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CHAPTER IX.

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    After the most successful party, even if it is only a garden party, a flatness is apt to fall upon the family of the entertainers who have been so nobly doing their best to amuse their friends. Besides the grateful sense of success, and of the fact that the trouble is well over, comes a flagging of both physical and mental powers. The dinner at Wradisbury was heavy after the great success of the afternoon; there was a little conversation about that, and about how everybody looked, and on Ralph's part, who was decidedly the least dull of the party, on the changes that time had made, especially upon the women whom he remembered as little girls, and who were now, as he said, “elderly,” some of them with little girls of their own; but{130} neither Mr. Wradisley nor Mr. Bertram were at all amused, and Lucy was tired, and agreeing with Ralph completely in his estimation of the old young ladies, was not exhilarated by it as she might have been. The master of the house did not indeed betray fatigue or ill-humor, he was too well bred for that. But he was a little cross to the butler, and dissatisfied with the dinner, which was an unusual thing; he even said something to his mother about “your cook,” as if he thought the sins of that important person resulted from the fact that she was Mrs. Wradisley's cook, and had received bad advice from her mistress. When he was pleased he said “my cook,” and on ordinary occasions “the cook,” impersonally and impartially. Bertram on the other hand, had the air of a man who had fallen from a great height, and had not been able to pick himself uphe was pale, his face was drawn. He scarcely heard when he was spoken to. When he perceived that he was being addressed he woke up with an effort. All this Lucy perceived keenly and put down{131} to what was in fact its real reason, though with a difference. She said to herself:

    “Nelly Nugent must have known him. She must have known his wife and all about him, and how it was they didn't get on. I'll make her tell me,” Lucy said to herself, and she addressed herself very particularly to Mr. Bertram's solace and entertainment, partly because she was romantically interested and very sorry for him, and partly to show her mother, who had told her with a certain air that Mr. Bertram was married, that his marriage made not the slightest difference to her. She tried to draw him out about Tiny, who was the first and most natural subject.

    “Isn't she a delightful little thing? I am sure she made a slave of you, Mr. Bertram, and got you to do everything she wanted. She always does. She is a little witch,” Lucy said.

    “Oh, Tiny,” said Bertram, with a slight change of color. “YesI had not been thinking. What is herreal name?”

    “I believe it is Agnes, and another name{132} tooan old-fashioned name; do you remember, mother?”

    “Laetitia. I don't know what you mean by an old-fashioned name. I had once a great friend whose name was Laetitia. It means light-heartedness, doesn't it?joy. And a very nice meaning, too. It would just suit Tiny. They can call her Letty when she gets a little older. But the worst of these baby names is that there is no getting rid of them; and Tiny is so absurd for a big girl.”

    During this rather long speech Bertram sat with a strange look, as if he could have cried, Lucy thought, which, however, must have been absurd, for what he did do was to laugh. “Yes, they do stick; and the more absurd they are the longer they last.”

    “Tiny, however, is not absurd in the least; and isn't she a delightful little thing?” Lucy repeated. She was not, perhaps, though so very good a girl, very rapid in her perceptions, and besides, it would have been entirely idiotic to imagine the existence of any reason why Bertram should not discuss freely the little characteristics of Mrs. Nugent's child.{133}

    “Poor little Tiny!” he said, quite inappropriately, with a sort of stifled sigh.

    “Oh! do you mean because her father is dead?” said Lucy, with a countenance of dismay. She blamed herself immediately for having thought so little of that misfortune. Perhaps the thing was that Mr. Bertram had been a friend of Tiny's father, and it was this that made him so grave. She added, “I am sure I am very sorry for poor Mr. Nugent; but then I never knew him, or knew anybody that knew him. Yes, to be sure, poor little Tiny! But, Mr. Bertram, she has such a very nice mother. Don't you think for a girl the most important thing is to have a nice mother?”

    “No doubt,” Bertram said very gravely, and again he sighed.

    Lucy was full of compunction, but scarcely knew how to express it. He must have been a very great friend of poor Mr. Nugent, and perhaps he had felt, seeing Nelly quite out of mourning, and looking on the whole so bright, that his friend had been forgotten. But no! Lucy was ready to go to the stake{134} for it, that Mrs. Nugent had not forgotten her husbandmore at least than it was inevitable and kind to her other friends to forget.

    And then Mr. Wradisley, having finished his complaints about “your cook,” told his mother across the table that it was quite possible he might have to go to town in a few days. “Perhaps to-morrow,” he said. The dealer in antiquities, through whose hands he spent a great deal of money, had some quite unique examples which it would be sinful to let slip by.

    Mrs. Wradisley exclaimed against this suggestion. “I thought, Reginald, you were to be at home with us all the winter; and Ralph just come, too,” she said.

    “Oh, don't mind me,” said Ralph.

    “Ralph may be sure, mother,” said Mr. Wradisley, with his usual dignity, “that I mind him very much. Still there are opportunities that occur but once in a lifetime. But nothing,” he added, “need be settled till to-morrow.”

    What did Reginald expect to-morrow? Mr. Bertram looked up too with a sort of{135} involuntary movement, as if he were about to say something concerning to-morrow; but then changed his mind and did not speak. This was Lucy's observation, who was uneasy, watching them all, and feeling commotion, though she knew not whence it came, in the air.

    In the morning there was still the same commotion in the air to Lucy's consciousness, who perhaps, however, was the only person who was aware of it. But any vague sensation of that sort was speedily dispersed by the exclamation of Mrs. Wradisley, after she had poured out the tea and coffee (which was an office she retained in her own hands, to Lucy's indignation). While she did this she glanced at the outside of the letters which lay by the side of her plate; for they retained the bad habit in Wradisbury of giving you your letters at breakfast, instead of sending them up to your room as soon as they arrived; so that you received your tailor's bill or your lover's letter before the curious eyes of all the world, so to speak. Mrs. Wradisley looked askance at her letters as{136} she poured out the tea, and said, half to herself, “Ah! Mrs. Nugent. Now what can she be writing to me about? I saw her last night, and I shall probably see her to-day.”

    “It will be about those cuttings for the garden, mother,” said Lucy. “May I open it and see?”

    Mrs. Wradisley put her hand for a moment on the little pile. “I prefer to open my letters myself. No one has ever done that for me yet.”

    “Nor made the tea either, mother,” said Ralph.

    “Nor made the tea either, Raaf, though Lucy would like to put me out, I know,” said Mrs. Wradisley, with a little nod of her head; and then, having finished that piece of business like one who felt her very life attacked by any who should question her powers of doing it, she proceeded to open her lettersone or two others before that on which she had remarked.

    Lucy was so much interested herself that she did not see how still her elder brother sat behind his paper, or how uneasy Bertram{137} was, cutting his roll into small pieces on his plate. Then Mrs. Wradisley gave a little scream, and gave them all an excuse for looking up at her, and Mr. Wradisley for demanding, “What is the matter, mother?” in his quiet tones.

    “Dear me! I beg your pardon, Reginald, for crying out; how very absurd of me. Mrs. Nugent has gone away! I was so startled I could not help it. She's gone away! This is to tell meand she was here all the afternoon yesterday, and never said a word.”

    “Oh, that's the little widow,” said Ralph; “and a very good thing too, I should say, mother. Nothing so dangerous as little widows about.”

    Again I am sorry that Lucy was so much absorbed in her own emotions as not to be capable of general observation, or she would have seen that both her brother Reginald and Mr. Bertram looked at Raaf as if they would like to cut his throat.

    “She says she did tell me yesterday,” said Mrs. Wradisley, reading her letter. “'I{138} mentioned that I had news that disturbed me a little.' Yes, now I recollect she did. I thought she wasn't looking herself, and of course I asked what was the matter. But I had forgotten all about it, and I never thought it was serious. 'And now I find that I must go. You have all been so kind to me, and I am so sorry to leave. Tiny, too, will break her little heart; only a child always believes she is coming back again to-morrow; and the worst of it is I don't know when I may be able to get back.'”

    “But, mother, she can't have gone yet; there will be time to run and say good-by by the ten o'clock train,” said Lucy, getting up hurriedly.

    Once more Mrs. Wradisley raised a restraining hand, “Listen,” she said, “you've not heard the end. 'To-night I am going up to town by the eight o'clock train. I have not quite settled what my movements will be afterwards; but you shall hear when I know myself.' That's all,” said the mother, “and very unsatisfactory I call it; but you see you will do no manner of good, Lucy, jumping{139} up and disturbing everybody at breakfast on account of the ten o'clock train.”

    “Well,” said Lucy, drawing a long breath, “that is something at leastif she will really let us know as soon as she knows herself.”

    “Gammon,” said Ralph. “My belief is you will never hear of your pretty widow again. She's seen somebody that is up to her tricks, or she's broken down in some little game, or”

    “Raaf!” cried mother and sister together.

    But that was not all. Mr. Wradisley put down his newspaper; his countenance appeared from behind it a little white and drawn, with his eyebrows lowering. “I am sorry, indeed,” he said, “to hear a man of my name speak of a lady he knows nothing about as perhapsa cad might speak, but not a gentleman.”

    “Reginald!” the ladies cried now in chorus, with tones of agitation and dismay.

    Meanwhile Bertram had got up from the table with a disregard of good manners of which in the tumult of his feelings he was quite unconscious, and stalked away, going{140} out of the room and the house, his head thrust forward as if he did not quite realize where he was going. The ladies afterwards, when they discussed this incident, and had got over their terror lest hot words should ensue between the brothers, as for the moment seemed likelygave Bertram credit for the greatest tact and delicacy; since it was evident that he too thought a crisis was coming, and would not risk the chance of being a spectator of a scene which no stranger to the family ought to see.

    But none of these fine sentiments were in Bertram's mind. He went out, stumbling as he went, because a high tide of personal emotion had surged up in him, swelling to his very brain. That may not be a right way to describe it, because they say all feeling comes from the brainbut that was how he felt. He scarcely heard the jabberings of these Wradisley people, who knew nothing about it. He who was the only man who had anything to say in the matter, to defend her or to assail herhe would have liked to knock down that fellow Ralph; but he would have{141} liked still more to kick Ralph's brother out of the way, who had taken upon him to interfere and stand up for her, forsooth, as if he knew anything about her, whereas it was he, only he, Frank Bertram, who knew. He went staggering out of the house, but shook himself up when he got into the open air, and pulled himself together. There had been such a strong impulse upon him to go after her last night and seize hold upon her, to tell her all this was folly and nonsense, and couldn't be. Why had he not done it? He couldn't tell. To think that was his own child that he had carried about, and that after all she had been called Laetitia, after his mother, though her mother had cut him off and banished him for no immediate fault of his. It was his fault, but it was the fault of ignorance, not of intention. He had believed what he had so intently wished to be true, but he had no more meant to harm Nelly or her child than to sully the sunshine or the skies. And now, when chance or providence, or whatever you chose to call it, had brought them within sight of each other{142} again, that he should not have had the heart to follow that meeting out at once, and insist upon his rights! Perhaps she would not have denied himhe had thought for a moment that there had been something in her eyesand then, like the dolt he was, like the coward he was, he had let her go, and had gone in to dinner, and had sat through the evening and listened to their talk and their music, and had gone to bed and tossed and dreamed all night, and let her go. There had been impulses in him against all these things. He had thought of excusing himself from dinner. He had thought of pretending a headache, and stealing out later; but he had not done it. He had stuck there in their infernal routine, and let her go. Oh, what a dolt and coward slave am I! He would not put forth a hand to hold her, to clutch her, not a finger! But began to bestir himself as soon as she was out of his reach and had got clear away.

    He went straight on toward the gate and the village, not much thinking where he was going, nor meaning anything in particular by{143} it; but before he was aware found himself at Greenbank, where he had stopped once in the darkness, all unaware who was within, and listened to Ralph Wradisley (the cad! his brother was right) bringing forth his foolish rubbish about the pretty widow, confound him! And some one had asked him if perhaps he knew the Nugents, and he had said, Yes; but they were old people. Yes, he knew some Nugents, he had said. They had only been her grandparents, that was all. It was her mother's name she had taken, but he never guessed it, never divined it, though Tiny had divined it when she suddenly grew silent in his hands and gave him that look. Tiny had recognized him, like a shot! Though she had never seen him, though she was only five weeks old whenBut he had not known her, had not known anything, nor how to behave himself when Providence placed such an unlooked for chance in his hands.

    He went up to the house, the door of which stood wide open, and went in. All the doors were open with a visible emptiness, and that{144} look of mute disorder and almost complaint which a deserted house bears when its inmates have gone away. A woman came out of the back regions on hearing his step, and explained that she had acted as Mrs. Nugent's cook, but was the caretaker put in by the landlord, and let or not with the house as might suit the inmate. Mrs. Nugent had behaved very handsome to her, she said, with wages and board wages, and to Lizzie too, the housemaid, who had gone back to her mother's, and refused to stay and help to clean out the house. It was out of order, as Mrs. Nugent only went last night; but if the gentleman would like to see over itBertram behaved handsome to her also, bidding her not trouble herself, and then was permitted to wander through the house at his will. There was nothing to be seen anywhere which had any association either to soothe or hurt his excited minda broken doll, an old yellow novel, a chair turned over in one room, the white coverlet in another twisted as if packing of some sort had been performed upon itnothing but the merest vulgar{145} traces of a sudden going away. In the little drawing-room there were some violets in water in a china cuphe remembered that she had worn them yesterdayand by their side and on the carpet beneath two or three of the forget-me-nots he had gathered for Tiny. He had almost thought of taking some of the violets (which was folly) away with him. But when he saw the forget-me-nots he changed his mind, and left them as he found them. His flowers had not found favor in her sight, it appeared! It was astonishing how much bitterness that trivial circumstance added to his feelings. He went out by the open window, relieved to get into the open air again, and went round and round the little garden, finding here and there play places of Tiny, where a broken toy or two, and some daisies threaded for a chain, betrayed her. And then it suddenly occurred to him that there were but two or three forget-me-nots, which might easily have fallen from Tiny's hot little hand, whereas there had been a large number gathered. What had been done with the rest? Had{146} they by any possibility been carried away? The thought came with a certain balm to his heart. He said Folly! to himself, but yet there was a consolation in the thought.

    He was seated on the rude little bench where Tiny had played, looking at her daisies, when he heard a step; and, looking through the hedge of lilac bushes which enclosed him, he saw to his great surprise Mr. Wradisley walking along the little terrace upon which the drawing-room windows opened. Mr. Wradisley could not be stealthy, that was impossible, but his step was subdued; and if anything could have made his look furtive, as if he were afraid of being seen, that would have been his aspect. He walked up and down the little terrace once or twice, and then he went in softly by the open window. In another moment he reappeared. He was carefully straightening out in his hands the limp forget-me-nots which had fallen from the table to the carpet out (no doubt) of Tiny's little hot hands. Mr. Wradisley took out a delicate pocket-book bound in morocco, and edged with silver, and with the greatest{147} care, as if they had been the most rare specimens, arranged in it the very limp and faded flowers. Then he placed the book in his breast-pocket, and turned away. Bertram, in the little damp arbor, laid himself upon the bench to suppress the tempest of laughter which tore him in two. It was more like a convulsion than a fit of merriment, for laughter is a tragic expression sometimes, and it came to an end very abruptly in something not unlike a groan. Mr. Wradisley was already at some distance, but he stopped involuntarily at the sound of this groan, and looked back, but seeing nothing to account for it, walked on again at his usual dignified pace, carrying Tiny's little muddy, draggled forget-me-nots over his heart.

    It was not till some time after that Bertram followed him up to the hall. He had neither taken Nelly's violets nor Tiny's daisies, though he had looked at them both with feelings which half longed for and half despised such poor tokens of the two who had fled from him. The thought of poor Mr. Wradisley's mistake gave him again and again{148} a spasm of inaudible laughter as he went along the winding ways after him. After all, was it not a willful mistake, a piece of false sentiment altogether? for the man might have remembered, he said to himself, that Nelly wore violets, autumn violets, and not forget-me-nots. When he got to the house, Bertram found, as he had expected, a telegram summoning him to instant departure. He had taken means to have it sent when he passed through the village. And the same afternoon went away, offering many regrets for the shortness of his visit.

    “Three daysa poor sort of Saturday to Monday affair,” said Mrs. Wradisley. “You must come again and give us the rest that is owing to us.”

    “It is just my beastly luck,” Bertram said.

    As for Lucy, she tried to throw a great deal of meaning into her eyes as she bade him good-by; but Bertram did not in the least understand what the meaning was. He had an uncomfortable feeling for the moment, as if it might be that Lucy's heart had been{149} touched, unluckily, as her brother's had been; but grew hot all over with shame, looking again at her innocent, intent face though what was in it, it was not given to him to read. What Lucy would have said had she dared would have been, “Oh, Mr. Bertram, go home to your wife and live happy ever after!” but this of course she had no right to say. Ralph, however, the downright, whom no one suspected of tact or delicacy, said something like it as he walked with his friend to the station. Or rather it was at the very last moment as he shook hands through the window of the railway carriage.

    “Good-by, Bertram,” he said; “I'd hunt up Mrs. Bertram and make it up, if I were you. Things like that can't go on forever, don't you know.”

    “There's something in what you say, Wradisley,” Bertram replied.

    The End
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