When the young gentleman strolling through the park with his gun on his shoulder and an elderly spaniel at his heels came within sight of the house it occurred to him that the hour must be farther advanced than he had supposed, for the sun had sunk below the great stone pile, and an autumnal mist was already creeping over the ground. Amongst the trees the mist had been scarcely perceptible, but when the gentleman emerged from their shelter on to an avenue which ran through undulating lawns to the south front of the mansion, he perceived that the vista was clouded, and became for the firsttime aware of a chill striking through his light nankeen jacket. He quickened his steps a little, but instead of pursuing his way to the main front, with its handsome colonnade of the Corinthian order, and cupola surmounting the central compartment, he turned off the avenue, and, traversing an elegant flower-garden, embellished with various classical statues, approached a side-entrance in the east wing.
The house, which occupied the site of an earlier building, destroyed by fire half a century before, was a comparatively modern edifice, designed in the classic style, and executed in stone and stuccoed brick. A four hundred and fifty foot frontage made it impressive, and its proportions being extremely nice, and its situation agreeable, it was held by every Travellers’ Guide Book to be worth a visit of inspection on such days as its noble owner allowed it to be thrown open to the public. The enquiring traveller was informed that while the park and the pleasure-grounds were sumptuously adorned with works of art, these embellishments were not obtrusive, scarcely any object occurring to violate the principles of modern taste in garden-arrangement. The park, very richly timbered, was also adorned by water; it measured above ten miles in circumference, and was traversed by an avenue three miles in length. The gardens, which were varied and extensive, bespoke the attentions of an extremely skilled gardener, with underlings who permitted no weed to show its head, and no hedge or border to grow ragged. Formal beds were arranged with propriety of taste, and even the wilderness, beyond the Italian Garden and the shrubbery, was kept under decorous restraint.
“Sale Park,” read the Guide Book, “the principal seat of his Grace the Duke of Sale, is a spacious and handsome structure, with colonnades connecting the wings with the central elevation, and a grand portico supporting a richly ornamented pediment.” The visitor was then adjured to pause awhile to admire the ornamental water, the luxuriant growth of noble trees, and the view to be obtained from the south, or main front, before turning his gaze upon the stately mansion itself and absorbing all the glories of Corinthian columns, pediments, cupolas, which rendered it worthy of study.
The Guide Book bestowed some very warm praise upon the Grecian Temple, erected at enormous expense by the fifth Duke, but the young gentleman in the fustian pantaloons, and nankeen shooting-jacket passed it without a glance. Indeed, he seemed to be quite indifferent to the beauty and the grandeur of his surroundings, treading rather carelessly over neat grass borders, and permitting his spaniel to stray on to the flower-beds at will.
In his person as much as in his dress, which besides being of great simplicity included a shot-belt (an article of attire not at all in favour with gentlemen aspiring to elegance) he scarcely accorded with his stately setting. He was slightly built, and of rather less than medium height. He had light brown hair, which waved naturally above a countenance which was pleasing without being in any way remarkable. The features were delicate, the colouring rather pale, and the eyes, although expressive, and of a fine gray, not sufficiently arresting to catch the attention. He carried himself well, but without any air of consequence, so that in a crowd it would have been easier to have passed him over than to have distinguished him. His address was well-bred, and a certain dignity attached to his bearing, but either from the circumstance of his being only twenty-four years of age, or from a natural diffidence, his manner, without being precisely shy, was quiet to the point of self-effacement. In fact, tourists to whom he had occasionally been pointed out generally found it impossible to believe that such an unassuming figure could really be the owner of so much wealth and magnificence. But he had owned it for twenty-four years, together with Sale House, his town residence in Curzon Street, and eight other country seats, ranging from Somerset to a draughty castle in the Highlands. He was the Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and Marquis of Ormesby; Earl of Sale; Baron Ware of Thame; Baron Ware of Stoven; and Baron Ware of Rufford, and all these high-sounding titles had been his from the moment of his birth, for he was a posthumous child, the only surviving offspring of the sixth Duke, and of the gentle, unfortunate lady who, after presenting, her lord with two stillborn children, and three who did not survive infancy, expired in giving birth to a seven-months male child of such tiny size and sickly appearance that it was freely prophesied of him that he would join his little brothers and sisters in the family vault before the year was out. But the wise choice of a wet-nurse, the devotion of the Chief Nurse, the unremitting attentions of his doctors, the strict rule of his uncle and guardian, Lord Lionel Ware, and the fond solicitude of his aunt, had all combined to drag the seventh Duke through every phase of infantile disorder; and although his boyhood was rendered irksome by a delicacy of constitution that made him liable to take cold easily, and to succumb with alarming readiness to every infectious disease, he had not only survived, but had grown into a perfectly healthy young man, who, if not as stout as could have been wished, or of such fine physique as his uncles and cousins, was yet robust enough to cause his physician very little anxiety. The chief of these had more than once asserted his belief that the little Duke had a stronger constitution than was supposed, since his hold on life had throughout been so tenacious; but this was an opinion not shared by the anxious relatives, tutors, and attendants who had the Duke in their charge. It was some years since he had suffered any but the most trifling ailment, but his entourage still laboured under the conviction that he was a being to be cosseted and protected against every wind that blew.
It was therefore not with surprise that the young Duke, as he reached the east wing of his house, found that his approach had evidently been watched for. The door was flung open before he had set his foot upon the first of the stone steps that led up to it, and various persons were seen to have assembled in the passage to receive him. Foremost amongst these was his butler, an impressive individual whose demeanour gave the initiated to understand that if his Grace chose to demean himself by entering his house by a side door giving on to a narrow passage it was not for him to criticize such eccentric behaviour. He bowed the Duke in, and perceiving that he carried, besides his gun, a heavy game-bag, silently gestured to a footman to relieve his master of these unbecoming burdens. The Duke gave them up with a faint, rueful smile, but murmured that he had the intention of cleaning his barrels in the gun-room.
His head-keeper, took the gun, a fine Manton, from the footman, and said reproachfully: “I shall attend to it myself, your Grace. If I had known that your Grace was desirous of shooting today I would have sent up a loader, and—”
“But I didn’t want a loader,” said the Duke.
Mr. Padbury shook his head forbearingly.
“I think,” added the Duke, “that I might now and then—just now and then, you know, Padbury!—clean my guns for myself.”
Even the footman looked shocked at this, but, being only an underling, could only exchange glances with the fellow footman who had accompanied him to the side entrance. The butler, the steward, and the keeper all directed looks of deep reproach at the Duke, and the middle-aged man in the neat garb that proclaimed the valet exclaimed: “Clean your guns for yourself, your Grace! I should think not indeed! And your Grace wet through, I daresay, with only that thin jacket!”
“Oh, no!” said the Duke. He looked down at the muddied spaniel, and added: “But Nell must be rubbed down well.”
He was assured that this should instantly be done; the keeper began to say that he should lose no time in treating the damp gun-stock with a particular preparation of his own; and the steward, prefixing his intervention with a discreet cough, informed his master that my lord had been asking if he was not yet come in.
The Duke had listened rather absently to his valet’s and his keeper’s remarks, but this had the effect of claiming his attention. He appeared to abandon his intention of going to the gun-room, and asked in a slightly apprehensive tone if he were late for dinner.
The butler, who, although officially the steward’s inferior, was a man of far more commanding personality, replied somewhat ambiguously to this question that my lord had gone upstairs to change his dress above half an hour ago.
The Duke looked startled, and said that he must make haste; whereupon the butler, relaxing his severity, assured him benignly that dinner would be held for him, and went in a stately way down the passage to open the door that led into the main hall of the house.
But the Duke again disappointed him, this time by electing to run up the secondary staircase at the end of the passage.
His bedroom was an immense apartment opening out of the upper hall, and as he crossed this to his door he encountered his uncle, a fine-looking gentleman in the early fifties, with an aristocratic cast of countenance, and rather fierce eyes set under strongly marked brows.
Lord Lionel Ware, who prided himself on belonging to the old school, had changed his customary country habit of buckskins and top-boots for the knee-breeches considered de rigueur in his younger days, and carried an enamelled snuffbox in one hand, and a lace handkerchief. When he saw his nephew, his brows shot up, and he enunciated, in a sort of bark: “Ha! So you are come in, are you, Gilly?”
The Duke smiled, and nodded. “I beg pardon, sir! Am I late? I shall not keep you waiting above twenty minutes, I promise you.”
“No such thing!” said Lord Lionel testily. “Dinner will await your convenience, but you are a great fool to be staying out after dusk at this season. I daresay you will have taken one of your chills!”
“Oh, no!” replied the Duke, in the same sweet, absent tone he had used to his valet.
Lord Lionel ran a hand down the sleeve of that nankeen jacket, and appeared to be not dissatisfied. “Well!” he said. “I don’t wish to be for ever coddling you, boy, but I desire you will make haste out of those clothes. You will have got your feet wet in those half-boots. You had better have worn gaiters. Nettlebed! Has his Grace no gaiters to wear out shooting?”
“His Grace will not wear his gaiters, my lord,” said the valet, in condemnatory accents. “And his Grace did not send for me to lay out his clothes, nor apprise me of his intention to go shooting,” he added, less in self-exculpation than in sorrowful blame of his young master’s imprudence.
“I am glad you do not wish to be waited on hand and foot;” said Lord Lionel severely, “but this habit you have of slipping off without a word said is nonsensical, Gilly. One would suppose you were afraid someone might prevent you!”
A gleam of humour lit the Duke’s eyes; he said meekly: “I think I must have a secretive disposition, sir.”
“Nothing of the sort!” said his lordship. “It is high time you realized that you are of age, and may do as you please. Now, be off, and don’t neglect to change your stockings! I hope you have been wearing flannel ones, and not—”
“Lamb’s-wool,” said the Duke, more meekly still.
“Very well, and now make haste, if you please! Unless you wish to keep town-hours at Sale?”
The Duke disclaimed any such desire, and vanished into his bedchamber, where Nettlebed had already laid out his evening dress. The room, although of vast size, was very warm, for a fire had been lit in the grate much earlier in the day, and the windows closed against any treacherous fresh air. Curtains of crimson damask shut out the fading daylight, and the great fourpost-bed was hung with the same stuff. Branches of candles stood on the dressing-table and the mantelpiece; and a silver ewer of hot water had been placed in the wash-basin, and covered with a clean towel. The room was furnished throughout in crimson damask, and mahogany, and hung with a Chinese paper of the style made fashionable some years previously by the Prince Regent, who used it extensively in his summer palace at Brighton. Everything in it seemed to be made on rather too large and opulent a scale for its occupant, but it was not an uncomfortable apartment, and, during the day, was generally flooded with sunshine, since it faced south, commanding a view of the avenue, the formal beds and lawns beyond it, the sheet of ornamental water which the Guide Book so highly commended, and, in the distance, the noble trees of the home park. The Duke had slept in it ever since the day when his uncle had decreed that he was too old for petticoat government, and had removed him from his more homely nurseries, and installed him, a small and quaking ten-year-old, in it, telling him that it was his father’s room, and his grandfather’s before him, and that only the head of the house might inhabit it. As his Grace had been further informed by various members of his household that the fifth Duke had breathed his last in the huge bed, he could only be thankful that his frailty made Lord Lionel deem it advisable to set up a truckle-bed for a reliable attendant in the adjoining dressing-room.
Nettlebed, who might have been considered by some to be rather too elderly a valet for such a young man, began to bustle about, scolding fondly as he divested his master of his coat, and shot-belt, and grey cloth waistcoat. Like nearly everyone else who waited upon the Duke, he had previously been employed by the Duke’s father, and considered himself privileged to speak his mind to his master whenever he was out of earshot of other, less important, members of the household, before whom he invariably maintained the Duke’s dignity in a manner that daunted the Duke far more than the affectionate bullying he employed in private.
He said now, as he laid aside the shot-belt: “I wonder that my lord should not have said something to your Grace, if he noticed you was wearing this nasty, low belt, more fit for a poacher, one would have thought, than for a Gentleman, let alone one that was born, as the saying is, in the Purple. But, there! tell your Grace till Domesday you’ll never mend your ways! And why would you not take a loader, pray, not to mention Padbury? I can tell your Grace he was quite put about to think you should be off without him, and very likely needing a beater as well.”