One of the disappointments of life is that the persons we think we have reason to dislike are seldom altogether villains; they are not made sufficiently big for it. When we can go to sleep in an arm-chair this ceases to be a trouble, but it vexed Mary Abinger. Her villain of fiction, on being haughtily rejected, had at least left the heroine's home looking a little cowed. Sir Clement in the same circumstances had stayed on.
The colonel had looked forward resentfully for years to meeting this gentleman again, and giving him a piece of his stormy mind. When the opportunity came, however, Mary's father instead asked his unexpected visitor to remain for a week. Colonel Abinger thought he was thus magnanimous because his guest had been confidential with him, but it was perhaps rather because Sir Clement had explained how much he thought of him. To dislike our admirers is to be severe on ourselves, and is therefore not common.
The Dome had introduced the colonel to Sir Clement as well as to Rob. One day Colonel Abinger had received by letter from a little hostelry in the neighbourhood the compliments of Sir Clement Dowton, and a request that he might be allowed to fish in the preserved water. All that Mary's father knew of Dowton at that time was that he had been lost to English society for half a dozen years. Once in many months the papers spoke of him as serving under Gordon in China, as being taken captive by an African king, as having settled down in a cattle-ranch in the vicinity of Manitoba. His lawyers were probably aware of his whereabouts oftener than other persons. All that society knew was that he hated England because one of its daughters had married a curate. The colonel called at the inn, and found Sir Clement such an attentive listener that he thought the baronet's talk quite brilliant. A few days afterwards the stranger's traps were removed to the castle, and then he met Miss Abinger, who was recently home from school. He never spoke to her of his grudge against England.
It is only the unselfish men who think much, otherwise Colonel Abinger might have pondered a little over his guest. Dowton had spoken of himself as an enthusiastic angler, yet he let his flies drift down the stream like fallen leaves. He never remembered to go a-fishing until it was suggested to him. He had given his host several reasons for his long absence from his property, and told him he did not want the world to know that he was back in England, as he was not certain whether he would remain. The colonel at his request introduced him to the few visitors at the castle as Mr. Dowton, and was surprised to discover afterwards that they all knew his real name.
'I assure you,' Mary's father said to him, 'that they have not learned it from me. It is incomprehensible how a thing like that leaks out.'
'I don't understand it,' said Dowton, who, however, should have understood it, as he had taken the visitors aside and told them his real name himself. He seemed to do this not of his free will, but because he could not help it.
It never struck the colonel that his own society was not what tied Sir Clement to Dome Castle; for widowers with grown-up daughters are in a foreign land without interpreters. On that morning when the baronet vanished, nevertheless, the master of Dome Castle was the only person in it who did not think that it would soon lose its mistress, mere girl though she was.
Sir Clement's strange disappearance was accounted for at the castle, where alone it was properly known, in various ways. Miss Abinger, in the opinion of the servants' hall, held her head so high that there he was believed to have run away because she had said him no. Miss Abinger excused and blamed him alternately to herself, until she found a dull satisfaction in looking upon him as the villain he might have been had his high forehead spoken true. As for the colonel, he ordered Mary (he had no need) never to mention the fellow's name to him, but mentioned it frequently himself.
Nothing had happened, so far as was known, to disturb the baronet's serenity; neither friends nor lawyers had been aware that he was in England, and he had received no letters. Mary remembered his occasional fits of despondency, but on the whole he seemed to revel in his visit, and had never looked happier than the night before he went. His traps were sent by the colonel in a fury to the little inn where he had at first taken up his abode, but it was not known at the castle whether he ever got them. Some months afterwards a letter from him appeared in the Times, dated from Suez, and from then until he reappeared at Dome Castle, the colonel, except when he spoke to himself, never heard the baronet's name mentioned.
Sir Clement must have been very impulsive, for on returning to the castle he had intended to treat Miss Abinger with courteous coldness, as if she had been responsible for his flight, and he had not seen her again for ten minutes before he asked her to marry him. He meant to explain his conduct in one way to the colonel, and he explained it in quite another way.
When Colonel Abinger took him into the smoking-room on Christmas Eve to hear what he had to say for himself, the baronet sank into a chair, with a look of contentment on his beautiful face that said he was glad to be there again. Then the colonel happened to mention Mary's name in such a way that he seemed to know of Sir Clement's proposal to her three years earlier. At once the baronet began another story from the one he had meant to tell, and though he soon discovered that he had credited his host with a knowledge the colonel did not possess, it was too late to draw back. So Mary's father heard to his amazement that the baronet had run away because he was in love with Miss Abinger. Colonel Abinger had read The Scorn of Scorns, but it had taught him nothing.
'She was only a schoolgirl when you saw her last,' he said, in bewilderment; 'but I hardly see how that should have made you fly the house like—yes, like a thief.'
Dowton looked sadly at him.
'I don't know,' he said, speaking as if with reluctance, 'that in any circumstances I should be justified in telling you the whole miserable story. Can you not guess it? When I came here I was not a free man.'
'You were already married?'
'No, but I was engaged to be married.'
'Did Mary know anything of this?'
'Nothing of that engagement, and but little, I think, of the attachment that grew up in my heart for her. I kept that to myself.'
'She was too young,' said the wise colonel, 'to think of such things then; and even now I do not see why you should have left us as you did.'
Sir Clement rose to his feet and paced the room in great agitation.
'It is hard,' he said at last, 'to speak of such a thing to another man. But let me tell you, Abinger, that when I was with you three years ago there were times when I thought I would lose my reason. Do you know what it is to have such a passion as that raging in your heart and yet have to stifle it? There were whole nights when I walked up and down my room till dawn. I trembled every time I saw Miss Abinger alone lest I should say that to her which I had no right to say. Her voice alone was sufficient to unman me. I felt that my only safety was in flight.'
'I have run away from a woman myself in my time,' the colonel said, with a grim chuckle. 'There are occasions when it is the one thing to do, but this was surely not one of them, if Mary knew nothing.'
'Sometimes I feared she did know that I cared for her. That is a hard thing to conceal, and, besides, I suppose I felt so wretched that I was not in a condition to act rationally. When I left the castle that day I had not the least intention of not returning.'
'And since then you have been half round the world again? Are you married?'
'Then I am to understand——'
'That she is dead,' said Sir Clement, in a low voice.
There was a silence between them, which was at last broken by the colonel.
'What you have told me,' he said, 'is a great surprise, more especially with regard to my daughter. Being but a child at the time, however, she could not, I am confident, have thought of you in any other light than as her father's friend. It is, of course, on that footing that you return now?'
'As her father's friend, certainly, I hope,' said the baronet firmly, 'but I wish to tell you now that my regard for her has never changed. I confess I would have been afraid to come back to you had not my longing to see her again given me courage.'
'She has not the least idea of this,' murmured the colonel, 'not the least. The fact is that Mary has lived so quietly with me here that she is still a child. Miss Meredith, whom I dare say you have met here, has been almost her only friend, and I am quite certain that the thought of marriage has never crossed their minds. If you, or even if I, were to speak of such a thing to Mary, it would only frighten her.'
'I should not think of speaking to her on the subject at present,' the baronet interposed, rather hurriedly, 'but I thought it best to explain my position to you. You know what I am, that I have been almost a vagrant on the face of the earth since I reached manhood, but no one can see more clearly than I do myself how unworthy I am of her.'
'I do not need to tell you,' said the colonel, taking the baronet's hand, 'that I used to like you, Dowton, and indeed I know no one whom I would prefer for a son-in-law. But you must be cautious with Mary.'
'I shall be very cautious,' said the baronet; 'indeed there is no hurry, none whatever.'
Colonel Abinger would have brought the conversation to a close here, but there was something more for Dowton to say.
'I agree with you,' he said, forgetting, perhaps, that the colonel had not spoken on this point, 'that Miss Abinger should be kept ignorant for the present of the cause that drove me on that former occasion from the castle.'
'It is the wisest course to adopt,' said the colonel, looking as if he had thought the matter out step by step.
'The only thing I am doubtful about,' continued Dowton, 'is whether Miss Abinger will not think that she is entitled to some explanation. She cannot, I fear, have forgotten the circumstances of my departure.'
'Make your mind easy on that score,' said the colonel; 'the best proof that Mary gave the matter little thought, even at the time, is that she did not speak of it to me. Sweet seventeen has always a short memory.'
'But I have sometimes thought since that Miss Abinger did care for me a little, in which case she would have unfortunate cause to resent my flight.'
While he spoke the baronet was looking anxiously into the colonel's face.
'I can give you my word for it,' said the colonel cheerily, 'that she did not give your disappearance two thoughts; and now I much question whether she will recognise you.'
Dowton's face clouded, but the other misinterpreted the shadow.
'So put your mind at rest,' said the colonel kindly, 'and trust an old stager like myself for being able to read into a woman's heart.'
Shortly afterwards Colonel Abinger left his guest, and for nearly five minutes the baronet looked dejected. It is sometimes advantageous to hear that a lady with whom you have watched the moon rise has forgotten your very name, but it is never complimentary. By and by, however, Sir Clement's sense of humour drove the gloom from his chiselled face, and a glass bracket over the mantelpiece told him that he was laughing heartily.
It was a small breakfast party at the castle next morning, Sir Clement and Greybrooke being the only guests, but the baronet was so gay and morose by turns that he might have been two persons. In the middle of a laugh at some remark of the captain's, he would break off with a sigh, and immediately after sadly declining another cup of coffee from Mary, he said something humorous to her father. The one mood was natural to him and the other forced, but it would have been difficult to decide which was which. It is, however, one of the hardest things in life to remain miserable for any length of time on a stretch. When Dowton found himself alone with Mary his fingers were playing an exhilarating tune on the window-sill, but as he looked at her his hands fell to his side, and there was pathos in his fine eyes. Drawn toward her, he took a step forward, but Miss Abinger said 'No' so decisively that he stopped irresolute.
'I shall be leaving the castle in an hour,' Sir Clement said slowly.
'Papa told me,' said Mary, 'that he had prevailed upon you to remain for a week.'
'He pressed me to do so, and I consented, but you have changed everything since then. Ah, Mary——'
'Miss Abinger,' said Mary.
'Miss Abinger, if you would only listen to what I have to say. I can explain everything. I——'
'There is nothing to explain,' said Mary, 'nothing that I have either a right or a desire to hear. Please not to return to this subject again. I said everything there was to say last night.'
The baronet's face paled, and he bowed his head in deep dejection. His voice was trembling a little, and he observed it with gratification as he answered—
'Then, I suppose, I must bid you good-bye?'
'Good-bye,' said Mary. 'Does papa know you are going?'
'I promised to him to stay on,' said Sir Clement, 'and I can hardly expect him to forgive me if I change my mind.'
This was put almost in the form of a question, and Mary thought she understood it.
'Then you mean to remain?' she asked.
'You compel me to go,' he replied dolefully.
'Oh no,' said Mary, 'I have nothing to do with your going or staying.'
'But it—it would hardly do for me to remain after what took place last night,' said the baronet, in the tone of one who was open to contradiction.
For the first time in the conversation Mary smiled. It was not, however, the smile every man would care to see at his own expense.
'If you were to go now,' she said, 'you would not be fulfilling your promise to papa, and I know that men do not like to break their word to—to other men.'
'Then you think I ought to stay?' asked Sir Clement eagerly.
'It is for you to think,' said Mary.
'Perhaps, then, I ought to remain—for Colonel Abinger's sake,' said the baronet.
Mary did not answer.
'Only for a few days,' he continued almost appealingly.
'Very well,' said Mary.
'And you won't think the worse of me for it?' asked Dowton anxiously. 'Of course, if I were to consult my own wishes I would go now, but as I promised Colonel Abinger——'
'You will remain out of consideration for papa. How could I think worse of you for that?'
Mary rose to leave the room, and as Sir Clement opened the door for her he said—
'We shall say nothing of all this to Colonel Abinger?'
'Oh no, certainly not,' said Mary.
She glanced up in his face, her mouth twisted slightly to one side, as it had a habit of doing when she felt disdainful, and the glory of her beauty filled him of a sudden. The baronet pushed the door close and turned to her passionately, a film over his eyes and his hands outstretched.
'Mary,' he cried, 'is there no hope for me?'
'No,' said Mary, opening the door for herself, and passing out.
Sir Clement stood there motionless for a minute. Then he crossed to the fireplace, and sank into a luxuriously cushioned chair. The sunlight came back to his noble face.
'This is grand, glorious,' he murmured, in an ecstasy of enjoyment.
In the days that followed, the baronet's behaviour was a little peculiar. Occasionally at meals he seemed to remember that a rejected lover ought not to have a good appetite. If, when he was smoking in the grounds, he saw Mary approaching, he covertly dropped his cigar. When he knew that she was sitting at a window he would pace up and down the walk with his head bent as if life had lost its interest to him. By and by his mind wandered, on these occasions, to more cheerful matters, and he would start to find that he had been smiling to himself and swishing his cane playfully, like a man who walked on air. It might have been said of him that he tried to be miserable and found it hard work.
Will, who discovered that the baronet did not know what l.b.w. meant, could not, nevertheless, despise a man who had shot lions, but he never had quite the same respect for the king of beasts again. As for Greybrooke, he rather liked Sir Clement, because he knew that Nell (in her own words) 'loathed, hated, and despised' him.
Greybrooke had two severe disappointments that holiday, both of which were to be traced to the capricious Nell. It had dawned on him that she could not help liking him a little if she saw him take a famous jump over the Dome, known to legend as the 'Robber's Leap.' The robber had lost his life in trying to leap the stream, but the captain practised in the castle grounds until he felt that he could clear it. Then he formally invited Miss Meredith to come and see him do it, and she told him instead that he was wicked. The captain and Will went back silently to the castle, wondering what on earth she would like.
Greybrooke's other disappointment was still more grievous. One evening he and Will returned to the castle late for dinner, an offence the colonel found it hard to overlook, although they were going back to school on the following day. Will reached the dining-room first, and his father frowned on him.
'You are a quarter of an hour late, William,' said the colonel sternly. 'Where have you been?'
'Do you remember,' he said at last, 'a man called Angus, who was here reporting on Christmas Eve?'
Mary laid down her knife and fork.
'A painfully powerful-looking man,' said Dowton, 'in hob-nailed boots. I remember him.'
'Well, we have been calling on him,' said Will.
'Calling on him, calling on that impudent newspaper man!' exclaimed the colonel; 'what do you mean?'
'Greybrooke had a row with him some time ago,' said Will; 'I don't know what about, because it was private; but the captain has been looking for the fellow for a fortnight to lick him—I mean punish him. We came upon him two days ago, near the castle gates.'
Here Will paused, as if he would prefer to jump what followed.
'And did your friend "lick" him then?' asked the colonel, at which Will shook his head.
'Why not?' asked Sir Clement.
'Well,' said Will reluctantly, 'the fellow wouldn't let him. He—he lifted Greybrooke up in his arms, and—and dropped him over the hedge.'
Mary could not help laughing.
'The beggar—I mean the fellow—must have muscles like ivy roots,' Will blurted out admiringly.
'I fancy,' said Dowton, 'that I have seen him near the gates several times during the last week.'
'Very likely,' said the colonel shortly. 'I caught him poaching in the Dome some months ago. There is something bad about that man.'
'Papa!' said Mary.
At this moment Greybrooke entered.
'So, Mr. Greybrooke,' said the colonel, 'I hear you have been in Silchester avenging an insult.'
The captain looked at Will, who nodded.
'I went there,' admitted Greybrooke, blushing, 'to horsewhip a reporter fellow, but he had run away.'
'Yes. Did not Will tell you? We called at the Mirror office, and were told that Angus had bolted to London two days ago.'
'And the worst of it,' interposed Will, 'is that he ran off without paying his landlady's bill.'
'I knew that man was a rascal,' exclaimed the colonel.
'I don't believe it,' she said.
'You don't believe it,' repeated her father angrily; 'and why not, pray?'
'Because—because I don't,' said Mary.