'Those are the lights of Oxford,' she answered. 'We shall be there in ten minutes.'
'Oh, very well,' he said, 'A moment, if you please.'
She waited while he went to the carriage and told the astonished servants to leave his baggage at the Mitre; this understood, he put in his head and announced to his host that he would come on next day. 'Your lordship must excuse me to-night,' he said.
'What is up?' my lord asked, without raising his eyes or turning his head. He had taken the box and thrown nicks three times running, at five guineas the cast; and was in the seventh heaven. 'Ha! five is the main. Now you are in it, Colonel. What did you say, George? Not coming! What is it?'
'What! a petticoat?'
'Yes,' Sir George answered, smirking.
'Well, you find 'em in odd places. Take care of yourself. But shut the door, that is a good fellow. There is a d----d draught.'
Sir George complied, and, nodding to the servants, walked back to the woman. As he reached her the carriage with its lights whirled away, and left them in darkness.
Soane wondered if he were not a fool for his pains, and advanced a step nearer to conviction when the woman with an impatient 'Come!' started along the road; moving at a smart pace in the direction which the chariot had taken, and betraying so little shyness or timidity as to seem unconscious of his company. The neighbourhood of Oxford is low and flat, and except where a few lights marked the outskirts of the city a wall of darkness shut them in, permitting nothing to be seen that lay more than a few paces away. A grey drift of clouds, luminous in comparison with the gloom about them, moved slowly overhead, and out of the night the raving of a farm-dog or the creaking of a dry bough came to the ear with melancholy effect.
The fine gentleman of that day had no taste for the wild, the rugged, or the lonely. He lived too near the times when those words spelled danger. He found at Almack's his most romantic scene, at Ranelagh his terra incognita, in the gardens of Versailles his ideal of the charming and picturesque. Sir George, no exception to the rule, shivered as he looked round. He began to experience a revulsion of spirits; and to consider that, for a gentleman who owned Lord Chatham for a patron, and was even now on his roundabout way to join that minister--for a gentleman whose fortune, though crippled and impaired, was still tolerable, and who, where it had suffered, might look with confidence to see it made good at the public expense--or to what end patrons or ministers?--he began to reflect, I say, that for such an one to exchange a peer's coach and good company for a night trudge at a woman's heels was a folly, better befitting a boy at school than a man of his years. Not that he had ever been so wild as to contemplate anything serious; or from the first had entertained the most remote intention of brawling in an unknown cause. That was an extravagance beyond him; and he doubted if the girl really had it in her mind. The only adventure he had proposed, when he left the carriage, was one of gallantry; it was the only adventure then in vogue. And for that, now the time was come, and the incognita and he were as much alone as the most ardent lover could wish, he felt singularly disinclined.
True, the outline of her cloak, and the indications of a slender, well-formed shape which it permitted to escape, satisfied him that the postboy had not deceived him; but that his companion was both young and handsome. And with this and his bargain it was to be supposed he would be content. But the pure matter-of-factness of the girl's manner, her silence, and her uncompromising attitude, as she walked by his side, cooled whatever ardour her beauty and the reflection that he had jockeyed Berkeley were calculated to arouse; and it was with an effort that he presently lessened the distance between them.
'Et vera incessu patuit dea!' he said, speaking in the tone between jest and earnest which he had used before. '"And all the goddess in her step appears." Which means that you have the prettiest walk in the world, my dear--but whither are you taking me?'
She went steadily on, not deigning an answer.
'But--my charmer, let us parley,' he remonstrated, striving to maintain a light tone. 'In a minute we shall be in the town and--'
'I thought that we understood one another,' she answered curtly, still continuing to walk, and to look straight before her; in which position her hood, hid her face. 'I am taking you where I want you.'
'Oh, very well,' he said, shrugging his shoulders. But under his breath he muttered, 'By heaven, I believe that the pretty fool really thinks--that I am going to fight for her!'
To a man who had supped at White's the night before, and knew his age to be the âge des philosophes, it seemed the wildest fancy in the world. And his distaste grew. But to break off and leave her--at any rate until he had put it beyond question that she had no underthought--to break off and leave her after placing himself in a situation so humiliating, was too much for the pride of a Macaroni. The lines of her head and figure too, half guessed and half revealed, and wholly light and graceful, had caught his fancy and created a desire to subjugate her. Reluctantly, therefore, he continued to walk beside her, over Magdalen Bridge, and thence by a path which, skirting the city, ran across the low wooded meadows at the back of Merton.
A little to the right the squat tower of the college loomed against the lighter rack of clouds, and rising amid the dark lines of trees that beautify that part of the outskirts, formed a coup d'oeil sufficiently impressive. Here and there, in such of the chamber windows as looked over the meadows, lights twinkled cheerfully; emboldened by which, yet avoiding their scope, pairs of lovers of the commoner class sneaked to and fro under the trees. Whether the presence of these recalled early memories which Sir George's fastidiousness found unpalatable, or he felt his fashion, smirched by the vulgarity of this Venus-walk, his impatience grew; and was not far from bursting forth when his guide turned sharply into an alley behind the cathedral, and, after threading a lane of mean houses, entered a small court.
The place, though poor and narrow, was not squalid. Sir George could see so much by the light which shone from a window and fell on a group of five or six persons, who stood about the nearest door and talked in low, excited voices. He had a good view of one man's face, and read in it gloom and anger. Then the group made way for the girl, eyeing her, as he thought, with pity and a sort of deference; and cursing the folly that had brought him into such a place and situation, wondering what on earth it all meant or in what it would end, he followed her into the house.
She opened a door on the right-hand side of the narrow passage, and led the way into a long, low room. For a moment he saw no more than two lights on a distant table, and kneeling at a chair beside them a woman with grey dishevelled hair, who seemed to be praying, her face hidden. Then his gaze, sinking instinctively, fell on a low bed between him and the woman; and there rested on a white sheet, and on the solemn outlines--so certain in their rigidity, so unmistakable by human eyes--of a body laid out for burial.
To be brought up short in an amorous quest by such a sight as that was a shock alike to Soane's better nature and his worse dignity. The former moved him to stand silent and abashed, the latter to ask with an indignant СКАЧАТЬ