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Chapter Twenty-six

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« on: December 16, 2022, 06:19:59 am »

ONE morning early in October, Thomas Eccleston appeared in his brother-in-law's study with a shade of distress deepening the habitual ruddiness of his open countenance.

It has already been intimated that Sainty cherished a very real affection for this young man, holding a character so manly and direct to be little short of miraculous in a child of Lady Eccleston.

"What's the matter, Tommy?" he asked. "You look perturbed. Have you and Danford been coming to blows?"

"Oh no, Danny's all right; it so happens I'm rather in his good books just now. But the fact is, I've had rather a queer letter, and I didn't quite know what to do about it, so I thought the simplest thing was to bring it to you, though it's not by any means what he intended me to do."

"Who's 'he'? Danford?"

"No; I tell you it's nothing to do with him."

"To begin with, then, who's your correspondent?"

"Well, if you want to know, it's your brother."

Sainty started. "Arthur? What can he want of you?"

"I think the best way would be for you to read it," Tommy said, holding out the letter.

Sainty hesitated a moment, then took it and read:

"DEAR ECCLESTON--I expect you'll be rather astonished at hearing from me, and still more at what it's about. The fact of the matter is, I want you to do me a good turn. I was awfully glad to hear my brother had got you at Belchamber, and it suddenly occurred to me you would be just the chap to do what I want. To cut a long story short, I want to come to Belchamber. I suppose it's very undignified of me, but I'm badly in want of a little amusement, and I thought if they were going to have a shoot, and it wasn't a very big party, you might suggest to your sister to pop me in as one of the guns. You may think it funny that I don't write straight to my brother, but I know he'd be infernally sniffy, and say I had no proper pride; and Cissy always seemed a good sort, and so did you, and I thought between you, you could work it for me. I know they won't ask Lady Arthur, and I don't ask it of 'em. At first I was afraid she mightn't take it kindly, but she's been all right about it, she says she don't want to go where she isn't wanted, but don't mind my going without her. Do you think you can work it through your sister? Do, if you can, and oblige yours ever--A. W. CHAMBERS."

"Oh! how like Arthur!" Sainty murmured, as he refolded this characteristic letter.

"I thought," said Tommy, who had been watching him uneasily as he read, and fiddling with the things on the writing-table, "that it was better to come straight to you than to go to Cissy about it."

"So it is, and I'm very grateful to you, dear boy, for all your loyalty"; and Sainty laid a thin claw in Thomas's large red hand. The sub-agent pressed it fervently.

"What had I better say?" he asked. "It puts me in such a deucedly awkward posish, don't yer know."

"Of course he had no business to write to any one but me," Sainty said. "Well---you needn't answer; I'll write to him myself."

Tommy looked much relieved. "Hope I didn't do wrong," he said doubtfully.

"On the contrary, you did more than right," Sainty said warmly.

"Shall you ask him?" Tommy ventured, after a pause.

"I can't say straight off; I must talk to Cissy about it, and" (with an ill-concealed tremor) "to my mother."

Cissy made no objections. Arthur was a pleasant, good-looking fellow, and a man you could ask without his wife was as good as a bachelor. Rather to Sainty's surprise, Lady Charmington was not less willing. She hardly ever mentioned Arthur. Since the day when, livid and furious, she had solemnly  cursed her younger son, Sainty could almost count on the fingers of one hand the times when she had spoken his name; but when, with some trepidation and much uncertainty, he approached her on the subject, he was met quite half-way.

"Unto seventy times seven," she remarked, "the Scripture tells us we must forgive. That woman I will never receive, but as long as he is willing to come without her, I see no reason you shouldn't have him at Belchamber; and---and---you may tell him I am willing to see him too, if he likes." And Sainty read in the sudden suffusion of the hard eyes, the tale of the poor woman's long, silent yearning for a sight of her favourite son.

So Arthur had his wish, and came once more to Belchamber. There was, no doubt, a certain awkwardness in the situation, and Sainty was surprised and touched to find that, though he certainly felt it much the most, Arthur was not without a perception of it, too. He was decidedly subdued during the first days of his visit, and Sainty's ready sympathy went out, as usual, to any one who was ill at ease. Had Arthur been in his accustomed mood of complete self-satisfaction, he would have felt less tenderly towards him, but seeing him so humbled and brought low, on the footing, as it were, of a guest and poor relation in the home of their common childhood, was almost more than he could bear.

Perhaps Arthur intentionally rather accentuated this note, conscious of the effect it would have on his brother. He would pointedly ask leave to do the most obvious things. "There's a spare gun in the gun-room," he would say; "the keeper says he doesn't know whose it is. Should you mind if I took it, old chap? I've only one here, and it got so hot yesterday I could hardly shoot with it." Or it would be, "Tommy and I are going to practise a bit; may I use this old bat? I fancy it must once have been mine, but I'm not sure." Or, "Would it be convenient for me to have a horse this morning? I was thinking of riding over to see the mater." Formerly, whatever the house afforded was as freely his as Sainty's. If he was not the owner, he was something more than an ordinary heir, and guns, bats, and horses were so emphatically his natural property, that it was unthinkable his asking permission to use them.

On the first morning of his visit, the brothers had wandered out together, and Arthur had commented on the new arrangement of the forecourt.

"You've fetched all the old statues out of the shrubbery, I see," he said. "What did you do that for?"

Sainty explained almost apologetically, that it was an attempt to return to Perrault's original plan.

"Is it so long since you were here?" he said. "I had forgotten----" Then, as the other remained silent, gloomily sucking at his pipe, "I'm afraid you don't like it," he suggested meekly.

"Oh! well, of course, it's none of my business. I must say I think they looked better where they were, but I'm not much of a judge. Naturally, don'tcher know, I liked 'em where I've always seen 'em. I can't bear changes in the place."

"I'm sometimes half sorry I did it, myself," Sainty admitted. As he spoke he was aware that the moment had come which he had been dreading ever since his brother's arrival, the first appearance on the scene of the baby, who was being taken out for his morning's airing.

"And so this is the son and heir, is it?" said Arthur. "Hulloa! little 'un, how do you do? I'm your uncle. You look very solemn, but it would be more natural if I did. You don't know the difference your small existence makes to me and mine."

The baby, as usual, at sight of Sainty, began making demonstrations of welcome, doubling himself forward over his restraining strap, and giving vent to a note like that of the nightingale, which is conventionally represented in print as "Jug-jug-jug," and a cry of "A-da, A-da-da, A-da," which was a sort of sound of all work with him for the expression of his varying emotions.

"He wants his dada," said the nurse, eager to display her charge's precocity, and, at the same time, gratify her master. "He says 'Dada' quite plain, my lord, and it's the first word he's said."

"It's a wise child that knows his own father," said Arthur jocosely.

Sainty could not restrain a hasty glance at him, but he was evidently innocent of any special or personal application of the often-quoted adage.

They walked on for a little beside the child, Sainty resting one hand lovingly on the edge of the little carriage, the baby squirming round and looking up into his face, wrinkling its nose and gurgling to attract his attention. When their ways divided, the parting was not effected without a burst of protest from the infant, which Sainty soothed and diverted as skilfully as the professional attendant.

"The little beggar seems to like you," Arthur remarked. "I don't remember either of mine ever yelling for me."

"You have probably never taken as much notice of them as I do of baby."

"You were always a kind of old granny; you'll probably spoil that brat. Have you done anything to the stables since I was here?"

Once received, the prodigal brother came several times to Belchamber in the course of the winter. He liked the luxury, the magnificence, the good food, the gentlemanly licence of the conversation, the fine horses to ride (he soon ceased to ask if he might take one), better than the shabby gentility of the stucco rectory, the half-trained grooms, the half-lame hunters, the half-refined wife of his own home. It sometimes seemed to Sainty that he almost forgot he was a husband and father at all, and there were not wanting among the ladies of Cissy's surrounding some who were quite willing to help him to this pleasing oblivion.

"I like Lady Deans," he would say confidentially; "she's rare sport, and there's no nonsense about her; she don't care what she says, and you haven't got to think twice about what you say to her. Now if I were to say half the things to Topsy I say to her, she'd bridle and shy and look as sour as if she'd been brought up by a bishop. And when you think---oh my!" and the sentence would end in a long puff of cigar smoke, or the burial of the speaker's nose in a tall whisky and soda.

Arthur was a decided success with the members of the softer sex. The story of his romance cast quite a halo about him, and the very few mothers of grown-up girls who were tolerated in that gay company felt almost tenderly towards a detrimental who had put it out of his own power to marry their daughters.

As for Cissy, she and her brother-in-law got on capitally. She pressed him to come whenever he liked, partly, no doubt, because she divined that his presence was a constant unhappiness to her husband. The sight of him in juxtaposition with the baby kept a keen edge on all Sainty's feelings of remorse; nor was Arthur likely to be restrained by a fastidious delicacy from all allusion to the change which the birth of an heir had made in his own position. His remarks on the subject were not always in the best possible taste; he affected jokes about the Babes in the Wood, referred to himself as the "wicked uncle," and "wondered Sainty was willing to trust him in the house with the precious infant." Such pleasantries, of a slightly sub-acid jocularity, went through and through Sainty in a way that the speaker could neither have guessed nor intended; he probably thought, on the contrary, that he was taking his blighted prospects with an easy amiability which did him infinite credit. He was not indeed without certain touches of kindliness towards his nephew. "When he gets a big boy, you must let his poor old uncle teach him to ride and shoot," he would say. "We must make a good sportsman of him, and you know you won't do much in that line for him, old man." Sainty wondered if he wanted the boy to be a sportsman. His personal hatred of taking life extended itself to this nurseling of his affections. Must those tiny fingers be taught to curl round a trigger, that innocent heart learn to find its pleasure in slaughter and destruction? Yet he desired all forms of perfection for his darling; he hated to think of him at the same disadvantage among those with whom he would have to live as he himself had always been. He would have him strong and brave and daring, trained in all arts and exercises that became a gentleman; for instance, there could be no doubt that a certain proficiency in horsemanship was desirable for the ideal youth, but he recalled with horror his own early efforts to attain it, and shuddered to think how he should tremble, when, in course of time, the child came to an age to face these dangers.

He began to see how ill-fitted he was to be the trainer of a young man. Hitherto he had imagined himself only as a nurse of callow infancy, shielding the little one with his greater insight and sympathy from the misunderstandings that had made his own childhood unhappy. Somehow he had fancied the child would be like him, timid and shrinking, needing protection; but now it struck him that there was no reason why it should resemble him at all, and he recoiled with sudden terror from the thought of what unlovely qualities the offspring of two such parents might have inherited. How would he be able to bear seeing the treachery of the one, or the hard egotism of the other, reproducing itself in the being he loved best in the world? Had he the firmness needed for correcting such tendencies? Could he ever steel himself to the necessity of punishment?

On the other hand, it was hardly to be desired that the little boy should grow up on his pattern. He was not so conspicuous a success in his position that it was an object to educate a successor on the same lines. He began to understand the kind of problems his own bringing up had presented for solution to his mother and uncle; he remembered how futile had been the efforts of these two strong natures, with all the advantages of example, to instil into his feeble soul a more virile attitude towards life, and the sum in proportion of what difficulties he would have to encounter in a like endeavour was not a hard one to work out. If Lady Charmington, absolutely sure of what she wanted, and with her bull-dog tenacity of purpose, had failed so lamentably of her object, what kind of a creature would he turn out, assailed by a hundred doubts, fears, and indecisions, and desiring simultaneously quite irreconcilable ideals?

He recognised that the child had become the chief preoccupation of his life, its health, its food, its education---for he already tormented himself with questions that, by their very nature, could not have to be faced for years to come; and the more he troubled himself about the little thing, the more he loved it, the greater his love grew, the greater grew the desire to do his duty by his charge, the greater the anxiety as to what that duty might be.

So far, however, his troubles were only those common to all parents and guardians who took their responsibilities somewhat morbidly; his special self-torture began where theirs left off. When all was said and done, the thousand dangers that dog the steps of youth safely passed, the pitfalls on either hand successfully avoided, the boy trained to all perfection of manly virtue and delight---what then? To what purpose, and for what end, should he have fashioned this splendid creature? To be the means by which he was to rob his nearest kinsfolk of their birthright! If his remorse was constantly awakened by Arthur's presence, and the things that he said, it yet addressed itself less to Arthur than to the child. It was not so much the injury to his brother and his brother's children that was becoming an hourly torment to his conscience, as the injury to this innocent accomplice in making him the instrument of wrong. Was that, then, the best that he could do for the son of his heart, the being who was daily becoming more and more the centre of his existence, dearer than are the children of their loins to ordinary fathers, to use him as the unconscious weapon of his own fraud? There was no way out, no turning back; he could not now disavow him if he would. The crime was committed, irremediable, to go on breeding injustice, perpetuating wrong to the last chapters of the history of his race.

He saw in imagination the little boy passing from childhood to youth, from youth to manhood, growing tall and strong and beautiful, in his turn marrying, and begetting children to become links in the long chain of falsehood and carry on the consequences of his lie. And he would have to live and watch this happening, always alone, always in silence, with no one to whom he could unburthen his heart. There would only be two who shared his knowledge, and to neither of them could he say a word on the subject, though hideously, eternally aware that they knew, and were watching with himself. And then a new terror assailed him. When a secret was already the property of three people, could he be certain that no breath of it would ever reach the person principally concerned? He had plenty of experience of how recklessly Cissy could talk on occasion, what rash and terrible things the desire to wound could make her say, and he trembled lest in some fit of sudden anger with her son, some momentary loss of self-control, she might turn and crush him with the story of his birth. The word once spoken could never be recalled; he saw the poor boy coming, white and stern, to ask him if this thing were true, and felt by anticipation the agony of his own inability to deny it. A dozen times a day he lived through the misery of that confession, and watched the love and respect die out of those dear eyes, as his unwilling hand dealt the final blow. Perhaps it would be some fair growth of young romance, the prospect of an innocent, happy marriage with a good girl, that he would have to blast with that terrible avowal. He heard himself condemning the boy to sterile loneliness or the devious byways of illicit love, to make a tardy reparation, and restore the stolen heritage to its rightful owners.

These thoughts were with him day and night; they went to bed with him, and got up with him; they followed him about the place; they sat with him beside the sleeping baby, and looked at him out of its great solemn eyes when it woke. Truly "the Lord his God was a jealous God," that fastidiously high standard of conduct and personal honour, his one sin against which was to be "visited upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation."

And then on a sudden the end came, and he learned the futility of his crime and his remorse alike. The poor little life that had been to him a source of such happiness and such self-torture came to an end as independently of any act of his as it had come to its beginning. It may have contained from the first the germs of some mortal disease, or perhaps the practices of its former nurse had left behind more fatal results than any one suspected. It is probable that too rapid teething had something to do with it. A baby's life is at best but such a newly kindled flame, feeble and unsteady, that a puff of wind will make it flicker and go out. The whole thing did not take a week. The child was flushed, heavy, restless, as it had so often been before. "He is cutting another big tooth," the nurse said. "It's no wonder he's a little fractious, poor lamb! It's the third in a fortnight." Lady Charmington was appealed to, and repeated, for the twentieth time, her comfortable assertions of how much more Sainty himself had suffered during the same anxious period; by constantly reassuring her son with them, she had finally almost persuaded herself that the baby was as strong as she wished it. She declared it was ridiculous to send for the doctor. "Have him, if you like," she said; "but I know just what he'll say. Baby has been exactly like this so often, and each time you always think it is something dreadful. Nurse knows exactly what to do for him, don't you, nurse?"

On the third day Sainty grew restive, and sent for him all the same. The doctor, if not as well satisfied as Lady Charmington, yet seemed to think there was no particular cause for anxiety. He detected a little sound in the bronchial pipes, and asked if the child could have got a chill in any way. "It might all very well come from the teeth," he said. "The little fellow is feverish; you had better keep him in for a day or two."

He came once or twice more, a little uncertain, very non-committal; and then, one day, there was a swift, unexplained rise of temperature, a convulsion or two, and, before even Sainty, with his genius for prophesying disaster, had fully realised the danger, all was over in this world as far as the baby was concerned.

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