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Lord Oxhead's Secret

A ROMANCE IN ONE CHAPTER

It was finished. Ruin had come. Lord Oxhead sat gazing
fixedly at the library fire. Without, the wind soughed
(or sogged) around the turrets of Oxhead Towers, the seat
of the Oxhead family. But the old earl heeded not the
sogging of the wind around his seat. He was too absorbed.

Before him lay a pile of blue papers with printed headings.
From time to time he turned them over in his hands and
replaced them on the table with a groan. To the earl they
meant ruin--absolute, irretrievable ruin, and with it
the loss of his stately home that had been the pride of
the Oxheads for generations. More than that--the world
would now know the awful secret of his life.

The earl bowed his head in the bitterness of his sorrow,
for he came of a proud stock. About him hung the portraits
of his ancestors. Here on the right an Oxhead who had
broken his lance at Crecy, or immediately before it.
There McWhinnie Oxhead who had ridden madly from the
stricken field of Flodden to bring to the affrighted
burghers of Edinburgh all the tidings that he had been
able to gather in passing the battlefield. Next him hung
the dark half Spanish face of Sir Amyas Oxhead of
Elizabethan days whose pinnace was the first to dash to
Plymouth with the news that the English fleet, as nearly
as could be judged from a reasonable distance, seemed
about to grapple with the Spanish Armada. Below this,
the two Cavalier brothers, Giles and Everard Oxhead, who
had sat in the oak with Charles II. Then to the right
again the portrait of Sir Ponsonby Oxhead who had fought
with Wellington in Spain, and been dismissed for it.

Immediately before the earl as he sat was the family
escutcheon emblazoned above the mantelpiece. A child
might read the simplicity of its proud significance--an
ox rampant quartered in a field of gules with a pike
dexter and a dog intermittent in a plain parallelogram
right centre, with the motto, "Hic, haec, hoc, hujus,
hujus, hujus."

* * * * *

"Father!"--The girl's voice rang clear through the half
light of the wainscoted library. Gwendoline Oxhead had
thrown herself about the earl's neck. The girl was radiant
with happiness. Gwendoline was a beautiful girl of
thirty-three, typically English in the freshness of her
girlish innocence. She wore one of those charming walking
suits of brown holland so fashionable among the aristocracy
of England, while a rough leather belt encircled her
waist in a single sweep. She bore herself with that sweet
simplicity which was her greatest charm. She was probably
more simple than any girl of her age for miles around.
Gwendoline was the pride of her father's heart, for he
saw reflected in her the qualities of his race.

"Father," she said, a blush mantling her fair face, "I
am so happy, oh so happy; Edwin has asked me to be his
wife, and we have plighted our troth--at least if you
consent. For I will never marry without my father's
warrant," she added, raising her head proudly; "I am too
much of an Oxhead for that."

Then as she gazed into the old earl's stricken face, the
girl's mood changed at once. "Father," she cried, "father,
are you ill? What is it? Shall I ring?" As she spoke
Gwendoline reached for the heavy bell-rope that hung
beside the wall, but the earl, fearful that her frenzied
efforts might actually make it ring, checked her hand.
"I am, indeed, deeply troubled," said Lord Oxhead, "but
of that anon. Tell me first what is this news you bring.
I hope, Gwendoline, that your choice has been worthy of
an Oxhead, and that he to whom you have plighted your
troth will be worthy to bear our motto with his own."
And, raising his eyes to the escutcheon before him, the
earl murmured half unconsciously, "Hic, haec, hoc, hujus,
hujus, hujus," breathing perhaps a prayer as many of his
ancestors had done before him that he might never forget
it.

"Father," continued Gwendoline, half timidly, "Edwin is
an American."

"You surprise me indeed," answered Lord Oxhead; "and
yet," he continued, turning to his daughter with the
courtly grace that marked the nobleman of the old school,
"why should we not respect and admire the Americans?
Surely there have been great names among them. Indeed,
our ancestor Sir Amyas Oxhead was, I think, married to
Pocahontas--at least if not actually married"--the earl
hesitated a moment.

"At least they loved one another," said Gwendoline simply.

"Precisely," said the earl, with relief, "they loved one
another, yes, exactly." Then as if musing to himself,
"Yes, there have been great Americans. Bolivar was an
American. The two Washingtons--George and Booker--are
both Americans. There have been others too, though for
the moment I do not recall their names. But tell me,
Gwendoline, this Edwin of yours--where is his family
seat?"

"It is at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, father."

"Ah! say you so?" rejoined the earl, with rising interest.
"Oshkosh is, indeed, a grand old name. The Oshkosh are
a Russian family. An Ivan Oshkosh came to England with
Peter the Great and married my ancestress. Their descendant
in the second degree once removed, Mixtup Oshkosh, fought
at the burning of Moscow and later at the sack of Salamanca
and the treaty of Adrianople. And Wisconsin too," the
old nobleman went on, his features kindling with animation,
for he had a passion for heraldry, genealogy, chronology,
and commercial geography; "the Wisconsins, or better, I
think, the Guisconsins, are of old blood. A Guisconsin
followed Henry I to Jerusalem and rescued my ancestor
Hardup Oxhead from the Saracens. Another Guisconsin..."

"Nay, father," said Gwendoline, gently interrupting,
"Wisconsin is not Edwin's own name: that is, I believe,
the name of his estate. My lover's name is Edwin Einstein."

"Einstein," repeated the earl dubiously--"an Indian name
perhaps; yet the Indians are many of them of excellent
family. An ancestor of mine..."

"Father," said Gwendoline, again interrupting, "here is
a portrait of Edwin. Judge for yourself if he be noble."
With this she placed in her father's hand an American
tin-type, tinted in pink and brown. The picture represented
a typical specimen of American manhood of that Anglo-Semitic
type so often seen in persons of mixed English and Jewish
extraction. The figure was well over five feet two inches
in height and broad in proportion. The graceful sloping
shoulders harmonized with the slender and well-poised
waist, and with a hand pliant and yet prehensile. The
pallor of the features was relieved by a drooping black
moustache.

Such was Edwin Einstein to whom Gwendoline's heart, if
not her hand, was already affianced. Their love had been
so simple and yet so strange. It seemed to Gwendoline
that it was but a thing of yesterday, and yet in reality
they had met three weeks ago. Love had drawn them
irresistibly together. To Edwin the fair English girl
with her old name and wide estates possessed a charm that
he scarcely dared confess to himself. He determined to
woo her. To Gwendoline there was that in Edwin's bearing,
the rich jewels that he wore, the vast fortune that rumour
ascribed to him, that appealed to something romantic and
chivalrous in her nature. She loved to hear him speak of
stocks and bonds, corners and margins, and his father's
colossal business. It all seemed so noble and so far
above the sordid lives of the people about her. Edwin,
too, loved to hear the girl talk of her father's estates,
of the diamond-hilted sword that the saladin had given,
or had lent, to her ancestor hundreds of years ago. Her
description of her father, the old earl, touched something
romantic in Edwin's generous heart. He was never tired
of asking how old he was, was he robust, did a shock, a
sudden shock, affect him much? and so on. Then had come
the evening that Gwendoline loved to live over and over
again in her mind when Edwin had asked her in his
straightforward, manly way, whether--subject to certain
written stipulations to be considered later--she would
be his wife: and she, putting her hand confidingly in
his hand, answered simply, that--subject to the consent
of her father and pending always the necessary legal
formalities and inquiries--she would.

It had all seemed like a dream: and now Edwin Einstein
had come in person to ask her hand from the earl, her
father. Indeed, he was at this moment in the outer hall
testing the gold leaf in the picture-frames with his
pen-knife while waiting for his affianced to break the
fateful news to Lord Oxhead.

Gwendoline summoned her courage for a great effort.
"Papa," she said, "there is one other thing that it is
fair to tell you. Edwin's father is in business."

The earl started from his seat in blank amazement. "In
business!" he repeated, "the father of the suitor of the
daughter of an Oxhead in business! My daughter the
step-daughter of the grandfather of my grandson! Are
you mad, girl? It is too much, too much!"

"But, father," pleaded the beautiful girl in anguish,
"hear me. It is Edwin's father--Sarcophagus Einstein,
senior--not Edwin himself. Edwin does nothing. He has
never earned a penny. He is quite unable to support
himself. You have only to see him to believe it. Indeed,
dear father, he is just like us. He is here now, in this
house, waiting to see you. If it were not for his great
wealth..."

"Girl," said the earl sternly, "I care not for the man's
riches. How much has he?"

"Fifteen million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars,"
answered Gwendoline. Lord Oxhead leaned his head against
the mantelpiece. His mind was in a whirl. He was trying
to calculate the yearly interest on fifteen and a quarter
million dollars at four and a half per cent reduced to
pounds, shillings, and pence. It was bootless. His brain,
trained by long years of high living and plain thinking,
had become too subtle, too refined an instrument for
arithmetic...

* * * * *

At this moment the door opened and Edwin Einstein stood
before the earl. Gwendoline never forgot what happened.
Through her life the picture of it haunted her--her lover
upright at the door, his fine frank gaze fixed inquiringly
on the diamond pin in her father's necktie, and he, her
father, raising from the mantelpiece a face of agonized
amazement.

"You! You!" he gasped. For a moment he stood to his full
height, swaying and groping in the air, then fell prostrate
his full length upon the floor. The lovers rushed to his
aid. Edwin tore open his neckcloth and plucked aside his
diamond pin to give him air. But it was too late. Earl
Oxhead had breathed his last. Life had fled. The earl
was extinct. That is to say, he was dead.

The reason of his death was never known. Had the sight
of Edwin killed him? It might have. The old family doctor,
hurriedly summoned, declared his utter ignorance. This,
too, was likely. Edwin himself could explain nothing.
But it was observed that after the earl's death and his
marriage with Gwendoline he was a changed man; he dressed
better, talked much better English.

The wedding itself was quiet, almost sad. At Gwendoline's
request there was no wedding breakfast, no bridesmaids,
and no reception, while Edwin, respecting his bride's
bereavement, insisted that there should be no best man,
no flowers, no presents, and no honeymoon.

Thus Lord Oxhead's secret died with him. It was probably
too complicated to be interesting anyway.

Stephen Leacock