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   Chapter 2 FAIR OAKS

That Mainwaring Affair By A. Maynard Barbour Characters: 11295

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The home of Hugh Mainwaring was one of many palatial suburban residences situated on a beautiful avenue running in a northerly direction from the city, but it had not been for so many years in his possession without acquiring some of the characteristics of its owner, which gave it an individuality quite distinct from its elegant neighbors. It had originally belonged to one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the county, for a strictly modern house, without a vestige of antiqueness lingering in its halls and with no faint aroma of bygone days pervading its atmosphere, would have been entirely too plebeian to suit the tastes of Hugh Mainwaring.

From the street to the main entrance a broad driveway wound beneath the interlacing boughs of a double line of giant oaks, from which the place had derived its name. Beautiful grounds extended in every direction, and in the rear of the mansion sloped gently to the edge of a small lake. Facing the west was the main entrance to the house, which was nearly surrounded by a broad veranda, commanding a fine view, not only of the grounds and immediately surrounding country, but also of the Hudson River, not far distant.

The southwestern portion of the building contained the private rooms of Hugh Mainwaring, including what was known as the "tower," and had been added by him soon after he had taken possession of the place. This part of the house was as far removed as possible from the large reception-rooms, and the apartments on the second floor comprised the suite occupied by Mr. Mainwaring. The first of these rooms, semi-octagonal in form, constituted his private library, and its elegant furnishings and costly volumes, lining the walls from floor to ceiling, bespoke the wealth and taste of the owner. Across the southwestern side of this room heavy portieres partially concealed the entrance to what Mr. Mainwaring denominated his "sanctum sanctorum," the room in the tower. This was small, of circular form, and contained an immense desk, one or two revolving bookcases, and a large safe, which held his private papers and, it was rumored, the old Mainwaring jewels. Back of the library was a smoking-room, and in the rear of that Mr. Mainwaring's dressing-rooms and sleeping apartments.

This suite of rooms was connected with the remainder of the building by a long corridor extending from the main hall, but there was on the south side of the house an entrance and stairway leading directly to these rooms, the upper hall opening into the library and smoking-room. From this southern entrance a gravelled walk led between lines of shrubbery to a fine grove, which extended back and downward to the western shore of the small lake already mentioned.

But the especially distinguishing characteristic of Fair Oaks since coming into the possession of Hugh Mainwaring was the general air of exclusion pervading the entire place. The servants, with the exception of "Uncle Mose," the colored man having charge of the grounds, were imported,-the head cook being a Frenchman, the others either English or Irish, and, from butler to chambermaid, one and all seemed to have acquired the reserve which characterized their employer.

Comparatively few servants were employed and few were needed, for never, until the present occasion, had Fair Oaks been thrown open to guests. Occasionally Mr. Mainwaring brought out from the city two or three gentleman friends, whom he entertained in royal fashion. Sometimes these guests were accompanied by their wives, but such instances were extremely rare, as ladies were seldom seen at Fair Oaks.

In the entertainment of these occasional guests Mr. Mainwaring was frequently assisted by Mrs. LaGrange, known as his housekeeper, but in reality holding a position much more advanced than is usually implied by that term. Among those who had been personally entertained by Mrs. LaGrange, this fact, of itself, excited little comment; it being evident that she was as familiar with the fashionable world as was their host himself, but surrounding her was the same dim haze of mystery that seemed to envelop the entire place, impalpable, but thus far impenetrable.

She had come to Fair Oaks some fifteen years previous to this time, dressed in deep mourning, accompanied by her infant son, about three years of age, and it was generally understood that she was distantly related to Mr. Mainwaring. She was a strikingly handsome woman, with that type of physical beauty which commands admiration, rather than winning it; tall, with superb form and carriage, rich olive skin, large dark eyes, brilliant as diamonds and as cold, but which could become luminous with tenderness or fiery with passion, as occasion required. To those whom she sought to entertain she could be extremely charming, but to a few even of these, gifted with deeper insight than the others, it seemed that beneath that fascinating manner was a dangerous nature, a will that would brook no restraint, that never would be thwarted; and that this was, in reality, the power which dominated Fair Oaks.

After years of mysterious seclusion, however, the beautiful home of Hugh Mainwaring, while maintaining its usual reserve towards its neighbors, had thrown open its doors to guests from across the water; and on the particular afternoon of the conference in the private offices of Mainwaring & Co., there might have been seen on one of the upper balconies of the mansion at Fair Oaks a group of five English ladies, engaged in a discussion of their first impressions regarding their host and his American home. The group consisted of Mrs. Ralph Mainwaring and her d

aughter Isabel; Miss Edith Thornton, the daughter of William Mainwaring Thornton and the fiancee of Hugh Mainwaring, Jr.; Miss Winifred Carleton, a cousin of Miss Thornton; and Mrs. Hogarth, the chaperone of the last named young ladies.

Understanding, as they did, the occasion of this their first visit to the western world, and being personally interested in the happy event so soon to be celebrated, they naturally felt great interest in their new surroundings. The young ladies were especially enthusiastic in their expressions of admiration of the house and grounds, while Mrs. Mainwaring, of even more phlegmatic temperament than her husband, remarked that it was a fine old place, really much finer than she expected to see, which was quite an admission on her part.

"It is just as lovely as it can be!" said Winifred Carleton, coming from the railing, where she had been watching the broad expanse of ocean visible in the distance, and seating herself on a divan beside her cousin. "I do think, Edith, you are the most fortunate girl in the world, and I congratulate you with all my heart."

"Thank you, Winnie," replied Miss Thornton, a pronounced blonde like her father, with large, childlike blue eyes; "but it will be yours to enjoy as much as mine, for you will always be with me; at least, till you are married, you know."

"That is a very reckless declaration on your part, for I am likely never to marry," responded Miss Carleton, lightly. She was an orphan and an heiress, but had a home in the family of William Mainwaring Thornton, who was her uncle and guardian.

Isabel Mainwaring, reclining in a hammock near Miss Thornton, smiled languidly. She was tall, with dark hair and the Mainwaring cold, gray eyes. "You seem to ignore the fact," she said, "that our cousin is likely to live in the exclusive enjoyment of his home for many years to come."

"You mercenary wretch!" retorted Miss Carleton; "are you already counting the years before Mr. Mainwaring's death?"

"Isabel, I am shocked!" exclaimed Mrs. Mainwaring.

"I don't know why," replied that young lady, coolly. "I was only thinking, mamma; and one is not always accountable for one's thoughts, you know."

"But," said Miss Thornton, wonderingly, raising her large eyes, full of inquiry, to Mrs. Mainwaring, "after our cousin has announced his intention of making Hugh his heir, don't you think he will be likely to extend other invitations to visit Fair Oaks?"

"Undoubtedly, my dear," replied Mrs. Mainwaring, "there will probably be an exchange of courtesies between the two branches of the family from this time. Though I must say," she added, in a lower tone, and turning to Mrs. Hogarth, "I do not know that I, for one, will be particularly anxious to repeat my visit when this celebration is once over. So far as I can judge, there seems to be no society here. Wilson has learned from the servants that Mr. Mainwaring lives very quietly, in fact, receives no company whatever; and, I may be mistaken, but it certainly seems to me that this Mrs. LaGrange occupies rather an anomalous position. She is here as his housekeeper, a servant, yet she entertains his guests, and her manners are anything but those of a servant."

"Why shouldn't she, mamma?" inquired Isabel, rather abruptly. "Cousin Hugh has never married,-which is a very good thing for us, by the way,-and who would help him entertain if his housekeeper did not?"

"It is not her position to which I object so much," remarked Mrs. Hogarth, quietly, "though I admit it seems rather peculiar, but there is something about her own personality that impresses me very unfavorably."

"In your opinion, then, she is not a proper person," said Mrs. Mainwaring, who was fond of jumping at conclusions; "well, I quite agree with you."

"No," said Mrs. Hogarth, with a smile, "I have not yet formed so decided an opinion as that. I am not prepared to say that she is a bad woman, but I believe she is a very dangerous woman."

"Dear Mrs. Hogarth, how mercilessly you always scatter my fancies to the winds!" exclaimed Miss Thornton; "until this moment I admired Mrs. LaGrange very much."

"I did not," said Miss Carleton, quickly; "from my first glimpse of her she has seemed to me like a malign presence about the place, a veritable serpent in this beautiful Eden!"

"Well," said Isabel Mainwaring, with a slight shrug, "I see no reason for any concern regarding Mrs. LaGrange, whatever she may be. I don't suppose she will be entailed upon Hugh with the property; and I only hope that before long we can buy back the old Mainwaring estate into our own branch of the family."

"That is just what your father intends to have done whenever the property comes into Hugh's possession," replied Mrs. Mainwaring, and was about to say something further, when a musical whistle attracted the attention of the ladies, and, looking over the balcony railing, they saw Hugh Mainwaring, Jr., approaching the house, on his return from a day's fishing, accompanied by Walter LaGrange, a young sophomore, home on his vacation.

The former was a typical young Englishman, with a frank, pleasant countenance. The latter, while inheriting his mother's beauty and resembling her in a marked degree, yet betrayed in his face a weakness which indicated that, lacking ability to plan and execute for himself, he would become a ready tool to aid in carrying out the designs of others.

The ladies, having discovered the hour to be much later than they supposed, and knowing that the gentlemen would soon return from the city, speedily adjourned to their dressing-rooms to prepare for dinner.

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