Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable tha_he hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There ar_ircumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people o_ourse never do,—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have i_ind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable settin_o an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been dispose_pon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call th_erfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon ha_aned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rares_uality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summe_ight had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upo_he smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scen_xpressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chie_ource of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'cloc_o eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion a_his the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerne_n it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex whic_s supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned.
The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were th_hadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table o_hich the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, i_esultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it wa_n unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set an_ainted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with muc_ircumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his fac_urned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or wer_ndifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued t_troll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certai_ttention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eye_pon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the law_as a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristi_bject in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.
It stood upon a low hill, above the river—the river being the Thames at som_orty miles from London. A long gabled front of red brick, with the complexio_f which time and the weather had played all sorts of pictorial tricks, only, however, to improve and refine it, presented to the lawn its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers. The house had _ame and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighte_o tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, ha_ffered a night's hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person ha_xtended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which stil_ormed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good dea_ruised and defaced in Cromwell's wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled an_isfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keepin_f a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing t_ircumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a rea_esthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell yo_ust where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when th_hadows of its various protuberances which fell so softly upon the warm, wear_rickwork—were of the right measure. Besides this, as I have said, he coul_ave counted off most of the successive owners and occupants, several of who_ere known to general fame; doing so, however, with an undemonstrativ_onviction that the latest phase of its destiny was not the least honourable.
The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with which we ar_oncerned was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter.
Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet of turf that covered th_evel hill-top seemed but the extension of a luxurious interior. The grea_till oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich- coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass. The rive_as at some distance; where the ground began to slope the lawn, properl_peaking, ceased. But it was none the less a charming walk down to the water.
The old gentleman at the tea-table, who had come from America thirty year_efore, had brought with him, at the top of his baggage, his America_hysiognomy; and he had not only brought it with him, but he had kept it i_he best order, so that, if necessary, he might have taken it back to his ow_ountry with perfect confidence. At present, obviously, nevertheless, he wa_ot likely to displace himself; his journeys were over and he was taking th_est that precedes the great rest. He had a narrow, clean-shaven face, wit_eatures evenly distributed and an expression of placid acuteness. It wa_vidently a face in which the range of representation was not large, so tha_he air of contented shrewdness was all the more of a merit. It seemed to tel_hat he had been successful in life, yet it seemed to tell also that hi_uccess had not been exclusive and invidious, but had had much of th_noffensiveness of failure. He had certainly had a great experience of men, but there was an almost rustic simplicity in the faint smile that played upo_is lean, spacious cheek and lighted up his humorous eye as he at last slowl_nd carefully deposited his big tea-cup upon the table. He was neatly dressed, in well-brushed black; but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his fee_ere encased in thick, embroidered slippers. A beautiful collie dog lay upo_he grass near his chair, watching the master's face almost as tenderly as th_aster took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house; and _ittle bristling, bustling terrier bestowed a desultory attendance upon th_ther gentlemen.
One of these was a remarkably well-made man of five-and-thirty, with a face a_nglish as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched was something else; a noticeably handsome face, fresh- coloured, fair and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye and the rich adornment of a chestnu_eard. This person had a certain fortunate, brilliant exceptional look—the ai_f a happy temperament fertilised by a high civilisation—which would have mad_lmost any observer envy him at a venture. He was booted and spurred, as if h_ad dismounted from a long ride; he wore a white hat, which looked too larg_or him; he held his two hands behind him, and in one of them—a large, white, well-shaped fist—was crumpled a pair of soiled dog-skin gloves.
His companion, measuring the length of the lawn beside him, was a person o_uite a different pattern, who, although he might have excited grav_uriosity, would not, like the other, have provoked you to wish yourself, almost blindly, in his place. Tall, lean, loosely and feebly put together, h_ad an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished, but by no mean_ecorated, with a straggling moustache and whisker. He looked clever and ill—_ombination by no means felicitous; and he wore a brown velvet jacket. H_arried his hands in his pockets, and there was something in the way he did i_hat showed the habit was inveterate. His gait had a shambling, wanderin_uality; he was not very firm on his legs. As I have said, whenever he passe_he old man in the chair he rested his eyes upon him; and at this moment, wit_heir faces brought into relation, you would easily have seen they were fathe_nd son. The father caught his son's eye at last and gave him a mild, responsive smile.
"I'm getting on very well," he said.
"Have you drunk your tea?" asked the son.
"Yes, and enjoyed it."
"Shall I give you some more?"
The old man considered, placidly. "Well, I guess I'll wait and see." He had, in speaking, the American tone.
"Are you cold?" the son enquired.
The father slowly rubbed his legs. "Well, I don't know. I can't tell till _eel."
"Perhaps some one might feel for you," said the younger man, laughing.
"Oh, I hope some one will always feel for me! Don't you feel for me, Lor_arburton?"
"Oh yes, immensely," said the gentleman addressed as Lord Warburton, promptly.
"I'm bound to say you look wonderfully comfortable."
"Well, I suppose I am, in most respects." And the old man looked down at hi_reen shawl and smoothed it over his knees. "The fact is I've been comfortabl_o many years that I suppose I've got so used to it I don't know it."
"Yes, that's the bore of comfort," said Lord Warburton. "We only know whe_e're uncomfortable."
"It strikes me we're rather particular," his companion remarked.
"Oh yes, there's no doubt we're particular," Lord Warburton murmured. And the_he three men remained silent a while; the two younger ones standing lookin_own at the other, who presently asked for more tea. "I should think you woul_e very unhappy with that shawl," Lord Warburton resumed while his companio_illed the old man's cup again.
"Oh no, he must have the shawl!" cried the gentleman in the velvet coat.
"Don't put such ideas as that into his head."
"It belongs to my wife," said the old man simply.
"Oh, if it's for sentimental reasons—" And Lord Warburton made a gesture o_pology.
"I suppose I must give it to her when she comes," the old man went on.
"You'll please to do nothing of the kind. You'll keep it to cover your poo_ld legs."
"Well, you mustn't abuse my legs," said the old man. "I guess they are as goo_s yours."
"Oh, you're perfectly free to abuse mine," his son replied, giving him hi_ea.
"Well, we're two lame ducks; I don't think there's much difference."
"I'm much obliged to you for calling me a duck. How's your tea?"
"Well, it's rather hot."
"That's intended to be a merit."
"Ah, there's a great deal of merit," murmured the old man, kindly. "He's _ery good nurse, Lord Warburton."
"Isn't he a bit clumsy?" asked his lordship.
"Oh no, he's not clumsy—considering that he's an invalid himself. He's a ver_ood nurse—for a sick-nurse. I call him my sick-nurse because he's sic_imself."
"Oh, come, daddy!" the ugly young man exclaimed.
"Well, you are; I wish you weren't. But I suppose you can't help it."
"I might try: that's an idea," said the young man.
"Were you ever sick, Lord Warburton?" his father asked.
Lord Warburton considered a moment. "Yes, sir, once, in the Persian Gulf."
"He's making light of you, daddy," said the other young man. "That's a sort o_oke."
"Well, there seem to be so many sorts now," daddy replied, serenely. "Yo_on't look as if you had been sick, any way, Lord Warburton."
"He's sick of life; he was just telling me so; going on fearfully about it,"
said Lord Warburton's friend.
"Is that true, sir?" asked the old man gravely.
"If it is, your son gave me no consolation. He's a wretched fellow to tal_o—a regular cynic. He doesn't seem to believe in anything."
"That's another sort of joke," said the person accused of cynicism.
"It's because his health is so poor," his father explained to Lord Warburton.
"It affects his mind and colours his way of looking at things; he seems t_eel as if he had never had a chance. But it's almost entirely theoretical, you know; it doesn't seem to affect his spirits. I've hardly ever seen hi_hen he wasn't cheerful—about as he is at present. He often cheers me up."
The young man so described looked at Lord Warburton and laughed. "Is it _lowing eulogy or an accusation of levity? Should you like me to carry out m_heories, daddy?"
"By Jove, we should see some queer things!" cried Lord Warburton.
"I hope you haven't taken up that sort of tone," said the old man.
"Warburton's tone is worse than mine; he pretends to be bored. I'm not in th_east bored; I find life only too interesting."
"Ah, too interesting; you shouldn't allow it to be that, you know!"
"I'm never bored when I come here," said Lord Warburton. "One gets suc_ncommonly good talk."
"Is that another sort of joke?" asked the old man. "You've no excuse for bein_ored anywhere. When I was your age I had never heard of such a thing."
"You must have developed very late."
"No, I developed very quick; that was just the reason. When I was twenty year_ld I was very highly developed indeed. I was working tooth and nail. Yo_ouldn't be bored if you had something to do; but all you young men are to_dle. You think too much of your pleasure. You're too fastidious, and to_ndolent, and too rich."
"Oh, I say," cried Lord Warburton, "you're hardly the person to accuse _ellow-creature of being too rich!"
"Do you mean because I'm a banker?" asked the old man.
"Because of that, if you like; and because you have—haven't you?—suc_nlimited means."
"He isn't very rich," the other young man mercifully pleaded. "He has give_way an immense deal of money."
"Well, I suppose it was his own," said Lord Warburton; "and in that case coul_here be a better proof of wealth? Let not a public benefactor talk of one'_eing too fond of pleasure."
"Daddy's very fond of pleasure—of other people's."
The old man shook his head. "I don't pretend to have contributed anything t_he amusement of my contemporaries."
"My dear father, you're too modest!"
"That's a kind of joke, sir," said Lord Warburton.
"You young men have too many jokes. When there are no jokes you've nothin_eft."
"Fortunately there are always more jokes," the ugly young man remarked.
"I don't believe it—I believe things are getting more serious. You young me_ill find that out."
"The increasing seriousness of things, then that's the great opportunity o_okes."
"They'll have to be grim jokes," said the old man. "I'm convinced there wil_e great changes, and not all for the better."
"I quite agree with you, sir," Lord Warburton declared. "I'm very sure ther_ill be great changes, and that all sorts of queer things will happen. That'_hy I find so much difficulty in applying your advice; you know you told m_he other day that I ought to 'take hold' of something. One hesitates to tak_old of a thing that may the next moment be knocked sky-high."
"You ought to take hold of a pretty woman," said his companion. "He's tryin_ard to fall in love," he added, by way of explanation, to his father.
"The pretty women themselves may be sent flying!" Lord Warburton exclaimed.
"No, no, they'll be firm," the old man rejoined; "they'll not be affected b_he social and political changes I just referred to."
"You mean they won't be abolished? Very well, then, I'll lay hands on one a_oon as possible and tie her round my neck as a life-preserver."
"The ladies will save us," said the old man; "that is the best of the_ill—for I make a difference between them. Make up to a good one and marr_er, and your life will become much more interesting."
A momentary silence marked perhaps on the part of his auditors a sense of th_agnanimity of this speech, for it was a secret neither for his son nor fo_is visitor that his own experiment in matrimony had not been a happy one. A_e said, however, he made a difference; and these words may have been intende_s a confession of personal error; though of course it was not in place fo_ither of his companions to remark that apparently the lady of his choice ha_ot been one of the best.
"If I marry an interesting woman I shall be interested: is that what you say?"
Lord Warburton asked. "I'm not at all keen about marrying—your so_isrepresented me; but there's no knowing what an interesting woman might d_ith me."
"I should like to see your idea of an interesting woman," said his friend.
"My dear fellow, you can't see ideas—especially such highly ethereal ones a_ine. If I could only see it myself—that would be a great step in advance."
"Well, you may fall in love with whomsoever you please; but you mustn't fal_n love with my niece," said the old man.
His son broke into a laugh. "He'll think you mean that as a provocation! M_ear father, you've lived with the English for thirty years, and you've picke_p a good many of the things they say. But you've never learned the thing_hey don't say!"
"I say what I please," the old man returned with all his serenity.
"I haven't the honour of knowing your niece," Lord Warburton said. "I thin_t's the first time I've heard of her."
"She's a niece of my wife's; Mrs. Touchett brings her to England."
Then young Mr. Touchett explained. "My mother, you know, has been spending th_inter in America, and we're expecting her back. She writes that she ha_iscovered a niece and that she has invited her to come out with her."
"I see,—very kind of her," said Lord Warburton. Is the young lad_nteresting?"
"We hardly know more about her than you; my mother has not gone into details.
She chiefly communicates with us by means of telegrams, and her telegrams ar_ather inscrutable. They say women don't know how to write them, but my mothe_as thoroughly mastered the art of condensation. 'Tired America, hot weathe_wful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.' That's the sor_f message we get from her—that was the last that came. But there had bee_nother before, which I think contained the first mention of the niece.
'Changed hotel, very bad, impudent clerk, address here. Taken sister's girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent.' Over that m_ather and I have scarcely stopped puzzling; it seems to admit of so man_nterpretations."
"There's one thing very clear in it," said the old man; "she has given th_otel-clerk a dressing."
"I'm not sure even of that, since he has driven her from the field. We though_t first that the sister mentioned might be the sister of the clerk; but th_ubsequent mention of a niece seems to prove that the allusion is to one of m_unts. Then there was a question as to whose the two other sisters were; the_re probably two of my late aunt's daughters. But who's 'quite independent,'
and in what sense is the term used?—that point's not yet settled. Does th_xpression apply more particularly to the young lady my mother has adopted, o_oes it characterise her sisters equally?—and is it used in a moral or in _inancial sense? Does it mean that they've been left well off, or that the_ish to be under no obligations? or does it simply mean that they're fond o_heir own way?"
"Whatever else it means, it's pretty sure to mean that," Mr. Touchet_emarked.
"You'll see for yourself," said Lord Warburton. "When does Mrs. Touchet_rrive?"
"We're quite in the dark; as soon as she can find a decent cabin. She may b_aiting for it yet; on the other hand she may already have disembarked i_ngland."
"In that case she would probably have telegraphed to you."
"She never telegraphs when you would expect it—only when you don't," said th_ld man. "She likes to drop on me suddenly; she thinks she'll find me doin_omething wrong. She has never done so yet, but she's not discouraged."
"It's her share in the family trait, the independence she speaks of." He_on's appreciation of the matter was more favourable. "Whatever the hig_pirit of those young ladies may be, her own is a match for it. She likes t_o everything for herself and has no belief in any one's power to help her.
She thinks me of no more use than a postage-stamp without gum, and she woul_ever forgive me if I should presume to go to Liverpool to meet her."
"Will you at least let me know when your cousin arrives?" Lord Warburto_sked.
"Only on the condition I've mentioned—that you don't fall in love with her!"
Mr. Touchett replied.
"That strikes me as hard, don't you think me good enough?"
"I think you too good—because I shouldn't like her to marry you. She hasn'_ome here to look for a husband, I hope; so many young ladies are doing that, as if there were no good ones at home. Then she's probably engaged; America_irls are usually engaged, I believe. Moreover I'm not sure, after all, tha_ou'd be a remarkable husband."
"Very likely she's engaged; I've known a good many American girls, and the_lways were; but I could never see that it made any difference, upon my word!
As for my being a good husband," Mr. Touchett's visitor pursued, "I'm not sur_f that either. One can but try!"
"Try as much as you please, but don't try on my niece," smiled the old man, whose opposition to the idea was broadly humorous.
"Ah, well," said Lord Warburton with a humour broader still, "perhaps, afte_ll, she's not worth trying on!"