A Manifest Destiny
JULIA MAGRUDER AUTHOR OF "A MAGNIFICENT PLEBEIAN"
NEW YORK AND LONDON HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS 1900
Copyright, 1900, by JULIA MAGRUDER.
All rights reserved.
"BETTINA THREW BACK HER VEIL" Frontispiece
SHE SANK BACK IN HER CHAIR Facing p. 34
"'AND WHO IS THIS HANDSOME BOY?'" " 60
"'THE MONEY WAS PARTLY MY OWN'" " 100
"THE VERY SPIRIT OF WIDOWHOOD" " 168
"'TRULY, MY CHILD, IT IS A WRETCHED STORY'" " 190
A MANIFEST DESTINY
Bettina Mowbray, walking the deck of the ocean steamer bound for England, was aware that she was observed with interest by a great many pairs of eyes. Certainly the possessors of these eyes were not more interested in her than she was in the interpretation of their glances. It was, indeed, of the first importance to her to know that she was being especially noticed by the men and women of the world, who in large part made up the passenger list, since her beauty was her one endowment for the position in the great world which all her life she had intended and expected to occupy. She was anxious, therefore, to know whether the personal appearance which had been rated so high in the obscure places hitherto known to her would or would not hold its own when she got out into life, as it were.
Therefore, as Miss Mowbray paced the deck, at the side of the erect elderly woman who had been her nurse and was now her maid, she was vigilantly regardful of the looks which were turned upon her, and at times, by straining her ears, she could even catch a word or two of comment. Both looks and words were gratifying in the extreme. They not only confirmed the previous verdict passed upon her beauty, but they gave evidence to her keen intuition that, judged by a higher standard, she had won a higher tribute.
Yet, ardent as this admiration was on the one side, and grateful as it was on the other, there the matter stopped. To those who would have approached her more closely Bettina set up a tacit barrier which no one had been able to cross, and, after several days at sea, she was still limited to the society of her maid. Those who had spoken to her once had been so politely repelled that they had not spoken again, and many of those who had felt inclined to speak had, on coming nearer to her, refrained instinctively.
There was something, apart from her beauty, which attracted the eye and the imagination in this tall girl in her deep mourning. This, perhaps, was the twofold aspect which her different moods and expressions gave to her. At one time she looked so profoundly sad, dejected, almost despairing, that it was easy to connect her mourning dress with the loss of what had been dearest to her. At another time there was a buoyancy, animation, vividness, in her look which made her black clothes seem incongruous in any other sense than that in which a dark setting is sometimes used to throw into relief the brilliancy of a jewel.
And these two outward manifestations did, in truth, represent the dual nature which was Bettina's. Her mother, who had studied her with a keen and affectionate insight, had often told her that the two key-notes of her nature were love and ambition. So far, all the ardor of Bettina's heart had been centred in her delicate, exquisite little old mother, whom she had loved with something like frenzy; and it was from the loss of this mother that she was now enduring a degree of sorrow which might perhaps have overwhelmed her, had not the other strong instinct of nature acted as an antidote. After some weeks of what seemed like blank despair, the girl had roused herself with a sort of desperation, and looked about her to see what was yet left to her in life. Then it was that ambition had come to her rescue. With a hardened feeling in her breast she told herself that she could never love again in the way in which she had loved her mother, so she must make the most of her opportunity to become a brilliant figure in the world.
This opportunity, fortunately, was quite within sight. A path had been opened before her feet by which she might walk to a higher rank and position than even her extravagant dreams had led her to expect.
In the isolation of her narrow village life she had read in the papers accounts of the English aristocracy; and to show off her beauty in such an atmosphere, and be called by a titled name, had fired her imagination to such a degree that her good mother had had many a pang of fear for the future of her child.
When Bettina found herself alone, the one profound attachment of her heart severed by death, she seemed to have no hope of relief from the dire oppression of her position, save that which lay in the possibilities of worldly enjoyment which might be in store for her if she chose to accept them. These took the form of a definite opportunity in the person of one whom her mother entirely trusted and approved, and this in itself was enough for Bettina now. It was little less than a marvellous prospect for a girl in her position, but it had come about quite simply.
The rector of the church in the village where Mrs. Mowbray and her daughter lived was an Englishman of good family, the Rev. Arthur Spotswood by name. When his young relative, Horace Spotswood, who was cousin and heir to Lord Hurdly, came to travel in America, it was but natural that he should visit the rector in his home. Natural, too, it was that he should there encounter Bettina Mowbray; and as he thought her the most charming and most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and as his affections were quite disengaged, it was almost a matter of course that he should fall in love with her.
So aware of this was Bettina that when one morning she had met and talked to the young fellow at the rectory, she wound up the account of the meeting which she gave to her mother by saying, quite simply:
"He will ask me to marry him, mamma, and I shall say yes. So for a short time I shall be Mrs. Horace Spotswood, the wife of a diplomat at the Russian court, and ultimately I shall be Lady Hurdly, with a London mansion, several country places, and one of the greatest positions in English society."
"My child, my poor child!" said the mother, in a tone of distress, "what is to be the end of your inordinate ambition for the things of the world? You have got to discover the vanity and hollowness of them some time, but what must you suffer on your way to this experience! Money and position cannot bring happiness in marriage. Nothing can do that but love."
"But, you see, I propose to have love too," was the gay response. "I assure you it will not be a difficult matter to love such a man as this, and I assure you also that he is fathoms deep in love with me already. He is manly, handsome, healthy, well-bred, and altogether charming. As to my ever loving any created being as I love you, mother darling, that, I have always told you, is out of the question; but I can imagine myself caring a good deal for this young heir of Lord Hurdly."
"Bettina," said the mother, gravely, laying her hands on her daughter's shoulder and looking deep into her eyes, "you will have to come to it by suffering, my child, but you will come to it at last—the knowledge that even the love which you give to me is slight and inadequate, and not worthy to be compared with the love which you will one day feel for the man who, as your husband, shall call forth your highest feeling. I believe this with firm conviction, and I beg you not to throw away your chance of a woman's best heritage. Don't marry this man, or any man, until you can feel that even the great love you have given me is poor compared with that. Heaven knows I love you, child, and mother-love is stronger than daughter-love; but I could not love you so well or so worthly if I had not loved your father more."
These words, so impatiently listened to, were destined to come back to Bettina afterward, though at the time she resented the very suggestion of what they predicted.
Her instinct about young Spotswood had been exactly true. He had become fascinated with her during their first interview, and had followed up the acquaintance with ardor, making her very soon a proposal of marriage.
Lord Hurdly, his cousin, was unmarried, it appeared, and was an inveterate enemy to matrimony. Horace Spotswood was his nearest of kin and legal heir. But Lord Hurdly was not over sixty two or three, and was likely to live a long time. Finding it, perhaps, not very agreeable to be constantly reminded that another man would some day stand in his shoes, his lordship had procured for Horace a diplomatic position at St. Petersburg, where, although the society was delightful, the pay was small. As his heir, however, Lord Hurdly made him a very liberal allowance, and with this it was easy for Horace to indulge his taste for travel. In this way he had come to America, intending to see it extensively; but he met Bettina, and from that moment gave up every other thought but the dominant one of winning her for his wife.
Even when he had asked and been accepted he could not leave her side, but concluded to await there Lord Hurdly's answer to his letter announcing his engagement. He was not without certain misgivings on this point, but he had written so convincingly, as he thought, of Bettina's beauty, breeding, and fitness for the position of Lady Hurdly that was to be, that he would not and could not believe that his cousin would disapprove. Besides, he was too blissfully happy to grieve over problematical troubles, and so he quite gave himself up to the joys of his present position and ardent dreams of the future.
It happened, however, that Lord Hurdly's letter, when it came, was a cold, curt, and most decided refusal to consent to the marriage. He objected chiefly on the score of Bettina's being an American, though he did not hesitate to say also that he considered his heir a fool to think of marrying a woman without fortune, when he might so easily do better. In conclusion, he said that if this infatuated nonsense, as he called it, went on, he would withdraw his allowance from the very day of the marriage. He ended by hoping that Horace would come to his senses, and let him know that the thing was at an end.
Poor Horace! He would fain have kept this letter from Bettina, but she insisted upon seeing it. Having done so, she became fired with a keen desire to triumph over this obdurate opposition, and when Horace asked her if she would still fulfil her pledge, in the face of his altered fortunes, she agreed with rather more ardor of feeling than she had hitherto shown.
The truth was, Bettina had disappointed him in this last respect. Her mother was so obviously and unquestionably her first thought, and her mother's failing health was so plainly a grief which his love could not counterbalance, that he at times had pangs of jealousy, of which he afterward felt ashamed. Was not this intense love for her mother in itself a proof of her great capacity of loving, and must he not, with patient waiting, one day see himself loved in like manner? Still, he chafed under the fact that every day her mother became more and more the object of her time and attention, so that he saw her now more rarely and for shorter periods. She always explained this fact by saying that the invalid was more suffering and in need of her, and she never seemed to think it possible that this excuse would not be all-sufficing.
At last a day came which brought him what he had been fearing—a summons to return to his post of duty. At one time he would have attempted to get a longer leave, even at some risk; but now, with the prospect of having his allowance from England withdrawn, he dared not do so. He knew that it would require great economy for two to live on what had once seemed so inadequate for one, and he laid the matter frankly before Bettina. She was full of hope that Lord Hurdly would relent, and spoke so indifferently about their lack of money that he loved her all the more for it.
He had some hope, in his ardent soul, that he might persuade Bettina to be married at once and go with him, but when he ventured to propose this he found that the mere suggestion of her leaving her mother, then or ever, made her almost angry. She insisted that her mother would get better; that when the weather changed she would be braced up and strengthened, and then, she hoped, a thorough change would do her good. So her plan was to let her lover go at once, and some months later, when Mrs. Mowbray should be stronger, they would go to England together, and there Spotswood could meet her and they could be married.
With this promise he was obliged to go. It was a new and annoying experience for him to have to consider the question of money so closely. True, he was Lord Hurdly's heir-at-law, and he could not be disinherited, so far as the title and entailed estates were concerned, but it was wholly within the power of the present lord to deprive him of the other properties, and he knew Lord Hurdly well enough to understand that he was tenacious of any position once taken.
So he said farewell to Bettina with a sad heart. He was ardently willing to give up money and ease and to endure hardness for her sake, but he would have wished to feel that the sadness and depression in which Bettina parted from him had been the echo of what was in his own heart, rather than, as he was quite aware, the deeper care and sorrow of her anxiety about her mother's health.
Once away from her, however, the strong flame of his love burned so vividly that he wrote her, by almost every mail, letters of such heart-felt love and sympathy and adoration that he could but feel confident that they would bring him a reply in kind. When at last her letters did come, they were so short, scant, and preoccupied that they fell like blows upon his heart. When he thought of the passionately loving letters that she was getting almost daily, while he got so rarely these half-hearted and insufficient ones, his pride became aroused, and he decided that he would imitate her to the extent of writing more rarely, even if he could not find it in his heart to write to her coolly, as she did to him. In this way it came to pass that there was a distinct change in the tone of his letters to her. As day by day, and sometimes week by week, passed without his hearing from her, and as her letters, when they came, continued to speak only of her mother's health and her grief about it, the young fellow's love and pride were alike so wounded that he forced himself, so far as his nature and feelings would allow, to imitate her attitude to him, and to cease the expression of the vehement love for her in which he got no response.
At last, after a longer interval than usual, he got a letter from Bettina, which told him that her mother was dead—had, indeed, been dead and buried almost two weeks before she had roused herself to write to him.
In the tone of this letter there was a sort of desperate resolution that showed that a reaction had come on, under the stress of which she had been roused to act with energy. She announced that as she had found it intolerable to stay where she was, she would sail for Europe at once. She fixed the 23d of June as the day on which she had decided to sail. In reality, however, she actually embarked from New York just one week earlier. This was in pursuance of a certain plan which required that she should have one week in London quite free of Horace before he should come to claim the fulfilment of her promise to marry him.
Bettina was in London. The ocean voyage had done her good, and the necessary effect of change, variety, new faces, new feelings, new thoughts, had been to take her out of herself—the self that was nothing but a grieving and bereaved daughter—and to quicken the pleasure-loving instincts and thirst for admiration which were as inherently, though not as prominently, a part of her. There was still a root of bitterness springing up within her whenever she thought of her mother's being taken from her, and this very element it was which urged her to make all she could of life, in the hope of partially filling the void in her heart. She was not even yet reconciled to the loss of her mother, and there was a certain defiance of destiny in her resolution to get some compensation for the wrong she had sustained in losing what was dearest to her.
On arriving in London, Bettina went to a hotel, and from there made inquiries as to the whereabouts of Lord Hurdly. Parliament was in session, and his lordship was in his town house in Grosvenor Square. Having ascertained the hour at which he was most likely to be at home, Bettina betook herself at that hour to his house.
She refused to give her name to the servant who answered her ring, and asked merely that Lord Hurdly might be told that a lady wished to speak to him on a matter of importance. The servant, after a moment's hesitation, ushered her into a small reception-room on the first floor, and requested her to wait there.
She stood for a few moments alone in this room, her heart beating fast. She wore the American style of deep mourning, which swathed her in dense, impenetrable black from head to feet, and seemed to add to her somewhat unusual tallness.
The door opened. Lord Hurdly entered. She had seen photographs of him, and even through that thick veil would have known him anywhere. The tall, thin figure, sharp eyes, aquiline nose, clean-shaven face, and scrupulous dress were all familiar to both memory and imagination.
He paused on the threshold of the room, as if slightly repelled by the strange appearance of the shrouded figure before him. Then he spoke, coldly and concisely.
"You wished to speak to me?" he said. "I have a few moments only at my disposal."
Bettina raised one hand and threw back her veil, revealing thus not only her face, but her whole figure clothed in smooth, tight-fitting black, so plain and devoid of trimming that the exquisite lines were shown to the best advantage. Her face, surrounded by black draperies, looked as purely tinted as a flower, and the excitement of the moment had made her eyes brilliant and flushed her cheeks.
The imperturbability of Lord Hurdly's face relaxed. His lips parted; a smothered sound, as of surprise, escaped him. Certainly at that moment Bettina was nothing less than bewilderingly beautiful.
"I have to beg your pardon for coming to you so unceremoniously," she said. "My excuse is that I have a matter of great importance to speak to you of."
Her voice was certainly a charming one, and if her accent was such as he might have found fault with under other circumstances, under these he found it an added attraction. She had put her own construction on Lord Hurdly's evident surprise at sight of her, and it was one which gave her an increased self-possession and added to her sense of power.
"Let us go into another room," said Lord Hurdly. "I cannot keep you here, and whatever you may have to say to me I am quite at leisure to attend to."
He led the way from the room, and Bettina followed in silence. She had had innumerable dreams of grandeur, poor child! but she had been too ignorant even to imagine such a place as this house. Its furnishing and decorations represented not only the accumulated wealth, but also the accumulated taste and opportunity, of many successive generations. She felt an ineffable emotion of deep, sensuous enjoyment in her present surroundings which made her heart leap at the idea that all these things might some day be hers. Lord Hurdly looked exceedingly well preserved, and that day might be very far distant. All the more reason, therefore, she told herself, why she should make peace between him and Horace, so that she might at least be sometimes a guest in this house, and be lifted into an atmosphere where she felt for the first time that she was in her true element. It was not only the magnificence which she saw on every side which so appealed to her. It was that air of the best in everything that made her feel, in Lord Hurdly's presence, as well as in his house, that civilization could not go further—that life, on its material side, had nothing more to offer. And Bettina had now reached a point in her experience where material pleasure seemed to be all that was left. She quite believed that all of the joy of loving was buried in the grave of her mother.
Her heart was beating fast as she entered Lord Hurdly's library and saw him close the door behind them. It then struck her as being a little peculiar that he should have brought her here without even knowing who she was or what she wanted of him.
A doubt, a scarcely possible suspicion, came into her mind.
"Have you any idea who I am?" she said.
"It suffices me to know what you are."
"Ah! I do not understand," she said, puzzled.
"You have come upon me without ceremony, madam," said Lord Hurdly, with a slightly old-fashioned pomposity in his polished manner, "and I may therefore ask you to excuse an absence of ceremony in me in alluding to the impression which you have made upon me. You are a stranger to me—an American, I judge from your speech. I hope that I am to be so fortunate as to hear that there is something which I can do for you."
"There is," Bettina said—"a thing so vital and important to me that, now I am in your presence, I am afraid to venture to speak, for fear you may refuse to hear my prayer."
"You are in small danger from that quarter, I assure you. I am ready to do for you whatever you may ask. Let me, however, put a few questions before I hear your request. You are wearing mourning. Is it, perhaps, for your husband?"
"For my mother," said Bettina, with a sudden trembling of the lip and suffusion of the eyes which gave her a new charm, in revealing the fact that this young goddess had a human heart which could be quickly stirred to emotion.
"Forgive me," said Lord Hurdly, with great courtesy. "Forget that I have roughly touched a spot so sore, and tell me this, if you will: are you married or unmarried?"
"I am unmarried," said Bettina, beginning to tremble as she found the important moment upon her; "but I am about to be married. I have made this visit to London beforehand only to see you. The man I am going to marry is your cousin and heir, Horace Spotswood."
Lord Hurdly's guarded face betrayed a certain agitation, but the signs of this were quickly controlled.
He looked straight into her eyes for a few seconds without speaking. Then he crossed the room and touched an electric button, saying, as he did so:
"I will get rid of an engagement that I had, so that I may be quite at leisure to talk with you."
Neither spoke again until the servant had come, taken his instructions, and gone away, closing the door behind him. There was a certain determination in Lord Hurdly's manner and expression which did not escape Bettina. She was sure that her revelation of her identity had prompted some decisive course of action in his mind, but what it was she could not guess from that inscrutable face.
"I am now quite free for the morning," her companion said. "Naturally there is much for us to say to each other. Will you not lay aside your bonnet and wrap? The day is warm, and that heavy mourning must distress you."
Certainly his manner was kind. Bettina began to like him and to hope for success in her object in coming here. Quickly unbuttoning her black gloves, she unsheathed her lovely hands, which were bare of rings. Then with a few deft motions she removed her outer wrap and her bonnet with its long, thick veil.
In so doing she revealed the fact that she had an exquisite head, with delicious masses of brown hair which looked almost reddish in its contrast to the dense black of her gown, the smooth severity of which accentuated every lovely curve of her figure, as it would have done every defect, had there been defect. This gown was fitted to her so absolutely that one had the satisfying sense that one looked at the woman instead of at her clothes. There were fine old portraits on the wall, of noble ladies who had once done the honors of this great establishment, but the fairest of them paled before the glowing loveliness of this girl. For she looked a girl, despite her sombre garments, and there was a certain timidity in her manner which strengthened this impression.
Lord Hurdly offered her a seat, and then took another, facing her.
"In engaging yourself to marry Horace Spotswood," he began, deliberately, "you have made the supreme, if not the irreparable, mistake of your life."
Bettina's white skin showed the sudden ebb of the blood in her veins as he said these words.
"Why?" she asked, concisely.
"Because he is no match for you, and because your marrying him would not only place you on a lower plane than where you belong, but it would also so seriously injure his position in life that there would be no possible chance for him to retrieve it until my death. I am comparatively a young man, and likely to live a long time. Apart from that, I may marry. I had no expectation or intention of doing so, but his recent defiance of me has made me sometimes feel inclined to the idea. I have so far changed in my feeling on this subject that if I could meet and win a woman to my mind, I would marry at once. What then would become of Horace? He has a mere pittance besides his pay, which is a ridiculous sum for a man to marry on. He has wronged you in putting you in such a position, and you have equally wronged him."
Bettina had turned very white as he spoke. The picture he drew was bad enough in itself, but to have it sketched before her in her present surroundings made it infinitely worse.
"If we have wronged each other, we have done it ignorantly," she said. "He assured me that you were determined never to marry, and he counted on your past kindness and your attachment to him—"
She broke off, her voice shaken.
"On the same ground I counted on him," said Lord Hurdly. "He was in no position to marry against my will, and in engaging to do so he defied me. Let him take the consequences."
"Then you are determined not to relent?" Bettina faltered. "You will not forgive him for the offence of proposing to make me his wife?"
"I did not say that," returned Lord Hurdly, with a subtle change of tone. "I certainly should not forgive him for marrying you, but for proposing to do so I am ready enough to forgive him, provided he comes to his senses at that point and goes no further. In that event I am ready not only to continue the handsome income that I have allowed him, but to give him outright the principal of it."
Bettina had never pretended that she was deeply in love with Horace Spotswood. Indeed, she had quite decided within herself that she was incapable of such a state of feeling, and it was her belief that the fervor and intensity of love which she had given to her mother had taken the place of what some women give to their husbands. Still, she looked upon her prospective marriage to him as one of the fixed facts of the universe, and Lord Hurdly's words bewildered her.
Keener than this surprise, however, was her sense of humiliation at the implacable offence which Lord Hurdly had taken at his heir's proposed marriage with herself. That he had wished Horace to marry she knew; it was therefore the woman whom he had chosen that Lord Hurdly resented.
She rose to her feet, feeling herself giddy, and knowing that she was white with agitation. Her one idea was to get away—to escape the scrutiny of the intense gaze which was fixed upon her.
"I must go. I beg your pardon for coming," she said, with a proud coldness, reaching for her wrap.
"You must not go. I owe you endless thanks for coming, and I will show you that you have to congratulate yourself also on this interview. If you went now, you would defeat all the good that may come of it. Sit down, I beg of you, and hear me out."
His manner was not only urgent, it was also kind, and nothing could have been more respectful than his every look and tone.
Bettina sat down again and waited.
"What is it that has shocked you?" he said. "Is it because of your great love for Horace—or is it his for you which you are thinking of most?"
"I do not see that I am bound to answer you that question," said Bettina, proudly. "My reasons are sufficient for myself."
"You are in no way bound, my dear young lady, but you would be wise to answer me. I have every disposition to act as your friend in this matter, and you would be making a mistake to turn away from me without hearing what I have to say. If you are imagining that the young fellow with whom you have an engagement of marriage would be rendered inconsolable by the loss of you, when it would be made up to him by the possession of a fortune, perhaps you overestimate things."
"What things?" she said, still cold and withheld in her manner, her pale face very set.
"The unselfishness of man's love in general, and of this man's in particular," he said; "and, for another thing, yourself. It seems a brutal thing to say, but if you believe that that hotheaded, undisciplined boy is capable of a sustained affection against such odds of fortune as this case presents, then I disagree with you, and I know him better than you do."
Bettina's face flushed.
"He does love me—he does!" she cried, in some agitation. "I have been cold and careless toward him, and have told him that my heart was buried in my mother's grave." At these words her voice trembled. "He knows how hard it is for me to think of another kind of love just yet; but he has been kindness itself, and has written me the dearest, lovingest letters that ever a woman had. If they have been a little rarer and colder lately, it is only because of my own shortcomings toward him. I shall try to atone for them now. Since I realize how great an injury I have done to him, I shall try to be his compensation for it."
"And you think you will succeed? I doubt it."
Something in his manner impressed her in spite of herself. Perhaps he saw that it was so, for he pushed his advantage.
"Compare the length and opportunities of my intercourse with him and yours," he said. "You would be acting the part of absolute folly not to listen to me now. In the end you will be as free to act as you were in the beginning. Only let me remind you that his future is involved as well as your own."
He saw that this argument told.
"I am willing to listen," she said.
"I am grateful to you," he answered, with that air of finished politeness which makes the best graces of a young man seem crude, and which Bettina was not too ignorant to appreciate at its proper value.
"I have known Horace as child and boy and man—if he may yet be called a man," he said, with a light touch of scorn. "You have known him in one capacity and state only—that of a lover, a role he can no doubt play very prettily, and one in which, despite his youth, he is far from being unpractised. He has been in love oftener than it behooves me to say or you to hear—quite harmless affairs, of course, but they prove to one who has watched him as I have that his nature is fickle and capricious. I confess that when I heard you say, just now, that his letters of late had been rarer and less ardent, I could not wholly attribute it to the reason which so quickly satisfied you. As a rule, these intensely ardent feelings are not of long duration, and I know well both the intensity and the brevity of Horace's attacks of love. It was for this very reason that I so resented the idea of his marrying without my advice. I foresaw that he would soon weary of any woman. All the more reason, therefore, for his choosing one who was suited to him, apart from the matter of his loving her. I knew he had not the staying quality—that he was quite incapable of a sustained affection. I therefore considered his taste in the matter less than my own. As he was my heir in the event of my not marrying, I felt that I had the right to demand that he should marry suitably to his position."
"I regret that he should have made an engagement which has disappointed you," said Bettina, a slight curl at the corners of her lips.
"I regret it also; but you may remember that at the beginning of this interview I spoke of this mistake on your part and on his as great, though not perhaps irreparable."
He was looking at her keenly, and he saw that his words had no effect upon her except to mystify her.
"I do not see any way to its reparation," she said, and was about to continue, when he interrupted her.
"I have pointed out the way—a rupture of the engagement by mutual consent."
"A consent that he would never give," said Bettina, with a certain pride of confidence.
"And you?" he asked.
"Nor I either," she said, "unless I were convinced that he wished it."
"It would perhaps be not impossible to convince you of that, granted a little time," said Lord Hurdly. "But, apart from his wish, have you no consideration for his interest? His position in diplomacy is at present insignificant, but he has talents and a chance to rise, unless that chance be utterly frustrated by his embarrassing himself with a family—a condition that would be death to his career. Ask any one you choose, and they will tell you that there cannot be two opinions about this. Besides, through my help he has been able to live like a man of fortune. His allowance, however, will be stopped on the day of his marriage, if he persists in such a course. If he abandons it, he will find himself with the principal as well as the interest at his disposal. So situated, he has every chance to rise. Under the other conditions, he inevitably falls. What would become of him ultimately is too dreary a line of conjecture to dwell upon."
Bettina's face was paler still. The tears sprang to her eyes—tears of mortification and keen regret. The thought of her mother pierced through her, and the consciousness that she had no longer the refuge of that gentle heart to cast herself upon almost overcame her. Pride lent her aid, however, and she rallied quickly.
"You have fully demonstrated to me," she said, "that I have injured your cousin in promising to marry him. I did it in ignorance, however. With the facts before me which you have just given, I should perhaps have acted differently. Regret now, however, is useless."
"On the contrary, this is one of the rare cases in which regret is not useless. The reparation of your mistake is in your own hands."
The possibility of doing what he urged flashed through Bettina's mind. Horace would certainly be infinitely better off without her, in every rational and material sense; and at this stage of Bettina's development the rational and material were predominant. But what of her, apart from Horace? This thought found vent in words.
"You have been looking at this subject from your own point of view," she said, "and perhaps naturally. I must, however, think of an aspect of the case in which you have no interest. I am absolutely alone in the world, and if, for your cousin's sake, I made this sacrifice—"
In spite of herself her voice faltered.
Lord Hurdly drew his chair a little nearer to her. His eyes were fixed upon her with a yet more intent gaze as he said, with directness and decision:
"You are quite mistaken. It is this aspect of the case which concerns me chiefly. If, as is undoubtedly true, the prevention of this most mistaken marriage would be an advantage to Horace, to you it may be a far greater gain, and to me it may be the fulfilment of all that I have ever desired in life."
"What do you mean?" she said, bewildered.
"I mean that the supreme desire of my heart is, and has been from the moment my eyes rested on you, to make you Lady Hurdly absolutely and at once, instead of your waiting for a name and position which, after all, may never come to you."
Her heart beat so that her breathing came in smothered gasps. The piercing demand of his eyes was almost terrifying to her. She saw that he was absolutely in earnest, and the commiseration which she felt for Horace struggled with the dazzling temptation which this opportunity offered to that strong ambition which was so great an element in her essential nature.
"Do not be shocked or startled by the suddenness of my proposal," he said. "I trust that you will come to see that it is eminently wise and reasonable. When I said the marriage was an unsuitable one, I was thinking more of you than of Horace. Your beauty, your manner, your voice, your words, your whole ego and personality, show you to have been born for a great position. It is a case of manifest destiny. The fortune and the social rank that I can bestow are all too little for you; I should like to be able to put a queen's crown on your beautiful head. But such as I am—a man who has made his impression on the current history of his country, and who, though no longer young in the crude sense that counts only by months and years, is still by no means old—and such things as I have and can command, I lay at your feet, begging you humbly to impart to them a value which they have never had before, by accepting them and becoming the sharer of my name, my position, and my fortune, and the mistress of my heart."
He had risen and was standing in front of her with the resolution of a strong purpose in his eyes. But she could not meet them, those dominating, searching eyes. The thoughts that his words had given rise to were too agitating, too uncertain, too tormenting to her. The thought of giving Horace up pained her more than she would have believed, while the vision of the grandeur so urged upon her, which not ten minutes gone she had seen dashed like a full beaker from her thirsty lips, tormented her as well. It was to her a vast sacrifice to think of resigning such possibilities, yet at the first she had no other thought but to resign them. The arguments for Horace's future career which had been urged upon her also played their part in her consciousness now, and the seething confusion of images in her brain made her senses swim.
Lord Hurdly must have seen her agitation, for he hastened to say:
"I have been too hasty. You must forgive me. Do not try to answer me at present. I see that you are overwrought. Let me beseech you to rest a little while. I will send for the housekeeper."
"No, no! I must go," she answered, starting to her feet. But she had overestimated her strength. She sank back in her chair.
He went himself and brought her a glass of wine, talking to her with a soothing reassurance as she drank it. He reproached himself for having been too hurried, too rash, but pleaded the earnestness of his hopes as an excuse. When she had taken the wine she wanted to go, but he entreated her so humbly not to punish him too deeply for his fault that when he begged her to let him call the housekeeper to sit with her until luncheon, which he implored her to take before leaving, she acquiesced, too fagged out mentally to take any decided position of her own.
To the housekeeper Lord Hurdly explained that this lady was in deep trouble—a fact sufficiently attested by her heavy mourning—and would like to rest awhile before eating some luncheon. Bettina saw herself regarded with a respectful awe which she had never had a taste of before. The housekeeper, with the sweetest of voices and kindest of manners, promised to do all in her power, and Lord Hurdly withdrew.
Bettina could not talk. She lay back on the lounge and submitted to be gently fanned and having salts occasionally held to her nose. But all her effort was to compose her thoughts—a difficult attempt, as the image of her mother was the one which insisted on taking the pre-eminence in her mind. She ordered it down, with a sort of bitterness. Had her mother been alive, she would have gladly fled from this puzzle into which her life had tangled itself, and gone back to America to rest and mother-love. So she told herself, at least. But then followed the reflection that in her mother's death the refuge of love's calm and protection was gone from her forever, and that she must either remain in Europe under one or the other of the two conditions offered her, or else resign herself to the apathy of despair.
It was not in her to do this, and the brilliant possibilities which Lord Hurdly had suggested flashed into her mind, and so excited her that she suddenly rose to her feet and announced that her slight indisposition was past, asking the housekeeper to take her somewhere to rearrange her hair and prepare herself for luncheon.
Even had Bettina been the possessor of a happy heart which rejoiced in a fulfilled and contented love for the man she had promised to marry, the other, dominating side of her nature could not have been quite stifled as she walked through the halls and corridors of this magnificent mansion. These were things her imagination had always pictured as her proper position in life, and which the unregenerate heart within her had always craved. But how far beyond her ignorant dreams was the grand repose of this beautiful house! It was so much more than she had conceived that the new supply to her senses seemed, in a way, to create a new demand in them.
Never, perhaps, had she so appreciated what it must be to be a grande dame as to-day, when she was on the point of refusing such an opportunity, though it was just within her grasp. For she had no idea but that she should refuse it, and this very consciousness made her more friendly in her feelings and actions toward Lord Hurdly than she would otherwise have been.
When she had adjusted her dress and smoothed her hair, before large mirrors which gave her a better view of her loveliness than she had ever had before, a servant summoned her to luncheon, and at the foot of the stairs she saw Lord Hurdly awaiting her.
So seen, a decided baldness, which she had not much noticed before, became evident, but there was a certain distinction in the man's general air which this rather seemed to heighten. His manner of delicate solicitude for her was the perfection of good-breeding, and when she answered him reassuringly, and walked by his side to the dining-room, a sudden conviction seized her that she had come into her own—that this was the position for which she had been born, and that, independent of the fact that she had determined to decline it, it was her fate, which she could not escape. She tried to coax the belief that it was as Horace's wife that she would one day enjoy all these delights, but the thought eluded her. She could not see Horace in the seat now filled by his cousin. In imagination as well as in reality it was Lord Hurdly who occupied that seat.
This conviction, which every moment deepened, she could not shake off and could not account for. She had a feeling that it was forced upon her consciousness through some dominating power of Lord Hurdly's spirit over her own. She felt as if she were hypnotized. She wondered if it could be so, and if she would presently come to herself and find that it was all a delusion and she had never seen Lord Hurdly or his house, but was on her way to St. Petersburg to join Horace and settle down to a limited and economical way of living.
At this thought her heart fell. She had laid her hand upon this dazzling prize of worldly wealth and position. Could she let it go?
During luncheon no reference was made to the subject of their late conversation. The servants remained in the room, and Lord Hurdly talked of public and quite impersonal affairs. In so doing he showed a trenchant insight, a broad knowledge of the world, an undeniably powerful mentality, and a decided skill in the art of pleasing. If the tone of his talk was cynical, it found, for that very reason, all the clearer echo in Bettina's heart. A certain tendency to cynicism was inborn in her, and the bitterness she felt at the loss of her mother had accentuated this. What was the use of loving, she asked herself, when love must end like this? In her heart she passionately hoped that she might never love again. And she had also a shrinking from being loved in any ardent manner that might make demands upon her which she could not respond to.
When the time came for Bettina to leave, she found that the cab in which she had come had been sent away, and, in its place, Lord Hurdly's brougham waited for her. He escorted her himself to the carriage door, and when the great footman who held it open touched his hat in silence as he took her orders, and then mounted beside his twin brother on the box and she was bowled away, on padded cushions from which emanated a delicious odor of fine leather, Bettina felt that, for the first time in her life, she was in her proper element.
The events of the morning seemed to her like some agitating dream. She wondered how long it had been since she left her hotel, and tried to guess what time it was. As she did so, her eyes fell on the small clock, neatly encased in the leather upholstering of the carriage just in front of her. The fitness of this object and of everything about her gave her a delicious sense of adaptation to her environment which she had never had before.
When she got out at her hotel, the footman, with the same salute of ineffable respect, said that his lordship had told him to ask if she had any further orders for the carriage to-day or to-morrow. She declined the offer, but, none the less, she felt flattered by the attention.
Lord Hurdly's only further reference to their last conversation had been to ask her to pay his words the respect of a few days' consideration at least. He had learned from her that Horace was unaware of her being in England, and that she had a whole week at her disposal before he would expect to meet her there. When he asked for a part of that week, in which to give him the opportunity to prove to her that her duty to Horace, as well as to herself, demanded the rupture of this mistaken engagement, she was sufficiently influenced by the subtlety of this appeal to grant his request.
To her surprise, several days went by, and he did not come to see her nor write. Every morning the carriage was sent to the hotel and the footman came to her door for orders, but she always answered that she did not require it. Every morning, also, came a lavish offering of flowers, the great exotic flowers which Bettina loved—huge, heavy-petalled roses and green translucent-looking orchids. But, except for these, he did not thrust himself upon her notice—a fact which during the first and second days she gave him the greatest credit for, but by the third had grown to feel a certain resentment at.
In the mean time there had followed her from home a letter from Horace. It was the coldest she had ever had from him, and set her to thinking deeply as to the possible cause of his coldness. Could it be, she asked herself, that Lord Hurdly was right in calling him capricious? Had he—as was possible, of course—cooled in his ardor for her, and come to see that this hasty engagement of his had been a great mistake, as she herself had come to see?
For this point, at least, Bettina had positively reached. Why, therefore, should she adhere to her engagement in the face of the knowledge that such an adherence would be to his disadvantage, no less than to hers?
These arguments would have quite prevailed with her but for one thing. This was the conviction, not yet changed, though somewhat shaken by Lord Hurdly's account of him, that Horace really loved her and would suffer in losing her.
Deprived of the restraint of her mother's influence, Bettina had progressed with rapidity in her way toward worldliness and selfish ambition, but she had a heart. Her love for her mother had given abundant proof of that, if there were nothing else; and now her heart combated the influence of her head, which decreed that only a fool would reject the great good fortune now held out to her.
In point of fact, Bettina had been influenced more by ambition than by love in engaging herself to Horace, and the gratification of a far more splendid ambition was offered to her in making this other marriage. In it, also, love would play but little part, and this she felt to be decidedly a gain. Yet she was not so far lost to the sentiments of kindness and loyalty, that she had learned from the teaching and example of her mother, as not to hesitate before wounding and humiliating the man who, as she still believed, loved her devotedly. Could it have been proved that she was mistaken in so believing, Lord Hurdly's case would have been already won.
In the end Lord Hurdly prevailed, and that end was swifter in coming than Bettina would have believed to be possible. She had allowed herself a week to wait in London, and for the first day or two of that week she lived in dread lest Lord Hurdly should come to her and renew the arguments which she was quite determined to combat. As the days passed and he did not come, she began to fear that the opportunity of final decision on the momentous question of her choice between these two men would not again be offered her. Her better nature still held her to her pledge to Horace, but already she had come to feel that, but for his disappointment at losing her, she would have accepted Lord Hurdly's proposal, as it offered a full and immediate fulfilment of her dreams of ambition, and the other postponed these indefinitely, while it promised comparatively little in any other direction.
Toward the end of the week Lord Hurdly called, and, without any reference to his own hopes and intentions, spoke, with what seemed to be a considerable hesitation and regret, of his young cousin's character and mode of life, which he declared were known, to every one except Bettina, to be exceedingly capricious—even light. He dwelt upon the fact, well known to Bettina, of his earnest desire that his cousin and heir should marry, and gave as a reason for this desire, what he declared to be the accepted fact, that Horace was inclined to a dissipated manner of living, which he hoped marriage might correct.
Poor Bettina! She had believed the young man, to whom she had pledged herself, to be the very opposite of all this. Yet how absolutely ignorant concerning him she really was! And the rector of her church, who was supposed to vouch for him, knew in reality as little as she. How easily she might have been mistaken in him! And yet, and yet, there was a still, small voice in her heart which confirmed her in her resolve to believe in him until she had proof that such a belief was ill founded.
"With his past I have nothing to do," she said to Lord Hurdly, with a certain show of pride. "If it has been lower than my ideal of him, I regret it; but I am entirely sure that since he has known me and had my promise to be his wife he has been true to all that that promise required of him."
"This being your conclusion," Lord Hurdly answered, "you force upon me the necessity of showing you a letter which I have to-day received from a friend in St. Petersburg, and which I would, without strong reason to the contrary, have gladly spared you the pain of reading." With these words, he handed Bettina a letter.
It was signed with a name unknown to her, but written evidently in the tone and manner of an intimate friend. The first page or two referred to matters wholly indifferent to her—public affairs and the like—but toward the end were these words:
"Are you as set as ever in your determination not to marry? Pity it is that such a noble name and fortune as yours should not pass on to a son of your own, instead of to one who, it is to be feared, will do little to honor it. I see him here, at court and everywhere, accurately fulfilling the rather unflattering predictions which I long ago made concerning him. There is a story that he became engaged to be married during his travels in America, and I hear that he owns up to it and speaks of being joined by his fiancee and married on this side. I hope it may not be so. Certainly his present manner of living argues against the rumor, unless—a supposition I am reluctant to believe—he proposes to keep up, as a married man, the habits which are so readily forgiven to a bachelor, though not to a husband."
There was more, but Bettina read no further. This was enough. She had turned away to a window, that she might read this letter unobserved by Lord Hurdly, who had considerately walked to the other end of the room.
When at last she approached him and gave him back the letter, she was very pale, but her manner was wholly without indecision and her voice was resolute as she said:
"I thank you, Lord Hurdly, for the service which you have rendered me. This letter has made my future course quite clear. I shall write to your cousin to-day that everything is at an end between us. And now will you be good enough to leave me? I wish to make my arrangements to return to America at once."
Even as she said the words, the bitter barrenness of this prospect—the old dull life, without the dear presence which had been its one and sufficient palliation—rose before her mind and appalled her. Perhaps Lord Hurdly saw in her face some change of expression which he construed as favorable to himself, for he hastened to say:
"Will you not, before taking so rash a step, consider the proposal which I have made to you? I can offer you the substance of which the other was only the shadow, and I can pledge to you the stable and unalterable devotion of a man who has lived long enough to know his own mind, and who declares to you that you are the only woman whom he has ever desired to put in the position of his wife."
It was impossible not to feel some consciousness of satisfaction at a tribute which her own knowledge of facts convinced her to be sincere, but Bettina's heart and mind were still too preoccupied to meet him in the way he wished. She repeated her request that he would leave her, and so earnest and distressed was her manner that he complied, leaving behind him an impression of the deepest solicitude for her, and the most earnest desire on his part to atone for the wrong which his kinsman had done her.
Bettina threw herself upon the lounge and abandoned herself to a fit of weeping—so overwhelming, so despairing, so heart-breaking that she could scarcely believe that she, who had thought that all her power of deep suffering had been exhausted, could still find it in her to care so much for any other grief.
The worst of it was that, now it was quite evident that she was forever divided from Horace, the charm of his manner and appearance, the tenderness of his love-making, came back to her with a power which they had never exercised upon her in reality. Never, surely, had a man existed who was, to appearance at least, more frank, sincere, ardent, and deeply in love than he had seemed to be with her. It made his perfidy appear the greater. Nothing but the sight of that letter could have made her believe it; but that, taken in connection with the rareness and coolness of his recent letters to her, made it all too plain that the ardent flame of his love had burned out, and that he had repented his impetuosity, now that he had had time to think of the sacrifice which it entailed.
This was indeed great for a man in his position, ambitious in his career, and with his foot already on the ladder that led to success. She even began to doubt whether he would have fulfilled his obligations to her when it came to the point.
She got out his letters and read them over. How passionately loving were the early ones—how cool and constrained the more recent! The contrast struck her far more now in the light of recent events. It really seemed as if he might be trying to get out of the engagement.
At this thought pride came to her rescue. She felt herself grow hard and cold, and her composure returned completely. She would never let him know what she had heard, for that might make it seem as if she gave him up from compulsion. She sat down and wrote quickly a few formal sentences, saying that she had mistaken her own feelings, and that she wished to break the engagement. She added that she was returning immediately to America, as indeed she was intending to do at the time of the writing of this letter.
After it had gone, and was on its way to St. Petersburg, a mental condition of such abject misery settled down upon her that the thought of the endless days and nights of idle monotony which would be her lot if she returned home, and the awful void of her mother's absence, became intolerable. She could not do it. She must find some way of escape from such a fate.
Just as she was casting about for such a way, Lord Hurdly came to see her. The escape which he offered had in it many elements of the strongest attractiveness for her. Since she could not be happy, as she believed, why might she not get from life the satisfaction which comes from the holding of a great position, the opportunity of being admired and wielding a powerful influence? It was a prospect which had always charmed her; and now, with no alternative but lonely isolation and bitter weariness, was it strange that she decided to accept Lord Hurdly's offer?
And if it was to be, what need was there to wait? Wounded in her pride as she was by the revelation of Horace which she had received, she relished the idea of becoming at once what he had proposed to make her—and afterward repented of. She was fully convinced in her mind that he had repented, and her blood beat faster as she thought of his consternation on hearing of this marriage. She felt eager that he should hear of it at once.
And so indeed he did. On the heels of his receipt of Bettina's letter her marriage to Lord Hurdly was announced by cable—not to him, but through the newspapers.
Then into his heart there entered also the exceeding bitterness of a lost ideal. She became to him, as he had become to her, the image of broken faith, capricious feeling, and overweening worldly ambition.
Yet in the heart of the man, who had loved completely and supremely, as Bettina never had, there was a feeling which made him say to himself, with a conviction which he knew to be immutable, that marriage was not for him. The present Lord Hurdly had said the same, and had changed his mind. For himself he knew that he should not, for all of love that he was capable of feeling had been given to the woman who had cast him off.
Bettina had gone through her first London season as Lady Hurdly, and certainly no girl's ambitious dreams could have forecast a more brilliant experience. She had been far too ignorant to imagine such subtle delights of the senses as resulted from the wealth and eminence which she had attained to in marrying Lord Hurdly. And beyond the mere sensuous appeal which was made to her by the wearing of magnificent clothes and jewels, and the being always surrounded with objects of beauty and means of luxury, she had the greater delight of having her feverishly active mind continually supplied with a stimulus, which it now more than ever needed. This was furnished by the innumerable social demands made upon her, and the complete power which she felt within herself to respond to them not only creditably, but in a way that should make even Lord Hurdly wonder at her.
True, she had had no social training, and in a less powerful position she might have shown her ignorance and incapacity, for she would then have had to take a personal supervision of the things which she now left utterly alone, and which, being essential to be done, were done—how and by whom she did not ask. Lord Hurdly had so long done the honors of his house without a wife that it was natural to him to continue the direction of household affairs, with the aid of the accomplished assistants who were in his employment; so Bettina had no more to do with such matters than if she had become the mistress of a royal household. At the proper time she showed herself at Lord Hurdly's side, and she had beauty enough and wit enough not only to do credit to that high position, but to cast a glory over it which he knew in his heart no other Lady Hurdly of them all had ever done.
That she enjoyed it, who could doubt that saw her, day after day and evening after evening, beautifying with her presence the social gatherings at her own splendid house, and at those of the new acquaintances who sought her society and distinguished her with their attentions wherever she might go.
Having had no experience of wealth, it never seemed to occur to her that it could have its definite limit, and she ordered costumes and invented ways of spending money which sometimes surprised her lord, but which also pleased him. His fortune was so large, and had been so long without such demands upon it, that it was a source of genuine satisfaction to him to see that Bettina knew how to avail herself of her brilliant opportunity. Save and except a wife, he was already possessed of every adjunct that could do credit to his name and position, and in marrying Bettina he had been largely influenced by the fact that she was qualified to supply this one deficiency with a distinction which no other woman he had ever seen could have bestowed upon the position.
So, to the world, Bettina seemed completely satisfied, and in the worldly sense she was so. In this sense, also, Lord Hurdly seemed and was satisfied in his marriage. How it was with them in their hearts no one knew, and perhaps there was no one who cared to know. The one being to whom this question was of strong interest was very far away. He had shifted his position from Russia to India about the time of his cousin's marriage, and Bettina never heard his name mentioned, nor did she ever utter it.
After the London season was over, Lord and Lady Hurdly had moved from their town-house to the family seat, Kingdon Hall. Here, after a day's stop, Lord Hurdly had left her, to return to town on some public business; and so, for the first time since her marriage, she had a few days to herself. Later they were to have the house filled with guests, and after that to make some visits; so this time of solitude was not likely to be repeated soon. Bettina was surprised at herself to see how eagerly she clutched at it. It was, in some faint degree, like the feeling which she had had after the rare and short separations from her mother—a longing to get back to the familiar and the accustomed. She now felt somewhat the same longing to get back to herself. She had done her part in all that brilliant pageant like a woman in a dream. She had enjoyed it, for power and admiration were very dear to her, and she had revelled in their fresh first-fruits. But she had not been herself for so long, had not for so long looked herself in the face and searched her own heart, that she did not know herself much more familiarly than she knew the other brilliant personages who moved beside her across the crowded stage of London life.
It was unaccountable even to herself how she rejoiced at the idea of these few days of quiet and solitude. Nora, her old nurse, was of course with her still, with a French maid to assist her and perform the important functions of the toilet of which the elderly woman was ignorant. This maid Bettina sent off on a holiday, so that she might have only Nora about her.
The morning after her arrival at Kingdon, Bettina, having breakfasted in her room, went for a ramble over the house. It seemed solemnly vast and empty, and she would have lost herself many times had she not encountered now and then a courtesying house-maid or an obsequious footman, who answered her inquiries and told her into what apartments she had strayed.
"Show me the way to the picture-gallery," she said to one of these, "and then tell the housekeeper to come to me there presently."
She had taken a fancy to this white-haired old woman the night before, when Lord Hurdly had presented the servants to their new mistress in the great hall, where they had all been assembled to receive her on her arrival.
In a few moments she found herself alone in the stately gallery, going from picture to picture. On one side was a long line of the ladies of Kingdon Hall, painted by contemporary artists, each celebrated in his era. At the end of this line her own portrait, done by a celebrated French painter who had come to London for the purpose, had recently been put in place.
It was a magnificent thing in its manner as well as in its subject, and the costume which Lord Hurdly's taste had conceived for her and a French milliner had carried out was a marvel of rich effects. As she paused in front of it her lips parted, and she said, whispering to herself,
"Lady Hurdly—the present Lady Hurdly! And what has become of Bettina?"
As she asked herself this question she sighed.
A sudden instinct made her move away. She wanted to escape from Lady Hurdly. She had a chance to be herself to-day, and she felt a strong desire to make the most of it.
Hearing a sound at her side, she turned and found the serious, pleasant face of the housekeeper near her.
"Good-morning, my lady," she said, gently, in answer to Bettina's friendly salutation. "Will your ladyship not have a shawl? This room is always cool, no matter what the weather is."
Bettina declined the wrap, but passed on to the next picture, requesting the woman to come with her and act as cicerone.
"What is your name? I ought to know it," she said.
"Parlett, your ladyship."
"And how long have you lived here, Parlett?"
"Over forty years, my lady. I was here in the old lord's time. That is his picture, with his lady next to him."
Bettina looked with interest at the two pictures designated.
"He is thought to be very much like his present lordship," said the housekeeper.
"Yes, I see it," said Bettina, feeling an instinct to guard her countenance. Here were the same keen eyes, the same resolute jaw, the same thin lips and hard lines about the mouth. Only in the older face they were yet more accentuated, and instead of the not unbecoming thinness of hair which showed in the son, there was a frank expanse of bald head which made his features all the harder.
Hurrying away from the contemplation of this portrait, Bettina turned to its companion. Here she encountered a face and form which were truly all womanly, if by womanliness is meant abject submission and self-effacement. The poor little lady looked patiently hopeless, and her deprecating air seemed the last in the world calculated to hold its own against such a lord. That she had not done so—of her own full surrender of herself, in mind and soul and body—the picture seemed a plain representation.
"Poor woman! She looks as if she had suffered," said Bettina.
"Oh yes, my lady," Parlett answered, as if divided between the inclination to talk and the duty to be silent.
"She was unhappy, then?" said Bettina. "You need not hesitate to answer. His lordship has told me what a trusted servant of the family you are, and I shall treat you as such. You need not fear to speak to me quite freely."
"Yes, my lady, she had a great deal of sadness in her life," went on the housekeeper, thus encouraged. "She had six daughters before she had a son, and this was naturally a disappointment to his lordship. One after the other these children died, which grieved her ladyship sorely, for she was a very devoted mother. His lordship had never noticed them much, being angry at not having an heir, and this made my lady all the fonder of them. She had little constitution herself, and the children were sickly. At last, however, an heir was born, but her ladyship died at his birth. It seemed a pity, my lady, did it not? For his lordship was greatly pleased with the heir, and, of course, my lady would have been much happier after that."
Bettina did not answer. The evident reasonableness of the father's position, in the eyes of this good and gentle woman, made it impossible for her to speak without dissent to such an atrocity as Lord Hurdly's attitude seemed to her. So she moved away, and the woman took the hint and said no more.
A little distance off, at the end of the long room, she had caught sight of an object that made her heart beat suddenly. She did no more than glance at it, and then returned to the contemplation of the picture before which she was standing. But she had recognized Horace Spotswood in the tall stripling of perhaps fifteen who stood in riding-clothes at the side of a pawing gray horse.
By the time she had made her way to it, in its regular succession, she had quite recovered her calmness and had made up her mind as to her course.
"And who is this handsome boy?" she said, with perfect self-possession, as they stood before the large canvas.
"That is Mr. Horace, my lady," said the woman, a sudden tone of emotion mingling with the deference in her voice as her eyes dwelt on the picture fondly.
And who could wonder at this? Surely a more winsome lad had never been seen. He was even then tall, and in his riding coat and breeches looked strangely slender, in contrast to the broad-shouldered physique which she had lately known so well. But the eyes were just the same—direct, frank, eager eyes, which looked straight at you and seemed to make a demand upon you to be as open and frank in return.
Had Bettina searched the world, she could not, as she knew, have found a more significant contrast than the comparison of the honest eyes with the guarded, cold, inscrutable ones into which it was now her lot to look so often.
"Have you known him a long time?" she asked, pleasantly, as the woman remained silent.
"Oh, since he was a little lad, my lady! We all love Mr. Horace here. He is the handsomest and kindest young gentleman in the world, and he's that good to me that I couldn't be fonder of my own son, not forgetting the difference, my lady."
Bettina detected a tone of regretfulness in the woman's voice, and also, she thought, an effort to conceal it. If there was a feeling akin to this regret in her own heart, she also must conceal it. These allusions to the handsome, enthusiastic young fellow to whom she had promised herself in marriage had stirred her deeply. The idea of any one, servant or equal, speaking in this way of the man who was her husband, at any time in his life, gave her a nervous desire to laugh. It was followed by an equally nervous impulse to cry.
Walking ahead of the housekeeper, she gained a moment's opportunity for the recovery of her self-control, and she made good use of it.
"Parlett," she said, presently, "I do not want you to think that in marrying Lord Hurdly I have done an injury to Mr. Spotswood." In spite of herself, her voice shook at the name.
"Oh no, my lady—" began Parlett, but her mistress interrupted her, saying, quickly:
"Of course he always knew that his lordship might marry, and could not have been unprepared for such a possibility; but in order that he might feel no difference in his present position on that account, Lord Hurdly has settled on him what is really a handsome fortune—not only the income of it, but the principal also. I tell you this that you may understand that he is none the worse off, so far as money goes, through his cousin's marriage to me."
"Yes, my lady. I understand, my lady. Thank you for telling me," said Parlett, somewhat nervously. "Of course every one knows that you have done him no harm, my lady, and we knew, of course, that his lordship would do the handsome thing by him."
Somehow these civil, reassuring words smote painfully upon Bettina's consciousness. When this woman spoke so confidently of Lord Hurdly's doing the handsome thing by his former heir, she felt it to be the hollow tribute of a conventional loyalty, and the assurance that it was understood that she herself had done him no harm grated on her also. Now that she was quite alone and free to think things out, as she had shrunk from doing heretofore, and as, in the rush of the London season, she had been able to avoid doing, she felt a sense of compunction toward Horace that seriously depressed her.
Dismissing the housekeeper, she put on a shade-hat and went for a ramble in the park. How beautiful it was! What shrubs, what trees, what undulations of rich emerald turf! She could not in the least feel that she had any right in it all. But how must a creature love it who had looked upon its noble beauties from childhood up to youth, and on to manhood, with the belief that it would some day be his own! She could not stifle the feeling that she had wronged that being if by her marriage she should be the means of depriving him of such a fortune and position, and deep, deep down in her consciousness she had a boding fear that, if all things hidden could be revealed, it might be shown that in a keener sense than this she had also wronged him.
For marriage had been in many ways an illumination to Bettina. The revelation of her own heart which it had given her was one which she tried hard to shut her eyes to. Twice she had consented to the idea of marrying without love. Once she had actually done this thing. Only her own heart knew what had been the consequences to her. But of one thing she had often felt glad. This was that she had not entered into a loveless marriage with a man who had loved her as she had believed Horace did at the time he had so ardently wooed her. From such a wrong as that might she be delivered!
As her thoughts now dwelt on Horace and the circumstances of their brief past together, the memory of his honest, tender, self-forgetful attitude toward her recurred to her half wistfully, in contrast to her recent experiences. Lord Hurdly's manner toward her had, in truth, changed from the very hour of their marriage. He no longer had the air of a solicitous suitor, but took at once that of the assured husband and master. It made her think what she had heard of his father and of his poor little mother's history. Not that she could fancy herself becoming, under any circumstances, a Griselda; though she could without difficulty imagine him in his father's role.
But what right had she, she asked herself, to expect to reap where she had not sown? She had married for money and position, and she had got them. What more had she expected?
Nothing more, perhaps; but in one point she had been disappointed—namely, in the power of these things to give her what she longed for, and what she could define only under the indefinite term happiness.
Bettina's talk with Parlett had set her mind to working very actively in a direction in which she had not allowed it to stray before. The thought of Horace always brought a sense of pain and spiritual discomfort to her, which she instinctively desired to shake off; and in the restless whirl of London life, which left her little time for thought of any kind, she had not much difficulty in doing so.
Now, however, she had nothing to do but to think and to become acquainted with her new possessions, the latter occupation being a strong stimulus to the former. There were many associations with Horace at Kingdon Hall. It was extraordinary how many things that he had told her in connection with this place came back to her. She was constantly recognizing pictures or persons or names with which he had made her familiar. The persons were, of course, the servants, steward, tenants, and the like, for she had seen no others. Even in walking about the lawn she had found his initials cut on trees, and the very dogs which joined her when she would go out for her walks had names on their collars that she knew. There was one, a magnificent Great Dane, which bore Horace's name there as well as his own. This dog, Comrade, she had heard Horace speak of with a special affection.
True, Kingdon Hall had never been Horace's home, but he had grown up with the idea that it might be, and since coming to manhood had felt wellnigh secure that it would be. All his life he had been in the habit of making visits here, and the impression which he had left behind him was almost surprising to Bettina.
The place in which this impression was strongest was in the hearts of the servants. Bettina, through Nora, had assured herself of this. The devoted servant, who had the sole object in life of serving her beloved mistress, had, by Bettina's orders, informed herself on this point, and all that she gathered in the servants' hall she retailed to Bettina in her room. Nora, like every one else, had been won by Horace's manner and appearance, but, of course, when her mistress had drawn off from him, she had no idea of anything but acceptance of the changed conditions. Still, she was inwardly delighted when Bettina explained to her how anxious she was to learn all that she could about Mr. Horace, so that she might lose no opportunity of furthering his interest with Lord Hurdly, and making up to him, as far as possible, for having disappointed him in his worldly prospects by marrying his cousin.
That he could hold her accountable for any other wrong to him she did not admit. At times the memory of his fresh and buoyant youth, in so great contrast to the jaded maturity of his cousin, knocked at the door of her heart, and the ardent expressions of his worshipping, passionate love for her echoed there with a distinctness that amazed her.
Surely he had loved her—this she could not doubt. But if his love had been so slight that a few months of absence had cooled it, and of so poor a quality that a new caprice had taken its place so soon, she was well rid of it. That this had been so the letter which Lord Hurdly had shown her sufficiently attested, and she must guard herself against the folly of sentimental regrets.
It was not Horace that she regretted. It was only the ideal of the love between man and woman which her brief intercourse with him had held up to her. She had seen love in a different guise since then—or what went by the name of love—and surely the contrast must have had a deeper root than the mere difference between youth and middle-age.
It was not often that Bettina allowed herself to think of these things. But now, in her solitude and idleness, visions would come of the eager lover, strong as a young Narcissus, who represented love in such a simple, wholesome guise—or at least so it had seemed to be. Then she would shake off the image, and tell herself it was but seeming, as the result had proved, and so she would accuse herself of weakness and sentimentality. These thoughts were getting to be inconvenient. They haunted her too persistently, and at last she began to wish for the time to come when her days would again be too crowded with engagements for her to indulge in such foolish reflections.
The truth was, deep down in Bettina's heart there was a fear which she could not wholly still in any waking hour. She could and did refuse to recognize it, even in her own soul; but there it was, and there it remained, to rise again and again, and almost stifle her with the sinister possibility which it suggested.
This fear was based upon the clearer knowledge of Lord Hurdly's character which had come to her since marriage. She had found in him an inexorable resolution to have what he wanted in life, which had rendered him, more than once within her knowledge, unscrupulous as to the means he used in the securing of his ends. This it was which had planted in her mind the awful though remote possibility of his having been, in some manner, insincere in his representations of Horace's nature and character.
But then there was the letter from his friend which she had seen with her own eyes, with the St. Petersburg mark, so familiar to her, on the envelope, and which had been written by a person who could not have known that she would ever see it. Surely that was enough to settle all doubts as to the character and conduct of the man to whom she had first pledged herself in marriage, and she had at least the satisfaction of knowing that her present husband could be charged with no such faults. His indifference to her sex was proverbial in society, and that she alone, of all the women he had seen—so many of whom had angled for him openly—had been able to do away with his aversion to marriage was a tribute in which she could not help feeling a certain pride, the more so as she saw every day new proofs of his fastidiousness, as well as his importance.
So she stifled this dread suggestion and forced her thoughts into other channels. This was to be more easily accomplished when her body was actively employed; so she took long rides on horseback, attended by a groom, or long walks in the park alone. In these walks Horace's big dog Comrade would often join her. The creature had taken a fancy to her, which seemed, in some strange way, to comfort her.
Besides these diversions, she had her large correspondence to dispose of every day; for in her important position she had of course established numberless points of contact with the world.
So the time went by until Lord Hurdly's return, and the day that followed saw Kingdon Hall filled with guests. After that there were few moments of reflection for its mistress, as the duty of doing the honors of this great establishment demanded all her time.
Bettina loved this power and importance. The drama of her present life was like the unfolding, before her gaze, of a beautiful series of pictures which she had conceived in her imagination, and which some enchanter's word had turned into reality. The crowded functions of the London season had somewhat palled upon her, though she had not quite owned it to herself; but here she was the centre of the system, the light around which these lesser lights revolved, and she seemed, under these conditions, to shine with an increased radiance. Her manners, where they differed from those of the women about her, seemed to gain rather than lose by the contrast, and her costumes seemed to be endless in their variety as well as in their beauty. Certainly she had an air of being born to the purple, and her husband's pride in her was undoubted, if unexpressed.
Bettina was aware that this pride was his strongest feeling in regard to her, and she was abundantly willing to have it so. If she had found it difficult to fall in love with a youth who might have disturbed the heart of Diana, she was not likely to have fallen in love with the cool, cynical, narrow-chested, thin-haired man whom she could yet feel a certain pride in owning as her husband, since his appearance, no less than his name, was distinguished. She had always had a theory that she would never love deeply any one besides her mother, and her two experiences in the lottery of marriage, so different as they were, convinced her that her knowledge of herself had been correct. She was glad of it. The hot anguish which at times even yet contracted her heart at the thought of her mother made her hope devoutly that she would never love again. The joy of it could not be worth the pain.
When Lady Hurdly's house-party broke up, she went with her husband on a round of visits to other country-houses. This phase of society she liked, and she threw herself into it with ardor. But toward the end she wearied of these visits, as she had wearied of London, and was glad to get back to Kingdon Hall. Instead of rest, however, she found restlessness, and the disturbing thoughts which she had smothered before came back with added force. It was a relief to her to think of going abroad—Lord Hurdly having made plans for their spending some months of the winter on the Continent.
There was one instinctive fear connected with this plan—the possibility that she might by some chance encounter Horace. She had little fear that he would come to England. What would it matter if she should meet him? He had never been anything to her, really—so she assured herself—and she had certainly been, in reality, quite as little to him. Yet she did unreasonably dread such a meeting with him, and felt anxious to know where he was.
Accordingly, one morning she asked Parlett, in a casual way, if she ever heard from Mr. Horace.
"Oh yes, my lady; he writes to me now and then," replied the housekeeper. Bettina had not expected to hear this; her only thought was to draw out some information gained by hearsay.
"He is at St. Petersburg?" she asked, indifferently.
"No, my lady; at Simla," was the unexpected answer. "He has been there a good while. I had a pamphlet from him the other day. When he has not time to answer my letters, he often sends me a paper, or something like that, to show me what he has been doing. I can't always understand them, but he knows I like to have them just because he wrote them."
Bettina was unwilling to show her ignorance, so she did not say that she had no knowledge that he ever wrote for publication, and when Parlett went on to offer her the reading of the pamphlet she said, with an indifferent kindness,
"Yes, bring it to me, by all means. I am very glad that Mr. Horace keeps up his intercourse with the old place, which of course may yet be his. I shall take an interest in seeing what he writes."
She went on to speak of certain changes which she wished made in some of the sleeping-apartments, and then dismissed her housekeeper with something less than her usual graciousness of manner.
Bettina felt a strong desire to be alone. These tidings of Horace, slight as they were, had been disturbing to her. Indeed, as time went on and her knowledge of Lord Hurdly increased, the fear that he might have dealt insincerely with his cousin or with herself grew steadily. She saw proofs every day of the ruthlessness with which he sacrificed men, and even what should have been principles, to gain his ends. By the light of the same knowledge she realized how his meeting with her had disturbed him in his customary calmness of poise, and she argued from this fact how important it had been to him to gain his object of making her his wife.
In the midst of these reflections a house-maid tapped at her door, with some folded papers on a tray.
"If you please, my lady, Mrs. Parlett sends you these," she said.
She was a sweet-faced, rosy-cheeked English girl, with a soft voice and very pretty manner, and at present she was gently agitated by the privilege of speaking to her lady, whom she, as well as all the rest of the maids, regarded as a sort of cross between angel and goddess.
Bettina thanked her with a kind smile which sent her away completely happy; then, in the privacy of her own chamber, she opened the papers. One was a diplomatic pamphlet on a public question in the line of the writer's professional work. The other was an article which went very thoroughly into the question of the best means of relieving the famine then raging in India.
It seemed to Bettina that she had vaguely heard that there was such a famine, but she had not felt more than a kindly casual interest in it as an unfortunate matter which she could not help. Now, however, as she read the account which this paper gave, and the lines which it followed in the effort to render help, her heart burned within her. Here was a man who had no more power than herself to give money help—far less, indeed, perhaps. Yet how he was spending his soul, his strength, his time, his talent, his very heart-beats, on this effort to go to the rescue of these perishing thousands! No one who read the throbbing sentences of that paper could have a doubt of the writer's earnest desire to help, or of his ability to move the hearts and wills of others to come to his aid. It wrought upon her strangely.
How much money could she lay her hands on? She had no idea, but she would make it her business to find out. There was her own little income, which she had taken no account of since her marriage, and there was the money which Lord Hurdly had put to her credit in the bank. She would get all she could and send it—anonymously, of course—to the famine fund which she had casually heard mentioned. But, oh, what a pitiful offering it seemed compared with what this man was giving with such lavish self-devotion! From the fervor of his printed words, and his report of what had so far been accomplished, she saw that the very passion of his heart was in it. Of his ardent temperament, his quick sympathies, she had knowledge in her own experience. Perhaps it had been these very traits of his which had led him to the conduct which had separated them.
At this thought, that faint suspicion that he had been misrepresented to her rose in her heart again; but she choked it back. That would be too awful. Besides the hideous self-accusations which would have followed the admission of this doubt, there was another argument against it which still had its powerful hold on her. She had grown accustomed to her great position in the social world, and her inborn instinct for power and admiration was deliciously gratified by the brilliancy of her present circumstances. She found it very agreeable to be Lady Hurdly, with all that that name and title implied, and she did not, even in this moment of such unwonted emotion, lose sight of that fact.
Yet the reading of this little paper had stirred a feeling in Bettina's heart which she had not felt for so long a time—a yearning tenderness for some object outside herself: a longing that her health and strength might avail for others bereft of these blessings. It was akin to the emotion she had felt by her mother's dying bed, and as it swept over her she wept as she had not done since she had knelt beside that sacred spot.
Instinctively now she fell upon her knees. She tried to pray—but for what? She could not compose a form of prayer or articulate a definite wish. All she could do was to pray to God—the God in whom her mother had trusted—to give her this thing, this unknown boon which He knew her passionate need of.
When she rose from her knees she put her hands to her head, and, pressing her temples hard, looked about her, as if in search of some object which might help her to the comprehension of her own mood. Then, running her fingers inside the collar of her dress, she drew out, by a slight chain, a small locket, which contained her mother's picture and a lock of her white hair. It was a sort of talisman whose mere touch gave her a sense of comfort. She did not open it now, but held it between her palms and pressed her cheek against it, standing there alone, and presently she whispered:
"What is it, mother darling? What is it that you seem trying to say to me? Oh, if you can ever speak to me, speak now, and I will listen as I did not do when you were here beside me! There is something that I ought to do, and I am not doing it. There is something I am doing which distresses you. That is the feeling that I have. Oh, my mother—my lovely, precious, good, good mother—if I had you here, you would tell me what it is that I ought to do—and I would do it!"
She ceased her half-inarticulate whispers, and stood intensely still—almost, it seemed, as if she waited for an answer to them.
But there came no answer save the still, small voice within her soul, which had so often tried to speak before, and which even yet she could not, would not listen to.
This voice suggested to her with persistent iteration that she should even now look strictly into the evidence which had so quickly sufficed to convince her that the young and ardent lover who had wooed her so passionately, and promised her such loyalty and faith and devotion, had been false to his professions and his promises alike.
Suppose she should investigate; suppose she should get proof that she as well as he had been falsely dealt with, that he had been true in every word and thought—what then? Could she endure to keep, after that, the position of wife to the man who had so deceived and injured two beings who had believed him? Assuredly she could not. What, then, would be her alternative? To leave him and go back to the poor life at home, which her mother's presence had justified and glorified, but which without that presence, and with the contrast of her present position in her mind, would be too intolerable a thought to contemplate.
No, she had no sufficient reason to doubt the representations that her husband had made to her. She would try to accept them more implicitly for the future, and so fight against such disturbing ideas. There were ample means of diversion within her reach. Her sojourn abroad would soon begin, and she must fight against any recurrence of her present mood of weakness.
If she was to win this fight, however, there was one precaution which she felt that she must take. This was to avoid the very name of Horace Spotswood, and, as far as might be possible, every thought of him as well.
Her foreign travels began, and she then had the assurance that this effort would not be difficult of accomplishment. There were a thousand new issues for Bettina's interest and feelings in her constantly changing surroundings, and these were sufficiently absorbing to do away with lately disturbing considerations. The world had still its powerful charm for Bettina, and she was now seeing the world in a very fascinating aspect.
As Bettina had found the London season delightful, and yet had been quite content to see it close, and as the same had been true of her experience, both as hostess and as guest, at the country-house parties which had followed the season, so it was also with her foreign travels, although she found much to interest and delight her in the various cities which she visited with Lord Hurdly. He was received with distinction everywhere—a fact partly due to his prominent position in Parliament, and partly to his social importance and the acknowledged beauty of his wife.
Bettina enjoyed it, certainly, and found it very helpful to her in carrying out her resolve to banish the agitating thoughts which would recur whenever she thought of Horace. She had managed to stop thinking of him almost entirely, and to live only for the satisfaction of each day as it passed.
After a while, however, she began to feel that there was a certain flatness in the sort of pleasure which consisted so largely in being an object of admiration, for she had not been able herself to feel much enthusiasm for the people whom she met. She did not make friends easily, perhaps because she did not greatly care to have friends. Her mother's delicate health had left her little time for other companionships, even if she had desired them, and since the loss of her mother her heart had seemed to close up, and her capacity for caring for people, never very great, was lessening every day.
Several times during her travels she had heard Horace spoken of. On these occasions she had not betrayed the fact that she had any knowledge of him, and so the talk about him had been quite unrestrained. She had heard it said by one man that "he was turning out a very earnest fellow"; by another that "his pamphlets were making quite a stir"; and, again, that he "might do something worth while in diplomacy if he'd let philanthropy alone." Another man had said that "all he needed was to marry money, and he'd have a great career before him."
When Bettina returned from her travels these few remarks, overheard at dinner-tables or in public places, seemed in some unaccountable way to be the most important things she had secured out of her late experiences. Certainly they were the most insistently recurring, and the idea was forced upon her that the way in which men spoke of Horace Spotswood was a strong contrast to the tone of the letter from Lord Hurdly's friend.
All this was a source of distress to her. She would have preferred to believe the letter, for such a belief would have rid her of the sting of self-reproach; but, try as she might, she could not wholly get her consent to it.
On her way back to England she stopped in Paris to choose her costumes for the coming season. It was a pleasure to her to try on these beautiful things, which she bought without any thought of the cost of them; but it was a pleasure which she had become accustomed to, and so its keenness was gone. Besides this, she had nothing to look forward to except the London season, and custom had also detracted from the zest of that. She was in the attitude of always looking beyond. Surely, with such a position and such a fortune as she had attained to, there must be something to satisfy the vague longing within her which she called desire for happiness.
It was decided that they were to stay at Kingdon Hall a short time before going up to town, and Bettina had looked forward to the freedom of the country life with a hopefulness which reality disappointed. Here again she thought of Horace, and the possible injustice she had done him forced its way into her consciousness, and so disturbed her with doubts and misgivings that she determined to overcome her reluctance to mention Horace's name to her husband, and ask boldly whether he had actually received the sum of money which she had been promised that he should have. It had become so essential to her to know about this that she determined to use her very first opportunity of asking.