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Title: The Lord of the Manor Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402571h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2014 Most recent update: Sep 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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TIME was when Castlerayne estates marched for miles along the Yorkshire coast. Not so long ago the Castleraynes were people of importance; indeed, the head of the House could claim that distinction now. On second thoughts, he did not so much make the claim as look upon it as a natural and indisputable right. As a matter of fact, the vast estates had been thrown into the crucible of change; they had gone as lands and fields will do under the sway of three generations of spendthrifts. The 'First Gentleman in Europe' had been a friend of the present owner's grandfather, and, after that, little explanation of the family fallen fortunes is needed.
The old castle to-day is a mass of ivy-clad, picturesque ruins, standing high on the seaboard and commanding inland one of the most exquisite prospects in the North. So far as the passer-by can judge, the grounds about the ruins are beautifully kept, whereat the would-be picnicker wonders and envies, for none of his class are ever admitted within the sacred precincts of what had once been a great feudal castle.
If you are bold enough to explore the rugged walls, or fortunate enough to get beyond the sunken dike where the moat used to run, you will be equally surprised. You will cross a brown trout-stream filled with great gold-and-white lily pads; you will see a quiet stretch of velvet lawn, with the grim ivy-clad walls of the fortress for a background. Behind the ruins is a sloping hill covered to the summit with larches and birches and rowans—a marvellous setting to the picture. And then you will note why the ruins are so carefully guarded; for, nestling amongst them, built from their very stones, and knit into their very frame, is a marvellously beautiful and picturesque house covered with creepers to the roof-ties. The house has every appearance of great antiquity; it has latticed panes in the mullioned windows, the upper halves of which are stained glass. There is something very romantic and charming in this refined house, protected by the frowning fortress beyond; something very cooling in the brown stream where the lily pads flourish. Then, if you are discreet, you will make a bolt of it, being perfectly satisfied why the general public are excluded so rigidly from Castlerayne Towers.
As to the house itself, it is pure Elizabethan, though as a matter of fact it is not more than a century old. All the same, it was built—stone and timber—from the remains of the older keep; every bit of panelling, every carved ceiling and cornice, had come from the parent place. The house, together with some four thousand acres of sour, poor land, is all that remains of the Castlerayne property.
But, poor as the land is, it is wonderfully beautiful and picturesque. It lies for the most part fringing the North Sea, a rolling prairie of short thymy grass and heather, with here and there deep dells filled with bracken and blackberry, sand-dunes, and green lawns the turf of which has not been disturbed for centuries. Here and there are deep pits, with banks of refuse at the sides—refuse now covered with heather—where once the tenants of the estate extracted small doles of plumbago. But the plumbago vanished with the rest of the family prosperity, so that to-day there is no sign of commerce there. As for the rest, the greater part of the estates was useless save as a living for a few hundred hardy sheep. Still, the prospect was wonderful, the air brisk and bracing, so that folks came from Hardborough in the summer-time and picnicked there. The bathing was splendid—far more alluring than at Hardborough, the great fashionable and residential watering-place some few miles down the coast. There were still greater and more prosperous towns within twenty miles, and there were people who avowed that Mr. Rayne Castlerayne had the making of a fortune if he would but transform the Towers estate into a watering-place. But nobody ever ventured to make that suggestion to Mr Castlerayne, for nobody had the necessary courage.
For the man's poverty was only exceeded by his pride. For eight hundred years there had been a Castlerayne more or less ruling over these parts. They had been warriors, divines, statesmen, robbers, in turn. Rayne Castlerayne never forgot that; the reflection warmed him on cold days, and kept him from worrying about his creditors. The slight little man with the clean-shaven face and hooked nose was not in the least like the head of an ancient race; he was shy and diffident so long as you took no liberties and remembered what he was. His eldest daughter, Angela, on the other hand, was all that one might expect from the class of Vere de Vere—tall, dark, exceedingly handsome, the beauties of her face softened by a pleasing smile and a little mouth that sometimes had a pathetic droop in it. There was another daughter, May, who quite incontinently was a Radical. Nobody quite knew where her sentiments came from, whence sprang the spirit of modern commercialism—those terrible ideas. For the rest, she was a pretty blonde, with charming easy manners, and no idea of the family dignity.
As to the household itself, it was greatly swayed—one could not call it ruled—by Miss Gertrude Castlerayne, sister of the head of the family. Miss Gertrude was small, a little faded and nervous; the face was relieved by a pair of dark eyes and abundance of silver hair, the rich silver that has gold flecks in the sunshine. There are certain old maids who are as beautiful and charming as their younger sisters, and Miss Gertrude was one of them. Nobody called her aught but Miss Gertrude, and all loved her, as was fitting they should.
There was a canker in the rose, of course—there always is; and the canker in this rose was a prosaic inability to make both ends meet. The metaphor sounds trite and vulgar in the case of such exalted personages, but that is what it came to. The poor land and the equally poor sheep made but scanty provision for the Castleraynes; the scattered tenants on the estate with difficulty paid their rent, though the spirit was willing enough. As May frequently said, things could not go on like this much longer.
'What is the use of our fine old name?' she demanded. 'It does not pay old Morris for his milk and butter; it does not prevent us from owing Mrs. Lacey more than we can ever pay for meat. Dad is fond of saying that honour and integrity no longer form part of the character of the English people. And then he goes on to tell Sutton that he will send him a cheque next week for those seed-potatoes. Now, he knows perfectly well that there is not the slightest chance of paying Sutton next week or next year. And perhaps Sutton will make his arrangements on the strength of that promise. Angela, I ask you, is it honest?'
Angela sighed gently as she proceeded to tie back a refractory verbena. The garden was a blaze of sunshine; the wide stretch of dune and heather and bank was flooded with it. The whole place might have been Tennyson's 'haunt of ancient peace.' If the canker was here, it was certainly not in the hearts of the crimson roses.
'I calculate that we are six hundred pounds in debt,' the remorseless May went on. 'We are living at present on the charity of Aunt Gertrude. And I know for a fact that she has spent all her money but a thousand pounds. And here is a chance of making a steady five hundred a year for the rest of our lives. It drops into our laps like a godsend, and dad puts it aside as if some horrid brewer had offered to turn the old house into a tavern. We can't afford to be independent.'
'I call it gross presumption,' Angela said with dignity. 'Surely you have not given the proposal proper consideration, dear. For some time past we have tolerated the visits of trippers and the like from Hardborough, who make use of the common. They come here with their baskets; they leave a horrid litter in the heather——'
'There are a great many rich people in Hardborough,' May interrupted; 'and a good many nice people too. They are not all trippers. Hardborough is the queen of watering-places. I should very much like to live there myself.'
Angela very properly ignored the atrocious sentiment.
'Our father put an end to that kind of thing. He has been too lenient. Then he gets the offer you speak of from the Imperial Hotel Company. They are desirous of taking the old Dower-House on a repairing lease, and opening it as a high-class hotel.'
'Well, why not? The Dower-House is at present in ruins. Put it in order and reduce the grounds to something like form, and there need be no more charming spot in England. It would not interfere with us in the least; it would only mean that the visitors had the right to reconnoitre on the sacred common, and we should be five hundred pounds a year better off. We should be able to pay our creditors then, and look the world in the face. And the pensioners would not have to go to the workhouse.'
Angela blushed slightly, for May had touched her on a tender spot. For the pensioners in question were dependent on the family bounty—a sacred thing, a tradition that had come down the grooves of the centuries. High up on the common stood ten small houses in which were ten old men and women who had served out the measure of their strong years on the estate; and those almshouses went back to the seventeenth century. To a certain extent, the common was theirs; it had been given them by the founder of the hospital as a means of revenue for keeping up the hospice, subject always to the rights of the Lord of the Manor. In those days plumbago had been found on the common, and the proceeds from the sale thereof had endowed the cottages. But the plumbago had failed, and the pensioners had fallen back on the hospitality of the family.
Sooth to say, the pensioners were having an exceedingly hard time of it at present. Besides the plumbago, there had been a certain well or spring of water containing mineral qualities, a well which had a place in history, a stream with a romance of its own, and the better class of visitors from Hardborough and the like had come there and drunk the water and left largesse behind, so that week in and week out there was as much as keep body and soul together in the hospice. And now the well had suddenly fallen away because, so May said, of the prosaic fact that the new owner of the estate adjoining Castlerayne to the north had been draining his property along the fringe of the sea. May brought up the fact now. She was terribly practical in her arguments.
'The offer ought to be accepted,' she said, 'if only for the sake of the hospitallers. For all practical purposes, the common belongs to them—I mean those few hundred acres of it—and they can do what they like with it. My dear Angela, I could not possibly sit down and see a chance like this thrown away. It will be no fault of mine if the chance is lost. I have taken the bull by the horns and written to Mr Clifford Warrener.'
Angela blushed pink as the verbena she was still training in the way it should go.
'Mr Warrener is almost a stranger,' she protested. 'We only met him a few times during our visit to London in the spring. And he is actually engaged in trade, May.'
'Soap,' May said cheerfully—'household soap. After all, that is an honest occupation. Soap is a valuable asset in the nation's balance-sheet. Anyway, I've written to Mr. Warrener, and he has telegraphed saying that he will be here to-morrow afternoon.'
'I HOLD in my hand,' Mr. Castlerayne said oracularly, 'a most extraordinary letter. It is from a firm of solicitors in Hardborough, and refers to the offer of the hotel company as to that preposterous suggestion relating to the opening of a licensed house here. These solicitors are instructed by their client, Mr. Samuel Craggs, to oppose any such action, and state that the rights of the common are vested in the hospitallers under the deed of 17th December 1699. This deed I am prepared to admit; and here comes the strange part of the letter. The hospitallers will resist any attempt to infringe their rights, and they claim the free lease of the common under the said deed; and, further, they claim that in them is vested the sole authority to admit or prevent any building on the common or the use of the said common for any other purpose save the right of sheep-grazing. In other words, they claim that the common belongs to them. Really, my dear Gertrude, your protégé Sam Craggs is going too far. For a Radical cobbler to oppose me like this!'
Miss Gertrude flushed faintly. If the expression might be permitted about so impeccable a lady, there was the suggestion of guilt about her.
'Samuel is eccentric,' she admitted; 'and he has dreadful revolutionary ideas. He is fond of reading Carlyle and Adam Smith, and all kinds of formidable books. Still, he would never have gone into the hospital had it not been for the rheumatism that crippled his hands. And, like most people, he had no desire to starve. I don't know who told him about the proposal from Hardborough, but he had heard of it some time ago. It was he who gave me the first intimation of it.'
'And, of course, he was heartily in favour of it,' Mr Castlerayne said bitterly. 'It is just the kind of Radical progress idea to please Samuel.'
'Those people are living on my bounty, and they know it,' Miss Gertrude reiterated. A retort with her was so rare that she blushed at her own temerity. 'Fifteen years ago I wanted to close the hospital and send the poor creatures to the workhouse. But you would not hear of it, Rayne; the family dignity prevented you. Craggs may be all that you say; but the bread of charity is bitter to him; he does not like the flavour of it. He would like to see the offer accepted; he would like to feel that his weekly dole comes from people who paid honestly for a remunerative privilege. And he was equally certain that you would refuse to entertain the offer. He had a rod in pickle for you, he said.'
'A rod in pickle!' Mr Castlerayne groaned. 'For me? He actually said that?'
'He did. I am afraid that Samuel is no respecter of persons. This he told me. He has been looking up the family archives; he has been to Lancaster, and examined the deeds relating to the Crown lands and the manors of East Yorkshire. He says he is quite sure of his ground, and that the commoners here have a vested right in the income to arrive from that part of the common whence the plumbago originally came. On his own initiative he has placed the matter in the hands of those lawyers in Hardborough, and they advise him that he has a good case.'
'Ah!' Mr Castlerayne went on, with one of his rare flashes of illumination upon him. 'As I know to my cost, the lawyers are expensive friends. And Craggs has no money. Who has been providing him with funds for this disgraceful litigation, I should like to know?'
No reply came to the question. Miss Gertrude's head was bent, a little red spot on either of her pallid cheeks. It was perhaps fortunate that the head of the House did not repeat his question. He muttered something to the effect that he would have to consult his own lawyers. He had not the slightest intention of accepting that hotel company's offer, nor was he disposed for a moment to admit the claim of the preposterous and revolutionary Craggs. The bare idea that an old tenant on his own estate should take this step filled him with pain.
Angela had listened languidly to the discussion. On the contrary, May was deeply interested. Her blue eyes sparkled with amusement. It was evident that her dignity was not touched. Sooth to say, the Radical cobbler was by way of being a favourite of hers. Dreadful as it sounds, those two had much in common. May placed her arm affectionately through that of her aunt and drew her out into the sunshine.
'Come as far as the trout-pool,' she said. 'I have something serious to say to you. Aunt Gertrude, you are a wicked old woman who is deliberately conspiring to upset the peace and dignity of a once happy family. It is a good thing that dad is so dazzled with his dignity that he can't see as far as I can. To save you from prosecution, I am going to make a double charge against you. It was you who found the money for Craggs's action!'
'He didn't tell you?' Aunt Gertrude exclaimed. 'He never so far forgot his promise——'
'Not a single word did he tell me. But you are such a transparent old darling! When you blushed just now I guessed it like a flash. Not that I blame you, dear. Ah no! It would be nothing less than downright dishonesty for my father to refuse this offer. And yet he is so blind, so eaten up with his family pride, that he would not hesitate. I only hope that Craggs is right. He is an obstinate old thing, but he is as honest as the day. The idea is to force dad into some compromise. And if he fails——'
'He will not fail,' Aunt Gertrude whispered. 'Everything is absolutely correct. And I found him the money. I have promised to let him have five hundred pounds. Only, you must not tell this to anybody. I dare say you will think that I am a poor, timid creature, and that I should have told your father everything. But he can be very hard when he is roused, and—and I am very fond of Angela and yourself, dear. I hate the idea of having strangers here as much as anybody; but, as you say, it would be criminal to refuse this offer. I have urged your father to sell the place; but nobody would buy it at anything beyond the land-value of the house, for the land around is so poor. I had thought it over day and night, and I have prayed to do right. I think I have done what is right. At any rate, I have done what is best for the happiness of the people here. And not one word——'
'Not one,' May said solemnly. 'And now, go back to your jams and preserves, and let me take a hand in the business. I hope you won't be shocked, Aunt Gertrude; but I am going up to the common to meet a young man. You have heard me speak of Clifford Warrener?'
'The gentleman you met in London?' Aunt Gertrude asked. She spoke in a studied prim and cold voice. 'I should say that it is hardly the proper——'
'Oh yes, it is. Mr. Warrener is a business man. We were great friends in London in the spring. We are all the greater friends because he does not admire me a bit, and because he is very much in love with Angela. She refuses to look at him because he is in trade. Just as if that makes any difference so long as the man is a gentleman! Well, I gave Mr. Warrener a good deal of our family history. You see, he told me all about Angela, and that established a bond of sympathy between us. And he said that some day he would like to come down and discuss a proposal with dad when he had time. He seems to know all this part of the country very well. And he seemed quite familiar with the name.'
'That is quite possible,' Aunt Gertrude said quietly. 'You see, I was engaged to his father at one time. They were dreadfully poor at that period, and Mr. Warrener incurred great odium by going into trade. I believe he made a mess of it, poor fellow! but I never saw him again. Still, as a girl I was very fond of him. How foolish I am!'
May bent and kissed the cheek of the faded little figure by her side. She knew the sweet nature of Aunt Gertrude. She knew the life of noble self-sacrifice her aunt had always led. And here in these few simple words was her life's romance, the turned-down page she had hidden from everybody. And May knew at last why Aunt Gertrude had never married.
'You are a darling!' she said; 'and I love you better than ever. Good-bye, dear.'
May went up the slope past the hollow where the ruins of the Dower-House lay, with its magnificent range of scenery inland and to the sea; past the trout-stream and on to the common, where the wind was blowing fresh and sweet, and her feet were deep in the purple heather. Away at the back, behind a stretch of great pines, lay the hospital.
It was not all gorse and bracken and heather here; there were wide gaps and tracks made ages ago by the workers in plumbago, and turf eaten short and thick by generations of sheep. The grass was wonderfully thick and level, broken here and there by banks of undergrowth, little ravines full of sand, and heathy rainpits where the plumbago had been mined. To the left was the glorious sea, to the right a panorama of the kind that only the British Isles can afford. It was an ideal spot, and May sighed as she looked at it. On the whole, despite the mutual advantages, the hotel idea was not pleasing.
A tall figure in Harris tweed came towards May and raised his cap. The sinister hand of trade had left no stain on Clifford Warrener. It occurred to May that her sister was an exceedingly fortunate young woman, if she had only the sense to see it. Then, without further preamble, May plunged into the subject that was nearest her heart.
'I am deeply interested,' Warrener said—'far more interested than you are even aware of. Let us walk as far as the Dower-House and back to that turf yonder. And you can tell me everything. After that I may have a proposal to make.'
May talked vivaciously and well. The dark eyes of her companion watched her with admiration. He smiled from time to time. Before the recital was finished the empty shell of what had been the Dower-House was reached. Below it was a level plain like a platform formed of heather and gorse, and there lay an even patch of grass, the bents growing compact and thick like the foliage of the carnation. There were acres of it there.
'So the Radical is abroad.' Warrener smiled. 'I fancy I shall be able to find the way to bring Craggs to reason. When I was quite a boy he instructed me in the art of poaching—fish-poaching, for he was too honest to touch game. If I were to make Craggs listen to me, I could make the fortune of your family at the same time. All this poor land——'
'That is the trouble,' May said dryly. 'If it were rich land we could let it. As it is, the whole four thousand acres is worth nothing. In my imagination I try to think what would happen if we were to find gold here.'
'I also have an imagination.' Warrener smiled. 'It is a mistake to think that the business man is devoid of imagination. On the contrary, some of the richest men I know have made their money by the exercise of imagination. Some people call it foresight Well, I have had a fine flash of foresight so far as this place is concerned. Look at that lovely turf, those rolling hills, the little brook with its feathery ferns; look at those sand-dunes over there. Take in the lovely prospect from the Dower-House. My dear Miss May, I can see the gold fairly bubbling out of the ground. I can see all that fine fringe of gorse and heath and heather over there by the sea selling for its weight in silver. The whole thing came to me when I was waiting for you. There is the fortune crying aloud to be picked up and dropped in your pockets.'
'Coal!' May cried. 'Dirty gray coal! The hideous blotting of the landscape——'
'Nothing of the kind.' Warrener laughed. 'Nothing shall disturb the peaceful serenity of the scene; nothing shall move the firmness of the prospect. Let us go to the top of the common, and there, under the seal of secrecy, I will tell you of my discovery.'
'PERHAPS you will wonder why I tell you this,' Warrener said finally. He had been speaking for a long time; there was a fine glow of enthusiasm on his brown face. 'In the first place, I was pretty sure that you would be in sympathy with my idea. You did not expect anything so poetic from a business man?'
'Why not?' May asked. The glow on Warrener's face was reflected on her own. 'Two of the most delightful and fanciful books I know are written by business men. Take The Golden Age, for instance. And I suppose there is romance in business?'
Warrener laughed. He seemed to be very pleased with himself.
'Of course,' he said. 'Take my own career, for instance. We manufacture our commercial necessity in a village. That was my idea—the ideal working man in the ideal village! That was laughed at as a dream. But there it is—over two thousand workmen housed in model cottages covered with creepers—roomy, airy, efficient! We even have a theatre. We give pastoral plays in the park. And my people are getting enthusiastic as to Shakespeare! All that from prosaic soap! Oh, I can assure you there is much latent poetry in commerce. It was my education in this direction that first gave me my inspiration as to the common. But it is to remain a secret for the present. It is very fortunate for everybody that I am in time to avert the plans of those hotel people.'
'My father would never have consented,' May said.
'Probably not. But, you see, the matter is out of his hands. I am afraid that I am mainly responsible for this Hampden-like attitude of Samuel Craggs. I had quite forgotten the place of my birth. I had hardly visited it since I was a boy. Pardon my egotism; but it is necessary to tell you these things. My early memories are not pleasant; there is too much sordid poverty in them. Do you know that at one time my father wanted to marry your Aunt Gertrude?'
'I only learnt the fact to-day,' May explained.
'That was a real romance for you! My people were as poor—well, as you are. It was the most dreadful kind of poverty. My father had the opportunity of going into business, and he took it. It was a shocking thing, of course, degrading and all that. And your father had no alternative. He was conscientious according to his lights. But he ruined a very pretty and tender love-story. The tragic side of the medal lay in the fact that my father was not in the least fitted for business. It was only a long struggle against the black wolf of bankruptcy. I learnt the lesson that my father failed to grasp. I threw myself heart and soul into the concern; I became a master of detail. And to-day I have two thousand of the happiest employés in England and a fortune that is sweet and honest. Then I met you and your sister in London, and I fell in love with the daughter of my father's old friend. And when the time comes I am going to make Angela my wife.'
There was a clear ring in the last part of the speech, a challenge in the flung-back head that May did not fail to notice. Really, Angela was a very fortunate girl if she had only sense to see it. Yet Angela had been coldly polite to this highly successful trader; she had tolerated the emollient for the sake of the old family friendship. Angela was quite as proud and foolish as her father. Warrener flung back his head and laughed at his own sheer conceit.
'There,' he said, 'I have made my confession; and I am not in the least ashamed, knowing what the soap has done. It has given my mother her villa in the south of France, the only air that she can breathe; it has given my erstwhile little brother all that Harrow and Cambridge can afford; and there are other things. Is that not better than the smug contemplation of the family dignity and a set of unpaid tradesmen's books? There is a purse-proud person for you!'
'Nothing of the kind, sir.' May laughed. 'I like you all the better for it. But you have not told me why you are so interested in us.'
'Indeed I have. I have told you that I am going to marry your sister. And I told you something of the romance of Aunt Gertrude. And when I discovered that Angela was the one girl for me, I began to ask questions. Oh, I know all about it—all about the struggle to lay the ghost of the family pride, about the poor people at the hospital. I came down here and made friends with Sam Craggs. I found the emollient of the greatest possible assistance then. The hotel prospect I heard of in London. Then the Great Inspiration came on me like a flash. We could dispense with the hotel programme, which is by no means a pretty one. I bring back prosperity to the family at the same time, and that without spoiling the lovely spot or interfering with the seclusion of anybody. I may admit that Craggs gave me the first germ idea. For a long time past he has been pretty sure that your father would not listen to my suggestion. And yet I think that I have convinced you that here is a veritable goldmine.'
May nodded thoughtfully. She had been absolutely convinced. She was also absolutely convinced that her father would have nothing whatever to do with it. Still, if Craggs was right, happily Mr. Castlerayne would not be in a position to interfere.
'Let us go and discuss it with Craggs,' Warrener suggested. 'I will tell him that you have come over to the side of the angels. He is very fond of you.'
On the crest of the hill, beyond the belt of pines, the hospital lay, a series of stone buildings with a chapel in the centre. The place was quite two centuries old; the stone part was ruddy and violet and saffron with the beating of bygone storms; on the green in front two good old cedars slanted in from the direction of the sea. There were hammered-iron railings in front, with the device of the Castleraynes worked into them. There was something purely feudal about the idea of these pensioners on the bounty of the head of the clan. It would have been much purer still had the income been a regular one and not a precarious dripping of doles from the overlord, who was little better than a pauper himself.
Under one of the slanting cedars, guarded from the sunshine, sat an old man reading a big volume by the aid of a pair of round iron-rimmed spectacles. His face was grooved and knotted, filled with crossed lines like the rind of a melon. He had bushy eyebrows and a chin of aggressive obstinacy. His hands were drawn and knotted by chronic rheumatism. He put aside his book with a palpable sigh as he saw his visitors.
'Well, Craggs,' Warrener said cheerfully, 'I have brought Miss May to see you—brought another convert to the Great Conspiracy!'
'She always had the brains of the family, did Miss May,' Craggs said bluntly. 'Not that I'm going to say a word against Miss Gertrude. Spending her little fortune, she is, on we folks here, and makes me downright mad to think on. But these poor creatures here as would never go to the House, nor should they be asked to, seeing as the place rightly belongs to we. It was all right so long as the plumbago lasted; it was not so bad till our mineral spring gave out; but latterly it's the bread of charity, and right nasty stuff it is. But I'm going to stop all that.'
The speaker brought his knotted hands together with a snap. The village cobbler seemed to be terribly in earnest. The others let him run on for the time.
'I found things out,' he said. 'This common belongs to us; and it comes hard if we can't get a living out of it and be independent of everybody. Time was when every rood of ground maintained its man. That's Goldsmith, as wrote the Deserted Village—a proper Radical he were, surely. And when I found out as every rood here belonged to us, I began to rack my brains for a way to turn it to account. Not as I liked the hotel idea; I liked it so little that I said nothing further, as the squire would have to put a stop to that. And then Mr. Warrener here comes along with a good notion as tickles me dreadfully. I don't know whether he said anything to you about it, miss.'
'Mr Warrener has been so good as to take me into his confidence.' May smiled. 'I regard the scheme as a distinct inspiration. I wonder it has not been thought of before. But you are going to be the man to bring it all about, Craggs.'
The old cobbler flushed with pride. The gray eyes twinkled under the bushy brows. Given scope and opportunity, Craggs would have been a great reformer, he would have been a good parliamentary debater; he had a rugged eloquence of his own. Strange that so great a Radical should have been in so uncongenial a soil. Yet he was conservative enough to dislike the idea of anything like constitutional change in the environment of his birth.
'I love the old place,' he said. 'For seventy years I've lived here. I buried my wife and my two children back yonder; and I came to the hospital feeling as I had earned my rest, not to eat the bread of charity. It lies too cold and sour in the stomach for me. What I want to see arising from the place is income; the unearned increment does not appeal to me. And yet I don't want to see the place cut up and spoilt. This is a place made by God Almighty for people to breathe the fresh air and be grateful for the gift of life—a kind of sanatorium made natural. And Mr. Warrener has found the way to do it, which comes of education and a proper use of the brain as Providence has given him.'
'That is very nice of you,' Warrener said gently. 'Your dream is pretty certain to come true, Craggs, provided that you are right as to your reading of the charter. According to your argument, the common belongs to the hospitallers to do as they please with.'
'Not to sell it,' Craggs remarked. 'Let's be fair. The chief rights belong to the Lord of the Manor, which is Mr. Castlerayne and his heirs for ever; but to work the place to the best advantage and to apply it to any legitimate purpose by means of which we can derive benefits by way of income. That's what my lawyers in Hardborough say, and they are prepared to fight the matter out for me. And the squire will fight us for certain. I've got five hundred pounds to go on with.'
Craggs paused and looked uncomfortable under the close gaze of May Castlerayne. He had a shrewd idea that she knew where the five hundred pounds had come from.
'It won't be wasted, miss,' he said almost penitently. 'Like bread cast upon the waters, it will come back after many days—ay, and not so many days either. That money came from an angel, if ever there was one, and every coin of it is blessed. And who's the squire that he should stand like a stone in the path of progress?'
The latter question was flung like a missile at the head of May. She had no answer to the challenge. She smiled in a pleased kind of way.
'When Craggs falls back on that frame of mind I always fear him,' she said. 'Let us go back to the house, Mr. Warrener; you will come and have a cup of tea. My father would never forgive me if I allowed you to go without something, even if it is only a cup of tea.'
As matters turned out, Clifford Warrener was destined to something besides the conventional meal temptingly offered by May Castlerayne. He had come down to stay for a day or two with some friends in the neighbourhood; he had telegraphed to say that they might expect him about dinner-time; his kit-bag had gone on in advance. Outside the gate of the Towers a messenger awaited him with a note. It appeared that the telegram had been delayed, the which is a pleasing malady with the average railway station telegraph-office, where labour is scanty and electric message importunity of little favour. There was nobody at home at The Haven, and the butler, who had been away all day, had taken the liberty of opening the telegram. A wandering gamekeeper had chanced to see Mr. Warrener, and thus his movements had been recorded. Meanwhile, the kit-bag and its contents awaited the good pleasure of the owner thereof.
'Very awkward,' Clifford muttered. 'The Marchmonts are all away. I did not know that when I telegraphed last night. Perhaps I had better have my bag sent over to the Royal Hotel at Hardborough. There is a train about six, and——'
'Indeed, you will do nothing of the kind,' May said with decision. 'We will send the donkey-cart to fetch your bag, and you will stay here to-night.——Aunt Gertrude, will you be so good as to neglect your precious flowers for a moment? This is Mr. Warrener, who is belated and stranded by the way, with no rest for the sole of his dress-slippers, so to speak. Come and persuade him to dine and spend the night here.'
Aunt Gertrude came slowly down the grass path below the rose-bushes. There was a flush on her pale face, a questioning in her eyes as they fell upon Warrener's tall figure. She seemed to be looking into the past, beyond the events of the cold, dead years. She breathed just a little faster; her lips were parted.
'I am glad to see you,' she said. 'My dear boy, you are very, very like your father.'
Warrener took the slim hand extended to him and raised it to his lips.
'I am more than pleased to meet you,' he said. 'I have heard so much of you from my father. He used to allude so frequently to the Towers. He spoke of it as one of the most charming houses he had ever been in, and I am bound to say that he did not exaggerate. After the rush and fret of a great town, this is utterly restful and soothing.'
Clifford spoke with a deep sincerity in his voice. His gaze wandered from the short, thick turf at his feet to the rose-garden, and from the garden to the gray walls of the house in its frame of deeper, more frowning gray, and the vivid trees beyond. Verily, here was a place to be envied. It looked as if trouble and war could not live here, as if the burdens of the world had been left on the other side of the stream.
But Warrener knew better than that; he knew of the grim poverty that lurked behind the smiling flowers. He knew of the pride that pinches, the pitiful arrogance of the decaying race. And he was in a position to alter this with a wave of his wand. He could scatter aside all those carking cares and take the wrinkles out of Mr. Castlerayne's brows. He would not have been sanguine but for the forces arrayed behind him.
'Mr. Warrener is going to stay here to-night,' May said. 'There has been a mistake over a telegram, and he is stranded here. I will send the donkey-cart over to The Haven for the luggage.'
'Of course,' Aunt Gertrude observed as if it were the most natural thing in the world, 'it is a genuine pleasure to have a Warrener here. Your father and my brother were such great friends in the past. Come into the hall and have some tea.'
Warrener hesitated. It was hard not to see Angela again; it was equally hard to stay there and partake of the hospitality of a man whose prejudices the guest was going to violate ruthlessly and mercilessly a little later on. But the great oak door of the hall opened at the same moment, and Angela stood there with the amber light of the fading sun on her face. She stood there tall and fair and stately, a slender figure in white. She started, and her face coloured strangely as she saw Warrener. It seemed to him that her look was one of cold surprise.
'I did not expect to see you down here,' she said.
'We are ever the sport of circumstance,' Warrener replied lightly. 'I have been over the Common with your sister. My idea was to stay with the Marchmonts to-night; but I find that they are away from home. Miss Castlerayne has very kindly offered to put me up this evening. I feel like an intruder, really; but——'
Angela smiled gloriously. Whatever her feelings might have been, a lack of hospitality certainly was not one of them. A Castlerayne could not possibly have been guilty of that failing. The girl extended her hand to Warrener quite warmly.
'Of course you will stay the night,' she said. 'I was just coming to call the others in to tea. You have certainly arrived at the psychological moment.'
Warrener passed into the dim hall, full of cool brown shadows and sweetly fragrant of roses. The light filtered through the stained-glass windows; it fell on the dainty tea-service, flickered on the facets of old silver that shone as only old silver can. There were comfortable lounges here and there, the suggestion of comfort that only a refined English home can give. Warrener abandoned himself to the exquisite pleasure of the moment.
Mr. Castlerayne was glad to see him when he came presently from the study. It was a great pleasure to him to have the son of his old friend under his roof. Perhaps the host was secretly surprised to find that contamination with trade had left no brand on Warrener. Perhaps he had expected to see a man in loud clothes, with a loud voice, who talked a jargon of discounts and par values and the fluctuation of stocks and shares. So far as Warrener was concerned, he, like Gallio, might have cared for none of these things.
Tea came to an end at length. There was a lovely hour spent in the garden, and then dinner. It was a plain dinner, though the wine was excellent; so, too, were the peaches and nectarines gathered fresh and ruddy from the ripe south wall of the garden. Warrener lingered afterwards over a cigarette and a glass of claret the like of which he had never tasted before. He felt just a little ashamed of himself; he was a kind of traitor in the camp. He wandered off presently to the drawing-room, where the lamps were not yet lit. Angela was alone there, playing some soft and soothing melody on the piano.
'We did not expect you quite so soon,' the girl said. 'The others are in the garden. Shall we join them? Really, it is a most exquisite night.'
It was indeed an exquisite night, full and warm, and gently lighted by a crescent moon. A pearly diaphanous mist was rising over the Common. Beyond it the great belt of pines loomed out like the masts of ships in a summer sea.
'The Common always looks like a pearly land at this time,' Angela said. 'It seems almost a pity to get near enough to destroy the illusion.'
'All people do not take the same view of it.' Warrener laughed. They had paused before the old sundial. Angela stood leaning on it with an arm that gleamed like ivory in the moonlight. 'I am told that there are prosaic eyes on the sacred spot.'
'I suppose you got that from May,' Angela said a little coldly. 'Some people in Hardborough want to start a hotel here. Of course the idea is preposterous. Fancy our Common being made the abiding-place of Saturday till Monday people, who smoke cheap cigars and drink beer! My father would never listen to such a suggestion.'
The speaker looked proud and scornful in the moonlight. Lady Clare Vere de Vere might have presented no more contemptuous a figure. She seemed a being of another world, a race apart. And yet in its way it was not devoid of cheapness, the juggling of theatrical show. Angela had no sympathy with the lower classes, yet she did not so much mind being dependent on these creatures for little things she could not pay for.
'Is your father likely to have the last word?' Warrener asked.
'Well, really, I suppose so,' Angela said. 'I dare say May has told you everything. There is a man called Craggs who has advanced some preposterous claim——'
'I would not run away with that idea if I were you. I believe that Craggs and the hospitallers are quite within their rights in this claim. I have gone into the matter carefully. To do Craggs justice, he is as much averse to the hotel idea as you are. At the same time, he naturally looks to the Common to provide the money income to keep up the hospital. Poor old Craggs is just as proud in his way as you are.'
'My dear Mr. Warrener, does the moonlight always make you talk nonsense?'
'I am talking no nonsense,' Clifford repeated. 'Do you know what I would do with you if I had my own way? I would make you get your own living amongst the people whom in your heart of hearts you so despise! You should go amongst them and discover for yourself that there is as much pride and dignity in labour as there is in the caste. I have seen enough of it, and I ought to know. When I was quite a young man I lodged for a time in the cottage of an artisan—I could afford no better quarters. That man taught me more than I ever learnt at school. His feelings and sentiments were those of a refined gentleman; his wife was his equal in every way. He is one of my managers to-day, respected and liked by all who know him. It is only a matter of refinement and education. Craggs would have been a statesman and a Cabinet Minister if he had only had the chance of the modern boy. If you took a little girl from the slums of London—the child of the gutter, I mean—and educated her properly, do you suppose that anybody could guess what her parentage had been?'
Angela smiled faintly, with her proud head uplifted to the stars. It was strange how this man always thrilled her, how exalted she always felt in his company. The girl regarded his lapse into trade as an obsession, the backsliding of a gentleman. Perhaps it was contamination with soap that made him talk in that way.
'I should not be in the least interested,' she said. 'I am quite content with my lot.'
'But how long is it likely to be your lot?' Warrener proceeded. 'Forgive me if I speak too plainly; only recollect the interest I take in your future welfare. Have you ever thought what is likely to take place if anything happens to your father? He may die at any time—we all have to die sooner or later. I understand the estate——'
'It is very polite of you to call it by that name,' Angela said with some bitterness.
'Goes to the next of kin. It passes from you altogether. Angela, have you——'
The girl faced round on Warrener almost angrily. Her eyes were blazing.
'Really,' she said—'really, Mr Warrener, you forget yourself! Your only excuse——'
'Is the excuse that every man has in the presence of the woman he loves. I have never told you that I cared for you, for the simple reason that there is no necessity. You know it. If you can look me in the face and say honestly that you did not know it——'
'I think that will do,' Angela interrupted. 'We had better go and find the others.'
She flung her glorious head high in the air. The dignity of her manner was queenly, and yet down in her heart was a certain wealth of gladness; her lips, red and full, were curved in a little smile.
WARRENER strode along by the side of his companion in silence. He was not in the least sorry for what he had said; he felt no dismay that he had angered Angela. He did not fail to recognise her good qualities, nor was he blind to her faults. After all, it was a selfish and useless life that she was leading. And, again, it was one thing to be Miss Castlerayne of The Towers, but it would be quite another to be the daughter of the late Rayne Castlerayne. What would the girls do when they had to leave their ancestral home? These things troubled Warrener.
In the same silence they walked down the garden, with the house behind them. It stood out sharply in the moonlight like a nocturne—gray, graceful, picturesque. The air was heavy with the fragrance of the roses. Nothing was needed to make the picture complete. But all that Warrener could see now was the hollowness of it all.
A rustic bridge led from the garden to the fringe of the Common beyond. Something white flittered in the gorse, and Warrener made out the forms of Aunt Gertrude and May. The upland slope was silver and saffron in the moonlight.
'What a glorious evening!' May cried. 'Positively it is a crime to go in yet. I am going as far as the pines to look at the sea.'
'Won't it be rather damp?' Miss Castlerayne protested.
But May waved the suggestion aside. With a common accord they turned their faces to the slope, slanted upwards. They came at length to the belt of pines. Between the rugged boles and the shadow flashed the silver-gray of the sea. Far beyond the haze a light flashed from time to time. The cold beauty of it all kept the little party silent for a time. It was May who spoke first.
'Let us go round by the hospital,' she suggested, 'and over the headland, and so home by way of the village. It is not so very far.'
The heavy flow of the sea glittered and flashed in the moonlight. Work and bustle and the fret of life seemed wonderfully far away. A dull light moved in one of the windows of the hospital, and a door opened. A faint moan came like a jarring note on the air.
'Somebody is ill!' May exclaimed. 'They are trying to get Craggs up. It looks as if Mrs. Masters was having one of her bad turns.'
Craggs emerged into the moonlight presently. Evidently he had just tumbled out of bed. He was listening with patience to what his visitor had to say. The angel of mercy was no more than a child, a little girl with a mass of shining curls.
'Granny's bad,' she said simply in reply to May's questions. 'She has some of her pains again; and she wants Dr. Marfell.'
'Then you go back to granny, and say that Dr Marfell is coming,' May said.—'I know exactly what is the matter with the poor old thing. A little brandy and a mustard-leaf is all that she requires. Aunt Gertrude, let us go and get the medicine.'
'She's really bad this time,' Craggs explained. 'I saw her last thing to-night. Always was a bit of a grumbler was Martha; but to-night she's suffering terrible.'
'We'll fetch the doctor,' Warrener volunteered. He turned to find that Miss Castlerayne and May had already vanished.—'Will you show me the way, Miss Angela?'
'It is on the way home,' Angela explained. 'We might just as well take that path as any other. Mrs. Masters has a wonderful recuperative faculty. Still——'
The girl shrugged her shoulders slightly and led the way. Evidently she had but little sympathy with the sufferings of Mrs. Masters. Also, she was not disposed to amiable conversation. She carried her head still higher in the air. She pointed presently to a pretty white-creeper-covered cottage, and intimated that here was the residence of Dr Marfell.
In response to Warrener's ring a little man came to the door. He was short in his manner. His white closely cropped hair stood on his head like a scrubbing-brush.
'Who are you, and what do you require?' he asked.—'Good-evening, Miss Castlerayne. Hope there is nothing wrong, for I'm dog-tired. Out for two nights in succession, out all day to-day, and no food since breakfast.'
'It's at the hospital,' Warrener explained curtly. He rather resented the shortness of the other's manner. 'A Mrs. Masters, I believe. If you will be so kind——'
'I won't be so kind,' the doctor cried. 'I don't know who you are, sir, but I decline to be ordered about in this manner. And as to that old woman, I tell you plainly that there is nothing whatever the matter with her. Besides, why should I work for nothing? I'm supposed to be doctor to the hospital. I'm supposed to get a fee of thirty guineas per annum to look after the health of these people—that is supposed to be Mr. Castlerayne's affair—and not one penny have I had for the last eight years.'
The words sounded rude enough; they were abrupt to the verge of brutality, and yet there was nothing of the savage in the little doctor's expression. There was even a suggestion of a humorous twinkle in his eyes. And Warrener could not know that here was a man who worked hard for a poor pittance, and who never listened unmoved to a story of distress. Perhaps he was too familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Mrs. Masters.
'I am sorry to disturb you,' Warrener said coldly, 'but I am under the impression that the poor woman is really ill. Samuel Craggs says so. Still——'
'There, don't be huffy,' Marfell cried. 'How would you like to be dragged away from your first meal to attend an obstinate old woman who will eat nuts when she has been told over and over again that they are not good for her? Not that I withdraw a single word as to my long-belated fees, and my giving up my one luxury, my cigar, to keep my boy at his London hospital. I'll go.'
'I shall be very happy to pay your fee,' Warrener said.
'You pay my fee when I ask for it,' Marfell snapped. 'Confound the old woman!—Miss Castlerayne, I'm positively ashamed to have so far forgotten myself in your presence. It was very wrong of me.'
'An apology is hardly necessary, Dr Marfell,' Angela said coldly. 'I dare say——'
'My dear young lady, I am not apologising,' the doctor cried. 'The way I am being treated over the hospital fees is disgraceful. I have told your father so. I am a great fool not to have put him in the county court long ago.' Without another word the speaker bustled away up the path below the rolling gorse.
Warrener could see that the face of his companion was flaming with shame and anger.
'You must not take Dr. Marfell too seriously,' she said. 'He is really one of the best and kindest of men. He has been known to give his own dinner to a poor patient in need of a meal. And, really, old Mrs. Masters is a confirmed grumbler. Shall we get along a little faster? It is very late.'
Warrener increased his pace as desired. On the whole, he was not sorry to see Angela lifted from her lofty pedestal in this way. It was all very well to be a Castlerayne of Castlerayne Towers, but less exalted people might have questioned the honesty of that distinguished family. And Warrener had gone through all that in his younger days. But there was a lesson in store for Angela.
In the porch of the house Rayne Castlerayne stood. He looked quite the patrician in his evening-dress, the typical master of broad acres; also, he was smoking a cigar of most excellent quality.
'Where have you all been?' he asked. 'It is past ten o'clock. Angela, your aunt and May have gone out again on some ridiculous errand to the hospital. Somebody ill, or something of that kind. Really, those poor people are most inconsiderate. They wait till the very last thing at night, and then think nothing of keeping everybody up for hours. Why could they not have sent for Marfell?'
'They did,' Angela said with a vexed laugh. 'Mr. Warrener kindly went for him. And he was most rude. He volunteered to Mr. Warrener, who is a perfect stranger, that he had had no fees in reference to the hospital for eight years, and that he was very foolish not to have put you in the county court long ago.'
No glow of shame tinged the cheeks of the listener. On the contrary, he smiled as if something amused him.
'Capital fellow Marfell, when you know him,' he said with a faint air of patronage. 'And, upon my word, it really is time I paid that hospital account. The same remark applies to many others of those tradesmen's bills.—Come and have a cigar, Warrener. I have a new sort down from London to-day; a little expensive, but an excellent cigar.'
Warrener declined the tempting offer. If his host would excuse him, he would go along the Common again and meet Miss Castlerayne coming back.
They came presently with the information that the patient was really ill this time, and that Dr. Marfell had promised to stay for some time. Miss Castlerayne laid a detaining hand on Warrener's arm, so that May might precede her into the house. She looked white and anxious.
'Why does the matter trouble you so?' Warrener asked.
'Because I am to blame,' Miss Castlerayne said. 'Dr. Marfell says that the symptoms point to typhoid fever. He has told me over and over again to have the drains at the hospital thoroughly renovated—he had threatened to report me to the authorities; and I have not the money. I actually sold some jewellery to find the money for Craggs. It is a dreadful thing that I should be conspiring against my own family in this way, but what can I do? I have exhausted my little capital on the hospital. I dared not let those poor people want. They look forward to the hospital for their old age as a sacred right, which it is; and now I have nothing further to give them. It is useless to approach my brother, for the simple reason that he has practically nothing beyond his debts. If he were not Rayne Castlerayne of The Towers he would have been sold up without mercy years ago. Oh! I am tired and weary of his kind of pride—pride that lives on other people's credulity, and which revolts from the idea of making the place a paying property. That is why I flung in my lot with Craggs, why I pray that he should beat my brother and bring us prosperity. I hate that hotel idea myself; but what can we do? And now it is absolutely necessary to spend at least four hundred pounds on the hospital. If it isn't done I shall feel like a murderess.'
'Let me do it,' Warrener said eagerly. 'Let me find the money. And permit me to have the pleasure of advancing the necessary funds to keep the hospital going. It is only for a time. Believe me, you can repay every penny later on if you like. Am I mistaken in understanding that under your father's will a certain portion of the income of the estate comes to you?'
'Eight hundred a year,' Aunt Gertrude said with a faint smile. 'Which is just twice what my brother's revenue amounts to. The mockery of it!'
'Not at all,' Warrener said coolly. 'You shall have your income. The great conspiracy is going to be successful if it costs me half my fortune. But there will be a sharp lesson first, and Angela shall have her share of it. It will be exceedingly good for Angela.'
AUNT GERTRUDE started and quivered; there was a faint pink on her faded cheeks. Warrener turned to see the cause of this sudden display of emotion. He saw that Angela was standing there pale and cold in the moonlight. She said nothing, she asked no question, though clearly she must have heard what was said. She ignored Clifford as if she had been absolutely unaware of his existence.
'You must come in, Aunt Gertrude,' she said. 'The night is getting chilly.'
Miss Castlerayne followed with the meek obedience of a little child who is detected in a fault. In her heart of hearts she was terribly afraid of Angela. Warrener walked behind, with a smile on his lips. So far as he was concerned, he had not the slightest doubt as to the ultimate issue. He could see the sword of Damocles hanging in the air; he was prepared to cut the suspending thread if the weapon did not fall as quickly as he desired. He would root this senseless, selfish pride out once and for all.
He was just as set of purpose the next morning as he came across the Common before breakfast from a long interview with Samuel Craggs. He had found the old reformer in a savage state of mind. Craggs had been talking to Marfell.
'We are being murdered here,' he had said, 'poisoned. It's the drains. I told the squire all about them years ago. But where the money is coming from——'
Warrener explained where the money was coming from. Also, Craggs need be under no fear as to the future of the hospital.
'It is merely money borrowed,' he said. 'I shall get it all back again as soon as you win your action, so there need be no outrage of your sturdy Radicalism. I want you to press your action on as keenly as possible. The squire will fight you, and he will be badly beaten. And he will not be in a position to pay the costs of the fight. Really, I am very much in love with the little scheme of mine. I'm going into Hardborough as soon as I have breakfasted, and I shall hope to meet you there after luncheon. And I hope you have the grace to be very much ashamed of yourself, Craggs.'
'I ain't,' Craggs said stolidly. 'Not a bit of it. On the whole, though I'm what you call Socialist, not to say iconoclast, I like your scheme better than mine, sir. I love the place too well to see a hotel here.'
'To say nothing of the fact that we can do so much better, Craggs. What would my friends in the City say if they could see me losing such a glorious chance of making money? Instead of which, I am wasting my time putting it in the pockets of other people!'
Perhaps it was the glow of a clear conscience that enabled Clifford to eat so good a breakfast. He walked in the rose-garden afterwards, enjoying his cigarette. Aunt Gertrude was not down yet, and May was not to be seen. Presently to Clifford came Angela. She looked very fair and dainty in her white print dress, with plain cuffs and collar. It was a beautiful face, Warrener thought; it would be all the more lovely still without the cold expression. It was quite evident that the girl had something serious to say to her companion.
'Been helping to make the beds?' he asked cheerfully. Like most utterly bald remarks, it had its effect. In the presence of the commonplace, even dignity turns its face. 'If ever I am so fortunate as to win a wife, I hope she will not be above helping with the beds. I wonder if you could make a tart, Miss Angela—a raspberry and red-currant tart. I'm told that it is a real art properly to boil a potato.'
The ghost of a smile curved Angela's lips for a moment. Really, she had not expected to find Clifford Warrener vulgar.
'I know nothing of what you say,' she replied. 'I did not come from the house to discuss domestic economy with you. I wanted to allude to a little conversation I overheard last night between Aunt Gertrude and yourself. You seem to have made a friend of Aunt Gertrude.'
Warrener bent down and sniffed at the red heart of a rose. So Angela had heard. All her queenly dignity had come back to her; she was once more a Castlerayne of The Towers sweetly condescending to a glorified tradesman who had forgotten the calls of his order. It became necessary, therefore, to be harsh once more.
'I should say that anybody would,' he said. 'Are you aware that at one time your aunt was engaged to my father? When my father decided to go into trade the match was broken off. My mother is one of the best and dearest of women; my father's affection for her was warm and sincere; but his heart was Aunt Gertrude's. When I think of it I am filled with the most bitter contempt for those who interfered. But, of course, it could not be; it was quite impossible that your blood could be contaminated with trade. Miss Angela, I am going to speak very plainly to you.'
Angela gave a little gasp; she faltered before the blazing fire in Warrener's eyes. Verily, the interview was not working out quite so smoothly as she had planned it. She was going to be cold and dignified, sarcastic, but always as befitted her father's child. She was going to insist upon a proper explanation of Warrener's cryptic words of the night before. She had made up her mind to forgive him if he were duly penitent. And now——
'Really,' she faltered, 'I am quite at a loss to understand why——'
'Then I had better hasten to explain. I won't speak about your early life, but about mine. My father decided to go into trade because he was an honest man. He had an eccentric weakness for paying his debts. He could not understand why my grandfather never paid anybody. The fact that my father was a very unsuccessful business man has nothing to do with the story. Suffice it to say that he brought me up to share that eccentric weakness of his, and that I have never regretted it. When some twelve years of age I went to stay with my grandfather. We were poor enough, and often we lived the life of the keenest anxiety; but it was better than the life at the other place. My grandfather lived in a very cycle of debt; all his nicest feelings were warped. My grandfather counted the cost of nothing so long as he got all he wanted. He was a fine gentleman; he was a man of honour; he was a Warrener, in short; but that did not prevent three of his victims from dying in a workhouse and one of them from committing suicide. I tell you, no swindling scoundrel in the City was more degraded in my eyes than my grandfather. I hated and loathed it all. I got away from it as soon as I could, and I was only a boy at the time. To think of those poor, patient creatures being robbed so that the good name of the family for hospitality could be kept up! Nothing was paid for. It was no better than picking pockets. And there was the man who spoke in tones of the deepest regret for his son who had gone into business! But I dare say you are wondering why I tell you this. Let me ask you a question: Do you know any household where exactly the same kind of thing is going on to-day?'
Angela's face flamed crimson; the cruel tell-tale tide flamed over her features; the tiny ears were pink with an agony of shame. Warrener had struck home, and he had struck hard.
'You are going too far,' the girl said. Her voice shook; her eyes were full of tears. 'It is not fair to say this when you are under the shadow of our house. And it is not true.'
'It is true,' Warrener said slowly. 'Oh, I know that this talk of mine is inconsistent—that it exceeds the bounds of what society calls good taste. In ordinary circumstances I should say good-bye to you and go; but I can't say good-bye to you, Angela, because I love you, and because some day I hope to call you my wife. There is everything that is good and sweet under that cold manner of yours; but the time has to come when you shall realise that to be Miss Castlerayne of The Towers is not everything.'
'I suppose you mean to pay me a compliment,' Angela cried. 'If that is your idea——'
'It is. I am paying you the highest compliment a man can pay to a woman. The remark is trite, but it is true, all the same. And I tell you I am glad that you are going to have your lesson. Before long The Towers will cease to belong to you.'
'Really, is this part of the lesson that you have arranged for me?'
'The lesson is no doing of mine. Later on you will thank Craggs for that. It sounds like a wild and impossible situation from some play, Miss Castlerayne being ousted from her high estate by Craggs the Radical shoemaker! Craggs will fight your father to the end, and he will win his action. He is certain to succeed in proving the rights of the hospital to the Common. I have been all through his claim, and there is not a flaw in it. On the other hand, your father will fight as bitterly and as obstinately. He will lose, and the action will cost every penny of two thousand pounds. It won't be for Craggs to forgo these expenses, because they will form part of the costs of his solicitors; and solicitors keep their offices open for the specific purpose of making costs. They will bring a further action against your father for the raising of this money. They will make a bankrupt of him if he does not pay. Then, everything here will be sold and the house will have to be let. May I ask, Miss Angela, what is going to become of you then?'
Angela looked at the speaker with dull eyes. She was trying to comprehend what all those hard, cold words meant. The full force of the picture was coming to her slowly. She tried to smile, but the smile faded from her lips. All her dignity was gone now; she was merely a very pretty girl mutely asking for a strong man's protection.
'And this is your lesson?' she faltered. 'This is what you hope will happen?'
'It is your own lesson,' Warrener retorted, 'brought about by yourself. And you will be the better for it. Still, there is an alternative.'
'I am glad to hear that. Will you be so good as to tell me what it is?'
'Not at present—that would spoil the actual beauty of the story. But one thing you may be sure of: this lovely spot will not be defiled by a hotel. There is a far better way out of the difficulty than that. I would suggest it to your father to-day, but I feel quite sure he would not listen to me. He also will have to learn his lesson at the hands of the immovable Craggs. After the lesson is learnt, I shall come in again as a kind of fairy godfather and put things right. I shall put things right mainly by the use of the money that I have made in my despised trade. Where my model village stands to-day was once desolation and misery and demons in drink. To-day the place blooms like a rose. In this lovely spot is anxiety and doubt and despair; when I have done with it all those demons will be gone. I can't tell you more, Angela, because if I did so I should spoil the romance of the story. There is one thing that I ask: that you will give me credit for a sincere desire to——'
Angela looked up swiftly. She had forgotten that she had had all the worst of the argument. She saw the high resolution that shone in Clifford's eyes; she felt like one who is in the presence of a prophet. Her heart was curiously warm and light; she felt strangely drawn towards this masterful man.
'I do,' she cried impetuously. 'Perhaps I am utterly wrong. Perhaps we have lived in far too narrow a circle here. Mr. Warrener, let us shake hands. Though we are to be foes we may respect each other. And if you can convert me——'
THE girls sat out on the Common in the full glory of the sunshine. It was a day in late September, one of those perfectly still afternoons when the air is heavy with the hum of insects and the bees drug themselves with the saffron. Ever and again there was a touch of crispness in the sea-breeze, but the great sheet of blue lay there under the veiled light like the shimmer of innumerable jewels. From somewhere inland came the drone of a threshing-machine. The gorse was touched here and there with points of flame—the second bloom of the year; but the heath had lost its purple sheen now, though the bracken was turning from russet-brown to gold and purple and crimson. There was never a time, May thought, when the Common lacked a mantle of beauty. It seemed impossible to be anything but peaceful and contented there; but both the girls looked a little restless and anxious, as if expecting something. They were both very silent, with their eyes turned towards the sea. It was May who spoke first.
'I dare say the matter is settled by this time,' she said.
'What matter?' Angela asked with a poor attempt at indifference. 'I was trying to forget it. May, I believe that you are in sympathy with the enemy.'
'I don't recognise that Craggs is an enemy,' the younger girl replied. 'Why blame him? He is acting for the best from his point of view. And, whatever happens, we shall not be any worse off than we are at present. Suppose Craggs loses his action, how does that benefit us? Dad will have established his right to do what he pleases with the Common. He will be monarch of all he surveys. He will refuse to let anybody come here. He will repudiate that hotel idea with scorn.'
'But you admitted just now that you hated that hotel scheme!'
'So I do. Dad will do nothing; he would refuse to permit any industry here, however remunerative. Castleraynes have no connection with business. Craggs will have no scruples of the kind. He wants to win so that this classic spot can be used for the benefit of the hospitallers. That is why I hope he will win.'
Angela turned from the speaker with a gesture of contempt.
'What do you want to see here?' she asked. 'Oh, why are we so poor? Why can't we find minerals here—coal, or something of that kind?'
'The Spanish fleet you cannot see, because it's not in sight,' May quoted with a laugh. 'There is no coal here. As you have learnt by personal experience, I have a poetic mind, Angela. I want Craggs to win so that dad can't interfere with the Great Scheme. I have spoken of the Great Scheme before.'
'Oh, you have,' Angela sighed. 'The Great Scheme is to make our fortunes. I hardly think that dad would turn his back on a prospect like that.'
'He would. I sounded him. He pronounced the whole thing ridiculous. That is why he is to-day wasting his time and money in York defending the action which has been brought against him by the hospitallers. If he wins, then good-bye to all prospect of peace and happiness in the future. But he will not win.'
Angela plucked impatiently at a spike or two of gentian. She had heard of the hints of possible fortune many times lately. For the past three months May had been cryptic and mysterious; she had discussed Craggs's action with a smile of meaning, though she kept her secret well. And to-day was the second of the trial of the action Craggs versus Castlerayne, and at any time the verdict might arrive from York Assizes. Outwardly indifferent, Angela was inwardly in a fever of expectation. She was heart and soul on the side of her father; she would have been prepared to make any sacrifice to uphold the honour of the family.
'What is this precious secret of yours?' she asked. 'I feel sure that it is something between you and Mr. Warrener. Why do you keep it from me?'
'Because I promised to say nothing to anybody. And it is Mr. Warrener's idea. Mind you, he is quite powerless unless Craggs wins his action. Dad will never listen to the scheme if he keeps control of the Common.'
'Oh, indeed? Then this is a deliberate plot to bring about something that will be distasteful to us Castleraynes. A soap-factory perhaps. Or maybe a steam laundry. That would be a natural conclusion to the Warrener soap. Extensive drying-grounds of five hundred acres close to the sea! Are you going to be manageress?'
May laughed pleasantly. She remarked that Angela looked very handsome when she was angry.
'You are foolish,' May said, 'and very narrow in your views. There will be no steam laundry and no building of any kind if you except the restoration of the Dower-House. And this lovely common will not be touched; the Great Scheme will provide for its being left intact for ever. People will come here from all parts of the kingdom; they will rise up and call the creator of the scheme blessed. Angela, what is the present value of our land that fringes the whole of the Common?'
'Really, I don't know,' Angela replied. 'Martin says the five thousand acres of ours would be dear at half that amount of money. Why?'
'Because those gorsy acres are worth a fortune. Honestly, I am not joking. I know you give Mr. Clifford Warrener no credit for imagination; but in my eyes he is a poet. Like me, he is a benefactor to his race. Why did he not fall in love with me instead of you?'
'It seems a pity,' Angela said, with a red stain on her cheeks. 'If you care for him——'
'Not in that way. I could, easily enough, all the same. But he chose you instead; in fact, he told me so at the same time as he took me into his confidence over the Great Scheme. That beautiful imagination of his took in the whole thing; he saw the jewel lying at our feet, though we were too blind to see it for ourselves.'
Angela shrugged her shoulders indifferently; she turned away her head to the sea. She was too proud to ask for further particulars, though her curiosity was aflame.
'Goblin gold,' she said, with the petals of a head of gorse in her fingers. 'If this scheme would only pay some of those dreadful bills of ours, why——'
'Oh, it will. It will pay everybody; dad will be rich malgré lui. And in the course of time he will refer with pride to the brilliant qualities of his son-in-law.'
Angela rose with cold and frosty dignity. Really, May's joke was in very bad taste. And yet, deep down in her heart, Angela was a little sore and annoyed with Warrener. She had never forgotten that morning amongst the roses—the morning when Warrener had spoken so plainly to her, and she had responded with outstretched hand and a challenge to him to convert her to his side if he could. In spite of some provocation, Angela had behaved very well on that occasion, and she was cognisant of the fact.
She had quite come to admit Warrener's high qualities. He was a handsome man, too, and his family was as good as the Castleraynes. Also, he had spoken quite freely of his admiration for Angela. Also, she had not resented the boldness of his speech. And Angela had been reading a good deal of Shakespeare lately; she had been especially affected by the Taming of the Shrew. Unconsciously, her point of view had been Petruchio's. And here was the story of it all. Warrener had not been near The Towers since that June morning when he and Angela had stood face to face in the roses. Not one line had he sent the whole time. It never occurred to Angela to ask who had been responsible for all that work at the hospital or who paid for the staff of nurses who came to grapple with the demon of typhoid there. Warrener had gone away and made no sign. He had been playing with her.
The girls were by the edge of the hospital now. A figure crossed the lawn in the direction of the stone sundial, and May called aloud.
'Why, there is Craggs!' she exclaimed. 'He is back from York already. Beyond doubt the case is finished. Angela, let us go and get the verdict.'
Angela raised no objection. She was thrilled and eager to know the result. From the bottom of her heart she detested Craggs; she was a little ashamed that she should give so much feeling to so commonplace an object. Nevertheless, now her step was as quick as May's, her lips were parted more widely. Craggs raised a hand to his cap; the serenity of his gnarled old face was unchanged.
'I came back last night,' he explained. 'They said as I should not be wanted any more. I dare say as the case is done with by this time.'
'But you must be very anxious, of course. You arranged for a telegram?'
Craggs shook his head and smiled. He appeared to be exasperatingly sure of his ground, Angela thought. It was very unladylike, but she would have liked to shake him.
'Lord bless you, miss!' he said, 'there's no doubt about it.'
'But why did you start this claim?' Angela burst out. Her face was white; her eyes were flaming with indignation. 'I call it disgraceful of you, Craggs. After all the years that you have lived on the estate, to—to——'
Angela's indignation deprived her of further speech. The slow, tolerant—not to say patronising—smile did not fade from the old man's face. On the grass in the sun two little girls were playing. Craggs called to them; he laid a hand on the shoulder of each. There was something very manly and very tender about the old fellow now.
'Look at these two,' he said gently. 'Granddaughters of MacMasters, who was your family body-servant for fifty faithful years. Look at them—ain't they two pictures? Look at their blue eyes, their fair hair, and their lovely colouring. They are like the pictures as you have at The Towers.—Run away, little kittens, and go back to your play.—You ask me a question, Miss Angela, and I'll answer it. If things don't mend soon, who is going to look after the pretty creatures? What is going to become of 'em? Why, they are going to the workhouse. We are all going to the workhouse. And why? Because Castlerayne has failed in his duty to his people; he has forgotten his honour. For three steady generations you have wasted your property; you might, at any rate, have recollected those who were faithful to you, and put the money aside for the upkeep of the hospital. I tell you that was a debt of honour. The plumbago went, and then our spring of water went, and we should all be at the big house over beyond the village if it hadn't been for Miss Gertrude. Then we were dying of disease; we should have all been dead but for Mr. Warrener, who found the money to make the place fit for habitation. You want me to fold my hands and do nothing, to see those dear little children that Christ loves beyond us all carried off to herd it with the scum of the town. As for me, the hospital is my birthright. I looked forward to this home for my old age. I trusted to the word of a Castlerayne; but I trust to it no longer. And yet there is a funny side to it all.'
'Oh, indeed?' Angela said coldly. 'I confess that I fail to see it. Perhaps you will be so good as to enlighten me on that point.'
THE lines about the corner of Craggs's mouth relaxed for a moment. Angela would have felt less dignified if she had only known how completely and thoroughly the old man read her.
'The gift of humour is one of God's good things,' Craggs remarked sententiously. 'It came to me somewhere about the first time I had a few words with my old missis. Perhaps that's why we lived so happily together. It is a funny thing that old Craggs should be fighting the squire and getting the best of him. It's a queer thing that indirectly I am making the squire's fortune in spite of himself. But we need not go into that. If I can see the hospital on a proper footing that's all I care for.'
Angela turned and walked in the direction of the gate. She was filled with a strong idea that Craggs had had all the best of the argument. And it would have been a dreadful thing for all those poor people to go to the workhouse. The exodus would have been reflected on the Castleraynes. Angela looked thoughtfully at the picturesque building, with its brown-and-golden face, the lattice windows, and the fruit-trees in the garden beyond. There was quite a picturesque flavour about the hospital—it had been a feature of the landscape to point out to visitors with some pride. Here in this fair haven of rest the doyens of the clan lived out the evening of their lives, secure in the bounty of a powerful chief. Thus Angela had always regarded it. Craggs had been pleased to put a different face on it altogether, and Craggs's speech had not been couched in the language of diplomacy. In the highly coloured metaphor of the day, he had rubbed it in.
'And every word of it true,' May declared as the girls went down the winding path together. 'It would be a shameful thing if anything happened to these people. Well, I won't pursue the subject any further. Let us go home and have some tea—that is, providing the grocer has sent it. He intimated in a letter to-day that he must decline further credit unless he has a cheque on account. Oh, how sick and tired I am of it all! I should be far happier behind the counter of a shop!'
Tea was ready laid in the dim, oak-panelled hall where the family portraits hung. Perhaps the sordid soul of the grocer had relaxed, for the tea was there fresh and strong, and Aunt Gertrude sat by the side of the table. No message had come from York, though by this time doubtless the court had risen. The cosy meal was despatched, the daylight began to fade, and the lamps appeared, and yet no message from York. It was a little before dinner-time when the head of the house returned.
'We quite expected a telegram from you, father,' Angela said reproachfully.
'I dare say it would have been better,' Mr. Castlerayne admitted candidly. 'Fact is, I went with Brownlow to see some horses that he had been buying, and forgot all about it. A pair of dark bays, Angela, dirt cheap at four hundred guineas.'
May's eyes twinkled. All this was so like her father.
Angela flushed angrily. It was very unfortunate; but she lacked the saving grace which Craggs had found in the early days of his married life. She laid her hand on Mr. Castlerayne's shoulder; the pressure of her fingers was warmer than was absolutely necessary.
'We have spent a miserably anxious day,' she said. 'I have been most restless and unhappy. And all you can talk about is Mr Brownlow's new horses! How did the case go on?'
'Bless me, there is the dinner-bell!' Mr. Castlerayne exclaimed, 'and I am not dressed yet. I'll tell you all about it after the servants have put the dinner on the table. Tell Williams that I shall want a bottle of the claret—the claret, mind. And let him be more careful——'
The rest of the speech was lost in the gloom of the corridor.
The dinner dragged slowly along from the soup to the grouse and the entrée, and the sweets afterwards. There were the ruddy, lovely peaches, the blooming grapes, the claret warmed to a nicety and poured from the cup given to the last profligate Castlerayne by George the Fourth. To use simple words, Rayne Castlerayne calculated that that jug had cost half a million of money. There are times when the favour of a monarch proves expensive.
'Well,' Angela asked as the door closed behind the butler, 'tell us what happened.'
'How impatient the girl is!' Mr. Castlerayne protested. 'Gertrude, the grouse had not been hung quite long enough. Oh, the action? Craggs was quite right. Indeed, I was told yesterday morning that I had a poor case. I was advised then that it would be better to withdraw, and save a hundred or two in lawyers' fees, but I refused. Couldn't give in like that, you know. Most tiresome case all along. Those fellows talked and argued until I didn't quite understand whether I was plaintiff or defendant. But the judge held that the hospitallers had a vested interest in the Common, and that they had the right to use it for their benefit, provided that they don't sell it, or dig for minerals, or anything of that kind. Very annoying; but at any rate nobody can blame me for the hotel that is going to be erected on the Common. Not that I've done with Craggs yet by any means. I shall certainly take the case to the Court of Appeal.'
'But that will want a deal of money,' May protested. 'How much do you think has been spent already in this action? But I suppose you have no idea.'
Mr. Castlerayne poured himself out another glass of claret with a judicial air. As he sat there, well groomed, smart, debonnaire, he did not in the least resemble the bankrupt that he really was. He was surrounded with every luxury, with the reflected refulgence of absolute prosperity; in short, he was the head of the Castleraynes. There was something like a frown on his face as he turned to May.
'My dear child, you pay a poor compliment to my intelligence,' he said. 'It is not to be supposed that I have gone into the unfortunate action with my eyes shut. I gathered from my lawyers to-day what has been expended up to now.'
'Was that after you had broached the question of an appeal?' May asked.
'Well, yes. I am bound to admit that it was. I told Summers that I could not possibly allow matters to end in this unsatisfactory verdict. He reminded me that from first to last I had incurred a responsibility of some fifteen hundred pounds.'
'Every penny of which you will have to pay,' May suggested.
'That, I understand, is the position. I either pay up, or I appeal. If I appeal and win there is an end of the matter.'
'And if you appeal and lose,' May asked, 'what will happen in that case, dad?'
Mr. Castlerayne declined to discuss the matter further. He had quite made up his mind what to do, and as head of the family he could not tolerate any interference. Furthermore, he wanted to know if anybody had seen his cigar-case. He had no feeling of animosity against Craggs, though he confessed that he was a little ashamed at the fellow's ingratitude.
May had a mind to ask where the ingratitude came in, but she wisely refrained.
'There is only one thing I should like to know,' she said as she rose from the table. 'It is quite useless to talk about an appeal. Mr. Summers will refuse to do anything of the kind till you have some security for his expenses. What I should like to know is where the fifteen hundred pounds is coming from. Seeing that we are not in a position to pay for the necessaries of life—such as grouse, and brown trout, and the like—where is this big sum coming from? I ask this because I should like to know how soon it will be necessary for me to get something to do.'
Mr. Castlerayne frowned at his claret-glass. He saw some parallel between himself and King Lear. He was pained to find that his every action did not meet with the entire approval of his family. Doubtless the money would come from somewhere. Summers was a clever fellow, and he could devise some scheme. That was what lawyers were paid for. Meanwhile, he would like to know what had become of that day's Times.
'He's absolutely hopeless,' May sighed as she took a seat in the drawing-room. 'He is quite as unreasonable as any child. Aunt, what are you crying about?'
Two large tears gathered in Aunt Gertrude's eyes and rolled down upon her knitting. She looked like a guilty child about voluminously to confess to some fault.
'It's so dreadful, May,' she sobbed. 'I'm glad Angela is not here. Angela is so hard at times. She never seems to feel anything.'
'Oh yes, she does,' May said. 'She has gone to bed. Whenever Angela goes to bed early it is to have a good cry. She is at the present moment weeping on her lonely pillow. And now, what are you blaming yourself about, you dear old thing?'
'I'm blaming myself, May. It is all my doing. I gave Craggs nearly all I possessed to fight this case. I could see that we could not last very much longer. I could see that everything would have to go. It was only by drawing on my savings that I kept certain creditors from taking serious steps. But it was the future of the hospital that troubled me, May. I could not sleep at nights for thinking of it. There was a plain and sacred duty before me. It would have been such a mean and despicable thing to let those people go to the workhouse. And yet I could not possibly see how to avoid it. And then when things got to the very worst, when Craggs discovered that it was I who was keeping up the funds of the hospital, he told me what he had discovered years before: that the hospitallers had a vested right in the Common. That was after the hotel scheme was mooted. I knew that in ordinary circumstances your father would never consent to the project, and saw in it rent enough from the hotel to save the hospital. But Craggs had no money. Oh, if you only knew how I was torn and distracted! I prayed for guidance. I could only see a way whereby I should be guilty of treachery to my own flesh and blood, and yet not to do something would have been more wicked and unworthy. So, in the end, I gave Craggs that money. And in my heart of hearts I am glad that I did so. I am glad that I acted so. I could not possibly go on like this much longer, May.'
'Of course we can't,' May cried. She rose to her feet and paced up and down the room. 'I can see quite plainly what is going to happen. The largest sums of money are represented by lawyers' costs. They will not spare dad as his poor creditors do. They will compel us to sell this house and all the family treasures. We ought to have done it ourselves years ago, and retired to Hardborough as the Montagues did. Those Romneys and Reynolds and Raeburns would fetch a small fortune, to say nothing of the silver and the Empire furniture. And then we can go about with our heads in the air and boast about our ancestry with a feeling that we are not taking the bread out of the mouths of other people. We will take a little of the surplus and open a shop in Hardborough, and sell a few hundred bales of that knitting that you have been engaged upon for the last half-century. I am going to write to Mr. Warrener and ask him to come down to-morrow.'
Aunt Gertrude blushed and looked a little uneasy. May laughed, though there were tears in her voice all the time she had been speaking.
'Confess it,' she said. 'You have done something wrong. Naughty child! what have you been doing?'
'It's Clifford Warrener,' Aunt Gertrude whispered. 'I—I have written to him myself, and he has promised me to come and see us on Saturday.'
IT was a pregnant saying of May Castlerayne's that her father must have been born with the artistic temperament, he had so little knowledge of the value of money and so little heed for the future. Most geniuses have suffered from the same amenable weakness. But we have it on record that even so splendid a spendthrift as Oliver Goldsmith had his moments of carking anxiety, not lessened by the knowledge that his misfortunes were entirely of his own making.
Rayne Castlerayne was much in this position. It was gradually coming home to him that there was only one way out of the impasse. He looked very old and haggard as he sat at his desk in the library turning over a number of papers. It had quite suddenly come home to him that not only had he no money, but that he had no means of raising money. There was a polite but firm note from his bankers refusing to honour any further cheques; here were numerous applications for payment of accounts; and here, also, was a letter from the family lawyer couched in the plainest and most unpleasant terms. Mr. Summers had not minced matters. He pointed out the fact that something would have to be done to meet certain pressing claims, or the annoyances would be serious indeed. Mr. Summers further intimated that he would come over after luncheon and discuss the situation with his client.
Rayne Castlerayne was almost ready to admit that he had been to blame. When he had taken possession of the property five-and-twenty years ago the income of the estate had been a little over fifteen hundred pounds a year. Where had it all gone to? It was quite impossible for the head of the family to say. He had lost certain good opportunities of making the condition of things better. For instance, there were those five thousand odd acres of land between the sea and the Common. The land was grandly picturesque, the air bracing and rigorous, but the crop was mainly blackberries and bracken. Twenty years ago a big speculative firm had offered Mr. Castlerayne a fancy price for the land with an eye to the formation of an exclusive watering-place. The offer had been rejected with scorn. Castlerayne began to wish that he had not been quite so precipitate. Greater men than himself had taken such golden opportunities; he could call to mind a score of members of the peerage who sold a deal of their property to popular watering-places.
Perhaps it would be possible to let The Towers and go abroad. He could not sell the house, for it formed the very last portion of the Castlerayne settled estates. The land beyond the Common was his to do with as he pleased, but nobody would buy it; the poor soil was good for nothing. And it would be difficult at this time of day to try to compete with prosperous Hardborough close by.
Castlerayne's meditation was bitter enough, and his cigar lacked flavour as he faced these stern facts. He welcomed the advent of his solicitor with effusion. It seemed to relieve him of a part of his responsibility. And Summers was a clever fellow; he would be pretty sure to find some way out of the difficulty. It sounded vague, but the typical Micawber-like attitude was essentially a Castlerayne attribute. The family solicitor sat down and wiped his gold-rimmed glasses. With his erect figure, his keen eyes, and his well-trimmed gray moustache, he looked not unlike 'the county' himself.
'Glad you've come, Summers,' Castlerayne said with a sigh. 'I've been going over those papers till my head aches. Have a cigar? I forgot you don't smoke till after dinner. What's all this about Foster? As far as I can judge, it seems to me that Foster has been behaving very badly.'
'Foster naturally wants his money. He is in difficulties himself. Really, my friend, it isn't a nice thing for you to owe Foster fifty pounds. He is a very hard-working fellow, with a big family. He put you in the county court. You simply let the matter slide, and he issued what is called a judgment summons. So far as I can understand, you let that slide also. If you had not been Mr. Castlerayne of The Towers you would have found yourself in an awkward position—a very awkward position. A judgment debtor is expected to come before the judge periodically and be examined as to his ability to pay. If the judge is satisfied that the debtor is telling the truth, he makes an order for so much per month. You ignored the matter altogether, and you were ordered to pay the full amount within eight days. If the money is not paid by Friday you will go to jail.'
The choice cigar dropped from Castlerayne's mouth and lay unheeded on the floor. The blood receded from his face, leaving it ghastly white. The statement was stupendous, incredible! It seemed impossible that such things should be permitted in a civilised country. And the day after to-morrow was Friday!
'Is—is this true?' Castlerayne stammered. 'But it must be true. I never heard you joke, Summers. And my bank people refuse to cash any more cheques for me. I tell you, I haven't a five-pound note in the world. Anyway, I'll get you to pay this for me.'
'No,' Summers said firmly, 'I think not. I'm not justified in doing it, Castlerayne. It's not fair to my family, with two boys at Cambridge. You will probably be surprised to hear that you owe me five hundred pounds one way and another, and that nearly half of it is money out of my pocket. That is why I came to see you to-day. I advised you very strongly not to fight Craggs's action, but you would not listen. To-day I accepted service of a writ from Craggs's solicitors for over eleven hundred pounds costs in the action. In a week's time they can levy execution.'
Castlerayne wiped the damp from his forehead. He seemed to have aged strangely in the last hour or two since he had the courage to face his position. He picked up the fallen cigar, but he did not place it in his lips again. There was a queer pain in his left side, a twitching of the arm, that he had never felt before.
'Will you put that quite plainly, please?' he whispered.
'I thought I had. Craggs's solicitors can come here and take everything. They can sell your pictures and your plate and your old furniture to pay their claim. There is only one way by which you can prevent the inevitable.'
'Go on, Summers. I begin to understand things more clearly. I seem to have been living in a kind of fool's paradise all these years. It is a kind of hideous dream. Only a day or two ago I was Castlerayne of The Towers; to-day I am a pauper. If I can't find this money by Friday I go to jail; if I don't pay Craggs's solicitors I lose my home. If there is any possible way out of the mess——'
'Well, there is no way out of the mess,' Summers went on coldly and judicially. 'The utmost you can do is to save yourself from unpleasant exhibition. Bankruptcy wipes out everything of that kind. If you put your petition in bankruptcy, Foster can't touch you. You will be spared the indignity of having the bailiffs and sheriffs officers in possession of The Towers. But everything will have to be sold for the benefit of the creditors. My dear old friend, I am exceedingly sorry, far more sorry than I can say; but there is absolutely no other way to save you.'
So it was coming at last, the very thing that the head of the family had so absolutely refused to look squarely in the face. There had been no disgrace in the steady robbing of poor tradesmen, no contumely in those imposed bills; but bankruptcy was another matter altogether. It meant exposure, and awkward questions by a cold official who had no respect for the Castlerayne dignity. It meant the resignation of exclusive clubs, the loss of the Commission of the Peace. It was so sordid and vulgar.
'Wait a moment,' Castlerayne groaned. 'My head has all gone queer. I can't think. It will be a terrible thing for my family, Summers.'
'Of course it will. But, after all, it will be no more than people have been expecting for years. There is enough here to pay everybody, and perhaps leave a little over. There would not be the slightest trouble in letting The Towers for three hundred a year, and you could all live on that money. You might be worse off.'
But Castlerayne refused to be comforted. He was fond of his home, and proud of it. He fully appreciated the artistic beauties of his pictures; the elegant simplicity of the old furniture was absolutely essential to him. And ruthless hands would deprive him of all this in a few days' time. He felt troubled and humiliated, ready to ask favours of those whom he had hitherto patronised.
'I can't decide anything now,' he groaned. 'Really I can't, Summers. Give me a day to think it over. I don't want to be rude, but I should like to be alone for a time. I'll come and see you to-morrow afternoon.'
Summers took the hint and departed. For a long time Castlerayne sat with his head on his hands, moved for once to the depths of his soul. Presently he could see the sun shining through the stained glass of the windows; he noted the light as it lingered on a Romney and caught the corner of a Louis XVI. commode. That Persian carpet had been on the floor for the best part of a century. How fresh the colours were!
Perhaps it was possible to do something yet. Foster might be paid. No doubt Gertrude would not mind advancing the money for that purpose. It was hard upon Gertrude, who had found so much out of her slender portion lately; but still——
Aunt Gertrude was in the still-room putting up some early damson-jam. Her slender figure was covered with a long white apron. The air was heavy with the rich aroma of fruit. Miss Castlerayne's face grew a little anxious as she noted her brother's expression. He paced up and down the room. He was showing none of his usual optimistic reticence now.
'I'm going to see Craggs,' he said. 'In his heart, Craggs is by no means a bad fellow. That fellow Foster is quite different. Foster must be paid and his account closed. In no circumstances could I ever consent to deal with him again.'
Castlerayne spoke quite firmly. There was no animosity in his voice—nothing but pleasing determination. Aunt Gertrude looked a little anxious.
'That is all very well,' she said; 'but who is going to pay him?'
'Well, it occurred to me that you would oblige. It is only a matter of fifty pounds. As a loving sister, you could not for a moment contemplate the alternative. Therefore, I shall look to you to see that this claim of Foster's is satisfied.'
'I'm afraid that it is quite impossible,' Aunt Gertrude faltered. She had grown very pale; her lips were white and drawn. 'It is not that I will not do it, Rayne; it is simply because I can't. I haven't the money. I—I had one or two claims to settle. At the present moment I have certainly not more than five pounds to my credit at the bank. Oh Rayne, if you only knew how it hurts me to tell you this; if only——'
'But there—there are other things. Part of your mother's jewellery, which I understood——'
'Oh Rayne, Rayne, they are gone too! What a wicked woman I am!'
IT was hard for Mr. Castlerayne to act just at that moment as the fine gentleman that he believed himself to be. He could not exactly reproach his sister, seeing that most of her slender fortune had gone to satisfy his own extravagance. But a little time ago he had entirely been under the impression that Gertrude had some hundreds of pounds at her disposal. It might have been that she had paid some of his more pressing debts, for the head of the family had never troubled himself about them.
'There is no occasion to blame yourself, my dear,' he said magnanimously. 'I have no doubt that you have acted for what seemed to be the best. I dare say we shall find some means to satisfy the rapacity of that fellow Foster. Meanwhile, I will go as far as the hospital and see Craggs. I have not the slightest doubt that his lawyers are acting on their own responsibility in this matter.'
Castlerayne spoke lightly and pleasantly enough, but he was haunted by a certain wearying doubt as he crossed the Common. The violence of his sister's agitation had afforded him a clue. There had been no occasion for so marked a display of feeling. Castlerayne did not forget how great and tender an interest his sister took in the hospital, and how she had fought for the poor people there for the last twenty years. He put the doubt from him as unworthy. Gertrude would never have committed so base an act of treachery.
The Common lay smiling in the still September sunshine. It was one of the golden days with a touch of autumn in the air. The seed-pods of the gorse crackled; the hum of the bees rose high in the air. For fifty years now Castlerayne had marked the changes of the year there; man and boy, it had become part of his existence. He began to realise what the loss of it all would be. There he had shot his first grouse; there he had found the hawk's nest. His mind travelled back over the level range of the years. And it was all going at last—he had frittered it all away. There was the glorious fringe of gorse and heath and heather beyond the Common, where by this time villas and streets of houses might have stood if he had not been so filled with his pride of race. A duke had done the same at Eastbourne, and nobody had thought any the worse of him. After all, it would have been no very great inconvenience to have a hotel erected on the site of the Dower-House. Perhaps there was reason in the action that Craggs had undertaken; at any rate, a graceful surrender would have obliterated the necessity for the disgraceful bankruptcy that Castlerayne saw before him.
He came at length to the hospital, bathed in the brown light of the September afternoon. An elderly woman with some kind of lacework before her curtsied to him. A couple of shy children emerged from one of the dark doorways and touched their forelocks. There was something soothing about the process.
Craggs roared a welcome as Castlerayne knocked at the door. The old man sat in his big arm-chair before a wisp of fire in the grate, for the rheumatism was hard upon him. He had a big book open on a little table by his side, and Castlerayne could see that it was a volume of Cobbett. The old man regarded his visitor with surprise.
'Well, this is a nice mess you've got me into!' Castlerayne exclaimed.
Craggs indicated a hardwood chair on the other side of the fireplace. He did not seem in the least impressed by the importance of the occasion. He wiped his iron-rimmed glasses on a flaming red handkerchief, and replaced them carefully. There was no sign of the victor about him.
'I'm sorry to hear it, sir,' he said. 'I'm doing the best I can for everybody. I'm not by disposition a quarrelsome man; but when I have to fight, I'm like the Quaker in the story. You should never have gone and fought that action, I guess.'
'It is easy to be wise after the event, Craggs. To do my solicitor justice, he strongly advised me to come to terms with you. I honestly believed myself to be entirely in the right, and so I refused to do anything of the kind. And now your solicitors are pressing me for an enormous bill that I can't possibly pay. If the money is not paid I shall be turned out of The Towers and everything will be sold. As you are so tenacious on the subject of your own house, perhaps you can judge of my feelings, Craggs.'
Craggs nodded thoughtfully. He was not moved to any display of extravagant sympathy. From his hard, logical point of view, the squire had brought this thing on himself.
'I could do nothing else,' he said. 'The Lord put it into my head as I was to be the guardian of these poor folks here. He led me to look up that old charter; and then I found out as the Common really belonged to the hospitallers, who could fit it to any purpose as they'd a mind so as to make a little money out of it. There was money provided by the will of your great-grandfather to endow the hospital for ever, and your grandfather took and spent every penny of it amongst his dissolute companions. And you never did a thing for us, squire; and you can't deny it. If it hadn't been for Miss Gertrude we should have all gone to the House long ago. That's why I took action under our rights conferred by the charter. When the money was found, no time was lost in making our position clear.'
'But who found the money, Craggs? One of your Radical associates, I suppose—the set of people who are never happy unless they are setting class against class. Or perhaps you are in the hands of some speculative money-lender——'
'Nothing of the kind, sir,' Craggs cried indignantly. 'The money came from somebody who is very dear to us—a lady, in fact. But I am talking too fast, like the querulous old idiot that I am. After all, it's no business of yours, squire.'
Castlerayne was ominously silent for a moment. His face had turned very pale; then it flushed very red till there was a mist before the eyes of the squire. He was likely to flare out there and then in a sudden fit of wild Berserk rage, the strong, hasty passion of the man who usually is of even temperament. He restrained an impulse to take Craggs by the throat and choke the life out of him.
The fit passed presently, and left him trembling and breathless. Craggs, staring thoughtfully into the fire through the round glasses, saw nothing of this. He was convinced that the squire didn't suspect anything. He could not look into the black, raging heart of the other. It was some little time before Castlerayne spoke again.
'We need not trouble about the past,' he said. 'It is the future that concerns me. I never thought that I should come here to ask you a favour, Craggs. I bear you no malice. You have fought me openly and honourably, and I am beaten. But from your solicitors' point of view it is a different matter. They look upon this as a mere money-making game. They are going to have their pound of flesh or force me into bankruptcy. I want you to tell them to give me a little time—say a month. If you will do this for me——'
'I'll do all I can, squire; though the matter you mention is out of my power. It's a dreadful thing for a gentleman in your position to find that—— But I'm getting presumptuous.'
Craggs thoughtfully wiped his glasses again, and Castlerayne stared moodily into the fire. He was cherishing vengeful thoughts now. He was in a black and bitter mood which would considerably have astonished the old cobbler if he could have looked into the mind of his visitor.
'I suppose that you will close with these hotel-people now?' he asked.
'No, we sha'n't,' Craggs returned with something like a smile. 'There's a better scheme than that. It was useless to bring the scheme before you, because you would have been certain to oppose it. Lord, how short-sighted some people are, to be sure! And how the blessing in disguise is regarded as a black misfortune! You're down on your luck to-day; but the good time is coming, a far better time than you deserve, if you'll pardon me for saying so. I'll do what I can with the lawyers. I'm afraid, though, it isn't much good.'
In his heart of hearts Castlerayne was of the same opinion. But he was not thinking of those learned in the law just at that moment. He had something sterner to distract his attention. His face was dark and stern as he made his way across the Common in the direction of The Towers. He had to deal with the black treachery, as he called it, existing under his own rafters. He no longer doubted where the money had come from to fight Craggs's action. Out of her sympathy for the hospital, Gertrude had found it. In a mean and despicable manner she had helped to ruin her own flesh and blood. If the means had not been forthcoming Craggs could never have been successful in his action; nay, he could never have brought an action at all. And the result had been to drag down an honourable name and cause an unfortunate man to go into a vulgar and sordid bankruptcy. Castlerayne was quite sure that he could have pulled round but for the treachery on the part of his sister.
He swung through the heather, lashing the tips with his cane as he went along. He came at length to his own room, where the candles were burning on the dressing-table and his evening suit had been laid out by his man. He changed very slowly and carefully. Barely had he taken more pains over the setting of his black tie. Outwardly he was cool enough, but inwardly he was raging. He was hardly conscious of the fact that his lips were twitching strangely. There was a queer contortion of the left eyelid. The healthy brown of the face had given way to a positively gray tinge. But Castlerayne heeded it not.
Down in the drawing-room the lamps were lighted. Nobody was there when the master of the house arrived. Everything looked so orderly, so refined, so fastidious; there lay no shadow of poverty there. The clock over the fireplace chimed the half-hour after seven; then the door opened and Gertrude Castlerayne, attired in some soft gray silk, came in.
'As the evening was chilly, I thought that you would like a fire, Rayne,' she said. 'What is the matter? How gray and strange your face looks!'
She started back, filled with some undefined fear; but Castlerayne came forward and took her by the shoulders. She had never seen her brother like this before. Her own face had gone as pale and chill as his. He seemed to have some difficulty in speaking.
'I have seen Craggs,' he said between his teeth. 'He did not mean to betray you, but he has. And only this afternoon you told me that you had lost all your money. I know where all that money has gone. There is no need for you to prevaricate. So it is from my own household that the treacherous blow comes. After all these years! Men have done murder for less than this before now. But I shall say nothing. I shall leave it all to your conscience. I shall, I hope, not forget that so long as you are a guest here——'
A quick, broken cry rang through the room, half-drowned by the clang of the dinner-gong. With white face and startled eyes, Gertrude Castlerayne faced the speaker.
'Rayne,' she wailed—'Rayne, you are cruel! Oh, so cold and cruel! A guest in the house! I! And after all these years, to think——'
'Will you take my arm?' Castlerayne said. 'I heard the gong. Do not let us forget that, after all, there are certain social obligations to observe. Will you, please?'
Gertrude Castlerayne sank to her knees on the floor; her head had fallen into the seat of a chair. Her form was torn by passionate sobs that seemed to choke her. The door opened again, and May stood astonished and amazed by the extraordinary scene that lay before her.
THERE was something very swift and dramatic about the whole business. Castlerayne's face was white like that of his sister, but the expression was not the same. His mouth was hard and cruel, his lips pressed together with a fine simulation of firmness; he had never been really firm in his life, though he looked it now. He stood there with his back to the fireplace, slim anger in immaculate black-and-white, with the fine carving of the overmantel for a background. It was no setting for the vulgar emotions—there could be nothing like violence.
In front of him stood Aunt Gertrude, with her slim white hands outstretched tremblingly. A ray of light from one of the lamps shone on her face. For background she had the oak-panelled wall and a couple of sombre brown-and-yellow portraits by Reynolds. Her breath was coming fast between her parted lips.
'What does all this mean?' May asked. 'What has Aunt Gertrude done?'
'We will not discuss it,' the stern figure by the fireplace said. 'As I informed my sister just this moment, the dinner-gong has sounded.—One should never keep servants waiting, Gertrude. Let me give you my arm.'
It sounded very terrible and very grand, no doubt. It was the dignified conduct of monarchs and statesmen in the hour of stress, the kind of thing one reads in the Grandisonian class of novel. May bit her lips quite in the modern way.
'There will be plenty of time to explain afterwards,' Castlerayne said.
Aunt Gertrude came out of her waking dream. The mere suggestion of food filled her with loathing, yet she took the proffered arm and clung to it.
In his secret heart Mr. Castlerayne was greatly pleased with himself. He was about to vindicate the outraged honour of the family without saying anything calculated to lower the dignity of his position. He chatted affably to May; he smiled benignly on his elder daughter. His face grew sterner when the dessert reached the table and the servants had gone. There was a fluttering turn of heads in his direction.
'I see you are expecting me to speak,' he said.
His voice was quite smooth; the lamplight gave dignity to his face. Also, the lamplight fell in glaring shafts of light on the artistic confusion of fruit—purple grapes and ruddy peaches—old silver and glass, ruby wines, and the flashing cut-glass decanters. Approving ancestors lined the walls—there could not have been more appropriate setting for the dignity of the speaker. 'After all, it is entirely a matter between your—my sister and myself. She has chosen to take certain steps which I entirely disagree with. I will not blame her; no doubt she has acted according to her lights. It was not the line of conduct I expected. Still, so long as she remains a guest under my roof——'
A moan of pain came from Aunt Gertrude. She sat there with folded hands, meek and quiet as a child.
May rose and kissed her. May understood.
'What is the meaning of all this nonsense?' she demanded.
It was the banal note frequently so destructive of the higher flights of dialectics.
'You had better ask your aunt,' Castlerayne retorted somewhat feebly. 'During the short time that she is likely to remain under my roof——'
'Are any of us likely to remain here long? I am sorry to be rude, father; but this is—is disgraceful. Oh, I know exactly what you are alluding to. But for Aunt Gertrude, old Craggs could not have fought that action of his. She lent him the money. In similar circumstances I should have done the same thing.'
'You would have done—the same—thing?' Castlerayne faltered. 'My child!'
'Indeed I would. There would have been no action had you listened to Mr. Summers. He told you that Craggs was merely fighting for the rights of the hospitallers, for their very existence. There are people yonder who have worked for us all their lives. It has been an understood thing that we provided for their old age, and now we leave them to go to the workhouse. Oh, the shame of it! the disgrace of it! And because Aunt Gertrude has stripped herself to preserve the good name of the family——'
'What has she done?' Angela pleaded. 'Oh, what has she done?'
'What has she done?' May echoed scornfully. 'Oh, nothing. She has given up her whole life to our father and ourselves. For our sakes she has remained single; she resigned the man who loved her because the family dignity called for the sacrifice.—Aunt Gertrude, I must, I will speak.'
'It were better I had died years ago,' Miss Castlerayne sobbed.
'It would have been a very sad day for us,' May went on. 'We never went to school for the simple reason that there was no money to send us; and yet we are quite well-educated girls because Aunt Gertrude taught us all she knew. No mother could have been more kind and tender, more thoughtful for our happiness.'
'It is all the more inexplicable,' Castlerayne remonstrated, 'that she should ruin us now.'
A bitter laugh rose to May's lips, but she crushed it down,
'Has she ruined us?' she asked. 'I may be dense, but it seems to me to be quite the other way about. I understand that when Aunt Gertrude came to us she had nearly five thousand pounds of her own. That was the provision for her old age, the least that a gentlewoman could live on. Where has all that money gone? It has gone to pay our shameless debts; it has passed into the pockets of poor people who trusted to the word of a Castlerayne for payment. Little by little that money has vanished. A good deal of it has gone to cigars and vintage—clarets, I should say.'
The head of the house winced perceptibly. He murmured something as to the modern daughter and her ways. But the Grandisonian manner was no longer there. Then, to the surprise of everybody, Aunt Gertrude rose. She was trembling from head to foot, her face was very pale, yet her voice was firm and sweet.
'Hush, May,' she said; 'you are forgetting yourself. It is so good of you to take my part; but you are going too far. I have done wrong in your father's eyes; he has asked me to look for a home elsewhere. I have found it. For some time past I have looked for something of the kind. It was wrong of me——'
'It was absolutely impossible of you,' Castlerayne said indignantly.
'Perhaps so, Rayne. Still, I looked upon the welfare of the hospital as a sacred duty. I knew what was going to happen. That hotel suggestion was a hateful one; but, nevertheless, I welcomed it because I saw in the scheme a way to save our poor people. So long as you, as lord of the manor, had the final word, the scheme was hopeless. But Craggs put a different complexion on it altogether. He proved to me that the Common belonged to the hospital. He could do nothing without money. I lent him the money. I would do it again to-morrow. I am not in the least ashamed of my action. From your point of view, Rayne, I have struck a blow at the family honour. You have told me quite politely that I am no longer a member of your household; you are good enough to regard me as your guest until I can find a home elsewhere. That home is found. I shall not trouble you with my presence after to-morrow.'
'Oh, this is out of the question!' Angela cried. 'What does it matter what Aunt Gertrude has said and done? She is still Aunt Gertrude to us. The Towers would not be the same place without her. If she stays here——'
'She has ruined us,' Castlerayne protested; 'and she has done it deliberately.'
'We were ruined in any case,' May protested. 'My dear father——'
'The discussion is getting painful,' Castlerayne said with much dignity. 'There is nothing to be gained by continuing it. I hold very strong views in the matter. As a man of determination, I could not possibly regard your aunt's conduct as—as——'
The speaker paused and indicated the door with a fine gesture. It was a signal that the conference was at an end. Hot words trembled on May's lips, but she restrained them. It was an outrage and violation of all the sacred laws of consanguinity. Aunt Gertrude's transient dignity had vanished; she was crying softly now. She passed in the direction of the drawing-room, trembling and marvelling at her own temerity. She did not look in the least like a martyr; but nevertheless she was the stuff that martyrs are made of. She was sorry; she was hurt and grieved; but she had no regret for her action. She sat in a big arm-chair and suffered the girls to make much of her.
'You are not going away,' Angela said vehemently. 'We will detain you by force if necessary. What should we do without you, auntie? All the same, I'm sorry you helped that dogmatic old Craggs to get the best of us.'
'I had to,' Aunt Gertrude sobbed. 'My duty lay plain before me. I could not die happy knowing that my dear hospitallers were in need. They are provided for now that the hotel scheme is accomplished.'
'It isn't accomplished, and it never will be accomplished,' May declared. 'No hotel is going to defile the serenity of our own dear old common. All the same, your great sacrifice has not been in vain, auntie. The result will be exactly the same thing, and the sun of prosperity is going to shine on us again.'
'More of May's enigmas,' Angela laughed. 'And when I ask her to say what she means she tells me to wait and be patient. As if anybody could be patient at such a time as this! Auntie, do you know what this wonderful secret is?'
'Indeed I don't, dear,' Miss Castlerayne said, wiping her eyes on some faded yellow square of lace miscalled a handkerchief. 'May is too clever for me. All I know is that the fate of the hospital is saved, and we can ask Mr. Warrener to help us with every confidence that he will not lose his money.'
'Mr Warrener!' Angela exclaimed. A spot of crimson tinged her cheeks. 'I should like to know what Mr. Warrener has to do with it.'
'You will know all in good time,' May laughed. 'Strange that our lives should be so bound up in the emollient!—Auntie, you were going to say something.'
'I was alluding to the hospital,' Aunt Gertrude resumed. 'There will be money for each of the houses there now, enough to keep the poor people decently and in order. Unless your father changes his mind I could not remain here. Don't interrupt me, or I shall break down again. The handkerchief belonged to my grandmother. It is old Brussels. One of the houses in the hospital is vacant; it is furnished, as you know. With a cottage like that and a few shillings a week it would be possible to live. Fortunately, my needs are simple. I can quite understand my brother's feelings; I can quite sympathise with his point of view. I have sinned beyond redemption, and he could not tolerate me any longer. Therefore, as I am a poor member of the clan, for the time being I am going to become a hospitaller. I take up my abode there to-morrow. It is no use protesting, my dears; my mind is made up. And I shall have the company of Craggs to fall back on. I am really fond of Craggs.'
MR. CASTLERAYNE was having an exceedingly bad quarter of an hour at the hands of his younger daughter. She was full of questions; she bubbled with pointed interrogation. Was her father going to sit down and see this disgraceful thing accomplished? Was he aware of the fact that, practically speaking, he owed Aunt Gertrude five thousand pounds? Did he know that he had robbed his sister of her fortune bit by bit?
To May's intense surprise, she had found Aunt Gertrude quite fixed on her intention. She had been gentle and smiling, blushing and tearful, by turn; but she was perfectly firm. May had hoped for better things on a night's reflection, but morning brought no change. Aunt Gertrude had been up betimes; she had been as far as the hospital, and Craggs had arranged for a local man-of-all-work to call later in the day for Miss Castlerayne's lares and penates. It is just possible that Rayne Castlerayne regretted his behaviour of the previous evening. But the head of the family had given his word; he could not go back now.
'We were ever a headstrong race,' he said grandly—'headstrong and impulsive.'
'I should scarcely call Aunt Gertrude headstrong,' May said dryly. 'You have only to go to her and offer her an ample apology for——'
'Apology? My dear May, the magnanimity of my conduct—— But, really, it might be a great deal worse. It is not as bad as a girl of position marrying beneath her station. If Gertrude chooses to quarrel with me, why——'
May abandoned the contest as hopeless. She was a little sorry for her father, too. He had a worried expression, and a heap of papers before him. He was making some sort of effort to grapple with his position. And perhaps Aunt Gertrude had not so very much to regret. It might only be a matter of hours now before the old home was in the possession of strangers. When the crash came the episode of Aunt Gertrude and the hospital would only be a minor one in the clang of the great catastrophe.
'I am not in the least an object of pity,' Aunt Gertrude said cheerfully. 'I shall be very comfortable in my rooms yonder. The sitting-room is charming; the view is far better than the one from here. I have all the furniture I need, and flowers for the getting. All I require is a certain amount of time, with some table cutlery and glass and silver. And there are three bedrooms, in case you and Angela need one each.'
'I am afraid that people will talk,' May ventured to suggest.
But Aunt Gertrude cared nothing for that. People were certain to talk in any case. Her cheerfulness was a pretty thing, but obviously exaggerated. For over fifty years The Towers had been her home, for the most part a sad and miserable house; but then it is one of the rare blessings of Time that he softens all the pain and brings out all the pleasures when one looks back from the autumn of life.
It was nearly four o'clock before the exodus was made, and the homely, tender figure crossed the Common in the direction of the hospital. The head of the household had gone over to Hardborough to consult his solicitor. He was more disturbed and dismayed over the business than he would have cared to confess. He had said on the spur of the moment that which had struck him as quite the proper thing to say; he had not expected for a moment that his sister would take him at his word. He had anticipated tears and a plea for forgiveness; he had even prepared to be exceedingly magnanimous. It had never occurred to him how deeply the knife had cut, how cruelly his speech had wounded. And May's plain words had rankled in his heart as he drove along. He had not slept either, and his usually robust appetite had left him. He wondered, too, what brought about these fits of giddiness, and why his lips twitched in that singular manner.
His head cleared again, and his nerve came back to him. Of course, all that talk about Gertrude and the hospital was all so much feminine hysteria; Gertrude would be seated at the bottom of the dinner-table as usual. These things would wear off. The head of the household would not have been quite so easy in his mind if he had seen the little caravansera crossing the Common at that same moment.
It was not Craggs who came to meet the procession and give his aid in getting that little pile of household goods into the cottage. On the contrary, a tall figure in gray Harris tweed stood on the threshold. May's heart gave a little leap of delight as she recognised the figure in the September sunshine.
'Mr Warrener!' she cried. 'I was wondering what had become of him. I began to think that he was going to play me false.'
Clifford Warrener advanced smilingly. He was obviously pleased to see the flush that mantled to Angela's face as he shook hands.
'I have been exceedingly busy lately,' he said. 'I slept in Hardborough last night, and came home to-day to see Craggs. The hero of the fight had to go to Hardborough himself this afternoon, so I did not gather much news, except the startling information that Miss Castlerayne was taking up her abode here for the present. Don't think that I mean to be inquisitive if I make a guess at the reason.'
'The reason is quite simple,' Aunt Gertrude said. 'My brother found out all about Craggs and that money. Naturally, he was exceedingly angry. I dare say I should have taken exactly the same view if I had been in his place.'
Warrener discreetly turned the conversation; it would have been bad taste to pursue it further. But he could not altogether keep the contempt from his face. He professed his readiness to help with the pile of luggage standing on the smooth turf in front of the hospital.
'I am looking for some outlet for my energies,' he declared. 'Let me act as porter for you. There is something in the air of the place that is a certain cure for idleness. I have brought my golf-clubs with me for a few practice-shots, and I am accompanied by a mighty player who is also a great authority on the game. He can do for a new golf-links what Clement Scott did for Cromer; to go higher up the scale, what Wordsworth and Coleridge did for the Lake District.'
Warrener's eyes twinkled strangely as he spoke, and May laughed as if she understood and saw something subtle in the plain statement of facts.
'What is the name of your friend?' she asked. 'I fancied I saw somebody with a bag of clubs on the far side of the Pulpit Rocks.'
'That was Raymond Brooke right enough,' Warrener replied. 'I left him in a state of fascination by the Pulpit. We are staying at Watson's farm for a few days. But let me help in getting this stuff into the cottage.'
It was all done at length, to Aunt Gertrude's satisfaction. Nothing seemed to have been forgotten. They all sat down to tea, served on an oak gate-legged table of Cromwell's time. Any connoisseur would have raved over the chairs and the settle and the dresser. With tears in her voice and moist eyes, Aunt Gertrude declared that she was delighted with her new abode. They walked out presently across the Common to find the indefatigable Brooke. He came up presently with a look of interest, dragging his bag of clubs behind him.
'Never saw anything like it,' he said. 'And I'm not easily pleased, as you know. How it came about that a spot like this, made for the game, has never been——'
'Try and restrain yourself,' Warrener laughed. 'Manfully refrain from using a language that the ladies do not understand.—Let me introduce my friend Brooke to you.'
They paired off presently, Warrener a little in front with Angela. The heather was crisp to their feet; the glorious breeze from the sea was in their faces. The sun, slanting across the Common, filled it with a golden glow. The distant hills were veiled in a blue haze.
'Mr. Warrener, I want to ask you a question,' Angela said suddenly. 'May says that you have come here with some plan; in short, that there is a possibility of averting the ruin that hangs over our house. Our troubles are not strange to you; therefore I can speak all the more freely. I have not forgotten that morning in the rose-garden three months ago. Is it possible that there is any way of saving us?'
'I think I can promise that,' Warrener said slowly and thoughtfully. 'In fact, I am down here for that very purpose. With a less elaborate and stiff-necked man than your father I could have spoken freely at first of my scheme. He would not have listened to it. He did not sufficiently realise his position. That is why it was necessary to permit things to take their natural course. Had it not been for your aunt I should never have succeeded at all. You don't recognise what a heroine she is: Jeanne d'Arc was no greater. No wonder my father loved that woman.'
'It seems sad,' Angela murmured. 'I—I have learnt a great many things lately. It is very foolish of us to despise other people because they are not Castleraynes. It is a dreadful thing to be living on other people as if you were conferring a favour upon them. And now, what is going to become of us?'
'Oh, you will find that there is no occasion to worry,' Warrener said. 'My scheme is going to save all that, and Aunt Gertrude is the heroine of the story. I am going to try to see your father some time to-morrow. I fancy that the time has come when he may be persuaded to listen to me.'
'It has something to do with the Common?' Angela asked eagerly. 'You could do nothing so long as the Common was apparently in the hands of the lord of the manor?'
'You have guessed it so far,' Warrener said grimly. 'It has everything to do with the Common. And it has nothing whatever to do with a hotel. You may imagine that the Common has passed from under your father's sway, and that is true. The next best thing to the rose is being near the rose, and the next best thing to the Common is all that glorious bit with the lovely views about it. But I see that you are as much in the dark as ever, and I prefer to keep you in suspense for a little longer. It is pleasant to see you smiling in that way; it is a sign that you have forgiven me.'
Angela's face was flushed; there was a tender light in her eyes; her mouth was soft and drooping. Warrener had never seen her look like that before; but in his mind he had always pictured her with an expression like that. He could see that the ice was melting from her heart, that the pride of race was passing away.
'Let me ask you a question,' he said. 'It is a fine thing to be a Castlerayne of The Towers; but has it been a happy life that you have passed there?'
'No,' Angela said boldly and candidly, 'it hasn't Mr. Warrener, I am ashamed of myself. I should like to have my time over again. There are happier lives——'
'Indeed there are, Angela. Mine, for instance. And some of these days, if I could only persuade you to share it with me, why——'
Angela's face flushed again, but her lips quivered in a smile.
'You have not given me your confidence, so I shall refuse you mine,' she said, though there was no sting in her voice. 'I am going back to pet Aunt Gertrude. I feel as if I could not make enough of her to-day.'
HEEDLESS of these drastic changes, the lord of the manor was spending a very unpleasant afternoon at the office of his solicitor. By this time Castlerayne had almost forgotten the shortcomings of his sister. He had asserted his authority the night before, and he was pleasantly flattered by the impression he had made. He had not really expected Miss Castlerayne to take him precisely at his word; indeed, he had a vague idea that the whole scene was the result of some novel he had read years ago and forgotten. He was rather pleased with the clever way in which he had informed his sister that she could no longer consider herself one of his household.
There would be something nice in acting with magnanimity later on. That the victim would take it au pied de la lettre Castlerayne had not expected. He was disposed to regard Gertrude's action as one of his misfortunes—misfortunes which he hoped to meet with great dignity. That his cruelty and unkindness had cut like a knife he did not for one moment realise.
All this was forgotten presently. Mr. Summers had no good news to offer; he took the gloomiest view of the situation. He had seen the solicitors who acted for Samuel Craggs in the matter of the action, and they were obdurate.
'Between ourselves,' he said, 'they are not a very high-class firm. Neither is their practice a large one. They will only be too glad to get hold of the eleven hundred odd pounds you owe them.'
'They can't do anything for a few weeks, I suppose?' Castlerayne asked.
'Oh yes, they can,' Summers said irritably. 'Strange that I cannot make you see things in their proper light There was no stay of execution, as we call it; the costs had been taxed, and those people are in a position to come over to The Towers at any moment. To be perfectly frank with you, they are afraid of your other creditors. If they strike now they may get everything; if they wait there is a chance of having to share with the rest. If they do go to extreme limits there is only one thing for you to do.'
'And what is that?' Castlerayne asked. The strange shakiness had come over him again, the same twitching of the muscles. He had been hoping against hope, in his infatuated way—the feeling that Summers would be able to do something. 'What do you want me to do? I am sure that anything in reason——'
'Bankruptcy,' Summers said curtly. 'If you go into bankruptcy you will be spared the indignity of seeing the sheriffs officer in possession of The Towers. Then everything will go through the hands of the court. Otherwise, Craggs's lawyers will take possession of your effects, and sell them for what they will fetch. They won't care how things are sacrificed so long as they realise enough to meet their own claims. In fairness to the great body of your creditors, your duty is to take this course.'
The dry professional jargon was sinking like lead into Castlerayne's soul. For the first time he fully realised the desperate nature of his position. Still, with the obstinate weakness of his nature, he argued. Was there no other way? Could not Summers do something in the way of a mortgage—anything to get rid of those fellows? The idea of bankruptcy was horrible, repulsive. Was there not such a thing as a public examination in bankruptcy? Would he not have to stand in open court and reply to insolent questions from irate creditors? All these punctilious questions Summers replied to in a cold affirmative.
'Oh, it is not pleasant,' the old lawyer said grimly. 'Nor is there any great consolation in the knowledge that you have brought it all on yourself. At the same time, it may be quite an honourable bankruptcy. If your family treasures are properly disposed of—the pictures sold at Christie's, and so on—I fully believe that there will be sufficient to pay everybody and leave you a small surplus. The Towers would let for three hundred pounds, and you could live on that. But you are your own master.'
Summers shrugged his shoulders as if declining further responsibility. The papers on his desk swam before Castlerayne's eyes; he was conscious of a queer numbness in his left side. The sensation passed, but left him trembling from head to foot.
'I'll think it over,' he whispered. 'I'll let you know to-morrow. Don't force me to-day. I'm not in a fit state to decide. I'm going as far as the club. I feel that I need something to pull me together. I've never done such a thing before, Summers. I have always despised people who touch spirits, especially in the daytime.'
Castlerayne lounged away to the club. He stopped once or twice in the road; he was not quite certain which way to go. He had never had lapses of memory like this before. One or two people spoke to him as they passed, but he did not heed. In the club he sat and wondered why the waiter stared at him in that strange way. He could not see the ghastly gray pallor of his own face. Presently he was sipping brandy and soda-water; the strong and unaccustomed cordial filled him with a glow, a new strength. He felt utterly tired and worn out a moment later. When he came to himself again he saw that it was long past six, and the smoking-room was deserted.
He was home again presently, walking up to the porch. He had not the least idea how he had reached there, though he was absolutely free from the touch of insobriety. There was a lapse of memory, a perfect hiatus, the last hour. He dressed presently and went down to the drawing-room. By this time the queer inertia of brain had gone, and he was his quiet, dignified self again. It seemed impossible to believe that anybody could interfere with him here. He was pleasant and affable to Angela and May, who sat in the drawing-room waiting for the gong to ring. Castlerayne had a vague sense of something missing. Presently he realised what it was: the quiet, placid figure in the gray silk who had occupied the big arm-chair by the fireplace all these years. And Gertrude was the soul of punctuality.
'Why is your aunt so late, girls?' he asked.
Angela looked up without reply. As usual, it was May who explained.
'Aunt Gertrude has gone,' she said. 'Surely you have not forgotten what you said to her last night—so long as she remained a guest under your roof?'
'Gone? Gone where? She has no money. Do—do you suppose that I meant it? I was deeply distressed by your aunt's conduct. Indirectly she has brought about the downfall of the House. I am not questioning her motives, her integrity. After my discovery of yesterday I had no alternative but to say what I did. But that she would take me at my word like this! Where has she gone?'
'She has gone to the hospital,' May explained. 'One of the cottages there was empty. We have been helping her to move all the afternoon. Mr. Warrener came and assisted. Aunt seemed very happy when we left her.'
'And you fell in with this idea—you did not make the slightest attempt to——'
'Indeed we did, father. We had no idea that Aunt Gertrude could be so terribly obstinate. She fairly bore us down by her gentle determination. And she has gone.'
Castlerayne opened his mouth to speak with majestic wrath. But the sonorous words refused to come at his bidding; he could only mumble instead. His eyes were filled with tears. It was strange how his tongue refused to speak. It was only when he controlled himself with great effort that he found words at all.
'A further humiliation,' he said. 'Something for the servants to talk about. Angela, will you take my arm? We must not forget what we owe to our position. We will discuss the matter more fully presently. Directly I become excited my head is all queer. What a dreadfully poor light the lamps give to-night!'
The two girls exchanged glances. A terrible fear was thrilling at May's heart. She saw how gray and twisted her father's face had become. He was a little more like himself presently; he prattled on commonplaces in a way that jarred on May's nerves. It was only after the servants had gone that the effort faded and left an old, gray man behind.
'Tell us what you did in Hardborough to-day,' May said.
'What I did in Hardborough to-day?' Castlerayne echoed. 'I have not been in to Hardborough to-day. Oh yes, of course, I went to see Summers. My dear girls, that man grows harder and less sympathetic as he gets older. He would not listen to a word that I had to say. He had only one cry, and that was bankruptcy.'
'And what would be the result of that?' May asked.
'Well, Summers seems to think that everybody would be paid in full. If I sit quietly down, Craggs's solicitors will sell everything at any price so long as they are paid. I find that they are in a position to do this at any moment. Not that we need fear——'
'Stop!' May cried. Her face had grown suddenly pale. 'I implore you not to prevaricate at this moment. Remember what happened in the case of the Montagues. Without the slightest warning strangers entered the house, and they had to go. They had to leave everything behind, even the flowers in the vases in the drawing-room. I saw that after they had left; it was one of the most pathetic sights I have ever seen. Father, is that likely to be our own fate to-morrow—nay, to-night?'
'Of course I could prevent it by going into bankruptcy,' Castlerayne said hastily. He had answered May's question despite himself. He could see the girl shudder and shrink. 'That is what Summers advised me to do without delay. In that case everything would be sold in a proper way, and he estimated that the creditors would be paid in full. There might even be a small surplus to come to us. But everything would have to go.'
Angela glanced round the room at the old oak furniture, the old silver and china, the almost priceless pictures and portraits on the walls. Her slippered foot pressed into the pile of a Persian carpet with the weight of centuries upon it. The girl loved all these things; she would find it hard to part with them. May's views were not quite the same. She was getting to hate these things. The upkeep of an artistic house was calculated to destroy the nerve-centres and take all the temper out of life.
'You must do it,' she said. 'There must be no delay. To be out of debt, to be free to look everybody in the face, to think that we had not deprived a soul of a farthing! Oh! I can only partly imagine the feeling. Father, you will do it?'
'Really, I think so,' Mr Castlerayne murmured. 'I fancy so. But a step like that is not to be taken in a hurry. Nothing can be gained by undue haste, which, as the poets say, is half-sister to delay. I am going to give this matter my deep consideration. If you think that I am incapable—— Well, what is it?'
The butler stood in the doorway waiting for his chance to speak.
'A stranger—a—a gentleman to see you, sir,' he said. 'He says that it is absolutely necessary that he should see you at once, sir.'
RAYNE CASTLERAYNE rose with dignity. He could not quite understand why anybody should venture to disturb him at this time of night. No gentleman would intrude in the dinner-hour. The visitor had been asked into the library, of course. It was the two girls who looked so frightened. By the instinct of their sex they had guessed what was taking place. May shuddered; she put down the section of a peach that she was peeling, and the sight of the cool, luscious fruit filled her with loathing.
'It has come,' she whispered. 'I feel quite certain of it. Why did not dad—— But why do I ask so silly a question? As if he would ever do the proper thing without being forced to it. If he had followed Mr. Summers's advice we should have been spared this crowning indignity. It is bad enough to have all these creditors, and now—— I shall never forget that afternoon at the Montagues'. And though they are living now in a small house in Hardborough, they are quite happy.'
'It may not be quite what you think it is,' Angela said.
'You know that it is; you are as certain as I am. Oh, the shame, the vulgarity of it! They leave dreadful creatures behind who smoke pipes and drink beer. Ada Montague told me all about it. Oh, if I could only do something!'
May paced restlessly up and down the room. She longed for some outlet for her fierce energy. It seemed almost impossible to believe that in this quiet refinement, this cameo amongst homes, the grip of reality had clutched like this. A grip with grimy fingers, too, and nails in mourning!
Mr. Castlerayne crossed with leisurely step to the library. A little, fat man, with a hot, greasy face and impudent eyes of shallow blue, sat there whistling softly. A hard bowler hat lay on the table on top of some white foolscap papers. Castlerayne would have frozen his visitor at a glance; but the imperturbable stranger merely rose and bade his involuntary host a cheerful, not to say impudent, good-evening.
'Sorry to trouble you, Mr. Castlerayne,' he said; 'but I couldn't get here before. And, after all, these things are done better in the dark. It's that little matter of Craggs and yourself, suit of plaintiffs solicitors—one thousand two hundred and seventy-one pounds four shillings and nine-pence costs in the action. From the office of the sheriff, you know. Of course, if you can pay me the money, sir, I give you a receipt, and there is an end of it.'
'And if not?' Castlerayne asked. 'If it is not convenient to pay you a cheque?'
'Couldn't take a cheque, my dear sir; cash or notes. If you don't pay I shall have to leave my man in possession. It is a mere formality, of course; but the man will have to stay till the claim is satisfied or you put your petition in bankruptcy.'
'I have no means of paying you at present,' Castlerayne said hoarsely.
'Right you are,' came the cheerful response. 'In that case I'll call Bob. He's in the hall. If I hurry up I shall catch the ten train back to Hardborough.—Here, Bob; come this way.—You'll find Bob quite harmless, Mr. Castlerayne.' The little man vanished without further ceremony.
A tall, melancholy individual, with sombre eyes, lounged awkwardly into the library. He resembled nothing so much as one of Leech's sketches of the mute who used to follow old-fashioned funerals. His mouldy black suit was several sizes too large for him; he had not washed within recent memory.
'Good-evening to you, sir,' he said huskily. 'Name of Bob, sir. It is unfortunate as you have got to put up with my company for a day or two. Not that I shall trouble anybody. Give me a bed or a sofa, and my three meals a day, with beer, and I'm willing to make myself agreeable. Which mine is a hard life at the best of times.'
Castlerayne nodded his head slowly; he could not have spoken just then for a kingdom. He felt as if all the world were slipping from him. He was only conscious of the damp, mouldy smell of the intruder's black garments, of the odour of the thick boots. That lank, dark figure seemed to fill the entire atmosphere.
'Where am I going to sleep to-night, sir?' the figure asked.
Castlerayne roused himself with an effort. He picked his scattered senses up one by one. Something had to be done with this dreadful incubus. He would have to be lodged and fed. And the servants would have to know; it was impossible to keep this from the servants. Castlerayne rang the bell and explained to the butler—at heart he had an idea that he had explained. He dragged himself into the drawing-room, pulling one leg after the other. There was a ghastly smirk on his face; his lips were blue. Angela positively recoiled from him.
'What is it?' she stammered. 'What has happened, father? I heard a voice say——'
'Yes, yes,' Castlerayne said thickly; 'it is the man in possession. He says that he is not likely to cause us any trouble, so I have handed him over to the servants. It seems very strange to think that here, in the old home of the family——'
The speaker paused and threw back his head. A peal of loud laughter came from his lips. The discreet silence of the house rang with it. The thing was so unnatural, so strident, so terrible, that May held her hand to her father's mouth.
'Oh, hush, hush!' she said. 'Do not go on like that. I had no idea that you felt the strain so much, that you realised how—— Come and sit down.'
The laughter had died away to a shallow cackle. Castlerayne collapsed into a chair, and his eyes closed. Nothing could be heard but his stentorian breathing. The silence was all the more oppressive by very contrast. May turned and whispered something to Angela, who rang the bell. The old butler came in scared and agitated.
'Your master is ill,' May said. 'I am afraid he has had a shock. If you will be so good as to get somebody in the kitchen to go for Dr. Marfell——'
'I'll go myself, miss,' the old butler said. 'I know exactly what has happened. And if you will pardon me for saying so, miss, it was bound to come sooner or later. And there isn't one of us in the kitchen as isn't as sorry as you are, miss. We'll take good care as you're not troubled by that man, miss, even if we have to make ourselves affable to him in the kitchen.'
'I am sure you are all very good,' May said tearfully.—'I hope to goodness I'm not going to begin crying now. Oh Angela, if Aunt Gertrude were only here now!'
But Angela had already left the room. May stayed there by the side of the chair, holding a cold, limp hand, and chafing it in her fingers lovingly.
The little house in the hospital was all in order at last, everything put in its place. It was a pity that nothing now remained to be done, Gertrude Castlerayne thought, because the time had come that she had dreaded, the hour when she could sit down and think. That being so, she cleaned out the cage of her canary for the second time in the afternoon, much to the annoyance of the somnolent bird, who had suffered sufficient change for one day. For the moment the eternal knitting had been mislaid; and, besides, Miss Castlerayne was not in the mood to sit down and knit to-night. She could hear some children still playing on the lawn outside, though it was quite dark by this time, and in the next cottage Mrs. Masters was obviously putting the smallest of her grandchildren to bed. It was very hard for that poor woman to be saddled with children at her time of life, but then they would have been worse off in the workhouse. It was a vision like this that reconciled Miss Castlerayne to the step that she had taken with regard to the hospital. And before long there was going to be ample provision for the old people.
The children outside quarrelled presently; the sound of a smack floated on the heather-tinged air. Then there was something to do, a mission of forgetfulness. A few moments later, and the two little girls were in the cottage, one on either side of Miss Castlerayne, the pretty faces all smiles again; and never before had they listened to such a fairy tale as tickled their ears now. The blue eyes glistened; the light of the cheap lamp touched hair that had a warmer sheen of bronze in the shadows. They were pretty children, and they were clever children, which is the more valuable asset so far as the fastidious are concerned; and yet they would have looked commonplace and dowdy in workhouse poke-bonnets.
There was a knock at the door presently, and Mrs. Masters's hard, gray head looked in. The vengeance in her eyes softened. Much hard work and much privation and sorrow had hardened a heart that was made to be soft and tender. Miss Castlerayne smiled a welcome.
'Well, I never!' the old woman said. 'I couldn't make out what had become of they dratted children. I thought they'd gone off somewhere. And I've had a time getting their little brother to sleep. Still, I do my duty by them, as I promised their mother I would, poor girl!—And what do you want to come and worry the lady like this?'
'They didn't,' Miss Castlerayne said, with that smile of hers that brought any child or dog in the neighbourhood to her side. 'I fetched them in. I am afraid they were having a little difference of opinion, so I got them to come and keep me company, and I told them a fairy tale. I am feeling very lonely, Mrs. Masters.'
'Which I can feel for you, miss,' the elder woman said. 'I loved my old man and all my children; and but for you and the grace of God I should have ended my days in the House. And here these children of mine worrying you like this!—Come to bed.'
'Let me come and help you. I'm not used to idleness.'
It was almost a royal function in its way. Never had the pretty, blue-eyed little girls been put to bed like this before. Under Miss Castlerayne's gentle sway, the brushing of hair even had realised itself into a pleasure. The little ones had deemed that ceremony impossible hitherto without much tugging of tangles and vexatious tears. There was a ring of sincerity in their prayers that was quite unusual. As a token of gratitude, both the children conceived the intention of going to live with Miss Castlerayne as soon as possible. The whole thing was so pleasing that the lonely woman forgot her troubles for the time.
She set out her frugal supper, and afterwards washed up the plates with her own hands. She was just a little afraid to go to bed; she had made up her mind that she was not going to break down, and she had her doubts as to her own strength of purpose. She wondered what they were doing at The Towers now, if Angela was in the drawing-room yet. She could see Angela in her black dress, with the whiteness of her arms and neck gleaming through the network of lace.
And then the door opened, and Angela in the flesh stood there. She was wearing the black dress. Her clear, healthy flesh glowed in the light of the cheap lamp; but there was no smile on the face of the girl. A tragedy was in her dark eyes.
'I knew that we could not do without you, Aunt Gertrude,' she said breathlessly, for she had come across the Common fast. 'The worst has happened—the very worst. And dad has had a kind of stroke. We can do nothing with him. Come with me at once, dear.'
They sped over the Common together, leaving the door open and the light of the lamp flaring like a beacon behind them.
A RAGGED moon just gave sufficient light for Miss Castlerayne and Angela to keep to the path across the Common. It had been much darker when Angela felt her way towards the hospital. She had known every inch of it all her life, but it had been terribly hard work to reach her goal in the darkness. There were pitfalls and stumbling-blocks that she had never dreamt of, dangerous gullies and heathery waterways that in the daytime were no more than oases for the late gentians.
'Your dress is all in rags around your feet!' Aunt Gertrude exclaimed. 'It was very brave of you to come like this, Angela.'
'I did not stop to think,' Angela said simply. 'I was so horribly frightened. And I know that in a crisis like this we could not do without you. It was dreadful.'
They had struck a cart-track by this time, so that walking was comparatively easy. Miss Castlerayne asked Angela to tell her all about it.
'There is very little to tell,' Angela explained. 'Dad came back from Hardborough in a very depressed state of mind. Mr. Summers had pointed out to him the hopelessness of the situation. He had urged bankruptcy. He said that when everything was disposed of we could let The Towers, which would produce a living income. He wanted dad to take that step at once to prevent the humiliation which has come. The thing should have been done at once; but of course dad put it off. And to-night, about an hour ago, the blow fell. It was horrible!'
'You mean that—that—— I hardly know how to express it, Angela.'
'Yes. A man came—two men, in fact; and one of them remained—he will not leave till the money is paid. Don't ask me what money, for I can't say. Dad came into the dining-room and told us. Then he burst into a dreadful laugh and dropped into a chair. It was a stroke of some kind. Evidently he has been grieving and worrying far more deeply than we had imagined. And I came for you, dear.'
The words were simple enough, but Miss Castlerayne did not fail to read the tragedy that lay behind them. A little time before, and she had been praying for some strenuous occupation for her hands and head, and the prayer had been answered.
'Will he know me, do you think?' she asked anxiously.
'I fancy so. I don't think that the mind is affected, only the body and power of speech. I am quite sure that dad was terribly upset to find you gone. From what he said, he was only posing last night. I expect that the phrase as to your being a guest in the house struck him as clever. I am certain he was very sorry.'
Miss Castlerayne was glad to hear it. The ragged moon was falling behind the walls of the old castle and the trees beyond; there were lights all over the house. May sat in the dining-room by the side of her father, still chafing his hands. As yet the doctor had not put in an appearance.
Gertrude Castlerayne came and bent over the couch; a little sigh of gratitude escaped her. She wanted no telling that nothing was wrong with the brain of the stricken man. There was no sign of apoplexy or serious mischief of that kind here. The eyes were too clear for that, their gaze steady and sane. There was utter paralysis, the result of a great shock.
'Can you understand what I am saying?' Miss Castlerayne asked. 'You know where you are?'
The clear eyes responded where the tongue was useless. The head of the house understood.
'I am going to remain here,' Miss Castlerayne went on. 'I should never have gone away. I shall be only too glad to do what I can.—May, you have sent for the doctor?'
May responded through her tears that such was the case. The girl was crying quietly without being in the least aware of the fact.
It was a great relief when Dr. Marfell bustled in presently. The white hair was ruffled on his head as if he had had no time to brush it, as if he had tumbled straight out of bed to come here. He nodded curtly without waiting to waste time in words of sympathy. He proceeded with his work.
'Paralytic stroke,' he said. 'Result of some shock. Easy-going people are often more easily knocked over than those who fret and worry. There are no sinister signs, and the patient knows exactly what I am saying. He must be got to bed; he must get sleep, though I don't want to administer drugs if I can help it.'
Mr. Castlerayne was in bed at length; he lay there absolutely still, with his eyes closed. At the instigation of Dr. Marfell, there were no lights. He could do nothing further, he said; it was all a question of time and nature. He would come again in the morning.
Angela followed the speaker into the dining-room, where May was waiting.
'Is it very, very bad?' she asked. 'Is there any hope of recovery?'
'Bless my soul! yes,' Marfell snapped. 'Every chance. Your father is not yet sixty; he has a sound constitution. He has been worrying lately, and the shock has been too much for him. If you could only remove the source of anxiety he would pick up marvellously. I've known cases like this practically cured in a fortnight. And, mind you, his brain is quite clear; he knows every word that you say to him. If you can remove the trouble——'
May started eagerly. She moved as if about to say something; then she changed her mind.
'The trouble is in the kitchen,' Angela said bitterly. 'It takes the form of a sheriff's officer—I believe that is the legal jargon. It means, Dr. Marfell, that the Castleraynes of The Towers have ceased to exist as a family; it means that we shall have to leave here. I am afraid that that trouble is permanent, if my father's recovery rests on that.'
'I didn't say it did,' Marfell retorted. 'I said that the removal of the trouble would facilitate the recovery of the patient. I hope to pull him round in any case. What you have to pray for is a good night's rest for him, which will be better than all the medicine in the world. I am going to leave things to nature for the present.'
It was a long and lonely vigil that Angela insisted on taking on herself. She drove Miss Castlerayne to bed on the understanding that the latter was to be called if necessary. She would not hear of May sharing her watch. She sat there in the velvety darkness by the bedside, listening to the heavy breathing of the sick man. On the whole, these were the darkest and most miserable hours of the girl's life. She did not realise, perhaps, that she was better for the ordeal; but so it was. The glory of the family had departed; henceforth there were going to be no Castleraynes of The Towers. She and May would go and get their own living as girls quite as well nurtured as themselves had done before. It seemed incredible now that she had held up her head so haughtily with the full knowledge of the shameful indebtedness of the family. How much nobler had been the part played by the Warreners! Contact with trade had not contaminated Clifford Warrener; he had been enabled to make a garden from an arid desert. Angela blushed as she thought of that June morning in the rose-garden. She had had her chance then; the best man she had ever met had loved her, and she had scorned his advances. He no longer cared for her, or he would never have stayed away all these months. These thoughts and others played through Angela's mind as she sat there till the velvet blackness of the room turned to a sombre gray, and the gray presently was shot with saffron tinges. Then the gold and pink edged the saffron, and the pearly dawn came tiptoe from the mists of the Common. The stentorian breathing from the bed had ceased. Angela bent, to find that her father was fast asleep.
This was exactly what Marfell had hoped for. It was necessary to keep the house quiet.
May came in presently to relieve Angela's long vigil. She hoped that Angela would go and sleep for a few hours.
'I have not the least disposition to sleep,' Angela whispered. 'I am going to have a bath and a cup of milk. Then, as it is such a lovely morning, I shall take a long walk across the Common and back. All you have to do is to keep the house quiet.'
The red rim of the sun was climbing over the fringe of pines behind the hospital, driving the pearly mists before it. The air was fresh and sweet from the sea, so that a faint wave of exhilaration filled Angela. So far as she was concerned, the bitterness of disgrace and trouble was past; she was in the mood of contentment and the dinner of herbs. She looked very dainty and refined as she reached the fringe of the Common. There was a kind of big valley here, interspersed with patches of gorse and heather, and a ragged pit where the drift-sand lay. The floor was carpeted with the thick grass of centuries, and each fine blade sparkled with the dew of diamonds. There was the sound of a crack behind, and a little white ball fell almost at Angela's feet. Then came another. It was borne in upon Angela's mind that somebody close by was practising golf-shots.
'Absolutely perfect,' a clear voice rang out. 'Nothing better in the kingdom. That line of natural hazards on the left side of the valley——'
The voice stopped. Angela had recognised it. A moment later and Clifford Warrener was properly apologising for the carelessness of himself and his companion. He had not expected anybody to be out on the Common at that hour of the morning.
'I might have killed you,' he said anxiously. 'You see, it's a blind hole—I mean from where we stood in the valley—and out of sight. You know my friend Brooke?—Brooke, come and help me to make my peace with Miss Castlerayne.'
The tall man in the Harris tweeds abased himself before Angela. He was exceedingly sorry, but one of his balls had rolled into a patch of heather. It was a new kind of ball, and he was anxious not to lose it. If Miss Castlerayne would excuse him——'
'Golf lunatic,' Warrener laughed as his colleague moved away; 'otherwise quite sane. He is a marvellous player, and one of the great scribes of the game. You will see later on the uses that I shall put Brooke to. You are out very early, Miss Angela, and, if I may be allowed to say it, you are looking very tired.'
Angela proceeded to explain. She conquered her pride to that extent. It was better that Warrener should hear the story from her lips than hear it garbled by gossip later on. And as the story proceeded, Angela was glad that she had confided in Warrener. He looked very handsome and very sympathetic as he listened to what she had to say. Her words were well spoken and to the point. There was a light like a flash of triumph in his eyes.
'I think I can be of assistance here,' he said. 'Indeed, I am quite sure of it.—Brooke, will you take the clubs back to the farm and ask that breakfast should be ready for me in half-an-hour? I find that I have to go in to Hardborough.—I am sorry that I left this thing so long to take care of itself.'
'You speak as if the fault were yours,' Angela said.
'Well, so it is to a great extent,' Warrener said with a cryptic air. 'Still, Dr. Marfell is right in saying that the removal of the source of the trouble will be attended by the happiest results. I shall be able to try the experiment. It would be a terrible trial to you to have to leave the old house behind you.'
'I think I could endure it,' Angela confessed. 'I am not so proud as I was.'
WITH a spontaneous gesture, Angela held out her hand. It was a brave and generous confession, and the girl felt all the better for it. There was a deep, admiring light in Warrener's eyes as he held the slim fingers in his. He knew what an effort the words cost.
'You can't tell how glad I am to hear you say that,' he said in a low voice. 'You are ready for the sacrifice; but the blow shall not fall if I can prevent it. I shall come and see you this evening, if I may; I shall have something to say to you.'
Angela smiled and coloured. She had forgotten all about her troubles for the moment. The sun and the shadows chased each other across the Common; the breeze was fresh from the sea. Angela's step was light and springy as she turned her face towards home.
All the same, it was a monotonous morning that followed. The patient awoke a little before midday and took some food. He was obviously the better for his long sleep; he managed to articulate a few words with difficulty. He seemed anxious to know if Miss Castlerayne was there; he seemed to be relieved by her presence. Marfell was frankly pleased. The recovery was only a question of time, especially if the source of the trouble could be moved.
Luncheon was ready on the table when Mr. Summers arrived. He had heard casually in Hardborough what had happened, and had come over at once. There was a repressed air of excitement about him that was very unusual in the decorous old family attorney. Subject to the doctor's approval, he had a proposal to make to his unfortunate client. Perhaps Miss Castlerayne would send for the doctor after luncheon.
'There is really no necessity, Mr. Summers,' Angela said. 'If you have anything calculated to ease my father's anxiety of mind you need not hesitate to tell him what it is. His mind is as clear as yours or mine. Dr. Marfell would welcome anything calculated to ease his anxiety. But it can't be possible that there is any chance——'
'My dear young lady, nothing is impossible. Money flies in strange fashions; it comes in the same way. The wealth of the world was more or less started by a genius who watched a kettle boiling. There are different kinds of diamond-mines at the back-door of all of us, if we had the sense to know it. I shall be glad to see your father as soon as possible.'
It was Angela who escorted Summers to the invalid's bedroom. Miss Castlerayne would have done so had not May mentioned that the task should be Angela's. She whispered that there was the beginning of the unfolding of the great secret. But Angela took no heed. She was glad to see the gleam of recognition in her father's eyes as Summers entered the sick-room.
'I'm going to talk to you,' Summers said. 'I can see that you are perfectly capable of following me. If you had taken my advice the trouble would have been saved. Still, it really does not matter, seeing that you are in a position to clear off all your liabilities in a day or two. If you are quite agreeable, we will get rid of Craggs's claim at once. I've telegraphed the Deputy-Sheriff to see me here at three o'clock and get his cheque.'
Angela fairly gasped. It was the old miracle of the unexpected again. Castlerayne's hand moved to his head and then fell again. He essayed a smile.
'What does it mean?' Angela whispered. 'Mr. Summers, what does it mean?'
'It means nothing at all unless you restrain yourself,' Summers said severely. 'If you unduly excite your father I shall have to turn you out of the room. It is very irregular for a third person to be present at an important interview between solicitor and client. It means, in plain English, that I have had a good offer—a splendid offer—for the waste land between the high-water mark and the hills that lie on the far side of the hospital. There are about two hundred acres of this land altogether, and I have been offered fourteen thousand pounds for them. As for some years I have been authorised to accept as many hundreds, I closed with the offer. The purchaser is a rich man, and he paid the deposit to-day. He stipulated that the transaction should be completed in a week, and there is no reason why it should not be so completed. The cheque he paid me will more than satisfy the claim of Craggs's solicitors, so that in a short time you will be rid of your skeleton in the butler's pantry. Within a few days all the creditors will be paid, and you will save your family treasures. But so far as I can see, it would be wise of you not to try and keep up The Towers any longer.'
'Who is this madman?' Angela asked in a voice that shook strangely. 'Who is the dreamer who offers all this money for that waste land?'
'Oh, he is no dreamer,' Summers laughed. 'He is a fine business man, and you may be certain that he is not going to throw his money away.'
'But it sounds so like an act of magnificent charity on the part of some friend——'
'My dear young lady, tell me the name of any friend of yours who is in a position to indulge in such an act of magnificent charity. I tell you the purchaser is one of the most successful business men in England. He is speculating. As frequently happens in such cases, he does not wish to have his name declared for the present. Be satisfied that he has saved your good name and lifted the trouble from your house.'
Something like a smile passed over the face of Rayne Castlerayne; it was quite evident that he had followed every word with the closest attention. The white, strained look had gone from his face. He gave a long, contented sigh, and closed his eyes. The obvious suggestion was that he left everything to Summers. A moment later and a sound of his regular breathing could be heard in the room.
'He is asleep again,' Angela whispered. 'Let us go and discuss the marvellous change of affairs with the others. I can hardly believe it yet.'
Miss Castlerayne cried placidly as she listened to Summers's dry recital. The story washed the last drop of bitterness from her cup. She had saved the hospital without doing the least harm to the fortunes of the family. May laughed; there was a strange glitter in her eyes. In some vague way, Angela decided that May knew all about it. She expressed no astonishment at Summers's amazing story. The butler looked in presently with the information that somebody had called to see Mr. Summers on business. With a quiet air of satisfaction, the lawyer called for pen and ink, and he produced a cheque-book from his pocket. He came back from the library presently with a smile of pleased contentment.
'The skeleton has gone,' he said. 'The skeleton's employer has taken nearly twelve hundred pounds that might just as well have been saved; but it is no use to cry over the milk that has been spilt. I am going to take the liberty of settling my esteemed client's affairs for him, seeing that he is incapable of doing so himself, which perhaps, in a way, is not altogether a misfortune. In a few days I shall have the balance of that purchase-money in my possession. If you will supply me with a full list of all the claims, Miss Castlerayne, I will discharge them at once.'
'Oh, indeed, I will!' Aunt Gertrude laughed and cried in the same breath. 'Oh, the peaceful heaven of being absolutely out of debt! I can't realise it yet. And if I could go down on my knees and thank this unknown benefactor of ours——'
'He would feel very awkward,' May smiled. 'Mr———I mean the gentleman in question—may not be such a benefactor after all. He may spoil the place; he may start some dreadful manufacture there—say, for instance, soap. I did not mean that. I——'
May paused in some confusion. Angela shot a keen glance at her. May had evidently known all about this from the first. A flash of illumination came to Angela. All her tenderness and self-abasement had vanished; her pride was in arms once more. She knew everything now as plainly as if May had told her. The first suspicion had been correct. She crossed over to the window and looked towards the Common, soft and tender in the sunshine. It had been bad enough before; it was no better now. What did it matter whether the family had a host of small creditors or one large one, generous as the latter might be? And as if any girl worthy of the name was likely to be dazzled by ostentation like that! Angela was feeling very hard and bitter at that moment.
She was glad to be alone presently. May had gone as far as the hospital after tea, and Miss Castlerayne was sitting with the invalid. He had managed to ask for a cup of tea. Angela had strolled into the garden, where a few late roses were blooming still. The amber light of the slanting sun was on her face; it seemed a very fair one to Warrener as he came up the drive. His head was high; he seemed to be on the best of terms with himself.
'You told me I might come,' he said. 'How is the invalid now?'
'The invalid is much better,' Angela said coldly. 'A wonderful thing has happened. A purchaser has come forward and bought some of the waste land behind the hospital. It appears that he has paid about four times as much for it as the whole estate is worth. Mr. Summers told me so. He has paid enough absolutely to clear us and leave us something besides. The skeleton has gone, and my father is so much better that he was able to ask for a cup of tea. And for all this we are indebted to the generous charity of Mr. Clifford Warrener.'
The attack was so swift, so cold, and so unexpected that Warrener was thrown into confusion. His face hardened a little as he noted the clear, metallic brilliancy of Angela's eyes.
'Will you be so good as to be a little more explicit?' he said.
'Why fence with me?' Angela cried. 'I know that you are the purchaser. May could not disguise her thoughts; she was in the conspiracy. A few words of hers betrayed you. Mr. Warrener, is this thing kind or generous of you?'
'Generosity has nothing to do with it. What do you complain of?'
'Of the whole thing. Why do you humiliate us? Why do you come here like this, making a display of your wealth? You may think it very clever to trap us like this; but the result is just the same. You might have left us our pride. We were going to sell everything and leave The Towers. The hurt of it would have softened. And your scheme is so transparent. Nobody in their senses would give a tenth part of what you gave for that poor land. I can't recognise it as anything but another form of charity.'
The words came rapidly from Angela's lips; she stood there with the sunshine still full upon her beautiful, haughty, angry face. Yet there was a pathetic droop of her lips, a suggestion of a plea in her splendid eyes. Warrener was obviously restraining himself.
'You are quite wrong,' he said; 'and you will be bound to admit it when you know everything. And there is no suggestion of charity about what I have done. I am going to make twice the money out of my purchase, regarded as a fine business transaction. If that land had been the property of a total stranger I should have been quite as eager to get it——'
'Stop, before you go any further. Would you have offered as much money for it?'
An angry red flushed Warrener's face. He could not stoop to lie. Angela had hit the one weak spot in his argument. He waited for her to go on.
'I see it is exactly as I say,' she resumed. 'I dare say you mean well. But if you think that your money is a sure and certain way to a girl's heart, why——'
It was Angela's turn to pause in confusion. The cruel scarlet flamed over her face; tears of vexation rose to her eyes. Oh, what must he think of her? By way of reply, Warrener raised his cap, and, turning on his heel, walked slowly from the garden.
THE peace of the Indian summer seemed to lie over all the land. They were halcyon days for the Castleraynes, such as they had no recollection of before; and the weather seemed to be in sympathetic mood. There were the still mornings filled to the zenith with the pearly mist out of which the rowans and the ivy-clad walls of the encircling castle rose, then the gradual transformation to the thin pink veil, with the Common rising like a picture beyond. No sound broke the stillness; nothing disturbed the sheets of bracken beaten now to a dull-red gold, a flaming scarlet, a pure veined cream where the shade of the oaks had protected it. Nature rested in a kind of orange glory. The fine profligacy of the October hedgesides struck the eye boldly; the bees, drugged by the saffron, had ceased to hum in the still air; even the sea was silent.
The gales would come later; the rain would roar over the hillside in blinding battalions; but that time seemed far off. Inside the house was the same feeling of peace and restfulness, the same brimming joy of existence; for the skeleton had gone, and the cloud of debt had vanished. There was nothing to be afraid of now, and Miss Castlerayne positively grew fat over the red-lettered tradesmen's books which she was now paying regularly each week. She had forgotten all about her harbour of refuge at the hospital. She had a vague idea that she would go back there some of these days. But not yet, not until Rayne Castlerayne was fit to take the reins of government once more in his own hands. He was wonderfully better; he had made marvellous progress since the day when Mr. Summers had come with the good news. He had asked no questions; he was quite prepared to take the goods the gods provided. He was getting about his bedroom now, and was eager for the sunshine.
'I've told him to come down to dinner to-day,' Marfell said. He was a little more gracious than usual, his white hair almost on the verge of tidiness. The paying of his account had perhaps had a soothing effect. 'After to-morrow he may do as he likes.'
'A most wonderful recovery,' Miss Castlerayne said unsteadily, 'is it not?'
'Nothing of the kind,' Marfell retorted. There was the opportunity to contradict that he had longed for without violating his conscience. 'Really, there was nothing the matter. I told you from the first that there was no real brain-mischief. There are some natures that can't rise superior to trouble, and your brother is one of them. You say that care never worried him. That was because he only knew care by hearsay; he could not believe that it would come. And when it did come, when it was brought home to him, the shock was very great. The trouble vanishes, and he begins to be himself again. He will be quite well by the end of the week.'
Marfell's prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. By the end of the week Rayne Castlerayne was quite himself again. He began to hold up his head once more; there were one or two little schemes for the improvement of The Towers that might be put in hand. The balance of his windfall he regarded as quite inexhaustible.
'No, no,' May protested; 'let us wait a little and see if the good fortune is going any further. Even as it is, we cannot afford to live here.'
Mr. Castlerayne demurred. They were walking together along the terrace on the west side of the house, in the sun. There were still a few late roses, but for the most part the trees glistened with the elastic shine of cobwebs. Angela paced up and down with the others gloomily. She was the only one of the family who looked none the better for the good fortune. She was pale and distracted; there were dark rings under her eyes. She had moments when May found her very difficult.
'What do you want me to do?' Castlerayne asked.
'Invest the balance of your windfall,' May said. 'Ask Mr. Warrener to advise you. He will be able to do that to the best advantage. It ought to give us another three hundred a year, which, with the rent of The Towers, will enable us to live.'
'Leave The Towers?' Mr. Castlerayne protested. 'Really, my dear child——'
'Leave The Towers,' May went on inexorably. 'We had arranged to do it before. We have nothing like enough money to live properly here. Oh! don't let us drift into debt again. Let us be thankful for the unknown benefactor——'
'Is he unknown?' Angela asked suddenly. There was a look of scorn on her pale face. 'May, do you mean to say that you don't know who purchased that land—you don't know whose charity we have been relying on?'
A puzzled expression crossed May's face. It was clear she did not understand.
'Indeed I don't, my dear,' she said. 'I didn't ask any questions. Mr. Summers told me that the purchaser desired that his name should not be mentioned for the present. He had consented not to start any trade there, and that sufficed me.'
'Then the offer has nothing to do with the great secret you and Mr. Warrener——'
'Nothing whatever,' May cried. 'If you had been sharp-sighted enough to discover——'
'It is rather you who have been so blind,' Angela said bitterly. 'But I thought you knew. The purchaser of that land is your friend Clifford Warrener.'
May's look of astonishment was perfectly genuine. Angela could see that at a glance. Mr. Castlerayne was taking no interest in the discussion whatever. He was rather afraid that some of the roses needed renewing.
'Are you quite sure of your facts?' May asked. 'I hardly think that Mr. Warrener——'
'Would have kept you in the dark,' Angela cut in in the same bitter strain. 'Evidently he has done so on this occasion. But he is the purchaser of that land on the far side of the hospital, because he admitted as much to me.'
'Go on,' May murmured. 'You don't know how interested I am.'
'There is very little more to tell. It happened the morning after father was taken ill. I sat with him most of the night, you remember.'
'Good girl!' Castlerayne said sotto voce. He was examining the heart of a tea-rose with consuming interest. 'The comfort that one gets from one's children, especially if they have been brought up as well as means——'
'It is a blessed privilege.' Angela laughed unsteadily. 'I went for a walk before breakfast—I could not sleep—and I met Mr. Warrener. It was quite early; he was out with Mr. Brooke practising golf-strokes. It struck me then as rather a strange thing for two grown men to be so childishly occupied.'
'Not at all,' May said in some indignation. 'Golf is a great institution. I have heard it called one of God's good things. Look what a healthy game it is, so devoid of morbid excitement. I have been having lessons from Mr. Brooke. He is one of the finest players in the country; he is a great authority on the game, and he tells me that we have the making here of perhaps the best golf-links in the kingdom. The turf is absolutely perfect; the greens are wonderfully good; the hazards are just what they should be, and they are just in the right places. The Romans probably played golf here.'
'Go on,' Angela laughed. 'Apparently you have caught the fever. Tell us that golf is a panacea for old age; in fact, there is no old age when one takes to golf. I believe that in Scotland it is an institution. But you interrupted me. As I was saying, on that particular morning I met Mr. Warrener. I told him everything. He stopped his game at once, saying that he had to go to Hardborough. Of course I did not guess what was in his mind then, but I knew directly Mr. Summers came. As soon as Mr. Summers told us all about the mysterious sale of that land I knew quite as well as if Mr. Warrener had made a confession to me. And you didn't, May?'
'I give you my word of honour that I didn't,' May declared.
'I can't think how you could have been so blind. Oh, can't you see that this is only another form of accepting charity? I said nothing about it till dad here was strong again.—There is nothing the matter with that rose-tree; it is only that the bark has grown rusty.—I repeat that we owe all our present prosperity to the charity of Mr. Warrener. He didn't come and fling the money at us; he is too much of a gentleman for that. But he does something that is quite as transparent: he buys some acres of mud and sand at a fancy price, and pretends that he has driven a wonderfully good bargain.'
'So he has,' May said calmly. 'I begin to understand now, though I had not been consulted as to the developments. If you taxed him with it——'
'I have done so; and he did not deny it.—Father, have you nothing to say?'
Mr. Castlerayne abandoned his critical examination of the offending rose-tree with reluctance. He had no great admiration for Angela in these moods. He was never likely to conquer his distaste for facing an awkward question squarely.
'Really, my dear,' he protested, 'I fail to see why you should drag me into the business. I have a certain estate to dispose of; on the other hand there is a man who needs the estate. He offers me what appears to be a fancy price; in reality, it may be a great bargain. I lack the commercial mind, so I can't possibly tell. Warrener is a gentleman; he belongs to a good old family; he is a very nice fellow, but he is essentially a man of business. I refuse to believe that he bought this land to please me. I shall be very glad if you will ask him to come and dine to-morrow, and bring his friend Brooke along. I was at Oxford with a Raymond Brooke. I wonder if this man is any relation.'
Probably Angela would have persisted in her hopeless task had not she detected the mocking smile in May's eyes. That smile seemed to take all the steel out of her arguments. For, till quite recently, May had been more vehement on the subject of the family carelessness than herself. May had always soundly denounced the extravagance and sin of debt; she was the last person in the world to nibble at the bread of charity, buttered though it might be and spread with caviare withal. And May, though Angela had obviously surprised her, was not in the least annoyed or offended; quite the contrary.
'It is no use for you to "kick against the pricks,"' the younger girl said. 'I am perfectly certain that Mr. Warrener has made an excellent bargain. He could sell that land for twice the money to-morrow. My dear, you are like Mrs. Partington with her broom trying to sweep back the Atlantic Ocean; you are a pretty little fly on the wheel of progress. Would you like to know everything?'
'Of course I should,' Angela admitted. She laughed despite herself. 'Being a woman, it is only natural I should have a little curiosity.'
'Then your curiosity shall be gratified. You shall make your peace with Clifford Warrener in your own way afterwards. Go into the house and write the note dad requires to those two men asking them to dinner to-morrow. Cophetua, Cophetua, you are translated! "For you shall walk in silk attire, and siller hae to spare!" And to-morrow night you shall know the great secret.'
IT was with some hesitation that Angela fulfilled her father's request. She had not seen Clifford Warrener for some days; it seemed to her that he was keeping out of the way. She wanted him, and she did not want him; she did not recognise as yet how essential he was to her happiness. It had pleased her lately to look upon Warrener as a purse-proud man who had tried to earn favour at the hands of the Castleraynes by a clumsy expedient which was obviously borrowed from the cheaply sensational class of novel.
And yet Angela was doubtful. She felt more than doubtful after she had exploded her mine with so little effect. She had expected, at any rate, to enlist May on her side. But May seemed to be in close alliance with the foe; also, she had shaken Angela's most cherished convictions by her statement that Warrener's action had had nothing of charity about it, but that the most possible explanation was a mutual convenience.
If that were so, then Angela would have to apologise. In the plainest possible words she had accused Warrener of thrusting his charity upon the family; indeed, she had gone further than that. She knew that Warrener loved her; she dared not ask herself yet if she reciprocated that feeling. She knew that she dared not analyse her feelings, and she had actually told Clifford Warrener that he had done this thing as a cheap and short cut to a girl's heart. The words came back to her now with cruel force. Warrener had turned his back on her and gone away without another word. Really, he might have stopped; he might have given her a chance to prevaricate, as women can in such cases. But he had gone off, obviously wounded, and the girl had not seen him since. If May's contentions were correct, then there would be nothing for it but a penitent apology. Angela recognised that, and she would make the apology whatever it cost her. So she wrote the note, and in the course of the next morning came the reply to the effect that the men in question would be only too happy. Angela had settled the dinner menu with Aunt Gertrude; she had nothing to do. May stood before her, radiant in homespun skirt and coat, with a bag of new clubs under her arm.
'Come along and try this exasperating, fascinating game,' she cried. 'My new clubs have come; Mr. Brooke got them from Westward Ho for me. He says there are no clubs like Gibson's. He is going to give me a lesson. Do come and see.'
Angela hesitated for a moment She had very little doubt that Warrener would be there also. She felt that she would like to meet him before he came to dinner. Angela told herself that she did not quite approve of the way in which May was passing her afternoons in the company of Mr. Brooke. There was a sacred duty before her.
On the level plantation of ground before the half-ruined Dower-House the powerful figure of Mr. Raymond Brooke stood. He was contemplating the sweep of landscape before him with admiring eyes. It seemed to Angela that she could hear the purring rattle of mowing-machines. Certain patches of the turf looked a lighter colour than the rest. Here and there red and white flags fluttered from tall bamboo sticks; here and there were poles picked out in red and white and blue. May's colour had heightened; her eyes were sparkling with pleasure.
'Oh Angela! they've laid it out,' she cried. 'They must have worked like demons since the early morning. And H——, the champion, only planned out the course yesterday. It shows how naturally good it is, to get everything ready so soon.'
Brooke came forward with his cap in his hand. He took the bags and handed the clubs to a couple of small boys standing by. Angela had had a great deal to occupy her attention lately, and a guilty feeling came over her as she saw the familiar terms the golfers were on. It was a relief to know that Raymond Brooke was in all ways desirable.
'It's all ready,' Brooke cried. 'The course is as good now as it ever will be. To my mind, there is nothing like it in the kingdom; an absolutely natural course—the golfer's ideal dream! And here it has been all these years, and nobody has discovered it.—Miss Castlerayne, are you going to have a lesson too?'
'I am not,' Angela said decidedly. It was obviously the answer that was expected of her, and Brooke looked relieved. Golfers are generally selfish people, and hunt in couples. Occasionally they make a favour of taking in a third player; but the politeness is of the shallowest kind. 'I am going to keep at a respectful distance, and watch you.'
Brooke smote a ball long and far in the direction of the first flag, and May followed. Angela heard something that sounded like a 'perfect series of brassy lies;' but the jargon of the game was quite beyond her. If she had only realised what an abject slave she was going to become before long!
'It is glorious!' May cried. 'You must have a try, Angela. To think that we have conquered boredom for good and all! Castlerayne will never be dull to me again.'
It sounded foolish and extravagant; but there are thousands of wise and good people—statesmen, divines, authors, poets, and the like—who say the same thing; and there are thousands of poor villagers away up north, on sterile coasts, who have good reason to welcome the advent of the finest outdoor game that ever came as a boon to mankind. But Angela was not enthusiastic yet. She was almost glad when Warrener appeared. He came out of the Dower-House with a man who in some subtle way conveyed to Angela that he was an architect.
'No, I'm not going to play,' Warrener said. 'I have too much to do.—Miss Angela! You have my sincere sympathy in your sister's affliction. She's got the fever.'
Angela laughed; her face flushed slightly. She wondered why she always felt so exalted and happy in the society of this man, and why she always quarrelled with him. She was a masterful girl, and she had met her master. When she realised the fact she had her happiness fairly grasped in both hands. He seemed to have forgotten their last disagreement; there was a smile on his face, and something in the look of his eye that caused Angela to cast hers down. So he had not forgotten her, and she was insanely glad.
'Let us follow them,' he suggested. 'I want to go over the whole course now that it is finished. Between ourselves, I am almost as enthusiastic a player as Brooke, only he has more time. You see, he had his future ready made. At one time he wanted to be Lord Chancellor; but on mature consideration it came to him that Amateur Golf Champion would be a far more distinguished position. I may say it is much more likely to be realised.'
'He seems a nice man,' Angela said. 'He has such a pleasing, open face.'
'He is one of the best fellows in the world,' Warrener cried. 'And if my eyes are correct in their reading of those human documents yonder, your sister is a lucky girl, I'm glad of it, because I have a genuine affection for May. She has a very sweet temper, too.'
'Meaning that I have not?' Angela laughed unsteadily. 'Perhaps you are right.'
'Well, you have given me plenty of chances for judging,' Warrener said. 'Still, we will not return to that. It is so glorious and perfect a day, with the grass in such good condition, that——'
'Now you are laughing at me!' Angela said with some indignation. 'Mr. Warrener, I have to make a sincere and humble apology to you. The last time we were together I was very rude and very unjust to you. How unjust I was I did not realise until this morning. I accused you of laying the family under a great obligation, of taking advantage of your money to impose—to impose—oh, how can I say it? You know what I mean.'
Warrener looked down into the beautiful flushed face and tear-laden eyes. Here was the Angela that he had dreamt of, the loving woman who put everything aside for the man and his happiness. All the coldness and haughtiness had gone from her lips.
'I know exactly what you mean,' he said. 'You accused me of trying to win your love that way. It was untrue and unkind, and you knew it all the time.'
'Indeed, indeed I didn't. How could I? You purchased that worthless land at an enormous price, and thus rid us of all our troubles; you saved my father's life. And yet I was angry with you, because I thought more of my wretched self than the others. It is only now that I begin to realise how selfish and cowardly I have been.'
'That's true,' Warrener admitted a little unexpectedly. 'But let me assure you that I have not done anything of the kind. The convenience was absolutely a mutual one. Your father had something to sell; there was something that I wanted to buy. I admit that it was lucky that the purchaser was here just at the psychological moment. And yet, before the misfortune came, if I had told your father what I wanted he would have refused me it. There has been a conspiracy, a conspiracy of three people against the dignity and comfort of the Castleraynes: I allude to your aunt Gertrude, to Craggs, and myself. I am not quite sure that I ought not to include your sister in the plot. At any rate, when I discussed my scheme to her she was very enthusiastic. But we had to use diplomacy. We had to face the latter in the shape of Mr. Castlerayne; we had to make him rich man.'
'But nobody would call my father a rich man, Mr. Warrener.'
'Not yet, but they will in two years' time. The whole thing is going to be divulged at dinner to-night. I was very glad to get your note. And you mean to say that you can't guess what the secret is; that you can't see the gold scattered all over the ground that you are walking on at this very minute?'
Angela shook her head and smiled. She took a tendril of gorse in her slender pink fingers and tossed it in the air.
'Only this yellow gold,' she said; 'but you can't pay bills with it.'
'Oh yes, you can. It is all part of the fortune. The gorse is typical of the place, like the heather and the bracken. Angela, if you are satisfied that what I say——'
Angela murmured a word under her breath. It sounded very like 'Bother!' For May and her companion had just appeared from the sloping side of a ravine filled with sand and bracken. Beyond the ravine and a little in front of it was a flat tableland edged with rugged sandhills, and in the centre of the level spot one of the flags waved in the breeze.
'There's no question about it,' Brooke said in the tones of authority. 'These are the best four successive holes in England. Three, two, and one shot holes. To think of this paradise lying neglected here for all these years! I dare say you have been telling Miss Castlerayne all about it.'
'Indeed I haven't,' Warrener said dryly. 'We have been discussing a personal question. I really think that we have come to a proper understanding on a subject that has been a vexed question between us for some time.'
Angela's face flamed, but there was a look of softness and happiness in her eyes. May smiled demurely. Everything was going just as she had hoped for.
'Then you are not in possession of the great secret,' she said. 'My dear Angela, you must be blind! It lies before you so that he who runs may read.'
'Miss Angela has not caught the fever yet,' Warrener said. 'But I shall proceed to make a full confession of the whole thing to-night after dinner.'
May waved a club over her head with the abandon of utter enthusiasm.
'To the secret!' she said. 'Here's to the secret, and Castlerayne Golf-Links; and long may they flourish! I shall love them for the rest of my life.'
'Royal Castlerayne,' Brooke corrected. 'If ever the prefix was deserved by any links, it is deserved in the case of Royal Castlerayne.'
'FOR once in your life, I believe you are nervous,' May said. She was putting a few deft finishing-touches to Angela's toilet. 'You are pale, my sister; you are anxious over the great secret. There is nothing to fear.'
'I believe I am,' Angela admitted. She stood contemplating herself dreamily in the long glass. She was dressed, as usual, in black; but she was not pale, and there was the most beautiful tinge of colour on her cheeks. There was a softness about her that was becoming, a gentle expression in her eyes. 'May, I have behaved badly. I'm glad old Craggs won that action.'
'I knew you would be sooner or later,' May laughed. 'But then, you see, I have been behind the scenes all the time. Never was a greater blessing in disguise. We do not deserve our good fortune; and, indeed, we have done nothing to earn it, if we except Aunt Gertrude. We have been perfectly satisfied with the fact that we are Castleraynes. People who are in business we have despised. This pride of ours ruined Aunt Gertrude's life; it looked like ruining yours at one time; and now you are going to become the slave of the Emollient!'
'You are ridiculous!' Angela laughed. 'Let us go downstairs.'
'Oh yes, you are. Why don't you be honest and admit it? You love Clifford Warrener, and he loves you. You know it. That is why you were so miserable when he kept away. Let us go down and welcome our guests.'
The curtains were drawn; the lamps, with their pink shades, filled the room with a rosy, subdued light. Angela had gathered the last of the roses; they had been arranged in the old Nanking bowls, with sprays of asparagus fern—the whole place was fragrant with the dewy scent of them. Here and there a shaft of light broke from under the fringe of the shades, and touched up the sombre brown-and-yellow of a Reynolds or a Romney. From obscure corners old silver gleamed. There was something very restful and very artistic about The Towers dining-room, Clifford Warrener thought as he glanced around him. Small wonder that the Castleraynes would have found the parting like a slow bleeding to the death. But they were not going to part with it now; the danger was over.
Rayne Castlerayne stood expansively before the fireplace. There was not the slightest trace of his recent affliction on him now; he was essentially master of The Towers, bland, self-satisfied, and yet the colour of his speech was a trifle more subdued than it was wont to be. Like the others, he was just a little restless. Brooke had begun discussing golf eagerly with May directly she entered; Warrener was bending over Miss Castlerayne's chair. There was a small lamp behind it, and the eternal knitting was in her hand. It was impossible for those hands to remain idle for long.
With fingers that trembled slightly, Angela drew one pink bud and a spray of fern from one of the Nanking bowls. She crossed over to Warrener and gently touched his shoulder. His eyes spoke to her; she read their message.
'You have no flower,' she said simply. 'I—I have brought this for you. It is from my favourite tree in the garden, a tree that blooms for four months in the year. Do you remember that morning in June in the rose-garden when——'
Warrener remembered—ay, he remembered. His eyes told Angela that too.
'On that morning the first bloom came,' she went on. 'To-day I found the last one. I—I should like to put it in your button-hole for you.'
There was no occasion for words; there was a perfect understanding between them. It was a very pretty and very graceful action of surrender. And Aunt Gertrude did not fail to understand; she looked up with moist eyes.
'I feel as if Clifford might be a son of mine,' she said. 'We have been talking of his father. So I am going to have my romance over again in a new form, Angela. Oh, I know! And Clifford is so very like what his father used to be when——'
They filed in to dinner presently, the dinner which Aunt Gertrude had planned with such loving care. Her approving eye swept along the table, lingering on the silver and crystal, the flowers, and the fruit still with the ruddy bloom upon it. So the meal proceeded till at length the cloth was drawn in the old-fashioned way, and the dark, gleaming mahogany shone like a brown pool with the orchards of fruit upon it. There was a moment's pause.
'I think,' Rayne Castlerayne began, 'that our young friend on my left has something to say. I hope he will speak freely. We have no strangers with us, unless we except Mr. Brooke, whom I am exceedingly glad to see here to-night.'
'I—I hope I shall not be a stranger long, sir,' Brooke said calmly. 'It rests more or less in the hands of your—I mean that circumstances have brought me into the conspiracy.'
Clifford Warrener rose to his feet. He seemed to feel the gravity of his position.
'The thing began quite naturally,' he said. 'When I met the daughters of my father's old friend in London we saw a good deal of one another. I made up my mind to come and revisit the pale glimpses of the moon the first time I had a chance. Eventually I came down because Miss May sent for me. She wanted to know if I could do anything to rescue the fallen fortunes of the family. Forgive me, but I must speak plainly, I came; I looked about me; I gave my imagination free play. Perhaps it is a little fortunate that I am a poet as well as a man of business. I lay on the Common and reflected. Surely all that grand sweep of country was not intended to be wasted! What good purpose could it be put to, to benefit humanity and put money in the proprietor's purse at the same time? You see, I was bound not to ignore the commercial side of the undertaking. As I walked over the Common the inspiration came to me. I sent for my friend Brooke, and he was emphatically of the same opinion as myself. There was a fortune for the making without doing one single act to defile the Common or mar its natural beauty.'
'One moment,' Castlerayne murmured. 'Why did you not come to me?'
'Because at that time you would not have been in sympathy with the project, sir,' Warrener said grimly. 'I am sorry, but I must be candid. I am certain you would have opposed it. Recollect how vehement you were against the hotel scheme. We had to contrive some way to render your opposition utterly powerless. Then the deus ex machina materialised in the person of Craggs. I wanted to do something for the hospital, and Craggs told me of his discovery in the matter of the charter. The hospital was saved. After that action was fought I had only to get the consent of the hospitallers, and they were secured for all time. They gave me a perpetual lease of the Common on certain conditions, in return for which all income arising from the Common is to be paid to the hospital for ever. Before very long we shall be able to quadruple the hospital accommodation, to build a chapel, to make it one of the finest charities in this part of the world. But I am getting on too fast.
'Let me look to the great discovery. My discovery was that Castlerayne Common has the making of the finest golf-links in the world. Practically, nothing requires to be done to it; it is ready to play on to-day. In my friend Brooke I have the right man to make the place known far and wide. Whatever he writes about the game is law; and golf has become a British institution, one of the blessings of modern life. Any doctor will tell you that. Brooke says there is no place like the Common—it has everything. The golf will be perfect, the air delightful, the view unsurpassed in these islands. Close by we have aristocratic Hardborough, with its population of a quarter of a million. Within fifteen miles are quite a million and a half of people. We can command five hundred members at any entrance-fee we like to ask for, and any subscription. There will be no difficulty in getting a station here, as the Great Midland are going to make a line to Castleford; and if we can show them that it will pay they will make a detour here. That is only a detail.
'I bought that piece of land above high-water mark. I was supposed to pay a fancy price for it; but I was in a position to accommodate my father's old friend here and do myself a good turn at the same time. I want to make that point clear.'
Angela bent her head over her plate. Her face had grown suddenly warm. It was very fine and noble for Clifford to take his revenge in this way. She knew that he was speaking now to her alone, that he would never allude to the topic again. Oh, it was a fine thing to have a lover like that!
But Warrener was speaking again.
'We shall get our station,' he said, 'and, therefore, there will be no trouble to reach here. Before very long Castlerayne Links will be known all over the world. Well-known players will come here and give the place their blessing; doctors will recommend it. All I want Mr. Castlerayne to do is to give us the use of the Dower-House; it will make one of the finest club-houses in the kingdom. It is so old, so artistic, so fitting to the place. If we can manage that, our task is complete.'
'I am quite in your hands,' Mr. Castlerayne murmured. 'I owe you so much.'
'Thank you sincerely,' Warrener went on. 'Then everything is done. The income from all this will go to the hospital. I promised you that not one single inch of the face of nature should be defiled, and I have kept my word. Fortunes have been made in this way, and they will be again; but no greater fortune than lies in the splendid range of hills and heathery dunes that fringe the Common. To pursue the sordid side for a little longer, what is the present value of the land I allude to, sir?'
'Practically nothing,' Mr. Castlerayne smiled. 'And I quite fail to see——'
'Oh, that is because you have not had the business training. There must be at least five thousand acres of that land. People with means will naturally want to come and live here; they will require houses. We will cut the land up into plots of good size; we shall be able to sell that land at our own price—perhaps five hundred pounds per acre. We shall be able to dictate terms as to the class of house to be erected. There will be no shops or hotels—as lord of the manor you will see to that. We will have red roofs to all the houses as well. You will forgive my dwelling so long on the sordid side of the question; but I wish to impress upon you the fact that your fortune lies yonder, beyond the Common. That fortune is assured; it is so certain that at this very moment I would give something like sixty thousand pounds for the land. You will be happy and comfortable here. There will be Castleraynes of The Towers for generations yet. And all this because of the cult of the little white ball! People say there is no romance in business. I have just given a practical demonstration to the contrary. In my way I am a philanthropist, for I have promised one of our lovely spots to the people for ever, and at the same time I have extorted a fortune from it. And this is the great secret unfolded at last. Let us drink properly to the Castlerayne Common Golf-Links.'
There was silence for a little time, a reflective silence that was soothing. Then Miss Castlerayne rose suddenly and gave the signal for departure. Her heart was full of happiness; but she saw little of the faces of the others, for her eyes were dimmed in tears.
The restoration of the Dower-House had been finished some time; Angela had been most interested in the furnishing of it. It had been a costly proceeding; but Warrener would not hear of anything but old oak there. He was justified in his extravagance, he said, by the fact that the club membership had filled in six weeks after the first of Raymond Brooke's glowing paragraphs in the press. The great gods of the game had been hurried down there to play matches, and the salt of the earth had gone away enthusiastic. Everybody, except the forty odd million who sat in the desolate darkness beyond the bunkers, was talking of the wonderful Castlerayne Links. The winter visitors from Hardborough had been over in shoals. There had been no trouble with the railway company; and all this blessed result for the simple reason that one of the Warreners had broken away from the old traditions and had gone into trade! Already, though not quite six months had elapsed, the roads in the new estate were made, and people were tumbling over one another to get the precious land. Castlerayne's bankers took off their hats to him. He was invited to the manager's room when he called. As to the rest, he trusted implicitly to Warrener's advice. He was even beginning to learn the advantage and value of paying ready money for everything.
March was gone and sly April was at hand. The warm breath of spring came over the Common, where solemn men in red coats marched. There was no longer any distress or any calls for occupation at Castlerayne; the golf-links took all the casual labour that was to be had. A telephone line to Hardborough ministered to the natural comforts of the players.
Nothing had been forgotten. Warrener was explaining all these things to Angela. They had just been playing a round together. Angela had deemed it base ingratitude not to take an interest in this wonderful game that had so altered the face of the family fortunes. She was a very different Angela in these days, too; all her old haughtiness had gone. She began to be mildly amazed at her own growing popularity. Latterly she had won Craggs's approval, and after that there was nothing to strive for.
'We've gotten our own,' Craggs had said. 'There's a hospital now that is a hospital and not a hollow sham. And the land's been turned to the best advantage without harm to anybody. Our income comes from the soil, and the soil is none the worse for it. Also, there is occupation for everybody. A little more of this kind of thing, and they'll come back to the land fast enough. It is a fine thing that Mr. Warrener and myself have brought the squire to his senses.'
'It was very good of you, Craggs,' Angela said humbly. 'You always did your best. I dare say you will come to forgive me in time.'
'Oh, you'll be all right enough when once you are married,' Craggs declared. 'Mr. Warrener will see to that. I always said as what you needed was a masterful man, and you've got him. Not as anybody's told me as you be going to marry Mr. Warrener; my old spectacles ain't so old as they can't see that coming this long time.'
Angela beat a hasty retreat. She was terribly afraid of the old man and his tongue. Time was when she would have resented a speech like that; but the spring was in her veins, and she was at peace with all the world, and Clifford loved her.
'There is one thing about golf, Clifford,' she said. She flung herself down recklessly on a sand-dune and took off her hat so that the breeze could play over her forehead. 'I am quite certain that it is good discipline for the temper. I am the better for playing it. Don't you think that I have a better temper than I used to have?'
'I am quite certain of it, sweetheart,' Clifford replied. 'But don't you think that the sense of prosperity has something to do with it as well? There is nothing that sours the disposition like poverty, especially the poverty that oppresses the fallen family. I ought to know, for I saw enough of it in my childhood. Which reminds me I have been terribly neglectful of my obligations lately. I have practically lived here all this winter. I have my own people and my own obligations to think of. I want you to come and share them all first, Angela. I want you to come down to my village and make friends with the workers there. I am anxious to introduce them to my wife.'
Angela's reply was probably suitable, for Clifford caught her in his arms and kissed her. There was an obliging dip in the sand-dune that hid them from view.
'Then let it be soon,' Warrener said. 'We can work all the rest of the year, and come back in the summer to Castlerayne. I shall build a house here, and I know that Brooke is going to do the same. Brooke told me last night that May——'
'I know,' Angela laughed. 'They are going to be married in June. And as I am the elder sister, I am not at all disposed to let my junior assume matronly airs before me; and that being the case, Clifford dearest, I shall be quite ready to——'
There was no need to say any more. May and Brooke found them presently, and they went back to The Towers to luncheon together. They were going to tell Aunt Gertrude, but there was no occasion to do anything of the kind. By some instinct, Aunt Gertrude seemed to know. She kissed them all in the most natural way in the world.
'I know exactly what you are going to say,' she said. 'Don't tell me that I am crying, because I know that perfectly well, my dears. It is only because I am so very, very happy. I seem to have found a romance in my old age. I am living again in your happiness. And everything has happened in such a strange and wonderful way. I can't quite grasp it yet. Do come in and have luncheon, and try and keep me sensible. I hope you are not getting married before June, as I shall never have finished knitting those silk shirts that I had intended——'
They all laughed together as they trooped into the dining-room. It was a tradition in the family that although Aunt Gertrude was always knitting she never finished anything.
Angela threw her arms round the elderly lady's neck and kissed her. 'We are very, very fortunate,' she said. 'But out of all our good fortunes, the greatest that ever happened to us was the kindly fate that gave us and kept for us our aunt Gertrude.'
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