Authors: E. W. Hornung
E. W. Hornung
There was consternation in the domestic camp of Mr Justice Bligh on the banks of the Thames. It was a Sunday morning in early summer. Three-fourths of the family sat in ominous silence before the mockery of a well-spread breakfast-table: Sir James and Lady Bligh and their second son, Granville. The eldest sonâthe missing complement of this family of fourâwas abroad. For many months back, and, in fact, down to this very minute, it had been pretty confidently believed that the young man was somewhere in the wilds of Australia; no one had quite known where, for the young man, like most vagabond young men, was a terribly meagre corespondent; nor had it ever been clear why any one with leisure and money, and of no very romantic turn, should have left the beaten track of globe-trotters, penetrated to the wilderness, and stayed thereâas Alfred Bligh had done. Now, however, all was plain. A letter from Brindisi, just received, explained everything; Alfred's movements, so long obscure, were at last revealed, and in a lurid lightâthat, as it were, of the bombshell that had fallen and burst upon the Judge's breakfast-table. For Alfred was on his way to England with an Australian wife; and this letter from Brindisi, was the first that his people had heard of it, or of her.
âOf course,' said Lady Bligh, in her calm and thoughtful manner, âit was bound to happen sooner or later. It might have happened very much sooner; and, indeed, I often wished that it would; for Alfred must beâwhat? Thirty?'
âQuite,' said Granville; âI am nearly that myself.'
âWell, then,' said Lady Bligh gently, looking tenderly at the Judge (whose grave eyes rested upon the sunlit lawn outside), âfrom one point of viewâa selfish oneâwe ought to consider ourselves the most fortunate of parents. And this news should be a matter for rejoicing, as it would be, ifâif it were only less sudden, and wild, andâandâ'
Her voice trembled; she could not go on.
âAnd alarming,' added Granville briskly, pulling himself together and taking an egg.
Then the Judge spoke.
âI should like,' he said, âto hear the letter read slowly from beginning to end. Between us, we have not yet given it a fair chance; we have got only the drift of it; we may have overlooked something. Granville, perhaps you will read the letter aloud to your mother and me?'
Granville, who had just laid open his egg with great skill, experienced a moment's natural annoyance at the interruption. To stop to read a long letter now was, he felt, treating a good appetite shabbily, to say nothing of the egg. But this was not a powerful feeling; he concealed it. He had a far stronger appetite than the mere relish for food; the intellectual one. Granville had one of the nicest intellects at the Junior Bar. His intellectual appetite was so hearty, and even voracious, that it could be gratified at all times and places, and not only by the loaves and fishes of full-bodied wit, but by the crumbs and fishbones of legal humourâsuch as the reading aloud of indifferent English and ridiculous sentiments in tones suitable to the most chaste and classic prose. This he had done in court with infinite gusto, and he did it now as he would have done it in court.
“âMy dear Mother'” (he began reading, through a single eyeglass that became him rather well),â“âBefore you open this letter you'll see that I'm on my way home! I am sorry I haven't written you for so long, and very sorry I didn't before I sailed. I should think when I last wrote was from Bindarra. But I must come at once to my great newsâwhich Heaven knows how I'm to tell you, and how you'll take it when I do. Well, I will, in two wordsâthe fact is, I'm married! My wife is the daughter of âthe boss of Bindarra'âin other words, a âsquatter' with a ârun' (or territory) as big as a good many English counties.'”
The crisp forensic tones were dropped for an explanatory aside. âHe evidently meansâfather' (Granville nearly said âmy lord,' through force of habit), âthat his father-in-law is the squatter; not his wife, which is what he says. He writes in such a slipshod style. I should also think he means that the territory in question is equal in size to certain English counties, individually (though this I venture to doubt), and notâwhat you would inferâto several counties put together. His literary manner was always detestable, poor old chap; and, of course, Australia was hardly likely to improve it.'
The interpolation was not exactly ill-natured; but it was received in silence; and Granville's tones, as he resumed the reading, were even more studiously unsympathetic than before.
“âOf my Bride I will say very little; for you will see her in a week at most. As for myself, I can only tell you, dear Mother, that I am the very luckiest and happiest man on earth!'” (âA brave statement,' Granville murmured in parenthesis; âbut they all make it.') “âShe is typically Australian, having indeed been born and bred in the Bush, and is the first to admit it, being properly proud of her native land; but, if you knew the Australians as I do, this would not frighten you. Far from it, for the typical Australian is one of the very highest if not the highest development of our species.'” (Granville read that sentence with impressive gravity, and with such deference to the next as to suggest no kind of punctuation, since the writer had neglected it.) “âBut as you, my dear Mother, are the very last person in the world to be prejudiced by mere mannerisms, I won't deny that she has one or twoâthough, mind you, I like them! And, at least, you may look forward to seeing the most beautiful woman you ever saw in your lifeâthough I say it.
“âFeeling sure that you will, as usual, be âsummering' at Twickenham, I make equally sure that you will be able and willing to find room for us; at the same time, we will at once commence looking out for a little place of our own in the country, with regard to which we have plans which will keep till we see you. But, while we are with you, I thought I would be able to show my dear girl the principal sights of the Old Country, which, of course, are mostly in or near town, and which she is dying to see.
“âDear Mother, I know I ought to have consulted you, or at least told you, beforehand. The whole thing was impulsive, I admit. But if you and my Father will forgive me for thisâtake my word for it, you will soon find out that it is all you have to forgive! Of course, I am writing to my Father as much as to you in this letterâas he will be the first to understand. With dearest love to you both (not forgetting Gran), in which Gladys joins me (though she doesn't know I am saying so).
“âBelieve me as ever,
“âYour affectionate Son,
âThank you,' said the Judge, shortly.
The soft dark eyes of Lady Bligh were wet with tears.
âI think,' she said, gently, âit is a very tender letter. I know of no man but Alfred that could write such a boyish, simple letterânot that I don't enjoy your clever ones, Gran. But then Alfred never yet wrote to me without writing himself down the dear, true-hearted, affectionate fellow he is; only here, of course, it comes out doubly. But does he not mention her maiden name?'
âNo, he doesn't,' said Granville. âYou remarked the Christian name, though? Gladys! I must say it sounds unpromising. Mary, Eliza, Mariaâone would have rather liked a plain, homely, farm-yard sort of name for a squatter's daughter. But Ermyntrude, or Elaine, or Gladys! These are names of ill-omen; you expect de Vere coming after them, or even worse.'
âWhat is a squatter, Gran?' asked Lady Bligh abruptly.
âA squatter? I don't know,' said Gran, paring the ham daintily as he answered. âI don't know, I'm not sure; something to do with bush-ranging, I should imagineâbut I really can't tell you.'
But there was a set of common subjects of which Gran was profoundly and intentionally ignorant; and it happened that Greater Britain was one of them. If he had known for certain whether Sydney (for instance) was a town or a colony or an island, he would have kept the knowledge carefully to himself, and been thoroughly ashamed of it. And it was the same with other subjects understanded of the Board-scholars. This queer temper of mind is not indeed worth analysing; nevertheless, it is peculiar to a certain sort of clever young fellows, and Granville Bligh was a very fair specimen of the clever young fellow. He was getting on excellently at the Bar, for so young a man. He also wrote a little, with plenty of impudence and epigram, if nothing else. But this was not his real line. Still, what he did at all, he did more or less cleverly. There was cleverness in every line of his smooth dark face; there was uncommon shrewdness in his clear gray eyes. His father had the same face and the same eyesâwith this difference added to the differences naturally due to age: there were wisdom, and dignity, and humanity in the face and glance of the Judge; but the nobility of expression thus given was not inherited by the Judge's younger son.
The Judge spoke again, breaking a silence of some minutes:â
âAs you say, Mildred, it seems to have been all very wild and sudden; but when we have said this, we have probably said the worst there is to say. At least, let us hope so. Of my own knowledge many men have gone to Australia, as Alfred went, and come back with the best of wives. I seem to have heard, Granville, that that is what Merivale did; and I have met few more admirable women than Mrs Merivale.'
âIt certainly is the case, sir,' said Granville, who had been patronised to some extent by Merivale, Q.C. âBut Mrs Merivale was scarcely “born and bred in the Bush”; and if she had what poor Alfred, perhaps euphemistically, calls “mannerisms”âI have detected no traces of any myselfâwhen Merivale married her, at least she had money.'
âYour sister-in-law may have “money,” too,' said Sir James, with somewhat scornful emphasis. âThat is of no consequence at all. Your brother has enough for both, and more than enough for a bachelor.'
There was no need to remind the young man of that; it had been a sore point, and even a raw one, with Granville since his boyhood; for it was when the brothers were at school togetherâthe younger in the Sixth Form, the elder in the Lower Fifthâand it was already plain which one would benefit the most by âprivate means,' that a relative of Sir James had died, leaving all her money to Alfred.
Granville coloured slightlyâvery slightlyâbut observed:â
âIt is a good thing he has.'
âWhat do you mean?' the Judge asked, with some asperity.
âThat he needs it,' said Granville, significantly.
Sir James let the matter drop, and presently, getting up, went out by the open French window, and on to the lawn. It was not his habit to snub his son; he left that to the other judges, in court. But Lady Bligh remonstrated in her own quiet wayâa way that had some effect even upon Granville.
âTo sneer at your brother's inferior wits, my son, is not in quite nice taste,' she said; âand I may tell you, now, that I did not at all care for your comments upon his letter.'