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War to the Knife, or, Tangata Maori

Chapter II

page 26

Chapter II

Events shaped themselves much after the manner customary since that earliest recorded compromise between soul and sense which mortals throughout all ages have agreed to call Love. Ofttimes such pursuits and contests have been protracted. After the first skirmish of temperaments, war has been declared by Fate, and through wearisome campaigns the rival armies have ravaged cities, so to speak, and assaulted neutral powers before the beleaguered citadel surrendered.

At other times, the maiden fortress has been taken by a coup de main, the assailant's resistless ardour carrying all before it. More frequently, perhaps, has the too venturous knight been repulsed with scorn, and, as in earlier days, been fain to betake himself to Palestine or other distant region blessed with continuous warfare, and exceptional facilities for acquiring fame or getting knocked on the head, as the case might be.

For the patient and scientific conduct of a siege, according to the rules of the Court of Love—and such there be, if the poets and minstrels of all ages deserve credence—Roland Massinger was unfitted by page 27constitution and opinion. His fixed idea was, that every woman knew her mind perfectly well with regard to a declared admirer. If favourable, it was waste of time and emotion to await events. If otherwise, the sooner a man was made aware of his dismissal the better. He could then shape his course in life without distraction or hindrance. In any case he was freed from the hourly torments under which the victim writhes, uncertain of his fate. It was the coup de grâce which frees the wretch upon the rack; the knife-thrust which liberates the Indian at the stake. And he trusted to his manhood to be equal to the occasion.

When he did "put his fortune to the touch, to win or lose it all"—as have done so many gallant lovers before this veracious history—he was too deeply grieved and shocked at the unexpected issue to place before the fateful maid any of the pleadings or protests deemed in such cases to be appropriate. He did not falter out statements inclusive of a "wrecked life," an "early grave," a career "for ever closed." Nor did he make the slightest reference to her having, so to speak, allured him to continue pursuit—"led him on," in more familiar terms.

Such commonplaces he disdained, although not without a passing thought that in the familiar play of converse, and her occasional touch upon the keynotes which evoke the deeper sympathies, an impartial judge might have discovered that perilous liking akin to love.

No! beyond one earnest appeal to her heart, into which he implored her to look, lest haply she had mistaken its promptings—a plea for time, for cooler page 28consideration—he had no words with which to plead his cause, as he stood with sad reproachful gaze, assuring her that never would she know truer love, more loyal devotion.

What had she told him? Merely this: "That if she were to marry—a step which she had resolved not to take for some years, if at all—she confessed that there was no man whom she had yet known, with whom she felt more in sympathy, with whom, taking the ordinary phrase, she would have a greater prospect of happiness. But she held strong opinions upon the duties which the individual owed to the appealing hordes of fellow-creatures perishing for lack of care, of food, of instruction, by whom the overindulged so-called upper classes were surrounded. Such manifest duties were sacred in her eyes, though possibly incompatible with what was called 'happiness.' For years—for ever, it might be—such considerations would be paramount with her. They could be neglected only at the awful price of self-condemnation in this world and perdition in the next. She was grieved to the soul to be compelled to refuse his love. She blamed herself that she should have permitted an intimacy which had resulted so unhappily for him—even for herself. But her resolve was fixed; nothing could alter it."

This, or the substance of it, fell upon the unwilling ears of Roland Massinger in unconnected sentences, in answer to his last despairing appeal. Meanwhile his idol stood and gazed at him, as might be imagined some Christian maiden of the days of Diocletian, when called upon to deny her faith or seal it with martyrdom. Her eyes were occasionally lifted page 29upward, as if she felt the need of inspiration from above.

For one moment the heart of her lover stood still.

He placed his hand on his brow as if to quell the tumult of his thoughts. She moved towards him, deprecating the intensity of his emotion. An intolerable sense of her divine purity, her ethereal loveliness, seemed to pervade his whole being. He felt an almost irresistible desire to clasp her in his arms in one desperate caress, ere they parted for ever. Had he done this, the current of both lives might have been altered. The coldest maids are merely mortal.

But he refrained; in his present state of mind it would have been sacrilege to his ideal goddess, to the saintly idol of his worship.

Raising her hand reverently to his lips, he bowed low and departed.

When he thus passed out of her sight—out of her life—Hypatia herself was far from unmoved. Regrets, questionings, impulses to which she had so far been a stranger, arose and contended with strange and unfamiliar power.

Never before had she met with any one in all respects so attractive to her physically, so sympathetic mentally; above all things manly, cultured, devoted, with the instincts of the best age of chivalry. She liked—yes, nearly, perhaps quite—loved him. Family, position, personal character, all the attributes indispensably necessary, he possessed.

Not rich, indeed; but for riches she cared little—despised them, indeed. Why, then, had she cast away the admittedly best things of life? For an abstraction! page 30For toilsome, weary, perhaps ungrateful tasks among the poor, the disinherited of the earth.

Had not others of whom she had heard, died, after wasting, so to speak, their lives and opportunities, with scarcely veiled regrets for the sacrifice? How many secretly bewailed the deprivation of the fair earth's light, colour, beauty, consented to in youth's overstrained sense of obedience to a divine injunction! Was this wealth of joyous gladness—the free, untrammelled spirit in life's springtime, which bade the bird to carol, the lamb to frisk, the wildfowl to sport o'er the translucent lake—but a snare to lead the undoubting soul to perdition? As these questioning fancies crossed her mind, in the lowered tone resulting in reaction from the previous mood of exaltation, she found her tears flowing fast, and with an effort, raising her head as if in scorn of her weakness, hurried to her room.

A sudden stroke of sorrow, loss, disappointment, or disaster affects men differently, but the general consensus is that the blow, like wounds that prove mortal, is less painful than stunning. Roland Massinger never doubted but that his wound was mortal. For days he wondered, in the solitude of his retreat to which he had, like other stricken deer, betaken himself, whether or no he was alive. He returned to the Court. He moved from room to room—he absorbed food. He even opened books in the library and essayed to read, finding himself wholly unable to extract the meaning of the lettered lines. He rode and drove at appointed hours, but always with a strange preoccupied expression. This change page 31of habit and occupation was so evident to his old housekeeper and the other domestics, that the subject of their master's obvious state of mind began to be freely discussed. The groom was of opinion that he did not know the bay horse that carried him so well to hounds, from the black mare that was so fast and free a goer in the dog-cart.

He retired late, sitting in the old-fashioned study which served as a smoking-room, "till all hours," as the maids said.

He rose early, unconscionably so, as the gardener considered who had met him roaming through the shrubberies before sunrise. A most unusual proceeding, indefensible "in a young gentleman as could lie in bed till breakfast-bell rang."

The maids were instinctively of the opinion that "there was a lady in the case;" but, upon broaching their ingenuous theory, were so sternly silenced by Mrs. Lavender, the old housekeeper who had ruled in Massinger long before Sir Roland's parents had died, and remembered the last Lady Massinger as "a saint on earth if ever there was one," that they hastily deserted it, hoping "as he wouldn't have to be took to the county hospital." This theory proving no more acceptable than the other, they were fain to retire abashed, but clinging with feminine obstinacy to their first opinion.

Suddenly a change came over the moody squire who had thus exercised the intelligences of the household.

On a certain morning he ordered the dog-cart, in which he drove himself to the railway station, noticing the roadside incidents and mentioning the stud page 32generally, in a manner so like old times, that the groom felt convinced that the desired change had taken place; so that hunting, shooting, and all business proper to the season would go on again with perhaps renewed energy.

"When the master jumped down and ordered the porter to label his trunk 'London,' he was a different man," said the groom on his return. "He's runnin' up to town to have a lark, and forgit his woes. That's what I should do, leastways. He ain't agoin' to make a break of it along o' Miss Tollemache, or any other miss just yet."

Though this information was acceptable to the inmates of a liberally considered household, who one and all expressed their satisfaction, the situation was not destined to be lasting. Within a week it was widely known that Massinger Court was for sale, "just as it stood," with furniture, farm-stock, library, stud, everything to be taken at a valuation—owner about to leave England.

What surprise, disapproval—indeed, almost consternation—such an announcement is calculated to create in a quiet county in rural England, those only who have lived and grown up in such "homes of ancient peace" can comprehend. A perfect chorus of wonder, pity, indignation, and disapproval arose.

The squirearchy lamented the removal of a landmark. The heir of an historic family, "a steady, well-conducted young fellow, good shot, straight-goer in the field—knew something about farming, too. Not too deep in debt either? That is, as far as anybody knew. What the deuce could he mean by page 33cutting the county; severing himself from all his old friends—his father's friends, too?"

This was the lament of Sir Giles Weatherly, one of the oldest baronets in the county. "D—n it," he went on to say, "it ought to be prevented by law. Why, the place was entailed!"

"Entail broken years ago; but that wouldn't mend matters," his companion, Squire Topthorne, replied—a hard-riding, apple-faced old gentleman, credited with a shrewd appreciation of the value of money. "You can't force a man to live on a place, though he mustn't sell it. It wouldn't help the county much to have the Court shut up, with only the old housekeeper, a gardener, and a maid, like Haythorpe. Besides, some decent fellow might buy it—none of us could afford to do so just now. I couldn't, I know."

"Nor I either," returned Sir Giles, "with wheat at thirty shillings a quarter, and farms thrown back on your hands, like half a dozen of mine. But why couldn't Roland have stopped in England; married and settled down, if it comes to that? There are plenty of nice girls in Herefordshire; a good all-round youngster like him, with land at his back, might marry any one he pleased."

"That's the trouble, from what I hear," said Mr. Topthorne, with a quiet smile. "Young men have a way of asking the very girl that won't have them, while there are dozens that would. Same, the world over. And the girls are just as bad—won't take advice, and end up as old maids, or take to 'slumming' and Zenana work. I hear it's Hypatia Tollemache who's responsible."

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"Whew-w!" whistled Sir Giles. "She's a fine girl, and knows her value, I suppose, but she's bitten by this 'New Woman' craze—wants to regenerate society, and the rest of it. In our time girls did what they were told—learned house-keeping, and thought it a fair thing to be the mistress of some good fellow's household; to rear wholesome boys and girls to keep up the honour of old England. I have no patience with these fads."

"Well! it can't be helped. Have you any idea who is likely to make a bid for the place?"

"Not the slightest. We're safe to have a manufacturer, or some infernal colonist—made his money by gold-digging or sheep-farming, drops his aitches, and won't subscribe to the hounds."

"Suppose we do? You're too hard on colonists. who, after all, are our own countrymen, with the pluck to go abroad, instead of loafing at home. Often younger sons, too—men of as good family as you or I. We're too conservative here, I often think. They always spend their money liberally, give employment, and entertain royally if they do the thing at all."

"I suppose there's something in what you say; but all the same, I don't like to see a Massinger go out of the county where his family have lived since the time of Hugh Lupus. Viscount the Sire de Massinger came out of Normandy along with Duke William. He was a marshal commanding a division of archers at Hastings. 'For which service both the Conqueror and Hugh Lupus rewarded him' (says an old chronicle) 'with vast possessions, among which was Benham Massinger in Cheshire; and the said Hamon de Massinger was the first Baron de Massinger.' There's a pedigree for page 35you! Pity they hadn't kept their lands; but they're not the only ones, as we know too well."

These and the like colloquies took place during the period which intervened between the direful announcement of the sale of the Court and its actual disposal by an auction sale, at which the late owner was not present.

It was then made public that the stranger who bought that "historic mansion, Massinger Court, with lands and messuages, household furniture, and farm stock, horses and carriages," was acting as agent only for Mr. Lexington, the great Australian squatter, who had made a colossal fortune in New South Wales and Queensland, numbering his sheep by the half-million and his cattle by the twenties of thousands. He had, moreover, agreed to take the furniture, books, pictures—everything—at a valuation, together with the live stock, farm implements, and—in fact, the whole place, exactly as it stood; Sir Roland, the auctioneer said, having removed his personal belongings previously to London immediately after offering the Court for sale. He only returned to bid farewell to the friends of his youth and the home of his race.

Yes! it was hard—very hard, he thought, at the last. There was the garden—old-fashioned, but rich in fruit and flower, with box-borders, clipped yew hedges, alleys of formal shape and pattern; the south wall where the fruit ripened so early, and to which his childish eyes had so often been attracted; the field wherein he had, with the old keeper in strict attendance, been permitted to blaze at a covey of partridges—he remembered now the wild delight with which he marked his first slain bird; the page 36stream in which he had caught his first trout, and whence many a basket had been filled in later days; the village church, under the floor of which so many de Massingers lay buried—the family pew, too large for the church, but against the size and shape of which no innovating incumbent had thought fit to protest.

How well he remembered his mother's loving hand as he walked with her to church—every Sunday, unless illness or unusual weather forbade! That mother, too, so gentle, so saintly sweet, so charitable, so beloved, why should she have died when he was so young? And his father, the pattern squire, who shot and hunted, lived much at home, and was respected throughout the county as a model landlord, who did his duty to the land which had done so much for the men of his race? Why should these things be?

He recalled his mother's dear face, which grew pale, and yet more pale, during her long illness—her last words bidding him, to be a good man, to remember what she taught him, and to comfort his poor father when she was gone. And how he kneeled by her bedside, with her wasted hand in his, praying with her that he might live to carry out her last wishes, and do his duty fearlessly in the face of all men. Then the funeral—the long train of carriages, the burial service, where so many people wept, and he wished—how he wished!—that he could be buried with her. His father's set face, almost stern, yet more sorrowful than any tears. And how he went back to school in his black clothes, miserable and lonely beyond all words to describe.

In the holidays, too—how surprised he had been to page 37find that the squire no longer shot, fished, hunted. He, that was so keen as long as he could remember, but now sat all day reading in the library, where they often used to find him asleep. And how, before the Christmas holidays came round again, he was sent for, to see his father once more before he died.

The squire spoke not—he had for days lost the power of speech—but he placed his hands upon his head and murmured an inarticulate blessing. He did not look pale or wasted like his poor mother, he remembered. The doctors said there was no particular ailment; he had simply lost all interest in life. The old housekeeper summed up the case, which coincided closely with the public feeling.

"It's my opinion," she affirmed, "that if ever a man in this world died of a broken heart, the squire did. He was never the same after the mistress died, God bless her! She's in heaven, if any one is. She was a saint on earth. And the squire, seeing they'd never been parted before—and I never saw two people more bound up in each other—well, he couldn't stay behind."

The new lord of the manor—for Massinger held manorial rights and privileges, which had been tolerably extensive in the days of "merrie England"—lost no time in taking possession.

A week had not elapsed before the Australian gentleman and his family arrived by train at the little railway station, much like any one else, to the manifest disappointment of the residents of the vicinity, who had expected all sorts of foreign appearances and belongings. Certain large trunks—not Saratogas—and portmanteaux were handed out of the brake-van and page 38transferred to the waggonette, which they filled, while three ladies with their maid were escorted to the mail phaeton which had made so many previous journeys to the station with the visitors and friends of the Massinger family. A middle-aged, middle-sized, alert personage, fair-haired, clean-shaved, save for a moustache tinged with grey, mounted the dog-cart, followed by a tall young man who looked with an air of scrutiny at the horses and appointments. He took the reins from the groom, who got up behind, and with one of those imperceptible motions with which a practised whip communicates to well-conditioned horses that they are at liberty to go, started the eager animal along the well-kept road which led to the Court.

"Good goer," he remarked, after steadying the black mare to a medium pace. "If she's sound, she's a bargain at the money; horses seem tremendously dear in England."

"Yes, I should say so," replied his father. "And the phaeton pair are good-looking enough for anything: fair steppers also. I thought the price put on the horses and cattle high, but the agent told me they were above the average in quality. I see he was correct so far."

"Well, it's a comfort to deal with people who are straight and above-board," said the younger man. "It saves no end of trouble. I shouldn't wonder if the home-station—I mean the house and estate—followed suit in being true to description. If so, we've made a hit."

"Sir Roland wouldn't have a thing wrong described for the world, sir," here put in. the groom, touching his hat, "No auctioneer would page 39take that liberty with him; not in this county, anyhow."

"Glad to hear it. I thought as much, from seeing him once," said the elder man.

A short hour saw the black mare tearing up the neatly raked gravel in front of the façade of the Court, and by the time the dog-cart had departed for the stables, the phaeton came up to the door, with one of the young ladies in the driving seat.

"Well, this is a nice pair of horses!" said the damsel, who evidently was not unaccustomed to driving a pair, if not a more imposing team. "Fast, so well matched and well mannered; it's a pleasure to drive them. And oh! what a lovely old hall—and such darling trees! How fortunate we were to pick up such a place! It's not too large: there's not much land, but it's a perfect gem in its way. I suppose we are to have the pictures of the ancestors, too?"

"We shall have that reflected glory," said the matron with a smile. "Sir Roland would not sell them, but hoped we would give them house-room till he wanted them—which might not be for years and years."

"So they will still look down upon us—or frown, as the case may be," said the younger girl. "How savage I should be if I were an ancestor, and new people came to turn out my descendant!"

"We haven't turned him out. We only buy him out," said her mother, "which is quite a different thing. It is the modern way of taking the baron's castle—without bloodshed and unpleasantness."

"It is a great shame, all the same, that he should have to turn out." exclaimed the younger girl, page 40indignantly. "I am sure he is a nice fellow, which makes it all the worse, because—because——"

"Because every one says so," continued her elder sister; "as if that was a reason!"

"No! because he has such good horses. When a man keeps them, in such buckle too, there can't be much wrong with him."

"What is the reason that he can't live in a place like this, I wonder?" queried Miss Lexington in a musing tone. "A bachelor, too! Men don't seem to know when they are well off. He ought to try a dry year on one of our Paroo runs, if he wants a change. That would take the nonsense out of him. Our vile sex at the bottom of it, I suppose!"

"I did catch a whisper in London, before we left," said Miss Violet, cautiously.

"You always do," interrupted her sister. "I hope you don't talk to Pinson confidentially. What was it?"

"Only that a girl that every one seemed to know about wouldn't have him, and that he nearly went out of his mind about it: wouldn't hear of living in England afterwards."

"Poor fellow! he'll know better some day—won't he, mother? He must be a romantic person to go mooning about, wanting to die or emigrate, for a trifle like that."

"I sometimes wonder if you girls of the present day have hearts, from the way you talk," mused the matron. "However, I suppose they're deeper down than ours used to be. But I don't like my girls to sneer at true love. It's a sacred and holy thing, without which we women would have a sad time in this world. But, in our own country, men have done page 41rash things in the agony of disappointment. You have heard of young Anstruther?"

"Oh yes, long ago. He went home and shot himself because of a silly girl. I suppose he's sorry for it now."

"Hearts are much the same, in all countries and ages, depend upon it, my dears; they make people do strange things. But let us hope that there will be no unruly promptings in this family."

"Quite so, mother—same here; but I suppose, as Longfellow tells us, 'as long as the heart has woes,' all sorts of droll things will happen. And now suppose we go and look at the stables before afternoon tea; I want to see the hunters and polo ponies. The garden we can see to-morrow morning."

When Sir Roland, having made final arrangements, concluded to run down to Massinger for farewell purposes, he declined courteously Mr. Lexington's invitation to stay with him, and took up his abode at the Massinger Arms, in the village, where he considered he would be quiet and more independent. He felt himself obliged to say farewell to the people he had known all his life, small and great. But he never had less inclination for conversation and the ordinary society business. A week at the outside would suffice for such leave-taking as he considered obligatory.

As to the emigration matter which had so disturbed his monde, another factor of controlling power entered into the calculation. A re-valuation of his property made it apparent that when every liability came to be paid off, the available residue would be much page 42less than he or his men of business reckoned on. Not more, indeed, than the ridiculously small sum of thirty or forty thousand pounds. He was not going to live on the Continent, or any cheap foreign place, on this. Nor to angle for an heiress. So, having been informed that he could live like a millionaire in the colonies, and probably make a fortune out of a grazing estate which half the money would purchase, there was nothing to keep him in England. Such considerations, reinforced by the haunting memories of a "lost Lenore" in the guise of Hypatia, drove him forward on his course outre mer with such feverish force that he could scarcely bear to await the day of embarkation.