Read CHAPTER XXII - "TWO MAIDEN LADIES OF UNCERTAIN AGE" of Herb of Grace, free online book, by Rosa Nouchette Carey, on ReadCentral.com.

  How poor a thing is man!  Alas, ’tis true;
  I’d half forget it when I chanced on you! 
                         Schiller.

  Thy clothes are all the soul thou hast. 
                         Beaumont and Fletcher.

The day of the Templeton’s garden fête was as bright and cloudless as the heart of man or woman could desire.  Verity, who had dressed herself at an unconscionably early hour, sat at an upper window with Babs in her arms, watching brakes and carriages drive past, filled with gaily attired people.  Malcolm had issued his sovereign mandate that they must not be amongst the earliest arrivals, and Verity panted with impatience long before she could induce her household tyrants to lay aside pipe and cigarette.

Malcolm was not in a festive mood.  He had spent his morning restlessly, pacing up and down the woodlands, with an unread book under his arm.  He was secretly chafed and even a little hurt that neither of the sisters had needed his help.  He had dropped more than one hint on the previous day, when some errand took him to the Wood House, and he found Elizabeth looking heated and tired, superintending the removal of some furniture.

“You might make use of an idle man,” he had said half-jestingly.  “I assure you that I am a complete Jack-of-all-trades, and I don’t mind ’a scrow,’ as old Nurse Dawson calls it.”  But though Elizabeth smiled, she did not avail herself of this friendly offer; but it was Dinah who gave him the real explanation.

“Oh, thank you, Mr. Herrick,” she had returned gratefully; “we should have been so glad of your help, only David Carlyon and his father are doing all we want.  Mr. Carlyon is so useful, and David spends all his spare time with us.”

“David” in a pondering voice.  And Dinah blushed as if she had been guilty of an indiscretion.

“Oh, we only call him that in order to distinguish him from his father the two Carlyons are so puzzling; but he is an old and a very dear friend, and at my age it does not matter,” finished Dinah with her charming smile.

Malcolm had to content himself with this explanation.  They were old friends.  Yes, of course, and he was a comparatively new one.  He expected too much; his demands were unreasonable.  Nevertheless Malcolm felt a pang of envy when he saw David Carlyon tearing breathlessly through the woodlands with his arms full of greenery from the vicarage garden, and whistling like a schoolboy.

When at last Malcolm and his friends turned in at the gates of the Wood House that afternoon, they could hear the band playing in the distance.  A group of village children were gathered in the road; empty carriages passed them; a smart dog-cart, with four young men, rattled down the drive; and through the openings in the trees the gleam of white dresses looked silvery in the sunlight.

Miss Templeton was standing in the porch to receive her guests.  Elizabeth had only just left her, she said, to arrange the tennis tournament.  And then, as more guests were arriving, Malcolm left her.  The next moment he came upon Cedric; he was looking rather bored and disconsolate.  He lighted up, however, at the sight of his friend.

“Here you are at last,” he grumbled.  “I have been looking all over the place for you.  I came down with a lot of our fellows, but Betty has paired them all off for tennis.  There are the Kestons, I must go and speak to them.”  But Malcolm had him by the arm.

“Wait a moment; ‘"no hurry!” said the Carpenter.’  I suppose you brought the Jacobis with you.”  Then Cedric’s face clouded again.

“Oh, Jacobi came right enough there he is, talking to David but Miss Jacobi had a bad sick headache, and he would not let her come.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” returned Malcolm; and he was sorry, for his cleverly-devised plan had been frustrated.

“She was sorry too, poor girl,” went on Cedric in a vexed voice.  “She had been so looking forward to the Bean-feast ever since Betty’s invitation arrived.  It is my belief that Jacobi is to blame for the whole thing, for he was rowing her in her room like anything last night.  I could hear them through the ceiling going it like hammer and tongs.”

“Do you mean to tell me that Miss Jacobi and her brother quarrel?” asked Malcolm in a disgusted voice.  Then Cedric looked as if he had said more than he intended.

“No, not quarrel,” rather hesitatingly.  “It takes two to do that, you know, and Leah Miss Jacobi, I mean,” biting his lip “is much too fond of her brother to quarrel with him; but Jacobi has a temper, you see.”

“Oh, he has a temper, has he?”

“Well, lots of people have, if you come to that,” returned Cedric, who evidently repented his frankness.  “Jacobi is a decent fellow, but he is hot and peppery, and when things go crooked he lashes out a bit.  Something must have vexed him last night, for he came into the drawing-room looking very much put out.  Miss Jacobi had just gone upstairs, and he went after her at once.”

“And then they quarrelled?”

“Well, not quarrelled exactly; but there was a good deal of talking, don’t you know.  He kept her up late, and bothered her, and then she got a headache.  “But Cedric forbore to tell his friend that he had been so perturbed by the sound of Saul Jacobi’s angry voice that he had stolen down the stairs to the passage below.  How long he stood there transfixed with fear and pity it was impossible to say.  No words reached him only the harsh, vibrant tones of Saul Jacobi’s voice and Leah’s low, piteous sobbing.

He might have stood there until morning, but the door suddenly unlatched, and he had only just time to steal away; but before he could enter his room a few words did reach him.

“Oh, Saul, please do not leave me like this.  Don’t I always do as you wish; only only I thought you approved; that that ” but here sobs choked her voice.

“What is the use of turning on the waterworks like this?” muttered her brother angrily.  “What fools you women are!  A boy like that too!”

“But, Saul, Saul ”

“Yes, I know,” sulkily.  “I have not changed my mind, but I mean to have my way about to-morrow all the same.  If you had been sensible I would have told you my reasons; but you chose to aggravate me, and I said a precious lot more than I meant.  There, go to sleep and forget it” evidently a rough attempt to be conciliatory; but Leah’s sad and weary face told its own tale the next morning.

Malcolm did not ask any more questions, and after a few more casual remarks Cedric went off in search of the Kestons, and Malcolm sauntered across the lawn, looking at the various groups in the hope of seeing Elizabeth’s tall figure.

Presently he came upon Mr. Jacobi.  He was standing by the sun-dial, looking smart and well-groomed in his frock-coat, and a rare orchid in his button-hole.  He was contemplating the house with fixed attention.  A sudden impulse made Malcolm join him.  Mr. Jacobi greeted him with his usual affability, and then, as though by mutual consent, they strolled together in the direction of the rustic bridge.

“Nice sleepy old place this,” observed Mr. Jacobi condescendingly.  “Seems as though it had been in existence for a hundred years at least.  Do you know how long it has belonged to the Templetons?”

“No, I have no idea,” returned Malcolm stiffly, for he resented the question.  “What a perfect day it is!  I am sorry to hear from Templeton that your sister is indisposed.”

Mr. Jacobi’s eyes narrowed a little; he looked rather sharply at Malcolm.

“Oh, Templeton told you that.  Nice fellow as good a specimen of a young Briton as ever I wish to see; sensible too, and a good companion.  Yes, my sister is a bit seedy a bad sick headache, nothing more.  It is in our family; my mother had them, and Leah takes after her.  It is hard lines, poor old girl,” continued Mr. Jacobi in a feeling tone, “for she was longing to make the Misses Templeton’s acquaintance.”

Malcolm returned a civil answer, and Mr. Jacobi continued

“Templeton is a lucky fellow, between you and me and the post,” in a jocular tone.  “It must be a good thing for him that his sisters have set their faces against matrimony.  Nice-looking women, both of them, but in my humble opinion Miss Elizabeth is the most attractive.  Templeton let out to Leah the other day that she could have married a dozen times over if she had wished to do so, only she vowed she was cut out for an old maid.”

“I don’t suppose he knows anything about it,” returned Malcolm, feeling this speech was in the worst possible form.  It revolted him to hear this man even mention Elizabeth’s name he would give him no encouragement; but Saul Jacobi, who could be dense when he chose, did not drop the subject.

“It is rather a big place for two maiden ladies of uncertain age,” he remarked blandly; but this speech irritated Malcolm beyond endurance.

“There is nothing uncertain about the second Miss Templeton’s age,” he said impatiently; “she is still a young woman.”  Then it struck him that Mr. Jacobi looked a trifle crestfallen.

“Young, do you call her?  Oh no, very mature and sedate, like a middle-aged woman.  Gyp Campion told me as a fact do you know Gyp? he is in the Hussars, and a tiptop swell in the bargain well, Gyp let out that his brother Owen had proposed to Miss Elizabeth Templeton years ago at Alassio.”

“Oh, I daresay,” indifferently.  “I think I must go back to the house now;” it cost Malcolm an effort to be civil.

“I will walk back with you.  What was I saying?  Oh, she refused the poor chap, and told him that the holy estate of matrimony had no attraction for her, or some such rubbish.  That is why I call Templeton a lucky fellow.  There is not a creature belonging to them, except a distant cousin or two in New Zealand, so of course he will come in for everything;” a pause here, and a furtive glance of inquiry; but Malcolm remained mute, and his face might have been a blank wall as far as expression was concerned.

“They have got a pretty penny saved too,” went on Mr. Jacobi, not in the least silenced by Malcolm’s lack of interest.  “Gyp told me a thing or two about that.  It seems they had a farm in Cornwall” here he sniffed at his scentless orchid with an air of enjoyment, a habit of his when his subject interested him.  “It was a rotten concern farm buildings out of repair, and a few scrubby fields with more stones than grass.  Miss Templeton was just going to sell it for a mere song when some one discovered tin.  My word, those few acres rose in value!  Gyp declared they realised quite a small fortune on it.  That was only three or four years ago.”

“Indeed,” returned Malcolm drily; “if you will pardon my speaking plainly, Mr. Jacobi, I do not think the Misses Templeton’s business affairs are any concern of ours, and I would prefer to talk on any other subject.”

This was too manifest a hint to be disregarded even by the irrepressible Jacobi; but the next minute Malcolm added, “Will you excuse my leaving you, I see some old friends of mine on their way to the Pool, and they will expect me to join them;” but if Malcolm intended to do so, he chose a most circuitous route.

“Rum chap that,” observed Saul Jacobi, turning on his heel “not easy to get any information out of him; looks as though he had swallowed the poker first, and then the tongs as a sort of relish afterwards, and neither of them agreed with him.  I wonder what young Templeton saw in him.  He lays it on pretty thick too:  it is Herrick this and Herrick that, as though he were Solomon in all his glory.  Confound his airs and impudence!  Let me tell you, my young gentleman,” with a sly smile, “that the Misses Templeton’s private business is a matter that concerns Saul Jacobi pretty closely.”

Meanwhile Malcolm was in a white heat of righteous indignation.

“That wretched little cad, how dare he meddle and pry into the Misses Templeton’s family affairs!  There is something I mistrust in the man; he is smooth and plausible, but he is crafty too; he is deep deep and if I do not mistake, he is clever too.”

Then he added, “I must get hold of Cedric; I am not comfortable at his associating with this man.  Cedric is as weak as water; he is so easily led, he would be the dupe of any designing person; but the Jacobis will have to reckon with me;” and here Malcolm, who had uttered the last words aloud, stopped and looked rather foolish, as a merry laugh greeted his ear, and Elizabeth, in all the glory of her Paris gown and picture hat, barred the way, and regarded him with her beaming smile.

“Mr. Herrick, you are quite dramatic; Hamlet or the melancholy Jacques could not have been more lost in gloomy meditation.  If I may presume to ask the question, why will the Jacobis have to reckon with you?”

“Did I say so?” returned Malcolm, with an uneasy laugh.  “I suppose I was thinking aloud.  That fellow Jacobi has been rubbing me up the wrong way; he stuck to me like a burr, and I could not get rid of him.”

“I had some trouble in shaking him off myself,” she owned.  “You were quite right, Mr. Herrick, he is not a gentleman, and I dislike his manner excessively; it is too subservient, and he is too soft-tongued.  Poor dear Die, I wish you could have seen her face when he paid her a compliment; she looked quite bewildered.”

Elizabeth’s eyes were dancing with amusement at the recollection, but Malcolm did not respond to her merriment; he felt things were too serious.

“I am not at all easy in my mind,” he said, and then Elizabeth looked at him inquiringly.  “Jacobi seems to have got a hold on Cedric.  He goes back with him to-night, does he not?  Ah, I thought so,” as Elizabeth nodded.  “I must have some talk with him; I shall tell him that I disapprove of the Jacobis, and shall beg him to break off the acquaintance.”

“Oh, thank you thank you!” returned Elizabeth earnestly, and there was a beautiful colour in her face; she even held out her hand impulsively to him, as though her gratitude carried her away.  “How good you are to us a real friend to two lone, lorn women!” and here something twinkled in Elizabeth’s eyes; but perhaps she was a little taken aback when Malcolm very quietly and reverently raised the hand to his lips, as though he were vowing knightly service to his liege lady.

“I should ask nothing better than to be your friend,” he said in a low voice; but perhaps something in her manner checked him, for he added hastily, “and your sister’s too.”

It was rather a lame conclusion, but Elizabeth accepted it graciously.  “I shall rely on you to help us,” she said very seriously; “get him to break with the Jacobis, and Dinah and I will owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“Hush! please do not mention names,” whispered Malcolm; “some one might overhear us;” but he was too late, Elizabeth’s incautious speech had reached an unseen auditor.

Malcolm felt a little ashamed of himself when he remembered his impulsive action.  “She will think it so strange,” he thought; “she will not understand that it was only the outward and visible sign of my inward reverence.”  But he was wrong, Elizabeth did understand, and she did not misjudge him.

“He is a high-minded gentleman,” she said to herself; and then she sighed and her face grew troubled, “but I wish I wish he had not done that.”

Malcolm found his work cut out for him; for the remainder of the afternoon he was hunting his quarry.  But Cedric was never alone.  He was either surrounded by a bevy of girls or else Jacobi was beside him.  Even Cedric seemed surprised at the tenacity with which his friend and host stuck to him.

“Herrick wants me,” he said once; “I will come back to you right enough, old fellow;” but Jacobi still pinioned him.

“We will go together, my dear boy,” he said pleasantly.  “I have taken a fancy to your Mentor.  He seems a clever chap.  He is a barrister, isn’t he, and literary, and all that sort of thing?”

“I have told you about him often enough,” returned Cedric, in rather a surly tone, as though the iron hand under the velvet glove made itself evident.  Cedric felt he was being managed and coerced, and he waxed indignant; but Saul Jacobi was more than a match for him, and in spite of all Malcolm’s efforts, Cedric went back to Henley without a word of warning.

Malcolm was quite troubled and crestfallen over his failure.

“I did my best,” he said to Elizabeth; “I followed him about the whole afternoon, but that fellow stuck to him like a leech.”

“So I saw,” she returned rather sadly; “it was no fault of yours, Mr. Herrick, I am quite sure of that.  Well, we must find some other opportunity.”  And then Elizabeth smiled at him very kindly, and Malcolm went back to the Crow’s Nest feeling somewhat comforted.