IN MY LADY’S CHAMBER
A STORY OF
HER DECEASED HUSBAND’S BROTHER
“I curse the hand that did the deid,
The heart that thocht the ill,
The feet that bare me wi’ sic speid
The comelie youth to kill.”
– Gil Morrice.
JACOB AND ESAU
AUTUMN over all the woodlands and moors of rugged Caledonia. Autumn in the furzy hollows of the copses where the heather and the golden-rod and the nodding hare-bell flourish about the haunts of the doomed partridges. Autumn in the broad parklands of a certain Scottish earl, a peer of long lineage and much renown, in the chronicles of whose noble house its scions proudly record that in spite of Reformation, Presbyterianism, and the Covenanters, they have continually preserved unscathed and inviolate the faith of its earliest ancestors, the time-honoured creed of the ancient Roman Church.
There is a venerable severity of architecture, too, about the grey turreted walls of the old family mansion itself, a lurking mediævalism in the corners of its Gothic friezes and tores, and a sense of old-world ineradicable orthodoxy in the projecting heads of cowled friar and
hooded nun, that leer and jape at one another from the stone entablatures of its monogrammed windows. “Kelpies” is an old estate – very old. Not the most patriarchal piece of timber upon it can boast of remembering a time when it was not part of the property of his Scottish and Conservative Thaneship; not a mossgrown old boulder in the grotto under the picturesque water-fall that gives the place its fanciful name, that can vaunt itself of having lain there when the soil beneath it was in any other possession than that of the lordly house which owns it now.
Monks and abbots have strolled and discoursed upon the spacious lawns of Kelpies, crusaders and cardinals and papal legates have ridden to and fro under the clustering interwoven canopy of the Long Avenue, and comely ladies of the royal race of Scotland have held their dainty revelries in its grained banqueting-hall, and have trod courtly measures upon its moonlit terraces with gallant knights and gentlemen bravely attired. There, too, long since, the minstrels thrilled the soft air of the summer evening with their boisterous music, and burnished sword-blades caught the red flambeau-light and flashed brightly and sudden over the heads of the young nobles as they danced the Highland Fling to pleasure the maidens; while their fathers stood by and talked proudly together, each of his hereditary clan and of the native country they loved in common, the land of mountains and floods, and of brave men. Ah, well, these were such times as Scotland will never know again! Sic transit gloria mundi!
Kelpies looks more beautiful now in the early fall of the year than during any other season, for the estate is thickly wooded, and the ripe mellowing tints of autumn russet and amber are beginning to break the dull monotony of its acres of heavy foliage with a thousand delicate and variable touches. In between the tall gnarled trunks of the giant elms which compose the Long Avenue, stream the bright ruddy shafts of western sunlight, catching the yellowing tops of the tufted coppices on their way, and kindling fantastic eerie beacons upon the grey old turrets of the house itself; while all the mullioned casements fronting the orient
glow refulgent with a perfect flood of glory under the fiery splendour of the September sunset.
Far down the Long Avenue, about half-a-mile from the terrace steps, there is a barking of dogs and the sound of voices and footsteps coming homeward. Two young men, the only children of the present earl, are returning from a shooting expedition, attended by a keeper bearing the slaughtered trophies of their prowess, and surrounded by a demonstratively jubilant troop of canine retainers. They are so much unlike – these brothers, – in figure and expression of countenance, and the face of each is so strong in its individualism, although the elder is scarcely upon the threshold of manhood, that at a first glance one would not perhaps take them for kinsmen at all. The heir, sauntering along with a careless, graceful indifference of action, that makes him look as though he were a cavalier of the Merry Monarch’s Court, in the sober disguise of the nineteenth century, is far the handsomer and manlier of the two, and the very movement of his arm as he caresses and toys with the leaping spaniels beside him, displays an easy power and freedom of limb that is utterly lacking in the constrained and methodical gait of the younger. Neither is there any resemblance of character between the uncertain blue eyes of the latter, so aimless and irresolute in their fitful, fearful glances, and the brown dear depths of soul that look steadfastly out from beneath the darker brows of the viscount. But their kindred is sufficiently indicated by the very words and air of the conversation they are now holding together, and notwithstanding the marked dissimilarities of physique and temperament we have just noted, one cannot fail to perceive a strong tie of friendship between the brothers, a real sympathy of heart and a mutual tenderness of regard which can scarce be attributable to a mere accident of relationship.
“So you’ve made up your mind at last, Roy?” says the elder, stooping slightly, and patting the silky head of a gamboling favourite as he speaks. “Down, Tory! quiet, old fellow!”
“Made up my mind? Hang it, – yes, I suppose I have. You mean about the Household Brigade, don’t you, Rep?” “Rep” has been the
viscount’s familiar sobriquet from his childhood, and bears direct reference to the peculiarities of his social and political views, being in fact an easy contraction of the word Republican; while “Roy” in like manner briefly indicates the more aristocratic pseudonym and characteristic of Royalist. And for the present these domestic appellations will suffice us to distinguish the speakers.
“Yes that you’re going to turn Life Guardsman, and that the earl’s to get your commission. All that’s settled, isn’t it?”
Roy lifts his shoulders with a gesture half of annoyance, half of despair, and laughs impatiently.
“All that’s settled, Rep – yes. And then I suppose I may go to the dogs as soon as I like!”
“My dear old boy, who talks of going to the dogs? One would imagine you were to be turned out of this place without a sous, and told never to come near us again! I wish you wouldn’t talk in this sort of way, it’s not lively to hear, especially as I know you think me the chief cause of the event you consider so profound a misfortune.”
“You the cause, Rep? What’s put that into your head?”
But he colours as deeply as a girl in saying the words, and his brother sees it as he draws the arm of the young malcontent gaily within his own.
“Come, come, old fellow,” says he, with a light air; “what’s the use of pretending that you don’t understand me? I know about you and your mortifications as well as possible, and upon my soul, Roy, I’m awfully sorry I was born first. But you’ll admit that I couldn’t help it.”
Roy starts perceptibly, and his shifty blue eyes fall.
“Deuce!” he mutters huskily, “you’re an odd fellow, Rep, But you’re wrong for once if you think I’m jealous – of you. I’m not quite such a hound as that – yet.”
He speaks with a sudden bitter emphasis upon the last phrase, as though unconsciously reproaching himself in the unknown future, and his thin lips curl in prophetic disdain over the contemptible epithet which for the
present, at least, he repudiates. And his brother looking good-humouredly into his face, perceives the sneer, and laughs airily.
“Dear old Roy! you must get over this kind of thing, if you please, as soon as possible. It bores me, and the form’s bad. Of course you’re not jealous of me. But the thing’s natural enough, and quite explicable; only I don’t want you to go away from Kelpies fancying I didn’t know it, and didn’t sympathise with you, and understand your feelings about it, as upon my soul, I do, Roy. And I was afraid that unless I told you I did all this, a cloud would grow up between us little by little, and that as we shall see less of each other in the future, our separation would strengthen the misunderstanding, until at last, the confidence and the – well, Roy – the love – that we have had for one another all our lives would be altogether done away, or at least, very greatly diminished. So, now, don’t have any reserve from me, old fellow; but just take it for granted that I heartily enter into your regrets and your feelings, and be as amiable to me under the trying nature of the circumstances as you can!”
He ends with a gay insouciant smile and a merry sparkle in his chameleon eyes, but he has spoken earnestly for all that, and Roy knows it.
“Rep,” answers he, faltering and confused, indeed, but far more deeply moved at heart by his brother’s allusion to their friendship than he cares to express even to him; “you’re an excellent fellow, and a hundred times fitter to be where you are than I; so there’s nothing to regret. But the life of this place and the keeping up of the old house, and the future that lies before you as the master of Kelpies – all these things have so many charms for me – for you, I know they have none. I hate this – this commission business, and all the nonsensical hap-hazard of the life I must enter upon – a life of unsettled, dreary, desolate homelessness, apart from all the interests and security of the pleasant fire-side living you will enjoy here. And besides, Rep, if I could believe that the prospect before you was as pleasant in your eyes as it would be in mine were I in your place, then I – I don’t think I should feel as I do now about it. But I know that to you your whole
future career is just as intolerable as mine is to me. Now isn’t it, Rep? Frankness for frankness! I’ve ‘answered you without reserve. Be equally candid in your turn!”
There is something of eagerness in the tone of the boy’s appeal, and he turns his large blue eyes wistfully upon his brother’s face; and keeps them fastened there with a longer pertinacity of gaze than one would have believed possible of such vacillating, quavering orbs; and the look that meets them upon the viscount’s handsome countenance is soft almost to the tenderness with which we regard some helpless little child.
“Well, Roy, I won’t deny it. You and I are not turned out in the same shape. If I had had a hand in my fortunes I shouldn’t have stuck myself down here in the midst of deer-parks, and ancestral portraits, and good dinners, with a prospect of a fine old hereditary gout at the end of the chapter; and I shouldn’t have cared to live for the joy of beholding my noble countess indite polite billets to her amis intimes upon double milled note with a coronet in the comer. I don’t want the honour of a noble house to support, nor the glory of an unblemished escutcheon to worship, nor an ancient faith to swear by, nor an unsullied name to uphold and adorn; – all these things are as nothing to me, and worse than nothing, though I know that to speak so slightingly of the family Lares and Penates is rank blasphemy in your conservative ears. I know that these words – ancestry – position – name – heritage – religion – noblesse – are no empty sounds to you, but real ideas, embodying all that life itself holds most dear and precious to you. To me they have hitherto simply represented the Inevitable, and as such I have tacitly accepted them, and with them the uncongenial duties and responsibilities they must some day bring to me. But they are not life – they are not even a part of it. That is denied me, for I must be an earl. Because I have a pedigree I cannot have liberty – because I have a name and a title ready-made I cannot make a name for myself – because I have a landed estate preserved and waiting for me all to myself, I cannot go out of it into the earth that is made for all men, and seek my own fortune nobly like a man – because I have a crumbling old-world creed, antiquated properties, and an artificial
régime to enlist my service, I cannot declare myself and my own heart as I long to do, nor lead the simple ragged nomad life I long to lead; for if I did, I should bring disgrace and contumely upon a house "that has never et cœtera,” you know the stereotyped peroration, Roy, and you swear by it too, no doubt. Bah! ‘Noblesse oblige?’ Indeed it does!”
By this time he has fairly stung himself into a fever of petulant indignation against the unnatural rites and ceremonies of civilized usage, and the brown scintillating eyes, variable as chameleon’s in their ever-changing lights, seem absolutely to flame with the ireful spirit of boyish republicanism chafing at its conventional fetters.
“Good God!” cries Roy, forgetful in his immeasurable astonishment of the keeper’s near proximity; ”is it possible that you can talk and feel like this – while I! – Oh; Rep! Rep! you don’t know what I would give for the birthright you contemn so vehemently!”
No retinence – no reserve in the tones of the younger brother now; his heart’s desire is in the utterance of his tremulous lips, and his eyes are almost wild in their impotent, yearning and plaintive despair. “Ah,” he cries with a new touch of bitterness, “if only you were Esau and I were Jacob, what a nice little arrangement we might make between us; but unfortunately the Isaacs of to-day don’t fall in with the views of their sons as they might be expected to do.”
“What sort of potage would you offer me now, Roy?” laughs the viscount, flicking his spaniel’s ears with a glove; ”supposing that we were to take the chance of Isaac’s turning out amenable, and conclude the bargain privately between ourselves? Come, now; I’m not proud!” “Jacob hadn’t much to give,” returns the other ruefully, “and I’m like him. But Esau was hungry, and so are you – morally and intellectually; and the potage you want is your liberty. There’s my commission, too; but I shouldn’t think the Household Brigade would be very much more in your line than Kelpies and a coronet.”
“No, indeed, old fellow,” says Rep, shaking his curly head in emphatic negation; “Life Guardsmanism is as little to my fancy as the other thing. Look here, Roy! I was born with the heart of a Bohemian and the
tastes of the Wandering Jew, and instead of enjoying life in my own way, I’m billeted here upon fashionable society, and shall have to vegetate like a summer cabbage in my own garden! Nothing I am able to do here will be worth doing; nothing I do will be done well. If I go in for art, I can at the best be only a clever dilettante or a ‘noble patron.’ They’ll let me admire other men’s work, no doubt, and they’ll talk pretty about my spécialité for painting or what not; but I shall never be an artist – only a connoisseur; only a coroneted dabbler!” He seems to shake the words between him set teeth as he utters them, as though they were noxious things that he would fain destroy, and the arm that is linked in his brothers, quivers with the storm of his emotion.
“Dear old boy!” says Roy, throwing oil upon the flames, “what terrible radicalism! Peter the Great is your only parallel! He left an empire for a dockyard, and you will desert an earldom for a paint-box! What a pity you are not a Man of the People!”
“By Jove, Roy, I wish I were! I should like to feel that I could come and go freely wherever I would without fear of being pursued, and tracked, and announced by Court journalists; to know that I had no possession in the world, but that all the world itself was mine, and all the hearts in it mine to win! That wherever I found my home and my peace of mind, there I could set up my kingdom and pitch my regal pavilion, to furl it again when I should choose and go elsewhere, leaving no regrets behind me! I’ve got the Zingaro blood in my veins, Roy, I think, and no mistake!” With that he laughs again gaily, and whistles to Tory, wheeling and bounding up the broad steps of the terrace. Gaieté de cœur has always been Rep’s speciality. But not so the younger brother’s. No; for Roy has a jealous heart, and Rep stands between him and the peerage he covets. A dumb jealousy perhaps – a mere latent consciousness of uneasy discontent, for Roy is scarcely a man, and his life lies untrodden before him, and his passions have had no time to speak – as yet.