A Phyllis of the Sierras
THE SUN was just rising. In two years of mutation and change it had seen the little cottage clinging like a swallow’s nest to the rocky caves of a great Sierran canyon give way to a straggling, many-galleried hotel, and a dozen blackened chimneys rise above the barren tableland where once had stood the lonely forge. To that conservative orb of light and heat there must have been a peculiar satisfaction in looking down a few hours earlier upon the battlements and gables of Oldenhurst, whose base was deeply embedded in the matured foundations and settled traditions of an English county. For the rising sun had for ten centuries found Oldenhurst in its place, from the heavy stone terrace that covered the dead-and-forgotten wall, where a Roman sentinel had once paced, to the little grating in the cloistered quadrangle, where it had seen a Cistercian brother place the morning dole. It had daily welcomed the growth of this vast and picturesque excrescence of the times; it had smiled every morning upon this formidable yet quaint incrustation of power and custom, ignoring, as Oldenhurst itself had ignored, the generations who possessed it, the men who built it, the men who carried it with fire and sword, the men who had lied and cringed for it, the King who had given it to a favorite, the few brave hearts who had died for it in exile, and the one or two who had bought and paid for it. For Oldenhurst had absorbed all these and more until it had become a story of the past, incarnate in stone, greenwood, and flower; it had even drained the life-blood from adjacent hamlets, repaying them with tumuli growths like its own, in the shape of purposeless lodges, quaintly incompetent hospitals and schools, and churches where the inestimable blessing and knowledge of its gospel were taught and fostered. Nor had it dealt more kindly with the gentry within its walls, sending some to the scaffold, pillorying others in infamous office, reducing a few to poverty, and halting its later guests with gout and paralysis. It had given them in exchange the dubious immortality of a portrait gallery, from which they stared with stony and equal resignation; it had preserved their useless armor and accoutrements; it had set up their marble effigies in churches or laid them in cross-legged attitudes to trip up the unwary, until in death, as in life, they got between the congregation and the Truth that was taught there. It had allowed an Oldenhurst crusader, with a broken nose like a pugilist, on the strength of his having been twice to the Holy Land, to hide the beautifully illuminated Word from the lowlier worshipper on the humbler benches; it had sent an iconoclastic Bishop of the Reformation to a nearer minster to ostentatiously occupy the place of the consecrated image he had overthrown. Small wonder that crowding the Oldenhurst retainers gradually into smaller space, with occasional Sabbath glimpses of the living rulers of Oldenhurst already in railed-off exaltation, it had forced them to accept Oldenhurst as a synonym of eternity, and left the knowledge of a higher Power to what time they should be turned out to their longer sleep under the tender grass of the beautiful outer churchyard.
And even so, while every stone of the pile of Oldenhurst and every tree in its leafy park might have been eloquent with the story of vanity, selfishness, and unequal justice, it had been left to the infinite mercy of Nature to seal their lips with a spell of beauty that left mankind equally dumb; earth, air, and moisture had entered into a gentle conspiracy to soften, mellow, and clothe its external blemishes of breach and accident, its irregular design, its additions, accretions, ruins, and lapses with a harmonious charm of outline and color; poets, romancers, and historians had equally conspired to illuminate the dark passages and uglier inconsistencies of its interior life with the glamour of their own fancy. The fragment of menacing keep, with its choked oubliettes, became a bower of tender ivy; the grim story of its crimes, properly edited by a contemporary bard of the family, passed into a charming ballad. Even the superstitious darkness of its religious house had escaped through fallen roof and shattered wall, leaving only the foliated and sun-pierced screen of front, with its rose-window and pinnacle of cross behind. Pilgrims from all lands had come to see it; fierce Republicans had crossed the seas to gaze at its mediaeval outlines, and copy them in wood and stucco on their younger soil. Politicians had equally pointed to it as a convincing evidence of their own principles and in refutation of each other; and it had survived both. For it was this belief in its own perpetuity that was its strength and weakness. And that belief was never stronger than on this bright August morning, when it was on the verge of dissolution. A telegram brought to Sir Robert Mainwaring had even then as completely shattered and disintegrated Oldenhurst, in all it was and all it meant, as if the brown-paper envelope had been itself charged with the electric fluid.
Sir Robert Mainwaring, whose family had for three centuries possessed Oldenhurst, had received the news of his financial ruin; and the vast pile which had survived the repeated invasion of superstition, force, intrigue, and even progress, had succumbed to a foe its founders and proprietors had loftily ignored and left to Jews and traders. The acquisition of money, except by despoilment, gift, royal favor, or inheritance, had been unknown at Oldenhurst. The present degenerate custodian of its fortunes, staggering under the weight of its sentimental mortmain already alluded to, had speculated in order to keep up its material strength, that was gradually shrinking through impoverished land and the ruined trade it had despised. He had invested largely in California mines, and was the chief shareholder in a San Francisco Bank. But the mines had proved worthless, the Bank had that morning suspended payment, owing to the failure of a large land and timber company on the Sierras which it had imprudently “carried.” The spark which had demolished Oldenhurst had been fired from the new telegraph-station in the hotel above the great Sierran canyon.
There was a large house-party at Oldenhurst that morning. But it had been a part of the history of the Mainwarings to accept defeat gallantly and as became their blood. Sir Percival,—the second gentleman on the left as you entered the library,—unhorsed, dying on a distant moor, with a handful of followers, abandoned by a charming Prince and a miserable cause, was scarcely a greater hero than this ruined but undaunted gentleman of eighty, entering the breakfast-room a few hours later as jauntily as his gout would permit, and conscientiously dispensing the hospitalities of his crumbling house. When he had arranged a few pleasure parties for the day and himself thoughtfully anticipated the different tastes of his guests, he turned to Lady Mainwaring.
“Don’t forget that somebody ought to go to the station to meet the Bradleys. Frank writes from St. Moritz that they are due here to-day.”
Lady Mainwaring glanced quickly at her husband, and said sotto voce, “Do you think they’ll care to come now? They probably have heard all about it.”
“Not how it affects me,” returned Sir Robert, in the same tone; “and as they might think that because Frank was with them on that California mountain we would believe it had something to do with Richardson involving the Bank in that wretched company, we must really insist upon their coming.”
“Bradley!” echoed the Hon. Captain FitzHarry, overhearing the name during a late forage on the sideboard, “Bradley!—there was an awfully pretty American at Biarritz, travelling with a cousin, I think—a Miss Mason or Macy. Those sort of people, you know, who have a companion as pretty as themselves; bring you down with the other barrel if one misses—eh? Very clever, both of them, and hardly any accent.”
“Mr. Bradley was a very dear friend of Frank’s, and most kind to him,” said Lady Mainwaring, gravely.
“Didn’t know there was a Mr. Bradley, really. He didn’t come to the fore, then,” said the unabashed Captain. “Deuced hard to follow up those American husbands!”
“And their wives wouldn’t thank you, if you did,” said Lady Griselda Armiger, with a sweet smile.
“If it is the Mrs. Bradley I mean,” said Lady Canterbridge from the lower end of the table, looking up from her letter, “who looks a little like Mrs. Summertree, and has a pretty cousin with her who has very good frocks, I’m afraid you won’t be able to get her down here. She’s booked with engagements for the next six weeks. She and her cousin made all the running at Grigsby Royal, and she has quite deposed that other American beauty in Northforeland’s good graces. She regularly affiche’d him, and it is piteous to see him follow her about. No, my dear; I don’t believe they’ll come to any one of less rank than a Marquis. If they did, I’m sure Canterbridge would have had them at Buckenthorpe already.”
“I wonder if there was ever anything in Frank’s admiration of this Miss Macy?” said Lady Mainwaring a few moments later, lingering beside her husband in his study.
“I really don’t know,” said Sir Robert, abstractedly: “his letters were filled with her praises, and Richardson thought—”
“Pray don’t mention that man’s name again,” said Lady Mainwaring, with the first indication of feeling she had shown. “I shouldn’t trust him.”
“But why do you ask?” returned her husband.
Lady Mainwaring was silent for a moment. “She is very rich, I believe,” she said slowly. “At least, Frank writes that some neighbors of theirs whom he met in the Engadine told him they had sold the site of that absurd cottage where he was ill for some extravagant sum.”
“My dear Geraldine,” said the old man, affectionately, taking his wife’s hand in his own, that now for the first time trembled, “if you have any hope based upon what you are thinking of now, let it be the last and least. You forget that Paget told us that with the best care he could scarcely ensure Frank’s return to perfect health. Even if God in his mercy spared him long enough to take my place, what girl would be willing to tie herself to a man doomed to sickness and poverty? Hardly the one you speak of, my dear.”
Lady Canterbridge proved a true prophet. Mrs. Bradley and Miss Macy did not come, regretfully alleging a previous engagement made on the continent with the Duke of Northforeland and the Marquis of Dungeness; but the unexpected and apocryphal husband did arrive. “I myself have not seen my wife and cousin since I returned from my visit to your son in Switzerland. I am glad they were able to amuse themselves without waiting for me at a London hotel, though I should have preferred to have met them here.” Sir Robert and Lady Mainwaring were courteous but slightly embarrassed. Lady Canterbridge, who had come to the station in bored curiosity, raised her clear blue eyes to his. He did not look like a fool, a complaisant or fashionably-cynical husband—this well-dressed, well-mannered, but quietly and sympathetically observant man. Did he really care for his selfish wife? was it perfect trust or some absurd Transatlantic custom? She did not understand him. It wearied her and she turned her eyes indifferently away. Bradley, a little irritated, he knew not why, at the scrutiny of this tall, handsome, gentlemanly-looking woman, who, however, in spite of her broad shoulders and narrow hips possessed a refined muliebrity superior to mere womanliness of outline, turned slightly towards Sir Robert. “Lady Canterbridge, Frank’s cousin,” explained Sir Robert, hesitatingly, as if conscious of some vague awkwardness. Bradley and Lady Canterbridge both bowed,—possibly the latter’s salutation was the most masculine,—and Bradley, eventually forgetting her presence, plunged into an earnest, sympathetic, and intelligent account of the condition in which he found the invalid at St. Moritz. The old man at first listened with an almost perfunctory courtesy and a hesitating reserve; but as Bradley was lapsing into equal reserve and they drove up to the gates of the quadrangle, he unexpectedly warmed with a word or two of serious welcome. Looking up with a half-unconscious smile, Bradley met Lady Canterbridge’s examining eyes.
The next morning, finding an opportunity to be alone with him, Bradley, with a tactful mingling of sympathy and directness informed his host that he was cognizant of the disaster that had overtaken the Bank, and delicately begged him to accept any service he could render him. “Pardon me,” he said, “if I speak as plainly to you as I would to your son: my friendship for him justifies an equal frankness to any one he loves; but I should not intrude upon your confidence if I did not believe that my knowledge and assistance might be of benefit to you. Although I did not sell my lands to Richardson or approve of his methods,” he continued, “I fear it was some suggestion of mine that eventually induced him to form the larger and more disastrous scheme that ruined the Bank. So you see,” he added lightly, “I claim a right to offer you my services.” Touched by Bradley’s sincerity and discreet intelligence, Sir Robert was equally frank. During the recital of his Californian investments—a chronicle of almost fatuous speculation and imbecile enterprise—Bradley was profoundly moved at the naive ignorance of business and hopeless ingenuousness of this old habitue of a cynical world and an intriguing and insincere society, to whom no scheme had been too wild for acceptance. As Bradley listened with a half-saddened smile to the grave visions of this aged enthusiast, he remembered the son’s unsophisticated simplicity: what he had considered as the “boyishness” of immaturity was the taint of the utterly unpractical Mainwaring blood. It was upon this blood, and others like it, that Oldenhurst had for centuries waxed and fattened.
Bradley was true to his promise of assistance, and with the aid of two or three of his brother-millionaires, whose knowledge of the resources of the locality was no less powerful and convincing than the security of their actual wealth, managed to stay the immediate action of the catastrophe until the affairs of the Sierran Land and Timber Company could be examined and some plan of reconstruction arranged. During this interval of five months, in which the credit of Sir Robert Mainwaring was preserved with the secret of his disaster, Bradley was a frequent and welcome visitor to Oldenhurst. Apart from his strange and chivalrous friendship for the Mainwarings—which was as incomprehensible to Sir Robert as Sir Robert’s equally eccentric and Quixotic speculations had been to Bradley—he began to feel a singular and weird fascination for the place. A patient martyr in the vast London house he had taken for his wife and cousin’s amusement, he loved to escape the loneliness of its autumn solitude or the occasional greater loneliness of his wife’s social triumphs. The handsome, thoughtful man who sometimes appeared at the foot of his wife’s table or melted away like a well-bred ghost in the hollow emptiness of her brilliant receptions, piqued the languid curiosity of a few. A distinguished personage, known for his tactful observance of convenances that others forgot, had made a point of challenging this gentlemanly apparition, and had followed it up with courteous civilities, which led to exchange of much respect but no increase of acquaintance. He had even spent a week at Buckenthorpe, with Canterbridge in the coverts and Lady Canterbridge in the music-room and library. He had returned more thoughtful, and for some time after was more frequent in his appearances at home, and more earnest in his renewed efforts to induce his wife to return to America with him.
“You’ll never be happy anywhere but in California, among those common people,” she replied; “and while I was willing to share your poverty there,” she added dryly, “I prefer to share your wealth among civilized ladies and gentlemen. Besides,” she continued, “we must consider Louise. She is as good as engaged to Lord Dunshunner, and I do not intend that you shall make a mess of her affairs here as you did in California.”
It was the first time he had heard of Lord Dunshunner’s proposals; it was the first allusion she had ever made to Louise and Mainwaring.
Meantime, the autumn leaves had fallen silently over the broad terraces of Oldenhurst with little changes to the fortunes of the great house itself. The Christmas house-party included Lady Canterbridge, whose husband was still detained at Homburg in company with Dunshunner; and Bradley, whose wife and cousin lingered on the continent. He was slightly embarrassed when Lady Canterbridge turned to him one afternoon as they were returning from the lake and congratulated him abruptly upon Louise’s engagement.
“Perhaps you don’t care to be congratulated,” she said, as he did not immediately respond, “and you had as little to do with it as with that other? It is a woman’s function.”
“What other?” echoed Bradley.
Lady Canterbridge slightly turned her handsome head towards him as she walked unbendingly at his side. “Tell me how you manage to keep your absolute simplicity so fresh. Do you suppose it wasn’t known at Oldenhurst that Frank had quite compromised himself with Miss Macy over there?”
“It certainly was not known ‘over there,’” said Bradley, curtly.
“Don’t be angry with me.”
Such an appeal from the tall, indifferent woman at his side, so confidently superior to criticism, and uttered in a low tone, made him smile, albeit uneasily.
“I only meant to congratulate you,” she continued carelessly. “Dunshunner is not a bad sort of fellow, and will come into a good property some day. And then, society is so made up of caprice, just now, that it is well for your wife’s cousin to make the most of her opportunities while they last. She is very popular now; but next season—” Seeing that Bradley remained silent, she did not finish the sentence, but said with her usual abruptness, “Do you know a Miss Araminta Eulalie Sharpe?”
Bradley started. Could any one recognize honest Minty in the hopeless vulgarity which this fine lady had managed to carelessly import into her name? His eye kindled.
“She is an old friend of mine, Lady Canterbridge.”
“How fortunate! Then I can please you by giving you good news of her. She is the coming sensation. They say she is very rich, but quite one of the people, you know: in fact, she makes no scruples of telling you her father was a blacksmith, I think, and takes the dear old man with her everywhere. FitzHarry raves about her, and says her naivete is something too delicious. She is regularly in with some of the best people already. Lady Dungeness has taken her up, and Northforeland is only waiting for your cousin’s engagement to be able to go over decently. Shall I ask her to Buckenthorpe?—come, now, as an apology for my rudeness to your cousin?” She was very womanly now in spite of her high collar, her straight back, and her tightly-fitting jacket, as she stood there smiling. Suddenly, her smile faded; she drew her breath in quickly.
She had caught a glimpse of his usually thoughtful face and eyes, now illuminated with some pleasant memory.
“Thank you,” he said smilingly, yet with a certain hesitation, as he thought of The Lookout and Araminta Eulalie Sharpe, and tried to reconcile them with the lady before him. “I should like it very much.”
“Then you have known Miss Sharpe a long time?” continued Lady Canterbridge as they walked on.
“While we were at The Lookout she was our nearest neighbor.”
“And I suppose your wife will consider it quite proper for you to see her again at my house?” said Lady Canterbridge, with a return of conventional levity.
“Oh! quite,” said Bradley.
They had reached the low Norman-arched side-entrance to the quadrangle. As Bradley swung open the bolt-studded oaken door to let her pass, she said carelessly,—
“Then you are not coming in now?”
“No; I shall walk a little longer.”
“And I am quite forgiven?”
“I am thanking you very much,” he said, smiling directly into her blue eyes. She lowered them, and vanished into the darkness of the passage.
The news of Minty’s success was further corroborated by Sir Robert, who later that evening called Bradley into the study. “Frank has been writing from Nice that he has renewed his acquaintance with some old Californian friends of yours—a Mr. and Miss Sharpe. Lady Canterbridge says that they are well known in London to some of our friends, but I would like to ask you something about them. Lady Mainwaring was on the point of inviting them here when I received a letter from Mr. Sharpe asking for a business interview. Pray who is this Sharpe?”
“You say he writes for a business interview?” asked Bradley.
Bradley hesitated for a moment and then said quietly, “Perhaps, then, I am justified in a breach of confidence to him, in order to answer your question. He is the man who has assumed all the liabilities of the Sierran Land and Timber Company to enable the Bank to resume payment. But he did it on the condition that you were never to know it. For the rest, he was a blacksmith who made a fortune, as Lady Canterbridge will tell you.”
“How very odd—how kind, I mean. I should like to have been civil to him on Frank’s account alone.”
“I should see him on business and be civil to him afterwards.” Sir Robert received the American’s levity with his usual seriousness.
“No, they must come here for Christmas. His daughter is—?”
“Araminta Eulalie Sharpe,” said Bradley, in defiant memory of Lady Canterbridge.
Sir Robert winced audibly. “I shall rely on you, my dear boy, to help me make it pleasant for them,” he said.
Christmas came, but not Minty. It drew a large contingent from Oldenhurst to the quaint old church, who came to view the green-wreathed monuments, and walls spotted with crimson berries, as if with the blood of former Oldenhurst warriors, and to impress the wondering villagers with the ineffable goodness and bounty of the Creator towards the Lords of Oldenhurst and their friends. Sir Robert, a little gouty, kept the house, and Bradley, somewhat uneasy at the Sharpes’ absence, but more distrait with other thoughts, wandered listlessly in the long library. At the lower angle it was embayed into the octagon space of a former tower, which was furnished as a quaint recess for writing or study, pierced through its enormous walls with a lance-shaped window, hidden by heavy curtains. He was gazing abstractedly at the melancholy eyes of Sir Percival, looking down from the dark panel opposite, when he heard the crisp rustle of a skirt. Lady Canterbridge tightly and stiffly buttoned in black from her long narrow boots to her slim, white-collared neck, stood beside him with a prayer-book in her ungloved hand. Bradley colored quickly; the penetrating incense of the Christmas boughs and branches that decked the walls and ceilings, mingled with some indefinable intoxicating aura from the woman at his side, confused his senses. He seemed to be losing himself in some forgotten past coeval with the long, quaintly-lighted room, the rich hangings, and the painted ancestor of this handsome woman. He recovered himself with an effort, and said,
“You are going to church?”
“I may meet them coming home; it’s all the same. You like him?” she said abruptly, pointing to the portrait. “I thought you did not care for that sort of man over there.”
“A man like that must have felt the impotence of his sacrifice before he died, and that condoned everything,” said Bradley, thoughtfully.
“Then you don’t think him a fool? Bob says it was a fair bargain for a title and an office, and that by dying he escaped trial and the confiscation of what he had.”
Bradley did not reply.
“I am disturbing your illusions again. Yet I rather like them. I think you are quite capable of a sacrifice—perhaps you know what it is already.”
He felt that she was looking at him; he felt equally that he could not respond with a commonplace. He was silent.
“I have offended you again, Mr. Bradley,” she said. “Please be Christian, and pardon me. You know this is a season of peace and goodwill.” She raised her blue eyes at the same moment to the Christmas decorations on the ceiling. They were standing before the parted drapery of the lance window. Midway between the arched curtains hung a spray of mistletoe—the conceit of a mischievous housemaid. Their eyes met it simultaneously.
Bradley had Lady Canterbridge’s slim, white hand in his own. The next moment voices were heard in the passage, and the door nearly opposite to them opened deliberately. The idea of their apparent seclusion and half compromising attitude flashed through the minds of both at the same time. Lady Canterbridge stepped quickly backward, drawing Bradley with her, into the embrasure of the window; the folds of the curtain swung together and concealed them from view.
The door had been opened by the footman, ushering in a broad-shouldered man, who was carrying a travelling-bag and an umbrella in his hand. Dropping into an arm-chair before the curtain, he waved away the footman, who, even now, mechanically repeated a previously vain attempt to relieve the stranger of his luggage.
“You leave that ’ere grip sack where it is, young man, and tell Sir Robert Mainwaring that Mr. Demander Sharpe, of Californy, wishes to see him—on business—on business, do ye’ hear? You hang onter that sentence—on business! it’s about ez much ez you kin carry, I reckon, and leave that grip sack alone.”
From behind the curtain Bradley made a sudden movement to go forward; but Lady Canterbridge—now quite pale but collected—restrained him with a warning movement of her hand. Sir Robert’s stick and halting step were next heard along the passage, and he entered the room. His simple and courteous greeting of the stranger was instantly followed by a renewed attack upon the “grip sack,” and a renewed defence of it by the stranger.
“No, Sir Robert,” said the voice argumentatively, “this yer’s a business interview, and until it’s over—if you please—we’ll remain ez we air. I’m Demander Sharpe, of Californy, and I and my darter, Minty, oncet had the pleasure of knowing your boy over thar, and of meeting him agin the other day at Nice.”
“I think,” said Sir Robert’s voice gently, “that these are not the only claims you have upon me. I have only a day or two ago heard from Mr. Bradley that I owe to your generous hands and your disinterested liberality the saving of my California fortune.”
There was the momentary sound of a pushed-back chair, a stamping of feet, and then Mr. Sharpe’s voice rose high with the blacksmith’s old querulous aggrieved utterance.
“So it’s that finikin’, conceited Bradley agin—that’s giv’ me away! Ef that man’s all-fired belief in his being the Angel Gabriel and Dan’l Webster rolled inter one don’t beat anythin’! I suppose that high-flyin’ jay-bird kalkilated to put you and me and my gal and yer boy inter harness for his four hoss chariot and he sittin’ kam on the box drivin’ us! Why don’t he tend to his own business, and look arter his own concerns—instead o’ leaving Jinny Bradley and Loo Macy dependent on Kings and Queens and titled folks gen’rally, and he, Jim Bradley, philanderin’ with another man’s wife—while that thar man is hard at work tryin’ to make a honest livin’ fer his wife, buckin’ agin faro an’ the tiger gen’rally at Monaco! Eh? And that man a-inter-meddlin’ with me! Ef,” continued the voice, dropped to a tone of hopeless moral conviction, “ef there’s a man I mor’aly despise—it’s that finikin’ Jim Bradley.”
“You quite misunderstand me, my dear sir,” said Sir Robert’s hurried voice; “he told me you had pledged him to secrecy, and he only revealed it to explain why you wished to see me.”
There was a grunt of half-placated wrath from Sharpe, and then the voice resumed, but more deliberately, “Well, to come back to business: you’ve got a boy, Francis, and I’ve got a darter, Araminty. They’ve sorter taken a shine to each other and they want to get married. Mind yer—wait a moment!—it wasn’t allus so. No, sir; when my gal Araminty first seed your boy in Californy she was poor, and she didn’t kalkilate to get inter anybody’s family unbeknownst or on sufferance. Then she got rich and you got poor; and then—hold on a minit!—she allows, does my girl, that there ain’t any nearer chance o’ their making a match than they were afore, for she isn’t goin’ to hev it said that she married your son fur the chance of some day becomin’ Lady Mainwaring.”
“One moment, Mr. Sharpe,” said the voice of the Baronet, gravely: “I am both flattered and pained by what I believe to be the kindly object of your visit. Indeed, I may say I have gathered a suspicion of what might be the sequel of this most unhappy acquaintance of my son and your daughter; but I cannot believe that he has kept you in ignorance of his unfortunate prospects and his still more unfortunate state of health.”
“When I told ye to hold on a minit,” continued the blacksmith’s voice, with a touch of querulousness in its accent, “that was jist wot I was comin’ to. I knowed part of it from my own pocket, she knowed the rest of it from his lip and the doctors she interviewed. And then she says to me—sez my girl Minty—Pop,’ she sez, ‘he’s got nothing to live for now but his title, and that he never may live to get, so that I think ye kin jist go, Pop, and fairly and squarely, as a honest man, ask his father to let me hev him.’ Them’s my darter’s own words, Sir Robert, and when I tell yer that she’s got a million o’ dollars to back them, ye’ll know she means business, every time.”
“Did Francis know that you were coming here?”
“Bless ye, no! he don’t know that she would have him. Ef it kem to that, he ain’t even asked her! She wouldn’t let him until she was sure of you.”
“Then you mean to say there is no engagement?”
“In course not. I reckoned to do the square thing first with ye.”
The halting step of the Baronet crossing the room was heard distinctly. He had stopped beside Sharpe. “My dear Mr. Sharpe,” he said, in a troubled voice, “I cannot permit this sacrifice. It is too—too great!”
“Then,” said Sharpe’ s voice querulously, “I’m afraid we must do without your permission. I didn’t reckon to find a sort o’ British Jim Bradley in you. If you can’t permit my darter to sacrifice herself by marryin’ your son, I can’t permit her to sacrifice her love and him by not marryin’ him. So I reckon this yer interview is over.”
“I am afraid we are both old fools, Mr. Sharpe; but—we will talk this over with Lady Mainwaring. Come—” There was evidently a slight struggle near the chair over some inanimate object. But the next moment the Baronet’s voice rose, persuasively, “Really, I must insist upon relieving you of your bag and umbrella.”
“Well, if you’ll let me telegraph ‘yes’ to Minty, I don’t care if yer do.”
When the room was quiet again, Lady Canterbridge and James Bradley silently slipped from the curtain, and, without a word, separated at the door.
There was a merry Christmas at Oldenhurst and at Nice. But whether Minty’s loving sacrifice was accepted or not, or whether she ever reigned as Lady Mainwaring, or lived an untitled widow, I cannot say. But as Oldenhurst still exists in all its pride and power, it is presumed that the peril that threatened its fortunes was averted, and that if another heroine was not found worthy of a frame in its picture-gallery, at least it had been sustained as of old by devotion and renunciation.