She gazed at her mouth and then at her throat. Both showed signs of age; the throat especially, she thought. The lips were fine, finely curved, voluptuous. But they were somehow not fresh lips. In some mysterious way, which really she could not define, life had marked them as mature. There were a couple of little furrows in the throat and there was also a slightly "drawn" look on each side just below the line of the jaw. By the temples also, close to the hair, there was something which did not look young.
Lady Sellingworth felt very cold. At that moment she probably exaggerated in her mind the effect of her appearance. She plunged down into pessimism about herself. A sort of desperation came upon her. Underneath all her conquering charm, hidden away like a trembling bird under depths of green leaves, there was a secret diffidence of which she had occasionally been conscious during her life. It had no doubt been born with her, had lived in her as long as she had lived. Very few people knew of its existence. But she knew, had known of it as long as she remembered. Now that diffidence seemed to hold her with talons, to press its beak into her heart.
She felt that she could not face the world with any assurance if she lost her beauty. She had charm, cleverness, rank, position, money. She knew all her advantages. But at that moment she seemed to be confronting penury. And as she continued to look into the mirror ugliness seemed to grow in the woman she saw like a spreading disease till she felt that she would be frightened to show herself to anyone, and wished she could hide from everyone who knew her.
That absurdly morbid fit passed, of course. It could not continue, except in a woman who was physically ill, and Lady Sellingworth was quite well. But it left its mark in her mind. From that day she began to take intense trouble with herself. Hitherto she had been inclined to trust her own beauty. She had relied on it almost instinctively. And that strange, hidden diffidence, when it had manifested itself, had manifested itself in connexion with social things, the success of a dinner, or with things of the mind, the success or non-success of a conversation with a clever man. She had never spoken of it to anyone, for she had always been more or less ashamed of it, and had brought silence to her aid in the endeavour to stamp it out lest it should impair her power over others. But now it was quickened within her. It grew, and in its growth tortured her.
"How do you manage it?"
That not very kind question of the friend who had compared her to an Indian summer remained with Lady Sellingworth. Since she had considered herself in the mirror she had realized that she had attained that critical period in a beauty's life when she must begin incessantly to manage to continue a beauty. Hitherto, beyond always dressing perfectly and taking care to be properly "turned out," she had done less to herself than many women habitually do. Now she swung to the opposite extreme. There is no need to describe what she did. She did, or had done to her, all that she considered necessary, and she considered that a very great deal was necessary.
A certain Greek, who was a marvellous expert in his line, helped her at a very high figure. And she helped herself by much rigid abstinence, by denying natural appetites, by patient physical discipline. Her fight against the years was tremendous, and was conducted with extraordinary courage.
But nevertheless it seemed to her that a curse was put upon her; in that she was surely one of those women who, once they take the first step upon the downward slope, are compelled to go forward with a damnable rapidity.
The more she "managed it" the more there seemed to be to manage. From the time when she frankly gave herself into the clutches of artificiality the natural physical merit of her seemed to her to deteriorate at a speed which was headlong.
A hideous leap in the downward course took place presently. She began to dye her hair. She was not such a fool as to change its natural colour. She merely concealed the fact that white hairs were beginning to grow on her head at an age when many simple people, who don't care particularly what they look like—sensible clergymen's wives in the provinces, and others unknown to fashion—remain as brown as a berry, or as pleasantly auburn as the rind of a chestnut.
The knowledge of those hidden white hairs haunted her. She felt horribly ashamed of them. She hated them with an intense, and almost despairing, hatred. For they stamped the terrific difference between her body and her nature.
It seemed to her that in her nature she retained all the passions of youth. This was not strictly true, for no woman over forty has precisely the same passions as an ardent girl, however ardent she may be. But the "wild heart," spoken of by Lady Sellingworth to Craven, still beat in her breast, and the vanity of the girl, enormously increased by the passage of the years, still lived intensely in the middle-aged woman. It was perhaps this natural wildness combined with her vanity which tortured Lady Sellingworth most at this period of her life. She still desired happiness and pleasure greedily, indeed with almost unnatural greediness; she still felt that life robbed of the admiration and the longing of men would not be worth living.
Beryl Van Tuyn had spoken of a photograph of Lady Sellingworth taken when she was about forty-nine, and had said that, though very handsome, it showed a fausse jeunesse, and revealed a woman looking vain and imperious, a woman with the expression of one always on the watch for new lovers. And there had been a cruel truth in her words. For, from the time when she had given herself to artificiality until the time, some nine years later, when she had plunged into what had seemed to her, and to many others, something very like old age, Lady Sellingworth had definitely and continuously deteriorated, as all those do who try to defy any natural process. Carrying on a fight in which there is a possibility of winning may not do serious harm to a character, but carrying on a fight which must inevitably be lost always hardens and embitters the combatant. During those years of her fausse jeunesse Lady Sellingworth was at her worst.
For one thing she became the victim of jealousy. She was secretly jealous of good-looking young women, and, spreading her evil wide like a cloud, she was even jealous of youth. To be young was to possess a gift which she had lost, and a gift which men love as they love but few things. She could not help secretly hating the possessors of it.
She had now become enrolled in the "old guard," and had adopted as her device their motto, "Never give up." She was one of the more or less mysterious fighters of London. She fought youth incessantly, and she fought Time. And sometimes the weariness and the nausea of battle lay heavy upon her. Her expression began to change. She never lost, she never could lose, her distinction, but it was slightly blurred, slightly tarnished. She preserved the appearance of bonhomie, but her cordiality, her good nature, were not what they had been. Formerly she had had marvellous spirits; now she was often accompanied into the world by the black dog. And when she was alone he sat by the hearth with her.
She began to hate being a widow. Sometimes she thought that she wished she had had children. But then it occurred to her that they might have been daughters, lovely girls now perhaps, showing to society what she had once been. With such daughters she would surely have been forced into abdication. For she knew that she could never have entered into a contest with her own children. Perhaps it was best as it was, best that she was childless.
She might no doubt have married a third time. Sir Seymour Portman, a bachelor for her sake, would have asked nothing better than to become her husband. And there were other middle-aged and old men who would gladly have linked themselves with her, and who did not scruple to tell her so. But now she could not bear the idea of making a "suitable" match. Lord Sellingworth had been old, and she had been happy with him. But she had felt, and had considered herself to be, young when she had married him. The contrast between him and herself had been flattering to her vanity. It would be different now. And besides, with the coming of middle age, and the fatal fading of physical attraction, there had come into her a painful obsession.
As much as she hated youth in women she was attracted by it in men. She began secretly to worship youth as it showed itself in the other sex. Something in her clamoured for the admiration and the longing of the young men who were amorous of life, who were comparatively new to the fray, who had the ardour and the freshness which could have mated with hers when she was a girl, but which now contrasted violently with her terribly complete experience and growing morbidity. She felt that now she could never marry a man of her own age or older than herself, not simply because she could not love such a man, but because she would be perpetually in danger of loving a man of quite another type.
She entered upon a very ugly period, perhaps the ugliest there can be in the secret life of a woman. And it was then that there came definitely into her face, and was fixed there, the expression noted by Miss Van Tuyn in the photograph in Mrs. Ackroyd's drawing-room, the expression of a woman on the pounce.
There is no food so satisfying to the vanity of a middle-aged woman as the admiration and desire of young men. Lady Sellingworth longed for, and sought for, that food, but not without inward shame, and occasionally something that approached inward horror. For she had, and never was able to lose, a sense of what was due not merely to herself but to her better self. Here the woman of the blood was at grips with the woman of the grey matter. And the imp enthroned somewhere within her watched, marked, remembered, condemned.
That imp began to persecute Lady Sellingworth. She would have slain him if she could, for he was horribly critical, and remained cold through all her intensities. In Paris he had often been useful to her, for irony is appreciated in Paris, and he was strongly ironical. Often she felt as if he had eyes fixed upon her sardonically, when she was giving way to the woman in her blood. In Paris it had been different. For there, at any rate in all the earlier years, he had been criticizing and laughing at others. Now his attention was always on her. There were moments when she could almost hear his ugly, whispering voice telling her all he thought about her, about her appearance, her conduct, her future, about her connexions with others now, about the loneliness that was coming upon her. She saw many other women who were evidently content in, and unconscious of, their follies. Why was she not like them? Why had she been singled out for this persecution of the brain. It is terrible to have a brain which mocks at you instead of happily mocking at others. And that was her case. Later she was to understand herself better; she was to understand that her secret diffidence was connected with the imp, was the imp's child in her as it were; later, too, she was to learn that the imp was working for her eventual salvation, in the moral sense.
But she had not yet reached that turning in the path of her life.
During all this period her existence was apparently as successful and brilliant as ever. She was still a leader in London, knowing and known to everyone, going to all interesting functions, receiving at her house all the famous men and women of the day. To an observer it would have seemed that she occupied an impregnable position and that she was having a wonderful time. But she was really a very unhappy woman at violent odds with herself.
On one occasion when she was giving a dinner in her house a discussion broke out on the question of happiness. It was asked by someone, "If you could demand of the gods one gift, with the certainty of receiving it, what gift would you demand?" Various answers were given. One said, "Youth for as long as I lived"; another "Perfect health"; another "Supreme beauty"; another "The most brilliant intellect of my time"; another "The love and admiration of all I came in contact with." Finally a sad-looking elderly man, poet, philosopher, and the former administrator of a great province in India, was appealed to. His answer was, "Complete peace of mind." And on his answer followed the general discussion about happiness.
When the party broke up and Lady Sellingworth was alone she thought almost desperately about that discussion and about the last answer to the question which had been put.
Complete peace of mind! How extraordinary it would be to possess that! She could scarcely conceive of it, and it seemed to her that even in her most wonderful days, in her radiant and careless youth, when she had had almost everything, she had never had that. But then she had not even wanted to have it. Complete peace seems but a chilly sort of thing to youth in its quick-silver time. But later on in life we love combat less.
Suddenly Lady Sellingworth realized the age of her mind, and it seemed to her that she was a horrible mixture of incongruities. She was physically aging slowly but surely. She had appetites which were in direct conflict with age. She had desires all of which turned towards youth. And her mind was quite old. It must be, she said to herself, because now she was sitting still and longing to know that complete peace of mind which an old man had talked of that evening at her dinner table.
A sort of panic shook her as she thought of all the antagonists which at a certain period of life gather together to attack and slay youth, all vestiges of youth, in the human being; the unsatisfied appetites, the revolts of the body, the wearinesses of soul, and the subtle and contradictory desires which lie hidden deep in the mind.
She was now intensely careful about her body, had brought its care almost to the level of a finely finished art. But she had not troubled about the disciplining of her mind. Yet the undisciplined mind can work havoc in the tissues of the body. Youth of the mind, if preserved, helps the body to continue apparently young. It may not be able to cause the body actually to look young, but in some mysterious way it throws round the body a youthful atmosphere which deceives many people, which creates an illusion. And the strange thing is that the more intimate people are with one possessing that mental youthfulness, the more strong is the illusion upon them. Atmosphere has a spell which increases upon us the longer we remain bathed in it. Lady Sellingworth said all this to herself that night, and rebuked herself for letting her mind go towards old age. She rebelled against the longing for complete peace of mind because she now connected such a longing with stagnation. And men, especially young men, love vivacity, restlessness, the swift flying temperament. Such a temperament suggests to them youth. It is old age which sits still. Youth is for ever on the move.
"I must not long for peace or anything of that kind!" she said to herself.
Nevertheless the lack of all mental peace ravages the body.
She scarcely knew what to do for the best. But eventually she tried to take her mind in hand, for she was afraid of it, afraid of its age, afraid of the effect its age might eventually have upon her appearance. So she strove to train it backwards towards youthfulness. For now she was sure that she was not one of those fortunate women who have naturally young minds which refuse to grow old. She knew a few such women. She envied them almost bitterly. There was no need for them to strive. She watched them surreptitiously, studied them, tried to master their secret.
Presently a tragic episode occurred in her life.
She fell in love with a man of about twenty-three. He was the son of people whom she knew very well in Paris, French people who were almost her contemporaries, and was the sporting type of Frenchman, very good-looking, lively, satirical and strong. He was a famous lawn tennis player and came over to London for the tournament at Wimbledon. She had already seen him in Paris, and had known him when he was little more than a boy. But she had never thought much about him in those days. For in those days she had not been haunted by the passion for youth which possessed her now.
Louis de Rocheouart visited at her house as a matter of course, was agreeable and gallant to her because she was a charming and influential woman and an old friend of his family. But he did not think of her as a woman to whom it was possible that a man of his age could make love. He looked upon her as one who had been a famous beauty, but who was now merely a clever, well-preserved and extremely successful member of the "old guard" of society in London. Her "day" as a beauty was in his humble opinion quite over. She belonged to his mother's day. He knew that. And his mother happened to be one of those delightful Frenchwomen who are spirituelle at all ages, but who never pretend to be anything they are not. His mother's hair was already grey, and she had two married daughters, one of whom had been trusting enough to make her a grandmother.
While Rocheouart was in London a number of popular middle-aged women banded together and gave a very smart ball at Prince's. Lady Sellingworth was one of the hostesses, all of whom danced merrily and appeared to be in excellent spirits and health. It was certainly one of the very best balls of the season, and young men turned up at it in large numbers. Among them was young Rocheouart.
Lady Sellingworth danced with him more than once. That night she had almost managed to deceive herself as to the real truth of life. The ball was being such a success; the scramble for invitations had been so great; the young men evidently found things so lively, and seemed to be in such exuberant spirits, that she was carried away, and really felt as if youth were once more dancing through her veins and shining out of her eyes.
The "old guard" were in excelsis that night; the Edwardians were in their glory on the top of the world. Probably more than one of them thought, "They can say what they like but we can cut out the girls when we choose." Their savoir faire was immense. Many of them still possessed an amazing amount of the joie de vivre. And some of them were thoroughly sensible women, saved from absurdity by the blessed sense of humour.
But Lady Sellingworth was by this time desperately in love with Louis de Rocheouart, and her sense of humour was in abeyance that night. In consequence, she was the victim of a mortification which she was never to forget as long as she lived.
Towards the end of the evening she happened to be standing with Sir Seymour Portman near the entrance to the ballroom, and overheard a scrap of conversation between two people just behind them.
A girl's light voice said:
"Have you heard the name Cora Wellingborough has given to this ball?"
(The Duchess of Wellingborough was one of the hostesses.)
"No," replied a voice, which Lady Sellingworth recognized as the voice of young Rocheouart. "What is it?"
"She calls it 'The Hags' Hop'! Isn't it delicious of her? It will be all over London to-morrow. The name will stick. In the annuals of London festivities to-night will always be remembered as the night of the famous Hags' Hop."
Lady Sellingworth heard Rocheouart's strong, manly young laugh.
"That's just like the duchess!" he said. "She's simply made of humour and always hits the nail on the head. And how clever of her to give the right name to the ball herself instead of leaving it for some pretty girl to do. The Hags' Hop! It's perfect! If she hadn't said that, you would have before the evening was out, and then all the charming hags would have been furious with you."
The girl laughed, and she and Rocheouart passed Lady Sellingworth without noticing her and went into the ballroom.
She looked at them as they began to dance; then she looked at the Duchess of Wellingborough, who was also dancing.
The duchess was frankly middle-aged. She was very good-looking, but she had let her figure go. She was quite obviously the victim of the "elderly spread." Her health was excellent, her sense of humour unfailing. She never pretended to anything, but was as natural almost as a big child. Although a widow, she wanted no lover. She often said that she had "got beyond all that sort of thing." Another of her laughingly frank sayings was: "No young man need be afraid of me." In consequence of her gaiety, humour, frankness and hospitality she was universally popular.
But that night Lady Sellingworth almost hated her.
The Hags' Hop!
That terrible name stuck in Lady Sellingworth's mind and seemed to fasten there like a wound in a body.
As Rocheouart's partner had foretold, the name went all over London. The duchess's mot even got into a picture paper, and everyone laughed about it. The duchess was delighted. Nobody seemed to mind. Even Lady Sellingworth forced herself to quote the saying and to make merry over it. But from that day she gave up dancing entirely. Nothing would induce her even to join in a formal royal quadrille.
Before his return to Paris, Rocheouart came to bid her good-bye. Although she was still, as she supposed, madly in love with him, she concealed it, or, if she showed it, did so only by being rather unnaturally cold with him. When he was gone she felt desperate.
Her imp had perhaps controlled her during the short time of Rocheouart's final visit, had mocked and made her fear him. When she was alone, however, he vanished for the moment.
From that time the hidden diffidence in Lady Sellingworth was her deadly enemy, because it fought perpetually with her vanity and with her almost uncontrollable desires. Sometimes she was tempted to give way to it entirely and to retire from the fray. But she asked herself what she had to retire to. The thought of a life lived in the shade, or of a definitely middle-aged life, prolonged in such sunshine as falls upon grey-haired heads, was terrible to her. She was not like the Duchess of Wellingborough. She was cursed with what was called in her set "a temperament," and she did not know how to conquer it, did not dare, even, to try to conquer it.
She soon forgot Louis de Rocheouart, but his place was not long left empty. She fell in love with another young man.
Eventually—by this time she had almost ceased to struggle, was not far from being a complete victim to her temperament—she seriously considered the possibility of marrying again, and of marrying a man many years younger than herself. Several women whom she knew had done this. Why should not she do it? Such marriages seldom turned out well, seldom lasted very long. But there were exceptions to every rule. Her marriage, if she made it, might be an exception. She was now only forty-eight. (She had reached the age when that qualifying word is applied to the years.) Women older, much older, than herself, had married mere boys. She did not intend to do that. But why should she not take a charming man of, say, thirty into her life?
The mere thought of having such a husband, such a companion in Number 18A, Berkeley Square, sent a glow through her mind and body. What a flood of virility, anticipation, new strength, new interests he would bring with him! She imagined his loud, careless step on the stairs, his strong bass or baritone voice resounding in the rooms; she heard the doors banged by his reckless hand; she saw his raincoats, his caps, his golf clubs, his gun cases littering the hall. When she motored he would be at the wheel instead of a detached and rigid-faced chauffeur, and he would whirl her along, taking risk, all the time.
But would he be able to love her?
Her diffidence and her vanity fought over that question; fought furiously, and with an ugly tenacity. It seemed that the vanity conquered. For she resolved to make the trial.
Many striking advantages were on her side. She could give any man a magnificent social position, could take him into the heart of the great world. Her husband, unless he were absolutely impossible—and of course he would not be—would be welcomed everywhere because of her. She was rich. She had unusual charm. She was quick witted, intelligent, well read, full of tact and knowledge of the world. Surely she could be a splendid companion, even a great aid, to any man of the least ambition. And she was still very handsome—with difficulty.
She and her Greek alone knew exactly how much trouble had to be taken to keep her as she was when she went among people.
She had not been able to do much with her mind. It seemed uncontrollable by her. There was no harmony in her inner life. The diversities within her were sharp, intense. In her kingdom of self there was perpetual rebellion. And the disorder in her moral life had hastened the aging process more even than she was aware of. Underneath the artificial beauty of her appearance she was now older than her years.
But she was still very handsome—with difficulty.
She hardened herself after the fight and resolved that, if she chose, she could still make almost any man love her. That she could easily fascinate she knew. Most people were subject to her easy charm and to the delightfully unaffected manner which no amount of vanity had ever been able to rid her of. Surely the temporarily fascinated man might easily be changed into the permanent lover! Fear assailed her certainly when she thought of the danger of deliberately contrasting with her maturity the vividness of youth. To do what she thought of doing would be to run a great risk. When she had married Lord Sellingworth she had provided herself with a foil to her beauty and to her comparative youth. To marry a young man would be to make herself the foil. He would emphasize her age by his lack of years. Could she dare it?
Again she hardened herself and resolved that she would dare it. The wildness in her came uppermost, rose to recklessness. After me the deluge! She might not be happy long if she married a young husband, but she might be happy for a time. The mere marriage would surely be a triumph for her. And if she had three years, two years, even one year of happiness, she would sing a Laus Deo and let the deluge close over her head.
She began, in woman's quiet but penetrating way, to look about her. She met many young men in the world, in fact nearly all the young eligible men of the time. Many of them came to her house, for she often gave parties to which she asked not only the "old guard" and the well-known men of the day, but also the young married women. Now she began to give small dances to which she asked pretty young girls. There was a ballroom built out at the back of her house. It was often in use. The pretty young girls began to say she was "a dear" to bother so much about them. Dancing men voted her a thundering good hostess and a most good-natured woman. In popularity she almost cut out the Duchess of Wellingborough, who sometimes gave dances, too, for young people.
Really through it all she was on the watch, was seeking the possible husband.
Presently she found the man with whom she could imagine being almost desperately happy if he would only fall in with her hidden views. They were so carefully hidden that not one of her friends, not one of the "old guard," suspected that she had made up her mind to marry again and to make what is universally called "a foolish marriage."
His name was Rupert Louth, and he was the fourth son of an impecunious but delightful peer, Lord Blyston. He was close upon thirty, and had spent the greater part of his time, since his twentieth year, out of England. He had ranched in Canada, and had also done something vague of the outdoor kind in Texas. He had fought, and was a good man of his hands. His health was splendid. He was as hard as nails in condition, and as lively and ready as they make them. Many things he could do, but one thing he had never been able to do. He had never been able to make money. His gift lay rather in the direction of joyously spending it. This gift distracted his father, who confided to Lady Sellingworth his fears for the lad's—he would insist on calling Rupert the lad—for the lad's future. Here he was back on the family's hands with expensive tastes and no prospects whatever!
"And he's always after the women, too!" said Lord Blyston, with admiring despair. "He's been away from them so long there's no holding him."
After a pause he added:
"My dear Adela, if you want to do me a good turn find the lad a wife. His poor mother's gone, or she would have done it. What he wants is a wife who can manage him, with a decent amount of money."
Without exactly saying so, Lady Sellingworth implied that she would see what she could do for Rupert.
From that moment Lord Blyston pushed "the lad" perpetually towards 18A Berkeley Square.
Rupert Louth was fair and very good-looking, reckless and full of go. And wherever he went he carried with him an outdoor atmosphere. He cared nothing for books, music, or intellectual pursuits. Nevertheless, he was at home everywhere, and quite as much at ease in a woman's drawing-room as rounding up cattle in Canada or lassooing wild horses in Texas. He lived entirely and wholeheartedly for the day, and was a magnificent specimen of dashing animal life; for certainly the animal predominated in him.
Lady Sellingworth fell in love with him—it really was like falling in love each time—and resolved to marry him. A wonderful breath of manhood and youth exhaled from "the lad" and almost intoxicated her. It called to her wildness. It brought back to her the days when she had been a magnificent girl, had shot over the moors, and had more than held her own in the hunting field. After she had married Lord Sellingworth she had given up shooting and hunting, had devoted herself more keenly to the arts, to mental and purely social pursuits, to the opera, the forming of a salon, to politics and to entertaining, than to the physical pleasures which had formerly played such a prominent part in her life. Since his death she had put down her horses. But now she began to change her mode of living. She went with Rupert to Tattersalls, and they picked up some good horses together. She began riding again, and lent him a mount. She was perpetually at Hurlingham and Ranelagh, and developed a passion for polo, which he played remarkably well. She played lawn tennis at King's Club in the morning, and renewed her energy at golf.
Louth was really struck by her activity and competence, and said of her that she was a damned good sport and as active as a cat. He also said that there wasn't a country in the world that bred such wonderful old women as England. This remark he made to his father, who rejoined that Adela Sellingworth was not an old woman.
"Well, she must be near fifty!" said his son. "And if that isn't old for a woman where are we to look for it?"
Lord Blyston replied that there were many women far older than Adela Sellingworth, to which his son answered:
"Anyhow, she's as active as a cat, so why don't you marry her?"
"She's twenty years too young for me," said Lord Blyston. "I should bore her to death."
It had just occurred to him that Rupert could be very comfortable on Lord Sellingworth's and Lord Manham's combined fortunes, though he had no idea that Lady Sellingworth had ever thought of "the lad" as a possible husband.
Other people, however, noticed the new development in her life.
Every morning quite early she was to be seen, perfectly mounted, cantering in the Row, often with Rupert Louth beside her. Her extraordinary interest in every branch of athletics was generally remarked. She even went to boxing matches, and was persuaded to give away prizes at a big meeting at Stamford Bridge.
Although she never said a word about it to anyone, this sudden outburst of intense bodily activity at her age presently began to tire, then almost to exhaust her. The strain upon her was great, too great. Whatever Rupert Louth did, he never turned a hair. But she was nearly twenty years older than he was, and decidedly out of training. She fought desperately against her physical fatigue, and showed a gay face to the world. But a horrible conviction possessed her. She began presently to feel certain that her effort to live up to Rupert Louth's health and vigour was hastening the aging process in her body. By what she was doing she was marring her chance of preserving into old age the appearance of comparative youth. Sometimes at night, when all the activities of the day were over and there was no prospect of seeing Rupert again until, at earliest, the following morning, she felt absolutely haggard with weariness of body—felt as she said to herself with a shudder, like an old hag. But she could not give up, could not rest, for Rupert expected of everyone who was not definitely laid on the shelf inexhaustible energy, tireless vitality. His own perpetual freshness was a marvel, and fascinated Lady Sellingworth. To be with him was like being with eternal youth, and made her long for her own lost youth with an ache of desperation. But to act being young is hideously different from being actually young. She acted astonishingly well, but she paid for every moment of the travesty, and Rupert never noticed, never had the least suspicion of all she was going through on account of him.
To him she was merely a magnificently hospitable pal of his father's, who took a kindly interest in him. He found her capital company. He, like everyone else, felt her easy fascination, enjoyed being with her. But, like Rocheouart of the past days, he never thought of her as a possible lover. Nor did it ever occur to him that she was thinking of him as a possible husband. He always wanted, and generally managed to have a splendid time; and he was quite willing to be petted and spoilt and made much of; but he was not, under a mask of carelessness, a cold and persistent egoist. He really was just what he seemed to be, a light-hearted, rather uproarious, and very healthy young man, intent on enjoying himself, and recklessly indifferent to the future. He was quite willing to eat Lady Sellingworth's excellent dinners, to ride her spirited horses, to sit in her opera box and look at pretty women while others listened to music, but it never occurred to him that it would be the act of a wise man to try to put her fortune into his own pocket at the price of marrying her.
His lack of self-interest, which she divined, charmed Lady Sellingworth; on the other hand, she was tormented by his detachment from her, by his lack of all vision of the truth of the situation. And she was perpetually tortured by jealousy.
Before she had been in love with Rupert she had often felt jealous. All women of her temperament are subject to jealousy, and all middle-aged people who worship youth unsuitably have felt its sting. But she had never before known jealousy as she knew it now.
Although she was so often with Rupert she was more often not with him. He made no pretences of virtue to her or to anyone else. He was a cheery Pagan, a good sport and—no doubt—a devil among the women. Being a thorough gentleman he never talked, as some vulgar men do, of his conquests. But Lady Sellingworth knew that his silence probably covered a multitude of sins. And her ignorance of the greater part of his life often ravaged her.
What was he doing when he was not with her? Who was he making love to?
His name was not specially connected with that of any girl whom she knew in society. But she had reason to know that he spent a lot of his time out of society in circles to which she had never penetrated. Doubtless he met quantities of women whose names she had never heard of, unknown women of the stage, women who went to night clubs, women of the curious world which floats between the aristocracy and the respectable middle classes, which is as well dressed as the one and greedier even than the other, which seems always to have unlimited money, and which, nevertheless, has often no visible means of subsistence.
She lay awake often, when she badly needed sleep, wondering where Rupert was and what he was doing.
Jealousy, combined with unnatural physical exertion, and the perpetual endeavour to throw round her an atmosphere of youth, energy and unceasing cheerfulness, wrought havoc in Lady Sellingworth. Her appearance began to deteriorate. Deeper lines became visible near her eyes, and the light of those eyes was feverish. Her nerves began to go to pieces. Restlessness increased upon her. She was scarcely able to keep still for a moment. The more she needed repose the more incapable of repose she became. The effort to seem younger, gayer, stronger than she was became at last almost convulsive. Her social art was tarnished. The mechanism began to be visible.
People noticed the change in her and began to discuss it, and more than one of the "old guard" hit upon the reason of it. It became subtly known and whispered about that Adela Sellingworth was desperately in love with Rupert Louth. Several of her friends hinted at their knowledge to Lady Sellingworth, and she was forced to laugh at the idea as absurd, knowing that her laughter would serve no good end. These experienced women knew. Impossible to deceive them about a thing of that kind! They were mercilessly capable in detecting a hidden passion in one of their body. Their intrigues and loves were usually common property, known to, and frankly discussed by them all.
Lady Sellingworth presently had the satisfaction of knowing that the whole of the "old guard" was talking about her passion for Rupert Louth. This fact drove her to a hard decision which was not natural to her. She wanted to marry Rupert because she was in love with him. But now she felt she must marry him to save her own pride before her merciless fellow-women. She decided that the time had come when she must trample on her own delicacy and prove that she still possessed the power of a conqueror. Otherwise she would be laughed at by the greater part of the society in which she usually lived.
She resolved to open Rupert Louth's eyes and to make him understand that she and all she stood for were at his disposal. She knew he was up to the eyes in debt. She knew he had no prospects. Lord Blyston had no money to give him, and was for ever in difficulties himself. It was a critical moment for Louth, and a critical moment for her. Their marriage would smooth out the whole situation, would set him free from all money miseries, and her from greater miseries still—torments of desire, and the horror of being laughed at or pitied by her set. And in any case she felt that the time had arrived when she must do something drastic; must either achieve or frankly and definitely give up. She knew that she was nearing the end of her tether. She could not much longer keep up the brilliant pretence of being an untiring Amazon crammed full of the joie de vivre which she had assumed for the purpose of winning Rupert Louth as a husband. Her powers of persistence were rapidly waning. Only will drove her along, in defiance of the warnings and protests of her body. But the untiring Amazon was cracking up, to use a favourite expression of Louth's. Soon the weary, middle-aged woman must claim her miserable rights: the right to be tired occasionally, the right to "slack off" at certain hours of the day, the right to find certain things neither suitable nor amusing to her, the right, in fact, to be now and then a middle-aged woman. Certainly something in her said to Lady Sellingworth: "In your marriage, if you marry, you will have to act even better, even more strenuously, than you are acting now. Being in love as you are, you will never be able to dare to be your true self. Your whole married life will be a perpetual throwing of dust in the eyes of your husband. To keep him you will have to live backwards, or to try to live backwards, all the time. If you are tired now, what will you be then?" And she knew that the voice was speaking the truth. Her imp, too, was watching her closely and with an ugly intensity of irony as she approached her decision.
Nevertheless, she defied him; she defied the voice within her, and took it. She said to herself, or her worn nervous system said to her, that there was nothing else to be done. In her fatigue of body and nerves she felt reckless as only the nearly worn out feel. Something—she didn't know what—had cast the die for her. It was her fate to open Rupert Louth's eyes, to make him see; it was her fate to force her will into a last strong spasm. She would not look farther than the day. She would not contemplate her married life imaginatively, held in contemplation, like a victim, by the icy hands of reason. She would kick reason out, harden herself, give her wildness free play, and act, concentrating on the present with all the force of which her diseased nerves were capable.
Instead of thinking just then "after me the deluge," her thought was "after my marriage to Rupert Louth the deluge." She would, she must, make him her husband. It would be perhaps the last assertion of her power. She knew enough of men to know that such an assertion might well be followed by disaster. But she was prepared to brave any disaster except one, the losing of Louth and the subsequent ironical amusement of the "old guard."
Two or three days later Louth called, mounted on one of her horses, to take her for a ride in the park.
During the previous night Lady Sellingworth had scarcely slept at all. She had got up feeling desperately nervous and almost lightheaded. On looking in the glass she had been shocked at her appearance, but she had managed to alter that considerably, although not so completely as she wished. Depression, following inevitably on insomnia, had fixed its claws in her. She felt deadly, almost terrible, and as if her face must be showing plainly the ugliness of her mental condition. For she seemed to have lost control over it. The facial muscles seemed to have hardened, to have become fixed. When the servant came to tell her that Louth and the horses were at the door she was almost afraid to go down, lest he should see at once in her face the strong will power which she had summoned up; as a weapon in this crisis of her life.
As she went slowly downstairs she forced herself to smile. The smile came with difficulty, but it came, and when she met Louth he did not seem to notice any peculiarity in her. But, to tell the truth, he scarcely seemed to notice her at all with any particularity. For her strange and abnormal pre-occupation was matched by a like pre-occupation in him. He took off his hat, bade her good morning, and helped her skilfully to mount. But she saw at once that he was not as usual. His face was grave and looked almost thoughtful. The merry light had gone out of his eyes. And, strangest phenomenon of all, he was tongue-tied. They started away from the house, and rode through Mayfair towards the park in absolute silence.
She began to wonder very much what was the matter with Rupert, and guessed that he had "come an awful cropper" of some kind. It must certainly be an exceptional cropper to cloud his spirit. Perhaps he had lost a really large sum of money, or perhaps he—The thought of a woman came suddenly to her, she did not know why. Suspicion, jealousy woke in her. She glanced sideways at Rupert under her hard hat. He looked splendid on horseback, handsomer even than when he was on foot. For he was that rare thing, a really perfect horseman. His appearance disarmed her. She longed to do something for him, by some act of glowing generosity to win him completely. But they were still in the streets, and she said nothing. Directly they turned into the green quietude of the park, however, she yielded to her impulse and spoke, and asked him bluntly what was the matter.
He did not fence with her. Fencing was not easy to him. He turned in the saddle, faced her, and told her that he had made a damned fool of himself. Still bent on generosity, on being more than a friend to him, she asked him to tell her how. His reply almost stunned her. A fortnight previously he had secretly married a Miss Willoughby—really a Miss Bertha Crouch, and quite possibly of Crouch End—who was appearing in a piece at the Alhambra Theatre, but who had not yet arrived at the dignity of a "speaking part." This young lady, it seemed, had already "landed" Louth in expenses which he didn't know how to meet. What was he to do? She was the loveliest thing on earth, but she was accustomed to living in unbridled luxury. In fact she wanted the earth, and he was longing to give it to her. But how? Where could he possibly get hold of enough money for the purchase of the earth on behalf of Miss Bertha Crouch—now Willoughby, or, rather, now the Hon. Mrs. Rupert Louth? His face softened, his manner grew almost boyishly eager, as he poured confidences into Lady Sellingworth's ears. She was his one real friend! She was a woman of the world. She had lived ever so much longer than he had and knew five times as much. What would she advise? Might he bring little Bertha to see her? Bertha was really the most splendid little sort, although naturally she wanted to have the things other women had—etc., etc.
When she got home that day Lady Sellingworth almost crumbled. By a supreme effort during the rest of the ride she had managed to conceal the fact that she had received a blow over the heart. The pride on which she had been intending to trample when she came downstairs that morning had come to her aid in that difficult moment. The woman of the world had, as Louth would have said, "come up to the scratch." But when she was alone she gave way to an access of furious despair; and, shut up in her bedroom behind locked doors, was just a savage human being who had been horribly wounded, and who was unable to take any revenge for the wound. She would not take any revenge, because she was not the sort of woman who could go quite into the gutter. And she knew even in her writhings of despair that Rupert Louth would go scot free. She would never try to punish him for what he had done to her: and he would never know he had done it, unless one of the "old guard" told him.
It was when she thought of the "old guard" that Lady Sellingworth almost crumbled, almost went to pieces. For she knew that whatever she did, or left undone, she would never succeed in deceiving its members. She would not have been deceived herself if circumstances had been changed, if another woman had been in her situation and she had been an onlooker. "They" would all know.
For a moment she thought of flight.
But this episode ended in the usual way; it ended in the usual effort of the poor human being to safeguard the sacred things by deception. Lady Sellingworth somehow—how do human beings achieve such efforts?—pulled herself together and gave herself to pretence. She pretended to Louth that she was his best friend and had never thought of being anything else. She was the receptacle for the cascade of his confidences. She swore to help him in any way she could. Even after she received "the Crouch," once Willoughby and still Willoughby to the "nuts" who frequented the stalls of the Alhambra. She received that tall and voluptuous young woman, with her haughty face and her disdainful airs, and she bore with her horrible proprietorship of Louth. And finally she broke it to Lord Blyston at Rupert's earnest request.
That should have been her supreme effort. But it was not. There was no rest in pretence. As soon as Lord Blyston knew, everyone knew, including the "old guard." And then, of course, Lady Sellingworth's energies had all to be called into full play.
It was no wonder if underneath the cleverness of her Greek she aged rapidly, more rapidly than was natural in a woman of her years. For she had piled effort on effort. She had been young for Rupert Louth until she had been physically exhausted; and then she had been old for him until she was mentally exhausted. The hardy Amazon had been forced to change in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, into the calm and middle-aged adviser of hot passioned youth, into the steady unselfish confidante, into the breaker of untoward news to the venerable parent—in fact, into Mother Hubbard, as Lady Sellingworth more than once desperately told herself.
"Mother Hubbard! Mother Hubbard! I'm just Mother Hubbard to him and to that horrible girl!"
And she saw herself as Mother Hubbard, a "dame." And she alone knew how absolutely bare her cupboard was at that time. But she struggled on magnificently, taking no rest; she faced the "old guard" with splendid courage, in fact with such courage that most of them pretended to be deceived, and perhaps—for is not everything possible in this life?—perhaps two or three of them really were deceived.
The Duchess of Wellingborough said often at this time: "Addie Sellingworth has the stuff in her of a leader of forlorn hopes!"
Lord Blyston paid up for "the Crouch," once Willoughby, who had now left the Alhambra disconsolate. He paid up by selling the only estate he still possessed, and letting his one remaining country house to an extraordinarily vulgar manufacturer from the Midlands, who did not know a Turner from a Velasquez until he was told. And for the time "the Crouch" was as satisfied as a woman of her type can ever be.
Time passed on. Lady Sellingworth went about everywhere with a smiling carefully-made-up face and a heart full of dust and ashes.
But even then she could not make up her mind finally to abandon all pretence of youth, all hope of youth's distractions, pleasures, even joys. She had a terribly obstinate nature, it seemed, a terribly strong lust after life.
Even her imp could not lash her into acceptance of the inevitable, could not drive her with his thongs of irony into the dignity which only comes when the human being knows how to give up, and when.
But what the imp could not achieve was eventually achieved by a man, whose name Lady Sellingworth did not know.
This was how it happened.
One day when Lady Sellingworth was walking down Bond Street—it was in the morning and she was with the Duchess of Wellingborough—an extraordinarily handsome young man, whom neither of them knew, met them and passed by. He was tall, brown skinned, with soft, very intelligent brown eyes, and strong, manly and splendidly cut features. His thick brown hair was brushed, his little brown moustache was cut, like a Guardsman's. But he was certainly not a Guardsman. He was not even an Englishman, although he was dressed in a smart country suit made evidently by a first-rate London tailor. There was something faintly exotic about his eyes, and his way of holding himself and moving, which suggested to Lady Sellingworth either Spain or South America. She was not quite sure which. He gave her a long look as he went by, and she felt positive that he turned to glance after her when he had passed her. But this she never knew, as naturally she did not turn her head.
"What an extraordinarily good-looking man that was!" said the Duchess of Wellingborough. "I wonder who he is. If—," and she mentioned a well-known Spanish duke, "had a brother that might be the man. Do you know who he is?"
"No," said Lady Sellingworth.
"Well, he must know who you are."
"He seemed deeply interested in you."
Lady Sellingworth wanted to say that a young man might possibly be deeply interested in her without knowing who she was. But she did not say it. It was not worth while. And she knew the duchess had not meant to be ill-mannered.
She lunched with the duchess that day in Grosvenor Square, and met several of the "old guard" whom she knew very well, disastrously well. After lunch the duchess alluded to the brown man they had met in Bond Street, described him minutely, and asked if anyone knew him. Nobody knew him. But after the description everyone wanted to know him. It was generally supposed that he must be one of the strangers from distant countries who are perpetually flocking to London.
"We shall probably all know him in a week or two," said someone. "A man of that type is certain to have brought introductions."
"If he has brought one for Adela I'm sure he'll deliver that first," said the duchess, with her usual almost boisterous good humour.
And thereupon she told the "old guard" of the stranger's evident interest in Lady Sellingworth.
Although she completely concealed it, Lady Sellingworth felt decided interest in the brown man. The truth was that his long and ardent—yet somehow not impudently ardent—look at her had stirred the dust and ashes in her heart. It was as if a little of the dust rose and floated away, as if some of the ashes crumbled into a faint grey powder which was almost nothingness.
At that moment she was in the dangerous mood when a woman of her type will give herself to almost any distraction which promises a possible adventure, or which holds any food for her almost starving vanity. Her love—or was it really lust—for Rupert Louth still ravaged her. The thought of "the Crouch's" triumph still persecuted her mind. Terrible pictures of a happiness she had no share in still made every night hideous to her. She longed for Rupert Louth, but she longed also to be reinstated in her self-esteem. That glance of a stranger had helped her. She asked herself whether a man of that type, young, amazingly handsome, would ever send such a glance to Mother Hubbard. Suddenly she felt safer, as if she could hold up her head once more. Really she had always held it up, but to herself, since Louth's blunt confession, she had been a woman bowed down, old, done with, a thing fit for the scrap heap. Now a slight, almost trembling sensation of returning self-esteem stole through her. She could not have been mistaken about the brown man's interest in her, for the Duchess of Wellingborough had specially noticed it. She wondered who he was, whether he really had brought introductions, where he was staying, whether he would presently appear in her set. His brown eyes were gentle and yet enterprising. He looked like a sportsman, she thought, and yet as if he were more intellectual, more subtle than Louth. There seemed to be a slight thread of sympathy between her and him! She had felt it immediately when they had met in Bond Street. She wondered whether he had felt it too.
In all probability if Lady Sellingworth had been in a thoroughly normal condition at this time she would not have thought twice about such a trifling episode as a stranger's glance at her in the street. But she was not in a normal condition. She was the prey of acute depression and morbidity. Life was becoming hideous to her. She exaggerated her loneliness in the midst of society. She had mentally constructed for herself a new life with Louth as her husband. Imaginatively she had lived that life until it had become strangely familiar to her, as an imagined life can become to a highly strung woman. The abrupt and brutal withdrawal of all possibility of it as a reality had made the solitude of her widowhood seem suddenly terrible, unnatural, a sort of nightmare. She had moments of desperation in which she said to herself, "This cannot go on. I can't live alone any more or I shall go mad." In such moments she sometimes thought of rewarding Sir Seymour Portman's long fidelity. But something in her, something imperious, shrank at the thought. She did not want to marry an elderly man.
And yet it seemed that no young man would ever want to marry her.
She shuddered before the mysteries of the flesh. Often she was shaken by a storm of self-pity. Darkness yawned before her. And she still longed, as she thought no other woman could ever have longed, for happiness, companionship, a virile affection.
For some days she did not see the stranger again, although she was several times in Bond Street. She began to think, to fear, he had left London; yes—to fear! It had come to that! Realizing it, she felt humiliation. But his eyes had seemed to tell her that she possessed for him great attraction! She longed to see those eyes again, to decipher their message more carefully. The exact meaning of it might have escaped her in that brief instant of encounter. She wondered whether the young man had known who she was, or whether he had merely been suddenly struck by her appearance, and had thought, "I wish I knew that woman." She wondered what exactly was his social status. No doubt if he had been English she could have "placed" him at once, or if he had been French. But he was neither the one nor the other. And she had had little time to make up her mind about him, although, of course, his good looks had leaped to the eye.
She had begun to think that Destiny had decided against another encounter between her and this man when one day Seymour Portman asked her to lunch with him at the Carlton. She accepted and went into the restaurant at the appointed time. It was crowded with people, many of whom she knew, but one table near that allotted to the general's party had two empty chairs before it. On it was a card with the word "Reserved." Soon after the general's guests had begun to lunch, when Lady Sellingworth was in the full flow of conversation with her host, by whose side she was sitting, and with a hunting peer whom she had known all her life, and who sat on her other side, two people made their way to the table near by and sat down in the empty chairs. One was an old woman in a coal-black wig, with a white face and faded eyes, rather vague and dull in appearance, but well dressed and quietly self-assured, the other was the man Lady Sellingworth had met in Bond Street. He took the chair which was nearly opposite to her; but whether deliberately or by accident she had no time to notice. He did not look at her for several minutes after sitting down. He was apparently busy ordering lunch, consulting with a waiter, and speaking to his old companion, whose coal-black wig made a rather strange contrast with her lined white cheeks and curiously indefinite eyes. But presently, with a sort of strong deliberation, his gaze was turned on Lady Sellingworth, and she knew at once that he had seen her when he came in. She met his gaze for an instant, and this time seemed to be definitely aware of some mysterious thread of sympathy between her and him. Sir Seymour spoke to her in his quiet, rather deep voice, and she turned towards him, and as she did so she felt she knew, as she had never known before, that she could never marry him, that something in her that was of her essence was irrevocably dedicated to youth and the beauty of youth, which is like no other beauty. The wildness of her which did not die, which probably would never die, was capable of trampling over Sir Seymour's fidelity to get to unstable, selfish and careless youth, was capable of casting away his fidelity for the infidelity of youth. As she met her host's grave eyes, she sentenced him in her heart to eternal watching at her gate. She could not, she never would be able to, let him into the secret room where she was really at home.
During lunch she now and then glanced towards the old woman and the stranger. They evidently knew no one, for no one took any notice of them, and they did not seem to be on the look out for acquaintances. Many people passed by them, entering and leaving the restaurant, but there were no glances of recognition, no greetings. Only some of the women looked at the young man as if struck, or almost startled, by his good looks. Certainly he was amazingly handsome. His brown skin suggested the sun; his figure athletic exercises; the expression of his face audacity and complete self-possession. Yet there was in his large eyes a look of almost appealing gentleness, as if he were seeking something, some sympathy, some affection, perhaps, which he needed and had never yet found. Several times when she glanced towards him with careful casualness, Lady Sellingworth found his eyes fixed upon her with this no doubt unconsciously appealing expression in them. She knew that this man recognized her as the woman he had met in Bond Street. She felt positive that for some reason he was intent upon her, that he was deeply interested in her. For what reason? Her woman's vanity, leaping eagerly up like a flame that had been damped down for a time but that now was being coaxed into bright burning, told her that there could be only one reason. Why is a handsome young man interested in a woman whom he does not know and has only met casually in the street? The mysterious attraction of sex supplied, Lady Sellingworth thought, the only possible answer. She had not been able to attract Rupert Louth, but she attracted this man, strongly, romantically, perhaps. The knowledge—for it seemed like knowledge, though it was really only surmise—warmed her whole nature. She felt again the delicious conquering sensation which she had lost. She emerged out of humiliation. Her vivacity grew as the lunch progressed. Suddenly she felt good-looking, fascinating, even brilliant. The horrible dreariness of life had departed from her, driven away by the look in a stranger's eyes.
Towards the end of lunch the woman on Sir Seymour's other side said to him:
"Do you know who that man is—the young man opposite to that funny South American-looking old woman with the black wig?"
Sir Seymour looked for a moment at the brown man with his cool, direct, summing-up, soldier's eyes.
"No," he answered. "I've never set eyes on him before."
"I think he is the best-looking man I have ever seen," said the woman.
"No doubt—very good-looking, very good-looking!" said her host; "but on the wrong side of the line, I should say."
"The wrong side of the line? What do you mean?"
"The shady side," said Sir Seymour.
And then he turned to speak to Lady Sellingworth.
She had overheard the conversation, and felt suddenly angry with him. But she concealed her vexation and merely said to herself that men are as jealous of each other as women are jealous, that a man cannot bear to hear another man praised by a woman. Possibly—she was not sure of this—possibly Sir Seymour had noticed that she was interested in the stranger. He was very sharp in all matters connected with her. His affection increased his natural acuteness. She resolved to be very careful, even very deceptive. And she said:
"Isn't it odd how good looks, good manners and perfect clothes, even combined with charm, cannot conceal the fact that a man is an outsider?"
"Ah, you agree with me!" Sir Seymour said, looking suddenly pleased. "That's good! Men and women are seldom at one on such matters."
Lady Sellingworth shot a glance at the man discussed and felt absurdly like a traitor.
Soon afterwards Sir Seymour's lunch party broke up.
In leaving the restaurant Lady Sellingworth passed so close to the young man that her gown almost brushed against him. He looked up at her, and this time the meaning of his glance was unmistakable. It said: "I want to know you. How can I get to know you?"
She went home feeling almost excited. On the hall table of her house she found a note from Rupert Louth asking her whether she would help "little Bertha" by speaking up for her to a certain great dressmaker, who had apparently been informed of the Louths' shaky finances. Louth's obstinate reliance on her as a devoted friend of him and his disdainfully vulgar young wife began to irritate Lady Sellingworth almost beyond endurance. She took the letter up with her into the drawing-room, and sat down by the writing-table holding it in her hand. It had come at a dangerous moment.
Louth's blindness now exasperated her, although she had desperately done her best to close his eyes to the real nature of her feeling for him and to the unexpressed intentions she had formed concerning him and had been forced to abandon. It was maddening to be tacitly rejected as a possible wife and to be enthusiastically claimed as a self-sacrificing friend. Surely no woman born of woman could be expected to stand it. At that moment Lady Sellingworth began almost to hate Rupert Louth.
What a contrast there was between his gross misunderstanding of her and the brown man's understanding! Already she began to tell herself that this man who did not know her nevertheless in some subtle, almost occult, way had a clear understanding of her present need. He wanted sympathy—his eyes said that—but he had sympathy to give. She began to hate the controlling absurdities of civilization. All her wildness seemed to rise up and rush to the surface. How inhuman, how against nature it was, that two human beings who wished to know each other should be held back from such knowledge by mere convention, by the unwritten law of the solemn and formal introduction! A great happiness might lie in their intercourse, but conventionality solemnly and selfishly forbade it, unless they could find a common acquaintance to mumble a few unmeaning words over them. Mumbo-Jumbo! What a fantastic world of stupidly obedient puppets this world of London was! She said to herself that she hated it. Then she thought of her first widowhood and of her curious year in Paris.
There she might more easily have made the acquaintance of the unknown man in some Bohemian cafe, where people talked to each other casually, giving way to their natural impulses, drifting in and out as the whim took them, careless of the convenances or actively despising them. In London, at any rate if one is English and cursed by being well known, one lives in a strait waist-coat. Lady Sellingworth felt the impossibility of speaking to a stranger without an introduction in spite of her secret wildness.
And if he spoke to her?
She remembered Sir Seymour's instant judgment on him. It had made her feel very angry at the time when it was delivered, but then she had not held any mental debate about it. She had simply been secretly up in arms against an attack on the man she was interested in. Now she thought about it more seriously.
Although she had never been able to love Sir Seymour, she esteemed him very highly and valued his friendship very much. She also respected his intellect and his character. He was not a petty man, but an honest, brave and far-seeing man of the world. Such a man's opinion was certainly worth something. One could not put it aside as if it were the opinion of a fool. And after a brief glance at the stranger Sir Seymour had unhesitatingly pronounced him to be an outsider.
Was he an outsider?
As a rule Lady Sellingworth was swift in deciding what was the social status of a man. She could "place" a man as quickly as any woman. But, honestly, she could not make up her mind about the stranger. Although he was so exceptionally good-looking, perhaps, he was not exactly distinguished looking. But she had known dukes and Cabinet Ministers who resembled farmers and butlers, young men of high rank who had the appearance of grooms or bookies. It was difficult to be sure about anyone without personal knowledge of him.
When she had first seen the young man in Bond Street it had certainly not occurred to her that there was anything common or shady in his appearance. And the Duchess of Wellingborough had not hinted that she held such an opinion about him. And surely women are quicker about such matters than men.
Lady Sellingworth decided that Seymour Portman was prejudiced. Old courtiers are apt to be prejudiced. Always mixing with the most distinguished men of their time, they acquire, perhaps too easily, a habit of looking down upon ordinary but quite respectable people.
Here Lady Sellingworth suddenly smiled. The adjective "respectable" certainly did not fit the Bond Street young man. He looked slightly exotic! That, no doubt, had set Sir Seymour against him. He was not of the usual type of club man. He "intrigued" her terribly. As the Duchess of Wellingborough would have phrased it, she was "crazy" to know him. She even said to herself that she did not care whether he was on the shady side of the line or not. Abruptly a strong democratic feeling took possession of her. In the affections, in the passions, differences of rank did not count.
Rupert Louth had married a Crouch!
Lady Sellingworth looked at his note which was still in her hand, and memories of the disdainful young beauty "queening it"—that really was the only appropriate expression—"queening it" with vulgar gentility among the simple mannered, well-bred people to whom Louth belonged rose up in her mind. How terrible were those definite airs of being a lady! How truly unspeakable were those august condescensions of the undeniable Crouch!
When Lady Sellingworth mused on them her sense of the equality before God of all human creatures decidedly weakened.
She wrote a brief letter to Louth declining to "speak up" to the great dressmaker. "Little Bertha" must manage without her aid. She made this quite clear, but she wrote very charmingly, and sent her love at the end to little Bertha. That done, almost violently she dismissed Louth and his wife from her mind and became democratic again!
Putting Louth and little Bertha aside, when it came to the affections and the passions what could one be but just a human being? Rank did not count when the heart was awake. She felt intensely human just then. And she continued to feel so. Life was quickened for her by the presence in London of a stranger whom nobody knew. This might be a humiliating fact. But how many facts connected with human beings if sternly considered are humiliating!
And nobody knew of her fact.
Every morning at this time she woke up with the hope of a little adventure during the day. When she went out she was alive to the possibility of a new encounter with the unknown man. And she met him several times, walking about town, sometimes alone, sometimes with the old lady, and once with another man, a thin sallow individual who looked like a Frenchman. And each time he sent her a glance which seemed almost to implore her to know him.
But how could she know him? She never met him in society. Evidently he knew no one whom she knew. She began to be intensely irritated by her leaping desire which was constantly thwarted. That this man was in love with her and longing to know her she now firmly believed. She wished to know him. She wished it more than she wished for anything else in the world just then. But the gulf of conventionality yawned between them, and there seemed no likelihood of its ever being bridged. Sometimes she condemned the man for not being adventurous, for not taking his courage in both hands and speaking to her without an introduction. At other times she told herself that his not doing this proved him to be a gentleman, in spite of what Sir Seymour Portman had thought him. In defiance of his longing to know her he would not insult her.
But if he only knew how she was pining for the insult!
And yet if he had spoke to her perhaps she would have been angry.
She discovered eventually that he was staying at the Carlton Hotel, for one day on her way to the restaurant she saw him with a key in his hand—evidently the key of his room. That same day she heard him speak for the first time. After lunch, when she was in the Palm Court, he came and stood quite close to where she was sitting. The thin, sallow individual was with him. They lighted cigars and looked about them. And presently she heard them talking in French. The thin man said something which she did not catch. In reply the other said, speaking very distinctly, almost loudly:
"I shall go over to Paris on Thursday morning next. I shall stay at the Ritz Hotel."
That was all Lady Sellingworth heard. He had intended her to hear it. She was certain of that. For immediately afterwards he glanced at her and then moved away, like a man who has carried out an intention and can relax and be idle. He sat down by a table a little way off, and a waiter brought coffee for him and his companion.
His voice, when he spoke the few words, had sounded agreeable. His French was excellent, but he had a slight foreign accent which Lady Sellingworth at once detected.
Paris! He was going to Paris on Thursday!
She was quite positive that he had wished her to know that. Why?
There could be only one reason. She guessed that he had become as fiercely irritated by their situation as she was, that he was tempting her to break away and to do something definite, that he wanted her to leave London. She still had her apartment in Paris. Could he know that? Could he have seen her in Paris without her knowledge and have followed her to London?
She began to feel really excited, and there was something almost youthful in her excitement. Yet she was on the eve of a horrible passing. For that day was her last day in the forties. On the following morning she would wake up a woman of fifty.
While the two men were still having their coffee Lady Sellingworth and her friend got up to go away. As her tall figure disappeared the brown man whispered something to his companion and they both smiled. Then they continued talking in very low voices, and not in French.
Paris! All the rest of that day Lady Sellingworth thought about Paris! Already it stood for a great deal in her life. Was it perhaps going to stand for much more? In Paris long ago—she wished it were not so long ago—she had tasted a curious freedom, had given herself to her wildness, had enlarged her boundaries. And now Paris called her again, called her through the voice of this man whom she did not yet know.
Deliberately that day he had summoned her to Paris. She had no doubt about that. And if she went? He must have some quite definite intention connected with his wish for her to go. It could only be a romantic intention.
And yet to-morrow she would be fifty!
He was quite young. He could not be more than five-and-twenty.
For a moment her imp spoke loudly in her ear. He told her that by this time she must have learnt her lesson, that it was useless to pretend that she had not, that Rupert Louth's marriage had taught her all that she needed to know, and that now she must realize that the time for adventures, for romance, for the secret indulgence of the passions, was in her case irrevocably over. "Fifty! Fifty! Fifty!" he knelled in her ears. And there were obscure voices within her which backed him up, faintly, as if half afraid, agreeing with him.
She listened. She could not help listening, though she hated it. And for a moment she was almost inclined to submit to the irony of the imp, to trample upon her desire, and to grasp hands once and for all with her self-respect.
The imp said to her: "If you go to Paris you will be making a fool of yourself. That man doesn't really want you to go. He is only a mischievous boy amusing himself at your expense. Perhaps he has made a bet with that friend of his that you will cross on the same day that he does. You are far too old for adventures. Look in the glass and see yourself as you really are. Remember your folly with Rupert Louth, and this time try to be wise."
But something else in her, the persistent vanity, perhaps, of a once very beautiful woman, told her that her attraction was not dead, and that if she obeyed her imp she would simply be throwing away the chance of a great joy. Once again her thoughts went to marriage. Once again she dreamed of a young man falling romantically in love with her, and of taking him into her life, and of making his life wonderful by her influence and her connexions.
Once again she was driven by her wildness.
The end of it was that she summoned her maid and told her that they were going over to Paris for a few days on the following Thursday. The maid was not surprised. She supposed that my lady wanted some new gowns. She asked, and was told, what to pack.
Now Lady Sellingworth, as all her friends and many others knew, possessed an extremely valuable collection of jewels, and seldom, or never, moved far without taking a part of the collection with her. She loved jewels, and usually wore them in the evening, and as she was often seen in public—at the opera and elsewhere—her diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and pearls had often been admired, and perhaps longed for, by strangers.
When she went to Paris on this occasion she took a jewel-case with her. In it there were perhaps fifty thousand pounds' worth of gems. Her maid, a woman who had been with her for years, was in charge of the case except when Lady Sellingworth was actually in the train. Then Lady Sellingworth had it with her in a reserved first-class carriage for the whole of which she paid.
The journey was not eventful. But to Lady Sellingworth it was an adventure.
The brown man was on the train with his thin, sardonic friend, and with the old woman Lady Sellingworth had seen with him in London.
The sight of this party—she saw them stepping into the Pullman car as she was going to her reserved carriage—surprised her. She had expected that the stranger would travel alone. As she sat down in her corner facing the engine, with the jewel-case on the seat next to her, she felt an obscure irritation. A man in search of adventure does not usually take two people—one of them an old woman in a black wig—with him when he sets out on his travels. A trio banishes romance. And how can a woman be thrilled by a family party?
For a moment Lady Sellingworth felt anger against the stranger. For a moment she wished she had not undertaken the journey. It occurred to her that perhaps she had made a humiliating mistake when she thought that the brown man wished, and intended, her to go to Paris because he was going. Her pride was alarmed. She saw plainly for a moment the mud into which vanity had led her, and she longed to get out of the train and to remain in London. But how could she account to her maid for such a sudden change of plans? What could she say to her household? She knew, of course, that she owed them no explanation. But still—and her friends? She had told everybody that she was going to Paris. They would think her crazy for giving up the journey after she was actually in the train. And she had seen two or three acquaintances on the platform. No; she must make the journey now. It was too late to give it up. But she wished intensely she had not undertaken it.
At the moment of this wish of hers, coming from the Pullman, the brown man walked slowly by on the platform, alone. His eyes were searching the train with keen attention. But Lady Sellingworth happened to be leaning back, and he did not see her. She knew he was looking for her. He went on out of her sight. She sat still in her corner, and presently saw him coming back. This time he saw her, and did something which for the moment startled her. On the window of the carriage, next the seat opposite to hers, was pasted a label with "Reserved" printed on it in big letters. Underneath was written: "For the Countess of Sellingworth." When the man saw Lady Sellingworth in her corner he gave no sign of recognition but he took out of the breast pocket of his travelling coat a pocket-book, went deliberately up to the window, looked hard at the label, and then wrote something—her name, no doubt—in his book. This done, he put the book back in his pocket and walked gravely away without glancing at her again.
And now Lady Sellingworth no longer regretted that she was going to Paris. What the man had just done had reassured her. It was now evident to her that the first time they had met in Bond Street he had not known who she was or anything about her. He must simply have been struck by her beauty, and from that moment had wished to know her. Ever since then he must have been longing to know who she was. The fact that he had evidently not discovered her name till he had read it on the label pasted on the railway carriage window convinced her that, in spite of his boldness in showing her his feelings, he was a scrupulous man. A careless man could certainly have found out who she was at the Carlton, by asking a waiter. Evidently he had not chosen to do that. The omission showed delicacy, refinement of nature. It pleased her. It made her feel safe. She felt that the man was a gentleman, one who could respect a woman. Sir Seymour had been wrong in his hasty judgment. An outsider would not have behaved in such a way. That the stranger had deliberately taken down her name in his book while she was watching him did not displease her at all. He wished her to know of his longing, but he was evidently determined to keep it hidden from others.
She felt now in the very heart of a romantic adventure, and thrilled with excitement about the future. What would happen when they all got to Paris? It was evident to her now that he did not know she had an apartment there—unless, indeed, he had first seen her in Paris and had, perhaps, followed her to London! But even if that were so it was unlikely that he knew where she lived.
In any case she knew he was going to the Ritz.
The train flew on towards the sea while she mused over possibilities and imagined events in Paris.
She knew now, of course, that the stranger was absolutely out of her world. His ignorance proved to her that he could not be in any society she moved in. She guessed that he was some charming young man from a distance, come to Europe perhaps for the first time—some ardent youth from Brazil, from Peru, from Mexico! The guess gave colour to the adventure. He knew her name now. She wondered what his name was. And she wondered about the old woman in the wig and about the sardonic friend. In what relation did the three people stand to each other?
She could not divine. But she thought that perhaps the old woman was the mother of the man she wished to know.
She had a private cabin on the boat. It was on the top deck. But, as the weather was fine and the sea fairly calm, her maid occupied it with the jewel-case, while she sat in the open on a deck chair, well wrapped up in a fur rug. Presently an acquaintance, a colonel in the Life Guards, joined her, established himself in a chair at her side, and kept her busy with conversation.
When the ship drew out into the Channel several men began to pace up and down the deck with the sturdy determination of good sailors resolved upon getting health from the salt briskness of the sea. Among them were the two men of the trio. The old woman had evidently gone into hiding.
As Lady Sellingworth conversed with her colonel she made time, as a woman can, for a careful and detailed consideration of the man on whom her thoughts were concentrated. Although he did not look at her as he passed up and down the deck, she knew that he had seen where she was sitting. And, without letting the colonel see what she was doing, she followed the tall, athletic figure in the long, rough, greenish-brown overcoat with her eyes, looking away when it drew very near to her. And now and then she looked at its companion.
In the Paris rapide she was again alone in a carriage reserved for her. She did not go into the restaurant to lunch, as she hated eating in a crowd. Instead, her maid brought her a luncheon basket which had been supplied by the chef in Berkeley Square. After eating she smoked a cigarette and read the French papers which she had bought at the Calais station. And then she sat still and looked out of the window, and thought and dreamed and wondered and desired.
Although she did not know it, she was living through almost the last of those dreams which are the rightful property of youth, but which sometimes, obstinate and deceitful, haunt elderly minds, usually to their undoing.
The light began to fade and the dream to become more actual. She lived again as she had lived in the days when she was a reigning beauty, when there was no question of her having to seek for the joys and the adventures of life. In the twilight of France she reigned.
A shadow passed by in the corridor. She had scarcely seen it. Rather she had felt its passing. But the dream was gone. She was alert, tense, expectant. Paris was near. And he was near. She linked the two together in her mind. And she felt that she was drawing close to a climax in her life. A conviction took hold of her that some big, some determining event was going to happen in Paris, that she would return to London different—a changed woman.
Happiness changes! She was travelling in search of happiness. The wild blood in her leaped at the thought of grasping happiness. And she felt reckless. She would dare all, would do anything, if only she might capture happiness. Dignity, self-respect, propriety, the conventions—what value had they really? To bow down to them—does that bring happiness? Out of the way with them, and a straight course for the human satisfaction which comes only in following the dictates of the nature one is born with!
Lights twinkled here and there in the gloom. Again the shadow passed in the corridor. A moment later Lady Sellingworth's maid appeared to take charge of the jewel-case.