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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 41

Chapter I

Chapter I.

Two years ago, just about a week before Christmas Day, I received an invitation which I could not at first make up my mind whether to accept or refuse. It was from my aunt, Lady Ridloy, and was written in a much more friendly style than that in which she usually addressed me; the point of it being that she wished me to go down to their place in Yorkshire on Christmas Eve, and remain over the New Year. And she added "I will not ask you to stay longer, as our festivities will probably end then, and I know young men like you don't care for a humdrum family party—even when an aunt and certain charming cousins of your own compose it."

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I was very much astonished to receive this letter, and yet more at its contents. Lady Ridly and I had, [unclear: infact], not been on the best of terms during the past season, and she had been so rude and ungracious in her manner to me, the last time I called at her house in town, that I mentally registered a vow that I would never enter it again.

Perhaps I was vain enough, however, to console myself as to the cause of her conduct; though I was not, [unclear: to] confess, indifferent about it. I had spent some very pleasant hours with the family for one thing, and for another I sincerely regretted losing the acquaintance of my youngest cousin, Minnie Ridly, who, ever since I had known them, had been my greatest friend in the family. Yet it was on this cousin's account, I felt convinced, that Lady Ridly had completely altered in her manner towards me.

Before this change occurred, she had been kind enough to me in her way. That is she occassionally asked me to dinner, generally half-an-hour before the time, and Sir Thomas, her husband, had used his influence some years ago to got me an appointment in one of the Government offices.

It was not very much, perhaps, for my nearest relations to do, for Lady Ridly and my mother were own [unclear: sister] but then, as her Ladyship frequently remarked, "If girls will make fools of themselves they must take the consequences."

This truism, which she was for ever impressing on her daughters before me was aimed at my mother. She had made a fool of herself. She had married, in fact, my poor father for love, and none of her family ever really forgave her for having done so. It had certainly not been a prudent match, but it had been a very happy one, and again and again I have heard my mother say she never regretted it. How could she? She had gone hand in hand through life with a brave and honest man, and her greatest grief had been when he was suddenly called upon to leave her. She never quite got over that. I was a young fellow of nineteen then, and it was dreadful to see her sorrow. It sobered me at the time, and for ever after, I think; and then my poor father's death made a serious change in our circumstances.

When my mother married him he was a lieutenant in an infantry regiment, with only his pay and a hundred a year his father allowed him to live on. When he died, twenty years afterwards, he was senior major of his regiment, and during his long and honourable service he had contrived to save about three thousand pounds, which he left to the uncontrolled disposal of my mother.

The dear old woman, who cared nothing about money herself, grew ambitious for me. She invested [unclear: her] three thousand pounds in a railway, which turned out a bad speculation, and she nearly broke her heart when she found the whole of her husband's savings, which she considered my fortune, were either locked up or gone.

She was dreadfully distressed about this money, and for the first time since her marriage, pocketed her [unclear: pride] and went and sought out her only sister, Lady Ridly. She wanted Sir Thomas to use his influence for her boy.

I remember very well the first time Aunt Ridly came to call at our small lodgings. She was gorgeously dressed in some wonderful costume of velvet and fur, and looked the prosperous, the handsome lady that she was for she had not made a fool of herself. She had done well. She had married Sir Thomas Ridly, a rich Yorkshire baronet, and the most pompous, obstinate, and disagreeable old man I ever met.

But he was rich. There it was In that small word of four letters was comprised, influence, honour, and the adulation of most men. He told my mother(not, perhaps, exactly in these words, though) that she was rightly served; that she had made her bed and must he on it; that she had no claim on him whatever, and that, as regards money, he would do nothing; but that, if the young follow was steady and industrious, he might say a word for him.

The young fellow (thanks to his good mother) was, I hope, steady and industrious, and accepted the place his uncle Sir Thomas procured for him, and the income of ninety pounds a year it provided—thankfully. He worked hard, too, and passed a competitive examination, and gained a higher appointment as years went on, and when the dear old mother died, eight years after her husband, her son had an income of three hundred pounds a year, and as the railway shares had begun to look up a little, and pay a small dividend, she passed away content—so [unclear: contend] and happy, that she taught a lesson to us all.

Lady Ridly did not come to see her dead sister. She wrote to me to say that indeed she could not bear it her feelings were too strong; and she enclosed ten pounds to pay any little extra expenses I might incur, and invited me to stay a day or two with them "after all was settled."

It was when I went to their house in Grosvenor Place to return that ten pounds with many thanks, that[unclear: !] first made the acquaintance of my cousins.

I was shown into the drawing-room, where a very pretty girl, dressed in white with black ribbons, was sitting practising on the harp. She got up when she had read my name on the card the servant presented to her, and suddenly turned very red and rather nervous.

"Mr. Franklyn?" she said, hesitating and half holding out her hand. "Then—then you are our cousin—poor Aunt Franklyn's son?"

"Yes," I said; and I could not help giving rather a bitter smile. "May I ask which of my cousins you are?

"I am Minnie," she said," the youngest. I am very glad to know you. Mamma said you were coming to stay am very glad—that is I was dreadfully sorry about poor Aunt. You must have felt it so much. How stupid of me to say glad—I meant, you know, I was glad you were coming to stay;" and Minnie gave a most charming smile

"But I am not coming," I said. " I came to bring back some money your mamma was kind enough to send me. But I am in no need of money—thanks to her all the same."

"Oh!" said Minnie, evidently much astonished. "I thought—" and then she paused.

"You thought I was very poor; is that it?" I asked, rather pompously. "Perhaps you may think so, Miss Minnie; but I am able to live, and—to bury my poor mother."

"Oh! I'm so sorry," said Minnie. "Mamma mistook—perhaps mamma thought—I am sure, atleast, she did not mean to offend you."

"I daresay not," I said; but will you be good enough to tell her I was much obliged, and to give her back these, and I held out the two five pound notes to my cousin as I spoke.

"You'd better not trust me with them," said Minnie, laughing, "for I can tell you, if you are not poor I am—dreadfully poor, and dreadfully in debt too. Papa has turned such a screw since Tom came from college. He says Tom is frightfully extravagant, and makes such rows about money now; and [unclear: he] wont give us more than our allowances, and I can't make mine do."

Just then the drawing-room door opened, and Lady Ridly came in. She was a tall, handsome, bright-coloured woman, between forty and fifty, and was dressed in black, with a profusion of bugles and jet.

"Why Walter," she said, and held out her hand;"I am glad you are come; and—and poor Nelly I suppose—" and she stopped and hesitated.

"Poor Nelly," was her dead sister, and my mother, and it must be admitted that, perhaps to her the subject might be an uncomfortable one.

"It is all over," I said quietly. "My dear mother, before her death, sent her kindest love to you, and left this letter, and told me I was to bring it to you myself; and, Lady Ridly, I thank you, but I have no need of these;" and I put the notes into her hand.

"Oh! the money," said my aunt; "I thought it might be useful; I am glad that you have no need of it;" and she opened her purse and slipped it quickly in as she spoke. Then she sat down and opened her dead sister's letter.

"Poor Nelly!" she said, as she read it, "Poor Nelly!" and she drew out her handkerchief and wiped away a tear.

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"Well she is gone now," she said, presently, and she looked attentively at me—looked me all over in fact. Then she sighed, wiped her eyes again, and put back her handkerchief into her pocket.

"She is gone," she repeated; "and she wishes me, Walter, to be—kind to you. Will you stay to dinner?"

"Not to-day, thank you."

"Will you come another day then? Let me see, Tuesday—Wednesday—Thursday—I declare we are engaged every day this week. But come next Monday; we will be quite alone."

I hesitated, but ended by accepting her invitation, and thus I afterwards came to be almost intimate with my aunt and cousins.

The first time I dined there, Sir Thomas made himself particularly disagreeable to me. When my aunt took me up to him and said, "this is Walter Franklyn, Sir Thomas," he gave a grunt of dissatisfaction. "Ha—hum!" he said, and edged further away from me, as if he wore afraid I was about to pick his pocket. "Ha—hum! so it's you, young sir, is it? Well I hope you are steady and are getting on pretty well?" and he held out too short fat fingers, and just touched mine. "Young men who have no resources must depend on their own exertions," went on the baronet, in his thick pursy voice, "and the more you exert yourself the better, sir—I can tell you that;" and as he spoke, Sir Thomas sank back into an easy chair, and eyed me dubiously from its comfortable depths.

He was a short-necked, very stout, red-faced, little man, and indulged at times in a bluff jocularity. But this humour, and the ponderous jokes which he sometimes emitted, were not for his penniless nephew. Rich young men—eldest sons, &c., and supposed admirers of the three Miss Ridlys—came in for this kind of thing. With me he was always pompous, always distant. I do not think he even approved of having me occasionally to dinner, but Lady Ridly chose to pay this attention to her dead sister's wishes, and for the two years following my poor mother's death was kind to me in her way.

During these two years, my cousins and I naturally became intimate. They were lively, worldly girls, who always looked well, and were always got up in the latest fashion as regards hair and dress, and who spent their time in seeking admiration, and enjoyed themselves heartily when they succeeded in gaining it.

They meant to marry well, though, in spite of all their love of amusement and "folly" (as my aunt called it), and about sixteen months after I first knew them, Kate, the eldest daughter did. That is, she and Lady Ridly between them arranged a marriage with young Lord Cullompton, and it was considered a most advantageous settlement, though his one recommendation seemed to me to be his hereditary rank. He was the eldest son of the Earl of Oldenbury, and was not twenty-one when Kate married him, and she knew quite as well as every-one else exactly why she did it.

"I don't pretend to be in love with Cullompton," she said to me the night before the ceremony, "but girls must make some sacrifice."

Her sacrifice was a good-looking captain in the Guards, whom Kate had flirted with and made love to for the last twelve months, and the foolish fellow took her conduct so much to heart that he plunged into all sorts of dissipation to cure himself, and never was the same light-hearted jolly fellow again. But Kate was different. She was too well brought up to indulge in any folly like this. She married Lord Cullompton for his position, and what good would his position do her if she spoilt her beauty by grieving after her old lover. No, Kate knew better; and she carried out the same principle in her married life, and never fretted or fumed about the follies of her stupid little lord. Even when a year or so afterwards, he went off to Italy with an actress, she kept her composure. She was Lady Cullompton. He could not undo that, and the title was all Kate had ever wanted from her husband.

Fannie, my second cousin, was almost of the same type as her sister. She was, perhaps, on the whole a greater coquette, and not quite so ambitious; but the best and kindest of them all was the youngest, Minnie. She really had some good in her—good which might turn to evil, though, amid all the false teaching she received at home.

She and I became friends, somehow. She liked to dance with me and to ride with me, and she always had a smile ready for me whenever I appeared. Even after the advent of a certain Sir Harry Royston, it was the same thing. Sir Harry was a good-tempered, pink-faced youth of twenty, and a college friend of her brother Tom Ridly, and shortly after his introduction to Minnie, Tom Ridly received his orders from Lady Ridly to "bring in" his friend Sir Harry at any time.

Tom Ridly was fond of Sir Harry, and therefore he obeyed his mother; otherwise I do not think he would have done so, for there is not a bit of worldliness about Cousin Tom. He is indeed one of the most reckless and contemptuous breakers of all social laws that I have ever known. He despises them, and is bitter and cynical, like many young men of his age.

"But Harry Royston is a good-tempered fellow, and no humbug," Tom Ridly used to say of his friend; and so Sir Harry was very frequently an invited guest at their table, and in a short time the shrewd eyes of Lady Ridly were fixed upon him determinately as the future husband of her daughter Minnie.

I need scarcely say, after this, that Sir Harry was rich. Money to Lady Ridly was as great a necessity as daily food is to common people. "A man must have a fortune," Lady Ridly thought and said, "or what is he worth?" and as for a son-in-law without one, why the very idea would have driven her out of her senses. As soon, therefore, as she heard a detailed and authenticated account of Sir Harry's possessions, she determined to win him, and it was about this time that she cooled so entirely to me.

In the first place she left off asking me to dinner. Then she learned a way of not seeing me in the Park; and finally, when I was calling one day—for I saw no occasion to drop Minnie for the sake of her mother—Lady Ridly came in with Sir Harry Royston, and was positively rude to me before both my cousins and the young baronet.

I saw Sir Harry's pink cheek grow pinker, and his blue eyes open wide with astonishment at my aunt's manner as she addressed me, for no one was ever rude to him, and when, a minute or too afterwards, I rose to go, the kindly lad rose, and, in spite of my aunt's entreaties, followed me out of the house and slipped his arm into mine.

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"How have you offended the old lady?" was his first irreverent question; and I felt very [unclear: much] inclined to tell him that he was the real cause of her behaviour.

But I did not; and shortly afterwards my aunt and cousins left town and went abroad for a couple of months, and I heard nothing more of them, or of Sir Harry; therefore my astonishment was necessarily great when, towards the end of December, I received the invitation to spend Christmas with [unclear: them] and found that my aunt's letter was couched in the friendliest of terms.

I could not make up my mind about it, and curiosity, and perhaps some little regard for Minni also, at last decided me to accept Lady Ridly's invitation. I had not been to Lamesly before. During the last two years I had known my relations I had never been invited to their country house, though had often heard Sir Thomas boast of his pheasants and his stud. "It is a horribly dull place," Minni had confided to me, and under ordinary circumstances I daresay it was; but when I arrived I found the whole Hall brilliantly lighted up, and apparently full of company.

I got there shortly before dinner-time, and felt a little nervous as to my reception when I [unclear: entered] the long drawing-room, but I had no need. Lady Ridly received me cordially, and my cousins with [unclear: evident] pleasure.

"Sir Harry Royston is here," my aunt said, with a smile, and the next minute the young [unclear: baron] came up and shook me heartily by the hand. There were also one or two other young men staying in the house, and Tom Ridly had come down for Christmas. "A confounded bore it is," he said "but [unclear: I] do it to please the old woman."

Tom was fond of his mother. Whatever were his faults, he had a great manly love for the handsome lady be used to tease by calling her "old," "Old duck," "Old lady," anything "old." It was all the same to Tom, and Lady Ridly used to try to look angrily at him, and tell him he was [unclear: unmannerly] and rude. But if ever my aunt's face softened, it was when she was watching her graceless boy. [unclear: What] schemes she had for him? Nothing was too great for Tom, and no woman was good enough. Ah, [unclear: poor] mother! we who knew his life better than you did, knew how one day all your pride must fall, and how the son on whom your hopes were centred would dash them into dust. But Lady Ridly had no [unclear: thought] of this, and her daughters used to complain that Mamma would scold them for anything; but, [unclear: whatever] Tom did, she always took his part.

I was talking to Lady Cullompton, who was there, but without her little lord, when dinner [unclear: was] announced. By this time several of the country neighbours had arrived, and some very great personage (I forget whom) had been requested to take down my lady, and as she rose I stepped aside, and in doing so slightly touched the dress of a young lady, who was sitting almost hidden behind the heavy [unclear: volve] window-hangings.

As I turned to apologise, one after one of the guests paired off and left the room, and it was indeed almost empty, when I chanced to catch my aunt's eye, who was already leaning on a gentleman's [unclear: arm].

" Ah!" she said, "Walter, you take down Miss Churchill," and she moved slightly as she spoke towards the young lady behind the curtains, whom the moment before I had addressed.

I bowed and offered my arm, and a very handsome, noble-looking woman rose and took it.

She made some slight remark about the coldness of the weather, I think as we went down [unclear: into] the dining-room, and I asked her if she had ever been so far north before.

"I have never been in England before," she answered.

"And yet you are English, I presume? " I said.

"You judge by my name," replied Miss Churchill. "Yes my father was English."

I looked at her as she spoke. Her whole appearance and manner were singularly composed and quiet for so young a woman, for she could not have been more than two or three-and-twenty; and the peculiar richness of her clear dark skin, and her magnificent black hair, would have made her [unclear: remarkable] in any society. Yet she seemed perfectly unaware that she possessed any striking personal [unclear: attractions] and spoke in a low and subdued voice which somehow or other, gave you the idea of humility. She was dressed in very deep mourning, and only wore a plain jet chain round her shapely throat, and as I took my place by her side I could not help wondering who my companion could be.

I found her, at all events, highly agreeable. She was well read in the best English literature, and seemed to have visited almost all the well-known cities in Europe. I, who had had neither the time nor the money to travel, felt rather abashed at my ignorance of places which evidently were so familiar [unclear: to] her; but when I hinted something of this, with the tact and ease of a well-bred lady she changed the conversation to subjects which I was more competent to enter into and discuss, and I was sorry when the dinner came to a conclusion. However, before it did so, an incident occurred which puzzled me yet further as to the position which Miss Churchill held.

In pulling off her black glove a ring she wore came off with it, and fell, first, on her knee, and then, before she could stop it, rolled down on the carpet.

She at once moved her chair back to seek it, and I moved mine for the same purpose, and the gentleman who was sitting on her other side rose also.

"What is it?" asked my aunt, observing us, and in her most uncourteous voice. "What is it Miss Churchill? Why are you disturbing the arrangements of the table?"

"I have dropped my ring," she answered calmly, "and am looking for it."

"The servants can do that after dinner is over," said Lady Ridly. "You had better resume you seat for the present."

Without answering her hostess Miss Churchill obeyed; but the rich colouring of her cheeks deepened considerably as she did so, and once or twice during our conversation afterwards, I noticed [unclear: that] her attention became distracted, and that she sighed deeply.

When my aunt rose and made the sign for the ladies to retire Miss Churchill again mentioned her ring.

"Perhaps you would be kind enough," she said, "as soon as they are gone, to seek for it; for it is a very valuable ring, and one for which I have a great regard, and I do not care to leave it, as Lady Ridly requested me to do, to the carelessness of servants."

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"I shall be delighted to do so, of course," I said and at once commenced my search, in which Sir Harry Royston and several of the other young men present, joined me.

I heard Sir Thomas growling out when I was under the table, to know," What the deuce was the matter. Was young Franklyn in a fit or mad, or what was it?" I suppose something satisfied him for I did not; but in a few moments emerged, after having found the ring, which had rolled a considerable way under the broad table.

"Well sir," said Sir Thomas as I rose, "and have you got it? Ladies should have their rings made to fit them, I think, and not disturb a whole table with their nonsense; hand it down here, and let me see what kind of trumpery it is."

The "kind of trumpery" was one of the most magnificent diamond rings I ever beheld. There could be no mistake about it. Even to my eyes who knew nothing of the value of such things, the stone appeared splendid, and one or two of the gentlemen present, who were evidently connoissenrs, went into raptures over its beauty.

"Hum!" said Sir Thomas, when Sir Harry Royston handed it to him to examine. "Hum!—-it's well enough—good stones apparently. Ay? Harry," and here he gave a facetious dig with his stout little fingers into his expected son-in-law's waistcoat, and broke into a half-suffocated chuckle at his coming wit. "Ay! Harry, we should like to know where such stones come from, wouldn't we? It's well to have an old Jew for a grandfather," and he chuckled again, and Sir Harry laughed weakly in reply.

The ring was then handed back to me, and shortly afterwards we rejoined the ladies in the drawing-room, and I at once went up and presented it to its owner, who was sitting reading in her old place, half under the window curtains.

"I thank you very much," she said, "very, very much;" and then she added softly, and with a ring of sadness in her voice, "it was my dear father's last gift to me. I could not have borne to have lost it."

"Besides, it is such a splendid ring," I said.

"That is not its chief value to me," she answered, as she replaced it on her finger, "poor papa."

"Have you lost him lately?" I asked.

"Yes," she said and sighed; and then, just as she was about to speak again, my aunt approached us.

"Oh! " she said, "so Walter, yon have found the ring? What! it's a diamond one. Will you let me see it?"

Miss Churchill held up her uncovered hand, and Lady Ridly's eyes positively sparkled as she examined it,

"Why, this is a valuable ring," I wonder you don't sell it. I suppose it was one of your grandfather's?"

"I will never sell it," said Miss Churchill; and she pulled her hand hastily back from Lady Ridly's

as she spoke.

"Won't you?" said my aunt. Well, you know best. Walter, will you come with me; I have a few words to say to you."

(To be continued in our next.)