Saturday, 30 May 2015

At a Month's End: part 1

As a follow-up to Bertha Thomas: bibliography, I decided to rescue one of her less findable stories from archive limbo: At a Month's End: leaves from the diary of a man of the time, told in three parts in London Society magazine in 1887.

I chose it because it's of local interest: another work by Bertha Thomas with a Devon setting, and even more specifically, the South Hams: its fictional village of Conington (near "Dartcombe") can't be far from the "Orestone" in her 1890 novel The House on the Scar: A Tale of South Devon. (whose hero and heroine both went to "Bexeter" art school). At a Month's End also mentions Exeter, and even the Western Morning News. I strongly suspect that Bertha Thomas had some close connection with South Devon at some time in her life, though such biographical details I can find don't show up anything obvious.

London Society was a monthly periodical billed as publishing "light and amusing literature for the hours of relaxation", but I'm not sure its self-description is accurate. It had already serialised Bertha Thomas's 1878 novel Cressida, the saga of the many relationships of a clergyman's daughter, ending in an unsatisfactory marriage and she and her husband's double death. And At a Month's End is a very bitter-sweet story of a novelist's affair with an insolvent ex-mariner's over-protected and fey (if not unstable) niece.

Anyhow, here's part 1. The text, being from 1887 and its author dead since 1918, is undoubtedly out of copyright. Full credit, however, to Google as source of the scan I transcribed it from.


LONDON SOCIETY
A Monthly Magazine of light and amusing literature for the hours of relaxation.
London, F. V. White and Co.,31 Southampton Street, Strand, W.C.
Volume 52, 1887
At a Month’s End
pages 307, 452, 564

AT A MONTH’S END
Leaves from the diary of a man of the time.
A story in three parts.
By Bertha Thomas,
Author of “The Violin Player,” “Proud Maisie,” etc., etc.

PART I
CHAPTER 1
A chance acquaintance

DARTCOMBE, Devon, June 19,1880. "For Sale—part of the, library of the late Dr. Lister, comprising many scarce works, valuable editions, &c. Apply by letter to Captain Lister, Conington Court."
        Two days ago the above notice caught my eye in the corner of the local paper. Though I have put off "Lanerton Lee " the author whilst rusticating in this remote nook, the book-fancier's mania still has hold of Hubert Lane the private individual. Every book-fancier has heard of Dr. Lister's library, and heard that of it which induced me to write to Captain Lister at once. I received a courteous reply, inviting me to come over this morning and inspect the books at leisure. "Be so good," thus ran the P.S., "as not to speak openly here of the sale."
        From Dartcombe to Conington was a measureless drive, through the beautiful monotony of South Devon. Miles upon miles of steep narrow lanes, with high untrimmed hedges, full of dogwood and spindle berries, ivy-mantled elms and sycamores behind, and then field upon field to infinity, but never a human habitation. Quite suddenly Conington village cropped out—a dozen cottages and a toy church, scattered in a hollow, looking as though they had been dropped there by accident and forgotten. Conington Court, a strikingly picturesque stone-gabled building, faced me, standing at a stone's throw from the road, across a strip of lawn planted with shrubs and fenced off by a light iron railing. The driver stopped before a wicket gate. I walked up, admiring the singular, irregular frontage, the broken line of buttressed walls, fantastic variety in the shape of the windows, the ivy-grown turrets, with embattled parapet, and machicolations over a large bricked-up archway, pierced by a small door, in old Gothic fashion.
        I rang, and the door swung open. Stepping inside, I stopped short, taken aback^at a jarring surprise.
        For I stood in a ruin. The tine stone front is a mere screen for the remains of what was once a castellated mansion. But the screen is so well preserved as in no degree to prepare you for the dilapidation that lies behind it. Skeleton walls, fallen, halfburied arches, roofless chambers, crumbling turrets overlaid with a century of ivy-growth. Such is Conington Court.
        An old crone, who is lodged in some habitable corner of the place, which she shows to sight-seers, hobbled forward, key in hand, curtseying.
        "Captain Lister," said I, mystified, "where does he live?"
        She pointed to a plain stuccoed dwelling-house I had overlooked, visible through the trees behind the ruin, and explained.
        Conington Court, an old family possession of the Listers, has for half a century been as I saw it to-day, abandoned to owls and bats and stray tourists. The villa adjacent, formerly the bailiffs house, has been let to Captain Lister for the last fifteen years by the head of the family, his cousin. She piloted me through the ruins to a gate in an old wall communicating with the villa garden. I had turned for another look at the picturesque scene. High aloft, through the loop-hole of a turret, fluttered something white. The housekeeper followed my glance.
        "That will be one of the young ladies," she said.
        "Young ladies here ?" I asked, with mixed feelings. I had bargained only for old books.
        "Five Miss Listers and Miss Ella," was her disconcerting reply.
The plain-looking villa proved the picture of lavish comfort and elegance within. Captain and Mrs. Lister received me with frank hospitality, and in ten minutes we were on e isy terms. He is one of those affable, gentlemanly beings whom you get to know wonderfully well in half-an-hour, and wonderfully little better though you know them for years. The way was agreeably smoothed for my errand.
        He told me how long years ago his great-uncle's library had come into his—professedly unworthy—hands. He knows little about books—cares less, and " circumstances," as he puts it, now make of the sale a pressing necessity. His sweet, sympatheticlooking wife is clearly not the presence in which secrecy is enjoined.
        I found the famous library in a deplorable state of disorder and neglect. A glance showed me that examination here would take time. The captain courteously left me by-and-by to pursue my researches alone. It was as well. I was brimming over with indignation at what I saw. Trash and treasures jumbled indisgriminately together. Great Heaven, what sacrilege! Old Ollendorff grammars, nursery rhyme books, cheap issues of modern novels (including two or three of my own), side by side with original editions of "Paradise Lost," of "The Faerie Queene," of Gower and Chaucer, rare manuscripts and Elzevirs. Here and there the covers, detached, had got mixed, and I found "Piers Plowman's Vision" encasing an old " Quarterly Review," and a Caxton-printed " Confessio Amantis" within the binding of my last-published romance! In this maze I had got no further than the conviction that my host has here a more valuable possession than he is aware of, when I was summoned to lunch.
        Captain and Mrs. Lister are such a young-looking couple that the sight of their eight children, two of them grown up, impressed me with surprise. Not otherwise profoundly. The Miss Listers are like blurred and unflattering replicas of their mother—a pretty person. They are irreverently nicknamed by their voung brothers, "Elizabeth, Elspeth, Bet, Betsy, and Bess!"
        "Is there a ninth olive branch?" I wondered, as we seemed to be waiting for somebody.
        "Where's Ella ?" inquired the captain. A chorus responded:
        "Up in the turret. She's been there all the morning."
        "Call her, Jack," said his father to the eldest boy.
        "She don't like to be disturbed when she's reading up there," Jack objected stoutly, and effectually, for a pause ensued.
        "You go, mamma," suggested a Miss Lister; " she won't mind you."
        The French windows were open. Mrs. Lister stepped out on the lawn and called " Ella!" The white thing up aloft fluttered, a tail young lady rose abruptly, walked along the top of the wall with surprising steadiness of nerve, and came to join the party. "Miss Lister, my niece," said the captain, introducing us. She bowed with a silent impatience of manner, as if I somehow were to blame for her unpunctuality.
        "Miss Lister, my niece," must be a handsome girl when she is in a good temper. That was not to-day. Still, not to select her for notice among her cousins would be impossible. Like an antelope in a herd of kine, a tiger-lily in a buttercup field, she stands out from the rest. She has the stock-in-trade of a professional beauty, and a patent contempt for it. Richly shaded tints of golden brown blend in her abundant hair; her bright dark blue eyes, splendid eyebrows, milk-and-red complexion, full, curled, clearly moulded lips, would strike notice even in a London ball-room. Even, indeed! Such a wealth of natural, healthful colouring bears no transplantation from the country. And yet, plain and ill-dressed though " Elizabeth, Elspeth," and sisters are, there is more of instinctive feminine grace and gentle charm about the plainest of them than in their handsome cousin. At least their countenances are agreeable. Hers plainly bespeaks a pride, perhaps becoming in some Muscovite mistress of a thousand souls, but misplaced in Miss Ella Lister, the impecunious ward of a ruined ex-captain in the army—too proud to be vain of her beauty, or to care to appear to advantage.
        Mistress of Conington Court and the souls that are therein she undoubtedly is, and by common consent. This I learnt during lunch. They cannot so much as order the carriage or alter the dinner hour without referring to her. She is an interesting study of the natural tyranny exercised by a strong will and superior practical ability. Her remarks show her to be sensible and acute, but impatient of the slower intelligence and vacillation of those she lives with. They seem delighted for her to save them the trouble and responsibility of making up their minds.
    After lunch I was reinstalled in the library. The window was imperceptibly ajar, and presently, from the lawn beneath, the low and imperious voice of "Miss Lister, my niece," caught my ear.
        "Jack!"
        "Well," Ella?"
        "Who is he?"
        "Some fellow who wants to have a look at the library." "Uncle allows it?"
        "Rather! He's been rummaging there hours already." "Uncle is much too careless about letting in strangers. Anybody has only to ask, like this Mr. Lane—he knows nothing about him—who he is."
        "How should he ?" asked Jack obtusely.
        "He leaves them alone—keeps no watch. I believe some of the books are very valuable; a dishonest dealer or collector— why, a common swindler—might get in, passing himself off for a gentleman."
        "Oh, gemini, what a lark! Walk off with his pockets stuffed!" A good joke, the idea, in Jack's opinion. Not so for Miss Ella.
        "I shall tell uncle what I think—that is, if he doesn't wish to have his books tampered with—perhaps stolen."
        "Insolent little puss!" thought I, half incensed, half amused, as the voices were lost in the distance. I was soon re-absorbed in my researches; every ten minutes I came upon some fresh "find," perdu in a litter of tattered rubbish. I was hard at work when at five the captain came in to report progress. My day's work, I confessed, had shown me, in the first place, that a proper investigation, with the sifting it involved, would occupy a week at least. He caught at my hints concerning the value of the collection with an eagerness that surprised me. Pressed for ray estimate, I named two thousand pounds as a rough guess, rather under than over the market worth of his possession.
        "Two thousand!" he repeated,with sudden,undisguised elation. "Are you serious, Mr. Lane?" I named two London firms, either of which, I could vouch, would readily bid that amount. The news brought an absolute gaiety into his countenance. He saw what I was thinking, and rejoined:
        "Ah, you don't understand, Mr. Lane, how that sum could be of vital consequence to a person in my position. You take me for a rich man. Well, really, now and then, when I look round me, I can hardly persuade myself I am not."
        "Then my mistake, if such it were," I answered, "was natural, inevitable, in a stranger."
        "Perfectly!" He drew a long breath. "Mr. Lane, I am deeply indebted to you. But for your timely hint I should have let the collection go for a song to a rascally country dealer, who presumed on my ignorance to try and cheat me out of fifteen hundred pounds. How can I repay you?"
        "Easily !"—the opportunity was irresistible. He looked up, and I told him:
        "By allowing me to complete my inspection and purchase some £200 or £300 worth for myself, at a fair valuation, before the whole goes into the market. I shall esteem it a favour."
        He caught at the idea, and invited me most hospitably to be their guest for the next week; he pressed me to accept, saying frankly:
        "It will be a favour to us; a visitor to enliven our solitude is a veritable godsend out here in the desert. Why, after all, one should dread the prospect of leaving such a hermitage I really don't know. Our children must gain by the exchange."
        "You are leaving Conington?" I inquired. He hesitated. The confidence had slipped out unawares. But Lister is the very man to confide his dead secrets to any stranger who may happen to take his fancy.
        "I am a ruined man," he said meditatively, "and have been for three years."
I should have felt concern had he shown any. Nothing seems to impress him very deeply, which is, perhaps, why he looks so little the worse for wear. Over a cigar he let me into further particulars, and an hour later I left with a pretty perfect knowledge of the private affairs of the gentleman who is to be my host for the coming week. His parting remark was a gentle reminder:
        "You are coming to make notes in the library, remember. My wife knows all, but the children, so far, nothing whatever.''
        Captain Lister's position is just that of old Conington Court. He has continued to present the same flourishing exterior to the world, but the shell is hollow. For years he has kept up the same old high standard of hospitality, elegance, luxury, charity, with less and less means to sustain it—living more and more above his income, borrowing at ruinous rates of interest, kept afloat by doles from relations, till a last luckless speculation brought things to direful extremity. A cousin, appealed to for pecuniary aid, had offered to extricate the captain, but, knowing his man, on condition that the bankrupt and his family should emigrate. A good appointment in New Zealand was promised to Captain Lister, who is anxious to go—easier there to start his household life again on a footing of economy than here, where his reputation and habits, put together with his disposition, made the thing next to impossible.
        But one debt, unowned to, fatally clogged his steps. His orphan niece Ella's little fortune of some £2,000, left in his trust, had, through no fault of his own, as he assured me, but the rascality of a financing agent, got involved in his losing speculations. She was now just of age, and he dreaded precipitating inquiry and exposure. The discovery that the proceeds of the library would enable him to pay what was due to his ward without asking for delay was a real weight off his mind.
        His folly has been unpardonable, but he seems so amiably unconscious of deserving blame that you forget it yourself in talking to him. His unreserve to myself, a stranger, whilst keeping his own family in the dark, is characteristic. I have promised to put him in communication with a firm of booksellers who will treat him liberally, and in return he is liberal of his courtesies. The week I am to spend with him will not be too long for the task I have set myself of reducing the treasure heap to the semblance of order, and making a rough list of the plums in the collection.

Conington Court, June 20.—On arriving here this morning, with bag and baggage, I saw signs that a family breeze had intervened. Miss Ella, no doubt, has protested against my intrusion, and her uncle, contrary to custom, has neither yielded nor given his reasons. She is too pretty for the rudeness of her manner to repel you merely, yet no prettiness can condone it. Her sentiments are undisguised. She ignores me, in look and speech. I see: I am an impudent interloper—here against her will and injunctions. The five Miss Listers are kindness itself—bring me tea, press me to come and play lawn tennis for a change, pilot me over the grounds and the ruins. Like their parents, they fraternize easily with chance acquaintance. Miss Ella sat up in the turret and read. I was but moderately flattered to discover that her companion was "Charmian," my first romance. For though unquestionably the most popular, it is the one of my novels least esteemed by myself; and admiration, from certain quarters, rather irritates than gratifies you. But hers suggested a playful experiment in revenge. The second volume I had seen on a shelf in the library. I removed it thence to the unlikeliest drawer.
        Late in the afternoon, enters Jack, commissioned to fetch it. He returns empty-handed and gets rated for stupidity. At length the young lady comes in person, with evident reluctance.
        Seated at the writing-table, I neither looked round nor offered my help as she searched one dusty shelf after another. When I thought she had hunted long enough to expiate her previous incivility, I relented, turned, and was going to speak, but she anticipated me, saying with a frank, childlike courtesy of tone that routed previous conceptions:
        "Have you by chance seen the second volume of this?" upholding Part I.
        "Somewhere, I think," said I, pretending to look, and pulling open three wrong drawers first, then the right one. "It is difficult," I added severely, as I handed her the book, " to find anything in this chaos—the priceless treasures collected with infinite pains by Dr. Lister tossed and tumbled together with modern rubbish!"
        "You like the old ones best ?" she said, with lofty disdain; much as if I had expressed         an eccentric preference for very old hats or gloves.
        "I am afraid so," I said with mock humility. "I like them extremely."
        "So did Dr. Lister, but he never touched one, except to dust it."
        "Cannot you understand the reverence it is possible for these white vellum-bound volumes to inspire? the horror all book lovers must experience on seeing them profanely thumbed or jostled?"
        "I suppose even old books were made to be read, not kept under a glass case, like stuffed birds."
        "It is certain few modern works will live long enough to merit such respectful treatment," said I, with as meaning a glance at "Charmian" as I could .throw—to signify "that trash for instance."
        "This?" she caught me up quickly. "What have you to say against it?"
        "Nothing," I replied with polite irony, "if it has the honour to please you."
        "You have an opinion, I suppose," impatiently. "Do you find it dull?"
        "1 find it unreal," I said. "The chief character—the chief incident"
        "Uncommon," she interrupted me; "but that is another thing. Would you call the oleander hawk-moth Jack caught yesterday in the garden yesterday unreal because it has never been taken in England more than once or twice?"
        "Practically so, since to all but a very few such a capture is an unfamiliar or unknown experience. Better keep to your cabbage butterflies and gamma moths—to homely reality"
        "To what is commonplace, third-rate, insignificant," she put in.
        "And above all," I concluded," beware of' high-falutin'; dreams leading you to despise what lies within your reach."
        "And why not, if it is despicable?"
        "Its worth depends upon how you turn it to account."
        "No, on the height of your standard. Should people be contented with what is mean and trite?"
        "They should accept from the outset the very narrow limits within which—with the rarest exceptions—their lots lie. Books" —with another look at "Charmian"—"that put people out of conceit with their actual life and possibilities have a great deal to answer for."
        "It has nothing to answer for," she said proudly, accepting the application to herself. "If it is a crime to desire the best, and to care for that only, even though "She stopped short suddenly, aware that I was watching her with some amusement, and that she had allowed herself to be drawn out, carried away by the heat of the argument. Brusquely she left the room.
        At dinner I made a third, with Captain and Mrs. Lister. The young people had tea, and only the eldest girl appeared in the drawing-room after dinner. The rest were out of doors: Mrs. Lister made their excuses—it was such a fine night, and then a nightingale—a phenomenon in Devonshire—was reported to have been heard singing yesterday in the ruins, where the eight truantf were now disporting themselves.
        "The old place looks wonderfully well by moonlight," remarked the captain. "I am a sad Philistine myself where the picturesque is concerned, and am subject to rheumatism besides. But if you are not afraid of damp"
        "And care for the nightingales," suggested his daughter.
    I am not musical, but accepted the nightingales.
        The summer night was magnificent indeed. Three brilliant planets shone out in a rare conjunction, to which I directed my companion's attention. She guided me across the garden to the gate communicating with the ruins. A fair, pale, slender girl, who—like Conington Court—looked wonderfully well by moonlight; and with just that insinuating gentleness of demeanour that launches you on the track of mild flirtation.
        "Wait," she whispered, as we stood inside the enclosure, under the sycamore's shade, with the grey tottering ivy-wreathed walls facing us in the gloom.
        Her name, though I must have heard it, I could not, cannot now, recall. She stood with her hand resting lightly within my arm. Was it the romantic background that compelled me to act up to it? There was a certain sentimentality in the situation— the moonlight creeping round the ruins, casting mysterious shadows, the fallen house, the falling family. Every art-student of human nature is apt to encourage his personal susceptibility to outward influences, though of the slightest.
        "Hush," said Mary—I will call her so. I had not spoken. A faint chirp came from the thicket. "Hark," she whispered, and we stood expectant of the ecstatic strain.
        Instead, the loud hooting of an owl in the turret overhead startled us out of our reverie. The wildest, most mournful of all founds of Nature. From the distant wood came the answering echo of its mate. The cry from the tower was repeated twice; then the bird from the wood flew over, hovered near, flapped its wings, and settled in the ivy overhead.
        A human laugh greeted it there. A tall white figure rose up on the turret—the scared bird fluttered away.
        "It's Ella!" said my companion. "Oh, Ella, child, don't!"
        The false owl had no wings, but winged feet, methought. Standing erect on the ledge of a high unparapeted wall, she laughed again at her cousin's cry of terror, ran along to where a flight of shaky steps led down below, and joined her boy cousins in another part of the ruin.
        "How dangerous," I remarked.
        "She likes to frighten us," sighed Mary," but she never comes to harm."
        The nightingale remained obstinately mute. We soon discovered that the grass was dripping, and went indoors to hot coffee. Presently Ella reappeared, looking wild and distant, but admirably handsome—her eyes glistening like jewels, her cheeks aglow. As a piece of furniture nothing can be finer. As Mary smilingly brought me a cup of coffee I chanced to look at her
cousin. I caught a contemptuous glance Upon my soul, such a one as a young Queen Eleanor might throw upon Rosamund and the King, first suspected of weakness in that quarter. A passing
flash of light, betraying well, after all, what is more natural? My young lady is sovereign at home, and claims to monopolize the consideration of women and the attentions of men.
        A stranger, looking in on us this evening, would have seen a ttmily circle as untroubled, as firmly established, on the face of it, «any in the land. Captain Lister, pleasant and debonnaire, as light-hearted as though he had five thousand a year coming in from the Funds—his wife, placidity in person; his children, untroubled by the least suspicion, as thoughtless for the moment M their household pets, the kittens and canaries.

Conington Court, June 25.—Everything here is strange and contradictory; I have constantly to remind myself that things are the reverse of what they seem. Here is Captain Lister, nominally well-to-do country squire, a pauper in point of fact, accounted a gentleman of honour, yet preserved by the narrowest chance from a shameful expos√©; an old, happy, and seemingly stable home on the brink of a break-up. And a fireside queen whose kingdom nay go to pieces any moment. A few days have placed me on familiar terms with everybody. As with a visitor to settlers on a desert island, formalities may be skipped. I take long walks with the young people, who introduce me to the country round. The plus is extraordinarily lonely. Of the few neighbours some are persons of eccentric habits and reputation, whom nobody visits, the remainder old-fashioned couples or maiden ladies—no enlivening company for the girls and boys at Conington Court. But they make company for each other. Their development has been as free and easy as that of the ivy on the ruins. Seclusion and license, the regime of all others to give the forces of a wilful nature full play.
        Ella has seen fit to unbend to me after all. The contrast of her lively, agreeable ways, when she desires to please, with her normal brusquerie and proud reserve is certainly piquant, an unstudied effect. She appears satisfied by this time that I am no picker or stealer, with nefarious designs on her uncle's library. The conversation, when we walk out, a party of five and six, is mostly between her and myself, and on general topics; her cousins prefer listening. She has evidently thought a great deal; her ideas are fresh and naive, but she is absolutely impatient of contradiction, and even in the merest trifles repels as intolerable any sense of failure or defeat. She has the soul of a savage in the sheath of an English girl. The strangest compound of passion, intractability of impulse, with pride and an uncompromising temper of mind; interesting, but scarcely attractive, except as a study.
    I am fated to hear a good deal of my other self. I have seen no reason for announcing what no one here suspects, the identity of Hubert Lane with "Lanerton Lee," whose works they hold in a most exaggerated esteem. That one's fame should have penetrated to Conington is gratifying to vanity, of course; but I have not come to Devonshire to be lionized, but to snatch a holiday from the doubtful pleasures of notoriety. Every day I might fear to read in the Western Morning News, alongside with a puff of "Hop Bitters," a sale of shorthorns, and last night's charity concert at Exeter, "Mr. Hubert Lane (Lanerton Lee) is at Dartcombe, collecting material for a new novel," if, indeed, plot and personages be not given. The signal for an amateur to call at the hotel with a manuscript I am expected to read, approve and get accepted for a magazine, or for an old lady to pounce on me for a subscription. My own name is luckily too common to tell tales. As for the Listers, they are not even aware that "Lanerton Lee" is a pseudonym. And really they have placed me on such a pinnacle in their imagination that I would rather not break the illusion by forcing the stubborn fact on their notice that "Lanerton Lee" eats, drinks, sleeps, and talks about the weather like any other poor mortal of their acquaintance.
        Captain Lister is doing wrong in keeping the fact of his insolvency from his children. He believes, and has over-persuaded his wife, that it is kindest to spare them the blow as long as possible. The real truth is that he is afraid of his niece. Ashamed of himself, he dreads what she will say or think when she knows all. Lister is a wretched moral coward; still, when the cloud bursts, I pity him under the scathing comments, spoken or implied, of one member of his household. Her temperament and surroundings together have made of her a strange product. Her imagination has run riot, unchecked by the friction of experience; her strong will had its way till she feels its thwarting intolerable. Her over-exalted idea of what life has to give fore-dooms her to direful disappointment.

Dartcombe, June 30.—The murder is out, Lanerton Lee is unmasked; by mere accident the secret was told an hour or so before I took leave.
        This afternoon we met for tea out-of-doors, pic-nic fashion, among the ruins of old Conington Court. I joined the party late to-day, the last of my visit. On the very eve of concluding my researches I had come upon a pile of curious volumes and MSS. of value buried behind a mass of old newspapers in a cupboard, proving that my work was still incomplete. As I approached the tea-table I heard young voices, or rather Ella's young voice, holding forth to the rest. It ceased, and one of her cousins asked her:
        "When you rebuild Conington Court, shall you take away the ivy and leave none of those arches standing?"
        "What do you mean? I shall pull down nothing I can help. Every bit shall be repaired that can be, and the parts wanting must be added, just as they were to begin with."
        "And what shall you do with the villa ?" asked Jack.
        "I haven't decided," she said gravely. "It is ugly, but it would be hateful to destroy the place where one has always lived. Perhaps uncle will like to live on there. If not, you shall settle there with your wife."
        Here I showed myself through an archway. Ella's colour rose, she was vexed, aware somehow she must have been overheard.
        Said Miss Lister, who when a stranger's presence keeps her cousin in bounds rather enjoys teasing, " You find Ella at her old amusement of building castles in the air."
        "Is it your favourite one ?" I asked of the castle-builder.
        "Of course," she said. "What else should I care for so much?"
        "Well, I should pull down the villa," persisted Jack. "It's like the Royal Yacht Hotel at Dartcombe, and will look awful if Conington Court is restored."
        "I shall not pull it down," said Ella definitely, " nor take away a stick or a stone, nor cut down a tree. I want to know the place again as I remember it always."
        "Poor girl!" I was thinking. Unlike her cousins, who inherit their parents' volatility, she has taken deep root in her surroundings—her fibres have grown into them—her affections and associations belong here alone. The shock for her will be severe. I thoroughly understood at that moment how her uncle should recoil from the ordeal before him. Afraid of and used to submit to her, he feels their new relation will be a false one, and eminently disagreeable on several counts.
        Just then the man himself came hastening from the villa towards us with an animated, elated air and step, and holding an open letter in his hand. What was the pleasant news? What could the post have brought him except duns? He marched straight up to me and shook hands with me demonstratively, saying:
        "Mr. Lane, my wife and I have had a great surprise. We had no idea, no suspicion—how could we? It was hardly fair of you to keep us in the dark; still, I suppose it was our fault not to guess."
        At a glance I had recognized the writing of the letter he had been reading as that of an acquaintance, a common acquaintance it turned out, and there was an end of my incognito.
"Children," began the captain to his flock,seriously—ludicrously so to the subject of his harangue; "what would you think if I were to introduce you to a friend—I may say a literary idol in this household—whom we supposed ourselves to know only through his works, as all the world knows him, Lanerton Lee, but whom it has been our privilege to know as Mr. Hubert Lane?"
        The silent awe of the young people, then the low, long-drawn "Oh !" of the younger girls, such as rises from a crowd when a rocket bursts and descends in a glittering shower, was something to remember. The Listers, clearly, still retain that superstitious reverence for print and literary fame that now lingers only in remote districts. The boys remained mum; the elder girls shy and diffident. I glanced at Ella with a slight curiosity to see how she took it. She was dumb and still and her countenance told no tales. Captain Lister re-engaged me in conversation, for learning of my just-made discovery in the library he pressed me to stay on to investigate it. That was impossible. For many weeks to come, as I told him, my time was not my own, but when he suggested I should return for a few days in September I closed with the invitation. He said jokingly he should keep the library locked in the interval and I might keep the key if I liked. At this point he was summoned away; the tea party meantime had dispersed. Only Ella had not stirred; her expression as I turned towards her was so strangely disturbed and so singular that I asked her what was the matter.
        "Why did you not tell us who you were?" she asked rather huskily.
        "I see no compulsion to proclaim the fact of one's authorship, and every reason to refrain from the least appearance of blowing one's own trumpet. And in first forming acquaintance it is far better to be unsurrounded by a false halo of fame."
        "False ?" she repeated indignantly.
        "No such fame, for good or ill, is absolutely true. A man's writings, whatever their accounted worth, are no fair criterion of his own, and he may prefer that this should be judged on its own merits. For instance, one ought not to need brilliant literary credentials to show people competent to judge that one is neither a common swindler nor a dishonest dealer, nor even an unprincipled book collector."
        She reddened deeply and averted her face.
        "Let me assure you," I said with mock gravity, "that I have sacredly respected every leaf in your library. 1 don't speak of Dr. Lister's Caxtons and Elzevirs, which I engage have not been so reverently handled since his decease, but the Ollendorff grammars and almanacs and French exercise books. In winnowing the wheat from the chaff I have not so much as destroyed last year's ' Bradshaw.' Your uncle will have no cause to repent having generously taken me upon trust."
        I stopped, repentant myself, for she was sobbing violently, as from mixed excitement and mortification. Before I could add a word she rose hurriedly and went away, still shaken from head to foot with passionate, suppressed vexation.
        It was like a child's shame. I had had no sort of wish to distress her by my teasing speech, still less to make her hate me, as she does now to a certainty. When after dinner I took my departure, she did not come with the others to wish me good-bye.
        Poor child! A sad time for her is coming. It is cruel in her guardian to disguise it, and before leaving I presumed so far as to drop a plain hint to Captain Lister to that effect. He took it in good part. He is going to tell everybody everything without delay. When I return—some six or eight weeks hence—I shall find the whole household duly apprized of the facts carefully kept back hitherto. Considering that there is every prospect of their sailing for the Antipodes at Christmas, his resolution has come none too soon.

To be continued

Text transcribed from Google scan of London Society, Volume 52, 1887.
- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment