St. Leonard's Lodge is the residence of Mr. William Meredith, an ex-mayor of Silchester, and stands in the fashionable suburb of the town. There was at one time considerable intercourse between this house and Dome Castle, the seat of Colonel Abinger, though they are five miles apart and in different counties; and one day, after Rob had been on the Press for a few months, two boys set out from the castle to show themselves to Nell Meredith. They could have reached the high road by a private walk between a beech and an ivy hedge, but they preferred to climb down a steep path to the wild-running Dome. The advantage of this route was that they risked their necks by taking it.
Nell, who did not expect visitors, was sitting by the fire in her boudoir dreaming. It was the room in which she and Mary Abinger had often discussed such great questions as Woman, her Aims, her Influence; Man, his Instability, his Weakness, his Degeneration; the Poor, how are we to Help them; why Lady Lucy Gilding wears Pink when Blue is obviously her Colour.
Nell was tucked away in a soft arm-chair, in which her father never saw her without wondering that such a little thing should require eighteen yards for a dress.
'I'm not so little,' she would say on these occasions, and then Mr. Meredith chuckled, for he knew that there were young men who considered his Nell tall and terrible. He liked to watch her sweeping through a room. To him the boudoir was a sea of reefs. Nell's dignity when she was introduced to a young gentleman was another thing her father could never look upon without awe, but he also noticed that it soon wore off.
On the mantelpiece lay a comb and several hairpins. There are few more mysterious things than hairpins. So far back as we can go into the past we see woman putting up her hair. It is said that married men lose their awe of hairpins and clean their pipes with them.
A pair of curling-tongs had a chair to themselves near Nell, and she wore a short blue dressing-jacket. Probably when she woke from her reverie she meant to do something to her brown hair. When old gentlemen called at the Lodge they frequently told their host that he had a very pretty daughter; when younger gentlemen called they generally called again, and if Nell thought they admired her the first time she spared no pains to make them admire her still more the next time. This was to make them respect their own judgment.
It was little Will Abinger who had set Nell a-dreaming, for from wondering if he was home yet for the Christmas holidays her thoughts wandered to his sister Mary, and then to his brother Dick. She thought longer of Dick in his lonely London chambers than of the others, and by and by she was saying to herself petulantly, 'I wish people wouldn't go dying and leaving me money.' Mr. Meredith, and still more Mrs. Meredith, thought that their only daughter, an heiress, would be thrown away on Richard Abinger, barrister-at-law, whose blood was much bluer than theirs, but who was, nevertheless, understood to be as hard-up as his father.
The door-bell rang, and two callers were ushered into the drawing-room without Nell's knowing it. One of them left his companion to talk to Mrs. Meredith, and clattered upstairs in search of the daughter of the house. He was a bright-faced boy of thirteen, with a passion for flinging stones, and, of late, he had worn his head in the air, not because he was conceited, but that he might look with admiration upon the face of the young gentleman downstairs.
Bouncing into the parlour, he caught sight of the object of his search before she could turn her head.
'I say, Nell, I'm back.'
Miss Meredith jumped from her chair.
'Will!' she cried.
When the visitor saw this young lady coming toward him quickly, he knew what she was after and tried to get out of her way. But Nell kissed him.
'Now, then,' he said indignantly, pushing her from him.
Will looked round him fearfully, and then closed the door.
'You might have waited till the door was shut, at any rate,' he grumbled. 'It would have been a nice thing if any one had seen you!'
'Why, what would it have mattered, you horrid little boy!' said Nell.
'Little boy! I'm bigger than you, at any rate. As for its not mattering—but you don't know who is downstairs. The captain——'
'Captain!' cried Nell.
She seized her curling-tongs.
'Yes,' said Will, watching the effect of his words, 'Greybrooke, the captain of the school. He is giving me a week just now.'
Will said this as proudly as if his guest was Napoleon Bonaparte, but Nell laid down her curling-irons. The intruder interpreted her action and resented it.
'You're not his style,' he said; 'he likes bigger women.'
'Oh, does he?' said Nell, screwing up her little Greek nose contemptuously.
'He's eighteen,' said Will.
'A mere schoolboy.'
'Why, he shaves.'
'Doesn't the master whip him for that?'
'What? Whip Greybrooke!'
Will laughed hysterically.
'You should just see him at breakfast with old Jerry. Why, I've seen him myself, when half a dozen of us were asked to tea by Mrs. Jerry, and though we were frightened to open our mouths, what do you think Greybrooke did?'
'Something silly, I should say.'
'He asked old Jerry, as cool as you like, to pass the butter! That's the sort of fellow Greybrooke is.'
'How is Mary?'
'Oh, she's all right. No, she has a headache. I say, Greybrooke says Mary's rather slow.'
'He must be a horror,' said Nell, 'and I don't see why you brought him here.'
'I thought you would like to see him,' explained Will. 'He made a hundred and three against Rugby, and was only bowled off his pads.'
'Well,' said Nell, yawning, 'I suppose I must go down and meet your prodigy.'
Will, misunderstanding, got between her and the door.
'You're not going down like that,' he said anxiously, with a wave of his hand that included the dressing-jacket and the untidy hair. 'Greybrooke's so particular, and I told him you were a jolly girl.'
'What else did you tell him?' asked Nell suspiciously.
'Not much,' said Will, with a guilty look.
'I know you told him something else?'
'I told him you—you were fond of kissing people.'
'Oh, you nasty boy, Will—as if kissing a child like you counted!'
'Never mind,' said Will soothingly, 'Greybrooke's not the fellow to tell tales. Besides, I know you girls can't help it. Mary's just the same.'
'You are a goose, Will, and the day will come when you'll give anything for a kiss.'
'You've no right to bring such charges against a fellow,' said Will indignantly, strutting to the door.
Half-way downstairs he turned and came back.
'I say, Nell,' he said, 'you—you, when you come down, you won't kiss Greybrooke?'
Nell drew herself up in a way that would have scared any young man but Will.
'He's so awfully particular,' Will continued apologetically.
'Was it to tell me this you came upstairs?'
'No, honour bright, it wasn't. I only came up in case you should want to kiss me, and to—to have it over.'
Nell was standing near Will, and before he could jump back she slapped his face.
The snow was dancing outside in a light wind when Nell sailed into the drawing-room. She could probably still inform you how she was dressed, but that evening Will and the captain could not tell Mary. The captain thought it was a reddish dress or else blue; but it was all in squares like a draught-board, according to Will. Forty minutes had elapsed since Will visited her upstairs, and now he smiled at the conceit which made her think that the captain would succumb to a pretty frock. Of course Nell had no such thought. She always dressed carefully because—well, because there is never any saying.
Though Miss Meredith froze Greybrooke with a glance, he was relieved to see her. Her mother had discovered that she knew the lady who married his brother, and had asked questions about the baby. He did not like it. These, he thought, were things you should pretend not to know about. He had contrived to keep his nieces and nephews dark from the fellows at school, though most of them would have been too just to attach any blame to him. Of this baby he was specially ashamed, because they had called it after him.
Mrs. Meredith was a small, stout lady, of whose cleverness her husband spoke proudly to Nell, but never to herself. When Nell told her how he had talked, she exclaimed, 'Nonsense!' and then waited to hear what else he had said. She loved him, but probably no woman can live with a man for many years without having an indulgent contempt for him, and wondering how he is considered a good man of business. Mrs. Meredith, who was a terribly active woman, was glad to leave the entertainment of her visitors to Nell, and that young lady began severely by asking 'how you boys mean to amuse yourselves?'
'Do you keep rabbits?' she said to the captain sweetly.
'I say, Nell!' cried Will warningly.
'I have not kept rabbits,' Greybrooke replied, with simple dignity, 'since I was a boy.'
'I told you,' said Will, 'that Greybrooke was old—why, he's nearly as old as yourself. She's older than she looks, you know, Greybrooke.'
The captain was gazing at Nell with intense admiration. As she raised her head indignantly he thought she was looking to him for protection. That was a way Nell had.
'Abinger,' said the captain sternly, 'shut up.'
'Don't mind him, Miss Meredith,' he continued; 'he doesn't understand girls.'
To think he understands girls is the last affront a youth pays them. When he ceases trying to reduce them to fixed principles he has come of age. Nell, knowing this, felt sorry for Greybrooke, for she foresaw what he would have to go through. Her manner to him underwent such a change that he began to have a high opinion of himself. This is often called falling in love. Will was satisfied that his friend impressed Nell, and he admired Greybrooke's politeness to a chit of a girl, but he became restless. His eyes wandered to the piano, and he had a lurking fear that Nell would play something. He signed to the captain to get up.
'We'll have to be going now,' he said at last; 'good-bye.'
Greybrooke glared at Will, forgetting that they had arranged beforehand to stay as short a time as possible.
'Perhaps you have other calls to make?' said Nell, who had no desire to keep them there longer than they cared to stay.
'Oh yes,' said Will.
'No,' said the captain, 'we only came into Silchester with Miss Abinger's message for you.'
'Why, Will,' exclaimed Nell, 'you never gave me any message?'
'I forgot what it was,' Will explained cheerily; 'something about a ribbon, I think.'
'I did not hear the message given,' the captain said, in answer to Nell's look, 'but Miss Abinger had a headache, and I think Will said it had to do with that.'
'Oh, wait a bit,' said Will, 'I remember something about it now. Mary saw something in a Silchester paper, the Mirror, I think, that made her cry, and she thinks that if you saw it you would cry too. So she wants you to look at it.'
'The idea of Mary's crying!' said Nell indignantly. 'But did she not give you a note?'
'She was too much upset,' said Will, signing to the captain not to let on that they had refused to wait for the note.
'I wonder what it can be?' murmured Nell.
She hurried from the room to her father's den, and found him there surrounded by newspapers.
'Is there anything in the Mirror, father?' she asked.
'Nothing,' said Mr. Meredith, who had made the same answer to this question many hundreds of times; 'nothing except depression in the boot trade.'
'It can't be that,' said Nell.
'Can't be what?'
'Oh, give me the paper,' cried the ex-mayor's daughter impatiently.
She looked hastily up and down it, with an involuntary glance at the births, deaths, and marriages, turned it inside out and outside in, and then exclaimed 'Oh!' Mr. Meredith, who was too much accustomed to his daughter's impulses to think that there was much wrong, listened patiently while she ejaculated, 'Horrid!' 'What a shame!' 'Oh, I wish I was a man!' and, 'Well, I can't understand it.' When she tossed the paper to the floor, her face was red and her body trembled with excitement.
'What is it, Nelly?' asked her father.
Whether Miss Abinger cried over the Mirror that day is not to be known, but there were indignant tears in Nell's eyes as she ran upstairs to her bedroom. Mr. Meredith took up the paper and examined it carefully at the place where his daughter had torn it in her anger. What troubled her seemed to be something in the book notices, and he concluded that it must be a cruel 'slating' of a novel in one volume called The Scorn of Scorns. Mr. Meredith remembered that Nell had compelled him to read that book and to say that he liked it.
'That's all,' he said to himself, much relieved.
He fancied that Nell, being a girl, was distressed to see a book she liked called 'the sentimental out-pourings of some silly girl who ought to confine her writing to copy-books.' In a woman so much excitement over nothing seemed quite a natural thing to Mr. Meredith. The sex had ceased to surprise him. Having retired from business, Mr. Meredith now did things slowly as a good way of passing the time. He had risen to wealth from penury, and counted time by his dining-room chairs, having passed through a cane, a horsehair, and a leather period before arriving at morocco. Mrs. Meredith counted time by the death of her only son.
It may be presumed that Nell would not have locked herself into her bedroom and cried and stamped her feet on an imaginary critic had The Scorn of Scorns not interested her more than her father thought. She sat down to write a note to Mary. Then she tore it up, and wrote a letter to Mary's elder brother, beginning with the envelope. She tore this up also, as another idea came into her head. She nodded several times to herself over this idea, as a sign that the more she thought of it the more she liked it. Then, after very nearly forgetting to touch her eyes with something that made them look less red, she returned to the drawing-room.
'Will,' she said, 'have you seen the new ponies papa gave me on my birthday?'
Will leapt to his feet.
'Come on, Greybrooke,' he cried, making for the door.
The captain hesitated.
'Perhaps,' said Nell, with a glance at him, 'Mr. Greybrooke does not have much interest in horses?'
'Doesn't he just!' said Will; 'why——'
'No,' said Greybrooke; 'but I'll wait here for you, Abinger.'
Will was staggered. For a moment the horrible thought passed through his mind that these girls had got hold of the captain. Then he remembered.
'Come on,' he said, 'Nell won't mind.'
But Greybrooke had a delicious notion that the young lady wanted to see him by himself, and Will had to go to the stables alone.
'I won't be long,' he said to Greybrooke, apologising for leaving him alone with a girl. 'Don't bother him too much,' he whispered to Nell at the door.
As soon as Will had disappeared Nell turned to Greybrooke.
'Mr. Greybrooke,' she said, speaking rapidly in a voice so low that it was a compliment to him in itself, 'there is something I should like you to do for me.'
The captain flushed with pleasure.
'There is nothing I wouldn't do for you,' he stammered.
'I want you,' continued Miss Meredith, with a most vindictive look on her face, 'to find out for me who wrote a book review in to-day's Mirror, and to—to—oh, to thrash him.'
'All right,' said the captain, rising and looking for his hat.
'Wait a minute,' said Nell, glancing at him admiringly. 'The book is called The Scorn of Scorns, and it is written by—by a friend of mine. In to-day's Mirror it is called the most horrid names, sickly sentimental, not even grammatical, and all that.'
'The cads!' cried Greybrooke.
'But the horribly mean, wicked thing about it,' continued Nell, becoming more and more indignant as she told her story, 'is that not two months ago there was a review of the book in the same paper, which said it was the most pathetic and thoughtful and clever tale that had ever been published by an anonymous author!'
'It's the lowest thing I ever heard of,' said Greybrooke, 'but these newspaper men are all the same.'
'No, they're not,' said Nell sharply (Richard Abinger, Esq.'s, only visible means of sustenance was the press), 'but they are dreadfully mean, contemptible creatures on the Mirror—just reporters, you know.'
Greybrooke nodded, though he knew nothing about it.
'The first review,' Nell continued, 'appeared on the 3rd of October, and I want you to show them both to the editor, and insist upon knowing the name of the writer. After that find the wretch out, and——'
'And lick him,' said the captain.
His face frightened Nell.
'You won't hit him very hard?' she asked apprehensively, adding as an afterthought, 'perhaps he is stronger than you.'
Greybrooke felt himself in an unfortunate position. He could not boast before Nell, but he wished very keenly that Will was there to boast for him. Most of us have experienced the sensation.
Nell having undertaken to keep Will employed until the captain's return, Greybrooke set off for the Mirror office with a look of determination on his face. He went into two shops, the one a news-shop, where he bought a copy of the paper. In the other he asked for a thick stick, having remembered that the elegant cane he carried was better fitted for swinging in the air than for breaking a newspaper man's head. He tried the stick on a paling. Greybrooke felt certain that Miss Meredith was the novelist. That was why he selected so thick a weapon.
He marched into the advertising office, and demanded to see the editor of the Mirror.
''Stairs,' said a clerk, with his head in a ledger. He meant upstairs, and the squire of dames took his advice. After wandering for some time in a labyrinth of dark passages, he opened the door of the day composing-room, in which half a dozen silent figures were bending over their cases.
'I want the editor,' said Greybrooke, somewhat startled by the sound his voice made in the great room.
''Stairs,' said one of the figures, meaning downstairs.
Greybrooke, remembering who had sent him here, did not lose heart. He knocked at several doors, and then pushed them open. All the rooms were empty. Then he heard a voice saying—
'Who are you? What do you want?'
Mr. Licquorish was the speaker, and he had been peering at the intruder for some time through a grating in his door. He would not have spoken at all, but he wanted to go into the composing-room, and Greybrooke was in the passage that led to it.
'I don't see you,' said the captain; 'I want the editor.'
'I am the editor,' said the voice, 'but I can see no one at present except on business.'
'I am here on business,' said Greybrooke. 'I want to thrash one of your staff.'
'All the members of my literary staff are engaged at present,' said Mr. Licquorish, in a pleasant voice; 'which one do you want?'
'I want the low cad who wrote a review of a book called The Scorn of Scorns, in to-day's paper.'
'Oh!' said Mr. Licquorish.
'I demand his name,' cried Greybrooke.
The editor made no answer. He had other things to do than to quarrel with schoolboys. As he could not get out he began a leaderette. The visitor, however, had discovered the editorial door now, and was shaking it violently.
'Why don't you answer me?' he cried.
Mr. Licquorish thought for a moment of calling down the speaking-tube which communicated with the advertisement office for a clerk to come and take this youth away, but after all he was good-natured. He finished a sentence, and then opened the door. The captain strode in, but refused a chair.
'Are you the author of the book?' the editor asked.
'No,' said Greybrooke, 'but I am her friend, and I am here to thrash——'
Mr. Licquorish held up his hand to stop the flow of the captain's indignation. He could never understand why the public got so excited over these little matters.
'She is a Silchester lady?' he asked.
Greybrooke did not know how to reply to this. He was not sure whether Nell wanted the authorship revealed.
'That has nothing to do with the matter,' he said. 'I want the name of the writer who has libelled her.'
'On the press,' said Mr. Licquorish, repeating some phrases which he kept for such an occasion as the present, 'we have a duty to the public to perform. When books are sent us for review we never allow prejudice or private considerations to warp our judgment. The Mirror has in consequence a reputation for honesty that some papers do not possess. Now I distinctly remember that this book, The Vale of Tears——'
'The Scorn of Scorns.'
'I mean The Scorn of Scorns, was carefully considered by the expert to whom it was given for review. Being honestly of opinion that the treatise——'
'It is a novel.'
'That the novel is worthless, we had to say so. Had it been clever, we should——'
Mr. Licquorish paused, reading in the other's face that there was something wrong. Greybrooke had concluded that the editor had forgotten about the first review.
'Can you show me a copy of the Mirror,' the captain asked, 'for October 3rd?'
Mr. Licquorish turned to the file, and Greybrooke looked over his shoulder.
'There it is!' cried the captain indignantly.
They read the original notice together. It said that, if The Scorn of Scorns was written by a new writer, his next story would be looked for with great interest. It 'could not refrain from quoting the following exquisitely tender passage.' It found the earlier pages 'as refreshing as a spring morning,' and the closing chapters were a triumph of 'the art that conceals art.'
'Well, what have you to say to that?' asked Greybrooke fiercely.
'A mistake,' said the editor blandly. 'Such things do happen occasionally.'
'You shall make reparation for it!'
'Hum,' said Mr Licquorish.
'The insult,' cried Greybrooke, 'must have been intentional.'
'No. I fancy the authoress must be to blame for this. Did she send a copy of the work to us?'
'I should think it very unlikely,' said Greybrooke, fuming.
'Not at all,' said the editor, 'especially if she is a Silchester lady.'
'What would make her do that?'
'It generally comes about in this way. The publishers send a copy of the book to a newspaper, and owing to pressure on the paper's space, no notice appears for some time. The author, who looks for it daily, thinks that the publishers have neglected their duty, and sends a copy to the office himself. The editor, forgetful that he has had a notice of the book lying ready for printing for months, gives the second copy to another reviewer. By and by the first review appears, but owing to an oversight the editor does not take note of it, and after a time, unless his attention is called to the matter, the second review appears also. Probably that is the explanation in this case.'
'But such carelessness on a respectable paper is incomprehensible,' said the captain.
The editor was looking up his books to see if they shed any light on the affair, but he answered—
'On the contrary, it is an experience known to most newspapers. Ah, I have it!'
Mr. Licquorish read out, 'The Scorn of Scorns, received September 1st, reviewed October 3rd.' Several pages farther on he discovered, 'The Scorn of Scorns, received September 24th, reviewed December 19th.'
'You will find,' he said, 'that this explains it.'
'I don't consider the explanation satisfactory,' replied the captain, 'and I insist, first, upon an apology in the paper, and second, on getting the name of the writer of the second review.'
'I am busy this morning,' said Mr. Licquorish, opening his door, 'and what you ask is absurd. If the authoress can give me her word that she did not send the book and so bring this upon herself, we shall insert a word on the subject but not otherwise. Good-morning.'
'Give me the writer's name,' cried the captain.
'We make a point of never giving names in that way,' said Mr. Licquorish.
'You have not heard the last of this,' Greybrooke said from the doorway. 'I shall make it my duty to ferret out the coward's name, and——'
'Good-morning,' Mr. Licquorish repeated.
The captain went thumping down the stairs, and meeting a printer's devil at the bottom, cuffed him soundly because he was part of the Mirror.
To his surprise, Miss Meredith's first remark when he returned was—
'Oh, I hope you didn't see him.'
She looked at Greybrooke's face, fearing it might be stained with blood, and when he told her the result of his inquiries she seemed pleased rather than otherwise. Nell was soft-hearted after all, and she knew how that second copy of the novel had reached the Mirror office.
'I shall find the fellow out, though,' said Greybrooke, grasping his cudgel firmly.
'Why, you are as vindictive as if you had written the book yourself,' said Nell.
Greybrooke murmured, blushing the while, that an insult to her hurt him more than one offered to himself. Nell opened the eyes of astonishment.
'You don't think I wrote the book?' she asked; then seeing that it was so from his face, added, 'oh no, I'm not clever enough. It was written by—by a friend of mine.'
Nell deserves credit for not telling Greybrooke who the friend was, for that was a secret. But there was reason to believe that she had already divulged it to twelve persons (all in the strictest confidence). When the captain returned she was explaining all about it by letter to Richard Abinger, Esq. Possibly that was why Greybrooke thought she was not nearly so nice to him now as she had been an hour before.
Will was unusually quiet when he and Greybrooke said adieu to the whole family of Merediths. He was burning to know where the captain had been, and also what Nell called him back to say in such a low tone. What she said was—
'Don't say anything about going to the Mirror office, Mr. Greybrooke, to Miss Abinger.'
The captain turned round to lift his hat, and at the same time expressed involuntarily a wish that Nell could see him punishing loose bowling.
Mrs. Meredith beamed to him.
'There is something very nice,' she said to Nell, 'about a polite young man.'
'Yes,' murmured her daughter, 'and even if he isn't polite.'