IN addition to the society of its brilliant owner, Linnwood Manor afforded excellent sport of various kinds, of which the gentlemen of the party there assembled were not backward to avail themselves. The leadership of the shooting-partie, which usually sallied forth immediately after breakfast, was tacitly, and as a matter of course, accorded to the well-known author and man of the world, Lord Littmass, who, as a cousin of Lady Bevan, an old friend of Sir Francis, and a peer of Scotland, was treated by both Lady Bevan and her step-daughter with much consideration. It was he who occupied the place of master of the house at the dinner-table; to him they applied for advice in any emergency; and his keen judgment, consummate worldly knowledge, and great success in every line that he had followed, made him one of Sophia’s greatest favourites. She often held him up to Noel as an example which in many respects he would do well to imitate.
Much as Noel admired him in a literary point of view, he
rarely felt at ease in his society. Lord Littmass was not one of those men to whose presence any one would be indifferent. He was far too dominant an ingredient in any society in which he might be, to be ignored. The talent shown in his conversation and writings delighted Noel, who readily admitted that if he had a story worth telling, Lord Littmass was the man to whom he should go for historian. But with regard to the man himself he felt an instinctive distrust. Confessing the nobility of the sentiments contained in his writings, he yet doubted the genuineness of his character. Sophia rallied him about his neglecting to cultivate the acquaintance of so eminent a man, and sought the reason of his aversion. Edmund answered that he was content with knowing him by his writings, and, on being pressed, added that he thought it unfair to seek to know more of one who had put so much of himself before the world; that a monopoly of all excellence was not to be looked for in anybody; and that it was unreasonable to expect that one who had proved himself so admirable in books, should be equally admirable in reality. He allowed, however, that he had nothing whatever against Lord Littmass; it was only a jar arising from difference of character, and he suggested to her that, slight though it might be, nothing was so likely to increase and to fix it as being called on to explain or account for it.
It was not, however, his aversion to Lord Littmass, that led Noel to prefer taking his rifle and wandering along the cliffs overhanging the Bristol Channel, in search of any curious specimen he might find of bird or plant, to joining the shooting-parties in their forays on the game that stocked the covers of Linnwood Manor. His position as a resident in that neighbourhood prevented his being considered merely as a guest of the Bevans, and enabled him to exercise his independence without seeming discourteous; for there was always a possibility of his being called away on business connected with his own property. Of course whenever Sophia found out that he had absented himself from the party without such excuse, she was not slow to exercise her powers of generalisation upon him in regard to this peculiarity.
‘If you were a sailor you would prefer a cutting-out expedition all by yourself,
to fighting in line of battle. As a hunter you would prefer the backwoodsman’s
solitary chase to the crowded battue of
of surrounding relatives to drive your object into your snares. You will stalk your dear,’ she cried, with a shout of laughter, ‘and think everything is done when you have succeeded in making the poor thing in love with you; when you ought to be throwing your net over papas and mammas, and make all her belongings favourable to your suit, and so close in gradually but surely upon your prize.’
This speech was made during lunch one day, when Edmund had been out alone since early morning.
‘There spake our friend’s social qualities;’ said Lord Littmass to the party generally. ‘To be able to say “alone I did it,” would be the reverse of a recommendation to her large sympathies. Miss Sophia Bevan’s unselfishness would forbid her to win anything by herself, or for herself. But all the world must participate in the pleasure of the chase and the satisfaction of the capture.’
‘And in the enjoyment of the prize, too?’ asked Noel, with a scarcely perceptible tinge of sarcasm.
‘Well, we may hope and suppose there would be some exceptions to her catholic self-denial in that respect. Though, when once the mind inclines favourably to the principle of cooperation, it is not easy to see why it should stop short of absolute communism.’
‘Lord Littmass, hold your tongue!’ exclaimed Sophia, with peremptory emphasis. ‘And, Edmund, tell us what you have been doing since sunrise.’
‘Where and for what?’ asked Miss Bevan.
‘With and for whom?’ asked Lord Littmass.
‘Don’t be alarmed. Only against the Chinese.’
‘Don’t be absurd, mysterious, and provoking; but do explain.’
‘Merely to preserve my individuality. Are you not aware of the recent discovery that we are becoming so crowded together upon this little island, as to be in danger of having all our angles rubbed off, and becoming as like each other as so many Chinese. Preferring my own organisation to that of my neighbours, if for no other reason than that it is mine, or me, I naturally desire to confirm and develop it, instead of merging my identity in the vast whole of a redundant population.’
‘If such be the effect of association,’ said Sophia, ‘surely it is better to become assimilated to one’s own species, than to the
and fishes you find about the rocks and cliffs of
‘Why not say mermaids?’ asked Noel.
‘There is something human and feminine about them, and that would be enough to set you against their society.’
‘Not if they are like the one I saw this morning. Golden-auburn is exactly the right colour, is it not?’
‘What nonsense has taken possession of you all to-day?’ asked Lady Bevan.
‘Whither did your wandering genius lead you this morning, and did you really have an adventure?’ asked Sophia with more interest than the occasion seemed to warrant, while Lady Bevan and Lord Littmass exchanged a hasty glance.
‘I know by your writings,’ said Noel to Lord Littmass, with the intention of turning the conversation, ‘that you hold with Wordsworth the sentiment,
“The world is too much with us,”
and appreciate the necessity of a certain amount of solitude for self-culture, and indeed for self-respect.’
‘A short experience of barrack life would cure any one of doubting it,’ replied Lord Littmass. There are no “oaks” to be “sported” there as at the Universities. But I fancy it is not so much of Wordsworth’s as of Thomson’s verses that our friends are reminded by your utterance of just now. Mermaid and Musidora have the same initial, and are alike associated in the mind with bathing. A foolish association, doubtless, as we never talk of fish bathing, and mermaids are not amphibious, but wholly fishy beings.’
‘I think it is your lordship who is now confounding Thomson’s Seasons, his summer with our autumn,’ returned Noel, concealing altogether his surprise at the direction into which the conversation was so persistently turned, a concealment which his habit of self-control made easy for him.
Sophia, however, knew him too well not to divine that he bad some meaning in his mind when he alluded to such a thing as a mermaid; and with her usual precipitancy and not very unusual correctness, she jumped to the conclusion that he did not wish to be drawn out, at least, before the whole party, and so she came forward as an effectual ally to turn the general attention to some other quarter.
‘Who will drive over with me to Waters’-Meet this afternoon,
and try their
luck in the
‘Trout-fishing with ladies!’ exclaimed Lord Littmass, with a slight and not unpardonable sneer. It may be true that women fall in love through the ear, but trout are not to be tickled and taken in that way. Besides, it is too damp for me under the trees at this time of year.’
‘And too late in the day to go fly-fishing,’ added one of the younger men; but I vote for making a day of it to-morrow, and taking lunch with us; that is, if the ladies will promise to wear garments of dusky hue, and reserve the sweet music of their voices till the sport be over.’
‘Very good,’ said Sophia, ‘that is settled; but I want to go there to-day, and invite you, Edmund, to escort me.’
‘Now,’ she said to Noel, when settled in her place in the carriage, ‘I saved you from the inquisitors whom you indiscreetly provoked at lunch. Tell me what you meant. Which way did you go this morning? I have a particular reason for asking, because if you went one way it may lead to a change in our party, and if another, it is of no consequence.’
‘Well, if I was mysterious before, I am altogether surpassed by you now. And as there seems to be so much more than meets the eye, I feel disposed to keep silence until I know what it all means.’
‘It is too late now,’ said Sophia. ‘Did you not notice the looks exchanged between mamma and his lordship when you spoke of your morning ramble?’
‘I did not observe that you were implicated in them; but I agree to exchange mystery for mystery.’
‘Well, as I first discovered my mystery myself, I consider it is my own, and that I violate no confidence in revealing it. Besides, I never consider that I am breaking a secret by imparting it to you.’
‘It seems to me,’ he said, ‘that the conspirators have betrayed themselves by their notice of what might have been a merely accidental observation of mine. Why make this the occasion of disburdening your mind when you can still cherish your secret in secret?’
‘Because it is too late. If you went somewhere this morning, you might go somewhere again, and that would not suit the views of somebody. I won’t stop to quarrel with you for
to want to know anything I can tell you; but, say, you did not go towards the
‘Your clairvoyance is unerring. Pray how long has the cottage been tenanted?’
‘Now, how could you find that out unless you went round by water. It was chosen for its present inhabitant chiefly on account of its utter inaccessibility. I knew the dear old spot well as a child. It is down in a little cleft between high cliffs which overhang the sea on each side, and is hidden in the rear by a dense copse; the whole being enclosed by hedges and gates at the back and the sea in front. I know that its inmates never come out of their retreat; so that if you did not go in a boat, you must have obtained access either as a sea-gull or the early milkman.’
‘By your description it should be either a nunnery or a lunatic asylum. I trust that what I beheld this morning was not a symptom of either.’
‘Possibly a little of both. But tell me what occurred, and then I shall know how to supplement your account.’
‘Well, as you know the position so well, it needs no diagram to make my description intelligible. Deeming the place utterly deserted, I took a fancy for getting to it by climbing round the face of the cliff about half way up.’
‘Oh, don’t!’ cried Sophia, putting her hand over her eyes. ‘It makes me giddy to think of it.’
‘Then it would have made you giddier had you been there. There is no path; so by dint of kicking little hollows in the side to stick my toes in, and holding on by the shrubs, I managed to climb round the jutting edge exactly as the sun was beginning to show itself red and splendid above the horizon. And there I stuck, unable to move without alarming or shocking the damsel who was disporting herself at perfect ease in the waters of the cove, never dreaming of an observer; her sole attire being the magnificent hair which shone in the glow of the red and level sun as a most glorious golden auburn. Altogether, the tall white form as it emerged radiant from the water,
“Kissed by the glowing light of morn,”
so vividly suggested the birth of a new Venus, that I longed to be the artist or poet that could adequately celebrate it.’
‘Well, I am sure you seem to have watched her carefully enough,’ said Sophia, half amused and half angry.
‘I could not help myself. At first, seeing upon what sacred ground I was treading, I endeavoured to retreat. But it was impossible to attempt it without risking an almost certain fall down the cliff. Hampered by my rifle, my footsteps broken away, and, worst of all, the shrubs loosened by my pulling at them, it was as much as I could do to keep my place; while retreat was impossible. I debated the propriety of giving her an alarm, but I thought that would shock her delicacy, and put an end for ever to all enjoyment of her bath; and so I resolved to keep perfectly quiet until she had finished and gone away; believing that utter ignorance would be the pleasantest frame of mind for her, and that if no one knew, no one would be the worse. As for myself, I feel the better. It was Greek unconsciousness in more senses than one.’
‘Poor child,’ said Sophia. ‘How mad I should be if such a thing happened to me.’
‘Not if you did not know it,’ said Noel; and that is the principle that I went on.’
‘What became of her?’
‘I was so occupied in maintaining my foothold, and, if you will believe me, so disgusted with the part I was involuntarily playing, that I did not observe the exact moment when she left the water. I just caught a glimpse of a white long-robed figure vanishing in the wood that hides the cottage, and when I felt sure of being unobserved, I climbed round the point, and stole into the copse and came back by the inland route.’
‘It was she, then, as I and the others suspected.’
‘Lord Littmass’s ward, who wanted to take the veil.’
‘I can assure her that she looks very well without one. But I did not give Lord Littmass credit for any responsibilities. And how on earth comes she to be buried in that secluded spot?’
‘Lord Littmass no responsibilities! Do you really mean to say that your aversion to him is purely instinctive, and that you know nothing whatever of his domestic history?’
‘Incredible as it may appear to you, it certainly is so. But I have always felt that it would not surprise me to hear anything of him; provided, of course, that it did not involve the possession of any very great amount of moral excellence. But
how long has the young lady been there, and why should she take the veil?’
‘It is a long story, and I don’t know all the particulars. Lord Littmass considers the credit of the family concerned in some way, and so not a word is ever said aloud on the subject, either of his ward or his son.’
‘You sweet innocent, you never know anything about people. Yes, his son by his wife who was mamma’s – I mean the present Lady Bevan’s – governess. He induced her to go off with him under promise of marriage and after nearly breaking her heart, he only married her just before their first child was born and then only, I believe, more in order to prevent the threatened withdrawal of my father’s friendship than from any sense of duty or contrition. The whole affair was kept private, and the poor lady, for lady she was, I have heard, in every respect, died, and left him only this son, whom he has brought up in ignorance of his parentage, but well educated. I believe he rarely sees him, and scarcely knows whether he loves or hates him.’
‘What and where is the son now?’
‘He succeeded admirably at the University, and obtained a travelling fellowship, of which, being without home or acknowledged ties of kindred, he has availed himself to the utmost, devoting himself, I believe, to botany and other scientific pursuits in the remotest regions.’
‘Do you know him personally?’
‘But slightly. I met him once at a party at Lord Littmass’s in
look and manner, showed that he had never known womanly care or association. An enterprising wife would find a fine field for her energies in civilising James Maynard.’
‘James Maynard, Lord Littmass’s son!’
‘Yes, but he does not know it. He has grown up in the belief that he is an orphan, and that Lord Littmass is his benefactor.’
‘James Maynard of St. Catherine’s,
‘Yes; do you know him?’
‘A man of middle height, wiry figure, straight dark hair which he wears rather long, and altogether giving one the idea of perpetual unrest?’
‘That is his picture exactly. Do you know him personally?’
‘I know of him. His rooms were one of the sights of the University. He was quite
unconscious of it himself, but it was the usual thing for men who had friends up
to watch him go out, and then to bribe his servant to let them in. I was
admitted once, and never was old curiosity shop more quaintly stored. I hardly
know whether the sights or the sounds were most remarkable. As I went in the man
said, “Mind the snake, sir” and, looking up, there was a great reptile coiled
round a bar just over my head, hissing furiously, but without teeth; and birds
and beasts, living or stuffed, were on all sides. Baskets of rare plants, and
trays of books hung alternately from the ceiling. Ranged in one corner, stood
the gilded pipes of the old college organ. Multitudes of bits of huge wax
candles stood on every shelf and table, anything serving for candlestick – a
root or knot of an old tree, the shoulder of an old marble bust, the hand of a
carved oaken saint and each candle was surmounted by a gigantic extinguisher,
made of cardboard and covered with gold, silver, or coloured paper. These were
said to indicate some ancient worship, which he had the credit of wishing to
revive. Then there were models of
bed, – or converse with the men of his college, who delighted to come and smoke there with him. For himself, he never smoked, but rather encouraged it in others, saying it killed the blight on his flowers. He had the reputation of being a clever original, and it was said that he had two aims in life–––’
‘Oh yes, I know, for he told me he should die happy, if he could find God in Nature, and prove that Jesus spoke Greek.’
‘When he began travelling, which was soon after he took his degree, I have heard that he abandoned the second, and merged the first of those aims in the search after the secret of life. On this quest he wandered far and wide, as if thinking that the farther he got from civilisation, the nearer he would be to nature. The wild flowers of the Amazon yielded him their beauty, and animals, fishes, and insects innumerable, breathed their last under his searching knife. I attended a meeting of the Philosophical Society to hear a paper on his discoveries among the simpler organisations of the zoophytes and other semi-vegetable existences, when he gained great credit for the variety and minuteness of his investigations, and the lucidity of his analysis. The last that I heard of him was, that finding himself in a mining region in the Cordilleras, or in the Ural Mountains, or somewhere, he suddenly shifted his solicitude to the mineral world, and endeavoured to prove that dualism is as necessary to productiveness there as in organic life.’
‘Yes, and from exercising his inquisitorial faculties upon minerals and metals, he became an enthusiastic miner, and held that the first duty of every man is to become rich. He is, however, the last man whom I should expect to succeed in such an endeavour – except, perhaps, yourself. I believe that he comes to England at intervals, but never stays long and that each time he comes Lord Littmass betrays more and more uneasiness, as feeling that he must some day acknowledge him as his son, and yet shrinking from revealing the history of his marriage to a world that at present believes him to be of a blameless life. I have but scanty reasons for my suspicion, but I am inclined to think that he is involved in some perplexity about his ward, Margaret Waring, of whom you have already seen too much to-day.’
‘Do you mean in connection with his son ‘
‘I hardly know. You always laugh at me for jumping to conclusions but I cannot otherwise understand why she should
be sent into hiding down here just after coming out of a French convent. I have a great mind to ask mamma all about it when we get home.’
‘Well, but who is this mysterious damsel, and why should she be doomed successively to such solitudes as those of a French convent and Porlock Cove?’
‘I believe she is of a peculiar disposition, half devote, half artiste; and that Lord Littmass considers it necessary to her health, whether of mind or body, to defer her introduction to the world beyond the usual time.’
‘But who is she?’
‘I understand that he represents her to be the orphan child of an old friend, bequeathed to his especial and exclusive care, and that she has some little property, which is also under his control until her marriage.’
‘Not his own daughter, surely?’
‘No, I am pretty certain of that. But there is a mystery, and I am not inclined to put up with it. Perhaps when we get home we shall learn more, for I am confident that your adventure of this morning has precipitated events.’