Mary Braddon.

Mount Royal: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3

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His travels for the most part had been in wild lonely regions, but even in the short intervals that he had spent in cities he had shunned all intellectual amusements. He had heard neither concerts nor lectures, and had only affected the lowest forms of dramatic art. Most of his nights had been spent in bar-rooms or groceries, playing faro, monte, poker, euchre, and falling in pleasantly with whatever might be the most popular form of gambling in that particular city.

And now he had come back to Mount Royal, having sown his wild oats, and improved himself mentally and physically, as it was supposed by the outside world, by extensive travel; and he was henceforward to reign in his father's place, a popular country gentleman, honourable and honoured, useful in his generation, a friend to rich and poor.

Nobody had any cause for complaint against him during the first few weeks after his return. If his manners were rough and coarse, his language larded with American slang, his conduct was unobjectionable. He was affectionate to his mother, attentive in his free and easy way to Christabel, civil to the old servants, and friendly to old friends. He made considerable alterations in the stables, bought and sold and swopped horses, engaged new underlings, acted in all out-of-door arrangements as if the place were entirely his own, albeit his mother's life-interest in the estate gave her the custody of everything. But his mother was too full of gladness at his return to object to anything that he did. She opened her purse-strings freely, although his tour had been a costly business. Her income had accumulated in the less expensive period of his boyhood, and she could afford to indulge his fancies.

He went about with Major Bree, looking up old acquaintances, riding over every acre of the estate – lands which stretched far away towards Launceston on one side, towards Bodmin on the other. He held forth largely to the Major on the pettiness and narrowness of an English landscape as compared with that vast continent in which the rivers are as seas and the forests rank and gloomy wildernesses reaching to the trackless and unknown. Sometimes Christabel was their companion in these long rides, mounted on the thoroughbred which Mrs. Tregonell gave her on that last too-happy birthday. The long rides in the sweet soft April air brought health and brightness back to her pale cheeks. She was so anxious to look well and happy for her aunt's sake, to cheer the widow's fading life; but, oh! the unutterable sadness of that ever-present thought of the aftertime, that unanswerable question as to what was to become of her own empty days when this dear friend was gone.

Happy as Leonard seemed at Mount Royal in the society of his mother and his cousin, he did not forego his idea of a month or so in London. He went up to town soon after Easter, took rooms at an hotel near the Haymarket, and gave himself up to a round of metropolitan pleasures under the guidance of Captain Vandeleur, who had made the initiation of provincial and inexperienced youth a kind of profession.

He had a neat way of finding out exactly how much money a young man had to dispose of, present or contingent, and put him through it in the quickest possible time and at the pleasantest pace; but he knew by experience that Leonard had his own ideas about money, and was as keen as experience itself. He would pay the current rate for his pleasures, and no more; and he had a prudential horror of Jews, post-obits, and all engagements likely to damage his future enjoyment of his estate. He was fond of play, but he did not go in the way of losing large sums – "ponies" not "monkies" were his favourite animals – and he did not care about playing against his chosen friend.

"I like to have you on my side, Poker," he said amiably, when the captain proposed a devilled bone and a hand at ?cart? after the play. "You're a good deal too clever for a comfortable antagonist. You play ?cart? with your other young friends, Poker, and I'll be your partner at whist."

Captain Vandeleur, who by this time was tolerably familiar with the workings of his friend's mind, never again suggested those quiet encounters of skill which must inevitably have resulted to his advantage, had Leonard been weak enough to accept the challenge. To have pressed the question would have been to avow himself a sharper. He had won money from his friend at blind hookey; but then at blind hookey all men are equal – and Leonard had accepted the decree of fate; but he was not the kind of man to let another man get the better of him in a series of transactions. He was not brilliant, but he was shrewd and keen, and had long ago made up his mind to get fair value for his money. If he allowed Jack Vandeleur to travel at his expense, or dine and drink daily at his hotel, it was not because Leonard was weakly generous, but because Jack's company was worth the money. He would not have paid for a pint of wine for a man who was dull, or a bore. At Mount Royal, of course, he was obliged now and then to entertain bores. It was an incident in his position as a leading man in the county – but here in London he was free to please himself, and to give the cold shoulder to uncongenial acquaintance.

Gay as town was, Mr. Tregonell soon tired of it upon this particular occasion. After Epsom and Ascot his enjoyment began to wane. He had made a round of the theatres – he had dined and supped, and played a good many nights at those clubs which he and his friends most affected. He had spent three evenings watching a great billiard match, and he found that his thoughts went back to Mount Royal, and to those he had left there – to Christabel, who had been very kind and sweet to him since his home-coming; who had done much to make home delightful to him – riding with him, playing and singing to him, playing billiards with him, listening to his stories of travel – interested or seeming interested, in every detail of that wild free life. Leonard did not know that Christabel had done all this for her aunt's sake, in the endeavour to keep the prodigal at home, knowing how the mother's peace and gladness depended on the conduct of her son.

And now, in the midst of London dissipations, Leonard yearned for that girlish companionship. It was dull enough, no doubt, that calm and domestic life under the old roof-tree; but it had been pleasant to him, and he had not wearied of it half so quickly as of this fret and fume, and wear and tear of London amusements. Leonard began to think that his natural bent was towards domesticity, and that, as Belle's husband – there could be no doubt that she would accept him when the time came for asking her – he would shine as a very estimable character, just as his father had shone before him. He had questioned his mother searchingly as to Belle's engagement to Mr. Angus Hamleigh, and was inclined to be retrospectively jealous, and to hate that unknown rival with a fierce hatred; nor did he fail to blame his mother for her folly in bringing such a man to Mount Royal.

"How could I suppose that Belle would fall in love with him?" asked Mrs. Tregonell, meekly. "I knew how attached she was to you."

"Attached? yes; but that kind of attachment means so little. She had known me all her life. I was nobody in her estimation – no more than the chairs and tables – and this man was a novelty; and again, what has a girl to do in such an out-of-the-way place as this but fall in love with the first comer; it is almost the only amusement open to her. You ought to have known better than to have invited that fellow here, mother; you knew that I meant to marry Belle. You ought to have guarded her for me – kept off dangerous rivals. Instead of that you must needs go out of your way to get that fellow here."

"You ought to have come home sooner, Leonard."

"That's nonsense. I was enjoying my life where I was. How could I suppose you would be such a fool?"

"Don't say such hard things, Leonard. Think how lonely my life was. The invitation to Mr. Hamleigh was not a new idea; I had asked him half a dozen times before. I wanted to see him and know him for his father's sake."

"His father's sake! – a man whom you loved better than ever you loved my father, I dare say."

"No, Leonard, that is not true."

"You think not, perhaps, now my father is dead; but I dare say while he was alive you were always regretting that other man. Nothing exalts a man so much in a woman's mind as his dying. Look at the affection of widows as compared with that of wives."

Mrs. Tregonell strove her hardest to convince her son that his cousin's affections were now free – that it was his business to win her heart: but Leonard complained that his mother had spoiled his chances – that all the freshness of Christabel's feelings must have been worn off in an engagement that had lasted nearly a year.

"She'll have me fast enough, I daresay," he said, with his easy, confident air – that calm masculine consciousness of superiority, as of one who talks of an altogether inferior creature; "all the faster, perhaps, on account of having made a fiasco of her first engagement. A girl doesn't like to be pointed at as jilt or jilted. But I shall always feel uncomfortable about this fellow, Hamleigh. I shall never be able quite to believe in my wife."

"Leonard, how can you talk like that, you who know Christabel's high principles."

"Yes, but I wanted to be sure that she had never cared for any one but me; and you have spoiled my chances of that."

He stayed little more than a month in London, going back to Mount Royal soon after Ascot, and while the June roses were still in their glory. Brief as his absence had been, even his careless eye could see that his mother had changed for the worse since their parting. The hollow cheek had grown hollower, the languid eye more languid, the hand that clung so fondly to his broad, brown palm, was thinner, and more waxen of hue.

His mother welcomed him with warmest love.

"My dearest one," she said, tenderly, "this is an unexpected delight. It is so good of you to come back to me so soon. I want to have you with me, dear, as much as possible – now."

"Why, mother?" he asked, kindly, for a dull pain in his breast seemed to answer to these words of hers.

"Because I do not think it will be for long. I am very weak, dear. Life seems to be slipping away from me; but there is no pain, no terror. I feel as if I were being gently carried along a slow gliding stream to some sheltered haven, which I can picture to myself, although I have never seen it. I have only one care, Leonard, one anxiety, and that is for your future happiness. I want your life to be full of joy, dearest, and I want it to be a good life, like your father's."

"Yes, he was a good old buffer, wasn't he?" said Leonard. "Everybody about here speaks well of him; but then, I daresay that's because he had plenty of money, and wasn't afraid to spend it, and was an easy master, and all that sort of thing, don't you know. That's a kind of goodness which isn't very difficult for a man to practise."

"Your father was a Christian, Leonard – a sound, practical, Christian, and he did his duty in every phase of life," answered the widow, half proudly, half reproachfully.

"No doubt. All I say is, that it's uncommonly easy to be a Christian under such circumstances."

"Your circumstances will be as easy, I trust, Leonard, and your surroundings no less happy, if you win your cousin for your wife. And I feel sure you will win her. Ask her soon, dear – ask her very soon – that I may see you married to her before I die."

"You think she'll say yes, if I do? I don't want to precipitate matters, and get snubbed for my pains."

"I think she will say yes. She must know how my heart is set upon this marriage. It has been the dream of my life."

Despite his self-assurance – his fixed opinion as to his own personal and social value – Leonard Tregonell hesitated a little at asking that question which must certainly be one of the most solemn inquiries of a man's life. His cousin had been all kindness and sweetness to him since his return; yet in his inmost heart he knew that her regard for him was at best of a calm, cousinly quality. He knew this, but he told himself that if she were only willing to accept him as her husband, the rest must follow. It would be his business to see that she was a good wife, and in time she would grow fonder of him, no doubt. He meant to be an indulgent husband. He would be very proud of her beauty, grace, accomplishments. There was no man among his acquaintance who could boast of such a charming wife. She should have her own way in everything: of course, so long as her way did not run counter to his. She would be mistress of one of the finest places in Cornwall, the house in which she had been reared, and which she loved with that foolish affection which cats, women, and other inferior animals feel for familiar habitations. Altogether, as Mr. Tregonell told himself, in his simple and expressive language, she would have a very good time, and it would be hard lines if she were not grateful, and did not take kindly to him. Yet he hesitated considerably before putting the crucial question; and at last took the leap hurriedly, and not too judiciously, one lovely June morning, when he and Christabel had gone for a long ride alone. They were not in the habit of riding alone, and Major Bree was to have been their companion upon this particular morning, but he had sent at the last moment to excuse himself, on account of a touch of sciatica. They rode early, leaving Mount Royal soon after eight, so as to escape the meridian sun. The world was still fresh and dewy as they rode slowly up the hill, and then down again into the lanes leading towards Camelford; and there was that exquisite feeling of purity in the atmosphere which wears off as the day grows older.

"My mother is looking rather seedy, Belle, don't you think," he began.

"She is looking very ill, Leonard. She has been ill for a long time. God grant we may keep her with us a few years yet, but I am full of fear about her. I go to her room every morning with an aching heart, dreading what the night may have brought. Thank God, you came home when you did. It would have been cruel to stay away longer."

"That's very good in you, Belle – uncommonly good – to talk about cruelty, when you must know that it was your fault I stayed away so long."

"My fault? What had I to do with it?"

"Everything. I should have been home a year and a half ago – home last Christmas twelvemonth. I had made all my plans with that intention, for I was slightly home-sick in those days – didn't relish the idea of three thousand miles of everlasting wet between me and those I loved – and I was coming across the Big Drink as fast as a Cunard could bring me, when I got mother's letter telling me of your engagement. Then I coiled up, and made up my mind to stay in America till I'd done some big licks in the sporting line."

"Why should that have influenced you?" Christabel asked, coldly.

"Why? Confound it! Belle, you know that without asking. You must know that it wouldn't be over-pleasant for me to be living at Mount Royal while you and your lover were spooning about the place. You don't suppose I could quite have stomached that, do you – to see another man making love to the girl I always meant to marry? – for you know, Belle, I always did mean it. When you were in pinafores I made up my mind that you were the future Mrs. Tregonell."

"You did me a great honour," said Belle, with an icy smile, "and I suppose I ought to be very proud to hear it – now. Perhaps, if you had told me your intention while I was in pinafores I might have grown up with a due appreciation of your goodness. But you see, as you never said anything about it, my life took another bent."

"Don't chaff, Belle," exclaimed Leonard, "I'm in earnest. I was hideously savage when I heard that you had got yourself engaged to a man whom you'd only known a week or two – a man who had led a racketty life in London and Paris – "

"Stop," cried Christabel, turning upon him with flashing eyes, "I forbid you to speak of him. What right have you to mention his name to me? I have suffered enough, but that is an impertinence I will not endure. If you are going to say another word about him I'll ride back to Mount Royal as fast as my horse can carry me."

"And get spilt on the way. Why, what a spitfire you are, Belle. I had no idea there was such a spice of the devil in you," said Leonard, somewhat abashed by this rebuff. "Well I'll hold my tongue about him in future. I'd much rather talk about you and me, and our prospects. What is to become of you, Belle, when the poor mother goes? You and the doctor have both made up your minds that she's not long for this world. For my own part, I'm not such a croaker, and I've known many a creaking door hanging a precious long time on its hinges. Still, it's well to be prepared for the worst. Where is your life to be spent, Belle, when the mater has sent in her checks?"

"Heaven knows," answered Christabel, tears welling up in her eyes, as she turned her head from the questioner. "My life will be little worth living when she is gone – but I daresay I shall go on living, all the same. Sorrow takes such a long time to kill any one. I suppose Jessie and I will go on the Continent, and travel from place to place, trying to forget the old dear life among new scenes and new people."

"And nicely you will get yourself talked about," said Leonard, with that unhesitating brutality which his friends called frankness – "a young and handsome woman, without any male relative, wandering about the Continent."

"I shall have Jessie."

"A paid companion – a vast protection she would be to you – about as much as a Pomeranian dog, or a poll parrot."

"Then I can stay in England," answered Christabel, indifferently. "It will matter very little where I live."

"Come, Belle," said Leonard, in a friendly, comfortable tone, laying his broad strong hand on her horse's neck, as they rode slowly side by side up the narrow road, between hedges filled with honeysuckle and eglantine, "this is flying in the face of Providence, which has made you young and handsome, and an heiress, in order that you might get the most out of life. Is a young woman's life to come to an end all at once because an elderly woman dies? That's rank nonsense. That's the kind of way widows talk in their first edition of crape and caps. But they don't mean it, my dear; or, say they think they mean it, they never hold by it. That kind of widow is always a wife again before the second year of her widowhood is over. And to hear you – not quite one-and-twenty, and as fit as a fid – in the very zenith of your beauty," said Leonard, hastily correcting the horsey turn of his compliment, – "to hear you talk in that despairing way is too provoking. Come, Belle, be rational. Why should you go wandering about Switzerland and Italy with a shrewish little old maid like Jessie Bridgeman – when – when you can stay at Mount Royal and be its mistress. I always meant you to be my wife, Belle, and I still mean it – in spite of bygones."

"You are very good – very forgiving," said Christabel, with most irritating placidity, "but unfortunately I never meant to be your wife then – and I don't mean it now."

"In plain words, you reject me?"

"If you intend this for an offer, most decidedly," answered Christabel, as firm as a rock. "Come, Leonard, don't look so angry; let us be friends and cousins – almost brother and sister – as we have been in all the years that are gone. Let us unite in the endeavour to make your dear mother's life happy – so happy, that she may grow strong and well again – restored by perfect freedom from care. If you and I were to quarrel she would be miserable. We must be good friends always – if it were only for her sake."

"That's all very well, Christabel, but a man's feelings are not so entirely within his control as you seem to suppose. Do you think I shall ever forget how you threw me over for a fellow you had only known a week or so – and now, when I tell you how, from my boyhood, I have relied upon your being my wife – always kept you in my mind as the one only woman who was to bear my name, and sit at the head of my table, you coolly inform me that it can never be? You would rather go wandering about the world with a hired companion – "

"Jessie is not a hired companion – she is my very dear friend."

"You choose to call her so – but she came to Mount Royal in answer to an advertisement, and my mother pays her wages, just like the housemaids. You would rather roam about with Jessie Bridgeman, getting yourself talked about at every table d'h?te in Europe – a prey for every Captain Deuceace, or Loosefish, on the Continent – than you would be my wife, and mistress of Mount Royal."

"Because nearly a year ago I made up my mind never to be any man's wife, Leonard," answered Christabel, gravely. "I should hate myself if I were to depart from that resolve."

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