AT “THE LAURELS”

Up in Highgate an hour later you might have seen a hansom driving about,
pausing here and there to ask of policemen, pedestrians, and others for
“The Laurels.”

“There’s a’ many Laurels,” said the milkman, who was also the first
director, and so after awhile Mr Bevan found to his cost.

But at last they found, with the aid of a local directory, the right
one, a spacious house built of red brick seen through an avenue of lime
trees all abuzz with bees.

There was no sign of life in the little gate lodge, and the entrance
gate was pushed back; the orderly eye of Charles Bevan noticed that it
was half off its hinges; also, that the weeds in the avenue were
rampant.

A laburnum had pushed its way through the limes, and a peony, as large
almost as a cabbage, had laid its head on the avenue-way, presenting a
walk-over-me-_I_-don’t-care appearance, quite in accordance with the
general aspect of things.

The hansom drew up at the door and the traveller from Southampton Row
flung away his cigar end, alighted, and ran up the three steps leading
to the porch. He rang the bell, and then stood wondering at the
luxuriance of the wisteria that overspread the porch, and contemplating
the hind hocks of the cab-horse which had been fired.

What he was about to do or say when he found himself in the presence of
his enemy was not very clear to the mind of Mr Bevan. What did occur to
him was that George Lambert would have the advantage over him in the
interview, seeing that he would be in his own house–on his own
dunghill, so to speak.

He might have got into the hansom and returned to town, but that would
have been an admission to himself that he had committed a fault, and to
admit themselves in fault, even to themselves, was never a way with the
Bevans.

So he rang and waited, and rang again.

Presently shuffling footsteps sounded from behind the door which opened
some two inches, disclosing a pale, blue eye, part of a nose, and an
uncertain coloured fringe.

“What do you want?” cried a voice through the crack.

“Does Mr George Lambert live here?”

“He does, but he’s from home.”

“Dear me,” murmured Charles, whose curiosity was now greatly aroused by
the neglected aspect of the place and the mysterious personage hidden by
the door. He felt a great desire to penetrate further into the affairs
of his enemy and see what was to be seen.

“Is Miss Lambert in?”

“Yus.”

“Then give her my card, please. I would like to speak to her.”

The person behind the door undid the chain, satisfied evidently by
Bevan’s voice and appearance that he was not a dun or a robber. The door
opened disclosing a servant maid, very young and very dirty.

This ash-cat took the piece of pasteboard, and made a pretence of
reading it, invited Charles to enter, and then closing the door, and
barring it this time as if to keep him in, should he try to escape, led
the way across a rather empty hall to a library.

Here she invited him to sit down upon a chair, having first dusted it
with her apron, and declaring that she would send Miss Fanny to him in
“a minit,” vanished, and left him to his meditations.

“Most extraordinary place,” said Charles, glancing round at the books in
their cases. “Most extraordinary place I ever entered.”

As he looked about him, he heard the youthful servant’s voice raised now
to its highest pitch, and calling “Miss Fanny, Miss Fanny, Miss
F-a-a-anny” and dying away as if in back passages.

The library was evidently much inhabited by the Lamberts; it was
pleasantly perfumed with tobacco, and in the grate lay the expiring
embers of a morning fire. The Lamberts were evidently not of the order
of people who extinguish their fires on the first of May. There were
whips and fishing-rods, and a gun or two here and there, and books
everywhere about, besides those on the shelves. The morning paper lay
spread open on the floor, where it had been cast by the last reader, and
on the floor lay other things, which in most houses are to be found on
tables, envelopes crumpled up, letters, and other trifles.

On a little table by the window grew an orange-tree in a flower-pot,
bearing oranges as large as marrow-fat peas; through the half-open
window came wasps in and out, the perfume of mignonette and the murmur
of distant bees.

He came to the window and looked out.

Outside lay the ruins of a garden bathed in the golden light of summer,
the light that

“Speaks wide and loud
From deeps blown clean of cloud,
As though day’s heart were proud
And heaven’s were glad.”

Beyond lay a paddock in whose centre lay the wraith of a tennis lawn;
the net hung shrivelled between the tottering poles, and close to the
net he saw the forlorn figure of a girl playing what seemed a fantastic
game of tennis all alone.

She would hit the ball into the air and strike it back when it fell; if
it went over the net she would jump after it.

Now appeared the slattern maid, card between finger and thumb, picking
her way like a cat along the tangled garden path in the direction of the
girl.

Mr Bevan turned away from the window and looked at the books lining the
wall, his eye travelling from Humboldt’s works to the tooled back of
Milton–he was trying to recollect who Schopenhauer was–when of a
sudden the door opened and an amazingly pretty girl of the old-fashioned
school of beauty entered the room. She was dark, and she came into the
room laughing, yet with a half-frightened air as if fearful of being
caught missing from some old canvas.

“You won’t tell,” said she as they shook hands like intimate
acquaintances. “If father knew I had asked Mr Hancock, you know what,
he’d kill me; I really believe he would.” She put down her tennis
racquet on the table, her hat she had left outside, and evidently in a
hurry, to judge by the delightful disorder of her hair.

Mr Bevan, who was trying to stiffen his lip and appear very formal, had
taken his seat on a low chair which made him feel dwarfed and
ridiculous. He had also, unfortunately, left his hat on the table some
yards away, and so had nothing with which to occupy his hands; he was,
therefore, entirely at the mercy of Miss Lambert, who had taken an
armchair near by, and was now chattering to him with the familiarity,
almost, of a sister.

“It seems so fortunate, you know,” said she suddenly, discarding a
discussion about the weather. “It seems so fortunate that idea of mine
of speaking to Mr Hancock. I hate fighting with people, but father
_loves_ it; he’d fight with himself, I think, if he could find no one
else, and still, if you knew him, he’s the sweetest-tempered person in
the world, he is, he would do anything for anybody, he would lay his
life down for a friend. But you will know him now, now that that
terrible affair about the fish stream is settled.”

Mr Bevan swallowed rapidly and cast frantic glances at his hat. Had
Miss Lambert been of the ordinary type of girl he might possibly have
intimated that the fish stream business was not so settled as she
supposed, but with this sweet-tongued and friendly beauty, it was
impossible. He felt deeply exasperated at the false position in which he
found himself, and was endeavouring to prepare some reply of a
non-committal character when, of a sudden, his eye caught a direful
sight, which for a moment made him forget both fish stream and false
position–the little boot of Miss Lambert peeping from beneath her skirt
was old and broken.

“I would not deny him anything, goodness knows,” continued Fanny
Lambert, as if she were talking of a child. “But this action _costs_
such a lot, and there are so many people he could fight cheaply with if
he wants to,” she broke into an enchanting little laugh. “I think,
really, it’s the expense that makes him think so much of it; he has a
horror of cheap things.”

“Cheap things are never much good,” conceded Mr Bevan, upon whose mind a
dreadful sort of imbecility had now fallen, his will cried out
frantically to his intellect for help, and received none. Here had he
come to demand explanations, to put his foot down–alas! what is the
will of man beside the beauty of a woman?

“That’s what father says,” said Fanny. “But as for me, I love them, that
is to say bargains, you know.”

The door burst open and a sort of poodle walked in, he was not exactly
Russian and not exactly French, he had points of an Irish water-spaniel.
Bevan gazed at him and marvelled.

Having inspected the pattern of the visitor’s trousers, and seeming
therewith content Boy-Boy–such was his name–flung himself on the floor
and into sleep beside his mistress.

“He sleeps all day,” said Fanny, “and I wish he wouldn’t, for he spends
the whole night barking and rushing after the cats in the garden. Isn’t
he just like a door mat, and doesn’t he snore?”

“He certainly does.”

“I got him for three and sixpence and an old pair of boots from one of
those travelling men who grind scissors and things,” said Miss Lambert,
looking lovingly at her bargain. “He was half starved and _so_ thin. He
ate a whole leg of mutton the first day we had him.”

“That was very unwise,” said Mr Bevan, who always shone on the topic of
dogs or horses; “you should never give dogs much meat.”

“He took it,” said Fanny. “It was so clever of him, he hid it in the
garden and buried the bone–who is that at the door, is that you,
Susannah?”

“Luncheon is ready, Miss,” said the voice of Susannah, who spoke in a
muted tone as if she were announcing some unsavoury fact of which she
was half ashamed.

Charles Bevan rose to go.

“Oh, but you’ll stay to luncheon,” said Fanny.

“I really–I have an engagement–that is a cab waiting.” Then addressing
his remarks to the eyes of Miss Lambert, “I shall be delighted if such a
visitation does not bore you.”

“Not a bit–Susannah, hang Mr Bevan’s hat up in the hall. Come this
way.”

Mr Bevan followed his hostess across the hall to the breakfast-room; as
he followed he heard with a shudder Susannah attempting to hang his hat
on the high hall rack, and the hat falling off and being pursued about
the floor.

Luncheon was laid in a free-handed and large-hearted manner. Three
whitings on a dish of Sheffield plate formed the _piece de résistance_,
there was jam which appeared frankly in a pot pictured with plums, but
in the centre of the table stood a vase of Venetian glass filled with
roses.

As they took their seats Susannah, who had apparently been seized with
an inspiration, appeared conveying a bottle of Böllinger in one hand,
and a bottle of Gold-water in the other.

“I brought them from the cellar, Miss,” said the maid with a side glance
at Charles–she was a good-natured-looking girl when not defending the
hall door, but her under jaw seemed like the avenue gate, half off its
hinges, and her intellect to be always oozing away through her half-open
mouth. “They were the best I could find.”

“That’s right, Susannah,” said her mistress; “try if you can get one of
those little bottles of port, the ones with red seals on them and
cobwebs; and close the door.”

Mr Bevan opened the champagne and helped himself, Miss Lambert
announcing the fact that she was a teetotaler.

“There is a man in the kitchen,” said she, after an apology for the
general disorder of things, and for the whiting which were but
indifferently cooked. “James, you know, and when he is in the kitchen
whilst meals are being prepared Susannah loses her head and often spoils
things. Father generally sends him out to dig in the garden whilst she
is cooking. I didn’t send him to-day because he won’t take orders from
me, only from father. He says a man cannot serve two masters; he is
always making proverbs and things, his father was a stationer and he has
written poetry. He might have been anything only for his wife, he told
me so the other night. It _does_ seem such a pity.”

“Yes,” said Charles tentatively, wondering who “James, you know” might
be.

“What is he?”

“He’s in the law,” said Miss Lambert cautiously, then after a moment’s
hesitation, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t tell you, you are our cousin.
Father had a debt and—-”

“You don’t mean to say he’s—-”

“Yes, he has come to take possession as they call it.”

Mr Bevan laid down his knife and fork.

“Good gracious!”

“I never cried so much as when he came,” said Fanny, stroking the head
of Boy-Boy, who was resting beside her; “it seemed so terrible. I never
knew what a comfort he would turn out; he fetches the coals for Susannah
and pumps the water. It sounds strange to say it, but I don’t know what
we should do without him now.”

“Oh, you poor child,” thought Charles, “how much you must have suffered
at the hands of that pig-headed fool of a father of yours–to think of a
good estate coming to this!”

“Tell me,” he said aloud, “how long has that man been here?”

“A week,” said Fanny, “but it seems a year.”

“Who–er–put him in.”

“A Mr Isaacs.”

“What was the debt for, Cousin Fanny?”

“We went to Paris.”

“I don’t—-”

“I wanted to go to Paris, and father said I should, but he would have to
think first about the money. Then he went into the library, and took me
on his knee, and smoked a pipe. He always gets money when he sits and
has what he calls a ‘good think’ and smokes a pipe. So he got the money
and we went to Paris. We had a lovely time!”

“And then,” said Bevan with an expression on his face as if he were
listening to a fairy tale which he _had_ to believe, “I suppose Mr
Isaacs applied for his money?”

“He sent most impertinent letters,” said Fanny, “and I told father not
to mind them, then James came.”

Mr Bevan went on with his luncheon, all his anger against his cousin,
George Lambert, had vanished. Anger is impossible to a sane mind when
the object of that anger turns out to be a lunatic.

He went on with his luncheon; though the whiting were indifferently
cooked, the champagne was excellent, and his hostess exquisite. It was
hard to tell which was more attractive, her face or her voice, for the
voice of Miss Lambert was one of those fatal voices that we hear perhaps
twice in a lifetime, and never forget, perfectly modulated golden,
soothing–maddening.