, and their prospects. Mrs. Bransby felt that although many of Martin's notions were, of course, crude and childish, yet there was a strain of firm manliness in him on which she could rely; and the boy had a quick intelligence. Before parting from his mother for the night, he proposed that she should write to Owen Rivers and ask his advice. "You'll believe what Mr. Rivers says, mother, if you don't believe me. And I think you'll find that he will consider it my duty to earn something if I can; anyway, he's such a good fellow, and has such a thundering lot of sense, he's sure to give us good advice."

The widow caught at the suggestion; she had almost as implicit faith in Owen as her children had. She promised that Martin should enclose a letter of his own in hers to Mr. Rivers; and when she bade the boy "good night" at the door of his poor little chamber, she was surprised to find her heart somewhat lightened of its load.

"I say, look here, mother!" whispered Martin, beckoning her in from the open door. "Don't those young shavers sleep like one o'clock?" He pointed to Bobby and Billy, who occupied one large bed—a relic from the Oldchester nursery—while Martin's little camp-bedstead was squeezed into a corner of the same room. The two little fellows were sleeping the profound sleep of healthy childhood. Bobby had a smile on his parted lips, and Billy lay with one fat hand doubled up under his cheek, and the other buried in the thick masses of his brother's curly hair.

"This isn't half a bad room when the window's wide open," went on Martin cheerfully. "I can see a tree—quite a good-sized elm—from my bed. Good night, mother dear; I hope you'll sleep. I think this'll turn out an awfully nice little house, when we get used to it."

The two letters to Owen Rivers—Martin's and his mother's—were written the next morning. Mrs. Bransby sent them under cover to Mr. Bragg, addressed to Oldchester, to be forwarded, and with a line from herself to Mr. Bragg, begging that he would let Mr. Rivers have them without delay. She had written very fully and frankly to Owen, telling him, without reserve, what her means were. Only on one point had she been reticent—Theodore's conduct. In her heart she thought Theodore cruelly cold and hard towards her and the children. But she would not complain of him; he was her dear husband's son, and she felt as if it would be disloyal to that honoured husband's memory to paint Theodore to others as she saw him.

Theodore's recommendation to his step-mother, to "take good, steady, paying lodgers," was in the nature of those vague counsels we are all apt to proffer freely to our neighbours; such as, to "cheer up;" not to "yield to weakness;" to "look on the bright side;" to "dismiss disagreeable thoughts;" to "set to work briskly and earn money," and the like. That is to say, it was easier said than done. When, after the family had been somewhat over a week in town, Theodore came again to see them, and found that no steps had been taken to carry out this suggestion, he showed considerable displeasure, and said a sharp word or two about the difficulty of helping unpractical people.

This word, "unpractical," was, in fact, a favourite reproach to apply to poor Mrs. Bransby on the part of a great many persons. Mrs. Dormer-Smith caught it up from Theodore. Constance Hadlow echoed the same phrase when, at length, in answer to some private inquiries of Mrs. Dormer-Smith's, she wrote about the Bransby family.

May's first eager proposal to go and see Mrs. Bransby was met by her aunt with an absolute refusal; but she was so urgent, and appealed so strongly to her uncle, that Mrs. Dormer-Smith, making a virtue of necessity (for she feared that if leave were refused May might go without it), graciously consented that her niece should pay one visit to Mrs. Bransby.

"One visit will be enough, May," said Aunt Pauline. "Quite enough to show that you feel kindly towards her, and that sort of thing. It is really stretching a point. However, if it must be, it must be. I only implore you not to talk about these people in society. Pray, pray do not poser as a district visitor, or whatever it is called."

May shrugged her shoulders, and was silent. She knew how vain it was to reason with Aunt Pauline on a point of this kind; but she comforted herself by looking forward to the time—very near now—when Owen would return, and when, in some mysterious way, not explicable to her head, but quite sufficing to her heart, all her difficulties would vanish before his presence. And that same afternoon she set off to Collingwood Place, Barnsbury Road, in a cab, attended by Smithson.

Mrs. Bransby received her affectionately, and thanked her for her visit; but she did not ask her to repeat it. She perceived, far more quickly than May had perceived it, that Mrs. Dormer-Smith would not like her niece to keep up any intimacy with a family who lived in Barnsbury, and were served by one maid-of-all-work. When the children clung round May, and clamoured to know when she was coming to see them again, Mrs. Bransby interposed. She told them that May could not be running in and out of their house in London as she had done in Oldchester; and they must understand she could not take up the time of her aunt's maid in making long journeys to Barnsbury. And she said privately to May—

"Don't get into trouble with your aunt by coming here, my dear. I know you would help us if you could; but you cannot. But I ought not to say that! It is helpful to know you are unchanged, and warm-hearted as ever. Some day, please God, we may be able to see each freely."

"Yes; some day!" cried May joyfully, thinking of him who would help to make that and all the other good things possible. And then she coloured vividly, as though she had betrayed a secret.

Mrs. Bransby, however, did not notice this. She went on pensively, "And yet I am almost afraid to look forward to any pleasant thing lest it should be snatched away from me. Misfortune makes one a sad coward. I have had a disappointment just lately—about Mr. Rivers. He is not coming back so soon as was expected."

"He is coming back at the end of this month," said May in a quick, almost breathless way.

"No. He was to have returned to England at the end of December, but that is altered. His present engagement is prolonged for some weeks. I had a letter from him last evening from Barcelona, and he does not expect to be in England before the latter part of January at the soonest."

May drove homeward much depressed and out of spirits. It was not only that Owen's return was postponed, but that she had not been the first to hear of it! To be sure, his weekly letter was not yet due, and he was rigidly scrupulous in keeping his promise to Mrs. Dobbs about corresponding with May. But need he have volunteered to give this news to Mrs. Bransby before writing it to her? A dull feeling of discontent seemed to oppress her; but on reaching home she tried to shake it off, and to forget it in fighting her friend's battle against Aunt Pauline.

Aunt Pauline had constructed for herself an image of Mrs. Bransby founded on Theodore's hints. She had decided in her own mind that Mrs. Bransby was a weak-minded, lounging, lazy woman, who, no longer able to adorn herself with fine clothes, would sink into slattern-hood, and throw herself and her family as a dead weight on to any shoulders who would carry them.

"A woman belonging to the provincial middle-class, who thinks of nothing but dress," said Mrs. Dormer-Smith, shaking her head mournfully. "One knows what that must come to!"

"But Mrs. Bransby thought of a great many things besides dress!" cried May. "She thought of her household, and her children, and, above all, of her husband."

Mrs. Dormer-Smith merely shook her head again, with an air of mild martyrdom, as though some one were unjustly accusing her.

"And I assure you, Aunt Pauline," May continued, "that the little house she is living in—poor and humble, of course, in comparison with her old home—is a pattern of neatness."

"You say 'poor and humble,' May; but do you not think that a house at forty-five pounds a year is quite as good as she has any right to expect, under the circumstances? I do. And that poor young Bransby has to be responsible for the rent."

"I am sure Mrs. Bransby won't let him be out of pocket, if she can possibly help it."

"I dare say. But she is a sadly unpractical person."

"It was most touching to see her with all those children about her, trying to be cheerful and composed; and looking so lovely in her melancholy mourning dress."

"I presume she wears crape? Ah! There's no more extravagant wear. She might have one dress trimmed with crape for occasions; but her ordinary everyday frocks ought to be of plain black stuff. Hemstitched muslin collars and cuffs, perhaps," added Mrs. Dormer-Smith, relenting at the image of uncompromising ugliness she had herself conjured up. "But they can be made at home, and need not cost much. Has she any lodgers?"

"No, not yet. But there has been very little time. And it is difficult, she says, to find suitable persons."

"Yes, that is precisely the kind of thing one would expect her to say. That is the speech of a thoroughly unpractical person."

"The fact is," burst out May hotly, "it is unpractical to be poor! It is unpractical to be left a widow, with five children, and only a miserable pittance to keep them on!"

It was intolerable to hear Aunt Pauline sitting in judgment on this poor lady, of whom she really knew nothing whatever save her misfortunes. And May was greatly astonished at the glib way in which her aunt, usually so prosaically matter-of-fact, discoursed about Mrs. Bransby, putting in visionary details with a lavish fancy. The girl had yet to learn that the most narrow and commonplace minds are capable of wild exaggeration within their own sphere, and that to be unimaginative is no guarantee for truthfulness of perception.

Mrs. Dormer-Smith, whatever her defects might be, possessed almost perfect gentleness of temper. She merely said softly, "May, May, when will you understand that nothing can be worse form than that habit of raving about people? You are so dreadfully emphatic!"

"I don't care a straw about what you call 'good form'! I prefer good substance," answered May, still in a glow of indignation.

"My dear child, what does this woman matter to you?"

"Matter! She is my friend. She has always been kind to me; and even if she were not my friend, I would defend her against unfair accusations."

Mrs. Dormer-Smith was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, in her slow, somewhat muffled tones, "May, you compel me to say what I would rather leave unsaid. Mrs. Bransby is not the kind of person your uncle and I wish you to associate with. I do not assert that there has been anything positively wrong in her conduct. Now oblige me by listening quietly! If you start up in that melodramatic way, you will bring on one of my nervous headaches. I was merely going to remark that a woman so handsome as I am told she is, and so very much younger than her husband, ought, in the most ordinary view of what is convenable, to avoid anything like—like seeking to attract men's admiration, and that sort of thing. But instead of that, Mrs. Bransby carried on a very flagrant flirtation during her husband's lifetime with a young man considerably her junior. It was noticed, of course, and commented on. If she was so led away by foolish vanity when she had a sensible husband to guide her, what will it be now that she is left to her own devices?"

May stood staring at her aunt like one suddenly awakened out of sleep. "This is all false," she said, after a moment; "false, and very cruel. Who told you such things, Aunt Pauline?"

"I decline to tell you, May. Some one who has had the means of knowing what went on in this Bransby household, and some one whose judgment I can trust. It must suffice to assure you that I am quite certain of my facts." And, strange, as it may seem, Mrs. Dormer-Smith really thought she was certain of them.

May turned away contemptuously. "Mrs. Bransby is really very much to blame," she said. "It is bad enough to be poor and unprotected, but to be the most beautiful woman in all her circle of acquaintance as well, is not to be forgiven!"

Then May left her aunt's presence, and betook herself to her own room, where she locked the door and burst out crying. These calumnies were bewildering. She sat on the side of her bed for more than an hour, in a drooping posture, depressed and miserable. As she thought over her aunt's words, the belief flashed into her mind that Mrs. Dormer-Smith's informant must have been Constance Hadlow. She did not suspect Constance of having deliberately invented stories to the poor widow's discredit; but she did think that Constance had repeated them, and that they had lost none of their venom in her repetition. It chanced that on that very morning her aunt had spoken of a letter just received from Miss Hadlow; and May knew very well the sort of gossip which made up the staple of that correspondence. Not for one moment did her suspicions point to Theodore. The idea that he could have originated odious insinuations against his father's wife was inconceivable to her. But Conny——She had observed latterly a tendency in Conny to bitterness and detraction when speaking of Mrs. Bransby. Was she jealous? And why? When they talked of Mrs. Bransby's flirtations with a man younger than herself, whom did they allude to?

All at once May drew herself sharply into an upright attitude, while a burning flush covered her face and throat. She dashed away some stray tears with her handkerchief, and exclaimed, speaking out loud in her excitement, "I will not think of such mean, malicious, despicable folly! I will turn my mind away from it. It is shameful even to be conscious of anything so base-minded!"


Two days after May's interview with Mrs. Bransby, Owen's weekly letter arrived. In it he informed her of the unexpected postponement of his return; and he mentioned having written this news to Mrs. Bransby in answer to a letter from her appealing to him for help and advice. But he did not expend many words on the Bransby family. He had to keep May minutely informed of his own doings, and of his prospects, so far as he could judge of them. And whatsoever time and space remained at his disposal when this was accomplished was devoted to a theme which touched him more nearly than the fortunes of gentle Louisa Bransby—although his regard for her was very real. Owen was deeply in love, and wrote love-letters. And that species of composition does not deal with circumstantial and connected narrative—at any rate, about third persons.

But although Owen did not return to England at the end of December, Mr. Bragg did. He appeared one day in Mrs. Dormer-Smith's drawing-room, when he was received by that lady with marked graciousness, and by May with a changing colour and shy eagerness which he might have been excused for misinterpreting.

Mrs. Dormer-Smith was delighted. May's behaviour appeared to her to be just what it ought to be. Uncle Frederick, too, who happened to be at home—for Mr. Bragg called at so unfashionably an early hour that the master of the house had not yet gone out to his club—had reason to be gratified. He took the opportunity of consulting Mr. Bragg as to a little investment he purposed making. And Mr. Bragg, while dissuading him from that particular investment, spontaneously offered to put his money into "a good thing" for him.

"I make it a rule not to advise people in general about such matters," said Mr. Bragg. "The responsibility's too great; not to mention that if it once, what you might call got wind that I did give such advice, I should have my time took up altogether with other people's business. And I don't see the force of that."

"Of course not! Most inconsiderate!" murmured Mr. Dormer-Smith.

"But I reserve the right to make exceptions now and then," continued Mr. Bragg. "And I shall be happy to be of use to you."

All this while no word had been said about Owen. May's secret consciousness made her too bashful to introduce his name. But at length Mr. Bragg mentioned it of his own accord. It was in speaking of Mr. Bransby's death. Mr. Bragg expressed kindly sympathy with the widow, and added—

"She has one good friend, poor soul, anyway. My secretary takes the greatest interest in her. You know him, Miss Cheffington—Mr. Owen Rivers."

"Yes," answered May, in as constrained a tone as though the subject were distasteful to her. Yet the poor child was longing with all her heart to speak of Owen, and to hear him spoken of.

"To be sure you do. We used to meet him at the Miss Pipers' pretty well every evening, didn't we? Besides, he's a cousin of your great friend, Miss Hadlow."

"Oh, of course!" exclaimed Mrs. Dormer-Smith, with a sudden remembrance of that relationship, and a consequent increase of interest in Owen, whom personally she knew but very slightly. "A cousin of Constance Hadlow's! Yes, yes; I recall it now. Mrs. Griffin told me that his grandfather, who married a Lespoony——" She stopped, remembering that family genealogy was a subject not likely to be specially agreeable to Mr. Bragg, and asked that gentleman sweetly, "How do you like him? Does he do well?"

"First rate!" answered Mr. Bragg emphatically.

May coloured with pleasure, and turned aside her face, to hide a broad, childlike smile which stole over it.

"First rate," repeated Mr. Bragg. "He gives full satisfaction. Not but what there are little what you may call twists in him here and there. He's peculiar in some ways. But I never did expect angels from heaven to come down and do office-work for me. I consider myself lucky if I get honesty and fair industry. Now, Mr. Rivers is more than honest—he's honourable."

"Isn't that a distinction without a difference in this case?" asked Mr. Dormer-Smith lightly.

"Well, no; I don't think so," answered Mr. Bragg in his slow, pondering way. "You see, honesty makes a capital slow-combustion kind of fire, but if you want a white heat you must have honour. I can't express myself quite clear, but I have it in my mind."

"And so Mr. Rivers takes a great interest in this Mrs. Bransby," said Pauline. Her thoughts had been busy with this point ever since Mr. Bragg had uttered the words. And she was pleased that May should hear something like corroboration of the charge against Mrs. Bransby.

"Uncommon. He's quite what you might call devoted to her."

"She's a deuced pretty woman, isn't she?" put in Mr. Dormer-Smith, with a little knowing laugh.

Mr. Bragg replied, with perfect seriousness, "Mrs. Bransby is a lady of great personal attractions, and, so far as I know of her, most amiable. I'm sorry to hear she's left in poor circumstances. Martin Bransby seems to have made most imprudent speculations. If he'd have come to me, poor man, I could have given him some useful warnings; and would have done it, too. I'd have made one of my exceptions in his favour."

Mrs. Dormer-Smith's interest in the deceased Martin Bransby was too slight to enchain her attention. When the widow was no longer being spoken of, Pauline's thoughts flew off rapidly to the fashion and texture of May's wedding-dress (which had already haunted her solitary musings), and to the question whether Mr. Bragg would be likely to do anything for her boy Cyril, who was just about to be entered at the University. But her eyes remained fixed with a politely attentive look on Mr. Bragg, and, when he ceased speaking, she murmured plaintively, as being a safe thing to say, "That is so good of you!"

As soon as Mr. Bragg was gone, May sat down to write an account of his visit to Owen. Her heart swelled with pride as she repeated to him Mr. Bragg's words about himself. Indeed, she was so enthusiastic about Mr. Bragg, that Owen jestingly told her in his next letter that he was growing jealous of his "master"—so he always termed Mr. Bragg.

It was out of the question that May should hint to Owen a word of the unkind things which were said of Mrs. Bransby. She could not bring her pen to write them. It seemed to her as if she could never even speak them to him. But she said all the most sympathetic and affectionate things she could think of about the poor widow and her children, being inspired by the malicious gossip only to a more chivalrous warmth on her friend's behalf. But yet—that gossip was like a barbed seed that clings where it alights, and could not wholly be shaken out of her memory. If she could but have spoken with granny! She could not write all the confused feelings that were in her mind. To have tried to do so would have seemed almost like hinting something which might be construed into a doubt of Owen! But if she could speak, with her living voice, granny—who loved her so much, and would listen with such understanding ears—would surely find the right words to conjure away the oppression which weighed on her spirits! She was ashamed of not feeling so happy as she had felt three weeks ago. And yet it was impossible to deny that a cloud—light and filmy, but still a cloud—had come between her and the sun. She was very lonely. Sometimes she was startled by the sudden recognition of how completely aloof she was in spirit from the beings around her.

Next to Owen's letters, her little cousins were her chief comfort. She had them with her as much as possible, helping them with their lessons, and joining in their play. Their brother Cyril being now at home from Harrow, the younger children received even less than the scanty share of her attention which their mother had ever vouchsafed to them. Mr. Dormer-Smith was a good deal engrossed by his eldest son; and Harold and Wilfred would have been forlorn indeed, at this time, but for Cousin May. Yes, the children were a great comfort to her; and, after them, she liked Mr. Bragg's society better than that of most people! He was so closely associated with Owen.

Mr. Bragg had become a frequent and familiar guest at the Dormer-Smiths' house. Uncle Frederick highly valued his advice and assistance in financial matters, while Aunt Pauline was never tired of repeating his praises. Only—as she privately complained to her husband—he "hung fire" a little.

"Why in the world he shouldn't speak out, I cannot conjecture," said she, with that soft, suffering expression of countenance, which Mr. Bragg's assiduous visits had recently banished for as much as two or three days together. "It really is not May's fault this time. Nothing could be nicer than she is to him. I should be uneasy about the Hautenvilles, but that they are spending the winter at Rome. And besides, Mrs. Griffin assured me that he wouldn't look at Felicia. In fact, he told her in plain terms that Miss Cheffington was the one young lady he admired. Dear Mrs. Griffin! I shall never forget what a friend she has been all through the affair. And the dear duchess! But really, Mr. Bragg does hang fire most unaccountably! I think it is beginning to tell on May herself a little. She mopes. Now, that is a very serious matter, for her complexion is of the delicate kind which will not stand worry."

The new year opened dark and damp in London. But the external gloom did not quench social gaiety, of which there was a good deal going on at this time. Mrs. Dormer-Smith entered into it, and insisted on May's entering into it, as much as possible. She reflected that this would be the last year during which she would have the assistance of May's allowance, and that it would be well to profit by it to the utmost while it lasted. The allowance was never expended in any way by which May could not benefit. For example, if Mrs. Dormer-Smith were going to a dinner-party without her niece, she would not spend May's money on the hire of a carriage to save her own hard-worked brougham horse; but when May accompanied her she would do so. And on such occasions she would indulge in some little extra elegance of dress, on the plea (quite genuinely preferred) that she must be decently dressed in the girl's interests.

In spite of Theodore Bransby's recent mourning they frequently met in society.

"It is my duty to keep up my social connections," he would say to Mrs. Dormer-Smith, with a grave, resigned air. And no one could have more fully appreciated and approved the sentiment than she did.

Theodore travelled rather frequently backwards and forwards between London and Oldchester in these days. He was busy in the neighbourhood of his native city, preparing the ground for his political campaign; while he was constantly attracted to London by the hope of seeing May. He had discovered that Mrs. Bransby wrote sometimes to Owen Rivers, and he frequently volunteered to give her items of news about May, which he thought and hoped she might transmit to Spain. Miss Cheffington had sat near him at Lady A.'s dinner-party; he had escorted Miss Cheffington and her aunt to Mrs. B.'s soirée musicale; Mrs. C. had given him a seat in her box at the theatre—where he met Miss Cheffington; and so forth.

"Miss Cheffington appears to be very gay!" said Mrs. Bransby once, with a sigh, not envious, but regretful; her own life was so dull and dark.

"Miss Cheffington is very much in the world, of course. Her birth and her beauty entitle her to a good deal of attention, and she gets it. I see no objection to that. On the contrary, it delights me that she should be admired."

His step-mother stared at him in sudden surprise.

"Theodore!" she exclaimed impulsively. "There is nothing between you and May, is there?"

He drew himself up, and answered in as coldly offended a tone as though he had not desired, and even angled for, that very question. "Excuse me, Mrs. Bransby, but I do not think it well to use a young lady's name in that way. It is too delicate a matter to be handled at all in its present stage."

"Don't you believe him, mother," said Martin when Theodore had gone away. "May Cheffington isn't likely to think of him."

"I don't know, Martin. It may not seem likely to us, because——"

"Because we know what Theodore is," interposed Martin boldly.

His mother let that suggestion lie, but she said, "You must remember, my boy, that Theodore has many qualities which—which——He is very well educated, and clever, and gentlemanlike."

"No; that he is not!" put in the irrepressible Martin.

"And he probably has a distinguished career before him. Besides, he is rich now, you know."

"As if May would care for that!" exclaimed Martin, with innocently lofty disdain.

"Her friends might care for it for her," answered Mrs. Bransby thoughtfully.

She had fallen into the habit of consulting with Martin on all kinds of subjects. Sometimes she reproached herself for harassing the boy with cares and questions beyond his years. But, in truth, it would have been impossible at that time to keep Martin from sharing her cares; and the pride of being allowed to share her counsels also, more than made him amends.

Mrs. Bransby had a lodger now—a lodger who was the incubus of her life. He was an elderly German, engaged in the City; and, besides occupying the chamber which Theodore had ordained must be let if possible, he breakfasted with the family every day, and dined with them on Sundays. The man was vulgar, greedy, and sullen in his manners. His habits at table, without being absolutely gross, were revolting to Mrs. Bransby's refinement. And his exigencies on the score of the Sunday dinner were such as to keep her in constant anxiety, and to excite boundless indignation in Phœbe. Phœbe, indeed, so detested Mr. Bucher, that Mrs. Bransby was occasionally reduced to beg for a cessation of hostilities; and (very much against the grain) to plead Mr. Bucher's cause even with tears in her eyes.

Such being the state of things, it can well be imagined with what an ebullition of joy Mrs. Bransby hailed a letter from Owen Rivers, announcing his approaching arrival in London, and proposing himself to her as a lodger. He would like, he said, to board entirely with the family, and offered terms which Mrs. Bransby feared were almost too generous. Martin, it is needless to say, enthusiastically welcomed the idea of having Owen Rivers to live with them. And Phœbe's delight in the prospect of Mr. Bucher's being speedily superseded, made her volunteer to prepare his favourite pudding on the very next Sunday, although hitherto she had obstinately professed the blankest ignorance of its composition.

Before, however, giving the unpopular Mr. Bucher notice to quit her house, Mrs. Bransby thought herself bound to consult Theodore. Her mind misgave her lest Theodore, who, as she knew, detested Owen Rivers, should strongly set his face against receiving him; and she wrote her letter to her stepson in considerable trepidation. But, to her surprise, she speedily received an answer entirely approving the plan. It was not gracious; Theodore was never gracious to her. But that was a small matter in comparison with obtaining his consent to the arrangement, and this consent was unmistakably given.

"I believe," he wrote, "that you will be justified in taking Rivers for a lodger, if you wish it. I meet his employer, Mr. Bragg, very frequently at the house of Mrs. Dormer-Smith, and he apparently intends to retain Rivers in his service—at all events, for the present. You will, therefore, I should say, be quite sure of regular payments."

So Owen's offer was joyfully and gratefully accepted.

He had, of course, written to tell May as nearly as possible the time of his arrival in England, but he had not mentioned his scheme of living at the Bransbys, fearing lest it might not be practicable. He did not, in fact, receive Mrs. Bransby's reply to his proposal until he was on his way home. He found it addressed, as he had directed Mrs. Bransby, to the "Poste Restante" in Paris, where he spent one day on business for Mr. Bragg. And thus it chanced that the first intimation which May received of the matter came from Theodore Bransby.

He was dining at the Dormer-Smiths'. Mr. Bragg was there also. It was what Mrs. Dormer-Smith called "a very quiet little dinner—just one or two people, quite cosily," and had been given simply and solely for Mr. Bragg. There was but one other guest, Lady Moppett. Mrs. Dormer-Smith did not consider Lady Moppett to be worth cultivating. She was rich, but not "in the best set." Moreover, she had a craze for music. Mrs. Dormer-Smith's private sentiment about all the Arts was akin to that of the Turkish potentate who inquired at a ball why they did not make their slaves dance for them, instead of taking all that trouble themselves! She considered, in fact, that the Muses ought to be kept in their places. But she would never have uttered any word approaching to such a Bœotian phrase. She had an almost perfect taste in phrases. There, however, sat Lady Moppett at her dinner-table. Mr. Dormer-Smith had stipulated for "some human being to speak to." Mr. Bragg must, of course, be left to May, and Mr. Dormer-Smith could not endure young Bransby. Theodore was not generally popular with his own sex, but Pauline had quite reinstated him in her good graces. And, indeed, how was it possible not to feel agreeably towards a young man whom Lord Castlecombe himself delighted to honour?

Lady Moppett was an old acquaintance of her host's, as has been stated. And, except on the subject of music, she was a good-humoured woman enough; making amends for the inflexible rigidity of her dogma as to the divine art by a rather broad indulgence towards the merely moral shortcomings of her fellow-creatures. Mr. Dormer-Smith led her out to dinner. Mr. Bragg, of course, conducted his hostess; and Theodore, therefore, had to give May his arm to the dining-room. There was no help for that. But the party was small and the table was round, and Mr. Bragg would not be far sundered from May. And once in the drawing-room, Aunt Pauline would take care that he should have abundant opportunities for private conversation with her niece.

May endured Theodore's proximity far more graciously than would have been the case three months ago. He was not naturally quick at discerning the effect he produced on others, nor careful to spare their feelings. But Love stimulates the perceptions in a wonderful way. Prosaic though his subjects may be, the Arch-Magician has lost nothing of his cunning; and under his potent influence Theodore Bransby developed some little sympathetic insight into May's feelings. He even divined that part of her new, soft kindliness of manner towards himself was due to pity for his bereavement. And he had learned in a more unmistakeable way—for she had told him so—that she approved his care of his step-mother and young brothers and sisters. Theodore was pretty safe in vaunting his disinterested efforts on their behalf. Mrs. Bransby and May were effectually kept apart, and neither of them suspected that this was chiefly his doing.

He now, as he sat by May's side, had something in his mind which he greatly desired she should hear. But some feeling, unaccountable to himself—or, at least, which he did not choose to account for—made him hesitate to utter it to her directly. At length, in a little pause of the conversation, he bent slightly forward towards Mr. Bragg, who sat opposite to him, and said—

"I suppose you do not propose returning to Spain, Mr. Bragg?"

"Me? Oh no. I don't think I've any call to do so. And there's plenty for me to look after elsewhere."

"Of course! Transactions on such a colossal scale! When I heard that Rivers was coming back to London, I concluded that you had wound up the business which took you to Spain."

"Mr. Rivers has been very helpful to me, indeed. I feel myself under an obligation to him."

To say the truth, Mr. Bragg was impelled to offer this testimony—even at the cost of dragging it in somewhat inopportunely—by his lively remembrance of sundry spiteful speeches made by young Bransby in former times; but rather to his surprise, Theodore did not now seek to divert the conversation from Owen's praises.

"Yes; Rivers has come out wonderfully well, I understand," said Theodore. "I hear a good deal about him. He is in constant correspondence with Mrs. Bransby; as, perhaps, you know?"

"Oh!" said Mr. Bragg quietly. "No; I can't say I know it. By the way, I do call to mind Mrs. Bransby sending me a letter for him some time ago. Well, he may be in correspondence with her."

"Oh, he is. I have reason to know it, for I think he is the sole topic of conversation at my step-mother's house just now. The whole family are in a fever of excitement about his coming to live with them."

Without turning his head, or even glancing at May, he felt that she was listening with a new and suddenly concentrated attention; and he said to himself, with a glow of elation, "She did not know it."

"Ah! Really?" said Mr. Bragg, addressing himself to his dinner. The matter did not seem to him one of any very special interest. If young Rivers went to lodge at Mrs. Bransby's, it would probably be a good arrangement for both.

"Who's that? Anybody I know?" asked Lady Moppett from her place at the host's right hand.

Theodore answered, "I was merely speaking of a man named Rivers, who——"

"Owen Rivers? Oh, of course I know him. A dreadful heretic! He enunciates the most intolerable, old-fashioned stuff! And he's so frightfully obstinate; battles, and argues one down, positively! I really have no patience. But what about him? Is he going to be married?"

"Not that I know of," replied Theodore, with his correct air, and an odd effect, as though his white cravat and shirt-front had been suddenly petrified.

"Oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you said something of the sort."

"By Jove, more unlikely things have happened," put in Mr. Dormer-Smith jocosely. "He's exposing himself to a tremendous fire. Dangerous work for a fellow to live under the roof of a lovely and captivating woman who sets him up as a kind of 'guide, philosopher, and friend,'—eh?"

"Dangerous! I should think the end of that arrangement is a foregone conclusion!" exclaimed Lady Moppett. "Mr. Rivers is a very agreeable young fellow—when he isn't talking about music. But who's your 'lovely and captivating woman?' Does anybody know her?"

There was an instant's pause, during which Pauline cast an expressive glance of the most poignant reproach at her husband. Then Theodore answered very gravely, "Mr. Dormer-Smith was merely jesting. The lady is Mrs. Martin Bransby—my father's widow."


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