His horse, a fiery chestnut, ran away with him, in that part of the Park-ride call ed Rotten Row. With the purpose of keeping clear of other riders, he spurred his runaway horse at the rail which divides the Row from the grassy inclosure at its side. The terrified animal swerved in taking the leap, and dashed him against a tree. He was dreadfully shaken and injured; but his strong constitution carried him through to recovery--with the serious drawback of an incurable lameness in one leg.
The doctors, on taking leave of their patient, united in warning him (at his age, and bearing in mind his weakened leg) to ride no more restive horses. "A quiet cob, General," they all suggested. My uncle was sorely mortified and offended. "If I am fit for nothing but a quiet cob," he said, bitterly, "I will ride no more." He kept his word. No one ever saw the General on horseback again.
Under these sad circumstances (and my aunt being no horsewoman), I had apparently no other choice than to give up riding also. But my kind-hearted uncle was not the man to let me be sacrificed to his own disappointment. His riding-groom had been one of his soldier-servants in the cavalry regiment--a quaint sour tempered old man, not at all the sort of person to attend on a young lady taking her riding-exercise alone. "We must find a smart fellow who can be trusted," said the General. "I shall inquire at the club."
For a week afterward, a succession of grooms, recommended by friends, applied for the vacant place.
The General found insurmountable objections to all of them. "I'll tell you what I have done," he announced one day, with the air of a man who had hit on a grand discovery; "I have advertised in the papers."
Lady Claudia looked up from her embroidery with the placid smile that was peculiar to her. "I don't quite like advertising for a servant,Ó she said. "You are at the mercy of a stranger; you don't know that you are not engaging a drunkard or a thief."
"Or you may be deceived by a false character," I added on my side. I seldom ventured, at domestic consultations, on giving my opinion unasked--but the new groom represented a subject in which I felt a strong personal interest. In a certain sense, he was to be my groom.
"I'm much obliged to you both for warning me that I am so easy to deceive," the General remarked satirically. "Unfortunately, the mischief is done. Three men have answered my advertisement already. I expect them here tomorrow to be examined for the place."
Lady Claudia looked up from her embroidery again. "Are you going to see them yourself?" she asked softly. "I thought the steward--"
"I have hitherto considered myself a better judge of a groom than my steward," the General interposed. "However, don't be alarmed; I won't act on my own sole responsibility, after the hint you have given me. You and Mina shall lend me your valuable assistance, and discover whether they are thieves, drunkards, and what not, before I feel the smallest suspicion of it, myself."
WE naturally supposed that the General was joking. No. This was one of those rare occasions on which Lady Claudia's tact--infallible in matters of importance--proved to be at fault in a trifle. My uncle's self-esteem had been touched in a tender place; and he had resolved to make us feel it. The next morning a polite message came, requesting our presence in the library, to see the grooms. My aunt (always ready with her smile, but rarely tempted into laughing outright) did for once laugh heartily. "It is really too ridiculous!" she said. However, she pursued her policy of always yielding, in the first instance. We went together to the library
The three grooms were received in the order in which they presented themselves for approval. Two of them bore the ineffaceable mark of the public-house so plainly written on their villainous faces, that even I could see it. My uncle ironically asked us to favor him with our opinions. Lady Claudia answered with her sweetest smile: "Pardon me, General--we are here to learn." The words were nothing; but the manner in which they were spoken was perfect. Few men could have resisted that gentle influence--and the General was not one of the few. He stroked his mustache, and returned to his petticoat government. The two grooms were dismissed.
The entry of the third and last man took me completely by surprise.
If the stranger's short coat and light trousers had not proclaimed his vocation in life, I should have taken it for granted that there had been some mistake, and that we were favored with a visit from a gentleman unknown. He was between dark and light in complexion, with frank clear blue eyes; quiet and intelligent, if appearances were to be trusted; easy in his movements; respectful in his manner, but perfectly free from servility. "I say!" the General blurted out, addressing my aunt confidentially, "he looks as if he would do, doesn't he?"
The appearance of the new man seemed to have had the same effect on Lady Claudia which it had produced on me. But she got over her first feeling of surprise sooner than I did. "You know best," she answered, with the air of a woman who declined to trouble herself by giving an opinion.
"Step forward, my man," said the General. The groom advanced from the door, bowed, and stopped at the foot of the table--my uncle sitting at the head, with my aunt and myself on either side of him. The inevitable questions began.
"What is your name?"
My aunt's want of interest in the proceedings expressed itself by a little weary sigh. She leaned back resignedly in her chair.
The General went on with his questions: "What experience have you had as a groom?"
"I began learning my work, sir, before I was twelve years old."
"Yes! yes! I mean what private families have you served in?"
"How long have you been in your two situations?"
"Four years in the first; and three in the second."
The General looked agreeably surprised.