A Dead Reckoning
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"A Dead Reckoning" in CHAMBERS'S JOURNAL. (Sept 14. 1889.)
POPULAR POPULAR LITERATURE
Science and Arts
W. & R. CHAMBERS
LONDON & EDINBURGH
A DEAD RECKONING.
A DEAD RECKONING.
A STORY IN NINETEEN CHAPTERS.
By T. W. SPEIGHT,
Author of The Mysteries of Heron Dyke, By Devious Ways, &c.
"Aunty, dear, do you know what day this is?"
"If the almanac may be believed, it is the 24th of April."
"Six months ago to-day, Gerald and I were married. I feel as if I hadbeen married for years."
"How dreadful to feel that you are growing old so quickly! I hope allmarried people don't feel like that."
"You misunderstand me, Aunt Jane. I have been so happy since thatevening last year when Gerald whispered something to me in thesummer-house, that all my life before I knew him seems as unreal as adream."
"Such short courtships are positively dreadful. Now, when I wasengaged to Captain Singleton"----
A third lady, who had been lounging on a sofa and making-believe to beintent on a novel, gave a loud sneeze and sat bolt upright. She hadheard Captain Singleton's name introduced so often of late, that shemight be excused for not caring to hear it mentioned again--at leastfor a little while.
The first speaker, Clara Brooke, was a charming brunette oftwenty-two, with sparkling black eyes, a pure olive complexion, and amanner that was at once vivacious and tender. Miss Primby, the secondspeaker, was a fresh-coloured, well-preserved spinster of---- But no;Miss Primby's age was a secret, which she guarded as a dragon mightguard its young, and we have no right to divulge it. She had one ofthe best hearts in the world, and one of the weakest heads. Everybodysmiled at her little foibles, yet everybody liked her. Just now shewas busy over some species of delicate embroidery, in which she was anadept. Lady Fanny Dwyer, the third lady, whose inopportune sneeze hadfor a moment so disconcerted Miss Primby, was a very pretty,worldly-wise, self-possessed young matron, who in age was some sixmonths older than Mrs. Brooke. She and Clara had been bosom friends intheir school-days; and notwithstanding the many differences in theircharacters and dispositions, their liking for each other was still asfresh and unselfish as ever it had been.
The ladies were sitting in a pleasant morning-room at Beechley Towers,Mr. Gerald Brooke's country-house, situated about fourteen miles fromLondon. The room opened on to a veranda by means of long windows,which were wide open this balmy April afternoon. Beyond the verandawas a terrace, from which two flights of broad shallow steps led downto a flower-garden. Outside that lay a well-wooded park, with a widesweep of sunny champaign enfolding the whole.
Clara Brooke had scarcely heard her aunt's last remark. She was seatedat a davenport, turning over some old letters. On the wall in front ofher hung a portrait of her husband, painted on ivory. "'My own darlingClara,'" she read to herself from one of the letters; "'it seems anage since I saw you last, and it will seem like an age till I shallhave the happiness of seeing you again.' What sweet, sweet letters heused to write to me! What other girl ever had such letters written toher?" She pressed the paper she had been reading to her lips, thenrefolded it, and put it away and took up another.
"Ah, my dear," remarked Lady Fanny, turning to her friend, "as youremarked just now, you have only been a wife for six short months, andof course everything with you is still couleur de rose. But when youhave been married as long as Algy and I have, when the commonplace andthe prosaic begin to assert themselves, as they do in everything andeverywhere, whether you like it or not, then I am sure you will agreethat the scheme of married life my husband and I have planned forourselves has really a good deal to recommend it to all sensiblepeople."
Miss Primby pricked up her ears. "You excite my curiosity, dear LadyFanny," she said. "I hope you won't refuse to gratify it."
"Why should I?" asked Lady Fan with her merry laugh. "We wantconverts, Algy and I; and who knows, my dear Miss Primby, but thatsome day--eh? Well, this is our modus vivendi--I believe that's thecorrect term, but won't be sure. About eighteen months ago--we hadthen been married a little over a year--Algy and I came to theconclusion that married people ought not to be too constantly togetherif they wish to keep on good terms with each other. Algy's contentionis that half the quarrels and scandals which come out in thenewspapers are simply the result of people seeing so much of eachother that at last they are impelled by some feeling they can't resistto have what he calls 'a jolly row,' just to vary the monotony ofexistence. And then, as he says, one 'row' is sure to lead to another,and so on. When once the match is applied, no one can tell where theconflagration will stop. Now, although ours was a love-match, if everthere was one, we had not run together in harness very long before wemade the discovery that in many things our likes and dislikes wereopposed. For instance, next to me, I believe Algy loves his yacht;whereas I detest yachting: it seems to me a most stupid way ofpassing one's time. On the other hand, I delight in going from onecountry-house to another and visiting each of my friends in turn;while Algy, dear fellow, is always awfully bored in general society,especially wherever a number of our sex happen to be congregated.Thus, it has come to pass that at the present moment he is somewherein the Mediterranean, while I--well, je suis ici. Algy and I nevergive ourselves time to grow tired of each other; and when we meetafter being apart for a month or two, our meetings are 'real nice,' asmy friend Miss Peckover from New York would say."
Miss Primby shook her head. "I am afraid, dear Lady Fanny, that youropinions on such matters are very heterodox, and I can only say that Ihope Clara will never see fit to adopt them."
"Not much fear of that, Aunt Jane," answered the young wife. "FancyGerald and me being separated for a month or six weeks at a time! Butit is quite out of the question to fancy anything so absurd."
Lady Fan laughed. "Wait, my dear, wait," was all she said as sheturned again to her novel.
Clara Brooke shook her head; she was in nowise convinced.
"Gracious goodness! whatever can that be?" ejaculated Miss Primby witha start.
"Only Gerald and the Baron Von Rosenberg practising at thepistol-range. It is an amusement both of them are fond of."
"An amusement do you call it! I wish they would practise theiramusements farther from the house, then.--Heaven preserve us! therethey go again. No wonder I have broken my needle."
"It's nothing, Aunt Jane, when you are used to it," responded herniece with a smile.
"Used to it, indeed! I should never get used to it as long as I lived.I have no doubt this is another of the objectionable practices yourhusband picked up while he was living in foreign parts."
"Seeing that Gerald was brought up in Poland, and that he lived inthat country and in Russia from the time he was five years old till hewas close on twenty (I think I have told you before that hisgrandmother was a Polish lady of rank), I have no doubt it was whilehe was living in those foreign parts, as you call them, that he learntto be so fond of pistol-practice."
At this moment there came the sound of two pistol-shots in quicksuccession. Miss Primby started to her feet. "My dear Clara," sheexclaimed, "if you don't want my poor nerves to be shattered for life,you won't object to my going to my own room. With plenty of cottonwool in my ears, and my Indian shawl wrapped round my head, I mayperhaps---- Dear, dear! now my thimble's gone."
"Why, there's your thimble, aunt, on your finger."
"So it is--so it is, dear. That shows the state of my poor nerves."
"Will you not stay and say good-bye to the Baron?"
"No, my dear; I would rather not. You must make my excuses. Of course,you could not fail to notice how the Baron ogled me at luncheon. Heputs me so much in mind of poor dear Major Pondicherry. But I nevercared greatly for foreigners; besides, he will smell horribly ofgunpowder when he comes in.--There again! Not another moment will Istay."
Clara Brooke's face rippled over with suppressed laughter as MissPrimby left the room. Then she turned to her letters again, andtied them up with ribbon. "I have heard that some people burn theirlove-letters when they get married," she mused. "What strange beingsthey must be! Nothing in the world would induce me to burn mine. Sweetsilent messengers of love, what happy secrets lie hidden in yourleaves!" She pressed the letters to her lips, put them away inside thedavenport, and locked them up.
Just as she had done this, the pompous tones of Bunce, who filled thejoint positions of majordomo and butler at the Towers, became plainlyaudible. Apparently he was standing outside the side-door andaddressing his remarks to someone on the terrace. "Now, the sooner youtake your hook the better," the two ladies heard him say. "We don'twant none of your kidney here. This ain't no place for mountebanks--Ishould think not indeed!" Mr. Bunce in his ire had evidently forgottenthe proximity of his mistress.
Clara crossed to one of the windows, and looking out saw, some littledistance away, two strange figures slowly crossing the terrace. Onewas that of a man whose costume of a street tumbler was partly hiddenby the long shabby overcoat he wore over it, which was closelybuttoned to the chin. Over one shoulder a drum was slung, and in hisleft hand he carried a set of Pandean pipes. The second figure wasthat of a boy some eight or nine years old, who had hold of the man'sright hand. Under one arm he carried a small roll of faded carpet. Inpoint of dress he was a miniature copy of the elder mountebank, minusthe overcoat. His throat was swathed in a dingy white muffler, whilehis profusion of yellow curls were kept from straying by a filletround his forehead embroidered with silvered beads.
"Poor creatures," said Clara to herself. "Bunce had no business tospeak to them as he did. How dejected they look, and the child seemsquite footsore."
At this juncture the man happening to turn his head, caught sight ofher. She at once beckoned him to approach.
The mountebank's face lighted up and all signs of dejection vanishedin a moment. He had some kind of old cap on his head. This he nowremoved, and bowed profoundly twice. It was a bow that might havegraced a drawing-room. Then he and the boy crossed the terrace towardsMrs. Brooke.
"Fan, I want you; come here," said Clara to her friend.
Lady Fanny rose languidly and crossed to the window.
What struck both the ladies first of all, as the vagrants drew near,was the remarkable beauty of the child. His face at the first glanceseemed an almost perfect oval; his complexion, naturally fair andtransparent, was now somewhat embrowned by exposure to the sun andwind. He had large eyes of the deepest and tenderest blue, shaded bylong golden lashes; while his lips formed a delicate curve such asmany a so-called professional beauty might have envied.
"He looks more like a girl than a boy," whispered Lady Fan.
"He looks more like a cherub than either," responded Clara, who wassomewhat impulsive both in her likes and dislikes. "It is a face thatMillais would love to paint."
The appearance of the man was a great contrast to that of the child,and a casual observer would have said that there was no single pointof resemblance between the two. Apparently the former was about fortyto forty-five years