The Marriage of William Ashe
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD Author of "Lady Rose's Daughter" "Eleanor" etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY ALBERT STERNER
PAGE PART I. ACQUAINTANCE . . . . . . . 1 PART II. THREE YEARS AFTER . . . . 125 PART III. DEVELOPMENT . . . . . . 293 PART IV. STORM . . . . . . . . . . 365 PART V. REQUIESCAT . . . . . . . . 511
DAUGHTER AND FRIEND
I INSCRIBE THIS BOOK
LADY KITTY BRISTOL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece LADY TRANMORE AND MARY LYSTER . . . . . . . . . . . . . Facing page 6 "A SLIM GIRL IN WHITE AT THE FAR END OF THE LARGE ROOM" . . . . . . 44 THE FINISHING TOUCHES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 200 "HE GATHERED HER IN HIS ARMS" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 278 "THE ACTRESS PAUSED TO STARE AT LADY KITTY" . . . . . . . . . . . . 438 "SHE THOUGHT OF CLIFFE STANDING BESIDE THE DOOR OF THE GREAT HALL" . 474 "HE DREW SOME CHAIRS TOGETHER BEFORE THE FIRE" . . . . . . . . . . . 556
"Just oblige me and touch With your scourge that minx Chloe, but don't hurt her much."
The Marriage of William Ashe
"He ought to be here," said Lady Tranmore, as she turned away from the window.
Mary Lyster laid down her work. It was a fine piece of church embroidery, which, seeing that it had been designed for her by no less a person than young Mr. Burne Jones himself, made her the envy of her pre-Raphaelite friends.
"Yes, indeed. You made out there was a train about twelve."
"Certainly. They can't have taken more than an hour to speechify after the declaration of the poll. And I know William meant to catch that train if he possibly could."
"And take his seat this evening?"
Lady Tranmore nodded. She moved restlessly about the room, fidgeting with a book here and there, and evidently full of thoughts. Mary Lyster watched her a little longer, then quietly took up her work again. Her air of well-bred sympathy, the measured ease of her movements, contrasted with Lady Tranmore's impatience. Yet in truth she was listening no less sharply than her companion to the sounds in the street outside.
Lady Tranmore made her way to the window, and stood there looking out on the park. It was the week before Easter, and the plane-trees were not yet in leaf. But a few thorns inside the park railings were already lavishly green and there was a glitter of spring flowers beside the park walks, not showing, however, in such glorious abundance as became the fashion a few years later. It was a mild afternoon and the drive was full of carriages. From the bow-window of the old irregular house in which she stood, Lady Tranmore could watch the throng passing and repassing, could see also the traffic in Park Lane on either side. London, from this point of sight, wore a cheerful, friendly air. The dim sunshine, the white-clouded sky, the touches of reviving green and flowers, the soft air blowing in from a farther window which was open, brought with them impressions of spring, of promise, and rebirth, which insensibly affected Lady Tranmore.
"Well, I wonder what William will do, this time, in Parliament!" she said, as she dropped again into her seat by the fire and began to cut the pages of a new book.
"He is sure to do extremely well," said Miss Lyster.
Lady Tranmore shrugged her shoulders. "My dear—do you know that William has been for eight years—since he left Trinity—one of the idlest young men alive?"
"He had one brief!"
"Yes—somewhere in the country, where all the juniors get one in turn," said Lady Tranmore. "That was the year he was so keen and went on circuit, and never missed a sessions. Next year nothing would induce him to stir out of town. What has he done with himself all these eight years? I can't imagine."
"He has grown—uncommonly handsome," said Mary Lyster, with a momentary hesitation as she threaded her needle afresh.
"I never remember him anything else," said Lady Tranmore. "All the artists who came here and to Narroways wanted to paint him. I used to think it would make him a spoiled little ape. But nothing spoiled him."
Miss Lyster smiled. "You know, Cousin Elizabeth—and you may as well confess it at once!—that you think him the ablest, handsomest, and charmingest of men!"
"Of course I do," said Lady Tranmore, calmly. "I am certain, moreover—now—that he will be Prime Minister. And as for idleness, that, of course, is only a facon de parler. He has worked hard enough at the things which please him."
"There—you see!" said Mary Lyster, laughing.
"Not politics, anyway," said the elder lady, reflectively. "He went into the House to please me, because I was a fool and wanted to see him there. But I must say when his constituents turned him out last year I thought they would have been a mean-spirited set if they hadn't. They knew very well he'd never done a stroke for them. Attendances—divisions—perfectly scandalous!"
"Well, here he is, in triumphantly for somewhere else—with all sorts of delightful prospects!"
Lady Tranmore sighed. Her white fingers paused in their task.
"That, of course, is because—now—he's a personage. Everything'll be made easy for him now. My dear Mary, they talk of England's being a democracy!"
The speaker raised her handsome shoulders; then, as though to shake off thoughts of loss and grief which had suddenly assailed her, she abruptly changed the subject.
"Well—work or no work—the first thing we've got to do is to marry him."
She looked up sharply. But not the smallest tremor could she detect in Mary Lyster's gently moving hand. There was, however, no reply to her remark.
"Don't you agree, Polly?" said Lady Tranmore, smiling.
Her smile—which still gave great beauty to her face—was charming, but a little sly, as she observed her companion.
"Why, of course," said Miss Lyster, inclining her head to one side that she might judge the effect of some green shades she had just put in. "But that surely will be made easy for him, too."
"Well, after all, the girls can't propose! And I never saw him take any interest in a girl yet—outside his own family, of course," added Lady Tranmore, hastily.
"No—he does certainly devote himself to the married women," replied Miss Lyster, in the half-absent tone of one more truly interested in her embroidery than in the conversation.
"He would sooner have an hour with Madame d'Estrees than a week with the prettiest miss in London. That's quite true, but I vow it's the girls' own fault! They should stand on their dignity—snub the creatures more! In my young days—"
"Ah, there wasn't a glut of us then," said Mary, calmly. "Listen!"—she held up her hand.
"Yes," said Lady Tranmore, springing up. "There he is."
She stood waiting. The door flew open, and in came a tall young man.
"William, how late you are!" said Lady Tranmore, as she flew into his arms.
"Well, mother, are you pleased?"
Her son held her at arm's-length, smiling kindly upon her.
"Of course I am," said Lady Tranmore. "And you—are you horribly tired?"
"Not a bit. Ah, Mary!—how do you do?"
Miss Lyster had risen, and the cousins shook hands.
"But I don't deny it's very jolly to come back—out of all that beastly scrimmage," said the new member, as he threw himself into an arm-chair by the fire with his hands behind his head, while Lady Tranmore prepared him a cup of tea.
"I expect you've enjoyed it," said Miss Lyster, also moving towards the fire.
"Well, when you're in it there's a certain excitement in wondering how you're going to come out of it! But one might say that, of course, of the infernal regions."
"Not quite," said Mary Lyster, smiling demurely.
"Polly! you are a Tory. Everybody else's hell has moved—but yours! Thank you, mother," as Lady Tranmore gave him tea. Then, stretching out his great frame in lazy satisfaction, he turned his brown eyes from one lady to the other. "I say, mother, I haven't seen anything as good-looking as you—or Polly there, if she'll forgive me—for weeks."
"Hold your tongue, goose," said his mother, as she replenished the teapot. "What—there were no pretty girls—not one?"
"Well, they didn't come my way," said William, contentedly munching at bread-and-butter. "I have gone through all the usual humbug—and perjured my soul in all the usual ways—without any consolation worth speaking of."
"Don't talk nonsense, sir," said Lady Tranmore. "You know you like speaking—and you like compliments—and you've had plenty of both."
"You didn't read me, mother!"
"Didn't I?" she said, smiling. He groaned, and took another piece of tea-cake.
"My own family at least, don't you think, might omit that?"
"H'm, sir—So you didn't believe a word of your own speeches?" said Lady Tranmore, as she stood behind him and smoothed his hair back from his forehead.
"Well, who does?" He looked up gayly and kissed the tips of her fingers.
"And it's in that spirit you're going back into the House?" Mary Lyster threw him the question—with a slight pinching of the lips—as she resumed her work.
"Spirit? What do you mean, Polly? One plays the game, of course—and it has its moments—its hot corners, so to speak—or I suppose no one would play it!"
"And the goal?" She lifted a gently disapproving face, in a movement which showed anew the large comeliness of head and neck.
"Why—to keep the other fellows out, of course!" He lifted an arm and drew his mother down to sit on the edge of his chair.
"William, you're not to talk like that," said Lady Tranmore, decidedly, laying her cheek, however, against His hand the while. "It was all very well when you were quite a free-lance—but now—Oh! never mind Mary—she's discreet—and she knows all about it."
"What—that they're thinking of giving me Hickson's place? Parham has just written to me—I found the letter down-stairs—to ask me to go and see him."
"Oh! it's come?" said Lady Tranmore, with a start of pleasure. Lord Parham was the Prime Minister. "Now don't be a humbug, William, and pretend you're not pleased. But you'll have to work, mind!" She held up an admonishing finger. "You'll have to answer letters, mind!—you'll have to keep appointments, mind!"
"Shall I?... Ah!—Hudson—"
He turned. The butler was in the room.
"His lordship, my lady, would like to see Mr. William before dinner if he could make it convenient."
"Certainly, Hudson, certainly," said the young man. "Tell his lordship I'll be with him in ten minutes."
Then, as the butler departed—"How's father, mother?"
"Oh! much as usual," said Lady Tranmore, sadly.
He laid his arm boyishly round her waist, and looked up at her, his handsome face all affection and life. Mary Lyster, observing them, thought them a remarkable pair—he in the very prime and heyday of brilliant youth, she so beautiful still, in spite of the filling-out of middle life—which, indeed, was at the moment somewhat toned and disguised by the deep mourning, the sweeping crape and dull silk in which she was dressed.
"I'm all right, dear," she said, quietly, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Now, go on with your tea. Mary—feed him! I'll go and talk to father till you come."
She disappeared, and William Ashe approached his cousin.
"She is better?" he said, with an anxiety that became him.
"Oh yes! Your election has been everything to her—and your letters. You know how she adores you, William."
Ashe drew a long breath.
"Yes—isn't it bad luck?"
"For her, I mean. Because, you know—I can't live up to it. I know it's her doing—bless her!—that old Parham's going to give me this thing. And it's a perfect scandal!"
"What nonsense, William!"
"It is!" he maintained, springing up and standing before her, with his hands in his pockets. "They're going to offer me the Under-Secretaryship for Foreign Affairs, and I shall take it, I suppose, and be thankful. And do you know"—he dropped out the words with emphasis—"that I don't know a word of German—and I can't talk to a Frenchman for half an hour without disgracing myself. There—that's how we're governed!"
He stood staring at her with his bright large eyes—amused, yet strangely detached—as though he had very little to do with what he was talking about.
Mary Lyster met his look in some bewilderment, conscious all the time that his neighborhood was very agreeable and stirring.
"But every one says—you speak so well on foreign subjects."
"Well, any fool can get up a Blue Book. Only—luckily for me—all the fools don't. That's how I've scored sometimes. Oh! I don't deny that—I've scored!" He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets, his whole tall frame vibrant, as it seemed to her, with will and good-humor.
"And you'll score again," she said, smiling. "You've got a wonderful opportunity, William. That's what the Bishop says."
"Much obliged to him!"
Ashe looked down upon her rather oddly.
"He told me he had never believed you were such an idler as other people thought you—that he felt sure you had great endowments, and that you would use them for the good of your country, and"—she hesitated slightly—"of the Church. I wish you'd talk to him sometimes, William. He sees so clearly."
"Oh! does he?" said Ashe.
Mary had dropped her work, and her face—a little too broad, with features a trifle too strongly marked—was raised towards him. Its pale color had passed into a slight blush. But the more strenuous expression had somehow not added to her charm, and her voice had taken a slightly nasal tone.
Through the mind of William Ashe, as he stood looking down upon her, passed a multitude of flying impressions. He knew perfectly well that Mary Lyster was one of the maidens whom it would be possible for him to marry. His mother had never pressed her upon him, but she would certainly acquiesce. It would have been mere mock modesty on his part not to guess that Mary would probably not refuse him. And she was handsome, well provided, well connected—oppressively so, indeed; a man might quail a little before her relations. Moreover, she and he had always been good friends, even when as a boy he could not refrain from teasing her for a slow-coach. During his electoral weeks in the country the thought of "Polly" had often stolen kindly upon his rare moments of peace. He must marry, of course. There was no particular excitement or romance about it. Now that his elder brother was dead and he had become the heir, it simply had to be done. And Polly was very nice—quite sweet-tempered and intelligent. She looked well, moved well, would fill the position admirably.
Then, suddenly, as these half-thoughts rushed through his brain, a breath of something cold and distracting—a wind from the land of ennui—seemed to blow upon them and scatter them. Was it the mention of the Bishop—tiresome, pompous fellow—or her slightly pedantic tone—or the infinitesimal hint of "management" that her speech implied? Who knows? But in that moment perhaps the scales of life inclined.
"Much obliged to the Bishop," he repeated, walking up and down. "I am afraid, however, I don't take things as seriously as he does. Oh, I hope I shall behave decently—but, good Lord, what a comedy it is! You know the sort of articles"—he turned towards her—"our papers will be writing to-morrow on my appointment. They'll make me out no end of a fine fellow—you'll see! And, of course, the real truth is, as you and I know perfectly well, that if it hadn't been for poor Freddy's death—and mother—and her dinners—and the chaps who come here—I might have whistled for anything of the sort. And then I go down to Ledmenham and stand as a Liberal, and get all the pious Radicals to work for me! It's a humbugging world—isn't it?"
He returned to the fireplace, and stood looking down upon her—grinning.
Mary had resumed her embroidery. She, too, was dimly conscious of something disappointing.
"Of course, if you choose to take it like that, you can," she said, rather tartly. "Of course, everything can be made ridiculous."
"Well, that's a blessing, anyway!" said Ashe, with his merry laugh. "But look here, Mary, tell me about yourself. What have you been doing?—dancing—riding, eh?"
He threw himself down beside her, and began an elder-brotherly cross-examination, which lasted till Lady Tranmore returned and begged him to go at once to his father.
When he returned to the drawing-room, Ashe found his mother alone. It was growing dark, and she was sitting idle, her hands in her lap, waiting for him.
"I must be off, dear," he said to her. "You won't come down and see me take my seat?"
She shook her head.
"I think not. What did you think of your father?"
"I don't see much change," he said, hesitating.
"No, he's much the same."
"And you?" He slid down on the sofa beside her and threw his arm round her. "Have you been fretting?"
Lady Tranmore made no reply. She was a self-contained woman, not readily moved to tears. But he felt her hand tremble as he pressed it.
"I sha'n't fret now"—she said after a moment—"now that you've come back."
Ashe's face took a very soft and tender expression.
"Mother, you know—you think a great deal too much of me—you're too ambitious for me."
She gave a sound between a laugh and a sob, and, raising her hands, she smoothed back his curly hair and held his face between them.
"When do you see Lord Parham?" she asked.
"Eight o'clock—in his room at the House. I'll send you up a note."
"You'll be home early?"
"No—don't wait for me."
She dropped her hands, after giving him a kiss on the cheek.
"I know where you're going! It's Madame d'Estrees' evening."
"Well—you don't object?"
"Object?" She shrugged her shoulders. "So long as it amuses you—You won't find one woman there to-night."
"Last time there were two," he said, smiling, as he rose from the sofa.
"I know—Lady Quantock—and Mrs. Mallory. Now they've deserted her, I hear. What fresh gossip has turned up I don't know. Of course," she sighed, "I've been out of the world. But I believe there have been developments."
"Well, I don't know anything about it—and I don't think I want to know. She's very agreeable, and one meets everybody there."
"Everybody. Ungallant creature!" she said, giving a little pull to his collar, the set of which did not please her.
"Sorry! Mother!"—his laughing eyes pursued her—"Do you want to marry me off directly?—I know you do!"
"I want nothing but what you yourself should want. Of course, you must marry."
"The young women don't care twopence about me!"
"William!—be a bear if you like, but not an idiot!"
"Perfectly true," he declared; "not the dazzlers and the high-fliers, anyway—the only ones it would be an excitement to carry off."
"You know very well," she said, slowly, "that now you might marry anybody."
He threw his head back rather haughtily.
"Oh! I wasn't thinking about money, and that kind of thing. Well, give me time, mother—don't hurry me! And now I'd better stop talking nonsense, change my clothes, and be off. Good-bye, dear—you shall hear when the job's perpetrated!"
"William, really!—don't say these things—at least to anybody but me. You understand very well"—she drew herself up rather finely—"that if I hadn't known, in spite of your apparent idleness, you would do any work they set you to do, to your own credit and the country's, I'd never have lifted a finger for you!"
William Ashe laughed out.
"Oh! intriguing mother!" he said, stooping again to kiss her. "So you admit you did it?"
He went off gayly, and she heard him flying up-stairs three steps at a time, as though he were still an untamed Eton boy, and there were no three weeks' hard political fighting behind him, and no interview which might decide his life before him.
He entered his own sitting-room on the second floor, shut the door behind him, and glanced round him with delight. It was a large room looking on a side street, and obliquely to the park. Its walls were covered with books—books which almost at first sight betrayed to the accustomed eye that they were the familiar companions of a student. Almost every volume had long paper slips inside it, and when opened would have been found to contain notes and underlinings in a somewhat reckless and destructive abundance. A large table, also loaded untidily with books and papers, stood in the centre of the room; many of them were note-books, stored with evidences of the most laborious and patient work; a Cambridge text lay beside them face downward, as he had left it on departure. His mother's housekeeper, who had been one of his best friends from babyhood, was the only person allowed to dust his room—but on the strict condition that she replaced everything as she found it.
He took up the volume, and plunged a moment headlong into the Greek chorus that met his eye. "Jolly!" he said, putting it down with a sigh of regret. "These beastly politics!"
And he went muttering to his dressing-room, summoning his valet almost with ill-temper. Yet half his library was the library of a politician, admirably chosen and exhaustively read.
The footman who answered his call understood his moods and served him at a look. Ashe complained hotly of the brushing of his dress-clothes, and worked himself into a fever over the set of his tie. Nevertheless, before he left he had managed to get from the young man the whole story of his engagement to the under-housemaid, giving him thereupon some bits of advice, jocular but trenchant, which James accepted with a readiness quite unlike his normal behavior in the circles of his class.
Ashe took his seat, dined, and saw the Prime Minister. These things took time, and it was not till past eleven that he presented himself in the hall of Madame d'Estrees' house in St. James's Place. Most of her guests were already gathered, but he mounted the stairs together with an old friend and an old acquaintance, Philip Darrell, one of the ablest writers of the moment, and Louis Harman, artist and man of fashion, the friend of duchesses and painter of portraits, a person much in request in many worlds.
"What a cachet they have, these houses!" said Harman, looking round him. "St. James's Place is the top!"
"Where else would you expect to find Madame d'Estrees?" asked Darrell, smiling.
"Yes—what taste she has! However, it was I really who advised her to take the house."
"Naturally," said Darrell.
Harman threw a dubious look at him, then stopped a moment, and with a complacent proprietary air straightened an engraving on the staircase wall.
"I suppose the dear lady has a hundred slaves of the lamp, as usual," said Ashe. "You advise her about her house—somebody else helps her to buy her wine—"
"Not at all, my dear fellow," said Harman, offended—"as if I couldn't do that!"
"Hullo!" said Darrell, as they neared the drawing-room door. "What a crowd there is!"
For as the butler announced them, the din of talk which burst through the door implied indeed a multitude—much at their ease.
They made their way in with difficulty, shaping their course towards that corner in the room where they knew they should find their hostess. Ashe was greeted on all sides with friendly words and congratulations, and a passage was opened for him to the famous "blue sofa" where Madame d'Estrees sat enthroned.
She looked up with animation, broke off her talk with two elderly diplomats who seemed to have taken possession of her, and beckoned Ashe to a seat beside her.
"So you're in? Was it a hard fight?"
"A hard fight? Oh no! One would have had to be a great fool not to get in."
"They say you spoke very well. I suppose you promised them everything they wanted—from the crown downward?"
"Yes—all the usual harmless things," said Ashe.
Madame d'Estrees laughed; then looked at him across the top of her fan.
"Well!—and what else?"
"You can't wait for your newspaper?" he said, smiling, after a moment's pause.
She shrugged her shoulders good-humoredly.
"Oh! I know—of course I know. Is it as good as you expected?"
"As good as—" The young man opened his mouth in wonder. "What right had I to expect anything?"
"How modest! All the same, they want you—and they're very glad to get you. But you can't save them."
"That's not generally expected of Under-Secretaries, is it?"
"A good deal's expected of you. I talked to Lord Parham about you last night."
William Ashe flushed a little.
"Did you? Very kind of you."
"Not at all. I didn't flatter you in the least. Nor did he. But they're going to give you your chance!"
She bent forward and lightly patted the sleeve of his coat with the fingers of a very delicate hand. In this sympathetic aspect, Madame d'Estrees was no doubt exceedingly attractive. There were, of course, many people who were not moved by it; to whom it was the conjuring of an arch pretender. But these were generally of the female sex. Men, at any rate, lent themselves to the illusion. Ashe, certainly, had always done so. And to-night the spell still worked; though as her action drew his particular attention to her face and expression, he was aware of slight changes in her which recalled his mother's words of the afternoon. The eyes were tired; at last he perceived in them some slight signs of years and harass. Up till now her dominating charm had been a kind of timeless softness and sensuousness, which breathed from her whole personality—from her fair skin and hair, her large, smiling eyes. She put, as it were, the question of age aside. It was difficult to think of her as a child; it had been impossible to imagine her as an old woman.
"Well, this is all very surprising," said Ashe, "considering that four months ago I did not matter an old shoe to anybody."
"That was your own fault. You took no trouble. And besides—there was your poor brother in the way."
Ashe's brow contracted.
"No, that he never was," he said, with energy. "Freddy was never in anybody's way—least of all in mine."
"You know what I mean," she said, hastily. "And you know what friends he and I were—poor Freddy! But, after all, the world's the world."
"Yes—we all grow on somebody's grave," said Ashe. Then, just as she became conscious that she had jarred upon him, and must find a new opening, he himself found it. "Tell me!" he said, bending forward with a sudden alertness—"who is that lady?"
He pointed out a little figure in white, sitting in the opening of the second drawing-room; a very young girl apparently, surrounded by a group of men.
"Ah!" said Madame d'Estrees—"I was coming to that—that's my girl Kitty—"
"Lady Kitty!" said Ashe, in amazement. "She's left school? I thought she was quite a little thing."
"She's eighteen. Isn't she a darling? Don't you think her very pretty?"
Ashe looked a moment.
"Extraordinarily bewitching!—unlike other people?" he said, turning to the mother.
Madame d'Estrees raised her eyebrows a little, in apparent amusement.
"I'm not going to describe Kitty. She's indescribable. Besides—you must find her out. Do go and talk to her. She's to be half with me, half with her aunt—Lady Grosville."
Ashe made some polite comment.
"Oh! don't let's be conventional!" said Madame d'Estrees, flirting her fan with a little air of weariness—"It's an odious arrangement. Lady Grosville and I, as you probably know, are not on terms. She says atrocious things of me—and I—" the fair head fell back a little, and the white shoulders rose, with the slightest air of languid disdain—"well, bear me witness that I don't retaliate! It's not worth while. But I know that Grosville House can help Kitty. So!—" Her gesture, half ironical, half resigned, completed the sentence.
"Does Lady Kitty like society?"
"Kitty likes anything that flatters or excites her."
"Then of course she likes society. Anybody as pretty as that—"
"Ah! how sweet of you!" said Madame d'Estrees, softly—"how sweet of you! I like you to think her pretty. I like you to say so."
Ashe felt and looked a trifle disconcerted, but his companion bent forward and added—"I don't know whether I want you to flirt with her! You must take care. Kitty's the most fantastic creature. Oh! my life now'll be very different. I find she takes all my thoughts and most of my time!"
There was something extravagant in the sweetness of the smile which emphasized the speech, and altogether, Madame d'Estrees, in this new maternal aspect, was not as agreeable as usual. Part of her charm perhaps had always lain in the fact that she had no domestic topics of her own, and so was endlessly ready for those of other people. Those, indeed, who came often to her house were accustomed to speak warmly of her "unselfishness"—by which they meant the easy patience with which she could listen, smile, and flatter.
Perhaps Ashe made this tacit demand upon her, no less than other people. At any rate, as she talked cooingly on about her daughter, he would have found her tiresome for once but for some arresting quality in that small, distant figure. As it was, he followed what she said with attention, and as soon as she had been recaptured by the impatient Italian Ambassador, he moved off, intending slowly to make his way to Lady Kitty. But he was caught in many congratulations by the road, and presently he saw that his friend Darrell was being introduced to her by the old habitue of the house, Colonel Warington, who generally divided with the hostess the "lead" of these social evenings.
Lady Kitty nodded carelessly to Mr. Darrell, and he sat down beside her.
"That's a cool hand for a girl of eighteen!" thought Ashe. "She has the airs of a princess—except for the chatter."
Chatter indeed! Wherever he moved, the sound of the light hurrying voice made itself persistently heard through the hum of male conversation.
Yet once, Ashe, looking round to see if Darrell could be dislodged, caught the chatterer silent, and found himself all at once invaded by a slight thrill, or shock.
What did the girl's expression mean?—what was she thinking of? She was looking intently at the crowded room, and it seemed to Ashe that Darrell's talk, though his lips moved quickly, was not reaching her at all. The dark brows were drawn together, and beneath them the eyes looked sorely out. The delicate lips were slightly, piteously open, and the whole girlish form in its young beauty appeared, as he watched, to shrink together. Suddenly the girl's look, so wide and searching, caught that of Ashe; and he moved impulsively forward.
"Present me, please, to Lady Kitty," he said, catching Warington's arm.
"Poor child!" said a low voice in his ear.
Ashe turned and saw Louis Harman. The tone, however—allusive, intimate, patronizing—in which Harman had spoken, annoyed him, and he passed on without taking any notice.
"Lady Kitty," said Warington, "Mr. Ashe wishes to be presented to you. He is an old friend of your mother's. Congratulate him—he has just got into Parliament."
Lady Kitty drew herself up, and all trace of the look which Ashe had observed disappeared. She bowed, not carelessly as she had bowed to Darrell, but with a kind of exaggerated stateliness, not less girlish.
"I never congratulate anybody," she said, shaking her head, "till I know them."
Ashe opened his eyes a little.
"How long must I wait?" he said, smiling, as he drew a chair beside her.
"That depends. Are you difficult to know?" She looked up at him audaciously, and he on his side could not take his eyes from her, so singular was the small, sparkling face. The hair and skin were very fair, like her mother's, the eyes dark and full of fire, the neck most daintily white and slender, the figure undeveloped, the feet and hands extremely small. But what arrested him was, so to speak, the embodied contradiction of the personality—as between the wild intelligence of the eyes and the extreme youth, almost childishness, of the rest.
He asked her if she had ever known any one confess to being easy, to know.
"Well, I'm easy to know," she said, carelessly, leaning back; "but, then, I'm not worth knowing."
"Is one allowed to find out?"
"Oh yes—of course! Do you know—when you were over there, I willed that you should come and talk to me, and you came. Only," she sat up with animation, and began to tick off her sentences on her fingers—"Don't ask me how long I've been in town. Don't ask where I was in Paris. Don't inquire whether I like balls! You see, I warn you at once"—she looked up frankly—"that we mayn't lose time."
"Well, then, I don't see how I'm ever to find out," said Ashe, stoutly.
"Whether I'm worth knowing?" She considered, then bent forward eagerly. "Look here! I'll just tell you everything in a lump, and then that'll do—won't it? Listen. I'm just eighteen. I was sent to the Soeurs Blanches when I was thirteen—the year papa died. I didn't like papa—I'm very sorry, but I didn't! However, that's by-the-way. In all those years I have only seen maman once—she doesn't like children. But my aunt Grosville has some French relations—very, very 'comme il faut,' you understand—and I used to go and stay with them for the holidays. Tell me!—did you ever hunt in France?"
"Never," said Ashe, startled and amused by the sudden glance of enthusiasm that lit up the face and expressed itself in the clasped hands.
"Oh! it's such heaven," she said, lifting her shoulders with an extravagant gesture—"such heaven! First there are the old dresses—the men look such darlings!—and then the horns, and the old ways they have—si noble!—si distingue!—not like your stupid English hunting. And then the dogs! Ah! the dogs"—the shoulders went higher still; "do you know my cousin Henri actually gave me a puppy of the great breed—the breed, you know—the Dogs of St. Hubert. Or at least he would if maman would have let me bring it over. And she wouldn't! Just think of that! When there are thousands of people in France who'd give the eyes out of their head for one. I cried all one night—Allons!—faut pas y penser!"—she shook back the hair from her eyes with an impatient gesture. "My cousins have got a chateau, you know, in the Seine-et-Oise. They've promised to ask me next year—when the Grand-Duke Paul comes—if I'll promise to behave. You see, I'm not a bit like French girls—I had so many affairs!"
Her eyes flashed with laughter.
Ashe laughed too.
"Are you going to tell me about them also?"
She drew herself up.
"No! I play fair, always—ask anybody! Oh, I do want to go back to France so badly!" Once more she was all appeal and childishness. "Anyway, I won't stay in England! I have made up my mind to that!"
"How long has it taken?"
"A fortnight," she said, slowly—"just a fortnight."
"That hardly seems time enough—does it?" said Ashe. "Give us a little longer."
"No—I—I hate you!" said Lady Kitty, with a strange drop in her voice. Her little fingers began to drum on the table near her, and to Ashe's intense astonishment he saw her eyes fill with tears.
Suddenly a movement towards the other room set in around them. Madame d'Estrees could be heard giving directions. A space was made in the large drawing-room—a little table appeared in it, and a footman placed thereon a glass of water.
Lady Kitty looked up.
"Oh, that detestable man!" she said, drawing back. "No—I can't, I can't bear it. Come with me!" and beckoning to Ashe she fled with precipitation into the farther part of the inner drawing-room, out of her mother's sight. Ashe followed her, and she dropped panting and elate into a chair.
Meanwhile the outer room gathered to hear the recitation of some vers de societe, fondly believed by their author to be of a very pretty and Praedian make. They certainly amused the company, who laughed and clapped as each neat personality emerged. Lady Kitty passed the time either in a running commentary on the reciter, which occasionally convulsed her companion, or else in holding her small hands over her ears.
When it was over, she drew a long breath.
"How maman can! Oh! how bete you English are to applaud such a man! You have only one poet, haven't you—one living poet? Ah! I shouldn't have laughed if it had been he!"
"I suppose you mean Geoffrey Cliffe?" said Ashe, amused. "Nobody abroad seems ever to have heard of any one else."
"Well, of course, I just long to know him! Every one says he is so dangerous!—he makes all the women fall in love with him. That's delicious! He shouldn't make me! Do you know him?"
"I knew him at Eton. We were 'swished' together," said Ashe.
She inquired what the phrase might mean, and when informed, flushed hotly, denouncing the English school system as quite unfit for gentlemen and men of honor. Her French cousins would sooner die than suffer such a thing. Then in the midst of her tirade she suddenly paused, and fixing Ashe with her brilliant eyes, she asked him a surprising question, in a changed and steady voice:
"Is Lady Tranmore not well?"
Ashe was fairly startled.
"Thank you, I left her quite well. Have you—"
"Did maman ask her to come to-night?"
It was Ashe's turn to redden.
"I don't know. But—we are in mourning, you see, for my brother."
Her face changed and softened instantly.
"Are you? I'm so sorry. I—I always say something stupid. Then—Lady Tranmore used to come to maman's parties—before—"
She had grown quite pale; it seemed to him that her hand shook. Ashe felt an extraordinary pang of pity and concern.
"It's I, you see, to whom your mother has been kind," he said, gently. "We're an independent family; we each make our own friends."
"No—" she said, drawing a deep breath. "No, it's not that. Look at that room."
Following her slight gesture, Ashe looked. It was an old, low-ceiled room, panelled in white and gold, showing here and there an Italian picture—saint, or holy family, agreeable school-work—from which might be inferred the tastes if not the expertise of Madame d'Estrees' first husband, Lord Blackwater. The floor was held by a plentiful collection of seats, neither too easy nor too stiff; arranged by one who understood to perfection the physical conditions at least which should surround the "great art" of conversation. At this moment every seat was full. A sea of black coats overflowed on the farther side, into the staircase landing, where through the open door several standing groups could be seen; and in the inner room, where they sat, there was but little space between its margin and themselves. It was a remarkable sight; and in his past visits to the house Ashe had often said to himself that the elements of which it was made up were still more remarkable. Ministers and Opposition; ambassadors, travellers, journalists; the men of fashion and the men of reform; here a French republican official, and beyond him, perhaps, a man whose ancestors were already of the most ancient noblesse in Saint-Simon's day; artists, great and small, men of letters good and indifferent; all these had been among the guests of Madame d'Estrees, brought to the house, each of them, for some quality's sake, some power of keeping up the social game.
But now, as he looked at the room, not to please himself but to obey Lady Kitty, Ashe became aware of a new impression. The crowd was no less, numerically, than he had seen it in the early winter; but it seemed to him less distinguished, made up of coarser and commoner items. He caught the face of a shady financier long since banished from Lady Tranmore's parties; beyond him a red-faced colonel, conspicuous alike for doubtful money-matters and matrimonial trouble; and in a farther corner the sallow profile of a writer whose books were apt to rouse even the man of the world to a healthy and contemptuous disgust. Surely these persons had never been there of old; he could not remember one of them.
He looked again, more closely. Was it fancy, or was the gathering itself aware of the change which had passed over it? As a whole, it was certainly noisier than of old; the shouting and laughter were incessant. But within the general uproar certain groups had separated from other groups, and were talking with a studied quiet. Most of the habitue's were still there; but they held themselves apart from their neighbors. Were the old intimacy and solidarity beginning to break up?—and with them the peculiar charm of these "evenings," a charm which had so far defied a social boycott that had been active from the first?
He glanced back uncertainly at Lady Kitty, and she looked at him.
"Why are there no ladies?" she said, abruptly.
He collected his thoughts.
"It—it has always been a men's gathering. Perhaps for some men here—I'm sorry there are such barbarians, Lady Kitty!—that makes the charm of it. Look at that old fellow there! He is a most famous old boy. Everybody invites him—but he never stirs out of his den but to come here. My mother can't get him—though she has tried often."
And he pointed to a dishevelled, gray-haired gentleman, short in stature, round in figure, something, in short, like an animated egg, who was addressing a group not far off.
Lady Kitty's face showed a variety of expressions.
"Are there many parties like this in London? Are the ladies asked, and don't come? I—I don't—understand!"
Ashe looked at her kindly.
"There is no other hostess in London as clever as your mother," he declared, and then tried to change the subject; but she paid no heed.
"The other day, at Aunt Grosville's," she said, slowly, "I asked if my two cousins might come to-night, and they looked at me as though I were mad! Oh, do talk to me!" She came impulsively nearer, and Ashe noticed that Darrell, standing against the doorway of communication, looked round at them in amusement. "I liked your face—the very first moment when I saw you across the room. Do you know—you're—you're very handsome!" She drew back, her eyes fixed gravely, intently upon him.
For the first time Ashe was conscious of annoyance.
"I hope you won't mind my saying so"—his tone was a little short—"but in this country we don't say those things. They're not—quite polite."
"Aren't they?" Her eyebrows arched themselves and her lips fell in penitence. "I always called my French cousin, Henri la Fresnay, beau! I am sure he liked it!" The accent was almost plaintive.
Ashe's natural impulse was to say that if so the French cousin must be an ass. But all in a moment he found himself seized with a desire to take her little hands in his own and press them—she looked such a child, so exquisite, and so forlorn. And he did in fact bend forward confidentially, forgetting Darrell.
"I want you to come and see my mother?" he said, smiling at her. "Ask Lady Grosville to bring you."
"May I? But—" She searched his face, eager still to pour out the impulsive, uncontrolled confidences that were in her mind. But his expression stopped her, and she gave a little, resentful sigh.
"Yes—I'll come. We—you and I—are a little bit cousins too—aren't we? We talked about you at the Grosvilles."
"Was our 'great-great' the same person?" he said, laughing. "Hope it was a decent 'great-great.' Some of mine aren't much to boast of. Well, at any rate, let's be cousins—whether we are or no, shall we?"
She assented, her whole face lighting up.
"And we're going to meet—the week after next!" she said, triumphantly, "in the country."
"Are we?—at Grosville Park. That's delightful."
"And then I'll ask your advice—I'll make you tell me—a hundred things! That's a bargain—mind!"
"Kitty! Come and help me with tea—there's a darling!"
Lady Kitty turned. A path had opened through the crowd, and Madame d'Estrees, much escorted, a vision of diamonds and pale-pink satin, appeared, leading the way to the supper-room, and the light "refection," accompanied by much champagne, which always closed these evenings.
The girl rose, as did her companion also. Madame d'Estrees threw a quick, half-satirical glance at Ashe, but he had eyes only for Lady Kitty, and her transformation at the touch of her mother's voice. She followed Madame d'Estrees with a singular and conscious dignity, her white skirts sweeping, her delicately fine head thrown back on her thin neck and shoulders. The black crowd closed about her; and Ashe's eyes pursued the slender figure till it disappeared.
Extreme youth—innocence—protest—pain—was it with these touching and pleading impressions, after all, that his first talk with Kitty Bristol had left him? Yet what a little etourdie! How lacking in the reserves, the natural instincts and shrinkings of the well-bred English girl!
* * * * *
Darrell and Ashe walked home together, through a windy night which was bringing out April scents even from the London grass and lilac-bushes.
"Well," said Darrell, as they stepped into the Green Park, "so you're safely in. Congratulate you, old fellow. Anything else?"
"Yes. They've offered me Hickson's place. More fools they, don't you think?"
"Good! Upon my word, Bill, you've got your foot in the stirrup now! Hope you'll continue to be civil to poor devils like me."
The speaker looked up smiling, but neither the tone nor the smile was really cordial. Ashe felt the embarrassment that he had once or twice felt before in telling Darrell news of good fortune. There seemed to be something in Darrell that resented it—under an outer show of felicitation.
However, they went on talking of the political moment and its prospects, and of Ashe's personal affairs. As to the last, Darrell questioned, and Ashe somewhat reluctantly replied. It appeared that his allowance was to be largely raised, that his paralyzed father, in fact, was anxious to put him in possession of a substantial share in the income of the estates, that one of the country-houses was to be made over to him, and so on.
"Which means, of course, that they want you to marry," said Darrell. "Well, you've only to throw the handkerchief."
They were passing a lamp as he spoke, and the light shone on his long, pale face—a face of discontent—with its large sunken eyes and hollow cheeks.
Ashe treated the remark as "rot," and endeavored to get away from his own affairs by discussing the party they had just left.
"How does she get all those people together? It's astonishing!"
"Well, I always liked Madame d'Estrees well enough," said Darrell, "but, upon my word, she has done a beastly mean thing in bringing that girl over."
"You mean?"—Ashe hesitated—"that her own position is too doubtful?"
"Doubtful, my dear fellow!" Darrell laughed unpleasantly. "I never really understood what it all meant till the other night when old Lady Grosville took and told me—more at any rate than I knew before. The Grosvilles are on the war-path, and they regard the coming of this poor child as the last straw."
"Why?" said Ashe.
Darrell gave a shrug. "Well, you know the story of Madame d'Estrees' step-daughter—old Blackwater's daughter?"
"Ah! by his first marriage? I knew it was something about the step-daughter," said Ashe, vaguely.
Darrell began to repeat his conversation with Lady Grosville. The tale threatened presently to become a black one indeed; and at last Ashe stood still in the broad walk crossing the Green Park.
"Look here," he said, resolutely, "don't tell me any more. I don't want to hear any more."
"Why?" asked Darrell, in amazement.
"Because"—Ashe hesitated a moment. "Well, I don't want it to be made impossible for me to go to Madame d'Estrees' again. Besides, we've just eaten her salt."
"You're a good friend!" said Darrell, not without something of a sneer.
Ashe was ruffled by the tone, but tried not to show it. He merely insisted that he knew Lady Grosville to be a bit of an old cat; that of course there was something up; but it seemed a shame for those at least who accepted Madame d'Estrees' hospitality to believe the worst. There was a curious mixture of carelessness and delicacy in his remarks, very characteristic of the man. It appeared as though he was at once too indolent to go into the matter, and too chivalrous to talk about it.
Darrell presently maintained a rather angry silence. No man likes to be checked in his story, especially when the check implies something like a snub from his best friend. Suddenly, memory brought before him the little picture of Ashe and Lady Kitty together—he bending over her, in his large, handsome geniality, and she looking up. Darrell felt a twinge of jealousy—then disgust. Really, men like Ashe had the world too easily their own way. That they should pose, besides, was too much.
Rather more than a fortnight after the evening at Madame d'Estrees', William Ashe found himself in a Midland train on his way to the Cambridgeshire house of Lady Grosville. While the April country slipped past him—like some blanched face to which life and color are returning—Ashe divided his time between an idle skimming of the Saturday papers and a no less idle dreaming of Kitty Bristol. He had seen her two or three times since his first introduction to her—once at a ball to which Lady Grosville had taken her, and once on the terrace of the House of Commons, where he had strolled up and down with her for a most amusing and stimulating hour, while her mother entertained a group of elderly politicians. And the following day she had come alone—her own choice—to take tea with Lady Tranmore, on that lady's invitation, as prompted by her son. Ashe himself had arrived towards the end of the visit, and had found a Lady Kitty in the height of the fashion, stiff mannered, and flushed to a deep red by her own consciousness that she could not possibly be making a good impression. At sight of him she relaxed, and talked a great deal, but not wisely; and when she was gone, Ashe could get very little opinion of any kind from his mother, who had, however, expressed a wish that she should come and visit them in the country.
Since then he frankly confessed to himself that in the intervals of his new official and administrative work he had been a good deal haunted by memories of this strange child, her eyes, her grace—even in her fits of proud shyness—and the way in which, as he had put her into her cab after the visit to Lady Tranmore, her tiny hand had lingered in his, a mute, astonishing appeal. Haunted, too, by what he heard of her fortunes and surroundings. What was the real truth of Madame d'Estrees' situation? During the preceding weeks some ugly rumors had reached Ashe of financial embarrassment in that quarter, of debts risen to mountainous height, of crisis and possible disappearance. Then these rumors were met by others, to the effect that Colonel Warington, the old friend and support of the d'Estrees' household, had come to the rescue, that the crisis had been averted, and that the three weekly evenings, so well known and so well attended, would go on; and with this phase of the story there mingled, as Ashe was well aware, not the slightest breath of scandal, in a case where, so to speak, all was scandal.
And meanwhile what new and dolorous truths had Lady Kitty been learning as to her mother's history and her mother's position? By Jove! it was hard upon the girl. Darrell was right. Why not leave her to her French friends and relations?—or relinquish her to Lady Grosville? Madame d'Estrees had seen little or nothing of her for years. She could not, therefore, be necessary to her mother's happiness, and there was a real cruelty in thus claiming her, at the very moment of her entrance into society, where Madame d'Estrees could only stand in her way. For although many a man whom the girl might profitably marry was to be found among the mother's guests, the influences of Madame d'Estrees' "evenings" were certainly not matrimonial. Still the unforeseen was surely the probable in Lady Kitty's case. What sort of man ought she to marry—what sort of man could safely take the risks of marrying her—with that mother in the background?
He descended at the way-side station prescribed to him, and looked round him for fellow-guests—much as the card-player examines his hand. Mary Lyster, a cabinet minister—filling an ornamental office and handed on from ministry to ministry as a kind of necessary appendage, the public never knew why—the minister's second wife, an attache from the Austrian embassy, two members of Parliament, and a well-known journalist—Ashe said to himself flippantly that so far the trumps were not many. But he was always reasonably glad to see Mary, and he went up to her, cared for her bag, and made her put on her cloak, with cousinly civility. In the omnibus on the way to the house he and Mary gossiped in a corner, while the cabinet minister and the editor went to sleep, and the two members of Parliament practised some courageous French on the Austrian attache.
"Is it to be a large party?" he asked of his companion.
"Oh! they always fill the house. A good many came down yesterday."
"Well, I'm not curious," said Ashe, "except as to one person."
"Lady Kitty Bristol."
Mary Lyster smiled.
"Yes, poor child, I heard from the Grosville girls that she was to be here."
"Why 'poor child'?"
"I don't know. Quite the wrong expression, I admit. It should be 'poor hostess.'"
"Oh!—the Grosvilles complain?"
"No. They're only on tenter-hooks. They never know what she will do next."
"How good for the Grosvilles!"
"You think society is the better for shocks?"
"Lady Grosville can do with them, anyway. What a masterful woman! But I'll back Lady Kitty."
"I haven't seen her yet," said Mary. "I hear she is a very odd-looking little thing."
"Extremely pretty," said Ashe.
"Really?" Mary lifted incredulous eyebrows. "Well, now I shall know what you admire."
"Oh, my tastes are horribly catholic—I admire so many people," said Ashe, with a glance at the well-dressed elegance beside him. Mary colored a little, unseen; and the rattle of the carriage as it entered the covered porch of Grosville Park cut short their conversation.
* * * * *
"Well, I'm glad you got in," said Lady Grosville, in her full, loud voice, "because we are connections. But of course I regard the loss of a seat to our side just now as a great disaster."
"Very grasping, on your part!" said Ashe. "You've had it all your own way lately. Think of Portsmouth!"
Lady Grosville, however, as she met his bantering look, did not find herself at all inclined to think of Portsmouth. She was much more inclined to think of William Ashe. What a good-looking fellow he had grown! She heaved an inward sigh, of mingled envy and appreciation, directed towards Lady Tranmore.
Poor Susan indeed had suffered terribly in the death of her eldest son. But the handsomer and abler of the two brothers still remained to her—and the estate was safe. Lady Grosville thought of her own three daughters, plain and almost dowerless; and of that conceited young man, the heir, whom she could hardly persuade her husband to invite, once a year, for appearance sake.
"Why are we so early?" said Ashe, looking at his watch. "I thought I should be disgracefully late."
For he and Lady Grosville had the library to themselves. It was a fine, book-walled room, with giallo antico columns and Adam decoration; and in its richly colored lamp-lit space, the seated figure—stiffly erect—of Lady Grosville, her profile, said by some to be like a horse and by others to resemble Savonarola, the cap of old Venice point that crowned her grizzled hair, her black velvet dress, and the long-fingered, ugly, yet distinguished hands which lay upon her lap, told significantly; especially when contrasted with the negligent ease and fresh-colored youth of her companion.
Grosville Park was rich in second-rate antiques; and there was a Greco-Roman head above the bookcase with which Ashe had been often compared. As he stood now leaning against the fireplace, the close-piled curls, and eyes—somewhat "a fleur de tete"—of the bust were undoubtedly repeated with some closeness in the living man. Those whom he had offended by some social carelessness or other said of him when they wished to run him down, that he was "floridly" handsome; and there was some truth in it.
"Didn't you get the message about dinner?" said Lady Grosville. Then, as he shook his head: "Very remiss of Parkin. I always tell him he loses his head directly the party goes into double figures. We had to put off dinner a quarter of an hour because of Kitty Bristol, who missed her train at St. Pancras, and only arrived half an hour ago. By-the-way, I suppose you have already seen her—at that woman's?"
"I met her a week or two ago, at Madame d'Estrees'," said Ashe, apparently preoccupied with something wrong in the set of his white waistcoat.
"What did you think of her?"
"A charming young lady," said Ashe, smiling. "What else should I think?"
"A lamb thrown to the wolves," said Lady Grosville, grimly. "How that woman could do such a thing!"
"I saw nothing lamblike about Lady Kitty," said Ashe. "And do you include me among the wolves?"
Lady Grosville hesitated a moment, then stuck to her colors.
"You shouldn't go to such a house," she said, boldly—"I suppose I may say that without offence, William, as I've known you from a boy."
"Say anything you like, my dear Lady Grosville! So you—believe evil things—of Madame d'Estrees?"
His tone was light, but his eyes sought the distant door, as though invoking some fellow-guest to appear and protect him.
Lady Grosville did not answer. Ashe's look returned to her, and he was startled by the expression of her face. He had always known and unwillingly admired her for a fine Old Testament Christian, one from whom the language of the imprecatory Psalms with regard to her enemies, personal and political, might have flowed more naturally than from any other person he knew, of the same class and breeding. But this loathing—this passion of contempt—this heat of memory!—these were new indeed, and the fire of them transfigured the old, gray face.
"I have known a fair number of bad people," said Lady Grosville, in a low voice—"and a good many wicked women. But for meanness and vileness combined, the things I know of the woman who was Blackwater's wife have no equal in my experience!"
There was a moment's pause. Then Ashe said, in a voice as serious as her own:
"I am sorry to hear you say that, partly because I like Madame d'Estrees, and partly—because—I was particularly attracted by Lady Kitty."
Lady Grosville looked up sharply. "Don't marry her, William!—don't marry her! She comes of a bad stock."
Ashe recovered his gayety.
"She is your own niece. Mightn't a man dare—on that guarantee?"
"Not at all," said Lady Grosville, unappeased. "I was a hop out of kin. Besides—a Methodist governess saved me; she converted me, at eighteen, and I owe her everything. But my brothers—and all the rest of us!" She threw up her eyes and hands. "What's the good of being mealy mouthed about it? All the world knows it. A good many of us were mad—and I sometimes think I see more than eccentricity in Kitty."
"Who was Madame d'Estrees?" said Ashe. Why should he wince so at the girl's name?—in that hard mouth?
Lady Grosville smiled.
"Well, I can tell you a good deal about that," she said. "Ah!—another time!"
For the door opened, and in came a group of guests, with a gush of talk and a rustling of silks and satins.
* * * * *
Everybody was gathered; dinner had been announced; and the white-haired and gouty Lord Grosville was in a state of seething impatience that not even the mild-voiced Dean of the neighboring cathedral, engaged in complimenting him on his speech at the Diocesan Conference, could restrain.
"Adelina, need we wait any longer?" said the master of the house, turning an angry eye upon his wife.
"Certainly not—she has had ample time," said Lady Grosville, and rang the bell beside her.
Suddenly there was a whirlwind of noise in the hall, the angry barking of a small dog, the sound of a girl's voice laughing and scolding, the swish of silk skirts. A scandalized butler, obeying Lady Grosville's summons, threw the door open, and in burst Lady Kitty.
"Oh! I'm so sorry," said the new-comer, in a tone of despair. "But I couldn't leave him up-stairs, Aunt Lina! He'd eaten one of my shoes, and begun upon the other. And Julie's afraid of him. He bit her last week. May he sit on my knee? I know I can keep him quiet!"
Every conversation in the library stopped. Twenty amazed persons turned to look. They beheld a slim girl in white at the far end of the large room struggling with a gray terrier puppy which she held under her left arm, and turning appealing eyes towards Lady Grosville. The dog, half frightened, half fierce, was barking furiously. Lady Kitty's voice could hardly be heard through the din, and she was crimson with the effort to control her charge. Her lips laughed; her eyes implored. And to add to the effect of the apparition, a marked strangeness of dress was at once perceived by all the English eyes turned upon her. Lady Kitty was robed in the extreme of French fashion, which at that moment was a fashion of flounces; she was much decolletee; and her fair, abundant hair, carried to a great height, and arranged with a certain calculated wildness around her small face, was surmounted by a large scarlet butterfly which shone defiantly against the dark background of books.
"Kitty!" said Lady Grosville, advancing indignantly, "what a dreadful noise! Pray give the dog to Parkin at once."
Lady Kitty only held the struggling animal tighter.
"Please, Aunt Lina!—I'm afraid he'll bite! But he'll be quite good with me."
"Why did you bring him, Kitty? We can't have such a creature at dinner!" said Lady Grosville, angrily.
Lord Grosville advanced behind his wife.
"How do you do, Kitty? Hadn't you better put down the dog and come and be introduced to Mr. Rankine, who is to take you in to dinner?"
Lady Kitty shook her fair head, but advanced, still clinging to the dog, gave a smile and a nod to Ashe, and a bow to the young Tory member presented to her.
"You don't mind him?" she said, a flash of laughter in her dark eyes. "We'll manage him between us, won't we?"
The young man, dazzled by her prettiness and her strangeness, murmured a hopeful assent. Lord Grosville, with the air of a man determined on dinner though the skies fall, offered his arm to Lady Edith Manley, the wife of the cabinet minister, and made for the dining-room. The stream of guests followed; when suddenly the puppy, perceiving on the floor a ball of wool which had rolled out of Lady Grosville's work-table, escaped in an ecstasy of mischief from his mistress's arm and flew upon the ball. Kitty rushed after him; the wool first unrolled, then caught; the table overturned and all its contents were flung pell-mell in the path of Lady Grosville, who, on the arm of the amused and astonished minister, was waiting in restrained fury till her guests should pass.
* * * * *
"I shall never get over this," said Lady Kitty, as she leaned back in her chair, still panting, and quite incapable of eating any of the foods that were being offered to her in quick succession.
"I don't know that you deserve to," said Ashe, turning a face upon her which was as grave as he could make it. The attention of every one else round the room was also in truth occupied with his companion. There was, indeed, a general buzz of conversation and a general pretence that Lady Kitty's proceedings might now be ignored. But in reality every guest, male or female, kept a stealthy watch on the red butterfly and the sparkling face beneath it; and Ashe was well aware of it.
"I vow it was not my fault," said Kitty, with dignity. "I was not allowed to have the dog I should have had. You'd never have found a dog of St. Hubert condescending to bedroom slippers! But as I had to have a dog—and Colonel Warington gave me this one three days ago—and he has already ruined half maman's things, and no one could manage him but me, I just had to bring him, and trust to Providence."
"I have been here a good many times," said Ashe, "and I never yet saw a dog in the sanctuary. Do you know that Pitt once wrote a speech in the library?"
"Did he? I'm sure it never made such a stir as Ponto did." Kitty's face suddenly broke into laughter, and she hid it a moment in her hands.
"You brazen it out," said Ashe; "but how are you going to appease Lady Grosville?"
Kitty ceased to laugh. She drew herself up, and looked seriously, observantly at her aunt.
"I don't know. But I must do it somehow. I don't want any more worries."
So changed were her tone and aspect that Ashe turned a friendly examining look upon her.
"Have you been worried?" he said, in a lower voice.
She shrugged her shoulders and made no reply. But presently she impatiently reclaimed his attention, snatching him from the lady he had taken in to dinner, with no scruple at all.
"Will you come a walk with me to-morrow morning?"
"Proud," said Ashe. "What time?"
"As soon as we can get rid of these people," she said, her eye running round the table. Then as it paused and lingered on the face of Mary Lyster opposite, she abruptly asked him who that lady might be.
Ashe informed her.
"Your cousin?" she said, looking at him with a slight frown. "Your cousin? I don't—well, I don't think I shall like her."
"That's a great pity," said Ashe.
"For me?" she said, distrustfully.
"For both, of course! My mother's very fond of Miss Lyster. She's often with us."
"Oh!" said Kitty, and looked again at the face opposite. Then he heard her say behind her fan, half to herself and half to him:
"She does not interest me in the least! She has no ideas! I'm sure she has no ideas. Has she?"
She turned abruptly to Ashe.
"Every one calls her very clever."
Kitty looked contempt.
"That's nothing to do with it. It's not the clever people who have ideas."
Ashe bantered her a little on the meaning of her words, till he presently found that she was too young and unpractised to be able to take his thrusts and return them, with equanimity. She could make a daring sally or reply; but it was still the raw material of conversation; it wanted ease and polish. And she was evidently conscious of it herself, for presently her cheek flushed and her manner wavered.
"I suppose you—everybody—thinks her very agreeable?" she said, sharply, her eyes returning to Miss Lyster.
"She is a most excellent gossip," said Ashe. "I always go to her for the news."
Kitty glanced again.
"I can see that already she detests me."
"In half an hour?"
The girl nodded.
"She has looked at me twice—about. But she has made up her mind—and she never changes." Then with an abrupt alteration of note she looked round the room. "I suppose your English dining-rooms are all like this? One might be sitting in a hearse. And the pictures—no! Quelles horreurs!"
She raised her shoulders again impetuously, frowning at a huge full-length opposite of Lord Grosville as M.F.H., a masterpiece indeed of early Victorian vulgarity.
Then suddenly, hastily, with that flashing softness which so often transformed her expression, she turned towards him, trying to make amends.
"But the library—that was bien—ah! tr-res, tr-res bien!"
Her r's rolled a little as she spoke, with a charming effect, and she looked at him radiantly, as though to strike and to make amends were equally her prerogative, and she asked no man's leave.
"You've not yet seen what there is to see here," said Ashe, smiling. "Look behind you."
The girl turned her slim neck and exclaimed. For behind Ashe's chair was the treasure of the house. It was a "Dance of Children," by one of the most famous of the eighteenth-century masters. From the dark wall it shone out with a flower-like brilliance, a vision of color and of grace. The children danced through a golden air, their bodies swaying to one of those "unheard melodies" of art, sweeter than all mortal tunes; their delicate faces alive with joy. The sky and grass and trees seemed to caress them; a soft sunlight clothed them; and flowers brushed their feet.
Kitty turned back again and was silent. Was it Ashe's fancy, or had she grown pale?
"Did you like it?" he asked her. She turned to him, and for the second time in their acquaintance he saw her eyes floating in tears.
"It is too beautiful!" she said, with an effort—almost an angry effort. "I don't want to see it again."
"I thought it would give you pleasure," said Ashe, gently, suddenly conscious of a hope that she was not aware of the slight look of amusement with which Mary Lyster was contemplating them both.
"So it did," said Kitty, furtively applying her lace handkerchief to her tears; "but"—her voice dropped—"when one's unhappy—very unhappy—things like that—things like Heaven—hurt! Oh, what a fool I am!" And she sat straightly up, looking round her.
There was a pause; then Ashe said, in another voice:
"Look here, you know this won't do. I thought we were to be cousins."
"Well?" said Kitty, indifferently, not looking at him.
"And I understood that I was to be taken into respectable cousinly counsel?"
"Well?" said Kitty again, crumbling her bread. "I can't do it here, can I?"
"Well, anyhow, we're going to sample the garden to-morrow morning, aren't we?"
"I suppose so," said Kitty. Then, after a moment, she looked at her right-hand neighbor, the young politician to whom as yet she had scarcely vouchsafed a word.
"What's his name?" she asked, under her breath. Ashe repeated it.
"Perhaps I ought to talk to him?"
"Of course you ought," said Ashe, with smiling decision, and turning to the lady whom he had brought in he left her free.
* * * * *
When the ladies rose, Lady Grosville led the way to the large drawing-room, a room which, like the library, had some character, and a thin elegance of style, not, however, warmed and harmonized by the delightful presence of books. The walls, blue and white in color, were panelled in stucco relief. A few family portraits, stiff handlings of stiff people, were placed each in the exact centre of its respective panel. There were a few cases of china and a few polished tables. A crimson Brussels carpet, chosen by Lady Grosville for its "cheerfulness," covered the floor, and there was a large white sheepskin rug before the fireplace. A few hyacinths in pots, and the bright fire supplied the only gay and living notes—before the ladies arrived.
Still, for an English eye, the room had a certain cold charm, was moreover full of history. It hardly deserved at any rate the shiver with which Kitty Bristol looked round it.
But she had little time to dwell upon the room and its meanings, for Lady Grosville approached her with a manner which still showed signs of the catastrophe before dinner.
"Kitty, I think you don't know Miss Lyster yet—Mary Lyster—she wants to be introduced to you."
Mary advanced smiling; Kitty held out a limp hand, and they exchanged a few words standing in the centre of the floor, while the other guests found seats.
"What a charming contrast!" said Lady Edith Manley in Lady Grosville's ear. She nodded smiling towards the standing pair—struck by the fine straight lines of Mary's satin dress, the roundness of her fine figure, the oval of her head and face, and then by the little, vibrating, tempestuous creature beside her, so distinguished, in spite of the billowing flounces and ribbons, so direct and significant, amid all the elaboration.
"Kitty is ridiculously overdressed," said Lady Grosville. "I hope we shall soon change that. My girls are going to take her to their woman."
Lady Edith put up her eye-glass slowly and looked at the two Grosville girls; then back at Kitty.
Meanwhile a few perfunctory questions and answers were passing between Miss Lyster and her companion. Mary's aspect as she talked was extremely amiable; one might have called it indulgent, perhaps even by an adjective that implied a yet further shade of delicate superiority. Kitty met it by the same "grand manner" that Ashe had several times observed in her, a manner caught perhaps from some French model, and caricatured in the taking. Her eyes meanwhile took note of Mary's face and dress, and while she listened her small teeth tormented her under-lip, as though she restrained impatience. All at once in the midst of some information that Miss Lyster was lucidly giving, Kitty made an impetuous turn. She had caught some words on the farther side of the room; and she looked hard, eagerly, at the speaker.
"Who is that?" she inquired.
Mary Lyster, with a sharp sense of interruption, replied that she believed the lady in question was the Grosville's French governess. But in the very midst of her sentence Kitty deserted her, left her standing in the centre of the drawing-room, while the deserter fled across it, and sinking down beside the astonished mademoiselle took the Frenchwoman's hand by assault and held it in both her own.
"Vous parlez Francais?—vous etes Francaise? Ah! ca me fait tant de bien! Voyons! voyons!—causons un peu!"
And bending forward, she broke into a cataract of French, all the elements of her strange, small beauty rushing, as it were, into flame and movement at the swift sound and cadence of the words, like a dancer kindled by music. The occasion was of the slightest; the Frenchwoman might well show a natural bewilderment. But into the slight occasion the girl threw an animation, a passion, that glorified it. It was like the leap of a wild rain-stream on the mountains, that pours into the first channel which presents itself.
"What beautiful French!" said Lady Edith, softly, to Mary Lyster, who had found a seat beside her.
Mary Lyster smiled.
"She has been at school, of course, in a French convent." Somehow the tone implied that the explanation disposed of all merit in the performance.
"I am afraid these French convent schools are not at all what they should be," said Lady Grosville.
And rising to a pyramidal height, her ample moire dress swelling behind her, her gray head magnificently crowned by its lace cap and black velvet bandeau, she swept across the room to where the Dean's wife, Mrs. Winston, sat in fascinated silence observing Lady Kitty. The silence and the attention annoyed her hostess. The first thing to be done with girls of this type, it seemed to Lady Grosville, was to prove to them that they would not be allowed to monopolize society.
* * * * *
There are natural monopolies, however, and they are not easy to deal with.
As soon as the gentlemen returned, Mr. Rankine, whom she had treated so badly at dinner, the young agent of the estate, the clergyman of the parish, the Austrian attache, the cabinet minister, and the Dean, all showed a strong inclination to that side of the room which seemed to be held in force by Lady Kitty. The Dean especially was not to be gainsaid. He placed himself in the seat shyly vacated by the French governess, and crossed his thin, stockinged legs with the air of one who means to take his ease. There was even a certain curious resemblance between him and Kitty, as was noticed from a distance by Ashe. The Dean, who was very much a man of the world, and came of an historic family, was, in his masculine degree, planned on the same miniature scale and with the same fine finish as the girl of eighteen. And he carried his knee-breeches, his apron, and his exquisite white head with a natural charm and energy akin to hers—mellowed though it were by time, and dignified by office. He began eagerly to talk to her of Paris. His father had been ambassador for a time under Louis Philippe, and he had boyish memories of the great house in the Faubourg St. Honore, and of the Orleanist ministers and men of letters. And lo! Kitty met him at once, in a glow and sparkle that enchanted the old man. Moreover, it appeared that this much-beflounced young lady could talk; that she had heard of the famous names and the great affairs to which the Dean made allusion; that she possessed indeed a native and surprising interest in matter of the sort; and a manner, above all, with the old, alternately soft and daring, calculated, as Lady Grosville would no doubt have put it, merely to make fools of them.
In her cousins' house, it seemed, she had talked with old people, survivors of the Orleanist and Bourbon regimes—even of the Empire; had sat at their feet, a small, excited hero-worshipper; and had then rushed blindly into the memoirs and books that concerned them. So, in this French world the child had found time for other things than hunting, and the flattery of her cousin Henri? Ashe was supposed to be devoting himself to the Dean's wife; but both he and she listened most of the time to the sallies and the laughter of the circle where Kitty presided.
"My dear young lady," cried the delighted Dean, "I never find anybody who can talk of these things—it is really astonishing. Ah, now, we English know nothing of France—nor they of us. Why, I was a mere school-boy then, and I had a passion for their society, and their books—for their plays—dare I confess it?"—he lowered his voice and glanced at his hostess—"their plays, above all!"
Kitty clapped her hands. The Dean looked at her, and ran on:
"My mother shared it. When I came over for my Eton holidays, she and I lived at the Theatre-Francais. Ah, those were days! I remember Mademoiselle Mars in 'Hernani.'"
Kitty bounded in her seat. Whereupon it appeared that just before she left Paris she had been taken by a friend to see the reigning idol of the Comedie-Francaise, the young and astonishing actress, Sarah Bernhardt, as Dona Sol. And there began straightway an excited duet between her and the Dean; a comparison of old and new, a rivalry of heroines, a hot and critical debate that presently silenced all other conversation in the room, and brought Lord Grosville to stand gaping and astounded behind the Dean, reflecting no doubt that this was not precisely the Dean of the Diocesan Conference.
The old man indeed forgot his age, the girl her youth; they met as equals, on poetic ground, till suddenly Kitty, springing up, and to prove her point, began an imitation of Sarah in the great love-scene of the last act, before arresting fate, in the person of Don Ruy, breaks in upon the rapture of the lovers. She absolutely forgot the Grosville drawing-room, the staring Grosville girls, the other faces, astonished or severe, neutral or friendly. Out rolled the tide of tragic verse, fine poetry, and high passion; and though it be not very much to say, it must at least be said that never had such recitation, in such French, been heard before within the walls of Grosville Park. Nor had the lips of any English girl ever dealt there with a poetic diction so unchastened and unashamed. Lady Grosville might well feel as though the solid frame of things were melting and cracking round her.
Kitty ceased. She fell back upon her chair, smitten with a sudden perception.
"You made me!" she said, reproachfully, to the Dean.
The Dean said another "Brava!" and gave another clap. Then, becoming aware of Lord Grosville's open mouth and eye, he sat up, caught his wife's expression, and came back to prose and the present.
"My dear young lady," he began, "you have the most extraordinary talent—" when Lady Grosville advanced upon him. Standing before him, she majestically signalled to her husband across his small person.
"William, kindly order Mrs. Wilson's carriage."
Lord Grosville awoke from his stupor with a jerk, and did as he was told. Mrs. Wilson, the agent's timid wife, who was not at all aware that she had asked for her carriage, rose obediently. Then the mistress of the house turned to Lady Kitty.
"You recite very well, Kitty," she said, with cold and stately emphasis, "but another time I will ask you to confine yourself to Racine and Corneille. In England we have to be very careful about French writers. There are, however, if I remember right, some fine passages in 'Athalie.'"
Kitty said nothing. The Austrian attache who had been following the little incident with the liveliest interest, retired to a close inspection of the china. But the Dean, whose temper was of the quick and chivalrous kind, was roused.
"She recites wonderfully! And Victor Hugo is a classic, please, my lady—just as much as the rest of them. Ah, well, no doubt, no doubt, there might be things more suitable." And the old man came wavering down to earth, as the enthusiasm which Kitty had breathed into him escaped, like the gas from a balloon. "But, do you know, Lady Kitty "—he struck into a new subject with eagerness, partly to cover the girl, partly to silence Lady Grosville—"you reminded me all the time so remarkably—in your voice—certain inflections—of your sister—your step-sister, isn't it?—Lady Alice? You know, of course, she is close to you to-day—just the other side the park—with the Sowerbys?"
The Dean's wife sprang to her feet in despair. In general it was to her a matter for fond complacency that her husband had no memory for gossip, and was in such matters as innocent and as dangerous as a child. But this was too much. At the same moment Ashe came quickly forward.
"My sister?" said Kitty. "My sister?"
She spoke low and uncertainly, her eyes fixed upon the Dean.
He looked at her with a sudden odd sense of something unusual, then went on, still floundering:
"We met her at St. Pancras on our way down. If I had only known we were to have had the pleasure of meeting you—Do you know, I think she is looking decidedly better?"
His kindly expression as he rose expected a word of sisterly assent. Meanwhile even Lady Grosville was paralyzed, and the words with which she had meant to interpose failed on her lips.
Kitty, too, rose, looking round for something, which she seemed to find in the face of William Ashe, for her eyes clung there.
"My sister," she repeated, in the same low, strained voice. "My sister Alice? I—I don't know. I have never seen her."
* * * * *
Ashe could not remember afterwards precisely how the incident closed. There was a bustle of departing guests, and from the midst of it Lady Kitty slipped away. But as he came down-stairs in smoking trim, ten minutes later, he overheard the injured Dean wrestling with his wife, as she lit a candle for him on the landing.
"My dear, what did you look at me like that for? What did the child mean? And what on earth is the matter?"
After the ladies had gone to bed, on the night of Lady Kitty's recitation, William Ashe stayed up till past midnight talking with old Lord Grosville. When relieved of the presence of his women-kind, who were apt either to oppress him, in the person of his wife, or to puzzle him, in the persons of his daughters, Lord Grosville was not by any means without value as a talker. He possessed that narrow but still most serviceable fund of human experience which the English land-owner, while our English tradition subsists, can hardly escape, if he will. As guardsman, volunteer, magistrate, lord-lieutenant, member—for the sake of his name and his acres—of various important commissions, as military attache even, for a short space, to an important embassy, he had acquired, by mere living, that for which his intellectual betters had often envied him—a certain shrewdness, a certain instinct, as to both men and affairs, which were often of more service to him than finer brains to other persons. But, like most accomplishments, these also brought their own conceit with them. Lord Grosville having, in his own opinion, done extremely well without much book education himself, had but little appreciation for it in others.
Nevertheless he rarely missed a chance of conversation with William Ashe, not because the younger man, in spite of his past indolence, was generally held to be both able and accomplished, but because the elder found in him an invincible taste for men and women, their fortunes, oddities, catastrophes—especially the latter—similar to his own.
Like Mary Lyster, both were good gossips; but of a much more disinterested type than she. Women indeed as gossips are too apt to pursue either the damnation of some one else or the apotheosis of themselves. But here the stupider no less than the abler man showed a certain broad detachment not very common in women—amused by the human comedy itself, making no profit out of it, either for themselves or morals, but asking only that the play should go on.
The incident, or rather the heroine of the evening, had given Lord Grosville a topic which in the case of William Ashe he saw no reason for avoiding; and in the peace of the smoking-room, when he was no longer either hungry for his dinner or worried by his responsibilities as host, he fell upon his wife's family, and, as though he had been the manager of a puppet-show, unpacked the whole box of them for Ashe's entertainment.
Figure after figure emerged, one more besmirched than another, till finally the most beflecked of all was shaken out and displayed—Lady Grosville's brother and Kitty's father, the late Lord Blackwater. And on this occasion Ashe did not try to escape the story which was thus a second time brought across him. Lord Grosville, if he pleased, had a right to tell it, and there was now a curious feeling in Ashe's mind which had been entirely absent before, that he had, in some sort, a right to hear it.
Briefly, the outlines of it fell into something like this shape: Henry, fifth Earl of Blackwater, had begun life as an Irish peer, with more money than the majority of his class; an initial advantage soon undone by an insane and unscrupulous extravagance. He was, however, a fine, handsome, voracious gentleman, born to prey upon his kind, and when he looked for an heiress he was not long in finding her. His first wife, a very rich woman, bore him one daughter. Before the daughter was three years old, Lord Blackwater had developed a sturdy hatred of the mother, chiefly because she failed to present him with a son; and he could not even appease himself by the free spending of her money, which, so far as the capital was concerned, was sharply looked after by a pair of trustees, Belfast manufacturers and Presbyterians, to whom the Blackwater type was not at all congenial.
These restrictions presently wore out Lord Blackwater's patience. He left his wife, with a small allowance, to bring up her daughter in one of his Irish houses, while he generously spent the rest of her large income, and his own, and a great deal besides, in London and on the Continent.
Lady Blackwater, however, was not long before she obliged him by dying. Her girl, then twelve years old, lived for a time with one of her mother's trustees. But when she had reached the age of seventeen her father suddenly commanded her presence in Paris, that she might make acquaintance with his second wife.
The new Lady Blackwater was an extremely beautiful woman, Irish, as the first had been, but like her in no other respect. Margaret Fitzgerald was the daughter of a cosmopolitan pair, who after many shifts for a living, had settled in Paris, where the father acted as correspondent for various English papers. Her beauty, her caprices, and her "affairs" were all well known in Paris. As to what the relations between her and Lord Blackwater might have been before the death of the wife, Lord Grosville took a frankly uncharitable view. But when that event occurred, Blackwater was beginning to get old, and Miss Fitzgerald had become necessary to him. She pressed all her advantages, and it ended in his marrying her. The new Lady Blackwater presented him with one child, a daughter; and about two years after its birth he sent for his elder daughter, Lady Alice, to join them in the sumptuous apartment in the Place Vendome which he had furnished for his new wife, in defiance both of his English and Irish creditors.
Lady Alice arrived—a fair slip of a girl, possessed, it was plain to see, by a nervous terror both of her father and step-mother. But Lady Blackwater received her with effusion, caressed her in public, dressed her to perfection, and made all possible use of the girl's presence in the house for the advancement of her own social position. Within a year the Belfast trustees, watching uneasily from a distance, received a letter from Lord Blackwater, announcing Lady Alice's runaway marriage with a certain Colonel Wensleydale, formerly of the Grenadier Guards. Lord Blackwater professed himself vastly annoyed and displeased. The young people, furiously in love, had managed the affair, however, with a skill that baffled all vigilance. Married they were, and without any settlements, Colonel Wensleydale having nothing to settle, and Lady Alice, like a little fool, being only anxious to pour all that she possessed into the lap of her beloved. The father threw himself on the mercy of the trustees, reminding them that in little more than three years Lady Alice would become unfettered mistress of her own fortune, and begging them meanwhile to make proper provision for the rash but happy pair. Harry Wensleydale, after all, was a rattling good fellow, with whom all the young women were in love. The thing, though naughty, was natural; and the colonel would make an excellent husband.
One Presbyterian trustee left his business in Belfast and ventured himself among the abominations of Paris. He was much befooled and befeasted. He found a shy young wife tremulously in love; a handsome husband; an amiable step-mother. He knew no one in Paris who could enlighten him, and was not clever enough to invent means of getting information for himself. He was induced to promise a sufficient income for the moment on behalf of himself and his co-trustee; and for the rest was obliged to be content with vague assurances from Colonel Wensleydale that as soon as his wife came into her property fitting settlements should be made.
Four years passed by. The young people lived with the Blackwaters, and their income kept the establishment going. Lady Alice had a child, and was at first not altogether unhappy. She was little more than a timid child herself; and no doubt, to begin with, she was in love. Then came her majority. In defiance of all her trustees, she gave her whole fortune to her husband, and no power could prevent her from so doing.
The Blackwater menage blazed up into a sudden splendor. Lady Blackwater's carriage and Lady Blackwater's jewels had never been finer; and amid the crowds who frequented the house, the slight figure, the sallow face, and absent eyes of her step-daughter attracted little remark. Lady Alice Wensleydale was said to be delicate and reserved; she made no friends, explained herself to no one; and it was supposed that she occupied herself with her little boy.
Then one December she disappeared from the apartment in the Place Vendome. It was said that she and the boy found the climate of Paris too cold in winter, and had gone for a time to Italy. Colonel Wensleydale continued to live with the Blackwaters, and their apartment was no less sumptuous, their dinners no less talked of, their extravagance no less noisy than before. But Lady Alice did not come back with the spring; and some ugly rumors began to creep about. They were checked, however, by the death of Lord Blackwater, which occurred within a year of his daughter's departure; by the monstrous debts he left behind him; and by the sale of the contents of the famous apartment, matters, all of them, sufficiently ugly or scandalous in themselves to keep the tongues of fame busy. Lady Blackwater left Paris, and when she reappeared, it was in Rome as the Comtesse d'Estrees, the wife of yet another old man, whose health obliged them to winter in the south and to spend the summer in yachting. Her salon in Rome under Pio Nono became a great rendezvous for English and Americans, attracted by the historic names and titles that M. d'Estrees' connections among the Black nobility, his wealth, and his interest in several of the Catholic banking-houses of Rome and Naples enabled his wife to command.
Colonel Wensleydale did not appear. Madame d'Estrees let it be understood that her step-daughter was of a difficult temper, and now spent most of her time in Ireland. Her own daughter, her "darling Kitty," was being educated in Paris by the Soeurs Blanches, and she pined for the day when the "little sweet" should join her, ready to spread her wings in the great world. But mothers must not be impatient, Kitty must have all the advantages that befitted her rank; and to what better hands could the most anxious mother intrust her than to those charming, aristocratic, accomplished nuns of the Soeurs Blanches?
Then one January day M. d'Estrees drove out to San Paolo fuori le Mura, and caught a blast from the snowy Sabines coming back. In three days he was dead, and his well-provided widow had snatched the bulk of his fortune from the hands of his needy and embittered kindred.
Within six months of his death she had bought a house in St. James's Place, and her London career had begun.
* * * * *
"It is here that we come in," said Lord Grosville, when, with more digressions and more plainness of speech with regard to his quondam sister-in-law than can be here reproduced, he had brought his story to this point. "Blackwater—the old ruffian—when he was dying had a moment of remorse. He wrote to my wife and asked her to look after his girls, 'For God's sake, Lina, see if you can help Alice—Wensleydale's a perfect brute.' That was the first light we had on the situation, for Adelina had long before washed her hands of him; and we knew that she hated us. Well, we tried; of course we tried. But so long as her husband lived Alice would have nothing to say to any of us. I suppose she thought that for her boy's sake she'd better keep a bad business to herself as much as possible—"
"Wensleydale—Wensleydale?" said Ashe, who had been smoking hard and silently beside his host. "You mean the man who distinguished himself in the Crimea? He died last year—at Naples, wasn't it?"
Lord Grosville assented.
It appeared that during the last year of his life Lady Alice had nursed her husband faithfully through disease and poverty; for scarcely a vestige of her fortune remained, and an application for money made by Wensleydale to Madame d'Estrees, unknown to his wife, had been peremptorily refused. The colonel died, and within three months of his death Lady Alice had also lost her son and only child, of blood-poisoning developed in Naples, whither he had been summoned from school that his father might see him for the last time.