There was no doubt whatever that she was a very handsome woman, and that her physical type—that of the more lethargic and heavily built Neapolitan—suggested very happily the mad and melancholy Queen. She had superb black hair, eyes profoundly dark, a low and beautiful brow, lips classically fine, a powerful head and neck, and a complexion which, but for the treatment given it, would have been of a clear and beautiful olive. She wore a draggled dress of cream-coloured muslin, very transparent over the shoulders, somewhat scandalously wanting at the throat and breast, and very frayed and dirty round the skirt. Her feet, which were large and plump, were cased in extremely pointed shoes with large paste buckles; and as she crossed them on the stool provided for them she showed a considerable amount of rather clumsy ankle. The hands too were large, common, and ill-kept, and the wrists laden with bracelets. She was adorned indeed with a great deal of jewellery, including some startling earrings of a bright green stone. The hat, which she had carefully placed on a chair beside her, was truly a monstrosity!—but, as Doris guessed, an expensive monstrosity, such as the Rue de la Paix provides, at anything from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty francs, for those of its cosmopolitan customers whom it pillages and despises. How did the lady afford it? The rest of her dress suggested a struggle with small means, waged by one who was greedy for effect, obtained at a minimum of trouble. That she was rouged and powdered goes without saying.
And the young man? Doris perceived at once his likeness to his father—a feeble likeness. But he was evidently simple and good-natured, and to all appearance completely in the power of the enchantress. He fanned her assiduously. He picked up all the various belongings—gloves, handkerchiefs, handbag—which she perpetually let fall. He ran after the dog whenever it escaped from the lady's lap and threatened mischief in the studio; and by way of amusing her—the purpose for which he had been imported—he kept up a stream of small cryptic gossip about various common acquaintances, most of whom seemed to belong to the music-hall profession, and to be either "stars" or the satellites of "stars." Madame listened to him with avidity, and occasionally broke into a giggling laugh. She had, however, two manners, and two kinds of conversation, which she adopted with the young man and the Academician respectively. Her talk with the youth suggested the jealous ascendency of a coarse-minded woman. She occasionally flattered him, but more generally she teased or "ragged" him. She seemed indeed to feel him securely in her grip; so that there was no need to pose for him, as—figuratively as well as physically—she posed for Bentley. To the artist she gave her opinions on pictures or books—on the novels of Mr. Wells, or the plays of Mr. Bernard Shaw—in the languid or drawling tone of accepted authority; dropping every now and then into a broad cockney accent, which produced a startling effect, like that of unexpected garlic in cookery. Bentley's gravity was often severely tried, and Doris altered the position of her own easel so that he and she could not see each other. Meanwhile Madame took not the smallest notice of Mr. Bentley's niece, and Doris made no advances to the young man, to whom her name was clearly quite unknown. Had Circe really got him in her toils? Doris judged him soft-headed and soft-hearted; no match at all for the lady. The thought of her walking the lawns or the drawing-rooms of Crosby Ledgers as the betrothed of the heir stirred in Arthur Meadows's wife a silent, and—be it confessed!—a malicious convulsion. Such mothers, so self-centred, so set on their own triumphs, with their intellectual noses so very much in the clouds, deserved such sons! She promised herself to keep her own counsel, and watch the play.
The sitting lasted for two hours. When it was over, Uncle Charles, all smiles and satisfaction, went with his visitors to the front door.
He was away some little time, and returned, bubbling, to the studio.
"She's been cross-examining me about her poems! I had to confess I hadn't read a word of them. And now she's offered to recite next time she comes! Good Heavens—how can I get out of it? I believe, Doris, she's hooked that young idiot! She told me she was engaged to him. Do you know anything of his people?"
The girl accountant suddenly came forward. She looked flushed and distressed.
"I do!" she said, with energy. "Can't somebody stop that? It will break their hearts!"
Doris and Uncle Charles looked at her in amazement.
"Whose hearts?" said the painter.
"Lord and Lady Dunstable's."
"You know them?" exclaimed Doris.
"I used to know them—quite well," said the girl, quietly. "My father had one of Lord Dunstable's livings. He died last year. He didn't like Lady Dunstable. He quarrelled with her, because—because she once did a very rude thing to me. But this would be too awful! And poor Lord Dunstable! Everybody likes him. Oh—it must be stopped!—it must!"
When Doris reached home that evening, the little Kensington house, with half its carpets up and all but two of its rooms under dust-sheets, looked particularly lonely and unattractive. Arthur's study was unrecognisable. No cheerful litter anywhere. No smell of tobacco, no sign of a male presence! Doris, walking restlessly from room to room, had never felt so forsaken, so dismally certain that the best of life was done. Moreover, she had fully expected to find a letter from Arthur waiting for her; and there was nothing.
It was positively comic that under such circumstances anybody should expect her—Doris Meadows—to trouble her head about Lady Dunstable's affairs. Of course she would feel it if her son made a ridiculous and degrading marriage. But why not?—why shouldn't he come to grief like anybody else's son? Why should heaven and earth be moved in order to prevent it?—especially by the woman to whose possible jealousy and pain Lady Dunstable had certainly never given the most passing thought.
All the same, the distress shown by that odd girl, Miss Wigram, and her appeal both to the painter and his niece to intervene and save the foolish youth, kept echoing in Doris's memory, although neither she nor Bentley had received it with any cordiality. Doris had soon made out that this girl, Alice Wigram, was indeed the clergyman's daughter whom Lady Dunstable had snubbed so unkindly some twelve months before. She was evidently a sweet-natured, susceptible creature, to whom Lord Dunstable had taken a fancy, in his fatherly way, during occasional visits to her father's rectory, and of whom he had spoken to his wife. That Lady Dunstable should have unkindly slighted this motherless girl, who had evidently plenty of natural capacity under her shyness, was just like her, and Doris's feelings of antagonism to the tyrant were only sharpened by her acquaintance with the victim. Why should Miss Wigram worry her self? Lord Dunstable? Well, but after all, capable men should keep such wives in order. If Lord Dunstable had not been scandalously weak, Lady Dunstable would not have become a terror to her sex.
As for Uncle Charles, he had simply declined all responsibility in the matter. He had never seen the Dunstables, wouldn't know them from Adam, and had no concern whatever in what happened to their son. The situation merely excited in him one man's natural amusement at the folly of another. The boy was more than of age. Really he and his mother must look after themselves. To meddle with the young man's love affairs, simply because he happened to visit your studio in the company of a lady, would be outrageous. So the painter laughed, shook his head, and went back to his picture. Then Miss Wigram, looking despondently from the silent Doris to the artist at work, had said with sudden energy, "I must find out about her! I'm—I'm sure she's a horrid woman! Can you tell me, sir"—she addressed Bentley—"the name of the gentleman who was painting her before she came here?"
Bentley had hummed and hawed a little, twisting his red moustache, and finally had given the name and address; whereupon Miss Wigram had gathered up her papers, some of which had drifted to the floor between her table and Doris's easel, and had taken an immediate departure, a couple of hours before her usual time, throwing, as she left the studio, a wistful and rather puzzled look at Mrs. Meadows.
Doris congratulated herself that she had kept her own counsel on the subject of the Dunstables, both with Uncle Charles and Miss Wigram. Neither of them had guessed that she had any personal acquaintance with them. She tried now to put the matter out of her thoughts. Jane brought in a tray for her mistress, and Doris supped meagrely in Arthur's deserted study, thinking, as the sunset light came in across the dusty street, of that flame and splendour which such weather must be kindling on the moors, of the blue and purple distances, the glens of rocky mountains hung in air, "the gleam, the shadow, and the peace supreme"! She remembered how on their September honeymoon they had wandered in Ross-shire, how the whole land was dyed crimson by the heather, and how impossible it was to persuade Arthur to walk discreetly rather than, like any cockney tripper, with his arm round his sweetheart. Scotland had not been far behind the Garden of Eden under those circumstances. But Arthur was now pursuing the higher, the intellectual joys.
She finished her supper, and then sat down to write to her husband. Was she going to tell him anything about the incident of the afternoon? Why should she? Why should she give him the chance of becoming more than ever Lady Dunstable's friend—pegging out an eternal claim upon her gratitude?
Doris wrote her letter. She described the progress of the spring cleaning; she reported that her sixth illustration was well forward, and that Uncle Charles was wrestling with another historical picture, a machine neither better nor worse than all the others. She thought that after all Jane would soon give warning; and she, Doris, had spent three pounds in petty cash since he went away; how, she could not remember, but it was all in her account book.
And she concluded:
I understand then that we meet at Crewe on Friday fortnight? I have heard of a lodging near Capel Curig which sounds delightful. We might do a week's climbing and then go on to the sea. I really shall want a holiday. Has there not been ten minutes even—since you arrived—to write a letter in?—or a postcard? Shall I send you a few addressed?
Having thus finished what seemed to her the dullest letter she had ever written in her life, she looked at it a while, irresolutely, then put it in an envelope hastily, addressed, stamped it, and rang the bell for Jane to run across the street with it and post it. After which, she sat idle a little while with flushed cheeks, while the twilight gathered.
* * * * *
The gate of the trim front garden swung on its hinges. Doris turned to look. She saw, to her astonishment, that the girl-accountant of the morning, Miss Wigram, was coming up the flagged path to the house. What could she want?
"Oh, Mrs. Meadows—I'm so sorry to disturb you—" said the visitor, in some agitation, as Doris, summoned by Jane, entered the dust-sheeted drawing-room. "But you dropped an envelope with an address this afternoon. I picked it up with some of my papers and never discovered it till I got home."
She held out the envelope. Doris took it, and flushed vividly. It was the envelope with his Scotch address which Arthur had written out for her before leaving home—"care of the Lord Dunstable, Franick Castle, Pitlochry, Perthshire, N.B." She had put it in her portfolio, out of which it had no doubt slipped while she was at work.
She and Miss Wigram eyed each other. The girl was evidently agitated. But she seemed not to know how to begin what she had to say.
Doris broke the silence.
"You were astonished to find that I know the Dunstables?"
"Oh, no!—I didn't think—" stammered her visitor—"I supposed some friend of yours might be staying there."
"My husband is staying there," said Doris, quietly. Really it was too much trouble to tell a falsehood. Her pride refused.
"Oh, I see!" cried Miss Wigram, though in fact she was more bewildered than before. Why should this extraordinary little lady have behaved at the studio as if she had never heard of the Dunstables, and be now confessing that her husband was actually staying in their house?
Doris smiled—with perfect self-possession.
"Please sit down. You think it odd, of course, that I didn't tell you I knew the Dunstables, while we were talking about them. The fact is I didn't want to be mixed up with the affair at all. We have only lately made acquaintance with the Dunstables. Lady Dunstable is my husband's friend. I don't like her very much. But neither of us knows her well enough to go and tell her tales about her son."
Miss Wigram considered—her gentle, troubled eyes bent upon Doris. "Of course—I know—how many people dislike Lady Dunstable. She did a—rather cruel thing to me once. The thought of it humiliated and discouraged me for a long time. It made me almost glad to leave home. And of course she hasn't won Mr. Herbert's confidence at all. She has always snubbed and disapproved of him. Oh, I knew him very little. I have hardly ever spoken to him. You saw he didn't recognise me this afternoon. But my father used to go over to Crosby Ledgers to coach him in the holidays, and he often told me that as a boy he was terrified of his mother. She either took no notice of him at all, or she was always sneering at him, and scolding him. As soon as ever he came of age and got a little money of his own, he declared he wouldn't live at home. His father wanted him to go into Parliament or the army, but he said he hated the army, and if he was such a dolt as his mother thought him it would be ridiculous to attempt politics. And so he just drifted up to town and looked out for people that would make much of him, and wouldn't snub him. And that, of course, was how he got into the toils of a woman like that!"
The girl threw up her hands tragically.
Doris sat up, with energy.
"But what on earth," she said, "does it matter to you or to me?"
"Oh, can't you see?" said the other, flushing deeply, and with the tears in her eyes. "My father had one of Lord Dunstable's livings. We lived on that estate for years. Everybody loved Lord Dunstable. And though Lady Dunstable makes enemies, there's a great respect for the family. They've been there since Queen Elizabeth's time. And it's dreadful to think of a woman like—well, like that!—reigning at Crosby Ledgers. I think of the poor people. Lady Dunstable's good to them; though of course you wouldn't hear anything about it, unless you lived there. She tries to do her duty to them—she really does—in her own way. And, of course, they respect her. No Dunstable has ever done anything disgraceful! Isn't there something in 'Noblesse oblige'? Think of this woman at the head of that estate!"
"Well, upon my word," said Doris, after a pause, "you are feudal. Don't you feel yourself that you are old-fashioned?"
Mrs. Meadows's half-sarcastic look at first intimidated her visitor, and then spurred her into further attempts to explain herself.
"I daresay it's old-fashioned," she said slowly, "but I'm sure it's what father would have felt. Anyway, I went off to try and find out what I could. I went first to a little club I belong to—for professional women—near the Strand, and I asked one or two women I found there—who know artists—and models—and write for papers. And very soon I found out a great deal. I didn't have to go to the man whose address Mr. Bentley gave me. Madame Vavasour is a horrid woman! This is not the first young man she's fleeced—by a long way. There was a man—younger than Mr. Dunstable, a boy of nineteen—three years ago. She got him to promise to marry her; and the parents came down, and paid her enormously to let him go. Now she's got through all that money, and she boasts she's going to marry young Dunstable before his parents know anything about it. She's going to make sure of a peerage this time. Oh, she's odious! She's greedy, she's vulgar, she's false! And of course"—the girl's eyes grew wide and scared—"there may be other things much worse. How do we know?"
"How do we know indeed!" said Doris, with a shrug. "Well!"—she turned her eyes full upon her guest—"and what are you going to do?"
An eager look met hers.
"Couldn't you—couldn't you write to Mr. Meadows, and ask him to warn Lady Dunstable?"
Doris shook her head.
"Why don't you do it yourself?"
The girl flushed uncomfortably. "You see, father quarrelled with her about that unkind thing she did to me—oh, it isn't worth telling!—but he wrote her an angry letter, and they never spoke afterwards. Lady Dunstable never forgives that kind of thing. If people find fault with her, she just drops them. I don't believe she'd read a letter from me!"
"Les offenses, etc.," said Doris, meditating. "But what are the facts? Has the boy actually promised to marry her? She may have been telling lies to my uncle."
"She tells everybody so. I saw a girl who knows her quite well. They write for the same paper—it's a fashion paper. You saw that hat, by the way, she had on? She gets them as perquisites from the smart shops she writes about. She has a whole cupboard of them at home, and when she wants money she sells them for what she can get. Well, she told me that Madame—they all call her Madame, though they all know quite well that she's not married, and that her name is Flink—boasts perpetually of her engagement. It seems that he was ill in the winter—in his lodgings. His mother knew nothing about it—he wouldn't tell her, and Madame nursed him, and made a fuss of him. And Mr. Dunstable thought he owed her a great deal—and she made scenes and told him she had compromised herself by coming to nurse him—and all that kind of nonsense. And at last he promised to marry her—in writing. And now she's so sure of him that she just bullies him—you saw how she ordered him about to-day."
"Well, why doesn't he marry her, if he's such a fool—why hasn't he married her long ago?" cried Doris.
Miss Wigram looked distressed.
"I don't know. My friend thinks it's his father. She believes, at least, that he doesn't want to get married without telling Lord Dunstable; and that, of course, means telling his mother. And he hates the thought of the letters and the scenes. So he keeps it hanging on; and lately Madame has been furious with him, and is always teasing and sniffing at him. He's dreadfully weak, and my friend's afraid that before he's made up his own mind what to do that woman will have carried him off to a registry office—and got the horrid thing done for good and all."
There was silence a moment. After which Doris said, with a cold decision:
"You can't imagine how absurd it seems to me that you should come and ask me to help Lady Dunstable with her son. There is nobody in the world less helpless than Lady Dunstable, and nobody who would be less grateful for being helped. I really cannot meddle with it."
She rose as she spoke, and Miss Wigram rose too.
"Couldn't you—couldn't you—" said the girl pleadingly—"just ask Mr. Meadows to warn Lord Dunstable? I'm thinking of the villagers, and the farmers, and the schools—all the people we used to love. Father was there twenty years! To think of the dear place given over—some day—to that creature!"
Her charming eyes actually filled with tears. Doris was touched, but at the same time set on edge. This loyalty that people born and bred in the country feel to our English country system—what an absurd and unreal frame of mind! And when our country system produces Lady Dunstables!
"They have such a pull!"—she thought angrily—"such a hideously unfair pull, over other people! The way everybody rushes to help them when they get into a mess—to pick up the pieces—and sweep it all up! It's irrational—it's sickening! Let them look after themselves—and pay for their own misdeeds like the rest of us."
"I can't interfere—I really can't!" she said, straightening her slim shoulders. "It is not as though we were old friends of Lord and Lady Dunstable. Don't you see how very awkward it would be? Let me advise you just to watch the thing a little, and then to apply to somebody in the Crosby Ledgers neighbourhood. You must have some friends or acquaintances there, who at any rate could do more than we could. And perhaps after all it's a mare's nest, and the young man doesn't mean to marry her at all!"
The girl's anxious eyes scanned Doris's unyielding countenance; then with a sigh she gave up her attempt, and said "Good-bye." Doris went with her to the door.
"We shall meet to-morrow, shan't we?" she said, feeling a vague compunction. "And I suppose this woman will be there again. You can keep an eye on her. Are you living alone—or are you with friends?"
"Oh, I'm in a boarding-house," said Miss Wigram, hastily. Then as though she recognised the new softness in Doris's look, she added, "I'm quite comfortable there—and I've a great deal of work. Good night."
* * * * *
"All alone!—with that gentle face—and that terrible amount of conscience—hard lines!" thought Doris, as she reflected on her visitor. "I felt a black imp beside her!"
All the same, the letter which Mrs. Meadows received by the following morning's post was not at all calculated to melt the "black imp" further. Arthur wrote in a great hurry to beg that she would not go on with their Welsh plans—for the moment.
Lady D—— has insisted on my going on a short yachting cruise with her and Miss Field, the week after next. She wants to show me the West Coast, and they have a small cottage in the Shetlands where we should stay a night or two and watch the sea-birds. It may keep me away another week or fortnight, but you won't mind, dear, will you? I am getting famously rested, and really the house is very agreeable. In these surroundings Lady Dunstable is less of the bas-bleu, and more of the woman. You must make up your mind to come another year! You would soon get over your prejudice and make friends with her. She looks after us all—she talks brilliantly—and I haven't seen her rude to anybody since I arrived. There are some very nice people here, and altogether I am enjoying it. Don't you work too hard—and don't let the servants harry you. Post just going. Good night!
Another week or fortnight!—five weeks, or nearly, altogether. Doris was sorely wounded. She went to look at herself in the mirror over the chimney-piece. Was she not thin and haggard for want of rest and holiday? Would not the summer weather be all done by the time Arthur graciously condescended to come back to her? Were there not dark lines under her eyes, and was she not feeling a limp and wretched creature, unfit for any exertion? What was wrong with her? She hated her drawing—she hated everything. And there was Arthur, proposing to go yachting with Lady Dunstable!—while she might toil and moil—all alone—in this August London! The tears rushed into her eyes. Her pride only just saved her from a childish fit of crying.
But in the end resentment came to her aid, together with an angry and redoubled curiosity as to what might be happening to Lady Dunstable's precious son while Lady Dunstable was thus absorbed in robbing other women of their husbands. Doris hurried her small household affairs, that she might get off early to the studio; and as she put on her hat, her fancy drew vindictive pictures of the scene which any day might realise—the scene at Franick Castle, when Lady Dunstable, unsuspecting, should open the letter which announced to her the advent of her daughter-in-law, Elena, nee Flink—or should gather the same unlovely fact from a casual newspaper paragraph. As for interfering between her and her rich deserts, Doris vowed to herself she would not lift a finger. That incredibly forgiving young woman, Miss Wigram, might do as she pleased. But when a mother pursues her own selfish ends so as to make her only son dislike and shun her, let her take what comes. It was in the mood of an Erinnys that Doris made her way northwards to Campden Hill, and nobody perceiving the slight erect figure in the corner of the omnibus could possibly have guessed at the storm within.
The August day was hot and lifeless. Heat mist lay over the park, and over the gardens on the slopes of Campden Hill. Doris could hardly drag her weary feet along, as she walked from where the omnibus had set her down to her uncle's studio. But it was soon evident that within the studio itself there was animation enough. From the long passage approaching it Doris heard someone shouting—declaiming—what appeared to be verse. Madame, of course, reciting her own poems—poor Uncle Charles! Doris stopped outside the door, which was slightly open, to listen, and heard these astonishing lines—delivered very slowly and pompously, in a thick, strained voice:
"My heart is adamant! The tear-drops drip and drip— Force their slow path, and tear their desperate way. The vulture Pain sits close, to snip—and snip—and snip My sad, sweet life to ruin—well-a-day! I am deceived—a bleating lamb bereft!—who goes Baa-baaing to the moon o'er lonely lands. Through all my shivering veins a tender fervour flows; I cry to Love—'Reach out, my Lord, thy hands! And save me from these ugly beasts who ramp and rage Around me all day long—beasts fell and sore— Envy, and Hate, and Calumny!—do thou assuage Their impious mouths, O splendid Love, and floor Their hideous tactics, and their noisome spleen, Withering to dust the awful "Might-Have-Been!"'"
"Goodness! 'Howls the Sublime' indeed!" thought Doris, gurgling with laughter in the passage. As soon as she had steadied her face she opened the studio door, and perceived Lady Dunstable's prospective daughter-in-law standing in the middle of the studio, head thrown back and hands outstretched, invoking the Cyprian. The shriek of the first lines had died away in a stage whisper; the reciter was glaring fiercely into vacancy.
Doris's merry eyes devoured the scene. On the chair from which the model had risen she had deposited yet another hat, so large, so audacious and beplumed that it seemed to have a positive personality, a positive swagger of its own, and to be winking roguishly at the audience. Meanwhile Madame's muslin dress of the day before had been exchanged for something more appropriate to the warmth of her poetry—a tawdry flame-coloured satin, in which her "too, too solid" frame was tightly sheathed. Her coal-black hair, tragically wild, looked as though no comb had been near it for a month, and the gloves drawn half-way up the bare arms hardly remembered they had ever been white.
A slovenly, dishevelled, vulgar woman, reciting bombastic nonsense! And yet!—a touch of Southern magnificence, even of Southern grace, amid the cockney squalor and finery. Doris coolly recognised it, as she stood, herself invisible, behind her uncle's large easel. Thence she perceived also the other persons in the studio:—Bentley sitting in front of the poetess, hiding his eyes with one hand, and nervously tapping the arm of his chair with the other; to the right of him—seen sideways—the lanky form, flushed face, and open mouth of young Dunstable; and in the far distance, Miss Wigram.
Then—a surprising thing! The awkward pause following the recitation was suddenly broken by a loud and uncontrollable laugh. Doris, startled, turned to look at young Dunstable. For it was he who had laughed. Madame also shook off her stage trance to look—a thunderous frown upon her handsome face. The young man laughed on—laughed hysterically—burying his face in his hands. Madame Vavasour—all attitudes thrown aside—ran up to him in a fury.
"Why are you laughing? You insult me!—you have done it before. And now before strangers—it is too much! I insist that you explain!"
She stood over him, her eyes blazing. The youth, still convulsed, did his best to quiet the paroxysm which had seized him, and at last said, gasping:
"I was—I was thinking—of your reciting that at Crosby Ledgers—to my mother—and—and what she would say."
Even under her rouge it could be seen that the poetess turned a grey white.
"And pray—what would she say?"
The question was delivered with apparent calm. But Madame's eyes were dangerous. Doris stepped forward. Her uncle stayed her with a gesture. He himself rose, but Madame fiercely waved him aside. Miss Wigram, in the distance, had also moved forward—and paused.
"What would she say?" demanded Madame, again—at the sword's point.
"I—I don't know—" said young Dunstable, helplessly, still shaking. "I—I think—she'd laugh."
And he went off again, hysterically, trying in vain to stop the fit. Madame bit her lip. Then came a torrent of Italian—evidently a torrent of abuse; and then she lifted a gloved hand and struck the young man violently on the cheek.
"Take that!—you insolent—you—you barbarian! You are my fiance,—my promised husband—and you mock at me; you will encourage your stuck-up mother to mock at me—I know you will! But I tell you—"
The speaker, however, had stopped abruptly, and instead of saying anything more she fell back panting, her eyes on the young man. For Herbert Dunstable had risen. At the blow, an amazing change had passed over his weak countenance and weedy frame. He put his hand to his forehead a moment, as though trying to collect his thoughts, and then he turned—quietly—to look for his hat and stick.
"Where are you going, Herbert?" stammered Madame. "I—I was carried away—I forgot myself!"
"I think not," said the young man, who was extremely pale. "This is not the first time. I bid you good morning, Madame—and good-bye!"
He stood looking at the now frightened woman, with a strange, surprised look, like one just emerging from a semi-conscious state; and in that moment, as Doris seemed to perceive, the traditions of his birth and breeding had returned upon him; something instinctive and inherited had reappeared; and the gentlemanly, easy-going father, who yet, as Doris remembered, when matters were serious "always got his way," was there—strangely there—in the degenerate son.
"Where are you going?" repeated Madame, eyeing him. "You promised to give me lunch."
"I regret—I have an engagement. Mr. Bentley—when the sitting is over—will you kindly see—Miss Flink—into a taxi? I thank you very much for allowing me to come and watch your work. I trust the picture will be a success. Good-bye!"
He held out his hand to Bentley, and bowed to Doris. Madame made a rush at him. But Bentley held her back. He seized her arms, indeed, quietly but irresistibly, while the young man made his retreat. Then, with a shriek, Madame fell back on her chair, pretending to faint, and Bentley, in no hurry, went to her assistance, while Doris slipped out after young Dunstable. She overtook him on the door-step.
"Mr. Dunstable, may I speak to you?"
He turned in astonishment, showing a grim pallor which touched her pity.
"I know your mother and father," said Doris hurriedly; "at least my husband and I were staying at Crosby Ledges some weeks ago, and my husband is now in Scotland with your people. His name is Arthur Meadows. I am Mrs. Meadows. I—I don't know whether I could help you. You seem"—her smile flashed out—"to be in a horrid mess!"
The young man looked in perplexity at the small, trim lady before him, as though realising her existence for the first time. Her honest eyes were bent upon him with the same expression she had often worn when Arthur had come to her with some confession of folly—the expression which belongs to the maternal side of women, and is at once mocking and sweet. It said—"Of course you are a great fool!—most men are. But that's the raison d'etre of women! Suppose we go into the business!"
"You're very kind—" he groaned—"awfully kind. I'm ashamed you should have seen—such a thing. Nobody can help me—thank you very much. I am engaged to that lady—I've promised to marry her. Oh, she's got any amount of evidence. I've been an ass—and worse. But I can't get out of it. I don't mean to try to get out of it. I promised of my own free will. Only I've found out now I can never live with her. Her temper is fiendish. It degrades her—and me. But you saw! She has made my life a burden to me lately, because I wouldn't name a day for us to be married. I wanted to see my father quietly first—without my mother knowing—and I have been thinking how to manage it—and funking it of course—I always do funk things. But what she did just now has settled it—it has been blowing up for a long time. I shall marry her—at a registry office—as soon as possible. Then I shall separate from her, and—I hope—never see her again. The lawyers will arrange that—and money! Thank you—it's awfully good of you to want to help me—but you can't—nobody can."
Doris had drawn her companion into her uncle's small dining-room and closed the door. She listened to his burst of confidence with a puzzled concern.
"Why must you marry her?" she said abruptly, when he paused. "Break it off! It would be far best."
"No. I promised. I—" he stammered a little—"I seem to have done her harm—her reputation, I mean. There is only one thing could let me off. She swore to me that—well!—that she was a good woman—that there was nothing in her past—you understand—"
"And you know of nothing?" said Doris, gravely.
"Nothing. And you don't think I'm going to try and ferret out things against her!" cried the youth, flushing. "No—I must just bear it."
"It's your parents that will have to bear it!"
His face hardened.
"My mother might have prevented it," he said bitterly. "However, I won't go into that. My father will see I couldn't do anything else. I'd better get it over. I'm going to my lawyers now. They'll take a few days over what I want."
"You'll tell your father?"
"I—I don't know," he said, irresolutely. She noticed that he did not try to pledge her not to give him away. And she, on her side, did not threaten to do so. She argued with him a little more, trying to get at his real thoughts, and to straighten them out for him. But it was evident he had made up such mind as he had, and that his sudden resolution—even the ugly scene which had made him take it—had been a relief. He knew at last where he stood.
So presently Doris let him go. They parted, liking each other decidedly. He thanked her warmly—though drearily—for taking an interest in him, and he said to her on the threshold:
"Some day, I hope, you'll come to Crosby Ledgers again, Mrs. Meadows—and I'll be there—for once! Then I'll tell you—if you care—more about it. Thanks awfully! Good-bye."
* * * * *
Later on, when "Miss Flink," in a state of sulky collapse, had been sent home in her taxi, Doris, Bentley, and Miss Wigram held a conference. But it came to little. Bentley, the hater of "rows," simply could not be moved to take the thing up. "I kept her from scalping him!—" he laughed—"and I'm not due for any more!" Doris said little. A whirl of arguments and projects were in her mind. But she kept her own counsel about them. As to the possibility of inducing the man to break it off, she repeated the only condition on which it could be done; at which Uncle Charles laughed, and Alice Wigram fell into a long and thoughtful silence.
* * * * *
Doris arrived at home rather early. What with the emotions of the day, the heat, and her work, she was strangely tired and over-done. After tea she strolled out into Kensington Gardens, and sat under the shade of trees already autumnal, watching the multitude of children—children of the people—enjoying the nation's park all to themselves, in the complete absence of their social betters. What ducks they were, some of them—the little, grimy, round-faced things—rolling on the grass, or toddling after their sisters and brothers. They turned large, inquisitive eyes upon her, which seemed to tease her heart-strings.
And suddenly,—it was in Kensington Gardens that out of the heart of a long and vague reverie there came a flash—an illumination—which wholly changed the life and future of Doris Meadows. After the thought in which it took shape had seized upon her, she sat for some time motionless; then rising to her feet, tottering a little, like one in bewilderment, she turned northwards, and made her way hurriedly towards Lancaster Gate. In a house there, lived a lady, a widowed lady, who was Doris's godmother, and to whom Doris—who had lost her own mother in her childhood—had turned for counsel before now. How long it was since she had seen "Cousin Julia"!—nearly two months. And here she was, hastening to her, and not able to bear the thought that in all human probability Cousin Julia was not in town.
But, by good luck, Doris found her godmother, perching in London between a Devonshire visit and a Scotch one. They talked long, and Doris walked slowly home across the park. A glory of spreading sun lay over the grassy glades; the Serpentine held reflections of a sky barred with rose; London, transfigured, seemed a city of pearl and fire. And in Doris's heart there was a glory like that of the evening,—and, like the burning sky, bearing with it a promise of fair days to come. The glory and the promise stole through all her thoughts, softening and transmuting everything.
"When he grows up—if he were to marry such a woman—and I didn't know—if all his life—and mine—were spoilt—and nobody said a word!"
Her eyes filled with tears. She seemed to be walking with Arthur through a world of beauty, hand in hand.
How many hours to Pitlochry? She ran into the Kensington house, asking for railway guides, and peremptorily telling Jane to get down the small suitcase from the box-room at once.
"'Barbarians, Philistines, Populace!'"
The young golden-haired man of letters who was lounging on the grass beside Arthur Meadows repeated the words to himself in an absent voice, turning over the pages meanwhile of a book lying before him, as though in search of a passage he had noticed and lost. He presently found it again, and turned laughing towards Meadows, who was trifling with a French novel.
"Do you remember this passage in Culture and Anarchy—'I often, therefore, when I want to distinguish clearly the aristocratic class from the Philistines proper, or middle class, name the former, in my own mind, the Barbarians. And when I go through the country, and see this or that beautiful and imposing seat of theirs crowning the landscape, "There," I say to myself, "is a great fortified post of the Barbarians!"'"
The youth pointed smiling to the fine Scotch house seen sideways on the other side of the lawn. Its turreted and battlemented front rose high above the low and spreading buildings which made the bulk of the house, so that it was a feudal castle—by no means, however, so old as it looked—on a front view, and a large and roomy villa from the rear. Meadows, looking at it, appreciated the fitness of the quotation, and laughed in response.
"Ungrateful wretch," he said—"after that dinner last night!"
"All the same, Matthew Arnold had that dinner in mind—chef and all! Listen! 'The graver self of the Barbarian likes honours and consideration; his more relaxed self, field-sports and pleasures.' Isn't it exact? Grouse-driving in the morning—bridge, politics, Cabinet-making, and the best of food in the evening. And I should put our hostess very high—wouldn't you?—among the chatelaines of the 'great fortified posts'?"
Meadows assented, but rather languidly. The day was extremely hot; he was tired, moreover, by a long walk with the guns the day before, and by conversation after dinner, led by Lady Dunstable, which had lasted up to nearly one o'clock in the morning. The talk had been brilliant, no doubt. Meadows, however, did not feel that he had come off very well in it. His hostess had deliberately pitted him against two of the ablest men in England, and he was well aware that he had disappointed her. Lady Dunstable had a way of behaving to her favourite author or artist of the moment as though she were the fancier and he the cock. She fought him against the other people's cocks with astonishing zeal and passion; and whenever he failed to kill, or lost too many feathers in the process, her annoyance was evident.
Meadows was in truth becoming a little tired of her dictation, although it was only ten days since he had arrived under her roof. There was a large amount of lethargy combined with his ability; and he hated to be obliged to live at any pace but his own. But Rachel Dunstable was an imperious friend, never tired herself, apparently, either in mind or body; and those who could not walk, eat, and talk to please her were apt to know it. Her opinions too, both political and literary, were in some directions extremely violent; and though, in general, argument and contradiction gave her pleasure, she had her days and moods, and Meadows had already suffered occasional sets-down, of a kind to which he was not accustomed.
But if he was—just a little—out of love with his new friend, in all other respects he was enjoying himself enormously. The long days on the moors, the luxurious life indoors, the changing and generally agreeable company, all the thousand easements and pleasures that wealth brings with it, the skilled service, the motors, the costly cigars, the wines—there was a Sybarite in Meadows which revelled in them all. He had done without them; he would do without them again; but there they were exceedingly good creatures of God, while they lasted; and only the hypocrites pretended otherwise. His sympathy, in the old poverty-stricken days, would have been all with the plaintive American—"There's d——-d good times in the world, and I ain't in 'em."
All the same, the fleshpots of Pitlochry had by no means put his wife out of his mind. His incurable laziness and procrastination in small things had led him to let slip post after post; but that very morning, at any rate, he had really written her a decent letter. And he was beginning to be anxious to hear from her about the yachting plan. If Lady Dunstable had asked him a few days later, he was not sure he would have accepted so readily. After all, the voyage might be stormy, and the lady—difficult. Doris must be dull in London,—"poor little cat!"
But then a very natural wrath returned upon him. Why on earth had she stayed behind? No doubt Lady Dunstable was formidable, but so was Doris in her own way. "She'd soon have held her own. Lady D. would have had to come to terms!" However, he remembered with some compunction that Doris did seem to have been a good deal neglected at Crosby Ledgers, and that he had not done much to help her.
* * * * *
It was an "off" day for the shooters, and Lady Dunstable's guests were lounging about the garden, writing letters or playing a little leisurely golf on the lower reaches of the moor. Some of the ladies, indeed, had not yet appeared downstairs; a sleepy heat reigned over the valley with its winding stream, and veiled the distant hills. Meadows's companion, Ralph Barrow, a young novelist of promise, had gone fast asleep on the grass; Meadows was drowsing over his book; the dogs slept on the terrace steps; and in the summer silence the murmur of the river far below stole up the hill on which the house stood, and its soft song held the air.
Suddenly there was a disturbance. The dogs sprang up and barked. There was a firm step on the gravel. Lady Dunstable, stick in hand, her short leather-bound skirt showing boots and gaiters of the most business-like description, came quickly towards the seat on which Meadows sat.
"Mr. Meadows, I summon you for a walk! Sir Luke and Mr. Frome are coming. We propose to get to the tarn and back before lunch."
The tarn was at least two miles away, a stiff climb over difficult moor. Meadows, startled from something very near sleep, looked up, and a spirit of revolt seized upon him, provoked by the masterful tone and eyes of the lady.
"Very sorry, Lady Dunstable!—but I must write some letters before luncheon."
"Oh no!—put them off! I have been thinking of what you told me yesterday of your scheme for your new set of lectures. I have a great deal to say to you about it."
"I really shouldn't be worth talking to now," laughed Meadows; "this heat has made me so sleepy. To-night—or after tea—by all means!"
Lady Dunstable looked annoyed.
"I am expecting the Duke's party at tea," she said peremptorily. "This will be my only chance to-day."
"Then let's put it off—till to-morrow!" said Meadows, as he rose, still smiling. "It is most kind of you, but I really must write my letters, and my brains are pulp. But I will escort you through the garden, if I may."
His hostess turned sharply, and walked back towards the front of the house where Sir Luke and Mr. Frome, a young and rising Under-Secretary, were waiting for her. Meadows accompanied her, but found her exceedingly ungracious. She did, however, inform him, as they followed the other two towards the exit from the garden, that she had come to the conclusion that the subject he was proposing for his second series of lectures, to be given at Dunstable House during the winter, "would never do."
"Famous Controversies of the Nineteenth Century—political and religious." The very sound of it was enough to keep people away! "What people expect from you is talk about persons—not ideas. Ideas are not your line!"
Meadows flushed a little. What his "line" might be, he said, he had not yet discovered. But he liked his subject, and meant to stick to it.
Lady Dunstable turned on him a pair of sarcastic eyes.
"That's so like you clever people. You would die rather than take advice."
"Advice!—yes. As much as you like, dear lady. But—"
"But what—" she asked, imperatively, nettled in her turn.
"Well—you must put it prettily!" said Meadows, smiling. "We want a great deal of jam with the powder."
"You want to be flattered? I never flatter! It is the most despicable of arts."
"On the contrary—one of the most skilled. And I have heard you do it to perfection."
His daring half irritated, half amused her. It was her turn to flush. Her thin, sallow face and dark eyes lit up vindictively.
"One should never remind one's friends of their vices," she said with animation.
"Ah—if they are vices! But flattery is merely a virtue out of place—kindness gone wrong. From the point of view of the moralist, that is. From the point of view of the ordinary mortal, it is what no men—and few women—can do without!"
She smiled grimly, enjoying the spar. They carried it on a little while, Meadows, now fairly on his mettle, administering a little deft though veiled castigation here and there, in requital for various acts of rudeness of which she had been guilty towards him and others during the preceding days. She grew restive occasionally, but on the whole she bore it well. Her arrogance was not of the small-minded sort; and the best chance with her was to defy her.
At the gate leading on to the moor, Meadows resolutely came to a stop.
"Your letters are the merest excuse!" said Lady Dunstable. "I don't believe you will write one of them! I notice you always put off unpleasant duties."
"Give me credit at least for the intention."
Smiling, he held the gate open for her, and she passed through, discomfited, to join Sir Luke on the other side. Mr. Frome, the Under-Secretary, a young man of Jewish family and amazing talents, who had been listening with amusement to the conversation behind him, turned back to say to Meadows, at a safe distance—"Keep it up!—Keep it up! You avenge us all!"
* * * * *
Presently, as she and her two companions wound slowly up the moor, Sir Luke Malford, who had only arrived the night before, inquired gaily of his hostess:
"So she wouldn't come?—the little wife?"
"I gave her every chance. She scorned us."
"You mean—'she funked us.' Have you any idea, I wonder, how alarming you are?"
Lady Dunstable exclaimed impatiently:
"People represent me as a kind of ogre. I am nothing of the kind. I only expect everybody to play up."
"Ah, but you make the rules!" laughed Sir Luke. "I thought that young woman might have been a decided acquisition."
"She hadn't the very beginnings of a social gift," declared his companion. "A stubborn and rather stupid little person. I am much afraid she will stand in her husband's way."
"But suppose you blow up a happy home, by encouraging him to come without her? I bet anything she is feeling jealous and ill-used. You ought—I am sure you ought—to have a guilty conscience; but you look perfectly brazen!"
Sir Luke's banter was generally accepted with indifference, but on this occasion it provoked Lady Dunstable. She protested with vehemence that she had given Mrs. Meadows every chance, and that a young woman who was both trivial and conceited could not expect to get on in society. Sir Luke gathered from her tone that she and Mrs. Meadows had somewhat crossed swords, and that the wife might look out for consequences. He had been a witness of this kind of thing before in Lady Dunstable's circle; and he was conscious of a passing sympathy with the pleasant-faced little woman he remembered at Crosby Ledgers. At the same time he had been Rachel Dunstable's friend for twenty years; originally, her suitor. He spent a great part of his life in her company, and her ways seemed to him part of the order of things.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Meadows walked back to the house. He had been a good deal nettled by Lady Dunstable's last remark to him. But he had taken pains not to show it. Doris might say such things to him—but no one else. They were, of course, horribly true! Well—quarrelling with Lady Dunstable was amusing enough—when there was room to escape her. But how would it be in the close quarters of a yacht?
On his way through the garden he fell in with Miss Field—Mattie Field, the plump and smiling cousin of the house, who was apparently as necessary to the Dunstables in the Highlands, as in London, or at Crosby Ledgers. Her role in the Dunstable household seemed to Meadows to be that of "shock absorber." She took all the small rubs and jars on her own shoulders, so that Lady Dunstable might escape them. If the fish did not arrive from Edinburgh, if the motor broke down, if a gun failed, or a guest set up influenza, it was always Miss Field who came to the rescue. She had devices for every emergency. It was generally supposed that she had no money, and that the Dunstables made her residence with them worth while. But if so, she had none of the ways of the poor relation. On the contrary, her independence was plain; she had a very free and merry tongue; and Lady Dunstable, who snubbed everybody, never snubbed Mattie Field. Lord Dunstable was clearly devoted to her.
She greeted Meadows rather absently.
"Rachel didn't carry you off? Oh, then—I wonder if I may ask you something?"
Meadows assured her she might ask him anything.
"I wonder if you will save yourself for a walk with Lord Dunstable. Will you ask him? He's very low, and you would cheer him up."
Meadows looked at her interrogatively. He too had noticed that Lord Dunstable had seemed for some days to be out of spirits.
"Why do people have sons!" said Miss Field, briskly.
Meadows understood the reference. It was common knowledge among the Dunstables' friends that their son was anything but a comfort to them.
"Anything particularly wrong?" he asked her in a lowered voice, as they neared the house. At the same time, he could not help wondering whether, under all circumstances—if her nearest and dearest were made mincemeat in a railway accident, or crushed by an earth-quake—this fair-haired, rosy-cheeked lady would still keep her perennial smile. He had never yet seen her without it.
Miss Field replied in a joking tone that Lord Dunstable was depressed because the graceless Herbert had promised his parents a visit—a whole week—in August, and had now cried off on some excuse or other. Meadows inquired if Lady Dunstable minded as much as her husband.
"Quite!" laughed Miss Field. "It is not so much that she wants to see Herbert as that she's found someone to marry him to. You'll see the lady this afternoon. She comes with the Duke's party, to be looked at."
"But I understand that the young man is by no means manageable?"
Miss Field's amusement increased.
"That's Rachel's delusion. She knows very well that she hasn't been able to manage him so far; but she's always full of fresh schemes for managing him. She thinks, if she could once marry him to the right wife, she and the wife between them could get the whip hand of him."
"Does she care for him?" said Meadows, bluntly.
Miss Field considered the question, and for the first time Meadows perceived a grain of seriousness in her expression. But she emerged from her meditations, smiling as usual.
"She'd be hard hit if anything very bad happened!"
"What could happen?"
"Well, of course they never know whether he won't marry to please himself—produce somebody impossible!"
"And Lady Dunstable would suffer?"
Miss Field chuckled.
"I really believe you think her a kind of griffin—a stony creature with a hole where her heart ought to be. Most of her friends do. Rachel, of course, goes through life assuming that none of the disagreeable things that happen to other people will ever happen to her. But if they ever did happen—"
"The very stones would cry out? But hasn't she lost all influence with the youth?"
"She won't believe it. She's always scheming for him. And when he's not here she feels so affectionate and so good! And directly he comes—"
"I see! A tragedy—and a common one! Well, in half an hour I shall be ready for his lordship. Will you arrange it? I must write a letter first."
Miss Field nodded and departed. Meadows honestly meant to follow her into the house and write some pressing business letters. But the sunshine was so delightful, the sight of the empty bench and the abandoned novel on the other side of the lawn so beguiling, that after all he turned his lazy steps thither-ward, half ashamed, half amused to think how well Lady Dunstable had read his character.
The guests had all disappeared. Meadows had the garden to himself, and all its summer prospect of moor and stream. It was close on noon—a hot and heavenly day! And again he thought of Doris cooped up in London. Perhaps, after all, he would get out of that cruise!
Ah! there was the morning train—the midnight express from King's Cross just arriving in the busy little town lying in the valley at his feet. He watched it gliding along the valley, and heard the noise of the brakes. Were any new guests expected by it? he wondered. Hardly! The Lodge seemed quite full.
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later he threw away the novel impatiently. Midway, the story had gone to pieces. He rose from his feet, intending this time to tackle his neglected duties in earnest. As he did so, he heard a motor climbing the steep drive, and in front of it a lady, walking.
He stood arrested—in a stupor of astonishment.
Doris!—by all the gods!—Doris!
It was indeed Doris. She came wearily, looking from side to side, like one uncertain of her way. Then she too perceived Meadows, and stopped.
Meadows was conscious of two mixed feelings—first, a very lively pleasure at the sight of her, and then annoyance. What on earth had she come for? To recover him?—to protest against his not writing?—to make a scene, in short? His guilty imagination in a flash showed her to him throwing herself into his arms—weeping—on this wide lawn—for all the world to see.
But she did nothing of the kind. She directed the motor, which was really a taxi from the station, to stop without approaching the front door, and then she herself walked quickly towards her husband.
"Arthur!—you got my letter? I could only write yesterday."
She had reached him, and they had joined hands mechanically.
"Letter?—I got no letter! If you posted one, it has probably arrived by your train. What on earth, Doris, is the meaning of this? Is there anything wrong?"
His expression was half angry, half concerned, for he saw plainly that she was tired and jaded. Of course! Long journeys always knocked her up. She meanwhile stood looking at him as though trying to read the impression produced on him by her escapade. Something evidently in his manner hurt her, for she withdrew her hand, and her face stiffened.
"There is nothing wrong with me, thank you! Of course I did not come without good reason."
"But, my dear, are you come to stay?" cried Meadows, looking helplessly at the taxi. "And you never wrote to Lady Dunstable?"
For he could only imagine that Doris had reconsidered her refusal of the invitation which had originally included them both, and—either tired of being left alone, or angry with him for not writing—had devised this coup de main, this violent shake to the kaleidoscope. But what an extraordinary step! It could only cover them both with ridicule. His cheeks were already burning.
Doris surveyed him very quietly.
"No—I didn't write to Lady Dunstable—I wrote to you—and sent her a message. I suppose—I shall have to stay the night."
"But what on earth are we to say to her?" cried Meadows in desperation. "They're out walking now—but she'll be back directly. There isn't a corner in the house! I've got a little bachelor room in the attics. Really, Doris, if you were going to do this, you should have given both her and me notice! There is a crowd of people here!"
Frown and voice were Jovian indeed. Doris, however, showed no tremors.
"Lady Dunstable will find somewhere to put me up," she said, half scornfully. "Is there a telegram for me?"
"A telegram? Why should there be a telegram? What is the meaning of all this? For heaven's sake, explain!"
Doris, however, did not attempt to explain. Her mood had been very soft on the journey. But Arthur's reception of her had suddenly stirred the root of bitterness again; and it was shooting fast and high. Whatever she had done or left undone, he ought not to have been able to conceal that he was glad to see her—he ought not to have been able to think of Lady Dunstable first! She began to take a pleasure in mystifying him.
"I expected a telegram. I daresay it will come soon. You see I've asked someone else to come this afternoon—and she'll have to be put up too."
"Asked someone else!—to Lady Dunstable's house!" Meadows stood bewildered. "Really, Doris, have you taken leave of your senses?"
She stood with shining eyes, apparently enjoying his astonishment. Then she suddenly bethought herself.
"I must go and pay the taxi." Turning round, she coolly surveyed the "fortified post." "It looks big enough to take me in. Arthur!—I think you may pay the man. Just take out my bag, and tell the footman to put it in your room. That will do for the present. I shall sit down here and wait for Lady Dunstable. I'm pretty tired."
The thought of what the magnificent gentleman presiding over Lady Dunstable's hall would say to the unexpected irruption of Mrs. Meadows, and Mrs. Meadows's bag, upon the "fortified post" he controlled, was simply beyond expressing. Meadows tried to face his wife with dignity.
"I think we'd better keep the taxi, Doris. Then you and I can go back to the hotel together. We can't force ourselves upon Lady Dunstable like this, my dear. I'd better go and tell someone to pack my things. But we must, of course, wait and see Lady Dunstable—though how you will explain your coming, and get yourself—and me—out of this absurd predicament, I cannot even pretend to imagine!"
Doris sat down—wearily.
"Don't keep the taxi, Arthur. I assure you Lady Dunstable will be very glad to keep both me—and my bag. Or if she won't—Lord Dunstable will."
Meadows came nearer—bent down to study her tired face.
"There's some mystery, of course, Doris, in all this! Aren't you going to tell me what it means?"
His wife's pale cheeks flushed.
"I would have told you—if you'd been the least bit glad to see me! But—if you don't pay the taxi, Arthur, it will run up like anything!"
She pointed peremptorily to the ticking vehicle and the impatient driver. Meadows went mechanically, paid the driver, shouldered the bag, and carried it into the hall of the Lodge. He then perceived that two grinning and evidently inquisitive footmen, waiting in the hall for anything that might turn up for them to do, had been watching the whole scene—the arrival of the taxi, and the meeting between the unknown lady and himself, through a side window.
Burning to box someone's ears, Meadows loftily gave the bag to one of them with instructions that it should be taken to his room, and then turned to rejoin his wife.
As he crossed the gravel in front of the house, his mind ran through all possible hypotheses. But he was entirely without a clue—except the clue of jealousy. He could not hide from himself that Doris had been jealous of Lady Dunstable, and had perhaps been hurt by his rather too numerous incursions into the great world without her, his apparent readiness to desert her for cleverer women. "Little goose!—as if I ever cared twopence for any of them!"—he thought angrily. "And now she makes us both laughing-stocks!"
And yet, Doris being Doris—a proud, self-contained, well-bred little person, particularly sensitive to ridicule—the whole proceeding became the more incredible the more he faced it.
One o'clock!—striking from the church tower in the valley! He hurried towards the slight figure on the distant seat. Lady Dunstable might return at any moment. He foresaw the encounter—the great lady's insolence—Doris's humiliation—and his own. Well, at least let him agree with Doris on a common story, before his hostess arrived.
He sped across the grass, very conscious, as he approached the seat, of Doris's drooping look and attitude. Travelling all those hours!—and no doubt without any proper breakfast! However Lady Dunstable might behave, he would carry Doris into the Lodge directly, and have her properly looked after. Miss Field and he would see to that.
Suddenly—a sound of talk and laughter, from the shrubbery which divided the flower garden from the woods and the moor. Lady Dunstable emerged, with her two companions on either hand. Her vivid, masculine face was flushed with exercise and discussion. She seemed to be attacking the Under-Secretary, who, however, was clearly enjoying himself; while Sir Luke, walking a little apart, threw in an occasional gibe.
"I tell you your land policy here in Scotland will gain you nothing; and in England it will lose you everything.—Hullo!"
Lady Dunstable's exclamation, as she came to a stop and put up a tortoise-shell eyeglass, was clearly audible.
"Doris!" cried Meadows excitedly in his wife's ear—"Look here!—what are you going to say!—what am I to say! that you got tired of London, and wanted some Scotch air?—that we intend to go off together?—For goodness' sake, what is it to be?"
Doris rose, her lips breaking irrepressibly into smiles.
"Never mind, Arthur; I'll get through somehow."
The two ladies advanced towards each other across the lawn, while Meadows followed his wife in speechless confusion and annoyance, utterly at a loss how to extricate either himself or Doris; compelled, indeed, to leave it all to her. Sir Luke and the Under-Secretary had paused in the drive. Their looks as they watched Lady Dunstable's progress showed that they guessed at something dramatic in the little scene.
Nothing could apparently have been more unequal than the two chief actors in it. Lady Dunstable, with the battlements of "the great fortified post" rising behind her, tall and wiry of figure, her black hawk's eyes fixed upon her visitor, might have stood for all her class; for those too powerful and prosperous Barbarians who have ruled and enjoyed England so long. Doris, small and slight, in a blue cotton coat and skirt, dusty from long travelling, and a childish garden hat, came hesitatingly over the grass, with colour which came and went.
"How do you do, Mrs. Meadows! This is indeed an unexpected pleasure! I must quarrel with your husband for not giving us warning."
Doris's complexion had settled into a bright pink as she shook hands with Lady Dunstable. But she spoke quite composedly.
"My husband knew nothing about it, Lady Dunstable. My letter does not seem to have reached him."
"Ah? Our posts are very bad, no doubt; though generally, I must say, they arrive very punctually. Well, so you were tired of London?—you wanted to see how we were looking after your husband?"
Lady Dunstable threw a sarcastic glance at Meadows standing tongue-tied in the background.
"I wanted to see you," said Doris quietly, with a slight accent on the "you."
Lady Dunstable looked amused.
"Did you? How very nice of you! And you've—you've brought your luggage?" Lady Dunstable looked round her as though expecting to see it at the front door.
"I brought a bag. Arthur took it in for me."
"I'm so sorry! I assure you, if I had only known—But we haven't a corner! Mr. Meadows will bear me out—it's absurd, but true. These Scotch lodges have really no room in them at all!"
Lady Dunstable pointed with airy insolence to the spreading pile behind her. Doris—for all the agitation of her hidden purpose—could have laughed outright. But Meadows, rather roughly, intervened.
"We shall, of course, go to the hotel, Lady Dunstable. My wife's letter seems somehow to have missed me, but naturally we never dreamed of putting you out. Perhaps you will give us some lunch—my wife seems rather tired—and then we will take our departure."
Doris turned—put a hand on his arm—but addressed Lady Dunstable.
"Can I see you—alone—for a few minutes—before lunch?"
"Before lunch? We are all very hungry, I'm afraid," said Lady Dunstable, with a smile. Meadows was conscious of a rising fury. His quick sense perceived something delicately offensive in every word and look of the great lady. Doris, of course, had done an incredibly foolish thing. What she had come to say to Lady Dunstable he could not conceive; for the first explanation—that of a silly jealousy—had by now entirely failed him. But it was evident to him that Lady Dunstable assumed it—or chose to assume it. And for the first time he thought her odious!
Doris seemed to guess it, for she pressed his arm as though to keep him quiet.
"Before lunch, please," she repeated. "I think—you will soon understand." With an odd, and—for the first time—slightly puzzled look at her visitor, Lady Dunstable said with patronising politeness—
"By all means. Shall we come to my sitting-room?"
She led the way to the house. Meadows followed, till a sign from Doris waved him back. On the way Doris found herself greeted by Sir Luke Malford, bowed to by various unknown gentlemen, and her hand grasped by Miss Field.
"You do look done! Have you come straight from London? What—is Rachel carrying you off? I shall send you in a glass of wine and a biscuit directly!"
Doris said nothing. She got somehow through all the curious eyes turned upon her; she followed Lady Dunstable through the spacious passages of the Lodge, adorned with the usual sportsman's trophies, till she was ushered into a small sitting-room, Lady Dunstable's particular den, crowded with photographs of half the celebrities of the day—the poets, savants, and artists, of England, Europe, and America. On an easel stood a masterly small portrait of Lord Dunstable as a young man, by Bastien Lepage; and not far from it—rather pushed into a corner—a sketch by Millais of a fair-haired boy, leaning against a pony.
By this time Doris was quivering both with excitement and fatigue. She sank into a chair, and turned eagerly to the wine and biscuits with which Miss Field pursued her. While she ate and drank, Lady Dunstable sat in a high chair observing her, one long and pointed foot crossed over the other, her black eyes alive with satiric interrogation, to which, however, she gave no words.
The wine was reviving. Doris found her voice. As the door closed on Miss Field, she bent forward:—
"Lady Dunstable, I didn't come here on my own account, and had there been time of course I should have given you notice. I came entirely on your account, because something was happening to you—and Lord Dunstable—which you didn't know, and which made me—very sorry for you!"
Lady Dunstable started slightly.
"Happening to me?—and Lord Dunstable?"
"I have been seeing your son, Lady Dunstable."
An instant change passed over the countenance of that lady. It darkened, and the eyes became cold and wary.
"Indeed? I didn't know you were acquainted with him."
"I never saw him till a few days ago. Then I saw him—in my uncle's studio—with a woman—a woman to whom he is engaged."
Lady Dunstable started again.
"I think you must be mistaken," she said quickly, with a slight but haughty straightening of her shoulders.
Doris shook her head.
"No, I am not mistaken. I will tell you—if you don't mind—exactly what I have heard and seen."
And with a puckered brow and visible effort she entered on the story of the happenings of which she had been a witness in Bentley's studio. She was perfectly conscious—for a time—that she was telling it against a dead weight of half scornful, half angry incredulity on Lady Dunstable's part. Rachel Dunstable listened, indeed, attentively. But it was clear that she resented the story, which she did not believe; resented the telling of it, on her own ground, by this young woman whom she disliked; and resented above all the compulsory discussion which it involved, of her most intimate affairs, with a stranger and her social inferior. All sorts of suspicions, indeed, ran through her mind as to the motives that could have prompted Mrs. Meadows to hurry up to Scotland, without taking even the decently polite trouble to announce herself, bringing this unlikely and trumped-up tale. Most probably, a mean jealousy of her husband, and his greater social success!—a determination to force herself on people who had not paid the same attention to herself as to him, to make them pay attention, willy-nilly. Of course Herbert had undesirable acquaintances, and was content to go about with people entirely beneath him, in birth and education. Everybody knew it, alack! But he was really not such a fool—such a heartless fool—as this story implied! Mrs. Meadows had been taken in—willingly taken in—had exaggerated everything she said for her own purposes. The mother's wrath indeed was rapidly rising to the smiting point, when a change in the narrative arrested her.
"And then—I couldn't help it!"—there was a new note of agitation in Doris's voice—"but what had happened was so horrid—it was so like seeing a man going to ruin under one's eyes, for, of course, one knew that she would get hold of him again—that I ran out after your son and begged him to break with her, not to see her again, to take the opportunity, and be done with her! And then he told me quite calmly that he must marry her, that he could not help himself, but he would never live with her. He would marry her at a registry office, provide for her, and leave her. And then he said he would do it at once—that he was going to his lawyers to arrange everything as to money and so on—on condition that she never troubled him again. He was eager to get it done—that he might be delivered from her—from her company—which one could see had become dreadful to him. I implored him not to do such a thing—to pay any money rather than do it—but not to marry her! I begged him to think of you—and his father. But he said he was bound to her—he had compromised her, or some such thing; and he had given his word in writing. There was only one thing which could stop it—if she had told him lies about her former life. But he had no reason to think she had; and he was not going to try and find out. So then—I saw a ray of daylight—"
She stopped abruptly, looking full at the woman opposite, who was now following her every word—but like one seized against her will.
"Do you remember a Miss Wigram, Lady Dunstable—whose father had a living near Crosby Ledgers?"
Lady Dunstable moved involuntarily—her eyelids flickered a little.
"Certainly. Why do you ask?"
"She saw Mr. Dunstable—and Miss Flink—in my uncle's studio, and she was so distressed to think what—what Lord Dunstable"—there was a perceptible pause before the name—"would feel, if his son married her, that she determined to find out the truth about her. She told me she had one or two clues, and I sent her to a cousin of mine—a very clever solicitor—to be advised. That was yesterday morning. Then I got my uncle to find out your son—and bring him to me yesterday afternoon before I started. He came to our house in Kensington, and I told him I had come across some very doubtful stories about Miss Flink. He was very unwilling to hear anything. After all, he said, he was not going to live with her. And she had nursed him—"
"Nursed him!" said Lady Dunstable, quickly. She had risen, and was leaning against the mantelpiece, looking sharply down upon her visitor.
"That was the beginning of it all. He was ill in the winter—in his lodgings."
"I never heard of it!" For the first time, there was a touch of something natural and passionate in the voice.
Doris looked a little embarrassed.
"Your son told me it was pneumonia."
"I never heard a word of it! And this—this creature nursed him?" The tone of the robbed lioness at last!—singularly inappropriate under all the circumstances. Doris struggled on.
"An actor friend of your son brought her to see him. And she really devoted herself to him. He declared to me he owed her a great deal—"
"He need have owed her nothing," said Lady Dunstable, sternly. "He had only to send a postcard—a wire—to his own people."
"He thought—you were so busy," said Doris, dropping her eyes to the carpet.
A sound of contemptuous anger showed that her shaft—her mild shaft—had gone home. She hurried on—"But at last I got him to promise me to wait a week. That was yesterday at five o'clock. He wouldn't promise me to write to you—or his father. He seemed so desperately anxious to settle it all—in his own way. But I said a good deal about your name—and the family—and the horrible pain he would be giving—any way. Was it kind—was it right towards you, not only to give you no opportunity of helping or advising him—but also to take no steps to find out whether the woman he was going to marry was—not only unsuitable, wholly unsuitable—that, of course, he knows—but a disgrace? I argued with him that he must have some suspicion of the stories she has told him at different times, or he wouldn't have tried to protect himself in this particular way. He didn't deny it; but he said she had looked after him, and been kind to him, when nobody else was, and he should feel a beast if he pressed her too hardly."
"'When nobody else was'!" repeated Lady Dunstable, scornfully, her voice trembling with bitterness. "Really, Mrs. Meadows, it is very difficult for me to believe that my son ever used such words!"
Doris hesitated, then she raised her eyes, and with the happy feeling of one applying the scourge, in the name of Justice, she said with careful mildness:—
"I hope you will forgive me for telling you—but I feel as if I oughtn't to keep back anything—Mr. Dunstable said to me: 'My mother might have prevented it—but—she was never interested in me.'"
Another indignant exclamation from Lady Dunstable. Doris hurried on. "Only this is the important point! At last I got his promise, and I got it in writing. I have it here."
Dead silence. Doris opened her little handbag, took out a letter, in an open envelope, and handed it to Lady Dunstable, who at first seemed as if she were going to refuse it. However, after a moment's hesitation, she lifted her long-handled eyeglass and read it. It ran as follows:
DEAR MRS. MEADOWS,—I do not know whether I ought to do what you ask me. But you have asked me very kindly—you have really been awfully good to me, in taking so much trouble. I know I'm a stupid fool—they always told me so at home. But I don't want to do anything mean, or to go back on a woman who once did me a good turn; with whom also once—for I may as well be quite honest about it—I thought I was in love. However, I see there is something in what you say, and I will wait a week before marrying Miss Flink. But if you tell my people—I suppose you will—don't let them imagine they can break it off—except for that one reason. And I shan't lift a finger to break it off. I shall make no inquiries—I shall go on with the lawyers, and all that. My present intention is to marry Miss Flink—on the terms I have stated—in a week's time. If you do see my people—especially my father—tell them I'm awfully sorry to be such a nuisance to them. I got myself into the mess without meaning it, and now there's really only one way out. Thank you again. Yours gratefully, HERBERT DUNSTABLE.
Lady Dunstable crushed the letter in her hand. All pretence of incredulity was gone. She began to walk stormily up and down. Doris sank back in her chair, watching her, conscious of the most strangely mingled feelings, a touch of womanish triumph indeed, a pleasing sense of retribution, but, welling up through it, something profound and tender. If he should ever write such a letter to a stranger, while his mother was alive!
Lady Dunstable stopped.
"What chance is there of saving my son?" she said, peremptorily. "You will, of course, tell us all you know. Lord Dunstable must go to town at once." She touched an electric bell beside her.
"Oh no!" cried Doris, springing up. "He mustn't go, please, until we have some more information. Miss Wigram is coming—this afternoon."
Rachel Dunstable stood stupefied—with her hand on the bell.
"Don't you see?" cried Doris. "She was to spend all yesterday afternoon and evening in seeing two or three people—people who know. There is a friend of my uncle's—an artist—who saw a great deal of Miss Flink, and got to know a lot about her. Of course he may not have been willing to say anything, but I think he probably would—he was so mad with her for a trick she played him in the middle of a big piece of work. And if he was able to put us on any useful track, then Miss Wigram was to come up here straight, and tell you everything she could. But I thought there would have been a telegram—from her—" Her voice dropped on a note of disappointment.
There was a knock at the door. The butler entered, and at the same moment the luncheon gong echoed through the house.
"Tell Miss Field not to wait luncheon for me," said Lady Dunstable sharply. "And, Ferris, I want his lordship's things packed at once, for London. Don't say anything to him at present, but in ten minutes' time just manage to tell him quietly that I should like to see him here. You understand—I don't want any fuss made. Tell Miss Field that Mrs. Meadows is too tired to come in to luncheon, and that I will come in presently."
The butler, who had the aspect of a don or a bishop, said "Yes, my lady," in that dry tone which implied that for twenty years the house of Dunstable had been built upon himself, as its rock, and he was not going to fail it now. He vanished, with just one lightning turn of the eyes towards the little lady in the blue linen dress; and Lady Dunstable resumed her walk, sunk in flushed meditation. She seemed to have forgotten Doris, when she heard an exclamation:—
"Ah, there is the telegram!"
And Doris, running to the window, waved to a diminutive telegraph boy, who, being new to his job, had come up to the front entrance of the Lodge instead of the back, and was now—recognising his misdeed—retreating in alarm from the mere aspect of "the great fortified post." He saw the lady at the window, however, and checked his course.
"For me!" cried Doris, triumphantly—and she tore it open.
Can't arrive till between eight and nine. Think I have got all we want. Please take a room for me at hotel.—ALICE WIGRAM.
Doris turned back into the room, and handed the telegram to Lady Dunstable, who read it slowly.
"Did you say this was the Alice Wigram I knew?"
"Her father had one of your livings," repeated Doris. "He died last year."
"I know. I quarrelled with him. I cannot conceive why Alice Wigram should do me a good turn!" Lady Dunstable threw back her head, her challenging look fixed upon her visitor. Doris was certain she had it in her mind to add—"or you either!"—but refrained.
"Lord Dunstable was always a friend to her father," said Doris, with the same slight emphasis on the "Lord" as before. "And she felt for the estate—the poor people—the tenants."
Rachel Dunstable shook her head impatiently.
"I daresay. But I got into a scrape with the Wigrams. I expect that you would think, Mrs. Meadows—perhaps most people would think, as of course her father did—that I once treated Miss Wigram unkindly!"
"Oh, what does it matter?" cried Doris, hastily,—"what does it matter? She wants to help—she's sorry for you. You should see that woman! It would be too awful if your son was tied to her for life!"
She sat up straight, all her soul in her eyes and in her pleasant face.
There was a pause. Then Lady Dunstable, whose expression had changed, came a little nearer to her.
"And you—I wonder why you took all this trouble?"
Doris said nothing. She fell back slowly in her chair, looking at the tall woman standing over her. Tears came into her eyes—brimmed—overflowed—in silence. Her lips smiled. Rachel Dunstable bent over her in bewilderment.
"To have a son," murmured Doris under her breath, "and then to see him ruined like this! No love for him!—no children—no grandchildren for oneself, when one is old—"
Her voice died away.
"'To have a son'?" repeated Lady Dunstable, wondering—"but you have none!"
Doris said nothing. Only she put up her hand feebly, and wiped away the tears—still smiling. After which she shut her eyes.
Lady Dunstable gasped. Then the long, sallow face flushed deeply. She walked over to a sofa on the other side of the room, arranged the pillows on it, and came back to Doris.
"Will you, please, let me put you on that sofa? You oughtn't to have had this long journey. Of course you will stay here—and Miss Wigram too. It seems—I shall owe you a great deal—and I could not have expected you—to think about me—at all. I can do rude things. But I can also—be sorry for my sins!"
Doris heard an awkward and rather tremulous laugh. Upon which she opened her eyes, no less embarrassed than her hostess, and did as she was told. Lady Dunstable made her as comfortable as a hand so little used to the feminine arts could manage.
"Now I will send you in some luncheon, and go and talk to Lord Dunstable. Please rest till I come back."
* * * * *
Doris lay still. She wanted very much to see Arthur, and she wondered, till her head ached, whether he would think her a great fool for her pains. Surely he would come and find her soon. Oh, the time people spent on lunching in these big houses!
The vibration of the train seemed to be still running through her limbs. She was indeed wearied out, and in a few minutes, what with the sudden quiet and the softness of the cushions which had been spread for her, she fell unexpectedly asleep.
When she woke, she saw her husband sitting beside her—patiently—with a tray on his knee.
"Oh, Arthur!—what time is it? Have I been asleep long?"
"Nearly an hour. I looked in before, but Lady Dunstable wouldn't let me wake you. She—and he—and I—have been talking. Upon my word, Doris, you've been and gone and done it! But don't say anything! You've got to eat this chicken first."
He fed her with it, looking at her the while with affectionate and admiring eyes. Somehow, Doris became dimly aware that she was going to be a heroine.
"Have they told you, Arthur?"
"Everything that you've told her. (No—not everything!—thought Doris.) You are a brick, Doris! And the way you've done it! That's what impresses her ladyship! She knows very well that she would have muffed it. You're the practical woman! Well, you can rest on your laurels, darling! You'll have the whole place at your feet—beginning with your husband—who's been dreadfully bored without you. There!"
He put down his Jovian head, and rubbed his cheek tenderly against hers, till she turned round, and gave him the lightest of kisses.
"Was he an abominable correspondent?" he said, repentantly.
"Did you hate him!"
"Whenever I had time. When do you start on your cruise, Arthur!"
"Any time—some time—never!" he said, gaily. "Give me that Capel Curig address, and I'll wire for the rooms this afternoon. I came to the conclusion this morning that the same yacht couldn't hold her ladyship and me."
"Oh!—so she's been chastening you?" said Doris, well pleased.
"The rod has not been spared—since Sunday. It was then she got tired of me. I mark the day, you see, almost the hour. My goodness!—if you're not always up to your form—epigrams, quotations—all pat—"
"She plucks you—without mercy. Down you slither into the second class!" Doris's look sparkled.
"There you go—rejoicing in my humiliations!" said Meadows, putting an arm round the scoffer. "I tell you, she proposes to write my next set of lectures for me. She gave me an outline of them this morning."
Then they both laughed together like children. And Doris, with her head on a strong man's shoulder, and a rough coat scrubbing her cheek, suddenly bethought her of the line—"Journeys end in lovers' meeting—" and was smitten with a secret wonder as to how much of her impulse to come north had been due to an altruistic concern for the Dunstable affairs, and how much to a firm determination to recapture Arthur from his Gloriana. But that doubt she would never reveal. It would be so bad for Arthur!
She rose to her feet.
"Where are they?"
"Lord and Lady Dunstable? Gone off to Dunkeld to find their solicitor and bring him back to meet Miss Wigram. They'll be home by tea. I'm to look after you."