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   Chapter 20 WOLF.

Nuttie's Father By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 14988

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


'If I cannot once or twice in a quarter bear out a knave against

an honest man, I have but very little credit with your Worship.'-II. King Henry IV.

Another cause besides Ursula's recalcitrance and her mother's ailment contributed to disturb Mr. Egremont, and bring him home. His agent, by name Bulfinch, a solicitor at Redcastle, came to him with irrefragable proofs of gross peculation on the part of the bailiff who managed the home farm which supplied the house and stables, and showed him that it was necessary to make a thorough investigation and change of system.

In point of fact, Mr. Egremont greatly preferred being moderately cheated to exerting himself to investigate, but this was going beyond moderation, and the explosion had been too public to be passed over. So he came home and sat by, while his wife and Mr. Bulfinch did the work for him, and made it evident to him that the frauds had been of long standing, and carried on with the connivance of the coachman, of Gregorio,-who had before Mrs. Egremont's arrival acted as house steward,-and of the former cook. Indeed, it was the housekeeper whom Mrs. Egremont had left in charge, whose refusal to connive had brought about the discovery.

Gregorio's share in all was sufficiently evident, and Alice's heart leapt with hope. Her husband would be wholly her own if his evil genius were once departed, but Mr. Egremont would not see it. He had no objection to sacrifice the coachman and all his underlings, with the bailiff and his entire family, and felt none of the pity that Alice had for the pretty, silly, half-educated daughters; but as to the valet-Pooh! pooh! the poor fellow had been out of the way all this time-whatever he had done had been in the dark, ages long ago, before Bridgefield knew its mistress; he was a foreigner, and that was enough to prevent him from forgathering with the English. It was all their English prejudice.

'I can show you facts and figures, sir,' said Mr. Bulfinch.

'I daresay, a year or more old. Why, I was an unprotected carcase then-a mere prey-the fellow only did after his kind.'

Alice held her tongue then, but made an effort in private. 'Indeed, I don't think you know; I am afraid Gregorio is not altered. I found him out in his charges about the wine, and the servants' wages at Nice, only you wouldn't listen.'

'His little perquisites, my dear child! Come, nonsense, these foreign fellows don't pretend to have the morals you ascribe to the native flunkey-generally without foundation either-they are much of a muchness as to that; but your Frenchman or Italian does it more neatly, and is a dozen times better servant than the other is.'

'But-'

'Oh, ay! I know you don't like him. But he knows his manners to you, I hope?' said Mr. Egremont, with a suddenness that made her wish she could truthfully say he did not.

'Yes, he always is-is respectful, but somehow I see it is under protest.'

Mr. Egremont laughed. 'Rivals-yes, I see; why, you don't consider the sore trial of having a full-grown mistress turned in upon him! Look here, you keep the keys already, but the new fellow at the farm and all the rest of them shall account to you for everything-Gregorio and all. Won't that satisfy you?'

''Tis not only the money, but I think Gregorio is a bad-not a good-man.'

'Ho, ho! she wants to advertise for a pious footman and coachman! eh? No, I thank you, my dear Edda, I agree with-who was it who said, "Volez moi, mais sans m'ennuyer."'

The Rectory likewise had hoped for Gregorio's dismissal, and there were grave looks when Alice had to confess that nothing would move her husband against him. The Canon even lashed himself up to say, 'I tell you how it is, Alwyn, you'll never do any good with your household, while you keep that fellow.'

'I am not aware what description of good you expect me to do with it, Will,' coolly answered the elder brother in a disconcerting tone.

Poor Alice, on her side, thought of the Little Master, and then wondered if it was uncharitable to do so. For she knew it had become war to the knife with Gregorio! Whether his master told him, or whether it were his own evil conscience, or the wonderful intuition of servants, he certainly knew of the pressure for his dismissal, and he visited it on her as much as he durst.

Outwardly deferential, he could thwart and annoy her in a hundred ways, from making love to the housemaids to making evil suggestions to his master, yet never giving her any overt cause of complaint. He could worry and sting her under the politest exterior, and he knew very well that the most effectual form of annoyance was the persuading his master that any discomfort or lassitude was to be removed by some form of narcotic. This would have the further advantage of stupefying Mr. Egremont, and making him more ready to lapse under the old influence; while the duration and strength of the new one was already a surprise to Gregorio.

But there was no doubt that Mrs. Egremont had profited by her year of training. She looked tired, and less youthful and pretty, but she had gained in grace and importance as well as in style, and was much more really the mistress of Bridgefield. Her shyness had passed away, and she knew now to take her place in society, though still she was somewhat silent. And her husband depended upon her entirely for all his correspondence, for much of his occupation and amusement, and even for the regulation of his affairs. In the household, Gregorio was little more than his personal attendant, and she had the general management, even of the other men-servants. The Canoness might well say it had turned out better than she expected.

And Nuttie had become more womanly, and had acquired the indefinable polish given by a London season. She had learnt the art of conversation, and could make herself agreeable to her uncle, or to any one else who came in her way. Even May allowed that she had something in her, and cultivated her more than before; but, on the other hand, even the Rectory could perceive that there was now an absolute alienation between her and her father, and what might before have been fear had become dislike. If she had to refer to him, especially if her plans for herself or her mother were crossed, there was always a tone of bitterness or of sarcasm about her; and her greater boldness and freedom of speech would occasionally manifest itself towards him. This was not indeed often, since not only did his cool contempt make her come off the worst in the encounters, but the extreme distress they gave to her mother made her refrain whenever her temper, or what she thought her conscience, would let her; but still there was always a danger which kept poor Alice on thorns whenever there was a possible difference of schemes or opinions.

Mrs. William Egremont was seriously considering of representing to Ursula that her conduct was bad taste, bad policy, and, moreover, was doing her mother's spirits and health serious harm; but it was a delicate matter in which to meddle, and the good lady could not make up her mind how far to surrender her brother-in-law's character and allow a partial justification to Ursula. She was a cautious woman, and waited and watched her opportunities.

In the beginning of October Mr. and Mrs. Egremont were invited to a great shooting party at Sir James Jerningham's. The invitation did not include Ursula. Perhaps she had never dawned on their hostess's imagina

tion; perhaps it was that Lady Jerningham was well known to dislike girls, or any one who might absorb young men's attention. At any rate the omission was a cause of thankfulness to the party concerned, and she did not neglect to worry her mother by a protest against keeping such company as would be met at Waldicotes.

Alice smiled a little faintly and said, 'I don't think it hurts me, my dear; I don't understand half of what they talk about, and they are always kind to me.'

'I don't think you ought to go among them or countenance them.'

'My dear child,'-and the colour rose-'I don't feel as if I had a right to set myself above any one.'

'Mother!'

'People might have said just the same of me.'

'And whose fault was that?' muttered Nuttie under her breath, but Mrs. Egremont would not hear. She only pleaded, as perhaps mother ought not to have done with child.

'You know, Nuttie, it is not for my own pleasure, but your father's eyesight makes him dislike to go anywhere without me now; and I really should be uneasy about him.'

'Yes; he is all you care for,' said Nuttie. 'You sacrifice everything you used to think essential, just to his will and pleasure.'

'Oh, Nuttie, I hope not; I don't think I do!'

'If I thought it was doing him any good I should not so much mind,' went on the girl; 'but he is just the same, and I am always thinking of "As the husband is, the wife is-"'

'Hush! hush! You have no right to think in that way of your father. I will not hear it. I have let you say too much already, Nuttie.' Then after a pause she added, gently and wistfully, 'You have been better taught, and are clearer headed than ever I was, my Nuttie, and it is quite right that you should hate what seems evil to you. I can only go on trying to do what seems my duty from day to day. I know,' she added with rising tears, 'that the sin and folly of my younger days worked a difficult position for us both; but we can only act according to our lights, and pray God to direct us; and please-please bear with me, my dear one, if the same course does not always seem right to us both.'

Nuttie had never heard her say anything so fully showing that she realised these difficulties, and, greatly touched, she asked pardon, kissed and caressed her mother. There was a calm over them for the next few days, and Nuttie actually refrained from bitter comments when her mother was not allowed to go to evensong on Sunday, on the plea of her being tired, but, as the girl believed, in order that she might read the newspapers aloud.

She knew that her silence was appreciated by the way her mother kissed her and called her a dear, good, considerate girl.

On Monday Mr. and Mrs. Egremont went away at what was a strangely early hour for the former, Nuttie spending her days at the Rectory.

On the Tuesday Blanche went with her little sister and the governess on a shopping expedition to Redcastle, and in relating her adventures on her return, she said, 'Oh, by the bye, I met Annaple in Park's shop!'

'Full of Micklethwayte news, I suppose,' said May.

'Yes, of course. Did you know, Nuttie, that your aunt was ill?'

'No, indeed, I did not. What was the matter?'

'Bronchitis, I believe-brown titus, as Betty Butter calls it.'

'Bronchitis! Oh dear! oh dear! Are you quite sure, Blanche?'

'Oh yes! I am quite certain Annaple said Mark told her that Miss Headworth was laid up with bronchitis.'

'And nobody has written to us all this week!' sighed Nuttie.

'I should think that a sign there could not be much in it,' observed May; 'it may be only a bad cold.'

'But Aunt Ursel had bronchitis four years ago, and was very ill indeed,' persisted Nuttie. 'I'm sure it is bronchitis, and that she won't let Miss Mary write to us.'

She was in much distress about it, though May privately told her that she ought to know Blanche's way better than to trust implicitly to any of her reports; and her aunt said much the same thing in more general terms, even proposing that if she did not hear the next morning she should go over to Lescombe to ascertain what Mark had really said.

This pacified her a little, but on her way home the alarm grew upon her, and, moreover, she recollected the opposition that she believed that her father was certain to make to either her mother or herself going to nurse her aunt. It flashed upon her that if she were to hasten to Micklethwayte on this alarm before there could be a prohibition, it would be no disobedience, and perfectly justifiable, not to say noble. Her parents were to return on Thursday evening, and she made up her mind that, unless she were fully reassured as to Miss Headworth's state, she would go off at once to Micklethwayte before any one could gainsay her. She had plenty of money, and she consulted the time-table in the hall before going upstairs. It only concerned the nearest line, but she calculated that if she caught the express, she should reach her destination in time to write to her mother at Waldicotes, and prevent needless shocks. Her eagerness for the plan grew upon her, so that it seemed like liberation; she could hardly sleep for thinking of it, and certainly was not as much disappointed as she believed herself when the post came in-a blank.

Martin was away with her mistress, so Nuttie explained matters to the upper housemaid, who was very sympathetic, carried down her orders for the carriage, procured for her both breakfast and provision for the journey, and packed her clothes. Ursula would fain have been off before the Rectory was aware, but the two little girls came up with a message about the plans for the day, just as she was beginning an explanatory note, and she entrusted to them the information that she was so uneasy about Miss Headworth that she had decided on going to see for herself.

So in dashed Adela and Rosalind to their mother's room full of excitement with the news that Cousin Nuttie was gone off by the train, because her aunt was very ill indeed.

'Gone, Adela? are you sure? Really gone?'

'Oh yes, mamma! The dogcart was coming round, and she said she wanted to catch the 10.05 train, and was very sorry she had not time to write a note to you.'

'Was there a letter? What had she heard?'

'Oh, only that her aunt was so very ill! She did not tell us-did she, Rosie?'

'There was something about being in time to write to Aunt Alice,' suggested Adela.

'I am very sorry about this. I am afraid it will be a great shock to Alice,' observed the mother, as she imparted the news at her husband's dressing-room door.

'Young girls are so precipitate!' said the Canon.

'Your brother won't like it at all,' the lady continued.

'Not he. But after all, it is just as well that he was not asked. They do owe that poor old lady a good deal, and Alwyn's not the man to see it. I'm not sorry the girl took the matter into her own hands, though I couldn't have advised it.'

'Except that it will all fall on Alice.'

'He is very fond of Alice. She has done more with him than I ever thought possible. Kept him respectable this whole year, and really it grows on him. He makes ever so much more of her now than when he first brought her home-and no wonder. No, no; he won't fall foul of her.'

'Perhaps not; but it is just as bad, or worse, for her if he falls foul of her daughter. Besides, she is very much attached to her aunt. I wish I knew what the account was, or whether she knows anything about it.'

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