at all events

Mr. Wradisley had never been known to give so much attention to any of
his mother’s entertainments before. Those which were more exclusively
his own, the periodical dinners, the parties of guests occasionally
assembled in the house either for political motives or in discharge of
what he felt to be his duty as an important personage in the county, or
for shooting–which was the least responsible of all, but still the
man’s part in a house of the highest class–he did give a certain solemn
and serious attention to. But it had never been known that he had come
out of himself, or even out of his library, which was in a manner the
outer shell and husk of himself, for anything in the shape of an
occasional entertainment, the lighter occurrences of hospitality. On
this occasion, however, he was about all the morning with a slightly
anxious look about his eyes, in the first place to see that the day
promised well, to examine the horizon all round, and discuss the clouds
with the head gardener, who was a man of much learning and an expert, as
might be said, on the great question of the weather. That great
authority gave it as his opinion that it would keep fine all day. “There
may be showers in the evening, I should not wonder, but the weather will
keep up for to-day,” he said, backing his opinion with many minutiæ
about the shape of the clouds and the indications of the wind. Mr.
Wradisley repeated this at the breakfast table with much seriousness.
“Stevenson says we may trust to having a fine day, though there may be
showers in the evening,” he said; “but that will matter less, mother, as
all your guests will be gone by that time.”

“Oh, Reginald, do you think Stevenson always knows?” cried Lucy, “He
promised us fine weather the day of the bazaar, and there was a storm
and everything spoiled in the afternoon.”

“I am of the same opinion as Stevenson,” said Mr. Wradisley, very
quietly, which settled the matter; and, then, to be more wonderful
still, he asked if the house were to be open, and if it was to be
expected that any of the guests would wish to see his collection. “In
that case I should direct Simmons to be in attendance,” he said.

“Oh, if you would, Reginald!–that would give us great _éclat_,” said
his mother; “but I did not venture to ask. It is so very kind of you to
think of it, of yourself. Of course it will be wished–everybody will
wish it; but I generally put them off, you know, for I know you don’t
like to be worried, and I would not worry you for the world.”

“You are too good to me, mother. There is no reason why I should be
worried. It is, of course, my affair as much as any one’s,” he said, in
his perfectly gentle yet pointed way, which made the others, even Mrs.
Wradisley herself, feel a little small, as if she had been assuming an
individual responsibility which she had not the right to assume.

“My show won’t come to much if Rege is going to exhibit, mother,” said
Ralph. “I’d better keep them for another day.”

“On the contrary,” said Mr. Wradisley, with great suavity, “get out your
savage stores. If the whole country is coming, as appears, there will be
need for everything that we can do.”

“There were just as many people last time, Reginald, but you wouldn’t do
anything,” said Lucy, half aggrieved, notwithstanding her mother’s
“hush” and deprecating look.

“Circumstances are not always the same,” her brother said; “and I
understood from my mother that this was to be the last.”

“For the season, Reginald,” said Mrs. Wradisley, with a certain alarm in
her tone.

“To be sure. I meant for the season, of course–and in the
circumstances,” he replied.

Mrs. Wradisley was not at all a nervous nor a timorous woman. She was
very free of fancies, but still she was disturbed a little. She allowed
Lucy to run on with exclamations and conjectures after the master of
the house had retired. “What is the matter with Reginald? What has
happened? What does he mean by it? He never paid any attention to our
garden parties before.”

Mrs. Wradisley was a very sensible woman, as has been said. After a very
short interval she replied, calmly, “Most likely he does not mean
anything at all, my dear. He has just taken a fancy to have everything
very nice. It is delightful of him to let his collection be seen. That
almost makes us independent of the weather, as there is so much in the
house to see; but I do believe Stevenson is right, and that we are going
to have a most beautiful day.”

But though she made this statement, a little wonder remained in her
mind. She had not, she remembered, been very well lately. Did Reginald
think she was failing, and that it might really be his mother’s last
entertainment to her neighbors? It was not a very pleasant thought, for
nothing had occurred for a long time to disturb the quiet tenor of Mrs.
Wradisley’s life, and Ralph had come back to her out of the wilds, and
she was contented. She put the thought away, going out to the
housekeeper to talk over anything that was necessary, but it gave her a
little shock in spite of herself.

Mr. Wradisley, as may well be believed, had no thought at all of his
mother’s health, which he believed to be excellent, but he had begun to
think a little of brighter possibilities, of the substitution of another
feminine head to the house, and entertainments in which, through her, he
would take a warmer interest. But it was only partly this, and partly
nothing at all, as his sensible mother said, only the suppressed
excitement in him and impulse to do something to get through the time
until he should see Mrs. Nugent again and know his fate. He did not feel
very much afraid, notwithstanding all she had said in the shock of the
moment. He could understand that to a young widow, a fanciful young
woman, more or less touched by the new fancies women had taken up, the
idea of replacing her husband by another, of loving a second time, which
all the sentimentalists are against, would be for the moment a great
shock. She might feel the shock all the more if she felt, too, that
there was something in her heart that answered to that alarming
proposal, and might feel that to push off the thought with both hands,
with all her might, was the only thing possible. But the reflections of
the night and of the new morning, which had risen with such splendor of
autumnal sunshine, would, he felt almost sure, make a great difference.
Mrs. Nugent did not wear mourning; it was probably some years since her
husband’s death. She was not very well off, and did not seem to have
many relations who could help her, or she would not have come here so
unfriended, to a district in which nobody knew her. Was it likely that
she should resist all that he had to offer, the love of a good man, the
shelter of a well-known, wealthy, important name and house? It was not
possible that for a mere sentiment a woman so full of sense as she was,
could resist these. The love of a good man–if he had not had a penny in
the world, that would be worth any woman’s while; and she would feel
that. He thought, as he arranged with a zeal he had never felt before,
the means of amusing and occupying his mother’s guests, that he would
have all the more chance of getting her by herself, of finding time and
opportunity to lead her out of the crowd to get her answer. Surely,
surely, the chances were all in favor of a favorable answer. It was not
as if he were a nobody, a chance-comer, a trifling or unimportant
person. He had always been aware that he was an important person, and it
seemed impossible that she should not see it too.

Ralph Wradisley and his friend Bertram went out for a long walk. They
were both “out of it,” the son as much as the visitor, and both moved
with similar inclinations to run away. “Of course I’ll meet some fellows
I know,” Ralph said. “Shall I though? The fellows of my age are knocking
about somewhere, or married and settled, and that sort of thing. I’ll
meet the women of them, sisters, and so forth, and perhaps some wives.
It’s only the women that are fixtures in a country like this; and what
are the women to you and me?”

“Well, to me nothing but strangers–but so would the men be too.”

“Ah, it’s all very well to talk,” said Ralph. “Women have their place in
society, and so forth–wouldn’t be so comfortable without them, I
suppose. But between you and me, Bertram, there ain’t very much in women
for fellows like us. I’m not a marrying man–neither are you, I suppose?
The most of them about here are even past the pretty girl stage, don’t
you know, and I don’t know how to talk to them. Africa plays the deuce
with you for that.”

“No,” said Bertram, “I am not a marrying man. I am–I feel I ought to
tell you, Wradisley–there never was any need to go into such questions
before, and you may believe I don’t want to carry a placard round my
neck in the circumstances;–well–I am a married man, and that is the

Ralph turned upon him with a long whistle and a lifting of the
eyebrows. “By Jove!” he said.

“I hope you won’t bear me a grudge for not telling you before. In that
case I’ll be off at once and bother you no more.”

“Stuff!” cried Ralph; “what difference can it make to me? I have thought
you had something on your mind sometimes; but married or single, we’re
the same two fellows that have walked the desert together, and helped
each other through many a scrape. I’m sorry for you, old chap–that is,
if there’s anything to be sorry for. Of course, I don’t know.”

“I’ve been afloat on the world ever since,” said Bertram. “It was all my
fault. I was a cursed fool, and trapped when I was a boy. Then I thought
the woman was dead–had all the proofs and everything, and–You say you
know nothing about that sort of thing, Wradisley. Well, I won’t say
anything about it. I fell in love with a lady every way better than
I–she was–perhaps you do know more than you say. I married her–that’s
the short and the long of it; and in a year, when the baby had come,
the other woman, the horrible creature, arrived at my very door.”

“Good Lord!” cried Ralph softly, in his beard.

“She was dying, that was one good thing; she died–in my house. And
then–We were married again, my wife and I–she allowed that; but–I
have never seen her since,” said Bertram, turning his head away.

“By Jove!” said Ralph Wradisley once more, in his beard; and they walked
on in silence for a mile, and said not another word. At last–

“Old chap,” said Ralph, touching his friend on the shoulder, “I never
was one to talk; but it’s very hard lines on you, and Mrs. Bertram ought
to be told so, if she were the queen.”

Bertram shook his head. “I don’t know why I told you,” he said; “don’t
let us talk of it any more. The thing’s done and can’t be undone. I
don’t know if I wish any change. When two paths part in this world,
Wradisley, don’t you know, the longer they go, the wider apart they
get–or at least that’s my experience. They say your whole body changes
every seven years–it doesn’t take so long as that to alter a man’s
thoughts and his soul–and a woman’s, too, I suppose. She’s far enough
from me now, and I from her. I’m not sure I–regret it. In some ways
it–didn’t suit me, so to speak. Perhaps things are best as they are.”

“Well,” said Ralph, “I’d choose a free life for myself, but not exactly
in that way, Bertram–not if I were you.”

“Fortunately we are none of us each other,” Bertram said, with a laugh
which had little mirth in it. He added, after a moment: “You’ll use your
own discretion about telling this sorry tale of mine, Wradisley. I felt
I had to tell you. I can’t go about under false pretenses while you’re
responsible for me. Now you know the whole business, and we need not
speak of it any more.”

“All right, old fellow,” Ralph said; and they quickened their pace, and
put on I don’t know how many miles more before they got back–too late
for lunch, and very muddy about the legs–to eat a great deal of cold
beef at the sideboard, while the servants chafed behind them, intent
upon changing the great dining-room into a bower of chrysanthemums and
temple of tea. They had to change their dress afterwards, which took up
all their time until the roll of carriages began. Bertram, for his part,
being a stranger and not at all on duty, took a long time to put himself
into more presentable clothes. He did not want to have any more of the
garden party than was necessary. And his mind had been considerably
stirred up by his confession, brief as it was. It had been necessary to
do it, and his mind was relieved; but he did not feel that it was
possible to remain long at Wradisbury now that he had disclosed his
mystery, such as it was. What did they care about his mystery?
Nothing–not enough to make a day’s conversation out of it. He knew very
well in what way Ralph would tell his story. He would not announce it as
a discovery–it would drop from his beard like the most casual statement
of fact: “Unlucky beggar, Bertram–got a wife and all that sort of
thing–place down Devonshire way–but he and she don’t hit it off,
somehow.” In such terms the story would be told, without any mystery at
all. But Bertram, who was a proud man, did not feel that he could live
among a set of people who looked at him curiously across the table and
wondered how it was that he did not “hit it off” with his wife. He knew
that he would read that question in Mrs. Wradisley’s face when she bade
him good-morning; and in Lucy’s eyes–Lucy’s eyes, he thought, with a
half smile, would be the most inquisitive–they would ask him a hundred
questions. They would say, with almost a look of anxiety in them, “Oh!
Mr. Bertram–why?” It amused him to think that Lucy would be the most
curious of them all, though why, I could not venture to say. He got
himself ready very slowly, looking out from the corner of his window at
all the smart people of the county gathering upon the lawn. There was
tennis going on somewhere, he could hear, and the less loud but equally
characteristic stroke of the croquet balls. And the band, which was a
famous band from London, had begun to play. If he was to appear at all,
it was time that he should go downstairs; but, as a matter of fact, he
was not really moved to do this, until he saw a little flight across the
green of a small child in white, so swift that some one had to stoop and
pick her up as he picked up Tiny at the gate of Greenbank. The man on
the lawn who caught this little thing lifted her up as Bertram had done.
Would the child be hushed by his grasp, and look into his face as Tiny
had looked at him? Perhaps this was not Tiny–at all events, it gave no
look, but wriggled and struggled out of its captor’s hands. This sight
decided Bertram to present himself in the midst of Mrs. Wradisley’s
guests. He wanted to see Tiny once again.

Bertram soon lost himself among the crowd on the lawn, among all the
county people and the village people, making his way out and in, in a
solitude which never feels so great as among a crowd. It seemed
wonderful to him, as it is specially to those who have been more or less
in what is called “Society,” that he saw nobody whom he knew. That is a
thing almost impossible to happen for those that are born within that
charmed circle. Whether at the end of the world or in the midst of it,
it is incredible that you should see an assemblage of human creatures
without discovering one who is familiar at least, if not
friendly–unless, indeed, you wander into regions unknown to society;
and Mrs. Wradisley and her guests would all have been indignant indeed
had that been for a moment imagined of them. But yet this is a thing
that does happen now and then, and Bertram traversed the lawns and
flower gardens and conservatories without meeting a single face which he
recognized or being greeted by one voice he had ever heard before. To be
sure, this was partly owing to the fact that the person of whom he was
specially in search was a very small person, to be distinguished at a
very low pitch of stature near to the ground, not a tall on a level with
the other forms. There were a few children among the groups on the lawn,
and he pursued a white frock in various directions, which, when found,
proved to contain some one who was not Tiny; but at last he came to that
little person clinging to Lucy’s skirts as she moved about among her
mother’s guests. Lucy turned round upon Bertram with a little surprise
to find him so near her, and then a little rising glow of color and a
look in her mild eyes of mingled curiosity and compassion, which
penetrated him with sudden consciousness, annoyance, yet amusement.
Already it was evident Ralph had found a moment a tell his tale. “Oh,
Mr. Bertram!” Lucy said. She would have said precisely the same in
whatever circumstances; the whole difference was in the tone.

Then a small voice was uplifted at her feet. “It is the gemplemans,”
Tiny said.

“So you remember me, little one? though we only saw each other in the
dark. Will you come for a walk with me, Tiny?” Bertram said.

The child looked at him with serious eyes. Now that he saw her in
daylight she was not the common model of the angelic child, but dark,
with a little olive tint in her cheeks and dark brown hair waving upon
her shoulders. He scarcely recognized, except by the serious look, the
little runaway of the previous night, yet recognized something in her
for which he was not at all prepared, which he could not explain to
himself. Why did the child look at him so? And he looked at her, not
with the half fantastic, amused liking which had made him seek her out,
but seriously too, infected by her survey of him, which was so
penetrating and so grave. After Tiny had given him this investigating
look, she put her little velvety hand into his, with the absolute
confidence of her age, “’Ess, me go for a walk,” she said.

“Now, Tiny, talk properly to this gentleman; let him see what a lady you
can be when you please,” said Lucy. “She’s too old to talk like that,
isn’t she, Mr. Bertram? She is nearly five! and she really can talk just
as well as I can, when she likes. Tiny! now remember!” Lucy was very
earnest in her desire that Tiny should do herself justice; but once more
lifted the swift, interrogative look which seemed to say, as he knew she
would, “Oh, Mr. Bertram–why?”

“Where shall we go for our walk, Tiny?” Bertram said.

“Take Tiny down to the pond; nobody never take me down to the wasser.
Mamma says Tiny tumble in, but gemplemans twite safe. Come, come, afore
mummie sees and says no.”

“But, Tiny, if you’re sure your mother would say no–”

“Qwick, qwick!” cried Tiny. “If mummie says nuffin, no matter; but if
she says no!”–this was uttered with a little stamp of the foot and
raised voice as if in imitation of a familiar prohibition–“then Tiny
tan’t go. Come along, quick, quick.”

It was clear that Tiny’s obedience was to the letter, not the spirit.

“But I don’t know the way,” said Bertram, holding a little back.

“Come, come!” cried the child, dragging him on. “Tiny show you the way.”

“And what if we both fall in, Tiny?”

“You’s too old, too big gemplemans to fall into the wasser–too big to
have any mummie.”

“Alas! that’s true,” he said.

“Then never mind,” said the little girl. “No mummie, no nursie, nobody
to scold you. You can go in the boat if you like. Come! Oh, Tiny do, do
want to go in the boat; and there’s flowers on the udder side,
fordet-me-nots!–wants to get fordet-me-nots. Come, gemplemans, come!”

“Would you like to ride on my shoulder? and then we shall go quicker,”
he said.

She stood still at once, and held out her arms to be lifted up. Now
Bertram was not the kind of man who makes himself into the horse, the
bear, the lion, as occasion demands, for the amusement of children. He
was more surprised to find himself with this little creature seated on
his shoulder, than she was on her elevated seat, where indeed she was
entirely at her ease, guiding him with imperative tugs at the collar of
his coat and beating her small foot against his breast, as if she had
the most perfect right to his attention and devotion. “This way, this
way,” sang Tiny; “that way nasty way, down among the thorns–this way
nice way; get fordet-me-nots for mummie; mummie never say nuffin–Tiny
tan go!”

He found himself thus hurrying over the park, with the child’s voice
singing its little monologue over his head, flushed with rebellion
against the unconscious mother, much amused at himself. And yet it was
not amusement; it was a curious sensation which Bertram could not
understand. It is not quite an unexampled thing to fall in love with a
child at first sight; but he was not aware that he had ever done it
before, and to be turned so completely by the child into the instrument
of her little rebellions and pleasures was more wonderful still. He
laughed within himself, but his laugh went out of him like the flame of
a candle in the wind. He felt more like to cry, if he had been a subject
for crying. But why he could not tell. Never was man in a more disturbed
and perplexed state of mind. Guided by Tiny’s pullings and beatings, he
got to the pond at last, a pond upon the other side of which there was,
strange to say, visible among the russet foliage, one little clump of
belated forget-me-nots quite out of season. The child’s quick eye had
noted them as she had gone by with her nurse on some recent walk.
Bertram knew a great many things, but it is very doubtful whether he was
aware that it was wonderful to find forget-me-nots so late. And Tiny was
a sight to see when he put her down in the stern of the boat and pulled
across the pond with a few long strokes. Her eyes, which had a golden
light in their darkness, shone with triumph and delight; the brown of
her little sunburnt face glowed transparent as if there was a light
within; her dark curls waved; the piquancy of the complexion so unusual
in a child, the chant of her little voice shouting, “Fordet-me-nots,
fordet-me-nots!” her little rapture of eagerness and pleasure carried
him altogether out of himself. He had loved that complexion in his day;
perhaps it was some recollection, some resemblance, which was at the
bottom of this strange absorption in the little creature of whose very
existence he had not been aware till last night. Now, if he had been
called on to give his very life for Tiny he would have been capable of
it, without knowing why; and, indeed, there would have been a very
likely occasion of giving his life for Tiny, or of sacrificing hers, as
her mother foresaw, if he had not caught her as she stretched herself
out of the boat to reach the flowers. His grip of her was almost
violent–and there was a moment during which Tiny’s little glow
disappeared in a sudden thunder-cloud, changing the character of her
little face, and a small incipient stamp of passion on the planks
betrayed rebellion ready to rise. But Tiny looked at Bertram, who held
her very firmly, fixed him with much the same look as she had given him
at their first meeting, and suddenly changed countenance again. What did
that look mean? He had said laughingly on the previous night that it was
a look of recognition. She suddenly put her two little hands round his
neck, and said, “Tiny will be dood.” And the effect of the little
rebel’s embrace was that tears–actual wet tears, which for a moment
blinded eyes which had looked every kind of wonder and terror in the
face–surprised him before he knew. What did it mean? What did it mean?
It was too wonderful for words.

The flowers were gathered after this in perfect safety and harmony; Tiny
puddling with her hands in the mud to get the nearest ones “nice and
long,” as she said, while Bertram secured those that were further off.
And then there arose a great difficulty as to how to carry these wet and
rather muddy spoils. Tiny’s pretty frock, which she held out in both
hands to receive them like a ballet dancer, could not be thought of.

“For what would your mother say if your frock was wet and dirty?” said
Bertram, seriously troubled.

“Mummie say, ‘Oh, Tiny, Tiny, naughty schild,’” said the little girl,
with a very grave face; “never come no more to garden party.”

Finally an expedient was devised in the shape of Bertram’s handkerchief
tied together at the corners, and swung upon a switch of willow which
was light enough for Tiny to carry; in which guise the pair set out
again toward the house and the smart people, Tiny once more on Bertram’s
shoulder, with the bundle of flowers bobbing in front of his nose, and,
it need not be said, some trace of the gathering of the flowers and of
the muddy edges of the pool, and the moss-grown planks of the boat
showing on both performers–on Tiny’s frock, which was a little wet,
and on Bertram’s coat, marked by the beating of the little feet, which
had gathered a little mud and greenness too. Tiny began to question him
on the returning way.

“Gemplemans too big to have got a mummie,” said Tiny; “have you got a
little girl?”

Not getting any immediate answer to this question, she sang it over him
in her way, repeating it again and again–“Have zoo dot a little
girl?”–her dialect varying according to her caprice, until the small
refrain got into his head.

The man was utterly confused and troubled; he could not give Tiny any
answer, nor could he answer the wonderful maze of questions and thoughts
which this innocent demand of hers awakened in his breast. When they
came within sight of the lawn and its gay crowd, Bertram bethought him
that it would be better to put his little rider down, and to present her
to perhaps an anxious or angry mother on a level, which would make her
impaired toilet less conspicuous. After all, there was nothing so
wonderful in the fact that a little girl had dirtied her frock. He had
no occasion to feel so guilty and disturbed about it. And this is how it
happened that the adventurers appeared quite humbly, Tiny not half
pleased to descend from her eminence and carrying now over her shoulder,
as Bertram suggested, the stick which supported her packet of flowers,
while he walked rather shamefaced by her, holding her hand, and looking
out with a little trepidation for the mother, who, after all, could not
bring down very condign punishment upon him for running away with her