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From Calcombe Pomeroy Ernest had returned, not to Dunbude, but to meet the Exmoor party in London. There he had managed somehow--he hardly knew how himself--to live through a whole season without an explosion in his employer's family. That an explosion must come, sooner or later, he felt pretty sure in his own mind for several reasons: his whole existence there was a mistake and an anomaly, and he could no more mix in the end with the Exmoor family than oil can mix with vinegar, or vice versa. The round of dances and dinners to which he had to accompany his pupil was utterly distasteful to him. Lynmouth never learnt anything; so Ernest felt his own function in the household a perfectly useless one; and he was always on the eve of a declaration that he couldn't any longer put up with this, that, or the other 'gross immorality' in which Lynmouth was actively or passively encouraged by his father and mother. Still, there were two things which indefinitely postponed the smouldering outbreak. In the first place, Ernest wrote to, and heard from, Edie every day; and he believed he ought for Edie's sake to give the situation a fair trial, as long as he was able, or at least till he saw some other opening, which might make it possible within some reasonable period to marry her. In the second place, Lady Hilda had perceived with her intuitive quickness the probability that a cause of dispute might arise between her father and Ernest, and had made up her mind as far as in her lay to prevent its ever coming to a head. She didn't wish Ernest to leave his post in the household--so much originality was hardly again to be secured in a hurry--and therefore she laid herself out with all her ingenuity to smooth over all the possible openings for a difference of opinion whenever they occurred. If Ernest's scruples were getting the upper hand of his calmer judgment, Lady Hilda read the change in his face at once, and managed dexterously to draw off Lynmouth, or to talk over her mother quietly to acquiesce in Ernest's view of the question. If Lord Exmoor was beginning to think that this young man's confounded fads were really getting quite unbearable, Lady Hilda interposed some casual remark about how much better Lynmouth was kept out of the way now than he used to be in Mr. Walsh's time. Ernest himself never even suspected this unobtrusive diplomatist and peacemaker; but as a matter of fact it was mainly owing to Lady Hilda's constant interposition that he contrived to stop in Wilton Place through all that dreary and penitential London season.
At last, to Ernest's intense joy, the season began to show premonitory symptoms of collapsing from inanition. The twelfth of August was drawing nigh, and the coming-of-age of grouse, that most important of annual events in the orthodox British social calendar, would soon set free Lord Exmoor and his brother hereditary legislators from their arduous duty of acting as constitutional drag on the general advance of a great, tolerant, and easy-going nation. Soon the family would be off again to Dunbude, or away to its other moors in Scotland; and among the rocks and the heather Ernest felt he could endure Lord Exmoor and Lord Lynmouth a little more resignedly than among the reiterated polite platitudes and monotonous gaieties of the vacuous London drawing-rooms.
Lady Hilda, too, was longing in her own way for the season to be over. She had gone through another of them, thank goodness, she said to herself at times with a rare tinge of pensiveness, only to discover that the Hughs, and the Guys, and the Algies, and the Montys were just as fatuously inane as ever; and were just as anxious as before to make her share their fatuous inanity for a whole lifetime. Only fancy living with an unadulterated Monty from the time you were twenty to the time you were seventy-five--at which latter date he, being doubtless some five years older than one-self to begin with, would probably drop off quietly with suppressed gout, and leave you a mourning widow to deplore his untimely and lamented extinction for the rest of your existence! Why, long before that time you would have got to know his very thoughts by heart (if he had any, poor fellow!) and would be able to finish all his sentences and eke out all his stories for him, the moment he began them. Much better marry a respectable pork-butcher outright, and have at least the healthful exercise of chopping sausage-meat to fill up the stray gaps in the conversation. In that condition of life, they say, people are at any rate perfectly safe from the terrors of ennui. However, the season was over at last, thank Heaven; and in a week or so more they would be at dear old ugly Dunbude again for the whole winter. There Hilda would go sketching once more on the moorland, and if this time she didn't make that stupid fellow Ernest see what she was driving at, why, then her name certainly wasn't Hilda Tregellis.
A day or two before the legal period fixed for the beginning of the general grouse-slaughter, Ernest was sitting reading in the breakfast room at Wilton Place, when Lynmouth burst unexpectedly into the room in his usual boisterous fashion.
'Oh, I say, Mr. Le Breton,' he began, holding the door in his hand like one in a hurry, 'I want leave to miss work this morning. Gerald Talfourd has called for me in his dog-cart, and wants me to go out with him now immediately.'
'Not to-day, Lynmouth,' Ernest answered quietly. 'You were out twice last week, you know, and you hardly ever get your full hours for work at all since we came to London.'
'Oh, but look here, you know, Mr. Le Breton; I really must go to-day, because Talfourd has made an appointment for me. It's awful fun--he's going to have some pigeon-shooting.'
Ernest's countenance fell a little, and he answered in a graver voice than before, 'If that's what you want to go for, Lynmouth, I certainly can't let you go. You shall never have leave from me to go pigeon-shooting.'
'Why not?' Lynmouth asked, still holding the door-handle at the most significant angle.
'Because it's a cruel and brutal sport,' Ernest replied, looking him in the face steadily; 'and as long as you're under my charge I can't allow you to take part in it.'
'Oh, you can't,' said Lynmouth mischievously, with a gentle touch of satire in his tone. 'You can't, can't you! Very well, then, never mind about it.' And he shut the door after him with a bang, and ran off upstairs without further remonstrance.
'It's time for study, Lynmouth,' Ernest called out, opening the door and speaking to him as he retreated. 'Come down again at once, please, will you?'
But Lynmouth made no answer, and went straight off upstairs to the drawing-room. In a few minutes more he came back, and said in a tone of suppressed triumph, 'Well, Mr. Le Breton, I'm going with Talfourd. I've been up to papa, and he says I may "if I like to."'
Ernest bit his lip in a moment's hesitation. If it had been any ordinary question, he would have pocketed the contradiction of his authority--after all, if it didn't matter to them, it didn't matter to him--and let Lynmouth go wherever they allowed him. But the pigeon-shooting was a question of principle. As long as the boy was still nominally his pupil, he couldn't allow him to take any part in any such wicked and brutal amusement, as he thought it. So he answered back quietly, 'No, Lynmouth, you are not to go. I don't think your father can have understood that I had forbidden you.'
'Oh!' Lynmouth said again, without a word of remonstrance, and went up a second time to the drawing-room.
In a few minutes a servant came down and spoke to Ernest. 'My lord would like to see you upstairs for a few minutes, if you please, sir.'
Ernest followed the man up with a vague foreboding that the deferred explosion was at last about to take place. Lord Exmoor was sitting on the sofa. 'Oh, I say, Le Breton,' he began in his good-humoured way, 'what's this that Lynmouth's been telling me about the pigeon-shooting? He says you won't let him go out with Gerald Talfourd.'
'Yes,' Ernest answered; 'he wanted to miss his morning's work, and I told him I couldn't allow him to do so.'
'But I said he might if he liked, Le Breton. Young Talfourd has called for him to go pigeon-shooting. And now Lynmouth tells me you refuse to let him go, after I've given him leave. Is that so?'
'Certainly,' said Ernest. 'I said he couldn't go, because before he asked you I had refused him permission, and I supposed you didn't know he was asking you to reverse my decision.'
'Oh, of course,' Lord Exmoor answered, for he was not an unreasonable man after his lights. 'You're quite right, Le Breton, quite right, certainly. Discipline's discipline, we all know, and must be kept up under any circumstances. You should have told me, Lynmouth, that Mr. Le Breton had forbidden you to go. However, as young Talfourd has made the engagement, I suppose you don't mind letting him have a holiday now, at my request, Le Breton, do you?'
Here was a dilemma indeed for Ernest. He hardly knew what to answer. He looked by chance at Lady Hilda, seated on the ottoman in the corner; and Lady Hilda, catching his eye, pursed up her lips visibly into the one word, 'Do.' But Ernest was inexorable. If he could possibly prevent it, he would not let those innocent pigeons be mangled and slaughtered for a lazy boy's cruel gratification. That was the one clear duty before him; and whether he offended Lord Exmoor or not, he had no choice save to pursue it.
'No, Lord Exmoor,' he said resolutely, after a long pause. 'I should have no objection to giving him a holiday, but I can't allow him to go pigeon-shooting.'
'Why not?' asked Lord Exmoor warmly.
Ernest did not answer.
'He says it's a cruel, brutal sport, papa,' Lynmouth put in parenthetically, in spite of an angry glance from Hilda; 'and he won't let me go while I'm his pupil.'
Lord Exmoor's face grew very red indeed, and he rose from the sofa angrily. 'So that's it, Mr. Le Breton!' he said, in a short sharp fashion. 'You think pigeon-shooting cruel and brutal, do you? Will you have the goodness to tell me, sir, do you know that I myself am in the habit of shooting pigeons at matches?'
'Yes,' Ernest answered, without flinching a muscle.
'Yes!' cried Lord Exmoor, growing redder and redder. 'You knew that, Mr. Le Breton, and yet you told my son you considered the practice brutal and cruel! Is that the way you teach him to honour his parents? Who are you, sir, that you dare set yourself up as a judge of me and my conduct? How dare you speak to him of his father in that manner? How dare you stir him up to disobedience and insubordination against his elders? How dare you, sir; how dare you?'
Ernest's face began to get red in return, and he answered with unwonted heat, 'How dare you address me so, yourself, Lord Exmoor? How dare you speak to me in that imperious manner? You're forgetting yourself, I think, and I had better leave you for the present, till you remember how to be more careful in your language. But Lynmouth is not to go pigeon-shooting. I object to his going, because the sport is a cruel and a brutal one, whoever may practise it. If I have any authority over him, I insist upon it that he shall not go. If he goes, I shall not stop here any longer. You can do as you like about it, of course, but you have my final word upon the matter. Lynmouth, go down to the study.'
'Stop, Lynmouth,' cried his father, boiling over visibly with indignation: 'Stop. Never mind what Mr. Le Breton says to you; do you hear me? Go out if you choose with Gerald Talfourd.'
Lynmouth didn't wait a moment for any further permission. He ran downstairs at once and banged the front door soundly after him with a resounding clatter. Lady Hilda looked imploringly at Ernest, and whispered half audibly, 'Now you've done it.' Ernest stood a second irresolute, while the Earl tramped angrily up and down the drawing-room, and then he said in a calmer voice, 'When would it be convenient, Lord Exmoor, that I should leave you?'
'Whenever you like,' Lord Exmoor answered violently. 'To-day if you can manage to get your things together. This is intolerable, absolutely intolerable! Gross and palpable impertinence; in my own house, too! "Cruel and brutal," indeed! "Cruel and brutal." Fiddlesticks! Why, it's not a bit different from partridge-shooting!' And he went out, closely followed by Ernest, leaving Lady Hilda alone and frightened in the drawing-room.
Ernest ran lightly upstairs to his own little study sitting-room. 'I've done it this time, certainly, as Lady Hilda said,' he thought to himself; 'but I don't see how I could possibly have avoided it. Even now, when all's done, I haven't succeeded in saving the lives of the poor innocent tortured pigeons. They'll be mangled and hunted for their poor frightened lives, anyhow. Well, now I must look out for that imaginary schoolmastership, and see what I can do for dear Edie. I shan't be sorry to get out of this after all, for the place was an impossible one for me from the very beginning. I shall sit down this moment and write to Edie, and after that I shall take out my portmanteau and get the man to help me put my luggage up to go away this very evening. Another day in the house after this would be obviously impossible.'
At that moment there came a knock at the door--a timid, tentative sort of knock, and somebody put her head inquiringly halfway through the doorway. Ernest looked up in sudden surprise. It was Lady Hilda.
'Mr. Le Breton,' she said, coming over towards the table where Ernest had just laid out his blotting-book and writing-paper: 'I couldn't prevent myself from coming up to tell you how much I admire your conduct in standing up so against papa for what you thought was right and proper. I can't say how greatly I admire it. I'm so glad you did as you did do. You have acted nobly.' And Hilda looked straight into his eyes with the most speaking and most melting of glances. 'Now,' she said to herself, 'according to all correct precedents, he ought to seize my hand fervently with a gentle pressure, and thank me with tears in his eyes for my kind sympathy.'
But Ernest, only looking puzzled and astonished, answered in the quietest of voices, 'Thank you very much, Lady Hilda: but I assure you there was really nothing at all noble, nothing at all to admire, in what I said or did in any way. In fact, I'm rather afraid, now I come to think of it, that I lost my temper with your father dreadfully.'
'Then you won't go away?' Hilda put in quickly. 'You think better of it now, do you? You'll apologise to papa, and go with us to Dunbude for the autumn? Do say you will, please, Mr. Le Breton.'
'Oh dear, no,' Ernest answered, smiling quietly at the bare idea of his apologising to Lord Exmoor. 'I certainly won't do that, whatever I do. To tell you the truth, Lady Hilda, I have not been very anxious to stop with Lynmouth all along: I've found it a most unprofitable tutorship--no sense of any duty performed, or any work done for society: and I'm not at all sorry that this accident should have broken up the engagement unexpectedly. At the same time, it's very kind of you to come up and speak to me about it, though I'm really quite ashamed you should have thought there was anything particularly praiseworthy or commendable in my standing out against such an obviously cruel sport as pigeon-shooting.'
'Ah, but I do think so, whatever you may say, Mr. Le Breton,' Hilda went on eagerly. 'I do think so, and I think it was very good of you to fight it out so against papa for what you believe is right and proper. For my own part, you know, I don't see any particular harm in pigeon-shooting. Of course it's very dreadful that the poor dear little things should be shot and wounded and winged and so forth; but then everything, almost, gets shot, you see--rabbits, and grouse, and partridges, and everything; so that really it's hardly worth while, it seems to me, making a fuss about it. Still, that's not the real question. You think it's wrong; which is very original and nice and proper of you; and as you think it's wrong, you won't countenance it in any way. I don't care, myself, whether it's wrong or not--I'm not called upon, thank goodness, to decide the question; but I do care very much that you should suffer for what you think the right course of action.' And Lady Hilda in her earnestness almost laid her hand upon his arm, and looked up to him in the most unmistakable and appealing fashion.
'You're very good, I'm sure, Lady Hilda,' Ernest replied, half hesitatingly, wondering much in his own mind what on earth she could be driving at.
There was a moment's pause, and then Hilda said pensively, 'And so we shall never walk together at Dunbude on the Clatter any more, Mr. Le Breton! We shall never climb again among the big boulders on those Devonshire hillsides! We shall never watch the red deer from the big pool on top of the sheep-walk! I'm sorry for it, Mr. Le Breton, very sorry for it. Oh, I do wish you weren't going to leave us!'
Ernest began to feel that this was really growing embarrassing. 'I dare say we shall often see one another,' he said evasively; for simple-minded as he was, a vague suspicion of what Lady Hilda wanted him to say had somehow forced itself timidly upon him. 'London's a very big place, no doubt; but still, people are always running together unexpectedly in it.'
Hilda sighed and looked at him again intently without speaking. She stood so, face to face with him across the table for fully two minutes; and then, seeming suddenly to awake from a reverie, she started and sighed once more, and turned at last reluctantly to leave the little study. 'I must go,' she said hastily; 'mamma would be very angry indeed with me if she knew I'd come here; but I couldn't let you leave the house without coming up to tell you how greatly I admire your spirit, and how very, very much I shall always miss you, Mr. Le Breton. Will you take this, and keep it as a memento?' As she spoke, she laid an envelope upon the table, and glided quietly out of the room.
Ernest took the envelope up with a smile, and opened it with some curiosity. It contained a photograph, with a brief inscription on the back, 'E. L. B., from Hilda Tregellis.'
As he did so, Hilda Tregellis, red and pale by turns, had rushed into her own room, locked the door wildly, and flung herself in a perfect tempest of tears on her own bed, where she lay and tossed about in a burning agony of shame and self-pity for twenty minutes. 'He doesn't love me,' she said to herself bitterly; 'he doesn't love me, and he doesn't care to love me, or want to marry me either! I'm sure he understood what I meant, this time; and there was no response in his eyes, no answer, no sympathy. He's like a block of wood--a cold, impassive, immovable, lifeless creature! And yet I could love him--oh, if only he would say a word to me in answer, how I could love him! I loved him when he stood up there and bearded papa in his own drawing-room, and asked him how dare he speak so, how dare he address him in such a manner; I knew then that I really loved him. If only he would let me! But he won't! To think that I could have half the Algies and Berties in London at my feet for the faintest encouragement, and I can't have this one poor penniless Ernest Le Breton, though I go down on my knees before him and absolutely ask him to marry me! That's the worst of it! I've humiliated myself before him by letting him see, oh, ever so much too plainly, that I wanted him to ask me; and I've been repulsed, rejected, positively refused and slighted by him! And yet I love him! I shall never love any other man as I love Ernest Le Breton.'
Poor Lady Hilda Tregellis! Even she too had, at times, her sentimental moments! And there she lay till her eyes were red and swollen with crying, and till it was quite hopeless to expect she could ever manage to make herself presentable for the Cecil Faunthorpes' garden-party that afternoon at Twickenham.
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