But the request naturally ties my tongue tight up.
“This is the tree that they planted when father was born,” I say, presently, in a stiff, cicerone manner, pointing to a straight and strong young oak, which is lifting its branchy head, and the fine net-work of its brown twigs, to the cold, pale sky.
Sir Roger leans his arms on the top of the palings that surround the tree.
“Ah! eight-and-forty years ago! eight-and-forty years ago!” he repeats to himself with musing slowness. “Hard upon half a century!”
I turn over in my own mind whether I should do well to make some observation of a trite and copy-book nature on the much greater duration of trees than men, but reflecting that the application of the remark may be painful to a person so elderly as the gentleman beside me, I abstain. However, he does something of the kind himself.
“To think that it should be such a stripling,” he says, looking with a half-pensive smile at the straight young trunk, “hardly out of the petticoat age, and we—he and I—such a couple of old wrecks!”
It never occurs to me that it would be polite, and even natural, to contradict him. Why should not he call himself an old wreck, if it amuses him? I suppose he only means to express a gentleman decidedly in the decline of life, which, in my eyes, he is; so I say kindly and acquiescingly—
“Yes, it is rather hard, is it not?”
“Forty-one—forty-two—yes, forty-two years since I first saw him,” he continues, reflectively, “running about in short, stiff, white petticoats and bare legs, and going bawling to his mother, because he tumbled up those steps to the hall-door, and cut his nose open.”
I lift my face out of my muff, in which, for the sake of warmth, I have been hiding it, and, opening my mouth, give vent to a hearty and undutiful roar of laughter.
“Cut his nose open!” repeat I, indistinctly. “How pleased he must have been, and what sort of a nose was it? already hooked? It never could have been the conventional button, that I am sure of; yours was, I dare say, but his—never. Good Heavens!” (with a sudden change of tone, and disappearance of mirth) “here he is! Come to look for you, no doubt! I—I—think I may go now, may not I?”
“Go!” repeats he, looking at me with unfeigned wonder. “Why? It is more likely you that he has missed, you, who are no doubt his daily companion.”
“Not quite daily,” I answer, with a fine shake of irony, which, by reason of his small acquaintance with me, is lost on my friend. “Two, you know, is company, and three none. Yes, if you do not mind, I think it must be getting near luncheon-time. I will go.”
So I disappear through the dry, knotted tussocks of the park grass.
“Friends, Romans, and countrymen!” say I, on that same afternoon, strutting into the school-room, with my left hand thrust oratorically into the breast of my frock, and my right loftily waving, “I wish to collect your suffrages on a certain subject. Tell me,” sitting down on a hard chair, and suddenly declining into a familiar and colloquial tone, “have you seen any signs of derangement in father lately?”