The slave of the lamp, p.7
The Slave of the Lamp,
The gentle August night had cooled and soothed the dusty atmosphere. Allthings looked fair, even in London. The placid Thames glided stealthilydown to the sea, as if wishing to speed on unseen, to cast at last hisreeking waters into the cool ocean. The bright brown sails, low hulls,and gaily painted spars of the barges dropping down with the streamadded to the beauty of the scene.
Such was the morning that greeted Christian Vellacott, as he opened thedoor of his little Chelsea home and stepped forth a free man. When oncehe had made up his mind to go, every obstacle was thrown aside, and hisdetermination was now as great as had been his previous reluctance. Hehad no presentiment that he was taking an important step in life--one ofthose steps which we hardly notice at the time, but upon which we lookback in after years and note how clear and definite it was, losingourselves in vague conjecture as to what might have been had we heldback.
Christian being practical in all things, knew how to travel comfortably,dispensing with rugs and bags and such small packages as are understoodto be dear to the elderly single female heart.
The smoky suburbs were soon left behind, and the smiling land gave forthsuch gentle, pastoral odours as only long confinement in cities canteach us to detect. Christian lowered the window, and the warm airplayed round him as it had not done for two long years. The whizz of thewind past his face brought back the memory of the long, idle, happy daysspent with his father in the Mediterranean, when they had been halfsailors and wholly Bohemians, gliding from port to port, village tocity, in their yacht, as free and careless as the wind. The warm breezealmost seemed to be coming to him from some parched Italian plaininstead of pastoral Buckinghamshire.
Then his thoughts travelled still further back to his school-days inPrague, when his father and Mr. Carew were colleagues in a brilliant butunfortunate embassy. Five years had passed since then. The two fatherswere now dead, and the children had dropped apart as men and women dowhen their own personal interests begin to engross them. Now again, inthis late summer time, they were to meet. All, that is, who were left.The _debris_, as it were. Three voices there were whose tones wouldnever more be heard in the round of merry jest. Mr. Carew, WalterVellacott (Uncle Walter, the young ones called him), and little CharlieCarew, the bright-eyed sailor of the family, had all three travelled on.The two former, whose age and work achieved had softened theirdeparture, were often spoken of with gently lowered voice, but littleCharlie's name was never mentioned. It was a fatal mistake--thissilence--if you will; but it was one of those mistakes which are oftenmade in wisdom. In splendid, solitary grandeur he lay awaiting the endof all things--the call of his Creator--in the grey ice-fields of theNorth. The darling of his ship, he had died with a smile in his blueeyes and a sad little jest upon his lips to cheer the rough fur-cladgiants kneeling at his side. Time, the merciful, had healed, as best hecould (which is by no means perfectly), the wound in the younger hearts.It is only the old that are quite beyond his powers; he cannot touchthem. Mrs. Carew, a woman with a patient face and a ready smile, was theonly representative of the vanishing generation. Her daughters--ay! andperhaps her sons as well (though boys are not credited with so muchtender divination)--knew the meaning of the little droop at the side oftheir mother's smiling lips. They detected the insincerity of her kindlylaugh.
Shortly after leaving Exeter, Christian's station was reached. This wasan old-fashioned seaport town, whose good fortune it was to lie too farwest for a London watering-place, and too far east for Plymouth orBristol. Sidney Carew was on the platform--a sturdy, typical Englishman,with a certain sure slowness of movement handed down to him by seafaringancestors. The two friends had not met for many years, but with menabsence has little effect upon affection. During the space of many yearsthey may never meet and seldom write, but at the end that gulf of timeis bridged over by a simple "Halloa, old fellow!" and a warm grip.Slowly, piece by piece, the history of the past years comes out. Bothare probably changed in thought and nature, but the old individualityremains, the old bond of friendship survives.
"How are you?"
Simultaneously--and that was all. The changes were there in both, andnoted by both, but not commented upon.
"Molly is outside with the dog-cart," said Sidney; "is your luggageforward?"
"Yes, that is it being pitched out now."
It was with womanly foresight that Miss Molly Carew had elected to waitoutside with the dog-cart while her brother met Christian on theplatform. She feared a little natural embarrassment at meeting the oldplayfellow of the family, and concluded that the first moments would bemore easily tided over here than at the train. Her fears were, as itturned out, unnecessary, but she did not know what Christian might belike after the lapse of years. Of herself she was sure enough, being oneof those happy people who have no self-consciousness whatever.
On seeing her, Christian came forward at once, raising his hat andshaking hands as if they had parted the day before.
She saw at once that it was all right. This was Christian Vellacott asshe had remembered him. She looked down at him as he stood with one handresting on the splashboard, and he, looking up to her, smiled in return.
"Christian," she said, "do you know I should scarcely have recognisedyou. You are so big, and--and you look positively ghastly!" She finishedher remark with a little laugh which took away from the spoken meaningof it.
"Ghastly?" he replied. "Thanks: I do not feel like it--only hungry.Hungry, and desperately glad to see a face that does not lookoverworked."
She gave a little sarcastic nod, and pursed up a pair of very red lips.
"Nevertheless I am the only person in the house who does any work atall. Hilda, for instance--"
At this moment Sidney came up and interrupted them.
"Jump up in front, Chris," he said; "Molly will drive, while I sitbehind. Your luggage will follow in the cart."
The drive of six miles passed away very pleasantly. Molly's stronglittle hands were quite accustomed to the reins, and the men were freeto talk, which, however, she found time to do as well. The two youngpeople on the front seat stole occasional sidelong glances at eachother. The clever, mischievous little girl of Christian's recollectionwas transformed by the kindly hand of time into a fascinating andcapable young lady. The uncertain profile had grown clear and regular.The truant hair was somewhat more under control, which, however, was allthat could be said upon that subject. Only her eyes were unchanged, thelaughing, fearless eyes of old. Fearless they had been in the times ofchildish mischief and adventure; fearless they remained in the face oflife's graver mischances now.
Christian had been a shy and commonplace-enough boy as she recollectedhim. Now she found a self-possessed man of the world. Tall and strong ofbody she saw he was, and she felt that he possessed another strength--astrength of mind and will which, reaching out, can grasp and holdanything or everything.
With practised skill, Molly turned into the narrow gateway at a swingingtrot, and then only was the house visible--a low, rambling building ofbrick and stone uncouthly mixed. Its chief outward characteristic was apromise of inward comfort. The sturdy manner in which its windows facedthe scantily-wooded tableland that stretched away unbroken by wall orhedgerow to the sea, implied a certain thickness of wall and woodwork.The doorway which looked inland was singularly broad, and bore signsabout its stonework of having once been even broader. The house hadoriginally been a hollow square, with a roofless courtyard in thecentre, into which the sheep and cattle were in olden times driven forsafety at night against French marauders. This had later on been roofedin, and transformed into a roomy and comfortable hall, such as might beused as a sitting-room. All around the house, except, indeed, upon thesea-ward side, stood gnarled and twisted trees; Scotch firs inabundance, here and there a Weymouth pine, and occasionally a knotteddwarf oak with a tendency to run inland. The garden was, however, rich
Mrs. Carew welcomed Christian at the open door. She said very little,but her manner was sufficiently warm and friendly to dispense withwords.
"Where is Hilda?" asked Molly, as she leapt lightly to the ground.
"I do not know, dear. She is out, somewhere; in the garden, I expect.You are before your time a little. The train must have been punctual,for a wonder. Had Hilda known, she would have been here to welcome you,I know, Christian."
"I expect she is at the moat," said Molly. "Come along, Christian; wewill go and look for her. This way."
In the meantime Sidney had driven the dog-cart round to the stables,kneeling awkwardly upon the back seat.
As Christian followed his fair guide down the little path leading to themoat, he began to feel that it was not so difficult after all to throwoff the dull weight of anxiety that lay upon his mind. The thoughtsabout the _Beacon_ were after all not so very absorbing. Theanxiety regarding the welfare of the two old ladies was alreadyalleviated by distance. The strong sea air, the change to pleasant andkindly society, were already beginning their work.
Suddenly Molly stopped, and Christian saw that she was standing at theedge of a long, still sheet of water bounded by solid stonework, which,however, was crumbling away in parts, while everywhere the green mossgrew in velvety profusion.
"Oh, Christian," said Molly lightly, "I suppose Sidney told you a littleof our news. Men's letters are not discursive as a rule I know, but nodoubt he told you--something."
He was standing beside her at the edge of the moat, looking down intothe deep, clear water.
"Yes," he replied slowly, "yes, Molly; he told me a little in a scrappy,unsatisfactory way."
A pained expression came into her eyes for a moment, and then she spoke,rather more quickly than was habitual with her, but without raising hervoice.
"He told you--nothing about Hilda?" she said interrogatively.
He turned and looked down at her.
Then he followed the direction of her eyes, and saw approaching them ayoung man and a maiden whose footsteps had been inaudible upon themoss-grown path. The man was of medium height, with an honest brownface. He was dressed for riding, and walked with a slight swagger, whicharose less from conceit than from excessive riding on horseback. Themaiden was tall and stately, and in her walk there was an old-fashionedgrace of movement which harmonised perfectly with the old-worldsurroundings. She was looking down, and Christian could not see herface; but as she wore no hat, he saw and recognised her hair. This wasof gold--not red, not auburn, not flaxen, but pure and living gold. Thesun glinting through the trees shone upon it and gleamed, but in realitythe hair gleamed without the aid of sunlight.
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