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Chapter XXXVI - A Metamorphosis

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« on: December 07, 2022, 04:26:56 am »

It seemed almost as though some magical metamorphosis had taken place within the walls of Ravenor Castle. Directly we came in sight of it we had the first intimation of its altered aspect. Instead of the one or two solitary lights shining above the dark woods, it seemed a very blaze of illumination, and when we drew up at the great front door the change was still mere apparent. Liveried servants with powdered hair were moving about the hall. From open doors there came the sound of laughing voices, and even Mr. Ravenor’s manner, as he came out to meet us, seemed altered.

“Come in and have some tea here,” he said, leading the way to one of the smaller rooms. “Your mother is here, Cecil.”

We followed him into Lady Silchester’s favourite apartment. Several ladies and one or two men were lounging on divans and in easy chairs around a brightly-blazing fire. Lady Silchester, who was presiding at a green-and-gold Sèvres tea-service, welcomed us both with a languid smile.

“My dear Cis, how you have grown!” she said, leaning back in her chair and leisurely sipping her tea. “I declare I had no idea that I had a son your height, sir! Had you, Lord Penraven?”

Lord Penraven, who was lounging by her side with his elbow upon the mantelpiece, stroked a long, fair moustache vigorously and answered with emphasis:

“’Pon my word, I hadn’t the slightest idea. Seems almost impossible!”

“Let me give you boys some tea!” Lady Silchester said, in her sweetest tone.

“None for me, thanks, mother,” replied Cecil. “Why, Ag—Miss Hamilton, is that really you over in the corner?” he exclaimed, rising and crossing the room. “How awfully jolly!”

Lady Silchester shrugged her shoulders and turned to me. “Mr. Morton?”

I took the cup which she had filled and the conversation which our entrance had interrupted flowed on again. Presently Mr. Ravenor, who had been standing on the hearthrug talking to a stately, grey-haired lady who occupied the seat of honour—a black oak arm-chair drawn up to the fire,—moved over to my side and dropped into a vacant seat between Lady Silchester and myself.

“Well, Philip,” he said softly, “you seem lost in thought. Are you wondering whether a magician’s wand has touched Ravenor Castle?”

“It all seems very different,” I answered.

“Of course. Nothing like change, you know. It is only by comparison that we can appreciate. Stagnation sharpens one’s appetite for gaiety, and one must go through a course of overwork before one can taste the full sweetness of an idle country life.”

Then Mr. Ravenor was silent for a minute, leaning back in his chair and looking steadily into the fire, and by the dancing, fitful light of the flames I could see that the old weariness and deep indefinable sadness had stolen into his pale face and dark eyes. It was only a passing change. The sound of the laughing voices around seemed suddenly to galvanise him into consciousness of the rôle which he was playing and the expression faded away. Someone asked him a question and he answered it with a light jest. Once more he was the courteous, smiling host, whose sole thought appeared to be the entertainment of his guests. But I knew that there was a background.

The dressing-bell rang and the gossiping assembly broke up. Mr. Ravenor, standing with the opened door in his hand, exchanged little happy speeches with most of the ladies as they swept out. When they were all gone he turned to Cecil and me and looked at us critically, with a faint smile upon his lips.

“Well, are you ready for your matric., Cecil?” he asked.

Cecil made a wry face.

“Shall be soon, uncle!” he declared hopefully, “I’m getting on now first rate. Morton here makes me work like a Trojan.”

“That’s right! And you, Philip? I hope my lazy nephew doesn’t keep you back.”

“Oh, Morton’s all right for his matric. whenever he likes to go in for it!” broke in Cecil.

Mr. Ravenor nodded.

“Good! You’d better go and dress now, both of you; Richards is waiting to show you your rooms.”

We passed up the great oak staircase, and on the first corridor we came face to face with a slim little figure in a white frock, walking demurely by the side of her maid, with her ruddy, golden hair tumbled about her oval face and an expectant light in her dancing blue eyes.

Directly she saw us she flew into Cecil’s arms.

“Oh, Cis, Cis, Cis, how delightful! How glad I am that you have come! They only just told me! And how do you do, Mr. Morton?”

She held out a very diminutive palm and looked up at me with a beaming smile.

“I’m quite well, thank you, Lady Beatrice,” I answered, looking down with keen pleasure into her sweet, childish face, and repressing a strong desire to take her up in my arms, as Cecil had done, and give her a kiss. “You remember me, then?”

“Oh, yes!” she answered; “I remember you quite well! Your name is Philip, isn’t it? You told me that I might call you by it.”

“Well, we must go now, dear,” Cecil said, stroking her hair. “We’ve got to dress for dinner, you know.”

“Oh!” The exclamation was drawn out and the little face fell. Suddenly it brightened.

“Cecil, what do you think? I’ve got a pony, a real pony of my own. Will you come for a ride with me to-morrow? Please, please, do!”

“All right!” he promised carelessly.

She clapped her hands and looked up at me.

“Will you come too, Philip?” she asked.

“I should like to very much indeed,” I answered unhesitatingly.

“Oh, that’s delightful!” she exclaimed gleefully. “We will have such a nice ride! You shall see Queenie canter; she does go so fast! Good-bye now!”

She tripped away by the side of her maid, turning round more than once to wave her hand to us. Then we hurried along to our rooms, which were at the end of the wide, marble-pillared corridor and opened one into the other. Our portmanteaux had been placed in readiness, so dressing was not a tedious business. I had finished first and lounged in an easy chair, watching Cecil struggle with a refractory white tie.

“How pretty your sister is, Cis!” I remarked.

“Think so? She’s rather an odd little thing,” declared her brother, absently surveying himself at last with satisfaction in the long pier-glass. “Didn’t know you’d ever seen her before. I say”—with sudden emphasis—“isn’t Aggie Hamilton a jolly good-looking girl?”

“I’ve scarcely seen her yet,” I reminded him. “Rather a chatterbox, isn’t she?”

“Chatterbox? Not she!” Cecil protested indignantly. “Why—”

The rumble of a gong reached us from below. Cecil stopped short in his speech and hurried me out of the room.

“Come along, sharp!” he exclaimed. “That means dinner in ten minutes, and I promised to get down into the drawing-room first and introduce you to Aggie. Come on!”

We descended into the hall and a tall footman threw open the door of the long suite of drawing and ante-rooms in which the guests at the Castle were rapidly assembling. To me, who had seen nothing of the sort before, it was a brilliant sight. Four rooms, all of stately dimensions and all draped with amber satin of the same shade, were thrown into one by the upraising of heavy, clinging curtains, and each one seemed filled with groups of charmingly-dressed women and little knots of men. A low, incessant buzz of conversation floated about in the air, which was laden with the scent of exotics and dainty perfumes. The light was brilliant, but soft, for the marble figures around the walls held out silver lamps covered with gauzy rose-coloured shades.

We passed through two of the rooms before we found the young lady of whom Cecil was in search. Then we came upon her suddenly, sitting quite alone and idly turning over the pages of a book of engravings. Cecil jogged me excitedly with his elbow in a manner which elsewhere would have brought down anathemas and possibly retribution upon his head. As it was, however, I had to bear the pain like a Spartan.

“I say, isn’t she stunning?” he whispered.

I answered in the affirmative, carefully removing myself from the range of his elbow. Then we approached her, and she closed the book of engravings with a comical air of relief and made room for us beside her.

She was even prettier than I had expected, with dark hair and eyes, dazzling complexion, a perfect figure of the petite order, and faultless teeth, which she was by no means averse from showing. She wore a black lace gown, with a good deal of scarlet about it and a deep red rose in her bosom. Altogether, I was scarcely surprised at Cecil’s captivation.

If not actually a chatterbox, she was certainly possessed of the art of talking nonsense very volubly, and making others talk it. Before dinner was announced by a dignified-looking functionary we had got through quite an amazing amount of conversation. It fell to Cecil’s lot to take in his inamorata, whilst I was far away behind with the middle-aged wife of a country clergyman. She was very pleasant, though, and I was quite content to do but little talking throughout the long banquet, for it was all new to me and interesting.

The vast dining-hall—it was really the picture-gallery—the many servants in rich liveries, the emblazoned plate, the glittering glasses, and the brilliant snatches of conversation which floated around me, all were a revelation. Very soon the effect of it passed away and I was able to choose my wines and select my dishes, and was free to take part if I chose in the talk. But for that first evening I was content to remain silent and, as far as possible, unnoticed.

Dinner, which had seemed to me to be growing interminable, came to an end at last. Lady Silchester, at the head of a long file of stately women, swept down the polished floor, and the procession departed with much rustling of robes. Some of the vacant chairs were taken possession of by men, and already delicate blue clouds of smoke were curling upwards to the vaulted ceiling. It was the short period dearer to the heart of man than any during the day. Every one stretched out his stiff limbs, filled his glass and assumed his favourite attitude. Voices were raised and a sudden change of tone crept in upon the conversation. Only Mr. Ravenor and a few of the older guests appeared to be still engrossed in the discussion of some abstruse scientific controversy then raging in the reviews. Everyone else seemed to be talking lightly of the day’s sport, the arrangements for the morrow, and his own and other men’s horses.

It was getting a little slow for me. Cecil had found some friends, and the sound of his hearty boyish laugh came to me often from the other end of the table. My immediate neighbours were a bishop, who was deep in discussion with a minor canon concerning the doings of some recent diocesan conference, at which things seemed to have been more lively than harmonious; and on my other side Lord Penraven was quarrelling with the lord lieutenant of the county about the pedigree of a racehorse. Both disputes were utterly without interest to me, and it was no small relief when, as I caught Mr. Ravenor’s eye, he beckoned me to a vacant chair by his side.

The conversation, which had been for a moment interrupted, was soon renewed. I sat silent, listening with ever-increasing admiration to the play of words, the subtle arguments, and the epigrammatic brilliancy of expression which flashed from one to another of the four disputants. Had I known anything of the social or literary life of London I might have been less astonished, for Mr. Ravenor and two of his antagonists, Mr. Justice Haselton and Professor Clumbers, were reckoned among the finest talkers of their day.

At last Mr. Ravenor, very much to my regret, brought the conversation to an abrupt close by proposing an exodus to the drawing-rooms. A few of the younger men looked eager to depart, but the majority rose and stretched themselves with the sad faces of martyrs before forming themselves into little groups and quitting the room. Mr. Ravenor remained until the last and motioned me to stay with him.

“Well, Philip,” he said, when everyone had gone, “how are you getting on at Dr. Randall’s? Do you like being there?”

“Very much for some things,” I answered.

He looked at me closely.

“There is something you have to tell me,” he said. “What is it?”

I glanced around at the little army of servants moving noiselessly about on all sides.

“There is something,” I acknowledged, “but I would rather tell it you when we are quite alone. Besides, it is rather a long story. It has mostly to do with Mr. Marx.”

The calm, stately serenity of Mr. Ravenor’s face underwent a sudden change. His dark brows almost met into his eyes, which I could not read. The change strengthened the impression which had lately been growing upon me. There was some deep mystery connected with the personality of Mr. Marx in which Mr. Ravenor was somehow concerned.

“What about Mr. Marx? What can you have to say to me about him?” he asked coldly.

“More than I should care to say here,” I answered, glancing around. “It is rather a long—”

“Come into the library to me the last thing tonight,” he said quickly. “I must know what this story is that you have got hold of. We will go into the drawing-room now.”

In a few moments the cloud had vanished from his face and he was again the polished host. And I, under protest, was inveigled into a corner by Miss Agnes Hamilton, and given my first lesson in the fashionable art of flirting.

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