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Dr Greatrex's Engagement
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An Episode In High Life








Sir Henry Vardon, K.C.B., electrician to the Admiralty, whose title, as
everybody knows, was gazetted some six weeks since, is at this moment
the youngest living member of the British knighthood. He is now only
just thirty, and he has obtained his present high distinction by those
remarkable inventions of his in the matter of electrical signalling and
lighthouse arrangements which have been so much talked about in Nature
this year, and which gained him the gold medal of the Royal Society in
1881. Lady Vardon is one of the youngest and prettiest hostesses in
London, and if you would care to hear the history of their courtship
here it is.

When Harry Vardon left Oxford, only seven years ago, none of his friends
could imagine what he meant by throwing up all his chances of University
success. The son of a poor country parson in Devonshire, who had
strained his little income to the uttermost to send him to college,
Vardon of Magdalen had done credit to his father and himself in all the
schools. He gained the best demyship of his year; got a first in
classical mods.; and then unaccountably took to reading science, in
which he carried everything before him. At the end of his four years, he
walked into a scientific fellowship at Balliol as a matter of course;
and then, after twelve months' residence, he suddenly surprised the
world of Oxford by accepting a tutorship to the young Earl of Surrey,
at that time, as you doubtless remember, a minor, aged about sixteen.

But Harry Vardon had good reasons of his own for taking this tutorship.
Six months after he became a fellow of Balliol, the old vicar had died
unexpectedly, leaving his only other child, Edith, alone and unprovided
for, as was indeed natural; for the expenses of Harry's college life had
quite eaten up the meagre savings of twenty years at Little Hinton. In
order to provide a home for Edith, it was necessary that Harry should
find something or other to do which would bring in an immediate income.
School-mastering, that refuge of the destitute graduate, was not much to
his mind; and so when the senior tutor of Boniface wrote a little note
to ask whether he would care to accept the charge of a cub nobleman, as
he disrespectfully phrased it, Harry jumped at the offer, and took the
proposed salary of 400l. a year with the greatest alacrity. That would
far more than suffice for all Edith's simple needs, and he himself could
live upon the proceeds of his fellowship, besides finding time to
continue his electrical researches. For I will not disguise the fact
that Harry only accepted the cub nobleman as a stop-gap, and that he
meant even then to make his fortune in the end by those splendid
electrical discoveries which will undoubtedly immortalize his name in
future ages.

It was summer term when the appointment was made; and the Surrey people
(who were poor for their station) had just gone down to Colyford Abbey,
the family seat, in the valley of the Axe near Seaton. You have visited
the house, I dare say--open to visitors every Tuesday, when the family
is absent--a fine somewhat modernized mansion, with some good
perpendicular work about it still, in spite of the havoc wrought in it
by Inigo Jones, who converted the chapel and refectory of the old
Cistercians into a banqueting-hall and ballroom for the first Lord
Surrey of the present creation. It was lovely weather when Harry Vardon
went down there; and the Abbey, and the terrace, and the park, and the
beautiful valley beyond were looking their very best. Harry fell in love
with the view at once, and almost fell in love with the inmates too at
the first glance.

Lady Surrey, the mother, was sitting on a garden seat in front of the
house as the carriage which met him at Colyford station drove up to the
door. She was much younger and more beautiful than Harry had at all
expected. He had pictured the dowager to himself as a stately old lady
of sixty, with white hair and a grand manner; instead of which he found
himself face to face with a well-preserved beauty of something less than
forty, not above medium height, and still strikingly pretty in a
round-faced, mature, but very delicate fashion. She had wavy chestnut
hair, regular features, an exquisite set of pearly teeth, full cheeks
whose natural roses were perhaps just a trifle increased by not wholly
ungraceful art, and above all a lovely complexion quite unspoilt as yet
by years. She was dressed as such a person should be dressed, with no
affectation of girlishness, but in the style that best shows off ripe
beauty and a womanly figure. Harry was always a very impressionable
fellow; and I really believe that if Lady Surrey had been alone he would
have fallen over head and ears in love with her at first sight.

But there was something which kept him from falling in love at once with
Lady Surrey, and that was the girl who sat half reclining on a
tiger-skin at her feet, with a little sketching tablet on her lap. He
could hardly take full stock of the mother because he was so busy
looking at the daughter as well. I shall not attempt to describe Lady
Gladys Durant; all pretty girls fall under one of some half-dozen heads,
and description at best can really do no more than classify them. Lady
Gladys belonged to the tall and graceful aristocratic class, and she was
a good specimen of the type at seventeen. Not that Harry Vardon fell in
love with her at once; he was really in the pleasing condition of
Captain Macheath, too much engaged in looking at two pretty women to be
capable even mentally of making a choice between them. Mother and
daughter were both almost equally beautiful, each in her own distinct
style.

The countess half rose to greet him--it is condescension on the part of
a countess to notice the tutor at all, I believe; but though I am no
lover of lords myself, I will do the Durants the justice to say that
their treatment of Harry was always the very kindliest that could
possibly be expected from people of their ideas and traditions.

"Mr. Vardon?" she said interrogatively, as she held out her hand to the
new tutor. Harry bowed assent. "I'm glad you have such a lovely day to
make your first acquaintance with Colyford. It's a pretty place, isn't
it? Gladys, this is Mr. Vardon, who is kindly going to take charge of
Surrey for us."

"I'm afraid you don't know what you're going to undertake," said Gladys,
smiling and holding out her hand. "He's a dreadful pickle. Do you know
this part of the world before, Mr. Vardon?"

"Not just hereabouts," Harry answered; "my father's parish was in North
Devon, but I know the greater part of the county very well."

"That's a good thing," said Gladys quickly; "we're all Devonshire people
here, and we believe in the county with all our hearts. I wish Surrey
took his title from it. It's so absurd to take your title from a place
you don't care about only because you've got land there. I love
Devonshire people best of any."

"Mr. Vardon would probably like to see his rooms," said the countess.
"Parker, will you show him up?"

The rooms were everything that Harry could wish. There was a prettily
furnished sitting-room for himself on the front, looking across the
terrace, with a view of the valley and the sea in the distance; there
was a study next door, for tutor and pupil to work in; there was a
cheerful little bedroom behind; and downstairs at the back there was the
large bare room for which Harry had specially stipulated, wherein to put
his electrical apparatus, for he meant to experiment and work busily at
his own subject in his spare time. There was a special servant, too,
told off to wait upon him; and altogether Harry felt that if only the
social position could be made endurable, he could live very comfortably
for a year or two at Colyford Abbey.

There are some men who could never stand such a life at all. There are
others who can stand it because they can stand anything. But Harry
Vardon belonged to neither class. He was one of those who feel at home
in most places, and who can get on in all society alike. In the first
place, he was one of the handsomest fellows you ever saw, with large
dark eyes, and that particular black moustache that no woman can ever
resist. Then again he was tall and had a good presence, which impressed
even those most dangerous of critics for a private tutor, the footmen.
Moreover, he was clever, chatty, and agreeable; and it never entered
into his head that he was not conferring some distinction upon the
Surrey family by consenting to be teacher to their young
lordling--which, indeed, was after all the sober fact.

The train was in a little before seven, and there was a bit of a drive
from the station, so that Harry had only just had time to dress for
dinner when the gong sounded. In the drawing-room he met his future
pupil, a good-looking, high-spirited, but evidently lazy boy of sixteen.
The family was alone, so the earl took down his mother, while Harry gave
his arm to Lady Gladys. Before dinner was over, the new tutor had taken
the measure of the trio pretty accurately. The countess was clever, that
was certain; she took an interest in books and in art, and she could
talk lightly but well upon most current topics in the easy sparkling
style of a woman of the world. Gladys was clever too, though not booky;
she was full of sketching and music, and was delighted to hear that
Harry could paint a little in water-colours, besides being the owner of
a good violin. As to the boy, his fancy clearly ran for the most part to
dogs, guns, and cricket; and indeed, though he was no doubt a very
important person as a future member of the British legislature, I think
for the purposes of the present story, which is mainly concerned with
Harry Vardon's fortunes, we may safely leave him out of consideration.
Harry taught him as much as he could be induced to learn for an hour or
two every morning, and looked after him as far as possible when he was
anywhere within hearing throughout the rest of the day; but as the lad
was almost always out around the place somewhere with a gamekeeper or a
stable-boy, he hardly entered practically into the current of Harry's
life at all, outside the regular hours of study. As a matter of fact, he
never learnt much from anybody or did anything worth speaking of; but he
has since married a Birmingham heiress with a million or so of her own,
and is now one of the most rising young members of the House of Lords.

After dinner, the countess showed Harry her excellent collection of
Bartolozzis, and Harry, who knew something about them, showed the
countess that she was wrong as to the authenticity of one or two among
them. Then Gladys played passably well, and he sang a duet with her, in
a way that made her feel a little ashamed of her own singing. And lastly
Harry brought down his violin, at which the countess smiled a little,
for she thought it audacious on the first evening; but when he played
one of his best pieces she smiled again, for she had a good ear and a
great deal of taste. After which they all retired to bed, and Gladys
remarked to her maid, in the privacy of her own room, that the new tutor
was a very pleasant man, and quite a relief after such a stick as Mr.
Wilkinson.

At breakfast next morning the party remained unchanged, but at lunch the
two younger girls appeared upon the scene, with their governess, Miss
Martindale. Though very different in type from Gladys, Ethel Martindale
was in her way an equally pretty girl. She was small and mignonne,
with delicate little hands, and a light pretty figure, not too slight,
but very gracefully proportioned. Her cheeks and chin were charmingly
dimpled, and her complexion was just of that faintly-dark tinge that one
sees so often combined with light-brown hair and eyes in the moorland
parts of Lancashire. Altogether, she was a perfect foil to Gladys, and
it would have been difficult for almost any man as he sat at that table
to say which of the three, mother, daughter, or governess, was really
the prettiest. For my own part, I give my vote unreservedly for the
countess, but then I am getting somewhat grizzled now and have long been
bald; so my liking turns naturally towards ripe beauty. I hate your
self-conscious chits of seventeen, who can only chat and giggle; I like
a woman who has something to say for herself. But Harry was just turned
twenty-three, and perhaps his choice might, not unnaturally, have gone
otherwise.

The governess talked little at lunch, and seemed altogether a rather
subdued and timid girl. Harry noticed with pain that she appeared half
afraid of speaking to anybody, and also that the footmen made a marked
distinction between their manner to him and their manner to her. He
would have liked once or twice to kick the fellows for their insolence.
After lunch, Gladys and the little ones went for a stroll down towards
the river, and Harry followed after with Miss Martindale.

"Do you come from this part of England?" he asked.

"No," answered Ethel, "I come from Lancashire. My father was rector of a
small parish on the moors."

Harry's heart smote him. It might have been Edith. What a little turn of
chance had made all the difference! "My father was a parson too," he
said, and then checked himself for the half-disrespectful word, "but he
lived down here in Devonshire. Do you like Colyford?"

"Oh yes,--the place, very much. There are delightful rambles, and Lady
Gladys and I go out sketching a great deal. And it's a delightful
country for flowers."

The place, but not the life, thought Harry. Poor child, it must be very
hard for her.

"Mr. Vardon, come on here, I want you," called out Gladys from the
little stone bridge. "You know everything. Can you tell me what this
flower is?" and she held out a long spray of waving green-stuff.

"Caper spurge," said Harry, looking at it carelessly.

"Oh no," Miss Martindale put in quickly, "Portland spurge, surely."

"So it is," Harry answered, looking closer. "Then you are a bit of a
botanist, Miss Martindale?"

"Not a botanist, but very fond of the flowers."

"Miss Martindale's always picking lots of ugly things and bringing them
home," said Gladys laughingly; "aren't you, dear?"

Ethel smiled and nodded. So they went on past the bridge and out upon
the opposite side, and back again by the little white railings into the
park.

For the next three months Harry enjoyed himself in a busy way immensely.
Every morning he had his three hours' teaching, and every afternoon he
went a walk, or fished in the river, or worked at his electrical
machines. To the household at the Abbey such a man was a perfect
godsend. For he was a versatile fellow, able to turn his hand to
anything, and the Durants lived in a very quiet way, and were glad of
somebody to keep the house lively. The money was all tied up till the
boy came of age, and even then there wouldn't be much of it. Surrey had
been sent to Eton for a month or two and then removed, by request, to
prevent more violent measures; after which he was sent to two or three
other schools, always with the same result. So he was brought home again
and handed over to the domestic persuasion of a private tutor. The only
thing that kept him moderately quiet was the possibility of running
around the place with the keepers; and the only person who ever taught
him anything was Harry Vardon, though even he, I must admit, did not
succeed in impressing any very valuable lessons upon the lad's volatile
brain. The countess saw few visitors, and so a man like Harry was a real
acquisition to the little circle. He was perpetually being wanted by
everybody, everywhere, and at the end of three months he was simply
indispensable.

Lady Surrey was always consulting him as to the proper place to plant
the new wellingtonias, the right aspect for deodars, the best plan for
mounting water-colours, and the correct date of all the neighbouring
churches. It was so delightful to drive about with somebody who really
understood the history and geology and antiquities of the county, she
said; and she began to develop an extraordinary interest in prehistoric
archaeology, and to listen patiently to Harry's disquisitions on the
difference between long barrows and round barrows, or on the true nature
of the earthworks that cap the top of Membury Hill. Harry for his part
was quite ready to discourse volubly on all these subjects, for it was
his hobby to impart information, whereof he had plenty; and he liked
knocking about the country, examining castles or churches, and laying
down the law about matters architectural with much authority to two
pretty women. The countess even took an interest in his great electrical
investigation, and came into his workshop to hear all about the uses of
his mysterious batteries. As for Lady Gladys, she was for ever wanting
Mr. Vardon's opinion about the exact colour for that shadow by the
cottage, Mr. Vardon's aid in practising that difficult bit of Chopin,
Mr. Vardon's counsel about the decorative treatment of the
passion-flower on that lovely piece of crewel-work. Indeed, contrary to
Miss Martindale's express admonition, and all the dictates of propriety,
she was always running off to Harry's little sitting-room to ask his
advice about five hundred different things, five hundred times in every
twenty-four hours.

There was only one person in the household who seemed at all shy of
Harry, and that was Miss Martindale. Do what he could, he could never
get her to feel at home with him. She seemed always anxious to keep out
of his way, and never ready to join in any of his plans. This was
annoying, because Harry really liked the poor girl and felt sorry for
her lonely position. But as she would have nothing to say to him, why,
there was nothing else to be done; so he contented himself with being as
polite to her as possible, while respecting her evident wish to be let
alone.

One afternoon, when the four had been out for a drive together to visit
the old ruins near Cowhayne, and Harry had been sketching with Gladys
and lecturing to the countess to his heart's content, he was sitting on
the bench by the red cedars, when to his surprise he saw the governess
strolling carelessly across the terrace towards him. "Mr. Vardon," she
said, standing beside the bench, "I want to say something to you. You
mustn't mind my saying it, but I feel it is part of my duty. Do you
think you ought to pay so much attention to Gladys? You and I come into
a family of this sort on peculiar terms, you know. They don't think we
are quite the same sort of human beings as themselves. Now, I'm half
afraid--I don't like to say so, but I think it better I should say it
than my lady--I'm half afraid that Gladys is getting her head too much
filled with you. Whatever she does, you are always helping her. She is
for ever running off to see you about something or other. She is very
young; she meets very few other men; and you have been extremely
attentive to her. But when people like these admit you into their
family, they do so on the tacit understanding that you will not do what
they would call abusing the position. To-day, I half fancied that my
lady looked at you once or twice when you were talking to Gladys, and I
thought I would try to be brave enough to speak to you about it. If I
don't, I think she will."

"Really, Miss Martindale," said Harry, rising and walking by her side
towards the laburnum alley, "I'm very glad you have unburdened your mind
about this matter. For myself, you know, I don't acknowledge the
obligation. I should marry any girl I liked, if she would have me,
whatever her artificial position might be; and I should never let any
barriers of that sort stand in my way. But I don't know that I have the
slightest intention of ever trying to marry Lady Gladys or anybody else
of the sort; so while I remain undecided on that point, I shall do as
you wish me. By the way, it strikes me now that you have been trying to
keep her away from me as much as possible."

"As part of my duty, I think I ought to do so. Yes."

"Well, you may rely upon it, I will give you no more cause for anxiety,"
said Harry; "so the less we say about it the better. What a lovely
sunset, and what a glorious colour on the cliffs at Axmouth!" And he
walked down the alley with her two or three times, talking about various
indifferent subjects. Somehow he had never managed to get on so well
with her before. She was a very nice girl, he thought, really a very
nice girl; what a pity she would never take any notice of him in any
way! However, he enjoyed that quiet half-hour immensely, and was quite
sorry when Lady Surrey came out a little later and joined them, exactly
as if she wanted to interrupt their conversation. But what a beautiful
woman Lady Surrey was too, as she came across the lawn just then in her
garden hat and the pale blue Umritzur shawl thrown loosely across her
shapely shoulders! By Jove, she was as handsome a woman, after all, as
he had ever seen.

After dinner that evening Lady Surrey sent Gladys off to Miss
Martindale's room on some small pretext, and then put Harry down on the
sofa beside her to help in arranging those interminable ferns of hers.
Evening dress suited the countess best, and she knew it. She was looking
even more beautiful than before, with her hair prettily dressed, and the
little simple turquoise necklet setting off her white neck; and she
talked a great deal to Harry, and was really very charming. No more
fascinating widow, he thought, to be found anywhere within a hundred
miles. At last she stopped, leaning over the ferns, and sat back a
little on the sofa, half fronting him. "Mr. Vardon," she said suddenly,
"there is something I wish to speak to you about, privately."

"Certainly," said Harry, half expecting the topic.

"Do you know, I think you ought not to pay such marked attention to Lady
Gladys. Two or three times I have fancied I noticed it, and have meant
to mention it to you, but I thought it might be unnecessary. On many
accounts, however, I think it is best not to let it pass any longer. The
difference of station----"

"Excuse me," said Harry, "I'm sorry to differ from you, but I don't
acknowledge differences of station."

"Well," said the countess, in a conciliatory tone, "under certain
circumstances that may be perfectly correct. A young man in your
position and with your talents has of course the whole world before
him. He can make himself whatever he pleases. I don't think, Mr. Vardon,
I have ever under-estimated the worth of brains. I do feel that
knowledge and culture are much greater things after all than mere
position. Now, in justice to me, don't you think I do?"

Harry looked at her--she was really a very beautiful woman--and then
said, "Yes, I think you have certainly better and more rational tastes
than most other people circumstanced as you are."

"I'm so glad you do," the countess answered, heartily. "I don't care for
a life of perfect frivolity and fashion, such as one gets in London. If
it were not for Gladys's sake I sometimes think I would give it up
entirely. Do you know, I often wish my life had been cast very
differently--cast among another set of people from the people I have
always mixed among. Whenever I meet clever people--literary people and
scholars--I always feel so sorry I haven't moved all my life in their
world. From one point of view, I quite recognize what you said just now,
that these artificial distinctions should not exist between people who
are really equals in intellect and culture."

"Naturally not," said Harry, to whom this proposition sounded like a
familiar truism.

"But in Lady Gladys's case, I feel I ought to guard her against seeing
too much of anybody in particular just at present. She is only
seventeen, and she is of course impressionable. Now, you know a great
many mothers would not have spoken to you as I do; but I like you, Mr.
Vardon, and I feel at home with you. You will promise me not to pay so
much attention to Gladys in future, won't you?"

As she looked at him full in the face with her beautiful eyes, Harry
felt he could just then have promised her anything. "Yes," he said, "I
will promise."

"Thank you," said the countess, looking at him again; "I am very much
obliged to you." And then for a moment there was an awkward pause, and
they both looked full into one another's eyes without saying a word.

In a minute the countess began again, and said a good many things about
what a dreadful waste of life people generally made; and what a
privilege it was to know clever people; and what a reality and purpose
there was in their lives. A great deal of this sort she said, and in a
low pleasant voice. And then there was another awkward pause, and they
looked at one another once more.

Harry certainly thought the countess very beautiful, and he liked her
very much. She was really kind-hearted and friendly; she was interested
in the subjects that pleased him; and she was after all a pretty woman,
still young as men count youth, and very agreeable--nay, anxious to
please. And then she had said what she said about the artificiality of
class distinctions so markedly and pointedly, with such a commentary
from her eyes, that Harry half fancied--well, I don't quite know what he
fancied. As he sat there beside her on the sofa, with the ferns before
him, looking straight into her eyes, and she into his, it must be clear
to all my readers that if he had any special proposition to make to her
on any abstract subject of human speculation, the time had obviously
arrived to make it. But something or other inscrutable kept him back.
"Lady Surrey----" he said, and the words stuck in his throat.

"Yes," she answered softly. "Shall ... shall we go on with the ferns?"
Lady Surrey gave a little short breath, brought back her eyes from
dreamland, and turned with a sudden smile back to the portfolio. For the
rest of the evening, the candid historian must admit that they both felt
like a pair of fools. Conversation lagged, and I don't think either of
them was sorry when the time came for retiring.

It is useless for the clumsy male psychologist to pretend that he can
see into the heart of a woman, especially when the normal action of said
heart is complicated by such queer conventionalities as that of a
countess who feels a distinct liking for her son's tutor: but if I may
venture to attempt that impossible feat of clairvoyance without rebuke,
I should be inclined to diagnose Lady Surrey's condition as she lay
sleepless for an hour or so on her pillow that night somewhat as
follows. She thought that Harry Vardon was really a very clever and a
very pleasant fellow. She thought that men in society were generally
dreadfully empty-headed and horribly vain. She thought that the
importance of disparity in age had, as a rule, been immensely overrated.
She thought that rank was after all much less valuable than she used to
think it when first she married poor dear Surrey, who was really the
kindest of men, and a thorough gentleman, but certainly not at all
brilliant. She thought that a young man of Harry's talent might, if well
connected, get into Parliament and rise, like Beaconsfield, to any
position. She thought he was very frank, and open, and gentlemanly; and
very handsome too. She thought he had half hesitated whether he should
propose to her or not, and had then drawn back because he was not
certain of the consequences. She thought that if he had proposed to
her--well, perhaps--why, yes, she might even possibly have accepted him.
She thought he would probably propose in earnest, before long, as soon
as he saw that she was not wholly averse to his attentions. She thought
in that case she might perhaps provisionally accept him, and get him to
try what he could do in the way of obtaining some sort of position--she
didn't exactly know what--where he could more easily marry her with the
least possible shock to the feelings of society. And she thought that
she really didn't know before for twenty years at least how great a
goose she positively was.

Next morning, after breakfast, Lady Surrey sent for Gladys to come to
her in her boudoir. Then she put her daughter in a chair by the window,
drew her own close to it, laid her hand kindly on her shoulder--she was
a nice little woman at heart, was the countess--and said to her gently,
"My dear Gladys, there's a little matter I want to talk to you about.
You are still very young, you know, dear; and I think you ought to be
very careful about not letting your feelings be played upon in any way,
however unconsciously. Now, you walk and talk a great deal too much,
dear, with Mr. Vardon. In many ways, it would be well that you should.
Mr. Vardon is very clever, and very well informed, and a very
instructive companion. I like you to talk to intelligent people, and to
hear intelligent people talk; it gives you something that mere books can
never give. But you know, Gladys, you should always remember the
disparity in your stations. I don't deny that there's a great deal in
all that sort of thing that's very conventional and absurd, my dear; but
still, girls are girls, and if they're thrown too much with any one
young man"--Lady Surrey was going to add, "especially when he's handsome
and agreeable," but she checked herself in time--"they're very apt to
form an affection for him. Of course I'm not suggesting that you're
likely to do anything of the sort with Mr. Vardon--I don't for a moment
suppose you would--but a girl can never be too careful. I hope you know
your position too well;" here Lady Surrey was conscious of certain
internal qualms; "and indeed whether it was Mr. Vardon or anybody else,
you are much too young to fill your head with such notions at your age.
Of course, if some really good offer had been made to you even in your
first season--say Lord St. Ives or Sir Montague--I don't say it might
not have been prudent to accept it; but under ordinary circumstances, a
girl does best to think as little as possible about such things until
she is twenty at least. However, I hope in future you'll remember that I
don't wish you to be quite so familiar in your intercourse with Mr.
Vardon."

"Very well, mamma," said Gladys quietly, drawing herself up; "I have
heard what you want to say, and I shall try to do as you wish. But I
should like to say something in return, if you'll be so kind as to
listen to me."

"Certainly, darling," Lady Surrey answered, with a vague foreboding of
something wrong.

"I don't say I care any more for Mr. Vardon than for anybody else; I
haven't seen enough of him to know whether I care for him or not. But if
ever I do care for anybody, it will be for somebody like him, and not
for somebody like Lord St. Ives or Monty Fitzroy. I don't like the men I
meet in town; they all talk to us as if we were dolls or babies. I don't
want to marry a man who says to himself, as Surrey says already, 'Ah, I
shall look out for some rich girl or other and make her a countess, if
she's a good girl, and if she suits me.' I'd rather have a man like Mr.
Vardon than any of the men we ever meet in London."

"But, my darling," said Lady Surrey, quite alarmed at Gladys' too
serious tone, "surely there are gentlemen quite as clever and quite as
intellectual as Mr. Vardon."

"Mamma!" cried Gladys, rising, "do you mean to say Mr. Vardon is not a
gentleman?"

"Gladys, Gladys! sit down, dear. Don't get so excited. Of course he is.
I trust I have as great a respect as anybody for talent and culture. But
what I meant to say was this--can't you find as much talent and culture
among people of our own station as--as among people of Mr. Vardon's?"

"No," said Gladys shortly.

"Really, my dear, you are too hard upon the peerage."

"Well, mamma, can you mention any one that we know who is?" asked the
peremptory girl.

"Not exactly in our own set," said Lady Surrey hesitatingly; "but surely
there must be some."

"I don't know them," Gladys replied quietly, "and till I do know them,
I shall remain of my own opinion still. If you wish me not to see so
much of Mr. Vardon, I shall try to do as you say; but if I happen to
like any particular person, whether he's a peer or a ploughboy, I can't
help liking him, so there's an end of it." And Gladys kissed her mother
demurely on the forehead, and walked with a stately sweep out of the
room.

"It's perfectly clear," said Lady Surrey to herself, "that that girl's
in love with Mr. Vardon, and what on earth I'm to do about it is to me a
mystery." And indeed Lady Surrey's position was by no means an easy one.
On the one hand, she felt that whatever she herself, who was a person of
mature years, might happen to do, it would be positively wicked in her
to allow a young girl like Gladys to throw herself away on a man in
Harry Vardon's position. Without any shadow of an arriere pensee, that
was her genuine feeling as a mother and a member of society. But then,
on the other hand, how could she oppose it, if she really ever thought
herself, even conditionally, of marrying Harry Vardon? Could she endure
that her daughter should think she had acted as her rival? Could she
press the point about Harry's conventional disadvantages, when she
herself had some vague idea that if Harry offered himself as Gladys'
step-father, she would not be wholly disinclined to consider his
proposal? Could she set it down as a crime in her daughter to form the
very self-same affection which she herself had well-nigh formed?
Moreover, she couldn't help feeling in her heart that Gladys was right,
after all; and that the daughter's defiance of conventionality was
implicitly inherited from the mother. If she had met Harry Vardon twenty
years ago, she would have thought and spoken much like Gladys; in fact,
though she didn't speak, she thought so, very nearly, even now. I am
sorry that I am obliged to write out these faint outlines of ideas in
all the brutal plainness of the English language as spoken by men; I
cannot give all those fine shades of unspoken reservations and womanly
self-deceptive subterfuges by which the poor little countess half
disguised her own meaning even from herself; but at least you will not
be surprised to hear that in the end she lay down on the little couch in
the corner, covered her face with chagrin and disappointment, and had a
good cry. Then she got up an hour later, washed her eyes carefully to
take off the redness, put on her pretty dove-coloured morning gown with
the lace trimming--she looked charming in lace--and went down smiling to
lunch, as pleasant and cheery a little widow of thirty-seven as ever you
would wish to see. Upon my soul, Harry Vardon, I really almost think you
will be a fool if you don't finally marry the countess!

"Gladys," said little Lord Surrey to his sister that evening, when she
came into his room on her way upstairs to bed--"Gladys, it's my opinion
you're getting too sweet on this fellow Vardon."

"I shall be obliged, Surrey, if you'll mind your own business, and allow
me to mind mine."

"Oh, it's no use coming the high and mighty over me, I can tell you, so
don't you try it on. Besides, I have something I want to speak to you
about particularly. It's my opinion also that my lady's doing the very
same thing."

"What nonsense, Surrey!" cried Gladys, colouring up to her eyebrows in a
second: "how dare you say such a thing about mamma?" But a light broke
in upon her suddenly all the same, and a number of little unnoticed
circumstances flashed back at once upon her memory with a fresh flood of
meaning.

"Nonsense or not, it's true, I know; and what I want to say to you is
this--If old Vardon's to marry either of you, it ought to be you,
because that would save mamma at any rate from making a fool of herself.
As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather neither of you did; for I don't see
why either of you should want to marry a beggarly fellow of a
tutor"--Gladys' eyes flashed fire--"though Vardon's a decent enough chap
in his way, if that was all; but at any rate, as one or other of you's
cock-sure to do it, I don't want him for a step-father. So you see, as
far as that goes, I back the filly. Now, say no more about it, but go to
bed like a good girl, and mind, whatever you do, you don't forget to say
your prayers. Good night, old girl."

"I wouldn't marry a fellow like Surrey," said Gladys to herself, as she
went upstairs, "no, not if he was the premier duke of England!"

For the next three weeks there was such a comedy of errors and
cross-purposes at Colyford Abbey as was never seen before anywhere
outside of one of Mr. Gilbert's clever extravaganzas. Lady Surrey tried
to keep Gladys in every possible way out of Harry's sight; while her
brother tried in every possible way to throw them together. Gladys on
her part half avoided him, and yet grew somewhat more confidential than
ever whenever she happened to talk with him. Harry did not feel quite so
much at home as before with Lady Surrey; he had an uncomfortable sense
that he had failed to acquit himself as he ought to have done; while
Lady Surrey had a half suspicion that she had let him see her unfledged
secret a little too early and too openly. The natural consequence of all
this was that Harry was cast far more than before upon the society of
Ethel Martindale, with whom he often strolled about the shrubbery till
very close upon the dressing gong. Ethel did not come down to
dinner--she dined with the little ones at the family luncheon; and that
horrid galling distinction cut Harry to the quick every night when he
left her to go in. Every day, too, it began to dawn upon him more
clearly that the vague reason which had kept him back from proposing to
Lady Surrey on that eventful night was just this--that Ethel Martindale
had made herself a certain vacant niche in his unfurnished heart. She
was a dear, quiet, unassuming little girl, but so very graceful, so very
tender, so very womanly, that she crept into his affections unawares
without possibility of resistance. The countess was a beautiful and
accomplished woman of the world, with a real heart left in her still,
but not quite the sort of tender, shrinking, girlish heart that Harry
wanted. Gladys was a lovely girl with stately manners and a wonderfully
formed character, but too great and too redolent of society for Harry.
He admired them both, each in her own way, but he couldn't possibly have
lived a lifetime with either. But Ethel, dear, meek, pretty, gentle
little Ethel--well, there, I'm not going to repeat for you all the
raptures that Harry went into over that perennial and ever rejuvenescent
theme. For, to tell you the truth, about three weeks after the night
when Harry did not propose to the countess, he actually did propose
to Ethel Martindale. And Ethel, after many timid protests, after much
demure self-depreciation and declaration of utter unworthiness for such
a man--which made Harry wild with indignation--did finally let him put
her little hand to his lips, and whispered a sort of broken and blushing
"Yes."

What a fool he had been, he thought that evening, to suppose for half a
second that Lady Surrey had ever meant to regard him in any other light
than as her son's tutor. He hated himself for his own nonsensical
vanity. Who was he that he should fancy all the women in England were in
love with him?

Next morning's Times contained that curious announcement about its
being the intention of the Government to appoint an electrician to the
Admiralty, and inviting applications from distinguished men of science.
Now Harry, young as he was, had just perfected his great system of the
double-revolving commutator and back-action rheostat (Patent Office, No.
18,237,504), and had sent in a paper on the subject which had been read
with great success at the Royal Society. The famous Professor Brusegay
himself had described it as a remarkable invention, likely to prove of
immense practical importance to telegraphy and electrical science
generally. So when Harry saw the announcement that morning, he made up
his mind to apply for the appointment at once; and he thought that if he
got it, as the salary was a good one, he might before long marry Ethel,
and yet manage to keep Edith in the same comfort as before.

Lady Surrey saw the paragraph too, and had her own ideas about what it
might be made to do. It was the very opening that Harry wanted, and if
he got it, why then no doubt he might make the proposal which he
evidently felt afraid to make, poor fellow, in his present position. So
she went into her boudoir immediately after breakfast, and wrote two
careful and cautiously worded little notes. One was to Dr. Brusegay,
whom she knew well, mentioning to him that her son's tutor was the
author of that remarkable paper on commutators, and that she thought he
would probably be admirably fitted for the post, but that on that point
the Professor himself was the best judge; the other was to her cousin,
Lord Ardenleigh, who was a great man in the government of the day,
suggesting casually that he should look into the claims of her friend,
Mr. Vardon, for this new place at the Admiralty. Two nicer little notes,
written with better tact and judgment, it would be difficult to find.

At that very moment Harry was also sitting down in his own room, after
five minutes' consultation with Ethel, to make formal application for
the new post. And after lunch the same day he spoke to Lady Surrey upon
the subject.

"There is one special reason," he said, "why I should like to get this
post, and I think I ought to let you know it now." Poor little Lady
Surrey's heart fluttered like a girl's. "The fact is, I am anxious to
obtain a position which would enable me to marry." ("How very bluntly he
puts it," said the countess to herself.) "I ought to tell you, I think,
that I have proposed to Miss Martindale, and she has accepted me."

Miss Martindale! Great heavens, how the room reeled round the poor
little woman, as she stood with her hand on the table, trying to balance
herself, trying to conceal her shame and mortification, trying to look
as if the announcement did not concern her in any way. Poor, dear, good
little countess; from my heart I pity you. Miss Martindale! why, she had
never even thought of her. A mere governess, a nobody; and Harry
Vardon, with his magnificent intellect and splendid prospects, was going
to throw himself away on that girl! She could hardly control herself to
answer him, but with a great effort she gulped down her feelings, and
remarked that Ethel Martindale was a very good girl, and would doubtless
make an admirable wife. And then she walked quietly out of the room,
stepped up the stairs somewhat faster, rushed into her boudoir,
double-locked the door, and burst into a perfect flood of hot scalding
tears. At that moment she began to realize the fact that she had in
truth liked Harry Vardon much more than a little.

By-and-by she got up, went over to her desk, took out the two unposted
notes, tore them into fragments, and then carefully burnt them up piece
by piece, in a perfect holocaust of white paper. What a wicked
vindictive little countess! Was she going to spoil these two young
people's lives, to throw every possible obstacle in the way of their
marriage? Not a bit of it. As soon as her eyes allowed her, she sat down
and wrote two more notes, a great deal stronger and better than before;
for this time she need not fear the possibility of after reflections
from an unkind world. She said a great deal in a casual half-hinting
fashion about Harry's merits, and remarked upon the loss that she should
sustain in the removal of such a tutor from Lord Surrey; but she felt
that sooner or later his talents must get him a higher recognition, and
she hoped Dr. Brusegay and her cousin would use their influence to
obtain him the appointment. Then she went downstairs feeling like a
Christian martyr, kissed and congratulated Ethel, talked gaily about
Bartolozzi to Harry, and tried to make believe that she took the
engagement as a matter of course. Nothing in fact, as she remarked to
Gladys, could possibly be more suitable. Gladys bit her tongue, and
answered shortly that she didn't herself perceive any special natural
congruity about the match, but perhaps her mother was better informed on
the subject.

Now, we all know that in the matter of public appointment anything like
backstairs influence or indirect canvassing is positively fatal to the
success of a candidate. Accordingly, it may surprise you to learn that
when Professor Brusegay (who held the appointment virtually in his
hands) opened his letters next morning he said to his wife, "Why, Maria,
that young fellow Vardon who wrote that astonishingly clever paper on
commutators, you know, is tutor at Lady Surrey's, and she wants him to
get this place at the Admiralty. We must really see what we can do about
it. Lady Surrey is such a very useful person to know, and besides it's
so important to keep on good terms with her, for the Paulsons would be
absolutely intolerable if we hadn't its acquaintance in the peerage to
play off against their Lord Poodlebury." And when the Professor shortly
afterwards mentioned Harry's name to Lord Ardenleigh, his lordship
remarked immediately, "Why, bless my soul, that's the very man Amelia
wrote to me about. He shall have the place, by all means." And they
both wrote back nice little notes to Lady Surrey, to say that she might
consider the matter settled, but that she mustn't mention it to Harry
until the appointment was regularly announced. Anything so remarkable in
this age of purity I for my part have seldom heard of.

Lady Surrey never did mention the matter to Harry from that day to this;
and Sir Henry Vardon, K.C.B., does not for a moment imagine even now
that he owes his advancement to anything but his own native merits. He
married Ethel shortly after, and a prettier or more blushing bride you
never saw. Lady Surrey has been their best friend in society, and still
sighs occasionally when she sees Harry a great magnate in his way, and
thinks of the narrow escape he had that night at Colyford. As to Gladys,
she consistently refused several promising heirs, at least twenty
younger sons, and a score or so of wealthy young men whose papas were
something in the City, her first five seasons; and then, to Lord
Surrey's horror, she married a young Scotchman from Glasgow, who was
merely a writer for some London paper, and had nothing on earth but a
head on his shoulders to bless himself with. His lordship himself
"bagged an heiress" as he expressively puts it, with several thousands a
year of her own, and is now one of the most respected members of his
party, who may be counted upon always to vote straight, and never to
have any opinions of his own upon any subject except the improvement of
the British racehorse. He often wishes Gladys had taken his advice and
married Vardon, who is at least in respectable society, instead of that
shock-headed Scotch fellow--but there, the girl was always full of
fancies, and never would behave like other people.

For myself, I am a horrid radical, and republican, and all that sort of
thing, and have a perfectly rabid hatred of titles and so forth, don't
you know?--but still, on the first day when Ethel went to call on the
countess dowager after Harry was knighted, I happened to be present
(purely on business), and heard her duly announced as "Lady Vardon:" and
I give you my word of honour I could not find it in my heart to grudge
the dear little woman the flush of pride that rose upon her cheek as she
entered the room for the first time in her new position. It was a
pleasure to me (who know the whole story) to see Lady Surrey kiss the
little ex-governess warmly on her cheek and say to her, "My dear Lady
Vardon, I am so glad, so very very glad." And I really believe she meant
it. After all, in spite of her little weakness, there is a great deal of
human nature left in the countess.





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Previous: The Curate Of Churnside



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