The Seaside Novelette by A. A. Milne

[MAY BE READ ON THE PIER]No. XCVIII–A SIMPLE ENGLISH GIRLCHAPTER I. PRIMROSE FARMPrimrose Farm stood slumbering in the sunlight of an early summer morn. Save for the gent …

[MAY BE READ ON THE PIER]

No. XCVIII–A SIMPLE ENGLISH GIRL

CHAPTER I. PRIMROSE FARM

Primrose Farm stood slumbering in the sunlight of an early summer morn. Save for the gentle breeze which played in the tops of the two tall elms all Nature seemed at rest. Chanticleer had ceased his song; the pigs were asleep; in the barn the cow lay thinking. A deep peace brooded over the rural scene, the peace of centuries. Terrible to think that in a few short hours … but perhaps it won’t. The truth is I have not quite decided whether to have the murder in this story or in No. XCIX.–The Severed Thumb. We shall see.

As her alarum clock (a birthday present) struck five, Gwendolen French sprang out of bed and plunged her face into the clump of nettles which grew outside her lattice window. For some minutes she stood there, breathing in the incense of the day; then dressing quickly she went down into the great oak-beamed kitchen to prepare breakfast for her father and the pigs. As she went about her simple duties she sang softly to herself, a song of love and knightly deeds. Little did she think that a lover, even at that moment, stood outside her door.

“Heigh-ho!” sighed Gwendolen, and she poured the bran-mash into a bowl and took it up to her father’s room.

For eighteen years Gwendolen French had been the daughter of John French of Primrose Farm. Endowed by Nature with a beauty that is seldom seen outside this sort of story, she was yet as modest and as good a girl as was to be found in the county. Many a fine lady would have given all her Parisian diamonds for the peach-like complexion which bloomed on the fair face of Gwendolen. But the gifts of Nature are not to be bought and sold.

There was a sudden knock at the door.

“Come in,” cried Gwendolen in surprise. Unless it was the cow, it was an entirely unexpected visitor.

A tall and handsome young man entered, striking his head violently against a beam as he stepped into the low-ceilinged kitchen.

“Good morning,” he said, repressing the remark which came more readily to his lips. “Pray forgive this intrusion. The fact is I have lost my way, and I wondered whether you would be kind enough to inform me as to my whereabouts.”

Recognizing from his conversation that she was being addressed by a gentleman, Gwendolen curtsied.

“This is Primrose Farm, sir,” she said.

“I fear,” he replied with a smile, “it has been my misfortune never to have heard so charming a name before. I am Lord Beltravers, of Beltravers Castle, Beltravers. Having returned last night from India I came out for an early stroll this morning, and I fear that I have wandered out of my direction.”

“Why,” cried Gwendolen, “your lordship is miles from Beltravers Castle. How tired and hungry you must be.” She removed a lettuce from the kitchen chair, dusted it, and offered it to him. (That is to say, the chair, not the lettuce.) “Let me get you some milk,” she added. Picking up a pail, she went out to inspect the cow.

“Gad,” said Lord Beltravers as soon as he was alone. He paced rapidly up and down the tiled kitchen. “Deuce take it,” he added recklessly, “she’s a lovely girl.” The Beltraverses were noted in two continents for their hard swearing.

“Here you are, sir,” said Gwendolen, returning with the precious liquid.

Lord Beltravers seized the pail and drained it at a draught.

“Heavens, but that was good!” he said. “What was it?”

“Milk,” said Gwendolen.

“Milk; I must remember. And now may I trespass on your hospitality still further by trespassing on your assistance so far as to solicit your help in putting me far enough on my path to discover my way back to Beltravers Castle?” (When he was alone he said that sentence again to himself, and wondered what had happened to it.)

“I will show you,” she said simply.

They passed out into the sunlit orchard. In an apple tree a thrush was singing; the gooseberries were over-ripe; beetroots were flowering everywhere.

“You are very beautiful,” he said.

“Yes,” said Gwendolen.

“I must see you again. Listen! To-night my mother, Lady Beltravers, is giving a ball. Do you dance?”

“Alas, not the tango,” she said sadly.

“The Beltraverses do not tang,” he announced with simple dignity. “You valse? Good. Then will you come?”

“Thank you, my lord. Oh, I should love to!”

“That is excellent. And now I must bid you good-bye. But first, will you not tell me your name?”

“Gwendolen French, my lord.”

“Ah! One ‘f’ or two?”

“Three,” said Gwendolen simply.

CHAPTER II. BELTRAVERS CASTLE

Beltravers Castle was a blaze of lights. At the head of the old oak staircase (a magnificent example of the Selfridge period) the Lady Beltravers stood receiving her guests. Magnificently gowned in one of Sweeting’s latest creations, and wearing round her neck the famous Beltravers seed-pearls, she looked the picture of stately magnificence. As each guest was announced by a bevy of footmen, she extended her perfectly gloved hand and spoke a few words of kindly welcome.

“Good evening, Duchess; so good of you to look in. Ah, Earl, charmed to meet you; you’ll find some sandwiches in the billiard-room. Beltravers, show the Earl some sandwiches. How-do-you-do, Professor? Delighted you could come. Won’t you take off your goloshes?”

All the county was there.

Lord Hobble was there wearing a magnificent stud; Erasmus Belt, the famous author, whose novel, Bitten: A Romance, went into two editions; Sir Septimus Root, the inventor of the fire-proof spat; Captain the Honourable Alfred Nibbs, the popular breeder of blood-tortoises–the whole world and his wife were present. And towering above them all stood Lord Beltravers, of Beltravers Castle, Beltravers.

Lord Beltravers stood aloof in a corner of the great ball-room. Above his head was the proud coat-of-arms of the Beltraverses–a headless sardine on a field of tomato. As each new arrival entered Lord Beltravers scanned his or her countenance eagerly, and then turned away with a snarl of disappointment. Would his little country maid never come?

She came at last. Attired in a frock which had obviously been created in Little Popley, she looked the picture of girlish innocence as she stood for a moment hesitating in the doorway. Then her eyes brightened as Lord Beltravers came towards her with long swinging strides.

“You’re here!” he exclaimed. “How good of you to come. I have thought about you ever since this morning. There is a valse beginning. Will you valse it with me?”

“Thank you,” said Gwendolen shyly.

Lord Beltravers, who valsed divinely, put his arm round her waist and led her into the circle of dancers.

CHAPTER III. AFFIANCED

The ball was at its height. Gwendolen, who had been in to supper eight times, placed her hand timidly on the arm of Lord Beltravers, who had just begged a polka of her.

“Let us sit this out,” she said. “Not here–in the garden.”

“Yes,” said Lord Beltravers gravely. “Let us go. I have something to say to you.”

Offering her his arm, he led her down the great terrace which ran along the back of the house.

“How wonderful to have your ancestors always around you like this!” cooed Gwendolen, as she gazed with reverence at the two statues which fronted them.

“Venus,” said Lord Beltravers shortly, “and Samson.”

He led her down the steps and into the ornamental garden, and there they sat down.

“Miss French,” said Lord Beltravers, “or, if I may call you by that sweet name, Gwendolen, I have brought you here for the purpose of making an offer to you. Perhaps it would have been more in accordance with etiquette had I approached your mother first.”

“Mother is dead,” said the girl simply.

“I am sorry,” said Lord Beltravers, bending his head in courtly sympathy. “In that case I should have asked your father to hear my suit.”

“Father is deaf,” she replied. “He couldn’t have heard it.”

“Tut, tut,” said Lord Beltravers impatiently. “I beg your pardon,” he added at once, “I should have controlled myself. That being so,” he went on, “I have the honour to make to you, Miss French, an offer of marriage. May I hope?”

Gwendolen put her hand suddenly to her heart. The shock was too much for her fresh young innocence. She was not really engaged to Giles Earwaker, though he, too, was hoping; and the only three times that Thomas Ritson had kissed her she had threatened to box his ears.

“Lord Beltravers,” she began—-

“Call me Beltravers,” he begged.

“Beltravers, I love you. I give you a simple maiden’s heart.”

“My darling!” he cried, clasping her thumb impulsively. “Then we are affianced.”

He slipped a ring off his finger and fitted it affectionately on two of hers.

“Wear this,” he said gravely. “It was my mother’s. She was a de Dindigul. See, this is their crest–a roe-less herring over the motto Dans l’huile.” Observing that she looked puzzled he translated the noble French words to her. “And now let us go in. Another dance is beginning. May I beg for the honour?”

“Beltravers,” she whispered lovingly.

CHAPTER IV. EXPOSURE

The next dance was at its height. In a dream of happiness Gwendolen revolved with closed eyes round Lord Beltravers, of Beltravers Castle, Beltravers.

Suddenly above the music rose a voice, commanding, threatening.

“Stop!” cried the Lady Beltravers.

As if by magic the band ceased and all the dancers were still.

“There is an intruder here,” said Lady Beltravers in a cold voice. “A milkmaid, a common farmer’s daughter. Gwendolen French, leave my house this instant!”

Dazed, hardly knowing what she did, Gwendolen moved forward. In an instant Lord Beltravers was after her.

“No, mother,” he said, with the utmost dignity. “Not a common milkmaid, but the future Lady Beltravers.”

An indescribable thrill of emotion ran through the crowded ball-room. Lord Hobble’s stud fell out; and Lady Susan Golightly hurried across the room and fainted in the arms of Sir James Batt.

“What!” cried the Lady Beltravers. “My son, the last of the Beltraverses, the Beltraverses who came over with Julius Wernher, I should say Caesar, marry a milkmaid?”

“No, mother. He is marrying what any man would be proud to marry–a simple English girl.”

There was a cheer, instantly suppressed, from a Socialist in the band.

For just a moment words failed the Lady Beltravers. Then she sank into a chair, and waved her guests away.

“The ball is over,” she said slowly. “Leave me. My son and I must be alone.”

One by one, with murmured thanks for a delightful evening, the guests trooped out. Soon mother and son were alone. Lord Beltravers, gazing out of the window, saw the ‘cellist laboriously dragging his ‘cello across the park.

CHAPTER V. THE END

[And now, dear readers, I am in a difficulty. How shall the story go on? The editor of The Seaside Library asks quite frankly for a murder. His idea was that the Lady Beltravers should be found dead in the park next morning and that Gwendolen should be arrested. This seems to me both crude and vulgar. Besides, I want a murder for No. XCIX. of the series–The Severed Thumb.

No, I think I know a better way out.]

. . . . .

Old John French sat beneath a spreading pear tree, and waited. Early that morning a mysterious note had been brought to him, asking for an interview on a matter of the utmost importance. This was the trysting-place.

“I have come,” said a voice behind him, “to ask you to beg your daughter—-

“I HAVE COME,” cried the Lady Beltravers, “TO ASK YOU—-

“I HAVE COME,” shouted her ladyship, “TO—-“

John French wheeled round in amazement. With a cry the Lady Beltravers shrank back.

“Eustace,” she gasped–“Eustace, Earl of Turbot!”

“Eliza!”

“What are you doing here? I came to see John French.”

“What?” he asked, with his hand to his ear.

She repeated her remark loudly several times.

“I am John French,” he said at last. “When you refused me and married Beltravers I suddenly felt tired of Society; and I changed my name and settled down here as a simple farmer. My daughter helps me on the farm.”

“Then your daughter is—-“

“Lady Gwendolen Hake.”

. . . . .

A beautiful double wedding was solemnized at Beltravers in October, the Earl of Turbot leading Eliza, Lady Beltravers to the altar, while Lord Beltravers was joined in matrimony to the beautiful Lady Gwendolen Hake. There were many presents on both sides, which partook equally of the beautiful and the costly.

Lady Gwendolen Beltravers is now the most popular hostess in the county; but to her husband she always seems the simple English milkmaid that he first thought her. Ah!

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