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- Spring Days - 5/56 -
"Your Aunt Mary spoke to Berkins about Grace; she told him he ought to be thinking of marrying; that he wanted a wife. Then the conversation turned on my daughters, and Mary no doubt mentioned that at my death they would all have large fortunes."
"Ah, so it is the money that Berkins is after."
"Money comes first. If a man can make a settlement he will naturally demand a--that is to say he will naturally look forward, he will consider what her prospects are; not her immediate prospects, that would be mercenary, but her future prospects."
Willy smiled. "And what did Berkins say?"
"He said he wanted to marry, and he spoke of Grace; he said he admired her. I shouldn't be surprised if we saw him at church to-day."
"Are you going to ask him to lunch?"
"Certainly, if he's there." Then, after a long silence, Mr. Brookes said: "He'll come in here to smoke. Of course you'll leave us alone. Do you mind leaving out your cigars?"
"I have only half a box left; I think really you might keep some in the house to supply your own guests with. You always object if I interfere with your things."
"I am out of my best cigars--it is so hard to remember. He won't smoke more than one."
"I'll put one in the cigar case then."
"You had better fill it; it will look so bad if there is only one; he won't take it."
"He'll take all he can get; he took my bird, I know that!"
"This is a matter of great importance."
"To you and to Grace, not to me," said Willy, and with very bad grace he unlocked a drawer, and placed a box of cigars on the table.
"Thank you. Now what time is it? Half-past ten. By Jove! we must be thinking of starting; I suppose you aren't coming?"
"I am afraid I've too much to do this morning."
The young ladies appeared in new dresses, and with prayer-books in their hands. Mr. Brookes took his hat and umbrella, and Willy watched them depart with undisguised satisfaction. "Now I shall be able to get through some work," he said, untying a large bundle of letters. He wrote a page in his diary, tied up the letters, diary, and notebook in brown paper, and, with a sigh, admitting that he did not feel up to much work to-day, he took up the envelopes that had contained his letters and began tearing off the stamps, and he did this very attentively as if he did not trust his dry thick fingers. Somebody had told him that ten thousand old stamps were worth--he had forgotten the price of old stamps, and wondering he dozed off. When he awoke he cried: "Half-past twelve, they must be on their way back; I wonder if Berkins is with them!" And he strolled out on the gravel.
A few spring flowers marked the brown earth about the trees, and a beautiful magnolia, white as a bride, shed its shell-like petals in an angle beneath a window; the gold of the berberis glowed at the end of the path; and the greenery was blithe as a girl in clear muslin and ribbons. The blackbirds chattered and ran, and in turn flew to the pan of water placed for them, and drank, lifting their heads with exquisite motion. The trees rustled in the cold wind; the sky was white along the embankment, where an engine moved slowly up and down the line.
Willy was sensible that the scene was pleasant and pretty, and remembering he was fond of birds, he thrust his hands deeper in his pockets and walked slowly down the drive, his toes well turned out. "I wonder if they met Berkins at church?" was the question he put to himself gravely. "What a cad he is! No wonder the county people fight shy of us; a fellow like that is enough to close their doors against us for ever. My father pooh-poohs everything but riches; he positively flies in their faces, so what can I do? I don't care to ask my Oxford friends down here; one never knows how he will receive them. He can talk of nothing but his business. Had I a free hand, had I not been so hampered, we might have known all the best county families, even theduke."
The latch of the gate clicked, and Mr. Brookes and his family appeared. Maggie and Sally walked on the right and left of their father; Grace came on behind with Berkins, and it seemed to Willy that the city magnate bore himself with something even more than his usual dignity. At first sight he suggested that anomalous creature--a footman with a beard; and the slow, deliberate enunciation marked him as one accustomed to speak in public. His manner of sitting at a table suggested letters and dictation of letters, his manner of moving his glasses on his nose accounts, and at no moment would it have been surprising to see him place his strong finger at the bottom of a line of figures, and begin "Gentlemen," etc.
During lunch, Sally and Maggie spoke in undertones; they glanced occasionally at Grace, who sat by and received Berkins's bald remarks with deference. The girls trembled with excitement; they had pressed and extorted from Grace a hurried statement of what had happened. Berkins had proposed to her, he had told her he had never seen any one except her whom he would care to make his wife. What had she said? She didn't know. She couldn't really remember. She had been taken so suddenly, she was so upset, that she hadn't known what to say. She thought she had said something about the honour--but she really had not had time to say much, for at that moment they were at the gate. Did she intend to accept him? She didn't know; she could not make up her mind. It was a terrible thing to throw over poor Jack; she didn't think she could do it--no matter what father might say. However, she knew he would never give his consent, so it was no use thinking,
"I hope she won't begin to cry," whispered Sally, who had followed Maggie to the sideboard.
"Father looks as if he were going to cry," replied Maggie, moving the decanters and pretending to look for a glass.
Seven thousand a year, ten thousand a year! Would Grace have him? What would father settle on her? The sum he settled on her he must settle on them when they married. As Berkins's wife Grace would have servants, jewels, rich dresses, and a house in London, and they thought of the advantage this marriage would be to them.
The knives clattered; cheese and celery were being eaten. Mr. Brookes had drunk several glasses of port, and was on the verge of tears. Berkins's high shoulders and large voice dominated the dining-table; he was decidedly more than usually impressed by his own worth, and the worth of the money of which he was the representative. Willy chewed his cheese; there were many wrinkles about his eyes--deep lines turning towards the ears; and when he lifted his tumbler one noticed the little nails, almost worn away, of his lean hands.
At last Mr. Brookes said: "I daresay you would like a cigar, Berkins-- will you come into the billiard-room?"
Berkins inclined to this suggestion. Willy, who had not quite finished, remained at table. The girls watched each other, and as soon as the elderly men turned their backs they fled upstairs to their rooms.
"Will you try one of these?" said Mr. Brookes, offering a box of choice havannas.
"Thank you. My tobacconist--I must ask you to visit his shop--receives just a few cases of a very special cigar; I have at least two-thirds of them, sometimes more; when you dine with me I'll give you one. This is Chartreuse, I think. My wine merchant knows a man whose cousin is one of the monks. Now the monks set aside the very cream of the liqueur, if I may so speak, for themselves. This liqueur cannot be bought in the open market. You may go up to London prepared to write a cheque for any figure you may like to name, and I will defy you to buy a bottle. I never have any other. It is really quite delicious. I daresay I could get you some."
Mr. Brookes expressed thanks for the amiable offer, and both men smoked on in silence.
"Do you play billiards?"
"No. Do you?"
Inwardly they congratulated themselves. Presently Mr. Brookes said: "I hear you have been staying with my sister, Mrs. Haltom. You were shooting there, were you not?"
"Yes, they were kind enough to ask me. Very nice shooting they have, too."
"I hear that you have gone in for rearing pheasants."
"Yes; we shot a hundred brace last year."
The conversation dropped, and in an impressive silence both men wondered what they had better say to lead honourably up to the subject they had come to speak on.
"Is your house your own design? Did you build it entirely yourself? Iforget. I ought to know; you told me all about it when I dined with you."
"There was a house there, but I altered it considerably after my own idea, and not a bad idea, I flatter myself. I spent a good deal of money in laying out the grounds, putting up conservatories, and so forth."
"You are a single man?"
"For a single man the house is, of course, too large; but I do not intend to remain always single, and--and now, Mr. Brookes, as we are on the subject, I had better tell you that I have asked Miss Brookes to be my wife."
Mr. Brookes grasped at the first words. "I am sure I am very pleased to hear it, Mr. Berkins, and I hope the answer was a favourable one."
"Miss Brookes is a modest girl. She has been well brought up, as a
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