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The Saloon, like every other room in Arnside House, was large and lofty, and had been furnished, possibly some twenty years earlier, in what had then been the first style of elegance. This, however, had become outmoded, and although the room bore no such signs of penury as a ragged carpet or patched curtains, the bright brocades had faded, the paint on the panelled walls had cracked, and the gilded picture-frames had long since become tarnished. To a casual visitor it might have seemed that Mr Penicuik, who owned the house, had fallen upon evil days; but two of the three gentlemen assembled in the Saloon at half-past six on a wintry evening of late February were in no danger of falling into this error. They knew that Great-uncle Matthew, who had made a fortune in the large enterprise of draining the Fen-country, was one of the warmest men in England, and suffered merely from a rooted dislike of spending money on anything that did not administer directly to his own comfort. The third gentleman gave no indication of thinking about it at all. He did not, like his cousin, Lord Biddenden, level a disapproving eyeglass at a spotted mirror; he did not, like his younger cousin, the Honourable and Reverend Hugh Rattray, comment acidly on the inadequacy of the small wood-fire burning in the hearth. Throughout dinner, which had been served at the unfashionable hour of five, and had been chosen (as Lord Biddenden pointed out to his brother) more with a regard to the host's digestive difficulties than to the tastes of his guests, he had maintained a silence that might have been unbroken had his cousin Hugh not addressed a series of kind and simple remarks to him, which could be easily understood, and almost as easily answered. Upon entering the Saloon, he had drifted to a chair on one side of the fireplace, where he now sat, chewing a corner of his handkerchief, and staring with an expression of vacuity at his elder cousin. Lord Biddenden knew that this gaze betokened nothing but blankness of mind, but he found it disconcerting, and muttered fretfully: ‘I wish the silly fellow would not stare so!'
‘He is doing you no harm,' his brother said gravely. However, he picked up a book of engravings from one of the tables, and gave it to Lord Dolphinton, directing him to look at the pictures, and telling him that he would find them very pretty and interesting. Lord Dolphinton, who was accustomed to being told, far less kindly, by his mother, what he must do, received the book gratefully, and began to turn over the pages.
Lord Biddenden said, still in that complaining under-voice: ‘I cannot conceive what should have prevailed with Uncle Matthew to have invited him! It is absurd to suppose that he can have an interest in this business!' He received no other answer than one of his brother's annoyingly reproving looks, and with an exclamation of impatience walked over to the table, and began to toss over one or two periodicals which had been arranged upon it. ‘It is excessively provoking that Claud should not be here!' he said, for perhaps the seventh time that day. ‘I should have been very glad to have seen him comfortably established!' This observation being met with the same unencouraging silence, his lordship said with a good deal of asperity: ‘You may not consider Claud's claims, but I am not one to be forgetting my brothers, I am thankful to state! I'll tell you what it is, Hugh: you are a cold-hearted fellow, and if you depend upon your countenance to win you a handsome fortune, you may well be disappointed, and there will all my trouble be spent for nothing!'
‘What trouble?' enquired the Rector, in accents which lent some colour to his brother's accusation.
‘If it had not been for my representations of what you owe to the family, you would not be here this evening!'
The Reverend Hugh shrugged his broad shoulders, and replied repressively: ‘The whole of the affair seems to me to be most improper. If I make poor Kitty an offer, it will be from compassion, and in the belief that her upbringing and character are such as must make her a suitable wife for a man in orders.'
‘Humbug!' retorted Lord Biddenden. ‘If Uncle Matthew makes the girl his heiress, she will inherit, I daresay, as much as twenty thousand pounds a year! He cannot have spent a tithe of his fortune since he built this place, and when one considers how it must have accumulated-My dear Hugh, I do beg of you to use a little address! If I were a single man-! But, there! It does not do to be repining, and I am sure I am not the man to be grudging a fortune to either of my brothers!'
‘We have been at Arnside close upon twenty-four hours,' said Hugh, ‘and my great-uncle has not yet made known to us his intentions.'
‘We know very well what they are,' replied Lord Biddenden irritably. ‘And if you do not guess why he has not yet spoken, you are a bigger fool that I take you for! Of course he hoped that Jack would come to Arnside! And Freddy, too,' he added perfunctorily. ‘Not that Freddy signifies a whit more than Dolphinton here, but I daresay the old man would wish him not to be excluded. No, no, it is Jack's absence which has made him hold his tongue! And I must say, Hugh, I never looked for that, and must hold it to be a piece of astonishing good fortune! Depend upon it, had the opportunity offered, the girl must have chosen him!'
‘I do not know why you should say so,' replied the Rector stiffly. ‘Indeed, I am at a loss to understand why you should be so anxious to have me offer for a lady whom you apparently hold in such poor esteem! If I did not believe her to be a well-brought-up young woman to whom such persons as my cousin Jack must be repugnant-'
‘Yes, well, that is more of your humbug!' interrupted his lordship. ‘You may be a handsome fellow, Hugh, but you are not an out-and-outer, like Jack!'
‘I have no wish to be an out-and-outer, as you term it,' said Hugh, more stiffly still. ‘Nor do I regard his absence or his presence as being of any particular consequence.'
‘Oh, don't sham it so!' exclaimed Biddenden, flinging down a copy of the Gentleman's Magazine. ‘If you fancy, my dear brother, that because he gave you your living my uncle prefers you above his other great-nephews you very much mistake the matter! I wonder you will talk such gammon, I do, indeed! Jack has always been my uncle's favourite, and so you know! He means Kitty to choose him, depend upon it, and that is why he is so devilish out of humour! I marvel at his having invited any of the rest of us, upon my soul I do!'
Lord Dolphinton, who occasionally disconcerted his relations by attending to what they said, here raised his eyes from the book on his knees, and interpolated: ‘Uncle said he didn't invite you, George. Said he didn't know why you came. Said-'
‘Nonsense! You know nothing of the matter!' said Lord Biddenden.
Lord Dolphinton's understanding was not powerful, nor was it one which readily assimilated ideas; but once it had received an impression it was tenacious. ‘Did say so!' he insisted. ‘Said it last night, when you arrived. Said it again this morning. Said it-'
‘Very well, that will do!' said his cousin testily.
Lord Dolphinton was not to be so easily silenced. ‘Said it when we sat down to luncheon,' he continued, ticking the occasion off on one bony finger. ‘Said it at dinner. Said if you didn't care for your mutton you needn't have come, because he didn't invite you. I ain't clever, like you fellows, but when people say things to me once or twice I can remember them.' He observed that this simple declaration of his powers had bereft his cousin of words, and retired again, mildly pleased, into his book.
Lord Biddenden exchanged a speaking look with his brother; but Hugh merely remarked that it was very true, and that in such a contemptuous voice that Biddenden was goaded into saying: ‘Well, at all events, it is as much to the purpose that I have come as that Dolphinton has! Folly!'
‘I'm an Earl,' said Lord Dolphinton, suddenly re-entering the conversation. ‘You ain't an Earl. Hugh ain't an Earl. Freddy ain't-'
‘No, you are the only Earl amongst us,' interposed Hugh soothingly.
‘George is only a Baron,' said Dolphinton.
Lord Biddenden cast him a glance of dislike, and said something under his breath about impoverished Irish peers. He had less patience with Dolphinton than any of the cousins, and the remark, moreover, had slightly wounded his sensibilities. He was a man of more pride than genius; liked to think himself the head of a family of great consequence; and was ambitious to improve his condition. However poorly he might think of Irish titles, he could never see Dolphinton without suffering a pang. A juster providence, he felt, must have reversed their positions. Not that he wished to exchange more with Dolphinton than his title: certainly not his snug inheritance for Dolphinton's Irish acres, mortgaged to the hilt, as he had good reason to suppose they were. Dolphinton was an only child, too, and that would not have suited his cousin. Lord Biddenden's instincts were patriarchal. He liked to see his brothers and sisters under his roof, and to feel that they depended upon him for guidance; and he was almost as anxious for their advancement as his own. It had been a source of considerable chagrin to him that circumstances had made it impossible for him to bestow his first living upon Hugh. He, and not Matthew Penicuik, should have been Hugh's benefactor, and he could never quite forgive the valetudinarian who was nursing Hugh's Rectory for having grossly outlived expectation. That Hugh's presence within walking distance of Biddenden Manor might not be conducive either to his happiness or to his self-esteem he did not allow to weigh with him, for he was a man with a strong sense of propriety, and he knew that it was his duty to feel affection for all his brothers and sisters. But the melancholy truth was that he could never be long in company with Hugh without becoming vexed with him. He was a just man, and he did not blame Hugh for being a head taller than himself, and very much slimmer; but he did think that Hugh was to be blamed for supposing that his cloth gave him the right to adopt a censorious attitude towards his elders. Regretfully, Lord Biddenden thought of his second brother, Claud, and wished that he were not, at this particular moment, serving with his regiment in the Army of Occupation in France. He would have been glad to have helped Claud to a fortune, for he liked him, and he foresaw, too, that he would be obliged, at no very distant date, to help him to buy his promotion, if not to do the thing outright. Captain Rattray, though deferential to the head of his house, was expensive.
These reflections were disturbed by Lord Dolphinton, who raised his head again, and gave utterance to the thought which had been slowly germinating in his brain. ‘I'd as lief not be an Earl,' he said heavily. ‘Or a Viscount. Freddy's going to be a Viscount. I wouldn't wish to be. I wouldn't wish to be a Baron, though that's not much. George-'
‘Yes, yes, we all know I am a Baron! You need not enumerate the degrees of nobility!' said Biddenden, in an exasperated tone. ‘You had as lief not be a peer of any degree! I am sure I don't know what maggot has got into your head now, but that at least I have understood!'
‘There is no occasion for you to speak so roughly,' said Hugh. ‘What would you like to be, Foster?'
Lord Dolphinton sighed. ‘That's just it,' he said mournfully. ‘I wouldn't like to be a military man. Or a parson. Or a doctor. Or-'
The Rector, realizing that the list of the occupations his cousin did not desire to engage in was likely to be a long one, intervened, saying in his grave way: ‘Why don't you wish to be an Earl, Foster?'
‘I just don't,' said Dolphinton simply.
Fortunately, since his elder cousin showed signs of becoming apoplectic, any further remarks which he might have felt impelled to make were checked by the arrival on the scene of his great-uncle and host.
Mr Penicuik, who had retired to his bedchamber after dinner for the purpose of having all the bandages which were bound round a gouty foot removed and replaced, made an impressive entrance. His butler preceded him, bearing upon a silver salver a box of pills, and a glass half-filled with an evil-looking mixture; Mr Penicuik himself hobbled in supported on one side by a stalwart footman, and upon the other by his valet; and a maid-servant brought up the rear, carrying a heavy walking-stick, several cushions, and a shawl. Both Lord Biddenden and his brother started helpfully towards their infirm relative, and were cursed for their pains. The butler informed Lord Dolphinton in a reproachful whisper that he was occupying the Master's chair. Much alarmed, Dolphinton removed himself to an uncomfortable seat at some distance from the fire. Mr Penicuik, uttering sundry groans, adjurations, and objurgations, was lowered into his favourite chair, his gouty foot was laid tenderly upon a cushion, placed on the stool before him, another cushion was set at his back, and his nephew Hugh disposed the shawl about his shoulders, rather unwisely enquiring, as he did so, if he was comfortable.
‘No, I'm not comfortable, and if you had my stomach, and my gout, you wouldn't ask me a damned silly question like that!' retorted Mr Penicuik. ‘Stobhill, where's my cordial? Where are my pills? They don't do me any good, but I've paid for them, and I won't have waste! Where's my stick? Put it where I can reach it, girl, and don't stand there with your mouth at half-cock! Pack of fools! Don't keep on hovering round me, Spiddle! I can't abide hoverers! And don't go out of hearing of the bell, for very likely I shall go to bed early, and I don't want to be kept waiting while you're searched for all over. Go away, all of you! No, wait! Where's my snuff-box?'
‘I fancy, sir, that you placed it in your pocket upon rising from the dinner-table,' said Stobhill apologetically.
‘More fool you to have let me sit down before I took it out again!' said Mr Penicuik, making heroic efforts to get a hand to his pocket, and uttering another anguished groan. An offer of Lord Biddenden's Special Sort, put up in an elegant enamel box, was ungratefully rejected. Mr Penicuik said that he had used Nut Brown for years, and wanted nobody's new-fangled mixture. He succeeded, with assistance from two of his henchmen, in extricating his box from his pocket, said that the room was as cold as a tomb, and roundly denounced the footman for not having built up a better fire. The footman, who was new to his service, foolishly reminded Mr Penicuik that he had himself given orders to make only a small fire in the Saloon. ‘Man's an idiot!' said Mr Penicuik. ‘Small fire be damned! Not when I'm going to sit here myself, clodpole!' He waved the servants away, and nodded to his young relatives. ‘In general, I don't sit here,' he informed them. ‘Never sit anywhere but in the library, but I didn't want the pack of you crowding in there.' He then glanced round the room, observed that it needed refurbishing but that he was not going to squander his money on a room he might not enter again for a twelvemonth, and swallowed two pills and the cordial. After this, he took a generous pinch of snuff, which seemed to refresh him, and said: ‘Well, I told you all to come here for a purpose, and if some of you don't choose to do what's to their interest I wash my hands of them. I've given 'em a day's grace, and there's an end to it! I won't keep you all here, eating me out of house and home, to suit the convenience of a couple of damned jackanapes. Mind, I don't mean they shan't have their chance! They don't deserve it, but I said Kitty should have her pick, and I'm a man of my word.'
‘I apprehend, sir,' said Biddenden, ‘that we have some inkling of your intentions. You will recall that one amongst us is absent through no fault of his own.'
‘If you're talking about your brother Claud, I'm glad he isn't here,' replied Mr Penicuik. ‘I've nothing against the boy, but I can't abide military men. He can make Kitty an offer if he chooses, but I can tell you now she'll have nothing to say to him. Why should she? Hasn't clapped eyes on him for years! Now, you may all of you keep quiet, and listen to what I have to say. I've been thinking about it for a long time, and I've decided what's the right thing for me to do, so now I'll put it to you in plain terms. Dolphinton, do you understand me?'
Lord Dolphinton, who was sitting with his hands loosely clasped between his knees, and an expression on his face of the utmost dejection, started, and nodded.
‘I don't suppose he does,' Mr Penicuik told Hugh, in a lowered voice. ‘His mother may say what she pleases, but I've always thought he was touched in his upper works! However, he's as much my great-nevvy as any of you, and I settled it with myself that I'd make no distinctions between you.' He paused, and looked at the assembled company with all the satisfaction of one about to address an audience without fear of argument or interruption. ‘It's about my Will,' he said. ‘I'm an old man now, and I daresay I shan't live for very much longer. Not that I care for that, for I've had my day, and I don't doubt you'll all be glad to see me into my coffin.' Here he paused again, and with the shaking hand of advanced senility helped himself to another pinch of snuff. This performance, however, awoke little response in his great-nephews. Both Dolphinton and the Reverend Hugh certainly had their eyes fixed upon him, but Dolphinton's gaze could not be described as anything but lack-lustre, and Hugh's was frankly sceptical. Biddenden was engaged in polishing his eyeglass. Mr Penicuik was not, in fact, so laden with years as his wizened appearance and his conversation might have led the uninitiated to suppose. He was, indeed, the last representative of his generation, as he was fond of informing his visitors; but as four sisters had preceded him into the world and out of it this was not such an impressive circumstance as he would have wished it to appear. ‘I'm the last of my name,' he said, sadly shaking his head. ‘Outlived my generation! Never married; never had a brother!'
These tragic accents had their effect upon Lord Dolphinton. He turned his apprehensive eyes towards Hugh. Hugh smiled at him, in a reassuring way, and said in a colourless voice: ‘Precisely so, sir!'
Mr Penicuik, finding his audience to be unresponsive, abandoned his pathetic manner, and said with his customary tartness: ‘Not that I shed many tears when my sisters died, for I didn't! I will say this for your grandmother, you two!-She didn't trouble me much! But Dolphinton's grandmother-she was my sister Cornelia, and the stupidest female-well, never mind that! Rosie was the best of 'em. Damme, I liked Rosie, and I like Jack! Spit and image of her! I don't know why the rascal ain't here tonight!' This recollection brought the querulous note back into his voice. He sat in silence for a moment or two, brooding over his favourite great-nephew's defection. Biddenden directed a look of long-suffering at his brother, but Hugh sat with his eyes on Mr Penicuik's face, courteously waiting for him to resume his discourse. ‘Well, it don't signify!' Mr Penicuik said snappishly. ‘What I'm going to say is this: there's no reason why I shouldn't leave my money where I choose! You've none of you got a ha'porth of claim to it, so don't think it! At the same time, I was never one to forget my own kith and kin. No one can say I haven't done my duty by the family. Why, when I think of the times I've let you all come down here-nasty, destructive boys you were, too!-besides giving Dolphinton's mother, who's no niece of mine, a lot of advice she'd have done well to have listened to, when my nevvy Dolphinton died-well, there it is! I've got a feeling for my own blood there's no explaining. George has it too: it's the only thing I like about you, George. So it seemed to me that my money ought to go to one of you. At the same time, there's Kitty, and I'm not going to deny that I'd like her to have it, and if I hadn't a sense of what's due to the family I'd leave it to her, and make no more ado about it!' He glanced from Biddenden to Hugh, and gave a sudden cackle of mirth. ‘I daresay you've often asked yourselves if she wasn't my daughter, hey? Well, she ain't! No relation of mine at all. She was poor Tom Charing's child, all right and tight, whatever you may have suspected. She's the last of the Charings, more's the pity. Tom and I were lads together, but his father left him pretty well in the basket, and mine left me plump enough in the pocket. Tom died before Kitty was out of leading-strings, and there weren't any Charings left, beyond a couple of sour old cousins, so I adopted the girl. Nothing havey-cavey about the business at all, and no reason why she shouldn't marry into any family she chooses. So I've settled it that one of you shall have her, and my fortune into the bargain.'
‘I must say, sir, it is an odd, whimsical notion!' Biddenden remarked. ‘And one which-'
‘Whimsical!' exclaimed Hugh, in tones of disgust. ‘I had rather have called it outrageous!'
‘Very well, my lad, if that's what you think, don't offer for her!' retorted Mr Penicuik.
‘Pray be silent, Hugh! May I enquire, sir, whether the whole of your estate is to be bequeathed to the-er-fortunate suitor?'
‘To Kitty, once she safely married. I don't hold with cutting up property.'
‘And in the event of no offer's being received?'
Mr Penicuik gave vent to another of his cackles. ‘I ain't afraid of that!'
Hugh rose to his feet, and stood towering above his great-uncle. ‘I will not be silenced! The whole of this scheme must be repugnant to any female of delicacy. Pray, which of us do you mean to compel her to marry?'
‘Don't stand there, giving me a crick in my neck!' said Mr Penicuik. ‘I shan't compel her to marry any of you. I don't say I wouldn't rather she had one than another, naming no names, but I'm not an unreasonable man, and I'm willing to let her have her pick amongst you. Plenty of you to choose from!'
‘But what if she should refuse, sir?' asked Biddenden anxiously.
‘Then I'll leave my money to the Foundling Hospital, or some such thing!' replied Mr Penicuik. ‘She won't be such a zany!'
‘Am I correct in assuming, sir, that Kitty has no fortune of her own?' demanded Hugh.
‘Not a farthing piece,' said Mr Penicuik cheerfully.
Hugh's eyes flashed. ‘And you say you do not compel her! I marvel at you, sir! I may say that I am profoundly shocked! Without fortune, what hope can any female, circumstanced as Kitty is, have of achieving a respectable alliance?'
‘She can't have any, of course,' said Mr Penicuik becoming momently more affable as his great-nephew's choler rose.
‘No, indeed!' exclaimed Lord Biddenden, almost shuddering at the thought of marriage with a portionless female. ‘Really, Hugh, you go too far! I don't know where you learned your fantastic notions! One would say there had never been a marriage arranged before, yet you must be well aware that in our circle such things are always done! Your own sisters-'
‘I have yet to learn that my sisters were forced into marriages that were distasteful to them!'
Mr Penicuik opened his snuff-box again. ‘What makes you think marriage to one of you would be distasteful to the girl?' he asked blandly. ‘Maybe she don't fancy you, but that ain't to say there isn't one amongst you she might not be glad to pick. She don't know any other men, so there's bound to be.' Inhaling too large a pinch of Nut Brown, he sneezed violently several times. When he had recovered from this seizure, he said: ‘Going to be open with you! Everyone knows the Charings: good stock, fit to couple with any family! The thing is, Kitty has French blood in her.' This information was well known to the company, but he disclosed it with all the air of one making a damaging admission. ‘Evron was the name. Never knew much about the family myself. They were émigrés, but not noble-at least, if they were it's more than Tom ever told me. They won't trouble you: I saw to that! Fellow who said he was Kitty's uncle came here once-oh, years ago! Brought his sons with him: couple of scrubby schoolboys, they were. I soon sent him to the right about: a very neat article I thought him! No use his trying to bamboozle me, and so I told him! A sponge, that's what he was, if he wasn't worse. However, to the best of my belief he took himself off to France again. I never heard any more of him, at all events. But Désirée-Kitty's mother-' He broke off, and his gaze, which had been flickering from Biddenden's face to the Reverend Hugh's, transferred itself to the smouldering logs in the grate. He did not finish his sentence, but said, after a pause: ‘Pretty little thing, Kitty, but she'll never be the equal of her mother. Favours poor Tom too much. Got something of her mother's look: I see it now and then: but Dés-Mrs Charing-Well, never mind! That ain't to the purpose.' He stretched out his hand towards the bell-rope, and pulled it vigorously. ‘I'll have her in,' he said. ‘But, mind, now! I ain't compelling her to choose any of you three-well, she can't choose you, George, because you're married already! I don't know what brings you here: I never invited you!'
Lord Dolphinton, pleased to hear his words thus confirmed, turned his eyes towards his elder cousin, and remarked succinctly: ‘Told you so!'