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   Chapter 26 THREE YEARS LATER.

Nuttie's Father By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 22038

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


'There's something rotten in the State.'-Hamlet.

On an east-windy afternoon in March Mary Nugent emerged from the School of Art, her well-worn portfolio under her arm, thinking how many successive generations of boys and girls she had drilled through 'free-hand,' 'perspective,' and even 'life' with an unvarying average of failure and very moderate success, and how little talent or originality had come to the front, though all might be the better for knowing how to use eyes and fingers.

On the whole her interest as well as her diligence did not flag; but a sense of weariness and monotony would sometimes come after a recurrence of well-known blunders of her pupils, and she missed the sense of going home to refreshment and enjoyment which had once invigorated her. St. Ambrose's Road had had its golden age, but the brightness had been dimmed ever since that festival at Monks Horton. One after another of the happy old society had dropped away. The vicar had received promotion, and she only remained of the former intimates, excepting old Miss Headworth, who was no longer a companion, but whom affection forbade her to desert in feeble old age. Had her thoughts of the old times conjured up a figure belonging to them? There was the well-brushed hat, the natty silk umbrella, the perfect fit of garments, the precise turn-out, nay, the curly lion-shaven poodle, with all his fringes, leaping on her in recognition, and there was that slightly French flourish of the hat, before-with a bounding heart-she met the hand in an English grasp.

'Miss Nugent!'

'Mr. Dutton!'

'I thought I should meet you here!'

'When did you come?'

'Half an hour ago. I came down with George Greenleaf, left my things at the Royal Hotel, and came on to look for you.'

'You will come and spend the evening with us?'

'If you are so good as to ask me. How is Miss Headworth?'

'Very feeble, very deaf; but she will be delighted to see you. There is no fear of her not remembering you, though she was quite lost when Mrs. Egremont came in yesterday.'

'Mrs. Egremont!' he repeated with a little start.

'Mrs. Mark. Ah! we have got used to the name-the Honourable Mrs. Egremont, as the community insist on calling her. What a sunny creature she is!'

'And Miss Egremont, what do you hear of her?'

'She writes long letters, poor child. I hope she is fairly happy. Are you come home for good, or is this only a visit?'

'I have no intention of returning. I have been winding up my good cousin's affairs at Melbourne.'

Mary's heart bounded again with a sense of joy, comfort, and protection; but she did not long keep Mr. Dutton to herself, for every third person they met gladly greeted him, and they were long in getting to St. Ambrose's Road, now dominated by a tall and beautiful spire, according to the original design. They turned and looked in at the pillared aisles, stained glass, and handsome reredos.

'Very different from our struggling days,' said Mr. Dutton.

'Yes,' said Mary, with half a sigh. 'There's the new vicar,' as he passed with a civil nod. 'He has three curates, and a house of Sisters, and works the parish excellently.'

'You don't speak as if you were intimate.'

'No. His womankind are rather grand-quite out of our beat; and in parish work I am only an estimable excrescence. It is very well that I am not wanted, for Miss Headworth requires a good deal of attention, and it is only the old Adam that regrets the days of importance. Ah, do you see?'

They were passing Mr. Dutton's old home. On the tiny strip of lawn in front was a slender black figure, with yellow hair, under a tiny black hat, dragging about a wooden horse whereon was mounted a sturdy boy of two, also yellow-locked and in deep mourning under his Holland blouse.

'Billy-boy is riding to meet his daddy!' was merrily called out both by mother and son before they perceived the stranger.

'Mr. Dutton,' said Mary.

Annaple bowed, but did not put out her hand, and such a flush was on her face that Miss Nugent said, 'I am sure that is too much for you!'

'Oh no-' she began; but 'Allow me,' said Mr. Dutton, and before she could refuse he was galloping round and round the little lawn, the boy screaming with delight as Monsieur raced with them.

'So he is come!' she said in a low doubtful voice to Mary.

'Yes. He has met Mr. Greenleaf in London. I always think he has the contrary to the evil eye. Whatever he takes in hand rights itself.'

'I'll hope so. Oh, thank you! Billy-boy, say thank you! What a ride you have had!'

'Why are they in such deep mourning?' asked Mr. Dutton, after they had parted.

'Oh, did you not know? for good old Lady Ronnisglen. She had a bad fall about two years ago, and never left her bed again; and this last autumn she sank away.'

'They have had a great deal of trouble, then. I saw the death of Canon Egremont in the Times soon after I went out to Australia.'

'Yes; he had heart disease, and died quite suddenly. The living is given to Mr. Condamine, who married the eldest daughter, and the widow is gone to live under the shadow of Redcastle Cathedral.'

Therewith Miss Nugent opened her own door, and Miss Headworth was soon made aware of the visitor. She was greatly changed, and had the indescribable stony look that tells of paralysis; and though she knew Mr. Dutton, and was delighted to see him, his presence made her expect to see Alice and Nuttie come in, though she soon recollected herself and shed a few helpless tears. Then-in another mood-she began to display with pride and pleasure the photographs of 'Alice's dear little boy.' She had a whole series of them, from the long-clothed babe on his sister's knee to the bright little fellow holding a drum-a very beautiful child, with a striking resemblance to his mother, quite startling to Mr. Dutton, especially in the last, which was coloured, and showed the likeness of eyes and expression.

'Nuttie always sends me one whenever he is taken,' said the old lady. 'Dear Nuttie! It is very good for her. She is quite a little mother to him.'

'I was sure it would be so,' said Mr. Dutton.

'Yes,' said Mary, 'he is the great interest and delight of her life. Her letters are full of his little sayings and doings.'

'Is she at home now?'

'No; at Brighton. Her father seems to have taken a dislike to Bridgefield since his brother's death, and only goes there for a short time in the shooting season. He has taken a lease of a house in London, and spends most of the year there.'

'Ah!' as she showed him the address, 'that is near the old house where I used to stay with my grand-aunt. We thought it altogether in the country then, but it is quite absorbed now, and I have dazzling offers from building companies for the few acres of ground around it. Have you seen her?'

'Oh no; I believe she is quite necessary to her father. I only hear of her through Lady Kirkaldy, who has been very kind to her, but, I am sorry to say, is now gone with her Lord to the East. She says she thinks that responsibility has been very good for Nuttie; she is gentler and less impetuous, and a good deal softened by her affection for the child.'

'She was certain to develop. I only dreaded what society her father might surround her with.'

'Lady Kirkaldy says that all has turned out better than could have been expected. You see, as she says, Mr. Egremont has been used to good women in his own family, and would not like to see her in a slangy fast set. All her own gaieties have been under Lady Kirkaldy's wing, or that of Mrs. William Egremont's relations, and only in a quiet moderate way. Her father gets his own old set about him, and they have not been very choice, but they are mostly elderly men, and gentlemen, and know how to behave themselves to her. Indeed, her cousin Blanche, who was here in the winter, gave us to understand that Ursula knows how to take care of herself, and gets laughed at as rather an old maidish model of propriety, if you can believe it of your little Nuttie.'

'I could quite believe in her on the defensive, unprotected as she is.'

'What did that young lady-Miss Blanche-tell us about that gentleman, Mary?' asked Miss Headworth, hearing and uttering what Miss Nugent hoped had passed unnoticed.

'Oh, I think that was all gossip!' returned Mary, 'and so I am sure did the Mark Egremonts. She said there was one of Mr. Egremont's friends, Mr. Clarence Fane, I think she called him, rather younger than the others, who, she was pleased to say, seemed smitten with Nuttie, but I have heard nothing more about it, and Mrs. Mark scouted the idea,' she added in haste, as she saw his expression vary in spite of himself.

'Do you see much of your neighbours?'

'We are both too busy to see much of one another, but we have our little talks over the wall. What a buoyant creature she is. It seems as if playfulness was really a sustaining power in her, helping her to get diversion out of much that others might stumble at. You know perhaps that when she arrived the work-people had got up a beautiful parasol for her, white, with a deep fringe and spray of rowan. Little Susie Gunner presented her with it, and she was very gracious and nice about it. But then what must Mr. Goodenough do but dub it the Annabella sunshade, and blazon it, considerably vulgarised, in all the railway stations, and magazines.'

'I know! I had the misfortune to see it in the station at Melbourne; and my mind misgave me from that hour.'

'Her husband was prepared to be very angry, but she fairly laughed him out of it, made all sorts of fun out of the affair, declared it her only opening to fame, and turned it into a regular joke; so that indeed the Greenleafs, who were vexed at the matter, and tried to apologise, were quite perplexed in their turn, and not at all sure that the whole concern was not being turned into ridicule.'

'I wonder it did not make him cut the connection,' said Mr. Dutton, muttering 'I only wish it had.'

'Mrs. Greenleaf is very funny about her, 'added Mary, 'proud of the Honourable Mrs. Egremont, as they insist on calling her, yet not quite pleased that she should be the junior partner's wife; and decidedly resenting her hardly going into society at all, though I really don't see how she could; for first there was the Canon's death, and then just after the boy was born came Lady Ronnisglen's accident, and for the next year and a half there was constant attendance on her. They fitted up a room on the ground floor for her, the one opening into your drawing-room, and there they used to sit with her. I used to hear them reading to her and singing to her, and they were always as merry as possible, till last autumn, when something brought on erysipelas, and she was gone almost before they took alarm. The good little daughter was beaten down then, really ill for a week; but if you can understand me, the shock seemed to tell on her chiefly bodily, and though she was half brok

en-hearted when her husband in a great fright brought me up to see her, and say whether her sister should be sent for, she still made fun of him, and described the impossible advice they would bring on themselves. I had to take care of her while he went away to the funeral in Scotland, and then I learnt indeed to like her and see how much there is in her besides laughter.'

'Did the old lady leave them anything?'

'I believe she had nothing to leave. Her jointure was not much, but I am sure they miss that, for Mrs. Egremont has parted with her nurse, and has only a little girl in her stead, driving out the perambulator often herself, to the great scandal of the Greenleafs, though she would have one believe it is all for want of occupation.'

'Do you think they have taken any alarm?'

'There's no judging from her joyous surface, but I have thought him looking more careworn and anxious than I liked. Mr. Dutton, don't answer if I ought not to ask, but is it true that things are going wrong? I know you have been seeing Mr. Greenleaf, so perhaps you are in his confidence and cannot speak.'

'Tell me, what is known or suspected?'

'Just this, that Mr. Goodenough has been the ruin of the concern. He has been quite different ever since his voyage to America. You were gone, old Mr. Greenleaf has been past attending to business ever since he had that attack, and George Greenleaf has been playing the country squire at Horton Bishop, and not looking after the office work, and Mr. Egremont was inexperienced. One could see, of course, that the whole character of the business was changed-much more advertising, much more cheap and flashy work-to be even with the times, it was said, but the old superior hands were in despair at the materials supplied to them, and the scamped work expected. You should have heard old Thorpe mourning for you, and moralising over the wickedness of this world. His wife told me she really thought he would go melancholy mad if he did not leave the factory, and he has done so. They have saved enough to set up a nice little shop at Monks Horton.'

'I must go and see them! Good old Thorpe! I ought never to have put those poor young things into the firm when I ceased to have any control over it. I shall never forgive myself-'

'Nothing could seem safer then! No one could have guessed that young Mr. Greenleaf would be so careless without his father to keep him up to the mark, nor that Mr. Goodenough should alter so much. Is it very bad? Is there worse behind? Speculation, I suppose-'

'Of course. I do not see to the bottom of it yet; poor George seemed to reckon on me for an advance, but I am afraid this is more than a mere temporary depression, such as may be tided over, and that all that can be looked to is trying to save honourable names by an utter break up, which may rid them of that-that-no, I won't call him a scoundrel. I thought highly of him once, and no doubt he never realised what he was doing.'

Before the evening was far advanced Mark Egremont knocked at the door, and courteously asked whether Mr. Dutton could be spared to him for a little while. Mary Nugent replied that she was just going to help Miss Headworth to bed, and that the parlour was at their service for a private interview, but Mark answered, 'My wife is anxious to hear. She knows all that I do, and is quite prepared to hear whatever Mr. Dutton may not object to saying before her.'

So they bade good-night to Mary, and went on together to the next house, Mr. Dutton saying 'You have much to forgive me, Mr. Egremont; I feel as if I had deserted the ship just as I had induced you to embark in it.'

'You did not guess how ill it would be steered without you,' returned Mark, with a sigh. 'Do not fear to speak out before my wife, even if we are sinking. She will hear it bravely, and smile to the last.'

The room which Mr. Dutton entered was not like the cabin of a sinking ship, nor, as in his own time, like the well-ordered apartment of a bachelor of taste. Indeed, the house was a great puzzle to Monsieur, who entered by invitation, knowing his way perfectly, thinking himself at home after all his travels, and then missing his own particular mat, and sniffing round at the furniture. It was of the modified aesthetic date, but arranged more with a view to comfort than anything else, and by the light of the shaded lamp and bright fire was pre-eminently home-like, with the three chairs placed round the hearth, and bright-haired Annaple rising up from the lowest with her knitting to greet Mr. Dutton, and find a comfortable lair for Monsieur.

'Miss Nugent says that you set everything right that you do but look at, Mr. Dutton,' she said; 'so we are prepared to receive you as a good genius to help us out of our tangle.'

Mr. Dutton was afraid that the tangle was far past unwinding, and of course the details, so far as yet known, were discussed. There was, in truth, nothing for which Mark could be blamed. He had diligently attended to his office-work, which was mere routine, and, conscious of his own inexperience, and trusting to the senior partners, he had only become anxious at the end of the year, when he perceived Goodenough's avoidance of a settlement of accounts, and detected shuffling. He had not understood enough of the previous business to be aware of the deterioration of the manner of dealing with it, though he did think it scarcely what he expected. If he had erred, it was in acting too much as a wheel in the machinery, keeping his thoughts and heart in his own happy little home, and not throwing himself into the spirit of the business, or the ways of those concerned in it, so that he had been in no degree a controlling power. He had allowed his quality of gentleman to keep him an outsider, instead of using it to raise the general level of the transactions, so that the whole had gone down in the hands of the unscrupulous Goodenough.

Annaple listened and knitted quietly while the affairs were explained on either hand. Mark had had one serious talk with George Greenleaf, and both had had a stormy scene with Goodenough. Then Mr. Dutton had telegraphed his arrival, and Greenleaf had met him in London, with hopes, bred of long and implicit trust, that his sagacity and perhaps his wealth would carry the old house through the crisis.

But Mr. Dutton, though reserving his judgment till the books should have been thoroughly examined and the liabilities completely understood, was evidently inclined to believe that things had gone too far, and that the names of Greenleaf and Egremont could only be preserved from actual dishonour by going into liquidation, dissolving partnership, and thus getting quit of Goodenough.

Mark listened resignedly, Annaple with an intelligence that made Mr. Dutton think her the more clearheaded of the two, though still she could not refrain from her little jokes. 'I'm sure I should not mind how liquid we became if we could only run off clear of Goodenough,' she said.

'You know what it means?' said her husband.

'Oh yes, I know what it means. It is the fine word for being sold up. Well, Mark, never mind, we are young and strong, and it will not be a bit the worse for the Billy-boy in the end to begin at the bottom of everything.'

'I hope-may I ask-is everything embarked in the poor old firm?' said Mr. Dutton with some hesitation.

'All that is mine,' said Mark, with his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand.

'But I've got a hundred a year, charged on poor old Ronnisglen's estate,' said Annaple. 'All the others gave theirs up when they married, and I wanted to do so, but my dear mother would not let me; she said I had better try how I got on first. Think of that, Mark, a hundred a year! Why, old Gunner or Thorpe would think themselves rolling in riches if they only heard that they had a hundred a year!'

'You won't find it go far!'

'Yes, I shall, for I shall make you live on porridge, with now and then a sheep's head for a treat! Besides, there will be something to do. It will be working up again, you know. But seriously, Mr. Dutton, I have some things here of my dear mother's that really belong to Ronnisglen, and I was only keeping till he comes home. Should not they be got out of the way?'

'My dear, we are not come to that yet! I hope it may be averted!' cried Mark.

But Mr. Dutton agreed with the young wife that it would be much better to send these things away before their going could excite suspicion. There was only a tiny silver saucepan, valued as a gift of 'Queen' Clementina to an ancestress, also a silver teapot and some old point, and some not very valuable jewellery, all well able to go into a small box, which Mr. Dutton undertook to deposit with Lord Ronnisglen's bankers. He was struck with the scrupulous veracity with which Annaple decided between what had become her own property and the heirlooms, though what she claimed might probably be sacrificed to the creditors.

Mark could hardly endure to see what made the crisis so terribly real. 'That I should have brought you to this!' he said to his wife, when their visitor had at length bidden them good-night.

'If we begin at that work,' said Annaple, 'it was I who brought you! I have often thought since it was rather selfish not to have consented to your helping poor Ursula with her heavy handful of a father! It was all money grubbing and grabbing, you see, and if we had thought more of our neighbour than ourselves we might have been luxuriating at the Home Farm, or even if your uncle had quarrelled with you, he would not have devoured your substance. I have thought so often, ever since I began to see this coming.'

'My dear child, you don't mean that you have seen this coming!'

'My prophetic soul! Why, Mark, you have as good as inferred it over and over again. I've felt like scratching that Badenough whenever I met him in the street. I must indulge myself by calling him so for once in strict privacy.'

'You have guessed it all the time, while I only thought how unconscious you were.'

'Not to say stupid, considering all you told me. Besides, what would have been the use of howling and moaning and being dismal before the time? For my part, I could clap my hands even now at getting rid of Goodenough, and his jaunty, gracious air! Come, Mark, it won't be so bad after all, you'll see.'

'Nothing can be "so bad," while you are what you are, my Nan.'

'That's right. While we have each other and the Billy-boy, nothing matters much. There's plenty of work in us both, and that good man will find it for us; or if he doesn't, we'll get a yellow van, and knit stockings, and sell them round the country. How jolly that would be! Imagine Janet's face. There, that's right,' as her mimicry evoked a smile, 'I should be ashamed to be unhappy about this, when our good name is saved, and when there is a blessing on the poor,' she added in a lower voice, tenderly kissing her husband's weary brow.

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