When the young gentleman strolling through the park with his gun on his shoulder and an elderly spaniel at his heels came within sight of the house it occurred to him that the hour must be farther advanced than he had supposed, for the sun had sunk below the great stone pile, and an autumnal mist was already creeping over the ground. Amongst the trees the mist had been scarcely perceptible, but when the gentleman emerged from their shelter on to an avenue which ran through undulating lawns to the south front of the mansion, he perceived that the vista was clouded, and became for the first time aware of a chill striking through his light nankeen jacket. He quickened his steps a little, but instead of pursuing his way to the main front, with its handsome colonnade of the Corinthian order, and cupola surmounting the central compartment, he turned off the avenue, and, traversing an elegant flower-garden, embellished with various classical statues, approached a side-entrance in the east wing.
The house, which occupied the site of an earlier building, destroyed by fire half a century before, was a comparatively modern edifice, designed in the classic style, and executed in stone and stuccoed brick. A four hundred and fifty foot frontage made it impressive, and its proportions being extremely nice, and its situation agreeable, it was held by every Travellers' Guide Book to be worth a visit of inspection on such days as its noble owner allowed it to be thrown open to the public. The enquiring traveller was informed that while the park and the pleasure-grounds were sumptuously adorned with works of art, these embellishments were not obtrusive, scarcely any object occurring to violate the principles of modern taste in garden-arrangement. The park, very richly timbered, was also adorned by water; it measured above ten miles in circumference, and was traversed by an avenue three miles in length. The gardens, which were varied and extensive, bespoke the attentions of an extremely skilled gardener, with underlings who permitted no weed to show its head, and no hedge or border to grow ragged. Formal beds were arranged with propriety of taste, and even the wilderness, beyond the Italian Garden and the shrubbery, was kept under decorous restraint.
‘Sale Park,' read the Guide Book, ‘the principal seat of his Grace the Duke of Sale, is a spacious and handsome structure, with colonnades connecting the wings with the central elevation, and a grand portico supporting a richly ornamented pediment.' The visitor was then adjured to pause awhile to admire the ornamental water, the luxuriant growth of noble trees, and the view to be obtained from the south, or main front, before turning his gaze upon the stately mansion itself and absorbing all the glories of Corinthian columns, pediments, cupolas, which rendered it worthy of study.
The Guide Book bestowed some very warm praise upon the Grecian Temple, erected at enormous expense by the fifth Duke, but the young gentleman in the fustian pantaloons and nankeen shooting-jacket passed it without a glance. Indeed, he seemed to be quite indifferent to the beauty and the grandeur of his surroundings, treading rather carelessly over neat grass borders, and permitting his spaniel to stray on to the flower-beds at will.
In his person as much as in his dress, which besides being of great simplicity included a shot-belt (an article of attire not at all in favour with gentlemen aspiring to elegance), he scarcely accorded with his stately setting. He was slightly built, and of rather less than medium height. He had light brown hair, which waved naturally above a countenance which was pleasing without being in any way remarkable. The features were delicate, the colouring rather pale, and the eyes, although expressive, and of a fine gray, not sufficiently arresting to catch the attention. He carried himself well, but without any air of consequence, so that in a crowd it would have been easier to have passed him over than to have distinguished him. His address was well-bred, and a certain dignity attached to his bearing, but either from the circumstance of his being only twenty-four years of age, or from a natural diffidence, his manner, without being precisely shy, was quiet to the point of self-effacement. In fact, tourists to whom he had occasionally been pointed out generally found it impossible to believe that such an unassuming figure could really be the owner of so much wealth and magnificence. But he had owned it for twenty-four years, together with Sale House, his town residence in Curzon Street, and eight other country seats, ranging from Somerset to a draughty castle in the Highlands. He was the Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and Marquis of Ormesby; Earl of Sale; Baron Ware of Thame; Baron Ware of Stoven; and Baron Ware of Rufford, and all these high-sounding titles had been his from the moment of his birth, for he was a posthumous child, the only surviving offspring of the sixth Duke, and of the gentle, unfortunate lady who, after presenting her lord with two stillborn children, and three who did not survive infancy, expired in giving birth to a seven-months male child of such tiny size and sickly appearance that it was freely prophesied of him that he would join his little brothers and sisters in the family vault before the year was out. But the wise choice of a wet-nurse, the devotion of the Chief Nurse, the unremitting attentions of his doctors, the strict rule of his uncle and guardian, Lord Lionel Ware, and the fond solicitude of his aunt, had all combined to drag the seventh Duke through every phase of infantile disorder; and although his boyhood was rendered irksome by a delicacy of constitution that made him liable to take cold easily, and to succumb with alarming readiness to every infectious disease, he had not only survived, but had grown into a perfectly healthy young man, who, if not as stout as could have been wished, or of such fine physique as his uncles and cousins, was yet robust enough to cause his physicians very little anxiety. The chief of these had more than once asserted his belief that the little Duke had a stronger constitution than was supposed, since his hold on life had throughout been so tenacious; but this was an opinion not shared by the anxious relatives, tutors, and attendants who had the Duke in their charge. It was some years since he had suffered any but the most trifling ailment, but his entourage still laboured under the conviction that he was a being to be cosseted and protected against every wind that blew.
It was therefore not with surprise that the young Duke, as he reached the east wing of his house, found that his approach had evidently been watched for. The door was flung open before he had set his foot upon the first of the stone steps that led up to it, and various persons were seen to have assembled in the passage to receive him. Foremost amongst these was his butler, an impressive individual whose demeanour gave the initiated to understand that if his Grace chose to demean himself by entering his house by a side door giving on to a narrow passage it was not for him to criticise such eccentric behaviour. He bowed the Duke in, and perceiving that he carried, besides his gun, a heavy game-bag, silently gestured to a footman to relieve his master of these unbecoming burdens. The Duke gave them up with a faint, rueful smile, but murmured that he had the intention of cleaning his barrels in the gun-room.
His head-keeper took the gun, a fine Manton, from the footman, and said reproachfully: ‘I shall attend to it myself, your Grace. If I had known that your Grace was desirous of shooting to-day I would have sent up a loader, and '
‘But I didn't want a loader,' said the Duke.
Mr Padbury shook his head forbearingly.
‘I think,' added the Duke, ‘that I might now and then just now and then, you know, Padbury! clean my guns for myself.'
Even the footman looked shocked at this, but, being only an underling, could only exchange glances with the fellow footman who had accompanied him to the side entrance. The butler, the steward, and the keeper all directed looks of deep reproach at the Duke, and the middle-aged man in the neat garb that proclaimed the valet exclaimed: ‘Clean your guns for yourself, your Grace! I should think not indeed! And your Grace wet through, I daresay, with only that thin jacket!'
‘Oh, no!' said the Duke. He looked down at the muddied spaniel, and added: ‘But Nell must be rubbed down well.'
He was assured that this should instantly be done; the keeper began to say that he should lose no time in treating the damp gun-stock with a particular preparation of his own; and the steward, prefixing his intervention with a discreet cough, informed his master that my lord had been asking if he was not yet come in.
The Duke had listened rather absently to his valet's and his keeper's remarks, but this had the effect of claiming his attention. He appeared to abandon his intention of going to the gun-room, and asked in a slightly apprehensive tone if he were late for dinner.
The butler, who, although officially the steward's inferior, was a man of far more commanding personality, replied somewhat ambiguously to this question that my lord had gone upstairs to change his dress above half an hour ago.
The Duke looked startled, and said that he must make haste; whereupon the butler, relaxing his severity, assured him benignly that dinner would be held for him, and went in a stately way down the passage to open the door that led into the main hall of the house.
But the Duke again disappointed him, this time by electing to run up the secondary staircase at the end of the passage.
His bedroom was an immense apartment opening out of the upper hall, and as he crossed this to his door he encountered his uncle, a fine-looking gentleman in the early fifties, with an aristocratic cast of countenance, and rather fierce eyes set under strongly marked brows.
Lord Lionel Ware, who prided himself on belonging to the old school, had changed his customary country habit of buckskins and top-boots for the knee-breeches considered de rigueur in his younger days, and carried an enamelled snuff-box in one hand, and a lace handkerchief. When he saw his nephew, his brows shot up, and he enunciated, in a sort of bark: ‘Ha! So you are come in, are you, Gilly?'
The Duke smiled, and nodded. ‘I beg pardon, sir! Am I late? I shall not keep you waiting above twenty minutes, I promise you.'
‘No such thing!' said Lord Lionel testily. ‘Dinner will await your convenience, but you are a great fool to be staying out after dusk at this season. I daresay you will have taken one of your chills!'
‘Oh, no!' replied the Duke, in the same sweet, absent tone he had used to his valet.
Lord Lionel ran a hand down the sleeve of that nankeen jacket, and appeared to be not dissatisfied. ‘Well!' he said. ‘I don't wish to be for ever coddling you, boy, but I desire you will make haste out of those clothes. You will have got your feet wet in those half-boots. You had better have worn gaiters. Nettlebed! Has his Grace no gaiters to wear out shooting?'
‘His Grace will not wear his gaiters, my lord,' said the valet, in condemnatory accents. ‘And his Grace did not send for me to lay out his clothes, nor apprise me of his intention to go shooting,' he added, less in self-exculpation than in sorrowful blame of his young master's imprudence.
‘I am glad you do not wish to be waited on hand and foot,' said Lord Lionel severely, ‘but this habit you have of slipping off without a word said is nonsensical, Gilly. One would suppose you were afraid someone might prevent you!'
A gleam of humour lit the Duke's eyes; he said meekly: ‘I think I must have a secretive disposition, sir.'
‘Nothing of the sort!' said his lordship. ‘It is high time you realised that you are of age, and may do as you please. Now, be off, and don't neglect to change your stockings! I hope you have been wearing flannel ones, and not '
‘Lamb's-wool,' said the Duke, more meekly still.
‘Very well, and now make haste, if you please! Unless you wish to keep town-hours at Sale?'
The Duke disclaimed any such desire, and vanished into his bed-chamber, where Nettlebed had already laid out his evening dress. The room, although of vast size, was very warm, for a fire had been lit in the grate much earlier in the day, and the windows closed against any treacherous fresh air. Curtains of crimson damask shut out the fading daylight, and the great fourpost-bed was hung with the same stuff. Branches of candles stood on the dressing-table and the mantelpiece; and a silver ewer of hot water had been placed in the wash-basin, and covered with a clean towel. The room was furnished throughout in crimson damask, and mahogany, and hung with a Chinese paper of the style made fashionable some years previously by the Prince Regent, who used it extensively in his summer palace at Brighton. Everything in it seemed to be made on rather too large and opulent a scale for its occupant, but it was not an uncomfortable apartment, and, during the day, was generally flooded with sunshine, since it faced south, commanding a view of the avenue, the formal beds and lawns beyond it, the sheet of ornamental water which the Guide Book so highly commended, and, in the distance, the noble trees of the home park. The Duke had slept in it ever since the day when his uncle had decreed that he was too old for petticoat government, and had removed him from his more homely nurseries, and installed him, a small and quaking ten-year-old, in it, telling him that it was his father's room, and his grandfather's before him, and that only the head of the house might inhabit it. As his Grace had been further informed by various members of his household that the fifth Duke had breathed his last in the huge bed, he could only be thankful that his frailty made Lord Lionel deem it advisable to set up a truckle-bed for a reliable attendant in the adjoining dressing-room.
Nettlebed, who might have been considered by some to be rather too elderly a valet for such a young man, began to bustle about, scolding fondly as he divested his master of his coat, and shot-belt, and gray cloth waistcoat. Like nearly everyone else who waited upon the Duke, he had previously been employed by the Duke's father, and considered himself privileged to speak his mind to his master whenever he was out of earshot of other, less important, members of the household, before whom he invariably maintained the Duke's dignity in a manner that daunted the Duke far more than the affectionate bullying he employed in private.
He said now, as he laid aside the shot-belt: ‘I wonder that my lord should not have said something to your Grace, if he noticed you was wearing this nasty, low belt, more fit for a poacher, one would have thought, than for a Gentleman, let alone one that was born, as the saying is, in the Purple. But, there! tell your Grace till Domesday you'll never mend your ways! And why would you not take a loader, pray, not to mention Padbury? I can tell your Grace he was quite put out to think you should be off without him, and very likely needing a beater as well.'
‘No, I didn't need a beater,' said the Duke, sitting down to allow Nettlebed to pull off his boots. ‘And as for my shot-belt, I daresay you may consider it a very vulgar appendage, but it spares my pockets, and is, I think, as quick a way of loading as any that I know.'
‘If you had taken a loader with you, as was befitting, your Grace would not have needed any such,' said Nettlebed severely. ‘I could see his lordship was not best pleased.'
‘I am sure he was not displeased for any such cause,' responded the Duke, walking towards the washstand, and lifting the towel from the ewer. ‘He is a great advocate for a man's being able to do everything for himself that may come in his way.'
‘That,' said Nettlebed, frustrating the Duke's attempt to pick up the ewer, ‘is as may be, your Grace.' He poured the water into the basin, and removed the towel from the Duke's hand. ‘But when his lordship takes a gun out, he has always his loader, and very likely a couple of beaters besides, for he is one as knows what is due to his position.'
‘Well, if I do not know what is due to mine I am sure it is not for want of being told,' sighed the Duke. ‘I think it would have been very pleasant to have been born one of my own tenants, sometimes.'
‘Born one of your Grace's own tenants!' ejaculated Nettlebed, in an astonished tone.
The Duke took the towel, and began to wipe his wet face with it. ‘Not one of those who are obliged to live in Thatch End Cottages, of course,' he said reflectively.
‘Thatch End Cottages!'
‘I do not know what your Grace can be meaning!'
‘They are for ever complaining of them. I daresay they should all be pulled down. In fact, I am sure of it, for I have seen them.'
‘Seen them, your Grace?' said Nettlebed, quite shocked. ‘I am sure I do not know when you can have done so!'
‘When we were in Yorkshire, I rode over,' replied the Duke tranquilly.
‘Now that,' said Nettlebed, in a displeased way, ‘is just what your Grace should not be doing! It is Mr Scriven who should attend to such matters, as I am sure he is willing and able to do, let alone he has his clerks to be running about the country for him!'
‘Only he does not attend to it,' said the Duke, sitting down before his dressing-table.
Nettlebed handed him his neckcloth. ‘Then your Grace may depend upon it there is nothing as needs attending to,' he said.
‘You remind me very much of uncle,' remarked the Duke.
Nettlebed shook his head at him, but said: ‘Well, and I'll be bound his lordship has told your Grace there isn't a better agent than Mr Scriven in the length and breadth of the land.'
‘Oh, yes!' said the Duke. ‘Nothing could exceed his care for my interests.'
‘Well, and what more could your Grace desire?'
‘I think it would be very agreeable if he cared for my wishes.'
A slightly weary note in his master's quiet voice made Nettlebed say with a roughness that imperfectly concealed his affection: ‘Now, your Grace, I see what it is! You have tired yourself out, carrying that heavy game-bag, and your gun, and you're in a fit of the dismals! If Mr Scriven don't seem always to care for your wishes, it's because your Grace is young yet, and don't know the ways of tenants, nor what's best for the estate.'
‘Very true,' said the Duke, in a colourless voice.
Nettlebed helped him to put on his coat. ‘Your Grace's honoured father had every confidence in Mr Scriven, that I do know,' he said.
‘Oh, yes!' said the Duke.
Feeling that his master was still unconvinced, Nettlebed began to recite the numerous virtues of the agent-in-chief, but after a few moments the Duke interrupted him, saying: ‘Well, never mind! Have we company to-night?'
‘No, your Grace, you will be quite alone.'
‘It sounds delightful, but I am afraid it is untrue.'
‘No, no, your Grace, it is just as I tell you! You will find no one below but my lord, and my lady, and Mr Romsey, and Miss Scamblesby!' Nettlebed assured him.
The Duke smiled, but refrained from making any remark. He submitted to having his coat smoothed across his shoulders, accepted a clean handkerchief, and moved towards the door. Nettlebed opened this for him, and nodded to an individual hovering in the hall outside, who at once withdrew, apparently to spread the news of the Duke's coming. He was the Groom of the Chambers, and although more modern households might have abolished this office, at Sale Park a pomp belonging to the previous century was rigidly adhered to, and the groom continued to hold his post. During the long period of the Duke's minority he had had little scope for his talents, but he was now hopeful of seeing the great house once more full of distinguished guests, all with their exacting personal servants, and their quite incompatible fads and fancies, driving a lesser man to suicide, but affording Mr Turvey an exquisite enjoyment.
The Duke walked down the stairs, and crossed a vast, marble-paved hall to the double doors that led into the gallery. Here it had been the custom of the Family to assemble before dinner since the Duke's grandfather had rebuilt the mansion. As the gallery was over a hundred foot long, it had sometimes seemed to the Duke that some smaller apartment might be a preferable assembly room on any but Public Days, but a mild suggestion made to this effect had been greeted by his uncle with such disapproval that with his usual docility he had abandoned any hope of making a change.
Two liveried footmen, who appeared to have been trying to impersonate wax effigies, suddenly sprang to life, and flung open the doors; the Duke, dwarfed by their height and magnificence, passed between them into the gallery.
Since September was drawing to an end, and the evenings were already a little chilly, a log-fire had been kindled in the grate at one end of the gallery. Lord Lionel Ware was standing before it, not precisely with his watch in his hand, but presenting the appearance of one who had but that moment restored the timepiece to his pocket. Beside him, and making a praiseworthy if not entirely successful attempt to divert his mind from the lateness of the hour, was the Reverend Oswald Romsey, once tutor to the Duke, now his Chaplain, and engaged in the intervals of his not very arduous duties in writing a learned commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. On a straw-coloured brocade sofa, wholly shielded from the fire's warmth by her husband's stalwart form, was disposed the Duke's aunt, a lady fashioned in a generous mould which the current mode of high waists and narrow skirts could not have been said to have flattered; and sitting primly upright in a chair suitably withdrawn from the intimate circle was Miss Scamblesby, a spinster of uncertain age and nebulous relationship, who was always referred to by Lady Lionel as ‘my cousin', and had been an inmate of Sale Park for as long as the Duke could remember, performing the duties of a lady-in-waiting. As Lady Lionel was extremely kind-hearted, she was not in the least overworked, or browbeaten, the only ills she had to endure being her ladyship's very boring conversation, and his lordship's snubs, which last, however, were dealt out so impartially to every member of the household as to make her feel herself to be quite one of the family.
But the Duke, who had, his uncle frequently told him, too much sensibility, could not rid himself of the notion that Miss Scamblesby's position was an unhappy one, and he never neglected to bestow on her a distinguishing degree of attention, or to acknowledge a relationship which did not, in fact, exist, by addressing her as Cousin Amelia. When his uncle pointed out to him, not in a carping spirit, but as one who liked accuracy, that being only some kind of a third cousin to Lady Lionel her connection with the Ware family was of the most remote order, he merely smiled, and slid out of a possible argument in a manner rendered perfect by years of practice.
As he walked down the gallery, he smiled at her, and enquired after the headache she had complained of earlier in the day. While she blushed, thanked, and disclaimed, Lord Lionel crushingly remarked that he did not know why people should have headaches, since he himself had never suffered such an ill in his life; and Mr Romsey pleased nobody by saying: ‘Ah, my lord Duke has a fellow-feeling, I daresay! I am sure no one has suffered more from an affliction we more hardy mortals are exempt from!'
‘Stuff and nonsense!' said Lord Lionel, who very much disliked to have his nephew's delicacy of constitution mentioned by anyone other than himself.
Mr Romsey's well-meaning if unfortunate remark had the effect of arousing Lady Lionel from her customary lethargy, and she began to enumerate, with a surprising degree of animation, all the more shocking headaches her nephew had endured during his sickly boyhood. The Duke bore this patiently, but Lord Lionel pshawed and fidgeted, and finally broke in on a discourse that threatened to be never-ending, saying crossly: ‘Very well, very well, ma'am, but this is all forgotten now, and we do not wish to be reminding Gilly of it! Were you hedgerow-shooting, my boy? Had you any sport?'
‘Three brace of partridges only, and some wood-pigeons, sir,' responded the Duke.
‘Very well indeed!' said his uncle approvingly. ‘I have frequently observed that for all it may not be real game, as we understand it, the wood-pigeon gives some of the hardest shots of all. What shot did you use?'
‘Seven,' said the Duke.
This made Lord Lionel shake his head a little, and point out the advantages of a four or a five. His nephew, having listened politely, said that he would grant him an accidental shot at long distance with his heavier shot, but that a well-breeched and properly bored gun would shoot Number Seven better than any other. As the Duke was a very pretty shot, Lord Lionel allowed this to pass with no more than a glancing reference to newfangled fads, and asked him if he had taken one of his Purdeys out.
‘No, a Manton,' said the Duke. ‘I have been trying Joseph Manton's New Patent Shot.'
‘I have bought my shot from Walker and Maltby any time these thirty years,' declared his lordship. ‘But the old ways will never do for you young men! I suppose you will tell me this New Patent has some particular virtue!'
‘I think the shot is more compact, and it is certainly cleaner to handle,' replied the Duke.
‘I hope, Gilly, that you did not get your feet wet?' said Lady Lionel. ‘You know, if you were to take a chill it will go straight to your throat, and I was thinking only the other day that I cannot recall the name of that very obliging physician who recommended electricity. You were only a child, so I daresay you might not remember, but it was very excellent, though your uncle disliked it very much.'
‘Does Borrowdale not know that you are ready for dinner?' demanded Lord Lionel loudly. ‘It will be six o'clock before we sit down to it!'
‘There was quite a fashion for electricity at that time,' pursued his wife placidly. ‘I am sure I know of a dozen persons who took the treatment.'
‘It was what the Captain calls all the crack,' said Miss Scamblesby, prefixing her remark with the titter which never failed to irritate his lordship.
Lord Lionel was both fond and proud of his son, but he did not propose to submit to having his words quoted to him, and he immediately said that he had the greatest dislike of cant expressions. Miss Scamblesby's subsequent confusion was only relieved by the entrance of Borrowdale, who came in at that moment to announce that dinner was served. The Duke then assisted his aunt to rise from the sofa, Miss Scamblesby draped a Paisley shawl round her shoulders, Mr Romsey handed her her fan and her reticule, and the whole party filed out into the hall, and across it to the dining-saloon.
Here the Duke took his place at the head of the table, in an immense carved oak chair, and Lord Lionel installed himself in a similar chair at the foot. Lady Lionel sat at her nephew's right hand, and Miss Scamblesby and Mr Romsey established themselves opposite to her, with only one footman between the pair of them.
Lord Lionel being an advocate of what he considered a neat, plain dinner, only two courses were served at Sale Park when the family dined alone. The first of these consisted of a tureen of turtle, removed with fish, which was in its turn removed with a haunch of venison. Several side-dishes, such as pork cutlets with Rober sauce, larded fillets of beef, tenderones of veal and truffles, and a braised ham, graced the board, but since his lordship was a moderate trencherman, and the Duke had a notoriously small appetite, the only person who did justice to the spread was Miss Scamblesby, who had (so his lordship had more than once remarked to his nephew) the inordinate appetite of all poor relations.
While the first course dragged on its way, conversation was of a desultory nature. The Duke looked tired; his aunt rarely troubled herself to make conversation; and Lord Lionel seemed preoccupied. When the first course was carried out in procession, however, he roused himself to say: ‘Well! You are all very dull to-night!' a remark which not unnaturally bereft the assembled company of any conversational ideas they might have had.
‘Well, Gilly!' said his lordship, after a pause of which no one showed any sign of wishing to take advantage. ‘Have you nothing to say for yourself?'
A slightly apprehensive look came into the Duke's eyes. Mr Romsey said kindly: ‘I fancy you are tired, my lord.'
‘No, no!' Gilly disclaimed, almost shrinking from the imputation.
It had the effect of softening Lord Lionel. ‘Tired? I am sure I do not know why you must all be for ever supposing him knocked up by the least exertion! Let me tell you, it is very irksome to a young man to have such nonsense talked of him! You are bored, Gilly! Yes, yes, you need not trouble to deny it, for I do not wonder at it! You should have invited some few of your Oxford friends to come down and shoot with you. It is dull work for you here alone.'
‘Thank you, I am very happy, sir!' Gilly stammered. ‘You I mean, we have invited several parties for the pheasant-shooting, I believe.'
‘Well, well, that is looking some way ahead!' said his lordship indulgently. ‘You will scarcely wish for any large shooting parties until November!'
The second course here made its appearance, and a fresh array of silver dishes was set out. Some pigeons and a hare constituted the main features, but there were besides a quantity of vegetables, and several creams, jellies, and cakes, including, as Miss Scamblesby was quick to perceive, a Gâteau Mellifleur, to which she was extremely partial.
Lady Lionel helped herself from a dish of artichoke bottoms in sauce. ‘I have been thinking,' she said. ‘If you should care for it, Gilly, we could get up a rubber of whist after dinner. I daresay we might prevail upon our good Mr Romsey to take a hand, and if he does not care to, Amelia does not play so very ill.'
Her husband set his wineglass down rather hurriedly, and said with more haste than civility that she must know that Gilly disliked whist. Then, perceiving quadrille in her eye, he added: ‘Or any other game of cards. Besides, I have just recollected that Chigwell brought up the mails from the receiving-office this afternoon, and there is a letter for you from your Uncle Henry, Gilly. I will give it to you after dinner.'
The Duke's entertainment having been thus provided for, Lady Lionel was able to relapse into indolence, merely wondering in an idle fashion what Lord Henry could be writing to Gilly about. Miss Scamblesby said that it seemed a long time since they had had the felicity of seeing dear Lord and Lady Henry Ware at Sale; and Mr Romsey asked if Mr Matthew was not now a freshman up at Oxford.
‘No, he is entering on his third year,' the Duke replied.
‘But not, I fancy, at our college, my lord?' Mr Romsey said playfully.
As Mr Romsey was a Balliol scholar, and the Duke had been at Christ Church, the possessive pronoun could only be taken to refer to the circumstance of his having accompanied his pupil to Oxford, to keep a watchful eye on his health and his associates. The Duke, who had suffered as only a sensitive youth could under such an arrangement, found the reminder so irritating that he was obliged to close his lips on an unkind retort.
‘My nephew is at Magdalen College,' said Lord Lionel shortly. ‘As for not having seen my brother and his wife here, they spent six weeks with us in the summer, and brought all the children, as I for one am not likely to forget very readily! They cut up the south lawn with their cricket, and if they had been sons of mine '
‘But they asked my permission, sir, and I gave it,' Gilly said, in a soft voice.
Lord Lionel opened his mouth to utter a blistering reproof, recollected himself, shut it again, and, after a slight pause, said: ‘Well, it is your lawn, and you may do as you wish with it, but I own I cannot conceive what you were about to give permission!'
A rather mischievous smile lit the Duke's eyes: he looked under his lashes at his uncle, and replied: ‘I think it was perhaps because I have wanted very often to play cricket there myself.'
‘Yes! and you would thank me for it to-day, I daresay, had I allowed you and Gideon to ruin one of the finest pieces of turf in the county!' said his lordship.
Miss Scamblesby having by this time disposed of her portion of the Gâteau Mellifleur, Lady Lionel heaved herself up out of her chair. The Duke picked up such small articles as she dropped, the doors were held open, and both ladies withdrew to leave the gentlemen to their wine.
The covers having been removed, the cloth swept away, the decanters set upon the table, the servants left the room, and Lord Lionel settled down to enjoy his port in what he termed comfort, and his nephew thought great discomfort. The fire behind him was beginning to be unpleasantly hot, the ornate carving of his chair made leaning back in it a penance, and he was not fond of port.
Lord Lionel began to talk of some improvements to one of the Duke's estates, which the agent-in-chief thought might be advantageous. ‘You should see Scriven yourself, Gilly,' he said. ‘You know, you must not forget that in less than a year now you will have the management of everything in your own hands. I am very anxious you should acquaint yourself with all the business of your estates.'
‘Dear me, yes!' said Mr Romsey, sipping his wine delicately. ‘It is very true, though I may scarcely credit it! My dear lord, you will indeed be twenty-five next year! Yet it seems only yesterday that I was so fortunate as to be chosen to be your chief guide and preceptor!'
‘I have never had the least doubt that I made a wise choice,' said his lordship graciously, ‘but what I am saying is that my nephew must not look to be guided for many months more. You have a thousand amiable qualities, Gilly, but you lack decision of character!'
The Duke did not deny the accusation. He felt it to be true, but he could scarcely repress a shudder at the thought of the painful scenes that must have taken place at Sale had he been endowed with the same forceful personality that distinguished his uncle. His cousin Gideon had it in some measure, and had certainly won his father's respect with it; but Gideon had always been a robust and pugnacious boy, and was quite untroubled by sensitive nerves. He had cared for being thrashed as little as for being rated. The Duke had never known which of the two fates he dreaded most. Fortunately for him, Lord Lionel had used him with far more gentleness than he showed his son, so that he was not really at all afraid of him. But a naturally sweet disposition, a dislike of quarrelling, and of loud, angry voices, combined with a rueful appreciation of the very real devotion to his interests and welfare that inspired his uncle's strict rule made him submit docilely where his cousin would have flamed into revolt.
‘You are the head of the family, Gilly,' Lord Lionel said. ‘You must learn to assert yourself. I have done all that a man may to train and educate you for the position you must occupy, but you are by far too diffident.'
Mr Romsey shook his head reminiscently. ‘Indeed, there are few young men to-day who can boast of my lord Duke's advantages,' he said. ‘But I for one feel sure, sir, that he will prove himself worthy of your unremitting solicitude.'
The Duke thought of the period of his boyhood, spent largely at his house near Bath, so that he might derive the benefit of the waters there; of three trammelled years at Oxford; of two more trammelled years upon the Continent, with a military gentleman added to his entourage, to teach him horse-manage, and manly sports; and suddenly he made up his mind to assert himself, even if only in a small matter. He pushed back his chair, and said: ‘Shall we join my aunt now?'
‘Really, Gilly, you must see that I have not yet finished my glass!' said Lord Lionel. ‘Do not, I beg of you, get into a scrambling way of doing things! You should always make sure that the company is ready to rise before you give the signal.'
‘I beg your pardon, sir,' said the Duke, abandoning the attempt to assert himself.