A Great Success
Mrs. Humphry Ward Author of "Eltham House," "Delia Blanchflower," etc.
New York Hearst's International Library Co. 1916
"Arthur,—what did you give the man?"
"Half a crown, my dear! Now don't make a fuss. I know exactly what you're going to say!"
"Half a crown!" said Doris Meadows, in consternation. "The fare was one and twopence. Of course he thought you mad. But I'll get it back!"
And she ran to the open window, crying "Hi!" to the driver of a taxi-cab, who, having put down his fares, was just on the point of starting from the door of the small semi-detached house in a South Kensington street, which owned Arthur and Doris Meadows for its master and mistress.
The driver turned at her call.
"Hi!—Stop! You've been over-paid!"
The man grinned all over, made her a low bow, and made off as fast as he could.
Arthur Meadows, behind her, went into a fit of laughter, and as his wife, discomfited, turned back into the room he threw a triumphant arm around her.
"I had to give him half a crown, dear, or burst. Just look at these letters—and you know what a post we had this morning! Now don't bother about the taxi! What does it matter? Come and open the post."
Whereupon Doris Meadows felt herself forcibly drawn down to a seat on the sofa beside her husband, who threw a bundle of letters upon his wife's lap, and then turned eagerly to open others with which his own hands were full.
"H'm!—Two more publishers' letters, asking for the book—don't they wish they may get it! But I could have made a far better bargain if I'd only waited a fortnight. Just my luck! One—two—four—autograph fiends! The last—a lady, of course!—wants a page of the first lecture. Calm! Invitations from the Scottish Athenaeum—the Newcastle Academy—the Birmingham Literary Guild—the Glasgow Poetic Society—the 'British Philosophers'—the Dublin Dilettanti!—Heavens!—how many more! None of them offering cash, as far as I can see—only fame—pure and undefiled! Hullo!—that's a compliment!—the Parnassians have put me on their Council. And last year, I was told, I couldn't even get in as an ordinary member. Dash their impudence!... This is really astounding! What are yours, darling?"
And tumbling all his opened letters on the sofa, Arthur Meadows rose—in sheer excitement—and confronted his wife, with a flushed countenance. He was a tall, broadly built, loose-limbed fellow, with a fine shaggy head, whereof various black locks were apt to fall forward over his eyes, needing to be constantly thrown back by a picturesque action of the hand. The features were large and regular, the complexion dark, the eyes a pale blue, under bushy brows. The whole aspect of the man, indeed, was not unworthy of the adjective "Olympian," already freely applied to it by some of the enthusiastic women students attending his now famous lectures. One girl artist learned in classical archaeology, and a haunter of the British Museum, had made a charcoal study of a well-known archaistic "Diespiter" of the Augustan period, on the same sheet with a rapid sketch of Meadows when lecturing; a performance which had been much handed about in the lecture-room, though always just avoiding—strangely enough—the eyes of the lecturer.... The expression of slumbrous power, the mingling of dream and energy in the Olympian countenance, had been, in the opinion of the majority, extremely well caught. Only Doris Meadows, the lecturer's wife, herself an artist, and a much better one than the author of the drawing, had smiled a little queerly on being allowed a sight of it.
However, she was no less excited by the batch of letters her husband had allowed her to open than he by his. Her bundle included, so it appeared, letters from several leading politicians: one, discussing in a most animated and friendly tone the lecture of the week before, on "Lord George Bentinck"; and two others dealing with the first lecture of the series, the brilliant pen-portrait of Disraeli, which—partly owing to feminine influence behind the scenes—had been given verbatim and with much preliminary trumpeting in two or three Tory newspapers, and had produced a real sensation, of that mild sort which alone the British public—that does not love lectures—is capable of receiving from the report of one. Persons in the political world had relished its plain speaking; dames and counsellors of the Primrose League had read the praise with avidity, and skipped the criticism; while the mere men and women of letters had appreciated a style crisp, unhackneyed, and alive. The second lecture on "Lord George Bentinck" had been crowded, and the crowd had included several Cabinet Ministers, and those great ladies of the moment who gather like vultures to the feast on any similar occasion. The third lecture, on "Palmerston and Lord John"—had been not only crowded, but crowded out, and London was by now fully aware that it possessed in Arthur Meadows a person capable of painting a series of La Bruyere-like portraits of modern men, as vivid, biting, and "topical"—mutatis mutandis—as the great French series were in their day.
Applications for the coming lecture on "Lord Randolph" were arriving by every post, and those to follow after—on men just dead, and others still alive—would probably have to be given in a much larger hall than that at present engaged, so certain was intelligent London that in going to hear Arthur Meadows on the most admired—or the most detested—personalities of the day, they at least ran no risk of wishy-washy panegyric, or a dull caution. Meadows had proved himself daring both in compliment and attack; nothing could be sharper than his thrusts, or more Olympian than his homage. There were those indeed who talked of "airs" and "mannerisms," but their faint voices were lost in the general shouting.
"Wonderful!" said Doris, at last, looking up from the last of these epistles. "I really didn't know, Arthur, you were such a great man."
Her eyes rested on him with a fond but rather puzzled expression.
"Well, of course, dear, you've always seen the seamy side of me," said Meadows, with the slightest change of tone and a laugh. "Perhaps now you'll believe me when I say that I'm not always lazy when I seem so—that a man must have time to think, and smoke, and dawdle, if he's to write anything decent, and can't always rush at the first job that offers. When you thought I was idling—I wasn't! I was gathering up impressions. Then came an attractive piece of work—one that suited me—and I rose to it. There, you see!"
He threw back his Jovian head, with a look at his wife, half combative, half merry.
Doris's forehead puckered a little.
"Well, thank Heaven that it has turned out well!" she said, with a deep breath. "Where we should have been if it hadn't I'm sure I don't know! And, as it is—By the way, Arthur, have you got that packet ready for New York?" Her tone was quick and anxious.
"What, the proofs of 'Dizzy'? Oh, goodness, that'll do any time. Don't bother, Doris. I'm really rather done—and this post is—well, upon my word, it's overwhelming!" And, gathering up the letters, he threw himself with an air of fatigue into a long chair, his hands behind his head. "Perhaps after tea and a cigarette I shall feel more fit."
"Arthur!—you know to-morrow is the last day for catching the New York mail."
"Well, hang it, if I don't catch it, they must wait, that's all!" said Meadows peevishly. "If they won't take it, somebody else will."
"They" represented the editor and publisher of a famous New York magazine, who had agreed by cable to give a large sum for the "Dizzy" lecture, provided it reached them by a certain date.
Doris twisted her lip.
"Arthur, do think of the bills!"
"Darling, don't be a nuisance! If I succeed I shall make money. And if this isn't a success I don't know what is." He pointed to the letters on his lap, an impatient gesture which dislodged a certain number of them, so that they came rustling to the floor.
"Hullo!—here's one you haven't opened. Another coronet! Gracious! I believe it's the woman who asked us to dinner a fortnight ago, and we couldn't go."
Meadows sat up with a jerk, all languor dispelled, and held out his hand for the letter.
"Lady Dunstable! By George! I thought she'd ask us,—though you don't deserve it, Doris, for you didn't take any trouble at all about her first invitation—"
"We were engaged!" cried Doris, interrupting him, her eyebrows mounting.
"We could have got out of it perfectly. But now, listen to this:
"Dear Mr. Meadows,—I hope your wife will excuse my writing to you instead of to her, as you and I are already acquainted. Can I induce you both to come to Crosby Ledgers for a week-end, on July 16? We hope to have a pleasant party, a diplomat or two, the Home Secretary, and General Hichen—perhaps some others. You would, I am sure, admire our hill country, and I should like to show you some of the precious autographs we have inherited.
"Yours sincerely, "RACHEL DUNSTABLE.
"If your wife brings a maid, perhaps she will kindly let me know."
Doris laughed, and the amused scorn of her laugh annoyed her husband. However, at that moment their small house-parlourmaid entered with the tea-tray, and Doris rose to make a place for it. The parlourmaid put it down with much unnecessary noise, and Doris, looking at her in alarm, saw that her expression was sulky and her eyes red. When the girl had departed, Mrs. Meadows said with resignation—
"There! that one will give me notice to-morrow!"
"Well, I'm sure you could easily get a better!" said her husband sharply.
Doris shook her head.
"The fourth in six months!" she said, sighing. "And she really is a good girl."
"I suppose, as usual, she complains of me!" The voice was that of an injured man.
"Yes, dear, she does! They all do. You give them a lot of extra work already, and all these things you have been buying lately—oh, Arthur, if you wouldn't buy things!—mean more work. You know that copper coal-scuttle you sent in yesterday?"
"Well, isn't it a beauty?—a real Georgian piece!" cried Meadows, indignantly.
"I dare say it is. But it has to be cleaned. When it arrived Jane came to see me in this room, shut the door, and put her back against it 'There's another of them beastly copper coal-scuttles come!' You should have seen her eyes blazing. 'And I should like to know, ma'am, who's going to clean it—'cos I can't.' And I just had to promise her it might go dirty."
"Lazy minx!" said Meadows, good-humouredly, with his mouth full of tea-cake. "At last I have something good to look at in this room." He turned his eyes caressingly towards the new coal-scuttle. "I suppose I shall have to clean it myself!"
Doris laughed again—this time almost hysterically—but was checked by a fresh entrance of Jane, who, with an air of defiance, deposited a heavy parcel on a chair beside her mistress, and flounced out again.
"What is this?" said Doris in consternation. "Books? More books? Heavens, Arthur, what have you been ordering now! I couldn't sleep last night for thinking of the book-bills."
"You little goose! Of course, I must buy books! Aren't they my tools, my stock-in-trade? Haven't these lectures justified the book-bills a dozen times over?"
This time Arthur Meadows surveyed his wife in real irritation and disgust.
"But, Arthur!—you could get them all at the London Library—you know you could!"
"And pray how much time do I waste in going backwards and forwards after books? Any man of letters worth his salt wants a library of his own—within reach of his hand."
"Yes, if he can pay for it!" said Doris, with plaintive emphasis, as she ruefully turned over the costly volumes which the parcel contained.
"Don't fash yourself, my dear child! Why, what I'm getting for the Dizzy lecture is alone nearly enough to pay all the book bills."
"It isn't! And just think of all the others! Well—never mind!"
Doris's protesting mood suddenly collapsed. She sat down on a stool beside her husband, rested her elbow on his knee, and, chin in hand, surveyed him with a softened countenance. Doris Meadows was not a beauty; only pleasant-faced, with good eyes, and a strong, expressive mouth. Her brown hair was perhaps her chief point, and she wore it rippled and coiled so as to set off a shapely head and neck. It was always a secret grievance with her that she had so little positive beauty. And her husband had never flattered her on the subject. In the early days of their marriage she had timidly asked him, after one of their bridal dinner-parties in which she had worn her wedding-dress—"Did I look nice to-night? Do you—do you ever think I look pretty, Arthur?" And he had looked her over, with an odd change of expression—careless affection passing into something critical and cool:—"I'm never ashamed of you, Doris, in any company. Won't you be satisfied with that?" She had been far from satisfied; the phrase had burnt in her memory from then till now. But she knew Arthur had not meant to hurt her, and she bore him no grudge. And, by now, she was too well acquainted with the rubs and prose of life, too much occupied with house-books, and rough servants, and the terror of an overdrawn account, to have any time or thought to spare to her own looks. Fortunately she had an instinctive love for neatness and delicacy; so that her little figure, besides being agile and vigorous—capable of much dignity too on occasion—was of a singular trimness and grace in all its simple appointments. Her trousseau was long since exhausted, and she rarely had a new dress. But slovenly she could not be.
It was the matter of a new dress which was now indeed running in her mind. She took up Lady Dunstable's letter, and read it pensively through again.
"You can accept for yourself, Arthur, of course," she said, looking up. "But I can't possibly go."
Meadows protested loudly.
"You have no excuse at all!" he declared hotly. "Lady Dunstable has given us a month's notice. You can't get out of it. Do you want me to be known as a man who accepts smart invitations without his wife? There is no more caddish creature in the world."
Doris could not help smiling upon him. But her mouth was none the less determined.
"I haven't got a single frock that's fit for Crosby Ledgers. And I'm not going on tick for a new one!"
"I never heard anything so absurd! Shan't we have more money in a few weeks than we've had for years?"
"I dare say. It's all wanted. Besides, I have my work to finish."
"My dear Doris!"
A slight red mounted in Doris's cheeks.
"Oh, you may be as scornful as you like! But ten pounds is ten pounds, and I like keeping engagements."
The "work" in question meant illustrations for a children's book. Doris had accepted the commission with eagerness, and had been going regularly to the Campden Hill studio of an Academician—her mother's brother—who was glad to supply her with some of the "properties" she wanted for her drawings.
"I shall soon not allow you to do anything of the kind," said Meadows with decision.
"On the contrary! I shall always take paid work when I can get it," was the firm reply—"unless—"
"You know," she said quietly. Meadows was silent a moment, then reached out for her hand, which she gave him. They had no children; and, as he well knew, Doris pined for them. The look in her eyes when she nursed her friends' babies had often hurt him. But after all, why despair? It was only four years from their wedding day.
But he was not going to be beaten in the matter of Crosby Ledgers. They had a long and heated discussion, at the end of which Doris surrendered.
"Very well! I shall have to spend a week in doing up my old black gown, and it will be a botch at the end of it. But—nothing—will induce me—to get a new one!"
She delivered this ultimatum with her hands behind her, a defeated, but still resolute young person. Meadows, having won the main battle, left the rest to Providence, and went off to his "den" to read all his letters through once more—agreeable task!—and to write a note of acceptance to the Home Secretary, who had asked him to luncheon. Doris was not included in the invitation. "But anybody may ask a husband—or a wife—to lunch, separately. That's understood. I shan't do it often, however—that I can tell them!" And justified by this Spartan temper as to the future, he wrote a charming note, accepting the delights of the present, so full of epigram that the Cabinet Minister to whom it was addressed had no sooner read it than he consigned it instanter to his wife's collection of autographs.
Meanwhile Doris was occupied partly in soothing the injured feelings of Jane, and partly in smoothing out and inspecting her one evening frock. She decided that it would take her a week to "do it up," and that she would do it herself. "A week wasted!" she thought—"and all for nothing. What do we want with Lady Dunstable! She'll flatter Arthur, and make him lazy. They all do! And I've no use for her at all. Maid indeed! Does she think nobody can exist without that appendage? How I should like to make her live on four hundred a year, with a husband that will spend seven!"
She stood, half amused, half frowning, beside the bed on which lay her one evening frock. But the frown passed away, effaced by an expression much softer and tenderer than anything she had allowed Arthur to see of late. Of course she delighted in Arthur's success; she was proud, indeed, through and through. Hadn't she always known that he had this gift, this quick, vivacious power of narrative, this genius—for it was something like it—for literary portraiture? And now at last the stimulus had come—and the opportunity with it. Could she ever forget the anxiety of the first lecture—the difficulty she had had in making him finish it—his careless, unbusiness-like management of the whole affair? But then had come the burst of praise and popularity; and Arthur was a new man. No difficulty—or scarcely—in getting him to work since then! Applause, so new and intoxicating, had lured him on, as she had been wont to lure the black pony of her childhood with a handful of sugar. Yes, her Arthur was a genius; she had always known it. And something of a child too—lazy, wilful, and sensuous—that, too, she had known for some time. And she loved him with all her heart.
"But I won't have him spoilt by those fine ladies!" she said to herself, with frowning clear-sightedness. "They make a perfect fool of him. Now, then, I'd better write to Lady Dunstable. Of course she ought to have written to me!"
So she sat down and wrote:
Dear Lady Dunstable,—We have much pleasure in accepting your kind invitation, and I will let you know our train later. I have no maid, so—
But at this point Mrs. Meadows, struck by a sudden idea, threw down her pen.
"Heavens!—suppose I took Jane? Somebody told me the other day that nobody got any attention at Crosby Ledgers without a maid. And it might bribe Jane into staying. I should feel a horrid snob—but it would be rather fun—especially as Lady Dunstable will certainly be immensely surprised. The fare would be only about five shillings—Jane would get her food for two days at the Dunstables' expense—and I should have a friend. I'll do it."
So, with her eyes dancing, Doris tore up her note, and began again:
Dear Lady Dunstable,—We have much pleasure in accepting your kind invitation, and I will let you know our train later. As you kindly permit me, I will bring a maid.
Yours sincerely, DORIS MEADOWS.
* * * * *
The month which elapsed between Lady Dunstable's invitation and the Crosby Ledgers party was spent by Doris first in "doing up" her frock, and then in taking the bloom off it at various dinner-parties to which they were already invited as the "celebrities" of the moment; in making Arthur's wardrobe presentable; in watching over the tickets and receipts of the weekly lectures; in collecting the press cuttings about them; in finishing her illustrations; and in instructing the awe-struck Jane, now perfectly amenable, in the mysteries that would be expected of her.
Meanwhile Mrs. Meadows heard various accounts from artistic and literary friends of the parties at Crosby Ledgers. These accounts were generally prefaced by the laughing remark, "But anything I can say is ancient history. Lady Dunstable dropped us long ago!"
Anyway, it appeared that the mistress of Crosby Ledgers could be charming, and could also be exactly the reverse. She was a creature of whims and did precisely as she pleased. Everything she did apparently was acceptable to Lord Dunstable, who admired her blindly. But in one point at least she was a disappointed woman. Her son, an unsatisfactory youth of two-and-twenty, was seldom to be seen under his parents' roof, and it was rumoured that he had already given them a great deal of trouble.
"The dreadful thing, my dear, is the games they play!" said the wife of a dramatist, whose one successful piece had been followed by years of ill-fortune.
"Games?" said Doris. "Do you mean cards—for money?"
"Oh, dear no! Intellectual games. Bouts-rimes; translations—Lady Dunstable looks out the bits and some people think the words—beforehand; paragraphs on a subject—in a particular style—Pater's, or Ruskin's, or Carlyle's. Each person throws two slips into a hat. On one you write the subject, on another the name of the author whose style is to be imitated. Then you draw. Of course Lady Dunstable carries off all the honours. But then everybody believes she spends all the mornings preparing these things. She never comes down till nearly lunch."
"This is really appalling!" said Doris, with round eyes. "I have forgotten everything I ever knew."
As for her own impressions of the great lady, she had only seen her once in the semi-darkness of the lecture-room, and could only remember a long, sallow face, with striking black eyes and a pointed chin, a general look of distinction and an air of one accustomed to the "chief seat" at any board—whether the feasts of reason or those of a more ordinary kind.
As the days went on, Doris, for all her sturdy self-reliance, began to feel a little nervous inwardly. She had been quite well-educated, first at a good High School, and then in the class-rooms of a provincial University; and, as the clever daughter of a clever doctor in large practice, she had always been in touch with the intellectual world, especially on its scientific side. And for nearly two years before her marriage she had been a student at the Slade School. But since her imprudent love-match with a literary man had plunged her into the practical work of a small household, run on a scanty and precarious income, she had been obliged, one after another, to let the old interests go. Except the drawing. That was good enough to bring her a little money, as an illustrator, designer of Christmas cards, etc.; and she filled most of her spare time with it.
But now she feverishly looked out some of her old books—Pater's "Studies," a volume of Huxley's Essays, "Shelley" and "Keats" in the "Men of Letters" series. She borrowed two or three of the political biographies with which Arthur's shelves were crowded, having all the while, however, the dispiriting conviction that Lady Dunstable had been dandled on the knees of every English Prime Minister since her birth, and had been the blood relation of all of them, except perhaps Mr. G., whose blood no doubt had not been blue enough to entitle him to the privilege.
However, she must do her best. She kept these feelings and preparations entirely secret from Arthur, and she saw the day of the visit dawn in a mood of mingled expectation and revolt.
It was a perfect June evening: Doris was seated on one of the spreading lawns of Crosby Ledgers,—a low Georgian house, much added to at various times, and now a pleasant medley of pillared verandahs, tiled roofs, cupolas, and dormer windows, apparently unpretending, but, as many people knew, one of the most luxurious of English country houses.
Lady Dunstable, in a flowing dress of lilac crepe and a large black hat, had just given Mrs. Meadows a second cup of tea, and was clearly doing her duty—and showing it—to a guest whose entertainment could not be trusted to go of itself. The only other persons at the tea-table—the Meadowses having arrived late—were an elderly man with long Dundreary whiskers, in a Panama hat and a white waistcoat, and a lady of uncertain age, plump, kind-eyed, and merry-mouthed, in whom Doris had at once divined a possible harbour of refuge from the terrors of the situation. Arthur was strolling up and down the lawn with the Home Secretary, smoking and chatting—talking indeed nineteen to the dozen, and entirely at his ease. A few other groups were scattered over the grass; while girls in white dresses and young men in flannels were playing tennis in the distance. A lake at the bottom of the sloping garden made light and space in a landscape otherwise too heavily walled in by thick woodland. White swans floated on the lake, and the June trees beyond were in their freshest and proudest leaf. A church tower rose appropriately in a corner of the park, and on the other side of the deer-fence beyond the lake a herd of red deer were feeding. Doris could not help feeling as though the whole scene had been lately painted for a new "high life" play at the St. James's Theatre, and she half expected to see Sir George Alexander walk out of the bushes.
"I suppose, Mrs. Meadows, you have been helping your husband with his lectures?" said Lady Dunstable, a little languidly, as though the heat oppressed her. She was making play with a cigarette and her half-shut eyes were fixed on the "lion's" wife. The eyes fascinated Doris. Surely they were artificially blackened, above and below? And the lips—had art been delicately invoked, or was Nature alone responsible?
"I copy things for Arthur," said Doris. "Unfortunately, I can't type."
At the sound of the young and musical voice, the gentleman with the Dundreary whiskers—Sir Luke Malford—who had seemed half asleep, turned sharply to look at the speaker. Doris too was in a white dress, of the simplest stuff and make; but it became her. So did the straw hat, with its wreath of wild roses, which she had trimmed herself that morning. There was not the slightest visible sign of tremor in the young woman; and Sir Luke's inner mind applauded her.
"No fool!—and a lady," he thought. "Let's see what Rachel will make of her."
"Then you don't help him in the writing?" said Lady Dunstable, still with the same detached air. Doris laughed.
"I don't know what Arthur would say if I proposed it. He never lets anybody go near him when he's writing."
"I see; like all geniuses, he's dangerous on the loose." Was Lady Dunstable's smile just touched with sarcasm? "Well!—has the success of the lectures surprised you?"
"No," she said at last, "not really. I always thought Arthur had it in him."
"But you hardly expected such a run—such an excitement!"
"I don't know," said Doris, coolly. "I think I did—sometimes. The question is how long it will last."
She looked, smiling, at her interrogator.
The gentleman with the whiskers stooped across the table.
"Oh, nothing lasts in this world. But that of course is what makes a good time so good."
Doris turned towards him—demurring—for the sake of conversation. "I never could understand how Cinderella enjoyed the ball."
"For thinking of the clock?" laughed Sir Luke. "No, no!—you can't mean that. It's the expectation of the clock that doubles the pleasure. Of course you agree, Rachel!"—he turned to her—"else why did you read me that very doleful poem yesterday, on this very theme?—that it's only the certainty of death that makes life agreeable? By the way, George Eliot had said it before!"
"The poem was by a friend of mine," said Lady Dunstable, coldly. "I read it to you to see how it sounded. But I thought it poor stuff."
"How unkind of you! The man who wrote it says he lives upon your friendship."
"That, perhaps, is why he's so thin."
Sir Luke laughed again.
"To be sure, I saw the poor man—after you had talked to him the other night—going to Dunstable to be consoled. Poor George! he's always healing the wounds you make."
"Of course. That's why I married him. George says all the civil things. That sets me free to do the rude ones."
"Rachel!" The exclamation came from the plump lady opposite, who was smiling broadly, and showing some very white teeth. A signal passed from her eyes to those of Doris, as though to say "Don't be alarmed!"
But Doris was not at all alarmed. She was eagerly watching Lady Dunstable, as one watches for the mannerisms of some well-known performer. Sir Luke perceived it, and immediately began to show off his hostess by one of the sparring matches that were apparently frequent between them. They fell to discussing a party of guests—landowners from a neighbouring estate—who seemed to have paid a visit to Crosby Ledgers the day before. Lady Dunstable had not enjoyed them, and her tongue on the subject was sharpness itself, restrained by none of the ordinary compunctions. "Is this how she talks about all her guests—on Monday morning?" thought Doris, with quickened pulse as the biting sentences flew about.
... "Mr. Worthing? Why did he marry her? Oh, because he wanted a stuffed goose to sit by the fire while he went out and amused himself.... Why did she marry him? Ah, that's more difficult to answer. Is one obliged to credit Mrs. Worthing with any reasons—on any subject? However, I like Mr. Worthing—he's what men ought to be."
"And that is—?" Doris ventured to put in.
"Just—men," said Lady Dunstable, shortly.
Sir Luke laughed over his cigarette.
"That you may fool them? Well, Rachel, all the same, you would die of Worthing's company in a month."
"I shouldn't die," said Lady Dunstable, quietly. "I should murder."
"Hullo, what's my wife talking about?" said a bluff and friendly voice. Doris looked up to see a handsome man with grizzled hair approaching.
"Mrs. Meadows? How do you do? What a beautiful evening you've brought! Your husband and I have been having a jolly talk. My word!—he's a clever chap. Let me congratulate you on the lectures. Biggest success known in recent days!"
Doris beamed upon her host, well pleased, and he settled down beside her, doing his kind best to entertain her. In him, all those protective feelings towards a stranger, in which his wife appeared to be conspicuously lacking, were to be discerned on first acquaintance. Doris was practically sure that his inner mind was thinking—"Poor little thing!—knows nobody here. Rachel's been scaring her. Must look after her!"
And look after her he did. He was by no means an amusing companion. Lazy, gentle, and ineffective, Doris quickly perceived that he was entirely eclipsed by his wife, who, now that she was relieved of Mrs. Meadows, was soon surrounded by a congenial company—the Home Secretary, one or two other politicians, the old General, a literary Dean, Lord Staines, a great racing man, Arthur Meadows, and one or two more. The talk became almost entirely political—with a dash of literature. Doris saw at once that Lady Dunstable was the centre of it, and she was not long in guessing that it was for this kind of talk that people came to Crosby Ledgers. Lady Dunstable, it seemed, was capable of talking like a man with men, and like a man of affairs with the men of affairs. Her political knowledge was astonishing; so, evidently, was her background of family and tradition, interwoven throughout with English political history. English statesmen had not only dandled her, they had taught her, walked with her, written to her, and—no doubt—flirted with her. Doris, as she listened to her, disliked her heartily, and at the same time could not help being thrilled by so much knowledge, so much contact with history in the making, and by such a masterful way, in a woman, with the great ones of the earth. "What a worm she must think me!" thought Doris—"what a worm she does think me—and the likes of me!"
At the same time, the spectator must needs admit there was something else in Lady Dunstable's talk than mere intelligence or mere mannishness. There was undoubtedly something of "the good fellow," and, through all her hard hitting, a curious absence—in conversation—of the personal egotism she was quite ready to show in all the trifles of life. On the present occasion her main object clearly was to bring out Arthur Meadows—the new captive of her bow and spear; to find out what was in him; to see if he was worthy of her inner circle. Throwing all compliment aside, she attacked him hotly on certain statements—certain estimates—in his lectures. Her knowledge was personal; the knowledge of one whose father had sat in Dizzy's latest Cabinet, while, through the endless cousinship of the English landed families, she was as much related to the Whig as to the Tory leaders of the past. She talked familiarly of "Uncle This" or "Cousin That," who had been apparently the idols of her nursery before they had become the heroes of England; and Meadows had much ado to defend himself against her store of anecdote and reminiscence. "Unfair!" thought Doris, breathlessly watching the contest of wits. "Oh, if she weren't a woman, Arthur could easily beat her!"
But she was a woman, and not at all unwilling, when hard pressed, to take advantage of that fact.
All the same, Meadows was stirred to most unwonted efforts. He proved to be an antagonist worth her steel; and Doris's heart swelled with secret pride as she saw how all the other voices died down, how more and more people came up to listen, even the young men and maidens,—throwing themselves on the grass, around the two disputants. Finally Lady Dunstable carried off the honours. Had she not seen Lord Beaconsfield twice during the fatal week of his last general election, when England turned against him, when his great rival triumphed, and all was lost? Had he not talked to her, as great men will talk to the young and charming women whose flatteries soften their defeats; so that, from the wings, she had seen almost the last of that well-graced actor, caught his last gestures and some of his last words?
"Brava, brava!" said Meadows, when the story ceased, although it had been intended to upset one of his own most brilliant generalisations; and a sound of clapping hands went round the circle. Lady Dunstable, a little flushed and panting, smiled and was silent. Meadows, meanwhile, was thinking—"How often has she told that tale? She has it by heart. Every touch in it has been sharpened a dozen times. All the same—a wonderful performance!"
Lord Dunstable, meanwhile, sat absolutely silent, his hat on the back of his head, his attention fixed on his wife. As the group broke up, and the chairs were pushed back, he said in Doris's ear—"Isn't she an awfully clever woman, my wife?"
Before Doris could answer, she heard Lady Dunstable carelessly—but none the less peremptorily—inviting her women guests to see their rooms. Doris walked by her hostess's side towards the house. Every trace of animation and charm had now vanished from that lady's manner. She was as languid and monosyllabic as before, and Doris could only feel once again that while her clever husband was an eagerly welcomed guest, she herself could only expect to reckon as his appendage—a piece of family luggage.
Lady Dunstable threw open the door of a spacious bedroom. "No doubt you will wish to rest till dinner," she said, severely. "And of course your maid will ask for what she wants." At the word "maid," did Doris dream it, or was there a satiric gleam in the hard black eyes? "Pretender," it seemed to say—and Doris's conscience admitted the charge.
And indeed the door had no sooner closed on Lady Dunstable before an agitated knock announced Jane—in tears.
She stood opposite her mistress in desperation.
"Please, ma'am—I'll have to have an evening dress—or I can't go in to supper!"
"What on earth do you mean?" said Doris, staring at her.
"Every maid in this 'ouse, ma'am, 'as got to dress for supper. The maids go in the 'ousekeeper's room, an' they've all on 'em got dresses V-shaped, or cut square, or something. This black dress, ma'am, won't do at all. So I can't have no supper. I couldn't dream, ma'am, of goin' in different to the others!"
"You silly creature!" said Doris, springing up. "Look here—I'll lend you my spare blouse. You can turn it in at the neck, and wear my white scarf. You'll be as smart as any of them!"
And half laughing, half compassionate, she pulled her blouse out of the box, adjusted the white scarf to it herself, and sent the bewildered Jane about her business, after having shown her first how to unpack her mistress's modest belongings, and strictly charged her to return half an hour before dinner. "Of course I shall dress myself,—but you may as well have a lesson."
The girl went, and Doris was left stormily wondering why she had been such a fool as to bring her. Then her sense of humour conquered, and her brow cleared. She went to the open window and stood looking over the park beyond. Sunset lay broad and rich over the wide stretches of grass, and on the splendid oaks lifting their dazzling leaf to the purest of skies. The roses in the garden sent up their scent, there was a plashing of water from an invisible fountain, and the deer beyond the fence wandered in and out of the broad bands of shadow drawn across the park. Doris's young feet fidgeted under her. She longed to be out exploring the woods and the lake. Why was she immured in this stupid room, to which Lady Dunstable had conducted her with a chill politeness which had said plainly enough "Here you are—and here you stay!—till dinner!"
"If I could only find a back-staircase," she thought, "I would soon be enjoying myself! Arthur, lucky wretch, said something about playing golf. No!—there he is!"
And sure enough, on the farthest edge of the lawn going towards the park, she saw two figures walking—Lady Dunstable and Arthur! "Deep in talk of course—having the best of times—while I am shut up here—half-past six!—on a glorious evening!" The reflection, however, was, on the whole, good-humoured. She did not feel, as yet, either jealous or tragic. Some day, she supposed, if it was to be her lot to visit country houses, she would get used to their ways. For Arthur, of course, it was useful—perhaps necessary—to be put through his paces by a woman like Lady Dunstable. "And he can hold his own. But for me? I contribute nothing. I don't belong to them—they don't want me—and what use have I for them?"
Her meditations, however, were here interrupted by a knock. On her saying "Come in"—the door opened cautiously to admit the face of the substantial lady, Miss Field, to whom Doris had been introduced at the tea-table.
"Are you resting?" said Miss Field, "or only 'interned'?"
"Oh, please come in!" cried Doris. "I never was less tired in my life."
Miss Field entered, and took the armchair that Doris offered her, fronting the open window and the summer scene. Her face would have suited the Muse of Mirth, if any Muse is ever forty years of age. The small, up-turned nose and full red lips were always smiling; so were the eyes; and the fair skin and still golden hair, the plump figure and gay dress of flower-sprigged muslin, were all in keeping with the part.
"You have never seen my cousin before?" she inquired.
"Lady Dunstable? Is she your cousin?"
Miss Field nodded. "My first cousin. And I spend a great part of the year here, helping in different ways. Rachel can't do without me now, so I'm able to keep her in order. Don't ever be shy with her! Don't ever let her think she frightens you!—those are the two indispensable rules here."
"I'm afraid I should break them," said Doris, slowly. "She does frighten me—horribly!"
"Ah, well, you didn't show it—that's the chief thing. You know she's a much more human creature than she seems."
"Is she?" Doris's eyes pursued the two distant figures in the park.
"You'd think, for instance, that Lord Dunstable was just a cipher? Not at all. He's the real authority here, and when he puts his foot down Rachel always gives in. But of course she's stood in the way of his career."
Doris shrank a little from these indiscretions. But she could not keep her curiosity out of her eyes, and Miss Field smilingly answered it.
"She's absorbed him so! You see he watches her all the time. She's like an endless play to him. He really doesn't care for anything else—he doesn't want anything else. Of course they're very rich. But he might have done something in politics, if she hadn't been so much more important than he. And then, naturally, she's made enemies—powerful enemies. Her friends come here of course—her old cronies—the people who can put up with her. They're devoted to her. And the young people—the very modern ones—who think nice manners 'early Victorian,' and like her rudeness for the sake of her cleverness. But the rest!—What do you think she did at one of these parties last year?"
Doris could not help wishing to know.
"She took a fancy to ask a girl near here—the daughter of a clergyman, a great friend of Lord Dunstable's, to come over for the Sunday. Lord Dunstable had talked of the girl, and Rachel's always on the look-out for cleverness; she hunts it like a hound! She met the young woman too somewhere, and got the impression—I can't say how—that she would 'go.' So on the Saturday morning she went over in her pony-carriage—broke in on the little Rectory like a hurricane—of course you know the people about here regard her as something semi-divine!—and told the girl she had come to take her back to Crosby Ledgers for the Sunday. So the poor child packed up, all in a flutter, and they set off together in the pony-carriage—six miles. And by the time they had gone four Rachel had discovered she had made a mistake—that the girl wasn't clever, and would add nothing to the party. So she quietly told her that she was afraid, after all, the party wouldn't suit her. And then she turned the pony's head, and drove her straight home again!"
"Oh!" cried Doris, her cheeks red, her eyes aflame.
"Brutal, wasn't it?" said the other. "All the same, there are fine things in Rachel. And in one point she's the most vulnerable of women!"
"Her son?" Doris ventured.
Miss Field shrugged her shoulders.
"He doesn't drink—he doesn't gamble—he doesn't spend money—he doesn't run away with other people's wives. He's just nothing!—just incurably empty and idle. He comes here very little. His mother terrifies him. And since he was twenty-one he has a little money of his own. He hangs about in studios and theatres. His mother doesn't know any of his friends. What she suffers—poor Rachel! She'd have given everything in the world for a brilliant son. But you can't wonder. She's like some strong plant that takes all the nourishment out of the ground, so that the plants near it starve. She can't help it. She doesn't mean to be a vampire!"
Doris hardly knew what to say. Somehow she wished the vampire were not walking with Arthur! That, however, was not a sentiment easily communicable; and she was just turning it into something else when Miss Field said—abruptly, like someone coming to the real point—
"Does your husband like her?"
"Why yes, of course!" stammered Doris. "She's been awfully kind to us about the lectures, and—he loves arguing with her."
"She loves arguing with him!" 'said Miss Field triumphantly. "She lives just for such half-hours as that she gave us on the lawn after tea—and all owing to him—he was so inspiring, so stimulating. Oh, you'll see, she'll take you up tremendously—if you want to be taken up!"
The smiling blue eyes looked gaily into Doris's puzzled countenance. Evidently the speaker was much amused by the Meadowses' situation—more amused than her sense of politeness allowed her to explain. Doris was conscious of a vague resentment.
"I'm afraid I don't see what Lady Dunstable will get out of me," she said, drily.
Miss Field raised her eyebrows.
"Are you going then to let him come here alone? She'll be always asking you! Oh, you needn't be afraid—" and this most candid of cousins laughed aloud. "Rachel isn't a flirt—except of the intellectual kind. But she takes possession—she sticks like a limpet."
There was a pause. Then Miss Field added:
"You mustn't think it odd that I say these things about Rachel. I have to explain her to people. She's not like anybody else."
Doris did not quite see the necessity, but she kept the reflection to herself, and Miss Field passed lightly to the other guests—Sir Luke, a tame cat of the house, who quarrelled with Lady Dunstable once a month, vowed he would never come near her again, and always reappeared; the Dean, who in return for a general submission, was allowed to scold her occasionally for her soul's health; the politicians whom she could not do without, who were therefore handled more gingerly than the rest; the military and naval men who loved Dunstable and put up with his wife for his sake; and the young people—nephews and nieces and cousins—who liked an unconventional hostess without any foolish notions of chaperonage, and always enjoyed themselves famously at Crosby Ledgers.
"Now then," said Miss Field, rising at last, "I think you have the carte du pays—and there they are, coming back." She pointed to Meadows and Lady Dunstable, crossing the lawn. "Whatever you do, hold your own. If you don't want to play games, don't play them. If you want to go to church to-morrow, go to church. Lady Dunstable of course is a heathen. And now perhaps, you might really rest."
"Such a jolly walk!" said Meadows, entering his wife's room flushed with exercise and pleasure. "The place is divine, and really Lady Dunstable is uncommonly good talk. Hope you haven't been dull, dear?"
Doris replied, laughing, that Miss Field had taken pity on what would otherwise have been solitary confinement, and that now it was time to dress. Meadows kissed her absently, and, with his head evidently still full of his walk, went to his dressing-room. When he reappeared, it was to find Doris attired in a little black gown, with which he was already too familiar. She saw at once the dissatisfaction in his face.
"I can't help it!" she said, with emphasis. "I did my best with it, Arthur, but I'm not a genius at dressmaking. Never mind. Nobody will take any notice of me."
He quite crossly rebuked her. She really must spend more on her dress. It was unseemly—absurd. She looked as nice as anybody when she was properly got up.
"Well, don't buy any more copper coal-scuttles!" she said slyly, as she straightened his tie, and dropped a kiss on his chin. "Then we'll see."
They went down to dinner, and on the staircase Meadows turned to say to his wife in a lowered voice:
"Lady Dunstable wants me to go to them in Scotland—for two or three weeks. I dare say I could do some work."
"Oh, does she?" said Doris.
* * * * *
What perversity drove Lady Dunstable during the evening and the Sunday that followed to match every attention that was lavished on Arthur Meadows by some slight to his wife, will never be known. But the fact was patent. Throughout the diversions or occupations of the forty-eight hours' visit, Mrs. Meadows was either ignored, snubbed, or contradicted. Only Arthur Meadows, indeed, measuring himself with delight, for the first time, against some of the keenest brains in the country, failed to see it. His blindness allowed Lady Dunstable to run a somewhat dangerous course, unchecked. She risked alienating a man whom she particularly wished to attract; she excited a passion of antagonism in Doris's generally equable breast, and was quite aware of it. Notwithstanding, she followed her whim; and by the Sunday evening there existed between the great lady and her guest a state of veiled war, in which the strokes were by no means always to the advantage of Lady Dunstable.
Doris, for instance, with other guests, expressed a wish to attend morning service on Sunday at a famous cathedral some three miles away. Lady Dunstable immediately announced that everybody who wished to go to church would go to the village church within the park, for which alone carriages would be provided. Then Doris and Sir Luke combined, and walked to the cathedral, three miles there and three miles back—to the huge delight of the other and more docile guests. Sunday evening, again, was devastated by what were called "games" at Crosby Ledgers. "Gad, if I wouldn't sooner go in for the Indian Civil again!" said Sir Luke. Doris, with the most ingratiating manner, but quite firmly, begged to be excused. Lady Dunstable bit her lip, and presently, a propos de bottes, launched some observations on the need of co-operation in society. It was shirking—refusing to take a hand, to do one's best—false shame, indeed!—that ruined English society and English talk. Let everybody take a lesson from the French! After which the lists were opened, so to speak, and Lady Dunstable, Meadows, the Dean, and about half the young people produced elegant pieces of translation, astounding copies of impromptu verse, essays in all the leading styles of the day, and riddles by the score. The Home Secretary, who had been lassoed by his hostess, escaped towards the middle of the ordeal, and wandered sadly into a further room where Doris sat chatting with Lord Dunstable. He was carrying various slips of paper in his hand, and asked her distractedly if she could throw any light on the question—"Why is Lord Salisbury like a poker?"
"I can't think of anything to say," he said helplessly, "except 'because they are both upright.' And here's another—'Why is the Pope like a thermometer?' I did see some light on that!" His countenance cheered a little. "Would this do? 'Because both are higher in Italy than in England.' Not very good!—but I must think of something."
Doris put her wits to his. Between them they polished the riddle; but by the time it was done the Home Secretary had begun to find Meadows's little wife, whose existence he had not noticed hitherto, more agreeable than Lady Dunstable's table with its racked countenances, and its too ample supply of pencils and paper. A deadly crime! When Lady Dunstable, on the stroke of midnight, swept through the rooms to gather her guests for bed, she cast a withering glance on Doris and her companion.
"So you despised our little amusements?" she said, as she handed Mrs. Meadows her candle.
"I wasn't worthy of them," smiled Doris, in reply.
* * * * *
"Well, I call that a delightful visit!" said Meadows as the train next morning pulled out of the Crosby Ledgers station for London. "I feel freshened up all over."
Doris looked at him with rather mocking eyes, but said nothing. She fully recognised, however, that Arthur would have been an ungrateful wretch if he had not enjoyed it. Lady Dunstable had been, so to speak, at his feet, and all her little court had taken their cue from her. He had been flattered, drawn out, and shown off to his heart's content, and had been most naturally and humanly happy. "And I," thought Doris with sudden repentance, "was just a spiky, horrid little toad! What was wrong with me?" She was still searching, when Meadows said reproachfully:
"I thought, darling, you might have taken a little more trouble to make friends with Lady Dunstable. However, that'll be all right. I told her, of course, we should be delighted to go to Scotland."
"Arthur!" cried Doris, aghast. "Three weeks! I couldn't, Arthur! Don't ask me!"
"And, pray, why?" he angrily inquired.
"Because—oh, Arthur, don't you understand? She is a man's woman. She took a particular dislike to me, and I just had to be stubborn and thorny to get on at all. I'm awfully sorry—but I couldn't stay with her, and I'm certain you wouldn't be happy either."
"I should be perfectly happy," said Meadows, with vehemence. "And so would you, if you weren't so critical and censorious. Anyway"—his Jove-like mouth shut firmly—"I have promised."
"You couldn't promise for me!" cried Doris, holding her head very high.
"Then you'll have to let me go without you?"
"Which, of course, was what you swore not to do!" she said, provokingly. "I thought my wife was a reasonable woman! Lady Dunstable rouses all my powers; she gives me ideas which may be most valuable. It is to the interest of both of us that I should keep up my friendship with her."
"Then keep it up," said Doris, her cheeks aflame. "But you won't want me to help you, Arthur."
He cried out that it was only pride and conceit that made her behave so. In her heart of hearts, Doris mostly agreed with him. But she wouldn't confess it, and it was presently understood between them that Meadows would duly accept the Dunstables' invitation for August, and that Doris would stay behind.
After which, Doris looked steadily out of the window for the rest of the journey, and could not at all conceal from herself that she had never felt more miserable in her life. The only person in the trio who returned to the Kensington house entirely happy was Jane, who spent the greater part of the day in describing to Martha, the cook-general, the glories of Crosby Ledgers, and her own genteel appearance in Mrs. Meadows's blouse.
During the weeks that followed the Meadowses' first visit to Crosby Ledgers, Doris's conscience was by no means asleep on the subject of Lady Dunstable. She felt that her behaviour in that lady's house, and the sudden growth in her own mind of a quite unmanageable dislike, were not to be defended in one who prided herself on a general temper of coolness and common sense, who despised the rancour and whims of other women, hated scenes, and had always held jealousy to be the smallest and most degrading of passions. Why not laugh at what was odious, show oneself superior to personal slights, and enjoy what could be enjoyed? And above all, why grudge Arthur a woman friend?
None of these arguments, however, availed at all to reconcile Doris to the new intimacy growing under her eyes. The Dunstables came to town, and invitations followed. Mr. and Mrs. Meadows were asked to a large dinner-party, and Doris held her peace and went. She found herself at the end of a long table with an inarticulate schoolboy of seventeen, a ward of Lord Dunstable's, on her left, and with an elderly colonel on her right, who, after a little cool examination of her through an eyeglass, decided to devote himself to the debutante on his other side, a Lady Rosamond, who was ready to chatter hunting and horses to him through the whole of dinner. The girl was not pretty, but she was fresh and gay, and Doris, tired with "much serving," envied her spirits, her evident assumption that the world only existed for her to laugh and ride in, her childish unspoken claim to the best of everything—clothes, food, amusements, lovers. Doris on her side made valiant efforts with the schoolboy. She liked boys, and prided herself on getting on with them. But this specimen had no conversation—at any rate for the female sex—and apparently only an appetite. He ate steadily through the dinner, and seemed rather to resent Doris's attempts to distract him from the task. So that presently Doris found herself reduced to long tracts of silence, when her fan was her only companion, and the watching of other people her only amusement.
Lord and Lady Dunstable faced each other at the sides of the table, which was purposely narrow, so that talk could pass across it. Lady Dunstable sat between an Ambassador and a Cabinet Minister, but Meadows was almost directly opposite to her, and it seemed to be her chief business to make him the hero of the occasion. It was she who drew him into political or literary discussion with the Cabinet Minister, so that the neighbours of each stayed their own talk to listen; she who would insist on his repeating "that story you told me at Crosby Ledgers;" who attacked him abruptly—rudely even, as she had done in the country—so that he might defend himself; and when he had slipped into all her traps one after the other, would fall back in her chair with a little satisfied smile. Doris, silent and forgotten, could not keep her eyes for long from the two distant figures—from this new Arthur, and the sallow-faced, dark-eyed witch who had waved her wand over him.
Wasn't she glad to see her husband courted—valued as he deserved—borne along the growing stream of fame? What matter, if she could only watch him from the bank?—and if the impetuous stream were carrying him away from her? No! She wasn't glad. Some cold and deadly thing seemed to be twining about her heart. Were they leaving the dear, poverty-stricken, debt-pestered life behind for ever, in which, after all, they had been so happy: she, everything to Arthur, and he, so dependent upon her? No doubt she had been driven to despair, often, by his careless, shiftless ways; she had thirsted for success and money; just money enough, at least, to get along with. And now success had come, and money was coming. And here she was, longing for the old, hard, struggling past—hating the advent of the new and glittering future. As she sat at Lady Dunstable's table, she seemed to see the little room in their Kensington house, with the big hole in the carpet, the piles of papers and books, the reading-lamp that would smoke, her work-basket, the house-books, Arthur pulling contentedly at his pipe, the fire crackling between them, his shabby coat, her shabby dress—Bliss!—compared to this splendid scene, with the great Vandycks looking down on the dinner-table, the crowd of guests and servants, the costly food, the dresses, and the diamonds—with, in the distance, her Arthur, divided, as it seemed, from her by a growing chasm, never remembering to throw her a look or a smile, drinking in a tide of flattery he would once have been the first to scorn, captured, exhibited, befooled by an unscrupulous, egotistical woman, who would drop him like a squeezed orange when he had ceased to amuse her. And the worst of it was that the woman was not a mere pretender! She had a fine, hard brain,—"as good as Arthur's—nearly—and he knows it. It is that which attracts him—and excites him. I can mend his socks; I can listen while he reads; and he used to like it when I praised. Now, what I say will never matter to him any more; that was just sentiment and nonsense; now, he only wants to know what she says;—that's business! He writes with her in his mind—and when he has finished something he sends it off to her, straight. I may see it when all the world may—but she has the first-fruits!"
And in poor Doris's troubled mind the whole scene—save the two central figures, Lady Dunstable and Arthur—seemed to melt away. She was not the first wife, by a long way, into whose quiet breast Lady Dunstable had dropped these seeds of discord. She knew it well by report; but it was hateful, both to wifely feeling and natural vanity, that she should now be the victim of the moment, and should know no more than her predecessors how to defend herself. "Why can't I be cool and cutting—pay her back when she is rude, and contradict her when she's absurd? She is absurd often. But I think of the right things to say just five minutes too late. I have no nerve—that's the point!—only l'esprit d'escalier to perfection. And she has been trained to this sort of campaigning from her babyhood. No good growling! I shall never hold my own!"
Then, into this despairing mood there dropped suddenly a fragment of her neighbour, the Colonel's, conversation—"Mrs. So-and-so? Impossible woman! Oh, one doesn't mind seeing her graze occasionally at the other end of one's table—as the price of getting her husband, don't you know?—but—"
Doris's sudden laugh at the Colonel's elbow startled that gentleman so that he turned round to look at her. But she was absorbed in the menu, which she had taken up, and he could only suppose that something in it amused her.
A few days later arrived a letter for Meadows, which he handed to his wife in silence. There had been no further discussion of Lady Dunstable between them; only a general sense of friction, warnings of hidden fire on Doris's side, and resentment on his, quite new in their relation to each other. Meadows clearly thought that his wife was behaving very badly. Lady Dunstable's efforts on his behalf had already done him substantial service; she had introduced him to all kinds of people likely to help him, intellectually and financially; and to help him was to help Doris. Why would she be such a little fool? So unlike her, too!—sensible, level-headed creature that she generally was. But he was afraid of losing his own temper, if he argued with her. And indeed his lazy easy-goingness loathed argument of this domestic sort, loathed scenes, loathed doing anything disagreeable that could be put off.
But here was Lady Dunstable's letter:
Dear Mr. Arthur,—Will your wife forgive me if I ask you to come to a tiny men's dinner-party next Friday at 8.15—to meet the President of the Duma, and another Russian, an intimate friend of Tolstoy's? All males, but myself! So I hope Mrs. Meadows will let you come.
Yours sincerely, RACHEL DUNSTABLE.
"Of course, I won't go if you don't like it, Doris," said Meadows with the smile of magnanimity.
"I thought you were angry with me—once—for even suggesting that you might!" Doris's tone was light, but not pleasing to a husband's ears. She was busy at the moment in packing up the American proofs of the Disraeli lecture, which at last with infinite difficulty she had persuaded Meadows to correct and return.
"Well—but of course—this is exceptional!" said Meadows, pacing up and down irresolutely.
"Everything's exceptional—in that quarter," said Doris, in the same tone. "Oh, go, of course!—it would be a thousand pities not to go."
Meadows at once took her at her word. That was the first of a series of "male" dinners, to which, however, it seemed to Doris, if one might judge from Arthur's accounts, that a good many female exceptions were admitted, no doubt by way of proving the rule. And during July, Meadows lunched in town—in the lofty regions of St. James's or Mayfair—with other enthusiastic women admirers, most of them endowed with long purses and long pedigrees, at least three or four times a week. Doris was occasionally asked and sometimes went. But she was suffering all the time from an initial discouragement and depression, which took away self-reliance, and left her awkwardly conscious. She struggled, but in vain. The world into which Arthur was being so suddenly swept was strange to her, and in many ways antipathetic; but had she been happy and in spirits she could have grappled with it, or rather she could have lost herself in Arthur's success. Had she not always been his slave? But she was not happy! In their obscure days she had been Arthur's best friend, as well as his wife. And it was the old comradeship which was failing her; encroached upon, filched from her, by other women; and especially by this exacting, absorbing woman, whose craze for Arthur Meadows's society was rapidly becoming an amusement and a scandal even to those well acquainted with her previous records of the same sort.
* * * * *
The end of July arrived. The Dunstables left town. At a concert, for which she had herself sent them tickets, Lady Dunstable met Doris and her husband, the night before she departed.
"In ten days we shall expect you at Pitlochry," she said, smiling, to Arthur Meadows, as she swept past them in the corridor. Then, pausing, she held out a perfunctory hand to Doris.
"And we really can't persuade you to come too?"
The tone was careless and patronising. It brought the sudden red to Doris's cheek. For one moment she was tempted to say—"Thank you—since you are so kind—after all, why not?"—just that she might see the change in those large, malicious eyes—might catch their owner unawares, for once. But, as usual, nerve failed her. She merely said that her drawing would keep her all August in town; and that London, empty, was the best possible place for work. Lady Dunstable nodded and passed on.
The ten days flew. Meadows, kept to it by Doris, was very busy preparing another lecture for publication in an English review. Doris, meanwhile, got his clothes ready, and affected a uniformly cheerful and indifferent demeanour. On Arthur's last evening at home, however, he came suddenly into the sitting-room, where Doris was sewing on some final buttons, and after fidgeting about a little, with occasional glances at his wife, he said abruptly:
"I say, Doris, I won't go if you're going to take it like this."
She turned upon him.
"Oh, don't pretend!" was the impatient reply. "You know very well that you hate my going to Scotland!"
Doris, all on edge, and smarting under the too Jovian look and frown with which he surveyed her from the hearthrug, declared that, as it was not a case of her going to Scotland, but of his, she was entirely indifferent. If he enjoyed it, he was quite right to go. She was going to enjoy her work in Uncle Charles's studio.
Meadows broke out into an angry attack on her folly and unkindness. But the more he lost his temper, the more provokingly Doris kept hers. She sat there, surrounded by his socks and shirts, a trim, determined little figure—declining to admit that she was angry, or jealous, or offended, or anything of the kind. Would he please come upstairs and give her his last directions about his packing? She thought she had put everything ready; but there were just a few things she was doubtful about.
And all the time she seemed to be watching another Doris—a creature quite different from her real self. What had come over her? If anybody had told her beforehand that she could ever let slip her power over her own will like this, ever become possessed with this silent, obstinate demon of wounded love and pride, never would she have believed them! She moved under its grip like an automaton. She would not quarrel with Arthur. But as no soft confession was possible, and no mending or undoing of what had happened, to laugh her way through the difficult hours was all that remained. So that whenever Meadows renewed the attempt to "have it out," he was met by renewed evasion and "chaff" on Doris's side, till he could only retreat with as much offended dignity as she allowed him.
It was after midnight before she had finished his packing. Then, bidding him a smiling good night, she fell asleep—apparently—as soon as her head touched the pillow.
The next morning, early, she stood on the steps waving farewell to Arthur, without a trace of ill-humour. And he, though vaguely uncomfortable, had submitted at last to what he felt was her fixed purpose of avoiding a scene. Moreover, the "eternal child" in him, which made both his charm and his weakness, had already scattered his compunctions of the preceding day, and was now aglow with the sheer joy of holiday and change. He had worked very hard, he had had a great success, and now he was going to live for three weeks in the lap of luxury; intellectual luxury first and foremost—good talk, good company, an abundance of books for rainy days; but with the addition of a supreme chef, Lord Dunstable's champagne, and all the amenities of one of the best moors in Scotland.
Doris went back into the house, and, Arthur being no longer in the neighbourhood, allowed herself a few tears. She had never felt so lonely in her life, nor so humiliated. "My moral character is gone," she said to herself. "I have no moral character. I thought I was a sensible, educated woman; and I am just an ''Arriet,' in a temper with her ''Arry.' Well—courage! Three weeks isn't long. Who can say that Arthur mayn't come back disillusioned? Rachel Dunstable is a born tyrant. If, instead of flattering him, she begins to bully him, strange things may happen!"
The first week of solitude she spent in household drudgery. Bills had to be paid, and there was now mercifully a little money to pay them with. Though it was August, the house was to be "spring-cleaned," and Doris had made a compact with her sulky maids that when it began she would do no more than sleep and breakfast at home. She would spend her days in the Campden Hill studio, and sup on a tray—anywhere. On these terms, they grudgingly allowed her to occupy her own house.
The studio in which she worked was on the top of Campden Hill, and opened into one of the pleasant gardens of that neighbourhood. Her uncle, Charles Bentley, an elderly Academician, with an ugly, humorous face, red hair, red eyebrows, a black skull-cap, and a general weakness for the female sex, was very fond of his niece Doris, and inclined to think her a neglected and underrated wife. He was too fond of his own comfort, however, to let Meadows perceive this opinion of his; still less did he dare express it to Doris. All he could do was to befriend her and make her welcome at the studio, to advise her about her illustrations, and correct her drawing when it needed it. He himself was an old-fashioned artist, quite content to be "mid" or even "early" Victorian. He still cultivated the art of historical painting, and was still as anxious as any contemporary of Frith to tell a story. And as his manner was no less behind the age than his material, his pictures remained on his hands, while the "vicious horrors," as they seemed to him, of the younger school held the field and captured the newspapers. But as he had some private means, and no kith or kin but his niece, the indifference of the public to his work caused him little disturbance. He pleased his own taste, allowing himself a good-natured contempt for the work which supplanted him, coupled with an ever-generous hand for any post-Impressionist in difficulties.
On the August afternoon when Doris, escaping at last from her maids and her accounts, made her way up to the studio, for some hours' work on the last three or four illustrations wanted for a Christmas book, Uncle Charles welcomed her with effusion.
"Where have you been, child, all this time? I thought you must have flitted entirely."
Doris explained—while she set up her easel—that for the first time in their lives she and Arthur had been seeing something of the great world, and—mildly—"doing" the season. Arthur was now continuing the season in Scotland, while she had stayed at home to work and rest. Throughout her talk, she avoided mentioning the Dunstables.
"H'm!" said Uncle Charles, "so you've been junketing!"
Doris admitted it.
"Did you like it?"
Doris put on her candid look.
"I daresay I should have liked it, if I'd made a success of it. Of course Arthur did."
"Too much trouble!" said the old painter, shaking his head. "I was in the swim, as they call it, for a year or two. I might have stayed there, I suppose, for I could always tell a story, and I wasn't afraid of the big-wigs. But I couldn't stand it. Dress-clothes are the deuce! And besides, talk now is not what it used to be. The clever men who can say smart things are too clever to say them. Nobody wants 'em! So let's 'cultivate our garden,' my dear, and be thankful. I'm beginning a new picture—and I've found a topping new model. What can a man want more? Very nice of you to let Arthur go, and have his head. Where is it?—some smart moor? He'll soon be tired of it."
Doris laughed, let the question as to the "smart moor" pass, and came round to look at the new subject that Uncle Charles was laying in. He explained it to her, well knowing that he spoke to unsympathetic ears, for whatever Doris might draw for her publishers, she was a passionate and humble follower of those modern experimentalists who have made the Slade School famous. The subject was, it seemed, to be a visit paid to Joanna the mad and widowed mother of Charles V., at Tordesillas, by the envoys of Henry VII., who were thus allowed by Ferdinand, the Queen's father, to convince themselves that the Queen's profound melancholia formed an insuperable barrier to the marriage proposals of the English King. The figure of the distracted Queen, crouching in white beside a window from which she could see the tomb of her dead and adored husband, the Archduke Philip, and some of the splendid figures of the English embassy, were already sketched.
"I have been fit to hang myself over her!" said Bentley, pointing to the Queen. "I tried model after model. At last I've got the very thing! She comes to-day for the first time. You'll see her! Before she comes, I must scrape out Joanna, so as to look at the thing quite fresh. But I daresay I shall only make a few sketches of the lady to-day."
"Who is she, and where did you get her!"
Bentley laughed. "You won't like her, my dear! Never mind. Her appearance is magnificent—whatever her mind and morals may be."
And he described how he had heard of the lady from an artist friend who had originally seen her at a music-hall, and had persuaded her to come and sit to him. The comic haste and relief with which he had now transferred her to Bentley lost nothing in Bentley's telling. Of course she had "a fiend of a temper." "Wish you joy of her! Oh, don't ask me about her! You'll find out for yourself." "I can manage her," said Uncle Charles tranquilly. "I've had so many of 'em."
"She is Spanish?"
"Not at all. She is Italian. That is to say, her mother was a Neapolitan, the daughter of a jeweller in Hatton Garden, and her father an English bank clerk. The Neapolitans have a lot of Spanish blood in them—hence, no doubt, the physique."
"And she is a professional model!"
"Nothing of the sort!—though she will probably become one. She is a writer—Heaven save the mark!—and I have to pay her vast sums to get her. It is the greatest favour."
"Poetess!—and journalist!" said Uncle Charles, enjoying Doris's puzzled look. "She sent me her poems yesterday. As to journalism"—his eyes twinkled—"I say nothing—but this. Watch her hats! She has the reputation—in certain circles—of being the best-hatted woman in London. All this I get from the man who handed her on to me. As I said to him, it depends on what 'London' you mean."
"Oh dear no, though of course she calls herself 'Madame' like the rest of them—Madame Vavasour. I have reason, however, to believe that her real name is Flink—Elena Flink. And I should say—very much on the look-out for a husband; and meanwhile very much courted by boys—who go to what she calls her 'evenings.' It is odd, the taste that some youths have for these elderly Circes."
"Elderly?" said Doris, busy the while with her own preparations. "I was hoping for something young and beautiful!"
"Young?—no!—an unmistakable thirty-five. Beautiful? Well, wait till you see her ... H'm—that shoulder won't do!"—Doris had just placed a preliminary sketch of one of her "subjects" under his eyes—"and that bit of perspective in the corner wants a lot of seeing to. Look here!" The old Academician, brought up in the spirit of Ingres—"le dessin, c'est la probite!—le dessin, c'est l'honneur!"—fell eagerly to work on the sketch, and Doris watched.
They were both absorbed, when there was a knock at the door. Doris turned hastily, expecting to see the model. Instead of which there entered, in response to Bentley's "Come in!" a girl of four or five and twenty, in a blue linen dress and a shady hat, who nodded a quiet "Good afternoon" to the artist, and proceeded at once with an air of business to a writing-table at the further end of the studio, covered with papers.
"Miss Wigram," said the artist, raising his voice, "let me introduce you to my niece, Mrs. Meadows."
The girl rose from her chair again and bowed. Then Doris saw that she had a charming tired face, beautiful eyes on which she had just placed spectacles, and soft brown hair framing her thin cheeks.
"A novelty since you were here," whispered Bentley in Doris's ear. "She's an accountant—capital girl! Since these Liberal budgets came along, I can't keep my own accounts, or send in my own income-tax returns—dash them! So she does the whole business for me—pays everything—sees to everything—comes once a week. We shall all be run by the women soon!"
* * * * *
The studio had grown very quiet. Through some glass doors open to the garden came in little wandering winds which played with some loose papers on the floor, and blew Doris's hair about her eyes as she stooped over her easel, absorbed in her drawing. Apparently absorbed: her subliminal mind, at least, was far away, wandering on a craggy Scotch moor. A lady on a Scotch pony—she understood that Lady Dunstable often rode with the shooters—and a tall man walking beside her, carrying, not a gun, but a walking stick:—that was the vision in the crystal. Arthur was too bad a shot to be tolerated in the Dunstable circle; had indeed wisely announced from the beginning that he was not to be included among the guns. All the more time for conversation, the give and take of wits, the pleasures of the intellectual tilting-ground; the whole watered by good wine, seasoned with the best of cooking, and lapped in the general ease of a house where nobody ever thought of such a vulgar thing as money except to spend it.
Doris had in general a severe mind as to the rich and aristocratic classes. Her own hard and thrifty life had disposed her to see them en noir. But the sudden rush of a certain section of them to crowd Arthur's lectures had been certainly mollifying. If it had not been for the Vampire, Doris was well aware that her standards might have given way.
As it was, Lady Dunstable's exacting ways, her swoop, straight and fierce, on the social morsel she desired, like that of an eagle on the sheepfold, had made her, in Doris's sore consciousness, the representative of thousands more; all greedy, able, domineering, inevitably getting what they wanted, and more than they deserved; against whom the starved and virtuous intellectuals of the professional classes were bound to contend to the death. The story of that poor girl, that clergyman's daughter, for instance—could anything have been more insolent—more cruel? Doris burned to avenge her.
Suddenly—a great clatter and noise in the passage leading from the small house behind to the studio and garden.
"Here she is!"
Uncle Charles sprang up, and reached the studio door just as a shower of knocks descended upon it from outside. He opened it, and on the threshold there stood two persons; a stout lady in white, surmounted by a huge black hat with a hearse-like array of plumes; and, behind her, a tall and willowy youth, with—so far as could be seen through the chinks of the hat—a large nose, fair hair, pale blue eyes, and a singular deficiency of chin. He carried in his arms a tiny black Spitz with a pink ribbon round its neck.
The lady looked, frowning, into the interior of the studio. She held in her hand a very large fan, with the handle of which she had been rapping the door; and the black feathers with which she was canopied seemed to be nodding in her eyes.
"Maestro, you are not alone!" she said in a deep, reproachful voice.
"My niece, Mrs. Meadows—Madame Vavasour," said Bentley, ushering in the new-comer.
Doris turned from her easel and bowed, only to receive a rather scowling response.
"And your friend?" As he spoke the artist looked blandly at the young man.
"I brought him to amuse me, Maestro. When I am dull my countenance changes, and you cannot do it justice. He will talk to me—I shall be animated—and you will profit."
"Ah, no doubt!" said Bentley, smiling. "And your friend's name?"
"Herbert Dunstable—Honourable Herbert Dunstable!—Signor Bentley," said Madame Vavasour, advancing with a stately step into the room, and waving peremptorily to the young man to follow.
Doris sat transfixed and staring. Bentley turned to look at his niece, and their eyes met—his full of suppressed mirth. The son!—the unsatisfactory son! Doris remembered that his name was Herbert. In the train of this third-rate sorceress!
Her thoughts ran excitedly to the distant moors, and that magnificent lady, with her circle of distinguished persons, holiday-making statesmen, peers, diplomats, writers, and the like. Here was a humbler scene! But Doris's fancy at once divined a score of links between it and the high comedy yonder.
Meanwhile, at the name of Dunstable, the girl accountant in the distance had also moved sharply, so as to look at the young man. But in the bustle of Madame Vavasour's entrance, and her passage to the sitter's chair, the girl's gesture passed unnoticed.
"I'm just worn out, Maestro!" said the model languidly, uplifting a pair of tragic eyes to the artist. "I sat up half the night writing. I had a subject which tormented me. But I have done something splendid! Isn't it splendid, Herbert?"
"Ripping!" said the young man, grinning widely.
"Sit down!" said Madame, with a change of tone. And the youth sat down, on the very low chair to which she pointed him, doing his best to dispose of his long legs.
"Give me the dog!" she commanded. "You have no idea how to hold him—poor lamb!"
The dog was handed to her; she took off her enormous hat with many sighs of fatigue, and then, with the dog on her lap, asked how she was to sit. Bentley explained that he wished to make a few preliminary sketches of her head and bust, and proceeded to pose her. She accepted his directions with a curious pettishness, as though they annoyed her; and presently complained loudly that the chair was uncomfortable, and the pose irksome. He handled her, however, with a good-humoured mixture of flattery and persuasion, and at last, stepping back, surveyed the result—well content.