Long Odds

Chapter VI

First Links

Marcus Clarke

THERE was death in the house!

Most of us, alas! can realise the full meaning of the phrase. It means that servants step softly, that voices are subdued, that blinds are drawn down, that the flowers do not smell so sweetly, that the sun does not shine so brightly, that books seem to have lost their power to charm, that pictures seem to have lost their colouring; that those matters that were of such importance yesterday are now without interest; that we are removed by a great gulf from our passions, joys, and sorrows of twelve hours back, that a leaden weight is upon our hearts; that a veil is drawn between us and God’s heaven; that all our slighting words, our unkind actions towards him who was our brother yesterday, rise up like reproachful phantoms to haunt us for ever, and that—most cruel of all—the world without is eating and drinking, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, without a thought for us, or for our sorrow.

There was death at Matcham. Despite Mr. Saville Chatteris being the most gentlemanly of mortals, and the staunchest of Conservatives, that audacious Radical who rides on the pale horse of universal equality had paid him a visit and taken his son away en croupe.

Poor Fred! He was the last person that should have been so remorselessly levelled by the keen sickle of the reaper. A gay, good-humoured, careless fellow, with a tolerable seat on a horse, some success among silly women of the milliner sort, and a firm belief in his own abilities—what should he do in that galley where Death and the Lady throw dice for the souls of men?

He was heir to Matcham, lieutenant in a dragoon regiment, five and twenty years of age, was killed by a fall from his horse, was buried in Matcham churchyard, and the passionless tide of life flows on over his grave without so much as a ripple.

Apart from the natural shock attendant upon his sudden removal nobody regretted him much. The verdict of the service in general was, “Poor Fred Chatteris is killed, I see! Horse fell with him at a steeplechase. Nothing like blood for going across country. Sabretasche, ring for another ‘peg.’” Lady Loughborough shed some natural tears, but wiped them sooner than usual, and though she kept her room, and affected a low tone of voice, as suitable to the “sad accident to poor dear Fred,” she was not absolutely overcome with grief. Kate was, physically, the most affected of anybody. She was so close to him when he fell, had been brought up with him from childhood, and felt that natural horror of sudden and violent deaths which all persons of exuberant vitality must feel; but even she was merely physically grieved. Mr. Saville Chatteris was chief mourner. He had never discovered how much he had loved his son till he saw him dead at his feet. He had regarded the young man as a work of art created by his own hands, and which was to reflect honour upon the artist. But as the coffin slowly disappeared into the vault, he felt that it contained much that was left to him of earthly happiness, and he suffered more than his cold, proud nature would permit him to express. Cyril had arrived the day after the accident, and in his inmost heart was the least sorrowful of all the party. Even Mr. Rupert Dacre, who had been requested by the master of the house to remain until his surviving son arrived, was more affected at the matter than Cyril; that is to say, he seemed to be so; for the budding diplomatist was fond of confessing the soft impeachment of “materialism,” and would argue with his select friends concerning the impossibility of everything he did not understand, and would avow, with a playful wave of his cigar, “that, for his part, he saw nothing more in a dead man than a lump of clay, you know.”

On this occasion, however, he found it politic to dismiss these conclusions, and was as consolatory as his nature permitted him to be. During the administering of these consolations, he found time to watch the bearing of the various persons around him, and more especially that of the new heir.

“He is strangely preoccupied about something,” thought Dacre. “He has got something on his mind, I expect. Debts, perhaps; but that should give him no uneasiness now. It can’t be affection for his brother—for I don’t think that the fellow cared much about him, or anybody else but himself.”

Mr. Rupert Dacre was wrong. It was not himself that Cyril was thinking of. It was of his wife. Should he tell his father, and risk another breach of filial and paternal peace? They had been reconciled now, at least as far as outward seeming went. The old man was frigidly polite to his returned prodigal, and requested him to issue instructions touching several domestic matters, a request which Cyril construed into a tacit recognition of his rights as heir, but as yet no fatted calf had literally or allegorically been killed.

Kate had witnessed this negative reconciliation in wondering pity. Cyril appeared so careworn, too. He was unusually silent and distrait. Everyone but Mr. Rupert Dacre being for the present in mental sackcloth and ashes, this was permitted to pass unregarded, but the quick eyes of loving Kate detected at once that her cousin had something else on his mind beside grief for his brother.

Two days after the funeral, Cyril found he could bear the suspense no longer. In the first place he longed to see his wife, in the second he was ill at ease in the gloomy house, and with his prevailing selfishness, he wished to quit all that reminded him of sorrow or pain. Then, his father had given him no clue to the course he intended to pursue with regard to him. “He will never leave me to starve upon two hundred pounds a year,” thought he; but then, what would he wish him to do? To give up the Mercury, of course. His vanity revolted at the notion. To come and live at Matcham? Perhaps; but then what should he do with Carry? To study for the bar in London? That would be feasible enough; he could then conceal his marriage. Yet, it must be confessed some time or other. After his father’s death? Saville Chatteris was healthy and vigorous, and might live for years. It would be better to confess it at once and “have it over.” He would do so.

As he turned to go to the library, he met a servant with a tray containing Lady Loughborough’s “afternoon tea,” (her ladyship choosing to keep her apartments during the period of mourning). Instantly a vision arose before him. Mrs. Manton, in curls and cap-ribbons, rubbing one fat hand over the other as she curtseyed to her son-in-law’s aunt, was visible in his mind’s eye, and he turned back again.

“I will get rid of that villanous old woman, and then I will bring Carry down here,” said he; and, somewhat calmed by this reflection, he walked out on to the lawn, and lighting a cigar as he went, strolled down toward the shrubbery.

There had been a shower in the morning, and the watery, grey rain-clouds were yet hanging over distant Kirkminister; but Matcham woods were in their glory, rich with autumn tints and bathed in autumn sunset. One long streak of crimson barred the western sky; but the windows of the house were all ablaze and reflected light; its many turrets, gables, and buttresses were distorted with every variety of shadow. The air was delicate and pure, the birds chirruped and twittered among distant orchard branches; and with an incessant and melancholy cawing a black line of rooks flapped heavily homewards athwart the pure golden sky.

The hour and the place were favourable to musing, and Mr. Rupert Dacre was extended at full length on a bench in the Beech-tree walk, listening with half-shut eyes to the silvery and intermittent chiming of the far-off cathedral bells.

“Ah—Cyril!” and the two young men sat down together. Cyril looked round upon the soft landscape, up into the pure heaven, down on to the hard and mossy gravel, and then up again into his companion’s face. He saw only the sunset-light reflected there.

“Rupert, I’m going back to London,”—

“You can’t go now, my dear boy,” said Dacre, with enforced solemnity.

“I cannot stand this sort of thing long. My father won’t speak to me, and the house is like some vast tomb,” says Cyril, pettishly kicking a loose stone with one pendant foot.

“My dear fellow, you must not be too rash. Remember that the unhappy accident has affected your father deeply.”

“I say, Dacre, what made you telegraph to me so quickly?” says Chatteris, suddenly.

“Merely to let you know at once. Everybody else seemed helpless. What made you ask such a question!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” returned the other, whose steady look into that sunset-lit face had shown him nothing. “It was very kind of you, I’m sure.”

“My dear boy!” says Dacre, deprecatingly. As he spoke, the sun fell suddenly behind the tree-tops, and the glory faded from his face.

Cyril fancied he saw a sneer there. “Come,” said he, with a slight shudder, “it is getting chill; let us go in.”

Rupert Dacre flung the stump of his smouldering cigar gently from him. It fell into a little pool that the recent rain had left among the stones, and went out with a sullen hissing sound.

“Give me your arm, my dear fellow,” said he, with a most consolatory smile, “I want to talk to you a little.”

“In the first place,” began the rising diplomatist—“you will excuse an old friend who used to fag you at Eton, telling you an unwholesome truth. You are—well, not a fool—but a man of perverted intellect. You had a capital career open to you, and you spoilt it all by your preposterous folly and vanity. Now don’t interrupt me—but listen. You had an excellent chance of honours—at least so they told me—and you quit Oxford for some reason that I don’t want to hear, for it is sure to be a bad one. You come home here, quarrel with your very worthy and estimable father, and rush up to London, to make a fortune and a name by dishing up other people’s sentiments in the leading columns of a radical newspaper. This may be a very fine thing to be able to do, my dear boy, perhaps it is; but permit me to suggest that the son—the only son” (and he emphasised the word with eyes as well as voice) “of Mr. Chatteris of Matcham, ought to do something better. A leader-writer for a paper like the Mercury is not a man of mark in the annals of his country, my dear Cyril; and if you want fame, you can get it easier by inventing a patent pill, or a new method of pickling pork, than by all the leading articles that ever went to the butter-shop.” (They had reached the end of the walk by this time, and the cynical Mentor paused for a moment to let his wisdom sink into the ears of his pupil.) “I was speaking to your father this morning,” (Cyril began to listen), “and he seemed in a great perplexity about your future career. Indeed, he did me the honour to ask my advice upon the matter”—

“The deuce he did”—thought Telemachus—

“And I have been thinking all the afternoon about it. There can be no question but that he intends to make you a proper allowance,—that is, if you behave yourself—but I would not advise you to indulge in any pranks, or you may get into mischief again. I suppose,” continued he, with a curious glance at his companion, “that you are not in any scrape just now.”

“In any scrape!” Oh, if he only knew! But Cyril said, with an easy laugh, “None, my dear fellow, that I know of!”

“I am glad to hear it; but if you are, you had better go and tell your father at once, and begin with a clean bill of health.”

Here was a temptation! He would go to his father and tell him all, and make the best of it. He had half withdrawn his arm from Dacre’s, for the purpose of giving more weight to his declaration, when the other struck in—

“Marriage, my dear Cyril, is the great sheet anchor of young men! If you assume the burden of respectability, you must also assume the burden of matrimony. If you elect to dwell in tents, it does not so much matter; but to the well-being of a Philistine a wife is absolutely necessary. For myself, I am unable to afford that luxury at present, but, I trust that, after some brief space of time, the value of my services to my country may be more satisfactorily recognised, and I may be enabled to take to my bosom some skinny person of good blood and aristocratic connections. I have observed,” remarked Mr. Rupert Dacre, parenthetically, “that leanness and good blood are indispensable for a rising man’s wife—I trust to obtain both. But for you, my dear fellow, seriously speaking, a much wider field is open. You can choose, with reservations of course, where you will. Do you prefer money? Seek it among the chubby heiresses of provincial manufacturing towns; the simpering daughters of City magnates, or the more dashing progeny of the lords of the Stock Exchange. Do you desire blood? You can take your choice of all the vintages in Debrett, and stock your cellar either with the blushing glories of the Battle-Abbey brand, or the more recent but perhaps more healthy bottlings of the reign of the First James; indeed, with the exception of Lady Millicent Lepel, whose parents have been saving her for nineteen years for the young Duke of Bilboquet, and old Foozleton’s daughter, who is going to marry What’s-his-name the coach-builder, I believe you can have any woman you like. I should therefore recommend, my dear fellow, that you put off your Bohemian ‘old man’ from you, and enduing yourself with the toga virilis of Philistian respectability, come out as a country gentleman. Life here,” continued Dacre, with an airy wave of his hand toward the fast-darkening landscape, “is pleasant enough. The recubuns sub tegmine fagi business, which has been discoursed upon at such length by the poets, is yours for ever. You will settle down here, hunt a pack of hounds, go to church twice a day on Sundays, and breed short-horned bullocks. This is, as I take it, the whole duty of man in his capacity as country gentleman. You will grow fat and good-tempered; give dinners and drink port wine for the remainder of your existence. As that preposterous creation of Lord Lytton remarks in the second act of the most successful and most claptrap drama of modern times, ‘Dost like the picture?’”

“No,” said Cyril, laughing, “I don’t.”

“Ah! you have a soul above short-horns. What do you say then to Parliament? A great field for men of ability. Will you be the darling of drawing-rooms, the perfumed dandy of Belgravia, the harmless lion of ambassadors’ dinners, the abused one of newspapers, the arbiter of peace and war, the leader of a political party? No, you will not be that, my friend, because you have not brains enough for such a career.”

“Complimentary,” laughed the other.

“Not at all complimentary, but true. We will try another picture. A man about town. A neat little box at Richmond, a yacht at Cowes, a few acres in Scotland, a box at the Opera, a string of hunters at Melton. Would you like to be the glory of the coulisses, the admired of Fanny Petitpied, the friend of tenors, and the boon companion of tragedians? Would you like to write for high-class periodicals, and be quoted in smoking-rooms? Would you like to break the tables at Ems, and to flirt with Russian princesses at Wiesbaden? Would you like to know all Turf secrets, and to be one of each stable Vehmgericht in England? Of course you would. But to be all this you must get into debt about twenty thousand pounds to start with, and see a little more life than you have done yet. I think, after all, that the country gentleman is the career. You can see a little of London society first if you like, and then come back and marry your cousin, after the fashion of three-volume novels.”

“Marry your cousin.” The thrust was made at last, and Cyril being off his guard, the delicate rapier of Rupert Dacre came home to the hilt.

He turned crimson. “You talk nonsense, Dacre,” said he half angrily.

“Well,” says that gentleman, with a light laugh, “perhaps I do. Let us go in.”

And as they went in, arm in arm, the big house was no longer brilliant with sunshine, but black and gloomy like the tomb that Cyril had spoken of, while the landscape looked chill and dreary, and the rising night wind sobbed and soughed with melancholy cadence among the creaking branches of the beech-trees.

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