SIR GEORGE TRESSADY, VOLUME I
IN TWO VOLUMES
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
AUTHOR OF "MARCELLA," "THE HISTORY OF DAVID GRIEVE," "ROBERT ELSMEKE," ETC.
To my Brother and friend
WILLIAM THOMAS ARNOLD
I INSCRIBE THIS BOOK
"Well, that's over, thank Heaven!"
The young man speaking drew in his head from the carriage-window. But instead of sitting down he turned with a joyous, excited gesture and lifted the flap over the little window in the back of the landau, supporting himself, as he stooped to look, by a hand on his companion's shoulder. Through this peephole he saw, as the horses trotted away, the crowd in the main street of Market Malford, still huzzaing and waving, the wild glare of half a dozen torches on the faces and the moving forms, the closed shops on either hand, the irregular roofs and chimneys sharp-cut against a wintry sky, and in the far distance the little lantern belfry and taller mass of the new town-hall.
"I'm much astonished the horses didn't bolt!" said the man addressed. "That bay mare would have lost all the temper she's got in another moment. It's a good thing we made them shut the carriage—it has turned abominably cold. Hadn't you better sit down?"
And Lord Fontenoy made a movement as though to withdraw from the hand on his shoulder.
The owner of the hand flung himself down on the seat, with a word of apology, took off his hat, and drew a long breath of fatigue. At the same moment a sudden look of disgust effaced the smile with which he had taken his last glimpse at the crowd.
"All very well!—but what one wants after this business is a moral tub! The lies I've told during the last three weeks—the bunkum I've talked!—it's a feeling of positive dirt! And the worst of it is, however you may scrub your mind afterwards, some of it must stick."
He took out a cigarette, and lit it at his companion's with a rather unsteady hand. He had a thin, long face and fair hair; and one would have guessed him some ten years younger than the man beside him.
"Certainly—it will stick," said the other. "Election promises nowadays are sharply looked after. I heard no bunkum. As far as I know, our party doesn't talk any. We leave that to the Government!"
Sir George Tressady, the young man addressed, shrugged his shoulders. His mouth was still twitching under the influence of nervous excitement. But as they rolled along between the dark hedges, the carriage-lamps shining on their wet branches, green yet, in spite of November, he began to recover a half-cynical self-control. The poll for the Market Malford Division of West Mercia had been declared that afternoon, between two and three o'clock, after a hotly contested election; he, as the successful candidate by a very narrow majority, had since addressed a shouting mob from the balcony of the Greyhound Hotel, had suffered the usual taking out of horses and triumphal dragging through the town, and was now returning with his supporter and party-leader, Lord Fontenoy, to the great Tory mansion which had sent them forth in the morning, and had been Tressady's headquarters during the greater part of the fight.
"Did you ever see anyone so down as Burrows?" he said presently, with a little leap of laughter. "By George! it is hard lines. I suppose he thought himself safe, what with the work he'd done in the division and the hold he had on the miners. Then a confounded stranger turns up, and the chance of seventeen ignorant voters kicks you out! He could hardly bring himself to shake hands with me. I had come rather to admire him, hadn't you?"
Lord Fontenoy nodded.
"I thought his speeches showed ability," he said indifferently, "only of a kind that must be kept out of Parliament—that's all. Sorry you have qualms—quite unnecessary, I assure you! At the present moment, either Burrows and his like knock under, or you and your like. This time—by seventeen votes—Burrows knocks under. Thank the Lord! say I"—and the speaker opened the window an instant to knock off the end of his cigar.
Tressady made no reply. But again a look, half-chagrined, half-reflective, puckered his brow, which was smooth, white, and boyish under his straight, fair hair; whereas the rest of the face was subtly lined, and browned as though by travel and varied living. The nose and mouth, though not handsome, were small and delicately cut, while the long, pointed chin, slightly protruding, made those who disliked him say that he was like those innumerable portraits of Philip IV., by and after Velasquez, which bestrew the collections of Europe. But if the Hapsburg chin had to be admitted, nothing could be more modern, intelligent, alert, than the rest of him.
The two rolled along a while in silence. They were passing through an undulating midland country, dimly seen under the stars. At frequent intervals rose high mounds, with tall chimneys and huddled buildings beside them or upon them which marked the sites of collieries; while the lights also, which had begun to twinkle over the face of the land, showed that it was thickly inhabited.
Suddenly the carriage rattled into a village, and Tressady looked out.
"I say, Fontenoy, here's a crowd! Do you suppose they know? Why, Gregson's taken us another way round!"
Lord Fontenoy let down his window, and identified the small mining village of Battage.
"Why did you bring us this way, Gregson?" he said to the coachman.
The man, a Londoner, turned, and spoke in a low voice. "I thought we might find some rioting going on in Marraby, my lord. And now I see there's lots o' them out here!"
Indeed, with the words he had to check his horses. The village street was full from end to end with miners just come up from work. Fontenoy at once perceived that the news of the election had arrived. The men were massed in large groups, talking and discussing, with evident and angry excitement, and as soon as the well-known liveries on the box of the new member's carriage were identified there was an instant rush towards it. Some of the men had already gone into their houses on either hand, but at the sound of the wheels and the uproar they came rushing out again. A howling hubbub arose, a confused sound of booing and groaning, and the carriage was soon surrounded by grimed men, gesticulating and shouting.
"Yer bloated parasites, yer!" cried a young fellow, catching at the door-handle on Lord Fontenoy's side; "we'll make a d——d end o' yer afore we've done wi' yer. Who asked yer to come meddlin in Malford—d——n yer!"
"Whativer do we want wi' the loikes o' yo representin us!" shouted another man, pointing at Tressady. "Look at 'im; ee can't walk, ee can't; mus be druv, poor hinnercent! When did yo iver do a day's work, eh? Look at my 'ands! Them's the 'ands for honest men—ain't they, you fellers?"
There was a roar of laughter and approval from the crowd, and up went a forest of begrimed hands, flourishing and waving.
George calmly put down the carriage-window, and, leaning his arms upon it, put his head out. He flung some good-humoured banter at some of the nearest men, and two or three responded. But the majority of the faces were lowering and fierce, and the horses were becoming inconveniently crowded.
"Get on, Gregson," said Fontenoy, opening the front window of the brougham.
"If they'll let me, your lordship," said Gregson, rather pale, raising his whip.
The horses made a sudden start forward. There was a yell from the crowd, and three or four men had just dashed for the horses' heads, when a shout of a different kind ascended.
"Burrows! 'Ere's Burrows! Three cheers for Burrows!"
And some distance behind them, at the corner of the village street, Tressady suddenly perceived a tall dogcart drawing up with two men in it. It was already surrounded by a cheering and tumultuous assembly, and one of the men in the cart was shaking hands right and left.
George drew in his head, with a laugh. "This is dramatic. They've stopped the horses, and here's Burrows!"
Fontenoy shrugged his shoulders. "They'll blackguard us a bit, I suppose, and let us go. Burrows 'll keep them in order."
"What d'yer mean by it, heh, dash yer!" shouted a huge man, as he sprang on the step of the carriage and shook a black fist in Tressady's face—"thrustin yer d——d carkiss where yer ain't wanted? We wanted 'im, and we've worked for 'im. This is a workin-class district, an we've a right to 'im. Do yer 'ear?"
"Then you should have given him seventeen more votes," said George, composedly, as he thrust his hands into his pockets. "It's the fortunes of war—your turn next time. I say, suppose you tell your fellows to let our man get on. We've had a long day, and we're hungry. Ah"—to Fontenoy—"here's Burrows coming!"
Fontenoy turned, and saw that the dogcart had drawn up alongside them, and that one of the men was standing on the step of it, holding on to the rail of the cart.
He was a tall, finely built man, and as he looked down on the carriage, and on Tressady leaning over the window, the light from a street-lamp near showed a handsome face blanched with excitement and fatigue.
"Now, my friends," he said, raising his arm, and addressing the crowd, "you let Sir George go home to his dinner. He's beaten us, and so far as I know he's fought fair, whatever some of his friends may have done for him. I'm going home to have a bite of something and a wash. I'm done. But if any of you like to come round to the club—eight o'clock—I'll tell you a thing or two about this election. Now goodnight to you, Sir George. We'll beat you yet, trust us. Fall back there!"
He pointed peremptorily to the men holding the horses. They and the crowd instantly obeyed him.
The carriage swept on, followed by the hooting and groans of the whole community, men, women, and children, who were now massed along the street on either hand.
"It's easy to see this man Gregson's a new hand," said Fontenoy, with an accent of annoyance, as they got clear of the village. "I believe the Wattons have only just imported him, otherwise he'd never have avoided Marraby, and come round by Battage."
"Battage has some special connection with Burrows, hasn't it? I had forgotten."
"Of course. He was check-weigher at the Acme pit here for years, before they made him district secretary of the union."
"That's why they gave me such a hot meeting here a fortnight ago!—I remember now; but one thing drives another out of one's head. Well, I daresay you and I'll have plenty more to do with Burrows before we've done."
Tressady threw himself back in his corner with a yawn.
"There'll be another big strike some time next year," he said drily—"bound to be, as far as I can see. We shall all have plenty to do with Burrows then."
"All right," said Tressady, indistinctly, pulling his hat over his eyes. "Burrows or anybody else may blow me up next year, so long as they let me go to sleep now."
However, he did not find it so easy to go to sleep. His pulses were still tingling under the emotions of the day and the stimulus of the hubbub they had just passed through. His mind raced backwards and forwards over the incidents and excitements of the last six months, over the scenes of his canvass—and over some other scenes of a different kind which had taken place in the country-house whither he and Fontenoy were returning.
But he did his best to feign sleep. His one desire was that Fontenoy should not talk to him. Fontenoy, however, was not easily taken in, and no sooner did George make his first restless movement under the rug he had drawn over him, than his companion broke silence.
"By the way, what did you think of that memorandum of mine on Maxwell's bill?"
George fidgeted and mumbled. Fontenoy, undaunted, began to harangue on certain minutiae of factory law with a monotonous zest of voice and gesture which seemed to Tressady nothing short of amazing.
He watched the speaker a minute or two through his half-shut eyes. So this was his leader to be—the man who had made him member for Market Malford.
Eight years before, when George Tressady had first entered Christchurch, he had found that place of tempered learning alive with traditions on the subject of "Dicky Fontenoy." And such traditions—good Heavens! Subsequently, at most race-meetings, large and small, and at various clubs, theatres, and places of public resort, the younger man had had his opportunities of observing the elder, and had used them always with relish, and sometimes with admiration. He himself had no desire to follow in Fontenoy's footsteps. Other elements ruled in him, which drew him other ways. But there was a magnificence about the impetuosity, or rather the doggedness with which Fontenoy had plunged into the business of ruining himself, which stirred the imagination. On the last occasion, some three and a half years before this Market Malford election, when Tressady had seen Fontenoy before starting himself on a long Eastern tour, he had been conscious of a lively curiosity as to what might have happened to "Dicky" by the time he came back again. The eldest sons of peers do not generally come to the workhouse; but there are aristocratic substitutes which, relatively, are not much less disagreeable; and George hardly saw how they were to be escaped.
And now—not four years!—and here sat Dicky Fontenoy, haranguing on the dull clauses of a technical act, throat hoarse with the speaking of the last three weeks, eyes cavernous with anxiety and overwork, the creator and leader of a political party which did not exist when Tressady left England, and now bade fair to hold the balance of power in English government! The surprises of fate and character! Tressady pondered them a little in a sleepy way; but the fatigue of many days asserted itself. Even his companion was soon obliged to give him up as a listener. Lord Fontenoy ceased to talk; yet every now and then, as some jolt of the carriage made George open his eyes, he saw the broad-shouldered figure beside him, sitting in the same attitude, erect and tireless, the same half-peevish pugnacity giving expression to mouth and eye.
* * * * *
"Come, wake up, Tressady! Here we are!"
There was a vindictive eagerness in Fontenoy's voice. Ease was no longer welcome to him, whether in himself or as a spectacle in other men. George, startled from a momentary profundity of sleep, staggered to his feet, and clutched at various bags and rugs.
The carriage was standing under the pillared porch of Malford House, and the great house-doors, thrown back upon an inner flight of marble steps, gave passage to a blaze of light. George, descending, had just shaken himself awake, and handed the things he held to a footman, when there was a sudden uproar from within. A crowd of figures—men and women, the men cheering, the women clapping and laughing—ran down the inner steps towards him. He was surrounded, embraced, slapped on the back, and finally carried triumphantly into the hall.
"Bring him in!" said an exultant voice; "and stand back, please, and let his mother get at him."
The laughing group fell back, and George, blinking, radiant, and abashed, found himself in the arms of an exceedingly sprightly and youthful dame, with pale, frizzled hair, and the figure of seventeen.
"Oh, you dear, great, foolish thing!" said the lady, with the voice and the fervour, moreover, of seventeen. "So you've got in—you've done it! Well, I should never have spoken to you again if you hadn't! And I suppose you'd have minded that a little—from your own mother. Goodness! how cold he is!"
And she flew at him with little pecking kisses, retreating every now and again to look at him, and then closing upon him again in ecstasy, till George, at the end of his patience, held her off with a strong arm.
"Now, mother, that's enough. Have the others been home long?" he asked, addressing a smiling young man in knickerbockers who, with his hands in his pockets, was standing beside the hero of the occasion surveying the scene.
"Oh! about half an hour. They reported you'd have some difficulty in getting out of the clutches of the crowd. We hardly expected you so soon."
"How's Miss Sewell's headache? Does she know?"
The expression of the young man's eye, which was bent on Tressady, changed ever so slightly as he replied:
"Oh yes, she knows. As soon as the others got back Mrs. Watton went up to tell her. She didn't show at lunch."
"Mrs. Watton came to tell me—naughty man!" said the lady whom George had addressed as his mother, tapping the speaker on the arm with her fan. "Mothers first, if you please, especially when they're cripples like me, and can't go and see their dear darlings' triumphs with their own eyes. And I told Miss Sewell."
She put her head on one side, and looked archly at her son. Her high gown, a work of the most approved Parisian art, was so cut as to show much more throat than usual, and, in addition, a row of very fine pearls. Her very elegant waist and bust were defined by a sort of Empire sash; her complexion did her maid and, indeed, her years, infinite credit.
George flushed slightly at his mother's words, and was turning away from her when he was gripped by the owner of the house, Squire Watton, an eloquent and soft-hearted old gentleman who, having in George's opinion already overdone it greatly at the town-hall in the way of hand-shaking and congratulations, was now most unreasonably prepared to overdo it again. Lady Tressady joined in with little shrieks and sallies, the other guests of the house gathered round, and the hero of the day was once more lost to sight and hearing amid the general hubbub of talk and laughter—for the young man in knickerbockers, at any rate, who stood a little way off from the rest.
"I wonder when she'll condescend to come down," he said to himself, examining his boots with a speculative smile. "Of course it was mere caprice that she didn't go to Malford; she meant it to annoy."
"I say, do let me get warm," said Tressady at last, breaking from his tormentors, and coming up to the open log fire, in front of which the young man stood. "Where's Fontenoy vanished to?"
"Went up to write letters directly he had swallowed a cup of tea," said the young man, whose name was Bayle; "and called Marks to go with him." (Marks was Lord Fontenoy's private secretary.)
George Tressady threw up his hands in disgust.
"It's absurd. He never allows himself an hour's peace. If he expects me to grind as he does, he'll soon regret that he lent a hand to put me into Parliament. Well, I'm stiff all over, and as tired as a rat. I'll go and have a warm bath before dinner."
But still he lingered, warming his hands over the blaze, and every now and then scanning the gallery which ran round the big hall. Bayle chatted to Mm about some of the incidents of the day. George answered at random. He did, indeed, look tired out, and his expression was restless and discontented.
Suddenly there was a cry from the group of young men and maidens who were amusing themselves in the centre of the hall.
"Why, there's Letty! and as fresh as paint."
George turned abruptly. Bayle saw his manner stiffen and his eye kindle.
A young girl was slowly coming down the great staircase which led to the hall. She was in a soft black dress with a blue sash, and a knot of blue at her throat—a childish slip of a dress, which answered to her small rounded form, her curly head, and the hand slipping along the marble rail. She came down silently smiling, taking each step with great deliberation, in spite of the outbreak of half-derisive sympathy with which she was greeted from her friends below. Her bright eyes glanced from face to face—from the mocking inquirers immediately beneath her to George Tressady standing by the fire.
At the moment when she reached the last step Tressady found it necessary to put another log on a fire already piled to repletion.
Meanwhile Miss Sewell went straight towards the new member and held out her hand.
"I am so glad, Sir George; let me congratulate you."
George put down his log, and then looked at his fingers critically.
"I am very sorry, Miss Sewell, but I am not fit to touch. I hope your headache is better."
Miss Sewell dropped her hand meekly, shot him a glance which was not meek, and said demurely:
"Oh! my headaches do what they're told. You see, I was determined to come down and congratulate you."
"I see," he repeated, making her a little bow. "I hope my ailments, when I get them, will be as docile. So my mother told you?"
"I didn't want telling," she said placidly. "I knew it was all safe."
"Then you knew what only the gods knew—for I only got in by seventeen votes."
"Yes, so I heard. I was very sorry for Burrows."
She put one foot on the stone fender, raised her pretty dress with one hand, and leant the other lightly against the mantelpiece. The attitude was full of grace, and the little sighing voice fitted the curves of a mouth which seemed always ready to laugh, yet seldom laughed frankly.
As she made her remark about Burrows Tressady smiled.
"My prophetic soul was right," he said deliberately; "I knew you would be sorry for Burrows."
"Well, it is hard on him, isn't it? You can't deny you're a carpet-bagger, can you?"
"Why should I? I'm proud of it."
Then he looked round him. The rest of the party—not without whispers and smothered laughter—had withdrawn from them. Some of the ladies had already gone up to dress. The men had wandered away into a little library and smoking-room which opened on the hall. Only the squire, safe in a capacious armchair a little way off, was absorbed in a local paper and the last humours of the election.
Satisfied with his glance, Tressady put his hands into his pockets, and leant back against the fireplace, in a way to give himself fuller command of Miss Sewell's countenance.
"Do you never give your friends any better sympathy than you have given me in this affair, Miss Sewell?" he said suddenly, as their eyes met.
She made a little face.
"Why, I've been an angel!" she said, poking at a prominent log with her foot.
"Then our ideas of angels agree no better than the rest. Why didn't you come and hear the poll declared, after promising me you would be there?"
"Because I had a headache, Sir George."
He responded with a little inclination, as though ceremoniously accepting her statement.
"May I ask at what time your headache began?"
"Let me see," she said, laughing; "I think it was directly after breakfast."
"Yes. It declared itself, if I remember right, immediately after certain remarks of mine about a Captain Addison?"
He looked straight before him, with a detached air.
"Yes," said Letty, thoughtfully; "it was a curious coincidence, wasn't it?"
There was a moment's silence. Then she broke into infectious laughter.
"Don't you know," she said, laying her hand on his shoulder—"don't you know that you're a most foolish and wasteful person? We get along capitally, you and I—we've had a rattling time all this week—and then you will go and make uncivil remarks about my friends—in public, too! You actually think I'm going to let you tell Aunt Watton how to manage me! You get me into no end of a fuss—it'll take me weeks to undo the mischief you've been making—and then you expect me to take it like a lamb! Now, do I look like a lamb?"
All this time she was holding him tight by the arm, and her dimpled face, alive with mirth and malice, was so close to his that a moment's wild impulse flashed through him to kiss her there and then. But the impulse passed. He and Letty Sewell had known each other for about three weeks. They were not engaged—far from it. And these—the hand on the arm, and the rest—were Letty Sewell's ways.
Instead of kissing her, then, he scanned her deliberately.
"I never saw anyone more plainly given over to obstinacy and pride," he said quietly; "I told you some plain facts about the character of a man whom I know, and you don't, whereupon you sulk all day, you break all your promises about coming to Malford, and when I come back you call me names."
She raised her eyebrows and withdrew her hand.
"Well, it's plain, isn't it? that I must have been in a great rage. It was very dull upstairs, though I did write reams to my best friend all about you—a very candid account—I shall have to soften it down. By the way, are you ever going to dress for dinner?"
George started, and looked at his watch.
"Are we alone? Is anyone coming from outside?"
"Only a few 'locals,' just to celebrate the occasion. I know the clergyman's wife's coming, for she told me she had been copying one of my frocks, and wanted me to tell her what I thought."
"I don't think I shall be nice to her," said Letty, playing with a flower on the mantelpiece. "Dowdy people make me feel wicked. Well, I must dress."
It was now his turn to lay a detaining hand.
"Are you sorry?" he said, bending over to her. His bright grey eyes had shaken off fatigue.
"For what? Because you got in?"
Her face overflowed with laughter. He let her go. She linked her arm in that of the daughter of the house—Miss Florence Watton—who was crossing the hall at the moment, and the two went upstairs together, she throwing back one triumphant glance at him from the landing.
George stood watching them till they disappeared. His expression was neither soft nor angry. There was in it a mocking self-possession which showed that he too had been playing a part—mingled, perhaps, with a certain perplexity.
George Tressady came down very late for dinner, and found his hostess on the verge of annoyance. Mrs. Watton was a large, commanding woman, who seldom thought it worth while to disguise any disapproval she might feel—and she had a great deal of that commodity to expend, both on persons and institutions.
George hastened to propitiate her with the usual futilities: he had supposed that he was in excellent time, his watch had been playing tricks, and so on.
Mrs. Watton, who, after all, on this great day beheld in the new member the visible triumph of her dearest principles, received these excuses at first with stiffness, but soon thawed.
"Oh, you naughty boy, you naughty, mendacious boy!" said a sprightly voice in Tressady's ear. "'Excellent time,' indeed! I saw you—for shame!"
And Lady Tressady flounced away from her son, laughing over her shoulder in one of her accustomed poses. She wore white muslin over cherry-coloured silk. The display of neck and shoulders could hardly have been more lavish; and the rouge on her cheeks had been overdone, which rarely happened. George turned from her hurriedly to speak to Lord Fontenoy.
"What a fool that woman is!" thought Mrs. Watton to herself, as her sharp eye followed her guest. "She will make George positively dislike her soon—and all the time she is bound to get him to pay her debts, or there will be a smash. What! dinner? John, will you please take Lady Tressady; Harding, will you take Mrs. Hawkins"—pointing her second son towards a lady in black sitting stiffly on the edge of an ottoman; "Mr. Hawkins takes Florence; Sir George"—she waved her hand towards Miss Sewell. "Now, Lord Fontenoy, you must take me; and the rest of you sort yourselves."
As the young people, mostly cousins, laughingly did what they were told, Sir George held out his arm to Miss Sewell.
"I am very sorry for you," he said, as they passed into the dining-room.
"Oh! I knew it would be my turn," said Letty, with resignation. "You see, you took Florrie last night, and Aunt Watton the night before."
George settled himself deliberately in his chair, and turned to study his companion.
"Do you mind warning me, to begin with, how I can avoid giving you a headache? Since this morning my nerve has gone—I want directions."
"Well—" said Letty, pondering, "let us lay down the subjects we may talk about first. For instance, you may talk of Mrs. Hawkins."
She gave an imperceptible nod which directed his eyes to the thin woman sitting opposite, to whom Harding Watton, a fashionable and fastidious youth, was paying but scant attention.
George examined her.
"I don't want to," he said shortly; "besides, she would last us no time at all."
"Oh!—on the contrary," said Letty, with malice sparkling in her brown eye, "she would last me a good twenty minutes. She has got on my gown."
"I didn't recognise it," said George, studying the thin lady again.
"I wouldn't mind," said Letty, in the same tone of reflection, "if Mrs. Hawkins didn't think it her duty to lecture me in the intervals of copying my frocks. If I disapproved of anybody, I don't think I should send my nurse to ask their maid for patterns."
"I notice you take disapproval very calmly."
"Callously, you mean. Well, it is my misfortune. I always feel myself so much more reasonable than the people who disapprove."
"This morning, then, you thought me a fool?"
"Oh no! Only—well—I knew, you see, that I knew better. I was reasonable, and—"
"Oh! don't finish," said George, hastily; "and don't suppose that I shall ever give you any more good advice."
Her mocking look sent a challenge, which he met with outward firmness. Meanwhile he was inwardly haunted by a phrase he had once heard a woman apply to the mental capacities of her best friend. "Her mind?—her mind, my dear, is a shallow chaos!" The words made a neat label, he scoffingly thought, for his own present sensations. For he could not persuade himself that there was much profundity in his feelings towards Miss Sewell, whatever reckless possibilities life might seem to hold at times; when, for instance, she wore that particular pink gown in which she was attired to-night, or when her little impertinent airs suited her as well as they were suiting her just now. Something cool and critical in him was judging her all the time. Ten years hence, he made himself reflect, she would probably have no prettiness left. Whereas now, what with bloom and grace, what with small proportions and movements light as air, what with an inventive refinement in dress and personal adornment that never failed, all Letty Sewell's defects of feature or expression were easily lost in a general aspect which most men found dazzling and perturbing enough. Letty, at any rate within her own circle, had never yet been without partners, or lovers, or any other form of girlish excitement that she desired, and had been generally supposed—though she herself was aware of some strong evidence to the contrary—to be capable of getting anything she had set her mind upon. She had set her mind, as the spectators in this particular case had speedily divined, upon enslaving young George Tressady. And she had not failed. For even during these last stirring days it had been tolerably clear that she and his election had divided Tressady's mind between them, with a balance, perhaps, to her side. As to the measure of her success, however, that was still doubtful—to herself and him most of all.
To-night, at any rate, he could not detach himself from her. He tried repeatedly to talk to the girl on his left, a noble-faced child fresh out of the schoolroom, who in three years' time would be as much Letty Sewell's superior in beauty as in other things. But the effort was too great. The strenuous business of the day had but left him—in fatigue and reaction—the more athirst for amusement and the gratification of another set of powers. He turned back to Letty, and through course after course they chattered and sparred, discussing people, plays and books, or rather, under cover of these, a number of those topics on the borderland of passion whereby men and women make their first snatches at intimacy—till Mrs. Watton's sharp grey eyes smiled behind her fan, and the attention of her neighbour, Lord Fontenoy—an uneasy attention—was again and again drawn to the pair.
Meanwhile, during the first half of dinner, a chair immediately opposite to Tressady's place remained vacant. It was being kept for the eldest son of the house, his mother explaining carelessly to Lord Fontenoy that she believed he was "Out parishing somewhere, as usual."
However, with the appearance of the pheasants the door from the drawing-room opened, and a slim dark-haired man slipped in. He took his place noiselessly, with a smile of greeting to George and his neighbour, and bade the butler in a whisper aside bring him any course that might be going.
"Nonsense, Edward!" said his mother's loud voice from the head of the table; "don't be ridiculous. Morris, bring back that hare entree and the mutton for Mr. Edward."
The newcomer raised his eyebrows mildly, smiled, and submitted.
"Where have you been, Edward?" said Tressady; "I haven't seen you since the town-hall."
"I have been at a rehearsal. There is a parish concert next week, and I conduct these functions."
"The concerts are always bad," said Mrs. Watton, curtly.
Edward Watton shrugged his shoulder. He had a charming timid air, contradicted now and then by a look of enthusiastic resolution in the eyes.
"All the more reason for rehearsal," he said. "However, really, they won't do badly this time."
"Edward is one of the persons," said Mrs. Watton in a low aside to Lord Fontenoy, "who think you can make friends with people—the lower orders—by shaking hands with them, showing them Burne-Jones's pictures, and singing 'The Messiah' with them. I had the same idea once. Everybody had. It was like the measles. But the sensible persons have got over it."
"Thank you, mamma," said Watton, making her a smiling bow.
Lady Tressady interrupted her talk with the squire at the other end of the table to observe what was going on. She had been chattering very fast in a shrill, affected voice, with a gesticulation so free and French, and a face so close to his, that the nervous and finicking squire had been every moment afraid lest the next should find her white fingers in his very eyes. He felt an inward spasm of relief when he saw her attention diverted.
"Is that Mr. Edward talking his Radicalism?" she asked, putting up a gold eyeglass—"his dear, wicked Radicalism? Ah! we all know where Mr. Edward got it."
The table laughed. Harding Watton looked particularly amused.
"Egeria was in this neighbourhood last week," he said, addressing Lady Tressady. "Edward rode over to see her. Since then he has joined two new societies, and ordered six new books on the Labour Question."
Edward flushed a little, but went on eating his dinner without any other sign of disturbance.
"If you mean Lady Maxwell," he said good-humouredly, "I can only be sorry for the rest of you that you don't know her."
He raised his handsome head with a bright air of challenge that became him, but at the same time exasperated his mother.
"That woman!" said Mrs. Watton with ponderous force, throwing up her hands as she spoke. Then she turned to Lord Fontenoy. "Don't you regard her as the source of half the mischievous work done by this precious Government in the last two years?" she asked him imperiously.
A half-contemptuous smile crossed Lord Fontenoy's worn face.
"Well, really, I'm not inclined to make Lady Maxwell the scapegoat. Let them bear their own misdeeds."
"Besides, what worse can you say of English Ministers than that they should be led by a woman?" said Mr. Watton, from the bottom of the table, in a piping voice. "In my young days such a state of things would have been unheard of. No offence, my dear, no offence," he added hastily, glancing at his wife.
Letty glanced at George, and put up a handkerchief to hide her own merriment.
Mrs. Watton looked impatient.
"Plenty of English Cabinet Ministers have been led by women before now," she said drily; "and no blame to them or anybody else. Only in the old days you knew where you were. Women were corrupt—as they were meant to be—for their husbands and brothers and sons. They wanted something for somebody—and got it. Now they are corrupt—like Lady Maxwell—for what they are pleased to call 'causes,' and it is that which will take the nation to ruin."
At this there was an incautious protest from Edward Watton against the word "corrupt," followed by a confirmatory clamour from his mother and brother which seemed to fill the dining-room. Lady Tressady threw in affected comments from time to time, trying hard to hold her own in the conversation by a liberal use of fan and Christian names, and little personal audacities applied to each speaker in turn. Only Edward Watton, however, occasionally took civil or smiling notice of her; the others ignored her. They were engaged in a congenial task, the hunting of the one disaffected and insubordinate member of their pack, and had for the moment no attention to spare for other people.
"I shall see the great lady, I suppose, in a week or two," said George to Miss Sewell, under cover of the noise. "It is curious that I should never have seen her."
"Who? Lady Maxwell?"
"Yes. You remember I have been four years out of England. She was in town, I suppose, the year before I left, but I never came across her."
"I prophesy you will like her enormously," said Letty, with decision. "At least, I know that's what happens to me when Aunt Watton abuses anybody. I couldn't dislike them afterwards if I tried."
"That, allow me to impress upon you, is not my disposition! I am a human being—I am influenced by my friends."
He turned round towards her so as to appropriate her again.
"Oh! you are not at all the poor creature you paint yourself!" said Letty, shaking her head. "In reality, you are the most obstinate person I know—you can never let a subject alone—you never know when you're beaten."
"Beaten?" said George, reflectively; "by a headache? Well, there is no disgrace in that. One will probably 'live to fight another day.' Do you mean to say that you will take no notice—no notice—of all that array of facts I laid before you this morning on the subject of Captain Addison?"
"I shall be kind to you, and forget them. Now, do listen to Aunt Watton! It is your duty. Aunt Watton is accustomed to be listened to, and you haven't heard it all a hundred times before, as I have."
Mrs. Watton, indeed, was haranguing her end of the table on a subject that clearly excited her. Contempt and antagonism gave a fine energy to a head and face already sufficiently expressive. Both were on a large scale, but without commonness. The old-lace coif she wore suited her waved and grizzled hair, and was carried with conscious dignity; the hand, which lay beside her on the table, though long and bony, was full of nervous distinction. Mrs. Watton was, and looked, a tyrant—but a tyrant of ability.
"A neighbour of theirs in Brookshire," she was saying, "was giving me last week the most extraordinary account of the doings at Mellor. She was the heiress of that house at Mellor"—here she addressed young Bayle, who, as a comparative stranger in the house, might be supposed to be ignorant of facts which everybody else knew—"a tumbledown place with an income of about two thousand a year. Directly she married she put a Socialist of the most unscrupulous type—so they tell me—into possession. The man has established what they call a 'standard rate' of wages for the estate—practically double the normal rate—coerced all the farmers, and made the neighbours furious. They say the whole district is in a ferment. It used to be the quietest part of the world imaginable, and now she has set it all by the ears. She, having married thirty thousand a year, can afford her little amusements; other people, who must live by their land, have their lives worried out of them."
"She tells me that the system works on the whole extremely well," said Edward Watton, whose heightened colour alone betrayed the irritation of his mother's chronic aggression, "and that Maxwell is not at all unlikely to adopt it on his own estate."
Mrs. Watton threw up her hands again.
"The idiocy of that man! Till he married her he was a man of sense. And now she leads him by the nose, and whatever tune he calls, the Government must dance to, because of his power in the House of Lords."
"And the worst of it is," said Harding Watton, with an unpleasant laugh, "that if she were not a handsome woman, her influence would not be half what it is. She uses her beauty in the most unscrupulous way."
"I believe that to be entirely untrue," said Edward Watton, with emphasis, looking at his brother with hostility.
George Tressady interrupted. He had an affection for Edward Watton, and cordially disliked Harding. "Is she really so handsome?" he asked, bending forward and addressing his hostess.
Mrs. Watton scornfully took no notice.
"Well, an old diplomat told me the other day," said Lord Fontenoy—but with a cold unwillingness, as though he disliked the subject—"that she was the most beautiful woman, he thought, that had been seen in London since Lady Blessington's time."
"Lady Blessington! dear, dear!—Lady Blessington!" said Lady Tressady with malicious emphasis—an unfortunate comparison, don't you think? Not many people would like to be regarded as Lady Blessington's successor."
"In any other respect than beauty," said Edward Watton, haughtily, with the same tension as before, "the comparison, of course, would be ridiculous."
Harding shrugged his shoulders, and, tilting his chair back, said in the ear of a shy young man who sat next him:
"In my opinion, the Count d'Orsay is only a question of time! However, one mustn't say that to Edward."
Harding read memoirs, and considered himself a man of general cultivation. The young man addressed, who read no printed matter outside the sporting papers that he could help, and had no idea as to who Lady Blessington and Count d'Orsay might be, smiled vaguely, and said nothing.
"My dear," said the squire, plaintively, "isn't this room extremely hot?"
There was a ripple of meaning laughter from all the young people, to many of whom this particular quarrel was already tiresomely familiar. Mr. Watton, who never understood anything, looked round with an inquiring air. Mrs. Watton condescended to take the hint and retire.
In the drawing-room afterwards Mrs. Watton first allotted a duty-conversation of some ten minutes in length, and dealing strictly with the affairs of the parish, to Mrs. Hawkins, who, as clergyman's wife, had a definite official place in the Malford House circle, quite irrespective of any individuality she might happen to possess. Mrs. Hawkins was plain, self-conscious, and in no way interesting to Mrs. Watton, who never took the smallest trouble to approach her in any other capacity than that upon which she had entered by marrying the incumbent of the squire's home living. But the civilities and respects that were recognised as belonging to her station she received.
This however, alas! was not enough for Mrs. Hawkins, who was full of ambitions, which had a bad manner, a plague of shyness, and a narrow income, were perpetually thwarting. As soon as the ten minutes were over, and Mrs. Watton, who was nothing if not political, and saw no occasion to make a stranger of the vicar's wife, had plunged into the evening papers brought her by the footman, Mrs. Hawkins threw herself on Letty Sewell. She was effusively grateful—too grateful—for the patterns lent her by Miss Sewell's maid.
"Did she lend you some patterns?" said Letty, raising her brows. "Dear me; I didn't know."
And her eyes ran cooly over Mrs. Hawkins's attire, which did, indeed, present a village imitation of the delicate gown in which Miss Sewell had robed herself for the evening.
Mrs. Hawkins coloured.
"I specially told my nurse," she said hastily, "that of course your leave must be asked. But my nurse and your maid seem to have made friends. Of course my nurse has plenty of time for dressmaking with only one child of four to look after, and—and—one really gets no new ideas in a poky place like this. But I would not have taken a liberty for the world."
Her pride and mauvaise honte together made both voice and manner particularly unattractive. Letty was seized with the same temper that little boys show towards flies.
"Of course I am delighted!" she said indifferently. "It's so nice and good to have one's things made at home. Your nurse must be a treasure."
All the time her gaze was diligently inspecting every ill-cut seam and tortured trimming of the homemade triumph before her. The ear of the vicar's wife, always morbidly sensitive in that particular drawing-room, caught a tone of insult in every light word. A passionate resentment flamed up in her, and she determined to hold her own.
"Are you going in for more visits when you leave here?" she inquired.
"Yes, two or three," said Letty, turning her delicate head unwittingly. She had been throwing blandishments to Mrs. Watton's dog, a grey Aberdeen terrier, who stood on the rug quietly regarding her.
"You spend most of the year in visits, don't you?"
"Well, a good deal of it," said Letty.
"Don't you find it dreadfully time-wasting? Does it leave you leisure for any serious occupations at all? I am afraid it would make me terribly idle!"
Mrs. Hawkins laughed, attempting a tone of banter.
Letty put up a small hand to hide a sudden yawn, which, however, was visible enough.
"Would it?" she said, with an impertinence which hardly tried to conceal itself. "Evelyn, do look at that dog. Doesn't he remind you of Mr. Bayley?"
She beckoned to the handsome child of sixteen who had sat on George Tressady's left hand at dinner, and, taking up a pinch of rose-leaves that had dropped from a vase beside her, she flung them at the dog, calling him to her. Instead of going to her, however, the dog slowly curled himself up on the rug, and, laying his nose along his front paws, stared at her steadily with the expression of one mounting guard.
"He never will make friends with you, Letty. Isn't it odd?" said Evelyn, laughing, and stooping to stroke the creature.
"Never mind; other dogs will. Did you see that adorable black Spitz of Lady Arthur's? She has promised to give me one."
The two cousins fell into a chatter about their county neighbours, mostly rich and aristocratic people, of whom Mrs. Hawkins knew little or nothing. Evelyn Watton, whose instincts were quick and generous, tried again and again to draw the vicar's wife into the conversation. Letty was determined to exclude her. She lay back against the sofa, chatting her liveliest, the whiteness of her neck and cheek shining against the red of the damask behind, one foot lightly crossed over the other, showing her costly little slippers with their paste buckles. She sparkled with jewels as much as a girl may—more, indeed, in Mrs. Hawkins's opinion, than a girl should. From head to foot she breathed affluence, seduction, success—only the seduction was not for Mrs. Hawkins and her like.
The vicar's wife sat flushed and erect on her chair, disdaining after a time to make any further effort, but inwardly intolerably sore. She could not despise Letty Sewell, unfortunately, since Letty's advantages were just those that she herself most desired. But there was something else in her mind than small jealousy. When Letty had been a brilliant child in short frocks, the vicar's wife, who was scarcely six years older, had opened her heart, had tried to make herself loved by Mrs. Watton's niece. There had been a moment when they had been "Madge" and "Letty" to each other, even since Letty had "come out." Now, whenever Mrs. Hawkins attempted the Christian name, it stuck in her throat; it seemed, even to herself, a familiarity that had nothing to go upon; while with every succeeding visit to Malford, Letty had dropped her former friend more decidedly, and "Madge" was heard no more.
The gentlemen, deep in election incident and gossip, were, in the view chiefly of the successful candidate, unreasonably long in leaving the dining-room. When they appeared at last, George Tressady once more made an attempt to talk to someone else than Letty Sewell, and once more failed.
"I want you to tell me something about Miss Sewell," said Lord Fontenoy presently in Mrs. Watton's ear. He had been sitting silent beside her on the sofa for some little time, apparently toying with the evening papers, which Mrs. Watton had relinquished to him.
Mrs. Watton looked up, followed the direction of his eyes towards a settee in a distant corner of the room, and showed a half-impatient amusement.
"Letty? Oh! Letty's my niece—the daughter of my brother, Walter Sewell, of Helbeck. They live in Yorkshire. My brother has my father's place—a small estate, and rents very irregular. I often wonder how they manage to dress that child as they do. However, she has always had her own way since she was a foot high. As for my poor brother, he has been an invalid for the last ten years, and neither he nor his wife—oh! such a stupid woman!"—Mrs. Watton's energetic hands and eyes once more, called Heaven to witness—"have ever counted for much, I should say, in Letty's career. There is another sister, a little delicate, silent thing, that looks after them. Oh! Letty isn't stupid; I should think not. I suppose you're alarmed about Sir George. You needn't be. She does it with everybody."
The candid aunt pursued the conversation a little further, in the same tone of a half-caustic indulgence. At the end of it, however, Lord Fontenoy was still uneasy. He had only migrated to Malford House for the declaration of the poll, having spent the canvassing weeks mainly in another part of the division. And now, on this triumphant evening, he was conscious of a sudden sense of defective information, which was disagreeable and damping.
* * * * *
When bedtime came, Letty lingered in the drawing-room a little behind the other ladies, on the plea of gathering up some trifles that belonged to her. So that when George Tressady went out with her to light her candle for her in the gallery, they found themselves alone.
He had fallen into a sudden silence, which made her sweep him a look of scrutiny as she took her candlestick. The slim yet virile figure drawn to its full height, the significant, long-chinned face, pleased her senses. He might be plain—she supposed he was—but he was, nevertheless, distinguished, and extraordinarily alive.
"I believe you are tired to death," she said to him. "Why don't you go to bed?"
She spoke with the freedom of one accustomed to advise all her male acquaintance for their good. George laughed.
"Tired? Not I. I was before dinner. Look here, Miss Sewell, I've got a question to ask."
"You don't want to spoil my great day, do you? You do repent that headache?"
They looked at each other, dancing laughter in each pair of eyes, combined in his with an excited insistence.
"Good-night, Sir George," she said, holding out her hand.
He retained it.
"You do?" he said, bending over her.
She liked the situation, and made no immediate effort to change it.
"Ask me a month hence, when I have proved your statements."
"Then you admit it was all pretence?"
"I admit nothing," she said joyously. "I protected my friend."
"Yes, by injuring and offending another friend. Would it please you if I said I missed you very much at Malford to-day?"
"I will tell you to-morrow—it is so late! Please let me have my hand."
He took no notice, and they went hand-in-hand, she drawing him, to the foot of the stairs.
"George!" said a shrill, hesitating voice from overhead.
George looked up, and saw his mother. He and Letty started apart, and in another second Letty had glided upstairs and disappeared.
"Yes, mother," said George, impatiently.
"Will you come here?"
He mounted, and found Lady Tressady a little discomposed, but as affected as usual.
"Oh, George! it was so dark—I didn't see—I didn't know. George, will you have half an hour's talk with me after breakfast to-morrow? Oh, George, my dear boy, my dear boy! Your poor mammy understands!"
She laid one hand on his shoulder and, lifting her feather fan in the other, shook it with playful meaning in the direction whither Letty had departed.
George hastily withdrew himself. "Of course I will have a talk with you, mother. As for anything else, I don't know what you mean. But you really must let me go to bed; I am much too tired to talk now. Good-night."
Lady Tressady went back to her room, smiling but anxious.
"She has caught him!" she said to herself; "barefaced little flirt! It is not altogether the best thing for me. But it may dispose him to be generous, if—if I can play my cards."
Letty Sewell meanwhile had reached the quiet of a luxurious bedroom, and summoned her maid to her assistance. When the maid departed, the mistress held long counsel with herself over the fire: the general position of her affairs; what she desired; what other people intended; her will, and the chances, of getting it. Her thoughts dealt with these various problems in a skilled and business-like way. To a particular form of self-examination Letty was well accustomed, and it had become by now a strong agent in the development of individuality, as self-examination of another sort is said to be by other kinds of people.
She herself was pleasantly conscious of real agitation. George Tressady had touched her feelings, thrilled her nerves, more than—Yes! she said to herself decidedly, more than anybody else, more than "the rest." She thought of "the rest," one after the other—thought of them contemptuously. Yet, certainly few girls in her own set and part of the country had enjoyed a better time—few, perhaps, had dared so many adventures. Her mother had never interfered with her; and she herself had not been afraid to be "talked about." Dances, picnics, moonlight walks; the joys of outrageous "sitting-out," and hot rivalries with prettier girls; of impertinences towards the men who didn't matter, and pretty flatteries towards the men who did—it was all pleasant enough to think of. She could not reproach herself with having missed any chances, any opportunities her own will might have given her.
And yet—well, she was tired of it!—out of love altogether with her maiden state and its opportunities. She had come to Malford House in a state of soreness, which partly accounted, perhaps, for such airs as she had been showing to poor Mrs. Hawkins. During the past year a particular marriage—the marriage of her neighbourhood—had seemed intermittently within her reach. She had played every card she knew—and she had failed! Failed, too, in the most humiliating way. For the bride, indeed, was chosen; but it was not Letty Sewell, but one of Letty's girl-neighbours.
To-night, almost for the first time, she could bear to think of it; she could even smile at it. Vanity and ambition alone had been concerned, and to-night these wild beasts of the heart were soothed and placable.
Well, it was no great match, of course—if it came off. All that Aunt Watton knew about the Tressadys had been long since extracted from her by her niece. And with Tressady himself Letty's artless questions had been very effective. She knew almost all that she wished to know. No doubt Ferth was a very second-rate "place"; and, since those horrid miners had become so troublesome, his income as a coal-owner could not be what his father's had been—three or four thousand a year, she supposed—more, perhaps, in good years. It was not much.
Still—she pressed her hands on her eyes—he was distinguished; she saw that plainly already. He would be welcome anywhere.
"And we are not distinguished—that is just it. We are small people, in a rather dull set. And I have had hard work to make anything of it. Aunt Watton was very lucky to marry as she did. Of course, she made Uncle Watton marry her; but that was a chance—and papa always says nobody else could have done it!"
She fell happily thinking of Tressady's skirmishes with her, her face dimpling with amusement. Captain Addison! How amazed he would be could he know the use to which she had put his name and his very hesitating attentions. But he would never know; and meanwhile Sir George had been really pricked—really jealous! She laughed to herself—a low laugh of pure pleasure.
Yes—she had made up her mind. With a sigh, she put away from her all other and loftier ambitions. She supposed that she had not money or family enough. One must face the facts. George Tressady would take her socially into another milieu than her own, and a higher one. She told herself that she had always pined for Parliament, politics, and eminent people. Why should she not succeed in that world as well as in the Helbeck world? Of course she would succeed!
There was his mother—silly, painted old lady! She was naturally the great drawback; and Aunt Watton said she was absurdly extravagant, and would ruin Tressady if it went on. All the more reason why he should be protected. Letty drew herself sharply together in her pretty white dressing-gown, with the feeling that mothers of that kind must and could be kept in their place.
A house in town, of course—and not in Warwick Square, where, apparently, the Tressadys owned a house, which had been let, and was now once more in Sir George's hands. That might do for Lady Tressady—if, indeed, she could afford it when her son had married and taken other claims upon him.
Letty allowed her thoughts to wander dreamily on, envisaging the London life that was to be: the young member, Lord Fontenoy's special friend and protege—the young member's wife making her way among great people, giving charming little parties at Ferth—
All very well! But what, please, were the facts on his side? She buried her small chin deep in her hands as she tried, frowning, to think it out. Certainly he was very much drawn, very much taken. She had watched him, sometimes, trying to keep away from her—and her lips parted in a broad smile as she recalled the triumph of his sudden returns and submissions. She believed he had a curious temper—easily depressed, for all his coolness. But he had never been depressed in her company.
Still, nothing was certain. All that had happened might melt away into nothingness with the greatest ease if—well! if the right steps were not taken. He was no novice, any more than she; he must have had scores of "affairs" by now, with that manner of his. Such men were always capable of second thoughts, of tardy retreats—and especially if there were the smallest thought of persecution, of pursuit.
She believed—she was nearly certain—he would have a reaction to-morrow, perhaps because his mother had caught them together. Next morning he would be just a little bored by the thought of it—a little bored by having to begin again where he had left off. Without great tact and skill the whole edifice might tumble together like a house of cards. Had she the courage to make difficulties—to put a water-ditch across his path?
It was close on midnight when Letty at last raised her little chin from the hands that held it and rang the bell that communicated with her maid's room, but cautiously, so as not to disturb the rest of the sleeping house.
"If Grier is asleep, she must wake up, that's all!"
Two or three minutes afterwards a dishevelled maid startled out of her first slumber appeared, to ask whether her mistress was ill.
"No, Grier, but I wanted to tell you that I have changed my mind about staying here till Saturday. I am going to-morrow morning by the 9.30 train. You can order a fly first thing, and bring me my breakfast early."
The maid, groaning at the thought of the boxes that would have to be packed in this inconceivable hurry, ventured to protest.
"Never mind, you can get the housemaid to help you," said Miss Sewell, decidedly. "I don't mind what you give her. Now go to bed, Grier. I'm sorry I woke you up; you look as tired as an owl."
Then she stood still, looking at herself—hands clasped lightly before her—in the long glass.
"'Letty went by the nine o'clock train,'" she said aloud, smiling, and mocking her own white reflection. "'Dear me! How sudden! how extraordinary! Yes, but that's like her. H'm—' Then he must write to me, for I shall write him a civil little note asking for that book I lent him. Oh! I hope Aunt Watton and his mother will bore him to death!"
She broke out into a merry laugh; then, sweeping her mass of pretty hair to one side, she began rapidly to coil it up for the night, her fingers working as fast as her thoughts, which were busy with one ingenious plan after another for her next meeting with George Tressady.
During this same space of time, which for Miss Sewell's maid ended so disagreeably, George Tressady was engaged in a curious conversation.
He had excused himself from smoking, on the ground of fatigue, immediately after his parting from Letty. But he had only nominally gone to bed. He too found it difficult to tear himself from thinking and the fire, and had not begun to undress when he heard a knock at his door. On his reply, Lord Fontenoy entered.
"May I come in, Tressady?"
"By all means."
George, however, stared at his invader in some astonishment. His relations with Fontenoy were not personally intimate.
"Well, I'm glad to find you still up, for I had a few words on my mind to say to you before I go off to-morrow. Can you spare me ten minutes?"
"Certainly; do sit down. Only—well, I'm afraid I'm pretty well done. If it's anything important, I can't promise to take it in."
Lord Fontenoy for a moment made no reply. He stood by the fire, looking at the cigarette he still held, in silence. George watched him with repressed annoyance.
"It's been a very hot fight, this," said Fontenoy at last, slowly, "and you've won it well. All our band have prospered in the matter of elections. But this contest of yours has been, I think, the most conspicuous that any of us have fought. Your speeches have made a mark—one can see that from the way in which the Press has begun to take them, political beginner though you are. In the House you will be, I think, our best speaker—of course with time and experience. As for me, if you give me a fortnight to prepare in, I can make out something. Otherwise I am no use. You will take a good debating place from the beginning. Well, it is only what I expected."
The speaker stopped. George, fidgeting in his chair, said nothing; and presently Fontenoy resumed:
"I trust you will not think what I am going to say an intrusion, but—you remember my letters to you in India?"
"They put the case strongly, I think," Fontenoy went on, "but, in my opinion, not strongly enough. This wretched Government is in power by the help of a tyranny—a tyranny of Labour. They call themselves Conservatives—they are really State Socialists, and the mere catspaws of the revolutionary Socialists. You and I are in Parliament to break down that tyranny, if we can. This year and next will be all-important. If we can hold Maxwell and his friends in check for a time—if we can put some backbone into the party of freedom—if we can rally and call up the forces we have in the country, the thing will be done. We shall have established the counterpoise—we shall very likely turn the next election, and liberty—or what still remains of it!—will be saved for a generation. But to succeed, the effort, the sacrifice, from each one of us, will have to be enormous."
Fontenoy paused, and looked at his companion. George was lying back in an armchair with his eyes shut. Why on earth—so he was thinking—should Fontenoy have chosen this particular hour and this particular night to debiter these very stale things, that he had already served up in innumerable speeches and almost every letter that George had received from him?
"I don't suppose it will be child's-play," he said, stifling a yawn—"hope I shall feel keener after a night's rest!" He looked up with a smile.
Fontenoy dropped his cigarette into the fender and stood silent a moment, his hands clasped behind his back.
"Look here, Tressady!" he said at last, turning to his companion; "you remember how affairs stood with me when you left England? I didn't know much of you, but I believe, like many of my juniors, you knew a great deal about me?"
George made the sign of assent expected of him.
"I knew something about you, certainly," he said, smiling; "it was not difficult."
Fontenoy smiled too, though without geniality. Geniality had become impossible to a man always overworked and on edge.
"I was a fool," he said quickly—"an open and notorious fool. But I enjoyed my life. I don't suppose anyone ever enjoyed life more. Every day of my former existence gave the lie to the good people who tell you that to be happy you must be virtuous. I was idle, extravagant, and vicious, and I was one of the happiest of men. As to my racing and my horses, they were a constant delight to me. I can't think now of those mornings on the Heath—the gallops of my colts—the change and excitement of it all, without longing for it to come back again. Yet I have never owned a horse, or seen a race, or made a bet, for the last three years. I never go into society, except for political purposes; and I scarcely ever touch wine. In fact, I have thrown overboard everything that once gave me pleasure and amusement so completely that I have, perhaps, some right to press upon the party that follows me my conviction that unless each and all of us give up private ease and comfort as I have done—unless we are contented, as the Parnellites were, to be bores in the House and nuisances to ourselves—to peg away in season and out of season—to give up everything for the cause, we may just as well not go into the fight at all—for we shall do nothing with it."
George clasped his hands round his knee, and stared stubbornly into the fire. Sermonising was all very well, but Fontenoy did too much of it; nobody need suppose that he would have done what he had done, unless, on the whole, it had given him more pleasure to do it than not to do it.
"Well," he said, looking up at last with a laugh, "I wonder what you mean—really. Do you mean, for instance, that I oughtn't to get myself married?"
His offhand manner covered a good deal of irritation. He made a shrewd guess at the idea in Fontenoy's mind, and meant to show that he would not be dictated to.
Fontenoy also laughed, with as little geniality as before. Then he applied himself to a deliberate answer.
"This is what I mean. If you, just elected—at the beginning of this critical session—were to give your best mind to anything else in the world than the fight before us, I should regard you as, for the time, at any rate, lost to us—as, so far, betraying us."
The colour rushed into George's cheeks.
"Upon my word!" he said, springing up—"upon my word, you are a taskmaster!"
Fontenoy hastened to reply, in a different tone, "I only want to keep the machine in order."
George paced up and down for a few moments without speaking. Presently he paused.
"Look here, Fontenoy! I cannot look at the matter as you do, and we may as well understand each other. To me, this election of mine is, after all, an ordinary affair. I take it, and what is to come after it, just as other men do. I have accepted your party and your programme, and I mean to stick to them. I see that the political situation is difficult and exciting, and I don't intend to shirk. But I am no more going to slay my private life and interests at the altar of politics than my father did when he was in Parliament. If the revolution is coming, it will come in spite of you and me. And, moreover—if you will let me say so—I am convinced that your modes of procedure are not even profitable to the cause in the long run. No man can work as you do, without rest and without distraction. You will break down, and then, where will the 'cause' be?"
Lord Fontenoy surveyed the speaker with a curious, calculating look. It was as though, with as much rapidity as his mind was capable of, he balanced a number of pros and cons against each other, and finally decided to let the matter drop, perhaps not without some regret for having raised it.
"Ah! well," he said, "I have no doubt that what I have said appears to you mere meddlesomeness. If so, you will change your view, and you will forgive me. I must trust the compulsion of the situation. You will realise it, as I have done, when you get well into the fight. There is something in this Labour tyranny which rouses all a man's passions, bad and good. If it does not rouse yours, I have been much mistaken in my estimate of you. As for me, don't waste your concern. There are few stronger men than I. You forget, too—"
There was a pause. Of late years, since his transformation in fact, Lord Fontenoy's stiff reserve about himself had been rarely broken through. At this moment, however, George, looking up, saw that his companion was in some way moved by a kind of sombre and personal emotion.
"You forget," the speaker resumed, "that I learnt nothing either at school or college, and that a man who wants to lead a party must, some time or other, pay for that precious privilege. When you left England, the only financial statement I could understand was a betting-book. I knew no history except what one gets from living among people who have been making it, and even that I was too lazy to profit by. I couldn't understand the simplest economical argument, and I hated trouble of all kinds. Nothing but the toil of a galley-slave could have enabled me to do what I have done. You would be astonished sometimes if you could look in upon me at night and see what I am doing—what I am obliged to do to keep up the most elementary appearances."
George was touched. The tone of the speaker had passed suddenly into one of plain dignity, in spite of, perhaps because of, the half-bitter humility that mingled with it.
"I know you make one ashamed," he said sincerely, though awkwardly. "Well, don't distrust me; I'll do my best."
"Good-night," said Lord Fontenoy, and held out his hand. He had gained no promises, and George had shown and felt annoyance. Yet the friendship between the two men had sensibly advanced.
* * * * *
George shut the door upon him, and came back to the fire to ponder this odd quarter of an hour.
His experience certainly contained no more extraordinary fact than this conversion of a gambler and a spendthrift into the passionate leader of an arduous cause. Only one quality linked the man he remembered with the politician he had now pledged himself to follow—the quality of intensity. Dicky Fontenoy in his follies had been neither gay nor lovable, but his fierce will, his extravagant and reckless force, had given him the command of men softer than himself. That will and that force were still there, steeled and concentrated. But George Tressady was sometimes restlessly doubtful as to how far he himself was prepared to submit to them.
His personal acquaintance with Fontenoy was of comparatively recent date. He himself had been for some four years away from England, to which he had only returned about three months before the Market Malford election. A letter from Fontenoy had been the immediate cause of his return; but before it arrived the two men had been in no direct communication.
The circumstances of Tressady's long absence concern his later story, and were on this wise. His father, Sir William, the owner of Ferth Place, in West Mercia, died in the year that George, his only surviving child and the son of his old age, left college. The son, finding his father's debts considerable and his own distaste for the law, to which he had been destined, amazingly increased by his newly acquired freedom to do what he liked with himself, turned his mind at once towards travelling. Travel he must if he was ever to take up public and parliamentary life, and for no other profession—so he announced—did he feel the smallest vocation. Moreover, economy was absolutely necessary. During his absence the London house could be let, and Lady Tressady could live quietly at Ferth upon an allowance, while his uncles looked after the colliery property.
Lady Tressady made no difficulty, except as to the figure first named for the proposed allowance, which she declared was absurd. The uncles, elderly business men, could not understand why the younger generation should not go into harness at once without indulgences, as they themselves had done; but George got his way, and had much reason to show for it. He had not been idle at college, though perhaps at no time industrious enough. Influenced by natural ambition and an able tutor, he had won some distinction, and he was now a man full of odds and ends of ideas, of nascent interests, curiosities, and opinions, strongly influenced moreover already, though he said less about it than about other things, by the desire for political distinction. While still at college he had been especially attracted—owing mainly to the chances of an undergraduate friendship—by a group of Eastern problems bearing upon England's future in Asia; and he was no sooner free to govern himself and his moderate income than there flamed up in him the Englishman's passion to see, to touch, to handle, coupled with the young man's natural desire to go where it was dangerous to go, and where other men were not going. His friend—the son of an eminent geographer, possessed by inheritance of the explorer's instincts—was just leaving England for Asia Minor, Armenia, and Persia. George made up his mind, hastily but firmly, to go with him, and his family had to put up with it.
The year, however, for which the young fellow had stipulated went by; two others were added to it; and a fourth began to run its course—still George showed but faint signs of returning. According to his letters home, he had wandered through Persia, India, and Ceylon; had found friends and amusement everywhere; and in the latter colony had even served eight months as private secretary to the Governor, who had taken a fancy to him, and had been suddenly bereft by a boating accident of the indispensable young man who was accustomed to direct the hospitalities of Government House before Tressady's advent. Thence he went to China and Japan, made a trip from Pekin into Mongolia, landed on Formosa, fell in with some French naval officers at Saigon, spending with them some of the gayest and maddest weeks of his life; explored Siam, and finally returned by way of Burmah to Calcutta, with the dim intention this time of some day, before long, taking ship for home.
Meanwhile during the last months of his stay in Ceylon he had written some signed articles for an important English newspaper, which, together with the natural liking felt by the many important persons he had come to know in the East for an intelligent and promising young fellow, endowed with brains, family, and good manners, served to bring him considerably into notice. The tone of the articles was strongly English and Imperialist. The first of them came out immediately before his visit to Saigon, and Tressady thanked his lucky stars that the foreign reading of his French friends was, perhaps, not so extensive as their practical acquaintance with life. He was, however, proud of his first literary achievement, and it served to crystallise in him a number of ideas and sentiments which had previously represented rather the prejudices of a traveller accustomed to find his race in the ascendant, and to be well received by its official class than any reasoned political theory. As he went on writing, conviction, grew with statement, became a faith, ultimately a passion—till, as he turned homewards, he seemed to himself to have attained a philosophy sufficient to steer the rest of life by. It was the common philosophy of the educated and fastidious observer; and it rested on ideas of the greatness of England and the infinity of England's mission, on the rights of ability to govern as contrasted with the squalid possibilities of democracy, on the natural kingship of the higher races, and on a profound personal admiration for the virtues of the administrator and the soldier.
Now, no man in whom these perceptions take strong root early, need expect to love popular government. Tressady read his English newspapers with increasing disgust. On that little England in those far seas all depended, and England meant the English working-man with his flatteries of either party. He blundered and blustered at home, while the Empire, its services and its defences, by which alone all this pullulating "street folk" existed for a day, were in danger of starvation and hindrance abroad, to meet the unreasonable fancies of a degenerate race. A deep hatred of mob-rule rooted itself in Tressady, passing gradually, during his last three months in India, into a growing inclination to return and take his place in the fight—to have his say. "Government to the competent—not to the many," might have been the summary of his three years' experience.
Nor were private influences wanting. He was a West Mercian landowner in a coal-mining district, and owned a group of pits on the borders of his estate. His uncles, who had shares in the property, reported to him periodically during his absence. With every quarter it seemed to Tressady that the reports grew worse and the dividends less. His uncles' letters, indeed, were full of anxieties and complaints. After a long period of peace in the coal-trade, it looked as though a time of hot war between masters and men was approaching. "We have to thrash them every fifteen years," wrote one of the uncles, "and the time is nearly up."
The unreason, brutality, and extravagance of the men; the tyranny of the Union; the growing insolence of the Union officials—Tressady's letters from home after a time spoke of little else. And Tressady's bankbook meanwhile formed a disagreeable comment on the correspondence. The pits were almost running at a loss; yet neither party had made up their minds to the trial of strength.
Tressady was still lingering in Bombay—though supposed to be on his way home—when Lord Fontenoy's letter reached him.
The writer referred slightly to their previous acquaintance, and to a remote family connection between himself and Tressady; dwelt in flattering terms on the reports which had reached him from many quarters of Tressady's opinions and abilities; described the genesis and aims of the new Parliamentary party, of which the writer was the founder and head; and finally urged him to come home at once, and to stand for Parliament as a candidate for the Market Malford division, where the influence of Fontenoy's family was considerable. Since the general election, which had taken place in June, and had returned a moderate Conservative Government to power, the member for Market Malford had become incurably ill. The seat might be vacant at any moment. Fontenoy asked for a telegram, and urged the next steamer.
Tressady had already—partly from private talk, partly from the newspapers—learnt the main outlines of Lord Fontenoy's later story. The first political speech of Fontenoy's he had ever read made a half-farcical impression on him—let Dicky stick to his two-year-olds! The second he read twice over, and alike in it, in certain party manifestoes from the same hand printed in the newspapers, and in the letter he had now received, there spoke something for which it seemed to him he had been waiting. The style was rough and halting, but Tressady felt in it the note and power of a leader.
He took an hour's walk through the streets of Bombay to think it over, then sent his telegram, and booked his passage on his way home to luncheon.
Such, in brief outline, had been the origin of the two men's acquaintance. Since George's return they had been constantly together. Fontenoy had thrown his whole colossal power of work into the struggle for the Market Malford seat, and George owed him much.
* * * * *
After he was left to himself on this particular night, Tressady was for long restless and wakeful. In spite of resistance, Fontenoy's talk and Fontenoy's personality had nevertheless restored for the moment an earlier balance of mind. The interests of ambition and the intellect returned in force. Letty Sewell had, no doubt, made life very agreeable to him during the past three weeks; but, after all—was it worth while?
Her little figure danced before the inward eye as his fire sank into darkness; fragments of her chatter ran through his mind. He began to be rather ashamed of himself. Fontenoy was right. It was not the moment. No doubt he must marry some day; he had come home, indeed, with the vague intention of marrying; but the world was wide, and women many. That he had very little romance in his temperament was probably due to his mother. His childish experiences of her character, and of her relations to his father, had left him no room, alas! for the natural childish opinion that all grown-ups, and especially all mothers, are saints. In India he had amused himself a good deal; but his adventures had, on the whole, confirmed his boyish bias. If he had been forced to put his inmost opinions about women into words, the result would have been crude—perhaps brutal; which did not prevent him from holding a very strong and vivid conviction of the pleasure to be got from their society.
Accordingly, he woke up next morning precisely in the mood that Letty, for her own reasons, had foreseen. It worried him to think that for two or three days more he and Letty Sewell must still be thrown together in close relations. He and his mother were waiting on at Malford for a day or two till some workmen should be out of his own house, which lay twenty miles away, at the farther edge of the Market Malford division. Meanwhile a couple of shooting-parties had been arranged, mainly for his entertainment. Still, was there no urgent business that required him in town?
He sauntered in to breakfast a little before ten. Only Evelyn Watton and her mother were visible, most of the men having already gone off to a distant meet.
"Now sit down and entertain us, Sir George," said Mrs. Watton, holding out her hand to him with an odd expression. "We're as dull as ditch water—the men have all gone—Florrie's in bed with a chill—and Letty departed by the 9.30 train."
George's start, as he took his coffee from her, did not escape her.
"Miss Sewell gone? But why this suddenness?" he inquired. "I thought Miss Letty was to be here to the end of the week."
Mrs. Watton raised her shoulders. "She sent a note in to me at half-past eight to say her mother wasn't well, and she was wanted at home. She just rushed in to say good-bye to me, chattered a great deal, kissed everybody a great deal—and I know no more. I hear she had breakfast and a fly, which is all I troubled myself about. I never interfere with the modern young woman."
Then she raised her eyeglass, and looked hard and curiously at Tressady. His face told her nothing, however, and as she was the least sympathetic of women, she soon forgot her own curiosity.
Evelyn Watton, a vision of fresh girlhood in her morning frock, glanced shyly at him once or twice as she gave him scones and mustard. She was passing through a moment of poetry and happy dreams. All human beings walked glorified in her eyes, especially if they were young. Letty was not wholly to her taste, and had never been a particular friend. But she thought ill of no one, and her little heart must needs flutter tenderly in the presence of anything that suggested love and marriage. It had delighted her to watch George and Letty together. Now, why had Letty rushed away like this? She thought with concern, thrilling all the time, that Sir George looked grave and depressed.
George, however, was not depressed—or thought he was not. He walked into the library after breakfast, whistling, and quoting to himself:
And there be they Who kissed his wings which brought him yesterday, And thank his wings to-day that he is flown.
He prided himself on his memory of some modern poets, and the lines pleased him particularly.
He had no sooner done quoting, however, than his mother peered into the room, claiming the business talk that had been promised. From that talk George emerged irritable and silent. His mother's extravagance was really preposterous!—not to be borne. For four years now he had been free from the constant daily friction of money troubles which had spoilt his youth and robbed him of all power of respecting his mother. And he had hugged his freedom. But all the time it seemed he had been hugging illusion, and the troubles had been merely piling up for his return! Her present claims—and he knew very well that they were not the whole—would exhaust all his available balance at his bankers'.