Mary Braddon.

Mount Royal: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3



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"Then I can only say that if half I've heard is true you ought to have known all about it."

"As how?"

"Because it's common club-talk that he flirted with your wife – was engaged to her – and was thrown off by her on account of his extremely disreputable antecedents. Your mother has the sole credit of the throwing off, by-the-by."

"You had better leave my mother's name and my wife's name out of your conversation. That's twenty-eight to me, Monty. Poker has spoiled a capital break by his d – d personality."

"I beg your pardon – Mrs. Tregonell is simply perfect, and there is no woman I more deeply honour. But still you must allow me to wonder that you ever let that man cross your threshold."

"You are welcome to go on wondering. It's a wholesome exercise for a sluggish brain."

"Game," exclaimed Mr. Montagu; and Leonard put his cue in the rack, and walked away, without another word to either of his guests.

"He's a dreadful bear," said little Monty, emptying the tankard; "but you oughtn't to have talked about the wife, Poker – that was bad form."

"Does he ever study good form when he talks of my people? He had no business to bring that fine gentleman here to flirt with my sister."

"But really now, don't you think your sister did her share of the flirting, and that she's rather an old hand at that kind of thing? I adore Dop and Mop, as I'm sure you know, and I only wish I were rich enough to back my opinion by marrying one of them – but I don't think our dear little Dopsy is the kind of girl to break her heart about any man – more especially a sentimental duffer with hollow cheeks and a hollow cough."

"Just the kind of man to interest a warm-hearted girl. No more claret! Well, I suppose we may as well go to roost."

CHAPTER XII
"AND TIME IS SETTING WI' ME, O."

Angus Hamleigh left the billiard players with the intention of going straight to his own room; but in the hall he encountered the Rector of Trevalga, who was just going away, very apologetic at having stayed so late, beguiled by the fascination of antiquarian talk. Christabel and Jessie had come out to the hall, to bid their old friends good-night, and thus it happened that Mr. Hamleigh went back to the drawing-room, and sat there talking till nearly midnight. They sat in front of the dying fire, talking as they had talked in days gone by – and their conversation grew sad and solemn as the hour wore on. Angus announced his intended departure, and Christabel had no word to say against his decision.

"We shall be very sorry to lose you," she said, sheltering her personality behind the plural pronoun, "but I think it is wise of you to waste no more time."

"I have not wasted an hour. It has been unspeakable happiness for me to be here – and I am more grateful than I can say to your husband for having brought me here – for having treated me with such frank cordiality. The time has come when I may speak very freely – yes – a man whose race is so nearly run need have no reserves of thought or feeling.

I think, Mrs. Tregonell, that you and Miss Bridgeman, who knows me almost as well as you do – "

"Better, perhaps," murmured Jessie, in a scarcely audible voice.

"Must both know that my life for the last four years has been one long regret – that all my days and hours have been steeped in the bitterness of remorse. I am not going now to dispute the justice of the sentence which spoiled my life and broke my heart. I submitted without question, because I knew that the decree was wise. I had no right to offer you the ruin of a life – "

"Do not speak of that," cried Christabel, with a stifled sob, "for pity's sake don't speak of the past: I cannot bear it."

"Then I will not say another word, except to tell you that your goodness to me in these latter days – your friendship, so frankly, so freely given – has steeped my soul in peace – has filled my mind with sweet memories which will sooth my hours of decline, when I am far from this dear house where I was once so happy. I wish I could leave some pleasant memory here when I am gone – I wish your boy had been old enough to remember me in the days to come, as one who loved him better than any one on earth could love him, after his father and mother."

Christabel answered no word. She sat with her hand before her eyes – tears streaming slowly down her cheeks – tears that were happily invisible in the faint light of the shaded lamps and the fading fire.

And then they went on to talk of life in the abstract – its difficulties – its problems – its consolations – and of death – and the dim world beyond – the unknown land of universal recompense, where the deep joys striven after here, and never attained, are to be ours in a purer and more spiritual form – where love shall no longer walk hand in hand with pain and sorrow, dogged by the dark spectre Death.

Illness and solitude had done much to exalt and spiritualize Angus Hamleigh's mind. The religion of dogma, the strict hard-and-fast creed which was the breath of life to Leonard's mother, had never been grappled with or accepted by him – but it was in his nature to be religious. Never at his worst had he sheltered his errors under the brazen front of paganism – never had he denied the beauty of a pure and perfect life, a simple childlike faith, heroic self-abnegating love of God and man. He had admired and honoured such virtue in others, and had been sorry that Nature had cast him in a lower mould. Then had come the sentence which told him that his days here were to be of the fewest, and, without conscious effort, his thoughts had taken a more serious cast. The great problem had come nearer home to him – and he had found its only solution to be hope – hope more or less vague and dim – more or less secure and steadfast – according to the temperament of the thinker. All metaphysical argument for or against – all theological teaching could push the thing no further. It seemed to him that it was the universal instinct of mankind to desire and hope for an imperishable life, purer, better, fairer than the life we know here – and that innate in every human breast there dwells capacity for immortality, and disbelief in extinction – and to this universal instinct he surrendered himself unreservedly, content to demand no stronger argument than that grand chapter of Corinthians which has consoled so many generations of mourners.

So now, speaking with these two women of the life to come – the fair, sweet, all-satisfying life after death – he breathed no word which the most orthodox churchman might not have approved. He spoke in the fulness of a faith which, based on instinct, and not on dogma, had ripened with the decline of all delight and interest in this lower life. He spoke as a man for whom earth's last moorings had been loosened, whose only hopes pointed skyward.

It was while he was talking thus, with an almost passionate earnestness, and yet wholly free from all earthly passion, that Mr. Tregonell entered the room and stood by the door, contemplating the group by the hearth. The spectacle was not pleasant to a man of intensely jealous temperament, a man who had been testing and proving the wife whom he could not completely trust, whom he loved grudgingly, with a savage half-angry love.

Christabel's face, dimly lighted by the lamp on the low table near her, was turned towards the speaker, the lips parted, the large blue eyes bright with emotion. Her hands were clasped upon the elbow of the chair, and her attitude was of one who listens to words of deepest, dearest meaning; while Angus Hamleigh sat a little way off with his eyes upon her face, his whole air and expression charged with feeling. To Leonard's mind all such earnestness, all sentiment of any kind, came under one category: it all meant love-making, more or less audacious, more or less hypocritical, dressed in modern phraseology, sophisticated, disguised, super-refined, fantastical, called one day ?stheticism and peacock's feathers, another day positivism, agnosticism, Swinburne-cum-Burne-Jones-ism, but always the same thing au fond, and meaning war to domestic peace. There sat Jessie Bridgeman, the dragon of prudery placed within call, but was any woman safer for the presence of a duenna? was it not in the nature of such people to look on simperingly while the poison cup was being quaffed, and to declare afterwards that they had supposed the mixture perfectly harmless? No doubt, Tristan and Iseult had somebody standing by to play propriety when they drank from the fatal goblet, and bound themselves for life in the meshes of an unhappy love. No, the mere fact of Miss Bridgeman's presence was no pledge of safety.

There was no guilt in Mrs. Tregonell's countenance, assuredly, when she looked up and saw her husband standing near the door, watchful, silent, with a pre-occupied air that was strange to him.

"What is the matter, Leonard?" she asked, for his manner implied that something was amiss.

"Nothing – I – I was wondering to find you up so late – that's all."

"The Rector and his wife stayed till eleven, and we have been sitting here talking. Mr. Hamleigh means to leave us to-morrow."

"Yes, I know," answered Leonard, curtly. "Oh, by the way," turning to Angus, "there is something I want to say to you before you go to bed; something about your journey to-morrow."

"I am quite at your service."

Instead of approaching the group by the fireplace, Leonard turned and left the room, leaving Mr. Hamleigh under the necessity of following him.

"Good-night," he said, shaking hands with Christabel. "I shall not say good-bye till to-morrow. I suppose I shall not have to leave Mount Royal till eleven o'clock."

"I think not."

"Good-night, Miss Bridgeman. I shall never forget how kind you have been to me."

She looked at him earnestly, but made no reply, and in the next instant he was gone.

"What can have happened?" asked Christabel anxiously. "I am sure there is something wrong. Leonard's manner was so strange."

"Perhaps he and his dear friends have been quarrelling," Jessie answered, carelessly. "I believe Captain Vandeleur breaks out into vindictive language, sometimes, after he has taken a little too much wine: Mop told me as much in her amiable candour. And I know the Captain's glass was filled very often at dinner, for I had the honour of sitting next him."

"I hope there is nothing really wrong," said Christabel; but she could not get rid of the sense of uneasiness to which Leonard's strange manner had given rise.

She went to her boy's nursery, as she did every night, before going to bed, and said her prayers beside his pillow. She had begun this one night when the child was ill, and had never missed a night since. That quiet recess in which the little one's cot stood was her oratory. Here, in the silence, broken only by the ticking of the clock or the fall of a cinder on the hearth, while the nurse slept near at hand, the mother prayed; and her prayers seemed to her sweeter and more efficacious here than in any other place. So soon as those childish lips could speak it would be her delight to teach her son to pray; and, in the meantime, her supplications went up to Heaven for him, from a heart that overflowed with motherly love. There had been one dismal interval of her life when she had loved no one – having really no one to love – secretly loathing her husband – not daring even to remember that other, once so fondly loved – and then, when her desolate heart seemed walled round with an icy barrier that divided it from all human feeling, God had given her this child, and lo! the ice had melted, and her re-awakened soul had kindled and glowed with warmth and gladness. It was not in Christabel's nature to love many things, or many people: rather was it natural to her to love one person intensely, as she had loved her adopted mother in her girlhood, as she had loved Angus Hamleigh in the bloom of her womanhood, as she loved her boy now.

She was leaving the child's room, after prayers and meditations that had been somewhat longer than usual, when she heard voices, and saw Mr. Tregonell and Mr. Hamleigh by the door of the room occupied by the latter, which was at the further end of the gallery.

"You understand my plan?" said Leonard.

"Perfectly."

"It prevents all trouble, don't you see."

"Yes, I believe it may," answered Angus, and without any word of good-night he opened his door and went into his room, while Leonard turned on his heel, and strolled to his own quarters.

"Was there anything amiss between you and Mr. Hamleigh, that you parted so coldly just now?" asked Christabel, presently, when her husband came from his dressing-room into the bedroom where she sat musing by the fire.

"What, aren't you gone to bed yet!" he exclaimed. "You seem to be possessed by a wakeful demon to-night."

"I have been in the boy's room. Was there anything amiss, Leonard?"

"You are monstrously anxious about it. No. What should there be amiss? You didn't expect to see us hugging each other like a couple of Frenchmen, did you?"

END OF VOL. II

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