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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Queen's Cup By G. A. Henty Characters: 27924

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"It is little more than two years and a half since I left, Lechmere, but it seems almost a lifetime."

"It does seem a time, Major. We must have marched thousands of miles, and I could not say how many times we have been engaged. There has not been a week that we have not had a fight, and sometimes two or three of them."

"Well, thank God, we are back again. Still I am glad to have been through it."

"So am I, sir. It will be something to look back on, and it is curious to think that while we have been seeing and doing so much, father and my brother Bob have just been going about over the farm, and seeing to the cattle, and looking after the animals day in and day out, without ever going away save to market two or three times a month at Chippenham."

"And you have quite made up your mind to stay with me, Lechmere?"

"Quite, sir. Short of your turning me out, there is nothing that would get me away from you. No one could be happier than I have been, ever since I rejoined after that wound. It has not been like master and servant, sir. You have just treated me as if you had been the squire and I had been your tenant's son, and that nothing had ever come between us. You have made a man of me again, and I only wish that I had more opportunities of showing you how I feel it."

"You have had opportunities enough, and you have made the most of them. You were by my side when I entered that house where there were a score of desperate rebels, and it would have gone hard with us if aid had not come up. You stood over me when I was knocked down by that charge of rebel cavalry, and got half a dozen wounds before the Hussars swept down and drove them back."

"I was well paid for that, sir," the man said with a smile.

"Yes, you got the Victoria Cross, and no man ever won it more fairly. But, after all, it was not so much by such things as these that you showed your feelings, Lechmere, as by your constant and faithful service, and by the care with which you looked after me. Still, as I told you before, I don't like standing in your way. In the natural course of things you would have had your father's farm, and there is now no reason why you should not go back there."

"No, sir. Since we heard that that poor girl came back home and died, there is no reason why I should not go back to the old place, but I don't like to. Two years of such a life as we have been leading does not fit one for farm work. Brother Bob stopped and took my place while I went soldiering, and even if I were willing to go back to it, which I am not, it would not be fair to him for me to step in just as if nothing had happened. But, anyhow, I shall be glad to be back again at the old place and see them all. Father and mother will know now that they suspected me wrongly. But they were not to blame. Mad as I was then, I might have done it if I had had the chance."

"Well, Lechmere, you know well that I shall be always glad to have you with me as long as you are willing to stay. Perhaps the time will come when you may wish to make a home for yourself, and you may be sure that the first farm on the estate that falls vacant shall be yours, or, as that does not very often happen, I will see that you get a good one somewhere in the neighbourhood."

The man shook his head, and without answering went on unpacking his master's portmanteau. They were at the Hummums Hotel, in Covent Garden, and had arrived half an hour before by the evening train, having come overland from Marseilles.

Two years' soldiering had greatly altered George Lechmere. He had lost the heavy step caused by tramping over ploughed fields, and was a well set-up, alert and smart-looking soldier; and although now in civilian clothes-for his master had bought him out of the service when he sent in his own papers-no one could avoid seeing that he had served, for in addition to the military carriage there was the evidence of two deep scars on his face, the handiwork of the mutineers' sabres on the day when he had stood over his master surrounded by rebel horse. His complexion was deeply bronzed by the sun, and there was that steady but watchful expression in his eyes that is characteristic of men who have gone through long and dangerous service.

"I shall stay two or three days in town," Major Mallett said. "I must get an entire refit before I go down. You had better come round with me to the tailor's tomorrow, the first thing after breakfast. You will want three or four suits, too."

"Yes, sir. And besides, they would like to know down there when you are coming home. They are sure to want to give you a welcome."

"And you, too, Lechmere. I am sure that all your old friends will give you as hearty a welcome as they will give me. Indeed, it ought to be a good deal heartier, for you have been living among them all your life, while I have been away for the most part ever since I was a boy."

Four days later they went down to Chippenham. Mr. Norton, the steward, was on the platform when the train came in.

"Welcome home again, sir," he said warmly, as Frank stepped from the carriage. "We were all glad, indeed, when we heard that you were back safe, and were coming down among us."

"I am glad enough to be back again, Norton," Frank Mallett said; as he shook the man's hand. "We had warm work of it for a bit, but at the end, when the excitement was over, one got pretty tired of it.

"This is George Lechmere, Norton," the Major said, as he went along with the agent to where George was standing with the pile of luggage. "You have heard how gallantly he behaved, and how he saved my life at the risk of his own."

"How are you, George?" the agent said, as he shook hands with him. "I should hardly have known you. Indeed, I am sure I should not have done so if I had met you in the street. You seem to have grown taller and altogether different."

"I have lost flesh a bit, Mr. Norton, and I have learnt to stand upright, and I shall be some time before I get rid of this paint the sun has given me."

"Yes, you are as brown as a berry, George. We saw in the gazette about your getting the Victoria Cross in saving the squire's life. I can tell you every man on the estate felt proud of you.

"Are you ready to be off, sir?"

"Yes. I suppose you have got the dog cart outside, as I asked you?"

"Well, no, sir," the agent said, in a tone of some embarrassment. "You see the tenants had made up their minds that you ought to come in a different sort of style, and so without asking me about it they ordered an open carriage to be here to meet you. I knew nothing about it until last night. The dog cart is here and will take up your luggage."

"Well, I suppose it cannot be helped," Mallett laughed. "Of course, they meant it kindly."

"I will see the luggage got in the dog cart, and come over with it," Lechmere said.

"You can see it into the dog cart, George, but you must come with me. I have got to put up with it, and you must, too."

He stood chatting with Mr. Norton on the platform till George returned, and said that the luggage was all packed, and that the dog cart had gone on ahead. There was an amused look on his face, which was explained when, on going out, Mallett found an open carriage with four horses, with postilions in new purple silk jackets and orange caps, and large rosettes of the same colour at the horses' heads.

"Bless me," said the Major, in a tone of dismay. "I shall feel as if I were a candidate for the county."

"They are the family colours, you see, sir."

"Yes, I know, Norton, and the Conservative colours, too. Well, it cannot be helped, and it does not make much difference after all.

"There will be no fuss when I get there I hope, Norton," he went on, as he took his place, and Lechmere climbed up into the seat behind.

"Well, sir," the agent said, apologetically, "there is an arch or two. You see, the tenants wanted to do the thing properly, and the school children will be on the lawn, and there are going to be some bonfires in the evening, and they have got a big box of fireworks down from London. Why, sir, it would be strange if they did not give you a welcome after going through all that, and being wounded three times and getting so much credit. Why, it wouldn't be English, sir."

"I suppose it's all right," Mallett said, resignedly; "and, indeed, Norton, one cannot help being pleased at seeing one's tenants glad to have one home again."

In half-an-hour's drive they arrived at the boundary of the estate. Here an arch had been erected, and a score of the tenants and tenants' sons, assembled on horseback, gave a loud cheer as the carriage drove up, and as it died away one shouted:

"Why, that is George Lechmere behind. Give him a cheer, too!" and again a hearty shout went up.

The carriage stopped, and Major Mallett said a few words, thanking them heartily for the welcome they had given him, and assuring them what pleasure it was to him to be back again.

"I thank you, also," he concluded, "for the cheer that you have given to my faithful comrade and friend, George Lechmere. As you all know, he saved my life at the risk of his own, and has received the greatest honour a soldier can gain––the Victoria Cross. You have a good right to be proud of him, as one of yourselves, and to give him a hearty welcome."

The carriage then drove on again, the farmers riding close behind as an escort. At the entrance of the drive up to the house another and larger arch had been erected. Here the rest of the tenants and the women were collected, and there was another hearty greeting, and another speech from Mallett.

Then they drove up to the house, where a number of the gentry had assembled to welcome him. After shaking hands and chatting with these for a short time, Frank went round among the tenants, saying a few words to each. When he had done this he invited them all to a dinner on the lawn that day week, and then went into the house, where the steward had prepared a meal.

Among the familiar faces, Frank missed those he would most gladly have seen. He had a year before received a letter from Lady Greendale, telling him of Sir John's sudden death, and had learned from the steward during the drive that she and her daughter were in London.

"They went there a month ago," he said. "A year had passed after Sir John's death, and people say that it is not likely that they will be much at home again for some time. Lady Greendale has high connections in London, as you know, sir."

"Yes, she was a daughter of Lord Huntinglen, Norton."

"Yes, sir. They always went up to town for the season; and they say Lady Greendale liked London better than the country; and now that Miss Bertha is out-for she was presented at Court a fortnight ago-people think they won't be much down at Greendale for the present."

"Has Miss Greendale grown up pretty? I thought she would, but, of course, when I went away she was only a girl, not fully developed."

"She is a beautiful young lady, sir. Everyone says she is quite the belle of the county. Folks reckon she will make a great match. She is very well liked, too; pleasant and nice without a bit of pride about her, and very high spirited; and, I should say, full of fun, though of course the place has been pretty well shut up for the last year. For four months after Sir John's death they went away travelling, and were only at home for a few weeks before they went up to London the other day, in time for the first Drawing Room."

"I suppose we shall not see much of you for a time, Mallett?" one of his friends said, as they sat at luncheon.

"No, I don't suppose I shall be able to settle down for a bit. After the life I have led, I am afraid that I shall find the time hang heavily on my hands, alone here."

"You must bring home a wife, Major Mallett," one of the ladies said.

"That is looking quite into the dim future, Mrs. Herbert," he laughed. "You see, since I first went on active service I have been removed altogether from feminine attractions. Of course I have been thinking it over, but for the present my inclination turns towards yachting. I have always been fond of the water, and had a strong wish to go to sea when I was a boy, but that aspiration was not encouraged. However, I can follow my bent now. Norton has been piling up money for me in my absence, and I can afford myself the luxury of a big yacht. Of course I shall be in no hurry about it. I shall either build or buy a biggish craft, for racing in summer, and cruising in winter."

"That means that you won't be here at all, Major Mallett."

"Oh, no, it does not mean that, I can assure you. I shall run down for a month three or four times a year; say for shooting in September or October, and for hunting a month or two later on; besides, I have to renew my acquaintance with my tenants and see that everything is going on comfortably. I expect that I shall spend four or five months every year on the estate."

"Till you settle down for good?"

"Yes, till I settle down for good," he laughed. "I suppose it will have to be someday."

"Then you don't think of passing much time in London, Mallett?"

"No, indeed. Fortunately my father sold his town house three years ago. He did not care about going up, and of course it was of no use to me. I have never had any opportunities for society, and my present idea is that it would bore me horribly. But I'll dare say that I shall be there for a month or so in the season.

"Of course, there is my club to go to, and plenty of men one knows; but even if I had a longing for society, I know no one in what are termed fashionable circles, and so should be outside what is called the world."

"Oh, you would soon get over that, Major Mallett. Why, Lady Greendale would introduce you everywhere."

"It is not likely I shall trouble her to do that," Mallett answered.

Frank had told George Lec

hmere that, as soon as they arrived, he would be at liberty to go off at once to his father and mother.

"Stay as long as you like," he said. "I shall get on very well without you for a few days."

"I shall come up again tonight, sir, and get your things brushed and your bath ready in the morning. I should not be comfortable if I did not do that. Then after breakfast, if you do not want me, I can go to the farm for a few hours. Of course I shall have lots to tell the old people about India. But for that I don't know what I should do to pass the time away, with no work on hand."

"Oh, you will have your old friends to look up, George. After being over two years on service, you have a right to a month's leave. As you have got your six months' batta in hand, besides your savings, you have enough cash to go on with; but when you want money, you know that you have only to speak to me."

"I have a good bit, sir. I have scarcely spent a penny since I joined, and in the two years have laid by a nice little sum. Besides, we all picked up a bit. Most of those native chiefs and their followers had money or jewels about them, and all of us got something; some good prizes. So one way or another I have made as much or more in the two years' soldiering as I should have done in two years' farming; but if I had not above a few shillings in my pocket, I should do well here, for I have no occasion to spend any money with all my friends wanting me to go round to see them and tell them of our doings."

"Found everything going on satisfactorily at home, George?"

"Yes, sir, all well. Bob has turned out a great help to my father. I was sure he would do well when he got the chance. Of course, so long as I was there he had not much responsibility, but I could see then that he would make a good farmer. Things have been going on just as well as when I was at home."

"Are you going over there now?"

"Not until after breakfast, sir, anyhow. I told them that I might look in some time in the morning, but that I could not say whether you might want me for anything."

"No, I shan't want you at all, George. I told you so yesterday. However, after breakfast I will walk over to the farm with you. I only had time for a word with your father yesterday, but I told him that I would come over to see them sometime today."

Accordingly, after an hour's talk with his agent, Frank Mallett walked over to the farm with George. The latter's father and mother were both in the house, an unusual thing at that time of day with the former, but he had said at breakfast to his son:

"You must look after things by yourself today, lad. The Squire said yesterday that he would come over sometime, and I would not be out when he came, not for a twenty pound note."

He and his wife came to the door when they saw Frank coming across the field towards the house.

"Well, Lechmere," the latter said, when he came up. "I am glad to see you and your dame looking so well and hearty. I had not time to say more than a word to you yesterday, and I wanted to have a comfortable talk with you both. I wrote you a line telling you how gallantly George had behaved, and how he had saved my life; but I had to write the day afterwards, and my head was still ringing from the sabre cut that had for a time knocked all the sense out of me, and therefore I had to cut it very short. How gallantly he defended my life against a dozen of the enemy's cavalry was shown by the fact that he received the Victoria Cross, and I can tell you that such an immense number of brave deeds were performed during the Mutiny that George's must be considered an extraordinary act of bravery to have obtained for him that honour."

By this time they had entered the farmhouse parlour. George had not followed them in, but on inquiring where he was likely to find Bob, had gone off to join him.

"I was proud to hear it at the time, Squire; and when it was in the papers that our George had got the Victoria Cross, and all our neighbours came in to congratulate us, we felt prouder still. Up to the time when we got your letter, we did not know for sure where he was. He had said he meant to enlist, and from the humour that he was in when he went away we guessed it to be in some regiment where he could get to the wars. We felt the more glad, as you may guess, from the fact that both the Missus and I had wronged him in our thoughts. We learnt that before we got the news, and it was not until we knew that we had been wrong that either of us opened our lips about it, though each of us knew what the other thought."

"I know what you mean, Lechmere. He told me all about it."

"Well, Squire, you may be sure, when we knew that we had wronged him, how the wife and I fretted that we did not know where to write to, nor how to set about finding out where he was, and so you can guess how pleased we were when we heard from you that he was with your regiment, and that he had saved your life at the risk of his own.

"We did not know then, Squire, that if he had had twenty lives he would have done right to have risked them all for you. He told us the whole story yesterday-just to mother, me and Bob. I can't tell you yet, Squire, what we thought of it. I do not know that I shall ever be able to tell you, and we shall never cease to thank the good Lord for saving George from being a murderer in his madness-a murderer of our own Squire-and to bless you, Major, that you should not only have forgiven him and kept his crime from everyone, but should have taken him in hand, as he says, as if it had never happened."

"There was no occasion for him to have said anything about it, Lechmere. He was undoubtedly more or less mad at the time. Upon the whole, I think that the affair has made him a better man. Up to the time when he saved my life, he did his duty as a soldier well, and was a most devoted servant to me, but the weight of this business pressed heavily upon him, and in spite of all I could say he held himself aloof as much as possible from his comrades; but after that he changed altogether. He felt, as he told me, that God would not have given him this opportunity of saving the life that he had so nearly taken had He not forgiven him, and his spirits rose, and while before he certainly was not popular among his comrades-a reserved man never is-he became a general favourite.

"The officers, of course, showed a good deal of interest in him after what he had done. He could have been a sergeant in the course of a month, but he refused corporal's stripes when they were offered to him on the day after the battle, saying that he preferred remaining with me, though the Colonel told him that, after what he had done, he would stand a good chance of promotion, after two or three years' service, as a sergeant. He told me that he knew his jealous disposition had been a sort of trouble to you; but I am sure that he will never worry you in that way again. I believe that he is now thoroughly master of himself, and that even the man who wrought that foul wrong need not fear him."

"You heard, sir, that the poor girl came home and died?"

"Yes. He told me when he heard the news from you."

"She never said who did it, sir, but from other things that came out there is no doubt who it was."

"He told me, Lechmere, but I stopped him short. I did not wish to know. I had my suspicions, but I did not want to have them confirmed. The fellow I suspect is no friend of mine, and I don't want to know anything about him. If I were certain of it, I could not meet him without telling him my opinion of him."

"You are not likely to meet him here, Squire. A year ago he happened to be over at Chippenham one market day. There were a dozen of us there, and I can tell you we gave him such a reception that he mounted his horse and rode straight on again. If he hadn't, I believe that we should have horsewhipped him through the town. Three months afterwards his estate was put up for sale, and he has never been down in this part of the country since; not that he was ever here much before. London suited him better. You see, his mother was, as I have heard, the daughter of a banker, and an only child; and even if he hadn't had the estate he would have been a rich man. Anyhow, I am heartily glad that he has left the county."

"I, too, am glad that he has gone, Lechmere. I have not met him for years, but if we had both been down here we must have run against each other sometimes, and after some matters that had passed between us years ago we could scarcely have met on friendly terms. However, as there is nothing beyond mere suspicion against him, he may in this case be innocent. You see, I was suspected unjustly myself, and the same thing may be the case with him."

"That is so, Squire; though I don't think that there is any mistake this time. In fact, I believe she told her mother, though she kept it from her father for fear he would break the law. At any rate, it is a good thing he has gone; for he was a hard landlord, and there was not a good word for him among his tenants."

"That makes the probability of a mistake all the more likely," Frank said. "If I, who as a landlord, as far as I know, have given no grounds for dislike to my tenants, was suspected unjustly; this would be still more likely to be the case with one who was generally unpopular.

"And now, how has the farm been going on since I was away?"

"Just about as usual, Squire. Bob is not such a good judge of horses and cattle as George was, but in other respects I think he knows more. George did not care for reading, and Bob is always at the papers and getting up the last things these scientific chaps have found out; so matters are pretty well squared. Altogether, I have no call to grumble, and I ain't likely, Squire, to have to ask for time on rent day. We were worried sorely about George as long as that matter hung over him; but since that was cleared up, and we heard of his having saved your life, we have been happy again. We got a big shock yesterday, however, when we heard what had happened out there."

"Well, that is all past and over long ago, and we have none of us any cause to regret it. It has done George a great deal of good, and as for me, I might not be here now talking to you if it had not taken place, for it was the memory of that which led George to the desperate action which saved my life. Besides, you see, it has gained for me an attached and faithful friend, for it is as a friend rather than as a servant that I regard your son."

"He will always be that, I am sure, Squire. He told us that you had offered to set him up on a farm, but he is quite right to say no. I don't say that if it had been with somebody else, his mother and I might not have felt rather sore that our eldest boy should have taken to service; but, of course, it is different with you, Squire. It is only natural that a Lechmere should serve a Mallett, seeing that our fathers have been your fathers' tenants for hundreds of years, so that even if all this had not happened we should not have minded. As it is, we are proud that he is with you; and it seems natural that, after wandering about the world and fighting with those black villains out there, he should never be content to go on as he was before, or to settle down to farming."

"It is like man like master, in this case," Mallett laughed. "After I have once been over the estate, and seen all the tenants, and learned that everyone is satisfied and everything going on well, I shall very soon begin to feel restless, and shall be running off somewhere. You see, I have never been broken in to a country life. I have no idea of becoming an absentee; but I think a month or two together will be as much as I can stand, at any rate as long as I am a bachelor."

"That is just what I was saying, Squire," the farmer's wife said, speaking for the first time-for during the first portion of the conversation she had been crying quietly, and had since been busying herself in placing decanters and glasses and a huge homemade cake on the table. "We all hope that you will soon bring a mistress home. I said only this morning that you would never be settling down until you did.

"And now, will you take a glass of wine and a slice of cake, Squire?"

"Thank you, Mrs. Lechmere, I will; especially a piece of your cake. Many and many a slice of it have I had here when a boy, and famously good it always was."

Major Mallett ate two big slices of cake, drank a glass of wine, and refusing the offer of a second glass, got up to go, saying:

"No, Mrs. Lechmere; I must not treat myself to another glass now. I am going round to four or five other houses before I return to lunch, and I know that the tray will be put on the table everywhere. I can say that I have eaten so much cake here that I cannot eat more. But I know I shall have to drink a glass of wine at each place, and I can assure you that I am not accustomed to tipple in the morning.

"Ah, here come your two sons across the fields. I will meet them at the gate. If I were to begin a regular talk with Bob today, the morning would be gone."

"George has changed wonderfully," Mrs. Lechmere said, as they accompanied him to the gate. "It ain't his face so much, though he is well nigh as brown as that cake, but it is his figure. I should not have known him if he had not come along with Bob. He walks altogether different."

"It is the drilling, Mrs. Lechmere. Yes, it is wonderful how much drill does for a man; and there is a good deal in the cut of the clothes. You see, there is not much difference in the material, but George's were made at a good tailor's in London, and I suppose Bob's were made down here."

Mallett stayed for a few minutes chatting at the gate with Bob, and then, saying that he would certainly come in again before he went up to town, started on a round of calls.

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