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CHAPTER VI.
Mr. Wradisley had never been known to give so much attention to any of his mother’s entertainments before. Those which were more exclusively his own, the periodical dinners, the parties of guests occasionally assembled in the house either for political motives or in discharge of what he felt to be his duty as an important personage in the county, or for shooting—which was the least responsible of all, but still the man’s part in a house of the highest class—he did give a certain solemn and serious attention to. But it had never been known that he had come out of himself, or even out of his library, which was in a manner the outer shell and husk of himself, for anything in the shape of an occasional entertainment,{89} the lighter occurrences of hospitality. On this occasion, however, he was about all the morning with a slightly anxious look about his eyes, in the first place to see that the day promised well, to examine the horizon all round, and discuss the clouds with the head gardener, who was a man of much learning and an expert, as might be said, on the great question of the weather. That great authority gave it as his opinion that it would keep fine all day. “There may be showers in the evening, I should not wonder, but the weather will keep up for to-day,” he said, backing his opinion with many minuti? about the shape of the clouds and the indications of the wind. Mr. Wradisley repeated this at the breakfast table with much seriousness. “Stevenson says we may trust to having a fine day, though there may be showers in the evening,” he said; “but that will matter less, mother, as all your guests will be gone by that time.”

“Oh, Reginald, do you think Stevenson always knows?” cried Lucy, “He promised{90} us fine weather the day of the bazaar, and there was a storm and everything spoiled in the afternoon.”

“I am of the same opinion as Stevenson,” said Mr. Wradisley, very quietly, which settled the matter; and, then, to be more wonderful still, he asked if the house were to be open, and if it was to be expected that any of the guests would wish to see his collection. “In that case I should direct Simmons to be in attendance,” he said.

“Oh, if you would, Reginald!—that would give us great éclat,” said his mother; “but I did not venture to ask. It is so very kind of you to think of it, of yourself. Of course it will be wished—everybody will wish it; but I generally put them off, you know, for I know you don’t like to be worried, and I would not worry you for the world.”

“You are too good to me, mother. There is no reason why I should be worried. It is, of course, my affair as much as any one’s,” he said, in his perfectly gentle yet pointed way, which made the others, even Mrs. Wradisley herself, feel a little small, as if she had been{91} assuming an individual responsibility which she had not the right to assume.

“My show won’t come to much if Rege is going to exhibit, mother,” said Ralph. “I’d better keep them for another day.”

“On the contrary,” said Mr. Wradisley, with great suavity, “get out your savage stores. If the whole country is coming, as appears, there will be need for everything that we can do.”

“There were just as many people last time, Reginald, but you wouldn’t do anything,” said Lucy, half aggrieved, notwithstanding her mother’s “hush” and deprecating look.

“Circumstances are not always the same,” her brother said; “and I understood from my mother that this was to be the last.”

“For the season, Reginald,” said Mrs. Wradisley, with a certain alarm in her tone.

“To be sure. I meant for the season, of course—and in the circumstances,” he replied.

Mrs. Wradisley was not at all a nervous nor a timorous woman. She was very free of fancies, but still she was disturbed a little. She allowed Lucy to run on with exclamations{92} and conjectures after the master of the house had retired. “What is the matter with Reginald? What has happened? What does he mean by it? He never paid any attention to our garden parties before.”

Mrs. Wradisley was a very sensible woman, as has been said. After a very short interval she replied, calmly, “Most likely he does not mean anything at all, my dear. He has just taken a fancy to have everything very nice. It is delightful of him to let his collection be seen. That almost makes us independent of the weather, as there is so much in the house to see; but I do believe Stevenson is right, and that we are going to have a most beautiful day.”

But though she made this statement, a little wonder remained in her mind. She had not, she remembered, been very well lately. Did Reginald think she was failing, and that it might really be his mother’s last entertainment to her neighbors? It was not a very pleasant thought, for nothing had occurred for a long time to disturb the quiet tenor of Mrs. Wradisley’s life, and Ralph had come{93} back to her out of the wilds, and she was contented. She put the thought away, going out to the housekeeper to talk over anything that was necessary, but it gave her a little shock in spite of herself.

Mr. Wradisley, as may well be believed, had no thought at all of his mother’s health, which he believed to be excellent, but he had begun to think a little of brighter possibilities, of the substitution of another feminine head to the house, and entertainments in which, through her, he would take a warmer interest. But it was only partly this, and partly nothing at all, as his sensible mother said, only the suppressed excitement in him and impulse to do something to get through the time until he should see Mrs. Nugent again and know his fate. He did not feel very much afraid, notwithstanding all she had said in the shock of the moment. He could understand that to a young widow, a fanciful young woman, more or less touched by the new fancies women had taken up, the idea of replacing her husband by another, of loving a second time, which all the sentimentalists{94} are against, would be for the moment a great shock. She might feel the shock all the more if she felt, too, that there was something in her heart that answered to that alarming proposal, and might feel that to push off the thought with both hands, with all her might, was the only thing possible. But the reflections of the night and of the new morning, which had risen with such splendor of autumnal sunshine, would, he felt almost sure, make a great difference. Mrs. Nugent did not wear mourning; it was probably some years since her husband’s death. She was not very well off, and did not seem to have many relations who could help her, or she would not have come here so unfriended, to a district in which nobody knew her. Was it likely that she should resist all that he had to offer, the love of a good man, the shelter of a well-known, wealthy, important name and house? It was not possible that for a mere sentiment a woman so full of sense as she was, could resist these. The love of a good man—if he had not had a penny in the world, that would be worth any{95} woman’s while; and she would feel that. He thought, as he arranged with a zeal he had never felt before, the means of amusing and occupying his mother’s guests, that he would have all the more chance of getting her by herself, of finding time and opportunity to lead her out of the crowd to get her answer. Surely, surely, the chances were all in favor of a favorable answer. It was not as if he were a nobody, a chance-comer, a trifling or unimportant person. He had always been aware that he was an important person, and it seemed impossible that she should not see it too.

Ralph Wradisley and his friend Bertram went out for a long walk. They were both “out of it,” the son as much as the visitor, and both moved with similar inclinations to run away. “Of course I’ll meet some fellows I know,” Ralph said. “Shall I though? The fellows of my age are knocking about somewhere, or married and settled, and that sort of thing. I’ll meet the women of them, sisters, and so forth, and perhaps some wives. It’s only the women that are fixtures in a{96} country like this; and what are the women to you and me?”

“Well, to me nothing but strangers—but so would the men be too.”

“Ah, it’s all very well to talk,” said Ralph. “Women have their place in society, and so forth—wouldn’t be so comfortable without them, I suppose. But between you and me, Bertram, there ain’t very much in women for fellows like us. I’m not a marrying man—neither are you, I suppose? The most of them about here are even past the pretty girl stage, don’t you know, and I don’t know how to talk to them. Africa plays the deuce with you for that.”

“No,” said Bertram, “I am not a marrying man. I am—I feel I ought to tell you, Wradisley—there never was any need to go into such questions before, and you may believe I don’t want to carry a placard round my neck in the circumstances;—well—I am a married man, and that is the truth.”

Ralph turned upon him with a long whistle{97} and a lifting of the eyebrows. “By Jove!” he said.

“I hope you won’t bear me a grudge for not telling you before. In that case I’ll be off at once and bother you no more.”

“Stuff!” cried Ralph; “what difference can it make to me? I have thought you had something on your mind sometimes; but married or single, we’re the same two fellows that have walked the desert together, and helped each other through many a scrape. I’m sorry for you, old chap—that is, if there’s anything to be sorry for. Of course, I don’t know.”

“I’ve been afloat on the world ever since,” said Bertram. “It was all my fault. I was a cursed fool, and trapped when I was a boy. Then I thought the woman was dead—had all the proofs and everything, and—You say you know nothing about that sort of thing, Wradisley. Well, I won’t say anything about it. I fell in love with a lady every way better than I—she was—perhaps you do know more than you say. I married her—that’s the short and the long of it; and{98} in a year, when the baby had come, the other woman, the horrible creature, arrived at my very door.”

“Good Lord!” cried Ralph softly, in his beard.

“She was dying, that was one good thing; she died—in my house. And then—We were married again, my wife and I—she allowed that; but—I have never seen her since,” said Bertram, turning his head away.

“By Jove!” said Ralph Wradisley once more, in his beard; and they walked on in silence for a mile, and said not another word. At last—

“Old chap,” said Ralph, touching his friend on the shoulder, “I never was one to talk; but it’s very hard lines on you, and Mrs. Bertram ought to be told so, if she were the queen.”

Bertram shook his head. “I don’t know why I told you,” he said; “don’t let us talk of it any more. The thing’s done and can’t be undone. I don’t know if I wish any change. When two paths part in this world, Wradisley, don’t you know, the longer they{99} go, the wider apart they get—or at least that’s my experience. They say your whole body changes every seven years—it doesn’t take so long as that to alter a man’s thoughts and his soul—and a woman’s, too, I suppose. She’s far enough from me now, and I from her. I’m not sure I—regret it. In some ways it—didn’t suit me, so to speak. Perhaps things are best as they are.”

“Well,” said Ralph, “I’d choose a free life for myself, but not exactly in that way, Bertram—not if I were you.”

“Fortunately we are none of us each other,” Bertram said, with a laugh which had little mirth in it. He added, after a moment: “You’ll use your own discretion about telling this sorry tale of mine, Wradisley. I felt I had to tell you. I can’t go about under false pretenses while you’re responsible for me. Now you know the whole business, and we need not speak of it any more.”

“All right, old fellow,” Ralph said; and they quickened their pace, and put on I don’t know how many miles more before they got back—too late for lunch, and very muddy{100} about the legs—to eat a great deal of cold beef at the sideboard, while the servants chafed behind them, intent upon changing the great dining-room into a bower of chrysanthemums and temple of tea. They had to change their dress afterwards, which took up all their time until the roll of carriages began. Bertram, for his part, being a stranger and not at all on duty, took a long time to put himself into more presentable clothes. He did not want to have any more of the garden party than was necessary. And his mind had been considerably stirred up by his confession, brief as it was. It had been necessary to do it, and his mind was relieved; but he did not feel that it was possible to remain long at Wradisbury now that he had disclosed his mystery, such as it was. What did they care about his mystery? Nothing—not enough to make a day’s conversation out of it. He knew very well in what way Ralph would tell his story. He would not announce it as a discovery—it would drop from his beard like the most casual statement of fact: “Unlucky beggar, Bertram—got a wife and{101} all that sort of thing—place down Devonshire way—but he and she don’t hit it off, somehow.” In such terms the story would be told, without any mystery at all. But Bertram, who was a proud man, did not feel that he could live among a set of people who looked at him curiously across the table and wondered how it was that he did not “hit it off” with his wife. He knew that he would read that question in Mrs. Wradisley’s face when she bade him good-morning; and in Lucy’s eyes—Lucy’s eyes, he thought, with a half smile, would be the most inquisitive—they would ask him a hundred questions. They would say, with almost a look of anxiety in them, “Oh! Mr. Bertram—why?” It amused him to think that Lucy would be the most curious of them all, though why, I could not venture to say. He got himself ready very slowly, looking out from the corner of his window at all the smart people of the county gathering upon the lawn. There was tennis going on somewhere, he could hear, and the less loud but equally characteristic stroke of the croquet balls. And the band,{102} which was a famous band from London, had begun to play. If he was to appear at all, it was time that he should go downstairs; but, as a matter of fact, he was not really moved to do this, until he saw a little flight across the green of a small child in white, so swift that some one had to stoop and pick her up as he picked up Tiny at the gate of Greenbank. The man on the lawn who caught this little thing lifted her up as Bertram had done. Would the child be hushed by his grasp, and look into his face as Tiny had looked at him? Perhaps this was not Tiny—at all events, it gave no look, but wriggled and struggled out of its captor’s hands. This sight decided Bertram to present himself in the midst of Mrs. Wradisley’s guests. He wanted to see Tiny once again.
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