Colonel Fenchurch stood on his own hearthstone—that is to say, the smoking-room rug—with his back to the fire, and a cup of tea in his hand. He was a good-looking dapper little man, with a neat white moustache, a cheery voice, and an unfailing flow of talk.
“I say, Doodie,” turning to a lady in a splashed habit, who was meditatively consuming buttered toast, “weren’t the roads beastly? Just look at my boots and leathers!”
Doodie, his wife, nodded, but made no other reply.
“A clinking run,” he continued, “and a lot of those thrusters got left—you went well—eh?—that was a nasty place out of the round plantation!—on the whole—a good hard day!”
Once more his better-half inclined her hatted head; evidently her mind was preoccupied. She was staring fixedly at a certain pattern in the carpet, with a remote and far-away gaze; a plain weather-beaten lady whose age—much discussed among her acquaintances—was probably five-and-forty; her habit displayed a slight square-shouldered figure; a pot hat pushed to the back of her head disclosed the inevitable red mark, a long but aristocratic nose, and a clever resolute countenance.
Dorothy Fenchurch was a notable example of the strong-willed active woman, mated to a weak, easy-going, good-tempered man: and the match had proved a conspicuous success. In the opinion of Tom Fenchurch, no wife in the County was fit to hold a candle to his wonderful Dorothy—what a housekeeper, horsewoman, companion!—and for her part, his Dorothy was contented. Greedy of influence, social and domestic, she thoroughly enjoyed the rôle of manager and mentor. How much more satisfactory to rule in a small establishment, and over a limited circle, than to languish at home, the insignificant member of an important house, who kept their women-folk inflexibly in the background; and so it came to pass that twelve years previously, the Honourable Dorothy Claremont bestowed her hand and her fortune on agreeable Colonel Fenchurch, who had little to offer her, besides his handsome face, his retired pay, and his heart.
The couple had settled down in a ramshackle old house, in a ramshackle old village in the Midlands, inconveniently remote from the railway, but within easy reach of the principal Meets of a well-known sporting pack. The bride’s relations—who had not favoured the alliance—shrugged their shoulders and commiserated ‘poor Dorothy.’ They little knew that ‘poor Dorothy,’ now thoroughly free and independent, was as happy as the day was long!
Here, in the sleepy hamlet of Thornby, the Honble. Mrs. Fenchurch soon made her presence felt. She, so to speak, ‘took hold’ with both hands; stirred up the villagers, the parson, and the doctor; improved the old manor out of all recognition—and that at no great expense.
This energetic lady had the good fortune to discover a priceless treasure in the village carpenter, and he and a journeyman mason, a few odd men, with Mrs. Fenchurch as architect, threw out a window here, shut up a door there, and boldly altered the principal staircase. By and by when visitors arrived to call, and were beholders of these amazing triumphs, more than one exclaimed:
“Why on earth did we not think of taking The Holt, and doing it up? It is perfectly delightful—who would have guessed at its capabilities?”
But these envious folk never considered that its present tenant was endowed with an unusual supply of brains, enterprise, and courage. She was a born decorator, a skilled upholsteress, and had a positive genius for gardening. Before long, the attractions of The Holt were famous within a radius of ten miles—Mrs. Fenchurch seemed to know exactly where to find the prettiest chintzes, the most unique furniture, the newest roses; and her cleverness in picking up prizes in old curiosity shops had become a proverb. It was said, that in a back street of the county town she had actually bought a wonderful old Chippendale sideboard for fifteen shillings—but this would appear to be incredible.
For twelve years The Holt was acknowledged to be one of the pleasantest houses in the County, its inmates the most popular, important, and influential couple of the neighbourhood, and here Doodie Fenchurch (with good-natured Tom as her consort) reigned alone and supreme.
But now a change was imminent; a princess was about to enter into this kingdom—yes, and to enter within half an hour. Possibly this was why its mistress seemed so unusually silent and distrait.
The only sister of Colonel Fenchurch had made a runaway match with a harum-scarum Irishman, who was killed in India, leaving his widow almost penniless. She died soon afterwards, and the unnecessary infant who ought to have accompanied her mother, survived to be supported by the Fenchurch family—themselves uncomfortably impecunious. Now this girl was seventeen, and in spite of Mrs. Fenchurch’s lamentations, protestations, and suggestion that she should remain another year, Letty Glyn had left school, and was on her way to take up her abode with darling Uncle Tom, and dearest Aunt Dorothy.
Apparently dearest Aunt Dorothy was not warmly enthusiastic respecting her niece by marriage; but she was a woman who sedulously studied appearances. If Tom’s niece were turned out to earn her bread as companion or governess, what a talk there would be! There was positively no alternative, the girl must make her home at The Holt, in the character of le fâcheux troisième.
As a child, Letty had promised to be rather pretty, and Mrs. Fenchurch believed that with her own social advantages, she would marry her off ere long; but before arriving at this happy period, she resolved to make the poor relation useful in the house. She should dust china, arrange flowers, pour out tea, help in the garden, and take over the Mothers’ Sewing Club. Her own hands were more than full both at home and abroad (indeed, the influence of Mrs. Fenchurch now radiated far and wide), she was secretary here, treasurer and chairwoman there, and was often sorely pressed for time. Oh yes, Letty would have her uses; but all the same a girl in the house—a girl, who was always en evidence, to whom one must be a sort of model and sheep dog, would undoubtedly be an intolerable nuisance.
“I say,” began her husband, breaking in upon her reflections. She looked up at him quickly. “Isn’t Letty due about now? Six-thirty?”
“Oh yes, if the train is pretty punctual; but you know what these cross lines are.”
“Do you think she will be a little hurt at no one going to meet her—eh?”
“Hurt! My dear boy, what nonsense!”
“Well, of course, hunting is hunting, and Garfield Cross is our best meet. By the way, I suppose you sent the brougham? It’s an uncommonly cold, raw night.”
“The brougham? Certainly not! I sent the governess-car—yes,” in answer to his exclamation. “You see, dear, Collins has had three horses to do up—you know you had out two—you extravagant man, and I really couldn’t ask him to leave them all to James, so the boy took the car with the garden pony, and her luggage will come up to-morrow by the market-cart.”
“I say, old girl,” suddenly putting down his cup and going over to her, “it’s not a very warm reception, eh? The child has not been near us this five years—and it’s a long journey from Dresden, eh?” Then, in another and more caressing tone, he added, “You will be good to her, Doodie darling, won’t you? You can make it so awfully nice, if you like to, you know!”
“Am I not always what you call ‘good’ to my guests?” she demanded rather sharply.
“Oh, hang it all, Doodie, but she won’t be a guest! Letty is one of us, eh—isn’t she, old woman? Of course, I know it’s hard on you, and she has only her little bit of a pension; but a girl in the house will be cheery, eh? And you’ll take to her, I know,” and he put his arm round her neck, and gazed into her shrewd, thin face, and repeated, “Eh, darling, won’t you?”
Just at this moment the door opened, and a formal voice announced ‘Mrs. Hesketh.’
Mrs. Hesketh, a middle-aged lady with a stately carriage and the remains of great beauty, entered just in time to witness the caressing attitude of Colonel Fenchurch.
“We have had a row, you see!” he explained to the visitor with the gaiety of a schoolboy; “the old woman and I have had a shake-up, and been making it up—she will pound me out hunting. I call it deuced bad form, eh?”
Mrs. Hesketh, a widowed cousin who lived in the only other ‘house’ in the village, carefully removed her heavy sables before she replied.
“I should think, Tom, that you are used to that by this time. Had you had a good day?”
“Oh, the usual lot, and Hugo Blagdon. By Jove! he does have wonderful cattle. I hear he pays as much as five hundred for a hunter. Yes, and he can ride them too,” he added with unusual generosity.
“But what brings him over to this side?” enquired Mrs. Hesketh with languid curiosity.
“He’s only staying at the ‘Black Cock’ at Ridgefield for a week or so—it’s more central than Sharsley. Sharsley is a good bit out of the way for everything; seven miles from a railway station—monstrous, isn’t it in these days?”
“Yes, but we need not boast. Sharsley is a lovely old place; I shouldn’t mind living there myself!”
“No,” he answered with a laugh; “and a heap of other ladies will say ditto to Mrs. Hesketh, eh, Doodie?” appealing to his wife.
“I can’t think what’s keeping her,” was the irrelevant reply.
Mrs. Hesketh stared at her cousin with grave-eyed interrogation.
“Oh, I mean Letty Glyn, Tom’s niece, you know, Maudie. Didn’t I tell you that we expect her this evening, by the two o’clock from St. Pancras?”
“So you did; and she is coming to stay for some time?”
“To live with us altogether,” eagerly amended Colonel Fenchurch. “She is an orphan, the daughter of my poor sister Kathleen.”
Mrs. Hesketh glanced from him to his wife, but Mrs. Fenchurch’s expression was blank and noncommittal; she rose, walked to the fire, and brushed the crumbs from her habit into the fender.
“We are her only relations,” continued Colonel Fenchurch.
“Except her father’s people, who are paupers,” corrected a thin, high-pitched treble from the fire-place. “Irish paupers—with nothing to live on but family pride.”
“If she is like my poor sister, she ought to be a beauty,” urged her uncle, and his tone was anxious and conciliatory.
“She was some way from that when we last saw her,” declared his wife, turning to face them; “a long-legged creature, with a pair of sunken eyes and quantities of tousled hair. Of course, she may have improved,” she added tolerantly; “and,” with a glance at her husband’s chiselled profile, “I hope she will take after the Fenchurch family. A girl with a pretty face does get such a splendid start.”
“She does,” agreed Mrs. Hesketh, whose own beautiful face had been her fortune; “but if she hasn’t something to back it up in the way of character, or brains, or charm,—it’s not so much of a start, after all.”
“Hullo—wheels!” announced Colonel Fenchurch. “Here she is!” and he dashed into the hall.
“I think I ought to go,” murmured the visitor, reaching for her boa; “this is a family affair,” she added with a smile.
“And you are one of the family, Maudie,” declared Mrs. Fenchurch, laying a strong detaining hand upon her arm; “so you must stay.” Then, removing her hat, which she tossed on the sofa, she was about to follow her husband, when the door was thrown wide, and Colonel Fenchurch advanced into the room, beaming with pride, and leading a tall girl in a fur-lined cloak, who looked both timid and tired.
“My dear Letty, how late you are!” exclaimed her aunt, taking both her hands in hers and pecking her on the cheek; “and how frozen!”
“There was a slight accident which delayed us,” explained the girl nervously.
“Now, then, give me your cloak, and have some tea, and tell us all about it,” said her uncle, fussing round her.
“I am afraid the tea is rather cold,” said Mrs. Fenchurch, moving towards the tea equipage; “but we will have some more at once,” and she rang the bell violently.
“Maudie, this is my niece Lettice,” said Colonel Fenchurch, presenting her with ceremony. “Letty, Mrs. Hesketh is our nearest neighbour and your aunt’s cousin, and I hope you may find a corner in her heart.”
“My dear, you must be perished,” said the lady kindly. “Why, I declare you are positively shivering!”
“Oh no, no,” she protested, whilst her uncle helped her to remove her wrap. “This room is delightfully warm.”
“Now, Letty, take off your hat,” he urged eagerly.
“I am afraid my hair is dreadfully untidy,” but she nevertheless removed a fur cap, and bared a head of beautiful light brown hair, which exhibited a natural wave.
“So you have had a long journey,” continued Mrs. Hesketh.
“Yes, nearly two days—we all travelled together—I mean the girls at my school—as far as London.”
“And the crossing?”
“Oh,” with a quick, expressive gesture, “dreadful! I’d rather not think of it! Sometimes the boat stood upright!”
“Come tell us about your railway accident,” said her uncle cheerfully.
“It was really nothing,” she answered; “we ran past another train that had been shunted, and the end of it caught our carriage doors, or something—at any rate we were nearly shaken off the line. It gave us a shock, for we were travelling fast, and were dreadfully mixed up in our compartment.”
“And who were you mixed up with?” he enquired jocosely.
“The young man in the opposite seat,” and she coloured and laughed. “He wore an enormously thick ulster, and so I wasn’t a bit hurt.”
“We had all to get out and wait at a tiny station for more than an hour—such a bare miserable——”
“Do you take sugar?” interrupted Mrs. Fenchurch, with the tongs in her hand.
“Yes, if you please, aunt—one lump.”
“Then here is your tea at last, and some nice hot toast,” said Colonel Fenchurch, approaching. As he sat down beside her he said, “And how did you and the young man continue the acquaintance so violently begun?”
“He asked me if I was hurt—that was all.”
“The least he could do! Why, bless my soul, he might have knocked all your front teeth down your throat, or put out one of your eyes—and then he would have had to marry you, eh?”
“I am sure he wouldn’t have agreed to that,” she answered gaily.
“He might go further, and fare worse,” rejoined her uncle, with a proud and significant glance at his wife, who had now approached the sofa.
“Of course, you left your luggage at Tatton, Letty?”
“Yes, Aunt Dorothy; I only brought up my dressing-bag. The boy gave me your message.”
“That was right. And now, as soon as you feel a little rested, I will take you upstairs. Your quarters are at the top of the house, but large and sunny—with a funny little staircase all to yourself!”
“I am sure it is charming, aunt,” rising as she spoke; “it will be delightful to have not only a staircase, but a whole room to myself,” and with a pretty little foreign curtsey to Mrs. Hesketh, the girl collected her wraps and followed Mrs. Fenchurch into the hall.
“Well, what do you think of her, eh?” enquired Colonel Fenchurch, retiring to the hearth-rug as to a vantage ground, and sticking his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat.
“She is lovely,” replied his companion, after a moment’s deliberation. “When one sees a girl so fresh, so exquisite, and so unconscious, one cannot help thinking of the quotation, ‘What of the lovers in the hidden years?’”
“Lovers be hanged!” he exclaimed irritably. “Letty is too young yet—we shall keep her with us as long as we can. She seems as simple as a child, doesn’t she?—and rather shy?”
“I fancy she is one of those girls who develop slowly. Her age may be seventeen, but in experience of life probably she is not more than ten or twelve.”
“Lots of girls know their way about the world at seventeen, and are one too many for many a man,” declared Colonel Fenchurch; “but I remember that my sister, ten years my junior, was extraordinarily young in her ideas, easily influenced, ready to be ordered about, and as obedient as if she were a kid. She never knew her own mind—or had any fixed opinions—except about Glyn. He made up her mind, and ordered her to run away with him, a handsome, reckless, dare-devil. They went out to India to his regiment, and he was killed within a year up on the frontier, some fool-hardy exploit, or he would be alive now.”
“And take his daughter off your hands,” suggested the lady.
“Oh, well, I am happy and proud to adopt his daughter—especially since I have none of my own.”
He paused, and stared down into the fire; his companion well knew that this was the one grief of his married life. Tom loved children, and was ever the most popular and entertaining guest at their dances and amusements; he longed to hear the patter of quick little feet up and down The Holt’s uneven passages. Doodie, his wife, had never shared this craving—the whole County was, so to speak, her child. Possibly she would not have objected to a fine clever boy, who excelled at games and was a brilliant success as a prize-winner, but a large family of daughters—no, thank you! Her husband, on the contrary, had a particular partiality for girls. Often, as he smoked a solitary pipe in the fire-light, with half-closed eyes, he seemed to see a golden-haired darling, the daughter of his dreams, sitting on the hearth-rug, or standing by the window. And here to-day, had actually come to him, the realisation of his visions!
“I do hope—I do hope——” he began, then hesitated.
Mrs. Hesketh raised her dark discontented eyes to his, and murmured an interrogative “Yes?”
After a momentary struggle between inclination and discretion, he continued, “Between you and me, Maudie,” lowering his voice to a whisper, “I hope to goodness that Doodie will take to her!”
It must be admitted that November is not an auspicious month for a stranger to make acquaintance with the English country; the trees are bare and leafless, the fields empty and uninteresting, and what can be said for monotonous, muddy roads, cold frosty mornings, and long dark nights?
However, Letty speedily settled into her awarded niche, and endeavoured to make herself at home. She soon became acquainted with the dogs and horses, with her uncle’s little fads, and her aunt’s peculiarities, duly appeared at church, was presented to the parson’s afflicted wife, and made a state call upon Mrs. Hesketh. Also, she did her utmost to be useful; but her well-meaning efforts were not always successful. For instance, with respect to arranging flowers, the schoolgirl had no experience, her vases looked ragged, or in clumps; she lacked the ‘airy, fairy’ touch of an expert—but that, no doubt, would come. Then as to dusting the valuable old china; here again she was something of a failure. In handling a cherished blue plate, it slipped through her fingers as a thing alive, rolled defiantly along a stone passage, and subsided in a dozen pieces. Although Mrs. Fenchurch had picked this up for sevenpence in a village inn, it was a good specimen, and she showed her displeasure and annoyance plainly—in fact so plainly, that Letty wept! However, day by day the new-comer improved; she helped her aunt to feed the fowls, and date and pack the eggs for sale, assisted in the greenhouse, brushed and exercised the dogs, and took an humble and subordinate part in Mrs. Fenchurch’s numerous and absorbing occupations.
The Holt was situated at the extremity of a picturesque village, which consisted of a rambling street of red brick or black and white houses; half-way down this, perched on a high bank, was a fine old church, with its surrounding graveyard; and here and there, were little shops, and quaint signboards, and what had once been a celebrated posting inn—now used for the storage of grain. At the further end of Thornby was a grim-faced Georgian mansion, standing back from the road, its lawn and approach well screened from view by thick laurel hedges; immediately behind the residence, were large and unexpectedly delightful grounds. Mrs. Hesketh, who had occupied Oldcourt for ten years, was a childless widow, with few belongings or intimates; once a notable leader in society, but latterly indifferent health, and serious money losses, had swept her out of the social current, and she had come to Thornby to live near her active cousin, Dolly Fenchurch, possibly in hopes of catching the contagion of her love for a busy rural life. An intellectual woman, and an omnivorous reader, Maude Hesketh dwelt to a great extent within herself; eagerly watching, through the columns of the Press, the great world as it went rolling by.
Once a year she emerged from her retirement, and went to take the waters at Aix; but the remainder of the time she occupied herself with her books, her flowers, and her own thoughts. In spite of her solitude, Mrs. Hesketh was beautifully dressed, she dressed to please and satisfy a dainty, fastidious taste. Her house, too, was refined, and filled with old French furniture, clever impressionist sketches, bibelots, and exquisitely bound books; and although she had lost a considerable part of her income in a notorious financial failure, she was comfortably off, and kept a carriage, which she rarely used. The lady had the reputation of being eccentric, and something of a mystery; chiefly because she held herself studiously aloof from her neighbours, and was said to give herself ridiculous airs! This was a mistake. Mrs. Hesketh did not cultivate local society, simply because it bored her. She was not interested in parish squabbles, county scandals, or domestic servants; but she visited in the village, where she was much beloved by the poor.
To sum her up, Maude Hesketh was a clever, noble-hearted, dissatisfied woman, bitterly disappointed to find that with all her gifts and opportunities, she had made so little of her life. And now, as she would say to herself, “There is no time—it is almost over!”
But to return to The Holt after this digression. The new inmate was beginning to make her presence felt in the household, she was a ready learner, being both keen and adaptable; her aunt’s example and capabilities impressed her enormously; every day, every hour seemed to have its own particular task. Mrs. Fenchurch had a wonderful sense of organisation and routine, and never one moment to spare. Her writing-room was the nucleus of her activities; here on a neat bureau were ‘the books.’ The house books, the village books, the visitor’s book, the clothing club book, the letter book, the garden book, and last but not least—the egg book! A certain amount of this order and energy was imparted to her niece; the mistress of the house knew how to make use of capable subordinates—she would have made an efficient, though not very popular or gracious abbess—was thoroughly practical, and far-reaching—and particularly prided herself on her sense of justice!
As it happened to be good hunting weather, and an open winter, she left Letty at home as often as three days a week, to act as regent, answer messages, visit the greenhouses, and the poultry-yard, attend the sewing club, and exercise the dogs.
Colonel Fenchurch had suggested that his niece should learn to ride. He had even put her up on old Playboy, and taken her round the fields with a leading-rein, declaring that “the girl really had the riding flair—it was her Irish blood no doubt; she was not a bit afraid, and stuck on like a leech,” but his wife had negatived the idea with prompt decision.
“No, no,” she replied; “if Letty began to ride, she’d be wanting a hunter next, and this winter has been so frightfully expensive, what with the new flues in the greenhouse, and the kitchen range, and then I must get her some frocks for Christmas and the balls. She has nothing now, but hideous German clothes—her school-room horrors—but next year,” pursing up her lips, “perhaps—we shall see!”
And meanwhile Colonel Fenchurch gave his niece riding lessons on the sly; he took her out into the fields on off days when his wife was buried in important letters, and exercised the pony that in summer drew the garden mower. (The Holt was celebrated for its lawns of beautiful old turf.) Letty found her gaunt, hard-featured aunt both cold and unresponsive—the typical English character—but oh, so marvellously clever! As for her uncle—who was of her own blood—she adored him, and manifested this affection in many pretty ways; brought him his pipe and matches, folded up his gloves and mufflers, ran for his cap or hunting-crop. Tom Fenchurch liked it; it warmed his old heart to see this charming girl waiting upon him so eagerly; but his wife contemplated such attentions with a frosty eye. In her opinion, Letty was too impulsive and gushing; and she gave her sundry sharp hints and raps, generally accepted in silence and humility—for all her life long the girl was accustomed to the yoke of obedience. Her mental attitude was another affair, and though she loved her uncle, sad to relate niece Letty was now beginning to detest her aunt.
Accepting Letty as a mere child, and no more, Mrs. Fenchurch was astonished to discover that she was highly accomplished (but why not? She had been at school since she was five years old). She played music at sight, was an excellent German scholar, spoke French fluently, and executed most delicate embroideries—but was deplorably ignorant as to the cutting out and manufacture of garments, that were desirable and useful for the clothing club. It was evident that to her, life outside school and school routine was an absolutely unknown land. She had never seen a Meet, never been to a ball, or taken part in any social festivity. However all that would come in good time; meanwhile the girl was no trouble in the house, and proved surprisingly docile; never advanced opinions of her own, and did precisely as she was told. This aspect of her character appealed to Mrs. Fenchurch; there was nothing she enjoyed so keenly as settling the minds, and arranging the plans of others; and Letty, so to speak, left her life, her aims, and her future, entirely at her aunt’s disposal. Her will was really too flexible, she had no self-confidence, and in the anatomy of her individuality there was no such article as the proverbial backbone!
Mrs. Hesketh, who had taken one of her rare fancies to her cousin’s niece, invited her frequently to tea. It amused and interested her to sound the depths of this transparent young soul—to endeavour to draw out the ideas of sweet seventeen.
“My dear child, you are charming,” she declared, “and you are accomplished, but you cannot possibly go through life without a mind and opinion of your own! When I called to take you for a drive the other day, you could not positively say yes or no—but shall I? And then ‘Perhaps I’d better not,’ and then ‘I’m not sure if aunt won’t want me when she comes in,’ and again, ‘I’d like to go above all things, but I’m afraid I’ve kept you so long that I won’t have time to get ready now.’ And at the end, just as I was getting into the carriage, ‘Oh, how I wish I was going with you!’ Now if you continue like this—always standing between two forked roads, what will become of you? At present your aunt decides, but you cannot always be a tender plant, clinging to a stout support, can you?”
“No,” Letty replied; “I see what you mean, and I feel it myself; but all my days have been ordered for me; my clothes have been chosen, my letters read, my books and companions have been the choice of others; I have always walked in the path that was traced for me, and I seem to expect a guiding hand. If I ever had any will of my own—I believe it died years ago.”
“Look here, my good girl,” said Mrs. Hesketh impatiently, “if you have no will of your own, you must grow one! Now I will plant a little seed. You are asked to sing in the Parish Room on Saturday at the Penny Reading. I hear that your answer, since the matter has been left to you, is undecided.”
“Tell me honestly, would you like to sing—or are you too nervous?”
“I am not the least nervous. I have been accustomed to sing and play at school concerts for years. I was quite a star!” and she laughed gaily; “and I really would like to sing on Saturday if I thought it would give people pleasure; but I have a sort of suspicion, that Aunt Dorothy would rather I didn’t!”
“That’s imagination,” protested Mrs. Hesketh. “Dorothy knows we are badly off for performers, much less stars. It isn’t as if this was to be a big public performance; there will only be the village folk that you see every day, the parson, the doctor, and myself. Now, Letty, look me straight in the face and tell me, do you wish to give these poor people a little pleasure? Will you sing? There must be no shilly-shallying—it’s yes or no—now.”
“Then,” lifting her laughing eyes, “yes.”
“That’s right. Just go over to my writing-table and write a note to Mr. Denton, and tell him that you will sing two songs with pleasure—you can drop it at the Rectory as you pass by.”
Letty rose and did as she was told, with her usual docile obedience, and presently returned with a note in her hand.
“Ah-ha!” said Mrs. Hesketh, giving her a sharp look, “thus we have planted the first seed!”
Saturday evening arrived, the Parish Room was packed to the doors and window-sills, and there was a good deal of clapping when Miss Glyn, radiantly pretty in her white school frock, was led upon the platform by the Rector. Her aunt, sitting in the front row, looked distinctly grim. Letty’s instinct was correct; it was true that she had been fiercely if secretly opposed to this exhibition! she did not wish to see the girl brought forward—at least not yet: Colonel Fenchurch, on the other hand, was the embodiment of triumphant expectation, and was prepared to lead the claque.
When the prelude on the battered village piano had ceased, Miss Glyn opened her pretty mouth, and began to sing “The Sands of Dee.”
Her voice was exquisite; honey-sweet, and full of restrained passion. She gave this most beautiful tragic song, with extraordinary dramatic expression, and yet in a simple, natural fashion, from the authoritative—
“Go, Mary, call the cattle home,”
till where the last words died away in a tremulous, half-stifled sob.
When she ceased, there was an awestruck breathless silence; in fact, you might have heard the fall of the proverbial pin.
What sort of singing was this? people asked themselves. Something new; something that gripped your heart-strings, something wonderful! Then came thunders of applause, shouts and hammerings and stamping with sticks and feet, such as never had been heard within the walls of the Parish School-house, yells of ‘Encore!’ to which the singer smilingly acceded and gave them “Robin Adair.” Again her audience listened with rapture.
Mrs. Fenchurch was equally astonished, and annoyed, by the composure and aplomb of a girl who in every-day life was so timid and retiring. To-night, she presented the confidence and air of a prima donna of twenty years’ experience; but Letty was for once upon solid ground; she knew her own capabilities, and the radiant and acclaimed Miss Glyn, was a totally different individual from the timid, wistful girl, who suffered herself to be scolded and hustled about The Holt.
In short, that evening Miss Glyn made her name, not only as a marvellous singer with a voice which the baker’s wife—who had been to London—compared to Patti’s—but also as a beauty!
Her fame now gradually oozed through the stolid clay surroundings, and reached villages and market towns that were afar off. These learnt, that the prettiest girl in the whole country-side was a little slip of seventeen, who lived in Thornby village.
It was about this period that Mrs. Fenchurch began to feel seriously jealous of her bright and charming inmate; so popular with the neighbours, with the household, and last, but not least—her husband.
She hated to see her looking at him, or speaking to him, with eyes at once innocent and caressing; and as for Tom, he was simply idiotic about his niece; from time to time, he would come into her bedroom, dressed, or half-dressed, as the case might be, to rave of Letty’s perfections and beauty; to descant on her sweet disposition, and to wind up by declaring, “She’s like sunshine in the house.” The poor man was undoubtedly bewitched, and his enthusiasm received but a tepid acknowledgment. (If you really wish to know a woman’s bad points—praise her to another.)
His wife very solemnly and deliberately, enumerated the girl’s many failings. She was unpunctual, she was forgetful, she was untidy—and she was weak. As for him, he was too silly for anything, and was only making himself absolutely ridiculous, and the laughing-stock of the whole neighbourhood!
But as it happened few of the Neighbourhood (spelt with a capital N) had beheld Colonel Fenchurch’s young relative. County folk do not visit in winter; the great summer gatherings, at cricket matches, tennis, garden parties, and picnics, were over: friends and acquaintances, for the most part, met and exchanged news and gossip in the hunting-field, and for this reason the beautiful flower blooming at The Holt, was so far blushing unseen.
It was Letty’s daily task to take the dogs out for exercise; Sam, the apoplectic pug, Jerry, the impetuous Irish setter, and Locky, the aggressive Aberdeen. One afternoon, as she was plodding along through a muddy lane accompanied by her usual escort, she heard the horn in the distance, and presently the trotting of horses, who were evidently approaching rapidly. And yes, here, coming round a sharp bend, was the whole red-coated hunt.
She hurried into the field with her precious charges, and snatching up the snorting and bewildered pug, established herself behind the gate, from where she could safely watch the cavalcade, as it splashed and pounded by.
A stout, dark-eyed man on a magnificent horse, glanced at her casually, then stared hard—finally he looked back. This individual was Mr. Blagdon, who was enjoying a day’s run, and rather middling sport with the Brakesby pack. He was struck by the figure at the gate; a girl with a beautiful eager face, holding in her arms a struggling dog; but although he made prompt enquiries, not one among his many acquaintances could tell him the name of the young lady in the blue cloak, whom they had passed in Rapstone lane.
Christmas was approaching, and so far, Miss Glyn’s acquaintance was confined to the village of Thornby. Now and then her aunt and uncle went from home for a dine and a shoot, and on these occasions, Mrs. Hesketh took charge of the young lady, who was delighted to be her guest. At Oldcourt the atmosphere was reposeful, the surroundings subdued and luxurious, and life was leisured. Here it was seemingly ‘always afternoon.’ Letty was not sure that she would enjoy it as a permanence; perhaps there was too much of the hothouse in the air, but it was an agreeable change from The Holt, where it was figuratively a perpetual Monday, with a large washing on hand!
Cousin Maudie, an accomplished musician, encouraged her guest to practise, played her accompaniments, and delighted in her voice. Now Mrs. Fenchurch hated ‘squalling,’ had no ear, and was actually proud of the fact, that she only knew “God Save the King” by seeing people rise to their feet! Mrs. Hesketh also loved books, and the tables at Oldcourt were loaded with the newest and best publications, whether in magazine, pamphlet, or book form. Letty laid greedy hands on these, but her hostess prudently withdrew a certain amount—sociological and theological works—which were not suitable reading for Sweet Seventeen.
Letty admired—and loved—her beautiful (if rather faded) hostess, and the love and admiration were mutual. The new-comer had also made friends with the Vicar and his wife. Mr. Denton, a hale, active man of fifty, much praised by his own flock, and respected by others. Mrs. Denton, though she had lost the use of her limbs through sleeping in a damp bed, was her husband’s helper in the parish, and it was surprising what an amount of work, correspondence, and interviews centred round her sofa. She was a frail, delicate Irishwoman, with a sense of humour, a cheerful disposition, and a warm heart. Both she and her husband had taken a fancy to the ‘little girl at The Holt,’ as they called her. She reminded them of their own little girl, who had married and gone to India; to see Letty flitting about the drawing-room, or seated in Mabel’s chair, was a sight that gave them sincere pleasure. And the child was so simple and unaffected, she looked into one’s face with such sweet candid eyes, and was ever ready and glad to carry a message, sing, play, or read, to the invalid, keenly interested in little village events, and the weekly Madras letter—all she asked for in return, was to be liked!
In a surprisingly short time, this attractive stranger had entirely wound herself into the affections of the Dentons; her visits were not frequent, but on hunting days, after she had exercised the dogs, she would turn into the Rectory drawing-room, and pour out tea.
Immediately before Christmas, Mrs. Fenchurch, who was absorbed in her correspondence, sent Letty down to the Rectory with a note. When she arrived there it was still teatime, and she was surprised to find that Mrs. Denton had a guest, a good-looking young man, who appeared to find himself completely at home, since he was sitting on the end of the sofa, nursing the Rectory cat.
“Oh, Letty, so there you are!” said Mrs. Denton. “Let me introduce my nephew, Lancelot Lumley. He has come to spend Christmas with us. Lancelot, this is Miss Glyn—you have heard of her?”
“We have met before,” he said eagerly; “a couple of months ago, I think, in that railway shake-up?”
“Yes,” she assented, for here was the very travelling companion, who had worn the buffer coat, “in the train.”
“It might have been a bad business,” he continued, and described the incident to his aunt.
“I suppose it happened when you were on your way home?”
“Yes, I took first leave this year, and I’m sorry to say I have nearly come to the end of it.”
“And give us only two days, Lance—you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“The fact is, Frances wouldn’t let me off, and Colonel Kingsnorth lent me a hunter; we have had some ripping good runs.”
“Ah!” said his aunt, “I think it was the hunter that wouldn’t let you off.” Then, turning to Letty, she explained, “My brother-in-law, Lancelot’s father, has a living twenty miles from here, at a place called Sharsley; but he might as well be in London, for it’s so dreadfully out of the way. We don’t see one another half a dozen times in the year. This note,” holding it up to Letty, “is from your aunt; she says she is so desperately busy, that she can’t help with the church decorations. You know she has always undertaken the pulpit, she sends you as her deputy, and will supply the usual pots of palms and chrysanthemums. Lancelot,” looking over at her nephew, “I intend to make use of you—you and Miss Glyn must do the pulpit between you.”
“All right,” he answered, “I am agreeable, if Miss Glyn is; but let me warn you that I have no more idea of decorating than I have of making a watch.”
“I am afraid I am not much good either,” supplemented the girl; “I’ve had no practice.”
“Miss Glyn left school two months ago,” explained Mrs. Denton.
“Were you sorry?” enquired the young man, looking over at her.
“Yes,” then with a burst of artless honesty—“I have been to school nearly all my life.”
“She is coming out at the Hunt Ball early in January,” announced Mrs. Denton.
“Yes, and I won’t know a single creature at it!”
“Oh, your aunt will find you plenty of partners. You could not be in better hands. I feel sure she will make a most capable chaperon. It is miraculous how she manages to get rid of the most hopeless articles at bazaars. No one can resist her!”
“And you think she will get me off!” Letty laughed, and her laugh was joyous.
“Not a doubt of it! Sooner than see you sitting out, she’d dance with you herself. And about her note—so it is all settled, Letty. You will be down here at eleven o’clock to-morrow; bring a large ball of twine, and a pair of scissors, and Miss Hoare, the schoolmistress, will start you. Remember I shall expect you and Lancelot to turn out the most beautiful pulpit that has ever been seen in Thornby.”
“I can only say that I will do my best,” said Letty, rising.
“What! you are not going yet?”
“I am afraid I must. Aunt Dorothy has quantities of things she wants me to do this evening—there’s the ticketing for the Christmas Tree.”
“Oh, poor child, I don’t envy you,” said Mrs. Denton with upraised hands. “Well, in that case, I won’t detain you—Lancelot will escort you home,” and subsequently he and the young lady left the room together; she protesting, he assuring her that if she didn’t mind, he would be glad to make the stroll an excuse for a pipe. Strange to record, until that evening, Letty had never realised how short was the distance between the Rectory and The Holt! Here in the entrance hall she encountered her aunt; Mrs. Fen, who was overwhelmed with affairs, wore a frowning brow, and carried half a dozen parcels and a Directory.
“Who was that I heard speaking just now?” she enquired sharply; “it sounded like a man’s voice?”
“It was only Mr. Lumley, Mrs. Denton’s nephew; he walked home with me.”
“Oh, so he is here, is he?” she remarked over her shoulder, as she swept into the smoking-room.
“Is that Lancelot Lumley you are talking of?” enquired Colonel Fenchurch, who was reading. “I suppose he bicycled over to spend Christmas—they find it hatefully dull without Mabel. You’d better ask him up to lunch, or something.”
“I think at this time of the year, when one has so much to do,” and Mrs. Fenchurch shot a glance at her husband, and then at Letty, “people don’t expect to be entertained.”
“Of course not,” agreed the Colonel; “I expect Lumley to entertain me—you forget that he is in my old regiment. I want to hear how the old corps is getting along. To think that a boy who joined a few years before I left, is commanding them now!”
“Oh, very well, Tom, then do as you like—ask him up to lunch or dinner.”
“He is an awfully good sort,” Colonel Fenchurch explained to Letty; “one of my favourites—none of your ‘haw-haw’ chaps. His father is a poor parson, and this boy has worked himself on—getting scholarships; he passed first out of Sandhurst. I believe he scarcely cost old Lumley a ten-pound note—he’s the hope of the family—such a good——”
“There—there, Tom,” interrupted his wife, “that’s quite enough about young Lumley! He doesn’t interest Letty, or me. Now, Letty, I can’t have you standing idle, run away, take off your things, and go out into the laundry and help Fletcher to ticket the things for the Christmas Tree.”
It is extraordinary the amount of intimacy that can result from a mutual undertaking, in which two young people are engaged. After Mr. Lumley and Miss Glyn had finished the pulpit—which to do them justice was a work of great labour crowned with success—they felt as if they had been acquainted, not for hours, but for weeks. This impression was further strengthened when they met at dinner. Letty, wearing her plain white school frock, the young man looking handsome and well groomed in the regulation swallow tail. It transpired, that they had been engaged in decorating the church, and Mrs. Fenchurch and her husband might have been a little surprised at finding they already knew one another so well, had not the Colonel been absorbed in regimental stories, and Mrs. Fenchurch mentally composing an important letter, that was to go by that night’s post.
After dinner, when Colonel Fenchurch and his guest had each smoked an excellent cigar, the former said:
“Now you must come into the drawing-room and hear my niece sing,” and in spite of her aunt’s protestations that Letty had too much to do, and she could not possibly spare her, she was led to the piano and enchanted her listeners with two or three of Schumann’s songs, and Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” and the extraordinary impression that this beautiful girl had made upon a susceptible young man, was now complete.
Lancelot Lumley looked and listened in silence, and surrendered his heart without a further struggle, although he knew that it was absolute madness for him to think of Miss Glyn as anything but a star that dwelt apart! He had his way to make—she was penniless—her face, her lovely face, was her fortune.
On Christmas morning as he sat alone in the Rectory pew, his eyes often wandered across the aisle, in search of Miss Glyn. How her sweet voice appeared to rise and swell above all others; and to the infatuated lover it seemed, that the beautiful fair-haired girl, with the rapt, devotional expression, was the embodiment of a Herald angel! When the service was over, Lumley met his angel in the porch; here they exchanged seasonable greetings and received congratulations on their joint embellishment of the pulpit. Then, very late on Christmas night, Lumley ran up to The Holt to bid them all good-bye. He was hurrying home early the next morning, as his leave had nearly expired; but brief as this visit was, he found an opportunity to say to Letty:
“I hear you are coming out at the Hunt Ball the end of January? Perhaps I can get leave for it. I generally try to put in an appearance—you know it’s in my part of the world, and I see all my friends there.”
The real gist of these explanations and excuses was summed up at the end of the sentence:
“I say, Miss Glyn, if I do manage to turn up—will you keep a couple of waltzes for me?”
At which request the young lady coloured, and replied:
“Yes, with pleasure.”
By and by the little seed planted by Mrs. Hesketh began to peep above ground, and Letty Glyn’s will came to life. It made its first appearance on the arrival of certain patterns from London, and the question of a selection from among these, for a best afternoon, and two evening dresses. Mrs. Fenchurch was not disposed to allow her niece any choice in the matter. After looking at them critically, and fingering the textures, she said:
“The dark green will make you a nice afternoon frock; and you will want a smart black evening dress, and a ball-gown. Fletcher can make them all with a little assistance from Mrs. Cope in the village. For the ball dress, I fancy this white brocade trimmed with apple-green satin. How do you think that will look?”
“I don’t think I should care about it,” replied Letty.
“What!” exclaimed her aunt, staring at her in glassy amazement, “it would be charming. I remember I had a ball dress something like it years ago.”
“But fashions have changed since then,” objected the girl; “don’t you think a dress for a débutante should be soft, and all white, with perhaps a little silver?”
“Now, my dear, what can you possibly know about it?”
“Not much, I admit; we were very plainly dressed at school, and our clothes, I must confess, were dowdy, yet now and then, one had a chance of seeing what was worn—for instance, at the opera.”
“Do you mean on the stage?”
“Oh no, I mean the lovely elegant Court ladies that were in the boxes.”
“Then what is your own idea?” her aunt enquired sarcastically.
“I should like a soft white crêpe over white satin—with some silver embroidery on the body.”
“Yes, I daresay you would!” sneered Mrs. Fenchurch; “why the materials alone of such a dress would cost at least ten pounds.”
“I have ten pounds,” was the unexpected reply; then, colouring a little in answer to her aunt’s sharp interrogative glance, “uncle gave it to me for a Christmas box.”
For a moment Mrs. Fenchurch was speechless; she had never heard a word of this present, and to tell the truth, Uncle Tom when he placed the ten-pound note in the girl’s hand had said:
“This is just a little secret between you and me.” Now it was a secret no longer!
Mrs. Fenchurch’s feelings were altogether too much for her. She hastily collected her patterns, rose, and without a word flounced out of the room.
It seemed to Mrs. Fenchurch, that this simple schoolgirl was obtaining an extraordinary and disastrous ascendancy not only in the village, but in the household. The servants—little country chits, whom she had herself trained since they went out of pinafores—would do anything for Miss Glyn. Sam the pug (Mrs. Fenchurch’s own private dog) had handed over his heart to the girl, and attached himself to her exclusively—and as for Tom, he was her slave! It was Letty, Letty, Letty, all day; and when this girl began to make her appearance in a wider circle, would she, Mrs. Fenchurch—influential Mrs. Fenchurch—have to take a back seat?
It was also evident to Mrs. Fenchurch, that of late this interloper had developed in many ways, and was inclined to enter into conversation, and even to offer opinions! This sort of thing must be nipped without delay. Once she began to take an inch, it would soon become an ell—the inch, would be the selection of her ball-gown. It was too ridiculous that a girl of seventeen who had never been to a dance in her life, should dare to set up her taste in opposition to her own.
With a stern resolve implanted in her mind, Mrs. Fenchurch sat down and wrote off to London, ordering materials, which included the white brocade, and green satin trimming.
In two or three days the order had arrived, and after breakfast, she summoned Letty into her bedroom—a delightful chamber with large bow windows and bright chintzes, facing full south, and overlooking the lawns.
“You want to see me, aunt?” she asked as she entered (inwardly quaking) and awaited instructions.
In the long glass which faced them from floor to ceiling, Mrs. Fenchurch beheld the full-length reflections of her niece and herself; she, in a rough tweed gown, spare, weather-beaten, long-nosed, elderly; the girl, in a cheap blue serge, slim, erect, beautiful as the morning—and with all her best days to come! A sharp spasm of anger and jealousy darted through her mind. Alas! alas! Her own best days had gone by. She, Dorothy Fenchurch, was entering on the season of the sere and yellow leaf—and was conscious of an agonising self-pity.
“Oh yes, it’s about your ball dress. Here,” tearing open her parcel, “are the materials—they came to-day.”
It was undeniably a heavy and matronly brocade that she unfolded, and as for the green satin ribbon, whatever it might look at night, it was hideous by day!
“Oh!” exclaimed the girl, “so you got the brocade after all—and I have sent for the white crêpe.”
“You have sent for the white crêpe—without consulting me!” repeated Mrs. Fenchurch, speaking as it were in capital letters.
“Well, you see uncle gave me the money to spend as I pleased. The crêpe has come too, and is really lovely. May I show it to you?”
“No, I don’t want to see it! I am amazed at your daring to do such a thing as order a dress without my permission. One thing I can promise you, and that is, that it won’t be made up! You go to the ball—if you go at all—in a gown of my selection.”
“Then, I think,” and the girl became very red, “that I will stay at home. Yes—I should look too ridiculous.”
“You will look exactly as I choose!” declared Mrs. Fenchurch, suddenly losing her self-control; the smouldering resentment which had been gathering for weeks now bursting into flames; a strange, wild fury, all the long-pent-up grievances, annoyances, jealousies, finding outlet at last. It must be confessed that just at the moment, she was suffering torture from neuralgia in her face—the result of long rides in piercing cold, or damp evenings, when the day’s sport was over.
“May I ask if you understand your position here? Do you realise that but for me, you would be now out earning your bread as a nursery governess—are you aware, that ever since you were born, your father’s people have never given you a single penny, and that all the burden of your maintenance has fallen on us—or rather, I should say, on me? And here, instead of being grateful for a happy home, and for every luxury and indulgence, you are setting yourself up, and saying what you will wear, and defying me to my face. Go to your room—I hate the sight of you!”
Letty had listened to this bitter indictment with rapidly changing colour; she knew that her aunt had never cared for her; but that she absolutely hated her, and felt her to be a burden and an interloper, came as a revelation. She left the room in silence, and Mrs. Fenchurch, who was trembling with passion, snatched up the brocade, carried it into the maid’s working-room, and commanded her to lose no time about making it up for Miss Glyn. But afterwards, when she had cooled, Mrs. Fen began to realise that she had gone too far; for once in her life she acknowledged to herself, that she had said too much.
Colonel Fenchurch was surprised and concerned when he saw his niece at lunch with a very white face, and very red eyes. She ate scarcely a morsel, and seemed to find considerable difficulty in swallowing or speaking. On his wife’s brow there sat a heavy cloud, and he noticed the servants glancing significantly at one another—something had happened—there had been a blow up! But he, being a cautious and somewhat nervous little gentleman, talked about the weather and a lame horse, and withdrew as soon as possible into the shelter of his smoking-room; where he consoled himself with a recent copy of the Field, and a good cigar.
During the afternoon, Mrs. Fenchurch, having fortified herself with a large glass of port and quinine, climbed up to the top of the house, to make the amende to her niece.
“Well, Letty,” she began as she entered, “I am sorry we have had a difference of opinion; but I suppose you will allow that you are little more than a child, and that I am a woman of experience, and should know what should be done, and worn, better than yourself?”
Letty stood up, her lips twitched, and her eyes filled with tears as she answered:
“I am sorry, aunt, that you are displeased with me, and I—I—suppose I was impertinent. I meant no harm in sending for the crêpe dress, and indeed I thought it would save you buying my ball-gown.”
This was precisely the attitude of which Mrs. Fenchurch most warmly approved, and as the girl looked completely cowed, she said:
“I am sorry that I lost my temper—so let us make it up; and as you have bought the white crêpe, you shall wear it. The other will come in later,” and having offered, what she considered, a most remarkable concession, Mrs. Fen kissed her niece sharply, and walked downstairs. After she had departed, Letty stood listening to her descending footsteps; somehow her aunt’s footsteps, coming or going, invariably made her heart flutter like that of some terrified animal. When the last sound had died away, she flung herself down upon her bed. She didn’t care about the ball, or the crêpe dress—or anything! She was an interloper; no one wanted her. How bitter it was, to eat bread that was begrudged. In what shape or form could she ever find release?
It was agonising to reflect, that she might go on living month after month, and year after year, under the roof of a woman who had called her a pauper, and a burden.
The great day dawned at last; the day of the Hunt Ball, which took place annually in the Town Hall of Ridgefield, and was attended by everybody who was anyone—and many nobodies.
Letty’s white crêpe, completed with her assistance, was charming; soft, girlish, and yet distinguished—for her mental eye had copied it from one of the trousseau gowns of a young and royal princess.
Mrs. Fenchurch, who was not remarkable for her taste in dress, wore a ginger-coloured velvet, with opal ornaments; but she carried herself with dignity and looked a Claremont, and a personage! Colonel Fenchurch, in his pink coat, black satin breeches, and neat silk stockings, squeezed himself into the brougham, with many compliments for his two companions.
The town of Ridgefield was eight miles away, and as the family bowled along the road at a steady pace, the Colonel dozed, his wife meditated with closed eyes; but their niece all the time stared out on the brown hedges and bare ditches, which were illuminated by the flashing carriage lamps. Of what was she thinking? Was it possible that she was wondering if Lancelot Lumley would be at the ball?
The Holt party were somewhat late arrivals, and when the carriage drew up under an awning in front of the Town Hall, the first to step out and run the gauntlet of many spectators was Colonel Fenchurch. He had a remarkably well-turned leg, and looked particularly spruce. His wife followed with impressive deliberation, and last of all came the young lady in white. Her appearance was greeted with a loud murmur, as she floated up the steps in the wake of her relations.
As they left the cloak-room, Mrs. Fenchurch, who had received many greetings, was confronted with a lady in a superb sable cloak; a handsome woman with flashing black eyes, and wearing in her hair a magnificent diamond ornament.
“Oh, Mrs. Fen,” she exclaimed, “how are you? Going strong, eh?” Then her eyes suddenly alighted on Mrs. Fen’s companion, and she gave her a hard, critical stare.
“Ah, I suppose this little girl is the niece? going to take her preliminary canter?” and with a patronising nod, she passed on to the dressing-room.
Letty encountered her aunt’s eye, who, seizing her arm to lead her forward, said:
“That is Mrs. Flashman, a wonderful rider, but an odious, detestable creature, who slams gates, jostles you at fences, and swears at her horses, and her servants.”
Two minutes later, Miss Glyn found herself with a programme in her hand, standing in the ball-room. This was beautifully decorated, a military band was established in the gallery, and the sides of the room and a sort of platform at the upper end were densely crowded with guests. Others were promenading up and down impatiently awaiting the next waltz. Many neighbours had brought large house-parties, whose smart gowns and splendid jewels gave an air of London society to the Brakesley Hunt Ball.
Mrs. Fenchurch paced slowly towards the dais. On her way, she encountered several acquaintances, and introduced her niece to Lord Seafield—a thin young man with a very prominent nose and no chin—to Sir Edgar Broome, the M.F.H., and to the Dowager Duchess of Campshire.
Before ascending the platform, she was accosted by Lancelot Lumley, who came forward eagerly, programme in hand, and said:
“I hope Miss Glyn can spare me a couple of waltzes?”
Miss Glyn promptly produced her programme, and he scribbled his initials before three. The next, which was just beginning, the one before supper, and number twelve.
Mrs. Fenchurch looked on with glum disapproval. Three dances to an impecunious subaltern! But she could not offer any audible objection, and as the band struck up he said:
“Shall we make a start now before the room gets crammed?” and light as a feather the young lady was whirled away, and the elder was compelled to mount to the platform alone. But from this and other coigns of vantage, the extraordinary beauty of Miss Glyn was soon remarked. Indeed, her own chaperon, as she surveyed her through her best gold glasses, assured herself that she had never until now realised the girl’s astonishing good looks! Of course dress went a long way, so did youth—and candle-light; but Letty’s profile was perfect, her complexion, the shape of her face, the setting on of her head, were beyond criticism—and then her grace!
As Dorothy Fenchurch watched the white form revolving round and round, she began to experience an intoxicating sensation; the stimulating conviction was borne in upon her, that she had a valuable prize to offer in the marriage market!
Seen just at home, running about in her school frocks and garden apron, Letty was merely a pretty girl, with lots of hair, and a good complexion; here, in the midst of the magnates of the land, she was the beauty of the evening! People—her neighbours—gathered about Mrs. Fenchurch and began to talk, discussing local news, the recent weather, the various notable magnates who had honoured the ball.
“I say, Mrs. Fen, have you noticed the lovely nymph in white and silver?” enquired the Secretary of the Hunt. “I haven’t seen anything so exquisite for years; do let me show her to you?”
“There is no occasion, thank you, she is my niece, Miss Glyn,” proclaimed the uplifted aunt.
“What—your niece?” echoed a matron. “Why, my dear lady, where have you kept her all this time?”
“She has only been with us about two months.”
“And you have defrauded us of two months,” burst in a young man. “Mrs. Fen, how dared you?”
“No, no,” protested Mrs. Flashman of the bold eyes and a scandalously décolleté dress. “Mrs. Fenchurch is a clever woman. She understands the art of an effective surprise!”
By this time the music had ceased, and Miss Glyn, a little breathless and looking radiantly happy, was brought back to her aunt—now encompassed by a number of men clamouring for introductions. In the midst of this triumphant scene, a square-shouldered individual, perfectly groomed, with the blue of his strong beard showing through his heavy, clean-shaven face, stepped up on the platform. It was the psychological moment! Here was the girl he had noticed at the gate, surrounded by competitive partners, and he said to himself, “No wonder!” This dazzling vision in white and silver, eclipsed every woman in the room! He accosted Mrs. Fenchurch with unusual empressement, and then glanced interrogatively at her companion.
“Oh, let me present you to my niece—Mr. Blagdon—Miss Glyn,” she murmured with effusive haste.
“Got any dances to spare?” he asked with an off-hand air.
“Yes,” she answered; “I have two or three left—but——”
“Are you engaged for the next?” he interrupted brusquely.
As this happened to be a set of Lancers, she breathed a reluctant “No.”
“Oh, then I may have it?” he declared, confronting her with a bold and confident eye. As she yielded her card, he wrote himself down for this, as well as two others (which Letty had secretly been keeping for Lancelot Lumley). “H. Blagdon” was also marked before an extra; but a man with many thousands a year is granted a liberal margin. Mrs. Fenchurch was looking on; her eyes glittered, a real colour came into her thin cheeks. Supposing that he had taken a fancy to Letty? It would be too wonderful to think of! The most promising suitor she had allowed herself to expect was some officer from a neighbouring depôt; but then, until that evening, she had never fully understood the value of the treasure she had hidden at The Holt. Now, her ambition, determination, and energy, were stirred, and she was resolved that Letty should make a great match. Everyone knew that Hugo Blagdon ‘barred girls’: he never noticed them, never danced with them—indeed, he rarely danced at all—generally he sat in a remote corner with some notorious married woman—yet here he was, filling up the programme of her niece, and devouring her shy beauty with his hard, bold eyes.
Undoubtedly most people liked to look at Letty. Was there ever such a perfect little nose, such a short upper lip, delicately cut mouth, or sweeping black lashes?
Presently the Lancers struck up, and Blagdon, offering his arm, conducted his partner down the room, as it were in triumph; undoubtedly she was the star of the evening! As he passed along, he noticed that the eyes of everyone were fixed upon his companion. This was just the sort of girl that would suit him for a wife! a girl so remarkable, so absolutely perfect in appearance, that all the jealous world would stare at her open-mouthed.
Having invited an aristocratic vis-à-vis, they took their places in a set and danced. Blagdon found Miss Glyn shy—she had not much to say for herself. With difficulty he gathered that she didn’t hunt, had only lately left school, and was seventeen last birthday; but it was sufficiently agreeable for him to feel that she was the cynosure of all eyes, and that he was the envy of every man in the room!
Mrs. Flashman, who was in the same set, swam hither and thither in her gorgeous French gown, and now and then darted glances of sarcastic amusement at her friend Hugo and the little baby; and whispered en passant in the Grand Chain:
“Where is the bread and butter?”
The remainder of that evening was, from her aunt’s point of view, an uninterrupted triumph for Letty: a number of influential people had begged to make her acquaintance; envious and rancorous rivals—mothers of large families, had uttered spiteful things about Hugo Blagdon. He had taken her niece to supper, had only danced with her that night, and when not dancing, had posted himself where he could keep her in view—all of which signs and tokens even the most comatose chaperon could not fail to note! Oh, it was undoubtedly a case.
Had Letty enjoyed her first ball? She was not sure. She enjoyed dancing with Mr. Lumley and with various other young men; she enjoyed the band, and the ices, and loved dancing for dancing’s sake, but somehow there seemed to be between Mr. Lumley and Mr. Blagdon a sharp but secret conflict for her company. When she was swinging round in the arms of Mr. Lumley, she was aware that the other was watching them closely; and when it was Blagdon’s dance he stalked up and claimed her with an air of appropriation, that she found both disagreeable and disconcerting.
However she danced the last waltz that evening with the soldier—who informed her that he had come all the way from Aldershot on purpose to claim her promise! He was so good-looking, he had a charming voice and such nice eyes; little Letty’s heart beat quickly, and the colour came into her cheeks.
“Give my love to Aunt Harriet,” he said; “and tell her that I will run over and see her before very long, and stay three or four days.”
For a moment the girl felt ecstatically happy, inspired by an unreasoning joy and strangely moved and uplifted; but it was Mr. Blagdon who escorted her to have a cup of soup at the buffet before she departed, who stared at her with an expression that frightened her, and who conducted her down to the entrance hall through a long line of spectators. And never had Letty known her aunt to be so gracious, so affectionate, or in such talkative good-humour; she had actually called her ‘darling!’
“I hope you are well wrapped up,” she urged; “take care of your dress, darling.”
“And mind you take great care of her,” supplemented Blagdon at the carriage window. He held out his hand to Letty, kept hers an unnecessary length of time, and squeezed it painfully ere he closed the door of the brougham and they drove off. The last object she beheld, thrown into sharp relief by the glaring lamps and red carpet, was his hard, staring brown eyes, his stolid, complacent face, and she sank into her corner with a sigh of relief. Thank goodness she would never see him again!
She was to hear of him, however! On the way home her aunt loudly sang the praises of Hugo Blagdon, the richest man in the county. He had the most lovely place, and was so popular; he had travelled a great deal, and owned a yacht and a coach, indeed everything—just like a prince in a fairy tale. During all these eulogiums and dazzling descriptions Colonel Fenchurch maintained an unusual silence.
“What do you think of him, Letty?” he enquired at last.
“He dances well,” she answered carelessly, “though he soon gets out of breath, and has rather an old-fashioned step.”
“Well, there is not a woman in this part of the world that isn’t delighted to have him for a partner,” said her aunt, with an air of finality; then, changing the subject, she proceeded to discuss the ball in detail, from the decorations to the soup. Her remarks about the guests—especially girls—were not altogether generous; now that she had, so to speak, her own goods to offer, Mrs. Fenchurch was a merciless critic of the wares of others.
“Did you notice Lady Vera, Tom? She’s supposed to be a beauty, a tall, scraggy, spotty creature, with a wreath over her nose?” A pause. “And how can Mrs. Reed allow her daughters to be seen in such filthy frocks!—anything good enough for the country. Those poor Bradfields hardly left their seats—so humiliating for a chaperon to have her charges on hand all the time—what do you say, Tom?”
But Tom’s sole reply was a gentle snore.
Then, turning to Letty and stroking her arm, her aunt said:
“My dear child, you were perfectly right about the white crêpe, you looked charming—charming! I was proud of you!” and as she pinched her wrist, playfully, the girl, with the quick insight of youth, divined that here was an entirely different relative to the one who had told her she was a ‘pauper, and a burden.’ She now addressed her, as if she were an equal—and indeed there was actually a tinge of deference in her remarks. What did it mean?
The Belle of the Hunt Ball toiled up to bed tired and footsore at five o’clock in the morning. She had enjoyed the evening immensely, and yet she had not enjoyed it! On the one hand, there was the dancing, the good partners, the charming things people had said to her, and the agreeable inward conviction of having been whispered about, and admired; on the other, there was the rich man, with his staring eyes and brusque, imperious manner—and the inexplicable rise in the temperature of her aunt’s affection. What did it mean?
And still wondering, Letty tumbled into bed, and presently entered the land of dreams.
The morning after the ball, Letty was aroused from the profound sleep of youth and exhaustion by a stealthy, grating sound, and opening her eyes, to her amazement she beheld Jones, the under-housemaid, kneeling on the hearth-rug, intent on kindling a particularly sulky fire.
As she raised herself on her elbow, blinking and bewildered, the maid sat up on her heels and proceeded to explain the situation with glib volubility.
“Oh, miss, I’m sorry; the mistress gave orders you were not to be disturbed, and I was to light your fire; but there ain’t been one in the grate this forty year, and it’s a sore job. Hawkins is bringing up your breakfast.”
As she spoke, the door-handle turned and Hawkins entered, bearing with unusual pomp and circumstance a heavily laden tray. Letty rubbed her eyes. Was she still dreaming? Why were the two maids in waiting upon her? She was well aware that her aunt considered bedroom fires unnecessary, and breakfast in bed a slothful indulgence. She, however, dissembled her surprise, and accepted these unexpected favours with commendable composure.
Having nibbled at some buttered toast and swallowed a cup of tea, she sprang out of bed to search for her programme, and survey herself in the glass. In the glass she beheld an oval face, a pair of drowsy blue eyes, a pair of soft pink cheeks, and a mass of tumbled brown hair. Was she beautiful? she wondered. Mr. Blagdon had implied as much—indeed, more than implied. What bad manners to make blunt personal remarks! Well, his opinion was of no consequence; but did other people think her pretty? (Other people naturally included Lancelot Lumley. She confessed to herself that she would like him to admire her.)
Oh, how cold it was! She curled up her delicate little toes, and, programme in hand, plunged once more into her comfortable nest. Here she prepared to study at leisure the exciting contents of her precious card—no easy task. The card was covered with scribbled names, sketches, initials, stars, hieroglyphics, corrections—and yet, on the whole, it made agreeable reading.
In the midst of this interesting occupation the door opened very gently—the programme disappeared as if in the hands of a conjurer—and Mrs. Fenchurch advanced into the room showing all her upper teeth, a sure signal of unusual amiability.
“Well, my dear girl,” she began, “how are you to-day? Dead?”
“Oh no,” sitting erect; “I’m all right, thank you, Aunt Dorothy.”
“I thought you’d better have a good sleep after your first ball. My!” as her glance fell upon a tattered garment, “look at your poor frock!”
Yes, indeed, there was a large obtrusive rent in the skirt, and a streamer of ragged crêpe made no attempt at concealment. Yet instead of the expected sharp scolding, Mrs. Fenchurch merely remarked:
“How you danced! You could have filled your card ten times over. By the way, may I look at your programme? I see the blue tassel sticking out under your pillow.”
With much reluctance, and deep and guilty blushes, Letty produced the desired treasure and yielded it to her visitor, who was now staring at her so fixedly, that one would almost suppose that she beheld her for the first time! In her mind’s eye, Mrs. Fenchurch really was contemplating an absolutely strange niece! So this simple, timid, obedient, little schoolgirl, unconsciously possessed the fatal endowment, the wonderful, invincible power, that has moved armies and fleets. Unquestionably, Letty had the gift; and her relative was determined to turn it to the utmost advantage.
With the record of her niece’s partners in her hand, Mrs. Fenchurch seated herself, squarely, comfortably, and sociably on the bed, and proceeded to discuss the ball, and its incidents, with all the zest and vivacity of one of the girl’s own contemporaries.
“How well I remember my first ball,” she said meditatively; “I was so frightened my teeth actually chattered as we drove to it, and, after all, I enjoyed myself enormously. I wore white, of course, looped up with water lilies, and I remember a spiteful cousin asking me if they were not spinach and eggs! Girls are so jealous! Now let me see who you danced with—um—um—um——” nodding her head as her eyes travelled over the card. “Lord Deloraine twice—but, of course, he is married—and what about the Duke?” looking up quickly.
“I had not a dance left.”
“Who is V. K.? Oh yes, I know—the Austrian Attaché staying with the Beauvoirs. H. B., H. B., H. B. Oh, Letty! How often did you dance with Hugo Blagdon?”
“Two or three times,” she answered stiffly, having made up her mind to give her aunt no satisfaction with respect to this overbearing odious partner.
“He took you in to supper, dear, too,” continued Mrs. Fenchurch; “and, oh yes,” nodding her head and trying to look arch, “I saw you sitting together in the long corridor. Tell me, what did you talk about?” and she gazed into the girl’s face with a pair of penetrating asking eyes.
How Letty wished she would not stare at her in this fashion, and breathe through her nose. Positively her aunt filled her with sheer physical terror—yes, and repulsion.
“I really can’t remember, Aunt Dorothy. I think he said the supper was bad.”
“But surely he paid you some pretty compliment?” persisted her tormentor. “Come now?” she urged coaxingly.
“I daresay he did—I—I forget.”
“Did he say anything about coming over here to call?” and her tone was anxious.
“I—I’m not sure,” murmured the girl, who mentally writhed under this inquisition. Never in her life had she felt so mortally shamefaced and shrinking. She longed to pull the bedclothes over her head and hide herself away, from that inflexibly soliciting countenance.
Her reluctant replies were so vague and unsatisfactory, that at last her chaperon realised she could not get much out of Letty as yet—all in good time! Again she gazed at her niece long and thoughtfully, as though seeing in her a multitude of new possibilities; then, rising, she said in her brisk, every-day manner:
“I’ll tell Jones to bring up your bath water—it is nearly twelve o’clock,” and Mrs. Fen took her departure, leaving the girl with a grateful sense of pressure removed, and a happy consciousness of relief.
When, an hour later, the beauty of the Hunt Ball descended to the morning-room, she found herself still surrounded by an atmosphere of indulgence and affection. Her aunt handed her a novel to read; as a rule light literature was tabooed till nightfall—and at lunch Mrs. Fen helped her poor relation to the liver wing, and commanded Hawkins to give Miss Glyn a glass of claret.
When Hawkins had withdrawn, after serving the coffee, Mrs. Fenchurch cleared her throat and said:
“The Bonhams are having a young people’s dance this day week, and Lady Bonham has asked me to go over and take you, Letty, and stay all night. How would you like that?”
“It would be delightful—another dance!” and her eyes sparkled.
“I’ve been talking to Fletcher this morning, and she thinks that if I have Mrs. Cope up from the village she may be able to make the white brocade and the green cloth. I daresay you won’t mind giving a little assistance yourself?”
“No, indeed, Aunt Dorothy. I shall be delighted. I’m rather good at sewing.”
“Oh, here comes Cousin Maude.”
“Well, Letty, here I am,” said Mrs. Hesketh, as she entered. “I’ve come to hear about the ball, how everyone looked and behaved, what they wore, who sat out as wallflowers, or otherwise? and I particularly wish to see your programme. I haven’t had one in my hand for ten years. Where is it?”
“How tiresome,” thought the girl; one would suppose that her wretched little card was something remarkable.
The programme happened to be at the top of the house, and when Letty returned with it in her hand she found her aunt talking to Cousin Maude with unusual empressement. She was sitting close beside her on the sofa, pouring some important statement into her ear.
Whatever she was saying was interrupted by the entrance of her niece, who caught the words:
“Eyes for no one else!” Mrs. Fenchurch paused and nodded significantly at her companion, as much as to say:
“Of this—more later.”
“And so I hear your dress looked lovely, Letty, and that you had a great success. Now hand me over that programme,” said Mrs. Hesketh with a smile. “Ah, yes, I see every dance, and all manner of strange autographs and initials. I declare you ought to have this photographed! And so you enjoyed yourself very much, dear child?”
“Oh, immensely,” she answered, with a happy sigh; the little drawbacks were now fading, the strains of a delicious waltz were ringing in her ears, and she was floating round the room in the arms of Lancelot Lumley.
“And you are going to a dinner and dance this day week—why, you are getting quite gay!”
“Well, you see, Cousin Maude, I am ‘out’ now.”
“Yes, you have stretched your little wings and flown beyond the village into what is called the world. I wonder how you will like it?”
“Very much, I think, as far as I have seen.”
“And that amounts to one ball. What experience!”
“Letty has not seen much,” admitted Mrs. Fenchurch; “but our little world has now seen her,” and she smiled complacently. “Ah, there is Wilson, of course, somebody wants me. Oh, I really never have five minutes to myself. I expect it is about the carpenter. Don’t go away before I come back, Maudie,” and she bustled out of the room.
“Now, my dear child,” said Mrs. Hesketh, dragging her down beside her on the sofa, “tell me really and truly, all about last evening. Was it as nice as you expected?”
“And which of your partners did you like the best? Come, honour bright.”
Letty reflected for a moment.
“As far as dancing went, there was an Austrian Attaché who danced like a dream—but, of course, I knew Mr. Lumley before.”
“And what of Mr. Blagdon?” enquired her friend with a searching look.
“Oh, he was rather heavy, and easily tired and out of breath—of course, he is old.”
“Old! Why, I don’t believe he is a day more than six or seven and thirty, the prime of life! Apparently Lancelot Lumley and Mr. Blagdon were your two most favoured partners—but, my dear girl, I cannot allow you to have anything to say to either of them.”
Letty burst into a ringing laugh: her laugh was spontaneous and delightful.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“One is too poor, and the other is too rich.”
“But, Cousin Maudie, surely one doesn’t think of such things as future husbands—just at a dance?”
“Oh, well, I don’t suppose that you do,” and she turned away and stared into the fire. For several minutes she did not speak, then at last she said:
“You must promise never to take a fancy to anybody without giving me due notice, and the next time you go to a dance you are to leave your heart with me. You shall have it back with interest.”
“I don’t think I have that kind of heart. I’m afraid my heart is hard; I don’t care for many people; but I am very very fond of uncle and of you—and of Sam.”
“And where does your aunt come in?”
“Well, you see, Aunt Dorothy is not—er—my own aunt. I don’t fancy that she has much sympathy with girls—her mind is taken up with other things.”
“Yes, she is a born administrator and manager; not merely of her own affairs; she has a wide horizon. I believe one of her ancestors must have been a Prime Minister. Doodie is ready to take a hand in anyone’s life, and at a moment’s notice. Supposing a stranger were to fall ill in the village, she would come forward at once, find them a nurse and doctor; if they died, wire to their friends, arrange for the funeral, buy the grave, and see that they were laid in it! In your case, she is not contemplating a funeral—but a wedding!”
“I—I—don’t understand,” stammered the girl.
“Don’t you, my simple darling? Well, there is one fact that you may possibly grasp—your aunt is monstrously proud of you; the Chippendale sideboard, and the three-year-old thoroughbred are for the present languishing in the cold shade. Ah, here she comes!”
The white brocade (trimmed with lace instead of the despised green ribbon) was completed in good time, and Letty and her aunt, with their luggage on the carriage, drove off to Bonham Court in high spirits. It was a large, rambling old place, occupied by a childless couple who had a passion for the society of young people. First of all, there was a merry gathering at tea in the big hall. Here Mrs. Fenchurch was agreeably surprised to recognise Mr. Blagdon, who welcomed her and her niece with flattering cordiality.
At dinner pretty Miss Glyn was his vis-à-vis; she was placed between two boys—an Etonian and a young fellow lately gazetted to the Guards—and they appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely. He had every opportunity of studying her at his leisure, ignoring his partner—who noticed, with smouldering resentment, that his whole attention was devoted to the little girl opposite—a Miss Glyn that everyone was talking about. She certainly had a wonderful complexion—if it was her own!—and a profile, clear cut as a cameo—yes—and youth! The neglected lady asked herself if it could be possible, that this hopelessly dull parti, who sat beside her drinking glass after glass of champagne, was thinking seriously of that simple and innocent child?
After dinner there was dancing in the great hall. Mr. Blagdon danced several times with Letty, and she found him less formidable than on the former occasion, not so grand, detached, or condescending. She liked him better, or to put it more correctly, disliked him less. He now talked as an ordinary partner, and not as a far-removed magnificent potentate; spoke of his dogs and horses and gardens, and hoped that she might one day see them!
Subsequently he made himself conspicuously attentive to Mrs. Fenchurch, sat out with her, and engaged her in a long conversation in the drawing-room, promenaded by her side in the picture gallery, and finally conducted her to supper. This, to the experienced, was a registered symptom that the great Blagdon had intentions respecting the lady’s niece! and the same happy matron, as she sat beside him at table, had much ado to quench the exultation in her face.
The following afternoon the party broke up, and the gay and cheery company that sped Letty and her aunt, little guessed how the girl shrank from the impending and enforced tête-à-tête in the family brougham. She dreaded the ordeal as if she were about to undergo some painful physical operation; with all her muscles tense, and leaning far back in her corner, she submitted, whilst her companion, in her most insinuating voice, so to speak, put the question or questions, in return receiving, it must be confessed, very brief, and crooked answers.
The hall door stood wide as they drove up to The Holt. Standing on the steps in the full light, Colonel Fenchurch shouted a hearty welcome.
He backed into the hall in front of the arrivals, talking all the time.
“Missed you both desperately—no piquet—no music—ready to hang myself last night. I say, I’ve kept the toast and scones warm inside the fender—tea will be ready in a jiff. Lots of letters for you, Doodie.”
As they entered the warm, well-lighted drawing-room, he turned about to face the ladies, and noticed that his little girl looked brilliantly pretty, as she laid her cold cheek against his, and said:
“Such a delightful party, Uncle Tom, and one of the Barrons—Sophy—was at my school.”
Yes, he said to himself, it was nice for the child to mix with young people of her own age—it did her good.
When tea was over and uncle and niece found themselves alone, she came and sat on the arm of his chair, and rattled off an amusing description of her visit, and repeated for his entertainment many of the jokes and anecdotes that had been bandied about among the company: enumerated the names of the guests, and even of the Bonham house dogs, but made no mention whatever of the great Hugo Blagdon.
Mrs. Fenchurch felt unusually elated: being firmly persuaded that she was about to have the glory and gratification of setting in motion a triumphal drama of real life; and the morning after her return she sought her husband in the smoking-room, generously resolved, that he, too, should have a share in her glorious expectations.
Having carefully closed the door, she came and stood by the fire, and said in a low and almost awestruck voice:
“Hugo Blagdon was there, Tom. I was so surprised!”
Her husband put down his pipe, and stared at her stupidly.
“Why, what is surprising about him?”
“Oh, nothing, except that he is immensely struck with Letty; he as much as told me so.”
“Did he, indeed!” sitting erect. “I don’t think my little Letty would suit him at all.”
“You will allow, Tom, that he knows best; a man of his age has some idea of the sort of girl he admires by this time!”
“Humph!” he grunted, “I have never known him admire a girl yet—it’s always been the married women he runs after.”
“That run after him, you mean,” she corrected. “Well, I think he has made up his mind to settle at last.”
“I hope to goodness he hasn’t made up his mind to settle on my niece. For one thing, he is twenty years older than she is—if not more—a blasé fellow who has knocked about the world and been his own master (and, by all accounts, a bad one) since he was sixteen. Why the stories about him and Mrs. Corbett—scandalous stories—are common property.”
“He is a very good sort—if no saint,” declared his wife. “I know you have a prejudice against him—because the Lumleys don’t like him, and you like the Lumleys; but you cannot deny that he is popular?”
“A man with forty thousand a year is bound to be that,” growled her husband.
“He is extremely liberal, and subscribes to everything,” continued Mrs. Fenchurch. “I believe Letty would be the most fortunate girl in England, if she was Mrs. Blagdon. He is certainly thinking of marrying—for the place is entailed, and if anything were to happen to him, every acre of the property would go to a cousin in New Zealand, whom he loathes.”
“And you think he is going to take a wife, if it is only to spite his cousin, eh, Doodie?”
“I think, my dear Tom, that you are in one of your funny tempers this morning—you smoke too much, or you have got a chill on your liver,” and she patted him lightly on the head. “Why, you ought to be enchanted at your niece’s prospects! She is just the sort of little thing that will take to wealth and luxury, like a duck to water.”
“Since you go to the poultry-yard for your similes, it’s my opinion, that you are counting your chickens before they are hatched. What has put this ridiculous idea into your head? Has he said anything?”
“No—not in so many words—but he is coming over here to lunch on Friday.”
“To lunch——for what?” he demanded, and his tone was sharp and inhospitable.
“He says,” she hesitated for a moment, “he says, he has heard a great deal of our—chrysanthemums.”
“Twenty miles’ drive to look at half a dozen pots of chrysanthemums! Bah!” and Colonel Fenchurch sprang to his feet, snatched up his cap, and went out of the room.
For one whole week the post-bag carried to Mrs. Fen a sharp disappointment, instead of an expected letter. In the course of certain promenades and tête-à-têtes at Bonham Court, Blagdon had accepted the lady’s warm invitation to come and see them, and promised to fix his own day; indeed the last words he uttered, as he pressed her hand in a significant farewell, were:
“I will write.”
This encouraging pledge had maintained certain buoyant hopes, but now these hopes began to sink, and fears to rise.
By most exasperating ill-luck, Mrs. Fenchurch was engaged to attend a function in London—the wedding of a niece, who was making a marriage that reflected credit on the whole connection. She had forwarded a handsome gift (one of her bargains), and angled for an invitation to spend a week with a relative in Portland Place, in order, she declared, “to help dearest sister Cecilia and see the whole ‘thing through.’”
Carefully matured plans, laid weeks ahead, were on this occasion too previous; but how was the unhappy woman to know that by her absence from home at the critical moment, she was risking the prospects of an alliance that would throw Cecilia’s paltry triumph into the cold, cold shade. The baffled chaperon looked worn and worried; her condition communicated itself to others. She complained of neuralgia—Mrs. Fenchurch’s neuralgia was an ailment to be feared—these were uncomfortable days for her household: everything seemed to go wrong: servants, dogs, appointments, and clocks.
But in her aunt’s anxieties respecting Hugo Blagdon, Miss Glyn had no share; indeed, she scarcely cast a thought to that important personage. On the other hand, it must be frankly admitted that her mind was too frequently occupied by Lancelot Lumley.
Although the school at Dresden was notably strict et bien surveillé, nevertheless the Teuton atmosphere breathes romance and sentiment, and a certain amount of this had penetrated through the secluded walls of Madam Franck’s establishment; girls whispered to one another of love’s young dream, yes, and of—lovers. Also, in the vacation spent in Dresden, Letty had read not a few selected novels, including those by Sir Walter Scott, Mrs. Gaskell, and Miss Young. As for her favourite heroes, she was divided between Sir Guy Morville and Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Since she had made Mr. Lumley’s acquaintance, Wilfred the Palmer bore away the palm. The fresh imagination of Sweet Seventeen discovered a remarkable resemblance between the twelfth-century crusader, and the smart young officer of the present day—both had grey eyes, and crisp light hair, both were soldiers and bold horsemen. Besides certain attributes shared with the disinherited knight, Lancelot Lumley danced admirably, had an infectious laugh, and a delightful personality, that set one immediately at ease.
As she compared his light, active figure and clean-cut, tanned face, to her aunt’s beau-ideal, Mr. Blagdon, with his ponderous form, brick-coloured countenance, and heavily scented person, the young lady threw up her chin with a gesture of scornful disparagement. She recalled Lumley’s glance of profound interest and respectful homage, and then thought, with a shudder, of Blagdon’s insatiable black eyes—these looked as if their owner, like some fabled monster, was prepared to devour her alive! Miss Glyn had only met Mr. Lumley on five occasions, and yet she remembered almost every sentence they had exchanged—especially what he had said—oh fatal, fatal symptom in the case of a maiden, who has never yet encountered an object on which to lavish the overflowing tenderness of a warm and innocent heart. Secretly, she looked forward to their next meeting; she liked to hear of him (already ‘Him’ with a capital). His name casually mentioned, caused her pulse to flutter and her colour to rise. At the Rectory, she listened thirstily to tales of Lance’s boyish scrapes, and Lance’s successes; anecdotes of his generosity, unselfishness, and courage, were poured into the girl’s enchanted ears—for next to Mabel the boy was a favourite topic, and to talk long and copiously to a sympathetic companion, was one of the invalid’s few remaining pleasures. Meanwhile, the girl mended lace, or made neat covers for books in the parish library, and absorbed many intoxicating impressions.
By a curious coincidence, the day and hour of Mr. Lumley’s arrival and Mrs. Fen’s departure were simultaneous; indeed, they actually met on the little platform at Tatton, the lady, encumbered with a goodly quantity of luggage, queer-shaped domestic parcels, and even returned empties. All these were, however, the care of Tom, and she hurried off to take her ticket; as she turned away from the window she was accosted by, of all people, young Lumley! How good-looking he was, she noted fretfully, and what on earth was bringing him to Thornby again? Could it be Letty? She must have a word with Tom at once; he was on no account to invite Lancelot to The Holt, not on any pretext whatever. Meanwhile, she extended a stiff hand, and said:
“What, back already! How do you manage to get all this leave? It looks as if they were able to spare you!” and she smiled disagreeably.
What the deuce was the matter with Mrs. Fen? Lumley wondered; and they had always been such pals—why had she her knife into him? (Mrs. Fen confessed to a weakness for young men, and even allowed herself to be chaffed about ‘her boys.’ She liked them to hail her at Meets, jog beside her from cover to cover, could make herself agreeable at a ball supper, and had been known to sit out. Young fellows looked on Mrs. “Fen” as a good sporting sort, with no nonsense about her, she had even been consulted on delicate affairs; and more than once, her unsuspected finger had been busy in other people’s pies!)
“I’ve only got a few days,” he began. “Hullo, here’s your train! Why, it’s gone mad, it’s punctual! I’ll look after you all right—let me have your dressing-case and traps. Come on,” and before the unfortunate lady could protest he had seized upon her bag and was running along the platform.
“Where’s Tom?” she screamed as she hurried in his wake. “I particularly want to speak to him—I must see him. There he is on the bridge talking to Major Bassett! Oh, he is never in the way, when he is wanted.”
“Here you are,” cried Lumley, wrenching open a door, and bundling her wraps and parcels into an empty carriage. “Got it all to yourself. Great luck!”
He was really too officious: Mrs. Fen’s sharp eye had detected the Countess of Hopeland in another compartment, and they could have travelled up together so sociably and comfortably.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!” shouted the guard sharply: the traffic at Tatton was insignificant, no need to delay.
“I see you have a foot-warmer,” said the irrepressible Lumley. “Can I get you anything?”
“If you could get hold of Tom,” standing up as she spoke; “it’s most important!”
Tom by this time was approaching at the double, but the train was moving too.
“I say, can’t I give him your message?” asked Lumley as he kept pace beside the carriage door.
“No, no, no!” snapped the lady with irritable impatience, and it seemed to the good-natured and bewildered young man, that the last look he received from Mrs. Fen, had been positively malignant and menacing!
Colonel Fenchurch was delighted to meet Lancelot Lumley, whom he had known from boyhood and helped into his own corps. He gave him a lift to Thornby, enjoying en route a full budget of regimental news; and when he deposited his passenger and portmanteau at the Rectory, invited him to The Holt that same evening to take pot luck.
It was a memorable occasion. Miss Glyn in white and blushes, occupied her aunt’s place—a lovely vice-reine. The menu was excellent—Letty had taken particular pains with the flowers, and candle-shades, as well as her own toilet,—though her fingers shook unaccountably as she did her hair, and endeavoured to fasten maddening hooks that attached themselves to everything but their corresponding eyes, as if they were alive and possessed! However, the result of the toilet was all that could be desired, and the timid hostess descended to the drawing-room. With the first laugh her tremors vanished, and somehow the absence of the Lady of The Holt contributed to the ease and gaiety of the little gathering. Conversation flowed uninterruptedly, laughter was frequent and hearty, and the rose-shaded candles illuminated a thoroughly congenial trio. The Colonel related old stories,—now undismayed by his Dorothy’s frowns,—and drank two glasses of port; the pug was made happy with a bone, Letty put her elbows on the table and chattered like a schoolgirl, remained whilst the men smoked, and subsequently in the drawing-room delighted them with her songs. Lancelot Lumley hung over the piano (and the Colonel dozed by the fire, with Sammy the pug, also dozing, on his knee) absorbing music and love—it was without exception the most glorious evening he had ever spent!
Before the guest took his departure, various agreeable plans were laid for future meetings.
“Mind, you must drop in whenever you like, Lance,” said his host as he accompanied him to the hall door. “You know your way here—come up to lunch to-morrow at one sharp, and we will all go skating on Barnby Mere. I hear the ice is first-rate.”
The next afternoon’s post brought the Colonel a letter from his wife; it was short, urgent, and very much to the point. When he had read it, he tore it up thoughtfully and placed it in the fire; only to Mrs. Hesketh, when she dropped in to tea, did he divulge the contents. In reply to her question, “Heard from Doodie?” he answered:
“No—er—yes—just a line—I say, Maudie, it’s a bit awkward—she bars young Lumley, and I’ve been asking him to look in whenever he pleases. Now I’m not to let him put his nose inside the door!”
In reply to the lady’s elevated brows, he added:
“The fact of the matter is, Doodie’s afraid the boy might take a fancy to Letty.”
“And, of course, no subalterns need apply! I see; well, I believe that you are locking the door, when the steed is stolen.”
“What, you don’t mean that—it’s one of your jokes?”
“No, indeed, I’m in deadly earnest; but you must do as Doodie wishes.”
“He’s a nice young fellow, as keen as mustard, and straight as a die; and I’m fond of Lance.”
“So am I,” assented Mrs. Hesketh. “Wouldn’t they make an ideal couple!—so young and honest, and good-looking—but naturally we must not think of it. Where are they now? Together?” and she glanced at her companion with whimsical dismay.
“Yes, they went off to the skating after lunch. I intended going too, but I’ve a touch of gout.”
“What, all the way to Barnby Mere—alone? If Doodie knew, she’d have fit after fit.”
“No, no; I believe they were to call for Denton. But I say, Maudie, I’m rather in a hole, I’ve asked the fellow to shoot to-morrow, and to dine.”
“I’ll take him off your hands for dinner,” she answered with short decision, “the shoot can stand over. We must manage somehow.”
As Mrs. Hesketh walked through the village in the frosty January night, she heard two voices approaching; and presently Letty and her escort came into view. They had deposited the Rector at home, and were en route to The Holt, unaware that its door was now, figuratively, barred against this undesirable Guest.
Moved by a sudden impulse, she resolved that her own house should stand wide for him, and for Letty. Yes, in spite of Doodie and Prudence! These two young people should have just one glimpse of Paradise, before the dust and tumult of the world overtook them.
Maude Hesketh was a clever woman, and it was marvellous how she contrived to arrange meetings without apparent effort, or giving cause for remark, much less gossip. She had a taste for psychology, for the study of character, and a charming romance unfolded under her own eyes was ten times more absorbing than any novel. She watched the swift and silent approaches of spirit to spirit, listened to the light raillery and random talk, that disguised much greater things—which so far remained unspoken. Letty and Lancelot were unaware that they were in the thrall of the all-compelling power, which insensibly draws youth to youth. But their hostess noted their happy faces, their tireless sociability, their frequent, and uncalled-for smiles.
To do Mrs. Hesketh justice, her friends were not altogether the mere victims of a cynical interest; in the core of a withered heart, long-forgotten emotions and sympathies were stirring. In the days of her exquisite youth, Maude Charlton, too, had a gallant, handsome, penniless lover; but when love had extended imploring arms she suffered ambition to restrain her, and accepted instead of a heart’s devotion, middle age, position, and wealth. He, the abandoned, had gone to India and there shortly afterwards died. Often now, in the barren autumn of her life, did her thoughts turn to Lawrence Ormond—her heart ached and ached, as she thought with wet eyes, of his neglected grave in some sun-scorched up-country cemetery. Thirty years had elapsed since three volleys had been fired over that shrunken mound, and he was now forgotten by all. Mrs. Hesketh had a habit of whispering to herself, scraps of poetry, lines that she admired, and that dwelt in her memory, and as she recalled her young dead lover, she would murmur the appropriate quotation:
“Forget not Earth thy disappointed ones,
Forget not the forgotten.”
Then would brush away a tear that trickled down her cheek, and exclaim:
“You silly old woman; your mind is wandering—don’t drivel!”
Nevertheless, the spell of the past held her; and her cynicism was but skin deep. As an officer’s wife, knocking about the world with Lawrence, fighting its battles by his side, making the best of things, and seeing life in its wider aspect, she might have been a happy woman—and he still living. She had seen a letter from an army surgeon, in which the writer declared that Ormond had a splendid constitution, but made no fight. He seemed to have lost all interest in life, and to be glad to go out of it, and therefore fell an easy prey to the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and whose name is Cholera.
As Maude Hesketh crouched over her fire, dreaming of her youth, she asked herself why should not Lance and Letty benefit by her experience, and have their chance? This girl had no ambition, no extravagant tastes. Lancelot was clever and steady, and by all accounts bound to get on. If he only had his company, once in India, with a little help they could manage to scrape along. She would contribute a canteen of plate, all the house-linen, and a cheque.
And what about Doodie Fenchurch? demanded a sharp, inward voice, Doodie, whose head was filled with dazzling plans. Was she strong enough to withstand her masterful cousin and uphold the girl for the sake of sentimental memories and the ashes of her own long-dead romance? Alas! to this question, her mental reply was a prompt and unqualified ‘No.’
Her conscience now took Maude Hesketh in hand. She had indulged herself unwarrantably, she had enjoyed bringing the two children together in order to contemplate their happiness for her own gratification, and they would ultimately be called upon to pay for her entertainment—because she was a coward.
The few days’ leave had gone like a flash, and the end of the week found Mrs. Fenchurch at home, where, to borrow a military expression, ‘all were present and correct,’ although Tom was a little gouty and Letty looked pale—she must get her a tonic. Young Lumley had departed, Mr. Blagdon had not yet appeared—so far the coast was clear, and all was well!
Perhaps if Mrs. Fen had been behind the scenes she might have modified her opinion; but she did not know of those delightful skating parties on Barnby Mere. Letty and Lancelot skated admirably, better than any other couple; and skimmed round together at a racing pace, with the frosty air stinging their faces, the bright red sunset giving a colour to the cold, wintry scene. How was she to know of that evening at Oldcourt, when Letty sang Tosti’s “Good-bye,” with thrilling pathos, and Lumley, sitting in the shadow, had listened with folded arms, and a face of rigid pallor? How could she dream of their last walk with the Rector and Mrs. Hesketh, when they two lagged behind, at the crooked bridge in order to watch the gorgeous sunset, and Lumley said in a strange, husky voice:
“I’m off to-night—God knows when we shall meet again—but you know, Letty; you know——”
Letty’s heart leaped at the sound of her Christian name. She looked away, fixing her gaze on a great clump of snow-bound rushes, and awaited the end of the sentence with a thumping pulse. He was about to tell her what she longed to hear; but Lumley hesitated and controlled himself,—biting back words that crowded to his lips. He had all but succumbed to a fierce temptation to assure this little girl that he adored her.
Then came the voice of the Rector through the thin, frosty air, calling in a high, clerical monotone:
“Come on, come on, Lance; you have no time to spare! come on—come on.”
And they turned to obey this summons without a second’s hesitation, for though no word—no word of love—was uttered, the silence had spoken; the long self-conscious silence between these two young people—and silence can be eloquent!
The afternoon after her return from London, energetic Mrs. Fen descended on the Rectory, in order, she declared, “to tell poor dear Amy Denton all her news,” but in reality to establish a plain understanding with respect to young Lumley. If he were to be continually running to and fro and hanging about Thornby, he might put foolish ideas into Letty’s silly little head. She therefore determined to take time by the forelock, and oust him, not merely from her own abode, but also from the village!
Pale Mrs. Denton, blissfully unconscious of her errand, welcomed her neighbour with her usual sunny smiles.
After a gorgeous description of the trousseau, presents, the wedding gown, and the wedding guests, Mrs. Fen suddenly paused, and taking, so to speak, a long breath, resumed in her most trenchant and impressive manner:
“And now, dearest Amy, I have something very important to say to you; it’s about your nephew—and my niece.”
As a rule, Letty was ‘my husband’s niece,’ but now Mrs. Fen saw the bright day approaching when she could claim her not only as niece, but adopted daughter!
“You mean Lancelot and Letty?” said Mrs. Denton in a constrained voice.
“Yes; a stitch in time saves nine, and I want you, dearest Amy, to grant me a favour, and not invite Lancelot here for some months. When idle young people are together, they have little to do but flirt, imagine themselves in love, and get into mischief. They are so tiresome, and often bring no end of misery on themselves and others.”
She paused for a moment, but Mrs. Denton merely nodded her head in feeble assent.
“You see,” pursued the visitor, “Letty is quite remarkable in the way of good looks—her face is, and must be, her fortune. We hope she may make a suitable match—in fact, to you, Amy, I know I may say in confidence, that one is already on the tapis.”
(Recently the frost had driven Blagdon to London; he had met Mrs. Fenchurch in Piccadilly and spoken to her for a moment—but in that moment he enquired for her niece.)
“As for Lancelot, he is on the threshold of what will, no doubt, be a brilliant career. By all accounts he is so clever, and well thought of in his profession. To hurl himself into matrimony and misery—for marriage without money is misery—to hamper himself with a wife—and family—would——” and her tone became solemnly prophetic—“be his ruin!”
“Yes, I suppose so,” meekly assented his aunt.
“You may be sure of it, Amy,” urged her friend forcibly. “You and I must be wise for these young people, and before matters take any form, let us keep them apart, for Lancelot’s sake. I know I can rely on your assistance. They are so ridiculously young—barely forty years between them.”
“That’s true, they are young,” admitted the invalid. “Too young, but surely they could wait? I know that the boy is the soul of honour, and nothing has been said.”
“I should hope not!” interrupted the ruler of Thornby, and her voice was sharp.
“But I believe he is deeply in love, that he almost worships Letty. Such an attachment keeps a young man so straight, and gives him a wonderful incentive to strive for success. Lancelot has done splendidly so far; he is well thought of in his regiment, he is studying hard, getting up Hindustani and Pushtoo——”
“Hindustani—Pushtoo!” broke in Mrs. Fenchurch impatiently, “he may get up what he likes, but he will never get my niece. She is the last sort of girl to follow the baggage wagon! Now,” laying a firm, detaining hand on the invalid’s shrunken arm, “please, don’t be romantic and impulsive, dearest Amy—you know your Irish heart is always too tender, and you are such an easy prey to beggars and impostors. I ask you to give me your help in working for the good of these two foolish children, and when I say good, I honestly mean it. As for years of indefinite waiting, letter-writing, and constancy, I set my face against that absolutely. I’ve known engagements—particularly where the man is in India—to drag on for years and years, and I certainly would not undertake to give Letty a home for such a time, especially if she was expecting to make a marriage of which I disapproved—yes” (second thought), “and her uncle too. And even if she were engaged to Lancelot for years, supposing he were to die? Such things do happen. Where should I be, then, with a disconsolate old maid on my hands?”
“Then what do you propose to do?” asked a querulous voice from the sofa.
“It is you, dearest Amy, not I, who will move in the affair.”
“Oh, impossible—out of the question,” she protested with waving hands.
“Yes, it is the most sensible and easiest solution. Were I to interfere, it would add fuel to the flame—if flame there be—and Letty is so devoted to you that she will listen to whatever you say, with patience and attention. You can tell her that your nephew’s regiment is next on the Roster for foreign service, and will not return for years and years.”
“But he is only going to Gibraltar and Egypt,” objected Mrs. Denton.
“And India,” amended the visitor in her most trenchant and matter-of-fact manner. “Assure her that his prospects are excellent, but that marriage would destroy them; that he has no money, and no thought of taking a wife——”
“I’m afraid that last would not be true.”
“Well, please say whatever you think best,” said Mrs. Fen irritably; “but do not leave one little chink of hope. Believe me it will be the truest kindness! When you reflect over what I have said, I know you will see that I am right.”
“Yes, Dorothy,” assented Mrs. Denton; “I am aware that you have more practical common sense than all the rest of us put together—but—there is something beside common sense, isn’t there?—love—constancy?”
“Oh, my dearest friend, the real name for your something is ‘Nonsense.’” Then, standing up and arranging her boa, she added impressively, “Surely, Amy, you have your boy’s interest at heart, and is it to his interest, that he should marry a girl who has not a penny piece, and comes of a notoriously consumptive family?”
She paused to allow this shaft to go home, and then continued:
“I’ll send Letty up to-morrow afternoon with that new book on gardening, and you might take the opportunity of having a nice little talk with her. Now good-bye, dearest friend,” and she stooped over the couch, kissed the lady with tender affection, and so departed. That was done!
For hours the same night Mrs. Denton lay awake miserable and restless, wondering what she could say to Letty, and how she was to say it; for it is a delicate task to tell a girl that she must put away all thoughts of your own nephew; and oh, how the poor cat’s-paw hated and dreaded the ordeal. And yet it must be faced—it would be, as Dorothy the wise had pointed out, a fatal mistake for Lancelot to marry before he got his company; and even then a girl without a penny would hamper his future. She must put sentiment from her, and think of Lancelot’s career.
Letty duly arrived with the book on gardens, and remained to make tea. After a little desultory talk about the bulbs, her terrified hostess broke the ice.
“I had a few lines from Lancelot this morning—he is back at Aldershot.”
At his name the girl coloured up, and looked expectant.
“I don’t think we shall see him here for a long time.”
“From Gibraltar his regiment goes on to Egypt, and India.”
“So he told me,” rejoined Letty with disconcerting promptness. “How I envy them; I would give anything to go to India, you know, I was born there!”
“Yes; it’s a wonderfully interesting country. My brother-in-law was in the Punjaub for years. I hope Lance will get some staff appointment; he is working hard, and in some ways foreign service has its advantages—at home, there are so many distractions—and temptations.”
“Temptations!” echoed Letty with a blank face.
“Yes, my dear, in the shape of pretty faces, and the danger of falling in love. But Lancelot is poor; he has only himself to rely on—he cannot afford to think of love—much less marriage. You see he is but twenty-three, and a subaltern; so it is best for him, as I say, to go to India—and”—suddenly dropping her voice—“forget.”
To this long speech there was no reply; the slender figure sitting with her back to the window never moved.
Stirred by some rash impulse the kind woman added:
“I believe he was growing fond of you, Letty.” The girl caught her breath. “But it would never, never do, and the less he sees and thinks of you the better. Poor fellow!” and she heaved a long sigh.
And what of poor Letty?
She struggled desperately to restrain her tears, to swallow an enormous lump in her throat, and to steady and clench her trembling hands; fortunately the light was growing dim and she wore a shady hat. At last she said in a clear, rather sharp key:
“Of course, Mrs. Denton, you know best;” and now came a great big lie: “Mr. Lumley and I were only friends—he never thought of me in—in—the way you mean.”
“I’m truly thankful to hear you say so, my dear,” replied the lady, who was intensely relieved. “Now, will you give me another cup of tea, and let us talk of something else?”
It was not easy for Letty’s shaking hands to pour out tea, and even more difficult to ‘talk of’ something else. The fragile invalid had just dealt her a shattering blow, and all the exquisite whisperings of her young hopes were crushed and silenced. Pride, the legacy of generations, now came to her assistance, and she discoursed of trifling village matters and the Ridgefield bazaar with true Spartan fortitude, whilst all the time a cruel, sharp-toothed fox, was rending her tender heart.
When at last she rose to go, Mrs. Denton drew her down and embraced her with unusual warmth and significance. It was such a comfort that the dear child had taken her talk in good part; and that night to her prayers she added a few words of devout thankfulness, and asked for a special blessing on Letty Glyn. “The girl was too young to realise or reciprocate Lancelot’s attachment; she was just a child, a dear, dear child,” and with this consoling reflection, Mrs. Denton closed her eyes, and slept the sleep of the just, and the justified.
But Letty, as she walked up the village that star-lit January evening, felt as if a door had been closed upon her, and that darkness had descended on the world.
Although she searchingly scrutinised her niece’s appearance, Mrs. Fenchurch failed to discover any trace of actual misery in face or attitude. Certainly Letty was pale; but the weather was exceptionally trying, and Mrs. Denton, who had been as good as her word, assured her that the child had taken her ‘little talk’ in the best part, and behaved beautifully!
Yet Letty, for all her outward composure, was absolutely wretched; her little glimpse into Paradise had been speedily eclipsed. So she must never think of Lancelot Lumley, nor he of her, and she now seemed to sit in a prison behind bars, and in outer darkness. Her only comforts were her uncle, with his cheery nature and his warm affection, and Sam the pug. Lancelot had liked Sam, and said he was ‘a good sort,’ and up in her own room she confided many sorrows to Sam, and laid her wet cheek against his velvet jowl, and dropped tears over his fawn head, whilst he snorted, goggled, and sympathised dog-fashion. Among her little circle, it was surprising how reserved and secretive Letty could be; the only one who divined her trouble, was eagle-eyed Mrs. Hesketh—who understood and marvelled at the little girl’s pride and fortitude. The lady also experienced some sharp twinges from a rather drowsy conscience. She had been wrong to bring the young people together, and now, as she half feared, they were paying. As a sop to her remorse, she presented Letty with a superb sable boa; but even this had no effect—positively it might as well have been rabbit skin! for all the girl seemed to care.
One evening Letty was returning from Oldcourt. Something its mistress had said, a little word and a sympathetic look, had touched her. She refrained herself until she was alone in the dusk, and then gave way to an outburst of tears—tears usually reserved for the night, and her own apartment. But now she wept openly and without restraint.
Fortunately there was no one to be seen, as she walked on past The Holt to the Crooked Bridge, and there sat down on the parapet, and had her cry out. Here on this very bridge he had called her ‘Letty,’ here on the same spot, she must make up her mind to thrust him out of her heart, and strangle her folly. Oh, it was folly; cruel, painful, aching folly! After a while she dried her eyes and proceeded to make her way slowly homewards—earnestly hoping that she might steal up to her own room unobserved; but Fortune, as usual, failed to befriend her.
As she crept past the drawing-room door it stood half open, and she caught a glimpse of her aunt sitting at the fire in a ruminative attitude.
“Is that you, Letty?” she called out. “What makes you so late? Come here, my dear!”
Aunt Dorothy was apparently in a good-humour—possibly the Duchess had called. Letty hastily glanced into the hall glass, straightened her hat, and rubbed her swollen eyes.
When she presented herself, Mrs. Fenchurch turned half round in her chair, and stared as if she could not believe her senses.
“Good God!” she exclaimed at last—in moments of violent excitement she borrowed the forcible language of her hard-riding brothers—“Where have you been? and what has happened?”
“Happened?” repeated the girl in a dull voice. “Nothing.”
“Come, there’s no use in telling me a lie—your eyes look as if they were set in red flannel, and your face is in dirty streaks!”
“I—I—I’m afraid I’m getting a bad cold in my head, Aunt Dorothy.”
“How sickening! Friday—and this is Wednesday. Well, you must go to bed at once, and take a large dose of ammoniated quinine. As for your dinner, it shall be gruel.”
“But really, Aunt Dorothy——” protested the miserable victim.
“But really, Letty, you are a hideous object,” interrupted Mrs. Fenchurch in her most inflexible manner. “Your nose is swelled to the size of a turnip. I’ve just had a note from Mr. Blagdon,” touching an envelope in her lap. “He is back at Ridgefield, now the thaw has come, and invites himself to lunch here on Friday, so I’ve barely two days to patch you up and make you fit to be seen. Now, my dear child, go off at once and bundle into bed as quickly as you can; I’ll bring you the gruel with lots of sulphur in it, within half an hour.”
Friday morning was a busy bustling time at The Holt, where elaborate preparations were on foot for the reception of an important guest.
Mrs. Fenchurch prided herself on her housekeeping, and boasted that she was always prepared for any emergency or visitor—were it the King! Nevertheless she now brought out the best dessert and coffee sets, the precious old family silver, and spent half an hour conferring with the cook. She had set Letty to arrange flowers, put on fresh chintz covers, and feed and incarcerate the dogs. Having issued orders to her husband with respect to the cellar, warned the stable-yard with regard to horses, she changed into her Sunday gown and best rings, saw that Letty wore the new green cloth—and behold all was in readiness.
Half-past one o’clock—two—half-past two—and yet Mr. Blagdon never appeared. Mrs. Fenchurch had ceased to cast surreptitious glances at the window, and her husband’s patience was exhausted. Without a word to his wife he rose and boldly dragged at the bell, and to the answering servant uttered one stentorian word, “Lunch!”
“I’m hanged if I’m going to wait for that fellow any longer,” he announced with the courage of a hungry man. “Just like Blagdon—inviting himself to honour us—you and Letty work like blacks, and he never turns up after all!”
“That will do, dear—that will do—don’t get excited,” said his wife, patting his arm. She was secretly furious with Blagdon. “He has made some mistake; however, there is capital mulligatawny, and now we will go and enjoy it ourselves.”
The housekeeper’s boast was well founded; her husband and niece thoroughly appreciated the good things intended for a non-arrival—indeed, Letty’s appetite was whetted by a sense of intense relief, but Mrs. Fen scarcely touched a morsel, being herself devoured by cruel misgivings.
The following afternoon as they sat at table, a smart yellow-wheeled Stanhope dashed up to the door with much crunching and spattering of gravel. It was driven by the belated Blagdon!
Colonel Fenchurch with a muttered oath, cast his serviette on the floor, and hurried into the hall to welcome the unexpected guest. Meanwhile, Mrs. Fenchurch rang the bell distractedly, gave orders for the ham (luckily uncut), grapes, Burgundy, and to make coffee at once; then, turning to Letty, she surveyed her with dismay.
“And you in your old school frock! Oh, it’s simply maddening, and I believe the drawing-room fire is out. Here, get up quickly, and sit at this side with your back to the light, and perhaps your old serge won’t show.”
Blagdon now entered, suave and well groomed, full of apologies and easy talk. To himself he remarked, that Fenchurch was a stiff-necked ceremonious old beggar, but he knew that Mrs. Fen was his friend! He had proposed himself as a visitor, partly to discover what sort of people the Fenchurchs were when at home, and also to see how the land lay, and if the girl was really as pretty as his memory had painted.
The lunch, although shorn of yesterday’s splendour, proved excellent; the wine first-class, the appointments, furniture, and old portraits, intimated that the Fenchurch family had handsome ancestors of taste and fortune. The topics discussed were chiefly hunting, the local pack and followers, other packs, and Mr. Blagdon, a hard rider (who, when he could not get over a country, went through it), gave vivid descriptions of runs with the Pytchley, and the Quorn.
After cigars and coffee the guest was conducted with much pomp and ceremony to inspect the chrysanthemums. Unfortunately the celebrated Holt gardens were now looking their worst; these were lovely in spring and summer, but at present, all the blooms were in the greenhouses, where, although not specially remarkable, the Japanese specimens made a respectable show. Personally Blagdon knew as little of a chrysanthemum as he did of a cauliflower—but he assumed a knowledge he did not possess; in his own bluff fashion he made himself agreeable to his hostess, and she (an able chaperon) arranged that he and Letty should have a few moments in the conservatory alone, whilst she ‘ran’ to give an important message to the head-gardener.
Alas, of these precious moments the great parti failed to avail himself. It was a bitterly cold, raw day, Letty had been all the morning indoors assisting to wash the china (and her aunt had been unusually snappy and unreasonable), the walk across the lawn had given her beautiful nose a tinge of pink, the girl’s gown was a shapeless, ill-made blue serge; her shoes were worn white at the toes, and she hadn’t a word to throw to a dog! The aunt did all the talking. If Hugo Blagdon had cherished any intention of taking the irrevocable step, this intention now died the death. He was sensitive and easily influenced by his environment, and the impression made on him by Miss Glyn at home, was distinctly the reverse of that made by Miss Glyn abroad. There, she was a well-dressed radiant beauty; here, a poor, shabby Cinderella, with timid eyes, and cold, red hands.
After a depressing round of the damp, wintry gardens, and a brief stay in the charming drawing-room, full of old cabinets, pastel portraits, Chippendale furniture, and other treasures, Mr. Blagdon offered a few vague and agreeable remarks, and begged leave to order his carriage.
When the bay steppers came prancing to the hall door, the visitor made a genial and general farewell, and so drove away. As the last rumble of his wheels was heard in the distance Mrs. Fenchurch turned and looked searchingly at Letty, as if she wished to ask her something. She fidgeted about the drawing-room, dusting little things with her handkerchief, taking up and laying down books; but before she could put her questions into words, her terrified niece had effected her escape. Mrs. Fen was well aware that Letty had her reserves, and for the remainder of the afternoon she sat alone over the fire, with a book in her lap, but instead of reading, her eyes were fixed upon the coals, her active mind was elsewhere; she was lost in speculations. Had he said anything—or not?
If her niece Letty were to marry the great catch—despair of many mothers—how she would score! Already she was anticipating her triumphs. The dining-room would seat seventy with a squeeze; she would get the cake at Buzzards’; cards of invitation at the stores; and borrow a veil from Cecilia.
A few days later, in glancing over The Morning Post, she came upon this paragraph:
“Mr. H. Blagdon and party arrived at the Hôtel de Paris, Monte Carlo, on the 7th inst., for the season.”
Alas, alas, alas! A castle in the air had toppled down, and great was the fall thereof!
Mrs. Fenchurch’s first sensation was insensate fury with the girl; her second, a devout thankfulness that beyond her own household—that is to say, her husband and Cousin Maude—she had not trumpeted forth her hopes—since they had come to nothing.
Her manner to her niece now underwent an abrupt change; the wind instead of blowing from the south had set steadily into the east, and there remained. Fires in Letty’s bedroom and other small indulgences came to an end, and this particular month of February was, for several reasons, the most miserable the girl had ever known. Nothing that she did, or said, or wore, seemed to please Aunt Dorothy, and one day, after an undeserved scolding, the poor worm turned at last and said:
“I know, Aunt Dorothy, that I am one too many here.”
“How dare you say such a thing, you impertinent minx!” stormed her relative.
“But it is the truth,” argued Letty, plucking up some courage. “I am not happy, and you are not happy, and we really cannot go on in this way. I should like to return to Dresden; they will find me a place in the school as music teacher.”
“I never heard such insolence and nonsense!” cried Mrs. Fenchurch, her face red with temper. “Do you suppose your uncle would allow his niece to go out as a governess—earn her bread—and have everyone talking?”
“Well, many girls who are as good, or probably far better than I am, do it,” declared Letty, controlling her tears with difficulty; “and my master said that, with practice, I would make a professional singer.”
“Worse and worse. Why, you will be clamouring to go upon the stage next! Be so good as to understand, that you remain here, and do exactly as I wish, until you are one-and-twenty. Of course, someone may marry you, but penniless girls haven’t much chance of that in these times.”
Mrs. Fenchurch on every other subject was perfectly sane and reasonable; the exception was her husband’s niece. She was pretty, she was young, she was de trop, and her aunt sincerely hated her. Undoubtedly the unhappy young woman had got upon her nerves—the bitter disappointment after such exalted hopes, worked in her mind like a deadly poison. It was true that Letty had made an unexpected sensation at the ball, and at the Bonhams’ dance, but so far her triumph had borne no fruit. The weather had been dreadful, going about the country was out of the question, the roads were impassable with rain or snow, so Mrs. Fenchurch had been thrown back upon herself—there was no hunting, no gardening; Mothers’ Meetings and Village Choral Society failed to content her, and her sole outlet was Cousin Maude. To Oldcourt she carried her grievances, but Cousin Maude refused to see eye to eye with her, and generally took the part of Letty. If the girl was forgetful, if she had given a short answer, if she had slammed a door, after all, she was young; her life was not very exciting—and who is perfect?
As for Letty herself, maddened by gibes, reproaches, and a lacerating tongue, at night she would wander round her room like a prisoner, wondering how she was to escape, wondering who could help her. Cousin Maude was her friend, but powerless; intercourse with Oldcourt was now strictly curtailed. Uncle Tom was attached to her, but entirely dominated by his wife.
Colonel Fenchurch had not been insensible to the suppressed antagonism and strained relations between aunt and niece; inwardly and with all his sore heart, he sided with Letty; but though physically bold as a lion, the little man lacked moral courage; he could face the biggest fence without flinching, but he dared not face Doodie and stand between her and her unreasonable treatment of his sister’s orphan; the situation filled him with secret bitterness and self-contempt. Hitherto, he had been absolutely content with his comfortable, well-ordered home, his well-bred hunters, and his masterful invaluable Doodie, till the girl had come to make a third at The Holt; and now in his eyes, his watchful consort frequently read questions, protests, and reproach.
And all on account of this detestable interloper!
In spite of his breezy, jaunty manner, it was no secret in the house or village, that the Colonel had a fine grey mare in his stable, and it was whispered that lately there had been rows; loud talking and angry voices overheard in the drawing-room long after Miss Glyn had gone to bed—but vain was the effort to dislodge the yoke of years.
The east wind had been particularly trying to Mrs. Fenchurch’s neuralgia, she had received a disappointing post, and carried away by this combination of circumstances, she vented her feelings on Letty, who had been so unfortunate as to upset a bottle of ink.
“Oh, what a mess! my good cover ruined!” she cried. “You never can do anything right or like other people. If only someone would marry you, and take you out of my house and out of my sight, I’d give a thousand pounds!”
Pacing up and down her room that same afternoon, her thoughts darting in all directions like some frantic sorely pressed fugitive, Lefty came to a momentous decision. Escape for her life she must, and somehow! She had no money, no home to receive her; there was but one alternative, and as she stood in the window looking out on the bleak prospect, she vowed to herself that she would marry the very first man who asked her—yes, she would. Having made this desperate resolution, she broke down, burst into tears, and ran and buried her face in her pillow, in case her next-door neighbour (a housemaid) might overhear her too audible, and convulsive sobs.
Shortly after this scene, the unfortunate girl ‘brought home,’ as Mrs. Fenchurch expressed it, influenza from a cottage in the village, and was hors de combat for three weeks—entailing extra trouble to the servants, a visit from the local doctor, and a chemist’s bill.
Then one afternoon towards the end of March, Mrs. Fenchurch herself climbed up to visit the patient; her presence always made the girl’s heart flutter—beyond words to express she dreaded being alone with Aunt Dorothy; but on this occasion Aunt Dorothy looked almost agreeable, and was carrying in her hand a box which was addressed to ‘Miss Glyn, The Holt, Thornby,’ and had been despatched from the south of France.
“This has just come for you, Letty, and I have brought it up myself,” said Mrs. Fenchurch breathlessly. “Here are a pair of scissors—now let us see what is inside.”
To Letty’s amazement the box contained a quantity of exquisite exotic flowers despatched by a well-known florist in Monte Carlo. On the top of these, lay a card on which was inscribed, “From H. Blagdon, with all good wishes.”
And once more, hope whispered a flattering tale to the matchmaker. Was she to have her own way with the world, after all?
“Oh, they are from Mr. Blagdon!” exclaimed the girl. “Surely there must be some mistake—how very funny!”
“How very kind, you should say,” corrected her aunt. “I am positive they couldn’t have cost a penny less than fifty francs—just look at these carnations and orchids! We will have some vases and put them about the room.”
“No, no, no,” protested Letty; “please not! I don’t like hothouse flowers in a bedroom; but do you take them; they will look beautiful below stairs.”
“Oh, very well, I never refuse a good offer,” declared her visitor, collecting them into the box. “I suppose you will write and thank him?”
“Must I?” asked the invalid with flickering colour.
“Well, perhaps as you are not feeling very well I had better do it for you; the post goes out in ten minutes,” and carrying the flowers in one hand, with the precious card in the other, Mrs. Fenchurch effected a precipitate departure.
Whatever Mrs. Fenchurch had said in her letter, the result was, that boxes of flowers now arrived at The Holt about twice a week; and once more the atmosphere within, thawed with the atmosphere without.
Hugo Blagdon was a well-known habitué of Monte Carlo, and he fled thither early in February to avoid an English spring, and escape from a personality that threatened to lure him into the noose of matrimony! His grandfather had been overseer in a coal mine, and his father, Laban, a clever man of ceaseless energy and enterprise, had, by his own efforts, risen to vast wealth. He was a typical Yorkshire tyke; hard-headed, hard-bitten, and plain of speech, standing squarely on his feet and his principles. When over fifty, he had disposed of his collieries to a syndicate, and looked about him for a country estate, and a suitable consort. At this time Sharsley, the ancient seat of the Scropes, happened to be in the market; the family had fallen on evil days, and the last representative was a thin, dignified old gentleman, with an empty purse and many spinster daughters. During tedious negotiations, the would-be purchaser made acquaintance with the Squire’s family, and when he took over the property, he also received the taper hand of the stateliest and slenderest of the Scrope sisters. Ill-natured gossips declared that in consequence of this arrangement, the canny Yorkshireman had obtained an abatement of ten thousand pounds on the price of the property—but envious people will say anything! Mrs. Blagdon’s aristocratic relations agreed that dearest Carrie, who was ‘getting on,’ had done remarkably well for herself; the bride was perfectly satisfied with her honest, stolid husband, and he for his part felt proud of his Carrie; she matched Sharsley, and naturally was far more at home there than himself. Mrs. Blagdon fulfilled her duties to admiration; an elegant, dignified figure, she sat at the head of his table, glorious and dazzling in the new Blagdon diamonds, entertaining her neighbours with gracious distinction. Moreover, she was most kind and thoughtful to her husband’s family, especially to his old aunt, Fanny Jane, who spoke broad Yorkshire, had not marched with the times, and preferred to dine at one o’clock—and in her bonnet.
Having figuratively emerged from coal to the surface, Laban Blagdon entered into country life with enthusiasm; he farmed, he supported the hounds and the Yeomanry, and sat on the Bench with commendable punctuality. His first-born was a girl. Four years later her brother arrived on this planet, amidst great rejoicings. Blagdon of Sharsley was immensely proud of his children; he had none of his father’s ideas of stern discipline, and was an extravagantly indulgent parent. In his opinion, nothing was too good for Connie and Hugo—the pair could do no wrong.
Possibly his partiality was due to the fact that they were true Blagdons; large-boned, and loud of voice, exhibiting no traces whatever of their mother’s ancestry. This poor lady did her utmost to influence them, exerting herself surprisingly for a Scrope, but somehow she never became familiar with her boy and girl, who emancipated themselves as soon as they had quitted the nursery. And their mother found it difficult to believe, that this rough, boisterous, undisciplined couple were actually her own offspring. Had they been those of other people, she would have lifted her delicate hands, and declared them to be young savages!
Hugo was sent to a preparatory school, and then to Eton; he rode well, knew the points of a horse, was thoroughly at home in the stables, had a hearty laugh, a huge appetite, and his father thought him an uncommonly fine lad! As for Connie, she was the apple of Laban Blagdon’s eye; a bit of a hoyden, and no great beauty, but a girl who could stick on a horse, sing a good song, hold her own in talk, and what more did you want?
The year that Connie was presented to her sovereign her father died suddenly of apoplexy, and was widely and sincerely regretted; sound to the core, a just landlord and employer, a good friend, and a generous foe. His heir was at sixteen a well-grown youth, with a thick-set figure, a strong will, rather surly manners, and an exaggerated sense of his own importance. From Eton, he went (with great reluctance) to Oxford, and there his idleness and scrapes gained him a certain amount of notoriety.
As for his sister, she was launched in London Society, with considerable éclat by her mother’s aristocratic connections; Connie had no taste for balls or the usual round of gaiety, but developed an unexpected passion for racing! At Newmarket she encountered her affinity; a good-looking, graceless baronet, who had run through his patrimony on the turf, and did not bear an enviable reputation. However, in spite of all that her mother, relations, and trustees, could urge or threaten, Connie Blagdon insisted on marrying Teddy Rashleigh. She was, as her father had often declared, “a fine, strapping girl, who knew her own mind, with a handsome fortune pinned on to her skirts”; and Sir Teddy was not indifferent to this agreeable fact.
At first, the happy pair travelled about from one race meeting to another, enjoying an atmosphere of continual and stimulating excitement. In winter, they went abroad, returning in time for the first Spring Meeting. After a few years of a gay and rambling existence, came much harassing anxiety, rumours of serious troubles about racing and gambling debts; these rumours were followed by the sudden death of Sir Teddy Rashleigh. An overdose of sulphonal, taken by mistake (his creditors had their own opinions as to the ‘mistake’), and his widow found herself at the age of twenty-eight, with the miserable remains of a large fortune, and alienated from all her friends. During her married life, she had acquired extravagant and reckless tastes, gambled, betted, and plunged—and oh, how she hated poverty!
Fortunately, she and her brother had always been chums, and he now came so generously to her assistance, that most of her world believed Lady Rashleigh to be not only a gay, but wealthy widow. She was loud, good-natured, and plain; a big woman, with high, square shoulders, quantities of coarse brown hair (dyed red), a broad, shrewd face, redeemed by a set of flashing white teeth. Men called her “a rare good sort, and as clever as they make them,” meaning that Lady Rashleigh, knew her world thoroughly, and contrived, whilst keeping on bowing terms with Mrs. Grundy, to enjoy a remarkably festive time.
Meanwhile Hugo, his own master for many years, had been engaged in sowing wild oats, and seeing life. His mother had taken her departure from Sharsley; this severance had been a heart-breaking business, but Hugo’s manners and customs, and Hugo’s associates, were altogether too much for that delicate, decorous, and mid-Victorian matron. Instead of family prayers, and breakfast at nine o’clock, Hugo’s lady guests appeared at midday. They smoked, talked slang, discussed the latest odds, the latest scandals, and more or less ignored their old-fashioned hostess; the men were even worse: a gambling, hard-drinking, horsy crew; so Mrs. Blagdon went away to Cannes, and established herself in a splendid villa, far aloof from her unsatisfactory and unfilial children.
Sharsley, thus abandoned, was consigned to the care of a tall, dashing housekeeper, known as Mrs. Bates, who wore rich silk gowns, expensive jewellery, rouged heavily, and knew all about the best brands of champagne. To do her justice, she was a capable and active person, thoroughly experienced in the management of servants, had a tongue like a whiplash, and understood the art of getting work out of her subordinates—whilst she looked on. Two or three times a year there were house-parties for shooting and hunting, and on these occasions Lady Rashleigh, who, needless to add, had always kept on the best of terms with her brother, was the jolly, easy-going hostess; a totally different châtelaine to her frigid mother, and not easily surprised, daunted, or shocked. Few were aware that Connie had a very small income, (though her extravagant tastes were well-known,) and it was important that she should stand well with Hugo. He paid the rent of her London flat, her hotel bills when she accompanied him abroad, made her presents of frocks and furs, and was altogether a really generous brother. For her part, she listened to his grievances with sympathetic interest, cultivated his particular friends, gave charming little dinners and suppers, and was ever ready to play chaperon, buffer, or confidante.
Blagdon had naturally a wide circle of acquaintances, and was a good deal spoiled by the flattery which is habitually offered to an open-handed bachelor with the income of a prince. He had a special coterie of associates, known to envious scoffers as the ‘pack.’ Chief in importance was Lord Robert Cheyne (first cousin to Blagdon on the Scrope side); this hard-riding, round-backed little gentleman had bright, twinkling brown eyes, and a forehead so lofty that it seemed to stretch half-way across his poll—and imparted a worshipful, sedate, and middle-aged appearance,—flatly contradicted by his lordship’s character and years. He had a kind heart, a dull brain, and a lean purse, and believed Cousin Hugo, “who gave him lots of shootin’ and huntin’,” to be a rare good sportin’ sort, and one of the best!
Next, the Baron Van Krab, a fair, well-set-up man of forty, a Britisher of Dutch extraction, and not unknown in the City. Captain Herdby, a retired cavalryman, handsome, well bred, well groomed, somewhat mysterious as to his antecedents, but knowing (or pretending to know) the great world, and ready to ride, dine, shoot, dance, or fill any gap at a moment’s notice. Sir Thomas and Lady Slater, ‘Foxy and Shocky’ as they were nicknamed; he being a little man with a bright, cunning eye, a bushy red moustache, and the legs of a jockey; a conspicuous patron of the turf; his wife, also devoted to racing, was a tall, showy-looking woman, with a large mouth, magnificent teeth, and an ever-ready laugh. She made an imposing figure in evening dress, told the most outrageous stories, and had an insatiable appetite for gossip and presents. But Mr. Blagdon’s most particular friend was Mrs. Fred Corbett, an attractive free-lance, with a willowy form, and a pair of wonderful amber eyes; a glittering creature, all frivolity, extravagance, and selfishness, separated from her husband, (who, it was said, had some vague occupation in the Argentine,) and Connie Rashleigh’s chère amie.
When Hugo arrived at Monte Carlo, he found the two ladies already installed at the Hermitage, the Baron and the Slaters were at the Paris.
The great man was naturally hailed with sincere and fervent joy, and, for his part, he was not indifferent to the adulation of his little court; he enjoyed listening to their spicy gossip, delicate and highly seasoned flatteries, whilst he steeped himself in sunshine and luxury. He gave his circle dinners and luncheons, yes and loans; lavished flowers and attentions on his sister and Lola Corbett, and was altogether in unusual good-humour, and as the guests put it, ‘great form.’
By the end of a fortnight, Monte and his associates had begun to pall on Blagdon; even the rooms had lost their fascination. The Baron had bet him a hundred pounds on pigeon-shooting—and won. Foxy Slater had put him on an outsider and let him in heavily, and the Slaters and Connie talked racing or roulette by the hour, and bored him to death.
As for Lola, she made awful play with her eyes, said poisonous things of other women, and was losing her looks! It was just at this critical period, that Letty Glyn was once more introduced to his attention. A casual remark from an utter stranger, threw, so to speak, this beautiful, innocent, unhappy girl, into Blagdon’s arms.
The gay season at Monte had reached high water, and he daily came across acquaintances. Lounging one morning against the parapet below the Casino with Colonel Roland—a man who belonged to his club—they idly watched the gay world go by. Here were men and women of all nations, and reputations; the most famous names in Europe were pacing that sunny promenade. The two noted and remarked on various familiar faces—princesses, duchesses, dancers, statesmen, actors, authors, and flocks of ordinary, and extraordinary, birds of passage.
“Full-dress parade,” said Roland, chucking away the end of an excellent cigar. “They are all very well—fine feathers make fine birds!—but if you ask me, there isn’t a woman here can touch that little Miss What’s-her-name that was at the Brakesby Hunt Ball; she could give every one of ’em a stone and a beating. Yes”—with a nudge—“and I saw you dancing with her, you dog! Oh, you have an eye in your head, and know what’s what. Of course, she is very young, and does not realise her own value, yet—but if she had half a chance, her beauty would be—be—” casting about for a simile, “famous, the talk of England!”
Blagdon looked hard at his friend, and drawled indifferently—
“Sure; and now I’m off to golf. Ta, ta; see you at dinner!” and he walked away. Blagdon remained; he selected and lit another cigar, and settled himself to meditate. Roland was a good judge; he had knocked about a bit. But the girl as he had last seen her!
“That,” argued common sense, “was merely the shabby dress and shoes that had choked him off. Yes, and her cold red hands. All her aunt’s fault—stingy old devil! At the ball, she was well turned out—and what a difference! And, by George! he could afford to dress his wife properly. A beauty that would be famous, Mrs. Hugo Blagdon—!”
Once more his thoughts were concentrated on Thornby—thoughts which subsequently simmered in his brain for days. Little did Mrs. Corbett suspect them. Her extravagance was increasing, she was a true daughter of the horse leech, and her ceaseless cry was “Give, give!” Every morning before they went into the Rooms, she would take a little turn with Blagdon, conduct him to the shops, and gaze pathetically into a milliner’s, go into raptures over a fifty-pound cloak or gown, then pilot her companion to the Galerie Charles III, and a certain jeweller’s, where she gloated over one particular necklace. She would gaze at this, and then at her escort, and sigh, and sigh; but in spite of these seductive arts, for once in his life Blagdon proved invulnerable. Little did his companion guess, when he strolled about looking into windows, and criticising their contents, that all the time he was thinking how well such an ornament, or hat or frock, would become someone else!—a little girl in a remote old village, in far-away England. If Letty Glyn had frocks and jewels, she would cut them all out. He had given tons of pretty things to the greedy woman beside him, and paid tribute in not a few staggering dressmaker’s bills. Yes, he was aware that Lola was dying for the emerald necklace—but he was not to be drawn!
Sauntering along the Casino terrace enjoying a morning cigar, attended by the Baron and Mrs. Corbett, Blagdon was unaffectedly disgusted when a gigantic and majestic Grand Duke accosted the latter, and after a brief parley annexed the lady, to accompany and amuse him—leaving the great man deserted and despoiled. At déjeuner Lola reappeared in radiant spirits, cajoling, irresistible, and full of stories about the Duke. She had met him in Paris, Vienna, and Marienbad, they were old old friends. The Duke was so enormously interested in Hugo and anxious to make his acquaintance, had heard of his lovely place, his splendid hunters, his first-rate shooting. She was dining with the Duke that night, and would bring off the introduction later; Hugo was both mollified and flattered. He considered himself the equal of any potentate, but by all accounts this particular Russian Prince, with versts of shooting and millions of roubles, might prove a satisfactory acquaintance. After déjeuner he went into the Rooms, and was so successful at the tables, and so pleased with himself and the world in general, that he subsequently strolled over to the galerie, and purchased the coveted necklace on which Mrs. Corbett had long set envious eyes. Well, after all, it cost him nothing—it came out of the pockets of the Administration and really was a remarkably neat thing—a diamond collar, with large drops of cabochon emeralds.
In the evening, the Rooms were crowded. Blagdon played again, but was out of luck, and also a little out of humour. He had seen the Countess of Boncaster stare fixedly at his sister, and cut her dead. Connie had too much rouge on; she looked dishevelled and excited, and was gambling recklessly—yet it was only the other day that he had squared up her betting book, and she had sworn to economise and reform.
Wandering through the rooms, in a doorway he suddenly encountered Mrs. Corbett and the gigantic Grand Duke; he was about to halt, but amazing to relate, the lady glanced over his head with cold, unseeing eyes, and so passed on. He paused transfixed, and stared after the pair. Lola was chattering French, and gazing up at the great hulking Tartar, with her most alluring expression. How well he knew it! He watched them as they circled a table, and melted away into the crowd. The burly Russian, and his graceful companion, who was actually wearing diamonds that he, Blagdon, had paid for—yes, and the very gown on her back! As he stood motionless and bewildered, for once experiencing the sting of smarting vanity, and dwelling on the late decisive incident, the Baron accosted him, with a scared white face.
“I have been looking for you all over the shop,” he began. “I say, old chap, I’m cleared out. Can you let me have a couple of mille notes, just to go on with? I’ll pay you back of course.”
“I have only one left,” rejoined Blagdon in a sulky voice, as he reluctantly produced and handed over a note, then before the Baron could thank him he had turned away, and abandoned the Casino for the cool, moonlit gardens. Here he lit a cigar, sat down alone under a clump of Bamboos, and said to himself, he was going to have a good solid think. Blagdon had inherited a certain amount of his father’s shrewdness, and this on rare occasions struggled to the surface, and he beheld his associates by the light of common sense. Connie and her racing debts; the penniless Baron and his borrowings; Lola, her bills and jewellery—a greedy pack, all for themselves! If he were a pauper, not one of them would come near him. Then a beautiful innocent face rose before his mental vision. What a contrast to the painted, powdered, artificial women of his acquaintance! She was the genuine article: her lovely hair and complexion were her own. And yet he was not in love with her, but with an idea, that if he were to marry Letty Glyn, his wife, as Roland said, would be one of the most beautiful women in England. Wherever she was seen, she would make a tremendous sensation. At the Ball, and at the Bonhams’ how she had eclipsed everyone. The resolve sprang up suddenly in his mind, Miss Glyn was the right sort of wife for him. He was a man who desired to possess the best of everything—chiefly in order to excite the envy of others—and as he sat smoking and musing, the image of Letty gathered shape and distinctness. Finally he rose, threw the stump of his cigar among the bushes, and muttered under his breath:
“By Jove, I’ll do it!”
Next morning, with a touch of unusual restraint, Blagdon dissembled his wrath with Lola Corbett, and accepted her playful enquiry as to “why he had never come near her in the Casino?” with commendable indifference.
“The Duke was longing to meet you,” she lied. “We searched for you everywhere. Now he has gone off to Paris. He left by the morning train.”
To which Hugo (also lying) replied with complete sang-froid:
“All right, better luck next time—express my profound regrets when you write!”
Mrs. Corbett surveyed him under her thick black lashes. So Hugo could joke; he had not noticed—what a relief!
“Oh, Hugo,” she resumed, with well-simulated animation, “what do you think, some dreadful person has bought my adorable pet necklace—wasn’t it wicked of them? When I went to pay it my daily visit, it was gone. Who can have bought it?” and she looked at him sharply, but Hugo merely struck a match, and shook his head.
“He probably has it in his pocket the whole time,” the lady assured herself, for she had entered the shop full of anxious enquiries, and received a most particular description of the purchaser, and his name—since Blagdon was a well-known figure, and a generous customer to many of the establishments in the principality.
No later than the next morning it was Mrs. Corbett’s turn to be the victim of a disagreeable surprise. She discovered Hugo in the principal florist’s, in the act of despatching his offering to The Holt. “Miss Glyn,” she read aloud over his shoulder. “Oh, you sly, sly Hugo! If you send these floral tributes to that pretty little schoolgirl, her aunt will snap you up before you know where you are; and she will be a thousand times worse than any mother-in-law—a hateful, managing, dangerous woman.”
“I know how to take care of myself,” he answered sullenly; “and flowers are only flowers—just a little civility and nothing more.”
Mrs. Corbett’s shot about the aunt had gone home; and Blagdon actually began to waver with respect to the resolution he had made in the garden. He had a horror of being what is called ‘managed’—he who was so successfully exploited by his sister and his friends—and if only Lola could have let well alone, his idea of Letty Glyn might possibly have faded; but as it was, she was continually chaffing about ‘his little village maid,’ ‘his pretty schoolgirl, and her pinafores,’ and Hugo Blagdon, was a man who could not stand being laughed at,—although he keenly enjoyed seeing others turned into ridicule; so one evening at supper, surrounded by a gay and mixed company, when Mrs. Corbett threw her gibe across at him, stung to revolt and indiscretion, his temper suddenly boiled over, and he exclaimed:
“Now look here, Lola, I’m just a bit tired of your chaff—this joke is about played out. Miss Glyn,” and he glared round the circle, “is the prettiest girl I have ever seen—bar none—and I am going to marry her! Here,” he added, “fill your glasses—I call upon you to drink the health of the future Mrs. Blagdon!”
Sensation. To borrow an expression from legal cases of a dramatic character.
Mrs. Corbett was speechless; leaving her champagne untasted she exclaimed:
“But, Hugo, of course you are joking—why she is only a child of seventeen—twenty years younger than yourself! You must be out of your senses. You,” and there was a challenge in her eye, “never could be such a fool!”
“Wait till you see,” he growled.
“Perhaps the lady won’t have you?” suggested one of his fair friends with a malicious laugh.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt about that,” declared the Baron, who was, however, consumed with alarm by this sudden announcement; a bachelor Blagdon was one thing, a married man with a very pretty, and no doubt influential wife, was another—his day was done! No more hundred-pound cheques for him—no more big dressmaker’s bills for Mrs. Corbett, no more long-tailed hunters for Lord Robbie; all the same, there was no harm in hedging a bit. The day after the supper party Blagdon abruptly announced that he was going home. He had taken a final turn along the terrace alone under the stars, and assured himself that these harpies were getting a bit too much for him. They looked upon him as their paymaster, and Lola was beyond all bounds—her bills were really outrageous; she was too fond of cigarettes and champagne; he had about enough of Monte Carlo, and decided to cut the whole blooming show.
Before leaving for England he went over to Cannes in order to interview his mother, and inform her that he was about to get married.
“Married!” she exclaimed; “and to whom?” She stiffened all over as she added, “I trust she is a reputable person?”
“Is it one of Lady Barron’s nieces?”
“No, no,” with a gesture of indignant scorn; “someone much younger and prettier. You know Mrs. Fenchurch?”
“Very slightly,” she answered loftily.
“Well, it’s her niece.”
“What—that little Miss Glyn?”
“Ye-es; but she’s not so little, a good five foot seven.”
“But, my dear Hugo, I understand she’s only a schoolgirl.”
“She’s past seventeen—everyone doesn’t marry when they are middle-aged” (an unfilial rap at his mother). “She is awfully pretty; extraordinarily good-looking, I may say, and accomplished. I heard her playing and singing at the Bonhams’, and I tell you she astonished them.”
“And you astonish me! She is far too young. What you want, Hugo, is a handsome, clever, well-bred girl, who has been about the world a bit, who will be able to manage a big establishment, and take her proper place in the County.”
“Thank you, I know that sort! but they wouldn’t suit me. I’m not looking for a manageress, or a housekeeper, what I want is a beauty who makes everyone turn round, and stare at her.”
“Ah!” exclaimed Mrs. Blagdon, and she relapsed into silence. Hugo’s choice might have been much worse. To tell the truth, she had always anticipated that a lady from the boards of the Jollity Theatre would be her future daughter-in-law.
“And when is it to be?” she asked at last.
“I am going straight home now to propose for her. I’ll get it fixed up as soon as the trousseau is in hand. I’d like to spend May on the Italian lakes.”
“You seem pretty sure of her, my dear Hugo.”
“I’m sure of her aunt, and that comes to the same thing; the girl has never been allowed to have a will of her own, and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.”
“I shouldn’t have thought that was your style. However, I am thankful that your future wife will be a lady. She has good blood in her veins, and no doubt will develop; the one great drawback in my opinion is that she is too young.”
“Well, there’s something in that, you know,” he replied. “She has no past—hasn’t had time to have one.”
“No, and most of your lady friends have not one—but half a dozen.”
“I suppose you won’t be home before June?” ignoring this thrust.
“Oh, I will return for the wedding, of course. A daughter-in-law is an important interest. You will let me hear how things go, won’t you?”
“Yes, and I must be off now, as I’m leaving by the evening train. Good-bye, old lady,” and he touched her forehead with his lips, stepped out into the verandah, and so disappeared.
Precisely a fortnight later, Mrs. Blagdon received the following telegram:
“All settled, date May 20th, Hugo.”
The news in the telegram was authentic. Blagdon’s determination and her aunt’s strong support had overborne Letty’s reluctance, and almost in spite of herself, she was about to make what is called ‘a great match.’ When the suitor appeared at The Holt, and laid his intentions and hopes before Mrs. Fenchurch, it was with difficulty that the lady could conceal her satisfaction. With suppressed emotion, she assured her would-be nephew, that he had her own and her husband’s warmest goodwill: to which he rejoined with a nonchalant laugh:
“Oh yes—of course—that’s all right; but what about Miss Glyn?”
“Letty is in absolute ignorance of her conquest,” replied the lady with measured emphasis. “She is only seventeen, very, very shy and innocent; if you startle or frighten her, nothing on earth would induce her to marry you. She is not worldly in any sense, and all the splendid fairy tale things you can bestow, will not appeal to her, as they would to other girls.”
Blagdon made no reply; he was standing with his back to the fire, looking down thoughtfully on his irreproachable boots. Suddenly he raised his eyes and fixed them on his companion, with an expression of insolent incredulity.
“I think with a horse and a dog of her own, some pretty frocks and a few young friends, Letty would be contented and happy,” she continued with composure. “Be very quiet with her at first, and allow the idea to dawn upon her by degrees. I mean, the idea of becoming your wife.”
“How do you mean, dawn?”
“Well, if I may make a suggestion, suppose you put up at Ridgefield and ride over to lunch occasionally; I have a quiet mare I can lend Letty—my husband will do gooseberry—do you see?”
“I see,” he nodded, “all right. Yes I’ll take your tip. But look here, Mrs. Fenchurch, don’t let us have a long engagement, and all that sort of tomfoolery!”
“No, no, certainly not; happy is the wooing that’s not long a-doing,” she quoted. “And now I’ll send Letty to talk to you, and go and see if they are bringing in tea.”
Blagdon accepted the chaperon’s advice, assuring himself that Mrs. Fen was a clever woman, she should run this part of the show; and accordingly, on various pretexts, he was to be seen at The Holt, two or three times a week.
He was really fond of the little girl. What colouring! what hair! what lovely, innocent eyes! The magic quality of her youth and freshness was indescribably piquant to his jaded taste.
It was a fact that Letty—ever sensitive to her surroundings—had in the present genial atmosphere unfolded like an exquisite flower. Her aunt was a puzzle, she was changed, and had become so thoughtful and indulgent, and had actually lent her a beautiful mare called ‘Mouse,’ and every day, wet or fine, she and her uncle openly and happily enjoyed long rides and long, confidential conversations. Occasionally these rides and conversations were shared by Mr. Blagdon, who would drop in to lunch and join the party. Exercise and April sunshine, brought smiles and radiance into the girl’s face, and Blagdon was astonished to discover how animated and gay Miss Glyn could be. How she and her uncle chaffed one another; how many jokes they shared. With respect to himself, her manner was guarded—not to say distant; a supreme indifference to his wealth and importance enhanced her value tenfold. Supposing—chilling thought—that in spite of his boastful confidence, sweet seventeen were to refuse him?
Pricked by this apprehension, Blagdon took, for him, infinite pains to please, and tuned his personality in a lower key, more in harmony with that of his companion; and exhibited the best side of his character—generosity, a love of animals, a certain brusque sincerity. He looked his best in the saddle, was a bold and admirable horseman, and Miss Glyn began to like him. He had made her a present of a fox terrier, and was so good-natured, and not at all grand now.
By sundry subtle indications, half a word, a quick glance, Letty gathered that her new friend was not one of her aunt’s disciples—indeed, rather the reverse! Here was one strong, if secret, bond between them, a rooted dislike of the same individual: and on this slender foundation, did Letty Glyn venture to build her home.
At first, when ‘the idea’ presented itself to her mind—the idea, that Mr. Blagdon wished to marry her—she thrust it from her in dismay. This was not the husband she looked for, when, with her face buried in the counterpane, she had made to herself a sobbing, smothered, vow. And yet, whispered the persistent ‘idea,’ he was kind, and he was strong; he would give her a home of her own, and protect her from Aunt Dorothy! And Aunt Dorothy was so bent upon this marriage. The girl shivered as she thought of her future, if her tyrant were disappointed! Poor Uncle Tom did not count; truth held before her, the remorseless fact, that she had to choose between her aunt, and Mr. Blagdon—Which was it to be?
Naturally Mrs. Fenchurch had enlarged upon Blagdon’s position and wealth; when she spoke of Sharsley and its splendours she became positively eloquent.
“The Scrope heirlooms, my dear child, are worth a fortune, and beyond the reach of American dollars. Old Scrope made them over with the place; the miniatures are marvellous, and there are two Nankin jars there that a Chinaman would worship on his knees! If Hugo asks you to marry him, Letty, you will be the luckiest girl in England! Has he said anything?” she enquired after a moment’s silence.
“No,” faltered the victim, with scarlet cheeks. “Nothing.”
“What?” The question was like a bullet.
“But I—I—I think he wishes to, Aunt Dorothy.”
“Then let him speak, for Heaven’s sake!” urged Mrs. Fenchurch with authoritative emphasis.
“Do remember, my dear, that you have only your little pension, and if anything were to happen to your uncle,” she paused expressively, leaving the question to be answered by the imagination of her companion.
One morning shortly after this conversation, Letty found herself in the drawing-room alone with Blagdon, and he spoke.
“Look here, Miss Glyn,” he began abruptly, “I’m no good at beating about the bush.”
Letty glanced up at him interrogatively. She was sitting in the window, knitting golf stockings for her uncle.
“You can bet it’s not to see your aunt I’ve been coming over here, eh? It’s to see you!”
Letty looked down: her fingers were shaking visibly.
“I am older than you, and all that sort of thing,” he continued airily; “but I’m not a bad sort, as my sister can tell you, and I want to know if you will marry me. Come now, don’t turn away like that, if it’s going to be ‘yes.’ Give me your hand.”
Suddenly she heard her aunt’s voice in the hall; it sounded unusually sharp, and dictatorial, and in a panic of terror, Letty extended a cold, limp little hand, on which Blagdon instantly imprinted a lingering, and burning kiss.
Then the door-handle turned noisily to admit Mrs. Fenchurch, and her newly pledged niece rose hastily to her feet, and all but ran out of the room.
Dorothy Fenchurch sat late that night, writing her great news on her best crested paper, to all her most important correspondents. She and Hugo, as she now called him, had had a talk: the wedding could take place soon—there was really nothing to wait for. Tom Fenchurch was, of course, brought into the consultation: he had lately begun to think that Blagdon was not such a bad sort, and that Letty might make something of him, after all—though down in his heart he did not approve of the match; but who could withstand Dorothy? Now, as he took part in and listened to this discussion, his contribution consisted of the words, repeated over and over again:
“Too young, too young; the child is too young; much too young.” But it was as the voice of one crying in a wilderness, Tom Fenchurch was in the minority, the vote for an early wedding was easily carried, and a notice to The Morning Post to that effect, clinched the business.
Telegrams and letters poured in upon clever Mrs. Fen: congratulating her upon this, her most glorious achievement; not only was she the best housekeeper, the best gardener, the best judge of old furniture in the land, she had now crowned all her successes by marrying her niece to the greatest parti in the County.
Naturally there were some spiteful and envious detractors, and one or two disappointed matrons shook their heads, and confided to their friends that, “They were sorry for the poor little girl.”
The trousseau engrossed a good deal of time. Mrs. Fenchurch and her niece made many trips to London for shopping and fittings—fashionable frocks, far, far beyond the ability, but not the ambition, of Mrs. Cope.
Owing to these absences, and Blagdon’s own engagements, the happy pair did not see much of one another. Once or twice he came over and stayed at The Holt for a week-end, bringing wonderful offerings for his fiancée. He was absurdly proud of Letty, but surprisingly discreet and thoughtful. Colonel Tom assured his quaking heart, that the match might turn out all right after all. His wife had no fears.
Letty noticed, with grateful surprise, how extremely kind and friendly everyone had become; people to whom she was almost a stranger, and various far-away and important visitors, came to The Holt, talked to her with unaffected interest, and gazed at her curiously. One and all, offered their warmest congratulations, and declared that they would call as soon as ever she was settled at Sharsley.
But Mrs. Hesketh was discontented—her normal attitude—she refused to be reasoned with, overpowered with grandeur or talked down. Her own married life had not been happy, and the first time she was alone with Letty she said:
“My dear child, of course I congratulate you, and I wish you all happiness; but have you thoroughly made up your mind? You do not know the world yet; you have no idea what marriage means; and you are so diffident, and unassertive. I think that the post of wife to Mr. Blagdon is too big for you!”
“I’m afraid in some ways it is,” she assented. “I am not accustomed to money. The most I have ever had to spend as I chose, was the ten pounds Uncle Tom gave me last Christmas. Still, I think Mr. Blagdon and I will get on together; he is so kind, he brings me the most lovely flowers and jewels, and says that once I am married to him, I shall do exactly as I please.”
“I wonder what you will please to do?”
“I will try to please him, and set about learning ever so many things—to ride well—to talk amusingly—and——”
“It is not so easy to ride well, and talk amusingly,” Mrs. Hesketh quickly interposed. “Such things come by nature. Now shall I give you a little advice? Do not make confidantes of anyone in a hurry—be yourself, and keep to yourself till you know a little more of life and do not expect too much; remember that marriage is a blessing to few, a curse to many, and a great uncertainty to all.”
Letty broke into a merry laugh.
“Well, you are a Job’s comforter!”
“Never over-exert yourself to please; your husband’s imagination may endow you with great gifts.”
“And when I am found to be merely a silly, inexperienced little chit of seventeen?”
“Oh, experience will come fast enough. I want you to promise me one thing.”
“I will promise you anything you like,” said Letty recklessly.
“Then if you are in any trouble or difficulty come to me—whatever you tell me, will be sacred, and as an old stager, if I may call myself so, I can advise you what to do, and what not to do.”
“I can promise you this with all my heart, and I would a thousand times rather come to you than to Aunt Dorothy,” and her delicate lips trembled. “She has always been so cold to me.”
“Well, at any rate, she is immensely proud of you now, my dear. You know she is a typical, strong-willed sort of person, who lies awake at night thinking of what is for everyone’s good. She cannot concentrate on one individual.”
“Yes, and at present she is thinking day and night about the wedding preparations: Uncle has given two hundred pounds to spend on my trousseau, and aunt is choosing it; but I have been allowed to have a say in my wedding dress. I’m sure I don’t know how we shall squeeze all the congregation into the church.”
“You have seen your mother-in-law, have you not?”
“I spent a day with her in London—she is rather a formidable old lady with a long, white face, a straight back, and beautiful hands. I cannot imagine her being Hugo’s mother—she is so unlike him, but I feel sure that she means to be kind: she gave me a most beautiful lace veil, and a set of opals and diamonds, and by and by, when we return from the honeymoon, she is coming down to stay with us. Hugo says that I’m bound to like her in time—and that her bark is worse than her bite.”
On her way from Oldcourt, Letty called to see her friend, the Rector’s wife. Mrs. Denton had received that morning a letter from her nephew Lancelot—who was still stationed at Aldershot—which said:
“What is this that I hear about Miss Glyn and Blagdon? Is it true that they are engaged? Oh, my dear aunt, I believe that Miss Glyn is fond of you, and if you could possibly give her a word of warning, it would save her from the most frightful leap in the dark a girl has ever taken. Blagdon will tire of her within six months, and bully her for the rest of his days. People at home don’t know the sort of fellow he is elsewhere, and it is shameful for the Fenchurchs to allow him to marry their niece. I know Mrs. Fen; she will enjoy the glory of a great match, and that poor little girl will be led like a lamb to the slaughter. Can’t you do something? You will think I’m gone off my chump, and am writing like a raving idiot, but I feel crazy, and it is no secret to you, dear, clear-sighted auntie, that I’m awfully fond of Letty myself. It’s bad enough that she should marry at all—a regular facer for me—but that she should marry this ruffian, is too awful!”
When the bride-elect, all smiles and blushes, ran in to tell Mrs. Denton about the kind letters, and the lovely presents, she had received, and how her train was to be of white satin, and she was to have two pages, the poor lady had this explosive missive under her pillow. Yet she dare not allude to it; her courage failed her, she could not utter the necessary word. Already she had thrown cold water on one love affair, and how was she to defy Mrs. Fenchurch, and dash her splendid project to the ground? She only said:
“Dear Letty, you are so young to marry! I do wish you could have waited a year, and seen a little more of the world.” There were tears in her eyes, as she added: “The great thing that is necessary, at any rate during the first year of married life, is forbearance. Everyone is on their best behaviour during their engagement, and afterwards—so many little things come out—things that surprise one. I wonder if you realise the solemn vow, ‘Till death us do part,’ marriage is such a serious step.”
“But it cannot be anything so very dreadful,” objected Letty. “I know so many married people, and they don’t look a bit different to the rest of the world.”
“Well, dear child, I pray that you may be truly happy in your new home, and remember, you will always have a loving friend in me.”
What did these two ladies, Mrs. Denton and Mrs. Hesketh, mean by impressing upon her the fact, that they were her friends? Why did Mrs. Denton cry? What could happen? Once or twice a certain trembling shook the bride-elect; a nervousness, in the face of the unknown; but this was a mere passing tremor: and crafty and vigilant Mrs. Fenchurch contrived, that Letty was left little time for solitude or reflection.
Three weeks later the wedding took place. It was a beautiful May day, the whole village was en fête, the bride looked lovely—this was the truth, no mere conventional statement; the bride’s aunt wore blue velvet, bird of paradise plumes, and an expression of radiant triumph. Everything went off with great éclat, and a carriage with four horses whirled away the happy pair, upon the first stage of their honeymoon.
The honeymoon—a not uncommon experience—proved more or less of a disappointment to the wedded pair. The bride, dazed and confounded by her new status, and the change from a nobody to a personage, was shy and silent, and felt herself to be a mere lay figure in the hands of her maid—a sour-faced, phlegmatic person with an inflated idea of her own importance, and more or less incompetent.
Tucker had been engaged by Mrs. Fenchurch, to whom she was warmly recommended by an acquaintance; a deceitful lady who was only too delighted to be rid of her encumbrance.
The trousseau—also selected by Mrs. Fenchurch—was even less satisfactory than the maid; it was old-fashioned and dowdy; more suitable to a matron of fifty, than a girl of seventeen.
Unfortunately the weather on the Blue Lakes was wet, and it is pitiful to relate that after a fortnight his bride had begun to bore Blagdon; already he was tired of his experiment, Letty was so hopelessly young, timid, and ignorant; they had hardly any interests in common, and there was a difference of twenty long years yawning between their ages. Blagdon’s experience of life being wide and highly illustrated, whilst the girl had seen nothing of the world, beyond a school-room, and The Holt.
As for her beauty, here again was a grievance! The bride could not endure the admiration of her fellow guests; but shrank into corners, disappeared into lobbies, or slinked away to the seclusion of her private sitting-room. Her husband’s vast fortune made no appeal to Letty; lavish outlay of money, gorgeous suites of apartments, reserved railway carriages, and a retinue of servants, merely filled her with embarrassment and alarm, and she went in abject terror of her maid; Mrs. Blagdon was a tame, shrinking, remote sort of creature, who took nothing on herself, and yielded her husband a sort of childish and pathetic obedience. Hugo was naturally something of a bully, and the more the girl submitted to his orders and caprices, the more he encroached.
The happy pair stayed at Caddenabia on Como, and then moved on to Baveno on Maggiore; here they boated, went for drives, and enjoyed their tête-à-tête meals in solitary dignity, and here, alas! the sole company of his wife palled upon Blagdon. What topics had they in common? How could he talk to a girl who had never been to a play, or to a race meeting, had never read a naughty book, or heard even a whisper of notorious scandals? He soon found his way to the billiard and smoking-rooms, and during two hopelessly wet days, when there was a lack of English papers and appreciative society, his bad humour, undisguised and unashamed, was vented on his valet and Letty. To the hardened servant, a rating was as the proverbial water running off a duck’s back, but to the unaccustomed and trembling girl, it proved a terrible awakening. One evening, the condescending Miss Tucker was surprised to find her mistress crouched at her bedroom window the impersonation of misery and despair. “So they had had a falling out already! Well, it was early days.”
In spite of prolonged bathing of her eyes, and a justifiable amount of powder, there were still traces of recent trouble when the bride appeared at dinner. Fortunately the newspapers had arrived, and during the meal her husband—to the astonishment of polite Italian waiters—read them at intervals between the courses; whilst his companion sat opposite, with dry lips, and a deadly sickness at her heart.
The following morning Blagdon abruptly announced that “he had had enough of loafing, and it was time to set their faces towards home.” On their way thither, they stopped in Paris, and put up at the Hôtel Riche, and here, to Hugo’s joy, he encountered Sir Billy and Lady Slater, Mrs. Freddy Corbett, and Lord Robbie; a loud-voiced, cheery quartette, who were returning tardily from Monte Carlo. He presented them to his wife, and subsequently entertained them at a magnificent dinner, at which the bride presided.
Poor girl! she was hopelessly out of her element; although she did her utmost to conceal her embarrassment, and talk and identify herself with these, her first guests. For their part, the company were dumbfounded by her youth and simplicity, her shyness, and pathetic ignorance of Life.
Oh, she was pretty enough, they agreed; there was no mistake about her looks and air of breeding; but she was not the ‘right sort of wife for Blag!’ No, he had backed the wrong one this time, “made a bad cast,” said Lord Robbie to himself, and as he glanced from the host to the hostess, he seemed already to catch sight of an impending disaster.
Somehow the girl’s clothes were not right, her hair was badly dressed; what a contrast to Lola Corbett, in her marvellous French frock, with her glittering ornaments, and shameless shoulders. Lola was in great form: talking incessantly, gay, provoking, challenging. Of course, she was made up: but she took the centre of the stage, and beside her brilliance and vivacity the timid bride looked positively washed out, and dowdy.
The hostess failed to understand most of the good stories, chaff, and repartee that circulated with the ’84 champagne. She felt hopelessly stupid and bewildered, when the company roared with laughter, and hammered and thumped on the table—for the point of the anecdote, or saying, had generally eluded her altogether. Once, an unmistakably plain tale brought a flood of scarlet into her face, and she looked so startled and so shocked, that a not easily embarrassed party felt momentarily abashed.
Mrs. Blagdon did not care for champagne—she preferred lemonade, had never been to a music-hall, or smoked in her life. This much Lord Robbie gathered, as they rose and led the way into the grand lounge, with its dazzling illuminations, mighty palms, and seductive seats; its admirable orchestra and festive company.
Here, the party soon discovered a comfortable corner, and whilst the men selected cigars and liqueurs and discussed an important handicap, the two lady guests sank into deep fauteuils—one on either side of their hostess, and began, with clever probing questions, to examine her respecting her tour, her plans, her tastes, whilst all the time they surveyed her with hard and critical eyes. Nothing escaped their inspection, from the little mean aigrette in her ill-dressed hair, to the tip of her satin shoe.
Round her slender throat was a diamond collet, its emerald pendants presenting a charming contrast with a snow-white neck. Mrs. Corbett instantly recognised her long and vainly coveted ornament, and her glance gleamed. So here, was the Monte Carlo necklace, by rights her possession, bestowed on this little milk-and-water school miss! and she instantly made up her mind to retrieve the treasure, on an appropriate opportunity.
And if her husband’s friends were disappointed in his bride, it was no less true, that they had made an unpleasant impression on her. She shrank in secret consternation from the men’s bold glances, questioning eyes, and reckless talk; and from these two painted women—with their insufferable patronage, and familiarity.
“Of course, we must call you Letty,” had been one of Lady Slater’s first announcements. “I am Tatty, Mrs. Corbett is Lola. You see we are such very old pals of your husband’s, we couldn’t call him Hugo, and you Mrs. Blagdon, could we?”
What strange eyes they had! blacked all round, and so piercing and defiant; and how they reeked of some heavy Oriental perfume. As for their splendid gowns, it made Letty nervous to contemplate the fragile shoulder straps that held the corsage from slipping into space.
Mrs. Corbett wore a wonderful flame-coloured garment, touched with glimpses of gold tissue, and pale blue chiffon; a diamond bow sparkled in her dark hair, and a long chain of pearls dangled to her waist. Lady Slater affected a more massive style; lounging in a Bergére, with a cigarette between her lips and her knees crossed, she gave a generous exhibition of pink silk stocking, with black ‘clocks’ and a pair of fairly large gold shoes. There had been a good deal of chaff about Lady Slater’s stockings; it appeared that she had recently won a dozen pair, in a bet with Lord Robbie.
Turning to Letty she explained:
“The bet was about you, my dear! though I’m not going to tell you what it was,” and she gave a loud and disconcerting ‘Ha! ha! ha!’
“But of course you’ll tell me, Tatty,” began Mrs. Corbett. “Good Lord! what’s this?” and she sat erect. “Upon my word! Do you see?”
They looked; a tall, bold, amazingly handsome woman had entered, accompanied by two men; and paused in dramatic prominence as if to challenge attention. The effect was arresting. This new arrival was ablaze with diamonds—an audacious nudity but partly concealed by ropes of pearls. Her dress was exactly similar to the one worn by Mrs. Corbett.
“My hat!” exclaimed Lord Robbie.
“Who is she?” whispered Letty.
“Amora, the actress, the most notorious woman in Paris. I say, Lola,” turning to her with a grin, “here’s your twin!”
At this moment, Amora, impersonation of wealth and wickedness, swept by, casting as she passed, a glance of withering scorn upon her duplicate; their eyes met with a shock, and blazed as two flames.
“Tartare told me on her oath that mine was the exclusive model,” began Mrs. Corbett, a little breathlessly, as soon as she had recovered her composure. She still looked alarmingly furious as she added, “I paid her three thousand francs for this rag, and she has gone and made a copy for that devil!” In her excitement she had raised her voice—people were staring; as Blagdon and Sir Billy turned about, she paused, and muttered to herself in a manner that boded ill for Madame Tartare!
Lady Slater now rose and beckoned to Hugo.
“Come over to this settee,” she said; “there is just room for two little people—and have a flirtation with me.”
Blagdon assented obediently, and as she seated herself she continued:
“It was only an excuse to tell you that I think your little girl is just too sweet for anything!”
He nodded with stolid complacency.
“But she wants a lot of what we sporting folk call ‘handling.’ She’s a bit nervous at the post—and a shocking bad starter.”
Again Blagdon nodded, but on this occasion without complacence.
“The child has lovely eyes—eyes like some beautiful wild filly, that is ready to bolt. She is as pretty as a picture, but she is too young! My dear man, why doesn’t she get a woman who can do her hair? And where did she pick up those early Victorian garments? She doesn’t give herself half a chance!”
Blagdon glared into the artistically painted face of his companion.
“As you say, she is too young,” he growled savagely; “give her time—in twenty years she’ll be up to all the tricks of the trade!”
Hugo was secretly furious with his old associates; they had not shown half enough enthusiasm; with regard to his bride, their congratulations had been tepid. He had expected them to figuratively prostrate themselves, and worship the girl he had delighted to honour; and as for the outer world, he anticipated that they would crane their necks, or even mount on chairs (as in the case of a renowned beauty) in order to catch sight of the famous Mrs. Blagdon!
He stared over at Letty, seated a little aloof from Lola and Lord Robbie,—who had now been joined by two vivacious ladies, and a man resembling a brigand chief. Yes, she certainly was a bit out of the picture, among these well-dressed, well-corseted, animated women; there was no liqueur glass by her, no cigarette between her lips, her hands were tightly clasped in her lap, and she looked for all her lovely face, forlorn and badly dressed—the picture of conscious insignificance. Her attitude, too, not lounging in careless ease, but cramped up, with her feet tucked under her chair, suggested a fear of mice. There were no mice in this magnificent lounge. The truth he could divine. Letty was afraid of her guests—a pretty condition for a hostess!
Lady Slater’s criticisms were not thrown away; for the following day, the amazed and indignant Tucker received her wages and her congé. Mrs. Corbett had, for her part, kindly undertaken to find a good French maid, also to help Letty to select several really fashionable hats and gowns.
“For goodness’ sake get her something she can be seen in,” urged Blagdon; “frocks that will make all the neighbours open their eyes—le dernier cri—and that sort of thing, real smart. Money no object!”
As the atelier of Madame Tartare was close to their hotel, the two ladies proceeded thither on foot. They were received by a dignified man-servant, and conducted up a great staircase into a lofty suite of rooms, carpeted with moss-green Axminster, and lined with long mirrors and presses. After a moment’s delay, Madame appeared, a middle-aged woman with a clever face and a marvellously fitting gown: all gracious exclamations and gestures of welcome, until she realised that her chère Madame Corbett had come not in peace, but in war!
As Letty listened to her companion’s denunciations, she felt terrified; never had she assisted at such a scene, or beheld anyone make such an absolute surrender to fury. What a frantic temper, who could withstand it? How could anyone cope with such violent vituperation, such frenzied threats? She felt half inclined to creep out of sight, and hide herself in one of the great wardrobes.
Meanwhile Mrs. Corbett figuratively brandishing the copied gown, raged and stormed: in voluble French she rent the discomfited dressmaker, who presently finding spirit and speech, in ten times more fluent language, poured forth her plausible apologies. The uproar was such, that milliners and mannequins assembled at a discreet distance, in order to hear and to see.
“Tiens! c’était Madame Cor—bett—quelle femme!”
After a time the battle waned, the fury of the customer abated. She had gained her point, the gown was to be taken back!
Deceitful Tartare, believing Madame had departed for England, had ventured to make several copies of what was termed “La Robe Odalisque.”
When peace was proclaimed, having recovered breath and composure, the victor commanded a display of hats and gowns; these were promptly and politely exhibited, and three costumes were selected by Mrs. Corbett—whose taste was for the flamboyant and bizarre. She also set aside several hats and a tea-gown; and before Letty could protest, or interfere, she found herself fitted out in what ecstatic Madame declared to be ‘tous ce qu’il y a de plus ravissante et plus chic!’ and added that as the young lady had ‘a stock figure,’ all the robes would be ready in a few hours.
Now that his wife was provided with a suitable maid, and smart outfit, Blagdon saw no reason to postpone his journey, and he and Letty (wearing a most amazing toque) took their departure for London.
As the train moved away from the platform of ‘Le Nord,’ Lady Slater turned to her companion, and repeated:
“See us at Sharsley for the hunting—you bet he will! My dear Lola, you have made the poor child a figure of fun—that toque is the sort of thing a lunatic would make—and wear!”
“Well, yes, it’s a little outré—one of Tartare’s latest,” and she laughed maliciously.
“I wonder Letty did not kick!”
“Oh, she’s only a child—a simpleton!”
“And looks pretty in anything—that’s the worst of her, eh?”
“Her looks are a matter of opinion,” declared Mrs. Corbett stiffly. “I can’t say that I admire chocolate-box profiles; and I can tell you one thing—though you may have seen it for yourself, my clever Tatty—our beloved Blag is deadly sick of the girl already.”
“Ah, well, poor thing, I can’t help feeling sorry for her; she’s too heavily handicapped.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Mrs. Corbett, “she’s out of her place altogether. She ought to have married an evangelical curate.”
“Not up to form, eh?” suggested her ladyship, then muttered, “and anyway, you intend to ride her off the course,” and with this prudently suppressed opinion, she led the way out of the station.
On arrival in London the newly married couple established themselves at Claridge’s; Blagdon accompanied his wife to the Opera and to Hurlingham, gave smart dinners, and introduced her to his friends; many of his mother’s connections called upon her, and prepared to entertain them; but the bride suddenly became indisposed, was confined to her room, and totally unpresentable. The unfortunate victim had been seized upon by that contemptible ailment known as the mumps.
At last Mr. and Mrs. Blagdon appeared at Sharsley, and met with a flattering reception. There were speeches, a deputation, arches in the village, and a troop of the local yeomanry escorted them from the station. Sharsley Court, the ancestral home of the Scropes (who with various family vicissitudes had lived there since the reign of Henry VIII), was a noble Tudor mansion, wisely enlarged by various owners, who were proud of its fame. Sharsley village lay just outside its beautiful old iron gates; the ancient, irregular houses collected at either side of a wide street, or square, were of rusty red brick, or black and white. A venerable inn, furnished with wonderful treasures, attracted no attention, as the curio-collecting age had not yet dawned, and many valuable bits to be found in the village and neighbourhood were not merely neglected, but actually despised. At the opposite end, facing the gates of the Court, stood the church, a late Norman, and near it, sheltered by giant elm trees, was a fine old Jacobean Rectory.
Sharsley was four miles from a market town, seven from a railway, and in those pro-motor days, a good deal isolated and out of touch with the busy roaring world. The Court itself had been built, as was the fashion in old times, within a few hundred yards from the entrance—similar to Hatfield and Harwicke—instead of being situated in the midst of a vast park; but the park existed, stretching far away on three sides, and surrounded by a high wall.
Here and there this wall was broken by a space filled in with iron railings, in order to give the residents a more extended prospect, and envious passers-by could, if they so pleased, from some of these openings, enjoy an uninterrupted view of the mansion, with its great terraced front. Later on, many wayfarers would pause to stare at a small, solitary figure slowly pacing to and fro, to and fro, to and fro, for all the world like a wild thing in a cage. It was the young wife.
But we are travelling too fast; the young wife has barely crossed the threshold of her new home. To her, it looked almost formidable, so cold and forbidding, the great suite of reception rooms, the palatial staircase, the circle of silent, impassive servants, all struck terror into her youthful heart.
However it was midsummer, and the gardens and grounds—recently put in order—were at their best, the sun was shining, and she was not yet eighteen. By degrees, the new mistress found her way through her dominions. She had an interview with Mrs. Bates, the housekeeper, gave a few orders respecting the arrangement of her own boudoir, unpacked the wedding presents, the little odds and ends they had collected abroad, and arranged flowers and plants with such notable success, that her lord and master grudgingly exclaimed:
“Well, anyway, there is one thing you can do, Letty—you can make a room look all right. I wish you could do the same for yourself. Can’t you get that woman to fix you up like other people? And for God’s sake don’t let me ever see that blue garment again!”
The blue dress was one of the trousseau selected by Mrs. Fenchurch,—who liked bright colours, heavy materials, and lots of trimming.
“Would you rather that I wore white, Hugo?” she asked with a pale propitiatory smile.
“Oh, well—wear what you like,” he rejoined impatiently, “only don’t look a hideous dowdy—and don’t bother me.”
And they had only been married six weeks.
“My mother is coming down, and she,” producing a letter, “suggests a family house-party. These Scropes are all for family and connections—such rot! Here’s what she says—um—um—um: ‘Give Letty a good start.’ Ha! ha! ‘My cousin Louisa Calthorpe and Calthorpe’—he’s an old stick-in-the-mud, and lives the other end of the County—‘Lord and Lady Belford if at home; I’m sure they’d go for a couple of nights; the Bishop, and your cousin Agatha Mostyn.’ The Bishop is as starched as they make ’em, and rampant on divorce and gambling, for all his cordial manner. ‘Cyril Vernon and Lady Hilda.’ He’s our M.F.H.—not a bad sort—but the hunt horses are a scandal; he buys all sorts of old crocks only fit for the kennel. ‘Harding Grant, the County Member, and his wife.’ He’s a dull dog, always talking of the ‘House.’ That’s the lot—they are mostly connections. How many—ten, eh? My mother and her companion, Miss Hope, twelve. The house has forty-five bedrooms, and we may as well fill some more. I suppose I must ask the Fenchurchs, eh? From Friday till Monday, so that they can’t stay on. By George, I bar your aunt! I’ll never forget her on the wedding day. You’d think she was going to be married herself. The Calthorpe’s son, a naval man, is at home, and I believe the Bishop has a daughter. We’d better stick them in, and as for neighbours, the Rectory can come.”
“And your sister?” suggested Letty.
“Oh Lord, no! This sort of party would not be her form. Con would give them fits, and they would bore her stiff! This is the duty lot, that’s to give you a start, eh! Most of them have family prayers, and go to bed at ten o’clock. Later, I’ll have my own pals down, and they will keep the place lively. My mother’s set are infernally dull.”
This was not an auspicious preparation, for a nervous bride, and her first house-party.
“Now look here, don’t you attempt to do anything,” he continued authoritatively; “leave all to Bates, the housekeeper. She’s got to run the establishment, that’s her job and what she’s paid for—she manages the servants, and engages and dismisses them, orders the meals, pays the tradespeople—so you have absolutely nothing to do but to sit tight, and make yourself agreeable.”
The guests duly arrived; arrangements for their reception were complete, the best state bedrooms were open, the choicest greenhouse flowers were brought into the house, the silver service was displayed, everything was perfectly done, there was no hitch.
Mrs. Fenchurch, brimming over with importance and curiosity, embraced her dearest Letty with well-assumed effusion. The Dowager Mrs. Blagdon merely gave her daughter-in-law a frozen kiss, and requested to be conducted to her room.
The company assembled that night in the white drawing-room, was composed of the ‘dull’ people, with reposeful manners, who knew one another more or less intimately; several were closely related, and the women called one another by their Christian names. There was no loud, hilarious laughing, no rouge, no cigarette cases; the Dowager Mrs. Blagdon was majestic in velvet and old lace, Mrs. Fenchurch wore a hideous green costume, Lady Gaythorne, a too well-known black brocade. The most conspicuous figure on the occasion was the hostess; by her husband’s commands she was magnificent, amazing, in one of Tartare’s most startling gowns; a vivid sulphur, shaded to orange, half veiled in silver gauze, and here and there deepened with black. It had the effect that Blagdon desired and made everyone in the room open their eyes. There was no question of its expense and execution—but it was theatrical. Yes, that was how the guests spoke of it, ‘theatrical!’—a robe more suitable to the emancipated wife in a big society play, a divorcée’s robe, in which to trail the stage, and storm and scoff, and vow and weep, than to a young girl-bride in her own drawing-room.
Letty wore, also, the splendid Blagdon diamonds, and these, that would have been proper enough with her wedding gown, added just the required touch of lawless extravagance to her appearance.
Beside the house-party, and a smart young Guardsman, there were three guests from the village: the Reverend Adrian Lumley, Frances his daughter and Lancelot his son. The Rector was a white-haired man of sixty, handsome, erect, and dignified. For years he had been an army chaplain in India, now he shepherded a country flock. He and Lord Gaythorne were old Harrovians, and had a good deal to say to one another; the Bishop and the Dowager Mrs. Blagdon, discussed a London Mission, and the M.F.H. a May fox.
The dinner was excellent, and went off with great decorum, but it was prodigiously dull. There was a little talk of golf, of a local engagement, the prospects of grouse, a recent by-election, and a threatened bazaar.
Mrs. Fenchurch glanced up and down the table with unconcealed pride. The guests were all the ‘best people,’ no small fry; the silver candelabra and cups were superb, the flowers exquisite, the ménu everything a ménu should be. Round about her, waited many silent and efficient servants, and there at the head of the table in gorgeous apparel, and blazing jewels, sat little Letty, her niece by marriage.
This dazzling vision established the lady more firmly than ever in the belief in her own infallibility; for this position, and all her other mercies, Letty had to thank her; and she drank off a glass of champagne to her own good health.
It struck young Lumley that the bride, for all her magnificence, did not appear to be in particularly radiant spirits—that from time to time she cast timid and deprecating glances towards the master of the house; her smiles were rare, and her face wore a curious blighted look, and had lost something of the round, fresh touch of happy youth.
She talked, yet appeared afraid to utter a word; once he had intercepted a scowl that Mr. Blagdon had cast at the lower end of the table, and during a pause he had called out in a harsh, dominating voice:
“I say, what a noise you are all making down there. What a jovial, merry party! I’m glad my wife is so amusin’.”
His wife became pink, and then in halting sentences, began to tell Lord Gaythorne and the Bishop, her immediate neighbours, some little tales respecting their recent excursions and experiences. Having secured the attention of the company, and during a dead silence, in her clear, girlish voice, she proceeded to relate how they had made a delightful trip with Sir Algy and Lady Vickery, and had all dined together at an old inn in the mountains and driven back by moonlight. This story was listened to in horrified amazement, as it was a well-known fact that Sir Algy Vickery was not a married man. Kind Lady Gaythorne burst in upon the pause, with jerky recollections of her own honeymoon,—now a matter of somewhat ancient history,—but once again the little bride, anxiously striving to entertain, brought forward in all innocence, one of the stories which she had heard in Paris. The unhappy girl had not the remotest idea that she was retailing a hideously improper double entendre (a recent succès of the Boulevards). She only remembered that when told by Lady Slater it had been received—why she could not say—with yells of laughter and applause. When she concluded, there ensued a grim and petrifying silence. To the ladies, the tale was cryptic; to most of the men it was as if a bomb had exploded on the mahogany! Lord Gaythorne gasped, the Master of Hounds choked convulsively in his serviette. As for the Bishop, he had been changed into an image of stone. The guests stared blankly at their girlish hostess, dressed in the most outré French style, and calmly relating the Frenchiest of stories! But she turned on them a face of beautiful, child-like innocence, and actually seemed to appeal for their approval, and applause.
This pitiful incident had far-reaching results. By gradual degrees, the intelligence filtered through the County, that Blagdon’s pretty young wife was a simpleton—just one degree removed from a mere imbecile. What a pity! Unconscious of her enormity, the bride made a timid sign to Lady Gaythorne, and rose from her place. She was presently made aware that her first dinner-party had been a failure, for as her husband held the door open for the ladies to pass forth, the glance he threw at her, was charged with fury.
Once in the vast drawing-room, most of the ladies scattered about or assembled in congenial groups. Mrs. Fenchurch wandered round, eyeglass in hand, examining the miniatures and old china, with the air of a connoisseur, and possible purchaser! Lady Gaythorne and Lady Belford conferred together over the character of a housekeeper, the Bishop’s helpmate whispered of family troubles to her cousin, the wife of the County Member, and Frances Lumley and the girl hostess made advances to one another; they were likely to be friends as well as neighbours, and Letty felt drawn to this charming, light-hearted girl, who, although unmarried at the great age of twenty-six, had evidently far more experience and decision than herself.
Meanwhile the rheumatic dowager, enthroned on a sofa, presented a picture of frozen dignity; to her the coffee had tasted as gall and wormwood, her mind being embittered by the outrageous behaviour of Mrs. Fenchurch, who was playing the part of hostess with considerable effect. Positively her attitude was that of triumphant hospitality!
Numerous good works, and far-reaching activities, had brought Mrs. Fen into contact with many of the ‘best people.’ An alert woman of the world, she had interests in common with most of the matrons present; she exchanged a word or two with Mrs. Mostyn, the Bishop’s wife, respecting a certain charity; then she flitted over to the Master’s lady to enquire about the new Kennels, told Lady Belford of a marvellous cure for Flue, and assured Lady Gaythorne that she could give her two tickets for the Idiots’ Home.
“She had much better keep one for her niece!” muttered Lady Belford, who had three unmarried daughters, and a sharp tongue.
In short, Mrs. Fenchurch was, so to speak, the presiding personality, the chairwoman of this drawing-room meeting; whilst the mistress of the house sat in a corner talking eagerly to the girl from the Rectory.
From the sofa, the Dowager’s soul went forth in arms. How dared this pushing, notoriously managing woman, ignore and eclipse two Mrs. Blagdons under their own roof—the home of her ancestors? There she was, actually exhibiting, and with pride, the Scrope Nankin Vases, that had been in the family for centuries, and drawing Lady Calthorpe’s special attention to a Cosway miniature of Angelina Scrope, her own grandmother. Oh, it was insufferable! Such manners should be dealt with by the penal laws.
Presently Mrs. Fen, in blissful ignorance of these smouldering fires, sailed across the room and sat down on the sofa in order to pay a little attention to old Mrs. Blagdon, “who seemed rather out of it”; but her polite advances were not welcomed. The Dowager declined to go into raptures over Jade, and pictures, to enlarge on objects familiar to Caroline Scrope since she could toddle; treasures which had been her own exclusive possessions for many years.
“Oh yes,” she assented icily, “no doubt these things in our collection impress an outsider. I was amused in watching you, as you went round exhibiting her relatives to Lady Calthorpe, who, however, has been here hundreds of times—and I could not help thinking what a capital person you would be as show-woman, in some historical house, such as Knole or Penshurst!”
This was a nasty speech, and entirely beneath the dignity of a Scrope; but the old lady was on fire; she was particularly sensitive with respect to Sharsley,—every bush and tree, every old book, and chair of which, were sacred to her; and to behold an absolute stranger, vaunting its treasures and doing the honours, was an exasperating and distracting experience.
Presently, she and her companion were engaged in a lady-like sparring match; and (the shameful confession must be made) occasionally dealt one another what is known as ‘blows below the belt.’ The Dowager, conveyed by looks and implication, more than actual speech, that her opponent had been undeservedly fortunate in placing her penniless niece in what had once been her own shoes! Mrs. Fenchurch, her blue blood boiling in her veins, had no hesitation in conveying to the Dowager, that she considered that her son was exceptionally favoured in marrying a girl who had well-born relations on both sides—and here she distinctly scored.
The attitude of these two matrons did not tend to promote conviviality; there was a vague impression of outstretched claws and flying fur, and the long-looked-for entrance of the men effected a happy diversion. The grand piano stood open, and the word ‘music’ was breathed by someone—possibly Mrs. Fenchurch.
“Come along, Letty, and let us have some of your parlour tricks,” said her husband, to whom a generous quantity of generous wine, had brought a certain amount of suavity.
The bride, silent and pale, rose immediately and went to the instrument, and although her voice and fingers seemed a little tremulous, gained confidence as soon as her uncle came and stood beside her. Her singing was voted delightful, and made a remarkable impression; the Rector’s thoughts flew to his choir; Lady Calthorpe’s to a charity concert. The voice was so fresh, so sweet, so flexible, and well trained; but to Lumley, mechanically turning over the leaves of an album, it was something more—to him it seemed to carry a note of hopelessness and despair.
Meanwhile Blagdon lay back in an arm-chair with one solid leg crossed over the other, and an expression on his flushed face which seemed to say:
“That’s my property—my musical-box!”
Young Lumley could hardly restrain his fury; he felt a savage inclination, to rise and kick the complacent host, round his own drawing-room. Several ladies succeeded one another at the piano, and Miss Lumley gave a notable performance of Grieg and Chopin, during which, general conversation waxed both loud and animated.
By and by card-tables were produced, and people sat down to the good old game of whist. Mrs. Fenchurch, who was not a card-player, came over and seated herself beside her niece, armed with many sharp questions.
“Now tell me, dear,” she began, “how do you like your housekeeper? I suppose she has been here for years?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“And manages everything?” she demanded.
“Yes, Aunt Dorothy.”
“Well, mind you don’t let her manage you,” she urged with dictatorial emphasis. “Take everything into your own hands. Of course, you have gone over the silver?”
“No, not yet.”
“Oh, my dear! Nor the house-linen?”
“But, dearest child, you mustn’t get into slack ways, but begin as you intend to go on. Oh, by the way, Tucker came to me so injured, and affronted. Why did you dismiss her?”
“Because Hugo didn’t think she was a good maid.”
“Good gracious—what can he know about it?”
“He knows a good deal, and is very particular. He can’t bear some of my trousseau dresses.”
(She might have added, that he had told her to burn them!)
“Oh, my dear, what rubbish! You know, I got them at Stile’s, where my mother bought mine—everything they have is always of the very best. Look at this,” indicating her own hideous garment. “If you begin by allowing Hugo to dismiss your maid, and worry about your dresses, I’m sure I don’t know where you will end! You really must learn to assert yourself.” Then she went on to enquire about the neighbours, and who Letty had seen in London? and who had called? and who hadn’t called? and many other tiresome questions.
Letty’s pleasantest moments were snatched with her uncle. In his company, her depressed spirits seemed to bubble up to the surface, and she actually laughed. Her husband, who was playing whist, paused to stare at her; it was such an unusual occurrence, and her laugh sounded so merry and girlish. She never laughed like that when she was with him!
Before Mrs. Fenchurch concluded her visit, she had taken certain observations; perhaps, after all, like the princess with a pea in the feather bed, little Letty had some drawbacks in her fine home—an odious, arrogant, formidable mother-in-law, cold as ice; and a selfish, egotistical, self-indulgent husband, who snubbed her already—yes, and openly!
“I must give you just one little word, dearest Letty,” she whispered to her, before they separated. “I want you to assert yourself, and talk, and offer your opinion, and take your proper place as the mistress of this splendid establishment. Why, my dear child, you look every moment as if you were a naughty little girl who expected to be put in the corner.”
“I have only been here two weeks,” stammered the poor bride; “and of course I am not accustomed to all this grandeur yet. I shall get on all right by and by.”
But Mrs. Fenchurch had her doubts. How the agreeable, genial Blagdon seemed to have altered! He now treated her with marked coolness, rarely addressed her, and when she praised Letty, received her encomiums in gloomy silence. After all, he might prove a most unsatisfactory husband—he looked ill-tempered.
Mrs. Blagdon, for her part, had a few words to say to her son before she flitted south.
“Hugo, I hope you and Letty will pull well together,” to which he merely grunted a reply. “You must make allowances for her. I think she is trying hard to please you. She is a simple little thing—and so young—not yet full grown—and her mind only half developed.”
“Half baked, you mean!” he corrected angrily.
“No, no; she has plenty of brains. What she wants, is worldly wisdom; her French is perfect, and her singing and playing astonishing for her age.”
“Just school accomplishments!”
“The others will come; but Letty really won’t be fit to be mistress of this great place, to look the part, and to hold her own, for a couple of years.”
“Now, suppose you were to close Sharsley for a little, and travel, and let her see the world, and mix in society?”
“No, thank you,” he rejoined with laboured emphasis. “I’ve had enough of travel with Letty. She is all for sights and sunsets, and hideous old pictures and damp churches. She has no fun or go, no what you call joie de vivre. As for mixing in society, she is a fish out of water, and without tact or sense. Why you yourself heard the story she related at dinner,—one of Lady Slater’s worst—and that without turning a hair!”
“It showed the poor child’s innocence,” rejoined his mother, “and the sort of people with whom you allowed her to associate.”
“Any way—it will be talked of for the next ten years! and I’ll tell you what, mum,” he added, nodding his head and looking down at her with his hard, sullen eyes. “I find I’ve made a most infernal mistake!”
“Well, Hugo, remember that I warned you; the wife to have suited you, would have been a smart young widow, who knew her way about, who was clever and ambitious, and could hold her own. I must confess I am sorry for Letty!”
“Bah! she’s just a little shivering idiot.”
“I expect her aunt drove her into the marriage. Oh, Hugo, what an awful woman; so thrusting, managing, and overbearing. For all her good birth, and being first cousin to the Marquis of Camberwell, she is not a lady.” She had not forgotten their passage-at-arms, and repeated with conviction, “No, she is not!”
“But a regular old campaigner! I believe poor Fenchurch can’t call his soul his own. She’d sell the hunters under him without winking, and allows him a shilling a week for baccy. I won’t have her over here prying and picking. I’m not a mean chap, nor stingy, but when I put her in the brougham, I saw that she had a hamper of plants from the hothouse, the best of the spaniel pups, and a china jar. She told me, with a grin, she begged it of dearest Letty, who had two. She won’t come here again, I bet a thousand pounds!”
But an experienced acquaintance would have backed Mrs. Fenchurch,—and won!
Sharsley, its spreading park, and somewhat neglected gardens, had been partly closed for years; the owner merely visiting it spasmodically, with lively parties for shooting or hunting. The situation was isolated with regard to other seats: it being the one great house of a poor and insignificant neighbourhood. When Blagdon married, people hoped that a new era was about to dawn; a pretty girl of good family would be warmly welcomed as the social queen, and the immediate residents hastened to wait upon the bride.
First, came those known as ‘the small fry’ or the village; these included the two Miss Jessops—maiden ladies of gentle birth, churchy, poor, and kindly; Captain and Mrs. Howard, retired Army people, agreeable and middle-aged—who had seen the world; Mr. Byng, an Indian Civilian and keen politician, with two pretty daughters who bicycled after the hounds and kept prize poultry, and others of the same standing. But these were not the class of visitors that Blagdon desired to entertain, and his rudeness was insufferable and undisguised.
When the Jessops, in their best bonnets, arrived to make a first and formal call, and were ceremoniously conducted into the grounds, where tea was laid in the shade, the instant Blagdon beheld these ladies approaching, he sprang to his feet and hastily departed in the opposite direction. Truly this was a bad moment for the bride! However, with many blushes and in halting sentences, she assured the Misses Jessop that her husband had suddenly remembered an important engagement; but Letty was a very poor liar, and her embarrassment, and her explanations, merely aggravated the situation.
With a lofty air the ladies declined tea. Blagdon’s snub had been too gross, and what, after all, was he? The grandson of a collier, and they the granddaughters of an Archbishop! They were sorry for the poor child, his wife, talked to her condescendingly of flowers and the weather, and presently effected a stately departure.
When Captain Howard drove up with his wife to make their first call at Sharsley, the windows being open, they heard a beautiful soprano singing ‘Love Not.’
“Ah, she’s in,” said Mrs. Howard. “I’m so glad!”
But an impassive footman who received their cards uttered a sonorous and decisive ‘Not at home,’ and they drove away, deeply mortified—the fate of many.
Later, as Blagdon stood turning over the card-tray one afternoon, Letty adventured a timid expostulation.
“Now look here,” he said impatiently, “I’m not going to have gossiping women, and sponging old men, running in and out of this house, sniffing about for what they can get—amusement, shootin’, and good dinners. I have my own friends, and I don’t want their society. You can just send round your cards by a footman,—and let that end it. Of course, the County is another affair,” still examining the cards as he spoke. “Viscount and Viscountess Lyndham, Sir Cosmo and Lady Alice Danvers—yes, these sort of people are all right. By the way, I see the Duchess hasn’t honoured you yet—she’s taking her time. The old girl wanted to saddle me with one of her ugly daughters, so she won’t be very keen upon you, Mrs. Blagdon!”
The expected ‘County’ now came day after day rolling up the Avenue to visit Sharsley; and the shy bride, seated alone in a magnificent new landau, drove about the country, returning calls, and inwardly praying that her hostesses might be out! being secretly afraid of the solid, important matrons, among whom she now took rank—as Mrs. Blagdon of Sharsley. She noted the merry bicyclists who sped by in couples, the happy good-looking pair, evidently lately married, driving in a high tax-cart, he with his arm round the girl’s waist, their faces radiant with smiles,—a sheep their fellow-passenger.
They stared with wide-eyed admiration at the lovely young lady in a beautiful dress, sitting so erect behind a pair of slashing steppers,—and little dreamt how she envied them!
Her husband made no secret of his disgust, and disillusion; scenes were frequent—when he scolded, blustered, and stormed, she wept; when they were alone, conversation was nil; to her timid questions, the answers were generally a grunt; and the miserable girl began to feel that her youth was paralysed and petrified. Often and often, she wished herself back once more in the little top-room at The Holt—could more be said? There, she was partly free; here, she was an abject slave; and at the beck and call of a man whom she heartily feared.
The newly married couple, were invited to formal dinners or to dine, and sleep, at various important places, and the general verdict on the bride was, that she was a pretty nonentity, dull as a kitchen-garden on a winter’s day, who looked positively ashamed of her French gowns and her superb diamonds; and it was no love match.
Hugo contradicted his wife flatly; he had been overheard to assure her that her hat was hideous, and she—worse still—“was a wooden-headed little fool.”
Part of August and September found the Blagdons in Scotland; by the time they had returned home, they had drifted almost entirely apart.
It was true, that Blagdon had his own friends and was superbly independent of his neighbours; numerous guests came from London for pheasant-shooting and hunting, at Sharsley they were all thoroughly at home—indeed, considerably more so than the hostess herself! Lady Rashleigh, had her particular bedroom—this was natural—but why Mrs. Corbett should claim, and occupy, the best of all the state apartments was another affair. Sir Tom and Lady Slater, Lord Robbie and the Baron, and a Colonel Shaddock, who knew everyone, went everywhere, and was a notorious gossip and an irresistible horse-dealer, and various others. There was no doubt, that the party stirred up sleepy old Sharsley, and made it lively, with early starts for cubbing, and late hours for nap and poker; the guests were well acquainted with the resources of the stable and the cellar, the best stands in the woods and coverts, even wise and self-seeking with respect to the most comfortable chairs, and told the bride many things about her home that she now learnt for the first time.
The new mistress made a rather scared and silent hostess; indeed, she was a mere figure-head and nonentity. Lady Rashleigh and Lola Corbett rode Hugo’s best horses, smoked his best cigarettes, lounged about on sofas, issued orders, and did what seemed good in their own eyes.
The great rooms rang with loud voices, and boisterous laughter, and the company talked incessantly of horses, racing, and scandal. Several of the party had brought their hunters; others were mounted by their host. Mrs. Corbett, who for all her langourous grace, rode admirably; she had nerves and muscles of iron—no day too long for her, provided she had a second horse. Lady Rashleigh rode a solid fourteen stone, and gave sore backs to some of her brother’s weight-carriers; whilst Lady Slater came out on wheels, and made no secret of the fact that she funked riding.
Letty, in a smart habit and mounted on a quiet cob, looked well in the saddle; nevertheless at the meets she was left a good deal to herself; as she was not acquainted with the hard-riding set, the intimates of her husband, and his friends, and the neighbours on horseback, or in governess cars, stared over her head with glassy eyes. Her husband’s ‘ukase’ had placed her in the middle of a social desert,—where her only associates were the Lumley family. Lancelot Lumley was home on leave, and when he was out—about once a week—Mrs. Blagdon had someone to ride with and talk to. Her husband’s sporting friends, granted her pretty face and frightened-looking blue eyes; but, as one of them declared, “She could not say boo to a gosling!”
In some ways, Letty enjoyed the hunting: the eager crowd of yokels at the meets, the splendid horses, the odd turns-out, and the general spirit of camaraderie and enjoyment. It was not bad fun galloping along grassy lanes, darting through convenient open gates, now and then getting over a small fence, and feeling absurdly proud and brave! Her prowess and improvement were remarked, and Lady Rashleigh said one day at dinner:
“Look here, Letty, we must promote you, especially as the cob is lame—he has a seedy toe. We cannot any longer allow you to go skirmishing about the roads, trying to see all you can,—and save your neck! You are to ride The Goat; he will carry you splendidly. I rode him last season.”
“The Goat, would be too much for you, Mrs. Blag,” volunteered Lord Robbie. “Take my tip, and don’t you ride him; he has only one side to his mouth.”
“Shut up, Robbie!” said Lady Rashleigh. “Letty can stick on all right, she’s got to learn. We shall see her in the first flight yet. By the way, what happened to you in the second run? I saw old Sarsfield pirouetting on his head!”
“Only a rabbit hole; we both bit the earth—no harm done. If the cob is lame, Sarsfield would be a safe conveyance for Mrs. Blag much steadier than The Goat.”
Nevertheless it was The Goat, a raking chestnut 16·2 in hard condition, who proved to be Letty’s fate; in spite of her piteous, even agonised, protestations. Her husband, accustomed to such hard-riding women as his sister and friends, could not understand her nervousness; he set it down to affectation, assured her that “The Goat was as quiet as a lamb. All he wanted was to go; all she had to do, was to sit tight.”
Mounted on this tall, headstrong animal, a first-class hunter and mount for a muscular and resolute man, Letty looked as she felt, abjectly miserable,—whilst her sister-in-law and Lola, unkindly derided her fears. The Goat was so different to the nice, sedate, well-mannered cob; he fretted and shied, threw his head about, dragging the reins through her cold, stiff fingers; and became frightfully excited when the hounds, and the whips, streamed pleasantly through the village street; her futile efforts to quiet him were ridiculed by Blagdon, who audibly called her “a chicken-hearted little fool.” All she had to do was to let the brute alone; he couldn’t give her a fall if he tried!
As the mass of riders and drivers jogged off in the wake of the hounds, Lumley, filled with burning indignation and compassion, joined the white-faced victim. To mount a nervous, inexperienced girl on this hard-mouthed, powerful brute, was, in his opinion, not far from a bold attempt at murder.
He, however, gave her confidence, and encouragement, and when the hounds were put into cover, piloted her away down a by-road, where he dismounted, and altered The Goat’s bit. Lumley was at home in this part of the world, he knew every fence and field like his A B C, and by merely sticking to roads and gates Letty and her escort, got over a respectable amount of the country, and actually made their appearance soon after the fox (a well-known veteran) was run to ground in a quarry pit.
Blagdon and his friends hailed the lady’s arrival, with boisterous shouts, and, after some hesitation and an anxious five minutes, her husband assented to her timid suggestion, ‘that now she might go home.’
Unfortunately Lumley did not happen to be out on the memorable day when Mrs. Blagdon was overpowered by her mount, and The Goat, after plunging and rearing,—frantic at being held in, and stimulated by galloping horses, let himself go,—and, with a light weight on his back, carried his reluctant rider in the very first flight, for two triumphant miles. It was true she was frozen with fear, her heart thumped like a turbine engine; but she passed Connie Rashleigh as an arrow from a bow, and cut down the Baron and the redoubtable Lola. Such was The Goat’s enthusiasm, such his passion for the chase, that he followed hard upon the hounds; vainly did the huntsman yell and swear, the lady was helpless—this was The Goat’s day out! It was also his last day. In negotiating a yawning fence (wired) he came down badly, and a thrill went through the spectators—Mrs. Blagdon was done for—she was killed! No, The Goat had broken his back, but the lady escaped with a fractured arm, and some bad bruises. Presently a carriage and a gun were borrowed, the former for the lady; and she was taken home by her husband, who, far from being concerned and sympathetic, was furious at the loss of a valuable hunter, and angrily assured her that “she was a little idiot to let the brute get away with her. Why, Connie could ride him on a thread!”
Letty was a good deal shaken, her fracture was excessively painful, and the doctor ordered her to keep her room for at least a fortnight, which command she was only too thankful to obey. Her nerves were completely shattered; she was visited by horrid dreams; dreams of flying over great ragged brown hedges, with the wind whistling past her ears, a fierce, implacable demon pulling her arms out of their sockets, whilst she and the runaway were pursued by frenzied shouts.
During these days of seclusion, the invalid saw but little of her guests—by whom the absence of the hostess was not deplored. Now and then, Connie Rashleigh and Lola came to see her, and Hugo paid her a daily visit of a few minutes. One evening he stayed longer than usual, and strode up and down the room—a sure sign that he had something on his mind. His restlessness was accounted for by his suddenly asking her to “let him have a look at the necklace with the emeralds.”
“Tell your maid to get it,” he said. “The fact is, I bought that necklace for Lola Corbett, but we had a row, or rather she annoyed me, and so I gave it to you. All the same, she’s always looked upon the article as hers, and it has rankled in her mind, and she is so cracked about jewellery, and has ragged and nagged so much about this damned necklace, that I feel bound to give it to her. You’ll let me have it, won’t you, Letty?”
His manner was almost persuasive. He was saying to himself that if he had made a similar proposition to Lola she would have flown into a rage, that would have scared even him; but all his wife said was:
“Oh, of course! Desirée shall get it out at once, and I will send it to your room.”
“That’s a good little girl,” he remarked approvingly. (To himself, ‘She hadn’t the spirit of a mouse! He would really have enjoyed a little bit of a scrap!’) “All right,” he continued, “I will get you another, and just as good, the very next time I am in Paris.”
“No, no, Hugo,” she protested. “I really have more diamonds and things than I can wear. But there is something else—I—I—I wish you would give me.”
Blagdon, who was half-way to the door, halted.
“What’s that?” he demanded, turning sharply round.
“A little—a little——” She was about to say ‘love,’ but, with an effort, faltered the word “affection.”
“What rot!” he exclaimed, and looking her over from head to foot, with a derisive laugh, he went out of the room.
The expected heir, for whom conspicuous preparations had been made—bonfires laid ready for the torch, name and sponsors solemnly selected—turned out to be a girl. This was a severe and unconcealed disappointment to Blagdon, and he allowed his wife to feel the full brunt of his indignation, and displeasure. The estate and all the property was strictly entailed, and, after Hugo, it passed to a distant cousin (naturally detested), a man who farmed a small sheep ranch in New Zealand, and was reported to be barely able to write his name.
Old Mrs. Blagdon who had come to Sharsley for the auspicious event, dissembled her dissatisfaction with well-bred dignity, and took a certain amount of notice of the unwelcome infant (her namesake), a fair little waxen creature, adored by her mother from the moment she was laid in her arms.
The great bonfires remained unlit, the charitable doles were withheld, the grand dinner to the tenantry was cancelled; and Blagdon, like a sulky schoolboy, left home to be consoled by his usual associates.
Three years had slipped by since the sensational and still-talked-of wedding at Thornby, and although a good deal of water had flowed under the bridge, it had brought no pleasant flotsam to the feet of Letty Blagdon. Her husband deserted her for months at a time; he had taken to racing, owned a stable and rented rooms at Newmarket, as well as a hunting-box in the shires, declaring that Sharsley, as a hunting centre, was obsolete. He frequently went abroad en garçon, assuring inquisitive friends, that “his wife loathed the Continent, and that nothing would induce her to leave the child.”
During the first months of Letty’s married life the Court had opened its long-closed doors, and maintained something of its ancient state; there had been dinners, shoots, and visitors; more than once Aunt Dorothy had adventured over from Thornby, put up her horses, and accorded to her miserable niece, a critical and inquisitive ‘day’; but a twenty-mile drive is a serious undertaking, and Mrs. Fenchurch contented herself with boasting to her friends of Mrs. Blagdon’s enviable happiness, and the beauties, and luxuries, of her home.
Not so Uncle Tom! He missed—sorely missed—the light of his eyes, the joy of his heart, and felt guiltily anxious with regard to her future. Mounted on Kitty, a notable Irish mare, he rode over to Sharsley every few weeks; when the master of the house happened to be at home these excursions had the effect of emphasising his apprehensions. The tone in which Blagdon addressed his wife, his rudeness, and the ferocity of his sarcasms made the thin blood of the old soldier mount to his face; and yet the host mended his manners when Letty’s uncle was present. Fenchurch was such a starched-up old cock;—and that a man of his age would ride forty miles just to see a relative, awakened Blagdon’s amusement and surprise.
“The old boy looks bad—he’s breaking!” he abruptly remarked to his wife one afternoon after her uncle had ridden away.
Letty had observed a change; the hale little officer now looked worn and grey; he had grown thin, and lost his cheery manner; when Hugo noticed anything of that sort, it must be woefully apparent! However, she made no answer, and winked back her tears, and her husband resumed:
“I’m surprised Mrs. Fen has not done for him long ago, with her jaw and her managing, and her damned hatchet face. Thank God she doesn’t show it here!” and with this congratulation on his lips, Blagdon departed.
By and by the forty-mile ride proved too much for Kitty; so said her master; he sent her a night before to a half-way village inn (where, according to the landlady, Queen Elizabeth had slept the night before her head was cut off!), drove there himself next day, and rode her on to Sharsley.
These visits seemed to afford him the greatest pleasure, though it was evident to Letty that they entailed an extraordinary effort. Each time she saw her uncle, she noted, with a sinking heart, a waning of his spirits and a wasting of his frame. He would never admit that he was ailing—and in this make-believe he was nobly supported by his wife. He had a horror of not being able to do what he had always done, and the iron will of his Dorothy, and his own frantic clinging to activity, compelled the poor, frail body to shoot and hunt as usual. The few hours he spent with Letty when he found her alone, were truly a joy and comfort to both. On these occasions, they never spoke of Hugo; but Cara the baby was exhibited, praised, and played with, and her mother made amazing efforts to seem gay. She realised, that Uncle Tom believed her to be unhappily married, and that this conviction was breaking his heart; and she strove very anxiously to play the part of a gay and contented young woman, who does not object to being a grass widow, or to be left by herself for months (to him she spoke of weeks), but the farce was a failure; the unsuccessful actress read this in her uncle’s haggard eyes, and in the long, significant pressure of his hand, ere he wished her good-bye, and sadly rode away.
And one June afternoon Kitty and the Colonel rode away, never to return, for a week later Colonel Fenchurch was found sitting in his chair in the smoking-room, with Letty’s last letter in his stiffening hand, quite dead. The poor little Colonel had not much to bequeath, but by a recent will he left forty pounds a year to his beloved niece Lettice Blagdon—and not all the Fenchurch pictures, diamonds, and heirlooms, could console his bereaved widow for this unnecessary legacy.
“So cruel to me!” she imparted in confidence to her intimates; “and so preposterous—as if Letty had not more money than she can spend!”
But possibly the dead man had his reasons; perhaps he had been granted the far-sighted vision which is given to those who are nearing the border-land.
His relict affected not only overwhelming grief, but the direst poverty. After the funeral, and when matters were being wound up, she endeavoured to sell a couple of hunters to Hugo.
“No, by Jove!” he exclaimed, as he tossed down the letter; “I think I see myself—the bay has a spavin, the black is touched in the wind. Your aunt did me once,” glaring over at Letty with unpleasant significance; “but never again—once bitten, twice shy!”
The thrifty lady was more successful in her transactions with her niece; to whom she submitted two tea-gowns, a driving-coat, and an opera mantle; the lot one hundred pounds.
“You see,” she wrote, “I shall be in black for such an age, and I’m frightfully hard up” (she had eighteen hundred a year and expectations) “so, Letty, you really must take them off my hands. Think of all I’ve done for you!” and Letty was, as usual, obedient.
She felt her uncle’s death acutely; he and the baby were all she had to love and to love her—for Hugo had told her a thousand times that he hated the sight of her—and except Maude Hesketh and Frances Lumley, she had no friends.
Frances Lumley was a clever, bright, energetic young woman, whose brother, she declared, had stolen her good looks. “By rights the boy should be the plain one of the family—and it is I who am ugly.”
But this was an extreme statement; Miss Lumley’s figure was the embodiment of slim grace, her hair soft and beautiful; her eyes, though sparkling and intelligent, were too small; her mouth, on the other hand, was too large; perhaps had their dimensions been reversed, Blagdon, who found her amusing and outspoken, might have asked her to marry him! The Rector’s daughter was popular with all degrees of society; a first-rate musician, an entertaining companion, and a capable nurse. The cottagers adored her, “Miss Frances was so funny, and told them such queer tales, all the while she was working over a case, you scarcely could tell you had a sore leg or a boil, or a burn, she was that clever with her fingers, and her tongue.” She was also her father’s right hand, copied out his sermons, wrote his letters, read to him, and cared for him like a guardian angel.
Miss Lumley was pathetically anxious to extend her sheltering wing over the poor lonely girl at the big house, and did her utmost to entice her to the Rectory, to tea, to tennis, to visit among the cottagers—in short, to make some break in that solitary monotonous existence.
“When Aunt Denton used to fill her letters with you,” she said, “I little expected that her Letty would be the great lady here, that she would go on my errands, and mend my gloves, and that I should see so much of her.”
“Too much, I’m afraid—this is the third time I am here in a week!”
“Can’t have too much of a good thing! and you come to be useful—you are always ornamental—and help me with the Sewing Club, you know you have nothing to do in that big rambling place. Fraser won’t let you touch the garden, the rouged and rustling Bates runs the house—all you may do is to practise your singing and play patience.”
“But I never play cards,” protested Letty.
“There are other games of patience, my dear—pied de la lettre! Your husband has old-fashioned ideas about his partner’s duties, but is up to date about his own.”
“I don’t understand you, Francie.”
“No? well then I’ll explain. The wife creed is in his blood, and belongs to the prehistoric race that treated women as beasts of burden, and beat them with clubs; later on, women were domestic slaves, and more recently—say a hundred years ago—mere nurses and upper servants, kept at home all the year round making samplers and pickles, and shirts, and jam—and having babies!”
“Am I raising the standard of revolt? I declare you are looking quite scared. Lady Rashleigh holds my views—modern and emancipated—no shirts or pickles for her—only jam, and lots of the best! When I was in Town the other day I saw her at the theatre; she has grown enormous, and was simply bulging out of her box. Lord Robbie was with her—displaying a wonderful expanse of shirt front, and a dazzling diamond stud that hit you in the eye—he looked such a dog! He is rather fond of me, and runs down here after tea; when you think he is snug in the smoking-room, he is sitting, figuratively, at my feet. I wouldn’t marry him for—let me see—three millions! There, I’ve finished the last, and my herring-boning, is a work of art.”
During her frequent visits to the Rectory, Mrs. Blagdon was liable to encounter the ‘small fry’; at first they stiffened, and looked at the lady with cold, unrecognising eyes; but when they discovered that this pretty, shy girl was guiltless of airs, and rather afraid of them, they suffered her acquaintance, and although they never entered one another’s houses, spoke to her when they met, offered the names of new books and new roses, and gave her, in the immediate neighbourhood, an excellent character, as an inoffensive nonentity.
By this time the County had almost forgotten the existence of Mrs. Blagdon. She did not hunt or go to balls, seemed to be perpetually in mourning, and was said to suffer from ‘nerves,’—and nerves in this century stand for so much! Occasionally she was to be met on the roads, driving her baby in a little governess-car, and looking ridiculously like some shy animal, that hoped to escape the notice of mankind!
Letty was lonely. She had never felt at home at Sharsley, but as if she were on a visit to some stiff, country house; it still seemed to hold the spirits of the dead and gone Scropes, and the great drawing-room, with its portraits of staring ancestors (long-waisted, long-faced, and long-fingered), black Indian cabinets, and book-cases of neglected books, gave her a chill.
At distant intervals Mrs. Hesketh came over to Sharsley (craftily and stealthily in the master’s absence), to dine and sleep, and her brief visits were Letty’s greatest pleasure. On the last of these occasions, Blagdon returned unexpectedly, and in a black humour—one of his most promising two-year-olds, had gone wrong.
The afternoon before his arrival, Letty and her friend had wandered about the grounds, talking of everything but what was uppermost in their hearts—the misery of one, the sympathy of the other. As they paced along the elder understood how empty the life of her companion was; she might not garden—the gardens were let; she had not even a dog—the nursery and the piano were her sole resources.
At tea Mrs. Hesketh realised that she was not a welcome guest. Her host did not find it necessary to conceal his sentiments; nor did she fail to remark, the abominable way in which he addressed his wife, and how he ordered her about, and pushed out of the room before her.
Dinner was a truly sombre meal: the fish was cold, and Mr. Blagdon had one of his worst attacks of temper. Vainly did the visitor endeavour to make light and airy conversation; he was so violent and abusive after the servants had withdrawn, that Letty, unable to restrain her tears, fled out of the room; but brave Mrs. Hesketh remained to remonstrate and do battle with the tyrant.
“If no one else is going to speak to you, Mr. Blagdon, I will,” she began intrepidly. “Everyone is crying shame on you for the way you neglect your young wife.”
“I don’t care a damn what they say!” he roared. “Let everyone mind their own business. She is jolly well treated—too well.”
“Is it too well, that she should be shut up here alone for months at a time? That she is cut off from all associates of her own class—that she is never taken into society?”
“She has everything she wants,” he blustered; “a fine house, and servants—and a baby. Why, my mother’s mother who lived here, and never stirred beyond the village, and was a woman of family—hadn’t half such a good time!”
“That must have been more than a hundred years ago, and the world has improved, and become enlightened since then. Letty is a girl who has been educated.”
“And you mean to say my mother’s mother wasn’t? Thank you!”
“You know very well what I mean.”
“I’m damned if I know what you mean, by taking me to task in this way, and calling me over the coals in my own house,” and his expression was murderous.
“I am Letty’s friend.”
“Yes, and no doubt she has been whining to you, and telling you fine tales?” he demanded with blazing eyes, “and posing as a martyr.”
“She has never breathed a word of her troubles to me; but anyone can see that she is unhappy. I can’t think why in the world you married her?”
“I can’t think why I did, either! I was deadly sick of her at the end of a week. Upon my soul, I was! Marriage is like a trap—you can’t have a wife on approval—when you are in, there’s no way of getting out! By Jove, I envy the Americans their divorce laws—then she could go her way—and I mine. If some smart young fellow would take a fancy to Letty, and run off with her I should say ‘Wah-wah!’”
Mrs. Hesketh looked as she was—horrified.
“There are no smart young men about here,” he added; “so Letty is all right—virtue is the absence of temptation.”
Mrs. Hesketh rose slowly, turned her back upon her host, walked to the door very quietly, opened it and went out, leaving it wide. She found Letty in her own room, sitting with her face in her hands,—a frequent attitude.
“My child,” she began, “I have been talking to the dreadful man downstairs that ill-fortune has given you for a husband. He is—well, I won’t say any more, but this—that I wish I could take you away with me, and let you make a home with me—you and the baby!”
“How I wish you could!” said Letty, pushing back her hair as she spoke. “But there is no use in wishing. I often wish I was dead—and it’s no good.”
“Well, remember, my dear, if ever you are at the end of your tether, you must come to me.”
Letty gave her a glance of despair, then she rose and said:
“I shall have to go down at once, for Hugo always expects me to be in the drawing-room when he is there—he likes me to sing the new musical comedies. He says my voice sends him to sleep.”
“My dear, if I were you, for once I would disappoint your Saul! I do not intend to go downstairs again to-night, and I shall leave you immediately after breakfast to-morrow. Mr. Blagdon was outrageously rude to you at dinner—apparently he imagined that he can make you miserable with impunity, that you will ignore his insults, and entertain him in the drawing-room all smiles and songs. Believe me, you are making a fatal mistake; possibly if you had resisted in the first instance, things would never have come to such a pass. You are not his wife, but his doormat!”
Again Mrs. Hesketh had sown a little seed. Letty for once did resist, and the two friends remained together talking until bed-time. Blagdon, finding the drawing-room empty, glared round it, then stalked into the smoking-room, where he smoked cigars and drank whiskies and sodas in solitary state, and a condition of volcanic indignation.
“Of course, the old woman was at the bottom of Letty’s sulks—a damned meddlesome hag!” He rang the bell and said to the footman:
“Tell Mrs. Hesketh’s maid to let her mistress know, that her carriage is ordered to take her home at nine o’clock to-morrow morning.”
The Rev. Adrian Lumley had been ailing for a considerable time; he was no longer able to undertake his parish duties, and compelled to employ a curate. Lately his health had suddenly become so uncertain that his son took three months’ leave, and returned from Egypt. Captain Lumley arrived looking handsome, sunburnt, and cheery, and his sister Frances realised that he was no longer the boy that, as her younger brother, she had always managed, patronised, and coerced. Lancelot had been adjutant of his regiment, and acquired a manner of decision and brevity that was new. He found his father frail, broken-down, and evidently failing fast. For months, the Rector had confined himself to his books and his garden, and now he was a prisoner in his room. Perhaps if the reverend gentleman had not been so completely laid upon the shelf, matters at Sharsley might have been smoothed over, and improved; but, as it was, Blagdon had no one to withstand him; he had parted with any scruples he might possess, and affairs had gone from bad to worse. Except for a few days in the shooting season, he had ceased to live at home. Most of the rooms were closed, servants dismissed, the gardens let, the horses sold. He had heavy expenses elsewhere, and was not disposed to burn the candle at both ends. He had allowed it to be whispered into the ear of society, that his wife was ‘not quite all there.’ Magnified descriptions of her first disastrous dinner-party, her bizarre gowns, her silence and shyness, gave colour to this suggestion,—so said his interested friends; and other people declared that Blagdon was bad,—some even added, mad! Altogether Sharsley was given a wide berth; it was out of the way, more recent topics, quarrels, and scandals arose, and poor young Mrs. Blagdon was comparatively forgotten.
Frances had always divined that her brother had cared for Letty Glyn. Of course, now that she was married, she was out of his reach; still, in talking over the country-side news, she studiously omitted any particular reference to the Blagdons.
“What about the Court? How did they get on?” her brother asked at last.
“Not very well,” she was obliged to confess; “he is a strange sort of a man, and is but little at home. He has a shocking temper.”
“A nice sort of husband for her! Mrs. Fenchurch should be proud of herself! Look here, Francis, you must take me to call to-morrow.”
Lumley carried out his suggestion, but, as it happened, unaccompanied by his sister, for at the last moment, a dying parishioner had summoned her, and he walked up to Sharsley alone.
It was summer, and in one respect Sharsley was at its best; but, on the other hand, the neat trimness, and the closely mown lawns appeared to be things of the past. The place now wore a desolate, neglected appearance, and as he approached, the visitor noticed that the shutters of most of the rooms were closed, and the avenue and gravel paths were full of weeds. On enquiry at the door, he was informed that Mrs. Blagdon was somewhere in the grounds, and after a search he found her playing with her child—a beautiful little golden-haired creature, now able to walk, attended by a somewhat grim-looking nurse. Her mother, sitting upon the grass making daisy-chains for her, sprang up when she saw Lumley approaching, and greeted him with smiles. But how she was changed! He felt shocked. The roundness of Letty’s face was gone; her beautiful blue eyes looked sunken, their expression was strained and anxious; she might be seven or eight years older than her real age—which was little more than twenty. Evidently she had passed through a devastating storm which had ravaged her looks and broken her heart. It was as if he and her husband had both coveted the same beautiful flower, and Blagdon had plucked it, and thrown it away to wither and die.
But there was no sign of depression in Mrs. Blagdon’s manner or conversation; she asked many questions about his regiment and Egypt; she talked of his father and sister and Mrs. Hesketh. No, she had not been over to Thornby for nearly a year. In answer to his exclamation of astonishment, she coloured and said:
“You see, I can’t very well leave baby.”
“Then I suppose they come over and see you fairly often?”
“Not very often,” she answered, with a trembling lip. She was not disposed to inform him, that her husband had quarrelled with Mrs. Fenchurch, and practically turned Mrs. Hesketh out of the house, and hastily changed the subject.
Presently the grim-looking nurse picked up the child, and said:
“It’s time for Miss Cara’s tea,” and was about to carry her off when Lumley interposed.
“She is a darling!” he said, taking her little hand in his as it hung over the nurse’s shoulder. “I don’t know much about children, but she seems to be perfect—and very like you,” and he raised the little chubby fingers to his lips. Subsequently it was mooted in the servants’ hall, that that “’ere young Lumley the officer, who had been strolling about the grounds with the missus for the best part of an hour, had told her to her face that she was perfect and a darling, and that nurse had heard him say so, with her own two ears!”
No doubt it was from this source that the first faint whisper of gossip rose, and was wafted into the village; and possibly it was not very discreet of young Lumley to come up to Sharsley alone,—or even with his sister, two or three times a week. Passers-by peering through the railings in the park walls, had paused and stared; sometimes they could see two figures, pacing up and down the long terrace!
There was not the smallest harm in these walks and visits. Lumley brought errands and notes from Frances, and carried to her messages and books, for just at this time their father was very ill, and Frances was in close attendance, and never left the Rectory.
Letty enjoyed one luxury, and that was a liberal supply of books; no need for her to spend her allowance on frocks, and the quarterly payments went in relieving charities, subscribing to periodicals, and buying literature. Sometimes, she told herself that without these friends, that carried her out of her gloomy, isolated life, she would have gone melancholy mad. True, there was the child; but a baby aged two and a half, cannot altogether fill the life of an educated girl of twenty, and, besides this, the baby had a nurse who stood on her dignity, and required her nursery to herself.
Oh, the long, long hours that Letty spent alone, the only breaks being a hurried visit to the Rectory. How the pensive melancholy of the autumn woods oppressed her! the low, grey fog, lying in the hollows of the park, took the shape of shadowy spectres rising from their graves; bare brown trees, rooted in carpets of ruddy leaves, seemed to mock her with their crooked branches, and the staring sun, sinking into the west, to cast on her rays of pity and derision.
Yes, she had sold herself to escape immediate discomfort, and this was her punishment: an existence of loveless degradation. In winter, her solitude and misery pressed on her still more cruelly; she could relieve the villagers with blankets and coal, but what could she do for the thousands of perishing birds, the starving hares, the shivering cattle? The nights were the worst, when the wind came sobbing to the windows, shook the doors of the empty rooms, and moaned among the trees, with the despairing cries of a lost soul; rats in the old walls—and strange unaccountable noises—made sleep—broken—and waking a terror.
But here at last was summer! and she could spend most of her time out of doors. At the moment, she realised that it was an exhilarating change, to have a companion near her own age to stroll with through the woods, and talk to. Oh, if she had only been married to Lancelot Lumley! Into the emptiness of her heart, there stole the inevitable temptations of memory; but it was sinful to harbour such thoughts. Well, at any rate, Lancelot had never actually asked her to marry him—Hugo had—and so there it was. And here she was—the most miserable young woman within the four seas.
When Lumley had been at home for about a fortnight, and his father’s health had somewhat improved, he went over to see his relations the Dentons, and stayed with them for two days. From them, Mrs. Hesketh and Mrs. Fenchurch, he heard the real truth, which had been so carefully withheld when he had been on the spot: how Hugo Blagdon neglected his wife, cut her off from all society, and spent most of his time in London or Paris,—his excuse being that she was but one degree removed from imbecility.
Perhaps it was indiscreet of Maude Hesketh to relate the wrongs of her friend with such passionate eloquence, for she fired the young man’s blood, and he returned to the Rectory carrying with him a smouldering heart. Why should not he pick up this pearl that was trampled on by a swine?
Just at the time, that he returned, Hugo Blagdon made one of his rare appearances. He entered the drawing-room to discover Lumley and his wife at tea. Lumley had come to tell her about his visit, and bring messages and all the latest news from Thornby. Amazing to relate Blagdon’s manner to the silent young man, was cordial, and even effusive!—he talked about mutual friends, sport, and the service—undaunted by his guest’s frigidity—and said:
“I am not much here myself—the place doesn’t agree with me.” (This was a new excuse invented on the spot.) “But if you like to come up at any time and shoot, I shall be glad. The rabbits want thinning, and by and by there will be the partridges.”
He also invited Lumley to dine, but this he curtly declined. Nothing would induce him to eat Blagdon’s salt! The way in which he spoke to, and looked at his wife, made him feel beside himself.
For two or three days Captain Lumley failed to appear; then Mr. Blagdon’s head keeper went down to the Rectory to see him, and announced his master had gone away, and left orders that he was to have as much shooting as he liked, and to make use of the guns in the gun-room; and, in fact, that it would be a favour more than otherwise to keep the game down. All this was also mentioned in a civil note.
But Lancelot Lumley did not wish to shoot; he wanted to see Blagdon’s wife, and walked up to Sharsley that same afternoon. Mrs. Blagdon was in her room, and sent a message to say that she had a headache and was sorry she could not receive anyone. He felt unreasonably disappointed, and wandered about the place for hours—making use of his liberty to explore the woods; and there, to his astonishment and hers—for she supposed he had gone home—Letty met him face to face in a walk in one of the plantations. She started and exclaimed, as they came upon one another; and now he understood why she had denied herself! Mrs. Blagdon had a black eye, and her lip was cut and swollen.
“I did not want you to see me,” she began nervously. “I fell over a chair last night in the dark, and I’m rather an object.”
“What is the use of telling me that?” he answered roughly; pity, deep concern for her, and blind fury against Blagdon getting the better of him—“when I know as well as you do, that your husband struck you? Does he often do it?”
“Oh, don’t, don’t ask me,” she faltered; “let us talk of other things—please never allude to this again. Hugo has a temper—and I—I—irritate him.”
“He is a brute!” declared Lumley, whose face had grown white and stern. “The way he treats you is notorious. Why do you stay with him?”
“What else am I to do?” she asked piteously. “I have no other home; I could not go to The Holt now. Of course there is Hugo’s sister; but although she is angry with him, and tells me I am a little fool, yet she would never openly take my part against her brother. No, there is no escape for me, I must just live my life. Hugo hates me; over and over again, he has told me that he wishes I were dead!”
She sat down as she spoke, on a rustic seat, overcome by her emotions, and losing her self-control, buried her disfigured face in her hands. As Lumley stood looking at her, he felt ready to offer his life on the instant, and to fling his own plans and all fortune’s chances to the winds; but he did not attempt to soothe or console her; and she wept uninterruptedly for some little time; then, as her sobs ceased, and she became calmer, he said quietly,—though inwardly shaken with agitation:
“Listen to me, Letty. There is an escape for you. I have always loved you—yes—ever since the day that you came to Thornby, and I first saw you; you remember how we did the pulpit together, how you gave your very first dance to me—you are the only girl I ever cared about. I know this is a hackneyed saying, but it is absolutely true. I had nothing to marry on, nothing to offer you, but you were so young—barely seventeen, and I thought I would wait. I talked it over with my uncle, and asked if I might say a word to you. He said it would be madness; that you had no thought of—of—lovers, being a mere child, and that the Fenchurchs would never consent to a long engagement; then Blagdon saw you, and he came and snatched away my treasure. If he had made you happy, I could have forgiven him; but even when you were a bride, I seemed to see clouds. I return home, and I find that he treats you like a brute! The coward knows, that you have no man to protect you; no father or brother. Now what I want to say is, will you come away with me?—I know it sounds awful!”
She looked up at him with an expression of dismay, and uttered an inarticulate gasp.
“But let me explain.” As he went on steadily, the man’s self-reliance, instinct of possession and authority, became evident. “You will travel up to London and meet me there—only as a friend—leaving a letter for Blagdon. Tell him the truth. Tell him, you have gone away with me. I will not attempt to defend the suit. I shall leave England for six months, and at the end of that time return, and marry you.”
“And what about Cara?” she asked abruptly.
“You must leave the child here. I suppose Blagdon would hardly ill-treat an infant of that age; and no doubt his sister would receive her. Perhaps you might be allowed to keep her? I don’t know much about these sort of things. I only know, that I want you to break your bonds, and get a new start in life. Why you are barely twenty!—think of the fifty years that lie before you,—and have pity upon yourself!”
“To escape from Hugo—never to see him again—never to hear his voice, to meet his eyes, would be, oh, such overwhelming joy—such a relief! You cannot think how much I am afraid of him; sometimes he is like a lunatic, and I am terrified to be with him alone; and yet what can I do? How can anyone come between us—I am his wife.”
“I will come between you,” said the young man resolutely, “that is, if you care for me, Letty?”
“Yes I do; I’ve always cared,” she answered, in a tremulous voice. “But think of your father and Frances, my greatest friend, and Maudie Hesketh, and little Cara, to have a mother who ran away—and oh, imagine what all the people around would say!”
“The people around would say, that they were astonished that you didn’t make your escape years ago. Cara is but an infant, she will have her own life, she is the daughter of a rich man; you are not called upon to sacrifice the whole of your existence to her; you have a right to live, as much as she has! Mrs. Fenchurch will be shocked—that I grant you—but that Maudie Hesketh and my sister will forgive you—I guarantee.”
“No, no, no, I never could do it—I beseech you not to tempt me!” then without another word, she suddenly turned into a side path, and actually ran away. But although Letty had evaded him on this occasion Lancelot Lumley would not relinquish his intention; he knew what he was doing; he took into consideration all the scandal, the talk, and the injury that it would cause him in his profession. On the other hand, he thought of Letty: they would be so happy together, and ultimately they would live it down!
He wrote her a clear, urgent, and impassioned letter, putting everything plainly before her, and imploring her to leave home.
“For six months after the divorce you could live in some quiet seaside or country place, or in Switzerland. I have ample money to provide for this. I will of course not see you, and I shall apply for an exchange to a battalion in India; when the decree nisi is pronounced, all our troubles will be over, and like the people in the fairy tale, we shall live happy ever after.”
Before the end of the week, they had met again; and the force of fear and love, and Lumley’s eloquent persuasion ultimately carried the day; but during this week, Letty had lived in a palsy of indecision, painfully conscious of the debility of her own will. One moment, she had made up her mind, the next she changed it; however, after a decisive interview, in which Lumley said, “It must be yes or no—now—for I am going away,” with a white face and trembling lips, Letty had breathed the syllable ‘Yes.’
It had been arranged by Captain Lumley that he was to go to London, where, by a certain train and on a certain day, he would be joined by Mrs. Blagdon. In this short breathing-space Letty had much to think of, and accomplish. She collected, sorted, and packed some clothes, and a few treasured personal belongings; but abandoned all her jewellery, except one or two trifling ornaments, a string of pearls, and her uncle’s diamond heart, destroyed the whole of her innocent correspondence, put the photograph of her wedding group into the waste-paper basket in four pieces, and, heaviest task of all, set about writing letters to her aunt, to Frances, and to Maude Hesketh. To her she said:
“I know that you alone realise the awful life I have led since my marriage, and will pity and forgive me. I never see you now, and I am shut away from all the world—not a wife, but a prisoner. Sometimes last winter when Frances and her father were at Bournemouth, I was afraid that my mind would have given way; the loneliness and monotony seemed to deaden my brain. Dear Cousin Maudie, do not think too badly of me, and love me still.”
The leave-taking epistle destined for her husband, was a more difficult task; how many sheets of paper were destroyed, before she had succeeded to her satisfaction!
Waggett the nurse had an inarticulate understanding with her master, and all this packing, letter-writing, and hours of weeping in the nursery, excited her suspicions,—and could mean but one thing. When Cara was asleep, Miss Waggett slipped down to the village post office and sent a telegram to Mr. Blagdon’s London address, which said, ‘Your presence required urgently.’
Blagdon, who was on the eve of a trip to Paris, returned by the first train—actually passing his wife on her flight to London. When, in a ferocious temper, he arrived at Sharsley, he was informed that Mrs. Blagdon was not at home, had left at twelve o’clock in the village fly, taking luggage with her. Then a letter addressed to him was produced; it had been placed in a conspicuous position on the smoking-room chimney-piece.
He snatched this from the old man-servant’s hand, tearing it open as he walked away; then, glancing over it, he slapped his great thigh and exclaimed exultantly:
“By Gad, she’s done it! She’s done it!”
The letter began:
“I am to-day leaving this house for ever. To me it has been a miserable home. I can no longer endure your neglect and cruelty. I am going to Lancelot Lumley, and you are free to take any steps you please. I shall be thankful to be released from you, and you, I know, will be glad to be rid of me, since you have so often told me that you wished I were dead. Well, in future we shall be dead to one another. I need not ask you to be good to Cara; it breaks my heart to leave her, but it breaks my heart to stay.
“By Gad!” he repeated, “this is great news! Dead to me—I should say so, the little puling fool!”
In a condition of supreme satisfaction he went to his writing-table and filled a number of telegraph forms: one of these was a long one to his lawyer, others were addressed to his mother, his sister, and to several of his chief friends. In short, a dozen wires carrying the startling news were promptly despatched from Sharsley Post Office.
(The intelligence was received in various fashions. Mrs. Blagdon wept and kept her room: she was growing old and feeble; Lady Rashleigh said, “Hullo! here is a nice business! Letty has bolted with Captain Lumley. I wouldn’t have believed she had it in her!” and Lord Robert who was present, shouted his usual ejaculation, ‘My hat!’)
When this task had been accomplished, Mr. Blagdon drained a four-finger whisky and soda, and summoned the housekeeper to his presence.
Bates appeared, was much on the qui vive, the impression that something had happened was obvious to the whole household.
“Bates,” he began, “Mrs. Blagdon has—er—left here, and is never to be admitted to this house again. I shall probably close it before long. You can put away all the linen and china and that sort of thing, and pack off the cook.”
“Yes, sir, excuse me, but it’s not a cook we have, but a kitchenmaid. We are terribly short-handed, only old Jenkins for man-servant, a boy for the knives, and one housemaid. The big rooms are all in an awful state of dust, and with them old tapestries and pictures, and moth and damp, I expect there’s a lot of damage already. We had no fires last winter—and——”
At this point, the voice of her complaint was interrupted by a succession of piercing screams immediately on the other side of the door.
“It’s only Miss Cara,” explained Bates reassuringly; “she is just in from her walk.”
Miss Cara’s papa rose from his chair and hastily entered the hall, where he beheld Waggett, struggling with an animated bundle of white embroidery and bare legs, which had cast itself down upon the marble flags, and was rending the air with uncontrolled shrieks, and even squeals of passion.
“What’s all this?” he demanded peremptorily.
The child ceased her cries, raised her tearless face, and stared at him threateningly.
“I want my mummy!” she shouted. “I want my own mummy!”
“Your mummy isn’t here—be quiet this moment.”
A defiant yell was Cara’s sole answer.
“Shut up—shut up at once, you little devil! Do you hear me?” and her father reached down, and shook her roughly by the arm.
Cara surveyed him with a pair of rebellious blue eyes, then drew in her breath and screamed with a deafening increase of shrill and reckless fury. Such were her efforts, that her little face was actually purple and congested, as she drummed on the marble pavement with the heels of her best shoes.
“Go ’way!” she panted. “Go ’way—ugly man—I want my mummy!”
“I know what you want, and what you’ll get!” cried her father, beside himself with anger, and snatching her up, he proceeded to administer to the astonished Cara, a first and ruthless chastisement: carrying out the punishment with the broad palm of a powerful hand in loud and resounding smacks.
The subject was so completely dazed by the experience she had almost ceased to cry, merely ejaculating:
“Bad man! Bad man! Bad man!”
Meanwhile Nurse Waggett stood by, the embodiment of complacent satisfaction, till, at a sign from the executioner, she took over her gasping, sobbing, bewildered charge, and carried her off to her own apartments. Subsequently the threat, “I’ll bring your father!” had a magical effect upon Miss Caroline Blagdon: he remained an ineffaceable impression of awe and terror, for many and many a day.
The news of ‘the break-up at the Court,’ as it was called, was all over the village by eight o’clock that night; women ran into one another’s houses with ‘Have you heard?’ Men discussed the matter over their half-pints at the ‘New Plough,’ and the general verdict was, that “the poor young lady had led a worse than dog’s life, and he had been rightly served.”
And now to accompany the fugitive to London. At first, the mere novelty of a drive to the station that delicious June day, and the unaccustomed journey in the train filled her with a sense of overpowering freedom; but as the heavy express thundered along, her mind, as usual, began to be uneasy and undecided; her thoughts turned insistently to her deserted baby girl, and the more she reflected, the more she felt drawn to Cara—and by her very heart-strings!
When Mrs. Blagdon stepped out on the London platform, it was a woebegone young woman, with a white and frightened face, that encountered the glad eyes of her awaiting lover,—who instantly recognised that his beloved had recently passed through some great emotional storm, and that her courage had been sorely shaken by this, the most daring venture of her existence. Here was a different Letty to the one who had danced with him so gaily at the Brakesby Ball, and skimmed over the ice on Batley Mere; she was a girl radiant with youth and expectant happiness, looking out on the future with brave and shining eyes. This Letty, with her pathetic expression and tremulous lips, recalled some poor wild bird with a broken wing, and he realised that he must treat her with extraordinary tact and tenderness.
They went together in search of her luggage, which turned out to be of surprisingly modest dimensions, and in keeping with its owner’s costume. Wearing a simple white linen and a plain shady hat, Letty might be the daughter of a curate, or a clerk, instead of the wife of a fabulously wealthy man; but her companion understood; she wished to leave Blagdon as she had gone to him—empty handed. With a lover’s memory, he recognised her little turquoise brooch, and a certain thin, old-fashioned locket.
In a few minutes the pair were in a hansom threading their way to the Cosmopolitan. Letty, sitting very far back in her corner, with a rigid profile and tightly clasped hands. It was more than two years since she had been in London, and the noise, the traffic, the varied sights, and the jostling crowds, struck her in forcible contrast to the silence and emptiness of the country.
After a long and sensitive silence, Lumley said:
“Letty, you look terribly pale and tired. I am afraid you feel knocked up?”
“No, no, I’m not tired,” she answered; “but so thirsty, I can scarcely speak.”
“We will have tea the moment we get to the hotel. It’s just half-past five now. I’ve taken rooms there.”
“Rooms,” she repeated, looking at him with a vacant gaze.
“Yes; in my name, and what will one day be yours,” and he lifted one of her hands and kissed it. “Rooms for Captain and Mrs. Lumley.”
The future Mrs. Lumley dragged away her hand, and made no reply; her face flamed, no one could call her pale now.
“Letty Lumley goes rather well,” continued her companion, unabashed; “and here we are—come along!” helping her out; then proceeding up the steps he ushered her into the entrance of the hotel. They passed through a great hall, entered a spacious lift, and were whirled to the first floor, where they were evidently expected. A ready man-servant came forward with (as it seemed to the lady) significant empressement, and threw open the door of a lofty sitting-room, furnished with heavy silk curtains, tall mirrors between the windows, a soft dark carpet, Oriental vases, cabinets, lounges, and luxurious chairs. A formal, expensive apartment, somewhat stiff and gloomy, but made beautiful with flowers.
“All the flowers you like best, Letty,” explained Lumley, as the man departed with an order for tea, “every one of your favourites, to bid you welcome.”
“Yes, lovely,” she faltered. “How—thoughtful of you!” and she buried her face in a great bowl of roses and carnations. How, she asked herself, was she, the coward of cowards, to tell Lancelot the truth? She raised her eyes, and was confronted by a Chinese incense burner; a monster in bronze, a sort of demon dog, with a high spiral tail, and a flat, diabolical head, which confronted her on an opposite cabinet, with a hideous grin.
The bronze demon, as if alive and malignant, appeared to mock her, and say:
“You know you cannot do it, you little born fool!”
She turned away, and looked out of the window, with misty eyes and a fluttering heart—aware that, her life had reached a desperate climax!
How could she tell Lancelot, so loyal, so chivalrous, and devoted, that she had changed her mind in the train, and was determined to return to Cara by the half-past eight express?
In spite of her most determined efforts, tears dropped on her blouse, and Lancelot, who had been anxiously watching her, drew her tenderly towards him, and as she sobbed on his shoulder said, ‘There, there, there!’ as if he were comforting a child. Steel herself against her lover as she might, his presence affected her deeply.
“I understand all about it—this has been an awful wrench for you, a terrible day; but now you must look forward, not backwards any more. The future is ours, and I have ever so much to say to you.”
“And I to you,” she murmured, drawing away from him, and drying her eyes as she spoke. She glanced nervously about the room—a room to be imprinted on her memory as long as memory existed: for here she must part with Lancelot, and for ever. It would be, so to speak, a chamber of death, and at the thought she shuddered. How morbid she was growing, or was she a little mad? There was that grinning devil confronting her, with wide-open jaws, flattened ears, and staring eyes, and the background of this lofty, heavily furnished apartment seemed to weigh upon her senses; the perfume of the roses to stifle her.
“Here is tea,” announced Captain Lumley. “Shall I pour it out and bring it over to you?”
“No, no, thank you,” rising and taking off her gloves; “but if you would open the windows?”
“Won’t you take your hat off?”
She hesitated for a moment and murmured:
“My hair is so untidy.”
But ultimately unpinned her hat, and threw it on a sofa; it would not take long to put on again.
Then she sat down and began to busy herself with the cups and saucers, and her companion noticed how her hand was shaking. The buoyancy of his spirits was by this time somewhat crushed. Letty was taking it hardly; she was so sensitive. But after she had had tea, and was a little refreshed, they would discuss their plans; meanwhile he would talk any nonsense to amuse and distract her.
“This is a fine room,” he said, looking about, “and an A1 hotel. Did Frances ever tell you about Cousin Toby and his bride? No? Well, he and Rosa funked the honeymoon abroad; it was winter, and they wanted to stay in town and do theatres and have a good time; but, of course, their relations, who were in London, barred it—said they must do the orthodox thing. However, the two laid their plans, were seen off at Victoria with due pomp, got out at Cannon Street, and sneaked back here in great glee, and would never have been found out but for Rosa’s umbrella; it was full of rice and dripped grains all over the stairs and place. The poor innocents never knew, till they saw themselves among the fashionable arrivals; but, I say, Letty, you’ve eaten nothing! Do have some of these strawberries?”
“No, no, thank you.”
“Feel better after your tea?”
“Yes; I was so thirsty, and my head ached; but now I’m all right.” She put up her hands to her beautiful hair, and he noticed that she was still wearing her wedding ring.
“Well, now shall I explain things a little, or will you talk first?”
“Do you please begin.” (Anything for a respite.)
“Then may I have a cigarette?”
“Of course you may.”
Lumley rose and took out his case, and began to walk restlessly about the room; he was one of those men who rarely sit down.
“I’ve arranged matters all right; seen our man of business, Ross, and had a tremendous jaw with him.” (He did not mention what a strenuous interview it had been, and how the old family lawyer had exhausted his wit, his eloquence, and his temper, in endeavouring, as he hoped, to turn the young idiot from his folly; from rushing headlong into social and professional extinction.
The idea of young Lumley, whom he had known as a remarkably bright, clever, steady boy, running off with a married woman,—the wife, too, of such a well-known character as Hugo Blagdon! What, he asked him, would his father and sister say? And how could he take a divorced wife into his regiment?
But it had all been a useless waste of brain tissue, breath, and temper.)
“It will be plain-sailing, Letty, now we have burned our boats; perhaps we had better dine downstairs, so as to be seen together on account of the case.”
“No, no, no,” half rising, and looking at him with a startled expression.
“But, my darling Letty, unless you are divorced, how can you marry me? We must give some just cause, for them to go on; I’m not sure that it’s cricket—a faked elopement—but I see nothing else for it; and I understand there is no getting over the fact of a private sitting-room: so I’ve taken this,” nodding at himself in one of the long mirrors between the windows. “To-night, I shall return to my own diggings, and you will have the suite to yourself. To-morrow, we will go down to Broadstairs, I’ve secured rooms for you there. I’m afraid we won’t see much of one another till the decree nisi is out; the case, of course, will be undefended; our lawyers will arrange matters very quietly and try and keep the business out of the papers. We shall have to wait six months, and then, Letty,” and his voice had a ring of irrepressible joy, “we will be married!”
Letty attempted to speak, but he put up his hand.
“Of course, it’s a maddening wait, but can’t be helped. I’m going to Moscow to study Russian all the time, and I’ll write to you every day, and you to me. You might go abroad if you liked. Mrs. Hesketh has promised me to befriend you. I’ve been down to see her; she blames herself for this, says she brought us together—not much bringing wanted on my part, eh, Letty?” And he paused and laughed, a short excited laugh.
“And what about——” she was beginning.
“Just wait one second, till I finish my innings; I’m wound up like a clock. Oh, yes, I know—the regiment. I’ve arranged for an exchange to another in India—that’s settled, and it is all right about money, too. Did you hear that I came in for a legacy this spring. I have enough for us both; to-morrow, I’ll open an account for you at Cox’s. This is only the bald, commonplace outline—and now,” coming to a standstill before her, “I’ve finished at last, and it’s your turn. What,” he asked with a smile, “have you got to say?”
“I’ve got to say,” and she rose and faced him with a face white as death, “that—that—I cannot—do it! No,” speaking with dry lips, “it’s no use—my heart has failed me, and I am—going back.”
Lumley’s amazement was such, that he was dumb; twice he opened his mouth to speak, but only his breathing could be heard. At last he stammered out:
“Letty, you are not in earnest,—you cannot return; the worst is over, and I shall never let you go—never; consider that settled.”
“Oh, but you must—you must!” she cried, twisting her hands together. “I screwed up my courage—I wrote those farewell letters—I wrote to him, and I left home—it seems years ago; but before I was half-way to town I had repented. Yes,” speaking between short dry sobs, “you know my besetting failing; always standing at the cross roads. This time, I have made up my mind—I am,” and she gave a great sob, “sure of myself. I love you, dear, dear Lancelot, but if we carried out your plans, we should be miserable.”
“No we shouldn’t,” he broke in with hasty emphasis; “on the contrary, for the first time for years, you will know what it is to be free and young and happy; you will live like others of your own age, and enjoy a little sunshine.”
Looking at Letty as she stood with her back to the window, it seemed incredible that this slim young girl, was already a wife and mother.
“The sun, you mean, would never shine on me,” she replied. “All the time I would be thinking of Cara, wearying to see her, and feeling the most terrible remorse. Is there anything in the whole world, that can hurt like that?”
Lumley made no reply, he was struggling hard to keep his emotion well under control, and she continued tremulously:
“No one will ever know of this madness of mine—no one but you. Hugo does not come to Sharsley for months and months; as soon as I get back, I’ll destroy my letter to him, the others as well—they were to be posted to-morrow. There’s the mail-train at half-past eight, and I shall easily catch it.”
As she concluded, she picked up her hat, and put it on mechanically.
Meanwhile Lumley stood listening to her, watching her keenly, and assuring himself that in the coming struggle between two wills, the victory must go to the strong.
“I am pleading as much for your sake as mine,” she resumed, looking at him with wistful dignity, and not a little daunted by his continued silence.
“Think of your poor father, who is so proud of you; think of Frances, who is devoted to you—and to me. Think of my poor little Cara, that I would be deserting for ever.”
“It is too late to talk of these things now, Letty,” he answered inflexibly. “How can you suggest returning to a fellow that deserts you, and treats you brutally and cruelly; a man that you regard with shuddering repulsion?” He was resolved to hit hard.
“Oh, Lancelot, don’t!” wincing and turning away; “if you only knew. I’d go with you to the world’s end—I would—but for the child. Yes; in spite of your father’s grey hairs, and your sister’s confidence and affection; but there is something that I cannot explain, and that you would not understand; it is the mother in me, that is drawing me back—yes, and I am going.”
“No!” said Lumley suddenly, walking across the room, and placing his back against the door. “You don’t leave London to-night—talk of madness—that would be madness indeed!”
His face looked stern and very pale; he had braced himself as for a life and death struggle.
“Yes, I will prevent you, and by all means in my power, short of force. I know what is best for you; I am not thinking of myself,—but of you, now. You know I love you too well, Letty, to do anything that would harm you—but to allow you to escape to that life of misery, would be a crime. A crime, against your youth and your happiness; you talk of Cara, what is she but a baby of three, and you are one-and-twenty? Why is she to devour the whole of your future? She is pretty, she is a rich man’s daughter, as far as I could judge, has a strong will; the world will go well with her. Suppose you sacrifice yourself, will she give up her best years to you, and are you to have no life of your own? As it is, you are like some beautiful flower that has been kept in a dark room till its colour has been bleached, and its vitality is perishing. If this existence continues, what will you be in twenty years?”
“Dead, I hope,” she answered sharply, then with a flash of unexpected passion, “but dead or alive, I am going to stick to Cara.”
“No you are not,” he rejoined with gathering excitement. “You are going to stick to me, and till death us do part.” Visibly shaken by the force of his own speech, he added hoarsely: “Letty, you have escaped from bondage, be thankful for your freedom!”
“It is for you, Lancelot, to release me,” she declared, “and help me to escape from here; from a situation that will bring disgrace on me—and mine.”
“Do you mean that?” he demanded fiercely, leaving his post, and coming a step nearer.
“Yes, I do,” she assented with a set wooden face,—the face of a woman of double her age. “Lancelot, let me pass. If you stand in my way, and prevent my returning home I—I—swear I will never forgive you.”
“If I had stood in your way four years ago, as I ought to have done—my home would be yours. If I let you pass now, I know, that I shall never set eyes on you again.”
His handsome tanned face had taken a curious clay-coloured shade; little drops of sweat stood on his forehead.
“Think again, for God’s sake!” His voice rose, vibrating with passion. “Have mercy on yourself.”
“Myself! No; I don’t count!”
“Nor I? Letty, has it occurred to you, what an awful fool you have made of me?”
It was true; she had sacrificed him as pitilessly as herself—this only struck her now. For her sake Lancelot had given up his regiment, thrown his prospects to the winds, risked the loss of his friends.
“I know,” she stammered at last, “I have cost you a great deal—far, far, too much. Lancelot, I’m not worth it! I am a miserable, cowardly, half-hearted creature—and now—let me go—oh do—I implore you, let me go!”
As they stood staring into one another’s eyes, a languid gilt clock on the mantel-piece, struck eight.
Lumley started, their discussion had absorbed more time than seemed possible—he moved aside and said in a muffled tone, “Well—if you must—you must!”
Letty came closer to him—his drawn stricken face affected her profoundly. She seized his hand in both of hers, and suddenly broke down.
“Good-bye, Lancelot; good-bye,” she sobbed hysterically. “I know you will despise me, and forget me; but as long as I live I shall love you, better than anyone in the whole world—better than Cara. But my duty is to her; if I went with you, I should always, always, be looking back.”
“Poor Letty, I’ll try, and forgive you,” he answered huskily; “but from the bottom of my heart, I believe you are spoiling two lives; and the day may come, when you will find it hard to forgive yourself,” and with a violent wrench he opened the door.
It was a strangely pale and agitated couple who descended into the great hall, and a few minutes later drove away to the station: a waiter going into the empty room, found too late, that the lady had forgotten a very damp pocket-handkerchief, and a handsome umbrella with a gold handle, on which was inscribed, “Mrs. Blagdon, Sharsley Court.”
On their way down Piccadilly Captain Lumley and his companion encountered a steady stream of hansoms carrying their gay fares to dinners or the theatres. The two, who held one another’s hands in agonised silence, seemed to be journeying away from life, and all its joys, and facing together—a dark and hopeless future.
As soon as Letty had secured her ticket she said:
“We will say good-bye now, Lancelot—please don’t come on the platform. You know this is the fast train—and I may meet neighbours.”
And there, under the flaming lamps, in the ugly, bare booking-office, came to these, who were so much to one another, that transcendent moment of a miserable and silent farewell. As Letty looked up into her lover’s face, her heart felt a piercing stab; she had once encountered a poor lost dog, with the self-same expression in its eyes.
A moment later, she was hurrying along the platform, asking for the train to Ridgefield.
“Sorry, miss,” replied an official, “but you’ve just missed her,” indicating a round red light that was vanishing into a tunnel; and the runaway had lost her only opportunity of returning home that night! This discovery was a shock: she felt vanquished—and half distracted, but recovering her courage, and summoning her wits to her assistance, she made over her luggage to a porter, and departed in quest of a bedroom in the Terminus Hotel.
Mr. Blagdon was a late riser; on this particular morning it was eleven o’clock as he stood lathering his great sensual face, in front of a shaving-glass. The operation was but half completed, when his valet entered, and, clearing his throat, said:
“Beg pardon, sir, but Mrs. Blagdon has just arrived and is asking to see you.”
Blagdon’s somewhat shaky hand slipped, and gave his chin a gash. When he had carefully plastered it up, he turned to the man, with an alarming scowl.
“Jenkins didn’t let her in, did he?”
“Yes, sir, he did. She’s in the morning-room.”
“That’ll do!” said his master in a voice of thunder, and he continued his toilet with a determination that he would sack Jenkins instantly, and turn his wife out of the house. But before taking these drastic steps, he must breakfast. He went heavily downstairs, unfolding a large scented pocket-handkerchief, and stalked into the dining-room; here he was served with devilled kidneys, dry toast, and two strong whiskies and sodas. Thus fortified, he approached with loud, resonant footsteps, the morning-room, where the culprit awaited him in shivering expectation: and flinging the door wide, entered like an avenging fate.
“Well, ma’am, I shall be glad to know what the devil brings you here?” he demanded. “The servants had orders not to admit you. Old Jenkins shall be kicked out to-morrow!”
“Hugo,” she said, rising, and vainly endeavouring to steady her voice, “of course, I know that after the letter, which no doubt you have read, my coming back like this must seem astonishing.”
“Outrageous! Scandalous!” he burst in. “Why, it’s absolutely shameless!”
“But the truth is, before I got half-way to London I had changed my mind. I found that I couldn’t leave Cara, and so when I met Captain Lumley I told him this, and in spite of all he could urge, I refused to take the final step. We remained talking together too long, and I just missed the last train—the mail. I had said good-bye to him before that, and I went to the station hotel and spent the night there, and came on the first thing this morning. Hugo, I swear to you that I am speaking the truth.”
“What a fine cock-and-bull story!” he answered, with a sneer. “We have heard of people missing their trains before. I’m surprised that you and Lumley between you, couldn’t think of something a little fresher!”
“But you believe me, Hugo?” she implored, “and I may come back?”
“No, I’m damned if you shall! Come back, indeed! I got your letter yesterday, and telegraphed at once to my lawyer. You shall be, as you said yourself, dead to me,—and I shall be dead to you. I am not likely to put up with a woman who informs me she is going off with a lover—and no doubt has a row with him, finds she hasn’t bettered herself,—and turns up at home the next day. By Jove, no!”
“But where am I to go?” she asked piteously. “What am I to do? I swear to you, that I am as innocent as Cara herself—at least, you will let me see her?”
“Not I! And now, madam, we have had enough of this,” and, taking her roughly by the arm, he led her from the anteroom, out into the great hall,—the door of which happened to be open. Without a word he pushed her violently across the threshold, and slammed the door upon her.
The fly and luggage had disappeared, there was no one in sight, as the ejected wife went slowly down the steps, and slowly down the avenue, as if she were walking in her sleep; this unexpected blow had been so staggering, that it momentarily stunned her.
Meanwhile Blagdon, with his hands in his pockets, stood in the window of the hall, which commanded a full view of the short entrance drive, his eyes fixed on the receding figure. When he saw her approach and pass through the great gates, making her final and ignominious exit, he muttered under his breath, “She’s gone!” and then he went back to the smoking-room, selected one of his best cigars, and sat down to meditate upon his future plans.
Frances Lumley, who happened to be crossing the village square, halted when she beheld her friend. What had happened? Why this white, stricken face? She held out her hand, and enquired:
“Is anything the matter?”
For a moment the unhappy girl seemed to choke; then—she stammered: “Yes—Hugo has just turned me out of the house.”
“Turned you out! Oh, my poor Letty! Then you will come home with me, of course?” And as she spoke, she took her arm.
It was but a few yards to the Rectory, and as they walked up the avenue, Letty halted abruptly, and said:
“I don’t think I should come here,” releasing her friend, and supporting herself by a railing that bordered the drive.
“But, Frances, you don’t know. It was because of your brother that—that—Hugo has cast me off.”
“Because of Lancelot!” exclaimed Miss Lumley, suddenly disconcerted; her colour rose, her eyes dilated.
“Yes,” said Letty, and then—she added, in short, gasping sentences: “I ran away to him yesterday to London—but I changed my mind. I could not desert Cara.—I came back. Hugo had returned suddenly, and read my letter, and took me by the shoulders, thrust me out, and slammed the door on me. I feel sure he will try and divorce me!”
Frances’ clear mind grasped a subject quickly. What a disastrous affair for Lancelot! What was to be done? Obviously the first step was to take Letty into the house—she looked ghastly.
“Brother or no brother,” she said—stifling her own dismay—“you must come and stay with us, and pull yourself together. Matters may not be as bad as you think.”
“They are—and it’s all my fault. I have ruined your brother, and disgraced myself, and Cara!”
This speech brought her into the Rectory door, which stood wide, and she tottered into a chair in the hall, and fainted away.
As soon as the refugee had been restored and put to bed in the spare room, Frances, a woman of action, wrote off to Mrs. Hesketh and to her brother, and despatched a note to Bates at the Court with a request for Mrs. Blagdon’s luggage. Then she proceeded to explain matters to her invalid father, who was enchanted to hear that Mrs. Blagdon was staying with them—though he could not quite understand how it was, that she should be in his house and not her own; but his resourceful daughter satisfied his curiosity, and told a lie, with the one simple word ‘Drains!’
Exhausted by bodily fatigue and mental emotion, Letty slept soundly till the church clock, striking nine, roused her from a sleep, that had bordered upon stupor. Where was she? asked recovering consciousness. The scene was strange, and beautiful—a wide-open window, the perfume of flowers, above, in the summer sky, a slim young moon. Was she dead, and was this house Heaven? Suddenly, with a torrential rush, black memory overwhelmed her.
During the next twenty-four hours, Frances Lumley was all that a sister, and more than some sisters would be, to the unhappy refugee. She consoled, soothed, cheered her,—keeping her own tremors respecting Lancelot entirely out of sight. Then Mrs. Hesketh appeared upon the scene, and carried her friend away to Oldcourt. Francie Lumley was a dear girl, with a heart of gold, but it was not seemly that Mrs. Blagdon should be her guest, with the case of Blagdon v. Blagdon and Lumley, imminent in the Law Courts.
It soon became noised abroad that Blagdon was about to divorce his wife, and mothers with daughters, once more began to cast expectant eyes on Sharsley.
The case of Blagdon v. Blagdon and Lumley divided the County into factions and separated chief friends. Some said, that now they thoroughly understood why Blagdon was reluctant to produce his wife in Society; obviously she was mentally unsound—a woman who ran away, and returned to him the next day! She had been a shy, odd creature from the first. The opposition were violent partisans, and declared that a girl so young, pretty, and innocent, had been driven to desperation by the brutality of her monster of a husband. It was a curious but not uncommon circumstance, that most of the women took the part of the man; whilst the men-folk, and in great numbers, were solid for the lady.
Letty’s few relatives lived in Ireland, and were not a little shocked to learn of her being mixed up in a scandal. They hid the paper from their friends, and discussed their black sheep in horrified whispers. The character of Mr. Blagdon had not been wafted across the Irish sea.
When the newly married couple were in London, one or two of the Irish clan had attempted to make their cousin’s acquaintance—not because she had made a great match, but that it was an opportunity of seeing poor Dermot’s daughter, and blood is thicker than water. However, their civil advances were rudely repulsed by Hugo (who hated the Irish as a nation) and did not want to be bothered with a pack of his wife’s relatives; and they merely saw a heavy-browed, formidable personage, and a pretty, shy girl with stiff manners. And now this pretty, shy girl had come to grief—wealth and importance had turned her silly little head. It was a pity!
The Blagdon-Lumley case, was entirely circumstantial, and the chain of evidence complete; the petitioner, a wealthy man; no enterprising legal firm came forward as a speculation to take up the co-respondent’s side, and the suit was undefended. Lumley had again repaired to Mr. Ross (Ross, Carbery & Co.), and told a plain, unvarnished tale, assuring them of the lady’s innocence on his solemn word of honour. The firm listened with agreeable sympathy, but declared, that there was nothing to be done, but face the consequences of an act of folly. Mrs. Blagdon had run away from her husband, leaving a letter of confession; she had joined their client in London openly, and left the hotel in his company. It was true, that she had repented, and next day presented herself at home in the character of a reformed wife; but it wouldn’t do—no, it would not do.
“I understand, that she is extraordinarily good-looking,” added Mr. Ross, “and that might give her a chance with the jury; but if you will take my advice, Captain Lumley, and speaking in the character of a friend, you will not attempt to defend the case. The less mud-throwing the better—all can be arranged between Mr. Blagdon’s lawyers and ourselves; at the end of six months there will be the usual decree, and I take it for granted, that you will marry the lady?”
But, as it happened, the lady absolutely refused to marry Lumley. For some time she had been in a state of collapse, under the roof and the care of her friend at Oldcourt. She seemed to be in a dazed condition, her recent experience appeared to have exercised an almost paralysing effect on her thinking faculties, and when she recovered, and was informed that the trial was over, that Hugo had generously settled five hundred a year upon her, and she was free to marry again; she assured Maude Hesketh and Mrs. Denton that nothing in the world would induce her to do so. No arguments affected her, and she positively declined to see Lancelot Lumley.
“I have done him enough harm as it is,” she pleaded, “and I only hope he may forget me.”
So Captain Lumley went out to his new regiment, which was quartered in Peshawur, with an empty pocket, a sore heart, and a somewhat damaged reputation.
It is perhaps needless to mention, that Mrs. Fenchurch did not spare the culprit when she came to Oldcourt to visit and upbraid her. Letty sat listening and gazing in helpless silence, whilst her aunt had her ‘say.’ After a vigorous arraignment of her conduct, and her shameful abandonment of a splendid position, she concluded:
“I merely came to tell you, that I wash my hands of you, Letty, and I am thankful that my poor dear husband did not live to see this day. I have one piece of advice to give you, and that is, that you marry Captain Lumley. I believe he is ready to make you his wife—go out to him in India, and remain there. I understand that as Society in the East is only too well accustomed to scandals and divorces, you will probably be received, and enabled to make a fresh start. Thanks to Hugo’s generosity, and with a captain’s Indian pay, you will be quite comfortably off.”
To all this advice the inquisitor received no reply, and rising red-faced from her seat, she added angrily:
“I see it’s no use talking to you for your good. You are in one of your tempers. I had intended offering you your uncle’s P. & O. trunks; but I shall do nothing further—good-bye!”
To the friendless divorcée, Cousin Maude played the part of a good and rich Samaritan. As it was winter time she took her to the Riviera, but Letty still exhibited a lack of energy and indifference to her surroundings, which was disheartening to her companion; however, by degrees, sunshine, peace, and youth had their effect, and, as a crushed flower in water, she revived. Her beauty and grace were remarkable. She had at last ‘come into her own,’ and was now a lovely girl—no longer the pallid, cowed bride of four years previously. Since then, she had experienced matrimony, misery, love—real love—and disgrace; also the tardy realisation of her own endowment.
If in former days, Blagdon was bitterly disappointed by his wife’s insignificance, Mrs. Hesketh was now proportionately amazed at her success; by the many staring eyes that followed her companion, the éclat, the sensation she created was quite remarkable—the girl was much too conspicuous for a divorcée in retreat.
Kind, generous Maude Hesketh, though sincerely attached to her protégée, was not without certain human weaknesses. She was inclined to be pessimistic, analytical, inquisitive, and occasionally a little irritable. In her secret heart she felt both sore and envious; she had been a notable beauty in her time, and although she had never encouraged admirers, yet was keenly alive to the homage of their eyes. To-day, all these looks and whispers were for another; whilst she was merely a well-preserved, elderly woman, to whom no one threw a second glance. She had accepted admiration as her right, and she now felt as if she had lost her youth for a second time!
For good and sundry reasons, the two ladies kept themselves in strict seclusion; they occupied a private sitting-room, and went out in a private carriage with a pair of capital horses. Now and then Mrs. Hesketh came across acquaintances, who glanced interrogatively at her graceful companion. As a rule she made no introductions, but when these could not possibly be avoided, she murmured the name of “Mrs. Glyn.”
Among the other guests at the “Calafornie,” Cannes, was a certain needy, worldly widow, Mrs. Plassy—Mrs. Bolingbroke-Plassy with a lively daughter of two-and-twenty.
This widow, made valiant attempts to attach herself to Mrs. Hesketh,—who was notoriously rich, had the air of a duchess, and a charming landau at her disposal; it was also known to her, that the most distinguished people in Cannes had left cards upon this lady. But Mrs. Hesketh—who could play the grande dame to perfection, had ‘no use’ for Mrs. Plassy, mistrusted her worming civilities, her subdued flatteries, and kept her inflexibly at arm’s length. The pretty companion was more approachable (Letty could never repulse a dog, much less a fellow-creature), and she and Miss Plassy, drawn together by their youth, and tastes, played tennis, and sang duets. The innocent soprano little suspected how deeply and sincerely she was hated by the contralto; she thought Lydia a pleasant, lively, unaffected girl, and if her mother was, as Cousin Maude declared, an inquisitive, marauding ‘old soldier,’ what harm did it do to anyone?
‘The old soldier’ had deeply resented Mrs. Hesketh’s uncompromising repulse; her animosity was kindled, and she instituted searching enquiries into the lady’s career,—which proved to be blameless; but, to her amazement, pretty, shrinking Mrs. Glyn, had a very black record! The fact leaked out—through a treacherous lady’s-maid—that this pretty girl was no less a person than the notorious and divorced Mrs. Blagdon! Fortunately the friends, were on the point of departure for San Remo, for Mrs. Plassy mentioned the discovery, as a dead secret, to every woman of her acquaintance in the hotel,—and they all held up their hands in speechless horror.
At the end of six months Mrs. Hesketh returned home, and by that time the great local scandal had been succeeded by others, and was more or less forgotten. Mr. Blagdon was said to be in America; Captain Lumley was in India; no one knew the whereabouts of the lady. She was living quietly in a country town thirty miles south of London, occasionally spending a few days at Oldcourt, but, on the whole, alone. To occupy her time she had taken up music, and worked hard; practising with a view to becoming a professional singer. As Mrs. Glyn, a solitary, pretty young woman, she made no acquaintances, with the exception of two or three elderly women in the same hotel, who regarded her as an interesting mystery; she could not be a widow, since she wore no scrap of mourning—presumably she had a husband,—but where? She kept herself conspicuously aloof from other people,—and why?
All the time, this much-discussed, unhappy stranger, was filled with a simple human craving to see her child again—to hold her in her arms. To have her with her, had become a sort of obsession. At night as she lay awake and weeping, she seemed to hear her forsaken baby, forlorn and helpless, crying to her across the darkness. She had sacrificed all for Cara—and lost her!
‘Maythorne,’ where Mrs. Glyn—formerly Blagdon—had hidden her diminished head, was a fine old red-brick mansion standing in its own grounds and meadows, and within thirty miles of London. Once the family seat of a well-known banker, it was now the successful investment of a syndicate, and a more or less glorified hotel, boasting (in a not untruthful advertisement) of its splendid situation, salubrious air, far-famed gardens, comforts, and cows.
When Letty, fearing that her company was beginning to irk her friend, and reluctant to return to Thornby, had implored Mrs. Hesketh to find her a quiet haven, Mrs. Hesketh’s friends, had recommended her to Maythorne. In late spring and early summer, the Maythorne guests were dull and commonplace: various invalids, lame, blind, and halt, with their nurses; girls or boys brought for change after the usual measles or whooping cough; old maids and widows; who knitted and gossiped and paced the broad walks in couples, took tea in little coteries, and devoted their evenings to cribbage, and patience.
To these, the arrival of a strikingly beautiful girl, a married woman, alone, without even a maid, offered a nice fresh topic for discussion. ‘Mrs. Glyn’ looked about nineteen, had a private sitting-room, and was very reserved—but when addressed, discovered a sweet, low voice, and timid manners. She had no visitors, and there was rarely a letter for her in the hall rack. Mrs. Glyn sang delightfully, and went twice to church on Sundays; and this was all that could be found out.
By degrees, the stranger came to know various other women, especially two of them—the oldest residents, who made a point of speaking to everyone,—these were friendly, and invited her to tea, and taught her ‘demon’ patience, and borrowed her Spectator; but Sister Sophy and Sister Mary, were painfully inquisitive, and she was not sufficiently subtle to evade their polite and insidious enquiries,—or to avoid disaster in the cunning pitfalls they so skilfully laid with regard to her ‘home.’ Letty instinctively felt, that her answers were unsatisfactory, and withdrew from their society as imperceptibly as she dared, contenting herself with the company of the hotel dog, who attended her in her country walks, and took tea with her most afternoons.
Maythorne was an irregular old house, renovated; with white paint, modern furniture, and pretty chintz; its ceilings were low, its stairs shallow, and in the long passages were unexpected steps. Letty’s apartments were detached, she had selected them on purpose, that she might play and sing without disturbing her neighbours.
Around the house were smooth lawns of turf, winding paths and alleys among laurels and rhododendrons; here and there a noble forest tree, and clumps of rose-trees, and high delphiniums of a royal and dazzling blue, and here Letty spent many an hour with a book, her own thoughts, and the infatuated Toby. As June melted into an unusually warm July, the number of guests increased; day by day one noted new faces; large family parties, father, mother, boys and girls, who preferred the country, with golf, tennis, picnics, and bicycling, to the seductions of the seaside. The term of ‘week-end’ had not yet been coined, but the actual thing existed; and many city men ran down from town from Friday to Monday for golf, fresh air, and good country food. Maythorne had also a reputation for ‘pretty girls.’ By all accounts, there was a wonderful beauty staying there now; she sat in a niche near the far door and was alone. Also it was a case of ‘paws off!’ and the lady always got out of the room before the dessert, and disappeared.
It was true Mrs. Glyn got out of the room ‘before the dessert,’ those staring eyes frightened her, and she slipped away to a certain remote seat in the ground,—as yet undiscovered by others,—and there contemplated the undulating country, whose fresh green pastures, dark woods, and delicate blue distances, seemed to act as balm upon an open wound.
“But what is the good of it all?” she would murmur (a phrase caught from Cousin Maude). Why had she been born? where was her place in the world? No wife, and no widow; her child taken from her; no home, and but two friends, Frances and Cousin Maudie—an encumbrance to both! Frances, the sister of Lancelot, must know how she had spoiled her brother’s life; how could she endure her? Cousin Maude, with her self-centred existence (out of which her divorce had figuratively torn her), had once more retreated into her shell. School-fellows, Irish cousins, which of these would venture to know her,—a divorcée? And who could blame them? She thought of the other girls here: happy girls of her own age; from her nook, she could hear gay voices and laughter on the croquet ground, but she might not mix with them; the old ladies had spoken—they could associate with her—not so the young people.
Two girls, who happened to hear her singing, were entranced; and eagerly made friends with the performer; but when their portly mothers noticed them strolling in the grounds, with Letty in the middle, animated, and discoursing of music,—in answer to an imperative signal, she found herself suddenly deserted. Mrs. Glyn was not to be ‘known,’ that was too painfully evident; and the ‘mystery’ walked on alone, holding her head unusually high, acutely conscious that she was taboo! and filled with an angry, straining against circumstances, and against fate.
“She does look so pretty, and so innocent!” admitted a wealthy matron, “and I admire her enormously as a picture—not otherwise. These ‘butter-would-not-melt-in-my-mouth’ class are notoriously dangerous!”
To some of the men, Mrs. Glyn was naturally all the more attractive, because of the ladies’ veto; these were only too anxious to cultivate her acquaintance, but she shrank from their neighbourhood, and treated their anxious overtures, with discouraging hauteur. Although she had youth, beauty, health, and five hundred a year, what, she asked herself, did it avail, a woman with a past, and without hope, or future? If she only had the necessary courage, she might follow the example of a recent suicide, and scribble on a card, ‘No home, no friends—Exit,’ and then go and drown herself; it would be a simple ending to all her troubles, and her hopeless yearnings for Cara, and for Lancelot. Her thoughts of him, were inexpressibly painful, and tinged with acute remorse. Over and over again, she recalled his stricken face, and stern accusation, “Letty, you have made a fool of me,” and this was true—a pitiless and unanswerable fact.
When the moon arose, and the bats began to flit about the garden, the mysterious beauty would repair to her own quarters, and there seek for sympathy in her piano. She sang not only well-known songs, but verses she had set to music. The air of one composition was peculiarly sad and haunting, and two City men who were strolling about together—discussing the market prices—halted, attracted by a beautiful voice which floated from an open window. As they stood, and listened, this is what fell on their ears.
“Où vivre? Dans quelle ombre Étouffer mon ennui? Ma tristesse est plus sombre Que la nuit.
“Où mourir? Sous quelle onde Noyer mon deuil amer? Ma peine est plus profonde Que la mer.
“Où fuir? De quelle sorte Égorger mon remord? Ma douleur est plus forte Que la mort.”
As the last words died away, one of the audience gave himself a vigorous shake, carefully examined his half-finished cigar, and exclaimed:
“By George! that young woman must be in a bad way—eh? I wonder who she is? She is singing like one of those sirens that bothered old what’s-his-name. Shall we clap—eh?”
“No,” with prompt emphasis, “the girl is singing—and her voice is exquisite—like some unhappy soul who has lost everything in the world.”
“Oh, Bosh! you and your romantic fancies! Come along indoors and have a game of billiards. I’ll give you twenty up! There will be no more songs,—see, she has turned down the light.”
“All right, I see,” agreed the man of sentiment, as he reluctantly followed his challenger.
The morning after this incident, a letter from Frances Lumley not only distracted Letty’s thoughts, but carried her away from Maythorne. The stimulating news, which was in the postscript, said:
“I have just heard that little Cara and her new nurse have gone to Folkestone. The child had measles, but is now quite well; however, Doctor Griffen ordered sea air and change. Last time I saw her she was prettier than ever, and looked like a little angel.”
Within five minutes Cara’s mother was whirling over the pages of an A B C. She too would go to Folkestone and see her baby at all hazards. A new nurse—what a chance! She wired for rooms at one of the hotels, packed up her boxes, paid her bill, and the following day effected an early departure, arriving at Folkestone the same evening. Here at least, she would be breathing the same air as her darling.
An early hour the next morning found Mrs. Glyn on the Leas, and as the month happened to be July these were crowded. For two whole days, among nurses and perambulators, she sought in vain for Cara. At last, in a block near the band shelter, she descried her treasure—attended by a buxom nurse, with a gaudy magazine tucked under her arm; Letty hovered around, or paced to and fro, till at last nurse and pram moved slowly away, and she, following at a discreet distance, discovered that they lodged in rooms not far from her own hotel. Her next move was to endeavour to make the nurse’s acquaintance, and this she accomplished by sitting beside her on a bench overlooking the sea, and offering timid remarks about the weather, and admiration of the sleeping child.
The nurse (with visions of Sharsley to support her) was inclined to be haughty and stand-off, but when she had scrutinised the young lady, and her well-cut costume, her pretty hat, and good new gloves, she thawed so far as to admit that the ‘weather was a treat,’ and to accept the loan of an illustrated paper.
Letty, as she gazed at her sleeping child, was so overcome with emotion, that she was impelled to get up suddenly, and walk away; but presently returned as the moth to the candle, and with a steady voice informed the nurse, that “she was fond of children, and that the little girl reminded her of someone.”
“There is one o’clock striking,” said nurse, “and that reminds me that it’s time for our dinner! Here’s your paper, miss, and thank you.”
“Oh, please keep it, I don’t want it back! I have any quantity of magazines, and books.”
“I do love reading, and specially magazines; but I can’t well leave this child to go and buy things—you see, I’m single-handed.”
“I will lend you magazines with pleasure,” volunteered this kind stranger. “Shall you be on the front to-morrow?”
“Yes, miss, at eleven, and if you can spare me something lively—I love murders—I’ll be obliged to you. I am a bit lonely now; a nurse, my friend, went yesterday. The family’s gone over to Boulogne, and I don’t have any talk with them boarding-house servants—they’re no class; I won’t deny that I’m sociable, but I’m suspicious of strangers, and as to who I know.”
“Of course,” assented Letty, “so am I—especially as I am here by myself.”
“Oh, indeed!” with a quick inquisitive glance, and then this pretty nameless young lady proceeded to inform her, that she was waiting to be joined by a relative, with whom she was going on the Continent; for, as she sat beside this unsuspicious woman, Letty had made up her mind to run away with the child! and was already maturing her plans.
Presently Cara awoke. She was a beautiful little girl of four, and as she opened her eyes, and stared up at the face bending over her, to that lady’s horror, and yet also to her joy, she ejaculated “Ma-ma!”
Her mother felt inclined to burst into tears, but struggled to subdue her feelings, which found relief in a wild, hysterical laugh.
“Aye, she takes you for her mamma,” explained the nurse. “Every nice-looking, fair young lady, is ‘mamma.’ The poor little thing has no mother,” she added in a low aside. “Could you believe that any woman with a heart in her body, could desert that?”
‘That’ was still drowsy, and, lulled by the soft air and the distant band, had once more closed her forget-me-not blue eyes, and fallen asleep.
Letty realised that her self-control was slipping from her altogether, and with a hurried excuse of ‘letters,’ rose, and returned to her hotel. Each morning and afternoon, she sought out the ruddy-faced, brown-eyed nurse, with the smart white perambulator, and her efforts to ingratiate herself with an uneducated, chattering, kind-hearted woman, were almost those of a timid lover, seeking to propitiate his mistress. She was compelled to listen with averted face, whilst Smithson volubly related to her her own history—as reported and edited in the servants’ hall.
“The child is like her mother, they do say; anyway, in face. I never saw her—I’m a new-comer. He is very ordinary: an ugly blue-and-red sort of colour, and twenty years older than his wife. She was just a slip of a schoolgirl, and by all accounts it was not so much her fault—left alone for months in that great lonely barrack of a place. They say the day after she ran off, she repented and came back, and he just threw her out! No one knows the rights of the story,—or where she is now.”
Naturally these confidences were agonising to the shrinking listener, who stared out on the shining sea, and faint French coast-line, with a rigid profile; or bent down her head, to finger the flounces of Cara’s doll.
It was an indescribable relief when Nurse Smithson selected another topic, and disclosed to her companion in glowing terms, the glories of Sharsley, and the wealth of its master. She gave luxuriant descriptions of the park, the size of the grounds, the fame of the pictures,—but kept back the fact, that the house was almost closed, and that the shooting had been let. Then she interrupted her tale to exclaim:
“Well, I never did see a young lady so fond of children as you are,—miss, and the child has taken to you too! Some day, you will be having one of your own, I hope, and you will make a fine fuss with her, or I’m mistaken.”
Letty looked at her through blinding tears, then, startled by her companion’s gaze of speechless amazement, she hastily explained that “the glare of the sun on the sea was so dazzling, that it always made her eyes water!”
For more than a fortnight, every morning and every afternoon, Cara’s mother and nurse foregathered by appointment: sometimes at the band on the Leas, sometimes along the shady Lower Road; and here Letty would wheel the perambulator. Her admiration for the child was mutual, and she was terrified, lest the nurse should wonder why the little thing was always so ready to come to her, and why she invariably called her ‘Mamma.’
“I am sure, you must be like her mother,” said Smithson, “and that is why little Cara takes to you. Aye, and they do say, that she was wrapped up in her. Mr. Blagdon, he don’t care a brass farthing about the child, and was main angry, that miss Cara wasn’t a boy. He never comes to Sharsley, and the place was that dreary, the old nurse give notice—she was a vinegar-faced one, if you like, and they do say was a spy on the lady. It was Lady Rashleigh—Mr. Blagdon’s sister—that engaged me. She’s a funny one, with a big face and a loud voice; it was her notion sending the child down here, and later on, maybe, she’s coming herself. She don’t care for Miss Cara—says we have her spoiled. What do you say to that, missy? Sometimes, you are a very naughty little girl, you know” (missy, drowsy and indifferent, closed her big blue eyes). Then the nurse lowering her voice, proceeded: “Sometimes she looks like a little angel, doesn’t she? But other times, I tell you, you’d think it was a little devil you had to deal with! Of course, there being no lady, it’s a responsible situation, and I’ve no nursemaid, as you see; it’s a good place, and the wages is first-class. Sixty—only for that, I never would stand the loneliness—and the child.”
Horrified and indignant, Letty took the part of her offspring, and replied:
“I have no doubt it is lonely living in the corner of a great big house, with only Cara for your constant companion: but then the child is such a darling!”
“Eh, miss, you’ve heard the saying, ‘All is not gold that glitters’? This one, will give somebody a rare time yet; the best of her is all on the outside; inside, she is just a greedy, selfish, treacherous, little monkey!”
“Oh, nurse, how can you say such dreadful things of a poor innocent baby? I expect, that in your heart you really don’t care about children. Now do you?”
“Well, of course, miss, it’s only to you, a stranger, I would say what I do; it’s not likely, I’d tell this to one of her relations, and her auntie is down enough on her as it is. She sees through her arts, when we stay with her in Town, and has given her some rare good smackings, I can tell you! To you, as I say, being a stranger, she is the most beautiful child in Folkestone—there is not another on the Leas to touch her; all the nurses envies me, and people crowds round her, as if she was a show: and she smiles and carries on like anything—especially to the gentlemen. How she’s learnt such an awful amount of deceit, in such a short time, puzzles me; she’s as sly as sly, and you’d never think there was so strong a will in that little bit of a body, and what she’ll be like, when she grows up, I’d be frightened to say! She’ll grow up soon, I expect; but there’s one thing I’m sure of, and that is, that, wherever she is, she’ll give trouble!”
These alarming prophecies on the part of nurse held no terrors for Letty, but only made her all the more determined to snatch her darling from a woman who did not appreciate her—who was not worthy to wheel her perambulator. Smithson was a tremendous talker, and, strange to say, exhibited no curiosity, with respect to her companion. Contented with the fact that she was a young lady who was rather delicate and was waiting at the ‘Grand’ for the arrival of a relative. Sometimes, she vaguely wondered why she seemed to know no one, and seemed so silent and downcast. However, this sociable stranger was an acceptable acquaintance, who often relieved her of her duties with Miss Cara; playing with the child on the beach for hours, wheeling her in the perambulator, making her daisy-chains, whilst Mrs. Smithson skipped through library novels, talked incessantly, and, occasionally leaving the lady in charge, took the opportunity to do a little shopping.
Mrs. Smithson had confided to Letty, that she had a cousin up at Shorncliffe: a sergeant-major with his wife, and having no nursemaid had its drawbacks—for she could never leave the child, and have an afternoon off.
“Now there’s a play on at the theatre I’d give my two eyes to see, and go to the matinée next Saturday with Carson and his wife; but I ask you, how can I?”
“You can manage it perfectly well,” rejoined Letty promptly. “I have nothing to do, and I shall be delighted to take charge of Cara.”
“Oh, miss, you are really too kind! But I couldn’t allow you to do such a thing.”
“I assure you I should really like it,” responded the arch-deceiver. “I am fond of Cara, and I think she is fond of me; so if you care to make your arrangements, there is nothing whatever to prevent you going to the matinée.”
After some half-hearted expostulations, and protestations, the whole thing was settled. Nurse Smithson was to have Saturday afternoon all to herself, from two till seven—so as to have ample time to go up to the camp to tea with her cousin—and as Letty walked back to lunch, she felt as if she was treading on air!
Saturday, and this was Tuesday! She had written to Mrs. Hesketh, who vehemently opposed her scheme; but seeing that Letty was fully determined to kidnap Cara, reluctantly agreed to assist her.
On Wednesday afternoon, she came down to Folkestone, in the hope of talking over her friend,—but this expectation was fruitless. The boot was on the other foot; it was Letty who talked her over! She seemed changed: to have acquired a consciousness of power, an air of graceful assurance, and the faculty of making up her mind!
At dinner, there was a truce between their wrestling personalities, but the new-comer resolved to have it out with her young friend, as subsequently they walked to the band on the lower Leas.
“Remember, Letty, you lose five hundred a year,” she began, à propos de rien, as they approached the rendezvous of hundreds of crowded chairs, the brilliantly lit bandstand, and caught the flashes from Cape Grisnez—illuminating a glassy Channel—starred with the fishing fleet.
“That is true,” assented her companion; “but then, I gain Cara, and, to me, she is worth ten times that sum.”
“Then, my dear, perhaps you will also tell me how you propose to live?” was the dry enquiry.
“I have saved two hundred pounds. Here are seats—what a crowd! I’ll pay the collector—it’s only coppers.”
Mrs. Hesketh, not a whit propitiated, went on to state that two hundred pounds in the hands of a girl who knew nothing of money, would not go far.
“Though,” she added, “of course I will help you.”
“No, no indeed,” protested Letty, putting down a strange dog that had sprung into her lap. “By and by I hope to earn my living, and I will ask you to draw, and to forward the interest on my legacy, and also to sell my pearls, my mother’s necklace. They are valuable; an Indian Rajah gave them to my father for something he had done—saved him from an assassin, I believe.”
“Nonsense! No, I don’t mean about your father,” said her companion impatiently. “I have a plan; that is to say, if you are bent on carrying out this act of lunacy?”
“I am—oh, dearest cousin Maudie, I must! You are strong and all-sufficient for yourself. I am a weak, invertebrate creature.”
“Invertebrate—good word!” interrupted her friend.
“And I must have something to live for—something to love.”
“You had Lancelot Lumley.”
“That’s different! I would only bring him shame and trouble; but Cara is mine. I will rescue her, form her character as well as ever I can,—and make her happy.”
“I wonder if she will make you happy?”
“Of course she will. And now, what is your plan?”
“You can leave your pearls with me in pawn, and I will pay you thirty pounds a year on them, till you return home, and claim them.”
For a long time Letty combated this suggestion: in fact, all through the valse ‘Mes Rêves,’ played so seductively by the band.
But Mrs. Hesketh, a practical woman, was determined that her foolish friend should not fare forth into the cold world, quite penniless, with the exception of her hoarded two hundred pounds.
“And another thing, I must say, Letty, and that is about the nurse. Have you thought of the frightful trouble she will get into; and her state of mind when she returns and finds that you have stolen her charge?”
“Yes: I am leaving a present, and a letter to clear her entirely. I fancy she will be surprised when she discovers that, of all people, I am Cara’s mother!”
“She won’t make friends again in a hurry, with pretty strange ladies! You are a child in the ways of the world; you have never in all your life had to depend upon yourself, you don’t know the value of money,—or how far it goes. As to earning it, I’m afraid you will not have much chance of that in Switzerland, among an untiring, and industrious people. Seventy pounds a year, will at least keep you from starvation: for Switzerland is a cheap country to live in—once you leave the radius of the big hotels—so you will give me your address, and four times a year I will send you seventeen pounds. And perhaps, if my health permits, I will go out, and settle myself down somewhere near you, for a little while.”
“That will be good of you. Oh, if you only would!”
“If it were suspected, that I was here with you, abetting and aiding your criminal act, and arranging for your departure, I should get into a nice scrape, but you know, my dear, I have always liked you, and I’m sorry you have made such an awful hash of your life.”
“So am I,” agreed Letty, with profound sincerity.
“My own marriage was not a success; my husband and I were never sympathetic, we were always like two goats chained to a log; but we kept it to ourselves, and I am not sure, after all, that I am a very easy woman to live with. I am restless and discontented, I expect too much of life.”
“I should think you were excessively easy to live with, Cousin Maude; you and I got on together splendidly when we were abroad.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “but then I am growing old, and the fires of life have died down. I must tell you, Letty, that I do not think, and never will think, that this step you are taking is a wise one. Of course, your motherly heart is empty without the child; but you are expatriating yourself on her account, you have relinquished almost every shilling in the world on her behalf, you have given up your friends, and you have given up Lancelot Lumley. I hope, as the years advance, that you will find that Cara has been worth this sacrifice, and that when old enough to be a companion, she will return your devotion four-fold.”
“But, Cousin Maude, I cannot see why you think I am making a mistake?”
“I have longer sight than you: it is unnatural for a girl of one-and-twenty to cut herself adrift from the world, and devote her life absolutely to a baby of four. As I said to Blagdon, I have no doubt these things were done in years gone by,—when a wife’s whole existence was concentrated on her kitchen, and her nursery; but now we live in more advanced times; every woman has her place in the world, her individual life—and, so to speak, her hand to play, and you are sitting down to take the part of Dummy!”
“Oh, Cousin Maude,” she protested, “how can you say so? I have this darling child, she will be all in all to me; it will be my pleasure to devote myself to her, to work for her, and to bring her up to be good. Think if I had left her with Hugo, or Hugo’s sister, to be educated under their influence. How soon her mind would be corrupted; what examples she would see before her! I daresay by the time she was sixteen she would be as bold and boisterous and evil-minded as the worst—at least, I shall save her from that.”
“I hope so, my dear, and I agree with you, that the society of Hugo Blagdon, his sister, and his friends, would be a deplorable education for any girl.”
After a pause she continued:
“You are getting back your looks, Letty, and your youth, and are no longer a stricken, haggard creature of thirty, but once more a girl in your springtime—you are divorced, and free. Supposing you were to come across somebody you really love, and were to marry again?”
“Oh, never, never! Besides, I don’t think a woman who has been divorced, should marry.”
“That is a much-debated question. And what if Lancelot Lumley were to return, and claim you? He has gone through the furnace for your sake. His poor old father has entirely lost his memory, and fortunately has never heard of the great Blagdon scandal. The last time I saw Frances, it seemed to me that she was changed; there were lines in her face, and she looked out of spirits, and down on her luck.”
“Poor Frances, I have indeed returned her evil for good. I cannot tell you what a support she was to me in those days when I was alone at Sharsley. I was so silly and nervous in that big house; always afraid to go to bed. My room was by itself in the west wing, and the rats in the wall, gave me palpitation of the heart, and I used to think of ghosts too—the blind Scrope lady, who gropes and fumbles outside doors—but Frances would come up with books and jokes, and insist on my going for walks with her, and talking me out of my fears. She and you, are my best, and only, friends.”
“Your best friend should be yourself, Letty—I can only offer you money and advice—you accept neither. How I wish I could give you what you want most—a will; a will to keep upon a certain steady path.”
“I am on the right path now,” she answered, “and, to follow your simile, hand in hand with Cara, I intend to stick to a road that leads to happiness.”
Mrs. Hesketh muttered something under her breath about a hedonist; then as the band played ‘God Save the King,’ they rose side by side, and presently were swallowed up in the streaming crowds returning to their several hotels; Letty expatiating on the beauty of the moonlit night, her companion dumb and distrait, in the face of the inevitable.
When the critical Saturday arrived, Nurse Smithson, dressed in her best, what she called ‘private’ clothes, and a superb hat, went off in high spirits to the theatre, attended by her friends. Letty collected the child’s belongings, packed them in a trunk, and took her away in a cab to the Pavilion Hotel, where she met Mrs. Hesketh, and her own luggage. By the four o’clock afternoon boat, among hordes of holiday passengers, was a remarkably pretty girl in blue serge, with a small fractious child in her charge. The two were sped by a distinguished lady friend, who waved to them from the end of the pier, as long as a handkerchief was visible.
As it happened, the kidnapper was not an experienced nurse, or accustomed to the sole charge of a fractious child, and little Cara proved unexpectedly peevish and obstreperous. The trip across to Boulogne was well enough, but once in the railway carriage, nothing seemed to please or pacify her; fruit, pictures, chocolates, were but temporary alleviations; her one shrill continuous cry, repeated a ‘crescendo,’ was, “I want my Ninny—I want my Ninny! I want my Ninny!” and the more her mother soothed and coaxed, the louder and more passionate became her screams. The miserable passengers in her compartment had no peace or rest, and thankfully parted at Bâle Station, with what a sleepless individual apostrophised, as, ‘that accursed brat.’ It was also with a sigh of profound relief that her worn-out and haggard mother, with the treasure in her arms, climbed down into the airy, spacious station of Lucerne. As soon as she had claimed her luggage, she drove off in a little open trap to a well-known and well-recommended hotel in the old town. Here, the fugitive remained sequestered for several days, gathering herself together before she made the next plunge.
She engaged a Swiss girl to help with Cara—a young lady that never could be left alone, and demanded incessant attention, and amusement. As she was carried through the streets, or walked on the Quai, her yellow hair and large blue eyes, attracted notice; people would exclaim and admire her, and so, early in her career, Miss Caroline Blagdon learned that she was a beauty, and ideas thus prematurely absorbed, remain firmly fixed throughout the remainder of a lifetime.
It was mid-August, and lovely Lucerne was at its brightest and busiest; the promenade under the trees on the Quai was almost impassable, the steamers plying on the lake were black with crowds, and every hotel and pension was crammed to the roof.
As Letty moved among the throng, and listened to the sounds of gay voices, to the well-known Milanese Orchestra, and felt the whirl of life about her: she seemed to be a new creature in a new world. Once she ventured into a tea-shop, but before she had been there five minutes, she recognised the prim faces and clear high bred treble of the two Miss Jessops,—who, plates in hand, were cautiously selecting cakes, and instantly abandoned her tea and fled.
On another occasion, she narrowly escaped recognition in an embroidery shop, where she was launching into a piece of wild extravagance on behalf of Cara, and felt convinced, that Lucerne in the high season was no place for a young woman who had recently stolen her child!
She therefore began to set about making enquiries concerning pensions, and farm-house apartments. Her little nursemaid Magda, was able to tell her of one that might suit; a farm on the left side of the lake, where her sister worked, and she knew that Frau Hurter’s boarder, a professor who wrote books, had recently left for Berlin, and the Frau was looking for another to replace him.
“Frau Hurter was a well-to-do widow with one son: she kept ten cows; there would at least be no harm if Madame were to make enquiries.”
No time like the present, and Madame, taking Magda as her guide, went down by the two o’clock boat—but fearful of being recognised, she remained below in the stifling cabin, instead of on deck enjoying all the glories of a superb afternoon. When the trio landed, Magda led the way, carrying the child by turns with her mistress.
After walking a mile, and passing an imposing hotel, they left the road for a rough cart-track, which wound up the hill-side amid laden orchards and prosperous chalets, till they arrived (in a somewhat breathless condition) at a faded signboard on which was inscribed ‘Les Plans, Pension.’ The pension, was a substantial residence of dark weather-beaten wood, it had a heavy peaked roof, bright green shutters, and a verandah. The approach by a flagged path, led through a garden which was at present a blaze of flowers: a mass of standard roses, lilies, hydrangeas, and clove pinks; further from the flagged path were apple and pear trees, standard gooseberry bushes, and plots of lettuce.
On the doorstep of the entrance lay stretched out a brown and white half-grown St. Bernard, and above the lintel was the date 1780. Thanks to the indulgence of the dog—an acquaintance of Magda’s—the trio entered. The interior of Les Plans appeared more ancient than the outside, with its green shutters and modern windows; there was a long, and heavily beamed passage, off which opened several rooms.
From one of these, a stout, middle-aged woman, wearing a particularly firm expression, and a large blue apron, advanced to enquire the lady’s pleasure.
The lady’s fluent German now came into exercise, and she informed Frau Hurter that she was in search of a comfortable farm-house, where she could have two airy, sunny rooms, and plenty of milk for the child.
“Your own little girl?” enquired the proprietor, with an air of surprise. She had not wedded till close on forty.
“I think I have what may suit. The Herr Professor occupied my rooms for four summers; now he has been called to a post in Berlin, and they are free.”
Then she led the way up very steep stairs to a landing corresponding to the hall below, ushered her visitor into two exquisitely clean rooms, one overlooking the lake, the other the slopes of the Rigi. The boards were bare, except for two or three home-made rugs; the beds were of the usual comfortable German pattern; tables covered with white cloths, two or three chairs and washstands, and that was all.
As Letty surveyed the apartments, and their square-faced upright owner, she assured herself that with a few little extras she could make her home here; there was always the matchless lake, with its changing colours and incessant traffic, the beautiful mountains, and no doubt there were appropriate and exhilarating walks. The whole place smelt of roses, the air was delicious; where could she find a better, or more secure retreat?
Frau Hurter now conducted her visitor down the break-neck stairs, in order that the English lady might view her surroundings, for this shrewd woman, thoroughly understood their marketable effect.
Before their eyes lay the flower garden, the spreading meadows, laden orchards, and the glittering lake. At the rear of Les Plans, rose a vast top-heavy structure, the cow-house—(that chief feature on a Swiss farm). The brown, weather-stained walls were almost concealed by venerable pear trees, whose yellow fruit hung in tempting profusion. The upper part of the building, was evidently occupied by human beings; from beneath came the incessant grunting of discontented pigs. Just at present, the great cow stalls stood empty, and high on the grassy hill-side, the ten dun cows were grazing under laden apple trees—for Les Plans was a combination of fruit orchard and dairy farm—their sturdy calves were learning life and independence, and a yearling bull, impeded by a log, swaggered about, with an air of grotesque importance. Each animal wore its bell, and the musical clanging of these, the hint of clear mountain air, and the verdure of the exquisite green background, made an impression on Letty that she never forgot.
And now came the question of terms! The would-be boarder was helplessly ignorant of money matters; with Frau Hurter it was otherwise: she had learnt the art of barter as a child, had a solid balance in the bank of Lucerne, and was a capable and close-fisted widow, who had managed her own affairs for years. Needless to say she made a capital bargain.
“Would Madame be likely to stay long?” she enquired, expecting the reply to be a month or six weeks. She was amazed when Madame replied:
“If I am comfortable here, I shall remain possibly for years.”
“And Madame’s name?”
“My name,” she replied, “is Mrs. Glyn.”
“Is Madame a widow?” and the inquisitor searched her face with a stare of hard scrutiny.
To this question she replied:
“I am married—this little girl is my child. I will pay you a week in advance, and I must ask you to consider this information sufficient.”
Frau Hurter almost felt as if a dove had flown in her face! This beautiful English girl, who looked so young and simple, and was so easy about money, was not altogether as mild as she had supposed.
“Oh, very well,” she answered; “Madame’s affairs are her affairs.”
“We will come to-morrow,” announced Letty, “if you will send someone to meet the two o’clock boat, and bring our luggage.”
Thus the bargain was concluded, and sealed.
Before departure Frau Hurter conducted her future lodger around the luxuriant garden; she gave the child a cup of fresh milk, her mother a bunch of roses, and Letty walked down the rugged cart-track feeling more happy and elated than she had done for years. She would live in this lovely and secluded spot, where none of the troubles of the world could possibly overtake her.—Would they not?
Within two or three days of her installation at Les Plans, Letty found herself comfortably settled and at home. The family consisted of Frau Hurter, the hard-featured widow; her son Fritz, a handsome dark-eyed schoolboy; Magda’s sister Freda, a squat, rosy-cheeked young woman who laboured incessantly in house and dairy, whilst over the cows and pigs resided Hans Jost, and his consort. These were relatives of Frau Hurter, who looked after the cattle and the farm—a large one—and took the milk daily to a Laiterie or Molkerei, which supplied some of the Lucerne hotels. The heavy crops of apples and pears received attention, and cartloads of the latter were despatched to the great manufactory, to be converted into honey!
Little Cara, with her pretty face and caressing manners, soon became the idol of Les Plans: the petting and admiration hitherto conferred on Karo, the big, long-legged St. Bernard, were now transferred to ‘Mitli,’ as she was called,—a German-Swiss pet name for a small child,—and Mitli soon became familiar with her court and its many resources, from the great tree of sweet yellow plums in the corner of the garden, to the boat which lay chained by the lake shore.
Her mother, too, made agreeable discoveries. There were lovely walks in the vicinity; her surroundings were soothing and reposeful, and she seemed to stand aside in a beautiful sheltered retreat, whilst all the world hurried by. The world, as typified in the white steamers, crowded with passengers, that passed continually up and down the lake; and within half a mile was situated a popular hotel, which in the season was always overflowing with fashionable guests. These, she occasionally encountered in walks, which she took accompanied by the deposed favourite, and more than one halted to look after the solitary beauty, and her attendant dog.
For once in her life, Letty was enjoying freedom and a certain amount of happiness; but here again, when memory drifted into deeper currents, she was constantly tormented by the remembrance of Lancelot—high-minded, generous, forbearing Lancelot, whom she loved, would always love, and yet had forsaken and lost.
Her good resolutions with respect to money were soon broken; she purchased some extra furniture for her two rooms, a reliable lamp, a tea-set, baths, and actually invested in a piano which cost, second-hand, thirty pounds—but her love for music almost amounted to a passion; the instrument was installed in Frau Hurter’s quaint and low-pitched sitting-room, and here, when Cara was asleep, her mother enjoyed an hour or two of undiluted pleasure.
Frequent letters from Mrs. Hesketh were delivered at the farm, and Letty heard of the sensation created by her abduction, and how there had been flaring paragraphs in the papers, in which her name had figured; but soon interest had slackened—it was less than a nine days’ wonder.
“You will be left in peace with Cara,” wrote Letty’s friend, “Hugo will not set the detective after you; if your theft had been a son and heir, by this time you would be languishing in gaol.”
The season waned by degrees; many of the steamers were laid up, the great hotels closed, and winter descended from the mountains. By and by came grey short days, and Les Plans was swallowed up in snow. Letty had her piano and sewing, her books and her child: Frau Hurter and Freda were busy with knitting and spinning, Fritz with his lessons and outdoor games—and he sometimes condescended to play with Cara. His father had been Italian, and from him, he had inherited his dark eyes, and his gay temperament.
The climate proved trying to an unaccustomed foreigner, and the food was not appetising. In October, three of the dissatisfied pigs were slain, and made into ham and sausages, as provisions for the winter. As a menu of sausages, bread, coffee, and cheese palled after a time, the boarder supplemented the fare from her own purse, and secretly resolved to spend the next winter in Lucerne itself, returning to Les Plans with the spring. By the end of the second year Mrs. Glyn found herself seriously embarrassed for money. Alas! the two hundred pounds had dissolved like snowflakes in the sun; she had been obliged to dismiss Magda, and was now nurse—a somewhat onerous post; she had wasted far too much on follies: such as embroideries and pretty shoes and hats for Cara, but whatever happened, and whoever was pinched, it should never be the child.
The pretty Englishwoman had made a few friends in the commercial world, who were impressed by her air, her beauty, her voice, and maternal devotion. Thanks to these kind friends in the Weggisgasse, she found music pupils, and had learnt to execute embroidery and lace, for which the town is famous, and was fortunate enough to find regular customers in one of the big shops; so that by working industriously, she became self-supporting, and was moderately content.
By the time Cara was a tall girl of eight, her mother felt that her home for life was on the Lake of Lucerne, and had accommodated herself to this conviction. On holidays, she and Cara went boating with Fritz, or made excursions up the mountains, whither Cara pleased—everything was done with the view of pleasing the child, who, well cared for, well dressed, and well amused, was an amazingly pretty, headstrong, and unmanageable girl.—Only as far as her mother was concerned—she was still a little in awe of Frau Hurter, and of Jost’s grim wife.
Cara had suffered herself to be taught her letters, and even mastered ‘Reading Without Tears’; but there she struck. History stories, and pretty maps were flouted, and flung on the floor, and to her teacher’s soft pleading—and even bribes—she interposed a will as hard and solid as a wall of rock. Cara persistently begged and teased to go to school in Mitzau; as usual she gained her point, and accompanied by her mother or Freda, went daily to an excellent seminary within a mile of Les Plans, where she associated with the children of the neighbouring farms. Among these, she soon became a prominent leader, and absorbed many facts and fancies, in addition to German Grammar, and the history of the Swiss Republic.
Five times had the hill orchards blazed into blossom, the Alpine wild flowers spread their radiance over the slopes, and the white stillness of winter descended on the scene, and yet the English lady remained faithful to Les Plans. She had become a part of the household, but Cara, who adventured her young tendrils further than the farm, had many resources and associates in the neighbourhood—though her pretty mother contented herself with the company of Frau Hurter, her books, and her needle. Owing to an acute financial crisis, the piano had been sold. Letty had a horror of debt, and when she made reckless purchases, paid for her generosity by hours and weeks of close and incessant labour, the result being a wan face and agonising headaches. Then Frau Hurter, with downright speech, would drive her forth for walks, and clamour fiercely for half holidays.
“Mein Frau, you will have an illness, and a bad one,” she would say; “and the doctors, they eat up money. Ach ye! you sit all day stitch, stitch. You must have our good fresh air and exercise, or you may die—and then where would Mitli be, and I?”
So Letty, with Karo as her companion, took the holidays and long walks and roamed over the mountains along goat-paths, and by quaint old farms, and weather-worn brown chalets. Her thoughts were not always happy; sometimes she felt a touch of soul-ache; for the warm blood of youth still throbbed in her veins. It was true, that she had Cara, and Cara’s love was hers; but then she was but nine years old, and her natural disposition was unresponsive. How she longed for a companion of her own country, and her own age—someone whose ideas soared beyond school-fellows and sweets—and it struck her painfully at times, that Cara avoided her! Often, when she descended to fetch her darling home, the child would slip from her side, and attach herself to a class-mate, and whisper eager confidences,—leaving her deserted parent to walk alone; or when of an evening she was ready to help with lessons, dress dolls, and play games, Cara would suddenly jump up, and exclaim:
“Oh, this is stupid! stupid! I am going to look for Fritz.”
But if subsequently a warm arm stole round Letty’s neck, and a soft cheek were laid on hers, certain dark misgivings were scattered to the winds, and the spirit of patient confidence resumed its sovereignty. Occasionally she went to Lucerne—commercial excursions, connected with the sale of her work—and would treat herself to a concert at the Casino, an organ recital at the Hof Kirche, or visit friends in the Wienplatz and the Weggisgasse. Her beauty, though unadorned, was far too striking to be overlooked. This lovely and lonely young lady, was stared at, followed, accosted. Strangers—dealt with by Frau Hurter—and letters, came to Les Plans—offers of marriage were not unknown! A wealthy merchant from Milan; a dark handsome Spaniard, presented himself as an anxious suitor for the hand of the exquisite young widow—a lady to whom he had never spoken, but whose dazzling beauty and air of breeding, had captured his heart. A clever engineer from Berne, also wrote impassioned and insistent love-letters.
“Tell them, Frau Hurter, that I have a husband in England,” said Letty with tremulous energy.
“A husband! and I thought Madame a widow.”
“No; but we shall never meet again. I was very, very unhappy, and I ran away with Cara.”
“Jesus Maria! and now I see why Madame has no correspondence—no English visitors.”
“Yes, Frau Hurter, and if more Suisse visitors and Suisse letters persecute me, I shall go to another place, and find accommodation in a convent, where Cara can learn, and I can work, unmolested.”
Naturally such a move was the last thing Frau Hurter desired. She loved money, and could not endure to part with a lodger, who gave no trouble, paid extravagantly, ‘as per agreement,’ and to the day.
“Madame does not wish to be found nor disturbed? I will see to that,” declared Frau Hurter, looking forbiddingly, grim, “and let people know that she is not as they suppose, a widow. Yet Madame is too young to lead the life of a nun—all work, no companions, no pleasure.”
“I only ask to be left alone. I am much happier here than in England. My husband was not kind to me.”
Frau Hurter’s thoughts turned to her own mate; the dark-eyed Italian mason, whom the cruel cold had put to death, and alas! she realised, that she too had been cold, to that warm-hearted child of the sun. Well, she was making up for her neglect by a double devotion to their boy.
And now at last behold an English visitor for Mrs. Glyn! After many delays, broken promises, and lengthy telegrams, Mrs. Hesketh came out to Switzerland and engaged rooms at the Hôtel de Paradis—just half a mile below Les Plans. She was welcomed at Lucerne Station by Letty and her daughter; the former, unexpectedly young and unchanged,—but a little behind the fashion as to hat and costume. Cara, a well-grown girl of ten, with bright pink cheeks, and eyes the colour of a turquoise, wearing a smart embroidered frock and sash, with an air of overwhelming self-consciousness.
They lunched at the ‘Schweizerhof,’ the guests of the traveller, and to the unconcealed delight of Cara,—who had never been inside the hotel till then. She stared at everything and everyone, with sharp, observant glances, and her godmother noted her appetite for piquante sauces, and the richest sweets; also that her blue eyes were hard, with a will and definite purpose, and cast sly quick glances on herself,—as if curious to know the effect she was producing.
Naturally with this little ‘pitcher’ present, there was no opportunity for any confidential talk between the grown-ups. Mrs. Hesketh discoursed of home, her journey, and other ordinary topics, and in the lounge after déjeuner, Cara stuck to the ladies like the proverbial leech, and was sublimely indifferent to her mother’s timid hint, that ‘she might care to look at the new illustrated papers.’ No, indeed, Cara preferred to listen to this interesting new arrival; her talk was a novelty, she liked to stare at her expensive travelling-dress, her splendid rings, and little jewelled watch. She had nice luggage too, and a maid, and must be rich. Mrs. Hesketh was her godmother, and it was the well-known duty, and the raison d’être of a godmother, to give expensive presents.
After the trip down the lake, Mrs. Hesketh received Letty in her charming sitting-room at the ‘Paradis,’ and said, as she closed the door:
“Now we can talk a little, my dear. But where is Cara?”
“She has gone out on the water with Fritz.”
“Do you mean that handsome lad who met us at the boat?”
“Yes. They are old playmates. Please tell me, what you think of Cara,” she asked eagerly.
“Her appearance, I suppose you mean? Cara does you credit, a fine girl, who will develop into a fine woman. She has your colouring, with her aunt’s physique.”
“Oh, no, no—how can you say so!”
“You have done your utmost; the child is well nourished, well dressed, well drilled, and has been given a good conceit of herself—anyone can see that she has walked on the sunny side of the road!”
“I have done my best, Cousin Maude.”
“That is evident; and now, my dear, I have a question to ask you.”
“Was it worth it? Come, Letty, give me a straight answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean running off with the child, forfeiting your income, your country, your friends—yes—and your lover—all to come out here, have Cara to yourself, and work hard for her support.”
She paused for a moment. Then, as Letty was preparing to answer, resumed:
“Is she your real treasure? Does she adore her mother? In short, Letty, is this girl your compensation?”
Here was a direct, startling, and unexpected question. For a moment Letty hesitated; as in a flash, memory brought to her, Cara’s tempers, her tyranny of Les Plans, her iron will, her secrecy—but oh, what cruel, cruel, disloyal thoughts! How could a mother harbour them? Looking up straight into her confessor’s eyes, she replied:
“I have no regrets, and I would do it again!”
“Ah—would you!” the tone was dubious. “Lately it has seemed to me, my dear, that your letters were terribly depressed—that is to say, reading between the lines.”
“Well, of course, sometimes one is lonely, and longs to do things, and to see people.”
“If you had only played your cards properly, Blagdon would have made the girl over to you—and with a respectable allowance. He did not know what to do with her; Lady Rashleigh couldn’t endure her, and his mother is too infirm to undertake a lively grandchild.”
“I don’t agree with you. If Hugo thought I wanted Cara, he would have kept her, for that very reason.”
“I hear he has gone in more than ever for racing, with Sir Tom as his guide, and has burnt his fingers rather badly. It is said he wishes to marry again, an heiress or a rich widow; meanwhile Connie Rashleigh lives with him most of the year.”
“And Mrs. Corbett?”
“No—as soon as she heard that her husband had made a huge fortune in the Argentine, she patched up a truce, and went out to spend it.”
“And the Dentons—how are they?”
“Much as usual—getting a little older and greyer, By the way, do you ever hear from Lancelot?”
“No,” colouring; “of course not—never.”
“He is rising rapidly in his profession——” She paused. No need to tell Letty that he was at present on leave in England. “Frances, as you know, is still Miss Lumley. How is it, that all the minxes get snapped up, and the treasures are left?”
To this question, her companion made no reply. Had not she herself, been, so to speak, ‘snapped up’?
Every day Mrs. Hesketh and her friend spent many hours in each other’s company; either Letty descended to the hotel, or Mrs. Hesketh climbed to Les Plans. Many an afternoon she sat out in the garden or the orchard, enjoying the view, and Frau Hurter’s incomparable coffee, and she rubbed up her rusty German in order to converse with this stern-looking, industrious widow, who owned and worked the prosperous farm; rising at daybreak to see to the poultry and milking, her knitting rarely out of her capable hands, and knitting furiously all the while she talked.—It was her boast, that never in her life had she bought a stocking or a sock! The new-comer could see, that in her downright phlegmatic fashion, Freda Hurter was fond of her English inmate, and very proud of her appearance—such a contrast to her own deeply lined, hard-featured visage! But how it changed, and brightened when she spoke of Fritz. Yes, he was a clever fellow, and was to be educated in Zurich; afterwards he would come home to the farm, and take some day a wife, and she—her work done—would sit in the sun, and read her Bible.
Letty conducted her visitor to all her favourite haunts, and walks, exhibited the Ku Stal, and ‘Mogli,’ her tame pet cow, who knew her so well—a famous dun giving, when in full milk, twenty-four litres a day. Mrs. Hesketh took stock of Les Plans and its surroundings, her quick eyes made notes of the Josts; brown and rugged as two old leafless trees, determination, avarice, and honesty, engraved upon their faces. Nor did she fail to observe handsome Fritz, with his dark, expressive eyes, and beaming Cara, his constant attendant; the girl was a born hoyden—could row, skate, climb, and yodel. No doubt healthy outdoor life was an excellent outlet for her overpowering spirits, and activity. She was evidently a favourite among the farm-folk, with the exception of Jost’s wife, and the dog Karo,—who slunk away when Cara approached, and growled if she teased him.
It seemed to the onlooker, that the girl was something of a tyrant, who accepted all favours as her unquestionable right. Her mother’s love, and devotion, the indulgence of her companions—over whom she governed as a despotic monarch. Whatever Mitli said or wished was law: for she ruled Fritz, who ruled his mother, who ruled Les Plans.
One afternoon her mother and godmother sat together under a shady plane tree on the hill-side, Karo extended at their feet, occasionally snapping at flies, or, laying his head in Letty’s lap, adoring her with his deep, soft eyes.
“So you say, that Cara wants to go to the Convent at Lucerne after next term?” said Mrs. Hesketh.
“Yes, with two or three of her friends. I hear it highly recommended. She would be a daily boarder.”
“And after the Convent—when the girl considers herself educated—what then?”
“I have not thought of that yet.”
“Then my dear, the sooner you begin to think of it the better; you cannot keep Cara on a Swiss farm all her days; she is not that type. Cara is for towns, and cities.”
“Oh, well, after all she is only ten,” protested her mother. “No need to worry about her future yet. Isn’t it a perfect afternoon, Cousin Maude?”
It was, indeed; there was magic in the air. Across the lake, the wooded slopes dipped into emerald and silver; high up beyond woods and crags, outlined against a blue, blue sky, was the snowy range; every ridge and peak bathed in delicate rose-colour—truly these were the mountains of Fairyland: close by the friends, an urgent stream sang on its way to the lake, and all around was green luxuriance, tinkling cow-bells, and the faint perfume of fruit, and flowers.
Mrs. Hesketh withdrew her gaze from the prospect, to fix them on her companion. Here was a face and figure in complete harmony with the exquisite scene; she studied Letty’s slender grace, her clouds of soft hair (darker than formerly), the perfect outlines of cheek and feature, and the long lashes sweeping the flawless skin. Truly a haunting picture! If the view was one to lure the hurried traveller,—here was a beauty to lure mankind.
“Yes, Cara is only ten,” began Mrs. Hesketh suddenly. “As for you, Letty, who are young—without youth.”
“What about me?” she asked with a smile. “I am getting on for three times ten!”
“You are, and you are wasting your life here—youth—beautiful youth—is passing, and why, oh, why don’t you value it? This I know is the cry of age and regret: I am an old woman, I am satisfied to sit still, and be a spectator; but you, who are twenty-eight, and have golden years awaiting you, oh, how can you endure this existence of passionless monotony?”
Amazed by such an unusual outburst, Letty replied:
“I have Cara, plenty of occupation, and no cares.”
“No cares!” echoed her companion, and she gave a shrill laugh. “Even at Les Plans, Care may put his head in at the door. Voyaging in smooth waters—has its risks. Another thing, it is not good for Cara to lead this wild, independent life; she ought to be at home associating with girls of her own class. Listen to me, Letty,” laying as she spoke an impressive hand on her knee, “I am a lonely woman; I am fond of you. Suppose you and your girl come over to England, and make your home with me?”
But in spite of a loving, eloquent, and insistent invitation Letty could not be induced to abandon Les Plans.
“I love you, and I am grateful, dearest Cousin Maude, my friend from the first; but here I am at home, and here I feel safe.”
“What is there to fear now?” demanded Mrs. Hesketh. “Blagdon will never trouble you; but should he do so, I will deal with him—leave him to me.”
“He would take Cara from me, and just at the critical age, when her character is forming.”
“Her character is formed,” rejoined the other, with conviction. As she spoke, her eyes were fixed upon a neighbouring apple tree, with Fritz among its shaking branches; immediately below, stood an expectant figure with an imperious voice, and outstretched skirts.
“I have a terrible presentiment,” continued Letty, “so keen, that it actually hurts me.”
“Bah,” scoffed Mrs. Hesketh, “I don’t believe in such things,—in absolutely nothing beyond the range of sense. Why go to meet trouble half way? What is your bug-a-boo?”
“That Hugo will find us yet—and take Cara from me.”
“My dear, I can assure you, that if Cara is taken—against her will—as I believe would be the case—she will make her father rue the day, and bitterly repent of his folly in sackcloth and ashes. For my part,” she went on courageously, “I wish to goodness, he would—steal her!”
“Oh, Cousin Maude!” cried Letty, turning to her a glowing face, “what a cruel, cruel thing to wish!”
“Possibly it was; but honestly I feel, as they say in Norfolk, ‘as if I’d like to do someone an injury,’ when I think of the years that your locust has eaten.”
This announcement, transfixing and incredible, had the effect of reducing Letty to absolute silence. Sometimes Cousin Maude had odd moods and made wild and extraordinary statements; on such occasions it was prudent to be mute.
Presently they rose, and wandered back to the farm, and were greeted by Cara, who came bounding to meet them, screaming at the top of her voice:
“Tea is ready, and I’m so hungry—there’s hot cakes and cherry jam!”
A few days later, Mrs. Hesketh ordered a sleeping-berth, and prepared to return to Thornby, where important law business awaited her.
“How I shall miss you,” said Letty, as they took their last walk together by the lake-side, and watched the lights begin to twinkle in far-away Lucerne. “It will be worse for me, than if you had never come.”
“Nonsense, my dear,” rejoined her friend; “it is only in story-books that people are missed. As for you,—you have the remedy in your own hands.”
But Letty’s determination was unshaken, and, as her companion angrily declared:
“You are always strong and obstinate, where you ought to be yielding; and yielding, where you should be firm.”
Mrs. Hesketh departed, and left behind her such an aching void, that more than once Letty, the obstinate, found her resolve sorely shaken, and felt half inclined to take all risks, and follow her friend to England.
One lovely September afternoon, when the Schiller touched at the pier at Mitzau, among the passengers who boarded her, were Cara, her mother, and Fritz. The boat was crowded with trippers and tourists, and when Letty had with difficulty arrived on the first-class upper deck, there was not a seat to be found. As she glanced about her vaguely, a tall, bronzed Englishman in grey tweed, got up and offered her his place. When she looked round to thank him and discovered no stranger’s face, but that of Lancelot Lumley, her amazement was such, that for a moment she felt dizzy; for his part, it was fully half a minute before Major Lumley realised, that this remarkably pretty girl in a summer gown and shady hat, was his lost love, Letty Blagdon!—Letty, who had befooled him, made him the prey of her indecision, and the laughing-stock of his acquaintance.
How often in camp and cantonment, had he sworn to himself to put her out of his head and his heart; he had even embarked on other love affairs; many ladies had smiled on Major Lumley, who was handsome, popular, and likely to have a distinguished career. But somehow his flirtations had never advanced; at the back of his mind, his heart, his vision, rose the figure of Letty. Now here she stood before him in real life, and as she looked up with her earnest Irish eyes, he knew that her hold upon him was stronger than ever. How young she seemed! like the sister of the tall girl, who had joined her.
“Letty!” he said at last; he had grown pale under his tan. “And—and”—holding out his hand—“I suppose—this must be Cara?”
Cara, agreeably conscious of her own appearance, was delighted to be accosted by this distinguished-looking Englishman. Her mother appeared to have no friends, except hateful Mrs. Hesketh—here, however, was another of a very different stamp!
At first it seemed to be he and Cara, who were so well acquainted, and carrying on a brisk conversation. Presently, she was summoned by Fritz to interview a monkey, and her mother and Lumley were alone.
“And so all these years you have hidden yourself in Switzerland,” he said, as together they moved to the side. “Frances would never divulge your address. What an amazing, miraculous, chance, this meeting. I just missed the earlier boat by one minute. I am not superstitious, but there is something uncannily significant in our coming across one another in this way.”
The couple, leaning over the bulwarks, indifferent to their surroundings, had much to say to one another as the Schiller forged along through water of a deep peacock blue, shaded in the distance to a silvered surface. By degrees, as Letty’s tongue became loosened, she gave her companion a rapid account of her life during the past seven years, and it was evident to her listener (though not to herself) that her existence had been one of entire self-sacrifice for the child. He on his part, talked of the death of his father, of Frances, of his brother officers, his work, and his prospects.
“I’ve just got a shove up,” he said, “and been posted to a good job. I’m on my way back from leave, and taking the Italian lakes en route, as I have a week to spare. I saw Mrs. Hesketh at home; she had lately come back from Switzerland. She never told me that she had seen you.”
“No, and when she was out here, she never told me that you were at home on leave.”
“I suppose she thinks silence is best—and that all is over.” Seeing Letty’s bare hand lying on the rail, he took it up, and said:
“I say, you don’t mean that you are still wearing that fellow’s ring!”
In another second, it was removed from her finger, the next, it glittered through the sunshine, and fell into the blue water, with a faint splash.
“Oh!” she stammered, “how dared you? how could you?”
“How could you, Letty?”
“Well, I shall have to replace it at once.—I wonder if Cara will miss it?”
“What harm if she does! Look here, Letty, I believe good fortune deliberately arranged this meeting, and now I intend to make hay whilst the sun shines. Will you marry me, and come with me to India?”
“Lancelot!” she exclaimed, raising a scared face to his. “You take my breath away. Are you crazy?”
“Never more absolutely sane, or sensible, in my life. We have lived down scandal, I hope and believe, and what is there now to stand between us? Blagdon is by all accounts consoled—I say no more—and you are free. Do you return to the farm by the next boat, make all arrangements, pack, and order what you require in the way of outfit in Lucerne. For my part, I shall look up the Consul, and the chaplain, wire for another passage, and as Mrs. Lumley, you will sail from Genoa this day week.”
“No, no!” she insisted, “don’t go on.”
“But I haven’t half done yet! You will like India; you were born out there, and have often heard the East a-calling. You know you have always wished to see it, and India will like you. After making a bad start at seventeen, you begin life over again at twenty-nine, and I declare to you, Letty, you don’t look a day older than twenty-four—you and Cara might be sisters. Now what do you say?” and his eyes held hers with an intentness remarkable in human gaze.
After a pause she faltered:
“And what about Cara?”
“Cara!” he echoed. “Why, you will leave her at home, to be sure. You have done your share for her nobly, and it’s time she went to school—she is a big girl for her age.”
“Oh, but I could not part with her. If I were to desert her, and send her to England, her father would claim her at once. Couldn’t we take her out with us?”
“I’m afraid,” and he hesitated, “that Burmah—where I shall be for the next year—would be terribly trying for a girl of her age—in fact, to make no bones about it, if we took Cara out, she would be running a serious risk.”
“Then that settles it,” said her mother, with decision. “Lancelot, I am very, very sorry, unspeakably sorry—but you must return alone.”
It was in vain, that Major Lumley, like Mrs. Hesketh, argued and urged; his eloquence was wasted.
“I would go with you with joy and thankfulness to the end of the earth—but my first duty is to Cara.”
Lumley glanced at the tall, well-grown girl, with her rosy cheeks, and quick, bold eyes; and it seemed to him, that she was already well advanced in the wiles of a coquette as she laughed at, and teased the handsome youth, her companion.
“After all, Letty, your girl is perfectly safe in England,” he urged. “Frances will find her a good school, and I shall pay for her education. I feel positively certain, that Blagdon will never trouble his head about her. He and his sister are mixed up with racing sets, and have no thoughts for anything else—and then, reflect—we are not old, you and I. We have known one another for years. Time is passing; here is the chance of our lives, and you want to throw it away. If we part now, we may never meet again.”
Letty made no audible reply. She shook her head sadly and hopelessly, and tears ran down her face and dripped on the side of the steamer.
Just at this unpropitious moment Cara rushed up, and unceremoniously thrusting herself between her mother, and her companion, said:
“Mummy, I want a franc to buy some fruit! Why, Mummy,” she exclaimed, “you are crying! How funny!”
“Do you think crying funny?” demanded Lumley, and his voice was sharp.
“Yes—for Mummy,” she answered, unabashed; “she never cries except at nights—when she thinks no one knows. I cry often.”
“You speak as if you enjoyed it,” he continued, giving Letty time to recover her composure. “What makes you cry?”
“If I want things and Mummy says no; but when I cry, she always gives in.” A pause, and staring steadily at him, she continued, “What a long talk you and the Mum have had—all the way from Gersau, to Tell’s Chapel—and we are close to Fluellen.”
Yes, so they were, and at Fluellen he joined the mail-train, which bore him south. It was the end of his journey; it was also the close of his brief dream of hope.
“Here,” he said to Cara, handing her a little bit of gold, “run and buy fruit, and don’t bother your mother.”
“Ah-ha!” she answered, with a knowing nod, her eyes bright with incipient coquetry, “want to get rid of me, don’t you? but thank you a million times all the same,” and kissing her hand, she ran off to join Fritz and exhibit her prize.
“You must give me your address,” said Major Lumley, turning to Letty, “and we will write to one another.” As he spoke, he produced a notebook. “I hope you will never repent of your answer; but I believe in my heart, that some day you will be sorry for yourself—yes, and for me. One word more: Cara will be a beauty—in a year or two—and rule you, and be in that respect, her father’s daughter. You are always a slave to someone; first it was your aunt, then Blagdon, now the girl—and I would give you freedom.”
For the moment Letty was unable to speak or control her trembling lips. The boat was alongside; already the passengers were crowding ashore and streaming towards the station. As the luggage was being carried away, she found her voice at last, and faltered:
“No doubt, once you are gone I’ll wish I had said yes, and if I said yes, I would be wishing I’d said no. You must think me obstinate, heartless, and weak; but I have never cared for anyone as much as for you—and never will. I’ve thought of you every day, during these long, lonely years—but I must put duty first.”
“That is to say, Cara,” he broke in angrily, “apparently you have no personality, no identity of your own. Well, Letty, let us hope that Cara will reward you. Here we are! I see the fellow has got me an empty carriage,” and he halted. “If ever you are in trouble—bad trouble—cable for me, and I’ll come back, and see you through. Now good-bye.” He wrung her hand, and without another glance climbed into the compartment. As the heavy St. Gothard express dragged itself out of the station, he never looked out of the window or waved a signal to the stricken figure on the platform. Lancelot had gone, he had departed in disappointment, and displeasure.
Meanwhile Cara (who had been occupied at a fruit stall, and subsequently sought a restaurant, there to indulge Fritz and herself with coffee and cakes) appeared to have totally forgotten her parent. On the return journey, Letty descended into the empty fore cabin—the emotion of the recent scene was still thrilling all her pulses—and there she wept unobserved, and unrestrained, the whole way back to their own particular landing-stage,—mercilessly tortured by the clamouring questions, had she done right? had she done wrong?
The problem was unsolved, when the steamer touched at Mitzau; it remained unanswered, for years.
Several summers had passed since that dramatic meeting on the Schiller, and these swiftly flying, monotonous years, had left their mark upon Les Plans and its belongings. One fine spring morning Mordi, the queen of cows, had been driven from the orchard by a strange man,—a butcher from Lucerne. In his company, Mordi took her first and last trip upon the familiar lake, and her comrades knew her no more. Karo, the farm’s brown and white guardian, had recently died, suddenly and mysteriously. He was found at his post, the entrance door, stiff and stark. Jan Jost was more bent and rheumatic than formerly; his wife more wrinkled and shrewish; but naturally the most remarkable change was to be seen in the two young people, Fritz and Mitli. Fritz at twenty-three was well educated, and well thought of,—especially by farmers with daughters, on account of his prospects; by the daughters, because of his celebrated prowess in sports, his handsome face, and lithe activity.
Since his course at Zurich was finished, Fritz had lived at home, helping somewhat fitfully to work Les Plans. His mother seemed a little grimmer and more taciturn,—indeed, her manner was occasionally forbidding,—always working—or always knitting, with unceasing fury, and always keeping her thoughts to herself;—these, were chiefly occupied by her son, and Mitli.
Mitli, in her seventeenth year, was tall and fully developed; she looked older than her age, and beyond a flawless complexion, ropes of yellow hair, and a pair of gay blue eyes, was not endowed with the usual attributes of ‘sweet seventeen.’ She took after the Blagdons in figure and character, and was of a determined, masterful, and restless disposition. Her intellectual faculties were dull; she evinced no taste for literature or reading, beyond the daily paper, Le Monde Amusant, and sundry and various French novels. As for her mother’s pursuits, needlework, music, and gardening, she hated them impartially; sewing tried her eyes, gardening gave her a backache, music was a bore. Tennis, dancing, skating were more to her taste. She rowed on the lake, and climbed the hills with Fritz, and accepted his love, his homage, and his gifts, with radiant complacency. Such was Cara!
Of late, she had spent most of the year in Lucerne, not merely in winter with her mother in the Weggisgasse, but in summer too. There was such difficulty about coming and going from Les Plans; the hours of the steamers, did not suit; the child’s education must not be neglected, and after considerable demur, and pressure, it had been arranged for Cara to board with the family of one of her friends, and attend the convent as an externe, returning home for week-ends, and all holidays. Her godmother had insisted on paying for her education, and her mother reluctantly submitted; for in spite of good prices for lace, the work was tedious, and Cara’s expenses for dress and amusement had become surprisingly heavy. She displayed an extravagant fancy for expensive hats and frocks and shoes,—and when she wanted money—an overpowering seductiveness, that her mother was totally unable to resist. Cara’s sweet kisses, caresses, and endearing epithets, were as balm to a heart that was starving for love, and she plied her needle bravely in order that the child should look nice, and—as a natural sequence—be happy.
The ‘child’ ran accounts in her mother’s name at Schweizer’s and other shops, and when the bills presented themselves in the shape of so many shocks, Cara would excuse herself by saying, in an airy way:
“Well, darling Mum, it’s all your own fault! Ever since I was a baby you have made a fuss about dressing me, and don’t I do you credit?”
She did; there was no denying the fact. In a beautifully cut embroidered linen, and a simple French hat, Cara might be remarked at Hurlingham or Ranelagh, but she was a little out of keeping with her background in a farm kitchen—where, being in a hurry to catch the boat, she gobbled her hasty déjeuner of rice and stewed veal.
Cara’s independence and air of breezy emancipation, had come by degrees, ever since she had gone to live with her friend Berthe Baer on the slopes of the Drei Linden. This change of abode and surroundings had given her an air of freedom and self-sufficiency, and she now ruled her mother with an absolute sway. Grown up, her own mistress, and on the threshold of life, she was resolved to make the best of her youth and have a really good time; since hers was a hard, shrewd, and absolutely pleasure-loving character. Cara was fond in a way of her pretty girlish Mum,—who was so often and so annoyingly mistaken for her sister—but the Mum was so tame, unenterprising, and easily contented; her books and work and walks, were all she asked for; but Cara, notwithstanding her sharp sight, was mistaken. Her mother was far from being contented. As she rambled alone, or sat at her lace cushion, her thoughts, though inarticulate, were many and rebellious; they spoke a plain language, and put many crucial questions to her heart, and brain. In her life of thirty-five years, she humbly confessed to many fatal errors. Her first mistake, was in marrying Hugo Blagdon—that was an act of sheer cowardice. The second, her muddled runaway; the third, in refusing Lancelot Lumley’s appeal made six years previously.
Cara, she now realised, was capable of standing alone, and successfully fighting her own battles. Her determination to live in Lucerne, had proved this most decisively; and now she and her girl were no longer so much to one another. Cara demanded a separate bedroom. “Two in a room was so stuffy,” and there were no nightly talks and confidences, and any hold she ever had on her child, was imperceptibly slipping away; the girl had her own friends, Luisa Maas, Hilda Vorgen, and the Baers, with whom she boarded.
She and Berthe were inseparable, and Berthe, a simple-minded, giggling, good-tempered girl of eighteen, could do her darling no harm. One question repeatedly thrust itself forward with irrepressible pertinacity:
“Had she brought Cara up wisely? Had she not been too indulgent?”
In the most serious contentions between them, she had frequently given way. Now Cara was full grown and talked as a woman—a woman with weighty authority. Where had she acquired her experience?—from books? Since Mrs. Hesketh’s visit, witnessing the nakedness of the land, she had kept Letty well supplied with literature, English papers, and various small matters, that made life more easy and refined. Each year she most solemnly pledged herself to pay a visit to Lucerne, and each year, the promised visit was postponed; but now an event had occurred that made her presence absolutely essential. The two young people at Les Plans had grown up under the same roof, and their mothers were secretly anxious respecting their future; Frau Hurter was particularly perturbed; gloomier, and more silent than ever; since she did not fail to note how slyly the beautiful Mitli played with, and fascinated her distracted boy. Oh, it was a cat-and-mouse affair! Fritz was crazy, he was under a witch’s spell, he could settle to nothing. If Mitli was in Lucerne, so was he; if she was at home, he hung about aimlessly, or took the girl on the lake. He had become unmanageable, idle, unfilial, ill-tempered. What would the end be,—and when?
Of late Mitli’s popularity had cooled. Jost’s wife openly hated her, and even Freda admitted that the ‘kindli’ never cared how much work she gave anyone.
One afternoon, as Frau Hurter stood in the doorway watching the young couple descending the well-beaten track, she suddenly made up her mind to speak; and walking over to where Frau Glyn sat in the shade absorbed in her lace pillow, she began:
“You see those two, meine Frau?” indicating the rapidly disappearing pair. “Your girl and my boy.”
Letty looked up, followed the direction of the speaker’s hand, and nodded and smiled—yet the air and expression of Frau Hurter was portentous.
“They have grown up together in thirteen years under the same roof—and now”—she paused, and added with a dramatic gesture—“one of them must go—and it cannot be my son.”
“Of course not,” agreed Letty, raising a bewildered face to the stern and iron-willed Frau. “But I don’t think I understand.”
“Have you then no eyes?” demanded the other in a voice vibrating with passion, “not even the mother’s eyes! My Fritz is madly—wickedly—in love with your Mitli!”
Letty gave a stifled exclamation, hastily put aside her work, and rose to her feet.
“Yes, he is; and more and more, and worse and worse every time he comes home,” continued his mother hoarsely; “and no wonder. Is there another such face in the Four Cantons? But they are not for one another—no, never!” and she stamped her heavy foot upon the gravel. “She does not care for him,” stooping to pick up an apple, “no, not this!” flinging it away with a vicious jerk. “She does not care for anyone. My tongue is quiet—but I use my eyes. As for Fritz, he shall marry one of his own country, a girl of his own class, strong, hard-working, with a fortune—such there are. His cousin Gertrud, in the Oberland, will suit me—and it has been arranged. Meanwhile Mitli, whom he sees daily, goes to his head like new beer, and the boy is as one drunken, and mad! and so, mein liebe Frau, after many years together, and I may say friendship, I must give you notice to leave.”
For a moment or two Letty made no answer. Her little world had been suddenly dissolved and was whirling about her. She looked across the garden, and its tall, white lilies and standard roses, to the familiar brown house, with green shutters, then up at her own open window—with its accustomed sponge,—her haven for so long.
At last she said:
“Very well, I see your point of view, and I am afraid Cara is inclined to be a flirt. The child likes to make herself pleasant to everyone.”
“No, not to everyone,” corrected the other bitterly.
“I am really very, very sorry if Fritz is attracted. I honestly believed it was just the old boy-and-girl liking.”
“Boy-and-girl liking, Jesu Maria! I’ve seen Fritz kiss her empty shoes, I’ve known him watch her window till dawn; these are the follies of his Italian blood. I hoped Zurich would end them, but he is worse. Ach ye! he is ten times worse! So now I send him to a relative near Adelboden for some time; there he will learn farming and good sense. When he returns——” She paused expressively.
“We shall have left, and to tell you the truth, Frau Hurter, this move has been in my mind; but I love Les Plans, and hate the idea of a change. I have lately come into a legacy which brings me in one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and as Cara believes herself grown up, it is time that we go to where she can mix with her own country-people. I am undecided where to live, or what to do. I have been rooted here for so long, that Les Plans seems like my home.”
“Dear lady, it would, and gladly, be your home for always—but for our two children. Young people, will be young!”
“Well, to-day I shall write to Mrs. Hesketh and ask her advice,” said Letty, collecting her work. “How soon must we move—in a week?”
“Oh, no; this is July—the end of September would suit. Fritz will be away helping with the harvest.” After a moment’s silence she added, “In my mind I’ve long had this to say to you, liebe Frau, and now, thanks be to God, it’s said,” and she turned about, and went slowly indoors.
Letty followed her and ascended to her room,—there to collect her ideas and make plans. She would be glad to go, and yet here was the old weakness—sorry. At Les Plans she had outward peace, occupation, her walks, her books, and her letters from Lancelot. These were mere pleasant epistles, such as a man would send to a woman-friend, aunt, or sister-in-law, yet how she treasured them. Accounts of balls and race meetings, she read them over and over again, jealously searching for a clue to some girl, the happy, happy, fortunate girl, who would one day, take her place.—Then she loved Switzerland and its beautiful scenery—with the affection of a native. Cara, on the contrary, hated the country and expressed herself to her mother with scornful vehemence.
“I loathe these blue skies, blue mountains, blue lake,” she announced. “They give me the blues! As for the wonderful view, you rave about, I’d sooner look at a picture postcard—much less fag!”
Letty presently sat down at her deal table, and wrote to Mrs. Hesketh.
“Do try and come at once, best of friends, for I want you urgently; and you know you promised to be here this month, sans faute. Frau Hurter has just given me notice to leave in September. Cara is now a young lady, and full of ideas and ambitions. I implore you to advise me, as to what will be best for her? where we are to live? and what we are to do?”
Meanwhile Cara and Fritz had gone upon the lake in a superior new boat—a recent purchase. As he rowed towards the Nasen, and she reclined luxuriously in the stern, he told her of his mother’s plans respecting himself and Gertrud, to which news Cara listened with loud, derisive laughter, and a beaming face. He also related how he was to lead a pastoral life on the farm of a patriarchal relative—in order to learn all the new methods.
“But when I come back in September you will be here, Mitli, won’t you?”
“Why, of course,” she answered impatiently. “Am I not always here?”
“And you will write often—often—as before? Swear it!”
“If I thought you would ever care for anyone else,”—and here the passion of jealousy flamed in his Italian eyes—“I’d kill myself—if I had the least doubt of you—I’d”—and he paused and leant on his oars, and stared at Cara fiercely—“I’d upset the boat, and drown us both, yes, in five minutes!”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Fritz! You know I am fond of you. As to the drowning—you forget that I can swim!”
“Not if you are out here in the middle,—and in your clothes—the water is too cold, and as to the depth, the lake is bottomless.”
“Don’t talk like this, it bores me!” said Cara,—secretly uneasy for all her sang-froid. She was aware that Fritz was capable of mad, rash actions, carried out on the impulse of the moment. To-day he looked strange, very strange! The veins on his forehead stood out like cord, and there was an odd light in his eyes.
“Come,” she continued authoritatively, “it is time we are getting back; the sun is slipping behind Pilatus. Keep out of this steamer’s wash, and row to the landing,” and without another word he obeyed.
As the two slowly mounted the hill hand in hand, half-way in the ascent, they halted on a little plateau where, under some ancient pine trees, there was a rough wooden bench,—a thoughtful provision not uncommon in a land of views. Here Fritz said:
“My mother is all eyes, like the dog in the fairy tale. She sees everything; but she will see me, my own master before long. In a week I go,—and the sooner I depart, the sooner I return to you, my Mitli, and for always,” and he snatched her into his arms, and kissed her passionately.
“Well, it pleased him, poor boy,” said Cara to herself; “he was certainly extraordinarily handsome, and what, after all, were a few kisses?”
“Mrs. Hesketh comes to-morrow,” her mother announced to Cara, as she folded up a letter. “I’m so glad, aren’t you?”
“Comme ca!” she rejoined with a shrug. “Moi je n’aime pas les antiquities!”
“Oh, Cara! and she has always been so kind, and generous to you.”
“And why not? I am her goddaughter, the child of her greatest friend. She has no one belonging to her, and heaps of money. If she is so rich and so fond of you, Mum, why does she let you board in a Swiss farm-house, with barely enough money to pay for pension, and work hard to make up the rest? She ought to have us to live with her!”
“She would gladly—she has often invited us, but I’ve refused. I cannot live on anyone, I must be independent.”
“Then you and I differ, Mum. I am ready to live on anyone who will give me a good time!”
“Dear child, you are only joking, but for goodness’ sake don’t say such things before Mrs. Hesketh. She might think you were serious.”
Mrs. Hesketh was visibly changed and aged; her hair was grey, her step languid, her eyes, however, still held their old fire.
The evening after her arrival, she and Letty sat in the window of her sitting-room at the Paradis, which overlooked the lake.
“I came at once, you see, my dear. If I had not roused myself, I’d never have done it. As soon as I’d read your letter I rang for Tomlin, told her to pack and wire for places, and behold, me!”
“You look completely done up and frightfully tired.”
“I’m always done up and tired now; the fact is, Letty, I’m an old woman.”
“Oh, don’t! You are not,” protested Letty with unusual warmth.
“Yes, I am; my heart and brain may feel young, but my body is aged. Age is a strange thing; it creeps after us for years, and we go marching on, imagining our youth or middle life will last. All at once, as in a night, age springs out and seizes you—you look at yourself in the glass, and it’s there,—or you hear it. And I can assure you it is a shock! Some years ago I was waiting to be served in a hairdresser’s, and I overheard a man say to another:
“‘You go—take the old lady first.’
“Until then I’d always thought myself merely middle-aged; but I looked in the glass as the man dressed my hair, and I said to myself, ‘He is right. You are an old lady.’ Once people used to stand up and give me their seats, because I was lovely; now, when they do this, it is merely because I am venerable,” and she sighed profoundly. “And you, Letty, have the gift of perpetual youth!”
“No, indeed; but I must say when I’m with you I feel almost a girl, and when with Cara, I’m an elderly woman.”
“You are close on thirty-five and yet you look seven-and-twenty—even in broad daylight. Your calm, healthful, uneventful life, has preserved your beauty. Such an existence would have driven me mad. One day my body would have been fished out of the lake.”
“No, they are never found; the lake is pitiless.”
“Oh, well, before we begin to discuss your plans and Cara—by the way, a handsome young woman!—let me tell you all my news. The Dentons are pretty much as usual, and send you kind messages. You know that Frances is going to be married? I motored over to Sharsley to lunch, and inspect the presents,—including yours, and afterwards we walked up to the Court. My dear, it’s like a dead place! Positively, I expected to see a hearse at the door. The shutters closed, the avenue grass-grown, not a soul to be met or seen. I believe some of the best pictures and furniture have been carted away, and sold. Old Scrope heirlooms,—and the Scropes are frantic. Hugo’s racing comes expensive. He and Tom Slater have a string of useless animals, who, by all accounts, eat up thousands and thousands.”
“And where does he live?”
“He has the same rooms in Newmarket, and the house in town. Connie Rashleigh is often there, though she still holds on to her own flat, as, of course, she never knows when, and by whom, she may be deposed! Cara inherits your colouring and teeth, but she has her aunt’s figure, and her aunt’s laugh—yes, and her father’s jaw.”
As Letty was about to protest:
“Yes, my dear, and her aunt’s air of buoyant confidence. There is nothing undecided about Cara, and I can grasp the fact, that she has her mother under her thumb! Alas, poor Letty, you have merely changed your yoke!”
“Oh, dear Cousin Maude, you surely cannot judge already!”
Mrs. Hesketh gave a quick nod; she had been in the company of mother and daughter for several hours, and had made copious notes.
“Do you think Cara is going to be a comfort to you? and a compensation for all you have relinquished for her sake?”
“Yes, of course I do,” replied Letty; but her colour had risen, and her eyes no longer rested on her companion, but on the moonlit lake, and a cargo-barge that went drowsily by.
“Ah, that is good news!” said Mrs. Hesketh, but her sardonic tone belied her speech. “And so you are about to shift your sky at last—but why?”
In faltering and apologetic terms, Letty related her interview with Frau Hurter, and the woman’s ultimatum.
“So Cara has been flirting, has she, and foolishly encouraging the good-looking Fritz?”
“Not exactly that; but, you see, they grew up together, and she is so gay, and unconventional, and pretty.”
“Ah, well, of course, you must go—but where?”
“I am sure I don’t know. What do you advise?”
“I advise England.”
“On two hundred pounds a year—impossible! And now Cara is grown up she must be well dressed.”
“So I see,” agreed Mrs. Hesketh, with significance. “That embroidered linen never cost a sou less than one hundred and fifty francs. Now, my advice is the same as ever, come and live at Oldcourt. I want your company badly; I’ve made a will, and left you every penny, so you really ought to do something for me! As for Cara, she shall go to a good finishing school in Brighton for the next twelve months. I will, of course, pay all her expenses. Seventeen is much too young for a girl to come out into the world. You know that, Letty, from your own experience—don’t you?”
“Yes, but Cara is different; she has decided views—no one could talk or coerce her into anything she did not wish to do.”
“And she would laugh in your face, if you suggested sending her to school.”
“Would she, indeed?”
“You see, she has been at school at Mitzau, and Lucerne, ever since she was eight.”
“And what has she learnt, besides the art of holding herself well, putting on her clothes, and offering her crude opinions?”
“She speaks French and German, she plays and sings moderately, dances beautifully, and has won several tennis, and swimming prizes.”
“And considers her education complete. I see. Well, we must take a little time, and talk things over; when I know more of Cara, I may be better able to help you to make up your mind. It is to give you this assistance, I’ve come all the way to Lucerne.” Then, speaking in another key, “Well, we shall meet to-morrow, and if you will fetch me, I’ll toil up to the farm, see how the land lies for myself, and have a look at Fritz. Now, as I am feeling extra old and tired, I must send you back to Les Plans,—for I am going to my dear bed.”
Mrs. Hesketh and her goddaughter had always been secretly antagonistic to one another, and as days went by, this feeling increased—especially on the side of the girl, who, from a reluctant parent, had extracted the fact that the meddling old woman suggested sending her for one year to an English school! Nevertheless she dissembled her sentiments,—for the old hag was rich and had it in her power to offer motor trips by land and water, and to give delightful déjeuners and dinners at the various fashionable hotels. Naturally all these pleasures were for the sake of the Mum—but she participated! At this season (early in July) Lucerne was already full, and Cara, erect, well dressed, and self-conscious, was sensible of being the admired of many eyes, as she accompanied her two chaperons. Occasionally she left them, and escaped to join her own friends, Colette Vadier, Freda Muller, and Berthe Baer, in picnics and teas. Her society was not missed, as her mother and godmother had many matters to discuss, that were not intended for her ears.
How and where the Glyns were to live? was a question seriously debated. Letty still figuratively clung to the Continent, and Mrs. Hesketh and Cara—for once in accord—were strongly in favour of a home in England. On this subject, the girl and her godmother, had some talks, and on one of these rare occasions, Cara posed as the poor exile, craving to see her native land, and to live like other young women of her age and nation.
“Dear godmother,” she said effusively, “how I wish you would use your influence with the Mum!” Then, leaning her elbows on her knees, locking her hands, and assuming a confidential attitude, she added, “To me, it always seems so strange that we have no English belongings, no letters except yours, and we have lived at Les Plans for thirteen years! It almost looks”—she spoke with bated breath, staring into her listener’s face with eyes as hard as two blue glass marbles—“as if—of course, only to you would I breathe it——”
“Well, breathe it!” urged Mrs. Hesketh impatiently.
“As if,” and Cara’s voice fell to an awed whisper, “Mummy had—done something!”
Her godmother examined the girl from under her beautifully marked brows, with a cold and critical scrutiny. Was it for this disloyal wretch, that poor Letty had sacrificed youth, and love, and country? Her face was rigid as she answered:
“Your mother has her own excellent reasons for living abroad. This life of labour and self-denial has been for your sake; for you, she has made great sacrifices. I hope you are grateful, Cara?”
“Oh, yes,” with a shrug; “cela va sans dire; but I’m her only child, and it’s her business to look after me. Of course, she can’t help being poor, or afford to give me a good time, but I’m sure we could struggle along somehow in London. I’ve heard that it’s the cheapest place in the world, and I am so deadly sick of that odious Les Plans, with its horrible smell of cows and cheese; when there is a hitch about supplies, we have sausages, and smoked meat, and nasty Swiss messes. And, oh, I’m so tired of looking out on the opposite shore of the lake, with its black woods, grey mountains, and skim-milk sky. Give me a good street!”
“But, after all, Cara, you are not much at home; latterly you have lived chiefly in Lucerne, and I know you have visited Berne, Zurich, Interlaken, and Lugano.”
“Yes—Switzerland—toujours Suisse! I am crazy to get out of this corner, and to see the world.”
“You cannot expect to see much of the world on two hundred a year, can you? and you should think of your mother.”
“Of course, but the Mum—well, she is no longer young, and she has had her day—now I want to have mine!”
So poor Letty’s attempts to satisfy the girl had been a failure; the influence of devotion, self-sacrifice, and example, was powerless against the giant Heredity.
In mid-July there was a grand fête in Lucerne, and Mrs. Hesketh invited Letty and her encumbrance to a concert at the Casino, dinner at the National, and subsequently to see the illuminations, and return home by motor-boat.
This programme was faithfully accomplished; at dinner in the restaurant of the hotel, Letty and her girl, were distinguished among a vast cosmopolitan crowd. When their coffee-cups had been emptied, Cara, in her most persuasive manner, asked leave to run away.
“I want,” she said, “to go up to the Drei Linden and sit with Berthe, who is ill in bed with an abscess in her face. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone; I’ve seen the fireworks, and the lighting up of the old bridge, a thousand times, so if I’m late, please don’t worry. I shall probably stay and try to cheer up poor old Berthe.”
“But, my dear Cara, should you be going about alone at this hour?” asked Mrs. Hesketh in a tone of alarm.
“What—in Lucerne! I should hope so. I know it from end to end, and I shall be perfectly safe, if that is why you are anxious.”
When Cara had resumed her hat and scarf, the two ladies walked with her to the entrance of the hotel, and watched her trip across the tram-line, and vanish by the corner of the English church.
“You see, the child has a kind heart,” said Letty, “and is ready to give up a gay evening, to go and sit with her sick friend.”
“Yes,” agreed Mrs. Hesketh; “I own I am——” she was about to say ‘surprised,’ but hastily substituted the word ‘impressed.’ “Now, we may as well go on the Quai, and see what is to be seen.”
As it happened there was a good deal to be seen, not merely the fiery outline of the bridge and towers, the lights on Pilatus and Stanserhorn, but numbers of lively little boats carrying Chinese lanterns; they looked like swarms of fire-flies. The Quai was almost impassable, so thronged was it with a gay, gaily dressed, chattering crowd; sightseers, townsfolk, and the contents of various hotels, were all enjoying the brilliant scene, and the delicious evening.
The two friends were interested and amused: time passed quickly, the Hof Kirche clock struck ten, and yet there was no sign of Cara. She had been gone considerably more than an hour,—an hour and a half.
“At what time did you order the motor-boat?” asked Letty, who began to be uneasy. As Mrs. Hesketh uttered the word ‘eleven’ a sudden flood of rose-coloured light illuminated the entire scene. For a moment, every object was visible with the clearest distinctness, the ruddy glow recalled a transformation spectacle. By its assistance, the ladies beheld, close at hand, a small skiff carrying a jaunty orange lantern, and in the boat were a young couple; a man, who was twanging a mandoline, whilst a laughing girl managed the oars with practised dexterity. All at once the man bent towards her—and then the light failed.
Letty gave an audible gasp.
“I—could I be mistaken?” She turned on her companion a face of horror.
“No, I’m afraid not. Four eyes are better than two—that was Cara rowing about with—Berthe Baer! From what I have gathered in the few days I’ve been at the Paradis, Cara has been throwing dust in your eyes for years.”
“Oh, Cousin Maude—you—you—talk to Tomlin!” cried Letty with indignation.
“No, my dear, but Frau Hurter has been talking to me. Her son’s raging jealousy aroused her suspicions, and she has kept her eyes open.”
“But Cara is only a foolish, wild, headstrong child!”
“Child no longer, Letty, but a young woman who is not to be trusted.”
“What am I to do?” faltered her friend helplessly.
“At present, nothing; you must take a leaf out of Cara’s book, and pretend we have not seen her—remember that.”
And in accordance with this advice, no remark was made when twenty minutes later, a breathless Cara scrambled into the motor-boat, full of voluble excuses and soft caresses for her sweet Mum. “Berthe had been so ill and miserable—she had not dared to leave her till she slept. She knew her darling Mum would forgive her, and she had run every step of the way down the Drei Linden, and nearly broken her neck!”
As the motor-boat squattered off from the stage, a figure stepped out from under the trees, waving a handkerchief, and a manly voice shouted a hearty “Auf wiedersehen!”
“What a funny man! Who is he shouting to? Were the illuminations good?” enquired the still breathless Cara with an air of innocent curiosity.
“Yes, I think so,” replied Mrs. Hesketh.
“And were there the usual little boats with lanterns?”
Here indeed was audacity!
“Oh, yes, the usual little boats.”
“I’ve not missed much—nothing strange or uncommon?”
“Oh, yes, there was,” began Mrs. Hesketh, speaking with rash significance; but a pressure from her friend’s hand restrained further explanation, and she muttered, “Of course, it was all a novelty to me.”
Had Cara not been so intensely absorbed in her own amusing reflections, she might have marvelled at the unusual silence of her two companions. Scarcely a word was exchanged, as the boat raced across the moon-flooded lake in the direction of their distant destination.
Two days before the fête, Mrs. Hesketh had made the unwelcome discovery, that Mrs. and Miss Plassy were again her fellow guests. Many years had elapsed since they met at the Californie, Cannes; but her memory was only too retentive. There was no forgetting the tall, faded woman with a stoop, and the agreeable, gushing daughter. From her shady seat in the grounds, she had witnessed their arrival; and as one after the other, the ladies descended from the hotel bus, she was sensible of a distinct, and disagreeable shock. Supposing the Plassys were to meet and recognise Letty?—Letty, so little changed!
Undoubtedly Mrs. Plassy was a conscientious student of the daily press; would she proclaim to all and sundry that here in seclusion and sheep’s clothing was the notorious divorcée, who had kidnapped her child? And if so, what then?
As regarded herself, she would infinitely prefer to ignore these birds of Passage and of Prey; but for her friend’s sake, it behoved her to walk warily, conceal their arrival from her, and at all hazards keep them in ignorance of Letty’s vicinity.
As might be expected, Mrs. Plassy’s first duty on arriving at an hotel, was to scrutinise the list of guests. As her eye travelled over an open page in the Visitors’ Book of the Paradis, her attention was arrested by the name of ‘Hesketh.’ ‘Mrs. Carlton Hesketh and maid. England.’ Yes, it must be the same; a hateful, supercilious woman, whom it had been impossible to placate; a woman who declined to approach when a vacant seat near Mrs. Plassy was patted invitingly, and when endowed with a card, and address, made no appropriate return. Such a creature was altogether insupportable, and she decided to ignore her existence. However, this amiable intention was frustrated by Mrs. Hesketh coming up to her in the lounge, and claiming her acquaintance. She was actually quite gracious and friendly, and made flattering enquiries respecting her health, and her plans. (It was good news to the hypocritical widow, that the Plassys were moving on to Lucerne in a day or two; they were merely stopping at the Paradis awaiting the arrival of a friend.)
Thirteen years had passed over the heads of this roving couple, and had treated them with callous cruelty. Time had not brought a suitor to the feet of Miss Lydia, and on the other hand he had robbed her of her lively spirits, and a certain amount of colour and hair. Lydia was a discontented, embittered woman who had missed her way in life, and was nearing the lamentable frontier of forty. She had a good figure, an acid tongue (but could make herself agreeable), and a positive genius for dress. Lydia and her mother were sincerely devoted to one another. Proud, poor, ambitious, they contrived to make a brave show on an income that would seem incredibly small in proportion to their pretensions, and manner of living. Their appearance and dress were ultra-fashionable, they proclaimed to envious listeners, that they had discovered a secret treasure of a ‘little’ dressmaker—but the truth was, their smart gowns were second, and even third hand—and as a rule, their choice of hotels and acquaintances were fastidious and select. Lydia announced that they were obliged to live abroad on account of her mother’s health; whilst the supposed invalid exerted her failing strength in order to get her dear girl settled. She frequented Alpine resorts, famous for winter sports, popular cures, or the Riviera, and, in short, any hunting-ground favoured by the eligible British bachelor.
In order to effect these costly adventures, the Plassys were at times obliged to exercise the most rigid economies. They haunted cheap pensions, where they shared a room for eight francs a day—food and light, tout compris. Here they made their own tea with an Etna, here they washed their handkerchiefs and stockings, here they wore out their old clothes, and, so to speak, girded themselves for their next encounter with Fortune.
The ladies had come to the too-expensive Paradis, in pursuit of a very distant connection, a valetudinarian old bachelor of enormous wealth and many whims and fancies—in the hope, that Lydia might prove to be one of them!
The afternoon succeeding the fête, Letty, unaware of any lurking pitfalls, descended to the Paradis, accompanied by Cara, and Mrs. Hesketh, with a tremor in her heart, invited them to tea in a retired summer-house in the grounds. Here they would be safe. As she sipped weak tea, she noticed Letty’s haggard white face, testifying to a sleepless night, the girl’s feverish restlessness, and roving, dissatisfied eyes. It had long been planned that Tomlin was to have ‘an afternoon in Lucerne,’ accompanied by Cara as companion and courier, since the British maid could not speak a word of any language but her own. They were to visit the panoramas, the museum, and the shops, and details of the expedition were being finally discussed, when Mrs. Plassy and her daughter strolled by arm in arm. For a moment Mrs. Hesketh’s heart stood still, then throbbed on—the danger had passed! No—by bad luck Cara gave one of her loud, somewhat foolish laughs—her mother had spilt her tea.
Mrs. Plassy deliberately halted, turned about, and approached.
“Oh, dear Mrs. Hesketh,” she exclaimed, with lifted hands, “how charming you all look! How much pleasanter to have tea out of doors.” Then, glancing at Letty, she paused, and in a different key added, “I think I have met—Mrs.—er—Mrs.——”
“Glyn,” added Mrs. Hesketh precipitately.
“Oh, yes,” with a slight bow, and steadily regarding her she added, with deadly significance:
Then, turning to her daughter, “Lyddy, you have met Mrs. Glyn at Cannes.”
Lyddy smiled and stared—her expression implied that she, too, knew all.
“And this young lady?” she asked, turning to Cara.
“My daughter,” replied Letty in a faint voice.
“Are you staying here, Mrs. Glyn?” enquired Mrs. Plassy, and her tone was frigid and judicial. “I did not see your name in the hotel list.”
“Oh, no,” broke in Cara, attracted by these fashionable strangers, “we live in a farm up the hill, called Les Plans.”
“How absolutely delightful!” murmured Miss Plassy. “It must be so healthy—and so secluded,” and she threw Letty a significant glance.
“No, it’s horrid!” declared Cara rebelliously.
“Won’t you sit down, and have some tea?” urged Mrs. Hesketh (who appreciated the crisis at its full value). “There is plenty of room, and I’ll send for more cups.”
“I’ve finished,” announced Cara, rising as she spoke and offering her seat to Mrs. Plassy, who sank into it with an air of satisfaction, saying to herself as she drew off her gloves, “This will save me three francs!”
“I don’t want any tea, thank you,” said Lydia Plassy, “so Miss Glyn and I will stroll about, and make one another’s acquaintance.”
“Yes, a capital idea!” assented her parent. “Do you two girls go off and amuse one another, and we old people will talk of old times.”
Thus dismissed, the girl of seventeen and the girl of thirty-seven, walked away laughing and chattering. Their dress was almost identical—white gowns, large hats wreathed with flowers; the sole difference being that Cara wore roses, and her companion a wreath of daisies.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Hesketh and her friend proved poor enough company for a guest who was filled with a burning curiosity,—and they with a sense of icy terror.
Mrs. Plassy knew everything; was her daughter in the secret? If so, would she tell Cara?
The bare idea caused Letty to feel faint! the child had always been led to suppose that her father was dead; this fact, never actually stated, was nevertheless implied. She followed the two white figures with straining eyes, and a wildly beating heart, whilst her friend and Mrs. Plassy discoursed of hotels, and society. The latter lady pointedly excluded Mrs. Glyn from the conversation; her attitude was rigid, her glance expressed hostility, and disdain.
The miserable culprit realised, that she was meeting the eyes of a world, who was still crying shame upon her, and measured the amount of condemnation that awaited her in circles where her story was known. Of late years this fact had slumbered.—At last the tension and situation became unendurable, and with a murmured excuse she rose, and moved away in search of the two girls.
“How young she looks!” exclaimed Mrs. Plassy. Then, in reply to a glance, “I mean Mrs. Blagdon.”
“Hush!” with a horrified gesture; “I’ve not heard that name for years.”
“I suppose,” resumed the other, and her manner was aggressive, “she has buried herself at the farm, on account of the child?”
Mrs. Hesketh nodded.
“Does the girl know?” she asked abruptly.
“Ah; when she finds out that she is the only child of a very rich man, I don’t think I should care to be in her mother’s shoes!”
“Don’t you?” retorted Mrs. Hesketh. “Her mother has forfeited her income, her country, her friends, and devoted her life to her—is that to count for nothing?”
“I’m afraid that young people are shockingly selfish and ungrateful—especially when they are the objects of schemes for their good,” replied Mrs. Plassy, who was thoroughly enjoying herself, and determined that this detestable enemy should be remorselessly tortured. “She looks to me like a girl who had expensive tastes, and would appreciate luxury!”
“You don’t know Hugo Blagdon,” declared Mrs. Hesketh, with a note of passion in her voice, “nor the bringing up that he would have given his daughter!”
“Yes, by all accounts he is a viveur! and he looks dissipated. I’ve seen him at Monte Carlo. Yet, after all, the girl is legally his; he is her father.” A sharpness came into her speech, as she added, “Who would believe that that quiet young woman, had it in her to run off, first with an officer, and then with her own child? Still waters run deep!”
So this was how people talked of her friend!
Mrs. Hesketh’s temper was simmering to boiling-point; she began to realise that her adversary had set her heavy heel upon her neck, and intended to keep it there.
“I must say that it has been a great thing for Mrs. Blagdon—I mean Glyn—to have had your support,” continued Mrs. Plassy condescendingly.
“She is my friend—the best, most unselfish, and pure-minded woman, I have ever known.”
“Yes, yes—how splendid of you to say so! I daresay Mrs. Glyn was not quite as much to blame as people made out.” (But in Mrs. Plassy’s tone there lurked a reservation.) “And you, dear lady, are so unusually broad-minded—I have always maintained this.”
Mrs. Hesketh swallowed her fury, and steadied her voice, resolved to come to an understanding with this odious woman at all costs.
“Cara knows nothing of the past as yet, and it is her mother’s wish and mine, that she remains in ignorance of it—for the present.”
“Your wishes are natural. If her mother’s story leaked out here, it would be so awkward for the poor girl; and no doubt the farm people might make difficulties. I suppose, according to our English law, Mrs.—Glyn—is still liable to criminal prosecution?”
“There is no fear of that,” replied Mrs. Hesketh, speaking with sharp irritation; “no effort was made to recover Cara. Her father was thankful to be rid of her.”
“She is a fine-looking young woman, on a rather large scale. I daresay as she grows older, she will become like her aunt—too fleshy!”
“May be so; at present, the important matter is, that she should not hear that she has an aunt—or a father.”
The two women gazed at one another in silence. Then Mrs. Hesketh, mentally shuddering, prostrated herself in the dust. “Mrs. Plassy, you are the only acquaintance who knows our secret, and if you will keep it—I shall look upon it as the greatest personal favour.”
“Of course you may rely upon us, dear Mrs. Hesketh,” replied the other coldly. “Not a breath shall the child hear; as a matter of fact, we are leaving early to-morrow for Lucerne. Our cousin finds the hotel too near the lake, and insists on our accompanying him.”
“Your promise is extremely kind,” said Mrs. Hesketh, “for we do not wish to disturb the present position until matters are settled in England. And if I, in any way, can do you a good turn, you have only to name it—now or later; you will find that I can show,” here she looked into her opponent’s faded eyes with peculiar significance, “substantial gratitude for a friendly silence.”
In that exchange of glances, how much had been said and answered! Mrs. Plassy, a faithful interpreter, felt a warm glow of satisfaction. That expressive gaze conveyed a promise to pay, and an I.O.U. of considerable value—it implied, and was good for, introductions, entertainments, prestige, and—loans.
“I am sure I shall be glad of any kindness,” she murmured with lowered eyelids; “and you have so much in your power.”
“At any rate, you may reckon on me,” declared Mrs. Hesketh, rising from her chair. “I have a number of letters that I really must write for this post,—and I am sure you will excuse me?”
“Of course, of course—with pleasure.” Which was not precisely the right rejoinder. Then Mrs. Hesketh walked away across the grass, carrying her still slender figure with unusual dignity, though her hands were shaking, and her face was chalk-white. She felt utterly shattered, prostrated, and disgraced, by the recent humiliating interview.
Two days later Cara and Tomlin proceeded to Lucerne for the promised outing. They accomplished a good deal of shopping and sight-seeing, and Tomlin proved wildly extravagant with respect to chocolate, picture postcards, and cheap brooches; but at the end of two hours, the girl’s patience was threadbare; she was bored to death. She hated interpreting, bargaining, and standing before shop-windows,—the contents of which she knew by heart,—and hailed with joy the approach of Lydia Plassy, who halted, and accosted her.
“What are you doing in Lucerne?”
“Nothing; we have been shopping, and looking at panoramas, and the old bridge, and the museum.”
“How very exciting!” She glanced at Tomlin, who stood transfixed before some exquisite embroideries. “It is getting on for four. Do come along and have tea with me at Huguenin’s? She,” nodding at the maid, “can easily amuse herself, and meet you at the boat.”
“I should love it,” said Cara eagerly, then added in French, “She’s my policeman—and I’ll only be too thankful to be rid of her. She’s just an old spy.”
Miss Plassy graciously explained the situation to Tomlin—who recognising the lady as an hotel acquaintance of her mistress, agreed; by no means reluctant, to have an hour to spend as she pleased, and to be left to enjoy the shop-windows to her heart’s content.
Her mother had told Lydia,—from whom she had no secrets,—of her conversation with Mrs. Hesketh, and the promise and understanding which now existed between them.
“Hateful old woman, so disgustingly stuck up! Have you forgotten her airs and snubs at Cannes?” said Lydia spitefully. “Now she wants something badly she is as sweet as honey—bah! such people make me ill. She asks you a great favour—yes—but what can she do for us?”
“My dear,” replied her mother, with impressive solemnity, “you know very well, that she has it in her power, to be a very helpful friend.”
But it was not merely the snubs that still rankled in Lydia’s mind—she was accustomed to these; it was the never-forgotten fact, that a charming young man, who was her devoted adherent, had been drawn from his allegiance by the arrival of the mysterious beauty, Mrs. Hesketh’s companion; and though the beauty never vouchsafed him a crumb of encouragement, the capricious swain had failed to return to Lydia’s lure; Mrs. Glyn had unintentionally cost Miss Plassy her lover.
“I’ve made no promises,” said this lady to herself, “and if I get a chance, I shall pay them both out—Mrs. Nose-in-the-Air, and the divorcée.”
Now here was the ‘chance’ looking so beaming and pleased with herself, as she tripped beside her hostess, along the Liongasse; and with this girl as the instrument, Miss Plassy felt certain she could inflict satisfactory punishment upon her mother. How she talked! chattering all the time, and bubbling over with the joie de vivre.
“Yes, thank you,” said Cara, as they seated themselves, “a Pêche Melba—I adore ices!” She removed her gloves, and settled her hat with swift instinctive touches; and presently the two were exchanging confidences as they sat vis-à-vis across the marble-topped table, awaiting their order.
“We are going on to St. Moritz next week,” announced Miss Plassy.
“Are you? How I envy you! We never go on.”
“No? But why not?”
“Because we are so poor.”
“We are poor too—church mice aren’t in it!”
“But not like us; we have not enough money to travel, or to live in England.”
“Come, come, my dear girl,” protested Lyddy, suddenly planting her elbows on the table, and staring into her face, “don’t be a little ostrich! Surely you know—ah, here come our Pêche Melbas at last!”
“About what?” enquired Cara, plunging in her ready spoon.
“About your mother, my dear.”
“My mother! What about her?” The girl’s face was expressive of profound indifference.
“Can’t you guess? Well, look here, promise me you won’t ever give me away?”
“All right,” agreed Cara with a nod. “I can keep a secret—I know lots!”
“Tell me, have you never wondered, why you live out here?”
“Yes, but I’ve told you the reason.—We are so disgustingly poor.”
“Not really poor; your father is enormously rich, actually rolling in money.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about!” protested Cara querulously. “You are thinking of other people—my father is dead,” and she took another spoonful of ice.
“Well, yes, in a way. He is dead to your mother.”
Cara gazed at the speaker blankly, her eyes became round, the pupils looked like two small spots.
“Listen to me,” and as Miss Plassy leant across the table, spoon in hand, her voice was emphatic, and her manner forcible. “You must know some time, and I may as well tell you—they never will!”
“Tell me what?”
“Why, about your father and mother,” a pause, followed by a dramatic whisper, “he divorced her.”
“Miss Plassy, how dare you!” Cara’s face was crimson. “I don’t believe you,” she added hysterically.
“Oh, very well, please yourself, my dear,” she replied with a mixture of malice and gaiety. “The case was in all the papers, fourteen years ago. People in England knew all about it,—and my mother remembers it perfectly.”
Cara suddenly pushed away her plate, she was trembling violently, her lips quivered. Was she going to cry?
“I’m so sorry you are upset,” continued the informer; “but to open your eyes is the truest kindness. I can’t imagine how they have kept it from you, all these years.”
“Kept what from me?” demanded the girl in a choking voice. “I can’t think why you are telling me these awful things. I believe you are inventing them.”
“Your father’s name is Blagdon—so is yours,” announced Miss Plassy with bland composure. “Hugo Blagdon of Sharsley Court, a magnificent place in Yorkshire. He is enormously rich; they say he has forty thousand a year—pounds—not francs!”
“And you are his only child, and heiress.”
Cara’s amazement was such, that she was unable to utter a word, but her face worked convulsively. At last she stammered:
“This is a joke!”
“Not at all; I only wish it were my joke! When you were about three years old, your mother ran away with a good-looking officer, I forget his name; he did not marry her, and went to India. Afterwards, she and Mrs. Hesketh travelled about together, and we met them at Cannes. Later on, we saw in the papers that your mother had kidnapped you, from your nurse, and disappeared,—and here you are! What a funny chance coming across you at the Paradis!”
“So that’s the story—and it’s all true?”
Cara’s eyes glittered with excitement, her soft pink cheeks, were paler than usual.
“True as gospel,” replied her companion emphatically; “as true as I am sitting here. If your father knew of your whereabouts, he would certainly claim you, and give you a ripping time. You might ask me to stay?” she added playfully. “You would have motors, balls, racing, a town house, a country house. I only wish I had a chance of standing in your shoes!”
“I declare you have made me feel quite giddy,” and Cara put her hand to her head; “but I understand a lot of things—now.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.—You look pretty wide-awake.”
“I see why we have no English friends, except Mrs. Hesketh—whom I hate, and who never ceases asking bothering questions, and making nasty speeches, and tells me, that I can never repay the Mum for all she has done for me.”
“Done you out of, she means!” briskly corrected Miss Plassy.
“And I remember a man we met ages ago on the Fluellen boat; awfully good-looking; he and mother seemed so amazed to see one another. He was going to India, and they had such a talk. After he left, the Mum cried a lot. I think his name was Lumley.”
“That’s the man she ran away with!” declared Miss Plassy triumphantly.
“And now after hearing all this, I’ve got to go home to the Mum and face her! I don’t see how I can ever forgive her; she has spoiled my life. Oh,” and her voice was broken with emotion, “when I think of all I have missed, since I was a kid, it’s too, too, awful!” and large tears welled from Cara’s hard blue eyes.
“It will all come right some day,” said the other soothingly. “Why, you are only seventeen, and not even out yet. Your mother just wanted you all to herself, you see. Do finish your ice.”
Cara felt that under the circumstances, it would be more dignified to leave the ice untouched,—but it was characteristic of her, that she gobbled down the remainder of the Pêche Melba, and left an empty plate.
“Of course, I know that I may rely on you to keep what you have heard to yourself?” continued her companion,—Miss Plassy had thoroughly enjoyed this interview;—a most pernicious satisfaction! but were the details to reach the ear of Mrs. Hesketh, the result might prove unpleasant, and a hinted-at reward be inflexibly withheld.
“Yes, you may be sure I shall hold my tongue and lie low for the present. It was awfully kind of you to tell me, and if—if—what you say ever comes true, you must stay with me and have a ripping time.”
“All right, I’ll remind you!” responded Lydia gaily.—(How delightful to kill two birds with one stone, and receive grateful acknowledgments from two quarters.) “There’s five o’clock striking now,” she added, rising as she spoke; “if you want to catch the boat, you must run for your life; here is your parasol—here are your gloves—fly!”
It was at a late hour for Les Plans, when Letty, seeing a light, timidly pushed open the kitchen door, and beheld Frau Hurter bending over the table, iron in hand, and oh, happy opportunity, alone! She was nervously anxious to have a little private talk about Cara—but how to begin?
“I wonder if you would mind pressing this?” she enquired, exhibiting a strip of delicate embroidery. “See, it is finished at last.”
“Yes,” assented Frau Hurter, straightening herself, taking it from her, and examining it carefully. “Beautiful work,—and should fetch a good price.”
(‘A good price’ was her ne plus ultra of attainment.)
“It is for a blouse for Mitli.”
“Ah—true—everything is for Mitli.”
“I’m afraid she is out of favour with you?” ventured her mother timidly.
“Ach ye! She is indeed changed. It is another Mitli, Mein Frau. I have eyes and ears, and I hear tales—half of them I do not believe—for I still love the kindli—I cannot help myself.”
“What have you heard? I implore you to tell me. Who has been talking?”
“Elizabeth Baer for one. I met her a few days ago at market, and she came over and spoke, and said that Mitli is a Wustus Madel, and had a bad influence on her girl Berthe—she had forbidden her the house!”
“No!” ejaculated Letty in a tone of angry astonishment. “Impossible!”
“Yes; Mitli puts ideas into Berthe’s head, ideas about money, dress, and young men, and she makes the girl her tool, and has, Jesus Maria! corrupted her mind.”
“My child corrupt anyone! How dared she say such things!”
“At least she makes trouble,—and now she no longer is received—no, not these two months.”
“Oh, surely you must be mistaken,” but the remonstrance was half-hearted; “she was there last week.”
“No doubt Mitli pretends she still goes to Les Lilacs—it has its conveniences.”
“But if not at the Baers,—where is she?”
“Ah,” putting down the iron, and lifting her hard brown hands, “it is not for me to say; but this I know; she deceives us. Many an hour when the girl is supposed to be at classes, or with her school mates, Mitli is elsewhere. She has been given too much love, and liberty, and too much trust.”
And with this pronouncement, Frau Hurter turned to the stove to fetch another iron.
Cara’s mother ascended to her room, filled with anxiety and far-reaching fears. As she stood at the open window, looking out on the lake and the stars, inhaling air honey-sweet, with the breath of flowers,—a singular desolation, a sense of homelessness, and loneliness, came upon her. Something had overtaken her, from which there was no escape; something had died in her heart—the belief in Cara’s truth, and innocence. She opened the communicating door very gently, and peeped into the next room. Cara was asleep, with a candle guttering beside the bed. An open book lay on the floor. Letty picked it up and glanced at the title. Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant. Then she blew out the light, returned to her own room, undressed, and went to bed, where she lay awake for hours; blaming herself for blunders and failures, making good resolutions, now and then bursting into stifled sobs, till the sparrows in the pear tree began to twitter, and an exquisite new day came stealing down the mountains. Now that she had an assured income of two hundred a year, Letty had ceased to work incessantly for daily bread, and had spare time, to spend with her girl, to share her walks, and excursions, and amusements; but her proffered companionship appeared to be unwelcome. When she suggested a row on the lake, a tea picnic, a steamer trip, she was generally assured that such outings were impossible, Cara’s engagements were so numerous; she was playing tennis with the Maas girls, or spending the day at Engelberg with her drawing-mistress, or going to the swimming baths with their friends of the Weggisgasse, and much-sought-for Mitli seemed to have no desire and no leisure, for the society of her mother.
During the last fortnight, a sudden and strange change had come over the girl; looking back, Letty dated it from the day of the fête, or a little later. She had become silent, moody, and almost morose—as if she cherished a mortal grievance and was offended with everyone; and sometimes when she looked up her mother found Cara’s eyes fixed upon her with a sullen, almost hostile expression. What did it mean? Cara no longer cared to visit the Paradis, to tea or déjeuner—once hailed as a welcome treat. She shut herself up in her room, writing letters, and every morning walked down to Mitzau to the post office,—instead of awaiting the leisurely arrival of the facteur.
She was restless, irritable, strange; undoubtedly her condition had something to do with her correspondence, and her mother, acting upon her newly formed resolutions, made bold enquiries.
One afternoon as they were walking down the hill together, she screwed up her courage and said:
“Who is it you are writing to so constantly, Cara?”
“No one in particular,” answered the girl, with a toss of her head.
“But what a waste of time and energy!” Again she braced herself, determined to exercise an authority too long relaxed.
“I think, dear, that I ought to know who is your correspondent.”
“Why, Mum,” and Cara came to a standstill, “this is something quite new! You’ve never asked such a thing before.”
“But I believe I should have done so, Cara. Better late than never. I’m afraid, dear child, that I have been hitherto too slack, too busy with my work, to take a proper interest in your affairs.”
“This is too funny!” cried Cara angrily; “that old Hesketh spy, has put you up to this.”
“No—and that is no way to speak of her,” reproved Letty with surprising spirit; “and now I must insist on knowing who it is, that you have been writing to to-day?”
“Oh, then, since you insist,” said Cara, putting her hand in the pocket of her coat, “here is my correspondence,” and she exhibited a letter addressed to, ‘Peter Robinson, Regent Street, London, W.’
“A man certainly, but a stranger to me.”
(There was another letter remaining in her pocket, and this was inscribed to, ‘Hugo Blagdon, Esq., Sharsley Court, Yorks.’)
Letty, as she received Peter Robinson’s letter, felt a little abashed. Could all the other suspicions have the same ending? Oh, could they?—if so what a heavy load would be lifted from her mind!
“Yes, I see,” she assented, “you are sending for patterns; but surely you are not continually writing to shops?”
“Why not? You know best, why I have no English correspondence. The July sales are on, and one gets things for half of nothing, trimmings, stockings, gloves, scarves. Tomlin gave me the tip.”
“Oh, did she?” murmured Letty, not a little daunted by Cara’s manner; then she resumed with an effort, “Cara, my dear, why will you not be more open with me, and confide in me, and tell me things? No one in the world, takes as much interest in you, or is as anxious for your happiness, as I am.”
The girl glanced slyly at the pretty, incredibly young-looking woman who was her mother; with her clear complexion, abundant hair, and slim figure, she might almost be a contemporary of her own!
“What sort of things?”
“Just the sort of things you tell your girl friends.” Cara broke out into an irrepressible shout of laughter,—laughter, in which there sounded a note of mockery or derision,—and Letty, with a heightened colour, added:
“Frau Hurter has informed me, that you no longer go to the Baers—is this the case?”
“Yes, I’ve had a terrific row with Berthe and her mother—horrible, bourgeois brutes!”
“But you used to be so fond of Berthe—you’ve known one another nearly all your lives.”
“I never knew her, or found her out, until lately. I’ll tell you all about it another time. Here is the Paradis. I’m not going in. Give my hate to Mrs. Hesketh. Oh, well, darling Mum, don’t look so shocked,” patting her lightly on the arm; “you know, I never mean the quarter of what I say, and you also know, that she can’t endure the sight of me!” Then Miss Glyn embraced her mother, and turned quickly about to walk to Mitzau, and post her letter.
Mrs. Hesketh, who was awaiting her friend in the lounge, looked unusually solemn as she asked, “What have you done with the girl?”
“She has gone to the post. I think, dear Cousin Maude, she has a sort of instinct that you don’t care for her.”
“Let us have tea at once,” said her friend, brusquely ignoring the question; “afterwards, we will go up to my room and hold a meeting.”
As the tea proceeded, Letty was conscious that there was thunder in the atmosphere; the symptoms were as clear as when a storm was collecting in the neighbouring mountains, and rugged old Pilatus arrayed himself as a preliminary, in a series of scarf-like clouds. Although Mrs. Hesketh talked spasmodically of home news, and exchanged civil greetings with acquaintances, her manner was abstracted. Undoubtedly some subject lay heavily on her mind, and Letty hurried over her tea, declining a second cup, and said:
“Do let us go upstairs, I cannot bear suspense—anything is better than that.”
“So, then, you guess?” said her friend, leading the way to the sitting-room, and drawing forward two chairs on her balcony.
“I cannot guess what you may have to say,—only that I’m sure it is something to do with the child.”
“It has. Hitherto, excepting that night at the fête—and we might have been mistaken—we have had nothing to support suspicion, beyond Frau Hurter’s natural animosity towards a girl who has bewitched her son.”
“Yes,” agreed Letty breathlessly.
“And now, I have got hold of facts.”
“By the means of unintentional eavesdropping in this very verandah.”
“Yes, you know how sounds ascend. I was sitting up here last night alone, enjoying the glorious view, and moonlight—vaguely aware that some men were talking and smoking just below, and one of them who had a loud, resonant voice, was describing someone who was splendid sport. When he said ‘a flapper of seventeen,’ I pricked up my ears at once.
“‘Knows her way about,’ he went on, ‘uncommonly handsome—and up to all sorts of games.’
“Letty, I leant nearer, and listened shamelessly, and another voice asked:
“‘Where does she hang out?’
“‘At a farm up the hill here, a place called Les Plans.’
“‘Oh,’ said the other, ‘a native?’
“‘No—English—and by way of being a lady. She has lived here with her mother since she was a kid; the mother is a damned pretty woman——’
“I am repeating what I heard verbatim—
“‘—but a fool. She lets the girl go marauding all over the place alone. Ahem! Well, not exactly alone—because she trusts her absolutely!’
“At this they all roared.” Here Mrs. Hesketh paused. Letty was now sobbing audibly, her face buried in her hands.
“Then a man asked, ‘How did you find her?’” pursued Mrs. Hesketh.
“‘Angus McKenzie gave me the tip; he was here last year—met her on the boat, and they got tremendously chummy. He used to take her about, and give her treats, when she was supposed to be having lessons in Lucerne—ha! ha! But, mind you, she knows how to take rattling good care of herself. She was capital company, with a lot of “go,” and wonderfully advanced ideas for her age—especially with regard to spending money!’”
Here Mrs. Hesketh paused, and looked at her companion, who was still sobbing hysterically.
“Letty, are you listening to me? Do please pull yourself together!”
“I am, of course, listening,” she gasped. “I am—oh, it is all my fault. Oh, Cousin Maude, do not blame the child! I’ve been a bad mother after all! I allowed her to slip out of my hands, and gave her her own way, and was too, too indulgent; but I myself was so strictly brought up, and had so little love, and sympathy, and freedom, I was resolved that Cara should never suffer in the same way.”
“Letty, be quiet!” interposed her friend angrily. “I won’t sit here, and listen to you abusing yourself. You have been too self-sacrificing, and, I’m afraid, weak. But how could you oppose your will to Cara’s? Hers is of iron,—and you know your own failing. You sent her to excellent schools, you believed she had good companions; you could not conduct her to and from school, or be always with her like a keeper—you had to work hard, to maintain yourself and her, and, when possible, you shared her pleasures and made yourself her companion—you could have done no more.”
“And I could not well do less,” said Letty as she dried her eyes. “Was that all the men said?”
“No. It seems that Cara used to climb out of her bedroom window, and descend by the pear tree into the garden, and sit in the summer-house, smoking cigarettes with visitors from the Paradis; and for this reason, the old watch-dog was put out of the way.”
“Oh, poor, poor Karo! I was sure he had been poisoned!”
“And it appears, that when you supposed Cara to be spending the day with Berthe, she was really lunching and carousing with one or other of these festive strangers! This accounts, for her craze for pretty restaurant frocks, smart beflowered hats, and all the reckless bills. I gathered that she did not accept presents, beyond chocolates, flowers, entertainments, and motor rides. Sometimes she motored home after the last boat had gone, and had what they called uncommonly narrow shaves of being spotted! Now, Letty, you positively must assume another attitude, and be firm, and absolute. There would be no use in my talking to Cara—she abhors me. We will arrange to go to England as soon as possible, and place the young woman in a school; this will no doubt have a sobering effect and be a change that will do her good. I know of a capital finishing establishment in Brighton, and with your leave or without, I’ll write to-morrow.”
“Yes, as you like; but I feel bewildered, dazed——”
“You had better have an interview with Cara to-night, and tell her you know all, and that in future you will never trust her out of your sight. She shall not stir without you, or me, or Tomlin at her heels, and in ten days we start for England. Settle up with Frau Hurter, and leave all other arrangements to me. My poor Letty, I am sorry for you, but I will stand by you shoulder to shoulder, and see you through this crisis.”
“But it’s so easy for us to wonder, and blame, and plan. When Cara comes on the scene, somehow I am always put in the wrong and defeated.”
“You cannot possibly be defeated on this occasion,” declared her friend, with confidence. “All the right and might is on your side: the right of a good and too unselfish mother, and the might of the purse. Cara has no money.”
“Cara,” said her mother, coming into her room that evening, “I wish to speak to you very seriously.”
Cara, who was in her petticoats, and in the act of unpinning her abundant hair, turned about sharply and said:
“Oh, yes, let’s have it out, then! I’ve felt there was something in the air. What has Frau Hurter been telling you now? She went for me this morning like any old fish-fag, and said I had ruined Fritz, and broken his heart, and he was no good for anything!” And she tossed back a mane of hair, and glared a challenge.
“It is not Fritz, Cara. It is about the strangers—the Englishmen, whom you meet clandestinely and go about with, motoring and amusing yourself, when all the time I’ve been trusting you, and thinking you were taking lessons in Lucerne.”
“Oh!” dropping her arms, “so it has leaked out at last! Well, it had to some day. I’ve had a ripping time, and I’m not sorry.” And this handsome young woman, with her bare arms and neck, and flowing hair, faced her accuser unabashed, and unrepentant, assuring herself, she had no reason to be afraid; she was always able to cow, and browbeat the Mum.
“Oh, Cara, Cara! How could you?” murmured her parent, with uplifted hands.
“Well, I believe most people know I’ve friends—men friends. Fritz was crazy, when he saw me speaking to Captain Seymour; but think of the awful, awful life I lead here, and other English girls have such good times! I’ve done no harm whatever—I’ve only amused myself. And why not?”
“Getting out of your bedroom window at night, and sitting in the garden with strange men from the Paradis!”
“Now, who can have told you that?” she asked sharply. “Jost? though for ten francs he swore he’d hold his tongue; treacherous old devil!”
“Never mind who told—I know everything.”
“Do you, Mum? I doubt it. I’ve had lots of affairs since I was fifteen,” and she eyed her mother with amusement. “Yes, it’s in my blood. You asked me to tell you things—and I will.”
Now that the ice was broken, Cara felt tempted to shock her mother; she would enjoy the sensation.
“Since you were fifteen?” repeated Letty in an incredulous whisper.
Cara nodded, with smiling complacence.
“Yes, first, there was the violinist, an Italian, who said he was a Count. He gave me chocolates and flowers,—till I spotted him in the orchestra; but even then I was gone on Pablo. After Pablo, the nice German boy from Heidelberg; he wrote me verses, and gave me a ring. There was also Anton Baer, who took me up Pilatus when you thought I was in bed at the Baers, with a sprained ankle; and Major McKenzie, who spoke to me on the boat; and Captain Seymour—and always, always Fritz.”
As Letty stood pale and rigid, as if turned to stone, Cara concluded:
“After all, I’ve done no harm; one is young but once!”
“No harm, Cara? I think you have broken my heart! A girl of seventeen making herself notorious. Do you know that you are the laughing-stock of men at the Paradis; who discuss you, and hold you very cheap?—no harm in losing your good name!”
“As to broken hearts,” retorted Cara, who was now plaiting her hair vigorously, “I don’t believe in them; and I’ve heard enough of that rubbish from Fritz to last a lifetime.” The term ‘laughing-stock’ had stirred her keenly, and she went on, her temper at white heat: “As for my good name, I can take care of that; and, my darling Mum,” and she drew herself up, and tossed back a plait, “you are the last person to talk of ‘a good name.’”
“What do you mean, Cara?” Letty asked faintly.
“I mean,” speaking with deliberate emphasis, “that I know.”
Her mother took two steps backwards, staggered blindly, and sat down on the side of the bed,—her face as colourless as the counterpane.
“Yes, I must say, I think you should not have kept it from me, Mum. Of course, I don’t think any the worse of you, dear.” She would have taken her mother’s hand, but Letty pushed her from her, with impatience, and her trembling lips put the question:
“Who told you?”
“Miss Plassy—she said I ought to know.”
“Yes, go on,” urged her mother in a stifled voice; “be quick and tell me.”
“She told me that my name is Blagdon. My father is enormously rich, and that you ran away with an officer when I was a kid, and were divorced, and a year later, you came and stole me from my nurse, and brought me off here. That’s the story!—it sounds crude, but she swore it was true and in all the papers. I can get over the divorce all right,” continued Cara, with an air of superb generosity, “but really and truly, Mum, I cannot forgive you for kidnapping me, and bringing me off abroad, to lead this wretched, poverty-stricken life.”
“Cara,” cried her mother, rising to her feet, and speaking with unexpected violence, “you have heard a garbled tale—only one side. Now you shall hear mine,” and standing erect, confronting her daughter, she poured forth the story of her wrongs, her misery, and her married life.
Her eloquence—the eloquence of a bursting heart—was such, that even Cara for a moment felt moved, ashamed, yes, and repentant. So overwhelming was the effect of her mother’s picture of a blighted youth, a life of solitude, and her passionate attachment to herself, that Cara for once betrayed into real personal feeling, fell into her mother’s arms, overcome by a storm of unparalleled emotion.
At last, with sobs and caresses from Letty, murmurs of penitence and adoration from Cara, mother and daughter, exhausted by this violent strain, separated at last, to seek what rest they might.
For hours Cara lay watching the window with hard restless eyes, turning over her mother’s story in her mind, and weighing it remorselessly. As time passed, her feelings had subsided; it was one thing to be touched by a beautiful face, an impassioned pleading, and unfortunate history; it was another, in the dim, pale dawn, to recall facts—remorseless facts. The fact of the divorce—the fact that her mother had stolen her—the fact that she was an heiress—the fact that she, Cara, with all her beauty, good birth, and cravings, was poor and insignificant, and living on a few francs a week at a detestable old Swiss farm. Of course, she was fond of the Mum; certainly she was fond of her; and she had had a horrid life,—but probably she had not known how to manage people. Probably?—why, of course not—she never could manage anyone! She, Cara, had her own life to lead, and must strike out for herself. Meanwhile she resolved to be very kind and good to the Mum,—and to keep no more trysts. What brutes of men to talk! For the future, she resolved to remain under her mother’s wing; it would be too ridiculous for a great heiress to make herself cheap!
Letty as she lay also watching her window, never slept at all; her thoughts were too active. She recalled Cara’s manner, her callous admissions, her bombshell, and subsequently her surprising breakdown. This, she knew from experience, to be but a temporary affair—there had been former scenes and reconciliations, from which Cara had, as on the present occasion, emerged victorious!
“So she has known for a whole fortnight and kept it to herself,” said Mrs. Hesketh with luminous eyes. “I had no idea that Cara was capable of such amazing self-control. This accounts for her inexplicable silence, sullenness, and studied insolence to me.”
“Of course, the information was startling,” pleaded Letty. “Her whole little world turned upside down; the child has taken the news amazingly well, and is so sweet and affectionate. This morning she asked me to tell you that she is very sorry and ashamed of her rudeness to you, and intends to turn over a new leaf.”
“I am not sure that I have much faith in these new leaves,” rejoined Mrs. Hesketh ungraciously; “but I am prepared to accept the olive branch. You say the girl is sitting at home sewing, whilst you are abroad? You appear to have changed places.”
“Only for once. It was so important that I should see you. Now Cara has been enlightened, perhaps it is for the best—it had to come some day.”
“And malicious Miss Plassy has spared no details—you have no further disclosures to fear. Bring Cara to dinner to-night, I should like to have a talk with her, and we will smoke the pipe of peace.”
For the next ten days all went smoothly. Cara no longer yearned for solitary excursions into Lucerne; on the contrary, she appeared to be glad of her mother’s companionship, and had figuratively attached herself to her apron string!
Meanwhile, arrangements for a move were in progress. Mrs. Hesketh had written home, announcing the arrival of two friends, ordering alterations in the house, and entering into treaty for a new motor.
A whole month had passed, and there had been no reply to Cara’s filial appeal—an appeal which had cost hours of thought, and been written and rewritten again and again. Her heart and her hopes sank; this condition was salutary, the girl—like all bullies—was absurdly elated by success, whilst failure bowed her to the earth. In despair of her father’s favour and rescue, she now turned to her mother, whom she contemplated by the light of her illuminating story. She dwelt on that passionately pleading figure, that ringing voice, those piteous eyes, and appealing hands; and could not but believe that every word she uttered was true. Her father’s silence was ample proof of his unnatural character; he must be a brute! And she herself had witnessed one of the principal scenes in her mother’s history. That afternoon on the Schiller, when they had met the handsome English officer, who implored her mother to agree to something, and her mother had not consented; now she learnt that he had asked her to marry him, and leave her, Cara, at school—and the Mum had refused. She recalled his urgent air, and her mother’s tears. It was evident that she cared for him—and no wonder! Had she been in her mother’s place, his offer would have been accepted—bien sur! And the Mum was so pretty—no matter how shabby or simple her clothes, she always looked well-born—a lady to the tips of her fingers. Everything she accomplished was so neat, so finished: her room and belongings so orderly; such a contrast to her own apartment, which was always untidy; she never could find anything, and flung away hats, stepped out of skirts, kicked off shoes, and left the Mum to clear up, and put her things straight. She seemed at last to realise, what her mother stood for in her life, and became thoughtful, helpful, and affectionate. She ran errands, carried parcels, and was altogether another and softer Cara. These were indeed halcyon days for Letty! She brought her good news to the bedside of her friend, who was confined to her room with a serious bronchial attack.
“The child is so changed,” she said, “so warm-hearted, loving, and confidential. She has confessed everything to me; all about those odious men, and how they taught her to smoke, and supplied her with cigarettes and chocolates, and took her trips in motor-boats. She declares she only went with them for the fun of the thing, the thrilling excitement of adventure, and possible discovery! She will never deceive me again as long as she lives—we are to have no secrets from one another.”
Here Mrs. Hesketh murmured something inarticulate into the down quilt, and her visitor continued:
“And she is so interested in Sharsley, and asks me to tell her all about the place, and about Thornby and Oldcourt. Oh, Cousin Maude,” and she sank on her knees by the bed, and took her hand in hers, “I am so happy at last! I am well repaid for my strivings. Cara and I are now all in all to one another.”
During this interview, Cara had been waiting for her mother in the lounge—she was now full of these touching little attentions. As she waited one of her English acquaintances happened to enter, paused, and bowed with ironical ceremony. Then he approached, and said in a jocular key:
“Hullo, Goldylocks! what are you doing here? Why so proud?”
Goldylocks raised her eyes, stared at him fiercely, and resumed her study of a picture paper; and after a momentary hesitation, Captain Seymour felt compelled to pass on. Cara had done with these odious free-and-easy men, who joked with her, flattered her, and then talked her over, and laughed at her behind her back. That thought acted as a lash, and kept Miss Blagdon’s exuberant impulses in check.
Presently her mother reappeared, and as they climbed the hill together, arm in arm, she said:
“Cousin Maude is so much better, the doctor thinks she may move in ten days, and we will travel with her. You know the school idea has been abandoned, and you can easily keep up your music, and French with me. I do hope you won’t find Thornby too dull; there is no one in the village now, except the Dentons.”
“And your aunt—the hunting lady?”
“No; she lives in Brighton, I am thankful to say, but the poor old Holt is closed. Cara,” and her mother halted on the little plateau, “Mrs. Hesketh has been frightening me. She asks, if your father claimed you, what would you do?”
“Why you know, Mummy,” throwing her arm round her waist, “I’ll never, never leave you!” and she covered her face with kisses.
“If you had been a boy, darling, of course I’d never, never have dared to carry you off; but I wanted you so badly, and he did not; you were left alone with your nurse in a corner of that great big house, your father ignored you; he dislikes girls—even grown-up girls.”
“Yet he married a girl, Mummy. Why you were only my age—seventeen!”
“Yes, dear, but your father soon got tired of me. At seventeen, I was years younger than you are; I was painfully timid, silly, and undecided—and——”
“You are undecided still; but there is no one in all the whole world, as clever and good, as my own beautiful Mum,” and Cara bent her fair head, and kissed her mother on the lips.
Hugo Blagdon was now a stout, irascible, red-faced man of fifty-seven, who for the sake of his health was every year compelled to take ‘a cure’ at Carlsbad, and here Cara’s letters followed, and found him. As he casually opened number one, then glanced at the signature, his complexion changed from red to purple.
“What the devil does this mean?” he muttered.
He was soon in possession of full information. In Cara’s fine bold hand, she assured him that only within the last twenty-four hours she had learnt her own and her mother’s story, and that her father was still living. She went on to say, that she was weary of exile, had a craving to see her native land, and him; described herself as tall and fair, very fond of outdoor sports, and games, and hoped that he would soon write to her, send for her, and allow her to know him, and remained his affectionate daughter, Caroline Blagdon. ‘P.S.—Please address Miss Glyn, Poste Restante, Mitzau. I am sending you my photograph.’
“By George!” he exclaimed when he came to the end of her epistle, “a grown-up daughter, and she writes with spirit; no milk and water about her!” Yes, and here was her photograph. It was many years since he had experienced such a thrill of expectation, as when he cut the string, and uncovered a cabinet-sized photograph which displayed a handsome girl, with a resolute jaw, broad shoulders, and large hands. It must be confessed, that the likeness did not do justice to the sitter’s best points—her hair, complexion, and teeth.
“Not bad-looking,” was her father’s verdict. After gazing at it for a long time, studying the dress and details, he put both letter and photo into his breast coat pocket, and went off to his bath.
No need to do anything in a hurry; letter-writing was the mischief, and dangerous. He would take his time,—and he did. Several anxious epistles from Les Plans remained unnoticed, and hence his daughter’s despair. It was evident that there was nothing before her, but the prospect of a dull life in an English village, and she decided to make the best of circumstances.
Her father, meanwhile, had resolved to motor to Lucerne for his ‘after cure,’ but not commit himself in any way. He would first look round cautiously, and see how the land lay.
Hugo Blagdon in his magnificent car arrived early in September, and put up at the National. After an excellent lunch—concluded with coffee and liqueur—he strolled forth on the Quai, and stared frowningly on the lovely scene; the mountains and hills of all shades of blue, the lake gay with traffic; finally he went into the Casino gardens and bestowed his heavy form upon a seat. The band was playing, and the place was crowded. He debated with himself the question of a bock—yes or no—the verdict was ‘no’: he had recently lost ten pounds in weight and must keep himself down. Bye and by, among the crowd, he was glad to recognise a racing acquaintance, and signalled to him to join him at his little table.
As they sat, discussing jockeys, weights, and other matters, the man said:
“This is a great season, I have never seen the place so full, nor so many pretty frocks, and faces. Hullo—look there!”
Two ladies were crossing the gardens, both tall and both wearing summer hats, and white gowns; their air and good looks distinguished them from the crowd.
For a moment Blagdon stared with stolid incredulity, then he hastily put down his cigar, for he had recognised Letty! A beautiful, self-possessed Letty, with an air of fragile grace, who, although laden with several parcels, carried herself like a queen; the girl, of bigger build, with clouds of hair and marvellous colouring, was his correspondent Cara,—she looked every day of twenty!
He was actually gazing at his own wife and daughter—so were others; the pair had been accosted by friends, and stopped to talk, and this afforded the spectators an opportunity to admire.
“By Jove, Englishwomen are hard to beat! I bet those two are English,” said his companion. “The elder is the best looking—a handsome woman. The young one seems full of go, and what teeth and colouring! But she hasn’t her sister’s figure.”
Here indeed was an entirely different individual to the cowering Letty of fourteen years previously, and how well she had worn! Now she would shine in any company—his wife—yes, and his daughter. She, too, was ripping: so sure of herself; he watched her gay gestures and broad smiles, her well-cut frock, and neat figure—rather on the heavy side. What a complexion! By George, she’d make ’em all sit up! Yes, he decided to claim her—a handsome wife was one thing: a handsome daughter, reflected still more credit on a fellow.
Cara was a Blagdon—his own flesh and blood, and he was sick of his old associates.
“I say, Blagdon, you are not very gay; the after cure depressing? Eh?”
“No, I’m all right,” with a shake of his great shoulders. “I’m just thinking of a good thing I’ve come in for.”
Repton stared. Was old Blag off his chump? had he been drinking?
“Oh, it’s only a filly of mine, a rare one, that will show ’em all the way,” and he chuckled to himself.
“Ah, then, I’ll look to you for a tip!”
Blagdon noted the break-up of the party, which concluded with cordial hand-shaking, and adieux. Subsequently mother and daughter walked away talking together eagerly—evidently the best of pals. He rose instantly, followed, and kept them in view. In the Swan Platz, opposite Cook’s, the two separated; Letty to cross the bridge, the girl to enter the Arcade: here he saw her disappear into a shop, and waited. As he waited, he meditated; he was full of impatience to claim this creditable daughter; in face her mother, in manner and figure a Blagdon. What—cold thought—would Connie say?—Con, more or less lived with, as well as on him. She had the Blagdon will, tongue, and temper. Well, from the girl’s air and off-hand manner, he expected she could hold her own; and by George, he had done a lot for Con, from first to last, and paid her debts over and over. It was time he did something for his only daughter,—who had not cost him a farthing since she cut her first teeth. As he conferred with himself, the girl came briskly out of the shop. He had been pretending to be looking into the window, and at once accosted her.
“I say,” he began, staring hard into her face, “aren’t you—er—Caroline—Blagdon?”
She stood stock still, and surveyed him with startled eyes, and a heightened colour.
Could this heavy, elderly man, with a large, reddish face, be her father? Why Kaspar at the landing-stage looked more distinguished. Of course his clothes and voice were all right—but——
She nodded curtly.
“I got your letters,” he resumed, “and as I was in Germany motoring, I thought I’d come on here and look you up. Seeing is believing. I’m your father, you know.”
“I say, let’s walk about a bit, where we can talk. Where’s your mother? I bar meeting her.”
“She has gone across the bridge to say good-bye to some friends; we are leaving next week. She won’t be back for an hour. I’m to meet her at the five o’clock boat.”
“Oh, so then we have a clear hour! Come along to the National.”
For a perceptible pause Cara’s hesitation was obvious: she neither spoke nor stirred—and her reluctance enormously enhanced her value in her father’s eyes.—However, as she said to herself, she might as well hear, what he had to propose—no harm—in that!
As they strolled together past the shops, Blagdon was gratified to note how many eyes were bent on his companion. This was the sort of girl that appealed to him; she was well turned out, too, and walked as if the whole earth belonged to her.
“Lived here always?” he asked abruptly.
“Yes, since I was four. Now I’m seventeen.”
“And look every day of twenty or more,” he exclaimed with habitual brusquerie.
“Do I? And you,” considering him with cold, undaunted eyes, “I suppose are sixty—or more?”
Blagdon’s face assumed a deeper hue. His neck appeared to swell, an apoplectic seizure seemed imminent; he was not accustomed to be thus bearded.
However, for once, with a violent effort, he restrained himself, and answered:
“A fellow’s the age he feels—a woman the age she looks.”
“That’s rubbish!” declared his bold companion, “and was certainly invented by a man!”
“I say, young lady, you seem to have a fairly sharp tongue!”
“A sharp tongue and a sweet temper,” she retorted.
It was evident to her electrified and humbled parent, that the girl did not care a brass farthing whether he reinstated her or not! The saucy young woman was entirely independent, and made no secret of her attitude. The chances were, that if she had been appealing, eager, and slavish, he would not have been so anxious to claim her—but Cara had taken her father’s measure, with a very sure eye.
“Well, here we are,” he continued, leading the way up the steps; “come into the lounge, and let’s get to know one another. I saw you and your mother together just now—you seem to be tremendous pals.”
“So we are,” said Cara, as she threw herself carelessly into a comfortable chair. “My mother has been awfully good to me.”
“Eh? Well, at any rate, she ran away with you, and now,” coming and standing directly before her, “what do you say to giving me a turn?”
“What do you call a turn?” she enquired, looking back into his eyes, with a true family stare; the girl had a spice of the devil in her, that was certain.
“You will live with me in Hill Street,” he announced pompously; and seeing that this fact made no impression, “have a motor, and a maid.”
“Yes?” The ‘yes’ was cool and indifferent.
“As many frocks and gewgaws as you want, and theatres and dances—those are not in my line. I’ll take you racing; I’ve a string of horses in training.”
“I love racing,” she admitted. “I’ve only seen races once, and that was here.”
“Bah!” with a gesture of contempt, “a set of platers! And so you are on the move at last?”
“Yes; we are going to live with Mrs. Hesketh.”
“That old beldame! Well, you can choose between Thornby and Sharsley. I won’t have any half measures—you understand that?”
“Am I to be mistress of the house?” she asked hardily. “I have an aunt, I believe?”
“You have very much an aunt—she’d make two—but she will move into her own flat. You look as if you could hold your own, and sit at the head of a table, and square on a horse.”
“I daresay I can soon learn English ways, and I’m sure I could ride—but I don’t like leaving mother.”
“I daresay not! You don’t know what is good for you—and you can’t well bring her along, can you? It must be one of us, or the other—Glyn or Blagdon!”
“Yes, I know,” and Cara rose, and walked slowly over to the window, and looked out. She was weighing the vital question, ‘father or mother’? As she stood irresolute, her eyes fell upon a splendid motor drawn up below the hotel—le dernier mot of luxury, and extravagance.
“That’s my car,” announced her father, who had followed, and was now looking over her shoulder. “If you decide on me, we will go off this evening, and I must give the chauffeur instructions about getting to Dover. You and I will go straight to Paris, and there you can rig yourself out before we go home—and the sooner we make a start the better.”
“Do you really mean, that we are to leave here to-day?” stammered Cara; who had been thinking of debating the matter, and making up her mind, at leisure.
“Oh, yes—it’s now or never.”
Cara turned pale and then red.
“I want to get back for the Leger; you can settle into Hill Street.” Noticing her change of colour, he became more urgent. “Your grandmother’s lot will take you up—the old Scropes are tremendous swells, and your cousins the Calthorpes and Montfords will trot you out and present you at Court, and all that sort of thing—balls, and so on. Of course, you are a bit young; but, as I tell you, you look old—old enough to sport the Blagdon diamonds; and the family diamonds are quite top-hole! There isn’t a finer show in any opera-house.”
Presentations at Court, diamonds, French frocks, balls, races, the command of a large establishment—Cara felt that her head was swimming! What were her mother and Oldcourt in comparison to such dazzling temptations? Of course, she was behaving badly; but in this world everyone must play for their own hand. The Mum had made terrible mistakes, and ‘revoked,’ so to speak. Because she had spoiled her life, why should she, Cara, do likewise? She felt confident, that she could get on all right with this burly, rough sort of father, and was not the least afraid of him.
“Yes, by Jove, you and I will make a bolt; give your mother the slip, and pay her out in her own coin, ha! ha! She’s given to running away.”
“If I come to live with you, you must never say a word against the Mum.”
“The word ‘must’ is never to be used to me,” he answered savagely.
“But why not?” demanded Cara, looking up at him with twinkling eyes, and an enchanting smile.
What cheek she had! and what teeth! Absolutely perfect. Slightly mollified, he resumed:
“If you are a good girl, I think we shall pull along together all right, and I’ll say this for your mother, she had a snaffle mouth,—though she did bolt. Of course, you are inexperienced in English customs and housekeeping, but you have the cut of a girl who will soon know the ropes.”
“If I go with you to-day, what am I to do for clothes? All my things are up at Les Plans.”
“I can lend you a motor-coat to travel in, and you will be in Paris in the early morning. We’ll start at six, and dine on the train.”
“Very well,” she said gravely; “so be it.”
“All right, that’s settled, Cara,” and he gripped her hand with a gesture of possession. “Give me a kiss on the bargain!”
She glanced round apprehensively—they were alone in the lounge, then offered her square jaw, to his lips.
“By Jove, I’m glad to have you, my girl!” he said with hearty satisfaction. “When a man is getting on a bit, he feels the want of someone about him—someone belonging to him—and that he—er—can be proud of.”
As Cara and her father stood side by side, the five o’clock boat moved slowly from her moorings, and came out into the lake, exactly opposite to where they were stationed.
“It’s the Stadthof. There goes mother!” said Cara with a slight catch in her breath, “wondering what has become of me; that is her I am sure—the figure at the end. She expects to see me tearing along the Quai. Don’t you see the lady with the blue sunshade—looking back?”
“No, my sight is not as young as yours,” he answered gruffly. “She may look and look, but you have done with her, you know, and have, what is called, burned your boats! Now, come along with me, and I’ll buy you a little souvenir of the occasion!”
The souvenir, took the form of a superb diamond ring, which Cara placed with ecstasy upon her third finger. The purchase had been speedy—since Blagdon, a moneyed man, always knew exactly what he wanted—and as they emerged to the water-side, Cara gazed nervously down the lake. Yes, the steamer, bearing her mother out of her life, was still in sight. Her eyes, as she watched it rounding the promontory, were blinded with tears; when she had brushed these away, she looked once more, but the Stadthof and her pretty Mum, had disappeared, as far as she was concerned, for ever.
Having accomplished her errands and visits, Letty arrived punctually at the Bahnhof Pier, and looked eagerly around for Cara and her parcels; but no Cara appeared—she was not even in sight as the boat cast off. Letty and her daughter were dining that evening with Mrs. Hesketh, and at the Paradis she anxiously awaited her. Cara had missed a boat on several occasions, and come by the next; and now every time the great revolving door swung, she expected to see her enter. Time went on, dinner was over, the nine o’clock steamer had passed by, brilliantly illuminated.
“What can have become of Cara?” said her mother. “I know she was going to the Convent—it is not like them to keep the child so late. Shall we go and wait in the lounge?”
When the ladies entered, the hall, the concierge came forward with a thin blue telegram, addressed to ‘Mrs. Glyn,’ and handed it to Letty, who tore it open with shaking fingers. As her eyes glanced over the contents, she gave a faint exclamation and dropped the paper. Mrs. Hesketh picked it up instantly, and read:
“Leaving for Paris with father. Good-bye. C. Blagdon.”
The shock of Cara’s desertion prostrated her mother, and for many days she remained at the Paradis, blanched and shaken, a stricken, ghost-like guest. Her friend (now completely restored) had taken the helm of her life in her hands, and was making rapid preparations for their departure to England.
“My poor dear child,” she said, “I am desperately sorry for you. That your wound is deep, I know. ‘How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,’ so said old King Lear; all the same, you will get over it.”
“No, never, never!” replied Letty with energetic emphasis; and her voice and face were unrecognisably hard.
“Certainly you will. I speak from experience. When my little boy died——”
“Your boy!” interrupted Letty, lifting her head; “I never knew you had a child!”
“I do not speak of him, but he was my treasure: a darling. When he was three years old he fell out of a window, and was killed before my very eyes. Then, indeed, I would gladly have laid me down and died—but here I am! trying to encourage you to rise again and plod along the highway known as Life. If Harry had lived, he would be your age; it is thirty-five years since they closed the coffin-lid upon his little angel face. To add to my agony, my husband declared that the accident was my fault; the child was watching me mounting my horse, he overbalanced, the nurse grabbed at him, but only his sash, remained in her hand.”
“How dreadful!” cried her listener with streaming tears.
“Yes, dear, you may weep a little for me; but as for yourself, you must dry your tears, and enter upon another life.”
It had been mooted on the mountain-side, in farm-houses and cow-houses, that the rosy-cheeked English girl, claimed by a rich father, had forsaken the pretty mother who for thirteen years had toiled for her support. Ah, a wustus maden!—(a bad girl).
A surprising amount of kindly sympathy was felt and shown; many little farewell gifts were left at the Paradis, addressed to ‘Frau Glyn,’ and one afternoon Letty nerved herself to ascend to Les Plans, for the last time, in order to take leave of its inmates. There they were, all ready to welcome her! the Josts, Freda, the Frau herself, and a new dog—another Karo. In the low-roofed sitting-room, when Letty and Frau Hurter were alone, she said:
“All my little things here, my chair, and lace pillow, work-basket, harmonium, and tea-service I hope you will accept.”
“But, mein liebe Frau, I never sew or play tunes. I am old, and my fingers are like wood.”
“Fritz’s wife will be young?”
“Fritz—ach ye! He knows. My cousin writes he is as mad, and off his head; he says he goes to America, he cannot live here, ever—without her. The boy comes to say good-bye in two days, and then we are forsaken—you and I, by those for whom we would give the life’s blood.”
“He will get over it, dear Frau. Fritz is so young. Ask him to come and talk to me, and I will do my best, to persuade him to stay.”
“Yes, it may do good, since he loves you—we can but try,” she paused to wipe her eyes on her apron; “but as for you, dear lady, my heart aches. It seems but yesterday, when you stood out there in the garden in the sunshine a girl, with Mitli in your arms. What you have been to her ever since, the good God, and I, alone know. Now she has deserted you; try and put her away from your thoughts.—You are still young, you have your own life.”
“I am going to make another home; but what can replace a child?” cried Letty, rising as she spoke. “I want to see her room, and settle about her things.”
“Her room is dusted and in order, otherwise as she left it. We will go there now,” and Frau Hurter climbed the stairs, and threw open the door into an empty chamber.
There were Cara’s familiar frocks hanging on familiar hooks; her silver-backed hair-brushes (a birthday gift) on the dressing-table; a hat with the pins still sticking in it, as it had been cast down, lay on the bed. There was a little writing-table and blotter—both spattered with ink—and peeping in at the window that hoary old pear tree—the accomplice of the girl in her midnight flights.
“Ach ye!” exclaimed Frau Hurter in a lachrymose key, “there is the blouse you made her; the skirt you embroidered, the little slippers.—Freda and I will pack everything, and send them down by Jost.”
“No, no; I could not bear to see them again,” protested Letty, making an effort to choke back her tears. “Please keep all, except the books and writing materials, and personal treasures,” gathering them together in feverish haste.
“Here are dozens and dozens of letters,” announced Frau Hurter, who was diving into a deep drawer.
“What of them, meine Frau?”
“Let them go too.”
“To England! Why not burn them?”
“No, no, we will stuff them into this silk work-bag, and tie them securely—let the child have all she values. I will send a maid to-morrow to pack, and forward everything to London.” After a pause, and a last look round, she added, “I have been very, very happy here, dear Frau, and I love your country—but I am leaving it in a few days,—never to return.”
The two women clasped hands, and Frau Hurter, the stony-faced, suddenly drew her fellow-sufferer into her bony embrace, and kissed her with a sort of dry and concentrated passion.
As Letty walked down the hill that lovely September evening, she halted for a farewell look at the gleaming lake and range of mountains—a scene beloved and familiar as the face of a dear friend. How many hundred times had she climbed this well-worn path—since the day she had first carried Cara to the farm! Here on this very spot, the little plateau under the pear trees, had Cara thrown her arms about her, assuring her with warm kisses that “she would never, never, never leave her own darling Mum!”
As a pair of sad eyes, rested on the matchless prospect, the sun was setting behind Pilatus,—who stood forth grim and rugged, against a flaming background of red and gold—a glorious afterglow spread itself over the slopes of the Rigi, changing its strata of granite to rose-colour, the intervening pastures to a cloudy blue. Then very gradually, as if by the touch of a magic wand, a delicate ethereal haze dissolved the entire scene into an exquisite shade of amethyst,—the curtain had fallen, and a glorious September day, was numbered with the past.
The air was still: the sleepy tinkling of a little stream, a far-away hoot of some steamer approaching a landing-stage, the faint sound of a chapel bell were the only sounds that broke a curiously reverent, and impressive silence.
Presently beautiful Hesperus, wrapped in her misty mantle, came gliding along the mountain-tops, and hung her bright star in the sky, and Letty continued her way.
Blagdon’s arrivals and departures were notoriously abrupt, and after a busy and exciting three days in Paris, he appeared in Hill Street with his unheralded companion; looking forward with a sort of brutal glee to ‘taking a splendid rise out of old Connie.’ He had merely announced his immediate return, ‘bringing a friend.’
It was eight o’clock when he entered his smoking-room, closely attended by Cara (who had been not a little impressed by her father’s wealth, the appearance of the home, and its group of silent, dignified men-servants—a home where she was to reign as mistress). Here, sunken in an arm-chair, with a dog on her lap, a cigarette in her mouth, a sporting paper in her hand, they discovered Lady Rashleigh. She was greatly changed; her figure was shapeless, her hair a foxy grey, her skin coarse, and deeply lined—altogether, especially in a shabby deshabille, she deservedly earned the adjective ‘Blowsy.’ Yet at race meetings, in a well-cut coat and handsome furs, Con Rashleigh was still regarded as a wonderful woman for sixty—pity she had let her figure go!
“Hullo, Blag!” she exclaimed, as she removed her cigarette, “so here you are! Have you seen this Handicap—why—who’s this?” surveying her niece with an aggressive stare. Hugo occasionally introduced startling acquaintances. “Who have we here?” throwing down the Pom, and rising heavily to her feet.
The stranger was a tall, handsome girl with a vague resemblance to someone—why, to Letty, to be sure! In an illuminating flash she saw it all! Blag had sprung one of his jokes on her, and brought home the daughter!
“It’s only my little girl,” he announced with indescribable pride; “five-foot-six in her stockings. She has chucked Switzerland, and come to live with me.”
“Ah, so this is Cara,” drawing her towards her as she spoke.
Ciel! How her aunt smelt of whisky, and tobacco;—just like a man, thought the girl as she passively submitted to her kisses.
“Why did you not prepare me? Why keep this pleasure to yourself?” continued Lady Rashleigh with ostentatious composure.—In that brief moment she had decided to be civil to the new-comer, and make no scene. Hugo was undoubtedly struck, but his fancies never lasted; he would tire of his novelty before the month was out, and she resolved to sit tight in Hill Street—the flat was let. This well-grown interloper knew nothing of English society, and she determined to keep her in the background, and rule her, as she had done the pink-cheeked little fool, her mother.
But it was not long—in fact, less than five minutes—before Connie Rashleigh discovered her mistake. Cara was a true chip of the old block, as hard and ruthless as herself, and with all the cocksureness and cruelty of youth. The girl’s manner was self-possessed, she talked glibly of Paris and their journey, and became surprisingly animated as she volubly described her new gowns. Meanwhile, her father looked on with swelling pride. His eyes seemed to ask, Was there ever such a complexion? such hair? such teeth? Connie Rashleigh stared and listened with a feeling of dismal apprehension—which apprehension proved to be but too well founded, when at a hint from her father, Cara, in a trailing tea-gown, sailed into the dining-room before her aunt, and sank into a chair at the head of the table.
“Cara is beginning as she is to go on,” explained Hugo. “She is installed as the mistress of the house—the robes, and the keys—eh, Cara?”
His methods were ever blunt: his idea of diplomacy a bludgeon!
And Lady Rashleigh, choking with impotent fury, was compelled to subside into a place at the side of the board, with what appetite and grace she could assume.
“Champagne, Carter—the ’94,” commanded his master; “we will drink Miss Blagdon’s health and welcome.”
From this hour war—internecine, secret, and deadly—was declared between aunt and niece; but the victory was ever to the young. Cara ruled her father, dominated the household, and openly despised her predecessor.
Cara was a ‘female bounder,’ in the opinion of that lady, and brutally selfish. She ‘grabbed’ everything: the best room, the use of the motor, the carriage, the pick of Mudie’s books, and the most comfortable chairs. She poured out tea, did the honours with amazing self-possession, and left her aunt to enjoy the agreeable sensation of being the odd one out,—and that, in the house in which she had been born!
Hugo had a few words to say to his sister with respect to the new mistress.
“Look here, old girl, you must make it all right for Cara. Take her round the Scrope lot, and write to those in the country, and tell them she is with me. I want her to get a flying start; and you know on which side your bread is buttered,” he added with blunt significance and doubtful taste. “After Christmas we are going to Monte Carlo, and you must trot back to your own flat; the girl says this house wants doing up, and that the curtains and paper in the drawing-room, make her sea-sick.”
The curtains and paper, Lady Rashleigh’s joy and delight, had been her own selection!
Mr. Blagdon did not (as his sister had hopefully anticipated) tire of his new discovery; on the contrary, he was blatantly proud of his daughter, of her youth, good looks, and animal spirits. She was not a success among her grandmother’s set (and a little cowed by that old lady), but for the sake of the family, they accepted this loud, bouncing young person—they shrank from further scandal. The girl carried herself well, knew how to dress, spoke French fluently, and danced admirably. She might have been worse! Who could believe, that she had been brought up on a Swiss farm? but then, these dear ladies had no experience of the modern education which is afforded in Swiss schools.
This quick-witted, adaptable damsel, soon picked up society and racing jargon; she had the aplomb of a woman of thirty, ruled her adoring father, banished her unruly aunt, patronised—yes, patronised, the Slaters, and overawed Lord Robby—in short, a domestic Queen Elizabeth!
It was a cruel blow to poor Lady Rashleigh to be compelled to abandon her luxurious home, the use of a motor, gifts of money, and the loan of jewels, in order to make way for a bold, aggressive young woman, who was said to bear a resemblance to herself! She retired in deplorably low spirits to what she was pleased to call ‘her lair.’ A six-roomed flat, with two good sitting-rooms, two small bedrooms, and the usual black hole for the accommodation of servants. Cara paid her aunt a prompt visit—inspired by curiosity, not affection. The suite, shabby and dusty, commanded an extensive view of a garage; the drawing-room was well furnished, but had the rakish air of a passée beauty; and sofas and cabinets, (evident spoil from Sharsley,) blocked up too much space. The bedroom,—also encumbered by Sharsley furniture, seemed to be half filled with piles of shabby cardboard boxes of all sizes; here too were dozens of dusty medicine bottles, ragged novels, old shoes, and on the dressing-table, a coil of false hair, cigarette ashes, a syphon, and the latest edition of Ruff. Two little barking Poms ran in and out; and a gloomy cook, with arms akimbo, stood in the kitchen doorway staring with lowering eyes. Everything was untidy, neglected, and squalid. No wonder Aunt Con preferred to hang on in Hill Street!
And so the months passed, and Cara tasted intoxicating delights of which she had merely dreamt. Among her father’s associates, Miss Blagdon enjoyed un grand succès. Here was no shrinking, awkward hostess, but one whose dancing, skating, riding, and repartee found many admirers,—whilst her influence over an adoring parent was paraded with noisy ostentation. As for her mother—she stored her comfortably away in the remotest garret of her mind. They had met once; it happened in a block in Piccadilly. Cara, queening it in a huge open motor, with furs and rug of sable; her mother and Mrs. Hesketh in a station omnibus, with luggage on top. She had stared at her Mum, and the Mum had bowed, but Cara was so taken aback by the unexpected encounter, that she forgot to return the salute; then there was a violent jerk, the policeman had given a signal, and the omnibus passed on.
What a thing to have happened—she had actually cut her own mother. How funny!
As for Letty Glyn, she returned to Thornby bearing her maiden name; a disgraced wife, who eighteen years previously had left the village in such a blaze of triumph, that its reflection had illuminated three parishes. The knowledge of her altered circumstances had long been public property, and mothers whispered to their daughters as she passed, the story of pretty Miss Letty, sometimes adding: “Aye, she was a rare beauty, and carries her looks still!”
A paragraph in a society paper which penetrated to the Indian frontier, informed Colonel Lumley that ‘Hugo Blagdon and his daughter Miss Blagdon had returned to Hill Street from the Riviera.’
So Cara, the blue-eyed, had deserted her mother, and gone over to the enemy! And now Letty was free, since ‘the cause and impediment’ had abandoned her. He determined to go home at once; but leave, what about leave? Camps and manœuvres were on foot—he must bide his time until the autumn. Meanwhile, he wrote and announced his plans and intentions to Mrs. Glyn, Oldcourt, and she showed her friend part of a letter which said:
“I shall take three months’ ‘privilege leave’ to England, and I do not intend on this, the third, occasion, to return alone.”
It was early in September when Colonel Lumley landed at Dover. As he glanced through the day’s papers in the London train, his eye was arrested by this paragraph: “Sudden death of Hugo Blagdon, the well-known sportsman.”
It appeared that Mr. Blagdon had had a seizure on a race-course, been conveyed to his hotel in an unconscious condition, and there died. Here, indeed, was news!
That same evening Colonel Lumley went down to Thornby, where he was warmly welcomed by his relatives. He dined at Oldcourt, and as he and Letty sat once more at the table of a hostess who had once rashly attempted to lend a hand to Fate—they were a striking pair—though eighteen years had elapsed since their last meeting in that very room. In spite of the cruel shocks of fortune, Letty was still a beautiful woman; the line of her features, the delicacy of her skin, the shine on her glorious hair, had not been tarnished. She looked radiant in mauve chiffon, and wearing her mother’s Indian pearls. Her fiancé, bronzed and in a way storm-beaten, was handsome; the wearer of three well-deserved medals, and a leader of men—but the simple girl of seventeen, and young, eager, and impassioned Lancelot, were no more.
The following afternoon they walked together to the crooked bridge, so well remembered by both; they recalled that winter sunset, the spasmodic talk, the expressive silence of many years ago; between then and now, what a stretch of wide experience!
“If I had only spoken out the last time I was here,” said Lumley, “what a lot it would have saved us! I daresay we would have been married in a couple of years, and when our hearts were younger—though for you, Letty, mine has never changed!”
“Aunt Dorothy would never have allowed it,” replied Letty with decision; “never. And you know how she persuaded your aunt to tell me, that an engagement between us, would be your ruin.”
“Good Lord, what a woman!”
“I really married Hugo because I was terrified of her.”
“Yes, unfortunate child, and went straight out of the frying-pan, into the fire.”
“But, Lancelot, I was the last sort of wife for Hugo. I always seemed to do the wrong thing. I believe, he would have been quite happy with a woman of his own world. I was an experiment; a mistake,” and her lip quivered.
“A costly mistake for you! Poor Letty,” and he looked at her with peculiar tenderness. Now at last she should have someone to protect her; someone to stand between her, and the buffetings of Fate. “Where is your aunt?” he enquired, “dead?” the tone was positively hopeful.
“No, indeed, she is married again to a man ten years younger than herself. They live at Brighton on her money; and I’m told,—though this is dreadful gossip,—that he gambles and flirts, and leads her rather a life; but he is very good-looking, and she adores him.”
“Impossible! She never adored anything in her life but a blue plate! Letty, to turn to another much more interesting subject—you will marry me soon, won’t you—in a week?”
“Oh, no, Lancelot—he was only buried at Sharsley on Friday. Let us wait a month, since”—and she swallowed a lump in her throat—“we have waited so long.”
“Well, all right, a month, so be it; a month from to-day.”
Later, as they strolled towards the village, Lumley said:
“When I passed through town yesterday, I lunched at the Rag, and heard some fellows talking. They said Blagdon had been frightfully hard hit over the Leger, and indeed lately all round. When the numbers went up he dropped his glasses, turned purple, and collapsed. The doctors and the girl got him home. I’m afraid it will be a tremendous change for her.”
“Yes, poor child, it must have been a dreadful shock; but she will be rich—Cara is well provided for.”
“I am not so sure; you know the property is entailed. Old Laban Blagdon never dreamt that the place he was so proud of, would pass to a New Zealand squatter.”
“He will sell it, of course.”
“Impossible; it’s strictly tied up; miserable man, it will be his white elephant. Frances says the house is tumbling to pieces, and that rabbits swarm in the grounds.”
Later that same afternoon, the Blagdon affairs were discussed in the Rectory drawing-room by Mrs. Denton, her nephew, and Mrs. Hesketh,—whilst the Rector took his friend Letty into the garden in order to advise her respecting some important improvements.
“I had a long letter this morning from Doodie,” announced her cousin. “You know she is always so deeply interested in legacies, and wills. She tells me that Hugo Blagdon’s debts to money-lenders are enormous; and the Hill Street house is mortgaged to the roof, and must be sold as it stands—and if there is three or four hundred a year for Cara, she may think herself lucky. She and her aunt are to live together in the flat.”
“I wonder how that arrangement will work out?” said Colonel Lumley, “and how Cara and her aunt will agree?”
“They will fight like the Kilkenny cats,” rejoined Mrs. Hesketh with prompt decision. “Let us hope they will come to the same historical end.”
“My dear friend,” protested Mrs. Denton, “I know you don’t mean that! As for Cara, of course she is headstrong, but she is young, and perhaps——”
At this moment the door opened to admit a maid carrying the tea-tray. As she was immediately followed by Cara’s mother, and the Rector, Mrs. Denton’s sentence remained for ever incomplete.
There was a quiet wedding at Thornby when, for the second time, ‘Lettice Kathleen’ was married by Mr. Denton. On this occasion, it was quite a humble affair; there were no arches, no rice-throwing, no champing grey horses, or gaping crowds; the newly wedded couple, motored away from the church, and spent the honeymoon in Devonshire.
Shortly before Colonel and Mrs. Lumley took their departure for Lucknow, the latter received a long letter from her daughter. It was urgent, incoherent, and self-excusing (the immediate result of a terrific encounter with her companion in the lair). She implored her own sweet darling Mum, to take her with her to India. Unlike the application to her father, this effusion was not rewritten, altered, and recast: but inscribed with many dashes, a flowing pen and assured confidence. Cara told herself, that the Mum who had never said no to her in all her life, or turned a deaf ear to her most daring petitions, would be thankful to have her back; her mental eye already beheld dazzling visions of triumphs at the viceregal Court, the flower of the Indian Army at her feet, her mother once more her unselfish, and devoted slave.
But to Cara’s surprise her gushing despatch was promptly answered by her stepfather; who in a firm, clear hand, and a few terse sentences, conveyed to her, her mother’s good wishes, forgiveness, and farewell.
A week later, Colonel and Mrs. Lumley sailed alone.
Fair and Fragile
“The Serpent’s Tooth.” B. M. Croker. (London Hutchinson and Co.) 6s.
With the best will the world to fall love with Letty Glynn, for she is very beautiful and sweet, one is continually brought sharply up with a violent desire to give her a good shaking. Sedley was an Amazon compared with Letty. Of course Mrs. Croker’s heroine has very bad time of it. She is practically coerced into marrying an utter brute with heaps of money, who tires of her after a week and treats her shamefully. Up to this point Letty has all our sympathy; but when she makes up her mind to run away from her husband, with a view to divorce and then marrying Lancelot Lumley, and then makes an utter fool of the poor fellow by announcing her intention of returning to her husband because of their child, one feels positively angry with her. Her husband practically throws her out of the house, only too glad to be quit of her. Then she bucks up and kidnaps her child, Caroline, who eventually proves a serpent’s tooth—a horrid girl. Letty’s frail bark gets into smooth water at the end, but it might have been there years before.
In truth, Mrs. Croker has drawn a wonderfully realistic portrait of a beautiful but weak character.
Pall Mall Gazette (July 11, 1912) p. 9