Mrs. Hungerford (Margaret Wolfe Hamilton) (1855?-1897)
The Hoyden (1894) Tauchnitz edition
The Hoyden reviewed in the Scotsman :
"A clever, sprightly story... Fresh, sunshiny, and delightful"
THE HOYDEN. BY MRS. HUNGERFORD.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
By the same Author.
MOLLY BAWN 2 vols.
MRS. GEOFFREY 2 vols.
FAITH AND UNFAITH 2 vols.
PORTIA 2 vols.
LOYS, LORD BERRESFORD, ETC. 1 vol.
HER FIRST APPEARANCE, ETC. 1 vol.
PHYLLIS 2 vols.
ROSSMOYNE 2 vols.
DORIS 2 vols.
A MAIDEN ALL FORLORN, ETC. 1 vol.
A PASSIVE CRIME, ETC. 1 vol.
GREEN PLEASURE AND GREY GRIEF 2 vols.
A MENTAL STRUGGLE 2 vols.
HER WEEK'S AMUSEMENT, ETC. 1 vol.
LADY BRANKSMERE 2 vols.
LADY VALWORTH'S DIAMONDS 1 vol.
A MODERN CIRCE 2 vols.
MARVEL 2 vols.
THE HON. MRS. VEREKER 1 vol.
UNDER-CURRENTS 2 vols.
IN DURANCE VILE, ETC. 1 vol.
A TROUBLESOME GIRL, ETC. 1 vol.
A LIFE'S REMORSE 2 vols.
A BORN COQUETTE 2 vols.
THE DUCHESS 1 vol.
LADY VERNER'S FLIGHT 1 vol.
A CONQUERING HEROINE, ETC. 1 vol.
NORA CREINA 2 vols.
A MAD PRANK, ETC. 1 vol.
BY MRS. HUNGERFORD
"MOLLY BAWN," "PHYLLIS," "A CONQUERING HEROINE,"
IN TWO VOLUMES.
OF VOLUME I.
How Diamond cut Diamond, and how the Sparks flew
How Margaret pleads for the little Hoyden, and with what Ill-success
How Lady Rylton says a few Things that would have been better left unsaid. How "The Scheme" is laid before Sir Maurice, and how he refuses to have anything to do with it
How the Heart of Maurice grew hot within him, and how he put the Question to the Touch, and how he neither lost nor won
Showing how, when People do congregate together much Knowledge may be found, and how the little Hoyden has some kind Things said about her
How Games were played, "of Sorts"; and how Tita was much harried, but how she bore herself valiantly, and, how, not knowing of her Victories, she won all through
How the Argument grows higher; and how Marian loses her Temper, and how Margaret objects to the Ruin of one young Life
How a Storm raged; and how, when a Man and Woman met Face to Face, the Victory—for a Wonder—went to the Man
How Maurice places his Life in the Hands of the Hoyden, and how she tells him many Things, and desires many Things of him
How Maurice gives Way to Temper, and how Lady Rylton plants a Shaft or two. And how Margaret says a Word in Season, and how in return Colonel Neilson says a Word to her
How the last Day comes, and how some strange Words are said before the Marriage is accomplished; and how Marion Bethune scores a Point
How Tita comes back from her Honeymoon, and how her Husband's Mother tells her of certain Things that should have been left untold
How a young and lovely Nature takes a Shock most cruelly administered. And how a Dowager takes a new Name as a direct Insult. And how Tita declines to promise anything
How Tita comes to Oakdean, and is glad. And how Maurice calls to her, and she performs an Acrobatic Feat. And how a Discussion arises
How Tita tells of two strange Dreams, and of how they moved her. And how Maurice sets his Soul on asking a Guest to Oakdean; and how he gains his Desire
How a dull Morning gives Birth to a strange Afternoon. And how Rylton's Eyes are widened by a Friend
How Tita suggests a Game of Blind Man's Buff, and what comes of it
How Tita gets a Scolding, and how she rebels and accuses Sir Maurice of Breach of Contract
How Rylton's Heart condemns him. And how, as he walks, a Serpent stings him. And how he is recovered of his Wound. And how the little Rift is mended—but with too fine Thread
How Tita takes high Ground, and how she brings her Husband, of all People, to her Feet
How everyone goes to Lady Warbeck's Dance, and helps to make it a Success; and how many curious Things are said and done there
How Rylton asks his Wife to tread a Measure with him, and how the Fates weave a little Mesh for Tita's pretty Feet
How Marian fights for Mastery; and how the Battle goes; and how Chance befriends the Enemy
How Rylton makes a most dishonourable Bet, and how he repents of it; and how, though he would have withdrawn from it, he finds he cannot
How Tita told a Secret to Tom Hescott in the Moonlight; and how he sought to discover many Things, and how he was most innocently baffled
How Tita looks at herself in the Glass, and wonders; and how she does her Hair in quite a new Style, and goes to ask Sir Maurice what he thinks of it; and how he answers her
How Sir Maurice feels uneasy; and how Tita, for once, shows herself implacable, and refuses to accept the Overtures of Peace. And how a little Gossip warms the Air
HOW DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND, AND HOW THE SPARKS FLEW.
The windows are all wide open, and through them the warm, lazy summer wind is stealing languidly. The perfume of the seringas from the shrubbery beyond, mingled with all the lesser but more delicate delights of the garden beneath, comes with the wind, and fills the drawing-room of The Place with a vague, almost drowsy sense of sweetness.
Mrs. Bethune, with a face that smiles always, though now her very soul is in revolt, leans back against the cushions of her lounging chair, her fine red hair making a rich contrast with the pale-blue satin behind it.
"You think he will marry her, then?"
"Think, think!" says Lady Rylton pettishly. "I can't afford to think about it. I tell you he must marry her. It has come to the very last ebb with us now, and unless Maurice consents to this arrangement——"
She spreads her beautiful little hands abroad, as if in eloquent description of an end to her sentence.
Mrs. Bethune bursts out laughing. She can always laugh at pleasure.
"It sounds like the old Bible story," says she; "you have an only son, and you must sacrifice him!"
"Don't study to be absurd!" says Lady Rylton, with a click of her fan that always means mischief.
She throws herself back in her chair, and a tiny frown settles upon her brow. She is such a small creation of Nature's that only a frown of the slightest dimensions could settle itself comfortably between her eyes. Still, as a frown, it is worth a good deal! It has cowed a good many people in its day, and had, indeed, helped to make her a widow at an early age. Very few people stood up against Lady Rylton's tempers, and those who did never came off quite unscathed.
"Absurd! Have I been absurd?" asks Mrs. Bethune. "My dear Tessie"—she is Lady Rylton's niece, but Lady Rylton objects to being called aunt—"such a sin has seldom been laid to my charge."
"Well, I lay it," says Lady Rylton with some emphasis.
She leans back in her chair, and, once again unfurling the huge black fan she carries, waves it to and fro.
Marian Bethune leans back in her chair too, and regards her aunt with a gaze that never wavers. The two poses are in their way perfect, but it must be confessed that the palm goes to the younger woman.
It might well have been otherwise, as Lady Rylton is still, even at forty-six, a very graceful woman. Small—very small—a sort of pocket Venus as it were, but so carefully preserved that at forty-six she might easily be called thirty-five. If it were not for her one child, the present Sir Maurice Rylton, this fallacy might have been carried through. But, unfortunately, Sir Maurice is now twenty-eight by the church register. Lady Rylton hates church registers; they tell so much; and truth is always so rude!
She is very fair. Her blue eyes have still retained their azure tint—a strange thing at her age. Her little hands and feet are as tiny now as when years ago they called all London town to look at them on her presentation to her Majesty. She has indeed a charming face, a slight figure, and a temper that would shame the devil.
It isn't a quick temper—one can forgive that. It is a temper that remembers—remembers always, and that in a mild, ladylike sort of way destroys the one it fastens upon. Yet she is a dainty creature; fragile, fair, and pretty, even now. It is generally in these dainty, pretty, soulless creatures that the bitterest venom of all is to be found.
Her companion is different. Marian Bethune is a tall woman, with a face not perhaps strictly handsome, but yet full of a beautiful diablerie that raises it above mere comeliness. Her hair is red—a rich red—magnificent red hair that coils itself round her shapely head, and adds another lustre to the exquisite purity of her skin. Her eyes have a good deal of red in them, too, mixed with a warm brown—wonderful eyes that hold you when they catch you, and are difficult to forget. Some women are born with strange charms; Marian Bethune is one of them. To go through the world with such charms is a risk, for it must mean ruin or salvation, joy or desolation to many. Most of all is it a risk to the possessor of those charms.
There have been some who have denied the right of Marian to the title beautiful. But for the most part they have been women, and with regard to those others—the male minority—well, Mrs. Bethune could sometimes prove unkind, and there are men who do not readily forgive. Her mouth is curious, large and full, but not easily to be understood. Her eyes may speak, but her mouth is a sphinx. Yet it is a lovely mouth, and the little teeth behind it shine like pearls. For the rest, she is a widow. She married very badly; went abroad with her husband; buried him in Montreal; and came home again. Her purse is as slender as her figure, and not half so well worth possessing. She says she is twenty-eight, and to her praise be it acknowledged that she speaks the truth. Even good women sometimes stammer over this question!
"My sin, my sin?" demands she now gaily, smiling at Lady Rylton.
She flings up her lovely arms, and fastens them behind her head. Her smile is full of mockery.
"Of course, my dear Marian, you cannot suppose that I have been blind to the fact that you and Maurice have—for the past year—been—er——"
"Philandering?" suggests Mrs. Bethune lightly.
She leans a little forward, her soft curved chin coming in recognition.
"I beg, Marian, you won't be vulgar," says Lady Rylton, fanning herself petulantly. "It's worse than being immoral."
"Far, far worse!" Mrs. Bethune leans back in her chair, and laughs aloud. "Well, I'm not immoral," says she.
Her laughter rings through the room. The hot sun behind her is lighting the splendid masses of her red hair, and the disdainful gleam that dwells in her handsome eyes.
"Of course not," says Lady Rylton, a little stiffly; "even to mention such a thing seems to be—er—a little——"
"Only a little?" says Mrs. Bethune, arching her brows. "Oh, Tessie!" She pauses, and then with an eloquent gesture goes on again. "After all, why shouldn't I be immoral?" says she. Once again she flings her arms above her head so that her fingers grow clasped behind it. "It pays! It certainly pays. It is only the goody-goodies who go to the wall."
"My dear Marian!" says Lady Rylton, with a delicate pretence at horror; she puts up her hands, but after a second or so bursts out laughing. "I always say you are the one creature who amuses me," cries she, leaning back, and giving full play to her mirth. "I never get at you, somehow. I am never quite sure whether you are very good or very—well, very much the other thing. That is your charm."
The stupid, pretty little woman has reached a truth in spite of herself—that is Mrs. Bethune's charm.
A quick change passes over the latter's face. There is extreme hatred in it. It is gone, however, as soon as born, and remains for ever a secret to her companion.
"Does that amuse you?" says she airily. "I dare say a perpetual riddle is interesting. One can never guess it."
"As for that, I can read you easily enough," says Lady Rylton, with a superior air. "You are original, but—yes—I can read you." She could as easily have read a page of Sanscrit. "It is your originality I like. I have never, in spite of many things, been in the least sorry that I gave you a home on the death of your—er—rather disreputable husband."
Mrs. Bethune looks sweetly at her.
"And such a home!" says she.
"Not a word, not a word," entreats Lady Rylton graciously. "But to return to Maurice. I shall expect you to help me in this matter, Marian."
"I have quite understood your relations with Maurice during the past year. One, as a matter of course," with a shrug of her dainty shoulders, "lets the nearest man make love to one—— But Maurice must marry for money, and so must you."
"You are all wisdom," says Marian, showing her lovely teeth. "And this girl? She has been here a week now, but as yet you have told me nothing about her."
"I picked her up!" says Lady Rylton. She lays down her fan—looks round her in a little mysterious fashion, as though to make doubly sure of the apparent fact that there is no one in the room but her niece and herself. "It was the most providential thing," she says; "I was staying at the Warburtons' last month, and one day when driving their abominable ponies along the road, suddenly the little beasts took fright and bolted. You know the Warburtons, don't you? They haven't an ounce of manners between them—themselves, or their ponies, or anything else belonging to them. Well! They tore along as if possessed——"
"No, the ponies; don't be silly?"
"Such a relief!"
"And I really think they would have taken me over a precipice. You can see"—holding out her exquisite little hands—"how inadequate these would be to deal with the Warburton ponies. But for the timely help of an elderly gentleman and a young girl—she looked a mere child——"
"This Miss Bolton?"
"Yes. The old gentleman caught the ponies' heads—so did the girl. You know my slender wrists—they were almost powerless from the strain, but that girl! her wrists seemed made of iron. She held and held, until the little wretches gave way and returned to a sense of decency."
"Perhaps they are made of iron. Her people are in trade, you say? It is iron, or buttons, or what?"
"I don't know, I'm sure, but at all events she is an heiress to quite a tremendous extent. Two hundred thousand pounds, the Warburtons told me afterwards; even allowing for exaggeration, still, she must be worth a good deal, and poor dear Maurice, what is he worth?"
"Is it another riddle?" asks Mrs. Bethune.
"No, no, indeed! The answer is plain to all the world. The Warburtons didn't know these people, these Boltons (so silly of them, with a third son still unmarried), but when I heard of her money I made inquiries. It appeared that she lived with her uncle. Her father had died early, when she was quite young. Her mother was dead too; this last was a great comfort. And the uncle had kept her in seclusion all her life. They are nobodies, dear Marian! Nobodies at all, but that girl has two hundred thousand pounds, and can redeem the property of all its mortgages—if only Maurice will let her do it."
"But how did you ask her here?"
"How? What is simpler? The moment the Warburtons told me of the wealth that would be that girl's on her marriage (I was careful to make sure of the marriage point), I felt that an overpowering sense of gratitude compelled me to go and call on her. She and her uncle were new-comers in that county, and—it is very exclusive—so that when I did arrive, I was received with open arms. I was charming to the old uncle, a frosty sort of person, but not objectionable in any way, and I at once asked the niece to pay me a visit. They were flattered, the uncle especially so; I expect he had been wanting to get into Society—and as for the girl, she seemed overcome with delight! A very second-class little creature I thought her. No style! No suppression of her real feelings! She said at once how glad she would be to come to me; she gave me the impression that she would be glad to get away from her uncle! No idea of hiding anything! So strange!"
"Strange enough to be almost a fresh fashion. Fancy her saying she would be glad to come to you! No wonder you were startled!"
"Well, she's here," says Lady Rylton, furling her fan. Mrs. Bethune's little sarcasm has been lost upon her. "And now, how to use her? Maurice, though I have thrust the idea upon him, seems averse to it."
"Of marrying her, of course, and so redeeming himself. She is not what I would have chosen for him, I admit that; but all things must give way before the ruin that threatens us."
"Yes; true—all things," says Mrs. Bethune in a low tone.
"You see that. But how to bring Maurice to the point? He is so very difficult. You, Marian—you have influence with him——"
Mrs. Bethune rises in the slow, beautiful fashion that is hers always; she moves towards the window. There is no hurry, no undue haste, to betray the disquietude of her soul.
"You—you, of course," says Lady Rylton peevishly. "I always rely upon you."
"I have no influence!"
"You mean, of course, that you will not use it," says Lady Rylton angrily. "You still think that you will marry him yourself, that perhaps his uncle will die and leave him once more a rich man—the master of The Place, as the old Place's master should be; but that is a distant prospect, Marian."
Mrs. Bethune has swung around, her beautiful figure is drawn up to its most stately height.
"Not another word!" says she imperiously. "What have I to do with your son? Let him marry—let him marry——" She pauses as if choking, but goes on again: "I tell you I have no influence—none! Appeal to Margaret, she may help you!"
"Hush! here she is. Yes; ask her," says Mrs. Bethune, as if desirous of letting Lady Rylton hear the opinion of the new-comer on this extraordinary subject.
HOW MARGARET PLEADS FOR THE LITTLE HOYDEN, AND WITH WHAT ILL-SUCCESS.
Margaret Knollys, entering the room and seeing the signs of agitation in the two faces before her, stops on the threshold.
"I am disturbing you. I can come again," says she, in her clear, calm voice.
"No," says Mrs. Bethune abruptly.
She makes a gesture as if to keep her.
"Not at all. Not at all, dear Margaret. Pray stay, and give me a little help," says Lady Rylton plaintively.
She pulls forward a little chair near her, as if to show Margaret that she must say, and Miss Knollys comes quickly to her. Marian Bethune is Lady Rylton's real niece. Margaret is her niece by marriage.
A niece to be proud of, in spite of the fact that she is thirty years of age and still unmarried. Her features, taken separately, would debar her for ever from being called either pretty or beautiful; yet there have been many in her life-time who admired her, and three, at all events, who would have gladly given their all to call her theirs. Of these one is dead, and one is married, and one—still hopes.
There had been a fourth. Margaret loved him! Yet he was the only one whom Margaret should not have loved. He was unworthy in all points. Yet, when he went abroad, breaking cruelly and indifferently all ties with her (they had been engaged), Margaret still clung to him, and ever since has refused all comers for his sake. Her face is long and utterly devoid of colour; her nose is too large; her mouth a trifle too firm for beauty; her eyes, dark and earnest, have, however, a singular fascination of their own, and when she smiles one feels that one must love her. She is a very tall woman, and slight, and gracious in her ways. She is, too, a great heiress, and a woman of business, having been left to manage a huge property at the age of twenty-two. Her management up to this has been faultless.
"Now, how can I help you?" asks she, looking at Lady Rylton. "What is distressing you?"
"Oh! you know," says Mrs. Bethune, breaking impatiently into the conversation. "About Maurice and this girl! This new girl! There," contemptuously, "have been so many of them!"
"You mean Miss Bolton," says Margaret, in her quiet way. "Do you seriously mean," addressing Lady Rylton, "that you desire this marriage?"
"Desire it? No. It is a necessity!" says Lady Rylton. "Who could desire a daughter-in-law of no lineage, and with the most objectionable tastes? But she has money! That throws a cloak over all defects."
"I don't think that poor child has so many defects as you fancy," says Miss Knollys. "But for all that I should not regard her as a suitable wife for Maurice."
Mrs. Bethune leans back in her chair and laughs.
"A suitable wife for Maurice!" repeats she. "Where is she to be found?"
"Here! In this girl!" declares Lady Rylton solemnly. "Margaret, you know how we are situated. You know how low we have fallen—you can understand that in this marriage lies our last hope. If Maurice can be induced to marry Miss Bolton——"
A sound of merry laughter interrupts her here. There comes the sound of steps upon the terrace—running steps. Instinctively the three women within the room grow silent and draw back a little. Barely in time; a tiny, vivacious figure springs into view, followed by a young man of rather stout proportions.
"No, no, no!" cries the little figure, "you couldn't beat me. I bet you anything you like you couldn't. You may play me again if you will, and then," smiling and shaking her head at him, "we shall see!"
The windows are open and every word can be heard.
"Your future daughter-in-law," says Mrs. Bethune, in a low voice, nodding her beautiful head at Lady Rylton.
"Oh, it is detestable! A hoyden—a mere hoyden," says Lady Rylton pettishly. "Look at her hair!"
And, indeed, it must be confessed that the hoyden's hair is not all it ought to be. It is in effect "all over the place"—it is straight here, and wandering there; but perhaps its wildness helps to make more charming the naughty childish little face that peeps out of it.
"She has no manners—none!" says Lady Rylton. "She——"
"Ah, is that you, Lady Rylton?" cries the small creature on the terrace, having caught a glimpse of her hostess through the window.
"Yes, come in—come in!" cries Lady Rylton, changing her tone at once, and smiling and beckoning to the girl with long fingers. "I hope you have not been fatiguing yourself on the tennis-courts, you dearest child!"
Her tones are cooing.
"I have won, at all events!" says Tita, jumping in over the window-sill. "Though Mr. Gower," glancing back at her companion, "won't acknowledge it."
"Why should I acknowledge it?" says the stout young man. "It's folly to acknowledge anything."
"But the truth is the truth!" says the girl, facing him.
"Oh, no; on the contrary, it's generally a lie," says he.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself," says Miss Bolton, turning her back on him, which proceeding seems to fill the stout young man's soul with delight.
"Do come and sit down, dear child; you look exhausted," says Lady Rylton, still cooing.
"I'm not," says Tita, shaking her head. "Tennis is not so very exhausting—is it, Mrs. Bethune?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. It seems to have exhausted your hair, at all events," says Mrs. Bethune, with her quick smile. "I think you had better go upstairs and settle it; it is very untidy."
"Is it? Is it?" says Tita.
She runs her little fingers through her pretty short locks, and gazes round. Her eyes meet Margaret's.
"No, no," says the latter, laughing. "It looks like the hair of a little girl. You," smiling, "are a little girl. Go away and finish your fight with Mr. Gower."
"Yes. Come! Miss Knollys is on my side. She knows I shall win," says the stout young man; and, whilst disputing with him at every step, Tita disappears.
"What a girl! No style, no manners," says Lady Rylton; "and yet I must receive her as a daughter. Fancy living with that girl! A silly child, with her hair always untidy, and a laugh that one can hear a mile off. Yet it must be done."
"After all, it is Maurice who will have to live with her," says Mrs. Bethune.
"Oh, I hope not," says Margaret quickly.
"Why?" asks Lady Rylton, turning to her with sharp inquiry.
"It would never do," says Margaret with decision. "They are not suited to each other. Maurice! and that baby! It is absurd! I should certainly not counsel Maurice to take such a step as that!"
"Why not? Good heavens, Margaret, I hope you are not in love with him, too!" says Lady Rylton.
Margaret looks blank.
"She means me," says Mrs. Bethune, with a slight, insolent smile. "You know, don't you, how desperately in love with Maurice I am?"
"I know nothing," says Miss Knollys, a little curtly.
"Ah, you will!" says Mrs. Bethune, with her queer smile.
"The fact is, Margaret," says Lady Rylton, with some agitation, "that if Maurice doesn't marry this girl, there—there will be an end of us all. He must marry her."
"But he doesn't love—he barely knows her—and a marriage without love——"
"Is the safest thing known."
"Under given circumstances! I grant you that if two people well on in life, old enough to know their own minds, and what they are doing, were to marry, it might be different. They might risk a few years of mere friendship together, and be glad of the venture later on. But for two young people to set out on life's journey with nothing to steer by—that would be madness!"
"Ah! yes. Margaret speaks like a book," says Mrs. Bethune, with an amused air; "Maurice, you see, is so young, so inexperienced——"
"At all events, Tita is only a child."
"Tita! Is that her name?"
"A pet name, I fancy. Short for Titania; she is such a little thing."
"Titania—Queen of the Fairies; I wonder if the original Titania's father dealt in buttons! Is it buttons, or soap, or tar? You didn't say," says Mrs. Bethune, turning to Lady Rylton.
"I really don't know—and as it has to be trade, I can't see that it matters," says Lady Rylton, frowning.
"Nothing matters, if you come to think of it," says Mrs. Bethune. "Go on, Margaret—you were in the middle of a sermon; I dare say we shall endure to the end."
"I was saying that Miss Bolton is only a child."
"She is seventeen. She told us about it last night at dinner. Gave us month and day. It was very clever of her. We ought to give her birthday-gifts, don't you think? And yet you call her a child!"
"At seventeen, what else?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Margaret," says Lady Rylton pettishly; "and, above all things, don't be old-fashioned. There is no such product nowadays as a child of seventeen. There isn't time for it. It has gone out! The idea is entirely exploded. Perhaps there were children aged seventeen long ago—one reads of them, I admit, but it is too long ago for one to remember. Why, I was only eighteen when I married your uncle."
"Pour uncle!" says Mrs. Bethune; her tone is full of feeling.
Lady Rylton accepts the feeling as grief for the uncle's death; but Margaret, casting a swift glance at Mrs. Bethune, wonders if it was meant for grief for the uncle's life—with Lady Rylton.
"He was the ugliest man I ever saw, without exception," says Lady Rylton placidly; "and I was never for a moment blind to the fact, but he was well off at that time, and, of course, I married him. I wasn't in love with him." She pauses, and makes a little apologetic gesture with her fan and shoulders. "Horrid expression, isn't it?" says she. "In love! So terribly bourgeois. It ought to be done away with. However, to go on, you see how admirably my marriage turned out. Not a hitch anywhere. Your poor dear uncle and I never had a quarrel. I had only to express a wish, and it was gratified."
"Poor dear uncle was so clever," says Mrs. Bethune, with lowered lids.
Again Margaret looks at her, but is hardly sure whether sarcasm is really meant.
"Clever? Hardly, perhaps," says Lady Rylton meditatively. "Clever is scarcely the word."
"No, wise—wise is the word," says Mrs. Bethune.
Her eyes are still downcast. It seems to Margaret that she is inwardly convulsed with laughter.
"Well, wise or not, we lived in harmony," says Lady Rylton with a sigh and a prolonged sniff at her scent-bottle. "With us it was peace to the end."
"Certainly; it was peace at the end," says Mrs. Bethune solemnly.
It was, indeed, a notorious thing that the late Sir Maurice had lived in hourly fear of his wife, and had never dared to contradict her on any subject, though he was a man of many inches, and she one of the smallest creatures on record.
"True! true! You knew him so well!" says Lady Rylton, hiding her eyes behind the web of a handkerchief she is holding. One tear would have reduced it to pulp. "And when he was——" She pauses.
"Was dead?" says Margaret kindly, softly.
"Oh, don't, dear Margaret, don't!" says Lady Rylton, with a tragical start. "That dreadful word! One should never mention death! It is so rude! He, your poor uncle—he left us with the sweetest resignation on the 18th of February, 1887."
"I never saw such resignation," says Mrs. Bethune, with deep emphasis.
She casts a glance at Margaret, who, however, refuses to have anything to do with it. But, for all that, Mrs. Bethune is clearly enjoying herself. She can never, indeed, refrain from sarcasm, even when her audience is unsympathetic.
"Yes, yes; he was resigned," says Lady Rylton, pressing her handkerchief to her nose.
"So much so, that one might almost think he was glad to go," says Mrs. Bethune, nodding her head with beautiful sympathy.
She is now shaking with suppressed laughter.
"Yes; glad. It is such a comfort to dwell on it," says Lady Rylton, still dabbing her eyes. "He was happy—quite happy when he left me."
"I never saw anyone so happy," says Mrs. Bethune.
Her voice sounds choking; no doubt it is emotion. She rises and goes to the window. The emotion seems to have got into her shoulders.
"All which proves," goes on Lady Rylton, turning to Margaret, "that a marriage based on friendship, even between two young people, is often successful."
"But surely in your case there was love on one side," says Miss Knollys, a little impatiently. "My uncle——"
"Oh, he adored me!" cries she ecstatically, throwing up her pretty hands, her vanity so far overcoming her argument that she grows inconsistent. "You know," with a little simper, "I was a belle in my day."
"I have heard it," says Margaret hastily, who, indeed, has heard it ad nauseam. "But with regard to this marriage, Tessie, I don't believe you will get Maurice to even think of it."
"If I don't, then he is ruined!" Lady Rylton gets up from her chair, and takes a step or two towards Margaret. "This house-party that I have arranged, with this girl in it, is a last effort," says she in a low voice, but rather hysterically. She clasps her hands together. "He must—he must marry her. If he refuses——"
"But she may refuse him," says Margaret gently; "you should think of that."
"She—she refuse? You are mad!" says Lady Rylton. "A girl—a girl called Bolton."
"It is certainly an ugly name," says Margaret in a conciliatory way.
"And yet you blame me because I desire to give her Rylton instead, a name as old as England itself. I tell you, Margaret," with a little delicate burst of passion, "that it goes to my very soul to accept this girl as a daughter. She—she is hateful to me, not only because of her birth, but in every way. She is antagonistic to me. She—would you believe it?—she has had the audacity to argue with me about little things, as if she—she," imperiously, "should have an opinion when I was present."
"My dear Tessie, we all have opinions, and you know you said yourself that at seventeen nowadays one is no longer a child."
"I wish, Margaret, you would cure yourself of that detestable habit of repeating one's self to one's self," says Lady Rylton resentfully. "There," sinking back in her chair, and saturating her handkerchief with some delicate essence from a little Louis Quatorze bottle beside her, "it isn't worth so much worry. But to say that she would refuse Maurice——"
"Why should she not? She looks to me like a girl who would not care to risk all her future life for mere position. I mean," says Margaret a little sadly, "that she looks to me as if she would be like that when she is older, and understands."
"Then she must look to you like a fool," says Lady Rylton petulantly.
"Hardly that. Like a girl, rather, with sense, and with a heart."
"My dear girl, we know how romantic you are, we know that old story of yours," says Lady Rylton, who can be singularly nasty at times. "Such an old story, too. I think you might try to forget it."
"Does one ever forget?" says Margaret coldly. A swift flush has dyed her pale face. "And story or no story, I shall always think that the woman who marries a man without caring for him is a far greater fool than the woman who marries a man for whom she does care."
"After all, I am not thinking of a woman," says Lady Rylton with a shrug. "I am thinking of Maurice. This girl has money; and, of course, she will accept him if I can only induce him to ask her."
"It is not altogether of course!"
"I think it is," says Lady Rylton obstinately.
Miss Knollys shrugs her shoulders.
All at once Mrs. Bethune turns from the window and advances towards Margaret. There is a sudden fury in her eyes.
"What do you mean?" says she, stopping short before Miss Knollys, and speaking with ill-suppressed rage. "Who is she, that she should refuse him? That little, contemptible child! That nobody! I tell you, she would not dare refuse him if she asked her! It would be too great an honour for her."
She stops. Her fingers tighten on her gown. Then, as suddenly as it grew, her ungovernable fit of anger seems to die checked, killed by her own will. She sinks into the chair behind her, and looks deliberately at Margaret with an air that, if not altogether smiling, is certainly altogether calm. It must have cost her a good deal to do it.
"It is beyond argument," says she; "he will not ask her."
"He shall," says Lady Rylton in a low tone.
Margaret rises, and moves slowly towards one of the open windows; she pauses there a moment, then steps out on to the balcony, and so escapes. These incessant discussions are abhorrent to her, and just now her heart is sad for the poor child who has been brought down here ostensibly for amusement, in reality for business. Of course, Maurice will not marry her—she knows Maurice, he is far above all that sort of thing; but the very attempt at the marriage seems to cover the poor child with insult. And she is such a pretty child.
At this moment the pretty child, with Randal Gower, comes round the corner; she has her skirt caught up at one side, and Miss Knollys can see it is full of broken biscuits. The pulling up of the skirt conduces a good deal to the showing of a lovely little foot and ankle, and Margaret, who has the word "hoyden" still ringing in her ears, and can see Lady Rylton's cold, aristocratic, disdainful face, wishes the girl had had the biscuit in a basket.
"Oh, here is Miss Knollys!" cries Tita, running to her. "We are going to feed the swans" (she looks back at her companion). "He has got some more biscuits in his pockets."
"It's quite true," says Mr. Gower; "I'm nothing but biscuits. Every pocket's full of 'em, and they've gone to dust. I tried to blow my nose a moment ago, but I couldn't. One can't blow one's nose in biscuit."
"Come with us, Miss Knollys—do," says Tita coaxingly.
"I can't. Not now. I can't," says Margaret, who is a little troubled at heart. "Go, dear child, and feed the swans, and take care of her, Randy—take care of her."
"I'll do my best," says Mr. Gower, with much solemnity; "but it's small—very small. As a rule, Miss Bolton takes care of me."
Margaret gives him a last admonitory glance and turns away. In truth, Mr. Gower is but a broken reed to lean upon.
HOW LADY RYLTON SAYS A FEW THINGS THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER LEFT UNSAID. HOW "THE SCHEME" IS LAID BEFORE SIR MAURICE, AND HOW HE REFUSES TO HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT.
In the meantime the conversation in the drawing-room has been going on.
"Of course, if you think you can persuade him," says Mrs. Bethune presently.
"I know I shall. One can always persuade a man where his interests lie. Besides, I have great weight with him. I tell you I shall manage him. I could always manage his father."
A curious expression crosses Mrs. Bethune's face. The present Baronet may not prove so easy of management as his father!
"Well, I can only wish you success," says she, with a shrug. "By the way, Margaret did not back you up in this scheme as cordially as I deemed possible."
"Margaret is troublesome," says Lady Rylton. "Just when you expect her to sympathize with you, she starts off at a tangent on some other absurd idea. She is full of fads. After all, it would be rash to depend on her. But you, Marian—you owe me much."
"How much? My life's blood?"
Mrs. Bethune lets her hands fall clasped upon her knees, and, leaning over them, looks at her aunt—such a wonderfully young aunt, with her yellow hair and her sparkling eyes! Marian's lips have taken a cynical turn; her smile now is unpleasant.
"What a hideous expression!" says Lady Rylton, shuddering. "You spoil yourself, Marian; you do indeed. You will never make a good marriage if you talk like that. 'Life's blood'!—detestable!"
"I don't desire a good marriage, as you regard it."
Lady Rylton sits suddenly quite upright.
"If you mean marriage with Maurice," says she, "put that out of your head. You must be mad to cherish such a hope. You are both paupers, for one thing, and for the rest, I assure you, my dear, Maurice is not as infatuated about you as you are about him!"
Mrs. Bethune makes a sudden movement; it is slight. Her face darkens. One reading between the lines might at this moment see that she could have killed Lady Rylton with a wondrous joy. Killing has its consequences, however, and she only stands quite quiet, looking at her foe. What a look it is!
"It is you who are mad," says she calmly. "What I meant was that I should probably marry some rich nobody for the sake of his wealth. It would be quite in my line. I should arrange him, form him, bring him into Society, even against Society's will! There is a certain excitement in the adventure. As for Maurice, he is no doubt in your eyes a demigod—in mine," with infinite contempt, "he is a man."
"Well, I hope you will keep to all that," says Lady Rylton, who is shrewd as she is cruel, "and that you will not interfere with this marriage I have arranged for Maurice."
"Why would I interfere?"
"Because you interfere always. You can't bear to see any man love any woman but yourself."
Mrs. Bethune smiles. "A common fault. It belongs to most women. But this girl—you like her?"
"On the contrary, as I have told you, I detest her. Once Maurice has her money safely in his hands, I shall know how to deal with her. A little, ignorant, detestable child! I tell you, Marian, that the time will come when I shall pay her out for her silly insolence towards me."
"She is evidently going to have a good time if Maurice proposes to her."
"He shall propose. Why——" She breaks off suddenly. "Not another word," says she, putting up her hand. "Here is Maurice. I shall speak to him now."
"Shall I stay and help you?"
"No, thank you," says Lady Rylton, with a little knowing grimace.
Seeing it, Marian's detestation grows apace. She rises—and calmly, yet swiftly, leaves the room. Sir Maurice is only crossing the lawn now, and by running through the hall outside, and getting on to the veranda outside the dining-room window, she can see him before he enters the drawing-room.
Gaining the veranda, she leans over the railings and makes a signal to him; it is an old signal. Rylton responds to it, and in a second is by her side.
"Oh no, you must not stay; your mother is waiting for you in the south drawing-room. She saw you coming; she wants you."
"Well, but about what?" asks Rylton, naturally bewildered.
"Nothing—only—she is going to advise you for your good. Shall I," smiling at him in her beautiful way, and laying one hand upon his breast—"shall I advise you, too?"
"Yes, yes," says Rylton; he takes the hand lying on his breast and lifts it to his lips. "Advise me."
"Ah, no!" She pauses, a most eloquent pause, filled with a long deep glance from her dark eyes. "There, go!" she says, suddenly pushing him from her.
"But your advice?" asks he, holding her.
"Pouf! as if that was worth anything." She looks up at him from under her lowered lids. "Well, take it. My advice to you is to come to the rose-garden as soon as possible, and see the roses before they fade out of all recognition! I am going there now. You know how I love that rose-garden; I almost live there nowadays."
"I wish I could live there too," says Rylton, laughing.
He lifts her hand again and presses it fondly to his lips. Something, however, in his air, though it had breathed devotion, troubles Mrs. Bethune; she frowns as he leaves her, and, turning into a side-path the leads to the rose-garden, gives herself up a prey to thought.
* * * * *
Rylton, with a shrug, goes toward the room where Marian had told him his mother was awaiting him. He could very readily (as Lady Rylton had not formally requested his presence) have stayed away, but long experience has driven into him the knowledge that when his mother wants anything, all the delays and subterfuges and evasions in the world will not prevent her having it. To get it over, then, as soon as possible is the chief thing. And, after all, he is so far happy in that he knows what the immediate interview is to be about. That little ridiculous girl—not half a bad little girl—but——
It is with quite a resigned air that he seats himself on the lounge, and agrees with himself to make his mother happy by letting her talk to him uninterruptedly for ten minutes.
"Women like to talk," says Sir Maurice to himself, as he sits on the lounge where Marian had just now sat. He finds consolation in his mother's poodle, who climbs on his knees, giving herself up a willing prey to his teasing.
"Maurice, you are not attending," says Lady Rylton at last, with a touch of serious anger.
"I am indeed—I am, I assure you," says Maurice, looking up. "If I'm not, it's your poodle's fault; she is such a fascinating creature."
As he says this he makes a little attack on the poodle, who snaps back at him, barking vigorously, and evidently enjoying herself immensely.
"I want a decisive answer from you," says his mother.
"A decisive answer! How can I give that?"
He is still laughing, but even as he laughs a sound from without checks him. It is another laugh—happy, young, joyous. Instinctively both he and Lady Rylton look towards the open window. There below, still attended by Mr. Gower, and coming back from her charitable visit to the swans, is Tita, her little head upheld, her bright eyes smiling, her lips parted. There is a sense of picturesque youth about the child that catches Rylton's attention, and holds it for the moment.
"There she is," says he at last, looking back over his shoulder at his mother. "Is that the wife you have meted out for me—that baby?"
"Be serious about it, Maurice; it is a serious latter, I assure you."
"Fancy being serious with a baby! She's too young, my dear mother. She couldn't know her duty to her neighbours yet, to say nothing of her duty to her husband."
"You could teach her."
"I doubt it. They have taken that duty off nowadays, haven't they?" He is still looking at Tita through the window; her gay little laugh comes up to him again. "Do you know, she is very pretty," says he dispassionately; "and what a little thing! She always makes me think of a bird, or a mouse, or a——"
"Think of her as a girl," says his mother impatiently.
"Certainly. After all, it would be impossible to think of her as a boy; she's too small."
"I don't know about that," said Lady Rylton, shrugging her shoulders. "She's much more a boy than a girl, where her manners are concerned."
"Poor little hoyden! That's what you call her, isn't it—a hoyden?"
"Did Marian tell you that?"
"Marian? Certainly not!" says Sir Maurice, telling his lie beautifully. "Marian thinks her beneath notion. So would you, if——" He pauses. "If she hadn't a penny you wouldn't know her," he says presently; "and you admit she has no manners, yet you ask me to marry her. Now, if I did marry her, what should I do with her?"
"Educate her! Control her! Says his mother, a little viciously.
"I confess I am not equal to the occasion. I could not manage a baby. The situation doesn't suit me."
"Maurice—it must!" Lady Rylton rises, and, standing near him with her hand on the table, looks at him with a pale face. "You find fault with her; so do I, and frankly admit she is the last woman in the world I should have chosen for you if I could help it, but she is one of the richest girls in England. And after all, though I detest the very sound of it, Trade is now our master. You object to the girl's youth; that, however, is in her favour. You can mould her to your own designs, and"—she casts a bitter glance at him that will not be suppressed—"all women cannot be widows. Then, as for her being so little a creature, she is surely quite as tall as I am, and your father—you know, Maurice, how devoted he was to me."
"Oh yes, poor old Dad!" says Maurice, with a movement that might mean pain. He seldom speaks of his father—never to his mother. He had certainly loved his father. He moves quickly to the further end of the room.
"You will think of this girl, Maurice?"
"Oh, if that's all," laughing shortly, "you have arranged for that. One can't help thinking of the thing that is thrust under one's eyes morning, noon, and night. I shall think of her certainly until she goes away." He stops, and then says abruptly, "When is she going?"
"When her engagement to you is an accomplished fact."
"My dear mother, how absurd it all is! Poor little girl, and what a shame too! She doesn't even like me! We shouldn't be taking her name in vain like this. By-the-bye, what queer eyes she has!—have you noticed?"
"She has two hundred thousand pounds," says Lady Rylton solemnly. "That is of far greater consequence. You know how it is with us, Maurice. We can hold on very little longer. If you persist in refusing this last chance, the old home will have to go. We shall be beggars!" She sinks back in her chair, and sobs softly but bitterly.
"Don't go on like that—don't!" says Rylton, coming over to her and patting her shoulder tenderly. "There must be some other way out of it. I know we are in a hole more or less, but——"
"How lightly you speak of it! Who is to pay your debts? You know how your gambling on the turf has ruined us—brought us to the very verge of disgrace and penury, and now, when you can help to set the old name straight again, you refuse—refuse!" She stops as if choking.
"I don't think my gambling debts are the actual cause of our worries," says her son, rather coldly. "If I have wasted a few hundred on a race here and there, it is all I have done. When the property came into my hands it was dipped very deeply."
"You would accuse your father——" begins she hotly.
Rylton pauses. "No; not my father," says he distinctly, if gently.
"You mean, then, that you accuse me!" cries she, flashing round at him.
All at once her singularly youthful face grows as old as it ought to be—a vindictive curve round the mouth makes that usually charming feature almost repulsive.
"My dear mother, let us avoid a scene," says her son sternly. "To tell you the truth, I have had too many of them of late."
Something in his manner warns her to go no farther in the late direction. If she is to win the cause so close to her heart, she had better refrain from recrimination—from an accusation of any sort.
"Dearest Maurice," says she, going to him and taking his hand in hers, "you know it is for your sake only I press this dreadful matter. She is so rich, and you—we—are so poor! She has a house in Surrey, and one in the North—delightful places, I have been told—and, of course, she would like you to keep up your own house in town. As for me, all I ask is this old house—bare and uncomfortable as it is."
"Nonsense, mother," letting her hand go and turning away impatiently. "You speak as if it were all settled."
"Why should it not be settled?"
"You talk without thinking!" He is frowning now, and his tone is growing angry. "Am I the only one to be consulted?"
"Oh! as for her—that child! Of course you can influence her."
"I don't want to," wearily.
"You can do more than that. You are very good-looking, Maurice. You can——" She hesitates.
"Can what?" coldly.
"I shall certainly not even try to do that. Good heavens! what do you mean?" says her son, colouring a dark red with very shame. "Are you asking me to make love to this girl—to pretend an admiration for her that I do not feel? To—to—lie to her?"
"I am only asking you to be sensible," says his mother sullenly. She has gone back to her chair, and now, with lowered lids and compressed lips, is fanning herself angrily.
"I shan't be sensible in that way," says her son, very hotly. "Put it out of your head. To me Miss Bolton (it is really ridiculous to call her Miss anything; she ought to be Betty, or Lizzie, or Lily, or whatever her name is, to everyone at her age)—to me she seems nothing but a baby—and—I hate babies!"
"Marian has taught you!" Says his mother, with a sneer. "She certainly is not a baby, whatever else she may be. But I tell you this, Maurice, that you will hate far more being left a beggar in the world, without enough money to keep yourself alive."
"I am sure I can keep myself alive."
"Yes, but how? You, who have been petted and pampered all your life?"
"Oh, don't speak to me as if I were in the cradle!" says Maurice, with a shrug.
"Do you never think?"
"Oh yes, of Marian. That designing woman! Do you believe I haven't read her, if you are still blind? She will hold you on and on and on. And if your uncle should chance to die, why, then she will marry you; but if in the meantime she meets anyone with money who will marry her, why, good-bye to you. But you must not marry! Mind that! You must be held in chains whilst she goes free. Really, Maurice," rising and regarding him with extreme contempt, "your folly is so great over this absurd infatuation for Marian, that sometimes I wonder if you can be my own son."
"I am my father's son also," says Maurice. "He, I believe, did sometimes believe in somebody. He believed in you."
He turns away abruptly, and an inward laugh troubles him. Was that last gibe not an argument against himself, his judgment? Like his father; is he like his father? Can he, too, see only gold where dross lies deep? Sometimes, of late he has doubted. The laughter dies away, he sighs heavily.
"He was wise," says Lady Rylton coolly. "He had no cause to regret his belief. But you, you sit in a corner, as it were, and see nothing but Marian smiling. You never see Marian frowning. Your corner suits you. It would trouble you too much to come out into the middle of the room and look around Marian. And in the end what will it all come to? Nothing!"
"Then why make yourself so unhappy about nothing?"
"My dear mother," turning rather fiercely on her, "let us have an end of this. Marian would not marry me. She has refused me many times."
"I am quite aware of that," says Lady Rylton calmly. "She has taken care to tell me so. She will never marry you unless you get your uncle's money (and he is as likely to live to be a Methuselah as anyone I ever saw; the scandalous way in which he takes care of his health is really a byword!), but she will hold you on until——"
"I asked you not to go on with this," says Rylton, interrupting he again. "If you have nothing better to say to me than the abuse of Marian, I——"
"But I have. What is Marian, what is anything to me except your marriage with Tita Bolton? Maurice, think of it. Promise me you will think of it. Maurice, don't go."
She runs to him, lays her hand on his arm, and tries to hold him.
"I must." He lifts her hand from his arm, presses it, and drops it deliberately. "My dear mother, I can't; I can't, really," says he.
She stands quite still. As he reaches the door, he looks back. She is evidently crying. A pang shoots through his heart. But it is all so utterly impossible. To marry that absurd child! It is out of question. Still, her tears trouble him. He can see her crying as he crosses the hall, and then her words begin to trouble him even more. What was it she had said about Marian? It was a hint, a very broad one. It meant that Marian might love him if he were a poor man, but could love him much more if he were a rich one. As a fact, she would marry him if he had money, but not if he were penniless. After all, why not? She, Marian, had often said all that to him, or at least some of it. But that other word, of her marrying some other man should he appear——
HOW THE HEART OF MAURICE GREW HOT WITHIN HIM, AND HOW HE PUT THE QUESTION TO THE TOUCH, AND HOW HE NEITHER LOST NOR WON.
Mrs. Bethune, sauntering slowly between the bushes laden with exquisite blooms, all white and red and yellow, looks up as he approaches her with a charming start.
"You!" she says, smiling, and holding out her hand—a large hand but beautiful. "It is my favourite spot. But that you should have come here too!"
"You knew I should come!" returns he gravely. Something in her charming air of surprise jars upon him at this moment. Why should she pretend?—and to him!
"You told me you were coming here."
"Ah, what a lovely answer!" says she, with a glance from under her long lashes, that—whatever her answer may be—certainly is lovely.
Rylton regards her moodily. If she really loved him, would she coquet with him like this—would she so pretend? All in a second, as he stands looking at her, the whole of the past year comes back to him. A strange year, fraught with gladness and deep pain—with fears and joys intense! What had it all meant? If anything, it had meant devotion to her—to his cousin, who, widowed, all but penniless, had been flung by the adverse winds of Fate into his home.
She was the only daughter of Lady Rylton's only brother, and the latter had taken her in, and in a measure adopted her. It was a strange step for her to take—for one so little led by kindly impulses, or rather for one who had so few kindly impulses to be led by; but everyone has a soft spot somewhere in his heart, and Lady Rylton had loved her brother, good-for-nothing as he was. There might have been a touch of remorse, too, in her charity; she had made Marian's marriage!
Grudgingly, coldly, she opened her son's doors to her niece, but still she opened them. She was quite at liberty to do this, as Maurice was seldom at home, and gave her always carte blanche to do as she would with all that belonged to him. She made Marian Bethune's life for the first few months a burden to her, and then Marian Bethune, who had waited, took the reins in a measure; at all events, she made herself so useful to Lady Rylton that the latter could hardly get on without her.
Maurice had fallen in love with her almost at once; insensibly but thoroughly. There had been an hour in which he had flung himself, metaphorically, at her feet (one never does the real thing now, because it spoils one's trousers so), and offered his heart, and all the fortune still left to him after his mother's reign; and Marian had refused it all, very tenderly, very sympathetically, very regretfully—to tell the truth—but she had refused it.
She had sweetened the refusal by declaring that, as she could not marry him—as she could not to be so selfish as to ruin his prospects—she would never marry at all. She had looked lovely in the light of the dying sunset as she said all this to him, and Maurice had believed in her a thousand times more than before, and had loved her a thousand times deeper. And in a sense his belief was justified. She did love him, as she had never loved before, but not well enough to risk poverty again. She had seen enough of that in her first marriage, and in her degradation and misery had sworn a bitter oath to herself never again to marry, unless marriage should sweep her into the broad river of luxury and content. Had Maurice's financial affairs been all they ought to have been but for his mother's extravagances, she undoubtedly would have chosen him before all the world; but Maurice's fortunes were (and are) at a low ebb, and she would risk nothing. His uncle might die, and then Maurice, who was his heir, would be a rich man; but his uncle was only sixty-five, and he might marry again, and—— No, she would refuse!
Rylton had pressed his suit many times, but she had never yielded. It was always the same argument, she would not ruin him. But one day—only the other day, indeed—she had said something that made him know she sometimes counted on his uncle's death. She would marry him then! She would not marry a poor man, however much she loved him. The thought that she was waiting for his uncle's death revolted him at the moment, and though he forgave her afterwards, still the thought rankled.
It hurt him, in a sense, that she could desire death—the death of another—to create her own content.
His mother had hinted at it only just now! Marian feared, she said—feared to step aboard his sinking ship. Where, then, was her love, that perfect love that casteth out all fear?
A wave of anger rushes over him as he looks at her now—smiling, fair, with large, deep, gleaming eyes. He tells himself he will know at once what it is she means—what is the worth of her love.
She is leaning towards him, a soft red rosebud crushed against her lips.
"Ah, yes! It is true. I did know you were coming," says she tenderly.
She gives a hasty, an almost imperceptible glance around. Lady Rylton is often a little—just a little—prone to prying—especially of late; ever since the arrival of that small impossible heiress, for example; and then very softly she slips her hand into his.
"What an evening!" says she with delicate fervour. "How sweet, how perfect, Maurice!"
"Well?" in a rather cold, uncompromising way.
Mrs. Bethune gives him a quick glance.
"What a tone!" says she; "you frighten me!"
She laughs softly, sweetly. She draws closer to him—closer still;—and, laying her cheek against his arm, rubs it lightly, caressingly, up and down.
"Look here!" says he quickly, catching her by both arms, and holding her a little away from him; "I have a question to ask you."
"There is always a question," says she, smiling still, "between friends and foes, then why not between—lovers?"
She lingers over the word, and, stooping her graceful head, runs her lips lightly across the hand that is holding her right arm.
A shiver runs through Rylton. Is she true or false? But, however it goes, how exquisite she is!
"And now your question," says she; "how slow you are to ask it. Now what is it?—what—what?"
"Shall I ask it, Marian? I have asked it too often before."
He is holding her arms very tightly now, and his eyes are bent on hers. Once again he is under the spell of her beauty.
"Ask—ask what you will!" cries she. She laughs gaily, and throws back her head. The last rays of the sunlight catch her hair, and lift it to a very glory round her beautiful face. "Go on, go on," she says lightly. There is, perhaps, some defiance in her tone, but, if so, it only strengthens her for the fight. "I am your captive!" She gives a little expressive downward glance at his hands, as he holds her arms. "Speak, my lord! and your slave answers." She has thrown some mockery into her tone.
"I am not your lord," says Rylton. He drops her arms, and lets her go, and stands well back from her. "That is the last part assigned to me."
Mrs. Bethune's gaze grows concentrated. It is fixed on him. What does he mean? What is the object of this flat rebellion—this receding from her authority? Strength is hers, as well as charm, and she comes to the front bravely.
"Now what is it?" asks she, creeping up to him again, and now slipping her arm around his neck. "How have I vexed you? Who has been saying nasty little things about me? The dear mother, eh?"
"I want no one to tell me anything, but you."
"Speak, then; did I not tell you I should answer?"
"I want an answer to one question, and one only," says Rylton slowly.
"That is modesty itself."
"Will you marry me?"
"Marry you?" She repeats his words almost in a whisper, her eyes on the ground, then suddenly she uplifts her graceful form, and, lazily clasping her arms behind her head, looks at him. "Surely we have been through this before," says she, with a touch of reproach.
"Many times!" His lips have grown into a rather straight line. "Still I repeat my question."
"Am I so selfish as this in your eyes?" asks she. "Is it thus you regard me?" Her large eyes have grown quite full of tears. "Is my own happiness so much to me that for the sake of it I would deliberately ruin yours?"
"It would not ruin mine! Marry me, Marian, if—you love me!"
"You know I love you." Her voice is tremulous now and her face very pale. "But how can we marry? I am a beggar, and you——"
"The same!" returns he shortly. "We are in the same boat."
"Still, one must think."
"And you are the one. Do you know, Marian"—he pauses, and then goes on deliberately—"I have been thinking, too, and I have come to the conclusion that when one truly loves, one never calculates."
"Not even for the one beloved?"
"For no one!"
"Is love, then, only selfishness incarnate?"
"I cannot answer that. It is a great mixture; but, whatever it is, it rules the world, or should rule it. It rules me. You tell me—you are for ever telling me—that marriage with you, who are penniless, would be my ruin, and yet I would marry you. Is that selfishness?"
"No; it is only folly," says she in a low, curious tone.
Maurice regards her curiously.
"Marian," says he quickly, impulsively, "there are other places. If you would come abroad with me, I could carve out a fresh life for us—I could work for you, live for you, endure all things for you. Come! come!"
He holds out his hands to her.
"But why—why not wait?" exclaims she with deep agitation. "Your uncle—he cannot live for ever."
"I detest dead men's shoes," returns he coldly. Her last words have chilled him to his heart's core. "And besides, my uncle has as good a life as my own."
To this she makes no answer; her eyes are downbent. Rylton's face is growing hard and cold.
"You refuse, then?" says he at last.
"I refuse nothing, but——" She breaks off. "Maurice," cries she passionately, "why do you talk to me like this? What has changed you? Your mother? Ah, I know it! She has set her heart on your marriage with this—this little nobody, and she is poisoning your mind against me. But you—you—you will not forsake me for her!"
"It is you who are forsaking me," returns he violently. "Am I nothing to you, except as a medium by which you may acquire all the luxuries that women seem ready to sell their very souls for? Come, Marian, rose above it all. I am a poor man, but I am young, and I can work. Marry me as I am, and for what I am in your sight, and seek a new life with me abroad."
"It is madness," says she, in a voice so low as to be almost inaudible. For a short, short minute the plan held out to her had tempted her, but something stronger than her love prevailed. She could wait—she would; and she is so sure of him. He is her own, her special property. Yes! she can afford to wait. Something must occur shortly to change the state of his affairs, and even if things come to the very worst—there are others. "I tell you," says she, "that I will not spoil your life. Your uncle—he would be furious if you married me, and——"
Rylton put her somewhat roughly from him.
"I am tired of that old excuse," says he, his tone even rougher than his gesture. He turns away.
"Maurice!" says she sharply—there is real anguish in her tone, her face has grown white as death—"Maurice, come back." She holds out her arms to him. "Oh—darling, do not let your mother come between us! That girl—she will make you marry that girl. She has money, whereas I—what am I? A mere castaway on life's sea! Yes, yes." She covers her face with her hands in a little paroxysm of despair. "Yes," faintly, "you will marry that girl."
"Well, why not?" sullenly. He is as white as she is—his face is stern. "If she will deign to accept me. I have not so far," with a bitter laugh, "been very successful in love affairs."
"Oh! How can you say that—and to me?"
She bursts into tears, and in a moment he has her in his arms. His beautiful darling! He soothes her, caresses her, lets her weave the bands of her fascination over him all fresh again.
It is only afterwards he remembers that through all her grief and love she had never so forgotten herself as to promise to exile herself for his sake in a foreign land.
SHOWING HOW, WHEN PEOPLE DO CONGREGATE TOGETHER, MUCH KNOWLEDGE MAY BE FOUND, AND HOW THE LITTLE HOYDEN HAD SOME KIND THINGS SAID ABOUT HER.
"Game and set," cries Tita at the top of her young voice, from the other end the court. It would be useless to pretend she doesn't shout it. She is elated—happy. She has won. She tears off the little soft round cap that, defiant of the sun, she wears, and flings it sky-high, catching it deftly as it descends upon the top of her dainty head, a little sideways. Her pretty, soft, fluffy hair, cut short, and curled all over her head by Mother Nature, is flying a little wildly across her brows, her large gray eyes (that sometimes are so nearly black) are brilliant. Altogether she is just a little, a very little, pronounced in her behaviour. Her opponents, people who have come over to The Place for the day, whisper something to each other, and laugh a little. After all, they have lost—perhaps they are somewhat spiteful. Lady Rylton, sitting on the terrace above, bites her lips. What an impossible girl! and yet how rich! Things must be wrong somewhere, when Fate showers money on such a little ill-bred creature.
"How funny she is!" says Mrs. Chichester, who is sitting near Lady Rylton, a guest at The Place in this house-party, this last big entertainment, that is to make or mar its master. Lady Rylton had organized it, and Sir Maurice, who never contradicted her, and who had not the slightest idea of the real meaning of it, had shrugged his shoulders. After all, let her have her own way to the last. There would be enough to pay the debts and a little over for her; and for him, poverty, a new life, and emancipation. He is tired of his mother's rule. "And how small!" goes on Mrs. Chichester, a tall young woman with light hair and queer eyes, whose husband is abroad with his regiment. "Like a doll. I love dolls; don't you, Captain Marryatt?"
"Are you a doll?" asks Captain Marryatt, who is leaning over her.
He is always leaning over her!
"I never know what I am," says Mrs. Chichester frankly, her queer eyes growing a little queerer. "But Miss Bolton, how delightful she is! so natural, and Nature is always so—so——"
"Natural!" supplies Mr. Gower, who is lying on a rug watching the game below.
"Oh, get out!" says Mrs. Chichester, whose manners are not her strong point.
She is sitting on a garden chair behind him, and she gives him a little dig in the back with her foot as she speaks.
"Don't! I'm bad there!" says he.
"I believe you are bad everywhere," says she, with a pout.
"Then you believe wrong! My heart is a heart of gold," says Mr. Gower ecstatically.
"I'd like to see it," says Mrs. Chichester, who is not above a flirtation with a man whom she knows is beyond temptation; and truly Randal Gower is hard to get at!
"Does that mean that you would gladly see me dead?" asks he. "Oh, cruel woman!"
"I'm tired of seeing you as you are, any way," says she, tilting her chin. "Why don't you fall in love with somebody, for goodness' sake?"
"Well, I'm trying," says Mr. Gower, "I'm trying hard; but," looking at her, "I don't seem to get on. You don't encourage me, you know, and I'm very shy!"
"There, don't be stupid," says Mrs. Chichester, seeing that Marryatt is growing a little enraged. "We were talking of Miss Bolton. We were saying——"
"That she was Nature's child."
"Give me Nature!" says Captain Marryatt, breaking into the tte—tte a little sulkily. "Nothing like it."
"Is that a proposal?" demands Mr. Gower, raising himself on his elbow, and addressing him with deep interest. "It cannot be Mrs. Bolton you refer to, as she is unfortunately dead. Nature's child, however, is still among us. Shall I convey your offer to her?"
"Yes, shall he?" asks Mrs. Chichester.
She casts a teasing glance at her admirer; a little amused light has come into her green-gray eyes.
"I should think you, Randal, would be the fitting person to propose to her, considering how you haunt her footsteps day and night," says a strange voice.
It comes from a tall, gaunt old lady, who, with ringlets flying, advances towards the group. She is a cousin of the late Sir Maurice, and an aunt of Gower's, from whom much is to be expected by the latter at her death. There is therefore, as you see, a cousinship between the Gowers and the Ryltons.
"My dear aunt, is that you?" says Mr. Gower with enthusiasm. "Come and sit here; do, just here beside me!"
He pats the rug on which he is reclining as he speaks, beckoning her warmly to it, knowing as he well does that her bones would break if she tried to bring them to so low a level.
"Thank you, Randal, I prefer a more elevated position," replies she austerely.
"Ah, you would! you would!" says Randal, who really ought to be ashamed of himself. "You were meant for high places."
He sighs loudly, and goes back on his rug.
"Miss Gower is right," says Mrs. Bethune gaily, who has just arrived. "Why don't you go in for Miss Bolton?"
"She wouldn't have me!" says Gower tragically. "I've hinted all sorts of lovely things to her during the past week, but she has been apparently blind to the brilliant prospects opened to her. It has been my unhappy lot to learn that she prefers lollipops to lovers."
"You tried her?" asks Mrs. Chichester.
"Well, I believe I did do a good deal in the chocolate-cream business," says Mr. Gower mildly.
"And she preferred the creams?"
"Oh! much, much!" says Gower.
"So artless of her," says Mrs. Bethune, with a shrug. "I do love the nineteenth-century child!"
"If you mean Miss Bolton, so do I," says a young man who has been listening to them, and laughing here and there—a man from the Cavalry Barracks at Ashbridge. "She's quite out-of-the-way charming."
Mrs. Bethune looks at him—he is only a boy and easily to be subdued, and she is glad of the opportunity of giving some little play to the jealous anger that is raging within her.
"She has a hundred thousand charming ways," says she, smiling, but very unpleasantly. "An heiress is always charming."
"Oh no! I didn't look at it in that way at all," says the boy, reddening furiously. "One wouldn't, you know—when looking at her."
"Wouldn't one?" says Mrs. Bethune. She is smiling at him always; but it is a fixed smile now, and even more bitter. "And yet one might," says she.
She speaks almost without knowing it. She is thinking of Rylton—might he?
"I think not," says the boy, stammering.
It is his first lesson in the book that tells one that to praise a woman to a woman is to bring one to confusion. It is the worst manners possible.
"I agree with you, Woodleigh," says Gower, who is case-hardened and doesn't care about his manners, and who rather dislikes Mrs. Bethune. "She's got lovely little ways. Have you noticed them?"
He looks direct at Marian.
"No," says she, shaking her head, but very sweetly. "But, then, I'm so dull."
"Well, she has," says Gower, in quite a universally conversational tone, looking round him. He turns himself on his rug, pulls a cushion towards him, and lies down again. "And they're all her own, too."
"What a comfort!" says Mrs. Bethune, rather nastily.
Gower looks at her.
"Yes, you're right," says he. "To be original—honestly original—is the thing nowadays. Have you noticed when she laughs? Those little slender shoulders of hers actually shake."
"My dear Mr. Gower," says Mrs. Bethune, "do spare us! I'm sure you must be portraying Miss Bolton wrongly. Emotion—to betray emotion—how vulgar!"
"I like emotion," says Mr. Gower calmly; "I'm a perfect mass of it myself. Have you noticed Miss Bolton's laugh, Rylton?" to Sir Maurice, who had come up a moment ago, and had been listening to Mrs. Bethune's last remark. "It seems to run all through her. Not an inch that doesn't seem to enjoy it."
"Well, there aren't many inches," says Sir Maurice, with am amused air.
"And the laugh itself—so gay."
"You are en enthusiast," says Sir Maurice, who is standing near Mrs. Bethune.
"My dear fellow, who wouldn't be, in such a cause?" says the young cavalryman, with a rather conscious laugh.
"Here she is," says Mrs. Chichester, who is one of those people whom Nature has supplied with eyes behind and before.
Tita running up the slope at this moment like a young deer—a steep embankment that would have puzzled a good many people—puts an effectual end to the conversation. Mr. Gower graciously deigning to give her half of his rug, she sinks upon it gladly. She likes Gower.
Lady Rylton calls to her.
"Not on the grass, Tita dearest," cries she, in her little shrill, old-young voice. "Come here to me, darling. Next to me on this seat. Marian," to Mrs. Bethune, who has been sitting on the garden-chair with her, "you can make a little room, eh?"
"A great deal," says Marian.
"Oh no! don't stir. Not for me," says Tita, making a little gesture to her to reseat herself. "No, thank you, Lady Rylton; I shall stay here. I'm quite happy here. I like sitting on the grass."
She makes herself a little more comfortable where she is, regardless of the honour Lady Rylton would have done her—regardless, too, of the frown with which her hostess now regards her.
Mr. Gower turns upon her a beaming countenance.
"What you really mean is," says he, "that you like sitting near me."
"Indeed I do not," says Tita indignantly.
"My dear girl, think. Am I to understand, then, that you don't like sitting near me?"
"Ah, that's a different thing," says Tita, with a little side-glance at him that shows a disposition to laughter.
"You see! you see!" says Mr. Gower triumphantly—he has a talent for teasing. "Then you do wish to sit beside me! And why not?" He expands his hands amiably. "Could you be beside a more delightful person?"
"Maybe I could," says Tita, with another glance.
Rylton, who is listening, laughs.
His laugh seems to sting Mrs. Bethune to her heart. She turns to him, and lets her dark eyes rest on his.
"What a little flirt!" says she contemptuously.
"Oh no! a mere child," returns he.
"Miss Bolton! What an answer!" Gower is now at the height of his enjoyment. "And after last night, too; you must remember what you said to me last night."
"Last night?" She is staring at him with a small surprised face—a delightful little face, as sweet as early spring. "What did I say to you last night?"
"And have you forgotten?" Mr. Gower has thrown tragedy into his voice. "Already? Do you mean to tell me that you don't recollect saying to me that you preferred me to all the rest of my sex?"
"I never said that!" says Tita, with emphasis; "never! never! Why should I say that?"
She looks at Gower as if demanding an answer.
"I'm not good at conundrums," says he. "Ask me another."
"No; I won't," says she. "Why?"
Upon this Mr. Gower rolls himself over in the rug, and covers his head. It is plain that answers are not to be got out of him.
"Did I say that?" says Tita, appealing to Sir Maurice.
"I hope not," returns he, laughing. "Certainly I did not hear it."
"And certainly he didn't either," says Tita with decision.
"After that," says Gower, unrolling himself, "I shall retire from public life; I shall give myself up to"—he pauses and looks round; a favourite ladies' paper is lying on the ground near him—"to literature."
He turns over on his side, and apparently becomes engrosses in it.
"Have you been playing, Maurice?" asks Mrs. Bethune presently.
Her tone is cold. That little speech of his to Tita, uttered some time ago, "I hope not," had angered her.
"No," returns he as coldly.
He is on one of his uncertain moods with regard to her. Distrust, disbelief, a sense of hopelessness—all are troubling him.
"What a shame, Sir Maurice!" says Mrs. Chichester, leaning forward. As I have hinted, she would have flirted with a broomstick. "And you, who are our champion player."
"I'll play now if you will play with me," says Sir Maurice gallantly.
"A safe answer," looking at him with a pout, and through half-closed lids. She finds that sort of glance effective sometimes. "You know I don't play."
"Not that game," says Mr. Gower, who never can resist a thrust.
"I thought you were reading your paper," says Mrs. Chichester sharply. "Come, what's in it? I don't believe," scornfully, "you are reading it at all."
"I am, however," says Mr. Gower. "These ladies' papers are so full of information. I'm quite enthralled just now. I've got on to the Exchange and Mart business, and it's too exciting for words. Just listen to this: 'Two dozen old tooth-brushes (in good preservation) would be exchanged for a gold bangle (unscratched). Would not be sent on approval (mind, it must not be set scratched! good old toothbrushes!) without deposit of ten shillings. Address, 'Chizzler, office of this paper.'"
"It isn't true. I don't believe a word of it," says Tita, making a snatch at the paper.
"My dear girl, why not? Two dozen old toothbrushes. Old toothbrushes, you notice. Everything old now goes for a large sum, except," thoughtfully, "aunts."
He casts a lingering glance round, but providentially Miss Gower has disappeared.
"But toothbrushes! Show me that paper."
"Do you, then, disbelieve in my word?"
"Nobody could want a toothbrush."
"Some people want them awfully," says Mr. Gower. "Haven't you noticed?"
But here Sir Maurice sees it his duty to interfere.
"Miss Bolton, will you play this next set with me?" says he, coming up to Tita.
"Oh, I should love it!" cries she. "You are so good a player. Do get us some decent people to play against, though; I hate a weak game."
"Well, come, we'll try and manage it," says he, amused at her enthusiasm.
They move away together.
HOW GAMES WERE PLAYED, "OF SORTS"; AND HOW TITA WAS MUCH HARRIED, BUT HOW SHE BORE HERSELF VALIANTLY, AND HOW, NOT KNOWING OF HER VICTORIES, SHE WON ALL THROUGH.
There had been no question about it; it had been a walk-over. Even Lord Eshurst and Miss Staines, who are considered quite crack people at tennis in this part of the county, had not had a chance. Tita had been everywhere; she seemed to fly. Every ball caught, and every ball so well planted. Rylton had scarcely been in it, though a good player. That little thing was here and there and everywhere, yet Rylton could not say she poached. Whatever she did, however, she won.
She does not throw up her cap this time—perhaps she had seen a little of that laughter before—but she claps her hands joyfully, and pats Rylton's arm afterwards in a bon camarade fashion that seems to amuse him. And is she tired? There is no sense of fatigue, certainly, in the way she runs up the slope again, and flings herself gracefully upon the rug beside Mr. Gower. Mr. Gower has not stirred from that rug since. He seldom stirs. Perhaps he would not be quite so stout if he did.
"You won your game?" says Margaret Knollys, bending towards Tita, with a smile.
Old Lady Eshurst is smiling at her, too.
"Oh yes; how could I help it? Sir Maurice"—with a glance at the latter as he climbs the slope in turn—"plays like an angel."
"Oh no; it is you who do that," says he, laughing.
"Are you an angel, Miss Bolton?" asks Mrs. Bethune, who is standing next Rylton.
He had gone straight to her, but she had not forgiven his playing with the girl at all, and a sense of hatred towards Tita is warming her breast.
"I don't know," says Tita, with a slight grimace. It is not the answer expected. Marian had expected to see her shy, confused; Tita, on the contrary, is looking at her with calm, inquiring eyes. "Do you?" asks she.
"I have not gone into it," says Mrs. Bethune, with as distinct a sneer as she can allow herself.
Mr. Gower laughs.
"You're good at games," says he to Tita.
He might have meant her powers at tennis, he might have meant anything.
"That last game you are thinking of?"
"Decidedly, the last game," says Gower, who laughs again immoderately.
"I don't see what there is to laugh at," says Miss Bolton, with some indignation. "'They laugh who win,' is an old proverb. But you didn't win; you weren't in it."
"I expect I never shall be," says Gower. "Yet lookers-on have their advantage ascribed to them by a pitiful Providence. They see most of the game."
"It is I who should laugh," says Tita, who has not been following him. "I won—we"—looking, with an honest desire to be just to all people, at Sir Maurice—"we won."
"No, no; leave it in the singular," says Maurice, making her a little gesture of self-depreciation.
"You seem very active," says Margaret kindly. "I watched you at golf yesterday. You liked it?"
"Yes; there is so little else to like," says Tita, looking at her, "except my horses and my dogs."
"A horse is the best companion of all," says Mr. Woodleigh, his eyes bent on her charming little face.
"I'm not sure, the dogs are so kind, so affectionate; they want one so," says Tita. "And yet a horse—oh, I do love my last mount—a brown mare! She's lying up now."
"You ride, then?" says Sir Maurice.
"Ride! you bet!" says Tita. She rolls over on the rug, and, resting on her elbows, looks up at him; Lady Rylton watching, shudders. "I've been in the saddle all my life. Just before I came here I had a real good run—my uncle's groom had one horse, I had the other; it was over the downs. I won."
She rests her chin upon her hands.
Lady Rylton's face pales with horror. A race with a groom!
"Your uncle must give you good mounts," says Mr. Woodleigh.
"It is all he does give me," says the girl, with a pout. "Yes; I may ride, but that is all. I never see anybody—there is nobody to see; my uncle knows nobody."
Lady Rylton makes an effort. It is growing too dreadful. She turns to Mrs. Chichester.
"Why don't you play?" asks she.
"Tennis? I hate it; it destroys one's clothes so," says Mrs. Chichester. "And those shoes, they are terrible. If I knew any girls—I never do know them, as a rule—I should beg of them not to play tennis; it is destruction so far as feet go."
"Fancy riding so much as that!" says Mr. Woodleigh, who, with Sir Maurice and the others, has been listening to Tita's stories of hunts and rides gone and done. "Why, how long have you been hunting?"
"Ever since I was thirteen," says Tita.
"Why, that is about your age now, isn't it?" says Gower.
"We lived at Oakdean then," goes on Tita, taking, very properly, no notice of him, "and my father liked me to ride. My cousin was with us there, and he taught me. I rode a great deal before"—she pauses, and her lips quiver; she is evidently thinking of some grief that has entered into her young life and saddened it—"before I went to live with my uncle."
"It was your cousin who taught you to ride, then? Is he a son of the—the uncle with whom you now live?" asks Sir Maurice, who is rather ashamed of exhibiting such interest in her.
"No, no, indeed! He is a son of my aunt's—my father's sister. She married a man in Birmingham—a sugar merchant. I did love Uncle Joe," says Tita warmly.
"No wonder!" says Mrs. Bethune. "I wish I had an uncle a sugar merchant. It does sound sweet."
"I'm not sure that you would think my uncle Joe sweet!" says Miss Bolton thoughtfully. "He wasn't good to look at. He had the biggest mouth that ever I saw, and his nose was little and turned up, but I loved him. I love him now, even when he is gone. And one does forget, you know! He said such good things to people, and"—covering her little face with her hands, and bursting into an irrepressible laugh—"he told such funny stories!"
Lady Rylton makes a sudden movement.
"Dear Lady Eshurst, wouldn't you like to come and see the houses?" asks she.
"I am afraid I must be going home," says old Lady Eshurst. "It is very late; you must forgive my staying so long, but your little friend—by-the-bye, is she a friend or relation?"
"A friend!" says Lady Rylton sharply.
"Well, she is so entertaining that I could not bear to go away sooner."
"Yes—yes; she is very charming," says Lady Rylton, as she hurries Lady Eshurst down the steps that lead to the path below.
Good heavens! If she should hear some of Uncle Joe's funny stories! She takes Lady Eshurst visibly in tow, and walks her out of hearing.
"What a good seat you must have!" says Mr. Woodleigh presently, who has been dwelling on what Tita has said about her riding.
"Oh, pretty well! Everyone should ride," says Tita indifferently. "I despise a man who can't conquer a horse. I," laughing, "never saw the horse that I couldn't conquer."
"You? Look at your hands!" says Gower, laughing.
"Well, what's the matter with them?" says she. "My cousin, when he was riding, used to say they were made of iron."
"Of velvet, rather."
"No. He said my heart was made of that." She laughs gaily, and suddenly looking up at Rylton, who is looking down at her, she fixes her eyes on his. She spreads her little hands abroad, brown as berries though they are with exposure to all sorts of weather. They are small brown hands, and very delicately shaped. "They are not so bad after all, are they?" says she.
"They are very pretty," smiles Rylton, returning her gaze.
Suddenly for the first time it occurs to him that she has a beauty that is all her own.
"Oh no! there is nothing pretty about me," says Tita.
She gives a sudden shrug of her shoulders. She is still lying on the rug, her face resting on the palms of her hands. Again she lifts her eyes slowly to Rylton; it is an entirely inconsequent glance—a purely idle glance—and yet it suddenly occurs to Mrs. Bethune, watching her narrowly, that there is coquetry in it; undeveloped, certainly, but there. She is now a child; but later on?
Maurice is smiling back at the child as if amused. Mrs. Bethune lays her hands upon his arm—Lady Rylton has gone away with old Lady Eshurst.
"Maurice! there will be just time for a walk before tea," says she in a whisper, her beautiful face uplifted very near to his. Her eyes are full of promise.
He turns with her.
"Sir Maurice! Sir Maurice!" cries Tita; "remember our match at golf to-morrow!" Sir Maurice looks back. "Mr. Gower and I, against you and Mrs. Bethune. You do remember?"
"Yes, and we shall win," says Mrs. Bethune, with a cold smile.
"Oh no! don't think it. We shall beat you into a cocked hat!" cries Tita gaily.
"Good heavens! how vulgar she is!" says Mrs. Bethune.
HOW THE ARGUMENT GROWS HIGHER; AND HOW MARIAN LOSES HER TEMPER, AND HOW MARGARET OBJECTS TO THE RUIN OF ONE YOUNG LIFE.
"She is insufferable—intolerable!" says Lady Rylton, almost hysterically. She is sitting in the drawing-room with Margaret and Mrs. Bethune, near one of the windows that overlook the tennis court. The guests of the afternoon have gone; only the house-party remains, and still, in the dying daylight, the tennis balls are being tossed to and fro. Tita's little form may be seen darting from side to side; she is playing again with Sir Maurice.
"She is a very young girl, who has been brought up without a mother's care," says Miss Knollys, who has taken a fancy to the poor hoyden, and would defend her.
"Her manners this afternoon!—her actions—her fatal admissions!" says Lady Rylton, who has not forgiven that word or two about the sugar merchant.
"She spoke only naturally. She saw no reason why she should not speak of——"
"Don't be absurd, Margaret!" Sharply. "You know, as well as I do, that she is detestable."
"I am quite glad you have formed that idea of her," says Miss Knollys, "as it leads me to hope you do not now desire to marry her to Maurice."
After all, there are, perhaps, moments when Margaret is not as perfect as one believes her. She can't, for example, resist this thrust.
"Decidedly I don't desire to marry her to Maurice," says Lady Rylton angrily. "I have told you that often enough, I think; but for all that Maurice must marry her. It is his last chance!"
"Tessie," says Margaret sharply, "if you persist in this matter, and bring it to the conclusion you have in view, do you know what will happen? You will make your only child miserable! I warn you of that." Miss Knollys' voice is almost solemn.
"You talk as if Maurice was the only person in the world to be made miserable," says Lady Rylton, leaning back in her chair and bursting into tears—at all events, it must be supposed it is tears that are going on behind the little lace fragment pressed to her eyes. "Am not I ten times more miserable? I, who have to give my only son—as" (sobbing) "you most admirably describe it, Margaret—to such a girl as that! Good heavens! What can his sufferings be to mine?" She wipes her eyes daintily, and sits up again. "You hurt me so, dear Margaret," she says plaintively, "but I'm sure you do not mean it."
"No, no, of course," says Miss Knollys, as civilly as she can. She is feeling a little disgusted.
"And as for this affair—objectionable as the girl is, still one must give and take a little when one's fortunes are at the ebb. And I will save my dearest Maurice at all risks if I can, no matter what grief it costs me. Who am I"—with a picturesque sigh—"that I should interfere with the prospects of my child? And this girl! If Maurice can be persuaded to have her——"
"My dear Tessie, what a word!" says Margaret, rising, with a distinct frown. "Has he only to ask, then, and have?"
"Beyond doubt," says Lady Rylton insolently, waving her fan to and fro, "if he does it in the right way. In all my experience, my dear Margaret, I have never known a woman to frown upon a man who was as handsome, as well-born, as chic as Maurice! Even though the man might be a—well"—smiling and lifting her shoulders—"it's a rude word, but—well, a very devil!"
She looks deliberately at Margaret over her fan, who really appears in this dull light nearly as young as she is. The look is a cruel one, hideously cruel. Even Marian Bethune, whose bowels of compassion are extraordinary small, changes colour, and lets her red-brown eyes rest on the small woman lounging in the deep chair with a rather murderous gaze.
Yet Lady Rylton smiles on, enjoying the changes in Margaret's face. It is a terrible smile, coming from so fragile a creature.
Margaret's face has grown white, but she answers coldly and with deliberation. All that past horrible time—her lover, his unworthiness, his desertion—all her young, young life lies once more massacred before her.
"The women who give in to such fascination, such mere outward charms, are fools!" says she with a strength that adorns her.
"Oh, come! Come now, dearest Margaret," says her aunt, with the gayest of little laughs, "would you call yourself a fool? Why, remember, your own dear Harold was——"
"Pray spare me!" says Miss Knollys, in so cold, so haughty, so commanding a tone, that even Lady Rylton sinks beneath it. She makes an effort to sustain her position and laughs lightly, but for all that she lets her last sentence remain a fragment.
"You think Maurice will propose to this Miss Bolton?" says Marian Bethune, leaning forward. There is something sarcastic in her smile.
"He must. It is detestable, of course. One would like a girl in his own rank, but there are so few of them with money, and when there is one, her people want her to marry a Duke or a foreign Prince—so tiresome of them!"
"It is all such folly," says Margaret, knitting her brows.
"Utter folly," says Lady Rylton. "That is what makes it so wise! It would be folly to marry a satyr—satyrs are horrid—but if the satyr had millions! Oh, the wisdom of it!"
"You go too far!" says Margaret. "Money is not everything."
"And Maurice is not a satyr," says Mrs. Bethune, a trifle unwisely. She has been watching the players on the ground below. Lady Rylton looks at her.
"Of course you object to it," says she.
"I!" says Marian. "Why should I object to it? I talk of marriage only in the abstract."
"I am glad of that!" Lady Rylton's eyes are still fixed on hers. "This will be a veritable marriage, I assure you; I have set my mind on it. It is terrible to contemplate, but one must give way sometimes; yet the thought of throwing that girl into the arms of darling Maurice——"
She breaks off, evidently overcome, yet behind the cobweb she presses to her cheeks she has an eye on Marian.
"I don't think Maurice's arms could hold her," says Mrs. Bethune, with a low laugh. It is a strange laugh. Lady Rylton's glance grows keener. "Such a mere doll of a thing. A mite!" She laughs again, but this time (having caught Lady Rylton's concentrated gaze) in a very ordinary manner—the passion, the anger has died out of it.
"Yes, she's a mere mite," says Lady Rylton. "She is positively trivial! She is in effect a perfect idiot in some ways. You know I have tried to impress her—to show her that she is not altogether below our level—as she certainly is—but she has refused to see my kindness. She—she's very fatiguing," says Lady Rylton, with a long-suffering sigh. "But one gets accustomed to grievances. This girl, just because she is hateful to me, is the one I must take into my bosom. She is going to give her fortune to Maurice!"
"And Maurice?" asks Margaret.
"Is going to take it," returns his mother airily. "And is going to give her, what she has never had—a name!"