Chapter V

WE did nothing worth speaking of for the next few weeks. It was the dull time, before the season when we were all to run down to town, and we just lounged along life in easy, restful bliss. The only thing that interested us very especially, was the growingly warm friendship between the Flemings and Miss Ariell, and the wretchedly dismal appearance of Vandeleur—which became visible to the naked eye about ten days after my return from town, and increased daily. I pondered on these things, and held my peace. There was one other thing that astonished us, it was the strange and morbid desire for solitude the step-brother suddenly evinced, and the bitter gruffness of his manner, whenever he came across any of his kind:

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I would have given a lot to help either of the two unhappy boys. I liked them both in their different ways honestly and heartily, and I think they liked me. Vandeleur's glare soon changed to a look of rather pathetic trustful appeal that troubled my heart sorely, and made me curse my impotence to help him. Things had gone too far now, no human interference would alter matters one jot; he himself must pull himself up, or else—(there is an awful deal of truth in it) —‘Better sin the whole sin, sure that God observes.’

Poor Vanny! I think even then he was losing his fresh first lovely young faith in the woman, and for her sake in all women.

It was a stupid everyday little tragedy, with excruciatingly funny points in it. And yet it brought a lump into my throat every time I brooded over it, which it seems to me I did a good deal in those days. The step-brother's condition troubled me nearly as much, and had the additional discomposing quality of mystery. Why he should lose flesh and forget his manners was a constant worrying puzzle to me, and gave me many wakeful nights. Indeed, I always will think that that horrid attack of neuralgia I had just then, was due solely to my restless, driving anxiety to get to the bottom of this boy's state of mind, which was enough to haunt any woman with a heart in her,—that and those horrid dusky shadows under his melting innocent blue eyes, and those queer, sudden, inexplicable sweeps of pain over that debonair young face.

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There was nothing the least ridiculous in this boy's pain; no speck or tincture of sin in it either, as any fool could see,—which made matters worse. I would have given my right hand—although I have a remarkably good touch on several instruments; but, upon my word, I would have given it, and willingly—to have saved the youth in that boy's face; and yet one couldn't move fate for him by so much as a finger's breadth.

Once I had brought myself to the point of deciding to beard Miss Ariell in her own den, and to possess myself of the situation by violence. I went so far as to put on my best hat and my smartest jacket, and to sally forth in her direction; but when I got to the bottom of the hill qualms came upon me, and I sat down to reflect. Perhaps it was cowardly, perhaps it was wise, who knows? but I turned back and took off my things again—and came down to tea. I felt it borne in upon me with crushing conviction, that I should gain nothing by the step, and that she would score off me finely. And so the river flowed on towards the great sea, and I did not so much as try to stem its current by one thrown pebble.

The girls and I and Mrs. Carew were sitting one day on the verandah,—I think we were a little tired of one another that afternoon. The girls had a giggling fit on, about a visitor in the neighbourhood, a young fellow who struck me as being rather on the road to hydrocephalic idiocy, from the shape of his head and other symptoms. Perhaps, however, I was a little

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prejudiced, as I had heard him a few evenings before confiding in a young freckled person, with large saltcellars in her neck, ‘That Mrs. Vallings wasn't half a bad sort, hang it, but mossy, distinctly mossy.’ Now, no woman of any pretensions to attractiveness likes to hear such things said of her, especially if she feels quite young still, and often looks it, moreover. But from a girl's point of view, no doubt, he had some attractions. He was great at tennis—had a fine moustache—a beautiful clean pair of legs—and quite £15,000 a year in the best station property.

Mrs. Carew was not interesting either; she was talking of her youth in general, and the size of her waist in particular—it was less than eighteen inches with no squeezing. I wonder how it is that all exhumed waists are of that slender make—and all due to nature.

The girls were still giggling; Mrs. Carew had left waists, and was on the religion of her youth, which appears to have been of a still better brand than the waists; and I—upon my word, I believe I was yawning, and dying for tea,—when a door out of the drawing-room was flung open in rather an agitated way, and the colonel appeared among us, puffing and very red in the face. He ‘hanged’ and ‘damned’ a chair or two, and at last settled down in a big basket one, with a cushion a shade paler red than his face, and began to fan himself with a big palm fan. I watched him, wondering what on earth made him so piping hot, the day was as cool and fresh as a daisy. He stirred

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about and creaked his chair in a queer uneasy way, and rubbed his brow in a perturbed style, that made me suspect his heat was more of the spirit than of the flesh. Then he once more ‘damned’ softly, and ‘ahemed,’ and looked at the girls in an unpleasant way.

‘Isn't it tea-time, Henny?’ he demanded at last, with a sternness quite out of proportion to the occasion. That Indian cook is a nuisance, and never boils the water. Can't you girls go and see about it? Let's have a decent cup of tea for once.’

I laughed softly at the foolishness of men.

‘Run away, children,’ said Mrs. Carew placidly.

‘Why didn't you send them away, Henny? The tea is always excellent, I believe, Florence.’

He thought the girls wouldn't have a suspicion there was anything at all in the wind but tea.

‘Shall I go too?’ I asked, standing up.

‘No, no, my dear Florence; no reason at all you should. I am, I must confess, rather upset. My dear,’ he continued, turning to his wife, ‘did you ever suspect anything wrong with regard to Miss Ariell?’

‘No, indeed, I did not. I like her and her step-brother particularly.’

‘I have just been speaking to young Swallow,—he's staying at the Rockes,—and, upon my word, if all or even a part of what he says is true, we've been let in. Let in—in a most disgraceful and unaccountable manner.’

‘Good gracious!’ said Mrs. Carew, and her hands fell limply on her lap. ‘How?’

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The colonel lowered his voice, and looked round carefully. ‘She's married—married hard and fast—to a fellow, an actor fellow, called Sprague; and he's found her out, by Jove, and intends to claim her. A nice scandal for the girls!’

‘But the step-brother?’

‘My dear,’ he replied, glancing at her with some natural scorn, ‘he's no more her step-brother than I am.’

Mrs. Carew started and exclaimed. I did neither, I did not even wonder; I felt as if I had known it quite well all along. And yet just as surely as I knew and had known all along that the woman was guilty, so surely was I convinced of the innocence of Clive Pomfret; and yet I hadn't a vestige of fact to bring in proof of it, it was a mere theory; nevertheless I would risk ridicule and air it, this baseless theory of mine.

‘I am certain, as certain as I sit here,’ I said, with an air of the surest reasonableness, ‘that the boy Clive is as innocent as a baby all through.’

‘Good heavens, Florence!’ they cried it out at me simultaneously, and the colonel lifted himself on his chair with both hands and surveyed me with strong dissatisfaction.

‘Look here,’ I said, with rather a feeble grin, ‘how much will you bet?’

‘My dear,’ murmured Mrs. Carew.

‘That “cup” has upset me,’ I explained, laughing.

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‘Never mind, Florence,’ said the colonel, sinking down again, and looking less like a wild beast, ‘I'll bet you anything you like—though the boy may be weak—that he must have known the position of affairs. It is ridiculous to suppose otherwise; and the idea of a man, a gentleman of birth and breeding, bringing a person of that character into my house—among my girls—why, it's outrageous—it's damnable! Pray excuse me. It's too much for a man,—one must swear.’

He jumped up and walked furiously to and fro in front of us, stamping from time to time. It did look worse than bad, one couldn't wonder at the old man's wrath, and yet I could have staked my life the boy was as much entrapped as we were.

‘They may have been married: how was he to know of the Sprague creature?’ I pleaded weakly.

‘Married!—a likely story. Why didn't they say so if they were. Step-brother and sister, indeed!’

‘She may have had her full and sufficient reasons. That arrangement was of her making, I know.’

‘You have a huge opinion of your sex's rascality, it seems to me.’

‘Not at all; but I have the very smallest opinion of a man's sense under certain conditions.’

‘The fellow had plenty of brains. On everyday matters he was all there; and he was a very fairly read fellow.’

‘The very wisest of you creatures are just wax in the hands of a woman with her head screwed on the

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right way, and with no conscience: any man can be fooled, given certain circumstances.’

‘Look here, my dear,’ remarked Colonel Carew, with some asperity, ‘generalities are the refuge of the reasonless: where are your proofs?’

‘I haven't the ghost of one. But do faces go for nothing?’

‘Not a damn,’ muttered the old man.

‘Yes, but they do,’ I persisted idiotically; ‘and I put it to you, as a Christian man, if it is in the remotest degree possible that a boy with that face could bring a woman in Miss Ariell's supposed relation to himself in among a lot of innocent ignorant girls. It is beyond the bounds of possibility, I persist. Why, a man steeped to the neck in vice wouldn't do it, not to say Clive Pomfret. He may have lied and helped in a deception,—he must have,—but it isn't in him to do that.’

‘Whether it's in him or not, he did it, that's enough for me,’ snarled the colonel. ‘Good God! to think of it,’ he muttered, drumming on his chair elbow; ‘a nice story for the club. We've been let in—let in in a most disgraceful and scandalous fashion! And to think of me, a man of my age and experience of the world,’ cried the colonel,—his red turning to a dangerous purple,—‘being let in by a chit of a child and that woman, who really seemed quite straight. You thought so, my dear,’ he stammered, turning rather pathetically to his wife. ‘It's outrageous!’

‘Here are the girls,’ whispered Mrs. Carew. ‘We

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will have tea now, and we can talk it over to-night, dear,’ she said kindly, looking up at the outraged man of the world.

We did talk it over. The girls were bundled off to their rooms at nine o'clock, to their infinite and most just disgust, bubbling over with reasonable curiosity as they were. Then we set to and talked till eleven, and to not the slightest purpose. During the talk I got into trouble myself. I was simple enough to betray my slight previous knowledge of affairs, and the conclusions I had arrived at; and the colonel didn't like it—it hurt his sense of manly superiority. It struck him that somehow I had scored off him.

‘Most unwise of you, my dear, most injudicious. These matters should never be dealt with by women, with their very beautiful and natural ignorance of the world. You should have come to me at once, and all this most deplorable scandal might have been averted.’

I wondered how, considering the circumstances; but I thought it just as well to be silent. I saw a glint in Mrs. Carew's eye that told me that her belief in her husband's immaculate world knowledge had received a severe shock; and I knew he would hear all about it before he got a wink of sleep that night, so I could afford to be magnanimous with an easy mind. Once or twice, as we were talking, I fancied I heard a light step on the verandah, but, as no one else remarked it, concluded I must have been mistaken.