The Reflections of Ambrosine
A Novel by
In thanking the readers who were kind enough to appreciate my "Visits of Elizabeth," I take this opportunity of saying that I did not write the two other books which appeared anonymously. The titles of those works were so worded that they gave the public the impression that I was their author. I have never written any book but the "Visits of Elizabeth." Everything that I write will be signed with my name,
I have wondered sometimes if there are not perhaps some disadvantages in having really blue blood in one's veins, like grandmamma and me. For instance, if we were ordinary, common people our teeth would chatter naturally with cold when we have to go to bed without fires in our rooms in December; but we pretend we like sleeping in "well-aired rooms"—at least I have to. Grandmamma simply says we are obliged to make these small economies, and to grumble would be to lose a trick to fate.
"Rebel if you can improve matters," she often tells me, "but otherwise accept them with calmness."
We have had to accept a good many things with calmness since papa made that tiresome speculation in South America. Before that we had a nice apartment in Paris and as many fires as we wished. However, in spite of the comfort, grandmamma hated papa's "making" money. It was not the career of a gentleman, she said, and when the smash came and one heard no more of papa, I have an idea she was almost relieved.
We came first over to England, and, after long wanderings backward and forward, took this little furnished place at the corner of Ledstone Park. It is just a cottage—once a keeper's, I believe—and we have only Hephzibah and a wretched servant-girl to wait on us. Hephzibah was my nurse in America before we ever went to Paris, and she is as ugly as a card-board face on Guy Fawkes day, and as good as gold.
Grandmamma has had a worrying life. She was brought up at the court of Charles X.—can one believe it, all those years ago!—her family up to that having lived in Ireland since the great Revolution. Indeed, her mother was Irish, and I think grandmamma still speaks French with an accent. (I hope she will never know I said that.) Her name was Mademoiselle de Calincourt, the daughter of the Marquis de Calincourt, whose family had owned Calincourt since the time of Charlemagne or something before that. So it was annoying for them to have had their heads chopped off and to be obliged to live in Dublin on nothing a year. The grandmother of grandmamma, Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt, after whom I am called, was a famous character. She was so good-looking that Robespierre offered to let her retain her head if she would give him a kiss, but she preferred to drive to the guillotine in the cart with her friends, only she took a rose to keep off the smell of the common people, and, they say, ran up the steps smiling. Grandmamma has her miniature, and it is, she says, exactly like me.
I have heard that grandmamma's marriage with grandpapa—an Englishman—was considered at the time to be a very suitable affair. He had also ancestors since before Edward the Confessor. However, unfortunately, a few years after their marriage (grandmamma was really un peu passee when that took place) grandpapa made a betise—something political or diplomatic, but I have never heard exactly what; anyway, it obliged them to leave hurriedly and go to America. Grandmamma never speaks of her life there or of grandpapa, so I suppose he died, because when I first remember things we were crossing to France in a big ship—just papa, grandmamma, and I. My mother died when I was born. She was an American of one of the first original families in Virginia; that is all I know of her. We have never had a great many friends—even when we lived in Paris—because, you see, as a rule people don't live so long as grandmamma, and the other maids of honor of the court of Charles X. were all buried years ago. Grandmamma was eighty-eight last July! No one would think it to look at her. She is not deaf or blind or any of those annoying things, and she sits bolt-upright in her chair, and her face is not very wrinkled—more like fine, old, white kid. Her hair is arranged with such a chic; it is white, but she always has it a little powdered as well, and she wears such becoming caps, rather like the pictures of Madame du Deffand. They are always of real lace—I know, for I have to mend them. Some of her dresses are a trifle shabby, but they look splendid when she puts them on, and her eyes are the eyes of a hawk, the proudest eyes I have ever seen. Her third and little fingers are bent with rheumatism, but she still polishes her nails and covers the rest of her hands with mittens. You can't exactly love grandmamma, but you feel you respect her dreadfully, and it is a great honor when she is pleased.
I was twelve when we left Paris, and I am nineteen now. We have lived on and off in England ever since, part of the time in London—that was dull! All those streets and faces, and no one to speak to, and the mud and the fogs!
During those years we have only twice had glimpses of papa—the shortest visits, with long talks alone with grandmamma and generally leaving by the early train.
He seems to me to be rather American, papa, and very coarse to be the son of grandmamma; but I must say I have always had a sneaking affection for him. He never takes much notice of me—a pat on the head when I was a child, and since an awkward kiss, as if he was afraid of breaking a bit of china. I feel somehow that he does not share all of grandmamma's views; he seems, in fact, like a person belonging to quite another world than ours. If it was not that he has the same nose and chin as grandmamma, one would say she had bought him somewhere, and that he could not be her own son.
Hephzibah says he is good-natured, so perhaps that is why he made a betise in South America. One ought never to be called good-natured, grandmamma says—as well write one's self down a noodle at once. While we were in Paris we hardly ever saw papa either; he was always out West in America, or at Rio, or other odd places. All we knew of him was, there was plenty of money to grandmamma's account in the bank.
Grandmamma has given me most of my education herself since we came to England, and she has been especially particular about deportment. I have never been allowed to lean back in my chair or loll on a sofa, and she has taught me how to go in and out of a room and how to enter a carriage. We had not a carriage, so we had to arrange with footstools for the steps and a chair on top of a box for the seat. That used to make me laugh!—but I had to do it—into myself. As for walking, I can carry any sized bundle on my head, and grandmamma says she has nothing further to teach me in that respect, and that I have mastered the fact that a gentlewoman should give the impression that the ground is hardly good enough to tread on. She has also made me go through all kinds of exercises to insure suppleness, and to move from the hips. And the day she told me she was pleased I shall never forget.
There are three things, she says, a woman ought to look—straight as a dart, supple as a snake, and proud as a tiger-lily.
Besides deportment I seem to have learned a lot of stuff that I am sure no English girls have to bother about, I probably am unacquainted with half the useful, interesting things they know.
We brought with us a beautifully bound set of French classics, and we read Voltaire one day, and La Bruyere the next, and Pascal, and Fontenelle, and Moliere, and Fenelon, and the sermons of Bossuet, and since I have been seventeen the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld. Grandmamma dislikes Jean Jacques; she says he helped the Revolution, and she is all for the ancien regime. But in all these books she makes me skip what I am sure are the nice parts, and there are whole volumes of Voltaire that I may not even look into. For herself grandmamma has numbers of modern books and papers. She says she must understand the times. Besides all these things I have had English governesses who have done what they could to drum a smattering of everything into my head, but we never were able to afford very good ones after we left Paris.
There is one thing I can do better than the English girls—I am English myself, of course, on account of grandpapa—only I mean the ones who have lived here always—and that is, embroider fine cambric. I do all our underlinen, and it is quite as nice as that in the shops in the Rue de la Paix. Grandmamma says a lady, however poor, should wear fine linen, even if she has only one new dress a year—she calls the stuff worn by people here "sail-cloth"! So I stitch and stitch, summer and winter.
I do wonder and wonder at things sometimes: what it would be like to be rich, for instance, and to have brothers and sisters and friends; and what it would be like to have a lover a l'anglaise. Grandmamma would think that dreadfully improper until after one was married, but I believe it would be rather nice, and perhaps one could marry him, too. However, there is not much chance of my getting one, or a husband either, as I have no dot.
We have an old friend, the Marquis de Rochermont, who pays us periodical visits. I believe long ago he was grandmamma's lover. They have such beautiful manners together, and their conversation is so interesting, one can fancy one's self back in that dainty world of the engravings of Moreau le Jeune and Freudenberg which we have. They are as gay and witty as if they were both young and his feet were not lumpy with gout and her hands crooked with rheumatism. They discuss morals and religion, and, above all, philosophy, and I have learned a great deal by listening. And for morals, it seems one may do what one pleases as long as one behaves like a lady. And for religion, the first thing is to conform to the country one lives in and to conduct one's self with decency. As for Philosophy (I put a great big "P" to that, for it appears to be the chief)—Philosophy seems to settle everything in life, and enables one to take the ups and downs of fate, the good and the bad, with a smiling face. I mean to study it always, but I dare say it will be easier when I am older.
On the days when Monsieur de Rochermont comes grandmamma wears the lavender silk for dinner and the best Alencon cap, and Hephzibah stays so long dressing her that I often have to help the servant to lay the table for dinner. The Marquis never arrives until the afternoon, and leaves within a couple of days. He brings an old valet called Theodore, and they have bandboxes and small valises, and I believe—only I must not say it aloud—that the bandboxes contain his wigs. The one for dinner is curled and scented, and the travelling one is much more ordinary. I am sent to bed early on those evenings.
Each time the Marquis brings a present of game or fine fruit for grandmamma and a box of bonbons for me. I don't like sweets much, but the boxes are charming. These visits happen twice a year, in June and December, wherever we happen to be.
The only young men in this part of the world are the curate and two hobbledehoys, the sons of a person who lives in the place beyond Ledstone, and they are common and uninteresting and parvenu. All these people came to call as soon as we arrived, and parsons and old maids by the dozen, but grandmamma's exquisite politeness upsets them. I suppose they feel that she considers they are not made of the same flesh and blood as she is, so we never get intimate with anybody whatever places we are in.
Hephzibah has a lover. You can get one in that class no matter how ugly you are, it seems, and he is generally years and years younger than you are. Hephzibah's is the man who comes round with the grocer's cart for orders, and he is young enough to be her son. I have seen them talking when I have been getting the irons hot to iron grandmamma's best lace. Hephzibah's face, which is a grayish yellow generally, gets a pale beet-root up to her ears, and she looks so coy. But I dare say it feels lovely to her to stand there at the back door and know some one is interested in what she does and says.
Ledstone Park is owned by some people of the name of Gurrage—does not it sound a fat word! They are a mother and son, but they have been at Bournemouth ever since we came, six months ago. It is a frightful place, and although it is miles in the country it looks like a suburban villa; the outside is all stucco, and nasty, common-looking pots and bad statues ornament the drive. They pulled down the smaller original Jacobean house that was there when they bought the place, we have heard. They are coming home soon, so perhaps we shall see them, but I can't think Gurrage could be the name of really nice people. The parson, of the church came to call at once, but grandmamma nearly made him spoil his hat, he fidgeted with it so, and he hardly dared to ask for more than one subscription—she is so beautifully polite, and she often is laughing in her sleeve. She says so few people can see the comic side of things and that it is a great gift and chases away foolish migraines. I think she has a grand scheme in her head for me, and that is what we are saving up every penny for.
Grandpapa's people lived in the next county to this, in a place called Dane Mount. He was a younger son and in the diplomatic service before he made his betise, but if he was alive now he would be over a hundred years old, so during that time the family has naturally branched off a good deal, and we can't be said to be very nearly related to them. The place was not entailed, and went with the female line into the Thornhirst family, who live there now. They are rather new baronets, created by George II. However, I believe grandmamma's scheme is for us to become acquainted with them, and for me to marry whichever of them is the right age. The present baronet's name is Sir Antony; it is a pretty name, I think. How this is to come about I do not know, and of course I dare not question grandmamma.
How I wish it was summer again! I hate these damp, cold days, and the east winds, and the darkness. I wish I might stay in bed until eleven, as grandmamma does. We have our chocolate at seven, which Hephzibah brings up, and then when I am dressed I practise for an hour; after that there are the finishing touches to be put to our sitting-room, and the best Sevres and the miniatures to be dusted. Grandmamma would not trust any one to do it but me, but by ten I can get out for a walk.
It used to be dreadfully tiresome until we came here, because I was never allowed to go out without Hephzibah, and she was so busy we never got a chance in the morning, but since we came here I have had such a pleasure. A dear, clever collie for a friend—we got him from the lost dogs' home, and no one can know the joy he is to me. Grandmamma considers him a kind of chaperon, and I am allowed to go alone for quite long walks now, and when we are out of sight and no one is looking we run, and it is such fun. Yesterday there was an excitement—the hunt passed! It is the first time I have seen one close. That must be delightful to rush along on horseback! I could feel my heart beating just looking at them, and my dear Roy barked all the time, and if I had not held his collar I am sure he would have joined the other dogs to go and catch the fox. Some of the men in their red coats looked so handsome, and there was one all covered with mud; he must have had a tumble. His stirrup-leather gave way just as he got up to the mound where Roy and I were standing, and he was obliged to get off his horse and settle it. I am sure by his face he was swearing to himself at being delayed. His fall had evidently broken some strap and he was fumbling in his pocket for a knife to mend it.
I always wear a little gold chatelaine that belonged to Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt and is marked with her coronet and initials; it has a tiny knife among the other things hanging from it. The muddy hunter could not find one; he searched in every pocket. At last he turned to me and said: "Do you happen to have a knife by chance?" and then when he saw I was a girl he took off his hat. It was gray with clay, and so was half of his face, it looked so comic I could not help smiling as I caught his one eye; the other was rather swollen. The one that was visible was a grayish-greeny-blue eye with a black edge. I quickly gave him my knife and he laughed as he took it. "Yes, I do look a guy, don't I?" he said, and we both laughed again. Even through the mud one could see he was a gentleman. He fixed his stirrup so quickly and neatly, but it broke the blade of my little gold knife.
He apologized profusely, and said he must have it mended, and where should he send it? but at that moment there was the sound of the hunt coming across a field near again. He had no time for more manners, but jumped on his horse and was off in a few seconds—and alas! my knife went with him! And just as I was turning to go home I picked up the broken blade, which was lying in the road. I hope grandmamma won't notice it and ask about it. As I said before, there are disadvantages in being well born—one cannot tell lies like servants.
The Gurrage family have arrived. We saw carts and a carriage going to meet them at the station. Their liveries are prune and scarlet, and look so inharmonious, and they seem to have crests and coats of arms on every possible thing. Young Mr. Gurrage is our landlord—but I think I said that before.
On Sunday in church the party entered the Ledstone family pew. An oldish woman with a huddled figure—how unlike grandmamma!—looking about the class of a housekeeper; a girl of my age, with red hair and white eye-lashes and a buff hat on; and a young man, dark, thick, common-looking. He seemed kind to his mother, though, and arranged a cushion for her. Their pew is at right angles to the one I sit in, so I have a full view of them all the time. He has box-pleated teeth—which seem quite unnecessary when dentists are so good now. No one would have missed at least four of them if they had been pulled out when he was a boy. His eyes are wishy-washy in spite of being brown, and he looks as if he did not have enough sleep. They were all three self-conscious and conscious of other people. Grandmamma says in a public place, unless the exigencies of politeness require one to come into personal contact with people, one ought never to be aware that there is anything but tables and chairs about. I have not once in my life seen her even glance around, and yet nothing escapes her hawk eye. Coming out they passed me on the path to the church gate, and Mrs. Gurrage stopped, and said:
"Good-mornin', me dear; you must be our new tenant at the cottage."
Her voice is the voice of quite a common person and has the broad accent of some county—I don't know which.
I was so astonished at being called "me dear" by a stranger that for half a second I almost forgot grandmamma's maxim of "let nothing in life put you out of countenance." However, I did manage to say:
"Yes, I am Miss Athelstan."
Then the young man said, "I hope you find everything to your liking there, and that my agent has made things comfortable."
"We are quite pleased with the cottage," I said.
"Well, don't stand on ceremony," the old woman continued. "Come up and see us at The Hall whenever you like, me dear, and I'll be round callin' on your grandma one of these days soon, but don't let that stop her if she likes to look in at me first."
I thought of grandmamma "looking in" on this person, and I could have laughed aloud; however, I managed to say, politely, that my grandmother was an aged lady and somewhat rheumatic, and as we had not a carriage I hoped Mrs. Gurrage would excuse her paying her respects in person.
"Rheumatic, is she? Well, I have the very thing for the j'ints. My still-room maid makes it under my own directions. I'll bring some when I call. Good-day to you, me dear," and they bustled on into the arms of the parson's family and other people who were waiting to give them a gushing welcome at the gate.
Grandmamma laughed so when I told her about them!
Two days afterwards Mrs. Gurrage and Miss Hoad (the red-haired girl is the niece) came to call.
Grandmamma was seated as usual in the old Louis XV. bergere, which is one of our household gods. It does not go with the other furniture in the room, which is a "drawing-room suite" of black and gold, upholstered with magenta, but we have covered that up as well as we can with pieces of old brocade from grandmamma's stored treasures.
After the first greetings were over and Mrs. Gurrage had seated herself in the other arm-chair, her knees pointing north and south, she began about the rheumatism stuff for the "j'ints."
"I can see by yer hands ye're a great sufferer," she said.
"Alas! madam, one of the penalties of old age," grandmamma replied, in her fine, thin voice.
Then Mrs. Gurrage explained just how the mixture was to be rubbed in, and all about it. During this I had been trying to talk to Miss Hoad, but she was so ill at ease and so taken up with looking round the room that we soon lapsed into silence. Presently I heard Mrs. Gurrage say—she also had been busy examining the room:
"Well, you have been good tenants, coverin' up the suite, but you've no call to do it. You wouldn't be likely to soil it much, and I always say when you let a house furnished, you can't expect it to continue without wear and tear; so don't, please, bother to cover it with those old things. Lor' bless me, it takes me back to see it! It was my first suite after I married Mr. Gurrage, and we had a pretty place on Balham Hill. We put it here because Augustus did not want anything the least shabby up at The Hall, and I take it kind of you to have cared for it so."
Grandmamma's face never changed; not the least twinkle came into her eye—she is wonderful. I could hardly keep from gurgling with laughter and was obliged to make quite an irritating rattle with the teaspoons. Grandmamma frowned at that.
By the end of the visit we had been invited to view all the glories of The Hall. (The place is called Ledstone Park; The Hall, apparently, is Mrs. Gurrage's pet name for the house itself.) We would not find anything old or shabby there, she assured us.
When they had gone grandmamma said to me, in a voice that always causes my knees to shake, "Why did you not make a reverence to Mrs. Gurrage, may I ask?"
"Oh, grandmamma," I said, "courtesy to that person! She would not have understood in the least, and would only have thought it was the village 'bob' to a superior."
"My child,"—grandmamma's voice can be terrible in its fine distinctness—"my teaching has been of little avail if you have not understood the point, that one has not good manners for the effect they produce—but for what is due to one's self. This person—who, I admit, should have entered by the back door and stayed in the kitchen with Hephzibah—happened to be our guest and is a woman of years—and yet, because she displeased your senses you failed to remember that you yourself are a gentlewoman. What she thought or thinks is of not the smallest importance in the world, but let me ask you in future to remember, at least, that you are my granddaughter."
A big lump came in my throat.
I hate the Gurrages!
The next day one of the old maids—a Miss Burton—arrived just as we were having tea. She was full of excitement at the return of the owners of Ledstone, and gave us a quantity of information about them in spite of grandmamma's aloofness from all gossip. It appears, even in the country in England, Mrs. Gurrage is considered quite an oddity, but every one knows and accepts her, because she is so charitable and gives hundreds to any scheme the great ladies start.
She was the daughter of a small publican in one of the southern counties, Miss Burton said, and married Mr. Gurrage, then a commercial traveller in carpets. (How does one travel in carpets?) Anyway, whatever that is, he rose and became a partner, and finally amassed a huge fortune, and when they were both quite old they got "Augustus." He was "a puny, delicate boy," to quote Miss Burton again, and was not sent to school—only to Cambridge later on. Perhaps that is what gives him that look of his things fitting wrong, and his skin being puffy and flabby, as if he had never been knocked about by other boys. My friend of the knife, even with his coating of mud, looked quite different.
Oh! I wonder if I shall ever know any people of one's own sort that one has not to be polite to against the grain because one happens to be one's self a lady. Perhaps there are numbers of nice people in this neighborhood, but they naturally don't trouble about us in our tiny cottage, and so we see practically nobody.
Just as Miss Burton was leaving Mr. Gurrage rode up. He tried to open the gate with the end of his whip, but he could not, and would have had to dismount only Miss Burton rushed forward to open it for him. Then he got down and held the bridle over his arm and walked up the little path.
"Send some one to hold my horse," he said to Hephzibah, who answered his ring at the door. I could hear, as the window was a little open and he has a loud voice.
"There is no one to send, sir," said Hephzibah, who, I am sure, felt annoyed. Two laborers happened to be passing in the road, and he got one of them to hold his horse, and so came in at last. He is unattractive when you see him in a room; he seemed blustering and yet ill at ease. But he did not thank us for keeping the suite clean! He was awfully friendly, and asked us to make use of his garden, and, in fact, anything we wanted. I hardly spoke at all.
"You have made a snug little crib of it," he said, in such a patronizing voice—how I dislike sentences like that; I don't know whether or no they are slang (grandmamma says I use slang myself sometimes!), but "a snug little crib" does not please me. He took off his glove when I gave him some tea, and he has thick, common hands, and he fidgeted and bounced up if I moved to take grandmamma her cup, and said each time, "Allow me," and that is another sentence I do not like. In fact, I think he is a horrid young man, and I wish he was not our landlord. He actually squeezed my hand when he said good-bye. I had no intention of doing more than to make a bow, but he thrust his hand out so that I could not help it.
"You'll find your way up to Ledstone, anyway, won't you?" he said, with a sort of affectionate look.
Grandmamma found him insupportable, she told me when he was gone. She even preferred the mother.
The following week I was sent up to The Hall with Roy and grandmamma's card to return the visit. They were at home, unfortunately, and I had to leave my dear companion lying on the steps to wait for me. Such a fearful house! An enormous stained-glass window in the hall, the shape of a church window, only not with saints and angels in it; more like the pattern of a kaleidoscope that one peeps into with one eye, and then bunches of roses and silly daisies in some of the panes, which, I am sure, are unsuitable to a stained-glass window. There were ugly negro figures from Venice, holding plates, in the passage, and stuffed bears for lamps, and such a look of newness about everything! I was taken along to Mrs. Gurrage's "budwar," as she called it. That was a room to remember! It had a "suite" in it like the one at the cottage, only with Louis XV. legs and Louis XVI. backs, and a general expression of distortion, and all of the newest gilt-and-crimson satin brocade. And under a glass case in the corner was the top of a wedding-cake and a bunch of orange blossoms.
I was kept waiting about ten minutes, and then Mrs. Gurrage bustled in, fastening her cuff. I can't put down all she said, but it was one continual praise of "Gussie" and his wealth and the jewels he had given her, and how disappointed he would be not to see me. Miss Hoad poured out the tea and giggled twice. I think she must be what Hephzibah calls "wanting." At last I got away. Roy barked with pleasure as we started homeward.
We had not gone a hundred yards before we met Mr. Gurrage coming up the drive. He insisted upon turning back and walking with me. He said it was "beastly hard luck"—he has horrid phrases—his being out when I came, and would I please not to walk so fast, as we should so soon arrive at the cottage, and he wanted to talk to me. I simply pranced on after that. I do not know why people should want to talk to one when one does not want to talk to them. I was not agreeable, but he did all the speaking. He told me he belonged to the Yeomanry and they were "jolly fellows" and were going to give a ball soon at Tilchester—the county town nearest here—and that I must let his mother take me to it. It was to be a send-off to the detachment which had volunteered for South Africa.
A ball! Oh! I should like to go to a ball. What could it feel like, I wonder, to have on a white tulle dress and to dance all the evening. Would grandmamma ever let me? Oh! it made my heart beat. But suddenly a cold dash came—I could not go with a person like Mrs. Gurrage. I would rather stay at home than that. When we got to the gate I said good-bye and gave him two fingers, but he was not the least daunted, and, seizing all my hand, said:
"Now, don't send me away; I want to come in and see your grandmother."
There was nothing left for me to do, and he followed me into the house and into the drawing-room.
Grandmamma was sitting as usual in her chair. She does not have to fluster in, buttoning her cuff, when people call.
"Mr. Gurrage wishes to see you, grandmamma," I said, as I kissed her hand, and then I left them to take off my hat and I did not come down again until I heard the front door shut.
"That is a terrible young man, Ambrosine," grandmamma said, when I did return to the drawing-room. "How could you encourage him to walk back with you?"
"Indeed, grandmamma, I did not wish him to come; he did not even ask my leave; he just walked beside me."
"Well, well," grandmamma said, and she raised my face in her hands. I was sitting on a low stool so as to get the last of the light for my embroidery. She pushed the hair back from my forehead—I wear it brushed up like Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt—and she looked and looked into my eyes. If possible there was something pained and wistful in her face. "My beautiful Ambrosine," she said, and that was all. I felt I was blushing all over my cheeks. "Beautiful Ambrosine." Then it must be true if grandmamma said it. I had often thought so—perhaps—myself, but I was not sure if other people might think so too.
* * * * *
It is six weeks now since the Gurrages returned, and constantly, oh! but constantly has that young man come across my path. I think I grow to dislike him more as time goes on. He is so persistent and thick of ideas, and he always does things in the wrong place. I feel afraid to go for my walks, as he seems to be loitering about. I sneak out of the back door and choose the most secluded lanes, but it does not matter; he somehow turns up. Certainly three times a week do I have to put up with his company in one way or another. It is a perfect insult to think of such a person as an admirer, and I annihilated Hephzibah, who had the impertinence to suggest such a thing to me when she was brushing my hair a few days ago. The ball is coming off, but grandmamma has not seemed very well lately. It is nothing much, just a bluish look round her mouth, but I fear perhaps she will not be fit to go. When the invitation came—brought down by Mrs. Gurrage in person—grandmamma said she never allowed me to go out without herself, but she would be very pleased to take me. I was perfectly thunderstruck when I heard her say it. She—grandmamma—going out at night! It was so good of her, and when I thanked her afterwards, all she said was, "I seldom do things without a reason, Ambrosine."
Oh, the delight in getting my dress! We hired the fly from the Crown and Sceptre and Hephzibah drove with me into Tilchester with a list of things to get, written out by grandmamma—these were only the small etceteras; the dress itself is to come from Paris! I was frightened almost at the dreadful expense, but grandmamma would hear nothing from me. "My granddaughter does not go to her first ball arrayed like a provinciale," she told me. I do not know what it is to be, she did not consult me, but I feel all jumping with excitement when I think of it. Only four days more before the ball, and the box from Paris is coming to-morrow.
The Gurrages are to have a large party—some cousins and friends. I am sure they will not be interesting. They asked us to dine and go on with them, but grandmamma said that would be too fatiguing for her, and we are going straight from the cottage, I do not quite know what has happened. A few days ago, after lunch, grandmamma had a kind of fainting fit. It frightened me terribly, and the under-servant ran for the doctor. She had revived when he came, and she sent me out of the room at once, and saw him alone without even Hephzibah. He stayed a very long time, and when he came down he looked at me strangely and said:
"Your grandmother is all right now and you can go to her. I think she wishes to send a telegram, which I will take."
He then asked to see Hephzibah, and I ran quickly to grandmamma. She was sitting perfectly upright as usual, and, except for the slight bluish look round her mouth, seemed quite herself. She made me get her the foreign telegram forms, and wrote a long telegram, thinking between the words, but never altering one. She folded it and told me to get some money from Hephzibah and take it to the doctor. Her eyes looked prouder than ever, but her hand shook a little. A vague feeling of fear came over me which has never left me since. Even when I am excited thinking of my dress, I seem to feel some shadow in the background.
Yesterday grandmamma received a telegram and told me we might expect the Marquis de Rochermont by the usual train in the evening, and at six he arrived. He greeted me with even extra courtesy and made me compliment. I cannot understand it all—he has never before come so early in the year (this is May). What can it mean? Grandmamma sent me out of the room directly, and we did not have dinner until eight o'clock. I could hear their voices from my room, and they seemed talking very earnestly, and not so gayly as usual.
At dinner the Marquis, for the first time, addressed his conversation to me. He prefers to speak in English—to show what a linguist he is, I suppose. He made me many compliments, and said how very like I was growing to my ancestress, Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt, and he told me again the old story of the guillotine. Grandmamma seemed watching me.
"Ambrosine is a true daughter of the race," she said. "I think I could promise you that under the same circumstances she would behave in the same manner."
How proud I felt!
How changed all the world can become in one short day! Now I know why the Marquis came, and what all the mystery was about. This morning after breakfast grandmamma sent for me into the drawing-room. The Marquis was standing beside the fireplace, and they both looked rather grave.
"Sit down, my child." said grandmamma; "we have something to say to you."
I sat down.
"I said you were a true daughter of the race—therefore I shall expect you to obey me without flinching."
I felt a cold shiver down my back. What could it be?
"You are aware that I had a fainting fit a short time ago," she continued. "I have long known that my heart was affected, but I had hoped it would have lasted long enough for me to fulfil a scheme I had for a thoroughly suitable and happy arrangement of your destiny. It was a plan that would have taken time, and which I had hoped to put in the way of gradual accomplishment at this ball. However, we must not grumble at fate—it is not to be. The doctor tells me I cannot possibly live more than a few weeks, therefore it follows that something must be settled immediately to secure you a future. You are not aware, as I have not considered it necessary to inform you hitherto of my affairs, that all we are living on is an annuity your father bought for me, before the catastrophe to his fortunes. That, you will understand, ceases with my life. At my death you will be absolutely penniless, a beggar in the street. Even were you to sell these trifles"—and she pointed to the Sevres cups and the miniatures—"the few pounds they would bring might keep you from starving for perhaps a month or two—after that—well, enough—that question is impossible. I can obtain no news of your father. I have heard nothing from or of him for two years. He may be dead—we cannot count on him. In short, I have decided, after due consideration and consultation with my old friend the Marquis, that you must marry Augustus Gurrage. It is my dying wish."
My eyes fell from grandmamma's face and happened to light on the picture of Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt. There she was, with the rose in her dress, smiling at me out of the old paste frame. I was so stunned, all I could think of was to wonder if it was the same rose she walked up the guillotine steps with. I did not hear grandmamma speaking; for a minute there was a buzzing in my ears.
Marry Augustus Gurrage!
"My child"—grandmamma's voice was rather sharper—"I am aware that it is a mesalliance, a stain, a finish to our fine race, and if I could take you on the journey I am going I would not suggest this alternative to you; but one must have common-sense and be practical; and as you are young and must live, and cannot beg, this is the only certain and possible solution of the matter. The great honor you will do him by marrying him removes all sense of obligation in receiving the riches he will bestow on you—you yourself being without a dot. Child—why don't you answer?"
I got up and walked to the window. She had said I was a true daughter of the race. Would it be of the race to kill myself? No—there is nothing so vulgar as to be dramatic. Grandmamma has never erred. She would not ask this of me if there was any other way.
I came back and sat down.
"Very well, grandmamma," I said.
The blue mark round her lips seemed to fade a little and she smiled.
The Marquis came forward and kissed my hand.
"Remember—chere enfant," he said, "marriage is a state required by society. It is not a pleasure, but it can—with creature comforts—become supportable, and it opens the door to freedom et de tous les autres agrements de la vie pour une femme."
He kissed and patted my hand again.
"Start with hate, passionate love, indifference, revolt, disgust—what you will—all husbands at the end of a year inspire the same feeling, one of complacent monotony—that is, if they are not altogether brutes—and from the description of madame, ce jeune Gurrage is at least un brave garcon."
I am of a practical nature, and a thought struck me forcibly. When could Mr. Gurrage have made the demande?
"How did Mr. Gurrage ask for my hand?" I ventured to question grandmamma.
She looked at the Marquis, and the Marquis looked back at her, and polished his eye-glasses.
At last grandmamma spoke.
"That is not the custom here, Ambrosine, but from what I have observed he will take the first opportunity of asking you himself."
Here was something unpleasant to look forward to! It would be bad enough to have to go through the usual period of formal fiancailles of the sort I have always been brought up to expect—but to endure being made love to by Augustus Gurrage! That was enough to daunt the stoutest heart. However, having agreed to obey grandmamma, I could not argue. I only waited for directions. There was a pause, not agreeable to any of us, and then grandmamma spoke.
"You will go to this ball, my child. You will look beautiful, and you will dance with this young man. You will not be so stiff as you have hitherto been, and during the evening he is sure to propose to you. You will then accept him, and bear his outburst of affection with what good grace you can summon up. I will save you from as much as I can, and I promise you your engagement shall be short."
A sudden feeling of dizziness came over me. I have never been faint in my life, but all the room swam, and I felt I must scream, "No, no! I cannot do it!" Then my eyes fell again on grandmamma. The blue mark had returned, but she sat bolt upright. My nerves steadied. I, too, would be calm and of my race.
"Go for a walk now, my child," she said, "Take your dog and run; it will be good for you."
You may believe I courtesied quickly to them and left the room without more ado.
When I got out-of-doors and the fresh May air struck my face it seemed to revive me, and I forgot my ugly future and could think only of grandmamma—poor grandmamma, going away out of the world, and the summer coming, and the blue sky, and the flowers. Going away to the great, vast beyond—and perhaps there she will meet Ambrosine Eustasie de Calincourt, and all the other ancestors, and Jacques de Calincourt, the famous friend of Bayard, who died for his lady's glove; and she will tell them that I also, the last of them, will try to remember their motto, "Sans bruit," and accept my fate also "without noise."
When I got back, my ball-dress had arrived. Hephzibah had unpacked it, and it was lying on my bed—such billows of pure white!—and it fitted! Well, it gave me pleasure, with all the uglies looming in the future, just to try it on.
The Marquis stayed with us. He could not desert his old friend, he said, in her frail health, when she needed some one to cheer her. I suspect the Marquis is as poor as we are, really, and that is why grandmamma could not leave me to him. I am glad he is staying, and now she seems quite her old self again, and I cannot believe she is going to die. However, whether or no, my destiny is fixed, and I shall have to marry Augustus Gurrage.
I did not let myself think of what was to happen at the ball. When one has made up one's mind to go through something unpleasant, there is no use suffering in advance by anticipation. I said to myself, "I will put the whole affair out of my head; there are yet two good days."
Chance, however, arranged otherwise. This morning, the morning of the ball, while I was dusting the drawing-room, I went to the window, which was wide open, to shake out my duster, and there, loitering by the gate, was Mr. Gurrage—at nine o'clock! What could he be doing? He jumped back as if he had seen me in my nightgown. I suppose it was because of my apron, and the big cambric cap I always wear to keep the dust from getting into my hair. A flash came to me—why not get it over now? He would probably not be so affectionate in broad daylight as at the ball. So I called out, "Good-morning!"
He came forward up the path and leaned on the window-sill, still looking dreadfully uncomfortable, hardly daring to glance at me. Then he said, nervously, "What are you playing with, up like that?"
"I am not playing," I said, "I am dusting the china, and I wear these things to keep me clean."
Then I realized all this embarrassment was because he thought I should feel uncomfortable at being caught doing house-work! Not, as one might have imagined, because he had been caught peeping into our garden. Oh, the odd ideas of the lower classes!
I took up a Sevres cup and began to pull the silk duster gently through the handle.
"Er—can I help you?" he said.
At that I burst out laughing. Those thick, common hands touching grandmamma's best china!
"No, no!" I said.
He grew less self-conscious.
"By Jove! how pretty you are in that cap!"
"Yes, and you are laughing, and not snubbing a fellow so dreadfully as you generally do."
"No—well, I came round because I couldn't sleep. I haven't been able to sleep for three nights. I haven't seen you since Saturday, you know."
"No, I did not know."
My heart began to beat in a sickening fashion. He leaned close to me over the sill. I put down the cup and took up the miniature. I thought if I looked at Ambrosine Eustasie that would give me courage. I went on dusting it, and I was glad to see my hands did not shake.
"Yes, you are so devilishly tantalizing—I beg your pardon, but you don't chuck yourself at a fellow's head like the other girls."
I felt I was "chucking myself at his head"—horrible phrase—at that very moment, but as speech is given us to conceal our thoughts, I said, "No, indeed!"
"Ambrosine—" (Oh, how his saying my name jarred and made me creep!) "Er—you know I am jolly fond of you. If you'll marry me you'll not have to dust any more beastly old china, I promise you."
I have never had a tooth out—fortunately, mine are all very white and sound—but I have always heard the agony goes on growing until the final wrench, and then all is over. I feel I know now what the sensation is. I could have screamed, but when he finished speaking I felt numb. I was incapable of answering.
"I've generally been able to buy all I've wanted," he went on, "but I never wanted a wife before." He laughed nervously. That was a straw for me.
"Do you want to buy me?" I said, "Because, if it is only a question of that, it perhaps could be managed."
"Oh, I say—I never meant that!" he blustered, "Oh, you know I love you like anything, and I want you to love me."
"That is just it," I said, quite low.
I felt too mean, I could not pretend I loved him. I must tell the truth, and then, if he would not have me—me—Ambrosine de Calincourt Athelstan!—why, then, vulgarly dramatic or no, I should have to jump into the river to make things easy for grandmamma.
"What is 'just it'?" he asked.
"I do not love you."
His face fell.
"I kind of thought you didn't," he faltered, the bluster gone; "but"—cheering up—"of course you will in time, if you will only marry me."
"I don't think I ever shall," I managed to whisper; "but if you like to marry me on that understanding, you may."
He climbed through the window and put his arms round me.
"Darling!" he said, and kissed me deliberately.
Oh, the horror of it! I shut my eyes, and in the emotion of the moment I bent the bow on the top of the frame of Ambrosine Eustasie.
Then, dragging myself from his embrace and stuttering with rage, "How dare you!" I gasped. "How dare you!"
He looked sulky and offended.
"You said you would marry me—what is a fellow to understand?"
"You are to understand that I will not be mauled and—and kissed like—like Hephzibah at the back door," I said, with freezing dignity, my head in the air.
"Hoity-toity!" (hideous expression!) "What airs you give yourself! But you look so deuced pretty when you are angry!" I did not melt, but stood on the defensive.
He became supplicating again.
"Ambrosine, I love you—don't be cross with me. I won't make you angry again until you are used to me. Ambrosine, say you forgive me." He took my hand. His hands are horrid to touch—coarse and damp. I shuddered involuntarily.
He looked pained at that. A dark-red flush came over all his face. He squared his shoulders and got over the window-sill again.
"You cold statue!" he said, spitefully. "I will leave you."
"Go," was all I said, and I did not move an inch.
He stood looking at me for a few moments, then with one bound he was in the room again and had seized me in his arms.
"No, I sha'n't!" he exclaimed. "You have promised, and I don't care what you say or do. I will keep you to your word."
Mercifully, at that moment Hephzibah opened the door, and in the confusion her entrance caused him, he let me go. I simply flew from the room and up to my own; and there, I am ashamed to say, I cried—sat on the floor and cried like a gutter-child. Oh, if grandmamma could have seen me, how angry she would have been! I have never been allowed to cry—a relaxation for the lower classes, she has always told me.
My face burned. All the bottles of Lubin in grandmamma's cupboard would not wash off the stain of that kiss, I felt. I scrubbed my face until it was crimson, and then I heard grandmamma's voice and had to pull myself together.
I have always said she had hawk's eyes; they see everything, even with the blinds down in her room. When I went in she noticed my red lids and asked the cause of them.
"Mr. Gurrage has been here and has asked me to marry him, grandmamma," I said.
"At this hour in the morning! What does the young man mean?"
"He saw me dusting the Sevres from the road and came in."
Grandmamma kissed me—a thing of the greatest rareness.
"My child," she said, "try and remember to accept fate without noise. Now go and rest until breakfast, or you will not be pretty for your ball to-night."
The Marquis's congratulations were different when we met in the salle a manger; he kissed my hand. How cool and fine his old, withered fingers felt!
"You will be the most beautiful debutante to-night, ma chere enfant," he said; "and all the felicitations are for Monsieur Gurrage. You are a noble girl—but such is life. My wife detested me—dans le temps. But what will you?"
"You, at least, were a gentleman, Marquis," I said.
"There is that, to be sure," he allowed. "But my wife preferred her dancing-master. One can never judge."
At half-past two o'clock (they must have gobbled their lunch), Mrs. Gurrage, Augustus—yes, I must get accustomed to saying that odious name—Augustus and Miss Hoad drove up in the barouche, and got solemnly out and came up to the door which Hephzibah held open for them. They solemnly entered the sitting-room where we all were, and solemnly shook hands. There is something dreadfully ill-behaved about me to-day. I could hardly prevent myself from screaming with laughter.
"I've heard the joyous news," Mrs. Gurrage said, "and I've come to take you to me heart, me dear."
Upon which I was folded fondly against a mosaic brooch containing a lock of hair of the late Mr. Gurrage.
It says a great deal for the unassailable dignity of grandmamma that she did not share the same fate. She, however, escaped with only numerous hand-shakings.
"He is, indeed, to be congratulated, votre fils, madame," the Marquis said, on being presented.
"And the young lady, too, me dear sir. A better husband than me boy'll make there is not in England—though his old mother says it."
Grandmamma behaved with the stiffest decorum. She suggested that we—the young girls—should walk in the garden, while she had some conversation with Mrs. Gurrage and Augustus.
Miss Hoad and I left the room. Her name is Amelia. She looked like a turkey's egg, just that yellowish white with freckles.
"I hope you will be good to Gussie," she said, as we walked demurely along the path. "He is a dear fellow when you know him, though a bit masterful."
"Gussie's awfully spoony on you," she went on. "I said to aunt weeks ago I knew what was up," she giggled.
I bowed again.
"I say, he'll give you a bouquet for the ball to-night; we are going into Tilchester now to fetch it."
I could not bow a third time, so I said:
"Is not a bouquet rather in the way of dancing? I have never been to a ball yet."
"Never been to a ball? My! Well I've never had a bouquet, so I can't say. If you have any one sweet on you I suppose they send them, but I have always been too busy with aunt to think about that."
Poor Miss Hoad!
When they had gone—kept behind grandmamma's chair, and so only received a squeeze of the hand from my betrothed—grandmamma told me she would be obliged to forego the pleasure of herself taking me to the ball to-night, but the Marquis would accompany me, and Mrs. Gurrage would chaperon me there. So, after all, I am going with Mrs. Gurrage! Grandmamma also added that she had explained the circumstances of her health to them, and that Augustus had suggested that the wedding should take place with the shortest delay possible.
"I have told them your want of dot," she said, "and I must say for these bourgeois they seemed to find that a matter of no importance. But they do not in the least realize the honor you are doing them. That must be for you as a private consolation. I have stipulated, as my time is limited, that I shall have you as much to myself as possible during the month that must elapse before you can collect a trousseau."
For that mercy, how grateful I felt to grandmamma!
It is difficult to judge of a thing when your mind is prejudiced on any point. Balls may be delightful, but my first ball contained hours which I can only look back upon as a nightmare.
The Marquis and I arrived not too early; Mrs. Gurrage and her bevy of nieces and friends were already in the dressing-room. They seemed to be plainish, buxom girls, several of the bony, passe description. They looked at me with eyes of deep interest. My dress, as I said before, was perfection. Mrs. Gurrage wore what she told me were the "family jewels." Her short neck and undulating chest were covered with pearls, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies, all jumbled together, necklace after necklace. On top of her head, in front of an imitation lace cap, a park paling of diamonds sat up triumphantly; one almost saw its reflection in her shining forehead below. In spite of this splendor, my future mother-in-law had an unimportant, plebeian appearance, and as we walked down the corridor I wished I was not so tall, that I might hide behind her.
Augustus was waiting among the other men of their party, with an enormous bouquet. Not one of those dainty posies with dropping sprays one sees in the Paris shops, but a good lump of flowers, arranged like a cauliflower, evidently the work of the Tilchester florist. How I should like to have thrown it at his head!
He gave me his arm, and in this fashion we entered the ballroom. A bride of the Saturday weddings in the Bois de Boulogne could not have looked more foolish than I felt. A valse was being played; the room was full of light and color, all the officers of the Yeomanry in their pretty uniforms (Augustus puffed with pride in his), and a general air of gayety and animation that would have made my pulse skip a month ago. We passed on to the other end of the room in this ridiculous procession. I am quite as tall as Augustus, and I felt I was towering over him, my head was so high in the air—not with exaltation, but with a vague sense of defiance.
There were several nice-looking people standing around when at last we arrived on the dais. Mrs. Gurrage greeted most of them gushingly and introduced me.
"My future daughter-in-law, Miss Athelstan."
It may have been fancy, but I thought I caught flashes of surprise in their eyes. One lady—Lady Tilchester—the great magnate in the neighborhood, spoke to me. She had gracious, beautiful manners, and although she could not know anything about me or my history, there seemed to be sympathy in her big, brown eyes.
"This is your first ball Mrs. Gurrage tells me," she said, kindly. "I hope you will enjoy it. I must introduce some of my party to you. Ah, they are dancing now; I must find them presently."
During this Augustus fidgeted. He kept touching my arm, half in an outburst of affection and half to keep my attention from wandering from him. He blustered politenesses to Lady Tilchester, who smiled vacantly while she was attending to something else. Then my fiance suggested that we should dance. I agreed; it would be an opportunity to get rid of my cauliflower bouquet, which I flung viciously into a chair, and off we started.
Augustus dances vilely. When he was not bumping me against other valseurs he was treading on my toes—a jig or a funeral-march might have been playing instead of a valse, for all the time of it mattered to him.
"I never dance fast, I hate it," he said, in the first pause; "don't you?"
"No! I like it—at least, I mean, I like to do whatever the music is doing," I answered, trying to keep my voice from showing the anger and disgust I felt.
"Darling!" was all he muttered, as he seized me round the waist again.
"Oh! it makes me giddy," I said, which was a lie I am ashamed of. "Let us stop."
It was from Scylla to Charybdis, for I was led to one of the sitting-out places. So stupidly ignorant was I in the ways of balls that I did not realize that we should be practically alone, or I would have remained glued to the ballroom. However, before I knew it we were seated on a sofa behind a screen, in a subdued light.
"Are you never going to give me a kiss, Ambrosine?" Augustus said, pleadingly.
"Certainly not here," I exclaimed. "How can you be so horrid?"
"You are a little vixen."
"You may call me what you like; I do not care. But you shall not me a public disgrace," I retorted.
"I think you are deucedly unkind to me," he said, his sulky underlip pouting.
I controlled myself, I tried to remember grandmamma's last advice to me, to be as agreeable as possible and not come to a quarrel. She said I must even submit to a certain amount of familiarity from my betrothed. These were her words: "It is in the nature of men, my child, to wish to demonstrate by outward marks of affection their possession and appreciation of their fiancees, and, unfortunately, the English customs permit such an amount of license in this direction that I fear you must submit to a little, at least, with a good grace."
I softened my voice. "I do not mean to be unkind," I said, "but it is all so very sudden. You must give me time to accustom myself to the idea of having a fiance-you see, I have never had one before," and I tried to laugh.
He was slightly mollified.
"Well, at least let me hold your hand," he said.
I gave him a stiff, unsympathetic set of fingers, which he proceeded to kiss through the glove. My attention was so taken up with trying to see if any one was coming, to avoid the disgrace of being caught thus, that I had not even time to feel the nastiness of it.
Augustus was murmuring sentences of love all the time. It must have sounded like this:
"Darling, what a dear little paw!"
"Oh! is not that a lady looking this way?"
"I should like to kiss your arm—"
"I am sure they can see in here by that looking-glass."
"Why won't you let me kiss just that jolly little curl on your neck?"
"I am certain some one is coming—oh!—oh!"
These "ohs" were caused by Augustus having got so beside himself that he actually bent down and kissed my shoulder!
A sudden sense of helplessness came over me. I felt crushed, as if I could not fight any more, as if all was ended.
"Good God! How white you are, darling! What is the matter?" I heard his voice saying, as if in a dream. "Come, let me take you to have some champagne."
I bounded up at that—I should get out of this cage. In the refreshment-room some of the other Yeomen were standing with their partners. The dance was over and they came up, and Augustus introduced several of them, and, mercifully, I was soon engaged to dance for numbers ahead. Neither their faces nor their conversation made the slightest impression on me. These were the "jolly fellows," I suppose, but I felt grateful to them for taking up my time, and I talked as gayly as I could, and one or two of them danced nicely. Between each dance there was Augustus waiting for me. But I soon found it was the custom to stay with one's partner until the next dance began, and so after that I hid in every possible place for the intervals, and then took refuge with the Marquis. Presently there was a set of lancers. Augustus rushed up to me before I could hide.
"I don't care who you are engaged to," he said, savagely, "You must dance this with me. I have been deuced patient these last four dances, but I won't stand being chucked like this any longer."
"I am not engaged to any one," I said, stiffly.
He tucked my hand under his arm and dragged me to where a set was forming, but on the way Lady Tilchester beckoned us to the middle. We took up our position at one of the sides of her set. Augustus was so flattered at this notice that he forgot to grumble further at my long absence.
Except ourselves, the rest of the sixteen people appeared to be all of her party, and they looked so gay and seemed enjoying themselves; I am afraid grandmamma would have said they romped, rather. Our vis-a-vis were such a pretty girl and a very tall man, and when first he advanced to meet us I felt I had seen him before, and by the second figure I knew it was my friend of the knife. He is very good-looking without the mud. Not the least expression of recognition came into his face, but he laughed gayly at the fun of the thing. After the mad whirl of a chasse, instead of a ladies' chain I have been accustomed to, we came to an end. This dance was the first moment of the evening I had enjoyed. All these people interested me; they seemed of another world, a world where grandmamma and I could live happily if we might. They made quite a noise, and they danced badly, but there was nothing vulgar or bourgeois about them. I felt like an animal who sees its own kind again, after captivity; I wanted to break away and join them. Augustus, on the contrary, was extremely ill at ease.
After that, one dance succeeded another—numbers of which I had to spend with my fiance, but, warned by my first experience, I always pretended a great thirst, or a desire to see the rooms, or an obligation to return to the Marquis, and so went to no more sitting-out places. I did not again see the tall man—he seemed to have disappeared until a dance after supper, when we met him with Lady Tilchester.
"Ah! here you are," she said. "I have been wanting to find you to introduce—" At that moment an old gentleman guffawed loudly near us, and so I did not catch the name she said, but we bowed, and the tall man asked me if I would dance that one with him.
Without the least hesitation I disengaged my hand from the arm of Augustus (he likes to walk thus on every occasion), and said, "Yes."
"Oh! I say," said my fiance, with the savage look in his face, "you were going to dance with me."
Then Lady Tilchester interfered—what a dear and kind soul she must have! She said so sweetly, as if Augustus was a prince, "Won't you accept me as a substitute, Mr. Gurrage?"
Augustus was overcome with pride, and relinquished me with the best grace.
Now it was really bliss, dancing with this man; we swam along, swift and smoothly. I could no longer see the walls; a maze of lights was all my vision grasped—I felt bewildered—happy. We stopped a moment and he bent down and smiled at me.
"You look as if you liked dancing," he said. "Poor Lady Tilchester is being mauled by that bear in your place."
I laughed. "I love dancing."
"I seldom do this sort of thing," he continued, "but you are a beautiful mover," and we began again.
When it was over we went and sat down in the very alcove of my first dance with Augustus. I had no uneasiness this time!
I can't say what there was about my partner—a whimsical humor, a slight mocking sound in his voice, which pleased me; he took nothing seriously; everything he said was as light as a thistle-down; he reminded me of the wit of grandmamma and the Marquis; we got on beautifully.
"I seem to have seen you before," he said, at last. "Have I met you in Paris? or am I only dreaming? because I know you so well in the galleries at Versailles—you stepped down from those frames just to honor us to-night, did you not?—and you will go back at cock-crow!"
"If I only could!"
He asked me if I was staying at Brackney or Henchhurst, and when I said no, that I lived only a few miles off, he seemed so surprised.
His brown hair crimps nicely and is rather gray above the ears, but he does not look very old, perhaps not more than thirty-five or so, and now that one can see both his eyes, one realizes that they are rather attractive. A grayish, greeny-blue, with black edges, and such black eyelashes! They are as clear as clear, and I am sure he is a cat and can see in the dark. He laughed at some of the people, even the ones who think themselves great, and he made me feel that he and I were the same and on a plane by ourselves, which was delightful. All this time I did not know his name, nor he mine. As he moved I saw a gold chain in the pocket of his white waistcoat, and just peeping out was the hilt of my little lost knife. I said nothing—I don't know why—it pleased me to see it there. He had been away in the smoking-room most of the evening, he said, playing bridge.
The Marquis is teaching it to grandmamma out of a book, but I do not care for cards—and it seemed to me such a dull way to spend a ball. I told him so.
"I like this better," he said, quite simply, "but then at most balls one does not meet a dainty marquise out of the eighteenth century. Let me see, was there not a story of the great Dumas about a demoiselle d'honneur of Marie Antoinette—I don't remember her name or her history, but she became the Comtesse de Charny. Now I shall think of you by that name—the Comtesse de Charny. Tell me, Comtesse, does it not shock your senses, our modern worship of that excellent, useful, comfortable fellow, the Golden Calf?"
"I don't know anything at all about him—who is he?" I said.
"Oh, he is a Jew, or a Turk, or an African millionaire—any one with a hundred thousand a year."
I thought of Augustus—"calf" seemed just the word for him.
"We have a beautiful example of one here to-night," he continued; "indeed you were dancing with him—the bear who mauled Lady Tilchester. How did you get to know such a person?"
My heart gave a bound.
"I am engaged to Mr. Gurrage," I said, in a half voice, but raising my head.
Oh, the surprise and—and disgust in his eyes! Then, I don't know what he saw in my face, I tried only to look calm and indifferent, but the contempt went out of his manner, his eyes softened, and he put out his hand and touched my fingers very gently.
"Oh, you poor little white Comtesse!" he said.
I ought to have been furious. Pity, as a rule, angers me so that it would render me capable of being torn to pieces by lions without flinching; but I am ashamed—oh! so ashamed—to say that tears sprang up into my eyes—tears! Mercifully, grandmamma will never know.
"Come," I said, and we rose and walked down the corridor. There we met Augustus, with a face like thunder. He had been looking everywhere for me, he said. It appeared we had been sitting out for two dances.
"You promised me this one more turn," said the tall man, quite unabashed; "they are playing a charming valse."
"She is engaged to me," growled Augustus.
"No, I am not," I said, smiling into his angry face; "I am quite my own mistress as regards whom I dance with. I will come back when it is finished and you shall have the next one," and I walked off with my friend of the knife.
Whether my fiance stood there and swore or not I do not know; I did not look back. We did not speak a word until the dance was finished, my partner and I. Then he said:
"Thank you, little lady. We have, at all events, snatched some few good moments out of this evening. Now, I suppose, we must return to your—bear."
Augustus was standing by the buffet drinking champagne when we caught sight of him. We stepped for a moment out of his view behind some palms.
"Good-bye," I said, "Will you tell me your name? I did not hear it—"
"My name! Oh, my name is Antony Thornhirst—why do you start?"
"I—did not start—good-bye—"
"No, you shall not go until you tell me why you started? And your name, too; I do not know it either!"
"Ambrosine de Calincourt Athelstan."
He knitted his level eyebrows as if trying to recall something, and absently began to pull the knife out of his pocket. Augustus was coming towards us.
"Yes," I said, "but it is too late. Good-bye."
The look of indifference, the rather mocking smile, the sans souci, which are the chief characteristics of his face, altered. I left him puzzled—moved.
* * * * *
Grandmamma was awake, propped up in bed, her hair still powdered and her lace night-cap on, when the Marquis and I got home. I leaned over the rail and told her all about the ball. The Marquis sat in the arm-chair by the fire.
"And where is your promised bouquet, my child?" she asked.
"Well, you see, grandmamma, I put it in a chair after the beginning, and Mrs. Gurrage sat on it, so I thought perhaps, as it was all mashed, I could leave it behind."
Grandmamma laughed; she was pleased, I could see, that the evening had gone off without a fiasco!
"I met Sir Antony Thornhirst," I said.
The blue mark appeared vividly and suddenly round grandmamma's mouth—she shut her eyes for a moment. I rushed to her.
"Oh, dear grandmamma," I said, "what can I do?"
She drank something out of a glass beside her, and then said, in rather a weak voice:
"You were saying you met your kinsman. And what was he like, Ambrosine?"
"Well, he was tall and very straight, and had small ears and—er—a fairish mustache that was brushed up a little away from his lips, and—and cat's eyes, and—brown, crimpy hair, getting a little gray."
"Yes, yes; but I mean what sort of a man?"
"Oh! a gentleman."
"But of course."
"Well, he laughed at everything and called me an eighteenth-century comtesse."
"Did he know who you were?"
"No, not till the end, and then I do not think he realized that I was a connection of his."
"It does not matter," said grandmamma, low to herself, "as it is too late."
"Yes, I told him it was too late."
Grandmamma's voice sharpened.
"You told him! What do you mean?" and she leaned forward a little.
"I don't quite know what I did mean—those words just slipped out."
She lay back on her pillows—poor grandmamma—as if she was exhausted.
"Child," she said, very low, "yes—never forget we have given our word; whatever happens, any change is too late."
A look of anguish came over her face. Oh, how it hurt me to see her suffering!
"Dear grandmamma," said, "do not think I mind. I have done and will do all you wish, and—and—as the Marquis said—it will not matter in a year."
The Marquis, I believe, had been dozing, but at the sound of his name he looked up and spoke.
"Chere amie, you can indeed be proud of la belle debutante to-night; she was by far the most beautiful at the ball—sans exception! Even the adorable Lady Tilchester had not her grand air. Les demoiselles anglaises! Ce sont des fagotages inouis pour la plus part, with their movements of the wooden horse and their skins of the goddess! As for le fiance, il etait assez retenu, il avait pourtant l'air maussade, mais il se consolait avec du champagne—il fera un tres brave mari."
The next day Augustus went to London by the early train. I fortunately saw the dog-cart coming, and rushed to tell Hephzibah to say I was not up if he stopped, which of course he did on his way to the station. He left a message for me. He would be back at half-past four, would come in to tea. The Marquis and I were to dine there in the evening, so I am sure that would be time enough to have seen him. Grandmamma said it was no doubt the engagement-ring he had gone to London to buy, and that I really must receive it with a good grace.
At about four o'clock, while I was reading aloud the oration of Bossuet on the funeral of Madame d'Orleans, the tuff-tuff-tuff of a motorcar was heard, and it drew up at our gate and out got Sir Antony Thornhirst and Lady Tilchester.
Although I could see them with the corner of my eye, and grandmamma could too, I should not have dared to have stopped my reading, and was actually in the middle of a sentence when Hephzibah announced them. I did not forget to make my reverence this time, and grandmamma half rose from her chair. Lady Tilchester has the most lovely manners. In a few minutes we all felt perfectly happy together, and she had told us how Sir Antony was so anxious to make grandmamma's acquaintance, having discovered by chance that he was a connection of hers, that she—Lady Tilchester—had slipped away from her guests and brought him over in her new motor, and she trusted grandmamma would forgive her unannounced descent upon us. She also said how she wished she had heard before that we were in this neighborhood, that she might have months ago made our acquaintance, and could perhaps have been useful to us.
I shall always love her, her sweet voice and the beautiful diffidence of her manner to grandmamma, as though she were receiving a great honor by grandmamma's reception of her. So different to Mrs. Gurrage's patronizing vulgarity! I could see grandmamma was delighted with her.
Sir Antony talked to me. He asked me if I was tired, or something banal like that; his voice was distraite. I answered him gayly, and then we changed seats, and he had a conversation with grandmamma. I do not know what they spoke about, as Lady Tilchester and I went to the other end of the room, but his manner looked so gallant, and I knew by grandmamma's face that she was saying the witty, sententious things that she does to the Marquis. A faint pink flush came into her cheeks which made her look such a very beautiful old lady.
Lady Tilchester talked to me about the garden and the ball the night before, and at last asked me when I was going to be married.
It seemed to bring me back with a rush to earth from some enchanted world which contained no Augustus.
"I—don't know," I faltered, and then, ashamed of my silly voice, said, firmly, "Grandmamma has not arranged the date yet—"
"I hope you will be very happy," said Lady Tilchester, and she would not look at me, which was kind of her.
"Thank you," I said. "Grandmamma is no longer young, and she will feel relieved to know I have a home of my own."
"It is delightful to think we shall have you for a neighbor. Harley is only fifteen miles from here. I wonder if Mrs. Athelstan would let you come and stay a few days with me?"
"Oh! I should love to," I said.
However, grandmamma, when the subject was broached to her presently, firmly declined.
"A month ago I should have accepted with much pleasure," she said, "but circumstances and my health do not now permit me to part even for a short time with Ambrosine."
She looked at Lady Tilchester and Lady Tilchester looked back at her, and although nothing more was said about the matter, I am sure they understood each other.
Sir Antony came and sat by me in the window-sill. I was wearing my chatelaine and he noticed it.
"I am a blind idiot!" he exclaimed. "Of course you are the kind lady who lent me the knife, which I broke, and then stole in a brutal way."
"I saw you did not recognize me the other night."
"I could only see out of one eye, you know, that day in the lane—that must be my excuse."
I said nothing.
"I am not going to give back the knife."
"Then it is real stealing—and it spoils my chatelaine," I said, holding up the empty chain.
"I will give you another in its place, but I must keep this one."
"That is silly—why?"
"It is very agreeable to do silly things sometimes—for instance, I should like—"
What he would have liked I never knew, for at that moment we both caught sight of Augustus getting out of his station brougham at our gate.
"Here comes your bear," said Sir Antony, but he did not attempt to stir from his seat. We could see Augustus walk up the path and turn the handle of the front door without ringing. In this impertinence I am glad to say he was checked, as Hephzibah had fortunately let the bolt slip after showing in Lady Tilchester. He rang an angry peal. Grandmamma frowned.
When Augustus finally got into the room his face was purple. He had hardly self-control enough to greet Lady Tilchester with his usual obsequiousness. She talked charmingly to him for a few moments, and then got up to go.
Meanwhile Sir Antony had been conversing with me quite as if no fiance had entered the room.
"You know we are cousins," he said.
"Very distant ones."
"Why on earth did you not let me know when first you came to this place?"
"Grandmamma has never told me why she left you uninformed of our arrival," I laughed. "How could we have known it would interest you?'"
"But you—don't you ever do anything of your own accord?"
"I would like to sometimes."
"It is monstrous to have kept you shut up here and then to—"
Augustus crossed the room.
"Ambrosine," he interrupted, rudely, "I shall come and fetch you this evening for dinner, as you are too busy now to speak to me."
"Very well," I said.
Sir Antony rose, and we made a general good-bye.
There was something disturbed in his face—as if he had not said what he meant to. A sickening anger and disgust with fate made my hand cold. Oh!—if—Alas!
To-morrow is my wedding-day—the 10th of June. There is my dress spread over the sofa, looking like a ghost in the dim light—I have only one candle on the dressing-table. It is pouring rain and there are rumbles of thunder in the distance. Well, let it pour and hail and rage, and do what it pleases—I don't care! Just now a flash came nearer and seemed to catch the huge diamonds in my engagement-ring, which hangs loose on my finger now. I flung it into the little china tray, where strings of pearls and a fender tiara are already reposing ready for to-morrow. I shall blaze with jewels, and Augustus will be able to tell the guests how much they all cost.
This month of my fiancailles has been nothing agreeable to recall. Indeed, I should not have been able to go through with it only the blue mark has so often appeared round grandmamma's mouth, especially when Augustus and I have had trifling differences of opinion.
Long years ago, one summer we spent at Versailles when I was a child, I remember an incident.
I was sitting reading aloud to grandmamma in the garden when from the trees above there fell upon my neck, which was bare, a fat, hairy caterpillar. I recollect I gave a gurgling, nasty scream, and dropped the book.
Grandmamma was very angry. She explained to me that such noises were extremely vulgar, and that if my flesh was so little under control that this should turn me sick, the sooner I got over such fancies the better.
She made me pick the creature up and let it crawl over my arm. At first I nearly felt mad with horror, but gradually custom deadened the sensation, and although it remained disagreeable, I could contemplate it without emotion.
This memory has often proved useful to me during this last month. To-day, even, I was able to sit upon the sofa and allow Augustus to kiss me for quite ten minutes, without having to rush up and take sal-volatile, as I had to in the beginning.
I have been through various trying ordeals. The tenants have presented us with silver trays and other things, and we have listened to speeches, and bowed sweetly, and numbers of hitherto distant acquaintances have showered presents upon us. My future mother-in-law has loaded me with advice, chiefly of a purely domestic kind, most of it a guide as to how I had better please Augustus.
It appears he likes thick toast in preference to thin, and thick soups; also that a habit he has of taking Welsh rarebit and stout for a late supper when he sits up alone is not good for his digestion and is to be discouraged. She hopes I will see that he wears his second thinnest Jaeger vests in Paris, not the thinnest—which ought to be kept for August warmth—as once before when there he caught a bad catarrh of the chest through this imprudence.
Lady Tilchester is coming down from London in a special train on purpose to grace our bridal ceremony. She has sent me the prettiest brooch and such a nice letter.
I hope she will be a consolation in the future. For me life must be a thing of waking in the morning, and eating and drinking, and taking exercise, and going to bed again, and deadening all emotions, or else I feel sure I shall get a dreadful disease I once read about in an American paper Hephzibah takes in. It is called "spontaneous combustion," and it said in the paper that a man caught it from having got into a compressed state of heat and rage for weeks, and it made him burst up at last into flames like an exploding shell.
Well, at all events, I have kept my word, and grandmamma is content with me.
Miss Hoad—I shall have to call her Amelia now—is enchanted with the whole entertainment. She is to be the only bridesmaid, and has chosen the dress herself. It is coffee lace with a mustard-yellow sash. It mill match her complexion. And Augustus is presenting her with a huge bouquet, no doubt of the cauliflower shape, like my famous one, besides a diamond-and-ruby watch.
I wonder if Sir Antony will be at the wedding—he was asked.
The Marquis de Rochermont will give me away—grandmamma is too feeble now to stand. The ceremony is to be in the village church here, and the choir, composed of village youths unacquainted with a note of music, is to meet us at the lich-gate and precede us up the aisle, singing an encouraging wedding-hymn, while school-children spread forced white roses, provided by the Tilchester rose-growers.
Augustus explained that patronizing local resources like this will all come in useful when he stands for Parliament later on.
Grandmamma stipulated that there should be no wedding feast, her health and our small house being sufficient excuse. It is a great disappointment to Mrs. Gurrage, I am sure, but we go away to Paris as soon as I can change my dress after the church ceremony.
Think of it! This time to-morrow my name will be Gurrage! And Augustus will have the right to—Merciful God! stop my heart from beating in this sickening fashion, and let me remember the motto of my race—"Sans bruit."
Oh, grandmamma, if I could go on your journey with you! The first jump out into the dark might be fearful, but afterwards it would be quiet and still, and there would be no caterpillars!
That was a beautiful flash of lightning! The storm is coming nearer. Sparks flew from my diamond fender on the dressing-table. Well—well—I—I wish I had seen Sir Antony again. Just now he sent me a present. It is a knife for my chatelaine, the hilt studded with diamonds, and there is a note which says that there is still time to cut the Gordian knot.
What does it mean? I feel cold, as if I could not understand things to-night.
The Marquis gave me some conseils de mariage this afternoon.
"Remain placid," he said, "fermez les yeux et pensez a autrui—apres vous aurez les agrements."
Grandmamma has not even kissed me. Her eyes resemble a hawk's still, but have the look of a tortured tiger as well sometimes. She has grown terribly feeble, and has twice had fainting-fits like the one that changed my destiny. I believe she is remaining alive simply by strength of will and that she will die when all is over.
She has given me the greatest treasure of her life, the miniature of Ambrosine Eustasie. I have it here by my side for my very own.
Yes, Ambrosine Eustasie, for me to-morrow there is also the guillotine; and perhaps I, too, could walk up the steps smiling if I were allowed a rose to keep off the smell of the common people; Augustus's mother uses patchouli.
No one can possibly imagine the unpleasantness of a honey-moon until they have tried it. It is no wonder one is told nothing at all about it. Even to keep my word and obey grandmamma I could never have undertaken it if I had had an idea what it would be like. Really, girls' dreams are the silliest things in the world. I can't help staring at all the married people I see about. "You—poor wretches!—have gone through this," I say to myself; and then I wonder and wonder that they can smile and look gay. I long to ask them when the calmness and indifference set in; how long I shall have to wait before I can really profit by grandmamma's lesson of the caterpillar. It was useful for the fiancailles, but it has not comforted me much since my wedding.
In old-fashioned books, when the heroine comes to anything exciting, or when the situation is too difficult for the author to describe, there is always a row of stars. It seems to mean a jump, a break to be filled up as each person pleases. I feel I must leave this part of my life marked with this row of stars.
It is two weeks now since I wrote my name Ambrosine de Calincourt Athelstan for the last time, two weeks since I walked down the rose-strewn guillotine steps on Augustus's arm, two weeks since he—Ah, no! I will never look back at that. Let these hideous two weeks sink into the abyss of oblivion!
It hardly seems possible that in fifteen days one could so completely alter one's views and notions of life. I cannot look at anything with the same eyes. It is all very well for people to talk philosophy, but it is difficult to be philosophical when one's every sense is being continually froisse. I feel sometimes that I could commit murder, and I do not know when I shall be able to take the Marquis's advice to remain placid and shut my eyes and try to get what good out of life I can.
Augustus as a husband is extremely unpleasant. I hate the way his hair is brushed—there always seems to be a lock sticking up in the back; I hate the way he ties his ties; I hate everything he says and does. I keep saying to myself when I hear him coming, "remember the caterpillar, caterpillar, caterpillar." And once in the beginning, when I was screwing up my eyes not to see, he got quite close before I knew and he heard me saying it aloud.
He bounced away, thinking I meant there was one crawling on him, and then he got quite cross.
"There are no caterpillars here, Ambrosine. How silly you are!" he said.
He revels in being at once recognized as a bridegroom. He has dreadfully familiar ways and catches hold of my arm in public, making us both perfectly ridiculous. He has insisted upon buying me numbers of gorgeous garments for my outer covering, but when I ventured to order some very fine other things he grumbled at the cost.
"I don't mind your getting clothes that will show the money I've put into them," he explained, "but I'm bothered if I'll encourage useless extravagance in this way."
At the play he never understands more than a few words, but is always asking me to explain what it means when there is anything interesting, so I miss most of it myself from having to talk, and some of the French plays are really very funny, I find, and have opened my eyes a great deal, and I—even I—could laugh if I were left in peace to listen a little.
Augustus is furiously angry, too, when the Frenchmen look at me. I never thought I could even notice the gaze of strangers, but I am ashamed to say that last night it quite pleased me.
We were dining at Paillard's, and two really nice-looking Frenchmen had the next table. They looked at me, and Augustus glared at them and fussed the waiters more than usual, and wanted to hurry me as much as possible to get away; so I asked for other dishes and peaches and nectarines and things out of season. At last, when I had dawdled quite an extra half-hour, it came to an end, and the usual sums on the margin of the bill began—Augustus adds up every item to see no sou has been overcharged. At this point I looked up and caught one of the Frenchmen's eye. Of course I glanced away at once, but there was such a gleam of fun in his that I nearly smiled. Then, suddenly the recollection came upon me that this creature, this thing sitting opposite me, belonged to me. I have his name, he is my husband. I must not laugh with others at his odious ways. After that I was glad to creep away.
I am worried about grandmamma. She has not written; there only came a small note from the Marquis. I am sure she must be very ill, if not already dead. I cannot grieve; I almost feel as if I wished it so. Augustus as a grandson-in-law would sting her fine senses unbearably. He blusters continually, and his airs of proprietorship envers moi would irritate her; besides, she would always have the idea that she is cheating me by remaining alive, that, after all, my marriage was not a necessity if she is still there to keep me. Oh, dear grandmamma! if I could save you a moment's sorrow you know I would. When I said good-bye to her she held me close and kissed me. "Ambrosine," she said, "I shall have started upon my journey before you come back; you must not grieve or be sad. My last advice to you, my child, is to remember life is full of compensations, as you will find. Try to see the bright and gay side of things, and, above all, do not be dramatic."