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Nuttie's Father By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 17860

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


'I'm seeking the fruit that's nae growing.'-Ballad.

Society recognised the newcomers. Lady Grosmede's card appeared the next day, and was followed by showers of others, and everybody asked everybody 'Have you seen Mrs. Egremont?'

It was well for Alice's happiness even at home that she was a success. When Alwyn Egremont had been lashed by his nephew's indignant integrity into tardy recognition of the wife of his youth, it had been as if he had been forced to pick up a flower which he had thrown away. He had considerable doubts whether it would answer. First, he reconnoitred, intending, if he found a homely or faded being, to pension her off; but this had been prevented by her undeniable beauty and grace, bringing up a rush of such tender associations as he was capable of. Yet even then, her position depended on the impression she might make on those about him, on her own power of self-assertion, and on her contributing to his comfort or pleasure.

Of self-assertion Alice had none, only a gentle dignity in her simplicity, and she was so absolutely devoted to him that he found his house far more pleasant and agreeable for her presence and unfailing attention, though still his estimation of her was influenced more than he owned to himself by that of the world in general, and the Rectory in particular.

And the Rectory did its part well. The Canon was not only charmed with the gentle lady, but felt an atonement due to her; and his wife, without ever breathing into any ears, save his, the mysterious adjective 'governessy,' praised her right and left, confiding to all inquirers the romance of the burnt yacht, the lost bride, and the happy meeting under Lady Kirkaldy's auspices, with the perfect respectability of the intermediate career, while such was the universal esteem for, and trust in herself and the Canon, that she was fully believed; and people only whispered that probably Alwyn Egremont had been excused for the desertion more than he deserved.

The subject of all this gossip troubled herself about it infinitely less than did the good Canoness. In effect she did not know enough of the world to think about it at all. Her cares were of a different order, chiefly caused by tenderness of conscience, and solicitude to keep the peace between the two beings whom she best loved.

Two things were in her favour in this latter respect, one that they saw very little of each other, since Mr. Egremont seldom emerged from his own rooms till after luncheon; and the other that Ursula's brains ran to little but lawn-tennis for the ensuing weeks. To hold a champion's place at the tournaments, neck and neck with her cousin Blanche, and defeat Miss Ruthven, and that veteran player, Miss Basset, was her foremost ambition, and the two cousins would have practised morning, noon, and night if their mothers would have let them. There need have been no fear of Ursula's rebellion about the Cambridge honours, she never seemed even to think of them, and would have had no time in the more important competition of rackets. Indeed, it was almost treated as a hardship that the pair were forbidden to rush together before twelve o'clock, and that Ursula's mother insisted on rational home occupation until that time, setting the example herself by letter-writing, needlework, and sharing in the music which was a penance to the girl, only enforced by that strong sense of protecting affection which forbade rebellion. But Alice could hope that their performances were pleasant to her husband in the evening, if only to sleep by, and so she persisted in preparing for them.

Nuttie's rage for tennis, and apparent forgetfulness of her old life and aspirations, might be disappointing, but it conduced to make her mother's task easier than if she had been her original, critical, and protesting self. In the new and brilliant surroundings she troubled herself much less than could have been expected at the failure of her father, his house, nay, and of the parish itself, in coming up to the St. Ambrose standard. How much was owing to mere novelty and intoxication, how much to a yet unanalysed disappointment, how much to May's having thrown her upon the more frivolous Blanche, could not be guessed. The effect was unsatisfactory to her mother, but a certain relief, for Nuttie's aid would have been only mischievous in the household difficulties that weighed on the anxious conscience. Good servants would not stay at Bridgefield Hall for unexplained causes, which their mistress believed to be connected with Gregorio, or with the treasure of a cook-housekeeper over whom she was forbidden to exercise any authority, and who therefore entirely neglected all meals which the master did not share with the ladies. Fortunately, Mr. Egremont came in one day at their luncheon and found nothing there but semi-raw beef, upon which there was an explosion; and being by this time convinced that his wife both would and could minister to his comfort, her dominion was established in the female department, though, as long as Gregorio continued paramount with his master, and the stables remained in their former state, it was impossible to bring matters up to the decorous standard of the Rectory, and if ever his mistress gave an order he did not approve, Gregorio overruled it as her ignorance. In fact, he treated both the ladies with a contemptuous sort of civility. Meantime Mr. Egremont was generally caressing and admiring in his ways towards his wife, with only occasional bursts of temper when anything annoyed him. He was proud of her, gave her a liberal allowance, and only refused to be troubled; and she was really happy in his affection, for which she felt a gratitude only too humble in the eyes of her daughter.

They had parties. Blanche's ambition of tennis courts all over the lawn was fulfilled, and sundry dinners, which were crosses to Alice, who had neither faculty nor training for a leader and hostess, suffered much from the menu, more from the pairing of her guests, more again in catching her chief lady's eye after, and most of all from her husband's scowls and subsequent growls and their consequence, for Ursula broke out, 'It is not fair to blame my mother. How should she have all the savoir-faire, or what you may call it, of Aunt Jane, when she has had no practice?'

'Perhaps, Mrs. Egremont,' he retorted with extreme suavity, 'you will also attend to your daughter's manners.' Otherwise he took little notice of Ursula, viewing her perhaps, as did the neighbourhood, as a poor imitation of May, without her style, or it may be with a sense that her tongue might become inconvenient if not repressed. When he began to collect sporting guests of his own calibre in the shooting season, the Canoness quietly advised her sister-in-law to regard them as gentlemen's parties, and send Ursula down to spend the evening with her cousins; and to this no objection was made. Mr. Egremont wanted his beautiful wife at the head of his table, and his guests never comported themselves unsuitably before her; but nobody wanted the unformed girl, and she and Blanche were always happy together.

The chief restraint was when Mark was at home, and that was not always. He made sundry visits and expeditions, and was altogether in an uncomfortable condition of reaction and perplexity as to his future. He was a good and conscientious fellow, and had never been actually idle, but had taken education and life with the easiness of the prospective heir to a large property; and though he had acquitted himself creditably, it was with no view of making his powers marketable. Though he had been entered at the Temple, it was chiefly in order to occupy himself respectably, and to have a nominal profession, so as not to be wholly dependent on his uncle; and all that he had acquired was the conviction that it would be half a lifetime, if not a whole one, before the law would afford him a maintenance.

His father wished him to take Holy Orders with a view to the reversion of the Rectory, but Mark's estimate of clerical duty and vocation was just such as to make him shrink from them. He was three-and-twenty, an awkward age for all those examinations that stand as lions in the face of youth intended for almost any sort of service, and seldom or never to be gagged by interest. For one indeed, he went up and failed, and in such a manner as to convince him that cramming had more to do than general culture with success.

He had a certain consciousness that most people thought another way open to him, most decidedly his gentle aunt, and perhaps even his parents. The matter came prominently before him one day at luncheon, when, some parochial affairs being on hand and Mr. Egremont out for the day, Alice, whose free forenoons enabled her to take a share in church and parish affairs, was there, as well as the curate and his wife.

These good people were in

great commotion about a wedding about to take place between a young farmer and his delicate first cousin, the only survivor of a consumptive family.

'"Proputty, proputty,"' quoted the Canon. 'James Johnson is what they call a warm man.'

'It is a sin and a shame,' said Mrs. Edwards. 'What can they expect? George Johnson looks strong enough now, but they tell me his brother undoubtedly died of decline, though they called it inflammation; but there was tubercular disease.'

'I am afraid it is strong in the family,' said the Canoness, 'they all have those clear complexions; but I do believe George is heartily in love with poor little Emily.'

'First cousins ought to be in the table of degrees,' said Mr. Edwards.

'It is always a question whether the multiplying of prohibitions without absolute necessity is expedient,' said the Canon.

He spoke quite dispassionately, but the excellent couple were not remarkable for tact. Mrs. Edwards gave her husband such a glance of warning and consternation as violently inclined May to laugh, and he obediently and hesitatingly began, 'Oh yes, sir, I beg your pardon. Of course there may be instances,' thereby bringing an intense glow of carnation into Alice's cheeks, while the Canon, ready for the occasion, replied, 'And George Johnson considers himself one of them. He will repair the old moat house, I suppose.'

And his wife, though she would rather have beaten Mrs. Edwards, demanded how many blankets would be wanted that winter.

The effect of this little episode was that Mark announced to his father that evening his strong desire to emigrate, an intention which the Canon combated with all his might. He was apparently a hale and hearty man, but he had had one or two attacks of illness that made him doubt whether he would be long-lived; and not only could he not bear to have his eldest son out of reach, but he dreaded leaving his family to such a head as his brother. Mark scarcely thought the reasons valid, considering the rapidity of communication with Canada, but it was not possible to withstand the entreaties of a father with tears in his eyes; and though he could not bring himself to consent to preparing to be his father's curate, he promised to do nothing that would remove him to another quarter of the world, and in two or three days more, started for Monks Horton to see what advice his uncle and aunt there could give him; indeed, Lord Kirkaldy's influence was reckoned on by his family almost as a sure card in the diplomatic line.

The Kirkaldys were very fond of Mark, and had an odd feeling of being accountable for the discovery which had changed his prospects. They would have done anything for him that they could, but all Lord Kirkaldy's interest was at the foreign office, or with his fellow-diplomates, and here he soon found an insuperable bar. Mark's education had stood still from the time of Miss Headworth's flight till his father's second marriage, his energies having been solely devoted to struggles with the grim varieties of governess purveyed by his grandmother, and he had thus missed all chance of foundation of foreign languages, and when once at school, he had shared in the average English boy's contempt and aversion for the French masters who outscreamed a whole class.

In consequence, Lord Kirkaldy, an accurate and elegant scholar in European tongues, besides speaking them with the cosmopolitan ease of an ambassador's son, was horrified, not only at Mark's pronunciation, but at his attempts at letter-writing and translation, made with all the good will in the world, but fit for nothing but to furnish the good stories which the kind uncle refrained from telling any one but his wife. Unluckily, too, a Piedmontese family, some of them not strong in their English, were on a visit at Monks Horton, and the dialect in which the old marquis and Mark tried at times to interchange ideas about pheasants was something fearful. And as in the course of a week Mark showed no signs of improvement in vernacular French or Italian, Lord Kirkaldy's conscience would let him give no other advice than that his nephew should stick to English law living still on the allowance his father gave him, and hoping for one of the chance appointments open to an English barrister of good family and fair ability.

Of course Mark had gone at once to carry tidings of 'Aunt Alice,' as he scrupulously called her, to old Miss Headworth, whom his aunt had continued to visit at intervals. That good lady had given up her boarders, having realised enough to provide for her own old age, and she had joined forces with the Nugents, Mary being very thankful to have her companionship for Mrs. Nugent, who was growing too blind and feeble to be satisfactorily left alone all day.

Mark delighted the old ladies by his visits and accounts of their darling's success and popularity, which he could paint so brightly that they could not help exulting, even though there might be secret misgivings as to the endurance of these palmy days. He was a great hero in their eyes, and they had too good taste to oppress him with their admiration, so that he really was more at ease in their little drawing-room than anywhere at Monks Horton, whither the Italians could penetrate. The marchesino spoke English very well, but that was all the worse for Mark, since it gave such a sense of inferiority. He was an intelligent man too, bent on being acquainted with English industries of all kinds; and thus it was that a party was organised to see the umbrella factory. It was conducted by Mr. Dutton, with whom Lord Kirkaldy, between charities and public business, had become acquainted.

To Mark's secret shame, this manufacturer spoke French perfectly, and even got into such a lively conversation with the old marquis about Cavour, that Lord Kirkaldy begged him to come to dinner and continue it. They were all surprised, not only by the details of the manufacture and the multitude of artizans, male and female, whom it employed, but by the number of warehouse-clerks whom they found at work, and who, it appeared, were in correspondence with agencies and depots in London and all the principal towns in the kingdom. Gerard Godfrey was there,-casting looks askance at the young Egremont, whom he regarded as a kind of robber.

The marchesino asked from what class these young men were taken, and Mr. Dutton made reply that most of them were sons of professional men. If they could obtain a small capital and take shares in the business they were encouraged to do so, and rose to the headship of the agencies, obtaining a fair income.

'And you don't exact an examination,' said Mark.

'Except in handwriting and book-keeping,' said Mr. Dutton.

'Poor Mark, you look for your bugbear everywhere!' sighed his aunt.

They went over the Institute, coffee-rooms, eating-rooms, and lodging-houses, by which the umbrella firm strove to keep their hands respectable and contented, and were highly pleased with all, most especially with Mr. Dutton, who, though his name did not come prominently forward, had been the prime mover and contriver of all these things, and might have been a wealthier man if he had not undertaken expenses which he could not charge upon the company.

Gerard Godfrey came in to Mrs. Nugent's that evening in the lowest spirits. He had a sister married to a curate in the same county with Bridgefield, and she had sent him a local paper which 'understood that a marriage was arranged between Mark de Lyonnais Egremont, Esquire, and Ursula, daughter of Alwyn Piercefield Egremont, Esquire, of Bridgefield Egremont,' and he could not help coming to display it to Miss Headworth in all its impertinence and prematurity.

'Indeed he said nothing to me about it,' said Miss Headworth, 'and I think he would if it had been true.'

'No doubt he intends it, and is trying to recommend himself through you,' said Gerard.

'I should not think he needed that,' returned Aunt Ursel, 'though I should be very glad, I am sure. He is an excellent young man, and it is quite the obvious thing.'

'People don't always do the obvious thing,' put in Mary Nugent.

'Certainly it didn't look like it,' said Miss Headworth,' when he told us about the great annual Hunt Ball at Redcastle that Nuttie and his sister Blanche are to come out at; he said he did not intend to go home for it if he could help it.'

'Struggling against fate,' said Miss Nugent.

'The puppy!' burst out Gerard.

Having ascertained the particulars of this same Hunt Ball, Gerard became possessed with a vehement desire to visit his sister, and so earnestly solicited a few days' leave of absence that it was granted to him. 'Poor boy, he may settle down when he has ascertained what an ass he is,' said Mr. Dutton.

'Ah!' said Mary. 'I thought he was very bad when I saw he had not changed the green markers for St. Luke's Day.'

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