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Chapter IX. The Women of the Land.

'Mr. Le Breton! Mr. Le Breton! Papa says Lynmouth may go out trout-fishing with him this afternoon. Come up with me to the Clatter. I'm going to sketch there.'

'Very well, Lady Hilda; if you want my criticism, I don't mind if I do. Let me carry your things; it's rather a pull up, even for you, with your box and easel!'

Hilda gave him her sketch-book and colours, and they turned together up the Cleave behind the Castle.

A Clatter is a peculiar Devonshire feature, composed of long loose tumbled granite blocks piled in wild disorder along the narrow summit of a saddle-backed hill. It differs from a tor in being less high and castellated, as well as in its longer and narrower contour. Ernest and Hilda followed the rough path up through the gorse and heather to the top of the ridge, and then scrambled over the grey lichen-covered rooks together to the big logan-stone whose evenly-poised and tilted mass crowned the actual summit. The granite blocks were very high and rather slippery in places, for it was rainy April weather, so that Ernest had to take his companion's hand more than once in his to help her over the tallest boulders. It was a small delicate hand, though Hilda was a tall well-grown woman; ungloved, too, for the sake of the sketching; and Hilda didn't seem by any means unwilling to accept Ernest's proffered help, though if it had been Lord Connemara who was with her instead, she would have scorned assistance, and scaled the great mossy masses by herself like a mountain antelope. Light-footed and lithe of limb was Lady Hilda, as befitted a Devonshire lass accustomed to following the Exmoor stag-hounds across their wild country on her own hunter. Yet she seemed to find a great deal of difficulty in clambering up the Clatter on that particular April morning, and move than once Ernest half fancied to himself that she leaned on his arm longer than was absolutely necessary for support or assistance over the stiffest places.

'Here, by the logan, Mr. Le Breton,' she said, motioning him where to put her camp-stool and papers. 'That's a good point of view for the rocks yonder. You can lie down on the rug and give me the benefit of your advice and assistance.'

'My advice is not worth taking,' said Ernest. 'I'm a regular duffer at painting and sketching. You should ask Lord Connemara. He knows all about art and that sort of thing.'

'Lord Connemara!' echoed Hilda contemptuously. 'He has a lot of pictures in his gallery at home, and he's been told by sensible men what's the right thing for him to say about them; but he knows no more about art, really, than he knows about fiddlesticks.'

'Doesn't he, indeed?' Ernest answered languidly, not feeling any burning desire to discuss Lord Connemara's artistic attainments or deficiencies.

'No, he doesn't,' Hilda went on, rather defiantly, as though Ernest had been Lady Exmoor; 'and most of these people that come here don't either. They have galleries, and they get artists and people who understand about pictures to talk with them, and so they learn what's considered the proper thing to say of each of them. But as to saying anything spontaneous or original of their own about a picture or any other earthly thing--why, you know, Mr. Le Breton, they couldn't possibly do it to save their lives.'

'Well, there I should think you do them, as a class, a great injustice,' said Ernest, quietly; 'you're evidently prejudiced against your own people. I should think that if there's any subject on which our old families really do know anything, it's art. Look at their great advantages.'

'Nonsense,' Hilda answered, decisively. 'Fiddlesticks for their advantages. What's the good of advantages without a head on your shoulders, I should like to know. And they haven't got heads on their shoulders, Mr. Le Breton; you know they haven't.'

'Why, surely,' said Ernest, in his simple fashion, looking the question straight in the face as a matter of abstract truth, 'there must be a great deal of ability among peers and peers' sons. All history shows it; and it would be absurd if it weren't so; for the mass of peers have got their peerages by conspicuous abilities of one sort or another, as barristers, or soldiers, or politicians, or diplomatists, and they would naturally hand on their powers to their different descendants.'

'Oh, yes, there are some of them with brains, I suppose,' Hilda answered, as one who makes a great concession. 'There's Herbert Alderney, who's member for somewhere or other--Church Stretton, I think--and makes speeches in the House; he's clever, they say, but such a conceited fellow to talk to. And there's Wilfrid Faunthorp, who writes poems, and gets them printed in the magazines, too, because he knows the editors. And there's Randolph Hastings, who goes in for painting, and has little red and blue daubs at the Grosvenor by special invitation of the director. But somehow they none of them strike me as being really original. Whenever I meet anybody worth talking to anywhere--in a railway train or so on--I feel sure at once he's an ordinary commoner, not even Honourable; and he is invariably, you may depend upon it.'

'That would naturally happen on the average of instances,' Ernest put in, smiling, 'considering the relative frequency of peers and commoners in this realm of England. Peers, you know, or even Honourables are not common objects of the country, numerically speaking.'

'They are to me, unfortunately,' Hilda replied, looking at him inquiringly. 'I hardly ever meet anybody else, you know, and I'm positively bored to death by them, and that's the truth, really. It's most unlucky, under the circumstances, that I should happen to be the daughter of one peer, and be offered promiscuously as wife to the highest bidder among half a dozen others, if only I would have them. But I won't, Mr. Le Breton, I really won't. I'm not going to marry a fool, just to please my mother. Nothing on earth would induce me to marry Lord Connemara, for example.'

Ernest looked at her and smiled, but said nothing.

Lady Hilda put in a stroke or two more to her pencil outline, and then continued her unsolicited confidences. 'Do you know, Mr. Le Breton,' she went on, 'there's a conspiracy--the usual conspiracy, but still a regular conspiracy I call it--between Papa and Mamma to make me marry that stick of a Connemara. What is there in him, I should like to know, to make any girl admire or love him? And yet half the girls in London would be glad to get him, for all his absurdity. It's monstrous, it's incomprehensible, it's abominable; but it's the fact. For my part, I must say I do like a little originality. And whenever I hear Papa, and Uncle Sussex, and Lord Connemara talking at dinner, it does seem to me too ridiculously absurd that they should each have a separate voice in Parliament, and that you shouldn't even have a fraction of a vote for a county member. What sort of superiority has Lord Connemara over you, I wonder?' And she looked at Ernest again with a searching glance, to see whether he was to be moved by such a personal and emphatic way of putting the matter.

Ernest looked back at her curiously in his serious simplicity, and only answered, 'There are a great many queer inequalities and absurdities in all our existing political systems, Lady Hilda.'

Hilda smiled to herself--a quiet smile, half of disappointment, half of complacent feminine superiority. What a stupid fellow he was in some ways, after all! Even that silly Lord Connemara would have guessed what she was driving at, with only a quarter as much encouragement. But Ernest must be too much afraid of the social barrier clearly; so she began again, this time upon a slightly different but equally obvious tack.

'Yes, there are; absurd inequalities really, Mr. Le Breton; very absurd inequalities. You'd get rid of them all, I know. You told me that about cutting all the landlords' heads off, I'm sure, though you said when I spoke about it before Mamma, the night you first came here, that you didn't mean it. I remember it perfectly well, because I recollect thinking at the time the idea was so charmingly and deliciously original.'

'You must be quite mistaken, Lady Hilda,' Ernest answered calmly. 'You misunderstood my meaning. I said I would get rid of landlords--by which I meant to say, get rid of them as landlords, not as individuals. I don't even know that I'd take away the land from them all at once, you know (though I don't think it's justly theirs); I'd deprive them of it tentatively and gradually.'

'Well, I can't see the justice of that, I'm sure,' Hilda answered carelessly. 'Either the land's ours by right, or it isn't ours. If it's ours, you ought to leave it to us for ever; and if it isn't ours, you ought to take it away from us at once, and make it over to the people to whom it properly belongs. Why on earth should you keep them a day longer out of their own?'

Ernest laughed heartily at this vehement and uncompromising sans-culottism. 'You're a vigorous convert, anyhow,' he said, with some amusement; 'I see you've profited by my instruction. You've put the question very plump and straightforward. But in practice it would be better, no doubt, gradually to educate out the landlords, rather than to dispossess them at one blow of what they honestly, though wrongly, imagine to be their own. Let all existing holders keep the land during their own lifetime and their heirs', and resume it for the nation after their lives, allowing for the rights of all children born of marriages between people now living.'

'Not at all,' Hilda answered in a tone of supreme conviction. 'I'm in favour of simply cutting our heads off once for all, and making our families pay all arrears of rent from the very beginning. That or nothing. Put the case another way. Suppose, Mr. Le Breton, there was somebody who had got a grant from a king a long time ago, allowing him to hang any three persons he chose annually. Well, suppose this person and his descendants went on for a great many generations extorting money out of other people by threatening to kill them and letting them off on payment of a ransom. Suppose, too, they always killed three a year, some time or other, pour encourager les autres--just to show that they really meant it. Well, then, if one day the people grew wise enough to inquire into the right of these licensed extortioners to their black mail, would you say, "Don't deprive them of it too unexpectedly. Let them keep it during their own lifetime. Let their children hang three of us annually after them. But let us get rid of this fine old national custom in the third generation." Would that be fair to the people who would be hanged for the sake of old prescription in the interval, do you think?'

Ernest laughed again at the serious sincerity with which ehe was ready to acquiesce in his economical heresies. 'You're quite right,' he said: 'the land is the people's, and there's no reason on earth why they should starve a minute longer in order to let Lord Connemara pay three thousand guineas for spurious copies of early Italian manuscripts. And yet it would be difficult to get most people to see it. I fancy, Lady Hilda, you must really be rather cleverer than most people.'

'I score one,' thought Hilda to herself, 'and whatever happens, whether I marry a peer or a revolutionist, I certainly won't marry a fool.' 'I'm glad you think so,' she went on aloud, 'because I know your opinion's worth having. I should like to be clever, Mr. Le Breton, and I should like to know all about everything, but what chance has one at Dunbude? Do you know, till you came here, I never got any sensible conversation with anybody.' And she sighed gently as she put her head on one side to take a good view of her sketchy little picture. Lady Hilda's profile was certainly very handsome, and she showed it to excellent advantage when she put her head on one side. Ernest looked at her and thought so to himself; and Lady Hilda's quick eye, glancing sideways for a second from the paper, noted immediately that he thought so.

'Mr. Le Breton,' she began again, more confidentially than ever, 'one thing I've quite made up my mind to; I won't be tied for life to a stick like Lord Connemara. In fact, I won't marry a man in that position at all. I shall choose for myself, and marry a man for the worth that's in him, I assure you it's a positive fact, I've been proposed to by no fewer than six assorted Algies and Berties and Monties in a single season; besides which some of them follow me even down here to Dunbude. Papa and mamma are dreadfully angry because I won't have any of them: but I won't. I mean to wait, and marry whoever I choose, as soon as I find a man I can really love and honour.'

She paused and looked hard at Ernest. 'I can't speak much plainer than that,' she thought to herself, 'and really he must be stupider than the Algies and the Monties themselves if he doesn't see I want him to propose to me. I suppose all women would say it's awfully unwomanly of me to lead up to his cards in this way--throwing myself at his head they'd call it; but what does that matter? I won't marry a fool, and I will marry a man of some originality. That's the only thing in the world worth troubling one's head about. Why on earth doesn't he take my hand, I wonder? What further can he be waiting for?' Lady Hilda was perfectly accustomed to the usual preliminaries of a declaration, and only awaited Ernest's first step to proceed in due order to the second. Strange to say, her heart was actually beating a little by anticipation. It never even occurred to her--the belle of three seasons--that possibly Ernest mightn't wish to marry her. So she sat looking pensively at her picture, and sighed again quietly.

But Ernest, wholly unsuspicious, only answered, 'You will do quite right, Lady Hilda, to marry the man of your own choice, irrespective of wealth or station.'

Hilda glanced up at him curiously, with a half-disdainful smile, and was just on the point of saying, 'But suppose the man of my own choice won't propose to me?' However, as the words rose to her lips, she felt there was a point at which even she should yield to convention: and there were plenty of opportunities still before her, without displaying her whole hand too boldly and immediately. So she merely turned with another sigh, this time a genuine one, to her half-sketched outline. 'I shall bring him round in time,' she said to herself, blushing a little at her unexpected discomfiture. 'I shall bring him round in time; I shall make him propose to me! I don't care if I have to live in a lodging with him, and wash up my own tea-things; I shall marry him; that I'm resolved upon. He's as mad as a March hare about his Communism and his theories and things; but I don't care for that; I could live with him in comfort, and I couldn't live in comfort with the Algies and Monties. In fact, I believe--in a sort of way--I believe I'm almost in love with him. I have a kind of jumpy feeling in my heart when I'm talking with him that I never feel when I'm talking with other young men, even the nicest of them. He's not nice; he's a bear; and yet, somehow, I should like to marry him.'

'Mr. Le Breton,' she said aloud, 'the sun's all wrong for sketching to-day, and besides it's too chilly. I must run about a bit among the rocks.' ('At least I shall take his hand to help me,' she thought, blushing.) 'Come and walk with me? It's no use trying to draw with one's hands freezing.' And she crumpled up the unfinished sketch hastily between her fingers. Ernest jumped up to follow her; and they spent the next hour scrambling up and down the Clatter, and talking on less dangerous subjects than Lady Hilda's matrimonial aspirations.

'Still I shall make him ask me yet,' Lady Hilda thought to herself, as she parted from him to go up and dress for dinner. 'I shall manage to marry him, somehow; or if I don't marry him, at any rate I'll marry somebody like him.' For it was really the principle, not the person, that Lady Hilda specially insisted upon.

Grant Allen