Read THE BEAUTIFUL WRETCH: CHAPTER XI of The Beautiful Wretch The Pupil of Aurelius and The Four Macnicols , free online book, by William Black, on ReadCentral.com.

TRANSFORMATION.

Captain Frank was everything and did everything that his parents could have hoped for, except in one direction: he would have nothing said about marriage. He came home without a murmur; he never uttered a word of regret about his giving up a profession that he had fair hopes of advancement in; he adopted his new set of duties with cheerfulness, and entered with zest into the festivities of the season. For the leaf was beginning to fall, and all the people about were preparing to shoot the covers, so that parties had to be made up and invitations issued, and there soon came to be a general stir throughout the countryside. Captain Frank, though he was not much of a shot, took his share in all these things; but he held aloof from womankind, and would not have his marriage even spoken of by his most intimate relatives.

What was the man made of that he could resist a scene like this? Imagine an open glade in a beautiful Wiltshire wood on the morning after a slight fall of snow. The skies are blue, and the world is full of clear sunlight; the hollies are intensely green over the white of the snow; here and there on the bare branches are a few red leaves. Also on the snow itself there is a stain of brownish red in some places, where the light air of the morning has shaken down withered needles from a tall pine-tree. Then there is a distant, sharp flutter; the noise increases; suddenly a beautiful thing a meteor of bronze and crimson comes whirring along at a tremendous pace; Captain Frank blazes away with one barrel and misses; before he knows where he is the pheasant seems a couple of miles off in the silver and blue of the sky, and he does not care to send the second barrel on a roving commission. He puts his gun over his shoulder, and returns to his pensive contemplation of the glittering green hollies, and the white snow, and the maze of bare branches going up into the blue.

But a new figure appears in the midst of this English-looking scene. A very pretty young lady comes along smiling her pink cheeks looking all the pinker, and her blue eyes all the bluer, because of the white snow and also the white fur round her neck. This is pretty Mary Coventry, who is staying at present at Kingscourt. She has the brightest of smiles, and the whitest of teeth.

‘Cousin Frank,’ she says, ‘where do you gentlemen lunch to-day?’

‘Look here,’ he answers, ’you’ve come right up the line between the guns and the beaters.’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ she says, gaily. ’I know your father doesn’t allow shooting at ground game into cover.’

‘Lunch is to be up at the Hill Farm.’

’Oh, that’s the very thing. I want a long walk. And I will help Higgins to have everything ready for you.’

’It will be very rough and tumble. You had much better go back home to lunch.’

’But I have come for the very purpose! I have brought sugar and cinnamon to mull the claret for you. You will find it scalding hot when you come.’

A hare ran by some dozen yards off: he did not fire.

‘I see I am in your way. Good-bye for the present.’

’Good-bye. If you do mean to go up to the Hill Farm, you had better keep to the road. Or else,’ he added, laughing, ’Mr. Ferrers will have something to say to you.’

‘Well,’ said pretty Mary Coventry to herself, as she passed on and into the road, ’he did not even thank me for all my trouble. And I always thought sailors were supposed to be nice. But perhaps he is lamenting some blackamoor sweetheart in Patagonia, and won’t take any notice of anybody.’

It was about a week after this that Captain Frank, having run up to town, met a young gentleman in Piccadilly whom he seemed to recognise. He looked again yes, it could be no other than Tom Beresford. But it was Tom Beresford transformed. Mr. Tom was now of age; he had his club, which he much frequented; he had assumed the air and manner of a man about town. That is to say, although he was clever enough and had a sufficient touch of humour, he cultivated a languid stare, and was chary of speech; and although he was a well-built young fellow, he walked with his elbows out and his knees in, as if the tightness of his trousers and his boots made it nigh impossible for him to walk at all. Moreover, his dress was more rigidly correct than ever; and of course he carried the inevitable cane inevitable as the walking-stick of the Athenian.

Frank King went up to him eagerly.

‘Hallo, Beresford, how are you?’

‘How are you?’ was the answer, as a slight boyish blush somewhat interfered with the dignity of Mr. Tom. ’How are you? I heard you were at home again. I heard of you through the Strathernes.’

‘And I heard of you in the same way,’ said Captain King, who seemed greatly pleased to meet an old friend. ’I’ll turn and walk with you. I’ve nothing particular to do.’

‘Will you come and lunch with me?’ said Mr. Tom (he had recovered himself after the inadvertent blush). ‘We can walk along to the club.’

’Yes, I will; said Frank King, heartily. ‘Which is your club?’

’The Waterloo. They call it that because it isn’t in Waterloo Place. It’s in Regent Street.’

‘All right,’ said the other; but instantly he began to pursue his inquiries. ’Yes, I heard of you and your family from the Strathernes. There have been great changes since I left England. Your eldest sister is married, is she not?’

’You mean Moll: yes. They live in town a small house back there in Mayfair. He used to be a richer man,’ observed Mr. Tom, contemplatively, ‘before he took silk.’

‘But they are going to make him a judge, I hear.’

‘Faith, then, I hope he’ll never have to try me,’ said Mr. Tom, with an air of conviction. ’He and I never could hit it off. I hate pompous people, and people who give themselves airs. Now, I took a liking to you the first five minutes I saw you.’

Captain King was dutifully grateful for this condescension. He said he also hated pompous people he couldn’t bear them. And then he asked about Tom’s sister Edith.

‘She’s engaged to be married, isn’t she?’

‘It’s my belief,’ said Mr. Tom, with a smile, ’that she has engaged herself to both of them, just to make sure; and that she can’t make up her mind which to send off. I don’t wonder at her pulling a wry mouth about having to marry a soda-water manufacturer; but Soda-water isn’t half a bad sort of fellow, and he is fearfully rich. You see he is particularly beaming just now, for there have been two or three blazing hot summers running, and the demand must have been tremendous. Then young Thynne, he’s no end of a swell, no doubt; but you may be cousin to all kinds of earls and dukes without their giving you anything. I should fancy his father lets him have two or three hundred a year. I should like to see the Sentimental get along with that! You can’t live on a fellow’s ancestry. I think she should take Soda-water, even if he hasn’t got anything like a father to speak of. And even if he hasn’t got a father this was what Nan said he might be equally “sans pere et sans reproche."’

‘It was your sister Anne said that, was it?’ remarked Frank King, quickly.

‘That was in her saucy days,’ said Mr. Tom, sadly. ’It’s quite different now. Now she’s on the pious lay.’

‘The what?’ said Frank King. It was clear that, however Mr. Tom had altered, he had not chosen to improve his manner of speech.

‘Oh, High Church and reredoses,’ said the irreverent youth. ’Silver embroideries, don’t you know, and visiting the poor, and catching all sorts of confounded infection. And then I suppose she’ll end by marrying that curate that’s always about the house. What a shame it is! She used to be such a brick. And to go and marry a curate.’

‘I heard of that, too,’ said Captain Frank, with a bit of a sigh. It was indeed among the first things he had heard after returning to England.

By this time they had reached Mr. Tom’s club, which was pleasantly situated at a corner of the great thoroughfare, so that it had from its coffee-room windows a spacious view, and was altogether a light and cheerful sort of place.

‘But you don’t ask about the Baby,’ said Mr. Tom, as he was entering his friend’s name in the strangers’ book the Waterloo being a hospitable little club that allowed visitors to come in at any hour. ‘And the Baby is in a hole.’

’Well, it must be a sad thing for a baby to be in a hole; but I don’t quite understand,’ said Captain King.

‘Don’t you remember the Baby? The youngest Madge?’

‘Oh. Well, I only saw her once, I think. What is the matter with her?’

‘First pick out what you want for lunch, and then I’ll tell you.’

This was easily done; and the two friends sat down at a small window-table, which enabled them to glance out at the passing crowd, and even as far as the Duke of York’s column and the tops of the trees in St. James’s Park.

‘You see my sisters have all been wards in Chancery. I was also,’ said Mr. Tom, with a slight blush; for he was no more than six months escaped from tutelage. ’I suppose the executors funked something about my father’s will; at all events, they flung the whole thing in. Well, no great harm has come of it; not so much cost or worry as you would expect. Only the girls have had bad times of it about their sweethearts. I mean the Baby ’

‘The Baby! How old is she?’

’Eighteen; and uncommonly good-looking, I think. Have some sherry. Well, the Baby made the acquaintance at somebody’s house of a young fellow son of a barrister not a farthing but what he picks up at pool. I don’t think she meant anything I don’t a bit. There’s a lot of that kind of nonsense goes on down there: Nan is the only one who has kept clear out of it. Well, the guardians didn’t see it; and they went to the Court, and they got the Vice-Chancellor to issue an order forbidding young Hanbury from having any sort of communication with Madge. Now, you know, if you play any games with an order of that sort hanging over you, it’s the very devil. It is. Won’t you have some pickles?’

‘And how is Miss Madge affected by the order?’ asked Captain King.

‘Oh,’ said this garrulous youth, who had entirely forgotten his cultivated, reticent manner in meeting this old friend, ’she pretends to be greatly hurt, and thinks it cruel and heart-breaking and all the rest of it; but that’s only her fun, don’t you know? She’s precious glad to get out of it, that’s my belief; and nobody knew better than herself he wouldn’t do at all. Finished? Come and have a game of billiards then.’

They went upstairs to a long, low-roofed apartment, in which were two tables. They lit cigars, chose their cues, and fell to work. Frank King had not played half-a-dozen strokes when Mr. Tom said, generously

‘I will put you on thirty points.’

They played five minutes longer.

‘Look here, I will give you another thirty.’

‘Sixty in a hundred?’ said King, laughing. ’Well, that is rather a confession of bad play.’

‘Oh, as for that,’ said Mr. Tom, ’I don’t see that a naval officer should be ashamed of playing badly at billiards. He should be proud of it. I shan’t glory in it if I beat you.’

Mr. Tom was really very friendly. After a couple of games or so he said

’Look here, it’s nearly four o’clock. I am going down to Brighton by the 4.30. Will you come down and see my mother and the girls? I am afraid we can’t put you up; but you can get a bedroom at the Norfolk or Prince’s; and we dine at eight.’

Frank King hesitated for a minute or two. Ever since he had come to England he had had a strange wish to see Nan Beresford, even though he had heard she was going to be married. He wished to see whether she had turned out to be what he had predicted to himself; whether she retained those peculiar distinctions of character and expression and manner that had so attracted him; somehow he thought he would like just to shake hands with her for a moment, and see once before him those clear, blue-gray, shy, humorous eyes. But this proposal was too sudden. His heart jumped with a quick dismay. He was not prepared.

Nevertheless, Tom Beresford insisted. Was Captain King staying at a hotel? No; he had got a bedroom in Cleveland Row. That was the very thing; they could stop the hansom there on their way to Victoria Station. The girls would be glad to see him. They had always been watching his whereabouts abroad, in the Admiralty appointments in the newspapers.

At last, with some little unexpressed dread, Frank King consented; and together they made their way to Victoria Station.

‘You know,’ said Mr. Tom, apologetically, in the Pullman, ’I’ve been talking a lot about my sisters; but I tell you honestly I don’t see any girls to beat them anywhere. I don’t. The Sentimental is rather stupid, perhaps; but then she scores by her music. Nan’s the one for my money, though. She isn’t the prettiest; but set her down at any dinner table, and you can lay odds on her against the field. I believe there are a dozen old gentlemen who have got her name in their will not that she cares for worldly things any more it is all sanctity now. I wish to goodness somebody would ’

But Mr. Tom had a little discretion. He said no more.

‘I suppose they are all very much changed in appearance,’ Frank King said, thoughtfully. ’I shouldn’t be surprised if I scarcely recognised them.’

’Oh, yes, they are. And I will confess that Nan has improved in one way. She isn’t as cheeky as she used to be; she’s awfully good-natured she’d do anything for you. When I get into trouble, I know Nan will be my sheet-anchor.’

‘Then I hope the cable will hold,’ said Frank King.

They reached Brighton. Tom Beresford found his companion strangely silent and preoccupied. The fact was that Captain Frank was very unusually agitated. He hoped she might not be alone. Then he strove to convince himself that she must be quite altered now. She must be quite different from the young girl who walked up the Splugen Pass with him. Then she was scarcely over seventeen; now she was over twenty. He would see some one he might fail to recognise; not the Nan of former days; not the Nan that had long ago enchained him with her frank odd ways, and her true eyes.

They drove first to a hotel, and secured a bed; then they went to Brunswick Terrace. When they went upstairs to the drawing-room, they found it empty.

‘They can’t be all out,’ said Mr. Tom; ‘I’ll go and find them.’

He left; and Captain Frank began to try to quiet down this uncalled-for perturbation. Why should he fear to see her? The past was over. Never was any decision given more irrevocably; even if there had been any question as to an open future, that had been disposed of by the news that had met him on his return to England. It ought only to be a pleasure to him to see her. He thought she would welcome him in a kind way; and he would show her that he quite accepted circumstances as they were. Only and this he kept repeating to himself he must expect to be disillusionised. Nan would no longer be that former Nan. Some of the freshness and the young wonder would be gone; she would be eligible as a friend; that, on the whole, was better.

Well, the door opened, and he turned quickly, and then his heart jumped. No; she had not changed at all, he said to himself, as she advanced towards him with a smile and a frankly extended hand. The same pleasant eyes, the same graceful, lithe figure, the same soft voice, as she said

‘Oh, how do you do, Captain King?’

And yet he was bewildered. There was something strange.

‘I I am very glad to see you again, Miss Anne,’ he stammered.

She looked at him for a moment, puzzled, and then she said, with a quiet smile,

‘Oh, but I’m not Nan. I see you have forgotten me. I’m Madge.’