There was a picture of Cyril hanging in one of the breakfast rooms—a little water-colour, taken when he was a child—and Kate would go in quietly and look at it, and strive to trace some resemblance to her lover in the fair, effeminate, golden-haired boy, that, radiant with youth and health, laughed at her from out his golden frame. But the attempt was unsuccessful, and she would turn away to check the sigh that would come, despite all her efforts. To put matters into plain English, Kate was becoming disenchanted. Her cousin had been away from her so long that she had not noticed the terrible change that had taken place in him, until they were once more thrown together, and then the sudden knowledge frightened her. But she fought bravely against the fear that was coming over her—fear that she had made a mistake, and did not love her promised husband after all. Such a thought was treason to her lover, she said, and put it back horror-stricken; but still it returned again and again, and she could not repress an unaccountable aversion which sometimes stole over her when Cyril kissed her lips.
He loved her, she did not doubt that. She could see it in his white face, that looked so worn lately—in his restless eyes, that followed her wherever she went—could feel it in his hot kisses, and hear it in his passionate words. Once, when she was singing some song about lovers parting or dying, she was surprised to hear a sudden sob from the man behind her, and to find that his head was bent, and the tears were rolling down between his thin fingers.
“What is it, Cyril?” she asked.
“I was thinking of losing you, my darling,” he cried, and caught her to his heart with shaking hands.
She was terrified at these fits of passion. There was something repellant about them. Love should be tender and chaste, not hot and vehement like this. She asked him once if he had any trouble on his mind, but his denial was so fierce and suspicious that she shrank back terrified. Had she possessed a mother, a sister, or a female friend even, in whom she could have confided, she might have poured out her doubts and fears, and reasoned them away; but she was alone.
Lady Loughborough was not the sort of confidante that an enthusiastic girl like Kate would choose, and there were no women-kind of her own age with whom she could associate. Matcham had always been a lonely house. It had been more so than ever since the death of the eldest-born. Saville Chatteris had no sympathy with young people, and Lady Loughborough was in a chronic state of ill-health;—French novel, repose, hot negus, and fire in bed-room at all seasons. Consequently there was not much “society” or companionship for Kate. There were desperate dinners that took place monthly, at which Saville diplomatically presided, and to which the county people came. But these dinners were dull enough; the county people having such wonderfully good blood, that it seemed to congeal in their veins like attar-of-roses. To be sure all these people were very good, and well-disposed, and thoroughly eligible for friendship, but Kate did not care about them. The daughters of the various Houses round about came to visit her, but she had no friends among them. So she rode about, and walked about, and went to Kirkminster with only the old groom for protection, and the county blood thought her a “strange girl,” and a little “fast.” However, that did not matter so much, as “fastness” was fashionable. (Do we not remember how pleased Lady Oriel’s daughter was, at being mistaken in the Bois for a certain Madlle. Coccodé, who was at that time regnant in the demi-monde—that “one half-world,” where “nature seems dead” indeed. And yet Lady Oriel, and her daughter, too, are the most virtuous of women.)
The young men who came over from the barracks with Fred were few and far between, and when they did come, Kate did not see much of them. Colonel Brentwood she liked well enough, but Saville Chatteris, who had been at Eton with him, and knew of his little peccadilloes since, did not encourage the visits of that gallant officer, and Brentwood was too well-bred to hint at an intrusion. Since Fred had gone, there had been no one at the house, and Kate was quite alone. So she locked up her secret in her own heart, and told nobody. But in her girlish mirror the figure of the rejected Bob Calverly would often rise unbidden and blur the reflection of the promised lover that should have been singly there.
I do not know if I can make you understand the character of this girl, reader, as I wish you to understand it. It is a difficult cipher to read: the more difficult because it looks so simple. I doubt if I can interpret it to you aright. It needed a little child, they say, to grasp the divining-rod whose turning fork should write the sought-for oracle upon the sand. In any hands less pure the wand might flicker, turn, and shake, but the characters it traced were all uncertain and illegible. Who can interpret aright the strange riddle of a young girl’s heart? In our fancied wisdom we laugh at the task. Has not our knowledge of Evil taught us to read womankind? Perhaps; but let us be sure that in gazing into that fiery furnace of sin, misery, and death, from which we draw the materials of our wicked wit and cynical wisdom, that our scorched eyes, dimmed by the tear-compelled glare of the fire, are not rendered incapable of seeing clearly in that cool, dim twilight that reigns around the holy altar of a pure woman’s soul.
I can tell you no more about Kate than that she was young and pure; that she loved and doubted, hoped and feared, in a breath. She did not know her own heart perhaps, poor child; and had thought she had given her love when she had only given her liking. But as yet she thought in whispers.
As for Cyril, I think I should not be far wrong if I said that the week which he spent at Matcham at this time was the happiest of his life. He was like the wretch who, under the torments of the Inquisition, told the sneering priest that he “thanked him for making death so sweet.” The very agony of his torture rendered the simple cessation from pain a pleasure more keen than he had ever yet experienced. He was weak by nature. With him to be out of sight was to be out of mind; and when he was free of the detested presence of the woman he hated, he could forget her; when he was out of the house where Dacre had taunted and jeered at him, he could forget that he was a liar and a scoundrel. The struggle he had gone through was too much for him, and his nerves—never very strong—had given way, and he felt prostrated by a reaction that was almost pleasurable. The desperate battle with the breakers had only exhausted him; once carried over the rocks into the deep, still pool, he let himself sink without an effort. Moreover, he was happy in the sympathy of his cousin. It mattered not that his mental agony had arisen from his own vile and detestable cowardice; she did not know that, and her caresses were as purely sweet as if he had been a saint and hero. He was as sore at heart with the tumult of his own evil passions as if he had been the noblest martyr that ever crowned a life of poverty and persecution by an ignominious and bloody death; and the healing balm of a good woman’s tenderness was as cooling to his burning wounds as if he had got his hurts fighting in fair field for a righteous cause.
So when he turned his back on the little cottage in St. John’s Wood, and got fairly on his way to the woods and glades of Matcham, to his respectful tenantry and his promised bride, the burden, if it did not fall off altogether, grew lighter and less irksome. He was busied too with election matters. There were speeches to make, and yeomen to call upon, and friends to influence; and he had no time for misery. His father was in high glee at the prospect, and made sure of his son’s success.
“Dacre’s only here as a blind,” said the old man. “He said so, did he? Of course. A very old and well-known trick. You see, Cyril, that the Government want the borough, and don’t care much who gets it, so long as it isn’t one of the other side. I think we are safe enough. Dacre is an old friend of the family, and the soul of honour. He has told me himself that he only came down by Nantwich’s request. Sir John Ellesmere (that married his sister, you know) offered to use his interest for him in Wurzelshire, but he wouldn’t have it.”
“He said that he would have been beaten,” said Cyril.
“Perhaps he might have been, for old Sir John is getting a little feeble by this time, and takes rather old-fashioned views of things. (What a beautful girl Blanche Dacre was when he married her! Only twenty-two; an excellent match for her, though, poor thing, for she had no fortune.) However, the offer was made, I know. But that is a matter of no moment. You are safe as far as regards Dacre. He has his own cards to play. If I have any knowledge of human nature, sir,”—Here he drew himself up, for knowledge of human nature was his weak point,—“you will see your friend Dacre one day in a very high position, very high indeed. He is one of the cleverest fellows I know. We will have him down here when you have got in, and he shall drink your health.”
This was at the dinner table. Cyril tried hard to retain his composure, but the quick eyes of Kate detected something amiss.
“I don’t like Mr. Dacre,” she said.
“Oh, pooh, nonsense, my dear,” returned the old gentleman, loftily. “A most talented, well conducted young man.”
“And such an agreeable companion,” said Lady Loughborough. “He always seems to know everything a day before anybody else. Do you remember, Kate, it was he that first found out that unfortunate marriage of poor Fairfax’s son. What was the creature, a dairymaid, or a cook, or something of that sort?”
Cyril wished the earth would swallow Lady Loughborough, and frowned unconsciously.
“I think that he used to invent those stories sometimes,” said Kate. “But I remember the one you mean. But it was Nellie’s governess that he married, aunt, not the cook!” and she laughed merrily.
“Oh, the governess, was it!” said the dowager, indifferently. “It was something of that sort, I know.”
“My dear Sybilla,” says old Saville, who was a gentleman to his finger nails, “Captain Fairfax’s wife was a most estimable and admirable person. She accompanied her husband to India when he exchanged, and was at Lucknow with him during the mutiny. Bellingham told me that the men worshipped her and that when she died after the Relief, there was not a dry eye in the regiment.” And the brave old fellow took off a glass of claret, as if in silent libation to the memory of poor little Lucy Smith, the drawing-master’s daughter, whom dashing, devil-may-care Harry Fairfax suddenly married out of his sister’s school-room, to the amusement of all London, and the wrath, terror, and amazement of the whole of his aristocratic connections.
Lady Loughborough turned down the corners of her mouth at the rebuke; and Cyril felt a knot rise in his throat as the thought flashed across him that perhaps his father was not so terribly proud after all, and would not have discarded him altogether had he dared to speak the truth.
But the time was gone by now. He had chosen his course, and would abide by it.
So the time drew on towards that eventful day which should decide the fate of Kirkminster.