« PreviousContinue »
tenderness, half perplexity-would hardly cloud his face as he contemplates it. A woman's face, delicately painted as a miniature on ivory-not a common face, yet not absolutely beautiful; features small and finely cut, eyes darkest hazel, hair auburn-the real auburn, a rich red-brown, like the coat of a dark chestnut horse. And such hair! It falls over the slender figure like a mantle-falls almost to the knees. The woman is dressed in some loose semiclassic robe, girdled at the waist, high to the throat, but sleeveless, leaving the small round arm bare to the shoulder, the tapering hand displayed to perfection. The photographer must have been an artist who posed the lady for this portrait.
Herman replaces the photograph with a sigh.
'I ought to write my best for her,' he says to himself; and turns over some loose sheets of Bath-post closely written upon, and erases a word or a line here and there, or writes a word or line the margin.
"Enter Sir Bergamot Papillion-" No, the comic muse is not propitious to-day. Smiling Thalia averts her face. After all I am not quite clear that I shall write a piece of the Rochester and Sedley period; something classical would suit Myra better, if I could get a happy idea.'
Herman Westray drops his pen, and looks dreamily out of the window. In a general way he goes at his work in a business-like manner-puts his Pegasus at a trot with a free rein, and gets over the ground at a steady pace, regular as clockwork. As a rule he invokes no assistance from the Muses, but dips his pen in the inkpot, and writes wittily, wisely, or stupidly, as the Fates will—but he covers his paper. Time was-nay, not so long ago—when he wrote for bread. He thinks of those days now, as he looks out at the sleepy summer landscape, the warm golden light on wood and hill and waterpools-thinks of his past life and its varieties of fortune. How, ten years ago, he came home from the University to find the good old vicar his father on his deathbed; and how, when the funeral was paid for and other creditors satisfied, the slenderest pittance was left for the widow and her two daughters-for the son nothing but the work of his head or his hands. The little family at home had pinched and saved to give the lad a university education; and Herman had known this, and had striven his hardest to be worthy of their loving sacrifice. He had taken honours and won a scholarship, and made his father's last days happy with the knowledge of his success. To this son the father committed his helpless wife and girls. You will have only Herman to look to, my dears. Under Providence, Herman will take care of you.'
Herman had accepted the trust. No lack of earnestness in his nature or straightforwardness in his aims in those days, whatever there may be now. Herman in poverty had been almost sublime.
He had lived upon his scholarship, had taken men to read with him, had utilised his vacations, and had contrived somehow to add to his mother's narrow means. Mother and daughters had lived placidly and happily in a pillbox of a house in a quiet Devonshire wateringplace, respected, beloved, doing good in their small way. And here, so long as his mother lived, Herman had spent the brief holidaytime of his busy life.
When his scholarship expired he came to London, and, by the influence of an old friend of his father's, was placed on the staff of a famous daily paper. He had taught himself shorthand at Oxford, pour se distraire, and was able to take his place in the reporter's gallery without delay. In course of time it was discovered that he had a fine slashing style, and from reporting he took to leader-writing, at which patent manufacture of bricks without straw he worked for the next five years of his life; sometimes varying his denunciations of the Opposition, his graphic pictures of startling trial or social tragedy, his humorous essays on breach-of-promise cases, his Juvenalian diatribes against the vices of modern society, with a sound and exhaustive review of some important book. A useful man eminently on a daily paper; well-read, reckless to audacity, brilliant, various. The time came, however, when journalism failed to satisfy Herman Westray's ambition or occupy his mind; imagination demanded a wider field. He gave his spare hours-time that should have been given to sleep for the most part-to the composition of a picture of modern society; in other words, a novel. The book was published; his fellow-workers of the daily press blew their trumpets loud and shrill, and Herman Westray was famous. There was just enough sparkle, originality, or eccentricity in the book to amuse men; just enough passion to interest women. The novel was therefore popular alike in club and boudoir; and Herman's success fully justified his withdrawal from newspaper work, save for occasional critical articles, the authorship whereof gave him power among his brothers of the pen. His first novel had been followed by a successful comedy, his comedy by a second novel, pronounced an advance on the first. Since then he had written more plays and more novels, and had published a volume of lyrics which some among the critics pronounced not unworthy of Heine, while others denounced the writer as at once trivial, immoral, and blasphemous.
He had made money also, and had exchanged a second floor in Essex-street, Strand, for chambers in Piccadilly; not large, but costly. He had seen a good deal of the best society, and not a little of the worst. In a word, he had lived his life, without much thought of the future, with some forgetfulness of the past; his mother being dead by this time, and his sisters lacking that influence for good which she had exercised to the last.
And now he has come to Llandrysak for rest of body and mind
-sorely needing both-expecting to find here a placid bovine existence, far from the regions of fervid desires and ardent hopes. Yet already his mind is fluttered, his body restless; that sweet empty life of the lotus-land remains for him no more. He ought to be lying yonder in some ripple of that ferny hill, looking up at the blue summer sky, listening idly to the hum of vagabond bee, the tinkle of distant sheep-bell.
'Poor Myra,' he sighs at last, it's no use trying to work to day. Sir Bergamot is dumb as the Sphinx. The new comedy must stand over till I feel more in the vein. Provoking rather, for I thought I should have dashed off my three acts in a week or so, and taken the piece back to London with me. I know Myra is anxious about her opening piece, and this Frivolity is a serious undertaking for that nervous little soul-or would be serious if there were not resources in the background.'
He sighs, puts away his papers, locks up his despatch-box, and goes down-stairs again, having made as little use of his morning as it is possible for a man to make. In half an hour the luncheon-bell will ring, and luncheon to-day will, for the gipsy tea-party, mean dinner, for they contemplate walking home by moonlight, and it will be ten o'clock most likely ere the Cambria sees them safely housed.
'After all, I came down here for a rest,' reflects Herman,' and I don't see why I should worry myself into a fever about Myra's comedy.'
He saunters to the pine-grove, where the water-drinkers-looking always more or less like the inmates of a private lunatic asylum are seated here and there on rustic benches in a low-spirited manner, doing nothing, looking at nothing, to all appearances thinking of nothing.
Not so Herman. He lights a cigar, and gives himself up to severe thought. He muses on his present condition of life, and wonders if it is altogether the best and happiest existence he could make for himself. It is a pleasant thing to know that when he puts on his hat he covers all his responsibilities; that measles may decimate the infant population, and he be none the worse; that the advance in the prices of coals and butcher's meat can affect him but lightly. Yet it is not altogether soothing to consider that, were he to die to-morrow, there is no one-save those dear girls in Devonshire, on whom he bestows a passing thought once in six weeks or so -who would particularly regret his departure. Yes, perhaps one other person would be genuinely sorry, for a little while; but every thought connected with that other person is more or less a pain, and he shrinks from the question of her feelings.
People are always telling him that he ought to marry; that it would be better for himself, better for his career, that he should be more heavily weighted in the race of life. Existence is too easy
for him, these wise ones say. He is in danger of becoming selfish, cynical, if he has not already acquired the vices of egotism and cynicism. He is in danger of hardening into the bachelor Sybarite who thinks his club is 'going to the deuce, you know,' if his favourite table is preëngaged or his cutlet over-done.
Luncheon is over, and at three o'clock the gipsy party have begun their march, with Dewrance as pilot. He knows every meadow and hill and wooded gorge and watercourse for twenty miles round Llandrysak, though he has only inhabited that inland watering-place for a couple of months. His friends have mustered strong the ladies in an alarming majority-but Dewrance himself is equal to six ordinary bachelors, and Westray, as a popular author, counts double. Mr. Milner, perpetual curate of an unpronounceable parish in the north, has a knot of admiring listeners to his really delightful conversation. The way by which they go is delicious, through narrow paths, between deep stony banks clothed with ferns and foxgloves, mosses and lichens, pine-trees rising tall on the rough slopes above; then past a group of mighty beeches on a grassy knoll, across a farmyard and a wide stretch of undulating meadow land, where the cattle stand at gaze as the merry pedestrians go by. The gates are tall and stiff, regular five-barred gates, and rigidly padlocked against the straying of cattle; and these Mr. Dewrance and his party have to climb-toil provocative of much mirth. From the last of the meadows they come into perhaps the prettiest bit of all that varied walk: a narrow path on the top of the steep bank of a torrent, deeply cloven in the hill; a shallow stream rushes over the rocky bed of this wooded gorge, and one just sees the shine of water through the interlacing branches of oak and ash, sapling and undergrowth.
This walk by the torrent winds up the shoulder of the hill.
'Don't look round, one of you, till you come to the top,' cries Dewrance; whereupon everybody turns instantaneously, and there is a simultaneous gush of admiration. Behind them, around them, everywhere in the sunny distance, rise the hills, green and brown, darkly wooded, bright with verdure, bleak and barren, craggy and bold, steeped in the summer light, painted against the deep-blue sky.
'Scene-painter!' roars Westray, in the voice of the gallery demanding Mr. Telbin.
You ought to have waited till you got to the brow of the hill,' says Dewrance, vexed that a coup de théâtre should be lost.
They pause again at the gate which crests the hill, and look back again. The panorama is a little wider; they see deeper into the smiling valley, where the river Pennant winds like a wandering thread of silver. They look at the white homesteads scattered far apart among the hills, and think how sinless and placid life might
be in such fair solitudes; and every one of them is for the moment as ardent a worshipper of nature as Wordsworth himself.
The air blows fresh on these green heights, and has a flavour of the salt sea. This wide grassy hill which they are to cross is called Cymbrie's Bank, the word bank' sufficing for the loftiest hill in these regions.
Dewrance walks gaily on with his circle of fair young votaries. He is telling them stories of his foreign experience-stories romantic, tragical, absorbing, to which the listeners lend attentive ears, the Curate excelling in the art of narration. Over that wide green hill, and then along the breast of another hill, and anon they see a sharp peak before them, crowned with a mound or earthen breastwork-all that remains of a Roman fortress, according to Welsh tradition and Richard Dewrance.
They go down the green slope, and into a stony-hearted lane; a lane that should be green and grassy, but which some rural proprietor, for his own pleasure, has paved with rough boulders; a lane which to young ladies with three-inch heels to their boots is assuredly a place of torture. Our Welsh maidens trip across the rugged stones easily enough, and the lane is pleasantly shaded by tall hedges of hazel and sloe, blackberry, dog-rose, oak sapling, and crab-apple, and all sweet things that flourish by the wayside. After the lane there is a brook to cross, and then a little thicket, a gap in a hedge to get through-and they are at the Shaky Bridge.
He is not a mighty beast, this Welsh lion; not by any means a marvel of engineering as applied to bridges. He consists of a couple of planks in a state of decay slung across the narrow river by means of loose wires, which rattle wofully at every step of the passenger. But mild as the beast is, he has wrought terror in many a gentle breast, and Mr. Dewrance's young ladies scream and exclaim not a little as they trip lightly across this primitive suspension-bridge. But if not the bridge itself, assuredly the landscape in which it is set deserves the fame it has won: that placid valley; that winding river, with its ferny banks and overshadowing trees; that simple village church on the higher ground yonder, with its lop-sided wooden tower, its ivied wall, ivy among which roses red and white have entwined themselves lovingly. The long narrow valley is shut in by hills-loftier crests rising in the middle distance above the fortresscrowned peak which stands boldly out in the foreground.
'Well, Westray, do you think the Shaky Bridge is worth a threemile walk?' inquires Dewrance of his friend.
Herman has not taken pains to make himself agreeable during the pilgrimage, but has been apt to hang behind in self-communion, to the aggravation of some of the young ladies, who compare him unfavourably with the Curate, and decide that he puts all his cleverness into his books.