There was, besides, the good old Gothic superstition of a bargain or sale of the Baronet’s soul to the arch-fiend. This was, of course, very cautiously whispered in a place where he had influence. It was only a coarser and directer version of a suspicion, that in a more credulous generation penetrated a level of society quite exempt from such follies in our day.
One evening at dusk, Sir Bale, sitting after his dinner in his window, saw the tall figure of Feltram, like a dark streak, standing movelessly by the lake. An unpleasant feeling moved him, and then an impatience. He got up, and having primed himself with two glasses of brandy, walked down to the edge of the lake, and placed himself beside Feltram.
“Looking down from the window,” said he, nerved with his Dutch courage, “and seeing you standing like a post, do you know what I began to think of?”
Feltram looked at him, but answered nothing.
“I began to think of taking a wife—marrying.”
Feltram nodded. The announcement had not produced the least effect.
“Why the devil will you make me so uncomfortable! Can’t you be like yourself—what you were, I mean? I won’t go on living here alone with you. I’ll take a wife, I tell you. I’ll choose a good church-going woman, that will have every man, woman, and child in the house on their marrow-bones twice a day, morning and evening, and three times on Sundays. How will you like that?”
“Yes, you will be married,” said Feltram, with a quiet decision which chilled Sir Bale, for he had by no means made up his mind to that desperate step.
Feltram slowly walked away, and that conversation ended.
Now an odd thing happened about this time. There was a family of Feltram—county genealogists could show how related to the vanished family of Cloostedd—living at that time on their estate not far from Carlisle. Three co-heiresses now represented it. They were great beauties—the belles of their county in their day.
One was married to Sir Oliver Haworth of Haworth, a great family in those times. He was a knight of the shire, and had refused a baronetage, and, it was said, had his eye on a peerage. The other sister was married to Sir William Walsingham, a wealthy baronet; and the third and youngest, Miss Janet, was still unmarried, and at home at Cloudesly Hall, where her aunt, Lady Harbottle, lived with her, and made a dignified chaperon.
Now it so fell out that Sir Bale, having business at Carlisle, and knowing old Lady Harbottle, paid his respects at Cloudesly Hall; and being no less than five-and-forty years of age, was for the first time in his life, seriously in love.
Miss Janet was extremely pretty—a fair beauty with brilliant red lips and large blue eyes, and ever so many pretty dimples when she talked and smiled. It was odd, but not perhaps against the course of nature, that a man, though so old as he, and quite blase, should fall at last under that fascination.