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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Modern Chronicle - Book 1 - Chapter 12. Which Contains A Surprise For Mrs. Holt
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A Modern Chronicle - Book 1 - Chapter 12. Which Contains A Surprise For Mrs. Holt Post by :nexus Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :3040

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A Modern Chronicle - Book 1 - Chapter 12. Which Contains A Surprise For Mrs. Holt

BOOK I CHAPTER XII. WHICH CONTAINS A SURPRISE FOR MRS. HOLT

How long she sat gazing with unseeing eyes down the valley Honora did not know. Distant mutterings of thunder aroused her; the evening sky had darkened, and angry-looking clouds of purple were gathering over the hills. She rose and hurried homeward. She had thought to enter by the billiard-room door, and so gain her own chamber without encountering the household; but she had reckoned without her hostess. Beyond the billiard room, in the little entry filled with potted plants, she came face to face with that lady, who was inciting a footman to further efforts in his attempt to close a recalcitrant skylight. Honora proved of more interest, and Mrs. Holt abandoned the skylight.

"Why, my dear," she said, "where have you been all afternoon?"

"I--I have been walking with Mr. Erwin, Mrs. Holt. I have been showing him Silverdale."

"And where is he? It seems to me I invited him to stay all night, and Joshua tells me he extended the invitation."

"We were in the little summer-house, and suddenly he discovered that it was late and he had to catch the seven o'clock train," faltered Honora, somewhat disconnectedly. "Otherwise he would have come to you himself and told you--how much he regretted not staying. He has to go to St. Louis to-night."

"Well," said Mrs. Holt, "this is an afternoon of surprises. The Vicomte has gone off, too, without even waiting to say good-by."

"The Vicomte!" exclaimed Honora.

"Didn't you see him, either, before he left?" inquired Mrs. Holt; "I thought perhaps you might be able to give me some further explanation of it."

"I?" exclaimed Honora. She felt ready to sink through the floor, and Mrs. Holt's delft-blue eyes haunted her afterwards like a nightmare.

"Didn't you see him, my dear? Didn't he tell you anything?"

"He--he didn't say he was going away."

"Did he seem disturbed about anything?" Mrs. Holt insisted.

"Now I think of it, he did seem a little disturbed."

"To save my life," said Mrs. Holt, "I can't understand it. He left a note for me saying that he had received a telegram, and that he had to go at once. I was at a meeting of my charity board. It seems a very strange proceeding for such an agreeable and polite man as the Vicomte, although he had his drawbacks, as all Continentals have. And at times I thought he was grave and moody,--didn't you?"

"Oh, yes, he was moody," Honora agreed eagerly.

"You noticed it, too," said Mrs. Holt. "But he was a charming man, and so interested in America and in the work we are doing. But I can't understand about the telegram. I had Carroll inquire of every servant in the house, and there is no knowledge of a telegram having come up from the village this afternoon."

"Perhaps the Vicomte might have met the messenger in the grounds," hazarded Honora.

At this point their attention was distracted by a noise that bore a striking resemblance to a suppressed laugh. The footman on the step-ladder began to rattle the skylight vigorously.

"What on earth is the matter with you, Woods?" said Mrs. Holt.

"It must have been some dust off the skylight, Madam, that got into my throat," he stammered, the colour of a geranium.

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Holt, "there is no dust on the skylight."

"It may be I swallowed the wrong way, looking up like, as I was, Madam," he ventured, rubbing the frame and looking at his finger to prove his former theory.

"You are very stupid not to be able to close it," she declared; "in a few minutes the place will be flooded. Tell Carroll to come and do it."

Honora suffered herself to be led limply through the library and up the stairs into Mrs. Holt's own boudoir, where a maid was closing the windows against the first great drops of the storm, which the wind was pelting against them. She drew the shades deftly, lighted the gas, and retired. Honora sank down in one of the upholstered light blue satin chairs and gazed at the shining brass of the coal grate set in the marble mantel, above which hung an engraving of Sir Joshua Reynolds' cherubs. She had an instinct that the climax of the drama was at hand.

Mrs. Holt sat down in the chair opposite.

"My dear," she began, "I told you the other day what an unexpected and welcome comfort and help you have been to me. You evidently inherit" (Mrs. Holt coughed slightly) "the art of entertaining and pleasing, and I need not warn you, my dear, against the dangers of such a gift. Your aunt has evidently brought you up with strictness and religious care. You have been very fortunate."

"Indeed I have, Mrs. Holt," echoed Honora, in bewilderment.

"And Susan," continued Mrs. Holt, "useful and willing as she is, does not possess your gift of taking people off my hands and entertaining them."

Honora could think of no reply to this. Her eyes--to which no one could be indifferent--were riveted on the face of her hostess, and how was the good lady to guess that her brain was reeling?

"I was about to say, my dear, that I expect to have a great deal of--well, of rather difficult company this summer. Next week, for instance, some prominent women in the Working Girls' Relief Society are coming, and on July the twenty-third I give a garden party for the delegates to the Charity Conference in New York. The Japanese Minister has promised to pay me a visit, and Sir Rupert Grant, who built those remarkable tuberculosis homes in England, you know, is arriving in August with his family. Then there are some foreign artists."

"Oh, Mrs. Holt," exclaimed Honora; "how many interesting people you see!"

"Exactly, my dear. And I thought that, in addition to the fact that I have grown very fond of you, you would be very useful to me here, and that a summer with me might not be without its advantages. As your aunt will have you until you are married, which, I may say, without denying your attractions, is likely to be for some time, I intend to write to her to-night--with your consent--and ask her to allow you to remain with me all summer."

Honora sat transfixed, staring painfully at the big pendant ear-rings.

"It is so kind of you, Mrs. Holt--" she faltered.

"I can realize, my dear, that you would wish to get back to your aunt. The feeling does you infinite credit. But, on the other hand, besides the advantages which would accrue to you, it might, to put the matter delicately, be of a little benefit to your relations, who will have to think of your future."

"Indeed, it is good of you, but I must go back, Mrs. Holt."

"Of course," said Mrs. Holt, with a touch of dignity--for ere now people had left Silverdale before she wished them to--"of course, if you do not care to stay, that is quite another thing."

"Oh, Mrs. Holt, don't say that!" cried Honora, her face burning; "I cannot thank you enough for the pleasure you have given me. If--if things were different, I would stay with you gladly, although I should miss my family. But now,--now I feel that I must be with them. I--I am engaged to be married."

Honora still remembers the blank expression which appeared on the countenance of her hostess when she spoke these words. Mrs. Holt's cheeks twitched, her ear-rings quivered, and her bosom heaved-once.

"Engaged to be married!" she gasped.

"Yes," replied our heroine, humbly, "I was going to tell you--to-morrow."

"I suppose," said Mrs. Holt, after a silence, "it is to the young man who was here this afternoon, and whom I did not see. It accounts for his precipitate departure. But I must say, Honora, since frankness is one of my faults, that I feel it my duty to write to your aunt and disclaim all responsibility."

"It is not to Mr. Erwin," said Honora, meekly; "it is--it is to Mr. Spence."

Mrs. Holt seemed to find difficulty in speaking, Her former symptoms, which Honora had come to recognize as indicative of agitation, returned with alarming intensity. And when at length her voice made itself heard, it was scarcely recognizable.

"You are engaged--to--Howard Spence?"

"Oh, Mrs. Holt," exclaimed Honora, "it was as great a surprise to me--believe me--as it is to you."

But even the knowledge that they shared a common amazement did not appear, at once, to assuage Mrs. Holt's emotions.

"Do you love him?" she demanded abruptly.

Whereupon Honora burst into tears.

"Oh, Mrs. Holt," she sobbed, "how can you ask?"

From this time on the course of events was not precisely logical. Mrs. Holt, setting in abeyance any ideas she may have had about the affair, took Honora in her arms, and against that ample bosom was sobbed out the pent-up excitement and emotion of an extraordinary day.

"There, there, my dear," said Mrs. Holt, stroking the dark hair, "I should not have asked you that-forgive me." And the worthy lady, quivering with sympathy now, remembered the time of her own engagement to Joshua. And the fact that the circumstances of that event differed somewhat from those of the present--in regularity, at least, increased rather than detracted from Mrs. Holt's sudden access of tenderness. The perplexing questions as to the probable result of such a marriage were swept away by a flood of feeling. "There, there, my dear, I did not mean to be harsh. What you told me was such a shock--such a surprise, and marriage is such a grave and sacred thing."

"I know it," sobbed Honora.

"And you are very young."

"Yes, Mrs. Holt."

"And it happened in my house."

"No," said Honora, "it happened--near the golf course."

Mrs. Holt smiled, and wiped her eyes.

"I mean, my dear, that I shall always feel responsible for bringing you together---for your future happiness. That is a great deal. I could have wished that you both had taken longer to reflect, but I hope with all my heart that you will be happy."

Honora lifted up a tear-stained face.

"He said it was because I was going away that--that he spoke," she said. "Oh, Mrs. Holt, I knew that you would be kind about it."

"Of course I am kind about it, my dear," said Mrs. Holt. "As I told you, I have grown to have an affection for you. I feel a little as though you belonged to me. And after this--this event, I expect to see a great deal of you. Howard Spence's mother was a very dear friend of mine. I was one of the first who knew her when she came to New York, from Troy, a widow, to educate her son. She was a very fine and a very courageous woman." Mrs. Holt paused a moment. "She hoped that Howard would be a lawyer."

"A lawyer!" Honora repeated.

"I lost sight of him for several years," continued Mrs. Holt, "but before I invited him here I made some inquiries about him from friends of mine in the financial world. I find that he is successful for so young a man, and well thought of. I have no doubt he will make a good husband, my dear, although I could wish he were not on the Stock Exchange. And I hope you will make him happy."

Whereupon the good lady kissed Honora, and dismissed her to dress for dinner.

"I shall write to your aunt at once," she said.

........................

Requited love, unsettled condition that it is supposed to bring, did not interfere with Howard Spence's appetite at dinner. His spirits, as usual, were of the best, and from time to time Honora was aware of his glance. Then she lowered her eyes. She sat as in a dream; and, try as she might, her thoughts would not range themselves. She seemed to see him but dimly, to hear what he said faintly; and it conveyed nothing to her mind.

This man was to be her husband! Over and over she repeated it to herself. His name was Howard Spence, and he was on the highroad to riches and success, and she was to live in New York. Ten days before he had not existed for her. She could not bring herself to believe that he existed now. Did she love him? How could she love him, when she did not realize him? One thing she knew, that she had loved him that morning.

The fetters of her past life were broken, and this she would not realize. She had opened the door of the cage for what? These were the fragments of thoughts that drifted through her mind like tattered clouds across an empty sky after a storm. Peter Erwin appeared to her more than once, and he was strangely real. But he belonged to the past. Course succeeded course, and she talked subconsciously to Mr. Holt and Joshua--such is the result of feminine training.

After dinner she stood on the porch. The rain had ceased, a cool damp breeze shook the drops from the leaves, and the stars were shining. Presently, at the sound of a step behind her, she started. He was standing at her shoulder.

"Honora!" he said.

She did not move.

"Honora, I haven't seen you--alone--since morning. It seems like a thousand years. Honora?"

"Yes."

"Did you mean it?

"Did I mean what?"

"When you said you'd marry me." His voice trembled a little. "I've been thinking of nothing but you all day. You're not--sorry? You haven't changed your mind?"

She shook her head.

"At dinner when you wouldn't look at me, and this afternoon--"

"No, I'm not sorry," she said, cutting him short. "I'm not sorry."

He put his arm about her with an air that was almost apologetic. And, seeing that she did not resist, he drew her to him and kissed her. Suddenly, unaccountably to her, she clung to him.

"You love me!" he exclaimed.

"Yes," she whispered, "but I am tired. I--I am going upstairs, Howard. I am tired."

He kissed her again.

"I can't believe it!" he said. "I'll make you a queen. And we'll be married in the autumn, Honora." He nodded boyishly towards the open windows of the library. "Shall I tell them?" he asked. "I feel like shouting it. I can't hold on much longer. I wonder what the old lady will say!"

Honora disengaged herself from his arms and fled to the screen door. As she opened it, she turned and smiled back at him.

"Mrs. Holt knows already," she said.

And catching her skirt, she flew quickly up the stairs.

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