Lady Rose's Daughter
BY MRS. HUMPHRY WARD Author of "Eleanor" "Robert Elsmere" etc. etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY HOWARD CHANDLER CHRISTY
ILLUSTRATION "AS THOUGH SHE LISTENED STILL TO WORDS IN HER EARS" . . . . Frontispiece
"LADY HENRY LISTENED EAGERLY" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Facing p. 30
"'INDEED I WILL!' CRIED SIR WILFRID, AND THEY WALKED ON". . . . . . . 52
"LADY HENRY GASPED. SHE FELL BACK INTO HER CHAIR" . . . . . . . . . . 100
"HE ENTERED UPON A MERRY SCENE" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 242
"'FOR MY ROSE'S CHILD,' HE SAID, GENTLY". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 254
"HER HANDS CLASPED IN FRONT OF HER" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 356
"SHE FOUND HERSELF KNEELING BESIDE HIM" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 480
LADY ROSE'S DAUGHTER
"Hullo! No!—Yes!—upon my soul, it is Jacob! Why, Delafield, my dear fellow, how are you?"
So saying—on a February evening a good many years ago—an elderly gentleman in evening dress flung himself out of his cab, which had just stopped before a house in Bruton Street, and hastily went to meet a young man who was at the same moment stepping out of another hansom a little farther down the pavement.
The pleasure in the older man's voice rang clear, and the younger met him with an equal cordiality, expressed perhaps through a manner more leisurely and restrained.
"So you are home, Sir Wilfrid? You were announced, I saw. But I thought Paris would have detained you a bit."
"Paris? Not I! Half the people I ever knew there are dead, and the rest are uncivil. Well, and how are you getting on? Making your fortune, eh?"
And, slipping his arm inside the young man's, the speaker walked back with him, along a line of carriages, towards a house which showed a group of footmen at its open door. Jacob Delafield smiled.
"The business of a land agent seems to be to spend some one else's—as far as I've yet gone."
"Land agent! I thought you were at the bar?"
"I was, but the briefs didn't come in. My cousin offered me the care of his Essex estates. I like the country—always have. So I thought I'd better accept."
"What—the Duke? Lucky fellow! A regular income, and no anxieties. I expect you're pretty well paid?"
"Oh, I'm not badly paid," replied the young man, tranquilly. "Of course you're going to Lady Henry's?"
"Of course. Here we are."
The older man paused outside the line of servants waiting at the door, and spoke in a lower tone. "How is she? Failing at all?"
Jacob Delafield hesitated. "She's grown very blind—and perhaps rather more infirm, generally. But she is at home, as usual—every evening for a few people, and for a good many on Wednesdays."
"Is she still alone—or is there any relation who looks after her?"
"Relation? No. She detests them all."
Delafield raised his shoulders, without an answering smile. "Yes, she is good enough to except me. You're one of her trustees, aren't you?"
"At present, the only one. But while I have been in Persia the lawyers have done all that was necessary. Lady Henry herself never writes a letter she can help. I really have heard next to nothing about her for more than a year. This morning I arrived from Paris—sent round to ask if she would be at home—and here I am."
"Ah!" said Delafield, looking down. "Well, there is a lady who has been with her, now, for more than two years—"
"Ah, yes, yes, I remember. Old Lady Seathwaite told me—last year. Mademoiselle Le Breton—isn't that her name? What—she reads to her, and writes letters for her—that kind of thing?"
"Yes—that kind of thing," said the other, after a moment's hesitation. "Wasn't that a spot of rain? Shall I charge these gentry?"
And he led the way through the line of footmen, which, however, was not of the usual Mayfair density. For the party within was not a "crush." The hostess who had collected it was of opinion that the chief object of your house is not to entice the mob, but to keep it out. The two men mounted the stairs together.
"What a charming house!" said the elder, looking round him. "I remember when your uncle rebuilt it. And before that, I remember his mother, the old Duchess here, with her swarm of parsons. Upon my word, London tastes good—after Teheran!"
And the speaker threw back his fair, grizzled head, regarding the lights, the house, the guests, with the air of a sensitive dog on a familiar scent.
"Ah, you're fresh home," said Delafield, laughing. "But let's just try to keep you here—"
"My dear fellow, who is that at the top of the stairs?"
The old diplomat paused. In front of the pair some half a dozen guests were ascending, and as many coming down. At the top stood a tall lady in black, receiving and dismissing.
Delafield looked up.
"That is Mademoiselle Le Breton," he said, quietly.
"She distributes the guests. Lady Henry generally establishes herself in the back drawing-room. It doesn't do for her to see too many people at once. Mademoiselle arranges it."
"Lady Henry must indeed be a good deal more helpless that I remember her," murmured Sir Wilfrid, in some astonishment.
"She is, physically. Oh, no doubt of it! Otherwise you won't find much change. Shall I introduce you?"
They were approaching a woman whose tall slenderness, combined with a remarkable physiognomy, arrested the old man's attention. She was not handsome—that, surely, was his first impression? The cheek-bones were too evident, the chin and mouth too strong. And yet the fine pallor of the skin, the subtle black-and-white, in which, so to speak, the head and face were drawn, the life, the animation of the whole—were these not beauty, or more than beauty? As for the eyes, the carriage of the head, the rich magnificence of hair, arranged with an artful eighteenth-century freedom, as Madame Vigee Le Brun might have worn it—with the second glance the effect of them was such that Sir Wilfrid could not cease from looking at the lady they adorned. It was an effect as of something over-living, over-brilliant—an animation, an intensity, so strong that, at first beholding, a by-stander could scarcely tell whether it pleased him or no.
"Mademoiselle Le Breton—Sir Wilfrid Bury," said Jacob Delafield, introducing them.
"Is she French?" thought the old diplomat, puzzled. "And—have I ever seen her before?"
"Lady Henry will be so glad!" said a low, agreeable voice. "You are one of the old friends, aren't you? I have often heard her talk of you."
"You are very good. Certainly, I am an old friend—a connection also." There was the slightest touch of stiffness in Sir Wilfrid's tone, of which the next moment he was ashamed. "I am very sorry to hear that Lady Henry has grown so much more helpless since I left England."
"She has to be careful of fatigue. Two or three people go in to see her at a time. She enjoys them more so."
"In my opinion," said Delafield, "one more device of milady's for getting precisely what she wants."
The young man's gay undertone, together with the look which passed between him and Mademoiselle Le Breton, added to Sir Wilfrid's stifled feeling of surprise.
"You'll tell her, Jacob, that I'm here?" He turned abruptly to the young man.
"Certainly—when mademoiselle allows me. Ah, here comes the Duchess!" said Delafield, in another voice.
Mademoiselle Le Breton, who had moved a few steps away from the stair-head with Sir Wilfrid Bury, turned hastily. A slight, small woman, delicately fair and sparkling with diamonds, was coming up the stairs alone.
"My dear," said the new-comer, holding out her hands eagerly to Mademoiselle Le Breton, "I felt I must just run in and have a look at you. But Freddie says that I've got to meet him at that tiresome Foreign Office! So I can only stay ten minutes. How are you?"—then, in a lower voice, almost a whisper, which, however, reached Sir Wilfrid Bury's ears—"worried to death?"
Mademoiselle Le Breton raised eyes and shoulders for a moment, then, smiling, put her finger to her lip.
"You're coming to me to-morrow afternoon?" said the Duchess, in the same half-whisper.
"I don't think I can get away."
"Nonsense! My dear, you must have some air and exercise! Jacob, will you see she comes?"
"Oh, I'm no good," said that young man, turning away. "Duchess, you remember Sir Wilfrid Bury?"
"She would be an unnatural goddaughter if she didn't," said that gentleman, smiling. "She may be your cousin, but I knew her before you did."
The young Duchess turned with a start.
"Sir Wilfrid! A sight for sair een. When did you get back?"
She put her slim hands into both of his, and showered upon him all proper surprise and the greetings due to her father's oldest friend. Voice, gesture, words—all were equally amiable, well trained, and perfunctory—Sir Wilfrid was well aware of it. He was possessed of a fine, straw-colored mustache, and long eyelashes of the same color. Both eyelashes and mustache made a screen behind which, as was well known, their owner observed the world to remarkably good purpose. He perceived the difference at once when the Duchess, having done her social and family duty, left him to return to Mademoiselle Le Breton.
"It was such a bore you couldn't come this afternoon! I wanted you to see the babe dance—she's too great a duck! And that Canadian girl came to sing. The voice is magnificent—but she has some tiresome tricks!—and I didn't know what to say to her. As to the other music on the 16th—I say, can't we find a corner somewhere?" And the Duchess looked round the beautiful drawing-room, which she and her companions had just entered, with a dissatisfied air.
"Lady Henry, you'll remember, doesn't like corners," said Mademoiselle Le Breton, smiling. Her tone, delicately free and allusive, once more drew Sir Wilfrid's curious eyes to her, and he caught also the impatient gesture with which the Duchess received the remark.
"Ah, that's all right!" said Mademoiselle Le Breton, suddenly, turning round to himself. "Here is Mr. Montresor—going on, too, I suppose, to the Foreign Office. Now there'll be some chance of getting at Lady Henry."
Sir Wilfrid looked down the drawing-room, to see the famous War Minister coming slowly through the well-filled but not crowded room, stopping now and then to exchange a greeting or a farewell, and much hampered, as it seemed, in so doing, by a pronounced and disfiguring short-sight. He was a strongly built man of more than middle height. His iron-gray hair, deeply carved features, and cavernous black eyes gave him the air of power that his reputation demanded. On the other hand, his difficulty of eyesight, combined with the marked stoop of overwork, produced a qualifying impression—as of power teased and fettered, a Samson among the Philistines.
"My dear lady, good-night. I must go and fight with wild beasts in Whitehall—worse luck! Ah, Duchess! All very well—but you can't shirk either!"
So saying, Mr. Montresor shook hands with Mademoiselle Le Breton and smiled upon the Duchess—both actions betraying precisely the same degree of playful intimacy.
"How did you find Lady Henry?" said Mademoiselle Le Breton, in a lowered voice.
"Very well, but very cross. She scolds me perpetually—I haven't got a skin left. Ah, Sir Wilfrid!—very glad to see you! When did you arrive? I thought I might perhaps find you at the Foreign Office."
"I'm going on there presently," said Sir Wilfrid.
"Ah, but that's no good. Dine with me to-morrow night?—if you are free? Excellent!—that's arranged. Meanwhile—send him in, mademoiselle—send him in! He's fresh—let him take his turn." And the Minister, grinning, pointed backward over his shoulder towards an inner drawing-room, where the form of an old lady, seated in a wheeled invalid-chair between two other persons, could be just dimly seen.
"When the Bishop goes," said Mademoiselle Le Breton, with a laughing shake of the head. "But I told him not to stay long."
"He won't want to. Lady Henry pays no more attention to his cloth than to my gray hairs. The rating she has just given me for my speech of last night! Well, good-night, dear lady—good-night. You are better, I think?"
Mr. Montresor threw a look of scrutiny no less friendly than earnest at the lady to whom he was speaking; and immediately afterwards Sir Wilfrid, who was wedged in by an entering group of people, caught the murmured words:
"Consult me when you want me—at any time."
Mademoiselle Le Breton raised her beautiful eyes to the speaker in a mute gratitude.
"And five minutes ago I thought her plain!" said Sir Wilfrid to himself as he moved away. "Upon my word, for a dame de compagnie that young woman is at her ease! But where the deuce have I seen her, or her double, before?"
He paused to look round the room a moment, before yielding himself to one of the many possible conversations which, as he saw, it contained for him. It was a stately panelled room of the last century, furnished with that sure instinct both for comfort and beauty which a small minority of English rich people have always possessed. Two glorious Gainsboroughs, clad in the subtlest brilliance of pearly white and shimmering blue, hung on either side of the square opening leading to the inner room. The fair, clouded head of a girl, by Romney, looked down from the panelling above the hearth. A gowned abbe, by Vandyck, made the centre of another wall, facing the Gainsboroughs. The pictures were all famous, and had been associated for generations with the Delafield name. Beneath them the carpets were covered by fine eighteenth-century furniture, much of it of a florid Italian type subdued to a delicate and faded beauty by time and use. The room was cleverly broken into various circles and centres for conversation; the chairs were many and comfortable; flowers sheltered tete-a-tetes or made a setting for beautiful faces; the lamps were soft, the air warm and light. A cheerful hum of voices rose, as of talk enjoyed for talking's sake; and a general effect of intimacy, or gayety, of an unfeigned social pleasure, seemed to issue from the charming scene and communicate itself to the onlooker.
And for a few moments, before he was discovered and tumultuously annexed by a neighboring group, Sir Wilfrid watched the progress of Mademoiselle Le Breton through the room, with the young Duchess in her wake. Wherever she moved she was met with smiles, deference, and eager attention. Here and there she made an introduction, she redistributed a group, she moved a chair. It was evident that her eye was everywhere, that she knew every one; her rule appeared to be at once absolute and welcome. Presently, when she herself accepted a seat, she became, as Sir Wilfrid perceived in the intervals of his own conversation, the leader of the most animated circle in the room. The Duchess, with one delicate arm stretched along the back of Mademoiselle Le Breton's chair, laughed and chattered; two young girls in virginal white placed themselves on big gilt footstools at her feet; man after man joined the group that stood or sat around her; and in the centre of it, the brilliance of her black head, sharply seen against a background of rose brocade, the grace of her tall form, which was thin almost to emaciation, the expressiveness of her strange features, the animation of her gestures, the sweetness of her voice, drew the eyes and ears of half the room to Lady Henry's "companion."
Presently there was a movement in the distance. A man in knee-breeches and silver-buckled shoes emerged from the back drawing-room. Mademoiselle Le Breton rose at once and went to meet him.
"The Bishop has had a long innings," said an old general to Sir Wilfrid Bury. "And here is Mademoiselle Julie coming for you."
Sir Wilfrid rose, in obedience to a smiling sign from the lady thus described, and followed her floating black draperies towards the farther room.
"Who are those two persons with Lady Henry?" he asked of his guide, as they approached the penetralia where reigned the mistress of the house. "Ah, I see!—one is Dr. Meredith—but the other?"
"The other is Captain Warkworth," said Mademoiselle Le Breton. "Do you know him?"
"Warkworth—Warkworth? Ah—of course—the man who distinguished himself in the Mahsud expedition. But why is he home again so soon?"
Mademoiselle Le Breton smiled uncertainly.
"I think he was invalided home," she said, with that manner, at once restrained and gracious, that Sir Wilfrid had already observed in her. It was the manner of some one who counted; and—through all outward modesty—knew it.
"He wants something out of the ministry. I remember the man," was Sir Wilfrid's unspoken comment.
But they had entered the inner room. Lady Henry looked round. Over her wrinkled face, now parchment-white, there shone a ray of pleasure—sudden, vehement, and unfeigned.
She made a movement as though to rise from her chair, which was checked by his gesture and her helplessness.
"Well, this is good fortune," she said, as she put both her hands into both of his. "This morning, as I was dressing, I had a feeling that something agreeable was going to happen at last—and then your note came. Sit down there. You know Dr. Meredith. He's as quarrelsome as ever. Captain Warkworth—Sir Wilfrid Bury."
The square-headed, spectacled journalist addressed as Dr. Meredith greeted the new-comer with the quiet cordiality of one for whom the day holds normally so many events that it is impossible to make much of any one of them. And the man on the farther side of Lady Henry rose and bowed. He was handsome, and slenderly built. The touch of impetuosity in his movement, and the careless ease with which he carried his curly head, somehow surprised Sir Wilfrid. He had expected another sort of person.
"I will give you my chair," said the Captain, pleasantly. "I have had more than my turn."
"Shall I bring in the Duchess?" said Mademoiselle Le Breton, in a low tone, as she stooped over the back of Lady Henry's chair.
That lady turned abruptly to the speaker.
"Let her do precisely as she pleases," said a voice, sharp, lowered also, but imperious, like the drawing of a sword. "If she wants me, she knows where I am."
"She would be so sorry—"
"Ne jouez pas la comedie, ma chere! Where is Jacob?"
"In the other room. Shall I tell him you want him?"
"I will send for him when it suits me. Meanwhile, as I particularly desired you to let me know when he arrived—"
"He has only been here twenty minutes," murmured Mademoiselle Le Breton. "I thought while the Bishop was here you would not like to be disturbed—"
"You thought!" The speaker raised her shoulders fiercely. "Comme toujours, vous vous etes trop bien amusee pour vous souvenir de mes instructions—voila la verite! Dr. Meredith," the whole imperious form swung round again towards the journalist, "unless you forbid me, I shall tell Sir Wilfrid who it was reviewed his book for you."
"Oh, good Heavens! I forbid you with all the energy of which I am capable," said the startled journalist, raising appealing hands, while Lady Henry, delighted with the effect produced by her sudden shaft, sank back in her chair and grimly smiled.
Meanwhile Sir Wilfrid Bury's attention was still held by Mademoiselle Le Breton. In the conversation between her and Lady Henry he had noticed an extraordinary change of manner on the part of the younger lady. Her ease, her grace had disappeared. Her tone was humble, her manner quivering with nervous anxiety. And now, as she stood a moment behind Lady Henry's chair, one trembling hand steadying the other, Sir Wilfrid was suddenly aware of yet another impression. Lady Henry had treated her companion with a contemptuous and haughty ill-humor. Face to face with her mistress, Mademoiselle Le Breton had borne it with submission, almost with servility. But now, as she stood silent behind the blind old lady who had flouted her, her wonderfully expressive face, her delicate frame, spoke for her with an energy not to be mistaken. Her dark eyes blazed. She stood for anger; she breathed humiliation.
"A dangerous woman, and an extraordinary situation," so ran his thought, while aloud he was talking Central Asian politics and the latest Simla gossip to his two companions.
Meanwhile, Captain Warkworth and Mademoiselle Le Breton returned together to the larger drawing-room, and before long Dr. Meredith took his leave. Lady Henry and her old friend were left alone.
"I am sorry to hear that your sight troubles you more than of old," said Sir Wilfrid, drawing his chair a little nearer to her.
Lady Henry gave an impatient sigh. "Everything troubles me more than of old. There is one disease from which no one recovers, my dear Wilfrid, and it has long since fastened upon me."
"You mean old age? Oh, you are not so much to be pitied for that," said Sir Wilfrid, smiling. "Many people would exchange their youth for your old age."
"Then the world contains more fools than even I give it credit for!" said Lady Henry, with energy. "Why should any one exchange with me—a poor, blind, gouty old creature, with no chick or child to care whether she lives or dies?"
"Ah, well, that's a misfortune—I won't deny that," said Sir Wilfrid, kindly. "But I come home after three years. I find your house as thronged as ever, in the old way. I see half the most distinguished people in London in your drawing-room. It is sad that you can no longer receive them as you used to do: but here you sit like a queen, and people fight for their turn with you."
Lady Henry did not smile. She laid one of her wrinkled hands upon his arm.
"Is there any one else within hearing?" she said, in a quick undertone. Sir Wilfrid was touched by the vague helplessness of her gesture, as she looked round her.
"No one—we are quite alone."
"They are not here for me—those people," she said, quivering, with a motion of her hand towards the large drawing-room.
"My dear friend, what do you mean?"
"They are here—come closer, I don't want to be overheard—for a woman—whom I took in, in a moment of lunacy—who is now robbing me of my best friends and supplanting me in my own house."
The pallor of the old face had lost all its waxen dignity. The lowered voice hissed in his ear. Sir Wilfrid, startled and repelled, hesitated for his reply. Meanwhile, Lady Henry, who could not see it, seemed at once to divine the change in his expression.
"Oh, I suppose you think I'm mad," she said, impatiently, "or ridiculous. Well, see for yourself, judge for yourself. In fact, I have been looking, hungering, for your return. You have helped me through emergencies before now. And I am in that state at present that I trust no one, talk to no one, except of banalites. But I should be greatly obliged if you would come and listen to me, and, what is more, advise me some day."
"Most gladly," said Sir Wilfrid, embarrassed; then, after a pause, "Who is this lady I find installed here?"
Lady Henry hesitated, then shut her strong mouth on the temptation to speak.
"It is not a story for to-night," she said; "and it would upset me. But, when you first saw her, how did she strike you?"
"I saw at once," said her companion after a pause, "that you had caught a personality."
"A personality!" Lady Henry gave an angry laugh. "That's one way of putting it. But physically—did she remind you of no one?"
Sir Wilfrid pondered a moment.
"Yes. Her face haunted me, when I first saw it. But—no; no, I can't put any names."
Lady Henry gave a little snort of disappointment.
"Well, think. You knew her mother quite well. You have known her grandfather all your life. If you're going on to the Foreign Office, as I suppose you are, you'll probably see him to-night. She is uncannily like him. As to her father, I don't know—but he was a rolling-stone of a creature; you very likely came across him."
"I knew her mother and her father?" said Sir Wilfrid, astonished and pondering.
"They had no right to be her mother and her father," said Lady Henry, with grimness.
"Ah! So if one does guess—"
"You'll please hold your tongue."
"But at present I'm completely mystified," said Sir Wilfrid.
"Perhaps it'll come to you later. You've a good memory generally for such things. Anyway, I can't tell you anything now. But when'll you come again? To-morrow—luncheon? I really want you."
"Would you be alone?"
"Certainly. That, at least, I can still do—lunch as I please, and with whom I please. Who is this coming in? Ah, you needn't tell me."
The old lady turned herself towards the entrance, with a stiffening of the whole frame, an instinctive and passionate dignity in her whole aspect, which struck a thrill through her companion.
The little Duchess approached, amid a flutter of satin and lace, heralded by the scent of the Parma violets she wore in profusion at her breast and waist. Her eye glanced uncertainly, and she approached with daintiness, like one stepping on mined ground.
"Aunt Flora, I must have just a minute."
"I know no reason against your having ten, if you want them," said Lady Henry, as she held-out three fingers to the new-comer. "You promised yesterday to come and give me a full account of the Devonshire House ball. But it doesn't matter—and you have forgotten."
"No, indeed, I haven't," said the Duchess, embarrassed. "But you seemed so well employed to-night, with other people. And now—"
"Now you are going on," said Lady Henry, with a most unfriendly suavity.
"Freddie says I must," said the other, in the attitude of a protesting child.
"Alors!" said Lady Henry, lifting her hand. "We all know how obedient you are. Good-night!"
The Duchess flushed. She just touched her aunt's hand, and then, turning an indignant face on Sir Wilfrid, she bade him farewell with an air which seemed to him intended to avenge upon his neutral person the treatment which, from Lady Henry, even so spoiled a child of fortune as herself could not resent.
Twenty minutes later, Sir Wilfrid entered the first big room of the Foreign Office party. He looked round him with a revival of the exhilaration he had felt on Lady Henry's staircase, enjoying, after his five years in Teheran, after his long homeward journey by desert and sea, even the common trivialities of the scene—the lights, the gilding, the sparkle of jewels, the scarlet of the uniforms, the noise and movement of the well-dressed crowd. Then, after this first physical thrill, began the second stage of pleasure—the recognitions and the greetings, after long absence, which show a man where he stands in the great world, which sum up his past and forecast his future. Sir Wilfrid had no reason to complain. Cabinet ministers and great ladies, members of Parliament and the permanent officials who govern but do not rule, soldiers, journalists, barristers—were all glad, it seemed, to grasp him by the hand. He had returned with a record of difficult service brilliantly done, and the English world rewarded him in its accustomed ways.
It was towards one o'clock that he found himself in a crowd pressing towards the staircase in the wake of some departing royalties. A tall man in front turned round to look for some ladies behind him from whom he had been separated in the crush. Sir Wilfrid recognized old Lord Lackington, the veteran of marvellous youth, painter, poet, and sailor, who as a gay naval lieutenant had entertained Byron in the AEgean; whose fame as one of the raciest of naval reformers was in all the newspapers; whose personality was still, at seventy-five, charming to most women and challenging to most men.
As the old man turned, he was still smiling, as though in unison with something which had just been said to him; and his black eyes under his singularly white hair searched the crowd with the animation of a lad of twenty. Through the energy of his aspect the flame of life still burned, as the evening sun through a fine sky. The face had a faulty yet most arresting brilliance. The mouth was disagreeable, the chin common. But the general effect was still magnificent.
Sir Wilfrid started. He recalled the drawing-room in Bruton Street; the form and face of Mademoiselle Le Breton; the sentences by which Lady Henry had tried to put him on the track. His mind ran over past years, and pieced together the recollections of a long-past scandal. "Of course! Of course!" he said to himself, not without excitement. "She is not like her mother, but she has all the typical points of her mother's race."
It was a cold, clear morning in February, with a little pale sunshine playing on the bare trees of the Park. Sir Wilfrid, walking southward from the Marble Arch to his luncheon with Lady Henry, was gladly conscious of the warmth of his fur-collared coat, though none the less ready to envy careless youth as it crossed his path now and then, great-coatless and ruddy, courting the keen air.
Just as he was about to make his exit towards Mount Street he became aware of two persons walking southward like himself, but on the other side of the roadway. He soon identified Captain Warkworth in the slim, soldierly figure of the man. And the lady? There also, with the help of his glasses, he was soon informed. Her trim, black hat and her black cloth costume seemed to him to have a becoming and fashionable simplicity; and she moved in morning dress, with the same ease and freedom that had distinguished her in Lady Henry's drawing-room the night before.
He asked himself whether he should interrupt Mademoiselle Le Breton with a view to escorting her to Bruton Street. He understood, indeed, that he and Lady Henry were to be alone at luncheon; Mademoiselle Julie had, no doubt, her own quarters and attendants. But she seemed to be on her way home. An opportunity for some perhaps exploratory conversation with her before he found himself face to face with Lady Henry seemed to him not undesirable.
But he quickly decided to walk on. Mademoiselle Le Breton and Captain Warkworth paused in their walk, about no doubt to say good-bye, but, very clearly, loath to say it. They were, indeed, in earnest conversation. The Captain spoke with eagerness; Mademoiselle Julie, with downcast eyes, smiled and listened.
"Is the fellow making love to her?" thought the old man, in some astonishment, as he turned away. "Hardly the place for it either, one would suppose."
He vaguely thought that he would both sound and warn Lady Henry. Warn her of what? He happened on the way home to have been thrown with a couple of Indian officers whose personal opinion of Harry Warkworth was not a very high one, in spite of the brilliant distinction which the young man had earned for himself in the Afridi campaign just closed. But how was he to hand that sort of thing on to Lady Henry?—and because he happened to have seen her lady companion and Harry Warkworth together? No doubt Mademoiselle Julie was on her employer's business.
Yet the little encounter added somehow to his already lively curiosity on the subject of Lady Henry's companion. Thanks to a remarkable physical resemblance, he was practically certain that he had guessed the secret of Mademoiselle Le Breton's parentage. At any rate, on the supposition that he had, his thoughts began to occupy themselves with the story to which his guess pointed.
Some thirty years before, he had known, both in London and in Italy, a certain Colonel Delaney and his wife, once Lady Rose Chantrey, the favorite daughter of Lord Lackington. They were not a happy couple. She was a woman of great intelligence, but endowed with one of those natures—sensitive, plastic, eager to search out and to challenge life—which bring their possessors some great joys, hardly to be balanced against a final sum of pain. Her husband, absorbed in his military life, silent, narrowly able, and governed by a strict Anglicanism that seemed to carry with it innumerable "shalts" and "shalt nots," disagreeable to the natural man or woman, soon found her a tiring and trying companion. She asked him for what he could not give; she coquetted with questions he thought it impious to raise; the persons she made friends with were distasteful to him; and, without complaining, he soon grew to think it intolerable that a woman married to a soldier should care so little for his professional interests and ambitions. Though when she pretended to care for them she annoyed him, if possible, still more.
As for Lady Rose, she went through all the familiar emotions of the femme incomprise. And with the familiar result. There presently appeared in the house a man of good family, thirty-five or so, traveller, painter, and dreamer, with fine, long-drawn features bronzed by the sun of the East, and bringing with him the reputation of having plotted and fought for most of the "lost causes" of our generation, including several which had led him into conflict with British authorities and British officials. To Colonel Delaney he was an "agitator," if not a rebel; and the careless pungency of his talk soon classed him as an atheist besides. In the case of Lady Rose, this man's free and generous nature, his independence of money and convention, his passion for the things of the mind, his contempt for the mode, whether in dress or politics, his light evasions of the red tape of life as of something that no one could reasonably expect of a vagabond like himself—these things presently transformed a woman in despair to a woman in revolt. She fell in love with an intensity befitting her true temperament, and with a stubbornness that bore witness to the dreary failure of her marriage. Marriott Dalrymple returned her love, and nothing in his view of life predisposed him to put what probably appeared to him a mere legality before the happiness of two people meant for each other. There were no children of the Delaney marriage; and in his belief the husband had enjoyed too long a companionship he had never truly deserved.
So Lady Rose faced her husband, told him the truth, and left him. She and Dalrymple went to live in Belgium, in a small country-house some twenty or thirty miles from Brussels. They severed themselves from England; they asked nothing more of English life. Lady Rose suffered from the breach with her father, for Lord Lackington never saw her again. And there was a young sister whom she had brought up, whose image could often rouse in her a sense of loss that showed itself in occasional spells of silence and tears. But substantially she never repented what she had done, although Colonel Delaney made the penalties of it as heavy as he could. Like Karennine in Tolstoy's great novel, he refused to sue for a divorce, and for something of the same reasons. Divorce was in itself impious, and sin should not be made easy. He was at any time ready to take back his wife, so far as the protection of his name and roof were concerned, should she penitently return to him.
So the child that was presently born to Lady Rose could not be legitimized.
Sir Wilfrid stopped short at the Park end of Bruton Street, with a start of memory.
"I saw it once! I remember now—perfectly."
And he went on to recall a bygone moment in the Brussels Gallery, when, as he was standing before the great Quintin Matsys, he was accosted with sudden careless familiarity by a thin, shabbily dressed man, in whose dark distinction, made still more fantastic and conspicuous by the fever and the emaciation of consumption, he recognized at once Marriott Dalrymple.
He remembered certain fragments of their talk about the pictures—the easy mastery, now brusque, now poetic, with which Dalrymple had shown him the treasures of the gallery, in the manner of one whose learning was merely the food of fancy, the stuff on which imagination and reverie grew rich.
Then, suddenly, his own question—"And Lady Rose?"
And Dalrymple's quiet, "Very well. She'd see you, I think, if you want to come. She has scarcely seen an English person in the last three years."
And as when a gleam searches out some blurred corner of a landscape, there returned upon him his visit to the pair in their country home. He recalled the small eighteenth-century house, the "chateau" of the village, built on the French model, with its high mansarde roof; the shabby stateliness of its architecture matching plaintively with the field of beet-root that grew up to its very walls; around it the flat, rich fields, with their thin lines of poplars; the slow, canalized streams; the unlovely farms and cottages; the mire of the lanes; and, shrouding all, a hot autumn mist sweeping slowly through the damp meadows and blotting all cheerfulness from the sun. And in the midst of this pale landscape, so full of ragged edges to an English eye, the English couple, with their books, their child, and a pair of Flemish servants.
It had been evident to him at once that their circumstances were those of poverty. Lady Rose's small fortune, indeed, had been already mostly spent on "causes" of many kinds, in many countries. She and Dalrymple were almost vegetarians, and wine never entered the house save for the servants, who seemed to regard their employers with a real but half-contemptuous affection. He remembered the scanty, ill-cooked luncheon; the difficulty in providing a few extra knives and forks; the wrangling with the old bonne-housekeeper, which was necessary before serviettes could be produced.
And afterwards the library, with its deal shelves from floor to ceiling put up by Dalrymple himself, its bare, polished floor, Dalrymple's table and chair on one side of the open hearth, Lady Rose's on the other; on his table the sheets of verse translation from AEschylus and Euripides, which represented his favorite hobby; on hers the socialist and economical books they both studied and the English or French poets they both loved. The walls, hung with the faded damask of a past generation, were decorated with a strange crop of pictures pinned carelessly into the silk—photographs or newspaper portraits of modern men and women representing all possible revolt against authority, political, religious, even scientific, the Everlasting No of an untiring and ubiquitous dissent.
Finally, in the centre of the polished floor, the strange child, whom Lady Rose had gone to fetch after lunch, with its high crest of black hair, its large, jealous eyes, its elfin hands, and the sudden smile with which, after half an hour of silence and apparent scorn, it had rewarded Sir Wilfrid's advances. He saw himself sitting bewitched beside it.
Poor Lady Rose! He remembered her as he and she parted at the gate of the neglected garden, the anguish in her eyes as they turned to look after the bent and shrunken figure of Dalrymple carrying the child back to the house.
"If you meet any of his old friends, don't—don't say anything! We've just saved enough money to go to Sicily for the winter—that'll set him right."
And then, barely a year later, the line in a London newspaper which had reached him at Madrid, chronicling the death of Marriott Dalrymple, as of a man once on the threshold of fame, but long since exiled from the thoughts of practical men. Lady Rose, too, was dead—many years since; so much he knew. But how, and where? And the child?
She was now "Mademoiselle Le Breton "?—the centre and apparently the chief attraction of Lady Henry's once famous salon?
"And, by Jove! several of her kinsfolk there, relations of the mother or the father, if what I suppose is true!" thought Sir Wilfrid, remembering one or two of the guests. "Were they—was she—aware of it?"
* * * * *
The old man strode on, full of a growing eagerness, and was soon on Lady Henry's doorstep.
"Her ladyship is in the dining-room," said the butler, and Sir Wilfrid was ushered there straight.
"Good-morning, Wilfrid," said the old lady, raising herself on her silver—headed sticks as he entered. "I prefer to come down-stairs by myself. The more infirm I am, the less I like it—and to be helped enrages me. Sit down. Lunch is ready, and I give you leave to eat some."
"And you?" said Sir Wilfrid, as they seated themselves almost side by side at the large, round table in the large, dingy room.
The old lady shook her head.
"All the world eats too much. I was brought up with people who lunched on a biscuit and a glass of sherry."
"Lord Russell?—Lord Palmerston?" suggested Sir Wilfrid, attacking his own lunch meanwhile with unabashed vigor.
"That sort. I wish we had their like now."
"Their successors don't please you?"
Lady Henry shook her head.
"The Tories have gone to the deuce, and there are no longer enough Whigs even to do that. I wouldn't read the newspapers at all if I could help it. But I do."
"So I understand," said Sir Wilfrid; "you let Montresor know it last night."
"Montresor!" said Lady Henry, with a contemptuous movement. "What a poseur! He lets the army go to ruin, I understand, while he joins Dante societies."
Sir Wilfrid raised his eyebrows.
"I think, if I were you, I should have some lunch," he said, gently pushing the admirable salmi which the butler had left in front of him towards his old friend.
Lady Henry laughed.
"Oh, my temper will be better presently, when those men are gone"—she nodded towards the butler and footman in the distance—"and I can have my say."
Sir Wilfrid hurried his meal as much as Lady Henry—who, as it turned out, was not at all minded to starve him—would allow. She meanwhile talked politics and gossip to him, with her old, caustic force, nibbling a dry biscuit at intervals and sipping a cup of coffee. She was a wilful, characteristic figure as she sat there, beneath her own portrait as a bride, which hung on the wall behind her. The portrait represented a very young woman, with plentiful brown hair gathered into a knot on the top of her head, a high waist, a blue waist-ribbon, and inflated sleeves. Handsome, imperious, the corners of the mouth well down, the look straight and daring—the Lady Henry of the picture, a bride of nineteen, was already formidable. And the old woman sitting beneath it, with the strong, white hair, which the ample cap found some difficulty even now in taming and confining, the droop of the mouth accentuated, the nose more masterful, the double chin grown evident, the light of the eyes gone out, breathed pride and will from every feature of her still handsome face, pride of race and pride of intellect, combined with a hundred other subtler and smaller prides that only an intimate knowledge of her could detect. The brow and eyes, so beautiful in the picture, were, however, still agreeable in the living woman; if generosity lingered anywhere, it was in them.
The door was hardly closed upon the servants when she bent forward.
"Well, have you guessed?"
Sir Wilfrid looked at her thoughtfully as he stirred the sugar in his coffee.
"I think so," he said. "She is Lady Rose Delaney's daughter."
Lady Henry gave a sudden laugh.
"I hardly expected you to guess! What helped you?"
"First your own hints. Then the strange feeling I had that I had seen the face, or some face just like it, before. And, lastly, at the Foreign Office I caught sight, for a moment, of Lord Lackington. That finished it."
"Ah!" said Lady Henry, with a nod. "Yes, that likeness is extraordinary. Isn't it amazing that that foolish old man has never perceived it?"
"He knows nothing?"
"Oh, nothing! Nobody does. However, that'll do presently. But Lord Lackington comes here, mumbles about his music and his water-colors, and his flirtations—seventy-four, if you please, last birthday!—talks about himself endlessly to Julie or to me—whoever comes handy—and never has an inkling, an idea."
"Oh, she knows. I should rather think she does." And Lady Henry pushed away her coffee-cup with the ill-suppressed vehemence which any mention of her companion seemed to produce in her. "Well, now, I suppose you'd like to hear the story."
"Wait a minute. It'll surprise you to hear that I not only knew this lady's mother and father, but that I've seen her, herself, before."
"You?" Lady Henry looked incredulous.
"I never told you of my visit to that menage, four-and-twenty years ago?"
"Never, that I remember. But if you had I should have forgotten. What did they matter to me then? I myself only saw Lady Rose once, so far as I remember, before she misconducted herself. And afterwards—well, one doesn't trouble one's self about the women that have gone under."
Something lightened behind Sir Wilfrid's straw-colored lashes. He bent over his coffee-cup and daintily knocked off the end of his cigarette with a beringed little finger.
"The women who have—not been able to pull up?"
Lady Henry paused.
"If you like to put it so," she said, at last. Sir Wilfrid did not raise his eyes. Lady Henry took up her strongest glasses from the table and put them on. But it was pitifully evident that even so equipped she saw but little, and that her strong nature fretted perpetually against the physical infirmity that teased it. Nevertheless, some unspoken communication passed between them, and Sir Wilfrid knew that he had effectually held up a protecting hand for Lady Rose.
"Well, let me tell you my tale first," he said; and gave the little reminiscence in full. When he described the child, Lady Henry listened eagerly.
"Hm," she said, when he came to an end; "she was jealous, you say, of her mother's attentions to you? She watched you, and in the end she took possession of you? Much the same creature, apparently, then as now."
"No moral, please, till the tale is done," said Sir Wilfrid, smiling. "It's your turn."
Lady Henry's face grew sombre.
"All very well," she said. "What did your tale matter to you? As for mine—"
The substance of hers was as follows, put into chronological order:
Lady Rose had lived some ten years after Dalrymple's death. That time she passed in great poverty in some chambres garnies at Bruges, with her little girl and an old Madame Le Breton, the maid, housekeeper, and general factotum who had served them in the country. This woman, though of a peevish, grumbling temper, was faithful, affectionate, and not without education. She was certainly attached to little Julie, whose nurse she had been during a short period of her infancy. It was natural that Lady Rose should leave the child to her care. Indeed, she had no choice. An old Ursuline nun, and a kind priest who at the nun's instigation occasionally came to see her, in the hopes of converting her, were her only other friends in the world. She wrote, however, to her father, shortly before her death, bidding him good-bye, and asking him to do something for the child. "She is wonderfully like you," so ran part of the letter. "You won't ever acknowledge her, I know. That is your strange code. But at least give her what will keep her from want, till she can earn her living. Her old nurse will take care of her, I have taught her, so far. She is already very clever. When I am gone she will attend one of the convent schools here. And I have found an honest lawyer who will receive and pay out money."
To this letter Lord Lackington replied, promising to come over and see his daughter. But an attack of gout delayed him, and, before he was out of his room, Lady Rose was dead. Then he no longer talked of coming over, and his solicitors arranged matters. An allowance of a hundred pounds a year was made to Madame Le Breton, through the "honest lawyer" whom Lady Rose had found, for the benefit of "Julie Dalrymple," the capital value to be handed over to that young lady herself on the attainment of her eighteenth birthday—always provided that neither she nor anybody on her behalf made any further claim on the Lackington family, that her relationship to them was dropped, and her mother's history buried in oblivion.
Accordingly the girl grew to maturity in Bruges. By the lawyer's advice, after her mother's death, she took the name of her old gouvernante, and was known thenceforward as Julie Le Breton. The Ursuline nuns, to whose school she was sent, took the precaution, after her mother's death, of having her baptized straightway into the Catholic faith, and she made her premiere communion in their church. In the course of a few years she became a remarkable girl, the source of many anxieties to the nuns. For she was not only too clever for their teaching, and an inborn sceptic, but wherever she appeared she produced parties and the passions of parties. And though, as she grew older, she showed much adroitness in managing those who were hostile to her, she was never without enemies, and intrigues followed her.
"I might have been warned in time," said Lady Henry, in whose wrinkled cheeks a sharp and feverish color had sprung up as her story approached the moment of her own personal acquaintance with Mademoiselle Le Breton. "For one or two of the nuns when I saw them in Bruges, before the bargain was finally struck, were candid enough. However, now I come to the moment when I first set eyes on her. You know my little place in Surrey? About a mile from me is a manor-house belonging to an old Catholic family, terribly devout and as poor as church-mice. They sent their daughters to school in Bruges. One summer holiday these girls brought home with them Julie Dalrymple as their quasi-holiday governess. It was three years ago. I had just seen Liebreich. He told me that I should soon be blind, and, naturally, it was a blow to me."
Sir Wilfrid made a murmur of sympathy.
"Oh, don't pity me! I don't pity other people. This odious body of ours has got to wear out sometime—it's in the bargain. Still, just then I was low. There are two things I care about—one is talk, with the people that amuse me, and the other is the reading of French books. I didn't see how I was going to keep my circle here together, and my own mind in decent repair, unless I could find somebody to be eyes for me, and to read to me. And as I'm a bundle of nerves, and I never was agreeable to illiterate people, nor they to me, I was rather put to it. Well, one day these girls and their mother came over to tea, and, as you guess, of course, they brought Mademoiselle Le Breton with them. I had asked them to come, but when they arrived I was bored and cross, and like a sick dog in a hole. And then, as you have seen her, I suppose you can guess what happened."
"You discovered an exceptional person?"
Lady Henry laughed.
"I was limed, there and then, old bird as I am. I was first struck with the girl's appearance—une belle laide—with every movement just as it ought to be; infinitely more attractive to me than any pink-and-white beauty. It turned out that she had just been for a month in Paris with another school-fellow. Something she said about a new play—suddenly—made me look at her. 'Venez vous asseoir ici, mademoiselle, s'il vous plait—pres de moi,' I said to her—I can hear my own voice now, poor fool, and see her flush up. Ah!" Lady Henry's interjection dropped to a note of rage that almost upset Sir Wilfrid's gravity; but he restrained himself, and she resumed: "We talked for two hours; it seemed to me ten minutes. I sent the others out to the gardens. She stayed with me. The new French books, the theatre, poems, plays, novels, memoirs, even politics, she could talk of them all; or, rather—for, mark you, that's her gift—she made me talk. It seemed to me I had not been so brilliant for months. I was as good, in fact, as I had ever been. The difficulty in England is to find any one to keep up the ball. She does it to perfection. She never throws to win—never!—but so as to leave you all the chances. You make a brilliant stroke; she applauds, and in a moment she has arranged you another. Oh, it is the most extraordinary gift of conversation—and she never says a thing that you want to remember."
There was a silence. Lady Henry's old fingers drummed restlessly on the table. Her memory seemed to be wandering angrily among her first experiences of the lady they were discussing.
"Well," said Sir Wilfrid, at last, "so you engaged her as lectrice, and thought yourself very lucky?"
"Oh, don't suppose that I was quite an idiot. I made some inquiries—I bored myself to death with civilities to the stupid family she was staying with, and presently I made her stay with me. And of course I soon saw there was a history. She possessed jewels, laces, little personal belongings of various kinds, that wanted explaining. So I laid traps for her; I let her also perceive whither my own plans were drifting. She did not wait to let me force her hand. She made up her mind. One day I found, left carelessly on the drawing-room table, a volume of Saint-Simon, beautifully bound in old French morocco, with something thrust between the leaves. I opened it. On the fly-leaf was written the name Marriott Dalrymple, and the leaves opened, a little farther, on a miniature of Lady Rose Delaney. So—"
"Apparently it was her traps that worked," said Sir Wilfrid, smiling. Lady Henry returned the smile unwillingly, as one loath to acknowledge her own folly.
"I don't know that I was trapped. We both desired to come to close quarters. Anyway, she soon showed me books, letters—from Lady Rose, from Dalrymple, Lord Lackington—the evidence was complete....
"'Very well,' I said; 'it isn't your fault. All the better if you are well born—I am not a person of prejudices. But understand, if you come to me, there must be no question of worrying your relations. There are scores of them in London. I know them all, or nearly all, and of course you'll come across them. But unless you can hold your tongue, don't come to me. Julie Dalrymple has disappeared, and I'll be no party to her resurrection. If Julie Le Breton becomes an inmate of my house, there shall be no raking up of scandals much better left in their graves. If you haven't got a proper parentage, consistently thought out, we must invent one—'"
"I hope I may some day be favored with it," said Sir Wilfrid.
Lady Henry laughed uncomfortably.
"Oh, I've had to tell lies," she said, "plenty of them."
"What! It was you that told the lies?"
Lady Henry's look flashed.
"The open and honest ones," she said, defiantly.
"Well," said Sir Wilfrid, regretfully, "some sort were indispensable. So she came. How long ago?"
"Three years. For the first half of that time I did nothing but plume myself on my good fortune. I said to myself that if I had searched Europe through I could not have fared better. My household, my friends, my daily ways, she fitted into them all to perfection. I told people that I had discovered her through a Belgian acquaintance. Every one was amazed at her manners, her intelligence. She was perfectly modest, perfectly well behaved. The old Duke—he died six months after she came to me—was charmed with her. Montresor, Meredith, Lord Robert, all my habitues congratulated me. 'Such cultivation, such charm, such savoir-faire! Where on earth did you pick up such a treasure? What are her antecedents?' etc., etc. So then, of course—"
"I hope no more than were absolutely necessary!" said Sir Wilfrid, hastily.
"I had to do it well," said Lady Henry, with decision; "I can't say I didn't. That state of things lasted, more or less, about a year and a half. And by now, where do you think it has all worked out?"
"You gave me a few hints last night," said Sir Wilfrid, hesitating.
Lady Henry pushed her chair back from the table. Her hands trembled on her stick.
"Hints!" she said, scornfully. "I'm long past hints. I told you last night—and I repeat—that woman has stripped me of all my friends! She has intrigued with them all in turn against me. She has done the same even with my servants. I can trust none of them where she is concerned. I am alone in my own house. My blindness makes me her tool, her plaything. As for my salon, as you call it, it has become hers. I am a mere courtesy-figurehead—her chaperon, in fact. I provide the house, the footmen, the champagne; the guests are hers. And she has done this by constant intrigue and deception—by flattery—by lying!"
The old face had become purple. Lady Henry breathed hard.
"My dear friend," said Sir Wilfrid, quickly, laying a calming hand on her arm, "don't let this trouble you so. Dismiss her."
"And accept solitary confinement for the rest of my days? I haven't the courage—yet," said Lady Henry, bitterly. "You don't know how I have been isolated and betrayed! And I haven't told you the worst of all. Listen! Do you know whom she has got into her toils?"
She paused, drawing herself rigidly erect. Sir Wilfrid, looking up sharply, remembered the little scene in the Park, and waited.
"Did you have any opportunity last night," said Lady Henry, slowly, "of observing her and Jacob Delafield?"
She spoke with passionate intensity, her frowning brows meeting above a pair of eyes that struggled to see and could not. But the effect she listened for was not produced. Sir Wilfrid drew back uncertainly.
"Jacob Delafield?" he said. "Jacob Delafield? Are you sure?"
"Sure?" cried Lady Henry, angrily. Then, disdaining to support her statement, she went on: "He hesitates. But she'll soon make an end of that. And do you realize what that means—what Jacob's possibilities are? Kindly recollect that Chudleigh has one boy—one sickly, tuberculous boy—who might die any day. And Chudleigh himself is a poor life. Jacob has more than a good chance—ninety chances out of a hundred"—she ground the words out with emphasis—"of inheriting the dukedom."
"Good gracious!" said Sir Wilfrid, throwing away his cigarette.
"There!" said Lady Henry, in sombre triumph. "Now you can understand what I have brought on poor Henry's family."
A low knock was heard at the door.
"Come in," said Lady Henry, impatiently.
The door opened, and Mademoiselle Le Breton appeared on the threshold, carrying a small gray terrier under each arm.
"I thought I had better tell you," she said, humbly, "that I am taking the dogs out. Shall I get some fresh wool for your knitting?"
It was nearly four o'clock. Sir Wilfrid had just closed Lady Henry's door behind him, and was again walking along Bruton Street.
He was thinking of the little scene of Mademoiselle Le Breton's appearance on the threshold of Lady Henry's dining-room; of the insolent sharpness with which Lady Henry had given her order upon order—as to the dogs, the books for the circulating library, a message for her dressmaker, certain directions for the tradesmen, etc., etc.—as though for the mere purpose of putting the woman who had dared to be her rival in her right place before Sir Wilfrid Bury. And at the end, as she was departing, Mademoiselle Le Breton, trusting no doubt to Lady Henry's blindness, had turned towards himself, raising her downcast eyes upon him suddenly, with a proud, passionate look. Her lips had moved; Sir Wilfrid had half risen from his chair. Then, quickly, the door had closed upon her.
Sir Wilfrid could not think of it without a touch of excitement.
"Was she reminding me of Gherardtsloo?" he said to himself. "Upon my word, I must find some means of conversation with her, in spite of Lady Henry."
He walked towards Bond Street, pondering the situation of the two women—the impotent jealousy and rancor with which Lady Henry was devoured, the domestic slavery contrasted with the social power of Mademoiselle Le Breton. Through the obscurity and difficulty of circumstance, how marked was the conscience of race in her, and, as he also thought, of high intelligence! The old man was deeply interested. He felt a certain indulgent pity for his lifelong friend Lady Henry; but he could not get Mademoiselle Julie out of his head.
"Why on earth does she stay where she is?"
He had asked the same question of Lady Henry, who had contemptuously replied:
"Because she likes the flesh-pots, and won't give them up. No doubt she doesn't find my manners agreeable; but she knows very well that she wouldn't get the chances she gets in my house anywhere else. I give her a foothold. She'll not risk it for a few sour speeches on my part. I may say what I like to her—and I intend to say what I like! Besides, you watch her, and see whether she's made for poverty. She takes to luxury as a fish to water. What would she be if she left me? A little visiting teacher, perhaps, in a Bloomsbury lodging. That's not her line at all."
"But somebody else might employ her as you do?" Sir Wilfrid had suggested.
"You forget I should be asked for a character," said Lady Henry. "Oh, I admit there are possibilities—on her side. That silly goose, Evelyn Crowborough, would have taken her in, but I had a few words with Crowborough, and he put his foot down. He told his wife he didn't want an intriguing foreigner to live with them. No; for the present we are chained to each other. I can't get rid of her, and she doesn't want to get rid of me. Of course, things might become intolerable for either of us. But at present self-interest on both sides keeps us going. Oh, don't tell me the thing is odious! I know it. Every day she stays in the house I become a more abominable old woman."
A more exacting one, certainly. Sir Wilfrid thought with pity and amusement of the commissions with which Mademoiselle Julie had been loaded. "She earns her money, any way," he thought. "Those things will take her a hard afternoon's work. But, bless my soul!"—he paused in his walk—"what about that engagement to Duchess Evelyn that I heard her make? Not a word, by-the-way, to Lady Henry about it! Oh, this is amusing!"
He went meditatively on his way, and presently turned into his club to write some letters. But at five o'clock he emerged, and told a hansom to drive him to Grosvenor Square. He alighted at the great red-brick mansion of the Crowboroughs, and asked for the Duchess. The magnificent person presiding over the hall, an old family retainer, remembered him, and made no difficulty about admitting him.
"Anybody with her grace?" he inquired, as the man handed him over to the footman who was to usher him up-stairs.
"Only Miss Le Breton and Mr. Delafield, Sir Wilfrid. Her grace told me to say 'not at home' this afternoon, but I am sure, sir, she will see you."
Sir Wilfrid smiled.
As he entered the outer drawing-room, the Duchess and the group surrounding her did not immediately perceive the footman nor himself, and he had a few moments in which to take in a charming scene.
A baby girl in a white satin gown down to her heels, and a white satin cap, lace-edged and tied under her chin, was holding out her tiny skirt with one hand and dancing before the Duchess and Miss Le Breton, who was at the piano. The child's other hand held up a morsel of biscuit wherewith she directed the movements of her partner, a small black spitz, of a slim and silky elegance, who, straining on his hind legs, his eager attention fixed upon the biscuit, followed every movement of his small mistress; while she, her large blue eyes now solemn, now triumphant, her fair hair escaping from her cap in fluttering curls, her dainty feet pointed, her dimpled arm upraised, repeated in living grace the picture of her great-great-grandmother which hung on the wall in front of her, a masterpiece from Reynolds's happiest hours.
Behind Mademoiselle Le Breton stood Jacob Delafield; while the Duchess, in a low chair beside them, beat time gayly to the gavotte that Mademoiselle Julie was playing and laughed encouragement and applause to the child in front of her. She herself, with her cloud of fair hair, the delicate pink and white of her skin, the laughing lips and small white hands that rose and fell with the baby steps, seemed little more than a child. Her pale blue dress, for which she had just exchanged her winter walking-costume, fell round her in sweeping folds of lace and silk—a French fairy dressed by Woerth, she was possessed by a wild gayety, and her silvery laugh held the room.
Beside her, Julie Le Breton, very thin, very tall, very dark, was laughing too. The eyes which Sir Wilfrid had lately seen so full of pride were now alive with pleasure. Jacob Delafield, also, from behind, grinned applause or shouted to the babe, "Brava, Tottie; well done!" Three people, a baby, and a dog more intimately pleased with one another's society it would have been difficult to discover.
The Duchess sprang up astonished, and in a moment, to Sir Wilfrid's chagrin, the little scene fell to pieces. The child dropped on the floor, defending herself and the biscuit as best she could against the wild snatches of the dog. Delafield composed his face in a moment to its usual taciturnity. Mademoiselle Le Breton rose from the piano.
"No, no!" said Sir Wilfrid, stopping short and holding up a deprecating hand. "Too bad! Go on."
"Oh, we were only fooling with baby!" said the Duchess. "It is high time she went to her nurse. Sit here, Sir Wilfrid. Julie, will you take the babe, or shall I ring for Mrs. Robson?"
"I'll take her," said Mademoiselle Le Breton.
She knelt down by the child, who rose with alacrity. Catching her skirts round her, with one eye half laughing, half timorous, turned over her shoulder towards the dog, the baby made a wild spring into Mademoiselle Julie's arms, tucking up her feet instantly, with a shriek of delight, out of the dog's way. Then she nestled her fair head down upon her bearer's shoulder, and, throbbing with joy and mischief, was carried away.
Sir Wilfrid, hat in hand, stood for a moment watching the pair. A bygone marriage uniting the Lackington family with that of the Duchess had just occurred to him in some bewilderment. He sat down beside his hostess, while she made him some tea. But no sooner had the door of the farther drawing-room closed behind Mademoiselle Le Breton, than with a dart of all her lively person she pounced upon him.
"Well, so Aunt Flora has been complaining to you?"
Sir Wilfrid's cup remained suspended in his hand. He glanced first at the speaker and then at Jacob Delafield.
"Oh, Jacob knows all about it!" said the Duchess, eagerly. "This is Julie's headquarters; we are on her staff. You come from the enemy!"
Sir Wilfrid took out his white silk handkerchief and waved it.
"Here is my flag of truce," he said. "Treat me well."
"We are only too anxious to parley with you," said the Duchess, laughing. "Aren't we, Jacob?"
Then she drew closer.
"What has Aunt Flora been saying to you?"
Sir Wilfrid paused. As he sat there, apparently studying his boots, his blond hair, now nearly gray, carefully parted in the middle above his benevolent brow, he might have been reckoned a tame and manageable person. Jacob Delafield, however, knew him of old.
"I don't think that's fair," said Sir Wilfrid, at last, looking up. "I'm the new-comer; I ought to be allowed the questions."
"Go on," said the Duchess, her chin on her hand. "Jacob and I will answer all we know."
Delafield nodded. Sir Wilfrid, looking from one to the other, quickly reminded himself that they had been playmates from the cradle—or might have been.
"Well, in the first place," he said, slowly, "I am lost in admiration at the rapidity with which Mademoiselle Le Breton does business. An hour and a half ago"—he looked at his watch—"I stood by while Lady Henry enumerated commissions it would have taken any ordinary man-mortal half a day to execute."
The Duchess clapped her hands.
"My maid is now executing them," she said, with glee. "In an hour she will be back. Julie will go home with everything done, and I shall have had nearly two hours of her delightful society. What harm is there in that?"
"Where are the dogs?" said Sir Wilfrid, looking round.
"Aunt Flora's dogs? In the housekeeper's room, eating sweet biscuit. They adore the groom of the chambers."
"Is Lady Henry aware of this—this division of labor?" said Sir Wilfrid, smiling.
"Of course not," said the Duchess, flushing. "She makes Julie's life such a burden to her that something has to be done. Now what has Aunt Flora been telling you? We were certain she would take you into council—she has dropped various hints of it. I suppose she has been telling you that Julie has been intriguing against her—taking liberties, separating her from her friends, and so on?"
Sir Wilfrid smilingly presented his cup for some more tea.
"I beg to point out," he said, "that I have only been allowed two questions so far. But if things are to be at all fair and equal, I am owed at least six."
The Duchess drew back, checked, and rather annoyed. Jacob Delafield, on the other hand, bent forward.
"We are anxious, Sir Wilfrid, to tell you all we know," he replied, with quiet emphasis.
Sir Wilfrid looked at him. The flame in the young man's eyes burned clear and steady—but flame it was. Sir Wilfrid remembered him as a lazy, rather somnolent youth; the man's advance in expression, in significant power, of itself, told much.
"In the first place, can you give me the history of this lady's antecedents?"
He glanced from one to the other.
The Duchess and Jacob Delafield exchanged glances. Then the Duchess spoke—uncertainly.
"Yes, we know. She has confided in us. There is nothing whatever to her discredit."
Sir Wilfrid's expression changed.
"Ah!" cried the Duchess, bending forward. "You know, too?"
"I knew her father and mother," said Sir Wilfrid, simply.
The Duchess gave a little cry of relief. Jacob Delafield rose, took a turn across the room, and came back to Sir Wilfrid.
"Now we can really speak frankly," he said. "The situation has grown very difficult, and we did not know—Evelyn and I—whether we had a right to explain it. But now that Lady Henry—"
"Oh yes," said Sir Wilfrid, "that's all right. The fact of Mademoiselle Le Breton's parentage—"
"Is really what makes Lady Henry so jealous!" cried the Duchess, indignantly. "Oh, she's a tyrant, is Aunt Flora! It is because Julie is of her own world—of our world, by blood, whatever the law may say—that she can't help making a rival out of her, and tormenting her morning, noon, and night. I tell you, Sir Wilfrid, what that poor girl has gone through no one can imagine but we who have watched it. Lady Henry owes her everything this last three years. Where would she have been without Julie? She talks of Julie's separating her from her friends, cutting her out, imposing upon her, and nonsense of that kind! How would she have kept up that salon alone, I should like to know—a blind old woman who can't write a note for herself or recognize a face? First of all she throws everything upon Julie, is proud of her cleverness, puts her forward in every way, tells most unnecessary falsehoods about her—Julie has felt that very much—and then when Julie has a great success, when people begin to come to Bruton Street, for her sake as well as Lady Henry's, then Lady Henry turns against her, complains of her to everybody, talks about treachery and disloyalty and Heaven knows what, and begins to treat her like the dirt under her feet! How can Julie help being clever and agreeable—she is clever and agreeable! As Mr. Montresor said to me yesterday, 'As soon as that woman comes into a room, my spirits go up!' And why? Because she never thinks of herself, she always makes other people show at their best. And then Lady Henry behaves like this!" The Duchess threw out her hands in scornful reprobation. "And the question is, of course, Can it go on?"
"I don't gather," said Sir Wilfrid, hesitating, "that Lady Henry wants immediately to put an end to it."
Delafield gave an angry laugh.
"The point is whether Mademoiselle Julie and Mademoiselle Julie's friends can put up with it much longer."
"You see," said the Duchess, eagerly, "Julie is such a loyal, affectionate creature. She knows Lady Henry was kind to her, to begin with, that she gave her great chances, and that she's getting old and infirm. Julie's awfully sorry for her. She doesn't want to leave her all alone—to the mercy of her servants—"
"I understand the servants, too, are devoted to Mademoiselle Julie?" said Sir Wilfrid.
"Yes, that's another grievance," said Delafield, contemptuously. "Why shouldn't they be? When the butler had a child very ill, it was Mademoiselle Julie who went to see it in the mews, who took it flowers and grapes—"
"Lady Henry's grapes?" threw in Sir Wilfrid.
"What does it matter!" said Delafield, impatiently. "Lady Henry has more of everything than she knows what to do with. But it wasn't grapes only! It was time and thought and consideration. Then when the younger footman wanted to emigrate to the States, it was Mademoiselle Julie who found a situation for him, who got Mr. Montresor to write to some American friends, and finally sent the lad off, devoted to her, of course, for life. I should like to know when Lady Henry would have done that kind of thing! Naturally the servants like her—she deserves it."
"I see—I see," said Sir Wilfrid, nodding gently, his eyes on the carpet. "A very competent young lady."
Delafield looked at the older man, half in annoyance, half in perplexity.
"Is there anything to complain of in that?" he said, rather shortly.
"Oh, nothing, nothing!" said Sir Wilfrid, hastily. "And this word intrigue that Lady Henry uses? Has mademoiselle always steered a straightforward course with her employer?"
"Oh, well," said the Duchess, shrugging her shoulders, "how can you always be perfectly straightforward with such a tyrannical old person! She has to be managed. Lately, in order to be sure of every minute of Julie's time, she has taken to heaping work upon her to such a ridiculous extent that unless I come to the rescue the poor thing gets no rest and no amusement. And last summer there was an explosion, because Julie, who was supposed to be in Paris for her holiday with a school-friend, really spent a week of it with the Buncombes, Lady Henry's married niece, who has a place in Kent. The Buncombes knew her at Lady Henry's parties, of course. Then they met her in the Louvre, took her about a little, were delighted with her, and begged her to come and stay with them—they have a place near Canterbury—on the way home. They and Julie agreed that it would be best to say nothing to Lady Henry about it—she is too absurdly jealous—but then it leaked out, unluckily, and Lady Henry was furious."
"I must say," said Delafield, hurriedly, "I always thought frankness would have been best there."
"Well, perhaps," said the Duchess, unwillingly, with another shrug. "But now what is to be done? Lady Henry really must behave better, or Julie can't and sha'n't stay with her. Julie has a great following—hasn't she, Jacob? They won't see her harassed to death."
"Certainly not," said Delafield. "At the same time we all see"—he turned to Sir Wilfrid—"what the advantages of the present combination are. Where would Lady Henry find another lady of Mademoiselle Le Breton's sort to help her with her house and her salon? For the last two years the Wednesday evenings have been the most brilliant and successful things of their kind in London. And, of course, for Mademoiselle Le Breton it is a great thing to have the protection of Lady Henry's name—"
"A great thing?" cried Sir Wilfrid. "Everything, my dear Jacob!"
"I don't know," said Delafield, slowly. "It may be bought too dear."
Sir Wilfrid looked at the speaker with curiosity. It had been at all times possible to rouse Jacob Delafield—as child, as school-boy, as undergraduate—from an habitual carelessness and idleness by an act or a tale of injustice or oppression. Had the Duchess pressed him into her service, and was he merely taking sides for the weaker out of a natural bent towards that way of looking at things? Or—
"Well, certainly we must do our best to patch it up," said Sir Wilfrid, after a pause. "Perhaps Mademoiselle Le Breton will allow me a word with her by-and-by. I think I have still some influence with Lady Henry. But, dear goddaughter"—he bent forward and laid his hand on that of the Duchess—"don't let the maid do the commissions."
"But I must!" cried the Duchess. "Just think, there is my big bazaar on the 16th. You don't know how clever Julie is at such things. I want to make her recite—her French is too beautiful! And then she has such inventiveness, such a head! Everything goes if she takes it in hand. But if I say anything to Aunt Flora, she'll put a spoke in all our wheels. She'll hate the thought of anything in which Julie is successful and conspicuous. Of course she will!"
"All the same, Evelyn," said Delafield, uncomfortable apparently for the second time, "I really think it would be best to let Lady Henry know."
"Well, then, we may as well give it up," said the Duchess, pettishly, turning aside.
Delafield, who was still pacing the carpet, suddenly raised his hand in a gesture of warning. Mademoiselle Le Breton was crossing the outer drawing-room.
"Julie, come here!" cried the Duchess, springing up and running towards her. "Jacob is making himself so disagreeable. He thinks we ought to tell Lady Henry about the 16th."
The speaker put her arm through Julie Le Breton's, looking up at her with a frowning brow. The contrast between her restless prettiness, the profusion of her dress and hair, and Julie's dark, lissome strength, gowned and gloved in neat, close black, was marked enough.
As the Duchess spoke, Julie looked smiling at Jacob Delafield.
"I am in your hands," she said, gently. "Of course I don't want to keep anything from Lady Henry. Please decide for me."
Sir Wilfrid's mouth showed a satirical line. He turned aside and began to play with a copy of the Spectator.
"Julie," said the Duchess, hesitating, "I hope you won't mind, but we have been discussing things a little with Sir Wilfrid. I felt sure Aunt Flora had been talking to him."
"Of course," said Julie, "I knew she would." She looked towards Sir Wilfrid, slightly drawing herself up. Her manner was quiet, but all her movements were somehow charged with a peculiar and interesting significance. The force of the character made itself felt through all disguises.
In spite of himself, Sir Wilfrid began to murmur apologetic things.
"It was natural, mademoiselle, that Lady Henry should confide in me. She has perhaps told you that for many years I have been one of the trustees of her property. That has led to her consulting me on a good many matters. And evidently, from what she says and what the Duchess says, nothing could be of more importance to her happiness, now, in her helpless state, than her relations to you."
He spoke with a serious kindness in which the tinge of mocking habitual to his sleek and well-groomed visage was wholly lost. Julie Le Breton met him with dignity.
"Yes, they are important. But, I fear they cannot go on as they are."
There was a pause. Then Sir Wilfrid approached her:
"I hear you are returning to Bruton Street immediately. Might I be your escort?"
The Duchess, a little sobered by the turn events had taken and the darkened prospects of her bazaar, protested in vain against this sudden departure. Julie resumed her furs, which, as Sir Wilfrid, who was curious in such things; happened to notice, were of great beauty, and made her farewells. Did her hand linger in Jacob Delafield's? Did the look with which that young man received it express more than the steadfast support which justice offers to the oppressed? Sir Wilfrid could not be sure.
As they stepped out into the frosty, lamp-lit dark of Grosvenor Square, Julie Le Breton turned to her companion.
"You knew my mother and father," she said, abruptly. "I remember your coming,"
What was in her voice, her rich, beautiful voice? Sir Wilfrid only knew that while perfectly steady, it seemed to bring emotion near, to make all the aspects of things dramatic.
"Yes, yes," he replied, in some confusion. "I knew her well, from the time when she was a girl in the school-room. Poor Lady Rose!"
The figure beside him stood still.
"Then if you were my mother's friend," she said, huskily, "you will hear patiently what I have to say, even though you are Lady Henry's trustee."
"Indeed I will!" cried Sir Wilfrid, and they walked on.
"But, first of all," said Mademoiselle Le Breton, looking in some annoyance at the brace of terriers circling and barking round them, "we must take the dogs home, otherwise no talk will be possible."
"You have no more business to do?"
His companion smiled.
"Everything Lady Henry wants is here," she said, pointing to the bag upon her arm which had been handed to her, as Sir Wilfrid remembered, after some whispered conversation, in the hall of Crowborough House by an elegantly dressed woman, who was no doubt the Duchess's maid.
"Allow me to carry it for you."
"Many thanks," said Mademoiselle Le Breton, firmly retaining it, "but those are not the things I mind."
They walked on quickly to Bruton Street. The dogs made conversation impossible. If they were on the chain it was one long battle between them and their leader. If they were let loose, it seemed to Sir Wilfrid that they ranged every area on the march, and attacked all elderly gentlemen and most errand-boys.
"Do you always take them out?" he asked, when both he and his companion were crimson and out of breath.
"Do you like dogs?"
"I used to. Perhaps some day I shall again."
"As for me, I wish they had but one neck!" said Sir Wilfrid, who had but just succeeded in dragging Max, the bigger of the two, out of the interior of a pastry-cook's hand-cart which had been rashly left with doors open for a few minutes in the street, while its responsible guardian was gossiping in an adjacent kitchen. Mademoiselle Julie meanwhile was wrestling with Nero, the younger, who had dived to the very heart of a peculiarly unsavory dust-box, standing near the entrance of a mews.
"So you commonly go through the streets of London in this whirlwind?" asked Sir Wilfrid, again, incredulous, when at last they had landed their charges safe at the Bruton Street door.
"Morning and evening," said Mademoiselle Julie, smiling. Then she addressed the butler: "Tell Lady Henry, please, that I shall be at home in half an hour."
As they turned westward, the winter streets were gay with lights and full of people. Sir Wilfrid was presently conscious that among all the handsome and well-dressed women who brushed past them, Mademoiselle Le Breton more than held her own. She reminded him now not so much of her mother as of Marriott Dalrymple. Sir Wilfrid had first seen this woman's father at Damascus, when Dalrymple, at twenty-six, was beginning the series of Eastern journeys which had made him famous. He remembered the brillance of the youth; the power, physical and mental, which radiated from him, making all things easy; the scorn of mediocrity, the incapacity for subordination.
"I should like you to understand," said the lady beside him, "that I came to Lady Henry prepared to do my very best."
"I am sure of that," said Sir Wilfrid, hastily recalling his thoughts from Damascus. "And you must have had a very difficult task."
Mademoiselle Le Breton shrugged her shoulders.
"I knew, of course, it must be difficult. And as to the drudgery of it—the dogs, and that kind of thing—nothing of that sort matters to me in the least. But I cannot be humiliated before those who have become my friends, entirely because Lady Henry wished it to be so."
"Lady Henry at first showed you every confidence?"
"After the first month or two she put everything into my hands—her household, her receptions, her letters, you may almost say her whole social existence. She trusted me with all her secrets." ("No, no, my dear lady," thought Sir Wilfrid.) "She let me help her with all her affairs. And, honestly, I did all I could to make her life easy."
"That I understand from herself."
"Then why," cried Mademoiselle Le Breton, turning round to him with sudden passion—"why couldn't Lady Henry leave things alone? Are devotion, and—and the kind of qualities she wanted, so common? I said to myself that, blind and helpless as she was, she should lose nothing. Not only should her household be well kept, her affairs well managed, but her salon should be as attractive, her Wednesday evenings as brilliant, as ever. The world was deserting her; I helped her to bring it back. She cannot live without social success; yet now she hates me for what I have done. Is it sane—is it reasonable?"
"She feels, I suppose," said Sir Wilfrid, gravely, "that the success is no longer hers."
"So she says. But will you please examine that remark? When her guests assemble, can I go to bed and leave her to grapple with them? I have proposed it often, but of course it is impossible. And if I am to be there I must behave, I suppose, like a lady, not like the housemaid. Really, Lady Henry asks too much. In my mother's little flat in Bruges, with the two or three friends who frequented it, I was brought up in as good society and as good talk as Lady Henry has ever known."
They were passing an electric lamp, and Sir Wilfrid, looking up, was half thrilled, half repelled by the flashing energy of the face beside him. Was ever such language on the lips of a paid companion before? His sympathy for Lady Henry revived.
"Can you really give me no clew to the—to the sources of Lady Henry's dissatisfaction?" he said, at last, rather coldly.
Mademoiselle Le Breton hesitated.
"I don't want to make myself out a saint," she said, at last, in another voice and with a humility which was, in truth, hardly less proud than her self-assertion. "I—I was brought up in poverty, and my mother died when I was fifteen. I had to defend myself as the poor defend themselves—by silence. I learned not to talk about my own affairs. I couldn't afford to be frank, like a rich English girl. I dare say, sometimes I have concealed things which had been better made plain. They were never of any real importance, and if Lady Henry had shown any consideration—"
Her voice failed her a little, evidently to her annoyance. They walked on without speaking for a few paces. "Never of any real importance?" Sir Wilfrid wondered.
Their minds apparently continued the conversation though their lips were silent, for presently Julie Le Breton said, abruptly:
"Of course I am speaking of matters where Lady Henry might have some claim to information. With regard to many of my thoughts and feelings, Lady Henry has no right whatever to my confidence."
"She gives us fair warning," thought Sir Wilfrid.
Aloud he said:
"It is not a question of thoughts and feelings, I understand, but of actions."
"Like the visit to the Duncombes'?" said Mademoiselle Le Breton, impatiently. "Oh, I quite admit it—that's only one of several instances Lady Henry might have brought forward. You see, she led me to make these friendships; and now, because they annoy her, I am to break them. But she forgets. Friends are too—too new in my life, too precious—"
Again the voice wavered. How it thrilled and penetrated! Sir Wilfrid found himself listening for every word.
"No," she resumed. "If it is a question of renouncing the friends I have made in her house, or going—it will be going. That may as well be quite clear."
Sir Wilfrid looked up.
"Let me ask you one question, mademoiselle."
"Certainly. Whatever you like."
"Have you ever had, have you now, any affection for Lady Henry?"
"Affection? I could have had plenty. Lady Henry is most interesting to watch. It is magnificent, the struggles she makes with her infirmities."
Nothing could have been more agreeable than the modulation of these words, the passage of the tone from a first note of surprise to its grave and womanly close. Again, the same suggestions of veiled and vibrating feeling. Sir Wilfrid's nascent dislike softened a little.
"After all," he said, with gentleness, "one must make allowance for old age and weakness, mustn't one?"
"Oh, as to that, you can't say anything to me that I am not perpetually saying to myself," was her somewhat impetuous reply. "Only there is a point when ill-temper becomes not only tormenting to me but degrading to herself.... Oh, if you only knew!"—the speaker drew an indignant breath. "I can hardly bring myself to speak of such miseres. But everything excites her, everything makes her jealous. It is a grievance that I should have a new dress, that Mr. Montresor should send me an order for the House of Commons, that Evelyn Crowborough should give me a Christmas present. Last Christmas, Evelyn gave me these furs—she is the only creature in London from whom I would accept a farthing or the value of a farthing."
She paused, then rapidly threw him a question:
"Why, do you suppose, did I take it from her?"
"She is your kinswoman," said Wilfrid, quietly.
"Ah, you knew that! Well, then, mayn't Evelyn be kind to me, though I am what I am? I reminded Lady Henry, but she only thought me a mean parasite, sponging on a duchess for presents above my station. She said things hardly to be forgiven. I was silent. But I have never ceased to wear the furs."
With what imperious will did the thin shoulders straighten themselves under the folds of chinchilla! The cloak became symbolic, a flag not to be struck.
"I never answer back, please understand—never," she went on, hurriedly. "You saw to-day how Lady Henry gave me her orders. There is not a servant in the house with whom she would dare such a manner. Did I resent it?"
"You behaved with great forbearance. I watched you with admiration."
"Ah, forbearance! I fear you don't understand one of the strangest elements in the whole case. I am afraid of Lady Henry, mortally afraid! When she speaks to me I feel like a child who puts up its hands to ward off a blow. My instinct is not merely to submit, but to grovel. When you have had the youth that I had, when you have existed, learned, amused yourself on sufferance, when you have had somehow to maintain yourself among girls who had family, friends, money, name, while you—"
Her voice stopped, resolutely silenced before it broke. Sir Wilfrid uncomfortably felt that he had no sympathy to produce worthy of the claim that her whole personality seemed to make upon it. But she recovered herself immediately.
"Now I think I had better give you an outline of the last six months," she said, turning to him. "Of course it is my side of the matter. But you have heard Lady Henry's."
And with great composure she laid before him an outline of the chief quarrels and grievances which had embittered the life of the Bruton Street house during the period she had named. It was a wretched story, and she clearly told it with repugnance and disgust. There was in her tone a note of offended personal delicacy, as of one bemired against her will.
Evidently, Lady Henry was hardly to be defended. The thing had been "odious," indeed. Two women of great ability and different ages, shut up together and jarring at every point, the elder furiously jealous and exasperated by what seemed to her the affront offered to her high rank and her past ascendency by the social success of her dependant, the other defending herself, first by the arts of flattery and submission, and then, when these proved hopeless, by a social skill that at least wore many of the aspects of intrigue—these were the essential elements of the situation; and, as her narrative proceeded, Sir Wilfrid admitted to himself that it was hard to see any way out of it. As to his own sympathies, he did not know what to make of them.