MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
Author of "Eltham House," "Delia Blanchflower," etc.
Illustrated by Albert Sterner
CHAPTER I II III IV V VI VII VIII IX X
XI XII XIII XIV XV
XVI XVII XVIII XIX
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
There Connie found Nora's latest statement headed "List of Liabilities" (Frontispiece)
Constance sat in the shadow of a plane-tree with Falloden at her feet
The tea-party at Mrs. Hooper's
Lady Connie had stood entranced by the playing of Radowitz
Connie sat down beside Radowitz and they looked at each other in silence
Lady Connie held in her horse, feeding her eyes upon Flood Castle and its woods
Herr Schwarz was examining a picture with a magnifying glass when Falloden entered
Douglas knelt, looking into his father's face, and Radowitz moved farther away
"Well, now we've done all we can, and all I mean to do," said Alice Hooper, with a pettish accent of fatigue. "Everything's perfectly comfortable, and if she doesn't like it, we can't help it. I don't know why we make such a fuss."
The speaker threw herself with a gesture of fatigue into a dilapidated basket-chair that offered itself. It was a spring day, and the windows of the old schoolroom in which she and her sister were sitting were open to a back garden, untidily kept, but full of fruit-trees just coming into blossom. Through their twinkling buds and interlacing branches could be seen grey college walls—part of the famous garden front of St. Cyprian's College, Oxford. There seemed to be a slight bluish mist over the garden and the building, a mist starred with patches of white and dazzlingly green leaf. And, above all, there was an evening sky, peaceful and luminous, from which a light wind blew towards the two girls sitting by the open window. One, the elder, had a face like a Watteau sketch, with black velvety eyes, hair drawn back from a white forehead, delicate little mouth, with sharp indentations at the corners, and a small chin. The other was much more solidly built—a girl of seventeen, in a plump phase, which however an intelligent eye would have read as not likely to last; a complexion of red and brown tanned by exercise; an expression in her clear eyes which was alternately frank and ironic; and an inconvenient mass of golden brown hair.
"We make a fuss, my dear," said the younger sister, "because we're bound to make a fuss. Connie, I understand, is to pay us a good round sum for her board and lodging, so it's only honest she should have a decent room."
"Yes, but you don't know what she'll call decent," said the other rather sulkily. "She's probably been used to all sorts of silly luxuries."
"Why of course, considering Uncle Risborough was supposed to have twenty-odd thousand a year. We're paupers, and she's got to put up with us. But we couldn't take her money and do nothing in return."
Nora Hooper looked rather sharply at her sister. It fell to her in the family to be constantly upholding the small daily traditions of honesty and fair play. It was she who championed the servants, or insisted, young as she was, on bills being paid, when it would have been more agreeable to buy frocks and go to London for a theatre. She was a great power in the house, and both her languid, incompetent mother, and her pretty sister were often afraid of her. Nora was a "Home Student," and had just begun to work seriously for English Literature Honours. Alice on the other hand was the domestic and social daughter. She helped her mother in the house, had a head full of undergraduates, and regarded the "Eights" week and Commemoration as the shining events of the year.
Both girls were however at one in the uneasy or excited anticipation with which they were looking forward that evening to the arrival of a newcomer, who was, it seemed, to make part of the household for some time. Their father, Dr. Ewen Hooper, the holder of a recently founded classical readership, had once possessed a younger sister of considerable beauty, who, in the course of an independent and adventurous career, had captured—by no ignoble arts—a widower, who happened to be also an earl and a rich man. It happened while they were both wintering at Florence, the girl working at paleography, in the Ambrosian Library, while Lord Risborough, occupying a villa in the neighbourhood of the Torre San Gallo, was giving himself to the artistic researches and the cosmopolitan society which suited his health and his tastes. He was a dilettante of the old sort, incurably in love with living, in spite of the loss of his wife, and his only son; in spite also of an impaired heart—in the physical sense—and various other drawbacks. He came across the bright girl student, discovered that she could talk very creditably about manuscripts and illuminations, gave her leave to work in his own library, where he possessed a few priceless things, and presently found her company, her soft voice, and her eager, confiding eyes quite indispensable. His elderly sister, Lady Winifred, who kept house for him, frowned on the business in vain; and finally departed in a huff to join another maiden sister, Lady Marcia, in an English country menage, where for some years she did little but lament the flesh-pots of Italy—Florence. The married sister, Lady Langmoor, wrote reams of plaintive remonstrances, which remained unanswered. Lord Risborough married the girl student, Ella Hooper, and never regretted it. They had one daughter, to whom they devoted themselves—preposterously, their friends thought; but for twenty years, they were three happy people together. Then virulent influenza, complicated with pneumonia, carried off the mother during a spring visit to Rome, and six weeks later Lord Risborough died of the damaged heart which had held out so long.
The daughter, Lady Constance Bledlow, had been herself attacked by the influenza epidemic which had killed her mother, and the double blow of her parents' deaths, coming on a neurasthenic condition, had hit her youth rather hard. Some old friends in Rome, with the full consent of her guardian, the Oxford Reader, had carried her off, first to Switzerland, and then to the Riviera for the winter, and now in May, about a year after the death of her parents, she was coming for the first time to make acquaintance with the Hooper family, with whom, according to her father's will, she was to make her home till she was twenty-one. None of them had ever seen her, except on two occasions; once, at a hotel in London; and once, some ten years before this date, when Lord Risborough had been D.C.L-ed at the Encaenia, as a reward for some valuable gifts which he had made to the Bodleian, and he, his wife, and his little girl, after they had duly appeared at the All Souls' luncheon, and the official fete in St. John's Gardens, had found their way to the house in Holywell, and taken tea with the Hoopers.
Nora's mind, as she and her sister sat waiting for the fly in which Mrs. Hooper had gone to meet her husband's niece at the station, ran persistently on her own childish recollections of this visit. She sat in the window-sill, with her hand behind her, chattering to her sister.
"I remember thinking when Connie came in here to tea with us—'What a stuck-up thing you are!' And I despised her, because she couldn't climb the mulberry in the garden, and because she hadn't begun Latin. But all the time, I envied her horribly, and I expect you did too, Alice. Can't you see her black silk stockings—and her new hat with those awfully pretty flowers, made of feathers? She had a silk frock too—white, very skimp, and short; and enormously long black legs, as thin as sticks; and her hair in plaits. I felt a thick lump beside her. And I didn't like her at all. What horrid toads children are! She didn't talk to us much, but her eyes seemed to be always laughing at us, and when she talked Italian to her mother, I thought she was showing off, and I wanted to pinch her for being affected."
"Why, of course she talked Italian," said Alice, who was not much interested in her sister's recollections.
"Naturally. But that didn't somehow occur to me. After all I was only seven."
"I wonder if she's really good-looking," said Alice slowly, glancing, as she spoke, at the reflection of herself in an old dilapidated mirror, which hung on the schoolroom wall.
"The photos are," said Nora decidedly. "Goodness, I wish she'd come and get it over. I want to get back to my work—and till she comes, I can't settle to anything."
"Well, they'll be here directly. I wonder what on earth she'll do with all her money. Father says she may spend it, if she wants to. He's trustee, but Uncle Risborough's letter to him said she was to have the income if she wished—now. Only she's not to touch the capital till she's twenty-five."
"It's a good lot, isn't it?" said Nora, walking about. "I wonder how many people in Oxford have two thousand a year? A girl too. It's really rather exciting."
"It won't be very nice for us—she'll be so different." Alice's tone was a little sulky and depressed. The advent of this girl cousin, with her title, her good looks, her money, and her unfair advantages in the way of talking French and Italian, was only moderately pleasant to the eldest Miss Hooper.
"What—you think she'll snuff us out?" laughed Nora. "Not she! Oxford's not like London. People are not such snobs."
"What a silly thing to say, Nora! As if it wasn't an enormous pull everywhere to have a handle to your name, and lots of money!"
"Well, I really think it'll matter less here than anywhere. Oxford, my dear—or some of it—pursues 'the good and the beautiful'"—said Nora, taking a flying leap on to the window-sill again, and beginning to poke up some tadpoles in a jar, which stood on the window-ledge.
Alice did not think it worth while to continue the conversation. She had little or nothing of Nora's belief in the other-worldliness of Oxford. At this period, some thirty odd years ago, the invasion of Oxford on the north by whole new tribes of citizens had already begun. The old days of University exclusiveness in a ring fence were long done with; the days of much learning and simple ways, when there were only two carriages in Oxford that were not doctors' carriages, when the wives of professors and tutors went out to dinner in "chairs" drawn by men, and no person within the magic circle of the University knew anybody—to speak of—in the town outside. The University indeed, at this later moment, still more than held its own, socially, amid the waves of new population that threatened to submerge it; and the occasional spectacle of retired generals and colonels, the growing number of broughams and victorias in the streets, or the rumours of persons with "smart" or "county" connections to be found among the rows of new villas spreading up the Banbury Road were still not sufficiently marked to disturb the essential character of the old and beautiful place. But new ways and new manners were creeping in, and the young were sensitively aware of them, like birds that feel the signs of coming weather.
Alice fell into a brown study. She was thinking about a recent dance given at a house in the Parks, where some of her particular friends had been present, and where, on the whole, she had enjoyed herself greatly. Nothing is ever perfect, and she would have liked it better if Herbert Pryce's sister had not—past all denying—had more partners and a greater success than herself, and if Herbert Pryce himself had not been—just a little—casual and inattentive. But after all they had had two or three glorious supper dances, and he certainly would have kissed her hand, while they were sitting out in the garden, if she had not made haste to put it out of his reach. "You never did anything of the kind till you were sure he did not mean to kiss it!" said conscience. "I did not give myself away in the least!"—was vanity's angry reply. "I was perfectly dignified."
Herbert Pryce was a young fellow and tutor—a mathematical fellow; and therefore, Alice's father, for whom Greek was the only study worth the brains of a rational being, could not be got to take the smallest interest in him. But he was certainly very clever, and it was said he was going to get a post at Cambridge—or something at the Treasury—which would enable him to marry. Alice suddenly had a vague vision of her own wedding; the beautiful central figure—she would certainly look beautiful in her wedding dress!—bowing so gracefully; the bridesmaids behind, in her favourite colours, white and pale green; and the tall man beside her. But Herbert Pryce was not really tall, and not particularly good-looking, though he had a rather distinguished hatchet face, with a good forehead. Suppose Herbert and Vernon and all her other friends, were to give up being "nice" to her as soon as Connie Bledlow appeared? Suppose she was going to be altogether cut out and put in the background? Alice had a kind of uneasy foreboding that Herbert Pryce would think a title "interesting."
Meanwhile Nora, having looked through an essay on "Piers Plowman," which she was to take to her English Literature tutor on the following day, went aimlessly upstairs and put her head into Connie's room. The old house was panelled, and its guest-room, though small and shabby, had yet absorbed from its oaken walls, and its outlook on the garden and St. Cyprian's, a certain measure of the Oxford charm. The furniture was extremely simple—a large hanging cupboard made by curtaining one of the panelled recesses of the wall, a chest of drawers, a bed, a small dressing-table and glass, a carpet that was the remains of one which had originally covered the drawing-room for many years, an armchair, a writing-table, and curtains which having once been blue had now been dyed a serviceable though ugly dark red. In Nora's eyes it was all comfortable and nice. She herself had insisted on having the carpet and curtains redipped, so that they really looked almost new, and the one mattress on the bed "made over"; she had brought up the armchair, and she had gathered the cherry-blossoms, which stood on the mantelpiece shining against the darkness of the walls. She had also hung above it a photograph of Watts "Love and Death." Nora looked at the picture and the flowers with a throb of pleasure. Alice never noticed such things.
And now what about the maid? Fancy bringing a maid! Nora's sentiments on the subject were extremely scornful. However Connie had simply taken it for granted, and she had been housed somehow. Nora climbed up an attic stair and looked into a room which had a dormer window in the roof, two strips of carpet on the boards, a bed, a washing-stand, a painted chest of drawers, a table, with an old looking-glass, and two chairs. "Well, that's all I have!" thought Nora defiantly. But a certain hospitable or democratic instinct made her go downstairs again and bring up a small vase of flowers like those in Connie's room, and put it on the maid's table. The maid was English, but she had lived a long time abroad with the Risboroughs.
Sounds! Yes, that was the fly stopping at the front door! Nora flew downstairs, in a flush of excitement. Alice too had come out into the hall, looking shy and uncomfortable. Dr. Hooper emerged from his study. He was a big, loosely built man, with a shock of grizzled hair, spectacles, and a cheerful expression.
A tall, slim girl, in a grey dust-cloak and a large hat, entered the dark panelled hall, looking round her. "Welcome, my dear Connie!" said Dr. Hooper, cordially, taking her hand and kissing her. "Your train must have been a little late."
"Twenty minutes!" said Mrs. Hooper, who had followed her niece into the hall. "And the draughts in the station, Ewen, were something appalling."
The tone was fretful. It had even a touch of indignation as though the speaker charged her husband with the draughts. Mrs. Hooper was a woman between forty and fifty, small and plain, except for a pair of rather fine eyes, which, in her youth, while her cheeks were still pink, and the obstinate lines of her thin slit mouth and prominent chin were less marked, had beguiled several lovers, Ewen Hooper at their head.
Dr. Hooper took no notice of her complaints. He was saying to his niece—"This is Alice, Constance—and Nora! You'll hardly remember each other again, after all these years."
"Oh, yes, I remember quite well," said a clear, high-pitched voice. "How do you do!—how do you do?"
And the girl held a hand out to each cousin in turn. She did not offer to kiss either Alice or Nora. But she looked at them steadily, and suddenly Nora was aware of that expression of which she had so vivid although so childish a recollection—as though a satiric spirit sat hidden and laughing in the eyes, while the rest of the face was quite grave.
"Come in and have some tea. It's quite ready," said Alice, throwing open the drawing-room door. Her face had cleared suddenly. It did not seem to her, at least in the shadows of the hall, that her cousin Constance was anything of a beauty.
"I'm afraid I must look after Annette first. She's much more important than I am!"
And the girl ran back to where a woman in a blue serge coat and skirt was superintending the carrying in of the luggage. There was a great deal of luggage, and Annette, who wore a rather cross, flushed air, turned round every now and then to look frowningly at the old gabled house into which it was being carried, as though she were more than doubtful whether the building would hold the boxes. Yet as houses went, in the older parts of Oxford, Medburn House, Holywell, was roomy.
"Annette, don't do any unpacking till after tea!" cried Lady Constance. "Just get the boxes carried up, and rest a bit. I'll come and help you later."
The maid said nothing. Her lips seemed tightly compressed. She stepped into the hall, and spoke peremptorily to the white-capped parlourmaid who stood bewildered among the trunks.
"Have those boxes—" she pointed to four—two large American Saratogas, and two smaller trunks—"carried up to her ladyship's room. The other two can go into mine."
"Miss!" whispered the agitated maid in Nora's ear, "we'll never get any of those boxes up the top-stairs. And if we put them four into her ladyship's room, she'll not be able to move."
"I'll come and see to it," said Nora, snatching up a bag. "They've got to go somewhere!"
Mrs. Hooper repeated that Nora would manage it, and languidly waved her niece towards the drawing-room. The girl hesitated, laughed, and finally yielded, seeing that Nora was really in charge. Dr. Hooper led her in, placed an armchair for her beside the tea-table, and stood closely observing her.
"You're like your mother," he said, at last, in a low voice; "at least in some points." The girl turned away abruptly, as though what he said jarred, and addressed herself to Alice.
"Poor Annette was very sick. It was a vile crossing."
"Oh, the servants will look after her," said Alice indifferently.
"Everybody has to look after Annette!—or she'll know the reason why," laughed Lady Constance, removing her black gloves from a very small and slender hand. She was dressed in deep mourning with crape still upon her hat and dress, though it was more than a year since her mother's death. Such mourning was not customary in Oxford, and Alice Hooper thought it affected.
Mrs. Hooper then made the tea. But the newcomer paid little attention to the cup placed beside her. Her eyes wandered round the group at the tea-table, her uncle, a man of originally strong physique, marred now by the student's stoop, and by weak eyes, tried by years of Greek and German type; her aunt—
"What a very odd woman Aunt Ellen is!" thought Constance.
For, all the way from the station, Mrs. Hooper had talked about scarcely anything but her own ailments, and the Oxford climate. "She told us all about her rheumatisms—and the east winds—and how she ought to go to Buxton every year—only Uncle Hooper wouldn't take things seriously. And she never asked us anything at all about our passage, or our night journey! And there was Annette—as yellow as an egg—and as cross—"
However Dr. Hooper was soon engaged in making up for his wife's shortcomings. He put his niece through many questions as to the year which had elapsed since her parent's death; her summer in the high Alps, and her winter at Cannes.
"I never met your friends—Colonel and Mrs. King. We are not military in Oxford. But they seem—to judge from their letters—to be very nice people," said the Professor, his tone, quite unconsciously, suggesting the slightest shade of patronage.
"Oh, they're dears," said the girl warmly. "They were awfully good to me."
"Cannes was very gay, I suppose?"
"We saw a great many people in the afternoons. The Kings knew everybody. But I didn't go out in the evenings."
"You weren't strong enough?"
"I was in mourning," said the girl, looking at him with her large and brilliant eyes.
"Yes, yes, of course!" murmured the Reader, not quite understanding why he felt himself a trifle snubbed. He asked a few more questions, and his niece, who seemed to have no shyness, gave a rapid description, as she sipped her tea, of the villa at Cannes in which she had passed the winter months, and of the half dozen families, with whom she and her friends had been mostly thrown. Alice Hooper was secretly thrilled by some of the names which dropped out casually. She always read the accounts in the Queen, or the Sketch, of "smart society" on the Riviera, and it was plain to her that Constance had been dreadfully "in it." It would not apparently have been possible to be more "in it." She was again conscious of a hot envy of her cousin which made her unhappy. Also Connie's good looks were becoming more evident. She had taken off her hat, and all the distinction of her small head, her slender neck and sloping shoulders, was more visible; her self-possession, too, the ease and vivacity of her gestures. Her manner was that of one accustomed to a large and varied world, who took all things without surprise, as they came. Dr. Hooper had felt some emotion, and betrayed some, in this meeting with his sister's motherless child; but the girl's only betrayal of feeling had lain in the sharpness with which she had turned away from her uncle's threatened effusion. "And how she looks at us!" thought Alice. "She looks at us through and through. Yet she doesn't stare."
But at that moment Alice heard the word "prince," and her attention was instantly arrested.
"We had some Russian neighbours," the newcomer was saying; "Prince and Princess Jaroslav; and they had an English party at Christmas. It was great fun. They used to take us out riding into the mountains, or into Italy." She paused a moment, and then said carelessly—as though to keep up the conversation—"There was a Mr. Falloden with them—an undergraduate at Marmion College, I think. Do you know him, Aunt Ellen?" She turned towards her aunt.
But Mrs. Hooper only looked blank. She was just thinking anxiously that she had forgotten to take her tabloids after lunch, because Ewen had hustled her off so much too soon to the station.
"I don't think we know him," she said vaguely, turning towards Alice.
"We know all about him. He was introduced to me once."
The tone of the eldest Miss Hooper could scarcely have been colder. The eyes of the girl opposite suddenly sparkled into laughter.
"You didn't like him?"
"Nobody does. He gives himself such ridiculous airs."
"Does he?" said Constance. The information seemed to be of no interest to her. She asked for another cup of tea.
"Oh, Falloden of Marmion?" said Dr. Hooper. "I know him quite well. One of the best pupils I have. But I understand he's the heir to his old uncle, Lord Dagnall, and is going to be enormously rich. His father's a millionaire already. So of course he'll soon forget his Greek. A horrid waste!"
"He's detested in college!" Alice's small face lit up vindictively. "There's a whole set of them. Other people call them 'the bloods.' The dons would like to send them all down."
"They won't send Falloden down, my dear, before he gets his First in Greats, which he will do this summer. But this is his last term. I never knew any one write better Greek iambics than that fellow," said the Reader, pausing in the middle of his cup of tea to murmur certain Greek lines to himself. They were part of the brilliant copy of verses by which Douglas Falloden of Marmion, in a fiercely contested year, had finally won the Ireland, Ewen Hooper being one of the examiners.
"That's what's so abominable," said Alice, setting her small mouth. "You don't expect reading men to drink, and get into rows."
"Drink?" said Constance Bledlow, raising her eyebrows.
Alice went into details. The dons of Marmion, she said, were really frightened by the spread of drinking in college, all caused by the bad example of the Falloden set. She talked fast and angrily, and her cousin listened, half scornfully, but still attentively.
"Why don't they keep him in order?" she said at last. "We did!" And she made a little gesture with her hand, impatient and masterful, as though dismissing the subject.
And at that moment Nora came into the room, flushed either with physical exertion, or the consciousness of her own virtue. She found a place at the tea-table, and panting a little demanded to be fed.
"It's hungry work, carrying up trunks!"
"You didn't!" exclaimed Constance, in large-eyed astonishment. "I say, I am sorry! Why did you? I'm sure they were too heavy. Why didn't Annette get a man?"
And sitting up, she bent across the table, all charm suddenly, and soft distress.
"We did get one, but he was a wretched thing. I was worth two of him," said Nora triumphantly. "You should feel my biceps. There!"
And slipping up her loose sleeve, she showed an arm, at which Constance Bledlow laughed. And her laugh touched her face with something audacious—something wild—which transformed it.
"I shall take care how I offend you!"
Nora nodded over her tea.
"Your maid was shocked. She said I might as well have been a man."
"It's quite true," sighed Mrs. Hooper. "You always were such a tomboy, Nora."
"Not at all! But I wish to develop my muscles. That's why I do Swedish exercises every morning. It's ridiculous how flabby girls are. There isn't a girl in my lecture I can't put down. If you like, I'll teach you my exercises," said Nora, her mouth full of tea-cake, and her expression half friendly, half patronising.
Connie Bledlow did not immediately reply. She seemed to be quietly examining Nora, as she had already examined Alice, and that odd gleam in the eyes under depths appeared again. But at last she said, smiling—
"Thank you. But my muscles are quite strong enough for the only exercise I want. You said I might have a horse, Uncle Ewen, didn't you?" She turned eagerly to the master of the house.
Dr. Hooper looked at his wife with some embarrassment. "I want you to have anything you wish for—in reason—my dear Connie; but your aunt is rather exercised about the proprieties."
The small dried-up woman behind the tea-urn said sharply:
"A girl can't ride alone in Oxford—she'd be talked about at once!"
Lady Connie flushed mutinously.
"I could take a groom, Aunt Ellen!"
"Well, I don't approve of it," said Mrs. Hooper, in the half plaintive tone of one who must speak although no one listens. "But of course your uncle must decide."
"We'll talk it over, my dear Connie, we'll talk it over," said Dr. Hooper cheerfully. "Now wouldn't you like Nora to show you to your room?"
The girls went upstairs together, Nora leading the way.
"It's an awful squash in your room," said Nora abruptly. "I don't know how you'll manage."
"My fault, I suppose, for bringing so many things! But where else could I put them?"
Nora nodded gravely, as though considering the excuse. The newcomer suddenly felt herself criticised by this odd schoolgirl and resented it.
The door of the spare-room was open, and the girls entered upon a scene of chaos. Annette rose from her knees, showing a brick-red countenance of wrath that strove in vain for any sort of dignity. And again that look of distant laughter came into Lady Connie's eyes.
"My dear Annette, why aren't you having a rest, as I told you! I can do with anything to-night."
"Well, my lady, if you'll tell me how you'll get into bed, unless I put some of these things away, I should be obliged!" said Annette, with a dark look at Nora. "I've asked for a wardrobe for you, and this young lady says there isn't one. There's that hanging cupboard"—she pointed witheringly to the curtained recess—"your dresses will be ruined there in a fortnight. And there's that chest of drawers. Your things will have to stay in the trunks, as far as I can see, and then you might as well sleep on them. It would give you more room!"
With which stroke of sarcasm, Annette returned to the angry unpacking of her mistress's bag.
"I must buy a wardrobe," said Connie, looking round her in perplexity. "Never mind, Annette, I can easily buy one."
It was now Nora's turn to colour.
"You mustn't do that," she said firmly. "Father wouldn't like it. We'll find something. But do you want such a lot of things?"
She looked at the floor heaped with every variety of delicate mourning, black dresses, thick and thin, for morning and afternoon; and black and white, or pure white, for the evening. And what had happened to the bed? It was already divested of the twilled cotton sheets and marcella quilt which were all the Hoopers ever allowed either to themselves or their guests. They had been replaced by sheets 'of the finest and smoothest linen, embroidered with a crest and monogram in the corners, and by a coverlet of old Italian lace lined with pale blue silk; while the down pillows at the head with their embroidered and lace-trimmed slips completed the transformation of what had been a bed, and was now almost a work of art.
And the dressing-table! Nora went up to it in amazement. It too was spread with lace lined with silk, and covered with a toilet-set of mother-of-pearl and silver. Every brush and bottle was crested and initialled. The humble looking-glass, which Nora, who was something of a carpenter, had herself mended before her cousin's arrival, was standing on the floor in a corner, and a folding mirror framed in embossed silver had taken its place.
"I say, do you always travel with these things?" The girl stood open-mouthed, half astonished, half contemptuous.
Nora pointed to the toilet-table and the bed.
Connie's expression showed an answering astonishment.
"I have had them all my life," she said stiffly. "We always took our own linen to hotels, and made our rooms nice."
"I should think you'd be afraid of their being stolen!" Nora took up one of the costly brushes, and examined it in wonder.
"Why should I be? They're nothing. They're just like other people's!" With a slight but haughty change of manner, the girl turned away, and began to talk Italian to her maid.
"I never saw anything like them!" said Nora stoutly.
Constance Bledlow took no notice. She and Annette were chattering fast, and Nora could not understand a word. She stood by awkward and superfluous, feeling certain that the maid who was gesticulating, now towards the ceiling, and now towards the floor, was complaining both of her own room and of the kitchen accommodation. Her mistress listened carelessly, occasionally trying to soothe her, and in the middle of the stream of talk, Nora slipped away.
"It's horrid!—spending all that money on yourself," thought the girl of seventeen indignantly. "And in Oxford too!—as if anybody wanted such things here."
* * * * *
Meanwhile, she was no sooner gone than her cousin sank down on the armchair, and broke into a slightly hysterical fit of laughter.
"Can we stand it, Annette? We've got to try. Of course you can leave me if you choose."
"And I should like to know how you'd get on then!" said Annette, grimly, beginning again upon the boxes.
"Well, of course, I shouldn't get on at all. But really we might give away a lot of these clothes! I shall never want them."
The speaker looked frowning at the stacks of dresses and lingerie. Annette made no reply; but went on busily with her unpacking. If the clothes were to be got rid of, they were her perquisites. She was devoted to Constance, but she stood on her rights.
Presently a little space was cleared on the floor, and Constance, seeing that it was nearly seven o'clock, and the Hoopers supped at half past, took off her black dress with its crape, and put on a white one, high to the throat and long-sleeved; a French demi-toilette, plain, and even severe in make, but cut by the best dressmaker in Nice. She looked extraordinarily tall and slim in it and very foreign. Her maid clasped a long string of opals, which was her only ornament, about her neck. She gave one look at herself in the glass, holding herself proudly, one might have said arrogantly. But as she turned away, and so that Annette could not see her, she raised the opals, and held them a moment softly to her lips. Her mother had habitually worn them. Then she moved to the window, and looked out over the Hoopers' private garden, to the spreading college lawns, and the grey front beyond.
"Am I really going to stay here a whole year—nearly?" she asked herself, half laughing, half rebellious.
Then her eye fell upon a medley of photographs; snaps from her own camera, which had tumbled out of her bag in unpacking. The topmost one represented a group of young men and maidens standing under a group of stone pines in a Riviera landscape. She herself was in front, with a tall youth beside her. She bent down to look at it.
"I shall come across him I suppose—before long." And raising herself, she stood awhile, thinking; her face alive with an excitement that was half expectation, and half angry recollection.
"My dear Ellen, I beg you will not interfere any more with Connie's riding. I have given leave, and that really must settle it. She tells me that her father always allowed her to ride alone—with a groom—in London and the Campagna; she will of course pay all the expenses of it out of her own income, and I see no object whatever in thwarting her. She is sure to find our life dull enough anyway, after the life she has been living."
"I don't know why you should call Oxford dull, Ewen!" said Mrs. Hooper resentfully. "I consider the society here much better than anything Connie was likely to see on the Riviera—much more respectable anyway. Well, of course, everybody will call her fast—but that's your affair. I can see already she won't be easily restrained. She's got an uncommonly strong will of her own."
"Well, don't try and restrain her, dear, too much," laughed her husband. "After all she's twenty, she'll be twenty-one directly. She may not be more than a twelvemonth with us. She need not be, as far as my functions are concerned. Let's make friends with her and make her happy."
"I don't want my girls talked about, thank you, Ewen!" His wife gave an angry dig to the word "my." "Everybody says what a nice ladylike girl Alice is. But Nora often gives me a deal of trouble—and if she takes to imitating Connie, and wanting to go about without a chaperon, I don't know what I shall do. My dear Ewen, do you know what I discovered last night?"
Mrs. Hooper rose and stood over her husband impressively.
"You remember Connie went to bed early. Well, when I came up, and passed her door, I noticed something—somebody in that room was—smoking! I could not be mistaken. And this morning I questioned the housemaid. 'Yes, ma'am,' she said, 'her ladyship smoked two cigarettes last night, and Mrs. Tinkler'—that's the maid—'says she always smokes two before she goes to bed.' Then I spoke to Tinkler—whose manner to me, I consider, is not at all what it should be—and she said that Connie smoked three cigarettes a day always—that Lady Risborough smoked—that all the ladies in Rome smoked—that Connie began it before her mother died—and her mother didn't mind—"
"Well then, my dear, you needn't mind," exclaimed Dr. Hooper.
"I always thought Ella Risborough went to pieces—rather—in that dreadful foreign life," said Mrs. Hooper firmly. "Everybody does—you can't help it."
"I don't know what you mean by going 'to pieces,'" said Ewen Hooper warmly. "I only know that when they came here ten years ago, I thought her one of the most attractive—one of the most charming women I had ever seen."
From where he stood, on the hearth-rug of his study, smoking an after-breakfast pipe, he looked down—frowning—upon his wife, and Mrs. Hooper felt that she had perhaps gone too far. Never had she forgotten, never had she ceased to resent her own sense of inferiority and disadvantage, beside her brilliant sister-in-law on the occasion of that long past visit. She could still see Ella Risborough at the All Souls' luncheon given to the newly made D.C.Ls, sitting on the right of the Vice-Chancellor, and holding a kind of court afterwards in the library; a hat that was little more than a wreath of forget-me-nots on her dark hair, and a long, lace cloak draping the still young and graceful figure. She remembered vividly the soft, responsive eyes and smile, and the court of male worshippers about them. Professors, tutors young and old, undergraduates and heads of houses, had crowded round the mother and the long-legged, distinguished-looking child, who clung so closely to her side; and if only she could have given Oxford a few more days, the whole place would have been at Ella Risborough's feet. "So intelligent too!" said the enthusiastic—"so learned even!" A member of the Roman "Accademia dei Lincei," with only one other woman to keep her company in that august band; and yet so modest, so unpretending, so full of laughter, and life, and sex! Mrs. Hooper, who generally found herself at these official luncheons in a place which her small egotism resented, had watched her sister-in-law from a distance, envying her dress, her title, her wealth, bitterly angry that Ewen's sister should have a place in the world that Ewen's wife could never hope to touch, and irrevocably deciding that Ella Risborough was "fast" and gave herself airs. Nor did the afternoon visit, when the Risboroughs, with great difficulty, had made time for the family call on the Hoopers, supply any more agreeable memories. Ella Risborough had been so rapturously glad to see her brother, and in spite of a real effort to be friendly had had so little attention to spare for his wife! It was true she had made much of the Hooper children, and had brought them all presents from Italy. But Mrs. Hooper had chosen to think the laughing sympathy and evident desire to please "affectation," or patronage, and had been vexed in her silent corner to see how little her own two girls could hold their own beside Constance.
As for Lord Risborough, he had frankly found it difficult to remember Mrs. Hooper's identity, while on the other hand he fell at once into keen discussion of some recent finds in the Greek islands with Ewen Hooper, to whom in the course of half an hour it was evident that he took a warm liking. He put up his eye-glass to look at the Hooper children; he said vaguely, "I hope that some day you and Mrs. Hooper will descend upon us in Rome;" and then he hurried his wife away with the audible remark—"We really must get to Blenheim, Ellie, in good time. You promised the Duchess—"
So ill-bred—so snobbish—to talk of your great acquaintances in public! And as for Lady Risborough's answer—"I don't care twopence about the Duchess, Hugh! and I haven't seen Ewen for six years,"—it had been merely humbug, for she had obediently followed her husband, all the same.
Recollections of this kind went trickling through Mrs. Hooper's mind, roused by Ewen's angry defence of his sister. It was all very well, but now the long-legged child had grown up, and was going to put her—Ellen Hooper's—daughters in the shade, to make them feel their inferiority, just as the mother had done with herself. Of course the money was welcome. Constance was to contribute three hundred a year, which was a substantial addition to an income which, when all supplemental earnings—exams, journalism, lectures—were counted, rarely reached seven hundred. But they would be "led into expenses"—the maid was evidently a most exacting woman; and meanwhile, Alice, who was just out, and was really quite a pretty girl, would be entirely put in the background by this young woman with her forward manner, and her title, and the way she had as though the world belonged to her. Mrs. Hooper felt no kinship with her whatever. She was Ewen's blood—not hers; and the mother's jealous nature was all up in arms for her own brood—especially for Alice. Nora could look after herself, and invariably did. Besides Nora was so tiresome! She was always ready to give the family case away—to give everything away, preposterously. And, apropos, Mrs. Hooper expressed her annoyance with some silly notions Nora had just expressed to her.
"I do hope, Ewen, you won't humour and spoil Constance too much! Nora says now she's dissatisfied with her room and wants to buy some furniture. Well, let her, I say. She has plenty of money, and we haven't. We have given her a great deal more than we give our own daughters—"
"She pays us, my dear!"
Mrs. Hooper straightened her thin shoulders.
"Well, and you give her the advantage of your name and your reputation here. It is not as though you were a young don, a nobody. You've made your position. Everybody asks us to all the official things—and Connie, of course, will be asked, too."
A smile crept round Dr. Hooper's weak and pleasant mouth.
"Don't flatter yourself, Ellen, that Connie will find Oxford society very amusing after Rome and the Riviera."
"That will be her misfortune," said Mrs. Hooper, stoutly. "Anyway, she will have all the advantages we have. We take her with us, for instance, to the Vice-Chancellor's to-night?"
"Do we?" Dr. Hooper groaned. "By the way, can't you let me off, Ellen? I've got such a heap of work to do."
"Certainly not! People who shut themselves up never get on, Ewen. I've just finished mending your gown, on purpose. How you tear it as you do, I can't think! But I was speaking of Connie. We shall take her, of course—"
"Have you asked her?"
"I told her we were all going—and to meet Lord Glaramara. She didn't say anything."
Dr. Hooper laughed.
"You'll find her, I expect, a very independent young woman—"
But at that moment his daughter Nora, after a hurried and perfunctory knock, opened the study door vehemently, and put in a flushed face.
"Father, I want to speak to you!"
"Come in, my dear child. But I can't spare more than five minutes."
And the Reader glanced despairingly at a clock, the hands of which were pointing to half past ten a.m. How it was that, after an eight o'clock breakfast, it always took so long for a man to settle himself to his work he really could not explain. Not that his conscience did not sometimes suggest the answer, pointing to a certain slackness and softness in himself—the primal shrinking from work, the primal instinct to sit and dream—that had every day to be met and conquered afresh, before the student actually found himself in his chair, or lecturing from his desk with all his brains alert. Anyway, the Reader, when there was no college or university engagement to pin him down, would stand often—"spilling the morning in recreation"; in other words, gossiping with his wife and children, or loitering over the newspapers, till the inner monitor turned upon him. Then he would work furiously for hours; and the work when done was good. For there would be in it a kind of passion, a warmth born of the very effort and friction of the will which had been necessary to get it done at all.
Nora, however, had not come in to gossip. She was in a white heat.
"Father!—we ought not to let Connie furnish her own rooms!"
"But, my dear, who thinks of her doing any such thing? What do you mean?" And Dr. Hooper took his pipe out of his mouth, and stood protesting.
"She's gone out, she and Annette. They slipped out just now when mother came in to you; and I'm certain they've gone to B's"—the excited girl named a well-known Oxford furniture shop—"to buy all sorts of things."
"Well, after all, it's my house!" said the Reader, smiling. "Connie will have to ask my leave first."
"Oh, she'll persuade you!" cried Nora, standing before her father with her hands behind her. "She'll make us all do what she wants. She'll be like a cuckoo in the nest. She'll be too strong for us."
Ewen Hooper put out a soothing hand, and patted his youngest daughter on the shoulder.
"Wait a bit, my dear. And when Connie comes back just ask her to step in here a moment. And now will you both please be gone—at once?—quick once?—quick march!"
And taking his wife and daughter by the shoulders, he turned them both forcibly out, and sat down to make his final preparations for a lecture that afternoon on the "feminism" of Euripides.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Connie Bledlow and her maid were walking quickly down the Broad towards the busy Cornmarket with its shops. It was a brilliant morning—one of those east wind days when all clouds are swept from the air, and every colour of the spring burns and flashes in the sun. Every outline was clear; every new-leafed tree stood radiant in the bright air. The grey or black college walls had lost all the grimness of winter, they were there merely to bring out the blue of the sky, the yellow gold, the laburnum, the tossing white of the chestnuts. The figures, even, passing in the streets, seemed to glitter with the trees and the buildings. The white in the women's dresses; the short black gowns and square caps of the undergraduates; the gay colours in the children's frocks; the overhanging masses of hawthorn and lilac that here and there thrust themselves, effervescent and rebellious, through and over college walls:—everything shimmered and shone in the May sunlight. The air too was tonic and gay, a rare thing for Oxford; and Connie, refreshed by sleep, walked with such a buoyant and swinging step that her stout maid could hardly keep up with her. Many a passer-by observed her. Men on their way to lecture, with battered caps and gowns slung round their necks, threw sharp glances at the tall girl in black, with the small pale face, so delicately alive, and the dark eyes that laughed—aloof and unabashed—at all they saw.
"What boys they are!" said Constance presently, making a contemptuous lip. "They ought to be still in the nursery."
"What—the young men in the caps, my lady?"
"Those are the undergraduates, Annette—the boys who live in the colleges."
"They don't stare like the Italian young gentlemen," said Annette, shrugging her shoulders. "Many a time I wanted to box their ears for the way they looked at you in the street."
Connie laughed. "I liked it! They were better-looking than these boys. Annette, do you remember that day two years ago when I took you to that riding competition—what did they call it?—that gymkhana—in the Villa Borghese—and we saw all those young officers and their horses? What glorious fellows they were, most of them! and how they rode!"
Her cheek flushed to the recollection. For a moment the Oxford street passed out of sight. She saw the grassy slopes, the stone pines, the white walls, the classic stadium of the Villa Borghese, with the hot June sun stabbing the open spaces, and the deep shadows under the ilexes; and in front of the picture, the crowd of jostling horses, with their riders, bearing the historic names of Rome—Colonnas, Orsinis, Gaetanis, Odescalchis, and the rest. A young and splendid brood, all arrogant life and gaiety, as high-mettled as their English and Irish horses. And in front a tall, long-limbed cavalry officer in the Queen's household, bowing to Constance Bledlow, as he comes back, breathless and radiant from the race he has just won, his hand tight upon the reins, his athlete's body swaying to each motion of his horse, his black eyes laughing into hers. Why, she had imagined herself in love with him for a whole week!
Then, suddenly, she perceived that in her absence of mind she was running straight into a trio of undergraduates who were hurriedly stepping off the path to avoid her. They looked at her, and she at them. They seemed to her all undersized, plain and sallow. They carried books, and two wore glasses. "Those are what he used to call 'smugs'!" she thought contemptuously, her imagination still full of the laughing Italian youths on their glistening horses. And, she began to make disparaging remarks about English young men to Annette. If this intermittent stream of youths represented them, the English gioventu was not much to boast of.
Next a furniture shop appeared, with wide windows, and a tempting array of wares, and in they went. Constance had soon bought a wardrobe and a cheval-glass for herself, an armchair, a carpet, and a smaller wardrobe for Annette, and seeing a few trifles, like a French screen, a small sofa, and an inlaid writing-table in her path, she threw them in. Then it occurred to her that Uncle Ewen might have something to say to these transactions, and she hastily told the shopman not to send the things to Medburn House till she gave the order.
Out they went, this time into the crowded Cornmarket, where there were no colleges, and where the town that was famous long before the University began, seemed to be living its own vigorous life, untrammelled by the men in gowns. Only in seeming, however, for in truth every single shop in the street depended upon the University.
They walked on into the town, looking into various colleges, sitting in Broad Walk, and loitering over shops, till one o'clock struck from Oxford's many towers.
"Heavens!" said Constance—"and lunch is at 1.15!"
They turned and walked rapidly along the "Corn," which was once more full of men hurrying back to their own colleges from the lecture rooms of Balliol and St. John's. Now, it seemed to Constance that the men they passed were of a finer race. She noticed plenty of tall fellows, with broad shoulders, and the look of keen-bitten health.
"Look at that pair coming!" she said to Annette. "That's better!"
The next moment, she stopped, confused, eyes wide, lips parted. For the taller of the two had taken off his cap, and stood towering and smiling in her path. A young man, of about six foot three, magnificently made, thin with the leanness of an athlete in training,—health, power, self-confidence, breathing from his joyous looks and movements—was surveying her. His lifted cap showed a fine head covered with thick brown curls. The face was long, yet not narrow; the cheek-bones rather high, the chin conspicuous. The eyes—very dark and heavily lidded—were set forward under strongly marked eyebrows; and both they, the straight nose with its close nostrils, and the red mouth, seemed to be drawn in firm yet subtle strokes on the sunburnt skin, as certain Dutch and Italian painters define the features of their sitters in a containing outline as delicate as it is unfaltering. The aspect of this striking person was that of a young king of men, careless, audacious, good-humoured; and Constance Bledlow's expression, as she held out her hand to him, betrayed, much against her will, that she was not indifferent to the sight of him.
"Well met, indeed!" said the young man, the gaiety in his look, a gaiety full of meaning, measuring itself against the momentary confusion in hers. "I have been hoping to hear of you—for a long time!—Lady Constance. Are you with the—the Hoopers—is it?"
"I am staying with my uncle and aunt. I only arrived yesterday." The girl's manner had become, in a few seconds, little less than repellent.
"Well, Oxford's lively. You'll find lots going on. The Eights begin the day after to-morrow, and I've got my people coming up. I hope you'll let Mrs. Hooper bring you to tea to meet them? Oh, by the way, do you know Meyrick? I think you must have met him." He turned to his companion, a fair-haired giant, evidently his junior. "Lord Meyrick—Lady Constance Bledlow. Will you come, Lady Connie?"
"I don't know what my aunt's engagements are," said Constance stiffly.
The trio had withdrawn into the shade of a wide doorway belonging to an old Oxford inn. Annette was looking at the windows of the milliner's shop next door.
"My mother shall do everything that is polite—everything in the world! And when may I come to call? You have no faith in my manners, I know!" laughed the young man. "How you did sit upon me at Cannes!" And again his brilliant eyes, fixed upon her, seemed to be saying all sorts of unspoken things.
"How has he been behaving lately?" said Constance drily, turning to Lord Meyrick, who stood grinning.
"Just as usual! He's generally mad. Don't depend on him for anything. But I hope you'll let me do anything I can for you! I should be only too happy."
The girl perceived the eager admiration with which the young fellow was regarding her, and her face relaxed.
"Thank you very much. Of course I know all about Mr. Falloden! At Cannes, we made a league to keep him in order."
Falloden protested vehemently that he had been a persecuted victim at Cannes; the butt of Lady Connie and all her friends.
Constance, however, cut the speech short by a careless nod and good-bye, beckoned to Annette and was moving away, when he placed himself before her.
"But I hope we shall meet this very night—shan't we?—at the Vice-Chancellor's party?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, but of course you will be there! The Hoopers are quite sure to bring you. It's at St. Hubert's. Some old swell is coming down. The gardens are terribly romantic—and there'll be a moon. One can get away from all the stuffy people. Do come!"
He gave her a daring look.
"Good-bye," said Constance again, with a slight decided gesture, which made him move out of her way.
In a few moments, she and her maid were lost to sight on the crowded pavement.
Falloden threw back his head and laughed, as he and Lord Meyrick pursued the opposite direction. But he said nothing. Meyrick, his junior by two years, who was now his most intimate friend in the Varsity, ventured at last on the remark—
"Very good-looking! But she was certainly not very civil to you, Duggy!"
Falloden flushed hotly.
"You think she dislikes me? I'll bet you anything you please she'll be at the party to-night."
* * * * *
Constance and her maid hurried home along the Broad. The girl perceived little or nothing on the way; but her face was crossed by a multitude of expressions, which meant a very active brain. Perhaps sarcasm or scorn prevailed, yet mingled sometimes with distress or perplexity.
The sight of the low gabled front of Medburn. House recalled her thoughts. She remembered her purchases and Nora's disapproving eyes. It would be better to go and beard her uncle at once. But just as she approached the house, she became aware of a slenderly built man in flannels coming out of the gates of St. Cyprian's, the college of which the gate and outer court stood next door to the Hoopers.
He saw her, stopped with a start of pleasure, and came eagerly towards her.
"Lady Constance! Where have you sprung from? Oh, I know—you are with the Hoopers! Have you been here long?"
They shook hands, and Constance obediently answered the newcomer's questions. She seemed indeed to like answering them, and nothing could have been more courteous and kind than his manner of asking them. He was clearly a senior man, a don, who, after a strenuous morning of lecturing, was hurrying—in the festal Eights week—to meet some friends on the river. His face was one of singular charm, the features regular, the skin a pale olive, the hair and eyes intensely black. Whereas Falloden's features seemed to lie, so to speak, on the surface, the mouth and eyes scarcely disturbing the general level of the face mask—no indentation in the chin, and no perceptible hollow tinder the brow,—this man's eyes were deeply sunk, and every outline of the face—cheeks, chin and temples—chiselled and fined away into an almost classical perfection. The man's aspect indeed was Greek, and ought only to have expressed the Greek blitheness, the Greek joy in life. But, in truth, it was a very modern and complex soul that breathed from both face and form.
Constance had addressed him as "Mr. Sorell." He turned to walk with her to her door, talking eagerly. He was asking her about various friends in whose company they had last met—apparently at Rome; and he made various references to "your mother," which Constance accepted gently, as though they pleased her.
They paused at the Hoopers' door.
"But when can I see you?" he asked. "Has Mrs. Hooper a day at home? Will you come to lunch with me soon? I should like to show you my rooms. I have some of those nice things we bought at Syracuse—your father and I—do you remember? And I have a jolly look out over the garden. When will you come?"
"When you like. But chaperons seem to be necessary!"
"Oh, I can provide one—any number! Some of the wives of our married fellows are great friends of mine. I should like you to know them. But wouldn't Mrs. Hooper bring you?"
"Will you write to her?"
He looked a little confused.
"Of course I know your uncle very well. He and I work together in many things. May I come and call?"
"Of course you may!" She laughed again, with that wilful sound in the laugh which he remembered. He wondered how she was going to get on at the Hoopers. Mrs. Hooper's idiosyncrasies were very generally known. He himself had always given both Mrs. Hooper and her eldest daughter a wide berth in the social gatherings of Oxford. He frankly thought Mrs. Hooper odious, and had long since classed Miss Alice as a stupid little thing with a mild talent for flirtation.
Then, as he held out his hand to say good-bye, he suddenly remembered the Vice-Chancellor's party.
"By the way, there's a big function to-night. You're going, of course? Oh, yes—make them take you! I hadn't meant to go—but now I shall—on the chance!"
He grasped her hand, holding it a little. Then he was gone, and the Hoopers' front door swung suddenly wide, opened by some one invisible.
Connie, a little flushed and excited, stepped into the hall, and there perceived Mrs. Hooper behind the door.
"You are rather late, Constance," said that lady coldly. "But, of course, it doesn't matter. The servants are at their dinner still, so I opened the door. So you know Mr. Sorell?"
From which Constance perceived that her aunt had observed her approach to the house, in Mr. Sorell's company, through the little side window of the hall. She straightened her shoulders impatiently.
"My father and mother knew him in Rome, Aunt Ellen. He used to come to our apartment. Is Uncle Ewen in the study? I want to speak to him."
She knocked and went in. Standing with her back to the door she said abruptly—
"I hope you won't mind, Uncle Ewen, but I've been buying a few things we want, for my room and Annette's. When I go, of course they can be turned out. But may I tell the shop now to send them in?"
The Reader turned in some embarrassment, his spectacles on his nose.
"My dear girl, anything to make you comfortable! But I wish you had consulted me. Of course, we would have got anything you really wanted."
"Oh, that would have been dreadfully unfair!" laughed Constance. "It's my fault, you see. I've got far too many dresses. One seemed not to be able to do without them at Cannes."
"Well, you won't want so many here," said Dr. Ewen cheerfully, as he rose from his table crowded with books. "We're all pretty simple at Oxford. We ought to be of course—even our guests. It's a place of training." He dropped a Greek word absently, putting away his papers the while, and thinking of the subject with which he had just been busy. Constance opened the door again to make her escape, but the sound recalled Dr. Ewen's thoughts.
"My dear—has your aunt asked you? We hope you'll come with us to the Vice-Chancellor's party to-night. I think it would interest you. After all, Oxford's not like other places. I think you said last night you knew some undergraduates—"
"I know Mr. Falloden of Marmion," said Constance, "and Mr. Sorell."
The Reader's countenance broke into smiles.
"Sorell? The dearest fellow in the world! He and I help each other a good deal, though of course we differ—and fight—sometimes. But that's the salt of life. Yes, I remember, your mother used to mention Sorell in her letters. Well, with those two and ourselves, you'll have plenty of starting-points. Ah, luncheon!" For the bell rang, and sent Constance hurrying upstairs to take off her things.
As she washed her hands, her thoughts were very busy with the incidents of her morning's walk. The colours had suddenly freshened in the Oxford world. No doubt she had expected them to freshen; but hardly so soon. A tide of life welled up in her—a tide of pleasure. And as she stood a moment beside the open window of her room before going down, looking at the old Oxford garden just beneath her, and the stately college front beyond, Oxford itself began to capture her, touching her magically, insensibly, as it had touched the countless generations before her. She was the child of two scholars, and she had been brought up in a society both learned and cosmopolitan, traversed by all the main currents and personalities of European politics, but passionate all the same for the latest find in the Forum, the newest guesses in criticism, for any fresh light that the present could shed upon the past. And when she looked back upon the moments of those Roman years which had made the sharpest mark upon her, she saw three figures stand out—her gracious and graceful mother; her father, student and aristocrat, so eagerly occupied with life that he had scarcely found the time to die; and Mr. Sorell, her mother's friend, and then her own. Together—all four—they had gone to visit the Etruscan tombs about Viterbo, they had explored Norba and Ninfa, and had spent a marvellous month at Syracuse.
"And I have never seen him since papa's death!—and I have only heard from him twice. I wonder why?" She pondered it resentfully. And yet what cause of offence had she? At Cannes, had she thought much about him? In that scene, so troubled and feverish, compared with the old Roman days, there had been for her, as she well knew, quite another dominating figure.
"Just the same!" she thought angrily. "Just as domineering—and provoking. Boggling about Uncle Ewen's name, as if it was not worth his remembering! I shall compel him to be civil to my relations, just because it will annoy him so much."
At lunch Constance declared prettily that she would be delighted to go to the Vice-Chancellor's party. Nora sat silent through the meal.
After lunch, Connie went to talk to her aunt about the incoming furniture. Mrs. Hooper made no difficulties at all. The house had long wanted these additions, only there had been no money to buy them with. Now Mrs. Hooper felt secretly certain that Constance, when she left them, would not want to take the things with her, so that she looked on Connie's purchases of the morning as her own prospective property.
A furniture van appeared early in the afternoon with the things. Nora hovered about the hall, severely dumb, while they were being carried upstairs. Annette gave all the directions.
But when later on Connie was sitting at her new writing-table contemplating her transformed room with a childish satisfaction, Nora knocked and came in.
She walked up to Connie, and stood looking down upon her. She was very red, and her eyes sparkled.
"I want to tell you that I am disappointed in you—dreadfully disappointed in you!" said the girl fiercely.
"What do you mean!" Constance rose in amazement.
"Why didn't you insist on my father's buying these things? You ought to have insisted. You pay us a large sum, and you had a right. Instead, you have humiliated us—because you are rich, and we are poor! It was mean—and purse-proud."
"How dare you say such things?" cried Connie. "You mustn't come into my room at all, if you are going to behave like this. You know very well I didn't do it unkindly. It is you who are unkind! But of course it doesn't matter. You don't understand. You are only a child!" Her voice shook.
"I am not a child!" said Nora indignantly. "And I believe I know a great deal more about money than you do—because you have never been poor. I have to keep all the accounts here, and make mother and Alice pay their debts. Father, of course, is always too busy to think of such things. Your money is dreadfully useful to us. I wish it wasn't. But I wanted to do what was honest—if you had only given me time. Then you slipped out and did it!"
Constance stared in bewilderment.
"Are you the mistress in this house?" she said.
Nora nodded. Her colour had all faded away, and her breath was coming quick. "I practically am," she said stoutly.
"At seventeen?" asked Connie, ironically.
Nora nodded again.
Connie turned away, and walked to the window. She was enraged with Nora, whose attack upon her seemed quite inexplicable and incredible. Then, all in a moment, a bitter forlornness overcame her. Nora, standing by the table, and already pierced with remorse, saw her cousin's large eyes fill with tears. Connie sat down with her face averted. But Nora—trembling all over—perceived that she was crying. The next moment, the newcomer found Nora kneeling beside her, in the depths of humiliation and repentance.
"I am a beast!—a horrid beast! I always am. Oh, please, please don't cry!"
"You forget"—said Connie, with difficulty—"how I—how I miss my mother!"
And she broke into a fit of weeping. Nora, beside herself with self-disgust, held her cousin embraced, and tried to comfort her. And presently, after an agitated half-hour, each girl seemed to herself to have found a friend. Reserve had broken; they had poured out confidences to each other; and after the thunder and the shower came the rainbow of peace.
Before Nora departed, she looked respectfully at the beautiful dress of white satin, draped with black, which Annette had laid out upon the bed in readiness for the Vice-Chancellor's party.
"It will suit you perfectly!" she said, still eager to make up. Then—eyeing Constance—
"You know, of course, that you are good-looking?"
"I am not hideous—I know that," said Constance, laughing. "You odd girl!"
"We have heard often how you were admired in Rome. I wonder—don't be offended!"—said Nora, bluntly—"have you ever been in love?"
"Never!" The reply was passionately prompt.
Nora looked thoughtful.
"Perhaps you don't know whether you were or not. Girls get so dreadfully mixed up. But I am sure people—men—have been in love with you."
"Well, of course!" said Connie, with the same emphatic gaiety.
Nora opened her eyes.
"'Of course?' But I know heaps of girls with whom nobody has ever been in love!"
As soon as she was alone, Connie locked her door, and walked restlessly up and down her room, till by sheer movement she had tamed a certain wild spirit within her let loose by Nora's question. And as she walked, the grey Oxford walls, the Oxford lilacs and laburnums, vanished from perception. She was in another scene. Hot sun—gleaming orange-gardens and blue sea—bare-footed, black-eyed children—and a man beside her, on whom she has been showering epithets that would have shamed—surely!—any other human being in the world. Tears of excitement are in her eyes; in his a laughing triumph mixed with astonishment.
"But, now—" she thinks, drawing herself up, erect and tense, her hands behind her head; "now, I am ready for him. Let him try such ways again—if he dare!"
The party given at St. Hubert's on this evening in the Eights week was given in honour of a famous guest—the Lord Chancellor of the day, one of the strongest members of a strong Government, of whom St. Hubert's, which had nurtured him through his four academic years, was quite inordinately proud. It was very seldom that their great nursling was able or willing to revisit the old nest. But the head of the college, who had been in the same class-list and rowed in the same boat with the politician, was now Vice-Chancellor of the University; and the greater luminary had come to shine upon the lesser, by way of heightening the dignity of both. For the man who has outsoared his fellows likes to remind himself by contrast of his callow days, before the hungry and fighting impulses had driven him down—a young eaglet—upon the sheepfolds of law and politics; while to the majority of mankind, even to-day, hero-worship, when it is not too exacting, is agreeable.
So all Oxford had been bidden. The great hall of St. Hubert's, with its stately portraits and its emblazoned roof, had been adorned with flowers and royally lit up. From the hills round Oxford the "line of festal light" made by its Tudor windows, in which gleamed the escutcheons of three centuries, could have been plainly seen. The High Street was full of carriages, and on the immaculate grass of the great quadrangle, groups of the guests, the men in academic costume, the women in the airiest and gayest of summer dresses, stood to watch the arrivals. The evening was clear and balmy; moonrise and dying day disputed the sky; and against its pale blue still scratched over with pale pink shreds and wisps of cloud, the grey college walls, battlemented and flecked with black, rose warmed and transfigured by that infused and golden summer in which all, Oxford lay bathed. Through open gateways there were visions of green gardens, girdled with lilacs and chestnuts; and above the quadrangle towered the crocketed spire of St. Mary's, ethereally wrought, it seemed, in ebony and silver, the broad May moon behind it. Within the hall, the guests were gathering fast. The dais of the high table was lit by the famous candelabra bequeathed to the college under Queen Anne; a piano stood ready, and a space had been left for the college choir who were to entertain the party. In front of the dais in academic dress stood the Vice-Chancellor, a thin, silver-haired man, with a determined mouth, such as befitted the champion of a hundred orthodoxies; and beside him his widowed sister, a nervous and rather featureless lady who was helping him to receive. The guest of the evening had not yet appeared.
Mr. Sorell, in a master's gown, stood talking with a man, also in a master's gown, but much older than himself, a man with a singular head—both flat and wide—scanty reddish hair, touched with grey, a massive forehead, pale blue eyes, and a long pointed chin. Among the bright colours of so many of the gowns around him—the yellow and red of the doctors of law, the red and black of the divines, the red and white of the musicians—this man's plain black was conspicuous. Every one who knew Oxford knew why this eminent scholar and theologian had never become a doctor of divinity. The University imposes one of her few remaining tests on her D.D's; Mr. Wenlock, Master of Beaumont, had never been willing to satisfy it, so he remained undoctored. When he preached the University sermon he preached in the black gown; while every ambitious cleric who could put a thesis together could flaunt his red and black in the Vice-Chancellor's procession on Sundays in the University church. The face was one of mingled irony and melancholy, and there came from it sometimes the strangest cackling laugh.
"Well, you must show me this phoenix," he was saying in a nasal voice to Sorell, who had been talking eagerly. "Young women of the right sort are rare just now."
"What do you call the right sort, Master?"
"Oh, my judgment doesn't count. I only ask to be entertained."
"Well, talk to her of Rome, and see if you are not pleased."
The Master shrugged his shoulders.
"They can all do it—the clever sort. They know too much about the Forum. They make me wish sometimes that Lanciani had never been born."
"This girl is not a pedant."
"I take your word. And of course I remember her father. No pedantry there. And all the scholarship that could be possibly expected from an earl. Ah, is this she?"
For in the now crowded hall, filled with the chatter of many voices, a group was making its way from the doorway, on one member of which many curious eyes had been already turned. In front came Mrs. Hooper, spectacled, her small nose in air, the corners of her mouth sharply drawn down. Then Dr. Ewen, grey-haired, tall and stooping; then Alice, pretty, self-conscious, provincial, and spoilt by what seemed an inherited poke; and finally a slim and stately young person in white satin, who carried her head and her long throat with a remarkable freedom and self-confidence. The head was finely shaped, and the eyes brilliant; but in the rest of the face the features were so delicate, the mouth, especially, so small and subtle, as to give a first impression of insignificance. The girl seemed all eyes and neck, and the coils of brown hair wreathed round the head were disproportionately rich and heavy. The Master observing her said to himself—"No beauty!" Then she smiled—at Sorell apparently, who was making his way towards her—and the onlooker hurriedly suspended judgment. He noticed also that no one who looked at her could help looking again; and that the nervous expression natural to a young girl, who realises that she is admired but that policy and manners forbid her to show any pleasure in the fact, was entirely absent.
"She is so used to all her advantages that she forgets them," thought the Master, adding with an inward smile—"but if we forgot them—perhaps that would be another matter! Yes—she is like her mother—but taller."
For on that day ten years earlier, when Ella Risborough had taken Oxford by storm, she and Lord Risborough had found time to look in on the Master for twenty minutes, he and Lord Risborough having been frequent correspondents on matters of scholarship for some years. And Lady Risborough had chattered and smiled her way through the Master's lonely house—he had only just been appointed head of his college and was then unmarried—leaving a deep impression.
"I must make friends with her," he thought, following Ella Risborough's daughter with his eyes. "There are some gaps to fill up."
He meant in the circle of his girl protegees. For the Master had a curious history, well known in Oxford. He had married a cousin of his own, much younger than himself; and after five years they had separated, for reasons undeclared. She was now dead, and in his troubled blue eyes there were buried secrets no one would ever know. But under what appeared to a stranger to be a harsh, pedantic exterior the Master carried a very soft heart and an invincible liking for the society of young women. Oxford about this time was steadily filling with girl students, who were then a new feature in its life. The Master was a kind of queer patron saint among them, and to a chosen three or four, an intimate mentor and lasting friend. His sixty odd years, and the streaks of grey in his red straggling locks, his European reputation as a scholar and thinker, his old sister, and his quiet house, forbade the slightest breath of scandal in connection with these girl-friendships. Yet the girls to whom the Master devoted himself, whose essays he read, whose blunders he corrected, whose schools he watched over, and in whose subsequent love affairs he took the liveliest interest, were rarely or never plain to look upon. He chose them for their wits, but also for their faces. His men friends observed it with amusement. The little notes he wrote them, the birthday presents he sent them—generally some small worn copy of a French or Latin classic—his coveted invitations, or congratulations, were all marked by a note of gallantry, stately and old-fashioned like the furniture of his drawing-room, but quite different from anything he ever bestowed upon the men students of his college.
Of late he had lost two of his chief favourites. One, a delicious creature, with a head of auburn hair and a real talent for writing verse, had left Oxford suddenly to make a marriage so foolish that he really could not forgive her or put up with her intolerable husband; and the other, a muse, with the brow of one and the slenderest hand and foot, whom he and others were hopefully piloting towards a second class at least—possibly a first—in the Honour Classical School, had broken down in health, so that her mother and a fussy doctor had hurried her away to a rest-cure in Switzerland, and thereby slit her academic life and all her chances of fame. Both had been used to come—independently—for the Master was in his own, way far too great a social epicure to mix his pleasures—to tea on Sundays; to sit on one side of a blazing fire, while the Master sat on the other, a Persian cat playing chaperon on the rug between, and the book-lined walls of the Master's most particular sanctum looking down upon them; while in the drawing-room beyond, Miss Wenlock, at the tea-table, sat patiently waiting till her domestic god should declare the seance over, allow her to make tea, and bring in the young and honoured guest. And now both charmers had vanished from the scene and had left no equals behind. The Master, who possessed the same sort of tact in training young women that Lord Melbourne showed in educating the girl-Queen, was left without his most engaging occupation.
Ah!—that good fellow, Sorell, was bringing her up to him.
"Master, Lady Constance would like to be introduced to you."
The Master was immensely flattered. Why should she wish to be introduced to such an old fogey? But there she was, smiling at him.
"You knew my father. I am sure you did!"
His elderly heart was touched, his taste captured at once. Sorell had engineered it all perfectly. His description of the girl had fired the Master; and his sketch of the Master in the girl's ear, as a kind of girlhood's arbiter, had amused and piqued her. "Yes, do introduce me! Will he ever ask me to tea? I should be so alarmed!"
It was all settled in a few minutes. Sunday was to see her introduction to the Master's inner circle, which met in summer, not between books and a blazing fire, but in the small college garden hidden amid the walls of Beaumont. Sorell was to bring her. The Master did not even go through the form of inviting either Mrs. Hooper or Miss Hooper. In all such matters he was a chartered libertine and did what he pleased.
Then he watched her in what seemed something of a triumphal progress through the crowded hall. He saw the looks of the girl students from the newly-organised women's colleges—as she passed—a little askance and chill; he watched a Scotch metaphysical professor, with a fiery face set in a mass of flaming hair and beard, which had won him the nickname from his philosophical pupils of "the devil in a mist," forcing an introduction to her; he saw the Vice-Chancellor graciously unbending, and man after man come up among the younger dons to ask Sorell to present them. She received it all with a smiling and nonchalant grace, perfectly at her ease, it seemed, and ready to say the right thing to young and old. "It's the training they get—the young women of her sort—that does it," thought the Master. "They are in society from their babyhood. Our poor, battered aristocracy—the Radicals have kicked away all its natural supports, and left it dans l'air; but it can still teach manners and the art to please. The undergraduates, however, seem shy of her."
For although among the groups of men, who stood huddled together mostly at the back of the room, many eyes were turned upon the newcomer, no one among them approached her. She held her court among the seniors, as no doubt, thought the Master, she had been accustomed to do from the days of her short frocks. He envisaged the apartment in the Palazzo Barberini whereof the fame had often reached Oxford, for the Risboroughs held open house there for the English scholar and professor on his travels. He himself had not been in Rome for fifteen years, and had never made the Risboroughs' acquaintance in Italy. But the kind of society which gathers round the English peer of old family who takes an apartment in Rome or Florence for the winter was quite familiar to him—the travelling English men and women of the same class, diplomats of all nations, high ecclesiastics, a cardinal or two, the heads of the great artistic or archaeological schools, Americans, generals, senators, deputies—with just a sprinkling of young men. A girl of this girl's age and rank would have many opportunities, of course, of meeting young men, in the free and fascinating life of the Roman spring, but primarily her business in her mother's salon would have been to help her mother, to make herself agreeable to the older men, and to gather her education—in art, literature, and politics—as a coming woman of the world from their talk. The Master could see her smiling on a monsignore, carrying tea to a cardinal, or listening to the Garibaldian tales of some old veteran of the Risorgimento.
"It is an education—of its own kind," he thought. "Is it worth more or less than other kinds?"
And he looked round paternally on some of the young girl students then just penetrating Oxford; fresh, pleasant faces—little positive beauty—and on many the stamp, already prematurely visible, of the anxieties of life for those who must earn a livelihood. Not much taste in dress, which was often clumsy and unbecoming; hair, either untidy, or treated as an enemy, scraped back, held in, the sole object being to take as little time over it as possible; and, in general, the note upon them all of an educated and thrifty middle-class. His feelings, his sympathies, were all with them. But the old gallant in him was stirred by the tall figure in white satin, winding its graceful way through the room and conquering as it went.
"Ah—now that fellow, Herbert Pryce, has got hold of her, of course! If ever there was a climber!—But what does Miss Hooper say?"
And retreating to a safe corner the Master watched with amusement the flattering eagerness with which Mr. Pryce, who was a fellow of his own college, was laying siege to the newcomer. Pryce was rapidly making a great name for himself as a mathematician. "And is a second-rate fellow, all the same," thought the Master, contemptuously, being like Uncle Ewen a classic of the classics. But the face of little Alice Hooper, which he caught from time to time, watching—with a strained and furtive attention—the conversation between Pryce and her cousin, was really a tragedy; at least a tragi-comedy. Some girls are born to be supplanted!
But who was it Sorell was, introducing to her now?—to the evident annoyance of Mr. Pryce, who must needs vacate the field. A striking figure of a youth! Golden hair, of a wonderful ruddy shade, and a clear pale face; powerfully though clumsily made; and with a shy and sensitive expression.
The Master turned to enquire of a Christ Church don who had come up to speak to him.
"Who is that young man with a halo like the 'Blessed Damosel'?"
"Talking to Lady Constance Bledlow? Oh, don't you know? He is Sorell's protege, Radowitz, a young musician—and poet!—so they say. Sorell discovered him in Paris, made great friends with him, and then persuaded him to come and take the Oxford musical degree. He is at Marmion, where the dons watch over him. But they say he has been abominably ragged by the rowdy set in college—led by that man Falloden. Do you know him?"
"The fellow who got the Ireland last year?"
The other nodded.
"As clever and as objectionable as they make 'em! Ah, here comes our great man!"
For amid a general stir, the Lord Chancellor had made his entrance, and was distributing greetings, as he passed up the hall, to his academic contemporaries and friends. He was a tall, burly man, with a strong black head and black eyes under bushy brows, combined with an infantile mouth and chin, long and happily caricatured in all the comic papers. But in his D.C.L. gown he made a very fine appearance; assembled Oxford was proud of him as one of the most successful of her sons; and his progress toward the dais was almost royal.
Suddenly, his voice—a famous voix d'or, well known in the courts and in Parliament—was heard above the general buzz. It spoke in astonishment and delight.
"Lady Constance! where on earth have you sprung from? Well, this is a pleasure!"
And Oxford looked on amused while its distinguished guest shook a young lady in white by both hands, asking eagerly a score of questions, which he would hardly allow her to answer. The young lady too was evidently pleased by the meeting; her face had flushed and lit up; and the bystanders for the first time thought her not only graceful and picturesque, but positively handsome.
"Ewen!" said Mrs. Hooper angrily in her husband's ear, "why didn't Connie tell us she knew Lord Glaramara! She let me talk about him to her—and never said a word!—a single word!"
Ewen Hooper shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm sure I don't know, my dear."
Mrs. Hooper turned to her daughter who had been standing silent and neglected beside her, suffering, as her mother well knew, torments of wounded pride and feeling. For although Herbert Pryce had been long since dismissed by Connie, he had not yet returned to the side of the eldest Miss Hooper.
"I don't like such ways," said Mrs. Hooper, with sparkling eyes. "It was ill-bred and underhanded of Connie not to tell us at once—I shall certainly speak to her about it!"
"It makes us look such fools," said Alice, her mouth pursed and set. "I told Mr. Pryce that Connie knew no one to-night, except Mr. Sorell and Mr. Falloden."
* * * * *
The hall grew more crowded; the talk more furious. Lord Glaramara insisted, with the wilfulness of the man who can do as he pleases, that Constance Bledlow—whoever else came and went—should stay beside him.
"You can't think what I owed to her dear people in Rome three years ago!" he said to the Vice-Chancellor. "I adored her mother! And Constance is a charming child. She and I made great friends. Has she come to live in Oxford for a time? Lucky Oxford! What—with the Hoopers? Don't know 'em. I shall introduce her to some of my particular allies."
Which he did in profusion, so that Constance found herself bewildered by a constant stream of new acquaintances—fellows, professors, heads of colleges—of various ages and types, who looked at her with amused and kindly eyes, talked to her for a few pleasant minutes and departed, quite conscious that they had added a pebble to the girl's pile and delighted to do it.
"It is your cousin, not the Lord Chancellor, who is the guest of the evening!" laughed Herbert Pryce, who had made his way back at last to Alice Hooper. "I never saw such a success!"
Alice tossed her head in a petulant silence; and a madrigal by the college choir checked any further remarks from Mr. Pryce. After the madrigal came a general move for refreshments, which were set out in the college library and in the garden. The Lord Chancellor must needs offer his arm to his host's sister, and lead the way. The Warden followed, with the wife of the Dean of Christ Church, and the hall began to thin. Lord Glaramara looked back, smiling and beckoning to Constance, as though to say—"Don't altogether desert me!"
But a voice—a tall figure—interposed—
"Lady Constance, let me take you into the garden? It's much nicer than upstairs."
A slight shiver ran, unseen, through the girl's frame. She wished to say no; she tried to say no. And instead she looked up—haughty, but acquiescent.
And she followed Douglas Falloden through the panelled passage outside the hall leading to the garden. Sorell, who had hurried up to find her, arrived in time to see her disappearing through the lights and shadows of the moonlit lawn.
* * * * *
"We can do this sort of thing pretty well, can't we? It's banal because it happens every year, and because it's all mixed up with salmon mayonnaise, and cider-cup—and it isn't banal, because it's Oxford!"
Constance was sitting under the light shadow of a plane-tree, not yet fully out; Falloden was stretched on the grass at her feet. Before her ran a vast lawn which had taken generations to make; and all round it, masses of flowering trees, chestnuts, lilacs, laburnums, now advancing, now receding, made inlets or promontories of the grass, turned into silver by the moonlight. At the furthest edge, through the pushing pyramids of chestnut blossom and the dim drooping gold of the laburnums, could be seen the bastions and battlements of the old city wall, once a fighting reality, now tamed into the mere ornament and appendage of this quiet garden. Over the trees and over the walls rose the spires and towers of a wondrous city; while on the grass, or through the winding paths disappearing into bosky distances, flickered white dresses, and the slender forms of young men and maidens. A murmur of voices rose and fell on the warm night air; the sound of singing—the thin sweetness of boyish notes—came from the hall, whose decorated windows, brightly lit, shone out over the garden.
"It's Oxford—and it's Brahms," said Constance. "I seem to have known it all before in music: the trees—the lawn—the figures—appearing and disappearing—the distant singing—"
She spoke in a low, dreamy tone, her chin propped on her hand. Nothing could have been, apparently, quieter or more self-governed than her attitude. But her inner mind was full of tumult; resentful memory; uneasy joy; and a tremulous fear, both of herself and of the man at her feet. And the man knew it, or guessed it. He dragged himself a little nearer to her on the grass.
"Why didn't you tell me when you were coming?"
The tone was light and laughing.
"I owe you no account of my actions," said the girl quickly.
"We agreed to be friends."
"No! We are not friends." She spoke with suppressed violence, and breaking a twig from the tree overshadowing her, she threw it from her, as though the action were a relief.
He sat up, looking up into her face, his hands clasped round his knees.
"That means you haven't forgiven me?"
"It means that I judge and despise you," she said passionately; "and that it was not an attraction to me to find you here—quite the reverse!"
"Yet here you are—sitting with me in this garden—and you are looking delicious! That dress becomes you so—you are so graceful—so exquisitely graceful. And you never found a more perfect setting than this place—these lawns and trees—and the old college walls. Oxford was waiting for you, and you for Oxford. Are you laughing at me?"
"I could rave on by the hour if you would listen to me."
"We have both something better to do—thank goodness! May I ask if you are doing any work?"
"Ten hours a day. This is my first evening out since March. I came to meet you."
Constance bowed ironically. Then for the first time, since their conversation began, it might have been seen that she had annoyed him.
"Friends are not allowed to doubt each other's statements!" he said with animation. "You see I still persist that you allowed me that name, when—you refused me a better. As to my work, ask any of my friends. Talk to Meyrick. He is a dear boy, and will tell you anything you like. He and I 'dig' together in Beaumont Street. My schools are now only three weeks off. I work four hours in the morning. Then I play till six—and get in another six hours between then and 1 a.m."
"Wonderful!" said Constance coolly. "Your ways at Cannes were different. It's a mercy there's no Monte Carlo within reach."
"I play when I play, and work when I work!" he said with emphasis. "The only thing to hate and shun always—is moderation."
"And yet you call yourself a classic! Well, you seem to be sure of your First. At least Uncle Ewen says so."
"Ewen Hooper? He is a splendid fellow—a real Hellenist. He and I get on capitally. About your aunt—I am not so sure."
"Nobody obliges you to know her," was the tranquil reply.
"Ah!—but if she has the keeping of you! Are you coming to tea with me and my people? I have got a man in college to lend me his rooms. My mother and sister will be up for two nights. Very inconsiderate of them—with my schools coming on—but they would do it. Thursday?—before the Eights? Won't my mother be chaperon enough?"
"Certainly. But it only puts off the evil day."
"When I must grovel to Mrs. Hooper?—if I am to see anything of you? Splendid! You are trying to discipline me again—as you did at Cannes!"
In the semidarkness she could see the amusement in his eyes. Her own feeling, in its mingled weakness and antagonism, was that of the feebler wrestler just holding his ground, and fearing every moment to be worsted by some unexpected trick of the game. She gave no signs of it, however.
"I tried, and I succeeded!" she said, as she rose. "You found out that rudeness to my friends didn't answer! Shall we go and get some lemonade? Wasn't that why you brought me here? I think I see the tent."
They walked on together. She seemed to see—exultantly—that she had both angered and excited him.
"I am never rude," he declared. "I am only honest! Only nobody, in this mealy-mouthed world, allows you to be honest; to say and do exactly what represents you. But I shall not be rude to anybody under your wing. Promise me to come to tea, and I will appear to call on your aunt and behave like any sucking dove."
Constance considered it.
"Lady Laura must write to Aunt Ellen."
"Of course. Any other commands?"
"Not at present."
"Then let me offer some humble counsels in return. I beg you not to make friends with that red-haired poseur I saw you talking to in the hall."
"Mr. Radowitz!—the musician? I thought him delightful! He is coming to play to me to-morrow."
"Ah, I thought so!" said Falloden wrathfully. "He is an impossible person. He wears a frilled shirt, scents himself, and recites his own poems when he hasn't been asked. And he curries favour—abominably—with the dons. He is a smug—of the first water. There is a movement going on in college to suppress him. I warn you I may not be able to keep out of it."
"He is an artist!" cried Constance. "You have only to look at him, to talk to him, to see it. And artists are always persecuted by stupid people. But you are not stupid!"
"Yes, I am, where poseurs are concerned," said Falloden coldly. "I prefer to be. Never mind. We won't excite ourselves. He is not worth it. Perhaps he'll improve—in time. But there is another man I warn you against—Mr. Herbert Pryce."
"A great friend of my cousins'," said Constance mockingly.
"I know. He is always flirting with the eldest girl. It is a shame; for he will never marry her. He wants money and position, and he is so clever he will get them. He is not a gentleman, and he rarely tells the truth. But he is sure to make up to you. I thought I had better tell you beforehand."
"My best thanks! You breathe charity!"
"No—only prudence. And after my schools I throw my books to the dogs, and I shall have a fortnight more of term with nothing to do except—are you going to ride?" he asked her abruptly. "You said at Cannes that you meant to ride when you came to Oxford."
"My aunt doesn't approve."
"As if that would stop you! I can tell you where you can get a horse—a mare that would just suit you. I know all the stables in Oxford. Wait till we meet on Thursday. Would you care to ride in Lathom Woods? (He named a famous estate near Oxford.) I have a permit, and could get you one. They are relations of mine."
Constance excused herself, but scarcely with decision. Her plans, she said, must depend upon her cousins. Falloden smiled and dropped the subject for the moment. Then, as they moved on together through the sinuous ways of the garden, flooded with the scent of hawthorns and lilacs, towards the open tent crowded with folk at the farther end, there leapt in both the same intoxicating sense of youth and strength, the same foreboding of passion, half restlessness, and half enchantment....
* * * * *
"I looked for you everywhere," said Sorell, as he made his way to Constance through the crowd of departing guests in the college gateway. "Where did you hide yourself? The Lord Chancellor was sad not to say good-bye to you."
Constance summoned an answering tone of regret.
"How good of him! I was only exploring the garden—with Mr. Falloden."
At the name, there was a quick and stiffening change in Sorell's face.
"You knew him before? Yes—he told me. A queer fellow—very able. They say he'll get his First. Well—we shall meet at the Eights and then we'll make plans. Goodnight."
He smiled on her, and went his way, ruminating uncomfortably as he walked back to his college along the empty midnight streets. Falloden? It was to be hoped there was nothing in that! How Ella Risborough would have detested the type! But there was much that was not her mother in the daughter. He vowed to himself that he would do his small best to watch over Ella Risborough's child.