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CHAPTER V.
The dinner was quite a cheerful meal at Wradisbury that night. The master of the house was exactly as he always was. Punctilious in every kindness and politeness, perfect in his behavior. To see him take his mother in as he always did, as if she were the queen, and place her in her own chair, where she had presided at the head of that table for over forty years, was in itself a sight. He was the king regnant escorting a queen dowager—a queen mother, not exactly there by personal right, but by conscious delegation, yet supreme naturalness and reverence, from him. He liked to put her in her place. Except on occasions when there were guests he had always done it since the day of his father’s death, with a sort of{75} ceremony as showing how he gave her all honor though this supreme position was no longer her absolute due. He led her in with special tenderness to-night. It perhaps might not last long, this reign of hers. Another and a brighter figure was already chosen for that place, but as long as the mother was in it, the honor shown to her should be special, above even ordinary respect. I think Ralph was a little fretted by this show of reverence. Perhaps, with that subtle understanding of each other which people have in a family, even when they reach the extreme of personal difference or almost alienation, he knew what was in his brother’s mind, and resented the consciousness of conferring honor which moved Reginald. In Ralph’s house (or so he thought) the mother would rule without any show of derived power. It would be her own, not a grace conferred; but though he chafed he was silent, for it was very certain that there was not an exception to be taken, not a word to say. It is possible that Mrs. Wradisley was aware of it too, but she liked{76} it, liked her son’s magnanimous giving up to her of all the privileges which had for so long been hers. Many men would not have done that. They would have liked their houses to themselves; but Reginald had always been a model son. She was not in any way an exacting woman, and when she turned to her second son, come back in peace after so many wanderings, her heart overflowed with content. She was the only one in the party who was not aware that the master of the house had left his library in the darkening. The servants about the table all knew, and had formed a wonderfully close guess as to what was “up,” as they said, and Lucy knew with a great commotion and trouble of her thoughts, wondering, not knowing if she were sorry or glad, looking very wistfully at her brother to see if he had been fortunate or otherwise. Was it possible that Nelly Nugent might be her sister, and sit in her mother’s place? Oh, it would be delightful, it would be dreadful! For how would mamma take it to be dethroned? And then if Nelly would not, poor Reginald! Lucy watched him{77} covertly, and could scarcely contain herself. Ralph and Mr. Bertram, I fear, did not think of Mrs. Nugent, but of something less creditable to Mr. Wradisley. The mother was the only one to whom any breach in his usual habits remained unknown.

“You really mean to have this garden party to-morrow, mother?” he said.

“Oh, yes, my dear, it is all arranged—the last, the very last of the season. Not so much a garden party as a sort of farewell to summer before your shooting parties arrive. We are so late this year. The harvest has been so late,” Mrs. Wradisley said, turning toward Bertram. “St. Swithin, you know, was in full force this year, and some of the corn was still out when the month began. But the weather lately has been so fine. There was a little rain this morning, but still the weather has been quite remarkable. I am glad you came in time for our little gathering, for Raaf will see a number of old friends, and you, I hope, some of the nicest people about.”

“I suspect I must have seen the nicest{78} people already,” said Bertram, with a laugh and a bow.

“Oh, that is a very kind thing to say, Mr. Bertram, and, indeed, I am very glad that Raaf’s friend should like his people. But no, you will see some very superior people to-morrow. Lord Dulham was once a Cabinet Minister, and Colonel Knox has seen an immense deal of service in different parts of the world; not to speak of Mr. Sergeant—Geoffrey Sergeant, you know, who is so well known in the literary world—but I don’t know whether you care for people who write,” Mrs. Wradisley said.

“He writes himself,” said Ralph, out of his beard. “Letters half a mile long, and leaders, and all sorts of things. If we don’t look out he’ll have us all in.”

The other members of the party looked at Bertram with alarm. Mr. Wradisley with a certain half resentment, half disgust.

“Indeed,” he said; “I thought I had been so fortunate as to discover for myself a most intelligent critic—but evidently I ought to have known.{79}”

“Don’t say that,” said Bertram, “indeed I’m not here on false pretenses. I’m not a literary man afloat on the world, or making notes. Only a humble newspaper correspondent, Mrs. Wradisley, and only that when it happens to suit me, as your son knows.”

“Oh, I am sure we are very highly honored,” said the lady, disturbed, “only Raaf, you should have told me, or I might have said something disagreeable about literary people, and that would have been so very—I assure you we are all quite proud of Mr. Sergeant, and still more, Mr. Bertram, to have some one to meet him whom he will—whom he is sure to—”

“You might have said he was a queer fish. I think he is,” said Bertram, “but don’t suppose he knows me, or any of my sort. Raaf is only playing you a trick. I wrote something about Africa, that’s all. When one is knocking about the world for years without endless money to spend, anything to put a penny in one’s purse is good. But I can{80}’t write a bit—except a report about Africa,” he added, hurriedly.

“Oh, about Africa,” Mrs. Wradisley said, with an expression of greater ease, and there was a little relief in the mind of the family generally. Bertram seized the opportunity to plunge into talk about Africa and the big game, drawing Ralph subtly into the conversation. It was not easy to get Ralph set a-going, but when he was so, there was found to be much in him wanting expression, and the stranger escaped under shelter of adventures naturally more interesting to the family than any he had to tell. He laughed a little to himself over it as the talk flowed on, and left him with not much pride in the literary profession, which he had in fact only played with, but which had inspired him at moments with a little content in what he did too. These good folk, who were intelligent enough, would have been a little afraid of him, not merely gratified by his acquaintance, had he been really a writer of books. They were much more at their ease to think him only a sportsman like Ralph, and a gentleman{81} at large. When they went into the drawing-room afterwards, the conversation came back to the party of to-morrow, and to the pretty widow in the cottage, of whom Mrs. Wradisley began to talk, saying they would leave the flowers till Mrs. Nugent came, who was so great in decoration.

“I thought,” said Ralph, “this widow of yours—was not to be here.”

Mr. Wradisley interposed at this point from where he stood, with his back to the fire. “Ah,” he said, “oh,” with a clearing of his throat, “I happened to see Mrs. Nugent in the village to-day, and I certainly understood from her that she would be here.”

“You saw her—after I did, Reginald?” said Lucy, in spite of herself.

“Now, how can you say anything so absurd, Lucy—when you saw her just before dinner, and Reginald could only have seen her in the morning, for he never goes out late,” Mrs. Wradisley said.

Bertram felt that he was a conspirator. He gave a furtive glance at the others who{82} knew different. He could see that Lucy grew scarlet, but not a word was said.

“You are mistaken, mother,” said Mr. Wradisley, with his calm voice, “I sometimes do take a little giro in the evening.”

“Oh, a giro;” said his mother, as if that altered the matter; “however,” she added, “there never was any question about the party; that she fully knew we expected her for; but I wanted her to come for lunch that she might make Ralph’s acquaintance before the crowd came; but it doesn’t matter, for no doubt they’ll meet often enough. Only when you men begin to shoot you’re lost to all ordinary occupations; and so tired when you come in that you have not a word to throw at—a lady certainly, if you still may have at a dog.”

“I am not so bent on meeting this widow, mother, as you seem to think,” said Ralph.

“You need not always call her a widow. That’s her misfortune; it’s not her character,” said Lucy, unconsciously epigrammatic.

“Oh, well, whatever you please—this beautiful{83} lady—is that better? The other sounds designing, I allow.”

“I think,” said Mr. Wradisley, “that we have perhaps discussed Mrs. Nugent as much as is called for. She is a lady—for whom we all have the utmost respect.” He spoke as if that closed the question, as indeed it generally did; and going across the room to what he knew was the most comfortable chair, possessed himself of the evening paper, and sitting down, began to read it. Mrs. Wradisley had by no means done with her evening paper, and that Reginald should thus take it up under her very eyes filled her soul with astonishment. She looked at him with a gasp, and then, after a moment, put out her hand for her knitting. Nothing that could have happened could have given her a more bewildering and mysterious shock.

All this, perhaps, was rather like a play to Bertram, who saw everything with a certain unconscious exercise of that literary faculty which he had just found so little impressive to the people among whom he found himself. They were very kind people, and had received{84} him confidingly, asking no questions, not even wondering, as they might have done, what queer companion Ralph had picked up. Indeed, he was not at all like Ralph, though circumstances had made them close comrades. Perhaps if they could have read his life as he thought he could read theirs, they might not have opened their doors to him with such perfect trust. He had (had he?) the ruin of a woman’s happiness on his heart, and the destruction of many hopes. He had been wandering about the world for a number of years, never knowing how to make up his mind on this question. Was it indeed his fault? Was it her fault? Were they both to blame? Perhaps the last was the truth; but he knew very well he would never get her, or any one, to confess or to believe that. There are some cases in which the woman has certainly the best of it; and when the man who has been the means of bringing a young, fair, blameless creature into great trouble, even if he never meant it, is hopelessly put in the wrong even when there may be something to be said for him. He was himself bewildered{85} now and then when he thought it all over, wondering if indeed there might be something to be said for him. But if he could not even satisfy himself of that, how should he ever satisfy the world? He was a little stirred up and uncomfortable that night, he could scarcely tell why, for the brewing troubles of the Wradisleys, if it was trouble that was brewing, was unlikely to affect a stranger. Ralph, indeed, had been grumbling in his beard with complaints over what was in fact the blamelessness of his brother, but it did not trouble Bertram that his host should be too perfect a man. He had quite settled in his own mind what it was that was going to happen. The widow, no doubt, was some pretty adventuress who, by means of the mother and sister, had established a bold over the immaculate one, and meant to marry him and turn her patronesses adrift—the commonest story, vulgar, even. And the ladies would really have nothing to complain of, for Wradisley was certainly old enough to choose for himself, and might have married and turned off his mother to her jointure house{86} years ago, and no harm done. It was not this that made Bertram sleepless and nervous, who really had so little to do with them, and no call to fight their battles. Perhaps it was the sensation of being in England, and within the rules of common life again, after long disruption from all ordinary circumstances of ordinary living. He to plunge into garden parties, and common encounters of men and women! He might meet some one who knew him, who would ask him questions, and attempt to piece his life together with guesses and conjectures. He had a great mind to repack his portmanteau and sling it over his shoulder, and tramp through the night to the nearest station. But to what good? For wherever he might go the same risk would meet him. How tranquil the night was as he looked out of the window, a great moon shining over the openings of the park, making the silence and the vacant spaces so doubly solitary! He dared not break the sanctity of that solitude by going out into it, any more than he dared disturb the quiet of the fully populated and deeply sleeping house. He{87} had no right, for any caprice or personal cowardice of his, to disturb that stillness. And then it gave him a curious contradictory sensation, half of relief from his own thoughts, half of sympathy, to think that there were already here the elements of a far greater disturbance than any he could work, beginning to move within the house itself, working, perhaps, toward a catastrophe of its own. In the midst of all he suddenly stopped and laughed to himself, and went to bed at last with the most curiously subdued and softened sensation. He had remembered the look of the child whom he had lifted from the ground at the little gate of Greenbank—how she had suddenly been stilled in her childish mischief, and fixed him with her big, innocent, startled eyes. Poor little thing! She was innocent enough, whatever might be the nest from which she came. This was the thought with which he closed his eyes.

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