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   Chapter 1 THE YELLOW HOUSE

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 17758

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Positively every one, with two unimportant exceptions, had called upon us. The Countess had driven over from Sysington Hall, twelve miles away, with two an?mic-looking daughters, who had gushed over our late roses and the cedar trees which shaded the lawn. The Holgates of Holgate Brand and Lady Naselton of Naselton had presented themselves on the same afternoon. Many others had come in their train, for what these very great people did the neighborhood was bound to endorse. There was a little veiled anxiety, a few elaborately careless questions as to the spelling of our name; but when my father had mentioned the second "f," and made a casual allusion to the Warwickshire Ffolliots-with whom we were not indeed on speaking terms, but who were certainly our cousins-a distinct breath of relief was followed by a gush of mild cordiality. There were wrong Ffolliots and right Ffolliots. We belonged to the latter. No one had made a mistake or compromised themselves in any way by leaving their cards upon a small country vicar and his daughters. And earlier callers went away and spread a favorable report. Those who were hesitating, hesitated no longer. Our little carriage drive, very steep and very hard to turn in, was cut up with the wheels of many chariots. The whole county within a reasonable distance came, with two exceptions. And those two exceptions were Mr. Bruce Deville of Deville Court, on the borders of whose domain our little church and vicarage lay, and the woman who dwelt in the "Yellow House."

I asked Lady Naselton about both of them one afternoon. Her ladyship, by the way, had been one of our earliest visitors, and had evinced from the first a strong desire to become my sponsor in Northshire society. She was middle-aged, bright, and modern-a thorough little cosmopolitan, with a marked absence in her deportment and mannerisms of anything bucolic or rural. I enjoyed talking to her, and this was her third visit. We were sitting out upon the lawn, drinking afternoon tea, and making the best of a brilliant October afternoon. A yellow gleam from the front of that oddly-shaped little house, flashing through the dark pine trees, brought it into my mind. It was only from one particular point in our garden that any part of it was visible at all. It chanced that I occupied that particular spot, and during a lull in the conversation it occurred to me to ask a question.

"By the by," I remarked, "our nearest neighbors have not yet been to see us?"

"Your nearest neighbors!" Lady Naselton repeated. "Whom do you mean? There are a heap of us who live close together."

"I mean the woman who lives at that little shanty through the plantation," I answered, inclining my head towards it. "It is a woman who lives there, isn't it? I fancy that some one told me so, although I have not seen anything of her. Perhaps I was mistaken."

Lady Naselton lifted both her hands. There was positive relish in her tone when she spoke. The symptoms were unmistakable. Why do the nicest women enjoy shocking and being shocked?

I could see that she was experiencing positive pleasure from my question.

"My dear Miss Ffolliot!" she exclaimed. "My dear girl, don't you really know anything about her? Hasn't anybody told you anything?"

I stifled an imaginary yawn in faint protest against her unbecoming exhilaration. I have not many weaknesses, but I hate scandal and scandal-mongering. All the same I was interested, although I did not care to gratify Lady Naselton by showing it.

"Remember, that I have only been here a week or two," I remarked; "certainly not long enough to have mastered the annals of the neighborhood. I have not asked any one before. No one has ever mentioned her name. Is there really anything worth hearing?"

Lady Naselton looked down and brushed some crumbs from her lap with a delicately gloved hand. She was evidently an epicure in story-telling. She was trying to make it last out as long as possible.

"Well, my dear girl, I should not like to tell you all that people say," she began, slowly. "At the same time, as you are a stranger to the neighborhood, and, of course, know nothing about anybody, it is only my duty to put you on your guard. I do not know the particulars myself. I have never inquired. But she is not considered to be at all a proper person. There is something very dubious about her record."

"How deliciously vague!" I remarked, with involuntary irony. "Don't you know anything more definite?"

"I find no pleasure in inquiring into such matters," Lady Naselton replied a little stiffly. "The opinion of those who are better able to judge is sufficient for me."

"One must inquire, or one cannot, or should not, judge," I said. "I suppose that there's something which she does, or does not, do?"

"It is something connected with her past life, I believe," Lady Naselton remarked.

"Her past life? Isn't it supposed to be rather interesting nowadays to have a past?"

I began to doubt whether, after all, I was going to be much of a favorite with Lady Naselton. She set her tea cup down, and looked at me with distinct disapproval in her face.

"Amongst a certain class of people it may be," she answered, severely; "not"-with emphasis-"in Northshire society; not in any part of it with which I am acquainted, I am glad to say. You must allow me to add, Miss Ffolliot, that I am somewhat surprised to hear you, a clergyman's daughter, express yourself so."

A clergyman's daughter. I was continually forgetting that. And, after all, it is much more comfortable to keep one's self in accord with one's environment. I pulled myself together, and explained with much surprise-

"I only asked a question, Lady Naselton. I wasn't expressing my own views. I think that women with a past are very horrid. One is so utterly tired of them in fiction that one does not want to meet them in real life. We won't talk of this at all. I'm not really interested. Tell me about Mr. Deville instead."

Now this was a little unkind of me, for I knew quite well that Lady Naselton was brimming with eagerness to tell me a good deal about this undesirable neighbor of ours. As it happened, however, my question afforded her a fresh opportunity, of which she took advantage.

"To tell you of one, unfortunately, is to tell you of the other," she said, significantly.

I decided to humor her, and raised my eyebrows in the most approved fashion.

"How shocking!" I exclaimed.

I was received in favor again. My reception of the innuendo had been all that could be desired.

"We consider it a most flagrant case," she continued, leaning over towards me confidentially. "I am thankful to say that of the two Bruce Deville is the least blamed."

"Isn't that generally the case?" I murmured. "It is the woman who has to bear the burden."

"And it is generally the woman who deserves it," Lady Naselton answered, promptly. "It is my experience, at any rate, and I have seen a good deal more of life than you. In the present case there can be no doubt about it. The woman actually followed him down here, and took up her quarters almost at his gates whilst he was away. She was there with scarcely a stick of furniture in the house for nearly a month. When he came back, would you believe it, the house was furnished from top to bottom with things from the Court. The carts were going backwards and forwards for days. She even went up and selected some of the furniture herself. I saw it all going on with my own eyes. Oh! it was the most barefaced thing!"

"Tell me about Mr. Deville," I interrupted hastily. "I have not seen him yet. What is he like?"

"Bruce Deville," she murmured to herself, thoughtfully. Then she was silent for a moment. Something that was almost like a gleam of sorrow passed across her face. Her whole expression was changed.

"Bruce Deville is my godson," she said, slowly. "I suppose that is why I feel his failure the more keenly."

"He is a failure, then?" I asked. "Some one was talking about him yesterday, but I only heard fragments here and there. Isn't he very quixotic, and very poor?"

"Poor!" She repeated the word with peculiar emphasis. Then she rose from her chair, and walked a step or two towards the low fence which enclosed our lawn.

"Come here, child."

I stood by her side looking across the sunlit stretch of meadows and undulating land. A very pretty landscape it was. The farm houses, with their grey fronts and red-tiled roofs, and snug rickyards close at hand, had a particularly prosperous and picturesque appearance. The land was mostly arable and well-cultivated; field after field of deep golden stubble, and rich, dark soil stretched away to the dim horizon. She held out her hand.

"You see!" she exclaimed. "Does that look like a poor man's possessions?"

I shook my head.

"Every village there from

east to west, every stone and acre belongs to Bruce Deville, and has belonged to the Devilles for centuries. There is no other land owner on that side of the country. He is lord of the Manor of a dozen parishes!"

I was puzzled.

"Then why do people call him so miserably poor?" I asked. "They say that the Court is virtually closed, and that he lives the life of a hermit, almost without servants even."

"He either is or says he is as poor as Job," Lady Naselton continued, resuming her seat. "He is a most extraordinary man. He was away from the country altogether for twelve years, wandering about, without any regular scheme of travel, all over the world. People met him or heard of him in all manner of queer and out-of-the-way places. Then he lived in London for a time, and spent a fortune-I don't know that I ought to say anything about that to you-on Marie Leparte, the singer. One day he came back suddenly to the Court, which had been shut up all this time, and took up his quarters there in a single room with an old servant. He gave out that he was ruined, and that he desired neither to visit nor to be visited. He behaved in such an extraordinary manner to those who did go to see him, that they are not likely to repeat the attempt."

"How long has he been living there?" I asked.

"About four years."

"I suppose that you see him sometimes?"

She shook her head sadly.

"Very seldom. Not oftener than I can help. He is changed so dreadfully."

"Tell me what he is like."

"Like! Do you mean personally? He is ugly-hideously ugly-especially now that he takes so little care of himself. He goes about in clothes my coachman would decline to wear, and he slouches. I think a man who slouches is detestable."

"So do I," I assented. "What a very unpleasant neighbor to have!"

"Oh, that isn't the worst," she continued. "He is impossible in every way. He has a brutal temper and a brutal manner. No one could possibly take him for a gentleman. He is cruel and reckless, and he does nothing but loaf. There are things said about him which I should not dare to repeat to you. I feel it deeply; but it is no use disguising the fact. He is an utter and miserable failure."

"On the whole," I remarked, resuming my chair, "it is perhaps well that he has not called. I might not like him."

Lady Naselton's hard little laugh rang out upon the afternoon stillness. The idea seemed to afford her infinite but bitter amusement.

"Like him, my dear! Why, he would frighten you to death. Fancy any one liking Bruce Deville! Wait until you've seen him. He is the most perfect prototype of degeneration in a great family I have ever come in contact with. The worst of it, too, that he was such a charming boy. Why, isn't that Mr. Ffolliot coming?" she added, in an altogether different tone. "I am so glad that I am going to meet him at last."

I looked up and followed her smiling gaze. My father was coming noiselessly across the smooth, green turf towards us. We both of us watched him for a moment, Lady Naselton with a faint look of surprise in her scrutiny. My father was not in the least of the type of the ordinary country clergyman. He was tall and slim, and carried himself with an air of calm distinction. His clean-shaven face was distinctly of the intellectual cast. His hair was only slightly grey, was parted in the middle and vigorously mobile and benevolent. His person in every way was faultless and immaculate, from the tips of his long fingers to the spotless white cravat which alone redeemed the sombreness of his clerical attire. I murmured a few words of introduction, and he bowed over Lady Naselton's hand with a smile which women generally found entrancing.

"I am very glad to meet Lady Naselton," he said, courteously. "My daughter has told me so much of your kindness to her."

Lady Naselton made some pleasing and conventional reply. My father turned to me.

"Have you some tea, Kate?" he asked. "I have been making a long round of calls, and it is a little exhausting."

"I have some, but it is not fit to drink," I answered, striking the gong. "Mary shall make some fresh. It will only take a minute or two."

My father acquiesced silently. He was fastidious in small things, and I knew better than to offer him cold tea. He drew up a basket-chair to us and sat down with a little sigh of relief.

"You have commenced your work here early," Lady Naselton remarked. "Do you think that you are going to like these parts?"

"The country is delightful," my father answered readily. "As to the work-well, I scarcely know. Rural existence is such a change after the nervous life of a great city."

"You had a large parish at Belchester, had you not?" Lady Naselton asked.

"A very large one," he answered. "I am fond of work. I have always been used to large parishes."

And two curates, I reflected silently. Lady Naselton was looking sympathetic.

"You will find plenty to do here, I believe," she remarked. "The schools are in a most backward condition. My husband says that unless there is a great change in them very soon we shall be having the School Board."

"We must try and prevent that," my father said, gravely. "Of course I have to remember that I am only curate-in-charge here, but still I shall do what I can. My youngest daughter Alice is a great assistance to me in such matters. By the by, where is Alice?" he added, turning to me.

"She is in the village somewhere," I answered. "She will not be home for tea. She has gone to see an old woman-to read to her, I think."

My father sighed gently. "Alice is a good girl," he said.

I bore the implied reproof complacently. My father sipped his tea for a moment or two, and then asked a question.

"You were speaking of some one when I crossed the lawn?" he remarked. "Some one not altogether a desirable neighbor I should imagine from Lady Naselton's tone. Would it be a breach of confidence--"

"Oh, no," I interrupted. "Lady Naselton was telling me all about the man that lives at the Court-our neighbor, Mr. Bruce Deville."

My father set his cup down abruptly. His long walk had evidently tired him. He was more than ordinarily pale. He moved his basket-chair a few feet further back into the deep, cool shade of the cedar tree. For a second or two his eyes were half closed and his eyelids quivered.

"Mr. Bruce Deville," he repeated, softly-"Bruce Deville! It is somewhat an uncommon name."

"And somewhat an uncommon man!" Lady Naselton remarked, dryly. "A terrible black sheep he is, Mr. Ffolliot. If you really want to achieve a triumph you should attempt his conversion. You should try and get him to come to church. Fancy Bruce Deville in church! The walls would crack and the windows fall in!"

"My predecessor was perhaps not on good terms with him," my father suggested, softly. "I have known so many unfortunate cases in which the squire of the parish and the vicar have not been able to hit it off."

Lady Naselton shook her head. She had risen to her feet, and was holding out a delicately gloved hand.

"No, it is not that," she said. "No one could hit it off with Bruce Deville. I was fond of him once; but I am afraid that he is a very bad lot. I should advise you to give him as wide a berth as possible. Listen. Was that actually six o'clock? I must go this second. Come over and see me soon, won't you, Miss Ffolliot, and bring your father? I will send a carriage for you any day you like. It is such an awful pull up to Naselton. Goodbye."

She was gone with a good deal of silken rustle, and a faint emission of perfume from her trailing skirt. Notwithstanding his fatigue, my father accompanied her across the lawn, and handed her into her pony carriage. He remained several minutes talking to her earnestly after she had taken her seat and gathered up the reins, and it seemed to me that he had dropped his voice almost to a whisper. Although I was but a few paces off I could hear nothing of what they were saying. When at last the carriage drove off and he came back to me, he was thoughtful, and there was a dark shade upon his face. He sat quite still for several moments without speaking. Then he looked up at me abruptly.

"If Lady Naselton's description of our neighbor is at all correct," he remarked, "he must be a perfect ogre."

I nodded.

"One would imagine so. He is her godson, but she can find nothing but evil to say of him."

"Under which circumstances it would be as well for us-for you girls especially-to carefully avoid him," my father continued, keeping his clear, grey eyes steadily fixed upon my face. "Don't you agree with me?"

"Most decidedly I do," I answered.

But, curiously enough, notwithstanding his evil reputation-perhaps because of it-I was already beginning to feel a certain amount of unaccountable interest in Mr. Bruce Deville.

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