Even when he was living for two days in the retirement of his cottage on the bank of the River Thames, Sir Creighton Severn was too busy a man to find time to join the little company who set out in his launch on the Sunday to pay the visit which his daughter had promised to the new proprietor of The Gables. He was not so utterly overwhelmed with business, however, but that he could look forward to two hours of solitude and slumber during their absence. He calculated, without the aid of logarithms, that the little company would be absent for two hours, and he proposed spending twenty minutes of this space in the enjoyment of his solitary cigar on the lawn and the remaining hour and forty minutes on one of the long cane chairs in a bower over-clustered by clematis, blue and white, and hidden away from the intrusive enquiries of impressionable flies and impossible visitors.

He had no doubt that a visit to The Gables would have been very interesting—as a matter of fact he found most things in the world very interesting—but, as he remarked with a sigh that fully expressed his gratification at the thought, a busy man must make up his mind to forego a good many of those enjoyments which he most detested.

The utmost enjoyment that he could allow himself in connection with this expedition was seeing the departure of the electric launch from the little staging at the water’s edge. But this enjoyment though only lasting a few minutes, was intense while it did last. His wife understood his feelings thoroughly. It was not often that she was able when up the river to withdraw her guests in so solid a body, leaving Sir Creighton to the solitude of his bower.

Her guests pitied him. Some of the more sapient ones shook their heads and talked about burning the candle at both ends.

She only smiled in response and said that it did not matter when the candle was an electric one.

And so the launch made its noiseless way towards the lock at Hurley.

The cottage known as The Weir was quite a small place—it could only accommodate six or seven visitors at once in addition to Sir Creighton’s family, and the usual maids which the visitors brought with them; it was just the snug little nook that would suit any one who did not want to keep more than two gardeners and half a dozen servants. The woods of Clievedon were behind it, and the waters of the weir at Marlow whispered a perpetual “Hush” in the ears of all the household. Sometimes, however, the sound was sufficiently loud to drown the silly bleatings of the phonographs on the excursion steamers on the other side.

The fellow-guests of Josephine and Pierce on this particular Sunday were only two—a man and his wife who were entering on the third month of married life and living as if they were utterly regardless of the likelihood that they had forty years or so ahead of them. They sat far astern, not exactly side by side, but within easy reach of each other’s hands. They thought it well to be prepared for any emergency. And they were.

The Gables was scarcely a mile beyond Hurley. It had now and again peeped into the pages of English history during the two hundred years of its existence. It was only because it had not let very readily since the death of its late owner that the agents had thought it advisable to apply the Nell Gwyn myth to it. The imagination of the house agent is bounded on every side by Nell Gwyn. He has not the least notion who Nell Gwyn was and he doesn’t greatly care; but he knows that as a jog to the dilatory purchaser there is no name so potent in a catalogue, whether the “item” refers to a public-house or a rectory.

Nell Gwyn had been dead for several years before The Gables was built. It was quite another actress who had found it a convenient place of rest for a season, but even in respect of the date of her residence beneath its roof some doubt exists; for at the very period assigned to her occupancy of the house, it is known that it was in the possession of a Royal Personage, which, of course, proves that a confusing error has crept into the dates.

But it is certain that an historic duel once took place on the lawn—a duel in which a distinguished nobleman ran his dearest friend through the vitals, and subsequently was himself stabbed by the husband of the lady with whom his former antagonist was in love.

The duel took place with swords on the lawn; but the successive owners of the house have pointed out for generations the marks of the bullet on the painted wainscot of one of the drawing-rooms; and the mahogany Hepplewhite chair a portion of the carving of which was injured by the same missile. No one has yet ventured to explain how it was that the bullet in a duel fought with swords killed a man who was run through the body and then injured the carving of a chair made of a wood that was not introduced into England until forty years later, and by an artist who was not born at the time.

Still there are the bullet marks and they were pointed out with pride by the new owner of the house to his guests who had joined his house party this evening.

And the girls, who knew all about the house, laughed quite pleasantly, and the young man from Australia said that servants were very careless, which was an absurd remark to make when talking about historic deeds and the eccentricities of bullets.

Lady Severn said that the room wanted badly to be dusted, and this was quite true, as every member of the house-party—they were three in number: namely, Galmyn, Bateman and another—was ready to testify.

The historic house was not seen to the greatest advantage at that time; but so far as one could gather, the pride of the new owner in possessing it, was quite as great as if the place were habitable. It was far from habitable, a casual observer might have been led to believe. After crossing the high grass on the lawn—the proprietor explained apologetically that he had been offered fifteen shillings for the hay crop but he meant to hold out for a pound—the visitors skirted the enormously overgrown shrubs and the unclipped yew hedges, until they found themselves stumbling over the hillocks of what had once been a rose-garden, now given over to the riotous luxuriance of the flaming dandelion and the tangled masses of the blue periwinkle, and the persistent nasturtium. The whole place resembled nothing so closely as a neglected graveyard.

Guy Overton and his house-party trooped out to meet them, from the big entrance-hall; and it was plain that the little party had been playing billiards, for one of them appeared in the porch with a cue still in his hand, and they all seemed warm and dusty, having hastily struggled back into their coats, as garden snails retire to their shells when surprised.

“Is it possible that you have been playing billiards indoors such a lovely afternoon as this?” cried Amber in grave surprise.

“Oh, no; not billiards, only pool,” said Guy.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Amber.

“How could they do it when so charming a garden is smiling at them here?” asked Pierce.

“Well, to tell you the truth, we have had only a poor kind of game,” said Guy, with an exculpatory inflection. “In fact, I don’t think it could be called a game at all.”

“There is the less excuse for you then, spending your time over it,” said Amber.

“When all nature calls to you rapturously from the cemetery outside,” added Pierce.

“Oh, that’s all my aunt!” cried Guy impatient of sarcasm. “The garden is a bit depressing just now, but sooner than take fifteen bob for the hay crop, I’d give it away.”

“That would be an extreme measure indeed,” said Pierce. “Take my advice, Guy; let it continue increasing in luxuriance until the winter and then sell it when the hay is getting scarce.”

“Welcome to The Gables!” cried Guy hospitably as the party passed through the porch into the hall. “Welcome all! I hope this may be the first of many pleasant visits to my humble home.”

“How nicely said,” cried Lady Severn. “I am sure that we all share your kind hopes, Mr. Overton.”

The hall was a spacious apartment with a transparent dome roof and mullioned windows. Here and there on the walls hung trophies of the chase, done in plaster of Paris, beautifully tinted (an idea due to the house agent) and some excellent specimens of drapers’ Japanese. The floor was beautifully inlaid as one could see where the borders remained free from the earthy layer that had been transferred from the garden by the boots of (it seemed) half a century.

Cobwebs hung from the beams of the roof like the tattered regimental colours in a church, and here and there a piece of plaster had disappeared from above the panels of the walls. The remaining breadths of plaster bore countless round marks on its surface, suggesting that some man had designed a new and curious scheme of decoration, but had failed to realise his aims.

It was while Josephine and Pierce were examining these singular impressions on the wall that Guy explained their origin.

“The fact is,” he said, “we played a billiard or two last night, and as the tables hadn’t been used for five or six years, there was no chalk, but Galmyn, not to be beat, hit upon the notion of rubbing the tips of our cues against the plaster of the walls. The idea worked remarkably well.”

“It was worthy of the imagination, of a poet,” said Pierce, feeling the cushions of the table and laughing. “You must have had a joyous time over this table,” he added. “The cushions are clearly made of chilled steel.”

“They are a bit hard, aren’t they?” said Guy. “Yes, we found that they hadn’t much spring left in them.”

“Spring?” cried Mr. Galmyn. “Spring? No, there’s more that suggests winter than spring about them.”

“They’ll be all right when they are played on for some time,” said Guy.

“Oh, yes; in a year or two they’ll be like butter,” said Pierce encouragingly. “Your light wasn’t particularly good I should say?”

He pointed to a splash of wax about the size of a crown piece on the edge of one of the pockets.

“That chap is a regular Sherlock Holmes,” cried Guy. “He has found out that we played by the light of candles last night.”

On the shelf of the mantelpiece stood a pair of silver candelabra with remnants of candle still in the sockets, but a good bit out of the upright. Splashes of wax decorated the path from the billiard-table to the fireplace, suggesting the white stones alongside a carriage drive.

“Only one cue had a tip,” said Guy. “That made playing a bit tiresome: you see we had to pass it on for every stroke. We had best go on to the drawing-room. The ceiling is said to have been painted by Angelica Kauffmann—whoever she was.”

“I never saw a painted ceiling that poor Miss Angel hadn’t something to say to,” whispered Josephine as the party trooped through the open door.

It was as Lady Severn had said: the drawing-room stood sadly in need of dusting.

So, for that matter, did every other room, to say nothing of the stairs which were carpetless. The house was not quite a wreck; but one felt oneself instinctively quoting lines from Tennyson’s “Mariana” as one stood—it was scarcely safe to sit—in any of the rooms. There were bald patches upon some of the walls that had some time—long ago—been painted; but as a sort of compensation for this deficiency, as a member of the party remarked when it was pointed out to him there were several patches on the wall that were not bald but quite the contrary; for indeed the mildew had been at work increasing the forlorn appearance of the place.

But the new proprietor was very proud of everything—of the patches on the wall that marked where the plaster had become dislodged—of the hirsute patches that had been subject to the damp—of the bullet marks that he considered the visible signs of the duel fought with swords—nay, even of the rat that went scurrying across a room which he called the library, the moment the door was opened. Oh, there were plenty of rats, he declared—some fine fat healthy animals; he talked of them as though they were part of the live stock of the estate.

And in the drawing-room, after a depressing ramble through the dreary house, tea was served by a couple of elderly women (local) and it was certainly not deficient in strength. Neither was the cake (local) nor the china. Young Mr. Overton was already making a heroic attempt to introduce a scheme of economy that should tend to lessen the dead weight of the expense to which he had been put in purchasing the historic house.

Some members of the party wished that he had gone a little further in the same direction and had refrained from forcing his recherché entertainment upon them. They swallowed a portion of the black tea, however, and congratulating him upon the appearance of everything—for any one who was fond of developing a property, as he assured them he was, the state of the house and grounds left nothing to be desired—wondered secretly why he should have asked them to visit such a scene of desolation.

If Amber was among those who marvelled what his motive could be, her doubts were dispelled when she found herself alone with him at one of the drawingroom windows: the other members of the party had made their escape to the field of grass called by a daring figure of speech, a lawn; but she had allowed herself to be persuaded to sample, so to speak, a view from a side window. She admitted that the silver of the river gleaming between the yew hedges was very effective, and felt convinced that it would be improved by a judicious trimming of the shrubs.

“And you like the old place?” said he. “It has surprised you, hasn’t it?”

“Surprised me?—well,—oh, yes, it certainly surprised me,” she replied. “You are looking forward to a delightful time with it, are you not? I suppose it wouldn’t have had the same attraction for you if it had been in any better condition?”

“Amber,” he said in a whisper which had something of shyness lingering in its tremulous emotion. “Amber, I lay it all at your feet.”

She allowed him to catch her hand—she was too puzzled to keep it from him. Was this his way of saying good-bye, she wondered.

“I lay everything here at your feet; if you like it, it is all yours,” he cried.

“Don’t be a goose, Guy,” she said snatching her hand away. “What on earth would I do with such a place as this?”

“Come to it—be the chatelaine of my castle, reign here, Amber, as you do in my heart. I got the place cheap; but I shall spend money on it—by degrees—to make it worthy of your acceptance, Amber, my own—my——”

At this point a rat put in an appearance at the side of the door and rushed out through the open window.

“Was it for this you asked me to come here?” cried Amber, bravely ignoring what other girls might have regarded as a legitimate interruption of the scene. “Yes, you asked me to come here in order to make your absurd proposal to me. You should be ashamed of yourself, when you knew so well that I thought of our friendship as wholly disinterested. If I had, for one moment——”

“I thought you saw it coming,” said he hanging his head.

“What coming?”


“You have given me a blow, Guy—I thought that you were a sincere friend.”

“So I was—I am. But I can’t help loving you all the same. Great Queen of Sheba, you don’t fancy that what you call Platonic friendship can go on beyond a certain point. It’s all very well for a beginning; it makes a good enough basis for a start—but, hang it all, you don’t think that a chap with any self-respect would be content—when there’s a pretty girl like you—the prettiest and the dearest girl that ever lived—— Who the mischief is bawling out there?”

“They are calling to me from the launch,” said Amber. “It is just as well. Guy, I am not angry—only disappointed. You have disappointed me. I thought that you at least—they are getting impatient. I must go.”

She hastened away to the open window and he followed her with a face of melancholy so congenial with the prevailing note of the house that an artist would have been delighted to include him in a picture of “The Gables from the River.”

She ran through the long grass and reached the launch so breathless that she could with difficulty explain that she had been watching a rat.

Every one in the boat knew that Guy had been asking her to marry him. Chaps only have that hangdog expression, worn with some distinction by Guy Overton, when they have been proposing to girls, the two-month husband explained to his wife.

A girl only shakes hands with a man so cordially as Amber had shaken hands with Guy, when she has just refused to marry him, Josephine knew.

And the boatman shifted the lever.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook