A Crooked Path_ A Novel
A CROOKED PATH
BY MRS. ALEXANDER,
Author of "The Wooing O't," "A Life Interest," Etc.
THE F. M. LUPTON PUBLISHING COMPANY,
Nos. 72-76Walker Street.[Pg 5]
The London season had not yet reached its height, some years ago, beforethe arch admitting to Constitution Hill had been swept back to make roomfor the huge, ever-increasing stream of traffic, or the plebeian 'bushad been permitted to penetrate the precincts of Hamilton Place. It wasthe forenoon of a splendid day, one of the earliest of June, and at thathour the roadway between the entrance to Hyde Park and the gate thensurmounted by the statue of the Duke of Wellington on his drooping steedwas comparatively free, when two gentlemen coming from oppositedirections recognized each other, and paused at the gate of ApsleyHouse—the elder, a stout, florid man of military aspect, middle age,and average height, with large gray mustache and small, slightlybloodshot eyes; the younger, who was tall and bony, might have beenthirty, or even forty, so grave and sedate was his bearing, although hiserect carriage, elastic step, and clear keen dark eyes suggested earliermanhood.
Both had the indescribable well-groomed, freshly bathed look peculiar toEnglishmen of the "upper ten."
"Ha! Errington! I didn't know you were in town. I thought you werecruising somewhere with Melford, or rusticating at Garston Hall. I thinkyour father expected you about this time."
"I don't think so. I was summoned by telegraph from Paris. My father wasseized with a paralysis last week. He had just come up to town, and fora few days was dangerously ill, but is now slowly recovering."
"Very sorry to hear of it. A man of his stamp would have been of immensevalue to the country. He had begun to take a very leading part in localmatters. I trust he will come round."
"I fear he will never be the same again. I doubt if he will be able todirect his own affairs as he used."[Pg 6]
"That's bad! You are not in the business, I believe?"
"No; I never took any part in it. I almost regret I did not. It would, Iimagine, be a relief to my father, now that his mind is less clear, toknow that I was at the helm. But we have a capital man as manager, quitedevoted to the house. I shall get my father down to the country as soonas I can, and I trust he'll come round."
"No doubt he will. He was wonderfully hale and strong for his years."
"Ay! how d'ye do, Bertie?" interrupted the first speaker, holding outhis hand to a young man who came up from Hyde Park and seemed about topass with a smile and a nod. "Who would have thought of meeting you inthese godless regions? I hear you are busy 'slumming' from morning tillnight."
"Well, Colonel," returned Bertie—a slight, fair, boyish-looking man—"Iam so far false to my new vocation as to have lost some irrevocablemoments looking at the horses and horsewomen in the Row."
"Aha! the old leaven, my dear boy! You are on the brink ofperdition.—Don't you know Bertie Payne?" he continued, to his newly metfriend. "He was one of my subs before he renounced the devil and all hisworks. He was with us at Barrackbore when you were in India."
"I do not think we have met," the other was beginning, when a younglady—toward whom the Colonel had already cast some sharp, admiringglances as she stood on the curbstone holding a hand of the smaller oftwo little boys in smart sailor suits—uttered a cry of dismay. Theelder child had rushed into the road, as if to stop a passing omnibus,not seeing that a hansom was coming up at speed.
The young man called Bertie dashed forward, and barely succeeded insnatching the child from under the wheel. A scramble of horses' feet, animprecation or two shouted by the irritated driver, a noisy declarationfrom the "fare" that he should lose his train, and the scuffle was over.
The little man, held firmly by the shoulder, was marched back to hisyoung guardian.
"Thank you!—oh, thank you a thousand times! You have saved his life!"she exclaimed, fervently, in unsteady tones. Then to the child: "Howcould you break your promise to stay by me, Cecil? You would have beenkilled but for this gentleman!"
"I wanted to catch the 'omlibus' for you, auntie!" he cried, with anirrepressible sob, though he gallantly tried to hold back his tears.
"Hope the little fellow is none the worse of his fright," said theColonel, advancing and raising his hat. "Can I be of any use?—can Icall a cab?"
"No, thank you; I will take an omnibus and get home as soon as I can.Cecil will soon forget his fright, I fear—"
"Sooner than you will," remarked Bertie. "There is a Royal Oak omnibus.Will that do?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Come along, then, my young man; I will not let you go."
Bertie put the trio into the vehicle, and the lookers-on saw that heshook hands with "auntie" as the conductor jumped on his perch and theyrolled on.[Pg 7]
"Gad! there's a chance for you!" cried the Colonel as Bertie joined him."An uncommon fine girl, by George! What a coloring! and a splendid pairof black eyes!"
"I suspect extreme fright did a good deal for both, poor girl. Her eyesare brown, not black."
"Brown! Nonsense! Didn't you think they were black?"
"I did not observe them," returned the grave personage he addressed,indifferently. "The boy had a narrow escape. I must say good morning,"he added.
"Stop a bit," cried the Colonel. "I must see you again before you leavetown. Dine with me to-morrow at the Junior. And, Bertie—"
"Thanks, no, I am engaged." He said good-by and walked on.
"Queer fellow that," said the Colonel, looking after him. "He got intosome money troubles in India, left the army, and got converted. Now heis not exactly a Salvation soldier, but something of the kind. He'll beat you one of the days for a subscription to convert the crossingsweepers or some such undertaking. But you'll dine with me to-morrow.I'll tell you all the Clayshire gossip."
"Thank you, I shall be very happy."
"Then good-by for the present, I am engaged to lunch to meet one of theprettiest little widows you ever saw in your life, but she has no cash.Here, hansom," calling to the driver of a cab which was passing slowly."I am a little late." He jumped in and drove off.
His friend, with a slight grave smile, continued his walk to theAlexandria Hotel, the portals of which received him.
Meantime the hero of the cab incident sat very demurely by his youngaunt, as the omnibus rolled slowly up Park Lane, occasionally stealinginquisitive glances at her face.
"You have been a very naughty boy, Cecil!" she exclaimed as her eyesmet his. "How could I have gone home to mamma if I had been obliged toleave you behind?"
"But you needn't, you know; you could have tied me up in a bundle andtaken me back. Mamma would have known it wasn't your fault."
"I am not so sure of that, and you have made poor Charlie cry,"—drawingthe younger boy to her side.
"Charlie is just a baby," contemptuously.
"He is a better boy than you are." Silence.
"Auntie, do you think the gentleman who pulled me back was the oldgentleman's son?"
"No, I do not think he was."
"Why don't you, auntie?"
"I can hardly say why."
"I have seen that gentleman—the old gentleman—in Kensington Gardens,"said little Charlie, nestling up to his aunt. "He spoke to mammy the dayshe took me to feed the ducks."
"I think that is only a fancy, dear."
"No; I am quite sure."
"Oh, you are always fancying things; you are a silly," cried[Pg 8] Cecil, nowquite recovered, and turning to kneel upon the seat that he might lookout, thereby rubbing his feet on the very best "afternoon" dress of aseverely respectable female, whose rubicund face expressed "drat theboy!" as strongly as a face could.
The rest of the journey was accomplished after the usual style of suchtravels when the aunt and nephews went out together. Cecil wasconstantly rebuked and made to sit down, and as constantly resumed hisfavorite position; so that he ultimately reached home with beautifullyclean shoes, having wiped "the dust off his feet" effectually on thegarments of his fellow-passengers, while his little brother nestled tohis auntie's side and gazed observantly on his fellow-travellers,arriving at curious conclusions respecting them, to be afterward setforth to the amusement of his hearers.
Leaving the omnibus at the Royal Oak, the trio diverged to one of thestreets between that well-known establishment and the Bayswater Road—astreet which had still a few trees and small semi-detached villas, withfront gardens left at one end, the relics of a past when Penrhyn Placewas "quite the country"; while at the other, bricks, mortar,scaffolding, and a deeply rutted roadway indicated the commencement ofmansions which would soon swallow up their humbler predecessors.
At one of these villas, the garden of which was tolerably neat, thelittle boys and their aunt stopped, and were admitted by a smart but notover-clean girl, who welcomed the children with a cheerful, "Well,Master Cecil, you are just in nice time for dinner! Come, get yourthings off; your gran'ma has a treat for you."
"Has she? Oh, what is it? Do tell, Lottie!"
"Don't mind, dear, if you are tired; your morning-gown will do verywell, as we are alone."
"No, no; I must honor Cecil's birthday with my best dress. These triflesare important."
"I suppose so," returned her daughter, looking after her gravely, as sheleft the room.
Mrs. Liddell was tall, and the lines of her figure considerablyenlarged. Yet she had not quite lost the grace for which she was onceremarkable. Her light brown hair had a pale look from the increasingadmixture of gray, and her blue eyes seemed faded by much use. It was akind, thoughtful, worn face from which they looked, yet it could stillsmile brightly.
"She looks very, very tired," thought her daughter. "I must make her liedown if I can; it is so hard to make her rest!" She too looked uneasilyat the mass of writing on the table, and then went away to remove herout-door attire.
The birthday dinner gave great satisfaction. It was crowned by aplum-pudding, terrible as such a compound must always be in June; but itwas a favorite "goody" with the young hero of the day. Grandmamma madeherself as agreeable as though she was one of a party of wits, and drankher grandson's health in a bottle of choice gooseberry, proposing it ina "neat and appropriate" speech, which gave rise to much uproariousmirth and delight. At last the feast was over; the children retired toamuse themselves with a horse and a wheelbarrow—some of the birthdaygifts—in the back garden[Pg 9] (a wilderness resigned to their ravages), andMrs. Liddell and her daughter were left alone.
"Now, mother, do come and lie down on the sofa in the drawing-room. Isee you are out of sorts. You hardly tasted food, and you are dreadfullytired; come and rest. I will read you to sleep."
"No, Kate; there can be no rest for me,