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The visitors experienced more regret for the deterioration of the fine old place than for the degradation of the new Squire. There were traces of changed days as the party drew near the house. Of course, when it came to that, Sir William's dissipation had been of a cheap and mean order compared to that of some of his predecessors. He had still an ample supply of ready money to squander and work mischief with ; none of the grand old trees had been felled, the park had not been used for grazing purposes, and sufficient time had not elapsed for very conspicuous signs of downfall in other respects. No gate was off its hinges, no fence was full of holes, no path positively overgrown. But the exquisite dainty trimness of an English gentleman's place, which had been conspicuous in the late Sir John's day, was wanting. What nobody looked for or heeded under the present régime was no longer supplied by the diminished staff of servants. Weeds were cropping up, borders left ragged, branches broken and untrimmed. Some cottages which the young Squire had begun to build, in which he had taken an interest, stood half built, as the masons had left them on the first of the winter
frosts. In the meantime the builder had come to grief, and failed to fulfil his contract. But no fresh contract had been entered into, and the uncompleted houses, like unfulfilled promises, appealed mournfully to the passer-by. There had been an old-fashioned lamp, since the days of links and their extinguishers, which, though seldom used, was left to hang in its place above the principal gate it was supposed to grace. Its thick, dim glass had been smashed recently, and remained in a few jagged fragments in the metal framework. A baker's van, which ought to have been taken round to the back of the house, had boldly driven up to the front entrance and stopped the way, as if there were no chance of a dispute with a vehicle of higher estate. The thin wedge of neglect and aggression was introduced, and the rest would follow, until the house became as great a wreck as its master.
Lady Thwaite was abroad, as usual, and, if she returned in time, did not show her face amidst the tawdry splendour of her drawingroom.
Colonel Bell did not think the haggardfaced man in the rumpled, mud-bespattered clothes, in which he might have slept for a
week, who reluctantly came in answer to their summons, was an improvement on his young sergeant. The latter, in spite of his fits of excess, had been wont to turn out on parade scrupulously neat and smart, as became a gallant soldier.
'How are you, Thwaite ? You see I have looked you up when I am in the country,' stammered Colonel Bell a little nervously. 'I have come to ask a favour from you in renewing our acquaintance. Will you, if you have no objection, lend your support to my friend on the hustings and at the pollingbooth next week ?
Sir William did not take the hand held out. He stood still, and glared with his blood-shot eyes at the speaker.
'It wasn't I who ever asked any favour of you, Colonel Bell, that you should seek a return from me,' he said, in a thick, altered voice. You have forgotten, sir, or your wits are wool-gathering. It was my poor sister Jen. Do you remember her, or was she too humble a lot to stick in your memory ? I was told that she went down on her marrowbones to you, though she was a proud woman in her way, was Jen, if you had knowed it; but you pushed her away, and said discipline could not be set aside, not though a woman's heart were to break—as hers was broken by that date—or a young rascal be doomed to the gallows, since there was nothing else he could hope for after that morning's work.'
He stopped speaking to a dumbfounded company, while Colonel Bell, with a face as red as fire, or his old mufti, muttered :
'I thought it had been made up, and the past forgotten,' and began to back to the door.
But Sir William arrested him.' When it comes to that, you did your duty, old Bellwe're meeting as equals to-day, ain't we?— which is more than I ever did. I can't ask you or your friends to eat or drink with me, for though we're social equals, you and I know that would not be fitting. But you're welcome to my vote, though, bless you ! my presence on the hustings would be no credit to your man. I can slink up with the ruck to the booth, and give you what Jen herself, had she been here and a voter, would have given you freely, man. For though you were hard, we always held you honest; and though you helped to do for me, that's neither here nor there. I was going to the dogs anyway,
and would have reached them in the long-run without your aid, I take it. I have that faith in you and your choice that I believe it will be the country's own fault-as it was mineif it don't do as well as it deserves under the rule of the likes of you, old Bell !
What a strange character ! "Who was Jen ? What on earth had you to do with him besides giving him his discharge, Colonel ?' • At least we've got his vote, which was what we wanted,' was chorused round the officer when the party had reached their carriage.
'Yes, yes, you've got his vote, and I really believe you've me to thank for it,' said the Colonel, wiping his forehead ; ' but I'll be shot if I undertake such another encounter on your account, Charlie. That fellow Thwaite must have been as mad as a hatter from the beginning. Scrapes ? oh! of course; a fellow like him was safe to be in a thousand scrapes.'
Some of the stories with which the country was ringing reached Lady Fermor. Then she assailed her grand-daughter in the privacy of the old lady's dressing-room. “Have you heard the news, Iris ? · Sir William Thwaite has broken out, and sits drinking himself to death with carters, and quarrymen, and tramps, VOL. II.