THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE OF COOMBE
FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
The history of the circumstances about to be related began many years ago—or so it seems in these days. It began, at least, years before the world being rocked to and fro revealed in the pause between each of its heavings some startling suggestion of a new arrangement of its kaleidoscopic particles, and then immediately a re-arrangement, and another and another until all belief in a permanency of design seemed lost, and the inhabitants of the earth waited, helplessly gazing at changing stars and colours in a degree of mental chaos.
Its opening incidents may be dated from a period when people still had reason to believe in permanency and had indeed many of them—sometimes through ingenuousness, sometimes through stupidity of type—acquired a singular confidence in the importance and stability of their possessions, desires, ambitions and forms of conviction.
London at the time, in common with other great capitals, felt itself rather final though priding itself on being much more fluid and adaptable than it had been fifty years previously. In speaking of itself it at least dealt with fixed customs, and conditions and established facts connected with them—which gave rise to brilliant—or dull—witticisms.
One of these, heard not infrequently, was to the effect that—in London—one might live under an umbrella if one lived under it in the right neighbourhood and on the right side of the street, which axiom is the reason that a certain child through the first six years of her life sat on certain days staring out of a window in a small, dingy room on the top floor of a slice of a house on a narrow but highly fashionable London street and looked on at the passing of motors, carriages and people in the dull afternoon grayness.
The room was exalted above its station by being called The Day Nursery and another room equally dingy and uninviting was known as The Night Nursery. The slice of a house was inhabited by the very pretty Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, its inordinate rent being reluctantly paid by her—apparently with the assistance of those "ravens" who are expected to supply the truly deserving. The rent was inordinate only from the standpoint of one regarding it soberly in connection with the character of the house itself which was a gaudy little kennel crowded between two comparatively stately mansions. On one side lived an inordinately rich South African millionaire, and on the other an inordinately exalted person of title, which facts combined to form sufficient grounds for a certain inordinateness of rent.
Mrs. Gareth-Lawless was also, it may be stated, of the fibre which must live on the right side of the street or dissolve into nothingness—since as nearly nothingness as an embodied entity can achieve had Nature seemingly created her at the outset. So light and airy was the fair, slim, physical presentation of her being to the earthly vision, and so almost impalpably diaphanous the texture and form of mind and character to be observed by human perception, that among such friends—and enemies—as so slight a thing could claim she was prettily known as "Feather". Her real name, "Amabel", was not half as charming and whimsical in its appropriateness. "Feather" she adored being called and as it was the fashion among the amazing if amusing circle in which she spent her life, to call its acquaintances fantastic pet names selected from among the world of birds, beasts and fishes or inanimate objects—"Feather" she floated through her curious existence. And it so happened that she was the mother of the child who so often stared out of the window of the dingy and comfortless Day Nursery, too much a child to be more than vaguely conscious in a chaotic way that a certain feeling which at times raged within her and made her little body hot and restless was founded on something like actual hate for a special man who had certainly taken no deliberate steps to cause her detestation.
* * * * *
"Feather" had not been called by that delicious name when she married Robert Gareth-Lawless who was a beautiful and irresponsibly rather than deliberately bad young man. She was known as Amabel Darrel and the loveliest girl in the lovely corner of the island of Jersey where her father, a country doctor, had begotten a large family of lovely creatures and brought them up on the appallingly inadequate proceeds of his totally inadequate practice. Pretty female things must be disposed of early lest their market value decline. Therefore a well-born young man even without obvious resources represents a sail in the offing which is naturally welcomed as possibly belonging to a bark which may at least bear away a burden which the back carrying it as part of its pack will willingly shuffle on to other shoulders. It is all very well for a man with six lovely daughters to regard them as capital if he has money or position or generous relations or if he has energy and an ingenious unfatigued mind. But a man who is tired and neither clever nor important in any degree and who has reared his brood in one of the Channel Islands with a faded, silly, unattractive wife as his only aid in any difficulty, is wise in leaving the whole hopeless situation to chance and luck. Sometimes luck comes without assistance but—almost invariably—it does not.
"Feather"—who was then "Amabel"—thought Robert Gareth-Lawless incredible good luck. He only drifted into her summer by merest chance because a friend's yacht in which he was wandering about "came in" for supplies. A girl Ariel in a thin white frock and with big larkspur blue eyes yearning at you under her flapping hat as she answers your questions about the best road to somewhere will not be too difficult about showing the way herself. And there you are at a first-class beginning.
The night after she met Gareth-Lawless in a lane whose banks were thick with bluebells, Amabel and her sister Alice huddled close together in bed and talked almost pantingly in whispers over the possibilities which might reveal themselves—God willing—through a further acquaintance with Mr. Gareth-Lawless. They were eager and breathlessly anxious but they were young—YOUNG in their eagerness and Amabel was full of delight in his good looks.
"He is SO handsome, Alice," she whispered actually hugging her, not with affection but exultation. "And he can't be more than twenty-six or seven. And I'm SURE he liked me. You know that way a man has of looking at you—one sees it even in a place like this where there are only curates and things. He has brown eyes—like dark bright water in pools. Oh, Alice, if he SHOULD!"
Alice was not perhaps as enthusiastic as her sister. Amabel had seen him first and in the Darrel household there was a sort of unwritten, not always observed code flimsily founded on "First come first served." Just at the outset of an acquaintance one might say "Hands off" as it were. But not for long.
"It doesn't matter how pretty one is they seldom do," Alice grumbled. "And he mayn't have a farthing."
"Alice," whispered Amabel almost agonizingly, "I wouldn't CARE a farthing—if only he WOULD! Have I a farthing—have you a farthing—has anyone who ever comes here a farthing? He lives in London. He'd take me away. To live even in a back street IN LONDON would be Heaven! And one MUST—as soon as one possibly can.—One MUST! And Oh!" with another hug which this time was a shudder, "think of what Doris Harmer had to do! Think of his thick red old neck and his horrid fatness! And the way he breathed through his nose. Doris said that at first it used to make her ill to look at him."
"She's got over it," whispered Alice. "She's almost as fat as he is now. And she's loaded with pearls and things."
"I shouldn't have to 'get over' anything," said Amabel, "if this one WOULD. I could fall in love with him in a minute."
"Did you hear what Father said?" Alice brought out the words rather slowly and reluctantly. She was not eager on the whole to yield up a detail which after all added glow to possible prospects which from her point of view were already irritatingly glowing. Yet she could not resist the impulse of excitement. "No, you didn't hear. You were out of the room."
"What about? Something about HIM? I hope it wasn't horrid. How could it be?"
"He said," Alice drawled with a touch of girlishly spiteful indifference, "that if he was one of the poor Gareth-Lawlesses he hadn't much chance of succeeding to the title. His uncle—Lord Lawdor—is only forty-five and he has four splendid healthy boys—perfect little giants."
"Oh, I didn't know there was a title. How splendid," exclaimed Amabel rapturously. Then after a few moments' innocent maiden reflection she breathed with sweet hopefulness from under the sheet, "Children so often have scarlet fever or diphtheria, and you know they say those very strong ones are more likely to die than the other kind. The Vicar of Sheen lost FOUR all in a week. And the Vicar died too. The doctor said the diphtheria wouldn't have killed him if the shock hadn't helped."
Alice—who had a teaspoonful more brain than her sister—burst into a fit of giggling it was necessary to smother by stuffing the sheet in her mouth.
"Oh! Amabel!" she gurgled. "You ARE such a donkey! You would have been silly enough to say that even if people could have heard you. Suppose HE had!"
"Why should he care," said Amabel simply. "One can't help thinking things. If it happened he would be the Earl of Lawdor and—"
She fell again into sweet reflection while Alice giggled a little more. Then she herself stopped and thought also. After all perhaps—! One had to be practical. The tenor of her thoughts was such that she did not giggle again when Amabel broke the silence by whispering with tremulous, soft devoutness.
"Alice—do you think that praying REALLY helps?"
"I've prayed for things but I never got them," answered Alice. "But you know what the Vicar said on Sunday in sermon about 'Ask and ye shall receive'."
"Perhaps you haven't prayed in the right spirit," Amabel suggested with true piety. "Shall we—shall we try? Let us get out of bed and kneel down."
"Get out of bed and kneel down yourself," was Alice's sympathetic rejoinder. "You wouldn't take that much trouble for ME."
Amabel sat up on the edge of the bed. In the faint moonlight and her white night-gown she was almost angelic. She held the end of the long fair soft plait hanging over her shoulder and her eyes were full of reproach.
"I think you ought to take SOME interest," she said plaintively. "You know there would be more chances for you and the others—if I were not here."
"I'll wait until you are not here," replied the unstirred Alice.
But Amabel felt there was no time for waiting in this particular case. A yacht which "came in" might so soon "put out". She knelt down, clasping her slim young hands and bending her forehead upon them. In effect she implored that Divine Wisdom might guide Mr. Robert Gareth-Lawless in the much desired path. She also made divers promises because nothing is so easy as to promise things. She ended with a gently fervent appeal that—if her prayer were granted—something "might happen" which would result in her becoming a Countess of Lawdor. One could not have put the request with greater tentative delicacy.
She felt quite uplifted and a trifle saintly when she rose from her knees. Alice had actually fallen asleep already and she sighed quite tenderly as she slipped into the place beside her. Almost as her lovely little head touched the pillow her own eyes closed. Then she was asleep herself—and in the faintly moonlit room with the long soft plait trailing over her shoulder looked even more like an angel than before.
Whether or not as a result of this touching appeal to the Throne of Grace, Robert Gareth-Lawless DID. In three months there was a wedding at the very ancient village church, and the flowerlike bridesmaids followed a flower of a bride to the altar and later in the day to the station from where Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gareth-Lawless went on their way to London. Perhaps Alice and Olive also knelt by the side of their white beds the night after the wedding, for on that propitious day two friends of the bridegroom's—one of them the owner of the yacht—decided to return again to the place where there were to be found the most nymphlike of pretty creatures a man had ever by any chance beheld. Such delicate little fair crowned heads, such delicious little tip-tilted noses and slim white throats, such ripples of gay chatter and nonsense! When a man has fortune enough of his own why not take the prettiest thing he sees? So Alice and Olive were borne away also and poor Mr. and Mrs. Darrel breathed sighs of relief and there were not only more chances but causes for bright hopefulness in the once crowded house which now had rooms to spare.
A certain inattention on the part of the Deity was no doubt responsible for the fact that "something" did not "happen" to the family of Lord Lawdor. On the contrary his four little giants of sons throve astonishingly and a few months after the Gareth-Lawless wedding Lady Lawdor—a trifle effusively, as it were—presented her husband with twin male infants so robust that they were humorously known for years afterwards as the "Twin Herculeses."
By that time Amabel had become "Feather" and despite Robert's ingenious and carefully detailed method of living upon nothing whatever, had many reasons for knowing that "life is a back street in London" is not a matter of beds of roses. Since the back street must be the "right street" and its accompaniments must wear an aspect of at least seeming to belong to the right order of detachment and fashionable ease, one was always in debt and forced to keep out of the way of duns, and obliged to pretend things and tell lies with aptness and outward gaiety. Sometimes one actually was so far driven to the wall that one could not keep most important engagements and the invention of plausible excuses demanded absolute genius. The slice of a house between the two big ones was a rash feature of the honeymoon but a year of giving smart little dinners in it and going to smart big dinners from it in a smart if small brougham ended in a condition somewhat akin to the feat of balancing oneself on the edge of a sword.
Then Robin was born. She was an intruder and a calamity of course. Nobody had contemplated her for a moment. Feather cried for a week when she first announced the probability of her advent. Afterwards however she managed to forget the approaching annoyance and went to parties and danced to the last hour continuing to be a great success because her prettiness was delicious and her diaphanous mentality was no train upon the minds of her admirers male and female.
That a Feather should become a parent gave rise to much wit of light weight when Robin in the form of a bundle of lace was carried down by her nurse to be exhibited in the gaudy crowded little drawing-room in the slice of a house in the Mayfair street.
It was the Head of the House of Coombe who asked the first question about her.
"What will you DO with her?" he inquired detachedly.
The frequently referred to "babe unborn" could not have presented a gaze of purer innocence than did the lovely Feather. Her eyes of larkspur blueness were clear of any thought or intention as spring water is clear at its unclouded best.
Her ripple of a laugh was clear also—enchantingly clear.
"Do!" repeated. "What is it people 'do' with babies? I suppose the nurse knows. I don't. I wouldn't touch her for the world. She frightens me."
She floated a trifle nearer and bent to look at her.
"I shall call her Robin," she said. "Her name is really Roberta as she couldn't be called Robert. People will turn round to look at a girl when they hear her called Robin. Besides she has eyes like a robin. I wish she'd open them and let you see."
By chance she did open them at the moment—quite slowly. They were dark liquid brown and seemed to be all lustrous iris which gazed unmovingly at the object in of focus. That object was the Head of the House of Coombe.
"She is staring at me. There is antipathy in her gaze," he said, and stared back unmovingly also, but with a sort of cold interest.
The Head of the House of Coombe was not a title to be found in Burke or Debrett. It was a fine irony of the Head's own and having been accepted by his acquaintances was not infrequently used by them in their light moments in the same spirit. The peerage recorded him as a Marquis and added several lesser attendant titles.
"When English society was respectable, even to stodginess at times," was his point of view, "to be born 'the Head of the House' was a weighty and awe-inspiring thing. In fearful private denunciatory interviews with one's parents and governors it was brought up against one as a final argument against immoral conduct such as debt and not going to church. As the Head of the House one was called upon to be an Example. In the country one appeared in one's pew and announced oneself a 'miserable sinner' in loud tones, one had to invite the rector to dinner with regularity and 'the ladies' of one's family gave tea and flannel petticoats and baby clothes to cottagers. Men and women were known as 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' in those halcyon days. One Represented things—Parties in Parliament—Benevolent Societies, and British Hospitality in the form of astounding long dinners at which one drank healths and made speeches. In roseate youth one danced the schottische and the polka and the round waltz which Lord Byron denounced as indecent. To recall the vigour of his poem gives rise to a smile—when one chances to sup at a cabaret."
He was considered very amusing when he analyzed his own mental attitude towards his world in general.
"I was born somewhat too late and somewhat too early," he explained in his light, rather cold and detached way. "I was born and educated at the closing of one era and have to adjust myself to living in another. I was as it were cradled among treasured relics of the ethics of the Georges and Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria in her bloom. I was in my bloom in the days when 'ladies' were reproved for wearing dresses cut too low at Drawing Rooms. Such training gives curious interest to fashions in which bodices are unconsidered trifles and Greek nymphs who dance with bare feet and beautiful bare legs may be one's own relations. I trust I do not seem even in the shadowiest way to comment unfavourably. I merely look on at the rapidities of change with unalloyed interest. As the Head of the House of Coombe I am not sure WHAT I am an Example of—or to. Which is why I at times regard myself in that capacity with a slightly ribald lightness."
The detachment of his question with regard to the newborn infant of the airily irresponsible Feather was in entire harmony with his attitude towards the singular incident of Life as illustrated by the World, the Flesh and the Devil by none of which he was—as far as could be observed—either impressed, disturbed or prejudiced. His own experience had been richly varied and practically unlimited in its opportunities for pleasure, sinful or unsinful indulgence, mitigated or unmitigated wickedness, the gathering of strange knowledge, and the possible ignoring of all dull boundaries. This being the case a superhuman charity alone could have forborne to believe that his opportunities had been neglected in the heyday of his youth. Wealth and lady of limitations in themselves would have been quite enough to cause the Nonconformist Victorian mind to regard a young—or middle-aged—male as likely to represent a fearsome moral example, but these three temptations combined with good looks and a certain mental brilliance were so inevitably the concomitants of elegant iniquity that the results might be taken for granted.
That the various worlds in which he lived in various lands accepted him joyfully as an interesting and desirable of more or less abominably sinful personage, the Head of the House of Coombe—even many years before he became its head—regarded with the detachment which he had, even much earlier, begun to learn. Why should it be in the least matter what people thought of one? Why should it in the least matter what one thought of oneself—and therefore—why should one think at all? He had begun at the outset a brilliantly happy young pagan with this simple theory. After the passing of some years he had not been quite so happy but had remained quite as pagan and retained the theory which had lost its first fine careless rapture and gained a secret bitterness. He had not married and innumerable stories were related to explain the reason why. They were most of them quite false and none of them quite true. When he ceased to be a young man his delinquency was much discussed, more especially when his father died and he took his place as the head of his family. He was old enough, rich enough, important enough for marriage to be almost imperative. But he remained unmarried. In addition he seemed to consider his abstinence entirely an affair of his own.
"Are you as wicked as people say you are?" a reckless young woman once asked him. She belonged to the younger set which was that season trying recklessness, in a tentative way, as a new fashion.
"I really don't know. It is so difficult to decide," he answered. "I could tell better if I knew exactly what wickedness is. When I find out I will let you know. So good of you to take an interest."
Thirty years earlier he knew that a young lady who had heard he was wicked would have perished in flames before immodestly mentioning the fact to him, but might have delicately attempted to offer "first aid" to reformation, by approaching with sweetness the subject of going to church.
The reckless young woman looked at him with an attention which he was far from being blind enough not to see was increased by his answer.
"I never know what you mean," she said almost wistfully.
"Neither do I," was his amiable response. "And I am sure it would not be worth while going into. Really, we neither of us know what we mean. Perhaps I am as wicked as I know how to be. And I may have painful limitations—or I may not."
After his father's death he spent rather more time in London and rather less in wandering over the face of the globe. But by the time he was forty he knew familiarly far countries and near and was intimate with most of the peoples thereof. He could have found his way about blind-folded in the most distinctive parts of most of the great cities. He had seen and learned many things. The most absorbing to his mind had been the ambitions and changes of nations, statesmen, rulers and those they ruled or were ruled by. Courts and capitals knew him, and his opportunities were such as gave him all ease as an onlooker. He was outwardly of the type which does not arouse caution in talkers and he heard much which was suggestive even to illumination, from those to whom he remained unsuspected of being a man who remembered things long and was astute in drawing conclusions. The fact remained however that he possessed a remarkable memory and one which was not a rag-bag filled with unassorted and parti-coloured remnants, but a large and orderly space whose contents were catalogued and filed and well enclosed from observation. He was also given to the mental argument which follows a point to its conclusion as a mere habit of mind. He saw and knew well those who sat and pondered with knit brows and cautiously hovering hand at the great chess-board which is formed by the Map of Europe. He found an enormous interest in watching their play. It was his fortune as a result of his position to know persons who wore crowns and a natural incident in whose lives it was to receive the homage expressed by the uncovering of the head and the bending of the knee. At forty he looked back at the time when the incongruousness, the abnormality and the unsteadiness of the foundations on which such personages stood first struck him. The realization had been in its almost sacrilegious novelty and daring, a sort of thunderbolt passing through his mind. He had at the time spoken of it only to one person.
"I have no moral or ethical views to offer," he had said. "I only SEE. The thing—as it is—will disintegrate. I am so at sea as to what will take its place that I feel as if the prospect were rather horrible. One has had the old landmarks and been impressed by the old pomp and picturesqueness so many centuries, that one cannot see the earth without them. There have been kings even in the Cannibal Islands."
As a statesman or a diplomat he would have seen far but he had been too much occupied with Life as an entertainment, too self-indulgent for work of any order. He freely admitted to himself that he was a worthless person but the fact did not disturb him. Having been born with a certain order of brain it observed and worked in spite of him, thereby adding flavour and interest to existence. But that was all.
It cannot be said that as the years passed he quite enjoyed the fact that he knew he was rarely spoken of to a stranger without its being mentioned that he was the most perfectly dressed man in London. He rather detested the idea though he was aware that the truth was unimpeachable. The perfection of his accompaniments had arisen in his youth from a secret feeling for fitness and harmony. Texture and colour gave him almost abnormal pleasure. His expression of this as a masculine creature had its limits which resulted in a concentration on perfection. Even at five-and-twenty however he had never been called a dandy and even at five-and-forty no one had as yet hinted at Beau Brummel though by that time men as well as women frequently described to each other the cut and colour of the garments he wore, and tailors besought him to honour them with crumbs of his patronage in the ambitious hope that they might mention him as a client. And the simple fact that he appeared in a certain colour or cut set it at once on its way to become a fashion to be seized upon, worn and exaggerated until it was dropped suddenly by its originator and lost in the oblivion of cheap imitations and cheap tailor shops. The first exaggeration of the harmony he had created and the original was seen no more.
Feather herself had a marvellous trick in the collecting of her garments. It was a trick which at times barely escaped assuming the proportions of absolute creation. Her passion for self-adornment expressed itself in ingenious combination and quite startling uniqueness of line now and then. Her slim fairness and ash-gold gossamer hair carried airily strange tilts and curves of little or large hats or daring tints other women could not sustain but invariably strove to imitate however disastrous the results. Beneath soft drooping or oddly flopping brims hopelessly unbecoming to most faces hers looked out quaintly lovely as a pictured child's wearing its grandmother's bonnet. Everything draped itself about or clung to her in entrancing folds which however whimsical were never grotesque.
"Things are always becoming to me," she said quite simply. "But often I stick a few pins into a dress to tuck it up here and there, or if I give a hat a poke somewhere to make it crooked, they are much more becoming. People are always asking me how I do it but I don't know how. I bought a hat from Cerise last week and I gave it two little thumps with my fist—one in the crown and one in the brim and they made it wonderful. The maid of the most grand kind of person tried to find out from my maid where I bought it. I wouldn't let her tell of course."
She created fashions and was imitated as was the Head of the House of Coombe but she was enraptured by the fact and the entire power of such gray matter as was held by her small brain cells was concentrated upon her desire to evolve new fantasies and amazements for her world.
Before he had been married for a year there began to creep into the mind of Bob Gareth-Lawless a fearsome doubt remotely hinting that she might end by becoming an awful bore in the course of time—particularly if she also ended by being less pretty. She chattered so incessantly about nothing and was such an empty-headed, extravagant little fool in her insistence on clothes—clothes—clothes—as if they were the breath of life. After watching her for about two hours one morning as she sat before her mirror directing her maid to arrange and re-arrange her hair in different styles—in delicate puffs and curls and straying rings—soft bands and loops—in braids and coils—he broke forth into an uneasy short laugh and expressed himself—though she did not know he was expressing himself and would not have understood him if she had.
"If you have a soul—and I'm not at all certain you have—" he said, "it's divided into a dressmaker's and a hairdresser's and a milliner's shop. It's full of tumbled piles of hats and frocks and diamond combs. It's an awful mess, Feather."
"I hope it's a shoe shop and a jeweller's as well," she laughed quite gaily. "And a lace-maker's. I need every one of them."
"It's a rag shop," he said. "It has nothing but CHIFFONS in it."
"If ever I DO think of souls I think of them as silly gauzy things floating about like little balloons," was her cheerful response.
"That's an idea," he answered with a rather louder laugh. "Yours might be made of pink and blue gauze spangled with those things you call paillettes."
The fancy attracted her.
"If I had one like that"—with a pleased creative air, "it would look rather ducky floating from my shoulder—or even my hat—or my hair in the evenings, just held by a tiny sparkling chain fastened with a diamond pin—and with lovely little pink and blue streamers." With the touch of genius she had at once relegated it to its place in the scheme of her universe. And Robert laughed even louder than before.
"You mustn't make me laugh," she said holding up her hand. "I am having my hair done to match that quakery thin pale mousey dress with the tiny poke bonnet—and I want to try my face too. I must look sweet and demure. You mustn't really laugh when you wear a dress and hat like that. You must only smile."
Some months earlier Bob would have found it difficult to believe that she said this entirely without any touch of humour but he realized now that it was so said. He had some sense of humour of his own and one of his reasons for vaguely feeling that she might become a bore was that she had none whatever.
It was at the garden party where she wore the thin quakery mousey dress and tiny poke bonnet that the Head of the House of Coombe first saw her. It was at the place of a fashionable artist who lived at Hampstead and had a garden and a few fine old trees. It had been Feather's special intention to strike this note of delicate dim colour. Every other woman was blue or pink or yellow or white or flowered and she in her filmy coolness of unusual hue stood out exquisitely among them. Other heads wore hats broad or curved or flopping, hers looked like a little nun's or an imaginary portrait of a delicious young great-grandmother. She was more arresting than any other female creature on the emerald sward or under the spreading trees.
When Coombe's eyes first fell upon her he was talking to a group of people and he stopped speaking. Someone standing quite near him said afterwards that he had for a second or so become pale—almost as if he saw something which frightened him.
"Who is that under the copper beech—being talked to by Harlow?" he inquired.
Feather was in fact listening with a gentle air and with her eyelids down drooped to the exact line harmonious with the angelic little poke bonnet.
"It is Mrs. Robert Gareth-Lawless—'Feather' we call her," he was answered. "Was there ever anything more artful than that startling little smoky dress? If it was flame colour one wouldn't see it as quickly."
"One wouldn't look at it as long," said Coombe. "One is in danger of staring. And the little hat—or bonnet—which pokes and is fastened under her pink ear by a satin bow held by a loose pale bud! Will someone rescue me from staring by leading me to her. It won't be staring if I am talking to her. Please."
The paleness appeared again as on being led across the grass he drew nearer to the copper beech. He was still rather pale when Feather lifted her eyes to him. Her eyes were so shaped by Nature that they looked like an angel's when they were lifted. There are eyes of that particular cut. But he had not talked to her fifteen minutes before he knew that there was no real reason why he should ever again lose his colour at the sight of her. He had thought at first there was. With the perception which invariably marked her sense of fitness of things she had begun in the course of the fifteen minutes—almost before the colour had quite returned to his face—the story of her husband's idea of her soul, as a balloon of pink and blue gauze spangled with paillettes. And of her own inspiration of wearing it floating from her shoulder or her hair by the light sparkling chain—and with delicate ribbon streamers. She was much delighted with his laugh—though she thought it had a rather cracked, harsh sound. She knew he was an important person and she always felt she was being a success when people laughed.
"Exquisite!" he said. "I shall never see you in the future without it. But wouldn't it be necessary to vary the colour at times?"
"Oh! Yes—to match things," seriously. "I couldn't wear a pink and blue one with this—" glancing over the smoky mousey thing "—or paillettes."
"Oh, no—not paillettes," he agreed almost with gravity, the harsh laugh having ended.
"One couldn't imagine the exact colour in a moment. One would have to think," she reflected. "Perhaps a misty dim bluey thing—like the edge of a rain-cloud—scarcely a colour at all."
For an instant her eyes were softly shadowed as if looking into a dream. He watched her fixedly then. A woman who was a sort of angel might look like that when she was asking herself how much her pure soul might dare to pray for. Then he laughed again and Feather laughed also.
Many practical thoughts had already begun to follow each other hastily through her mind. It would be the best possible thing for them if he really admired her. Bob was having all sorts of trouble with people they owed money to. Bills were sent in again and again and disagreeable letters were written. Her dressmaker and milliner had given her most rude hints which could indeed be scarcely considered hints at all. She scarcely dared speak to their smart young footman who she knew had only taken the place in the slice of a house because he had been told that it might be an opening to better things. She did not know the exact summing up at the agency had been as follows:
"They're a good looking pair and he's Lord Lawdor's nephew. They're bound to have their fling and smart people will come to their house because she's so pretty. They'll last two or three years perhaps and you'll open the door to the kind of people who remember a well set-up young fellow if he shows he knows his work above the usual."
The more men of the class of the Head of the House of Coombe who came in and out of the slice of a house the more likely the owners of it were to get good invitations and continued credit, Feather was aware. Besides which, she thought ingenuously, if he was rich he would no doubt lend Bob money. She had already known that certain men who liked her had done it. She did not mind it at all. One was obliged to have money.
This was the beginning of an acquaintance which gave rise to much argument over tea-cups and at dinner parties and in boudoirs—even in corners of Feather's own gaudy little drawing-room. The argument regarded the degree of Coombe's interest in her. There was always curiosity as to the degree of his interest in any woman—especially and privately on the part of the woman herself. Casual and shallow observers said he was quite infatuated if such a thing were possible to a man of his temperament; the more concentrated of mind said it was not possible to a man of his temperament and that any attraction Feather might have for him was of a kind special to himself and that he alone could explain it—and he would not.
Remained however the fact that he managed to see a great deal of her. It might be said that he even rather followed her about and more than one among the specially concentrated of mind had seen him on occasion stand apart a little and look at her—watch her—with an expression suggesting equally profound thought and the profound intention to betray his private meditations in no degree. There was no shadow of profundity of thought in his treatment of her. He talked to her as she best liked to be talked to about herself, her successes and her clothes which were more successful than anything else. He went to the little but exceedingly lively dinners the Gareth-Lawlesses gave and though he was understood not to be fond of dancing now and then danced with her at balls.
Feather was guilelessly doubtless concerning him. She was quite sure that he was in love with her. Her idea of that universal emotion was that it was a matter of clothes and propinquity and loveliness and that if one were at all clever one got things one wanted as a result of it. Her overwhelming affection for Bob and his for her had given her life in London and its entertaining accompaniments. Her frankness in the matter of this desirable capture when she talked to her husband was at once light and friendly.
"Of course you will be able to get credit at his tailor's as you know him so well," she said. "When I persuaded him to go with me to Madame Helene's last week she was quite amiable. He helped me to choose six dresses and I believe she would have let me choose six more."
"Does she think he is going to pay for them?" asked Bob.
"It doesn't matter what she thinks"; Feather laughed very prettily.
"Not a bit. I shall have the dresses. What's the matter, Rob? You look quite red and cross."
"I've had a headache for three days," he answered, "and I feel hot and cross. I don't care about a lot of things you say, Feather."
"Don't be silly," she retorted. "I don't care about a lot of things you say—and do, too, for the matter of that."
Robert Gareth-Lawless who was sitting on a chair in her dressing-room grunted slightly as he rubbed his red and flushed forehead.
"There's a—sort of limit," he commented. He hesitated a little before he added sulkily "—to the things one—SAYS."
"That sounds like Alice," was her undisturbed answer. "She used to squabble at me because I SAID things. But I believe one of the reasons people like me is because I make them laugh by SAYING things. Lord Coombe laughs. He is a very good person to know," she added practically. "Somehow he COUNTS. Don't you recollect how before we knew him—when he was abroad so long—people used to bring him into their talk as if they couldn't help remembering him and what he was like. I knew quite a lot about him—about his cleverness and his manners and his way of keeping women off without being rude—and the things he says about royalties and the aristocracy going out of fashion. And about his clothes. I adore his clothes. And I'm convinced he adores mine."
She had in fact at once observed his clothes as he had crossed the grass to her seat under the copper beech. She had seen that his fine thinness was inimitably fitted and presented itself to the eye as that final note of perfect line which ignores any possibility of comment. He did not wear things—they were expressions of his mental subtleties. Feather on her part knew that she wore her clothes—carried them about with her—however beautifully.
"I like him," she went on. "I don't know anything about political parties and the state of Europe so I don't understand the things he says which people think are so brilliant, but I like him. He isn't really as old as I thought he was the first day I saw him. He had a haggard look about his mouth and eyes then. He looked as if a spangled pink and blue gauze soul with little floating streamers was a relief to him."
The child Robin was a year old by that time and staggered about uncertainly in the dingy little Day Nursery in which she passed her existence except on such occasions as her nurse—who had promptly fallen in love with the smart young footman—carried her down to the kitchen and Servants' Hall in the basement where there was an earthy smell and an abundance of cockroaches. The Servants' Hall had been given that name in the catalogue of the fashionable agents who let the home and it was as cramped and grimy as the two top-floor nurseries.
The next afternoon Robert Gareth-Lawless staggered into his wife's drawing-room and dropped on to a sofa staring at her and breathing hard.
"Feather!" he gasped. "Don't know what's up with me. I believe I'm—awfully ill! I can't see straight. Can't think."
He fell over sidewise on to the cushions so helplessly that Feather sprang at him.
"Don't, Rob, don't!" she cried in actual anguish. "Lord Coombe is taking us to the opera and to supper afterwards. I'm going to wear—" She stopped speaking to shake him and try to lift his head. "Oh! do try to sit up," she begged pathetically. "Just try. DON'T give up till afterwards." But she could neither make him sit up nor make him hear. He lay back heavily with his mouth open, breathing stertorously and quite insensible.
It happened that the Head of the House of Coombe was announced at that very moment even as she stood wringing her hands over the sofa.
He went to her side and looked at Gareth-Lawless.
"Have you sent for a doctor?" he inquired.
"He's—only just done it!" she exclaimed. "It's more than I can bear. You said the Prince would be at the supper after the opera and—"
"Were you thinking of going?" he put it to her quietly.
"I shall have to send for a nurse of course—" she began. He went so far as to interrupt her.
"You had better not go—if you'll pardon my saying so," he suggested.
"Not go? Not go at all?" she wailed.
"Not go at all," was his answer. And there was such entire lack of encouragement in it that Feather sat down and burst into sobs.
In few than two weeks Robert was dead and she was left a lovely penniless widow with a child.
Two or three decades earlier the prevailing sentiment would have been that "poor little Mrs. Gareth-Lawless" and her situation were pathetic. Her acquaintances would sympathetically have discussed her helplessness and absolute lack of all resource. So very pretty, so young, the mother of a dear little girl—left with no income! How very sad! What COULD she do? The elect would have paid her visits and sitting in her darkened drawing-room earnestly besought her to trust to her Maker and suggested "the Scriptures" as suitable reading. Some of them—rare and strange souls even in their time—would have known what they meant and meant what they said in a way they had as yet only the power to express through the medium of a certain shibboleth, the rest would have used the same forms merely because shibboleth is easy and always safe and creditable.
But to Feather's immediate circle a multiplicity of engagements, fevers of eagerness in the attainment of pleasures and ambitions, anxieties, small and large terrors, and a whirl of days left no time for the regarding of pathetic aspects. The tiny house up whose staircase—tucked against a wall—one had seemed to have the effect of crowding even when one went alone to make a call, suddenly ceased to represent hilarious little parties which were as entertaining as they were up to date and noisy. The most daring things London gossiped about had been said and done and worn there. Novel social ventures had been tried—dancing and songs which seemed almost startling at first—but which were gradually being generally adopted. There had always been a great deal of laughing and talking of nonsense and the bandying of jokes and catch phrases. And Feather fluttering about and saying delicious, silly things at which her hearers shouted with glee. Such a place could not suddenly become pathetic. It seemed almost indecent for Robert Gareth-Lawless to have dragged Death nakedly into their midst—to have died in his bed in one of the little bedrooms, to have been put in his coffin and carried down the stairs scraping the wall, and sent away in a hearse. Nobody could bear to think of it.
Feather could bear it less than anybody else. It seemed incredible that such a trick could have been played her. She shut herself up in her stuffy little bedroom with its shrimp pink frills and draperies and cried lamentably. At first she cried as a child might who was suddenly snatched away in the midst of a party. Then she began to cry because she was frightened. Numbers of cards "with sympathy" had been left at the front door during the first week after the funeral, they had accumulated in a pile on the salver but very few people had really come to see her and while she knew they had the excuse of her recent bereavement she felt that it made the house ghastly. It had never been silent and empty. Things had always been going on and now there was actually not a sound to be heard—no one going up and down stairs—Rob's room cleared of all his belongings and left orderly and empty—the drawing-room like a gay little tomb without an occupant. How long WOULD it be before it would be full of people again—how long must she wait before she could decently invite anyone?—It was really at this point that fright seized upon her. Her brain was not given to activities of reasoning and followed no thought far. She had not begun to ask herself questions as to ways and means. Rob had been winning at cards and had borrowed some money from a new acquaintance so no immediate abyss had yawned at her feet. But when the thought of future festivities rose before her a sudden check made her involuntarily clutch at her throat. She had no money at all, bills were piled everywhere, perhaps now Robert was dead none of the shops would give her credit. She remembered hearing Rob come into the house swearing only the day before he was taken ill and it had been because he had met on the door-step a collector of the rent which was long over-due and must be paid. She had no money to pay it, none to pay the servants' wages, none to pay the household bills, none to pay for the monthly hire of the brougham! Would they turn her into the street—would the servants go away—would she be left without even a carriage? What could she do about clothes! She could not wear anything but mourning now and by the time she was out of mourning her old clothes would have gone out of fashion. The morning on which this aspect of things occurred to her, she was so terrified that she began to run up and down the room like a frightened little cat seeing no escape from the trap it is caught in.
"It's awful—it's awful—it's awful!" broke out between her sobs. "What can I do? I can't do anything! There's nothing to do! It's awful—it's awful—it's awful!" She ended by throwing herself on the bed crying until she was exhausted. She had no mental resources which would suggest to her that there was anything but crying to be done. She had cried very little in her life previously because even in her days of limitation she had been able to get more or less what she wanted—though of course it had generally been less. And crying made one's nose and eyes red. On this occasion she actually forgot her nose and eyes and cried until she scarcely knew herself when she got up and looked in the glass.
She rang the bell for her maid and sat down to wait her coming. Tonson should bring her a cup of beef tea.
"It's time for lunch," she thought. "I'm faint with crying. And she shall bathe my eyes with rose-water."
It was not Tonson's custom to keep her mistress waiting but today she was not prompt. Feather rang a second time and an impatient third and then sat in her chair and waited until she began to feel as she felt always in these dreadful days the dead silence of the house. It was the thing which most struck terror to her soul—that horrid stillness. The servants whose place was in the basement were too much closed in their gloomy little quarters to have made themselves heard upstairs even if they had been inclined to. During the last few weeks feather had even found herself wishing that they were less well trained and would make a little noise—do anything to break the silence.
The room she sat in—Rob's awful little room adjoining—which was awful because of what she had seen for a moment lying stiff and hard on the bed before she was taken away in hysterics—were dread enclosures of utter silence. The whole house was dumb—the very street had no sound in it. She could not endure it. How dare Tonson? She sprang up and rang the bell again and again until its sound came back to her pealing through the place.
Then she waited again. It seemed to her that five minutes passed before she heard the smart young footman mounting the stairs slowly. She did not wait for his knock upon the door but opened it herself.
"How dare Tonson!" she began. "I have rung four or five times! How dare she!"
The smart young footman's manner had been formed in a good school. It was attentive, impersonal.
"I don't know, ma'am," he answered.
"What do you mean? What does SHE mean? Where is she?" Feather felt almost breathless before his unperturbed good style.
"I don't know, ma'am," he answered as before. Then with the same unbiassed bearing added, "None of us know. She has gone away."
Feather clutched the door handle because she felt herself swaying.
"Away! Away!" the words were a faint gasp.
"She packed her trunk yesterday and carried it away with her on a four-wheeler. About an hour ago, ma'am." Feather dropped her hand from the knob of the door and trailed back to the chair she had left, sinking into it helplessly.
"Who—who will dress me?" she half wailed.
"I don't know, ma'am," replied the young footman, his excellent manner presuming no suggestion or opinion whatever. He added however, "Cook, ma'am, wishes to speak to you."
"Tell her to come to me here," Feather said. "And I—I want a cup of beef tea."
"Yes, ma'am," with entire respect. And the door closed quietly behind him.
It was not long before it was opened again. "Cook" had knocked and Feather had told her to come in. Most cooks are stout, but this one was not. She was a thin, tall woman with square shoulders and a square face somewhat reddened by constant proximity to fires. She had been trained at a cooking school. She carried a pile of small account books but she brought nothing else.
"I wanted some beef tea, Cook," said Feather protestingly.
"There is no beef tea, ma'am," said Cook. "There is neither beef, nor stock, nor Liebig in the house."
"Why—why not?" stammered Feather and she stammered because even her lack of perception saw something in the woman's face which was new to her. It was a sort of finality.
She held out the pile of small books.
"Here are the books, ma'am," was her explanation. "Perhaps as you don't like to be troubled with such things, you don't know how far behind they are. Nothing has been paid for months. It's been an every-day fight to get the things that was wanted. It's not an agreeable thing for a cook to have to struggle and plead. I've had to do it because I had my reputation to think of and I couldn't send up rubbish when there was company."
Feather felt herself growing pale as she sat and stared at her. Cook drew near and laid one little book after another on the small table near her.
"That's the butcher's book," she said. "He's sent nothing in for three days. We've been living on leavings. He's sent his last, he says and he means it. This is the baker's. He's not been for a week. I made up rolls because I had some flour left. It's done now—and HE'S done. This is groceries and Mercom & Fees wrote to Mr. Gareth-Lawless when the last month's supply came, that it would BE the last until payment was made. This is wines—and coal and wood—and laundry—and milk. And here is wages, ma'am, which CAN'T go on any longer."
Feather threw up her hands and quite wildly.
"Oh, go away!—go away!" she cried. "If Mr. Lawless were here—"
"He isn't, ma'am," Cook interposed, not fiercely but in a way more terrifying than any ferocity could have been—a way which pointed steadily to the end of things. "As long as there's a gentleman in a house there's generally a sort of a prospect that things MAY be settled some way. At any rate there's someone to go and speak your mind to even if you have to give up your place. But when there's no gentleman and nothing—and nobody—respectable people with their livings to make have got to protect themselves."
The woman had no intention of being insolent. Her simple statement that her employer's death had left "Nothing" and "Nobody" was prompted by no consciously ironic realization of the diaphanousness of Feather. As for the rest she had been professionally trained to take care of her interests as well as to cook and the ethics of the days of her grandmother when there had been servants with actual affections had not reached her.
"Oh! go away! Go AWA-AY!" Feather almost shrieked.
"I am going, ma'am. So are Edward and Emma and Louisa. It's no use waiting and giving the month's notice. We shouldn't save the month's wages and the trades-people wouldn't feed us. We can't stay here and starve. And it's a time of the year when places has to be looked for. You can't hold it against us, ma'am. It's better for you to have us out of the house tonight—which is when our boxes will be taken away."
Then was Feather seized with a panic. For the first time in her life she found herself facing mere common facts which rose before her like a solid wall of stone—not to be leapt, or crept under, or bored through, or slipped round. She was so overthrown and bewildered that she could not even think of any clever and rapidly constructed lie which would help her; indeed she was so aghast that she did not remember that there were such things as lies.
"Do you mean," she cried out, "that you are all going to LEAVE the house—that there won't be any servants to wait on me—that there's nothing to eat or drink—that I shall have to stay here ALONE—and starve!"
"We should have to starve if we stayed," answered Cook simply. "And of course there are a few things left in the pantry and closets. And you might get in a woman by the day. You won't starve, ma'am. You've got your family in Jersey. We waited because we thought Mr. and Mrs. Darrel would be sure to come."
"My father is ill. I think he's dying. My mother could not leave him for a moment. Perhaps he's dead now," Feather wailed.
"You've got your London friends, ma'am—"
Feather literally beat her hands together.
"My friends! Can I go to people's houses and knock at their front door and tell them I haven't any servants or anything to eat! Can I do that? Can I?" And she said it as if she were going crazy.
The woman had said what she had come to say as spokeswoman for the rest. It had not been pleasant but she knew she had been quite within her rights and dealt with plain facts. But she did not enjoy the prospect of seeing her little fool of a mistress raving in hysterics.
"You mustn't let yourself go, ma'am," she said. "You'd better lie down a bit and try to get quiet." She hesitated a moment looking at the pretty ruin who had risen from her seat and stood trembling.
"It's not my place of course to—make suggestions," she said quietly. "But—had you ever thought of sending for Lord Coombe, ma'am?"
Feather actually found the torn film of her mind caught for a second by something which wore a form of reality. Cook saw that her tremor appeared to verge on steadying itself.
"Coombe," she faintly breathed as if to herself and not to Cook.
"His lordship was very friendly with Mr. Lawless and he seemed fond of—coming to the house," was presented as a sort of added argument. "If you'll lie down I'll bring you a cup of tea, ma'am—though it can't be beef."
Feather staggered again to her bed and dropped flat upon it—flat as a slim little pancake in folds of thin black stuff which hung and floated.
"I can't bring you cream," said Cook as she went out of the room. "Louisa has had nothing but condensed milk—since yesterday—to give Miss Robin."
"Oh-h!" groaned Feather, not in horror of the tea without cream though that was awful enough in its significance, but because this was the first time since the falling to pieces of her world that she had given a thought to the added calamity of Robin.
If one were to devote one's mental energies to speculation as to what is going on behind the noncommittal fronts of any row of houses in any great city the imaginative mind might be led far.
Bricks, mortar, windows, doors, steps which lead up to the threshold, are what are to be seen from the outside. Nothing particular may be transpiring within the walls, or tragedies, crimes, hideous suffering may be enclosed. The conclusion is obvious to banality—but as suggestive as banal—so suggestive in fact that the hyper-sensitive and too imaginative had better, for their own comfort's sake, leave the matter alone. In most cases the existing conditions would not be altered even if one knocked at the door and insisted on entering with drawn sword in the form of attendant policeman The outside of the slice of a house in which Feather lived was still rather fresh from its last decorative touching up. It had been painted cream colour and had white and windows and green window boxes with variegated vinca vines trailing from them and pink geraniums, dark blue lobelia and ferns filling the earth stuffed in by the florist who provided such adornments. Passers-by frequently glanced at it and thought it a nice little house whose amusing diminutiveness was a sort of attraction. It was rather like a new doll's house.
No one glancing at it in passing at the closing of this particular day had reason to suspect that any unaccustomed event was taking place behind the cream-coloured front. The front door "brasses" had been polished, the window-boxes watered and no cries for aid issued from the rooms behind them. The house was indeed quiet both inside and out. Inside it was indeed even quieter than usual. The servants' preparation for departure had been made gradually and undisturbedly. There had been exhaustive quiet discussion of the subject each night for weeks, even before Robert Gareth-Lawless' illness. The smart young footman Edward who had means of gaining practical information had constituted himself a sort of private detective. He had in time learned all that was to be learned. This, it had made itself clear to him on investigation, was not one of those cases when to wait for evolutionary family events might be the part of discretion. There were no prospects ahead—none at all. Matters would only get worse and the whole thing would end in everybody not only losing their unpaid back wages but having to walk out into the street through the door of a disgraced household whose owners would be turned out into the street also when their belongings were sold over their heads. Better get out before everything went to pieces and there were unpleasantnesses. There would be unpleasantnesses because there was no denying that the trades-people had been played tricks with. Mrs. Gareth-Lawless was only one of a lot of pretty daughters whose father was a poor country doctor in Jersey. He had had "a stroke" himself and his widow would have nothing to live on when he died. That was what Mrs. Lawless had to look to. As to Lord Lawdor Edward had learned from those who DID know that he had never approved of his nephew and that he'd said he was a fool for marrying and had absolutely refused to have anything to do with him. He had six boys and a girl now and big estates weren't what they had been, everyone knew. There was only one thing left for Cook and Edward and Emma and Louisa to do and that was to "get out" without any talk or argument.
"She's not one that won't find someone to look after her," ended Edward. "Somebody or other will take her up because they'll be sorry for her. But us lot aren't widows and orphans. No one's going to be sorry for us or care a hang what we've been let in for. The longer we stay, the longer we won't be paid." He was not a particularly depraved or cynical young footman but he laughed a little at the end of his speech. "There's the Marquis," he added. "He's been running in and out long enough to make a good bit of talk. Now's his time to turn up."
After she had taken her cup of tea without cream Feather had fallen asleep in reaction from her excited agitation. It was in accord with the inevitable trend of her being that even before her eyes closed she had ceased to believe that the servants were really going to leave the house. It seemed too ridiculous a thing to happen. She was possessed of no logic which could lead her to a realization of the indubitable fact that there was no reason why servants who could neither be paid nor provided with food should remain in a place. The mild stimulation of the tea also gave rise to the happy thought that she would not give them any references if they "behaved badly". It did not present itself to her that references from a house of cards which had ignominiously fallen to pieces and which henceforth would represent only shady failure, would be of no use. So she fell asleep.
* * * * *
When she awakened the lights were lighted in the streets and one directly across the way threw its reflection into her bedroom. It lit up the little table near which she had sat and the first thing she saw was the pile of small account books. The next was that the light which revealed them also fell brightly on the glass knob of the door which led into Robert's room.
She turned her eyes away quickly with a nervous shudder. She had a horror of the nearness of Rob's room. If there had been another part of the house in which she could have slept she would have fled to it as soon as he was taken ill. But the house was too small to have "parts". The tiny drawing-rooms piled themselves on top of the dining-room, the "master's bedrooms" on top of the drawing-rooms, and the nurseries and attics where Robin and the servants slept one on the other at the top of the house. So she had been obliged to stay and endure everything. Rob's cramped quarters had always been full of smart boots and the smell of cigars and men's clothes. He had moved about a good deal and had whistled and laughed and sworn and grumbled. They had neither of them had bad tempers so that they had not quarrelled with each other. They had talked through the open door when they were dressing and they had invented clever tricks which helped them to get out of money scrapes and they had gossiped and made fun of people. And now the door was locked and the room was a sort of horror. She could never think of it without seeing the stiff hard figure on the bed, the straight close line of the mouth and the white hard nose sharpened and narrowed as Rob's had never been. Somehow she particularly could not bear the recollection of the sharp unnatural modeling of the hard, white nose. She could not BEAR it! She found herself recalling it the moment she saw the light on the door handle and she got up to move about and try to forget it.
It was then that she went to the window and looked down into the street, probably attracted by some slight noise though she was not exactly aware that she had heard anything.
She must have heard something however. Two four-wheeled cabs were standing at the front door and the cabman assisted by Edward were putting trunks on top of them. They were servants' trunks and Cook was already inside the first cab which was filled with paper parcels and odds and ends. Even as her mistress watched Emma got in carrying a sedate band-box. She was the house-parlourmaid and a sedate person. The first cab drove away as soon as its door was closed and the cabman mounted to his seat. Louisa looking wholly unprofessional without her nurse's cap and apron and wearing a tailor-made navy blue costume and a hat with a wing in it, entered the second cab followed by Edward intensely suggesting private life and possible connection with a Bank. The second cab followed the first and Feather having lost her breath looked after them as they turned the corner of the street.
When they were quite out of sight she turned back into the room. The colour had left her skin, and her eyes were so wide stretched and her face so drawn and pinched with abject terror that her prettiness itself had left her.
"They've gone—all of them!" she gasped. She stopped a moment, her chest rising and falling. Then she added even more breathlessly, "There's no one left in the house. It's—empty!"
This was what was going on behind the cream-coloured front, the white windows and green flower-boxes of the slice of a house as motors and carriages passed it that evening on their way to dinner parties and theatres, and later as the policeman walked up and down slowly upon his beat.
Inside a dim light in the small hall showed a remote corner where on a peg above a decorative seat hung a man's hat of the highest gloss and latest form; and on the next peg a smart evening overcoat. They had belonged to Robert Gareth-Lawless who was dead and needed such things no more. The same dim light showed the steep narrowness of the white-railed staircase mounting into gruesome little corners of shadows, while the miniature drawing-rooms illumined only from the street seemed to await an explanation of dimness and chairs unfilled, combined with unnatural silence.
It would have been the silence of the tomb but that it was now and then broken by something like a half smothered shriek followed by a sort of moaning which made their way through the ceiling from the room above.
Feather had at first run up and down the room like a frightened cat as she had done in the afternoon. Afterwards she had had something like hysterics, falling face downward upon the carpet and clutching her hair until it fell down. She was not a person to be judged—she was one of the unexplained incidents of existence. The hour has passed when the clearly moral can sum up the responsibilities of a creature born apparently without brain, or soul or courage. Those who aspire to such morals as are expressed by fairness—mere fairness—are much given to hesitation. Courage had never been demanded of Feather so far. She had none whatever and now she only felt panic and resentment. She had no time to be pathetic about Robert, being too much occupied with herself. Robert was dead—she was alive—here—in an empty house with no money and no servants. She suddenly and rather awfully realized that she did not know a single person whom it would not be frantic to expect anything from.
Nobody had money enough for themselves, however rich they were. The richer they were the more they needed. It was when this thought came to her that she clutched her hands in her hair. The pretty and smart women and agreeable more or less good looking men who had chattered and laughed and made love in her drawing-rooms were chattering, laughing and making love in other houses at this very moment—or they were at the theatre applauding some fashionable actor-manager. At this very moment—while she lay on the carpet in the dark and every little room in the house had horror shut inside its closed doors—particularly Robert's room which was so hideously close to her own, and where there seemed still to lie moveless on the bed, the stiff hard figure. It was when she recalled this that the unnatural silence of the drawing-rooms was intruded upon by the brief half-stifled hysteric shriek, and the moaning which made its way through the ceiling. She felt almost as if the door handle might turn and something stiff and cold try to come in.
So the hours went on behind the cream-coloured outer walls and the white windows and gay flower-boxes. And the street became more and more silent—so silent at last that when the policeman walked past on his beat his heavy regular footfall seemed loud and almost resounding.
To even vaguely put to herself any question involving would not have been within the scope of her mentality. Even when she began to realize that she was beginning to feel faint for want of food she did not dare to contemplate going downstairs to look for something to eat. What did she know about downstairs? She had never there and had paid no attention whatever to Louisa's complaints that the kitchen and Servants' Hall were small and dark and inconvenient and that cockroaches ran about. She had cheerfully accepted the simple philosophy that London servants were used to these things and if they did their work it did not really matter. But to go out of one's room in the horrible stillness and creep downstairs, having to turn up the gas as one went, and to face the basement steps and cockroaches scuttling away, would be even more impossible than to starve. She sat upon the floor, her hair tumbling about her shoulders and her thin black dress crushed.
"I'd give almost ANYTHING for a cup of coffee," she protested feebly. "And there's no USE in ringing the bell!"
Her mother ought to have come whether her father was ill or not. He wasn't dead. Robert was dead and her mother ought to have come so that whatever happened she would not be quite alone and SOMETHING could be done for her. It was probably this tender thought of her mother which brought back the recollection of her wedding day and a certain wedding present she had received. It was a pretty silver travelling flask and she remembered that it must be in her dressing-bag now, and there was some cognac left in it. She got up and went to the place where the bag was kept. Cognac raised your spirits and made you go to sleep, and if she could sleep until morning the house would not be so frightening by daylight—and something might happen. The little flask was almost full. Neither she nor Robert had cared much about cognac. She poured some into a glass with water and drank it.
Because she was unaccustomed to stimulant it made her feel quite warm and in a few minutes she forgot that she had been hungry and realized that she was not so frightened. It was such a relief not to be terrified; it was as if a pain had stopped. She actually picked up one or two of the account books and glanced at the totals. If you couldn't pay bills you couldn't and nobody was put in prison for debt in these days. Besides she would not have been put in prison—Rob would—and Rob was dead. Something would happen—something.
As she began to arrange her hair for the night she remembered what Cook had said about Lord Coombe. She has cried until she did not look as lovely as usual, but after she had bathed her eyes with cold rose-water they began to seem only shadowy and faintly flushed. And her fine ash-gold hair was wonderful when it hung over each shoulder in wide, soft plaits. She might be a school-girl of fifteen. A delicate lacy night-gown was one of the most becoming things one wore. It was a pity one couldn't wear them to parties. There was nothing the least indecent about them. Millicent Hardwicke had been photographed in one of hers and no one had suspected what it was. Yes; she would send a little note to Coombe. She knew Madame Helene had only let her have her beautiful mourning because—. The things she had created were quite unique—thin, gauzy, black, floating or clinging. She had been quite happy the morning she gave Helene her orders. Tomorrow when she had slept through the night and it was broad daylight again she would be able to think of things to say in her letter to Lord Coombe. She would have to be a little careful because he did not like things to bore him.—Death and widows might—a little—at first. She had heard him say once that he did not wish to regard himself in the light of a charitable institution. It wouldn't do to frighten him away. Perhaps if he continued coming to the house and seemed very intimate the trades-people might be managed.
She felt much less helpless and when she was ready for bed she took a little more cognac. The flush had faded from her eye-lids and bloomed in delicious rose on her cheeks. As she crept between the cool sheets and nestled down on her pillow she had a delightful sense of increasing comfort—comfort. What a beautiful thing it was to go to sleep!
And then she was disturbed-started out of the divine doze stealing upon her-by a shrill prolonged wailing shriek!
It came from the Night Nursery and at the moment it seemed almost worse than anything which had occurred all through the day. It brought everything back so hideously. She had of course forgotten Robin again-and it was Robin! And Louisa had gone away with Edward. She had perhaps put the child to sleep discreetly before she went. And now she had wakened and was screaming. Feather had heard that she was a child with a temper but by fair means or foul Louisa had somehow managed to prevent her from being a nuisance.
The shrieks shocked her into sitting upright in bed. Their shrillness tearing through the utter soundlessness of the empty house brought back all her terrors and set her heart beating at a gallop.
"I—I WON'T!" she protested, fairly with chattering teeth. "I won't! I WON'T!"
She had never done anything for the child since its birth, she did not know how to do anything, she had not wanted to know. To reach her now she would be obliged to go out in the dark-the gas-jet she would have to light was actually close to the outer door of Robert's bedroom—THE room! If she did not die of panic while she was trying to light it she would have to make her way almost in the dark up the steep crooked little staircase which led to the nurseries. And the awful little creature's screams would be going on all the time making the blackness and dead silence of the house below more filled with horror by contrast-more shut off and at the same time more likely to waken to some horror which was new.
"I-I couldn't-even if I wanted to!" she quaked. "I daren't! I daren't! I wouldn't do it—for A MILLION POUNDS?" And she flung herself down again shuddering and burrowing her head under the coverings and pillows she dragged over her ears to shut out the sounds.
The screams had taken on a more determined note and a fiercer shrillness which the still house heard well and made the most of, but they were so far deadened for Feather that she began beneath her soft barrier to protest pantingly.
"I shouldn't know what to do if I went. If no one goes near her she'll cry herself to sleep. It's—it's only temper. Oh-h! what a horrible wail! It—it sounds like a—a lost soul!"
But she did not stir from the bed. She burrowed deeper under the bed clothes and held the pillow closer to her ears.
* * * * *
It did sound like a lost soul at times. What panic possesses a baby who cries in the darkness alone no one will ever know and one may perhaps give thanks to whatever gods there be that the baby itself does not remember. What awful woe of sudden unprotectedness when life exists only through protection—what piteous panic in the midst of black unmercifulness, inarticulate sound howsoever wildly shrill can neither explain nor express.
Robin knew only Louisa, warmth, food, sleep and waking. Or if she knew more she was not yet aware that she did. She had reached the age when she generally slept through the night. She might not have disturbed her mother until daylight but Louisa had with forethought given her an infant sleeping potion. It had disagreed with and awakened her. She was uncomfortable and darkness enveloped her. A cry or so and Louisa would ordinarily have come to her sleepy, and rather out of temper, but knowing what to do. In this strange night the normal cry of warning and demand produced no result.
No one came. The discomfort continued—the blackness remained black. The cries became shrieks—but nothing followed; the shrieks developed into prolonged screams. No Louisa, no light, no milk. The blackness drew in closer and became a thing to be fought with wild little beating hands. Not a glimmer—not a rustle—not a sound! Then came the cries of the lost soul—alone—alone—in a black world of space in which there was not even another lost soul. And then the panics of which there have been no records and never will be, because if the panic stricken does not die in mysterious convulsions he or she grows away from the memory of a formless past—except that perhaps unexplained nightmares from which one wakens quaking, with cold sweat, may vaguely repeat the long hidden thing.
What the child Robin knew in the dark perhaps the silent house which echoed her might curiously have known. But the shrieks wore themselves out at last and sobs came—awful little sobs shuddering through the tiny breast and shaking the baby body. A baby's sobs are unspeakable things—incredible things. Slower and slower Robin's came—with small deep gasps and chokings between—and when an uninfantile druglike sleep came, the bitter, hopeless, beaten little sobs went on.
But Feather's head was still burrowed under the soft protection of the pillow.
The morning was a brighter one than London usually indulges in and the sun made its way into Feather's bedroom to the revealing of its coral pink glow and comfort. She had always liked her bedroom and had usually wakened in it to the sense of luxuriousness it is possible a pet cat feels when it wakens to stretch itself on a cushion with its saucer of cream awaiting it.
But she did not awaken either to a sense of brightness or luxury this morning. She had slept it was true, but once or twice when the pillow had slipped aside she had found herself disturbed by the far-off sound of the wailing of some little animal which had caused her automatically and really scarcely consciously to replace the pillow. It had only happened at long intervals because it is Nature that an exhausted baby falls asleep when it is worn out. Robin had probably slept almost as much as her mother.
Feather staring at the pinkness around her reached at last, with the assistance of a certain physical consciousness, a sort of spiritless intention.
"She's asleep now," she murmured. "I hope she won't waken for a long time. I feel faint. I shall have to find something to eat—if it's only biscuits." Then she lay and tried to remember what Cook had said about her not starving. "She said there were a few things left in the pantry and closets. Perhaps there's some condensed milk. How do you mix it up? If she cries I might go and give her some. It wouldn't be so awful now it's daylight."
She felt shaky when she got out of bed and stood on her feet. She had not had a maid in her girlhood so she could dress herself, much as she detested to do it. After she had begun however she could not help becoming rather interested because the dress she had worn the day before had become crushed and she put on a fresh one she had not worn at all. It was thin and soft also, and black was quite startlingly becoming to her. She would wear this one when Lord Coombe came, after she wrote to him. It was silly of her not to have written before though she knew he had left town after the funeral. Letters would be forwarded.
"It will be quite bright in the dining-room now," she said to encourage herself. "And Tonson once said that the only places the sun came into below stairs were the pantry and kitchen and it only stayed about an hour early in the morning. I must get there as soon as I can."
When she had so dressed herself that the reflection the mirror gave back to her was of the nature of a slight physical stimulant she opened her bedroom door and faced exploration of the deserted house below with a quaking sense of the proportions of the inevitable. She got down the narrow stairs casting a frightened glance at the emptiness of the drawing-rooms which seemed to stare at her as she passed them. There was sun in the dining-room and when she opened the sideboard she found some wine in decanters and some biscuits and even a few nuts and some raisins and oranges. She put them on the table and sat down and ate some of them and began to feel a little less shaky.
If she had been allowed time to sit longer and digest and reflect she might have reached the point of deciding on what she would write to Lord Coombe. She had not the pen of a ready writer and it must be thought over. But just when she was beginning to be conscious of the pleasant warmth of the sun which shone on her shoulders from the window, she was almost startled our of her chair by hearing again stealing down the staircase from the upper regions that faint wail like a little cat's.
"Just the moment—the very MOMENT I begin to feel a little quieted—and try to think—she begins again!" she cried out. "It's worse then ANYTHING!"
Large crystal tears ran down her face and upon the polished table.
"I suppose she would starve to death if I didn't give her some food—and then I should be blamed! People would be horrid about it. I've got nothing to eat myself."
She must at any rate manage to stop the crying before she could write to Coombe. She would be obliged to go down into the pantry and look for some condensed milk. The creature had no teeth but perhaps she could mumble a biscuit or a few raisins. If she could be made to swallow a little port wine it might make her sleepy. The sun was paying its brief morning visit to the kitchen and pantry when she reached there, but a few cockroaches scuttled away before her and made her utter a hysterical little scream. But there WAS some condensed milk and there was a little warm water in a kettle became the fire was not quite out. She imperfectly mixed a decoction and filled a bottle which ought not to have been downstairs but had been brought and left there by Louisa as a result of tender moments with Edward.
When she put the bottle and some biscuits and scraps of cold ham on a tray because she could not carry them all in her hands, her sense of outrage and despair made her almost sob.
"I am just like a servant—carrying trays upstairs," she wept. "I—I might be Edward—or—or Louisa." And her woe increased when she added in the dining-room the port wine and nuts and raisins and macaroons as viands which MIGHT somehow add to infant diet and induce sleep. She was not sure of course—but she knew they sucked things and liked sweets.