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'He tokin into his handis His londis and his lode.'--CHAUCER.
'Mark! Mark!' A little figure stood on the gravel road leading through Lescombe Park, and lifted up an eager face, as Mark jumped down from his horse. 'I made sure you would come over.'
'Yes, but I could not get away earlier. And I have so much to say to you and your mother, Annaple; there's a great proposition to be considered.'
'Oh dear! and here is John bearing down upon us. Never mind. We'll get into the mither's room and be cosy!'
'Well, Mark,' said Sir John's hearty voice, 'I thought you would be here. Come to luncheon? That's right! And how is poor Egremont? I thought he looked awful at the funeral.'
'He is fairly well, thank you; but it was a terrible shock.'
'I should think so. To find such a pretty sweet creature just to lose her again. Child likely to live, eh?'
'Oh yes, he is a fine fellow, and has never had anything amiss with him.'
'Poor little chap! Doesn't know what he has lost! Well, Nannie,' as they neared the house, 'do you want a tete-a-tete or to take him in to your mother? Here, I'll take the horse.'
'Come to her at once,' said Annaple; 'she wants to hear all, and besides she is expecting me.'
Mark was welcomed by Lady Ronnisglen with inquiries for all concerned, and especially for that 'poor girl. I do pity a young thing who has to take a woman's place too soon,' she said. 'It takes too much out of her!'
'I should think Ursula had plenty of spirit,' said Annaple.
'I don't know whether spirit is what is wanted,' said Mark. 'Her mother prevailed more without it than I am afraid she is likely to do with it.'
'Complements answer better than parallels sometimes, but not always,' said Lady Ronnisglen.
'Which are we?' asked Annaple demurely.
'Not parallels certainly, for then we should never meet,' responded Mark. 'But here is the proposal. My father and all the rest of us have been doing our best to get my uncle to smooth Ursula's way by getting rid of that valet of his.'
'The man with the Mephistopheles face?'
'Exactly. He is a consummate scoundrel, as we all know, and so does my uncle himself, but he has been about him these twelve or fourteen years, and has got a sort of hold on him--that--that-- It is no use to talk of it, but it did not make that dear aunt of mine have an easier life. In fact I should not be a bit surprised if he had been a hindrance in the hunting her up. Well, the fellow thought proper to upset some arrangements my mother had made, and then was more insolent than I should have thought even he could have been towards her. I suppose he had got into the habit with poor Aunt Alice. That made a fulcrum, and my father went at my uncle with a will. I never saw my father so roused in my life. I don't mean by the behaviour to his wife, but at what he knew of the fellow, and all the harm he had done and is doing. And actually my uncle gave in at last, and consented to tell Gregorio to look out for another situation, if he has not feathered his nest too well to need one, as I believe he has.'
'Oh, that will make it much easier for Ursula!' cried Annaple.
'If he goes,' put in her mother.
'I think he will. I really had no notion how much these two years have improved my uncle! To be sure, it would be hard to live with such a woman as that without being the better for it! But he really seems to have acquired a certain notion of duty!'
They did not smile at the simple way in which Mark spoke of this vast advance, and Lady Ronnisglen said, 'I hope so, for the sake of his daughter and that poor little boy.'
'I think that has something to do with it,' said Mark. 'He feels a responsibility, and still more, I think he was struck by having a creature with him to whom evil was like physical pain.'
'It will work,' said Lady Ronnisglen.
'Then,' went on Mark, 'he took us all by surprise by making me this proposal--to take the management of the estate, and become a kind of private secretary to him. You know he gets rheumatism on the optic nerve, and is almost blind at times. He would give me (pounds)300 a year, and do up the house at the home farm, rent free. What do you say to that, Annaple?'
There was a silence, then Annaple said: 'Give up the umbrellas! Oh! What do you think, Mark?'
'My father wishes it,' said Mark. 'He would, as he had promised to do, make over to me my share of my own mother's fortune, and that would, I have been reckoning, bring us to just what we had thought of starting upon this spring at Micklethwayte.'
'The same now,' said Lady Ronnisglen, after some reckoning, 'but what does it lead to?'
'Well--nothing, I am afraid,' said Mark; 'as you know, this is all I have to reckon upon. The younger children will have hardly anything from their mother, so that my father's means must chiefly go to them.'
'And this agency is entirely dependent on your satisfying Mr. Egremont?'
'True, but that's a thing only too easily done. However, as you say, this agency has no future, and if that came to an end, I should only have to look out for another or take to farming.'
'And ask poor John if that is a good speculation nowadays!' said Annaple.
'Fortunes are and have been made on the umbrellas,' said Mark. 'Greenleaf has a place almost equal to Monks Horton, and Dutton, though he makes no show, has realised a considerable amount.'
'Oh yes, let us stick to the umbrellas!' cried Annaple; 'you've made the plunge, so it does not signify now, and we should be so much more independent out of the way of everybody.'
'You would lose in society,' said Mark, 'excepting, of course, as to the Monks Horton people; but they are often away.'
'Begging your pardon, Mark, is there much to lose in this same neighbourhood?' laughed Annaple, 'now May will go.'
'It is not so much a question of liking,' added her mother, 'as of what is for the best, and where you may wish to be--say ten years hence.'
Looked at in this way, there could be no question but that the umbrella company promised to make Mark a richer man in ten years' time than did the agency at Bridgefield Egremont. He had a salary from the office already, and if he purchased shares in the partnership with the portion his father would resign to him, his income would already equal what he would have at Bridgefield, and there was every prospect of its increase, both as he became more valuable, and as the business continued to prosper. If the descent in life had been a grievance to the ladies, the agency would have been an infinite boon, but having swallowed so much, as Annaple said, they might as well do it in earnest, and to some purpose. Perhaps, too, it might be detected that under the circumstances Annaple would prefer the living in a small way out of reach of her sister's visible compassion.
So the matter was settled, but there was an undercurrent in Mark's mind on which he had not entered, namely, that his presence at home might make all the difference in that reformation in his uncle's habits which Alice had inaugurated, and left in the hands of others. With him at hand, there was much more chance of Gregorio's being dispensed with, Ursula's authority maintained, little Alwyn well brought up, and the estate, tenants, and household properly cared for, and then he smiled at his notion of supposing himself of so much importance. Had he only had himself to consider, Mark would have thought his duty plain; but when he found Miss Ruthven and her mother so entirely averse, he did not deem it right to sacrifice them to the doubtful good of his uncle, nor indeed to put the question before them as so much a matter of conscience that they should feel bound to consider it in that light. He did indeed say, 'Well, that settles it,' in a tone that led Annaple to exclaim: 'I do believe you want to drop the umbrellas!'
'No,' he answered, 'it is not that, but my father wished it, and thought it would be good for my uncle.'
'No doubt,' said Annaple, 'but he has got a daughter, also a son, and a brother, and agents are plentiful, so I can't see why all the family should dance attendance on him.'
Lady Ronnisglen, much misdoubting Mr. Egremont's style of society, and dreading that Mark might be dragged into it, added her word, feeling on her side that it was desirable and just to hinder the family from sacrificing Mark's occupation and worldly interest to a capricious old roue, who might very possibly throw him over when it would be almost impossible to find anything else to do. Moreover, both she and Annaple believed that the real wish was to rescue the name of Egremont from association with umbrellas, and they held themselves bound to combat what they despised and thought a piece of worldly folly.
So Mark rode home, more glad that the decision was actually made than at the course it had taken. His father was disappointed, but could not but allow that it was the more prudent arrangement; and Mr. Egremont showed all the annoyance of a man whose good offer has been rejected.
''Tis that little giggling Scotch girl!' he said. 'Well, we are quit of her, anyway. 'Tis a pity that Mark entangled himself with her, and a mother-in-law into the bargain! I was a fool to expect to get any good out of him!'
This was said to his daughter, with whom he was left alone; for Miss Headworth could not bear to accept his hospitality a moment longer than needful, and besides had been so much shaken in nerves as to suspect that an illness was coming on, and hurried home to be nursed by Mary Nugent. Canon Egremont was obliged to go back to Redcastle to finish his residence, and his wife, who had been absent nearly a month from her family, thought it really wisest to let the father and daughter be thrown upon one another at once, so that Ursula might have the benefit of her father's softened mood.
There could be no doubt that he was softened, and that he had derived some improvement from the year and a half that his wife had been with him. It might not have lifted him up a step, but it had arrested him in his downward course. Selfish and indolent he was as ever, but there had been a restraint on his amusements, and a withdrawal from his worst associates, such as the state of his health might continue, above all if Gregorio could be dispensed with. The man himself had become aware of the combination against him, and, though reckoning on his master's inertness and dependence upon him, knew that a fresh offence might complete his overthrow, and therefore took care to be on his good behaviour.
Thus Nuttie's task might be somewhat smoothed; but the poor girl felt unspeakably desolate as she ate her breakfast all alone with a dull post-bag, and still more so when, having seen the housekeeper, who, happily for her, was a good and capable woman, and very sorry for her, she had to bethink herself what to do in that dreary sitting- room during the hour when she had always been most sure of her sister-mother's dear company. How often she had grumbled at being called on to practise duets for her father's evening lullaby! She supposed she ought to get something up, and she proceeded to turn over and arrange the music with a sort of sick loathing for whatever was connected with those days of impatient murmurs, which she would so gladly have recalled. Everything had fallen into disorder, as Blanche and May had left it the last time they had played there; and the overlooking it, and putting aside the pieces which she could never use alone, occupied her till Gregorio, very meek and polite, came with a message that Mr. Egremont would be glad if she would come to his room. In some dread, some distaste, and yet some pity and some honest resolution, she made her way thither.
There he sat, in dressing-gown, smoking-cap, and blue spectacles, with the glittering February sunshine carefully excluded. He looked worse and more haggard than when she had seen him at dinner in the evening, made up for company, and her compassion increased, especially as he not only held out his hand, but seemed to expect her to kiss him, a thing she had never done since their first recognition. It was not pleasant in itself, but it betokened full forgiveness, and indeed he had never spoken to her in his sneering, exasperating voice since her mournful return home.
'Have you seen the boy?' he asked.
'Yes; they are walking him up and down under the south wall,' said Nuttie, thankful that she had peeped under the many wraps as he was carried across the hall.
'Here! I want you to read this letter to me. A man ought to be indicted for writing such a hand!'
It was really distinct penmanship, though minute; but, as Nuttie found, her father did not like to avow how little available were his eyes. He could write better than he could read, but he kept her over his correspondence for the rest of the morning, answering some of the letters of condolence for him in her own name, writing those of business, and folding and addressing what he himself contrived to write. Her native quickness stood her in good stead, and, being rather nervous, she took great pains, and seldom stumbled; indeed, she only once incurred an exclamation of impatience at her stupidity or slowness.
She guessed rightly that this forbearance was owing to tender persuasions of her mother, and did not guess that a certain fear of herself was mingled with other motives. Her father had grown used to woman's ministrations; he needed them for his precious little heir, and he knew his daughter moreover for a severe judge, and did not want to alienate her and lose her services; so they got on fairly well together, and she shared his luncheon, during which a message came up about the carriage; and as there had been an application for some nursery needment, and moreover black-edged envelopes had run short, there was just purpose enough for a drive to the little town.
Then Nuttie read her father to sleep with the newspaper; rushed round the garden in the twilight to stretch her young limbs; tried to read a little, dressed, dined with her father; finished what he had missed in the paper, then offered him music, and was told 'if she pleased,' and as she played she mused whether this was to be her life. It looked very dull and desolate, and what was the good of it all? But there were her mother's words, 'Love him!' How fulfil them? She could pity him now, but oh! how could she love one from whom her whole nature recoiled, when she thought of her mother's ruined life? Mr. Dutton too had held her new duties up to her as capable of being ennobled. Noble! To read aloud a sporting paper she did not want to understand, to be ready to play at cards or billiards, to take that dawdling drive day by day, to devote herself to the selfish exactions of burnt-out dissipation. Was this noble? Her mother had done all this, and never even felt it a cross, because of her great love. It must be Nuttie's cross if it was her duty; but could the love and honour possibly come though she tried to pray in faith?
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