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Lists of Macmillan titles from this spot have been moved to the end of the text. Following the moved section, the reader will find a list of corrections made to the text.
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Author of "A Dark Lantern," "The Magnetic North," Etc.
New York The MacMillan Company 1913
All rights reserved
Copyright, 1907, by the MacMillan Company.
Set up and electrotyped. Published October, 1907. Reprinted March, 1910; March, 1912; August, 1913. Norwood Press J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co. Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.
The tall young lady who arrived fifteen minutes before the Freddy Tunbridges' dinner-hour, was not taken into the great empty drawing-room, but, as though she were not to be of the party expected that night, straight upstairs she went behind the footman, and then up more stairs behind a maid. The smart, white-capped domestic paused, and her floating muslin streamers cut short their aerial gyrations subsiding against her straight black back as she knocked at the night-nursery door. It was opened by a middle-aged head nurse of impressive demeanour. She stood there an instant eyeing the intruder with the kind of overbearing hauteur that in these days does duty as the peculiar hall-mark of the upper servant, being seldom encountered in England among even the older generation of the so-called governing class.
'It's too late to see the baby, miss. He's asleep.'
'Yes, I know; but the others are expecting me, aren't they?'
Question hardly necessary, perhaps, with the air full of cries from beyond the screen: 'Yes, yes.' 'We're waiting!' 'Mummy promised'—cut short by the nurse saying sharply, 'Not so much noise, Miss Sara.' But the presiding genius of the Tunbridge nursery opened the door a little wider and stood aside. Handsome compensation for her studied coldness was offered in the shrill shrieks of joy with which a little girl and a very small boy celebrated the lady's entrance. She, for her part, joined the austere nurse in saying, 'Sh! sh!' and in simulating consternation at the spectacle behind the screen, Miss Sara jumping up and down in the middle of her bed with wild brown hair swirling madly about a laughing but mutinous face. The visitor, hurrying forward, received the impetuous little girl in her arms, while the nurse described her own sentiments of horror and detestation of such performances, and hinted vaguely at Retribution that might with safety be looked for no later than the morrow. Nobody listened. Miss Levering nodded smiling across Sara's nightgowned figure to the little boy hanging over the side of the neighbouring cot. But he kept remonstrating, 'You always go to her first.'
The lady drew a flat, shiny wooden box out of the inside pocket of her cloak. The little girl seized it rapturously.
'Oh, did you only bring Sara's bock?' wailed the smaller Tunbridge. 'I told you expecially we wanted two bocks.'
'I've got two pockets and I've got two bocks. Let me give him his, Sara darling.'
But 'Sara darling' dropped her own 'bock' the better to cling round the neck of the giver.
Naturally Master Cecil sounded the horn of indignation.
'Hush!' commanded his sister. 'Don't you know his little lordship never did that?' And to emphasize this satirical appeal to a higher standard of manners, Sara loosened her tight-locked arms an instant; but still holding to the visitor with one hand, she picked up the pillow and deftly hurled it at the neighbouring cot, extinguishing the little boy. Through the general recriminations that ensued, the culprit cried with shrill rapture, 'Lady Gladys never pillow-fought! Lady Gladys was a little lady and never did anything!' The merry eyes shamelessly invited Miss Levering to mock at Dampney's former charges. But the visitor detached herself from Miss Sara, and wishing apparently to ingratiate herself with the offended majesty of the nurse, Miss Levering said gravely over her shoulder, 'Now, lie down, Sara, and be a good girl.' Sara's reply to that was to (what she called) 'diddle up and down' on her knees and emit shrill squeals of some pleasurable emotion not defined. This, too, in spite of the fact that Dampney had picked up the pillow and was advancing upon Miss Sara with an expression calculated to shake the stoutest heart. It obviously shook the visitor's. 'Listen, Sara! If you don't be quiet and let nurse cover you up, she won't want me to stay.' Miss Levering actually got up off the little boy's bed, and stood as though ready to carry the obnoxious suggestion into instant effect.
Sara darted under the bedclothes like a rabbit into its burrow. The rigid woman, without words, restored the tousled pillow to the head of the bed, extracted Miss Sara from her hiding-place with one hand, smoothed out the rebellious legs with the other, covered the child firmly over, and tucked the bedclothes in.
'What's the use of all that? Mother always does it over again.'
'You know very well she's been and done it once already.'
'She's coming again if father doesn't need her.'
'There's a whole big dinner-party needing her, so you needn't think she can come twice to say good-night to a Jumping-Jack like you.'
'You ought to say a Jumping-Jill,' amended Sara.
During this interchange Master Cecil was complaining to the visitor—
'I can't see you with that thing all round your head.'
'Yes, take it off!' his sister agreed; and when the lady had unwound her lace scarf—'Now the coat! And you have to sit on my bed this time. It's my turn.'
As the visitor divested herself of the long ermine-lined garment, 'Oh, you are pretty to-night!' observed the gallant young gentleman over the way, seeming not to have heard that these effects don't appeal to little boys.
Sara silently craned her neck. Even the high and mighty Mrs. Dampney, in the surreptitious way of the superior servant, without seeming to look, was covertly taking in the vision that the cloak had hitherto obscured. The little girl followed with critical eyes the movement of the tall figure, the graceful fall of the clinging black lace gown embroidered in yellow irises, the easy bend of the small waist in its jewelled belt of yellow. The growing approval in the little face culminated in an ecstatic 'Oh-h-h! let me see what's on your neck! That's new, isn't it?'
'I didn't know there were yellow diamonds,' said Sara.
'There are; but these are sapphires.'
'And the little stones round?'
'Yes, they're diamonds.'
'The hanging-down thing is such a pretty shape!'
'Yes, the fleur-de-lys is a pretty shape. It's the flower of France, you know—just as the thistle is the——'
'There, now!' A penetrating whisper came from the other bed. 'She's gone.'
'It's you who've been keeping her here, you know.' Miss Levering bent her neat, dark head over the little girl, and the gleaming jewels swung forward.
'Yes,' said Cecil, in a tone of grandfatherly disgust; 'yelling like a wild Indian.'
'Well, you cried,' said his sister—'just because a feather pillow hit you.' Her eye never once left the glittering gaud.
'You see, Cecil is younger than you,' Miss Levering reminded her.
'Yes,' said Sara, with conscious superiority—'a whole year and eight months. But even when I was young I had sense.'
Miss Levering laughed. 'You're a horrid little Pharisee—and as wild as a young colt.' Contrary to received canons, the visitor seemed to find something reassuring in the latter reflection, for she kissed the small, self-righteous face.
'You just ought to have seen Sara this morning!' Cecil chuckled, with a generous admiration in family achievements. 'We waked up early, and Sara said, "Let's go mountaineering." So we did. All over the rocks and presserpittses.' He waved his hand comprehensively at the rugged scenery of the night-nursery.
'Of course we had to pile up the chairs and things,' his sister explained.
'And the coal scuttle.'
'And we made snow mountains out of the pillows. When the chairs wobbled, the coal and the pillows kept falling about; it was quite a real avalanche,' Sara said conversationally.
'I should think so,' agreed the guest.
'Yes; and it was glorious when Sara excaped to the top of the wardrobe.'
'To the w——' Miss Levering gasped.
'Yes. We were having the most perfectly fascinating time——' Sara took up the tale.
But Cecil suddenly sat bolt upright, his little face quite pink with excitement at recollection of these Alpine exploits.
'Yes, Sara had come down off the wardrobe—she'd been sitting on the carved piece—she says that's the Schreckhorn!—but she'd come down off it, and we was just jumping about all those mountains like two shamrocks——'
'—when she came in.'
'Yes,' agreed Sara. 'Just when we're happiest she always comes interfiddling.'
'Oh, Sara mine, I rather like you!' said Miss Levering, laying her laughing face against the tousled hair.
'Now! Now!' cried Cecil, suddenly beating with his two fists on the counterpane as though he'd seen as much valuable time wasted as he felt it incumbent upon him to tolerate. 'Go on where you left off.'
'No, it's my visit this time.' Sara held fast to her friend. 'It's for me to say what we're going to talk about.'
'It's got to be alligators!' said Cecil, waving his arms.
'It shan't be alligators! I want to know more about Doris.'
'Doris!' Cecil's tone implied that the human intelligence could no lower sink.
'Yes. I expect you like her better than you do us.'
'Don't you think I ought to like my niece best?'
'You said we belonged to you, too,' observed Miss Sara.
'And all aunts,' she pursued, 'don't like their nieces so dreadfully.'
'Don't they?' inquired Miss Levering, with an elaborate air of innocence.
'You didn't say how-do-you-do to me,' said Cecil, with the air of one who makes a useful discovery.
'Why, she went to you the minute I threw the pillow.'
'That was just to save me from being dead. It isn't a proper how-do-you-do when she doesn't hug you.'
'I'll hug you when I go.'
But a better plan than that occurred to Cecil. He flung down the covers with the decision of one called to set about some urgent business.
'Cecil! I simply won't have you catching cold!'
Before the words were out of Miss Levering's mouth he had tumbled out of bed and leapt into her lap. He clasped his arms round her neck with an air of rapturous devotion, but what he said was—
'Go on 'bout the alligator.'
'No, no. Go 'way!' protested Sara, pushing him with hands and feet.
'Sh! You really will have nurse back!'
That horrid thought coerced the prudent Sara to endurance of the interloping brother. And now of his own accord Cecil had taken his arms from round his friend's neck.
'That's horrid!' he said. 'I don't like that hard thing. Take it off.'
'Let me.' Sara sat up with alacrity. 'Let me.'
But Miss Levering undid the sapphire necklace herself. 'If you'll be very careful, Sara, I'll let you hold it.' It was as if she well knew the deft little hands she had delivered the ornament to, and knew equally well that in her present mood, absorption in the beauty of it would keep the woman-child still.
'There, that's better!' Cecil replaced his arms firmly where the necklace had been.
Miss Levering pulled up her long cloak from the bottom of the bed and wrapped the little boy in the warm lining. The comfort of the arrangement was so great, and it implied so little necessity for 'hanging on,' that Cecil loosed his arms and lay curled up against his friend.
She held him close, adapting her lithe slimness to the easy supporting and enfolding of the childish figure. The little girl was absorbed in the necklace after her strenuous hour; the boy, content for a moment, having gained his point, just to lie at his ease; the woman rested her cheek on his ruffled hair and looked straight before her.
As she sat there holding him, something came into her face, guiltless though it was of any traceable change, without the verifiable movement of a muscle, something none the less that would have minded the beholder uneasily to search the eyes for tears, and, finding no tears there, to feel no greater sense of reassurance.
So motionless she sat that presently the child turned up his rosy face, and seeing the brooding look, it was plain he had the sense of being somehow left behind. He put up his hand to her cheek, and rubbed it softly with his own.
'I don't like you like that. Tell me about——'
'Like what?' said the lady.
'Like—I don't know.' Then, with a sudden inspiration, 'Uncle Ronald says you're like the Sphinx. Who are they?'
'Who are who?'
'Why, the Sfinks. Have they got a boy? Is the little Sfink as old as me? Oh, you only laugh, just like Uncle Ronald. He asked us why we liked you, and we told him.'
'You've never told me.'
'Oh, didn't we? Well, it's because you aren't beady.'
'Yes. We hate all beady ladies, don't we, Sara?'
'Yes; but it's my turn.' However, she said it half-heartedly as she stopped drawing the shining jewels lightly through her slim fingers, and began gently to swing the fleur-de-lys back and forth like a pendulum that glanced bewitchingly in the light.
Miss Levering knew that the next phase would be to try it on, but for the moment Sara had still half an ear for general conversation.
'We hate them to have hard things on their shoulders!' Cecil explained.
'On their shoulders?' Miss Levering asked.
'Here, just in the way of our heads.'
'Yes, bead-trimming on their dresses,' explained the little girl.
'Hard stuff that scratches when they hold you tight.' Cecil cuddled his impudent round face luxuriously on the soft lace-covered shoulder of the visitor, and laughed up in her face.
'Aunts are very beady,' said Sara, absent-mindedly, as she tried the effect of the glitter against her night-gown.
'Grandmothers are worse,' amended Cecil. 'They're beady and bu-gly, too.'
'Well, it's what my grandmother called them when I pulled some of them off. Not proper bugles, you know, what you "too! too! too!" make music with when you're fighting the enemy. My grandmother thinks bugles are little shiny black things only about that long'—he measured less than an inch on his minute forefinger—'with long holes through so they can sew them on their clothes.'
'On their caps, too,' said Sara; 'only they're usurally white when they're on caps.'
'Here's your mother coming! Now, what will she say to you, Cecil?'
They turned their eyes to the door, strangely unwelcoming for Laura Tunbridge's children, and their young faces betrayed no surprise when the very different figure of Nurse Dampney emerged from behind the tall chintz screen that protected the cots from any draught through the opening door. Cecil, with an action of settled despair, turned from the spectacle, and buried his face for one last moment of comfort in Vida Levering's shoulder; while Sara, with a baleful glance, muttered—
'I knew it was that old interfiddler.'
'Now, Master Cecil——'
'Yes, nurse.' Miss Levering carried him back to his cot.
'Mrs. Tunbridge has sent up, miss, to know if you've come. They're waiting dinner.'
'Not really! Is it a quarter past already?'
'More like twenty minutes, miss.'
The lady caught up her necklace, cut short her good-byes, and fled downstairs, clasping the shining thing round her neck as she went—a swaying figure in soft flying draperies and gleaming, upraised arms.
She entered the drawing-room with a quiet deliberation greater even than common. It was the effect that haste and contrition frequently wrought in her—one of the things that made folk call her 'too self-contained,' even 'a trifle supercilious.'
But when other young women, recognizing some not easily definable charm in this new-comer into London life, tried to copy the effect alluded to, it was found to be less imitable than it looked.
There were already a dozen or so persons in the gold-and-white drawing-room, yet the moment Vida Levering entered, she knew from the questing glance Mrs. Freddy sent past her children's visitor, that even now the party was not complete.
Other eyes turned that way as the servant announced 'Miss Levering.' It is seldom that in this particular stratum of London life anything so uncontrolled and uncontrollable as a 'sensation' is permitted to chequer the even distribution of subdued good humour that reigns so modestly in the drawing-rooms of the Tunbridge world. If any one is so ill-advised as to bring to these gatherings anything resembling a sensation, even if it is of the less challengeable sort of striking personal beauty, the general aim of the company is to pretend either that they see nothing unusual in the conjunction, or that they, for their part, are impervious to such impacts. Vida Levering's beauty was not strictly of the eclatant type. If it did—as could not be denied—arrest the eye, its refusal to let attention go was mitigated by something in the quietness, the disarming softness, with which the hold was maintained. Men making her acquaintance frequently went through four distinct phases in their feeling about her. The first was the common natural one, the instant stirring of the pulses that beauty of any sort produces in persons having the eye that sees. The second stage was a rousing of the instinct to be 'on guard,' which feminine beauty not infrequently breeds in the breasts of men. Not on guard so much against the thing itself, or even against ready submission to it, but against allowing onlookers to be witness of such submission. Even the very young man knows either by experience or hearsay, that women have concentrated upon their faculty for turning this particular weapon to account, all the skill they would have divided among other resources had there been others. Yet the charm is something too delicious even to desire to escape from—the impulse centres in a determination to seem untouched, immune.
The third stage in this declension from pleasure through caution to reassurance is induced by something so gentle, so unemphatic in the Vida Levering aspect, so much what the man thinks 'feminine,' that even the wariest male is reassured. He comes to be almost as easy before this particular type of allurement as he would be with the frankly plain 'good sort'; only there is all about him the exquisite aroma of a subtle charm which he may almost persuade himself that he alone perceives, since this softly gracious creature seems so little to insist upon it—seems, indeed, to be herself unaware of its presence. Whereupon the man conceives a new idea of his own perspicacity in detecting a thing at once so agreeable and so little advertised. He may, with a woman of this kind, go long upon the third 'tack'—may, indeed, never know it was she who gently 'shunted' him, still unenlightened, and left him side-tracked, but cherishing to the end of time the soothing conviction that he 'might an' if he would.' To the more robust order of man will come a day of awakening, when he rubs his eyes and retreats hurriedly with a sense of good faith injured—nay, of hopes positively betrayed. If she were 'that sort,' why not hang out some signal? It wasn't playing fair.
And so without anything so crude as a sensation, but with a retinue of covert looks following in her train, she made her way to the young hostess, and was there joined by two men and a middle-aged woman, who plainly had been a beauty, and though 'gone to fat,' as the vulgar say, had yet kept her complexion. With an air of genial authority, the pink-cheeked Lady John Ulland proceeded to appropriate the new-comer in the midst of a general hum of conversation, whose key to the sensitive ear had become a little heightened since the last arrival. The women grew more insistently vivacious in proportion as the men's minds seemed to wander from matters they had discussed contentedly enough before.
Mrs. Freddy Tunbridge was a very popular person. It was agreed that nobody willingly missed one of her parties. There were those who said this was not so much because of her and Mr. Freddy, though they were eminently likeable people; not merely because you met 'everybody' there, and not even because of the excellence of their dinners. Notoriously this last fact fails to appeal very powerfully to the majority of women, and it is they, not men, who make the social reputation of the hostess. There was in this particular case a theory, held even by those who did not care especially about Mrs. Freddy, that hers was an 'amusing,' above all, perhaps, a 'becoming,' house. People had a pleasant consciousness of looking uncommon well in her pretty drawing-room. Others said it wasn't the room, it was the lighting, which certainly was most discerningly done—not dim, and yet so far from glaring that quite plain people enjoyed there a brief unwonted hour of good looks. Only a limited amount of electricity was used, and that little was carefully masked and modulated, while the two great chandeliers each of them held aloft a very forest of wax candles. It was known, too, that the spell was in no danger of being rudely broken. The same tender but festive radiance would bathe the hospitable board of the great oak dining-room below.
And why were they not processing thither?
'Is it my sister who is late?' Miss Levering asked, turning her slim neck in that deliberate way of hers to look about the room.
'No; your sister is over there, talking to—— Oh—a——' Mrs. Freddy, having looked round to refresh her memory, was fain to slur over the fact that Mrs. Fox-Moore was in the corner by the pierced screen, not talking to any one, but, on the contrary, staring dark-visaged, gloomy, sibylline, at a leaflet advertising a charity concert, a document conspicuously left by Mrs. Freddy on a little table. On her way to rescue Mrs. Fox-Moore from her desert island of utter loneliness, Mrs. Freddy saw Sir William Haycroft, the newly-made Cabinet Minister, rather pointedly making his escape from a tall, keen-looking, handsome woman wearing eye-glasses and iron-grey hair dressed commandingly.
Without a qualm Mrs. Freddy abandoned Mrs. Fox-Moore to prolonged exile, in order to soothe the ruffled minister.
'I think,' she said, pausing in front of the great man and delicately offering him an opportunity to make any predilection known—'I think you know every one here.'
Haycroft muttered in his beard—but his eyes had lit upon the new face.
'Who's that?' he said; but his tone added, 'Not that it matters.'
'You don't know her? Well, that's a proof of how you've neglected your friends since the new Government came in. But you really mean it—that nobody has introduced you to Miss Levering yet? What is Freddy thinking about!'
'Dinner!' replied a voice at her elbow with characteristic laconism, and Freddy Tunbridge pulled out his watch.
'Oh, give them five minutes more,' said his wife, indulgently.
'That's not a daughter of old Sir Hervey?' pursued the other man, his eyes still on the young woman talking to Lady John and the foreign ambassador.
'Yes; go on,' said Mrs. Freddy, with as cloudless a brow as though she had no need to manufacture conversation while the dinner was being kept waiting. 'Go on! They all do it.'
'Do what?' demanded the great man, suspiciously.
'"Why haven't they seen her before" comes next. Then the next time you and I meet in the country or find ourselves alone in a crush, you'll be saying, "What's her story? Why hasn't a woman like that married?" They all do! You don't believe me? Just wait! Freddy shall take you over, and——' Was Mrs. Freddy beaming at the prospective success of her new friend, or was her vanity flattered by reflecting upon her own perspicacity? Unavoidable as it was in a way that Mrs. Graham Townley should be taken down to dinner by the new minister—nevertheless the antidote had been cleverly provided for. 'Freddy dear—why, I thought he was—— Oh, there he is!' Seeing her hungry husband safely anchored in front of the iris gown, instantly she abandoned the idea of disturbing him. 'After all,' she said, turning again to Haycroft, who had stood the image of stolid unimpressionableness—'after all, Freddy's right. Since she's going to sit beside you at dinner, it's a good reason for not making you known to each other before. Or perhaps you never experience that awful feeling of being talked out by the time you go down, and not having a single thing left——' She saw that the great man was not going to vouchsafe any contribution to her small attempt to keep the ball rolling; so without giving him the chance to mark her failure by a silence, however brief, she chattered on. 'Though with Vida you're not likely to find yourself in that predicament. Is he, Ronald?' With the instinct of the well-trained female to draw into her circle any odd man hovering about on the periphery, Mrs. Freddy appealed to her brother-in-law. Lord Borrodaile turned in her direction his long sallow face—a face that would have been saturnine but for its touch of whimsicality and a singularly charming smile. 'My brother-in-law will bear me out,' Mrs. Freddy went on, quite as though breaking off a heated argument.
Lord Borrodaile sauntered up and offered a long thin hand to Haycroft ('the fella who's bringing the country to the dogs,' as Mrs. Freddy knew right well was his conviction).
Steering wide of politics, 'I gather,' he said, with his air of amiable boredom, 'that you were discussing what used in the days of my youth to be called a lady's "conversational powers."'
'I forbid you to apply such deadly phrases to my friend,' Mrs. Freddy denounced him. 'Your friend, too!'
'I'll prove my title to the distinction by proclaiming that she has the subtlest art a woman can possess.'
'Ah, that's more like it!' said Mrs. Freddy, gaily. 'What is the subtlest art?'
'The art of being silent without being dull.'
If there was any sting in this for the lady nearest him, she gave no sign of making the personal application.
'Now I expressly forbid your encouraging Vida in silence! Most men like to be amused. You know perfectly well you do!'
'Ah, yes,' he said languidly, catching Haycroft's eye and almost making terms with him upon a common ground of masculine understanding. 'Yes, yes. It is well known what children we are. Pleased with a rattle!' Then, as if fearing he might be going too far, he smiled that disarming smile of his, and said good-humouredly, 'I know now why you are called a good hostess.'
'Why?' asked the lady a little anxiously, for his compliments were not always soothing.
A motion towards the watch-pocket. 'No one, to look at you, would suppose that your spirit was racked between the clock and the door.'
'Oh,' she said, relieved, 'if they come in five minutes or so, you'll see! The dinner won't be a penny the worse. Jules is such a wizard. All I mind is seeing Freddy fussed.' She turned with an engaging smile to her minister again. 'Freddy has the most angelic temper except when he's hungry—bless him! Now that he's talking to Vida Levering, Freddy'll forget whether it's before dinner or after.'
'What! what!' said a brisk old gentleman, with a face like a peculiarly wicked monkey. He abandoned Mrs. Townley with enthusiasm in order to say to his hostess, 'Show me the witch who can work that spell!'
'Oh, dear, I'm afraid,' said Mrs. Freddy, prettily, 'I'm dreadfully afraid that means you're starving! Does it make you morose as it does Freddy?' she asked, with an air of comic terror. 'Then we won't wait.' She tossed out one arm with a funny little movement that sent her thin draperies floating as though towards the bell.
'My dear lady!' the old gentleman arrested her. 'I hunger, it is true, but only for knowledge.' In a silent but rather horrible laugh he wrinkled up his aged nose, which was quite enough wrinkled and sufficiently 'up' already. 'Who is the witch?'
'Why, we were talking about a member of your family.' She turned again to the new minister. 'Mr. Fox-Moore—Sir—oh! how absurd! I was going to introduce two pillars of the State to one another. I must be anxious about those late people, after all.'
'As a matter of fact you and I never have met,' said Haycroft, cordially taking old Mr. Fox-Moore's hand. 'Beside you permanent officials we ephemerae, the sport of parties——'
'Ah, that's all right!' Mrs. Freddy's head, poised an instant on one side, seemed to say.
'Who is it? Who is late?' demanded Mrs. Graham Townley, whose entrance into the conversation produced the effect of the sudden opening of window and door on a windy day. People shrink a little in the draught, and all light, frivolous things are blown out of the way. English people stand this sort of thing very much as they stand the actual draughts in their cold houses. They feel it to be good for them on the whole. Mrs. Graham Townley was acknowledged to be a person of much character. Though her interest in public affairs was bounded only by the limits of the Empire, she had found time to reform the administration of a great London hospital. Also she was related to a great many people. In the ultra smart set she of course had no raison d'etre, but in the older society it was held meet that these things be. So that when she put her question, not only was she not ignored, but each one felt it a serious thing for anybody to be so late that Mrs. Graham Townley instead of button-holing some one with, 'What, now, should you say is the extent of the Pan-Islamic influence in Egypt?' should be reduced to asking, 'Who are we waiting for?'
'It's certain to be a man,' said Lady John Ulland, as calmly convinced as one who states a natural law.
'Why?' asked her niece, the charming girl in rose colour.
'No woman would dare to come in so late as this. She'd have turned back and telephoned that the horses had run away with her or something of the sort.'
'Dick Farnborough won't turn back.'
'Oh, Mr. Farnborough's the culprit!' said a smartly dressed woman, with a nervous, rather angry air, though the ropes of fine pearls she wore might, some would think, have soothed the most savage breast.
'Yes, Dick and Captain Beeching!' said Mrs. Freddy; 'and I shall give them just two minutes more!'
'Aunt Ellen said it couldn't be a woman,' remarked the girl in pink, as one struck with such perspicacity.
'Well, I wouldn't ask them again to my house,' said the discontented person with the pearls.
'Yes, she would,' Lady John said aside to Borrodaile. 'She has a daughter, and so have most of the London hostesses, and the young villains know it.'
'Oh, yes; sometimes they never turn up at all,' said the pink niece.
'After accepting!' ejaculated Lady Whyteleafe of the pearls.
'Oh, yes; sometimes they don't even answer.'
'I never heard of such impudence.'
'I have, twice this year,' said Mrs. Graham Townley, with that effect of breaking by main force into a conversation instead of being drawn into it. 'Twice in this last year I've sat with an empty place on one side of me at a dinner-party. On each occasion it was a young member of parliament who never turned up and never sent an apology.'
'The same man both times?' asked Lord Borrodaile.
'Yes; different houses, but the same man.'
'He knew!' whispered Borrodaile in Lady John's ear.
'Dick Farnborough has been complaining that since he smashed his motor all existence has become disorganized. I always feel'—the hostess addressed herself to the minister and the pearls—'don't you, that one ought to stretch a point for people who have to go about in cabs?'
As Haycroft began a disquisition on the changes in social life initiated by the use of the motor-car, Mrs. Freddy floated away.
Borrodaile, looking after her, remarked, 'It's humane of my sister-in-law to think of making allowances. Most of us gratify the dormant cruelty in human nature by keeping an eagle eye on the wretched late ones when at last they do slink in. Don't you know'—he turned to Lady John—'that look of half-resentful interest?'
'Perfectly. Every one wants to see whether these particular culprits wear their rue with a difference.'
'Or whether,' Borrodaile went on, 'whether, like the majority, they merely look abject and flustered, and whisper agitated lies. Personally I have known it to be the most interesting moment of the evening.'
What brought Mrs. Fox-Moore's plight forcibly home to Mrs. Freddy was seeing Vida leave her own animated group to join her sister. Mrs. Freddy made her way across the room, stopping a moment to say to Freddy as she passed—
'Do go and make conversation to Lady Whyteleafe.'
'Which is Lady Whyteleafe?' drawled Freddy.
'Oh, you always forget her! What am I to do with you? She's the woman with the pearls.'
'Not that cross-looking——'
'Sh! Yes, darling, that's the one. She's only looking like that because you aren't talking to her;' and Mrs. Freddy overtook Vida just as she reached the Desert Island where Mrs. Fox-Moore stood, looking seaward for a sail.
A few moments later, after ringing for dinner, Mrs. Freddy paused an instant, taking in the fact that Lady Whyteleafe hadn't been made as happy by Mr. Tunbridge's attentions as his wife had prophesied. No, the angry woman with the pearls, so far from being intent upon Freddy's remarks, was levelling at Mrs. Freddy the critical eye that says, 'Now I shall see if I can determine just how miserably conscious you are that dinner's unpardonably late, everybody starving, and since you've only just rung, that you have at least eight minutes still to fill up before you'll hear that you are "served."' Lady Whyteleafe leaned against the back of the little periwinkle damask sofa, and waited to see Mrs. Freddy carry off these last minutes of suspense by an affectation of great good spirits.
But the lady under the social microscope knew a trick worth two of that. She could turn more than one mishap to account.
'Oh, Freddy! Oh, Lady Whyteleafe! I've just gone and said the most awful, dreadful, appalling thing! Oh, I should like to creep under the sofa and die!'
'What's up?' demanded Mr. Freddy, with an air of relief at being reinforced.
'I've been talking to Vida Levering and that funereal sister of hers.'
'Oh, Mrs. Fox-Moore!' said Lady Whyteleafe, obviously disappointed. 'She's a step-sister, isn't she?'
'Yes, yes. Oh, I wish she'd never stepped over my threshold!'
'Why?' said Mr. Freddy, sticking in his eyeglass.
'Don't, Freddy. Don't look at her. Oh, I wish I were dead!'
'What have you been doing? She looks as if she wished she were dead.'
'That's nothing. She always looks like that,' Lady Whyteleafe assured the pair.
'Yes, and she makes it a great favour to come. "I seldom go into society," she writes in her stiff little notes; and you're reminded that way, without her actually setting it down, that she devotes herself to good works.'
'Perhaps she doesn't know what else to do with all that money,' said the lady of the pearls.
'She hasn't got a penny piece.'
'Oh, is it all his? I thought the Leverings were rather well off.'
'Yes, but the money came through the second wife, Vida's mother. Oh, I hate that Fox-Moore woman!' Mrs. Freddy laughed ruefully. 'And I'm sure her husband is a great deal too good for her. But how could I have done it!'
'You haven't told us yet.'
'They asked me who was late, and I said Dick Farnborough, and that I hoped he hadn't forgotten, for I had Hermione Heriot here on purpose to meet him. And I told Vida about the Heriots trying to marry Hermione to that old Colonel Redding.'
'Oh, can't they bring it off?' said Lady Whyteleafe.
'I've been afraid they would. "It's so dreadful," I said, "to see a fresh young girl tied to a worn-out old man."'
'Oh!' remarked Lady Whyteleafe, genuinely shocked. 'And you said that to——'
Mrs. Freddy nodded with melancholy significance. 'Even when Vida said, "It seems to do well enough sometimes," still I never never remembered the Fox-Moore story! And I went on about it being a miracle when it turned out even tolerably—and, oh, Heaven forgive me! I grew eloquent!'
'It's your passion for making speeches,' said Mr. Freddy.
At which, accountably to Lady Whyteleafe, Mrs. Freddy blushed and stumbled in this particular 'speech.'
'I know, I know,' she said, carrying it off with an air of comic contrition. 'I even said, "There's a modesty in nature that it isn't wise to overstep" (I'd forgotten some people think speech-making comes under that head). "It's been realized," I said—yes, rushing on my doom!—"it's been realized up to now only in the usual one-sided way—discouraging boys from marrying women old enough to be their mothers. But dear, blundering, fatuous man"'—she smiled into her husband's pleasantly mocking face—'"he thinks," I said, "at any age he's a fit mate for a fresh young creature in her teens. If they only knew—the dreadful old ogres!" Yes, I said that. I piled it on—oh, I stuck at nothing! "The men think an ugly old woman monopolizes all the opportunities humanity offers for repulsiveness. But there's nothing on the face of the earth as hideous," I said, "as an ugly old man. Doesn't it stand to reason? He's bound to go greater lengths than any woman can aspire to. There's more of him to be ugly, isn't there? I appealed to them—everything about him is bigger, coarser—he's much less human," says I, "and much more like a dreadful old monkey." I raised my wretched eyes, and there, not three feet away, was the aged husband of the Fox-Moore woman ogling Hermione Heriot! Oh, let me die!' Mrs. Freddy leaned against the blue-grey sofa for a moment and half closed her pretty eyes. The next instant she was running gaily across the room to welcome Richard Farnborough and Captain Beeching.
* * * * *
'I always know,' said Lord Borrodaile, glancing over the banisters as he and Vida went down—'I always know the kind of party it's going to be when I see—certain people. Don't you?'
'I know who you mean,' Vida whispered back, her eyes on Mrs. Graham Townley's aggressively high-piled hair towering over the bald pate of the minister, as, side by side, they disappeared through the dining-room door. 'Why does Laura have her?'
'Well, she's immensely intelligent, they say,' he sighed.
'That's why I wonder,' laughed Vida. 'We are rather frivolous, I'm afraid.'
'To tell the truth, I wondered, too. I even sounded my sister-in-law.'
'She said it was her Day of Reckoning. "I never ask the woman," she said, "except to a scratch party like this."'
'"Scratch party"—with you and me here!'
'Ah, we are the leaven. We make the compound possible.'
'Still, I don't think she ought to call it "scratch" when she's got an Ambassador and a Cabinet Minister——'
'Just the party to ask a scratch Cabinet Minister to,' he insisted, stopping between the two cards inscribed respectively with their names. 'As for the Ambassador, he's an old friend of ours—knows his London well—knows we are the most tolerant society on the face of the earth.'
In spite of her companion's affectation of a smiling quarrelsomeness, Vida unfolded her table-napkin with the air of one looking forward to her tete-a-tete with the man who had brought her down. But Lord Borrodaile was a person most women liked talking to, and hardly had she begun to relish that combination in the man of careless pleasantry and pungent criticism, when Vida caught an agonized glance from her hostess, which said plainly, 'Rescue the man on your right,'—and lo! Miss Levering became aware that already, before the poor jaded politician had swallowed his soup, Mrs. Townley had fallen to catechising him about the new Bill—a theme talked threadbare by newspaperdom and all political England. But Mrs. Townley, albeit not exactly old, was one of those old-fashioned women who take what used to be called 'an intelligent interest in politics.' You may pick her out in any drawing-room from the fact that politicians shun her like the plague. Rich, childless, lonely, with more wits than occupation, practically shelved at a time when her intellectual life is most alert—the Mrs. Townleys of the world do, it must be admitted, labour under the delusion that men fighting the battle of public life, go out to dine for the express purpose of telling the intelligent female 'all about it.' She is a staunch believer not so much in women's influence as in woman's. And there is no doubt in her mind which woman's. If among her smart relations who ask her to their houses and go to hers (from that sentiment of the solidarity of the family so powerful in English life), if amongst these she succeeds from time to time in inducing two or three public officials, or even private members, to prove how good a cook she keeps, she thinks she is exercising an influence on the politics of her time. Her form of conversation consists in plying her victim with questions. Not here one there one, to keep the ball rolling, but a steady and pitiless fire of 'Do you think?' and 'Why do you?'
Obedient to her hostess's wireless telegram, Miss Levering bent her head, and said to Mrs. Townley's neighbour—
'I know I ought not to talk to you till after the entree.'
'Pray do!' said Sir William, with a sudden glint in his little eyes; and then with a burnt-child air of caution, 'Unless——' he began.
'Oh, you make conditions!' said Miss Levering, laughing.
'Only one. Promise not'—he lowered his voice—'promise not to say "Bill."'
'I won't even go so far as to say "William."'
He laughed as obligingly as though the jest had been a good one. A little ashamed, its maker hastened to leave it behind.
'There's nothing I should quite so much hate talking about as politics—saving your presence.'
'I was thinking of something much more important.'
Even her rallying tone did not wholly reassure the poor man.
'More important?' he repeated.
'Yes; I long to know (and I long to be forgiven for asking), what Order that is you are wearing, and what you did to get it.'
Haycroft breathed freely. He talked for the next ten minutes about the bauble, making a humorous translation of its Latin 'posy,' and describing in the same vein the service to a foreign state that had won him the recognition. He wouldn't have worn the thing to-night except out of compliment to the ambassador from the Power in question. They were going on together to the reception at the Foreign Office. As to the Order, Haycroft seemed to feel he owed it to himself to smile at all such toys, but he did not disdain to amuse the pretty lady with the one in question, any more than being humane (and even genial sitting before Mrs. Freddy's menu), he would have refused to show the whirring wheels of his watch to a nice child. The two got on so well that the anxious look quite faded out of Mrs. Freddy's face, and she devoted herself gaily to the distinguished foreigner at her side. But Haycroft at a party was, like so many Englishmen, as the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin. The man Vida had rescued from Mrs. Graham Townley was, when in the society of women, so accustomed to seeing them take on themselves the onus of entertainment, was himself so unused to being at the smallest trouble, that when the 'Order' was exhausted, had Vida not invented another topic, there would have been an absolute cessation of all converse till Mrs. Graham Townley had again caught him up like a big reluctant fish on the hook of interrogation. At a reproachful aside from Lord Borrodaile, Miss Levering broke off in the middle of her second subject to substitute, 'But I am monopolizing you disgracefully,' and she half turned away from the eminent politician into whose slightly flushed face and humid eyes had come something like animation.
'Not at all. Not at all. Go on.'
'No, I've gone far enough. Do you realize that we left "Orders" and "Honours" half an hour ago, and ever since we've been talking scandal?'
'Criticizing life,' he amended—'a pursuit worthy of two philosophers.'
'I did it—' said the lady, with an air of half-amused discontent with herself; 'you know why I did it.'
He met her eye, and the faint motion that indicated the woman on his other side. 'Terrible person,' he whispered. 'She goes out to dine as a soldier goes into action.'
For the next few minutes they made common cause in heaping ridicule on 'the political woman.'
'But, after all'—Vida pulled herself up—'it may be only a case of sour grapes on my part. I'm afraid my conversation is inclined to be frivolous.'
He turned and gave her her reward—the feeling smile that says, 'Thank God!' But, strangely, it did not reflect itself in the woman's face. Something quite different there, lurking under the soft gaiety. Was it consciousness of this being the second time during the evening that she had employed the too common vaunt of the woman of that particular world? Did some ironic echo reach her of that same boast (often as mirthless and as pitiful as the painted smile on the cruder face), the 'I'm afraid I'm rather frivolous' of the well-to-do woman, whose frivolity—invaluable asset!—is beginning to show wear?
'Well, to return to our mutton,' he said; and, as his companion seemed suddenly to be overtaken by some unaccountable qualm, 'What a desert life would be,' he added encouragingly, 'if we couldn't talk to the discreet about the indiscreet.'
'I wonder if there wouldn't be still more oases in the desert,' she said idly, 'if there were a new law made——'
He glanced at her with veiled apprehension in the pause.
'You being so Liberal,' she went on with faint mockery, 'you're the very one to introduce the measure' (he shrank visibly, and seemed about to remind her of her pledge). 'It shall ordain,' she went on, 'that those who have found satisfactory husbands or wives are to rest content with their good fortune, and not be so greedy as to insist on having the children, too.'
'Oh!' His gravity relaxed.
'But, on the other hand, all the lonely women, the widows and spinsters, who haven't got anything else, they shall have the children.'
'I won't go so far as that,' he laughed, boundlessly relieved that the conversation was not taking the strenuous turn he for a moment feared. 'But I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll support a measure that shall make an allowance of one child to every single woman the proper and accepted arrangement. No questions asked, and no disgrace.'
'Disgrace!' she echoed, smiling. 'On the contrary, it should be the woman's title to honour! She should be given a beautiful Order like yours for service to the State.'
'Ah, yes! But, what then would we talk about?'
She had turned away definitely this time.
'Well,' said Borrodaile, a little mocking, 'what is it?'
'I don't know,' she answered. 'I don't know what it is that seizes hold of me after I've been chattering like this for an hour or more.'
Borrodaile bent his head, and glanced past Vida to the abandoned minister.
'Console me by saying a slight weariness.'
'More like loathing.'
'Not of both your neighbours, I hope.'
He lost the low 'Of myself.' 'But there's one person,' she said, with something like enthusiasm—'one person that I respect and admire.'
'Oh!' He glanced about the board with an air of lazy interest. 'Which one?'
'I don't know her name. I mean the woman who dares to sit quite silent and eat her dinner without looking like a lost soul.'
'I've been saying you could do that.'
She shook her head. 'No, I've been engaged for the last hour in proving I haven't the courage. It's just come over me,' she said, her eyes in their turn making a tour of the table, and coming back to Borrodaile with the look of having caught up a bran-new topic on the way—'it's just come over me, what we're all doing.'
'Are we all doing the same thing?'
'All the men are doing one thing. And all the women another.'
His idly curious look travelled up and down, and returned to her unenlightened.
'All the women,' she said, 'are trying with might and main to amuse the men, and all the men are more or less permitting the women to succeed.'
'I'm sorry,' he said, laughing, 'to hear of your being so over-worked.'
'Oh, you make it easy. And yet'—she caught the gratitude away from her voice—'I suppose I should have said something like that, even if I'd been talking to my other neighbour.'
Borrodaile's look went again from one couple to another, for, as usual in England, the talk was all tete-a-tete. The result of his inspection seemed not to lend itself to her mood.
'I can't speak for others, but for myself, I'm always conscious of wanting to be agreeable when I'm with you. I'm sorry'—he was speaking in the usual half-genial, half-jeering tone—'very sorry, if I succeed so ill.'
'I've already admitted that with me you succeed to admiration. But you only try because it's easy.'
'Oh!' he laughed.
'You rather like talking to me, you know. Now, can you lay your hand on your heart——'
'And deny it? Never!'
'Can you lay your hand on your heart, and say you've tried as hard to entertain your other neighbour as I have to keep mine going?'
'Ah, well, we men aren't as good at it. After all, it's rather the woman's "part," isn't it?'
'The art of pleasing? I suppose it is—but it's rather a Geisha view of life, don't you think?'
'Not at all; rightly viewed, it's a woman's privilege—her natural function.'
'Then the brutes are nobler than we.'
Wondering, he glanced at her. The face was wholly reassuring, but he said, with a faint uneasiness—
'If it weren't you, I'd say that sounds a little bitter.'
'Oh, no,' she laughed. 'I was only thinking about the lion's mane and the male bird's crest, and what the natural history bores say they're for.'
The darkness and the quiet of Vida Levering's bedroom were rudely dispelled at a punctual eight each morning by the entrance of a gaunt middle-aged female.
It was this person's unvarying custom to fling back the heavy curtains, as though it gratified some strong recurrent need in her, to hear brass rings run squealing along a bar; as if she counted that day lost which was not well begun—by shooting the blinds up with a clatter and a bang!
The harsh ceremonial served as a sort of setting of the pace, or a metaphorical shaking of a bony fist in the face of the day, as much as to say, 'If I admit you here you'll have to toe the mark!'
It might be taken as proof of sound nerves that the lady in the bed offered no remonstrance at being jarred awake in this ungentle fashion.
Fourteen years before, when Vida Levering was only eighteen, she had tried to make something like a conventional maid out of the faithful Northumbrian. Rachel Wark had entered Lady Levering's service just before Vida's birth, and had helped to nurse her mistress through a mortal illness ten years later. After Sir Hervey Levering lost his wife, Wark became in time housekeeper and general factotum to the family. This arrangement held without a break until, as before hinted, Miss Vida, full of the hopeful idealism of early youth, had tried and ignominiously failed in her attempt to teach the woman gentler manners.
For Wark's characteristic retort had been to pack her box and go to spend sixteen months among her kinsfolk, where energy was accounted a virtue, and smooth ways held in suspicion. At the end of that time, seeming to judge the lesson she wished to impart had been sufficiently digested, Wark wrote to Miss Vida proposing to come back. For some months she waited for the answer. It came at last from Biarritz, where it appeared the young lady was spending the winter with her father. After an exchange of letters Wark joined them there. In the twelve years since her return to the family, she had by degrees adapted herself to the task of looking after her young lady. The adaptation was not all on one side. Many of Vida's friends wondered that she could put up with a lady's maid who could do so few of the things commonly expected of that accomplished class.
'I don't want dressmaking going on in the house,' contentedly Vida told off her maid's negative qualifications, 'and I hate having anybody do my hair for me. Wark packs quite beautifully, and then I do like some one about me—that I like.'
In the early days what she had 'liked' most about the woman was that Wark had known and been attached to Lady Levering. There was no one else with whom Vida could talk about her mother.
By the time death overtook Sir Hervey two winters ago in Rome, Wark had become so essential a part of Vida's little entourage, that one of the excuses offered by that lady for not going to live with her half-sister in London had been—'Wark doesn't always get on with other servants.' For several years Miss Levering's friends had been speaking of her as one fallen a victim to that passion for Italy that makes it an abiding place dearer than home to so many English-born. But the half-sister, Mrs. Fox-Moore, had not been misled either by that theory or by the difficulty as to pleasing Wark with the Queen Anne's Gate servants. 'It's not that Vida loves Italy so much as that, for some reason, she doesn't love England at all.' Nevertheless, Mrs. Fox-Moore after some months had persuaded her to 'bring Wark and try us.'
The experiment, now over a year old, seemed to have turned out well. If Vida really did not love her native land, she seemed to enjoy well enough what she called smiling 'the St. Martin's Summer' of her success in London society.
* * * * *
She turned over in her bed on this particular May morning, stretching out her long figure, and then letting it sink luxuriously back into relaxed quiescence with a conscious joy in prolonging those last ten minutes when sleep is slowly, softly, one after another, withdrawing her thousand veils.
Vaguely, as she lay there with face half buried in her pillow, vaguely she was aware that Wark was making even more noise than common.
When the woman had bustled in and bustled out several times, and deposited the shoes with a 'dump,' she reappeared with the delicate porcelain tray that bore the early tea. On the little table close to where the dark head lay half hidden, Wark set the fragile burden down—did it with an emphasis that made cup and saucer shiver and run for support towards the round-bellied pot.
Vida opened her heavy-lidded eyes. 'Really, Wark, you know, nobody on earth would let you wake them in the morning except me.' She sat up and pulled the pillow higher. 'Give me the tray here,' she said sleepily.
Wark obeyed. She had said nothing to Vida's reproof. She stood now by the bedside without a trace of either contrition or resentment in the wooden face that seemed, in recompense for never having been young, to be able successfully to defy the 'antique pencil.' Time had made but one or two faint ineffectual scratches there, as one who tries, and then abandons, an unpromising surface. The lack of record in the face lent it something almost cryptic. If there were no laughter-wrought lines about the eyes, neither was there mark of grief or self-repression near the mouth. She would, you felt, defy Time as successfully as she defied lesser foes. Even the lank, straw-coloured hair hardly showed the streaks of yellow-white that offered their unemphatic clue to Wark's age.
The sensitive face of the woman in the bed—even now with something of the peace of sleep still shadowing its brilliancy—gave by contrast an impression of vividness and eager sympathies. The mistress, too, looked younger than her years. She did not seem to wonder at the dull presence that seemed to be held there, prisoner-like, behind the brass bars at the foot of the bed. Wark sometimes gave herself this five minutes' tete-a-tete with her mistress before the business of the day began and all their intercourse was swamped in clothes.
'I meant to pin a paper on the door to say I wasn't to be called till ten,' said the lady, as though keeping up the little pretence of not being pleased.
'Didn't you sleep well, 'm?' The maid managed wholly to denude the question of its usual grace of solicitude.
'Yes; but it was so late when I began. We didn't get back till nearly three.'
'I didn't get much sleep, either.' It was an unheard-of admission from Wark.
'Oh!' said Vida, lazily sipping her tea. 'Bad conscience?'
'No,' she said slowly, 'no.'
As the woman raised her light eyes, Miss Levering saw, to her astonishment, that the lids were red. Wark, too, seemed uncomfortably aware of something unusual in her face, for she turned it away, and busied herself in smoothing down the near corner of the bath blanket.
'What kept you awake?' Miss Levering asked.
'Well, I suppose I'd better tell you while the other people aren't round. I want a day or two to go into the country.'
'Into the country?' No such request had been heard for a round dozen of years.
'I've got some business to see to.'
'At home? In Northumberland?'
The tone seemed so little to promise anything in the nature of a confidence that Miss Levering merely said—
'Oh, very well. When do you want to go?'
'I could go to-morrow if——' She stopped, and looked down at the hem of her long white apron.
Something unwonted in the wooden face prompted Miss Levering to say—
'What do you want to do in the country?'
'To see about a place that's been offered me.'
'A place, Wark!'
'Yes; post of housekeeper. That's what I really am, you know.'
Miss Levering looked at her, and set down the half-finished cup without opening her lips. If the speech had come from any other than Wark, it would have been easy to believe it merely the prelude to complaint of a fellow-servant or plea for a rise in wages. But if Wark objected to a fellow-servant, her own view of the matter had always been that the other one should go. Her mistress knew quite well that in the mouth of the woman standing there with red eyes at the foot of the bed, such an announcement as had just been made, meant more. And the consciousness seemed to bring with it a sense of acute discomfort not unmixed with anger. For there was a threat of something worse than an infliction of mere inconvenience. It was a species of desertion. It was almost treachery. They had lived together all the younger woman's life, except for those two years that followed on the girl's attempt to make a conventional servant out of a creature who couldn't be that, but who had it in her to be more.
They had been too long together for Wark not to divine something—through all the lady's self-possession—of her sense of being abandoned.
'It's having to tell you that that kept me awake.'
The wave of dull colour that mounted up to the bushy, straw-coloured eyebrows seemed on the way to have overflowed into her eyes. They grew redder than before, and slowly they filled.
'You don't like living here in this house.' Vida caught at the old complication.
'I've got used to it,' the woman said baldly. Then, after a little pause, during which she made a barely audible rasping to clear her throat, 'I don't like leaving you, miss. I always remember how, that time before—the only time I was ever away from you since you was a baby—how different I found you when I came back.'
'Yes, miss. It seemed like you'd turned into somebody else.'
'Most people change—develope—in those years just before twenty.'
'Not like you did, miss. You gave me a deal of trouble when you was little, but it nearly broke my heart to come back and find you so quieted down and wise-like.'
A flash of tears glimmered in the mistress's eyes, though her lips were smiling.
'Of course,' the maid went on, 'though you never told me about it, I know you had things to bear while I was away, or else you wouldn't have gone away from your home that time—a mere child—and tried to teach for a living.'
'It was absurd of me! But whosever fault it was, it wasn't yours.'
'Yes, miss, in a way it was. I owed it to your mother not to have left you. I've never told you how I blamed myself when I heard—and I didn't wonder at you. It was hard when your mother was hardly cold to see your father——'
'Yes; now that's enough, Wark. You know we never speak of that.'
'No, we've never spoken about it. And, of course, you won't need me any more like you did then. But it's looking back and remembering—it's that that's making it so hard to leave you now. But——'
'My friends have been talking to me.'
'Yes, this post.' Then, almost angrily, 'I didn't try for it. It's come after me. My cousin knows the man.'
'The man who wants you to go to him as housekeeper?' Vida wrinkled her brows. Wark hadn't said 'gentleman,' who alone in her employer's experience had any need of a housekeeper. 'You mean you don't know him yourself?'
'Not yet, 'm. I know he's a market gardener, and he wants his house looked after.'
'What if he does? A market gardener won't be able to pay the wages I——'
'The wages aren't much to begin with—but he's getting along—except for the housekeeping. That's in a bad way.'
'What if it is? I never heard such nonsense. You don't want to leave me, Wark, for a market gardener you've never so much as seen;' and Miss Levering covered her discomfort by a little smiling.
'My cousin's seen him many a time. She likes him.'
'Let your cousin go, then, and keep his house for him.'
'My cousin has her own house to keep, and she's got a young baby.'
'Oh, the woman who brought her child here once?'
'Yes, 'm, the child you gave the coral beads to. My cousin has written and talked about it ever since.'
'About the beads?'
'About the market gardener. And the way his house is—Ever since we came back to England she's been going on at me about it. I told her all along I couldn't leave you, but she's always said (since that day you walked about with the baby and gave him the beads to play with, and wouldn't let her make him cry by taking them away)—ever since then my cousin has said you'd understand.'
'What would I understand?'
Wark laid her hand on the nearest of the shining bars of brass, and slowly she polished it with her open palm. She obviously found it difficult to go on with her defence.
'I wanted my cousin to come and explain to you.'
Here was Wark in a new light indeed! If she really wanted any creature on the earth to speak for her. As she stood there in stolid embarrassment polishing the shiny bar, Miss Levering clutched the tray to steady it, and with the other hand she pulled the pillow higher. One had to sit bolt upright, it seemed, and give this matter one's entire attention.
'I don't want to talk to your cousin about your affairs. We are old friends, Wark. Tell me yourself.'
She forced her eyes to meet her mistress's. 'He told my cousin: "Just you find me a good housekeeper," he said, "and if I like her," he said, "she won't be my housekeeper long."'
'Wark! You! You aren't thinking of marrying?'
'If he's what my cousin says——'
'A man you've never seen? Oh, my dear Wark! Well, I shall hope and pray he won't think your housekeeping good enough.'
'He will! From what my cousin says, he's had a run of worthless huzzies. I don't expect he'll find much fault with my housekeeping after what he's been through.'
Vida looked wondering at the triumphant face of the woman.
'And so you're ready to leave me after all these years?'
'No, miss, I'm not to say "ready," but I think I'll have to go.'
'My poor old Wark'—the lady leaned over the tray—'I could almost think you are in love with this man you've only heard about!'
'No, miss, I'm not to say in love.'
'I believe you are! For what other reason would you have for leaving me?'
The woman looked as if she could show cause had she a mind. But she said nothing.
'You know,' Vida pursued—'you know quite well you don't need to marry for a home.'
'No, 'm; I'm quite comfortable, of course, with you. But time goes on. I don't get younger.'
'None of us do that, Wark.'
'That's just the trouble, miss. It ain't only me.'
Vida looked at her, more perplexed than ever by the curious regard in the hard-featured countenance. For there was something very like dumb reproach in Wark's face.
'Still,' said Miss Levering, 'you know, even if none of us do get younger, we are not any of us (to judge by appearances) on the brink of the grave. Even if I should be smashed up in a motor accident—I know you're always expecting that—even if I were killed to-morrow, still you'd find I hadn't forgotten you, Wark.'
'It isn't that, miss. It isn't death I'm afraid of.'
There was a pause—the longest that yet had come.
'What are you afraid of?' Miss Levering asked.
'It's—you see, I've been looking these twelve years to see you married.'
'Me? What's that got to do with——'
'Yes, miss. You see, I've counted a good while on looking after children again some day. But if you won't get married——'
Vida flung her hair back with a burst of not very merry laughter.
'If I won't, you must! But why in the world? I'd no idea you were so romantic. Why must there be a wedding in the family, Wark?'
'So there can be children, miss,' said the woman, stolidly.
'Well, there is a child. There's Doris.'
'Poor Miss Doris!' The woman shook her head. 'But she's got a good nurse. I say it, though she calls advice interfering. And Miss Doris has got a mother' (plain that Wark was again in the market garden). 'Yes, she's got a mother! and a sort of a father, and she's got a governess, and a servant to carry her about. I sometimes think what Miss Doris needs most is a little letting alone. Leastways, she don't need me. No, nor you, miss.'
'And you've given me up?' the mistress probed.
Wark raised her red eyes. 'Of course, miss, if I'm wrong——' Her knuckly hand slid down from the brass bar, and she came round to the side of the bed with an unmistakable eagerness in her face. 'If you're going to get married, I don't see as I could leave ye.'
The lady's lips twitched with an instant's silent laughter, but there was something else than laughter in her eyes.
'Oh, I can buy you off, can I? If I give you my word—if to save you from need to try the great experiment, I'll sacrifice myself——'
'I wouldn't like to see you make a sacrifice, miss,' Wark said, with perfect gravity. 'But'—as though reconsidering—'you wouldn't feel it so much, I dare say, after the child was there.'
They looked at one another.
'If it's children you yearn for, my poor Wark, you've waited too long, I'm afraid.'
'Oh, no, miss.' She spoke with a fatuous confidence.
'Why, you must be fifty.'
'Fifty-three, miss. But'—she met her mistress's eye unflinching—'Bunting—he's the market gardener—he's been married before. He's got three girls and two boys.'
'Heavens!' Vida fell back against the pillow. 'What a handful!'
'Oh, no, 'm. My cousin says they're nice children.' It would have been funny if it hadn't somehow been pathetic to see how instantly she was on the defensive. '"Healthy and hearty," my cousin says, all but the little one. She hardly thinks they'll raise him.'
'Well, I wish your market gardener had confined himself to raising onions and cabbages. If he hadn't those children I don't believe you'd dream of——'
'Well, of course not, miss. But it seems like those children need some one to look after them more than—more than——'
'Than I do? That ought to be true.'
'One of 'em is little more than a baby.' The wooden woman offered it as an apology.
'Take the tray,' said Vida.
From the look on her face you would say she knew she had lost the faithfullest of servants, and that five little children somewhere in a market garden had won, if not a mother, at least a doughty champion.
No matter how late either Vida Levering or her half-sister had gone to bed the night before, they breakfasted, as they did so many other things, at the hour held to be most advantageous for Doris.
Mr. Fox-Moore was sometimes there and often not. On those mornings when his health or his exertions the night previous did not prevent his appearance, there was little conversation at the Fox-Moore breakfast table, except such as was initiated by the only child of the marriage, a fragile girl of ten. Little Doris, owing to some obscure threat of hip-disease, made much of her progress about the house in a footman's arms. But hardly, so borne, would she reach the threshold of the breakfast room before her thin little voice might be heard calling out, 'Fa-ther! Fa-ther!'
Those who held they had every ground for disliking the old man would have been surprised to watch him during the half hour that ensued, ministering to the rather querulous little creature, adapting his tone and view to her comprehension, with an art that plainly took its inspiration from affection. If Doris were not well enough to come down, Mr. Fox-Moore read his letters and glanced at 'the' paper, directing his few remarks to his sister-in-law, whom he sometimes treated in such a way as would have given a stranger the impression, in spite of the lady's lack of response, that there was some secret understanding between the two.
A great many years before, Donald Fox-Moore had tumbled into a Government office, the affairs of which he had ultimately got into such excellent running order, that, with a few hours' supervision from the chief each week, his clerks were easily able to maintain the high reputation of that particular department of the public service. What Mr. Fox-Moore did with the rest of his time was little known. A good deal of it was spent with a much younger bachelor brother near Brighton. At least, this was the family legend. In spite of his undoubted affection for his child, little of his leisure was wasted at home. When people looked at the sallow, smileless face of his wife they didn't blame him.
Sometimes, when a general sense of tension and anxiety betrayed his presence somewhere in the great dreary house, and the master yet forbore to descend for the early meal, he would rejoice the heart of his little daughter by having her brought to his room to make tea and share his breakfast.
On these occasions a sense of such unexpected surcease from care prevailed in the dining-room as called for some celebration of the holiday spirit. It found expression in the inclination of the two women to linger over their coffee, embracing the only sure opportunity the day offered for confidential exchange.
One of these occasions was the morning of Wark's warning, which, however, Vida determined to say nothing about till she was obliged. She had just handed up her cup for replenishing when the door opened, and, to the surprise of the ladies, the master of the house appeared on the threshold.
'Is—is anything the matter?' faltered his wife, half rising.
'Matter? Must something be the matter that I venture into my own breakfast-room of a morning?'
'No, no. Only I thought, as Doris didn't come, you were breakfasting upstairs, too.' No notice being taken of this, she at once set about heating water, for no one expected Mr. Fox-Moore to drink tea made in the kitchen.
'I thought,' said he, twitching an open newspaper off the table and folding it up—'I thought I asked to be allowed the privilege of opening my paper for myself.'
'Your Times hasn't been touched,' said his wife, anxiously occupied with the spirit-lamp.
He stopped in the act of thrusting the paper in his pocket and shook it.
'What do you call this?'
'That is my Times,' she said.
'I ordered an extra copy, because you dislike so to have yours looked at till you've finished with it.'
'Dreadful hardship that is!' he said, glancing round, and seeing his own particular paper neatly folded and lying still on the side table.
'It was no great hardship when you read it before night. When you don't, it's rather long to wait.'
'To wait for what?'
'For the news of the day.'
'Don't you get the news of the day in the Morning Post?'
'I don't get such full Parliamentary reports nor the foreign correspondence.'
'Good Lord! what next?'
'I think you must blame me,' said Vida, speaking for the first time. 'I'm afraid you'll find it's only since I've been here that Janet has broken loose and taken in an extra copy.'
'Oh, it's on your account, is it?' he grumbled, but the edge had gone out of his ill-humour. 'I suppose you have to keep up with politics or you couldn't keep the ball rolling as you did last night?'
'Yes,' said Vida, with an innocent air. 'It is well known what superhuman efforts we have to make before we can qualify ourselves to talk to men.'
'Hm!' grumbled Fox-Moore. 'I never saw you at a loss.'
'You did last night.'
'No, I didn't. I saw you getting on like a house afire with Haycroft and the beguiling Borrodaile. It's a pity all the decent men are married.'
Mrs. Fox-Moore allowed her own coffee to get cold while she hovered over the sacred rite of scientific tea-making. Mr. Fox-Moore, talking to Vida about the Foreign Office reception, to which they had all gone on after the Tunbridges' dinner, kept watching with a kind of half-absent-minded scorn his wife's fussily punctilious pains to prepare the brew 'his way.' When all was ready and the tea steaming on its way to him in the hands of its harassed maker, he curtly declined it, got up, and left the room. A moment after, the shutting of the front door announced the beginning of yet another of the master's absences.
'How can you stand it?' said Vida, under her breath.
'Oh, I don't mind his going away,' said the other, dully.
'No; but his coming back!'
'One of the things I'm grateful to Donald for'—she spoke as if there were plenty more—'he is very good to you, Vida.' And in her tone there was criticism of the beneficiary.
'You mean, he's not as rude to me as he is to you?'
'He is even forbearing. And you—you rather frighten me sometimes.'
'I see that.'
'It would be very terrible for me if he took it into his head not to like you.'
'If he took it into his head to forbid your having me here, you mean.'
'But even when you aren't polite he just laughs. Still, he's not a patient man.'
'Do you think you have to tell me that?'
'No, dear, only to remind you not to try him too far. For my sake, Vida, don't ever do that.'
She put out her yellow, parchment-like hand, and her sister closed hers over it an instant.
'Here's the hot milk,' said Vida. 'Now we'll have some more coffee.'
'Are you coming with me to-day?' Mrs. Fox-Moore asked quite cheerfully for her as the servant shut the door.
'Oh, is this Friday? N—no.' The younger woman looked at the chill grey world through the window, and followed up the hesitating negative with a quite definite, 'I couldn't stand slums to-day.' The two exchanged the look that means, 'Here we are again up against this recurring difference.' But there was no ill-humour in either face as their eyes met.
Between these two daughters of one father existed that sort of haunting family resemblance often seen between two closely related persons, despite one being attractive and the other in some way repellent. The observer traces the same lines in each face, the same intensification of 'the family look' in the smile, and yet knows that the slight disparity in age fails to account for a difference wide as the poles.
And not alone difference of taste, of environment and experience, not these alone make up the sum of their unlikeness. You had only to look from the fresh simplicity of white muslin blouse and olive-coloured cloth in the one case, to the ungainly expensiveness of the black silk gown of the married woman, in order to get from the first a sense of dainty morning freshness, and from Mrs. Fox-Moore not alone a lugubrious memento mori sort of impression, but that more disquieting reminder of the ugly and over-elaborate thing life is to many an estimable soul. Janet Fox-Moore had the art of rubbing this dark fact in till, so to speak, the black came off. She seemed to achieve it partly by dint of wearing (instead of any relief of lace or even of linen at her throat) a hard band of that passementerie secretly so despised of the little Tunbridges. This device did not so much 'finish off' the neck of Mrs. Fox-Moore's gowns, as allow the funereal dulness of them to overflow on to her brown neck. It even cast an added shadow on her sallow cheek. The figure of the older woman, gaunt and thin enough, announced the further constriction of the corset. By way of revenge the sharp shoulder-blades poked the corset out till it defined a ridge in the black silk back. In front, too, the slab-like figure declined co-operation with the corset, and withdrew, leaving a hiatus that the silk bodice clothed though it did not conceal. You could not have told whether the other woman wore that ancient invention for a figure insufficient or over-exuberant. As you followed her movements, easy with the ease of a child, while she walked or stooped or caught up the fragile Doris, or raised her arm to take a book from the shelf, you got an impression of a physique in perfect because unconscious harmony with its environment. If, on the contrary, you watched but so much as the nervous, uncertain hand of the other woman, you would know here was one who had spent her years in alternately grasping the nettle and letting it go—reaping only stings in life's fair fields. Easy for any one seeing her in these days (though she wasn't thirty-six) to share Mrs. Freddy's incredulous astonishment at hearing from Haycroft the night before that Janet Levering had been 'the beauty of her family.' Mrs. Freddy's answer had been, 'Oh, don't make fun of her!' and Haycroft had had to assure her of his seriousness, while the little hostess still stared uncertain.
'The lines of her face are rather good,' she admitted. 'Oh, but those yellow and pink eyes, and her general muddiness!'
'Yes, yes,' Sir William had agreed. 'She's changed so that I would never have known her, but her colouring used to be her strong point. I assure you she was magnificent—oh, much more striking than the younger sister!'
The bloodless-looking woman who sat uneasily at her own board clutching at a thin fragment of cold dry toast that hung cheerlessly awry in the silver rack, like the last brown leaf to a frosty tree, while she crunched the toast, spoke dryly of the poor; of how 'interesting many of them are;' how when you take the trouble to understand them, you no longer lump them all together in a featureless misery, you realize how significant and varied are their lives.
'Not half as significant and varied as their smells,' said her unchastened sister.
'Oh, you sometimes talk as if you had no heart!'
'The trouble is, I have no stomach. When you've lured me into one of those dingy alleys and that all-pervading greasy smell of poverty comes flooding into my face—well, simply all my most uncharitable feelings rise up in revolt. I want to hold my nose and hide my eyes, and call for the motor-car. Running away isn't fast enough,' she said, with energy and a sudden spark in her golden-brown eye.
Mrs. Fox-Moore poised the fat silver jug over her own belated cup, and waited for the thick cream to come out in a slow and grudging gobbet with a heavy plump into the coffee. As she waited, she gently rebuked that fastidiousness in her companion that shrank from contact with the unsavoury and the unfortunate.
'It isn't only my fastidiousness, as you call it, that is offended,' Vida retorted. 'I am penetrated by the hopelessness of what we're doing. It salves my conscience, or yours——' Hurriedly she added, '——that's not what you mean to do it for, I know, dear—and you're an angel and I'm a mere cumberer of the earth. But when I'm only just "cumbering," I feel less a fraud than when I'm pretending to do good.'
'You needn't pretend.'
'I can't do anything else. To go among your poor makes me feel in my heart that I'm simply flaunting my better fortune.'
'I never saw you flaunting it.'
'Well, I assure you it's when you've got me to go with you on one of your Whitechapel raids that I feel most strongly how outrageous it is that, in addition to all my other advantages, I should buy self-approval by doing some tuppenny-ha'penny service to a toiling, starving fellow-creature.'
Mrs. Fox-Moore set down her coffee-cup. 'You mustn't suppose——' she began.
'No, no,' Vida cut her short. 'I don't doubt your motives. I know too well how ready you are to sacrifice yourself. But it does fill me with a kind of rage to see some of those smug Settlement workers, the people that plume themselves on leaving luxurious homes. They don't say how hideously bored they were in them. They are perfectly enchanted at the excitement and importance they get out of going to live among the poor, who don't want them——'
'Oh, my dear Vida!'
'Not a little bit! Well, the wily paupers do, perhaps, for what they can get out of our sort.'
Mrs. Fox-Moore cast down her eyes as though convicted by the recollection of some concrete example.
'We're only scratching at the surface,' Vida, said—'such an ugly surface, too! And the more we scratch, the uglier things come to light.'
'You make too much of that disappointment at Christmas.'
'I wasn't even thinking of the hundredth time you've been disillusioned.' Vida threw down her table napkin, and stood up. 'I was thinking of people like our young parson cousin.'
Vida made a shrug of half-impatient, half-humorous assent. 'Leaves the Bishop's Palace and comes to London. He, too, wants "to live for the poor." Never for an instant one of them. Always the patron—the person something may be got out of—or, at all events, hoped from.'
She seemed to be about to leave the room, but as her sister answered with some feeling, 'No, no, they love and respect him!' Vida paused, and brought up by the fire that the sudden cold made comforting.
'George is a different man since he's found his vocation,' Mrs. Fox-Moore insisted. 'You read it in his face.'
'Oh, if all you mean is that he's happier, why not? He's able to look on himself as a benefactor. He's tasting the intoxication of the King among Beggars.'
'You are grossly unfair, Vida.'
'So he thinks when I challenge him: "What good, what earthly good, is all this unless an anodyne—for you—is good?"'
'It seems to me a very real good that George Nuneaton and his kind should go into the dark places and brighten hopeless lives with a little Christian kindness—sometimes with a little timely counsel.'
'Yes, yes,' said the voice by the fire; 'and a little good music—don't forget the good music.'
'An object-lesson in practical religion, isn't that something?'
'Practical! Good Heaven! A handful of complacent, expensively educated young people playing at reform. The poor wanting work, wanting decent housing—wanting bread—and offered a little cultivated companionship.'
'Vida, what have you been reading?'
'Reading? I've been visiting George at his Settlement. I've been intruding myself on the privacy of the poor once a week with you—and I'm done with it! Personally I don't get enough out of it to reconcile me to their getting so little.'
'You're burning,' observed the toneless voice from the head of the table.
'Yes, I believe I was a little hot,' Vida laughed as she drew her smoking skirt away from the fire. But she still stood close to the cheerful blaze, one foot on the fender, the green cloth skirt drawn up, leaving the more delicate fabric of her silk petticoat to meet the fiery ordeal. 'If it annoys you to hear me say that's my view of charity, why, don't make me talk about it;' but the face she turned for an instant over her shoulder was far gentler than her words. 'And don't in future'—she was again looking down into the fire, and she spoke slowly as one who delivers a reluctant ultimatum—'don't ask me to help, except with money. That doesn't cost so much.'
'I am disappointed.' Nothing further, but the sound of a chair moved back, eloquent somehow of a discouragement deeper than words conveyed.
Vida turned swiftly, and, coming back to her sister, laid an arm about her shoulder.
'I'm a perfect monster! But you know, my dear, you rather goaded me into saying all this by looking such a martyr when I've tried to get out of going——'
'Very well, I won't ask you again.' But the toneless rejoinder was innocent of rancour. Janet Fox-Moore gave the impression of being too chilled, too drained of the generous life-forces, even for anger.
'Besides,' said Vida, hurriedly, 'I'd nearly forgotten; there's the final practising at eleven.'
'I'd forgotten your charity concert was so near!' As Mrs. Fox-Moore gathered up her letters, she gave way for the first time to a wintry little smile.
'The concert's mine, I admit, but the charity's the bishop's. What absurd things we women fill up the holes in our lives with!' Vida said, as she followed her sister into the hall. 'Do you know the real reason I'm getting up this foolish concert?'
'Because you like singing, and do it so well that—yes, without your looks and the indescribable "rest," you'd be a success. I told you that, when I begged you to come and try London.'
'The reason I'm slaving over the concert—it isn't all musical enthusiasm. It amuses me to organize it. All the ticklish, difficult, "bothering" part of getting up a monster thing of this sort, reconciling malcontents, enlisting the great operatic stars and not losing the great social lights—it all interests me like a game. I'm afraid the truth is I like managing things.'
'Perhaps Mrs. Freddy's not so far wrong.'
'Does Mrs. Freddy accuse me of being a "managing woman," horrid thought?'
'She was talking about you in her enthusiastic way when she was here the other day. "Vida could administer a state," she said. Yes, I laughed, too, but Mrs. Freddy shook her head quite seriously, and said, "To think of a being like Vida—not even a citizen."'
'I'm not a citizen?' exclaimed the lady, laughing down at her sister over the banisters. 'Does she think because I've lived abroad I've forfeited my rights of——'
'No, all she means is—— Oh, you know the bee she's got in her bonnet. She means, as she'll tell you, that "you have no more voice in the affairs of England than if you were a Hottentot."'