Who on earth is that God-forsaken man

Phœbe had not been very kind when she heard that her sister had been so
bold-faced, as she called it, to ask Jack Collingwood for a sketch. “You
don’t know what interpretation might be put on such a thing,” she said,
and indeed it was difficult to conjecture. But Clara attributed this
severity as much to the tooth-ache as anything else, and in point of
fact when the picture arrived, Phœbe, who would usually spend a quarter
of an hour over untying a knot rather than cut it, fetched the scissors
in less than no time, and behaved as if string was not a precious metal.

“It is kind of him,” said Clara. “See what a size, Phœbe! though perhaps
that may be mostly frame. I know artists are very fond of putting large
frames on small pictures. Oh, dear, there is another wrapper!”

The picture was undone at last, and the two peered closely into it, in
the approved fashion. Suddenly Clara started.

“It’s the corner down by the mill,” she said, “where the foot-bridge
crosses the river. And the dog, it’s like the–Phœbe, it’s Miss Avesham
and her dog on the bridge by the mill.”

Phœbe looked in silence a moment.

“What is to be done?” she said, at length. “Dear me, yes, it’s a
wonderful likeness, too. She is just like that when she laughs.”

“What is the picture called?” said Clara, opening the note which had
accompanied it. “In Danger. Oh! I see. The dog is shaking itself, and
her dress is in danger of getting wet. How very clever!”

Phœbe had ceased looking at the picture: an affair far more momentous
and interesting occupied her.

“I wonder what it all means?” she began.

“You see the dog is shaking itself,” repeated Clara, “and the danger
is—-”

“I know that,” said Phœbe. “But is there, if I can say so without being
indelicate, do you think there is some understanding between Miss
Avesham and Mr. Collingwood? Do you suppose she stood to him? How
interesting it would have been if we had happened to stroll down there
one of these last days and seen him working!”

“No doubt you are right, Phœbe,” said her sister.

“It is not proved,” said Phœbe, modestly, “but it seems likely. We can’t
ask Miss Avesham about it, and really I dare not ask Mrs. Collingwood.”

“Ask her about what?”

“Don’t you see, Clara, it would be so awkward if this picture had been
done without Miss Avesham’s knowledge. Dear me, how well he has caught
the likeness! There is a ring at the bell. Go to the window, Clara,
keeping yourself out of sight, and see who it is.”

Clara ambushed herself behind the curtains and peeped out.

“Colonel Raymond,” she whispered, “and Mrs. Raymond.”

“Dear me, how fortunate! I dare say he will know. Tell them to bring tea
at once, Clara. He is sure to have heard of it if his cousin is engaged.
We’ll show him the picture, and see if he says anything.”

Colonel Raymond was in the best spirits that afternoon. He had at last
been to call on the Aveshams, and he considered that his reception had
been most gratifying. He had also explained at length his relationship
to Jeannie, and all was satisfactory. Mrs. Raymond also was in cheerful
mood, since the Colonel had decided to pay calls this afternoon, and
thus there was no brisk walk for the children.

The talk soon turned on the picture exhibition, and Clara announced with
modest pride that Jack Collingwood had sent them a contribution.

“Indeed, we were just unpacking it when you came, Colonel Raymond,” she
said, “and I should so much like to hear your opinion on it.”

The Colonel adjusted his eye-glasses.

“Why, God bless my soul,” he exclaimed, “it’s Jeannie Avesham!
Constance, do come here, and look at Mr. Collingwood’s picture of cousin
Jeannie. Wonderfully good, is it not? Just caught the look she has when
she smiles. She looked just like that at some little story I told her
this afternoon, do you remember? And the dog, Toby, dear little Toby.
How like! How like!”

Now this was not quite all that the Miss Cliffords wanted, and as
Colonel Raymond raised his head from the examination of the picture,
Clara looked slyly at him. Now, when Miss Clara looked sly there was no
possibility of missing it; she looked sly, so to speak, with both hands.
The Colonel, as he often said himself, was a prodigious observer, and he
observed this.

“Eh, what?” he began, and then suddenly a possible explanation of Miss
Clifford’s slyness came into his mind. He was that nature of a man who
cannot endure that any one should know a piece of gossip or news before
himself, and he determined to appear at least as well-informed as Miss
Clifford.

“Ah, you have heard something, too, Miss Clifford,” he said. “How these
things get about! But I understand it is to be kept quite secret at
present, except from a few friends. Of course, as long as they are in
mourning, you understand–a great thing for the Collingwoods. Puts them
among the county families.”

The Colonel raised his eyes to the ceiling as he had observed Miss
Fortescue do when she wished to say no more on any subject, and
congratulated himself on having come with credit out of that.

Both the Miss Cliffords were bursting with curiosity to hear more, but
the Colonel tactfully led the subject round to other topics.

“Jack Collingwood was at Oxford with our cousin Arthur,” he said.
“Wonderful place, Oxford; I spent a night there once. It would suit you
and your literary tastes, Miss Clara. Plenty of opportunity for study.
What a treat, by the way, you gave us in the last Observer. Brought
tears into my eyes, positively brought tears into my eyes.”

All this was very pleasant, but, the great secret told, the Miss
Cliffords were almost anxious for the departure of the Colonel, for they
longed to talk the matter over. The Colonel, however, was in good
spirits, and he remained.

“Very pleasant and gratifying it is,” he said, “to see our cousins
settling down here in the way they are doing. Jeannie–Miss Jeannie
said to me to-day how much she enjoyed Wroxton.”

“And does Mr. Avesham enjoy it?” asked Miss Clara.

“I have not had an opportunity of talking to him about it,” said the
Colonel, cautiously, “but he must be hard to please–he must be hard to
please if he does not. What a charming life for a young man! For a few
hours a day he has his work, but when that is over, what a choice! A
game of whist at the club, the pleasures of the home circle–and Miss
Fortescue is such a shrewd, delightful woman–or, or, if his tastes are
literary, a call at Villa Montrose.”

“Colonel Raymond, how can you!” cried Miss Clara, in an ecstasy of
slyness; “how can you be so wicked?”

“Robert likes his joke,” said Mrs. Raymond, in her colourless voice. “He
means nothing, Miss Clifford. Do you, Robert?”

“My dear, a soldier sticks to what he says,” said the Colonel. “Or
Arthur can come and take a glass of the best port in the Midlands with
Constance and me.”

“Does Mr. Avesham play whist well?” asked Phœbe.

Now if the Colonel was proud of anything it was of his reputation as a
whist-player. He was known to play for “points,” a term vague to the
Miss Cliffords, but with an undefined air of extravagance and
recklessness about it. And though Arthur had never at present had the
privilege of playing with the Colonel, the latter answered without a
pause.

“A good, sound game,” he said. “Perhaps he does not know the subtleties
of the thing as well as–as well as some old stagers at it, but with an
hour or two of Cavendish a day, which I am not ashamed myself to spend
on it, he will develop into a fine player. Wonderful man, Cavendish.
Whist is not a game, it is an institution, a national institution.”

And the Colonel’s chest became gigantic.

“The work of a lifetime,” he went on. “To know whist is the work of a
lifetime, and a lifetime not ill-spent. Put it on my tombstone,
Constance. I shall not be ashamed of having it on my tombstone, ‘He
played a good hand,’ or, let us be more modest, ‘He played a fair
hand.’ And now we must tear ourselves away; we must really tear
ourselves away. My old cronies will be waiting for me at the club and
wondering where I am.”

“Colonel Raymond is very fond of his whist,” said his wife, as if this
was a fact new to every one.

It was the custom at Villa Montrose to show the departing guests as far
as the front door, not because there was any fear of their appropriating
some small articles on their way out, but with the idea of speeding
them, and as soon as the door was closed Phœbe and Clara hurried back to
the drawing-room.

“Well, it’s the most exciting thing I ever heard,” said Clara, “and how
clever of you to have guessed it, Phœbe. I should never have thought of
it.”

“Anyhow we can make our minds quite easy about sending the picture to
the exhibition,” said Phœbe. “I suppose Miss Avesham told the Colonel
about it this afternoon. We must be sure to mention it to no one, Clara.
It is only to be known in the family at present. Dear me, the
Honourable Jeannie Avesham to Mr. John Collingwood! Does he become
Honourable, too? I rather think he does.”

“There has not been a wedding in Wroxton for years,” said Miss Clara,
“at least not in our circle. I wonder what Mrs. Collingwood will say to
it. The Colonel said the Collingwoods would become a county family. How
I shall long to see the ‘County families’ for next year.”

“It would make a pretty subject for a poem next time you are in the
mood,” said Phœbe, “the artist painting his love.”

“I had thought of that,” said Clara, with conscious pride. “It will be
difficult, but I shall try.”

“I should recommend the sonnet form,” said Phœbe, as if she was choosing
a wallpaper.

Clara considered a moment.

“I saw it as a lyric,” she said, “with a little refrain like some of
Miss Rossetti’s. ‘Jeannie, my Jeannie,’ would be a pretty line.”

“No, you must mention no name, at any rate till the engagement is
announced,” said Phœbe. “It would never do.”

“Perhaps you are right, Phœbe,” said the other. “I shall have a long
morning’s work to-morrow.”

Colonel Raymond in the meantime was walking to the club, rather quicker
than his wont was. He almost forgot to look interesting for the benefit
of passers-by in the excitement of possessing, and that by his own
extraordinary shrewdness, this family secret. His momentary annoyance at
not having been the first to have known it was quite overscored by the
delight in knowing it now, and though he had been disposed for a second
or two to consider it to be an impertinence on the part of Miss Clifford
that she, though indirectly, was the channel by which it was conveyed to
him, the anticipation of the flutter he would make at the club more than
compensated for it. He did not intend to state the secret boldly; he
proposed to make a mystery of it, to set people on the right track, and
to refuse to answer any questions, for if there was anything which the
Colonel loved more than imparting information in a superior manner, it
was withholding it in the same irritating way.

“I’m late, gentlemen,” he cried, in his bluff, hearty manner, as he
entered the smoking-room; “I’m late, and I cry ‘peccavi.’ But it is not
altogether my fault. I’ve been down to my cousins at Bolton Street. They
all are very much excited about it, of course–why, God bless my soul, I
nearly let it out.”

From a dark corner of the room there came a faint rustle as of a paper
being folded, and Arthur Avesham’s head looked over the corner of the
Evening Standard, and back again, as quick as a lizard.

“But we must get to our whist,” continued the unconscious Colonel.
“Whist and wine wait for no men. And, talking of wine, get me a glass of
port, a glass of port, waiter, and bring it to the card-room, and don’t
be all day about it.”

The Colonel was in rather an _exalté_ mood that afternoon, and just as
his bluff heartiness was a shade more pronounced than usual, so, too,
were his immoderate remarks when his partner did not play his hand
correctly.

“Bumble-puppy, the merest bumble-puppy,” he roared. “It’s a pure waste
of time playing a game like this, and to call it whist is a profanation.
Ah, we got the odd, did we? I thought you had secured it. You ought to
have. That puts us out. Well, well, as we are out I’ll say no more about
it, but we ought never to have got out. It’s the principle of the thing
for which I go.”

A few minutes later the door opened and Arthur entered. The Colonel was
sorting his hand with angry snorts and growls and did not notice his
entrance. Arthur took a seat near the table where the Colonel and his
party were playing, and watched the game.

The Colonel finished sorting his hand first, and was not apparently
satisfied with it, for he burst into a torrent of angry recrimination.

“A waiting game; is this what they call a waiting game? Really, partner,
you seem to fall asleep upon your cards. And there are other gentlemen
waiting here to take a hand.” And he turned an inflamed face upon
Arthur.

There was dead silence. If the Colonel had seen the ghost of his late
noble relative he could not have been more shocked. Only a few minutes
before he had been talking of his afternoon with his cousins in Bolton
Street, and here was one of them, to whom he had never spoken, at his
elbow. Arthur seldom went to the club, and, as luck would have it, he
and the Colonel had not met before. The Colonel knew Arthur by sight,
but the mischief was that Arthur did not know the Colonel. The man of
war was up a tree, and his old cronies knew it. But he faced the
position like a volunteer.

“Charming little place you have in Bolton Street,” he said, without fury
in his voice. “I was there this afternoon paying my respects to Miss
Avesham and Miss Fortescue–I and my wife. We claim connection with you
through the Fortescues. Ah, my partner has played. A good card, sir, a
very good card.”

Arthur glanced at the Colonel, then at the other players. They all
exhibited an unnatural absorption in their cards, and he guessed that
this connection of his, whoever he might be, was in a tight place. He
waited till the hand was over, which concluded the rubber.

The Colonel got up impatiently.

“You will take my hand,” he said, “and give these gentlemen another
rubber; I have got to go: I must get home early to-night,” and he fairly
ran from the room.

Arthur was known to the other three present, and, as he took his seat:

“Who on earth is that God-forsaken man?” he asked.

Mr. Newbolt alone found his tongue.

“Colonel Raymond is his name,” he said.

“I wonder why he went away?” said Arthur, and a sound like a chuckle
came from Mr. Hewson.

Three days after this the picture exhibition opened, and Jeannie and
Miss Fortescue, as they strolled out one morning, passed the Guildhall,
where placards were up saying that the seventh exhibition of the Wroxton
Art Union was now open inside. Jeannie wished to go in. Miss Fortescue
was certain that she did not.

“All you will see, Jeannie,” she said, “will be about an acre of Wroxton
Cathedral, six pictures of sunrise on the Alps, and some studies of
carnations. You can see Wroxton Cathedral and the carnations in our own
garden, and you can see sunrise on the Alps in any tomato salad.”

“I bet you a sterling shilling,” said Jeannie, “that there is at least
one picture that interests us; I have never yet been to any exhibition
in which there was not something I liked to look at. Do you take it,
Aunt Em?”

“Done,” said Aunt Em.

It was still early, and only a few people were straying about the room,
looking as people do at an exhibition, as if they were lost and wanted
to find their way out. But an acre of Wroxton Cathedral, as Aunt Em had
said, stopped egress on one side, the spears of rose-tinted Alps on
another, and several forbidding portraits on a third. At the far end of
the room, however, were some ten or twelve people congregated round one
picture.

“That will be the one, Aunt Em,” said Jeannie, “over which I shall win
my bet. So we’ll look at it last.”

Miss Fortescue smiled in a superior manner.

“That picture is a bereaved party having tea after a funeral,” said Aunt
Em; “I feel it in my bones. Come, Jeannie, here are the tomato salads.
That’s a beauty, but a little overripe.”

They strolled slowly toward the far end of the room, and while still
they were some way off Mrs. Collingwood detached herself from the group
surrounding the chief attraction and came down the room toward them.
Her face was a little flushed, and as she caught sight of them she
paused, and then shot by them without a word.

“No manners,” sighed Miss Fortescue. “Now we are getting into the
carnations.”

Jeannie had bought a catalogue, and turned to the list of artists
exhibiting.

“There’s one by Jack Collingwood,” she said. “Now I am safe to win.
Arthur wrote to him to-day asking him to come and stay with us. I hope
he’ll come: I’ve never seen him. His pictures are splendid. It’s number
8. Oh, that must be the one all those people are standing round. Let’s
go and look at it.”

“Tea after a funeral,” said Aunt Em.

No fresh arrivals had come in lately, and by the time they got near the
picture there was no one by it. Suddenly Jeannie quickened her pace.

“Aunt Em, come here,” she said.

They stood before the picture for a moment in silence, to which its
worth as a work of art alone entitled it. The whole thing was admirable.
A stretch of lank, thick grass, starred with meadow-sweet and ragged
robin ran from side to side of the canvas. The nearer edge of this was
broken away, showing a chalky soil, and from it there ran at a slight
angle a couple of wooden planks with a handrail crossing a stream which
lay invisible but for a streak of water underneath the chalky bank. A
few tall grasses in the immediate foreground round the nearer edge of
the plank bridge showed where the stream ended. In the middle of it,
cutting the picture nearly in two, was the figure of a girl, dressed in
black, hatless, and keeping off a puppy with her parasol. Round the dog
was a halo of spray, and he was in the middle of shaking himself, for
his head was curly, his flanks and tail still smooth. It was an
inimitable representation of a moment. One almost expected to see the
halo of spray spread further, and the hind part of the dog grow curly.
But if Jack had been successful with the dog, he had surpassed himself
in the girl’s figure and face. She lived utterly and entirely in the
present, and had no thoughts but amused apprehensions for her dress. Her
head was bent forward, following the bend of her arm and the parasol,
and the face a little foreshortened. But every inch of her laughed.

Jeannie looked at it in silence. Suddenly bending forward and pointing
at it (the picture was hung rather low), she laughed too.

“Oh, it is admirable! it is simply admirable!” she cried. “And I never,
never heard of such a piece of impertinence in my life. Aunt Em, it’s
the best thing I ever saw. Look at the dog; why, Toby would recognise
it, I believe. And look at me! Certainly I recognise it. But what cheek!
My goodness, what cheek!”

Aunt Em fumbled in her purse.

“A sterling shilling,” she observed, laconically. “Now, Jeannie, it
would be more decent if you came away. We will talk about this
elsewhere.”

“Oh, one moment,” said Jeannie. “You see, I can’t come here again and
look at it, as you can. Aunt Em, I remember the afternoon so well. It
was when we had been down at the mill. But how on earth could Mr.
Collingwood–Well, I suppose I must go. Oh, Aunt Em, mind you don’t tell
Arthur about it. I have my reasons.”

They walked out of the exhibition without looking at the acre of Wroxton
Cathedral at all. On the stairs they met Miss Clara Clifford with a load
of catalogues going up.

“We’ve just spent a half hour in the exhibition,” said Jeannie, “and I
think it is quite excellent. So does Aunt Em. Oh, I don’t think you know
Aunt Em, do you? Miss Fortescue, Miss Clifford. And the picture of me by
Mr. Collingwood is quite admirable. But it was rather a surprise to me.”

The catalogues extended from Miss Clifford’s chin to nearly the whole
stretch of her arms, and bowing was difficult. But it was more difficult
not to drop them all at this remark of Jeannie’s.

“A surprise, Miss Avesham?” she cried. “Will you ever forgive me, for I
am the secretary? But Colonel Raymond said–” and she paused, looking
distressfully at Miss Fortescue.

Jeannie caught the look, and saw that Miss Clifford’s face was the
picture of agonized embarrassment.

“Go on, Aunt Em,” she said, “I’ll come after you.”

Miss Fortescue looked at the ceiling in mute appeal, and then marched
down the stairs.

“There’s no harm done, Miss Clifford,” said Jeannie; “I assure you I
don’t in the least mind. But what did Colonel Raymond say? Oh, take
care, the catalogues are slipping.”

It was too late; the pile bulged ominously in the middle, and then fell
all ways at once to the ground. Miss Clifford clutched wildly at them as
they fell, but the disaster was there.

“We’ll pick them up first,” said Jeannie. “Gracious, what a lot of them!
Where do you want them put? Take care, you’re treading on some.”

“I was just taking them to the entrance where people pay,” said poor
Miss Clifford. “Please don’t trouble; indeed, it is too good of you.”

Jeannie collected a foot or two of them, and together they deposited
them all on the table by the entrance.

“And now, Miss Clifford,” she said, “will you just give me two words
with you? First of all I assure you solemnly that I don’t in the least
mind the picture being in the exhibition, so if it was you who passed it
you can make your mind perfectly easy. But what did Colonel Raymond say
about it?”

Miss Clifford looked round as if she was half determined to run away.

“I cannot tell you, Miss Avesham; indeed, I cannot tell you,” she almost
moaned.

“Oh, don’t be so distressed,” said Jeannie, with the air of a grown-up
person soothing a child. “I am sure I should never be anything but
amused at what Colonel Raymond–I mean Cousin Raymond–said. Please tell
me.”

Miss Clifford closed her eyes and clenched her hands.

“He said–he said there was some understanding between you and Mr.
Collingwood, but that you didn’t wish it to be known yet.”

Jeannie’s smile faded, and a look of intense surprise took its place.

“Colonel Raymond said that?” she asked. “Do you mean he meant we were
engaged?”

Miss Clifford shut her mouth very tight, but moved her head as if she
was swallowing.

“That we were engaged?” repeated Jeannie, wishing to be quite certain.

Miss Clifford’s lips formed the word “yes,” but no sound issued.

Jeannie sat down on a stone seat at the top of the stairs.

“Cousin Raymond is a very imaginative man,” she said. “Miss Clifford, I
have never consciously set eyes on Mr. Collingwood. Oh, yes, I have. I
remember now a young man coming round the corner of the mill when Toby
was shaking himself. I think that must be he. Now!”

“It is terrible, terrible!” moaned Miss Clifford. “I have never been so
ashamed.”

Jeannie was not attending to her particularly.

“Cousin, too,” she said. “He’s no more my cousin than Mrs. Collingwood
is.”

“I am very, very sorry,” continued Miss Clifford, in the same low voice.

“Sorry?” said Jeannie. “My dear Miss Clifford, there’s nothing whatever
for you to be sorry for. Please believe that. I’m delighted you should
have the picture here–I am, really. But please be very careful not to
repeat what Colonel Raymond says. I will see that he doesn’t. Good-bye.
I must go after my aunt. Please cheer up. Does any one else know?”

“Colonel Raymond is rather fond of talking,” said Miss Clifford,
faintly.

“So I should think.”

“He told Phœbe and me not to tell any one. And Mrs. Raymond was there,
too.”

“Good gracious, how many more?”

“No one else,” said Miss Clifford.

Jeannie rose.

“Well, I must go,” she said. “And if you won’t promise me never to blame
yourself, I sha’n’t forgive you. So promise.”

“I will try,” said Miss Clifford.

Jeannie nodded and smiled at her, and went quickly down the stairs after
Miss Fortescue.

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