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   Chapter 18 A FRIEND IN NEED.

Nuttie's Father By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 28254

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


'True courage often is in frightened eyes.'-Thoughts and Verses.

All the preliminaries of the sojourn at Nice had been settled in correspondence, and the Egremont family had nothing to do, after arriving at the station, but to drive up to Villa Eugenie, whose flower-wreathed balconies were like a vision of beauty. Servants had been hired through agencies known to Mr. Egremont, and Gregorio looked very black at his mistress keeping the reins in her hand, and tried to make her feel herself inefficient.

It was not an eventful or very interesting part of Ursula's life. She was almost wild with the novelty and beauty of the South at first, but except for what she could thus see, there was little variety. The mould of the day was as much as possible after the Bridgefield fashion, except that there were no cousins at the Rectory, no parish interests, very little society, as far as the ladies were concerned. Mr. Egremont had old acquaintance and associates with whom he spent afternoons and evenings, after his own fashion, but they were not people to whom he wished to introduce his wife and daughter.

And the superior English habitues of Nice, the families who formed the regular society, knew Mr. Egremont's reputation sufficiently to feel by no means disposed to be cordial to the fair wife and grown-up daughter whom he so unexpectedly produced on the scene. It had been different at home, where he had county standing, and the Canon and Canoness answered for the newcomers; but here, where all sorts of strange people came to the surface, the respectable felt it needful to be very cautious, and though of course one or two ladies had been asked to call through the intervention of Lady Kirkaldy or of Mrs. William Egremont, and had been assured on their authority that it was 'all right,' their attentions were clogged by doubt, and by reluctance to involve their mankind in intimacy with the head of the family. Thus very little of the proverbial gaiety of Nice offered itself to Nuttie and her mother, and, except by a clerical family who knew Mr. Spyers, they were kept at a distance, which Mr. Egremont perceived and resented by permitting no advances. The climate suited him so well that, to his wife's great relief, he seemed to have dropped his inclination for sedatives; but his eyes would not bear much, and she felt bound to be always on the alert, able to amuse him and hinder his feeling it dull. Gregorio highly disapproved of the house and servants, and was always giving hints that Mentone would agree far better with his master; but every day that Mr. Egremont seemed sufficiently amused at Nice was so much gain, and she had this in her favour, that he was always indolent and hard to move. Moreover, between his master's levee and late dinner Gregorio was hardly ever to be found. No doubt he knew the way to Monte Carlo well enough, and perhaps preferred that the family should be farther off, for he soon ceased to show himself discontented with their present abode. Once when his absence was inconvenient, Mr. Egremont abused him roundly as a good-for-nothing gambler, but when Alice hoped that he might be called to a reckoning, the wrath had subsided with the immediate vexation, and as usual she was told 'All those fellows were alike.'

The foreign servants were not to be induced to give the early-rising ladies more than a roll and cup of coffee, and Nuttie felt ravenous till she learned to lay in a stock of biscuits, and, with Martin's connivance, made tea on her own account, and sustained her mother for the morning's walk before the summons to Mr. Egremont.

He always wanted his wife much earlier in the day, during his hours of deshabille, and letting her write his letters and read the papers to him. She was pleased with this advance, but it gave Nuttie a great deal more solitude, which was sometimes judiciously spent, but it was very hard not to be desultory in spite of learning lessons in French, Italian, and drawing.

Later in the day came the drive or the visit to the public gardens when the band was playing, but this became less frequent as Mr. Egremont observed the cold civility shown to his wife, and as he likewise grew stronger and made more engagements of his own. Then Nuttie had happy afternoons of driving, donkey-riding, or walking with her mother, sketching, botanising, admiring, and laying up stores for the long descriptive letters that delighted the party in St. Ambrose's Road, drinking in all the charm of the scenery, and entering into it intelligently. They spent a good many evenings alone together likewise, and it could not but give Alice a pang to see the gladness her daughter did not repress when this was the case, even though to herself it meant relaxation of the perpetual vigilance she had to exert when the father and daughter were together to avert collisions. They were certainly not coming nearer to one another, though Nuttie was behaving very well and submissively on the whole, and seldom showing symptoms of rebellion. This went on through the early part of their stay, but latterly there was a growing sense upon the girl that she and her mother were avoided by some young ladies to whom they had been introduced, and whom they saw regularly at the daily services at St. Michael's Church. They were pleasant-looking girls, with whom Nuttie longed to fraternise, and she was mortified at never being allowed to get beyond a few frigidly civil words in the street, more especially when she came upon sketching parties and picnics in which she was never included.

It was all very well for her mother to answer her murmurs and wonderings with 'You know people are very exclusive, my dear.' Nuttie began to guess that her father and her name were the real reason, and her eyes were further opened later in the spring when Mr. Egremont, who had recovered unusual health and vigour, took his ladies to Mentone to spend a day or two in the newer beauties there. Alice had her misgivings, but the visit was avowedly to show the place to her, and she could not reasonably object. He was in unusual good humour, and even tolerated their ecstasies at the scenery and the flowers, dined at the table d'hote and found acquaintance, enjoyed himself, and in the forenoon, while Nuttie was out wondering and admiring, and going as far as she could drag Martin, he expressed to his wife that she would be astonished at the gardens and the music of Monte Carlo.

There, however, Alice made a stand. 'Thank you, it is very kind, but if you please, I should not like to take Ursula to Monte Carlo, or to go there myself,' she said in an apologetic tone.

He laughed. 'What! you are afraid of making the little one a confirmed gambler?'

'You know I am not, but-'

'You think the little prig will be contaminated, eh?'

'Well, I think it will be happier for her if she never sees anything-of the kind.'

'You little foolish Edda, as if her eyes or ears need see anything but flowers and music and good company.'

'I know that, but I had so much rather not. It was a sweet face and caressing voice that implored, and he still was good humoured.

'Well, well, I don't want to drag you, old lady, against your will, though I fancy you would be rather surprised at the real aspect of the abode of iniquity your fancy depicts.'

'Oh, thank you, thank you so much!'

'What an absurd little woman it is! I wonder if you would thank me as heartily supposing I cleared a round thousand and gave you-say a diamond necklace?'

'I am sure I should not!'

'No, I don't believe you would. That restless little conscience of yours would be up on end. After all, I don't know that you are the worse for it, when it looks so prettily out of your brown eyes. I wonder what you expect to see? The ruined gamester shooting himself on every path, eh?'

'No, no; I don't suppose I should see anything horrid or even disagreeable. I know it is all very beautiful; but then every person who goes for the innocent pleasures' sake only helps to keep up the whole thing-evil and all.'

'And what would the old women of all sorts here and at Nice do without such a choice temple of scandal to whet their teeth upon? Well, I suppose you and your precious daughter can take care of yourselves. There are the gardens, or you can tell Gregorio to order you a carriage.'

'Then you are going?'

'Yes, I promised Grafton. Don't be afraid, Mistress Edda, I'm not going to stake Bridgefield and reduce you to beggary. I'm an old hand, and was a cool one in my worst days, and whatever I get I'll hand over to appease you.'

That was all she could obtain, and she secretly hoped there would be no winnings to perplex her. Thankful that she had not made him angry by the resistance for which she had prepared herself with secret prayer ever since the Mentone scheme had been proposed, she placed herself at Nuttie's disposition for the rest of the day.

They had a charming donkey-ride, and, still unsatiated with beauty, Ursula made her mother come out again to wonder at the trees in the public gardens. Rather tired, they were sitting on a shaded bench, when a voice close to them exclaimed, 'It is; yes, it must be; 'tis the voice-yes, and the face prettier than ever. Little Alice-ah! you don't know me. Time has been kinder to you than to me.'

'Oh! I know you now! I beg your pardon,' cried Alice, recognising in the thin nutcracker parchment visage and shabbily-dressed figure the remnant of the brilliant aquiline countenance and gay attire of eighteen years ago. 'Mrs. Houghton! I am so glad to have met you, you were so kind to me. And here she is.'

'What! is this the child? Bless me, what a proof how time goes! Young lady, you'll excuse my not knowing you. You were a very inconvenient personage not quite born when I last met your mother. What a likeness! I could have known her for Alwyn Egremont's daughter anywhere!'

'Yes, they all say she is a thorough Egremont.'

'Then it is all right. I saw Alwyn Egremont, Esquire, and family among the arrivals at Nice, but I hardly durst expect that it was you. It seemed too good to be true, though I took care the knot should be tied faster than my gentleman suspected.'

'Oh, please!' cried Alice deprecatingly, at first not apprehending the force of the words, having never known the gulf from which Mrs. Houghton had saved her, and that lady, seeing that the girl was listening with all her ears, thought of little pitchers and restrained her reminiscences, asking with real warm interest, 'And how was it? How did you meet him again?'

'He came and found me out,' said Alice, with satisfaction in her voice.

'Indeed! Not at Dieppe; for he was en garcon when I nearly came across him ten years ago at Florence.'

'Oh no! He inquired at Dieppe, but they had lost the address my aunt left.'

'Indeed! I should not have thought it of old Madame Leroux, she seemed so thoroughly interested in la pauvre petite. What did you do? Your aunt wrote to me when your troubles were safely over, and she thought him lost in the poor Ninon, that she meant to settle in a place with an awfully long Yorkshire name.'

'Micklethwayte; yes, we lived there, and got on very well. We had boarders, and I had some dear little pupils; but last year Mark Egremont-you remember dear little Mark-was in the neighbourhood, and hearing my name, he told his uncle, who had been seeking us ever since. And he came, Mr. Egremont, and took us home, and oh, the family have been so kind!'

'What? The parson, and that awful old she-lion of a grandmother, whose very name scared you out of your wits?'

'She is dead, and so is dear good Lady Adelaide. Canon Egremont is kindness itself. It was all the old lady's doing, and he knew nothing about it. He was gone to Madeira with Lady Adelaide and got none of our letters, and he never knew that his brother was married to me.'

'Trust Alwyn for that,' Mrs. Houghton muttered. 'Well, all's well that ends well, and I hope he feels due gratitude to me for doing him a good turn against his will. I tried to get at him at Florence to find out what he had done with you, but unluckily I was ill, and had to send through poor Houghton, and he mismanaged it of course, though I actually wrote down that barbarous address, Mickle something, on a card. I believe he only got as far as the man instead of the master.'

'Ah! I wanted to ask for Captain Houghton,' said Alice, glad to lead the conversation away from revelations of which she had an instinctive dread.

'Gone, my dear! two years ago. Poor fellow! it was low fever, but quite as much want of luck, I shall always believe,' she said.

'Oh, I am sorry! He was so kind to me!' said Alice, squeezing her hand, and looking up with sweet tender commiseration.

'There, there, don't, you pretty creature!' said Mrs. Houghton, putting her hand across her eyes. 'I declare, you've almost made me cry-which I've not done-well, hardly, since I parted with you at Dieppe, thinking you a sweet little flower plucked and thrown away to die, though I had done my best to bind it to him. What care I took not to let Houghton disabuse him about Jersey marriages!'

There is a difference between hearing and hearkening, and Alice Egremont's loving and unsuspecting heart was so entirely closed against evil thoughts of her husband, and so fully occupied with her old friend's condition, that she never took in the signification of all this, while Nuttie, being essentially of a far more shrewd and less confiding nature, and already imbued with extreme distrust of her father, was taking in all these revelations with an open-eyed, silent horror of conviction that her old impressions of the likeness to Marmion or Theseus had been perfectly correct. It was all under her hat, however, and the elder ladies never thought of her, Alice bringing back the conversation to Mrs. Houghton herself. 'Oh, my dear, I drag on as I can. I've got a fragment of our old income, and when that's run too low, I go up to Monte Carlo-I always had the lucky hand, you know, and 'tis only restitutio

n after all! I'm sick of it all though, and sometimes think I'll take my good sister Anne's offers and go home.'

'Oh do, do!' cried Alice.

'But,' went on the poor woman, 'humble pie goes against me, and think what an amount would be before me-heigh ho!-after nearly five-and-twenty years; yes, five-and-twenty years it is-since Houghton, poor fellow, told me I was too bright and winsome for a little country lawyer's house in a poky street. What would they think of me now?' and she laughed with a sound that was painful to hear. 'Well, Sycorax had done one good deed, and when I look at you, queening it there, I feel that so have I.'

'You were very good to me, I know; but oh, if you would go home to your sister!'

'My dear, you little know what you ask! Anne! Why, she is the prime district lady, or whatever you call it, of Dockforth. Think what it would be to her to have this battered old vaurien thrown on her hands, to be the stock subject for all the righteous tongues. Besides,' as she coughed, 'the English climate would make an end of me outright. I'm in a bad way enough here, where I can sit among the lemon trees half the days in the winter, but the English fireside in a stuffy parlour-' and she shuddered.

That shiver reminded all that it was getting late, too late for Mrs. Houghton to be out of doors, and near the time when Mr. Egremont was to meet his ladies at the hotel. Alice begged for Mrs. Houghton's address, and it was given with a short ironical laugh at her promise to call again if possible. 'Ay, if possible,' the poor woman repeated. 'I understand! No, no,' as Alice was about to kiss her. 'I won't have it done.'

'There's no one in sight.'

'As if that made a difference! Alice, child, you are as innocent as the little dove that flew aboard the Ninon. How have you done it? Get along with you! No kisses to such as me! I don't know whether it breaks my heart, or binds it up to look at the face of you. Anyway, I can't bear it.'

She hurried away, and made some steps from them. A terrible paroxysm of coughing came on, and Mrs. Egremont hurried towards her, but she waved back all help, shook her head, and insisted on going home. Alice kept her in sight, till she dived into a small side street.

'Mother,' said Nuttie. Then there was a pause. 'Mother, did you know all this?'

'Don't talk of it, Nuttie. It is not a thing to be talked about to any one or by any one. I wish you had not been there.'

'But, mother, this once! Did you know?'

'I knew that I knew not what I did when I went on board that yacht, but that God's kind providence was over me in a way that I little deserved. That is all I care to know, and, Ursula, I will have not another word about it. No, I will not hear it.'

'I was only going to ask whether you would tell my father.'

'Certainly; but not before you.'

The tone of decision was unwonted, and Nuttie knew she must abide by it, but the last shreds of filial respect towards Mr. Egremont were torn away by what Mrs. Houghton had implied, and the girl dashed up and down her bedroom muttering to herself, 'Oh, why have I such a father? And she, she will not see it, she is wilfully blind! Why not break with him and go home to dear Aunt Ursel and Gerard and Mr. Dutton at once, instead of this horrid, horrid grandeur? Oh, if I could fling all these fine things in his face, and have done with him for ever. Some day I will, when I am of age, and Gerard has won his way.'

Meantime Alice, in some trepidation, but with resolution at the bottom, had told her husband of the meeting with Mrs. Houghton, of her widowhood, sickness, and poverty.

He did not like the intelligence of their meeting, and hoped no one had seen it; then, when reassured on this score, he hummed a little and exclaimed, 'Poor old Flossy Houghton! I don't wonder! They went the pace! Well, what do you want? Twenty pounds for her! Why, 'twill all be at Monte Carlo in three days' time.'

'It is very good of you, but I want more than that. She is so ill and wretched, you know.'

'I can't have you visiting her, if that's what you mean. Why, after all the pains I've been at to get you on your proper level at home, here's my Lady Louisa and all her crew, in their confounded insolence, fighting shy of you, and you can't give them a better colour for it than by running after a woman like that-divorced to begin with, and known at every gambling table in Europe.'

'I know that, Alwyn, dear Alwyn' (it was very seldom that she called him so, and she put her clasped hands on his shoulder); 'but I am sure she is dying, and she was so good to me, I can't bear doing nothing for her.'

'Well, there's twenty-fifty, if you like.'

'Thank you, thank you, but you know I never meant to visit her-like-like society; only to go sometimes privately and-'

'And how about your daughter?'

'I would not take her on any account. What I want to do is this. Mrs. Houghton spoke of her sister, a kind good woman in England, who would take her home, and love her, if only she could bring herself to go. Now, I think I could persuade her to write, or let me write to the sister-and if only the two were together again! It is very dreadful to think of her dying alone, in the way she is going on!'

'What, little saint, you want to try your hand on her? I should say she was too tough an old sinner for you.'

'Oh, Alwyn! her heart was very near, though she tried to keep it back. I do not want to-to do what you mean-only to get her to let her sister come. I'm sure that would do the rest.'

'If any sister does more than you, you little witch,' he said.

Alice pressed him no more then, but a day or two later, when she knew he had an engagement, she arranged to dispose of Nuttie with the clergyman's wife, and then begged permission to go by train to Mentone, and come back in the evening. He did not like it-no more did she-for she was perfectly unaccustomed to travelling alone, but there was a deep sense of sacred duty upon her, only strengthened by her unwillingness to realise how much she owed to Mrs. Houghton.

She telegraphed that she was coming, and found her friend more touched than she chose to allow at the fact of her visit, declaring that she must have wonderful power over Alwyn Egremont, if she knew how to use it; indeed, the whole tone was of what Alice felt flattery, intended to turn away anything more serious. Poor woman, she was as careful of doing no injury to her young friend's reputation as Mr. Egremont could have desired. Alice had come resolved that she should have one good meal, but she would not hear of eating anywhere in public where either could be recognised, and the food was brought to a private room in the hotel. To her lodgings she still would not take Alice, nor would she give her sister's address. Except for a genuine shower of tears when Alice insisted on kissing her there seemed no ground gained.

But Alice went again on her husband's next visit to Mentone. He was, to a certain degree, interested in her endeavours, and really wished the poor woman to be under the charge of her relations, instead of dying a miserable lonely death among strangers.

This time Alice had to seek her friend in the dreary quatrieme of the tall house with the dirty stone stairs. It was a doleful empty room, where, with a mannish-looking dressing-gown and a torn lace scarf tied hood-fashion over her scanty hair, Mrs. Houghton sat over a pan of charcoal oppressive to Alice's English lungs.

'Come again!' she cried. 'Well, I really shall begin to think that angels and ministers of grace exist off the stage! You pretty thing! Let me look at you. Where did you get that delicious little bonnet?'

'Why, it is perfectly plain!'

'So it is! 'Tis only the face that is in it. Now if some folks put this on-sister Anne, for example, what dowdies they would be. Poor old Anne, you must know she had a turn for finery, only she never knew how to gratify it. To see the contortions of her crinolines was the delight of all the grammar school. It was a regular comedy for them to see her get into our pew edgeways, and once unconsciously she carried off a gentleman's hat on her train.'

So she went on talking, coughing at intervals, and generally using a half-mocking tone, as if defying the tenderness that awoke in spite of her, but always of her original home, and especially of her sister. Alice ventured to ask whether they often heard from one another.

'Good soul, she always writes at Christmas and on my birthday. I know as well as possible that I shall find a letter poste restante wherever she heard of me last, and that she hasn't done-I'm ashamed to say for how long-really, I think not since I let her know that I couldn't stand Ivy Lodge, Dockforth, at any price, when she wrote to Monaco on seeing poor Houghton's death in the paper.'

There was a good deal of rambling talk of this kind, to which Alice listened tenderly and compassionately, making no attempt at persuasion, only doing what was possible for the poor lady's comfort. She had procured on her way some fruit and jelly, and some good English tea, at which Mrs. Houghton laughed, saying, 'Time was, I called it cat-lap! Somehow it will seem the elixir of life now, redolent, even milkless, of the days when we were young.'

Then she revealed something of her long, suffering, almost ghastly nights, and Alice gently told how her old friend, Mrs. Nugent, suffered from sleeplessness, and kept a store of soothing psalms and hymns in her memory. There was a little laugh. 'That's for you good folk. I haven't such a thing about me! Come, Par exemple!' and Alice repeated the first thing she could remember, the verse beginning 'God, who madest earth and heaven.'

'That's one of your charms, is it? Well, it would not be too much for me if my poor old memory would hold it. Say it again.'

Alice generally had about her a tiny prayer-book with 'Hymns, Ancient and Modern,' attached. It had been a gift from Mary Nugent, and she was fond of it, but the opportunity was not to be lost, and she took it out, saying she would bring a larger one and reclaim it. And, as she was finally taking leave, she said with a throbbing heart, 'Do you know that you have betrayed your sister's address? I shall write to her now.'

'If you do-!' cried Mrs. Houghton, in a tone like threatening deprecation, but with a little of her strange banter in it besides. Alice's mind had been made up to do the thing, and she had not felt it honest not to give due warning of her intentions. Even now she was not certain of the lady's surname, but she trusted to her husband's knowledge of Mrs. Houghton's previous history; and not in vain. Mr. Egremont amused himself with a little ridicule at his wife's quixotry, and demanded whether Flossy Houghton was a promising convert; but confessed himself very glad that the poor thing should be off their hands, declaring that it was quite time her own people looked after her, and happily he recollected her maiden name. So the letter was written, after numerous attempts at expressing it suitably, explaining Mrs. Houghton's illness and the yearnings she was too proud and ashamed to express to her sister, and was answered at once by a few short words of earnest gratitude, and an assurance that Miss Reade was preparing to start at once. Could Mrs. Egremont meet her and prepare her sister?

To Alice's disappointment this could not be. Mr. Egremont had invited some friends to the villa, and would not spare her. She could only send a note, assuring Miss Reade that she believed that preparation would do more harm than good, and she waited and watched anxiously. A card came by the post in Mrs. Houghton's scrawled writing. 'Naughty little wretch!' was all it said, but thence she gathered hope.

The spring was advancing, and Mr. Egremont was in haste to be gone, but Alice obtained one more run to Mentone, and once more climbed up the dark and dirty stairs to the room, where the well-known voice answered her tap, 'Come in! Ah, there she is, the wicked little angel!'

A substantial little roly-poly business-like little woman hurried forward with tearful eyes and outstretched hands. 'Oh, Mrs. Egremont! can I ever thank you enough?'

'You can't, Anne, so don't try. It will be a relief to all parties,' interposed Mrs. Houghton. 'Sentiment is not permitted here.'

Nevertheless she hugged Alice almost convulsively. She was sitting in a comfortable arm-chair, one about which Mrs. Egremont knew something, and the whole aspect of the room had changed indescribably for the better, as much indeed as Mrs. Houghton's own personal array, which had no longer the desolate neglected look of old.

A little stool was close to her chair, as if the two sisters could not bear to be far apart, and the look of love and content in their eyes as they turned to one another was perfect joy to Alice. She had no longer any doubt that Anne Reade, who had found the wanderer yet a great way off, would yet bring her back to the home, spiritually if not outwardly.

Mrs. Houghton spoke, of better rooms when the winter visitors had fled, Anne spoke of her being able to return to Dockforth. Whether that would ever be seemed entirely doubtful to Alice's eyes, especially as the patient's inclination was evidently otherwise. There was nothing to be done but to leave the sisters together, obtaining Miss Reade's ready promise to write, and putting into her hands a sum of money which could be sincerely called 'only a debt of gratitude from my husband and me,' and which would smooth the way either to remaining or returning to England.

Nor was there any return. Ere many weeks had passed Mrs. Egremont heard from Miss Reade how a fresh cold had made it impossible to move, and summer heat had brought on low fever, which had destroyed the feeble strength, but not till 'childhood's star' had again arisen, and a deeply and truly repentant woman had passed away, saved, as it seemed, through that one effort on behalf of the young girl whose innocence she had protected.

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