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My Lady Caprice(Chapter8)

2006-08-28 23:22

  VIII. The Land of Heart's Delight

  Surely there never was and never could be such another morning as this! Ever since the first peep of dawn a blackbird had been singing to me from the fragrant syringa-bush that blossomed just beneath my window. Each morning I had wakened to the joyous melody of his golden song. But to-day the order was reversed. I had sat there at my open casement, breathing the sweet purity of the morning, watching the eastern sky turn slowly from pearl-grey to saffron and from saffron to deepest crimson, until at last the new-risen sun had filled all the world with his glory. And then this blackbird of mine had begun - very hoarse at first, trying a note now and then in a tentative sort of fashion, as though still drowsy and not quite sure of himself, but little by little his notes had grown longer, richer, mellower, until here he was pouring out his soul in an ecstasy.

  Ah! surely there never was, there never could be, such another morning as this!

  Out of the green twilight of the woods a gentle wind was blowing, laden with the scent of earth and hidden flowers. Dewdrops twinkled in the grass and hung glistening from every leaf and twig, and beyond all was the sheen of the murmurous river.

  The blackbird was in full song now, and by degrees others joined in - thrush, and lark, and linnet, with the humbler voices of the farmyard - until the sunny air was vibrant with the chorus.

  Presently a man in a sleeved waistcoat crossed the paddock, whistling lustily, and from somewhere below there rose a merry clatter of plates and dishes; and thus the old inn, which had seen so many mornings, woke up to yet another. But there never was, there never could be, just such another morning as this was!

  And in a little while, having dressed with more than usual care, I went downstairs to find my breakfast awaiting me in the "Sanded Parlour," having ordered it for this early hour the night previously - ham and eggs and fragrant coffee, what mortal could wish for more?

  And while I ate, waited on by the rosy-cheeked chambermaid, in came Master Amos Baggett, mine host, to pass the time of day, and likewise to assure me that my baggage should catch the early train; who when I rose, my meal at an end, paused to wipe his honest hand quite needlessly upon his snowy apron ere he wished me "Good-bye."

  So having duly remembered the aforesaid rosy-cheeked chambermaid, the obsequious "Boots" and the grinning ostler, I sallied forth into the sunshine, and crossing the green, where stood the battered sign-post, I came to a flight of rough steps, at the foot of which my boat was moored. In I stepped, cast loose the painter, and shipping the sculls, shot out into the stream.

  No, there never was, there never could be, just such another morning as this, for to-day I was to marry Lisbeth, and every stroke of the oar carried me nearer to her and happiness. Gaily the alders bent and nodded to me; joyfully the birds piped and sang; merrily the water laughed and chattered against my prow as I rowed through the golden morning.

  Long before the hour appointed I reached the water-stairs at Fane Court, and tying my skiff, lighted my pipe and watched the smoke rise slowly into the still air while I tried "to possess my soul in patience." Sitting thus, I dreamed many a fair dream of the new life that was to be, and made many resolutions, as a man should upon his wedding morn.

  And at last came Lisbeth herself, swiftly, lightly, as fair and sweet and fresh as the morning, who yet paused a while to lean upon the balustrade and look down at me beneath the brim of her hat. Up I rose and stretched out my hands to her, but she still stood there, and I saw her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shy and tender. So once more we stood upon the old water-stairs, she on the top stair, I on the lower; and again I saw the little foot beneath her skirt come slowly towards me and hesitate.

  "Dick," she said, "you know that Aunt Agatha has cut me off - disinherited me altogether - you have had time to think it all over?"

  "Yes."

  "And you are quite - quite sure?"

  "Quite! I think I have been so all my life."

  "I'm penniless now, Dick, a beggar, with nothing in the world but the clothes I wear."

  "Yes," I said, catching her hands in mine, "my beggar-maid; the loveliest, noblest, sweetest that ever stooped to bestow her love on man.

  "Dick, how glorious everything is this morning - the earth, the sky, and the river!"

  "It is our wedding morning!" said I.

  "Our wedding day," she repeated in a whisper.

  "And there never was just such a morning as this," said I.

  "But, Dick, all days cannot be as this - there must come clouds and storm sometimes, and - and - O Dick! are you sure that you will never, never regret - "

  "I love you, Lisbeth, in the shadow as well as the sunshine - love you ever and always." And so, the little foot hesitating no longer, Lisbeth came down to me.

  Oh, never again could there be such another morning as this!

  "Ahoy!"

  I looked round with a start, and there, his cap cocked rakishly over one eye, his "murderous cutlass" at his hip and his arms folded across his chest, stood "Scarlet Sam, the Terror of the South Seas."

  "Imp!" cried Lisbeth.

  "Avast!" cried he in lusty tones; "whereaway ?"

  I glanced helplessly at Lisbeth and she at me.

  "Whereaway, shipmate?" he bel1owed in nautical fashion, but before I could find a suitable answer Dorothy made her appearance with the fluffy kitten "Louise" cuddled under her arm as usual.

  "How do you do?" she said demurely; "it's awfully nice to get up so early, isn't it? We heard auntie creeping about on tippity-toes, you know, so we came, too. Reginald said she was pretending to be burglars, but I think she's going 'paddling.' Are you, auntie ?"

  "No, dear; not this morning," answered Lisbeth, shaking her head.

  "Then you are going for a row in Uncle Dick's boat. How fine!"

  "An' you'll take us with you, won't you, Uncle Dick?" cried the Imp eagerly. "We'll be pirates. I'll be 'Scarlet Sam,' an' you can be 'Timothy Bone, the bo'sun,' like you were last time.

  "Impossible, my Imp," I said firmly. He looked at me incredulously for a moment, then, seeing I meant it, his lip began to quiver.

  "I didn't think "T-Timothy B-Bone' would ever desert me," he said, and turned away.

  "Oh, auntie!" exclaimed Dorothy, "won't you take us?"

  "Dear - not this morning."

  "Are you going far, then, Uncle Dick ?"

  "Yes, very far," I answered, glancing uneasily from the Imp's drooping figure to Lisbeth,

  "I wonder where ?"

  "Oh - well - er - down the rivers" I stammered, quite at a loss.

  "Y-e-s, but where ?" persisted Dorothy.

  "Well. to - er - to - "

  "To the 'Land of Heart's Delight,'" Lisbeth put in, "and you may come with us, after all, if Uncle Dick will take you,"

  "To be sure he will, if your auntie wishes it," I cried, "so step aboard, my hearties, and lively!" In a moment the Imp's hand was in mine, and he was smiling up at me with wet lashes.

  "I knew 'Timothy Bone' could never be a - a 'mutinous rogue,'" he said, and turned to aid Dorothy aboard with the air of an admiral on his flagship.

  And now, all being ready, he unhitched the painter, or, as he said, "slipped our cable," and we glided out into midstream.

  "A ship," he said thoughtfully, "always has a name. What shall we call this one? Last time we were 'pirates' and she was the Black Death - "

  "Never mind last time, Imp," I broke in; "to-day she is the Joyful Hope."

  "That doesn't sound very 'pirate-y,' somehow," he responded with a disparaging shake of the head, "but I s'pose it will have to do.

  And so, upon that summer morning, the good ship Joyful Hope set sail for the "Land of the Heart's Delight," and surely no vessel of her size ever carried quite such a cargo of happiness before or since.

  And once again "Scarlet Sam" stamped upon the "quarter-deck" and roared orders anent "lee shrouds" and "weather braces," with divers injunctions concerning the "helm," while his eyes rolled and he flourished his 'murderous cutlass" as he had done upon a certain other memorable occasion. Never, never again could there be just such another morning as this - for two of us at least.

  On we went, past rush and sedge and weeping willow, by roaring weir and cavernous lock, into the shadow of grim stone bridges and out again into the sunshine, past shady woods and green uplands until at length we "cast anchor" before a flight of steps leading up to a particularly worn stone gateway surmounted by a crumbling stone cross.

  "Why," exclaimed the Imp, staring, "this is a church!"

  "Imp," I nodded, "I believe it is?"

  "But to-day isn't Sunday, you know," he remonstrated, seeing it was our intention to land.

  "Never mind that, Imp; 'the better the deed, the better the day, you know.'"

  On we went, Dorothy with the fluffy Louise beneath her arm and the Imp with cutlass swinging at his belt, while Lisbeth and I brought up the rear, and as we went she slipped her hand into mine. In the porch we came upon an aged woman busy with a broom and a very large duster, who, catching sight of Dorothy's kitten and the Imp's "murderous weapon," dropped first the duster and then the broom, and stood staring in open-mouthed astonishment.

  And there in the dim old church, with the morning sun making a glory of the window above our heads, and with the birds for our choristers, the vows were exchanged and the blessing pronounced that gave Lisbeth and her future into my keeping; yet I think we were both conscious of those two small figures in the gloom of the great pew behind, who stared in round-eyed wonderment.

  The register duly signed and all formalities over and done, we go out into the sunshine; and once more the aged woman, richer now by half a crown, is reduced to mute astonishment, so that speech is beyond her, when the Imp, lifting his feathered cap, politely wishes her "good-morning."

  Being come aboard the Joyful Hope, there ensued an awkward pause, during which Lisbeth looked at the children and I at her.

  "We must take them back home," she said at last.

  "We shall miss our train, Lisbeth."

  "But," and here she blushed most delightfully, "there is really no hurry; we can take a - a later one."

  "So be it," I said, and laid our course accordingly.

  For a time there was silence, during which the Imp, as if in momentary expectation of an attack by bloodthirsty foes, scowled about him, pistol in hand, keeping, as he said, "his weather eye lifting," while Dorothy glanced from Lisbeth to me and back again with puzzled brows.

  "I do believe you have been marrying each other!" she said suddenly. The Imp forgot all about his "weather eye" and stared aghast.

  "'Course not!" he cried at last. "Uncle Dick wouldn't do such a thing, would you, Uncle Dick?"

  "Imp I have - I do confess it."

  "Oh!" he exclaimed in a tone of deepest tragedy. "And you let him go and do it, Auntie Lisbeth?"

  "He was so very, very persistent, Imp," she sad, actually turning crimson beneath his reproachful eye.

  "Don't be too hard on us, Imp," I pleaded.

  "I s'pose it can't he helped now," he said, a little mollified, but frowning sternly, nevertheless.

  "No," I answered, with my eyes upon Lisbeth's lovely, blushing face, "it certainly can't be helped now,"

  "And you'll never do it again ?"

  "Never again, Imp."

  "Then I forgive you, only why - why did you do it?"

  "Well, you see, my Imp, I have an old house in the country, a very cosy old place, but it's lonely, horribly lonely, to live by one's self. I've wanted somebody to help me to live in it for a long time, but nobody wou1d you know, Imp. At last our Auntie Lisbeth has promised to take care of the house and me, to fill the desolate rooms with her voice and sweet presence and my empty life with her life. You can't quite understand how much this means to me now, Imp, but you will some day, perhaps."

  "But are you going to take our Auntie Lisbeth away from us?" cried Dorothy.

  "Yes, dear," I answered, "but - "

  "Oh, I don't like that one bit!" exclaimed the Imp.

  "But you shall come there and stay with us as often as you wish," said Lisbeth.

  "That would be perfectly beautiful!" cried Dorothy.

  "Yes, but when?" inquired the Imp gloomily.

  "Soon," I answered.

  "Very soon!" said Lisbeth.

  "Will you promise to be 'Timothy Bone, the bo'sun,' an' the 'Black Knight,' an' 'Little-John' whenever I want you to - so help you Sam, Uncle Dick?"

  "I will, Imp."

  "An' make me a long sword with a - a 'deadly point' ?"

  "Yes," I nodded, "and show you some real ones, too."

  "Real ones?" he cried.

  "Oh, yes, and armour as well; there's lots of it in the old house, you know."

  "Let's go now!" he cried, nearly upsetting the boat in his eagerness.

  "Oh! 0 Dick!" cried Lisbeth at this moment, "Dick - there's Aunt!"

  "Aunt?" I repeated.

  "Aunt Agatha, and she sees us; look!"

  Turning my head, I beheld a most unexpected sight. Advancing directly upon us was the old boat, that identical, weather-beaten tub of a boat which Lisbeth and I had come so near ending our lives together, the which has already been told in these Chronicles. On the rowing-thwart sat Peter, the coachman, and in the stern-sheets, very grim and stiff in the back, her lorgnettes at her eyes, was Lady Warburton.

  Escape was quite out of the question, and in half a dozen strokes of the oar we were alongside and close under the battery of the lorgnettes.

  "Elizabeth," she began in her most ponderous manner, ignoring my presence altogether, "Elizabeth, child, I blush for you."

  "Then, Aunt, please don't," cried Lisbeth; "I can do quite enough of that for myself. I'm always blushing lately," and as if to prove her words she immediately proceeded to do so.

  "Elizabeth," proceeded Lady Warburton, making great play with her lorgnettes, "your very shameless, ungrateful letter I received last night. This morning I arose at an objectionably early hour, travelled down in a draughty train, and here I am out on a damp and nasty river in a leaky boat, with my feet horribly wet, but determined to save you from an act which you may repent all your days."

  "Excuse me," I said, bowing deeply, "but such heroic devotion cannot be sufficiently appreciated and admired. In Lisbeth's name I beg to thank you; nevertheless

  "Mr. Brent, I believe?" she said in a tone of faint surprise, as though noticing my presence for the first time.

  "At your service, madam!" I answered with another bow.

  "Then I must ask you to convey my ward back to Fane Court immediately; she and the children will accompany me to London at once."

  "My dear Lady Warburton," I said, fronting the lorgnettes with really admirable fortitude, "it grieves me to deny you this request, but believe me, it is impossible!"

  "Impossible!" she repeated.

  "Quite!" I answered. "You here behold the good ship Joyful Hope, bound for the 'Land of Heart's Delight,' and we aboard are all determined on our course."

  "'An' the wind blows fair, an' our helm's a-lee, so it's heave, my mariners, all - O!' " cried the Imp in his nautical voice.

  "Dear me!" ejaculated Lady Warburton, staring. "Elizabeth, be so obliging as to tell me what it all means. Why have you dragged these children from their beds to come philandering upon a horrid river at such an hour?"

  "Excuse me, Aunt, but she didn't drag us," protested the Imp, bowing exactly as I had done a moment before.

  "Oh, no, we came," nodded Dorothy.

  "An' we've been getting married, you know," said the Imp.

  "And it was all very, very beautiful," added Dorothy; "even Louise enjoyed it ever so much!" and she kissed the fluffy kitten.

  "Married!" cried Lady Warburton in a tone of horror; "married!"

  "They would do it, you know," sighed the Imp.

  "And quite right, too," said Dorothy; "everybody always marries somebody, some time; it's very fashionable at present. Mamma did and so shall I when I grow up, I suppose."

  "Goodness gracious, child!" exclaimed Lady Warburton.

  "I s'pose you're angry 'bout it, Aunt," pursued the Imp. "I was at first - just a weeny bit; but you see Uncle Dick has a wonderful house with swords an' armour, but empty, an' he wanted to keep somebody in it to see that everything was nice, I s'pose, an' sing, you know, an' take care of his life. Auntie Lisbeth can sing, an' she wanted to go, so I forgave them."

  "Oh, indeed, Reginald?" said Lady Warburton in a rather queer voice, and I saw the corners of her high, thin nose quiver strangely.

  "Beggin' your pardon, ma' am," said Peter at this moment, touching his cap, "I don't know much about boats, my line bein' 'osses, but I do think as this 'ere boat is a-goin' to sink."

  "Then row for the shore instantly," said Lady Warburton firmly, "and should I never reach it alive" - here she brought her lorgnette to bear on Lisbeth - "I say if I do meet a watery grave this day, my epitaph shall be, 'Drowned by the Ingratitude of a Niece.'

  However, this gloomy tragedy being happily averted, and Lady Warburton safely landed, I, at a nod from Lisbeth, rowed to the bank likewise and we all disembarked together.

  Now, as kind Fortune would have it, and Fortune was very kind that morning, the place where we stood was within a stone's throw of The Three Jolly Anglers, and wafted to us on the warm, still air there came a wondrous fragrance, far sweeter and more alluring than the breath of roses or honeysuckle - the delightful aroma of frying bacon.

  Lady Warburton faced us, her parasol tucked beneath her arm, looking very much like a military officer on parade.

  "Dorothy and Reginald," she said in a short, sharp voice of command, "bid good-bye to your Auntie Lisbeth and accompany me home at once."

  "No, no," cried Lisbeth, with hands stretched out appealingly, "you will not leave us like this, Aunt - for the sake of the love I shall always bear you, and - and - "

  "Elizabeth, I cared for you from your babyhood up. Ingratitude is my return. I watched you grow from child to woman. I planned out a future for you; you broke those plans. I might tell you that I am a lonely, disappointed old woman, who loved you much more than she thought, but I won't!"

  "Dear, dear Aunt Agatha, did you love me so much, and I never guessed; you wouldn't let me, you see. Ah! do not think me ungrateful, but when a woman comes to marry she must choose for herself as I have done; and I am happy, dear, and proud of my choice - proud to have won the true love of a true man; only do not think I am ungrateful. And if this must be good-bye, do not let us part like this - for my sake and your sake and the sake of my - husband."

  Lady Warburton had turned away, and there ensued a somewhat embarrassing pause.

  "Elizabeth," she said suddenly, "if I don't mistake, somebody is frying bacon somewhere, and I'm ravenously hungry."

  "So am I," cried the Imp.

  "And so am I," Dorothy chimed in.

  "Then suppose we have breakfast," I suggested, and in almost less time than it takes to tell I was leading the way across the green with Lady Warburton on my arm - actually leaning on my arm. It all happened so quickly that Heaven and Lisbeth alone know how she got there.

  And now who so surprised to see us as honest Amos Baggett, ushering us with many bows and smiles into the Sanded Parlour, where breakfast was soon ready; and who so quick and dexterous in attending to our wants as the rosy-cheeked chambermaid?

  And what a breakfast that was! Never had the antique andirons on the hearth, the pewter plates and dishes upon the walls, the brass-bound blunderbuss above the mantel seemed so bright and polished before, and surely never had they gleamed upon a merrier company. To be sure, the Imp's remarks were somewhat few and far between, but that was simply on account of the blackberry jam.

  "I suppose you are both ridiculously happy," said Lady Warburton, eyeing us over her coffee cup.

  "Most absurdly!" answered Lisbeth, blushing all in a moment.

  "Preposterously!" I nodded.

  "Of course!" said Lady Warburton, and setting down her cup, she sighed, while I wondered what memories her narrow life could hold.

  "Uncle Dick," said the Imp suddenly, "do you s'pose Scarlet Sam ever ate blackberry jam?"

  "Undoubtedly, my Imp, when he could get it." This appeared to greatly relieve his mind; for he took another helping.

  But all things must have an end, alas!-even such a breakfast as this, and presently we were out in the sunshine again, standing beneath the weather-beaten sign whereon three faded fishermen fished with faded rods in a faded stream; while away down the road we could see Peter already approaching with the carriage.

  "And now I suppose you are going?" said Lady Warburton.

  "There is a train at half-past ten," I answered.

  "An' we are going, too !" said Dorothy.

  "Yes, we're quite ready, Uncle Dick," cried the Imp, thrusting his pistols into his belt.

  "But you wouldn't leave me all alone, would you, children?" asked Lady Warburton, and there was a certain wistfulness in her sharp face that seemed new to it.

  "'Course not," sighed the Imp, "only - "

  "We must stay and take care of her, Reginald," nodded Dorothy decisively.

  "Yes, I'll take care of you, Aunt, with lance, battle-axe, an' sword, by day an' night," said the Imp, "only - I should have liked to see Uncle Dick's wonderful house, with the real swords an' armour, in the Land of Heart's Delight - some day, you know."

  "And so you shall," cried Lady Warburton, and she actually stooped to kiss him, and then Dorothy, rather 'pecky' kisses, perhaps, but very genuine kisses notwithstanding.

  "Richard," she said, giving me her hand, "we shall come down to your wonderful house - all three of us next week, so be prepared - now be off - both of you."

  "Then you forgive me, Aunt?" asked Lisbeth, hesitating.

  "Well, I don't quite know yet, Lisbeth; but, my dear, I'll tell you something I have never mentioned to a living soul but you; if I had acted forty years ago as you did to-day, I should have been a very different creature to the cross-grained old woman you think me. There - there's a kiss, but as for forgiving you - that is quite another matter; I must have time to think it all over. Good-bye, my dear; and, Richard, fill her life with happiness, to make up for mine, if you can. Children, bid good-bye to your Auntie - and Uncle Dick!"

  "You won't forget the sword with the 'deadly point,' will you, Uncle Dick?"

  "I won't forget, my Imp!" Hereupon he tried to smile, but his trembling lips refused, and snatching his band from mine he turned away; as for Dorothy, she was sobbing into the fur of the fluffy kitten.

  Then I helped Lisbeth aboard The Joyful Hope, loving her the more for the tears that gleamed beneath her long lashes, and 'casting loose,' we glided out into the stream.

  There they stood, the two children, with the white-haired figure between them, Dorothy holding up the round-eyed "Louise" for a parting glimpse, and the Imp flourishing his cutlass, until a bend of the river hid them from view.

  So Lisbeth and I sailed on together through the golden morning to "The Land of Heart's Delight."

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