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the part of the business which would have afforded her the least satisfaction.
But, and it was a very big but, there was another side of the question. By being humble, instead of ostentatious, there might possibly be a very great personal gain.
“They may be so," she replied in a low tone. “But I know that I am not. I have nothing, Aunt Elizabeth, nothing! Not a penny in the world !”
Disgraceful! Horrible!” exclaimed Miss Dunstable. "My poor, poor child! And when my brother ought to have made you independent of these people, too! My poor, poor child ! But your husband? Does not he know?
Does not he know? Have you asked him to give you what you require ? ”
“ Asked him!” exclaimed Mary, who had asked very often with the result of being sworn at for it. “No! I could never do that, Aunt Elizabeth. Never ! ! I have been a disappointment to him, and I know it; and the subject of money is hateful to me in consequence. No! I can never ask, it will be bad enough to have to accept it, if it is ever offered."
“My dear child,” moaned Miss Dunstable. "My poor Mary," and then for several minutes she said nothing more, only closely held the hand which still rested in her own, and thought deeply. She had never believed Mary to be capable of feeling anything very deeply; and now Mary's highly dramatic air and speech had altered her opinion completely. Never had the girl scemed nearer to her or dearer to her; she told herself that she had quite misunderstood her in the past, and that her own want of sympathy had been the cause of it.
Mary noted the impression her words had made, and wisely remained silent.
“My poor, dear Mary,” murmured the old lady again, in accents of deepest sympathy.
“How kind you are, dear Aunt Elizabeth," was the gently given reply. “But do not be so troubled about it. I must fight my own troubles now, only you won't forsake me, will you, Aunt Elizabeth ?
It will make things so much easier and happier if I can still feel I have your love and friendship."
“And that you may always depend upon, dear,” said Aunt Elizabeth, with a curious little break in her voice. " Always, dear.” Then for a second or two again she paused. “I had
not meant to say anything about it to-day, Mary,” she continued presently; " because I feared to wound your feelings. But now that you have spoken so frankly to me, dear child, I no longer hesitate to tell you what is in my mind. It has been there for many weeks. As you know, I am a rich woman. My dear mother was an heiress, and when she died she left her fortune to her daughters, my two sisters and me. We have, as you are probably aware, each £3,000 a year, entirely our own.”
The colour had risen on Mary's face considerably. She bent her head, and said quietly :
"So I always understood, Aunt Elizabeth."
"Well, my dear, I do not intend to live any longer at Dunstable. My brother's daughter is a stranger to me, and I am too old to suit myself to strange faces and strange ways."
Mary looked up quickly; she was genuinely surprised.
“ But Jennie is not a stranger, Aunt Elizabeth,” she murmured, in a tone that she strove in vain to keep from sounding triumphant and well pleased.
“I have known her too long as the step-daughter of my brother's gamekeeper to find it easy to accept her as my nicce," replied the old lady stiffly. “My brother can act as he likes in the matter ; but my actions are ruled only by myself. In the future our paths must lie apart.”
And then after she had spoken, old Miss Dunstable looked terribly distressed, and wished much that she had left her speech unsaid. Its extreme injustice did not strike her ; but she saw very clearly that in speaking thus of her brother's gamekeeper's step-daughter she had committed a bétise.
That she should have done so did not affect young Mrs. Atherton's feelings at all. Like a woman of the world, she
a wisely passed the matter quietly over.
"But Jennie is so charming, Aunt Elizabeth ?" she expostulated gently. “She really is ! Everything that is charming and good.”
" So she may bc, Mary,” agreed Miss Dunstable, who was much struck by the fact that Mary should thus take up Jennie's cause. " But as I said, I am an old woman, and old women do not take kindly to new ideas. I prefer to live my own life apart. I shall find a home of my own in London, where in my heart of hearts I have always had a wish to live.
But I shall not require £3,000 a year in London, Vary, any more than I require it here, and if you will allow me to do so, I wish to make you a little yearly allowance of a third of it." "Oh, Aunt Elizabeth! But I cannot !
But I cannot! I really cannot!" began Mary, in a highly agitated manner.
"Yes, my dear, you can," was the firm, affectionate reply. "You must not hurt a poor old woman's feelings by refusing to comply with her wishes. I consider my brother has behaved very badly to you, and unless you permit me to compensate you in a small measure for his conduct I shall never know a moment's peace again.”
And it need hardly be said, that after a fine display of emotion, and many protests, Mrs. Atherton ended by grasping such a good offer. Nor did Miss Dunstable's suggestion that she should keep the subject entirely secret and let it be known only to themselves meet with any opposition. It was a suggestion that found much favour in Mary's sight, and which suited her admirably.
It was not until she was on the point of leaving, that Aunt Elizabeth suddenly remembered that a report had lately reached her ears which had distressed her considerably.
My dear,” she said nervously. "Is it true that you are going to ride in this stecplechasc next week? I most sincerely hope not."
Mary had cvery wish to keep in the old lady's good graces. £1,000 a year had made her feel very affectionately towards her, and the hope of some day possessing the whole of Miss Dunstable's fortune had, through sundry little hints from that lady, been called up within her breast. On the other hand, it certainly was true that she was going to ride in this steeplechase of Lady Vi's, which had been so long talked of, and was now really coming off at last; and she had no intention whatever of giving it up. She had never given up anything in her life which she wished to do, and it was characteristic of her that she should risk a great future loss for the sake of a small present gain. All the same, conscious that there was much at stake, Mary Atherton determined to act as diplomatically as possible.
“Yes, it is true," she confessed, in a regretful, apologetic tone. " You see I promised Vi long ago that I would ride in it, if it ever came off. I do not think I thought that it ever would come off in those days, and I was young and foolish then,”
Give it up, Mary! Give it up! I cannot bear the idea of your doing it! How the Desboroughs can allow that girl to do it is more than I can understand. Do not you ride in it, my dear. Give it up!" protested Aunt Elizabeth eagerly.
Mary, looking deeply distressed, slowly shook her head. "I wish I could, Aunt Elizabeth," she said. “But it is im
” possible. Tom's heart is set upon my doing it, unfortunately. He wishes me to ride in it, and—and I must do it, Aunt Elizabeth, I fear.”
Miss Dunstable sadly shook her head. .
“ If that is so, dear Mary,” she replied gently. "I will say no more."
THE LADIES' STEEPLECHIASE. MARY, when she told old Miss Dunstable that Tom Atherton wished her to ride in the forthcoming ladies' steeplechase, for once in her life spoke the truth. As she had said, his heart was set upon it.
Although utterly disgusted by the result of his matrimonial venture, he had not quite given up all interest in life as yet. He was not exactly in love with his young wife; she had disappointed him too much from a monetary point of view to permit that, and then the fact that instead of being Lord Leftbury's daughter, she was less well-born than himself, had been a very bitter and terrible blow indeed. It had taken a good deal of the “gilt off the gingerbread” had that discovery, and Mary in his eyes no longer appeared so fascinating as she had seemed a short time ago; but, nevertheless, she was an uncommonly handsome, finely-built young woman, and she had some extremely desirable friends. His grand coup had been a complete and terrible failure. Ruin stared him in the face; but as long as his father lived he felt that it might possibly be kept at arm's length; and in the meantime there was nothing for it but to make the best of a very unfortunate business, and to accept such goods as the gods chose to offer him.
Not the least amongst these was the friendship which the Earl of Morescliffe's daughter still kept up warmly with his wife; and when that young lady wrote to say that she hoped that Mary would be able to come to Muddleton to ride in that long talkedof steeplechase of hers, which was really to take place at last on the 12th of April that Spring, Tom never hesitated about the matter at all. He wrote to inform his mother that he should pay them a visit at Selwick early in the month, and left no stone unturned in his endeavours to procure Mary a suitable and likely mount.
Had he but had his own way in this, it might, and probably would, have made a very considerable difference in the whole course of his future life.
It is true that young Atherton had never ridden in a steeplechase himself, but that he had a very fair knowledge of horseflesh is certain, and the probabilities are that, had the selection of his wife's mount been left in his hands, she would have had a good horse to ride, and, at any rate, a fairly safe mount.
But none of the horses he wished to purchase for her suited Mary Atherton. She had no belief in his knowledge in a matter which, as she told him bluntly, he had had no experience in. That she had even less experience in the subject herself never seemed to enter her head, and when Tom mildly ventured to suggest that her own experience could not be very great, she merely cast an amused glance at him, and permitted her lips to form themselves into a supercilious curve. In her own opinion (and her own opinion had always been the only one in which she had ever placed any faith) there was no subject under the sun in which she was not thoroughly well-versed. That she, with her vast knowledge of horses and their management, should not be able to choose her own mount in a stecplechase was an idea little short of being ridiculous.
So in spite of Tom's endeavours to find a really suitable mount likely to please her, none of them did please her, and Mary chose her own mount, as she had fully intended to do from the first.
Now, as it happened, the mount she chose did not please Tom Atherton at all. That the horse could gallop he was perfectly aware, and that it could jump was an equally certain fact; but in Tom's opinion it was a wholly unfit mount for Mary.