This morning, however, when she got up, she found herself more tired than she ever remembered being before, and it may be easily argued that a woman who runs about London on other people's errands often knows what it is to be aware of aching limbs. She laughed a little when she discovered that her feet were actually rather swollen, and that she must wear a pair of her easiest slippers. "I must sit down as much as I can to-day," she thought. "And yet, with the dinner-party and the excursion this morning, there may be a number of little things Lady Maria would like me to do."
There were, indeed, numbers of things Lady Maria was extremely glad to ask her to do. The drive to the ruins was to be made before lunch, because some of the guests felt that an afternoon jaunt would leave them rather fagged for the dinner-party in the evening. Lady Maria was not going, and, as presently became apparent, the carriages would be rather crowded if Miss Fox-Seton joined the party. On the whole, Emily was not sorry to have an excuse for remaining at home, and so the carriages drove away comfortably filled, and Lady Maria and Miss Fox-Seton watched their departure.
"I have no intention of having my venerable bones rattled over hill and dale the day I give a dinner-party," said her ladyship. "Please ring the bell, Emily. I want to make sure of the fish. Fish is one of the problems of country life. Fishmongers are demons, and when they live five miles from one they can arouse the most powerful human emotions."
Mallowe Court was at a distance from the country town delightful in its effects upon the rusticity of the neighbourhood, but appalling when considered in connection with fish. One could not dine Without fish; the town was small and barren of resources, and the one fishmonger of weak mind and unreliable nature.
The footman who obeyed the summons of the bell informed her ladyship that the cook was rather anxious about the fish, as usual. The fishmonger had been a little doubtful as to whether he could supply her needs, and his cart never arrived until half-past twelve.
"Great goodness!" exclaimed her ladyship when the man retired. "What a situation if we found ourselves without fish! Old General Barnes is the most ferocious old gourmand in England, and he loathes people who give him bad dinners. We are all rather afraid of him, the fact is, and I will own that I am vain about my dinners. That is the last charm nature leaves a woman, the power to give decent dinners. I shall be fearfully annoyed if any ridiculous thing happens."
They sat in the morning-room together writing notes and talking, and as half-past twelve drew near, watching for the fishmonger's cart. Once or twice Lady Maria spoke of Lord Walderhurst.
"He is an interesting creature, to my mind," she said. "I have always rather liked him. He has original ideas, though he is not in the least brilliant. I believe he talks more freely to me, on the whole, than to most people, though I can't say he has a particularly good opinion of me. He stuck his glass in his eye and stared at me last night, in that weird way of his, and said to me, 'Maria, in an ingenuous fashion of your own, you are the most abominably selfish woman I ever beheld.' Still, I know he rather likes me. I said to him: 'That isn't quite true, James. I am selfish, but I'm not abominably selfish. Abominably selfish people always have nasty tempers, and no one can accuse me of having a nasty temper. I have the disposition of a bowl of bread and milk."
"Emily,"—as wheels rattled up the avenue,—"is that the fishmonger's cart?"
"No," answered Emily at the window; "it is the butcher."
"His attitude toward the women here has made my joy," Lady Maria proceeded, smiling over the deep-sea fishermen's knitted helmet she had taken up. "He behaves beautifully to them all, but not one of them has really a leg to stand on as far as he is responsible for it. But I will tell you something, Emily." She paused.
Miss Fox-Seton waited with interested eyes.
"He is thinking of bringing the thing to an end and marrying some woman. I feel it in my bones."
"Do you think so?" exclaimed Emily. "Oh, I can't help hoping—" But she paused also.
"You hope it will be Agatha Slade," Lady Maria ended for her. "Well, perhaps it will be. I sometimes think it is Agatha, if it's any one. And yet I'm not sure. One never could be sure with Walderhurst. He has always had a trick of keeping more than his mouth shut. I wonder if he could have any other woman up his sleeve?"
"Why do you think—" began Emily.
Lady Maria laughed.
"For an odd reason. The Walderhursts have a ridiculously splendid ring in the family, which they have a way of giving to the women they become engaged to. It's ridiculous because—well, because a ruby as big as a trouser's button is ridiculous. You can't get over that. There is a story connected with this one—centuries and things, and something about the woman the first Walderhurst had it made for. She was a Dame Something or Other who had snubbed the King for being forward, and the snubbing was so good for him that he thought she was a saint and gave the ruby for her betrothal. Well, by the merest accident I found Walderhurst had sent his man to town for it. It came two days ago."
"Oh, how interesting!" said Emily, thrilled. "It must mean something."
"It is rather a joke. Wheels again, Emily. Is that the fishmonger?"
Emily went to the window once more. "Yes," she answered, "if his name is Buggle."
"His name is Buggle," said Lady Maria, "and we are saved."
But five minutes later the cook herself appeared at the morning-room door. She was a stout person, who panted, and respectfully removed beads of perspiration from her brow with a clean handkerchief.
She was as nearly pale as a heated person of her weight may be.
"And what has happened now, cook?" asked Lady Maria.
"That Buggle, your ladyship," said cook, "says your ladyship can't be no sorrier than he is, but when fish goes bad in a night it can't be made fresh in the morning. He brought it that I might see it for myself, and it is in a state as could not be used by any one. I was that upset, your ladyship, that I felt like I must come and explain myself."
"What can be done?" exclaimed Lady Maria. "Emily, do suggest something."
"We can't even be sure," said the cook, "that Batch has what would suit us. Batch sometimes has it, but he is the fishmonger at Maundell, and that is four miles away, and we are short-'anded, your ladyship, now the 'ouse is so full, and not a servant that could be spared."
"Dear me!" said Lady Maria. "Emily, this is really enough to drive one quite mad. If everything was not out of the stables, I know you would drive over to Maundell. You are such a good walker,"—catching a gleam of hope,—"do you think you could walk?"
Emily tried to look cheerful. Lady Maria's situation was really an awful one for a hostess. It would not have mattered in the least if her strong, healthy body had not been so tired. She was an excellent walker, and ordinarily eight miles would have meant nothing in the way of fatigue. She was kept in good training by her walking in town, Springy moorland swept by fresh breezes was not like London streets.
"I think I can manage it," she said nice-temperedly. "If I had not run about so much yesterday it would be a mere nothing. You must have the fish, of course. I will walk over the moor to Maundell and tell Batch it must be sent at once. Then I will come back slowly. I can rest on the heather by the way. The moor is lovely in the afternoon."
"You dear soul!" Lady Maria broke forth. "What a boon you are to a woman!"
She felt quite grateful. There arose in her mind an impulse to invite Emily Fox-Seton to remain the rest of her life with her, but she was too experienced an elderly lady to give way to impulses. She privately resolved, however, that she would have her a good deal in South Audley Street, and would make her some decent presents.
When Emily Fox-Seton, attired for her walk in her shortest brown linen frock and shadiest hat, passed through the hall, the post-boy was just delivering the midday letters to a footman. The servant presented his salver to her with a letter for herself lying upon the top of one addressed in Lady Claraway's handwriting "To the Lady Agatha Slade." Emily recognised it as one of the epistles of many sheets which so often made poor Agatha shed slow and depressed tears. Her own letter was directed in the well-known hand of Mrs. Cupp, and she wondered what it could contain.
"I hope the poor things are not in any trouble," she thought. "They were afraid the young man in the sitting-room was engaged. If he got married and left them, I don't know what they would do; he has been so regular."
Though the day was hot, the weather was perfect, and Emily, having exchanged her easy slippers for an almost equally easy pair of tan shoes, found her tired feet might still be used. Her disposition to make the very best of things inspired her to regard even an eight-mile walk with courage. The moorland air was so sweet, the sound of the bees droning as they stumbled about in the heather was such a comfortable, peaceful thing, that she convinced herself that she should find the four miles to Maundell quite agreeable.
She had so many nice things to think of that she temporarily forgot that she had put Mrs. Cupp's letter in her pocket, and was half-way across the moor before she remembered it.
"Dear me!" she exclaimed when she recalled it. "I must see what has happened."
She opened the envelope and began to read as she walked; but she had not taken many steps before she uttered an exclamation and stopped.
"How very nice for them!" she said, but she turned rather pale.
From a worldly point of view the news the letter contained was indeed very nice for the Cupps, but it put a painful aspect upon the simple affairs of poor Miss Fox-Seton.
"It is a great piece of news, in one way," wrote Mrs. Cupp, "and yet me and Jane can't help feeling a bit low at the thought of the changes it will make, and us living where you won't be with us, if I may take the liberty, miss. My brother William made a good bit of money in Australia, but he has always been homesick for the old country, as he always calls England. His wife was a Colonial, and when she died a year ago he made up his mind to come home to settle in Chichester, where he was born. He says there's nothing like the feeling of a Cathedral town. He's bought such a nice house a bit out, with a big garden, and he wants me and Jane to come and make a home with him. He says he has worked hard all his life, and now he means to be comfortable, and he can't be bothered with housekeeping. He promises to provide well for us both, and he wants us to sell up Mortimer Street, and come as quick as possible. But we shall miss you, miss, and though her Uncle William keeps a trap and everything according, and Jane is grateful for his kindness, she broke down and cried hard last night, and says to me: 'Oh, mother, if Miss Fox-Seton could just manage to take me as a maid, I would rather be it than anything. Traps don't feed the heart, mother, and I've a feeling for Miss Fox-Seton as is perhaps unbecoming to my station.' But we've got the men in the house ticketing things, miss, and we want to know what we shall do with the articles in your bed-sitting-room."
The friendliness of the two faithful Cupps and the humble Turkey-red comforts of the bed-sitting-room had meant home to Emily Fox-Seton. When she had turned her face and her tired feet away from discouraging errands and small humiliations and discomforts, she had turned them toward the bed-sitting-room, the hot little fire, the small, fat black kettle singing on the hob, and the two-and-eleven-penny tea-set. Not being given to crossing bridges before she reached them, she had never contemplated the dreary possibility that her refuge might be taken away from her. She had not dwelt upon the fact that she had no other real refuge on earth.
As she walked among the sun-heated heather and the luxuriously droning bees, she dwelt upon it now with a suddenly realising sense. As it came home to her soul, her eyes filled with big tears, which brimmed over and rolled down her cheeks. They dropped upon the breast of her linen blouse and left marks.
"I shall have to find a new bed-sitting-room somewhere," she said, the breast of the linen blouse lifting itself sharply. "It will be so different to be in a house with strangers. Mrs. Cupp and Jane—" She was obliged to take out her handkerchief at that moment. "I am afraid I can't get anything respectable for ten shillings a week. It Was very cheap—and they were so nice!"
All her fatigue of the early morning had returned. Her feet began to burn and ache, and the sun felt almost unbearably hot. The mist in her eyes prevented her seeing the path before her. Once or twice she stumbled over something.
"It seems as if it must be farther than four miles," she said. "And then there is the walk back. I am tired. But I must get on, really."
The drive to the ruins had been a great success. It was a drive of just sufficient length to put people in spirits without fatiguing them. The party came back to lunch with delightful appetities. Lady Agatha and Miss Cora Brooke had pink cheeks. The Marquis of Walderhurst had behaved charmingly to both of them. He had helped each of them to climb about among the ruins, and had taken them both up the steep, dark stairway of one of the towers, and stood with them looking over the turrets into the courtyard and the moat. He knew the history of the castle and could point out the banquet-hall and the chapel and the serving-places, and knew legends about the dungeons.
"He gives us all a turn, mother," said Miss Cora Brooke. "He even gave a turn yesterday to poor Emily Fox-Seton. He's rather nice."
There was a great deal of laughter at lunch after their return. Miss Cora Brooke was quite brilliant in her gay little sallies. But though she was more talkative than Lady Agatha, she did not look more brilliant.
The letter from Curzon Street had not made the beauty shed tears. Her face had fallen when it had been handed to her on her return, and she had taken it upstairs to her room with rather a flagging step. But when she came down to lunch she walked with the movement of a nymph. Her lovely little face wore a sort of tremulous radiance. She laughed like a child at every amusing thing that was said. She might have been ten years old instead of twenty-two, her colour, her eyes, her spirits seemed of a freshness so infantine.
She was leaning back in her chair laughing enchantingly at one of Miss Brooke's sparkling remarks when Lord Walderhurst, who sat next to her, said suddenly, glancing round the table:
"But where is Miss Fox-Seton?"
It was perhaps a significant fact that up to this moment nobody had observed her absence. It was Lady Maria who replied.
"I am almost ashamed to answer," she said. "As I have said before, Emily Fox-Seton has become the lodestar of my existence. I cannot live without her. She has walked over to Maundell to make sure that we do not have a dinner-party without fish to-night."
"She has walked over to Maundell," said Lord Walderhurst—"after yesterday?"
"There was not a pair of wheels left in the stable," answered Lady Maria. "It is disgraceful, of course, but she is a splendid walker, and she said she was not too tired to do it. It is the kind of thing she ought to be given the Victoria Cross for—saving one from a dinner-party without fish."
The Marquis of Walderhurst took up the cord of his monocle and fixed the glass rigidly in his eye.
"It is not only four miles to Maundell," he remarked, staring at the table-cloth, not at Lady Maria, "but it is four miles back."
"By a singular coincidence," said Lady Maria.
The talk and laughter went on, and the lunch also, but Lord Walderhurst, for some reason best known to himself, did not finish his. For a few seconds he stared at the table-cloth, then he pushed aside his nearly disposed-of cutlet, then he got up from his chair quietly.
"Excuse me, Maria," he said, and without further ado went out of the room, and walked toward the stables.
There was excellent fish at Maundell; Batch produced it at once, fresh, sound, and desirable. Had she been in heir normal spirits, Emily would have rejoiced at the sight of it, and have retraced her four miles to Mallowe in absolute jubilation. She would have shortened and beguiled her return journey by depicting to herself Lady Maria's pleasure and relief.
But the letter from Mrs. Cupp lay like a weight of lead in her pocket. It had given her such things to think of as she walked that she had been oblivious to heather and bees and fleece-bedecked summer-blue sky, and had felt more tired than in any tramp through London streets that she could call to mind. Each step she took seemed to be carrying her farther away from the few square yards of home the bed-sitting-room had represented under the dominion of the Cupps. Every moment she recalled more strongly that it had been home—home. Of course it had not been the third-floor back room so much as it had been the Cupps who made it so, who had regarded her as a sort of possession, who had liked to serve her, and had done it with actual affection.
"I shall have to find a new place," she kept saying. "I shall have to go among quite strange people."
She had suddenly a new sense of being without resource. That was one of the proofs of the curious heaviness of the blow the simple occurrence was to her. She felt temporarily almost as if there were no other lodging-houses in London, though she knew that really there were tens of thousands. The fact was that though there might be other Cupps, or their counterparts, she could not make herself believe such a good thing possible. She had been physically worn out before she had read the letter, and its effect had been proportionate to her fatigue and lack of power to rebound. She was vaguely surprised to feel that the tears kept filling her eyes and falling on her cheeks in big heavy drops. She was obliged to use her handkerchief frequently, as if she was suddenly developing a cold in her head.
"I must take care," she said once, quite prosaically, but with more pathos in her voice than she was aware of, "or I shall make my nose quite red."
Though Batch was able to supply fish, he was unfortunately not able to send it to Mallowe. His cart had gone out on a round just before Miss Fox-Seton's arrival, and there was no knowing when it would return.
"Then I must carry the fish myself," said Emily. "You can put it in a neat basket."
"I'm very sorry, miss; I am, indeed, miss," said Batch, looking hot and pained.
"It will not be heavy," returned Emily; "and her ladyship must be sure of it for the dinner-party."
So she turned back to recross the moor with a basket of fish on her arm. And she was so pathetically unhappy that she felt that so long as she lived the odour of fresh fish would make her feel sorrowful. She had heard of people who were made sorrowful by the odour of a flower or the sound of a melody but in her case it would be the smell of fresh fish that would make her sad. If she had been a person with a sense of humour, she might have seen that this was thing to laugh at a little. But she was not a humorous woman, and just now——
"Oh, I shall have to find a new place," she was thinking, "and I have lived in that little room for years."
The sun got hotter and hotter, and her feet became so tired that she could scarcely drag one of them after another. She had forgotten that she had left Mallowe before lunch, and that she ought to have got a cup of tea, at least, at Maundell. Before she had walked a mile on her way back, she realised that she was frightfully hungry and rather faint.
"There is not even a cottage where I could get a glass of water," she thought.
The basket, which was really comparatively light, began to feel heavy on her arm, and at length she felt sure that a certain burning spot on her left heel must be a blister which was being rubbed by her shoe. How it hurt her, and how tired she was—how tired! And when she left Mallowe—lovely, luxurious Mallowe—she would not go back to her little room all fresh from the Cupps' autumn house-cleaning, which included the washing and ironing of her Turkey-red hangings and chair-covers; she would be obliged to huddle into any poor place she could find. And Mrs. Cupp and Jane would be in Chichester.
"But what good fortune it is for them!" she murmured. "They need never be anxious about the future again. How—how wonderful it must be to know that one need not be afraid of the future! I—indeed, I think I really must sit down."
She sat down upon the sun-warmed heather and actually let her tear-wet face drop upon her hands.
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" she said helplessly. "I must not let myself do this. I mustn't, Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"
She was so overpowered by her sense of her own weakness that she was conscious of nothing but the fact that she must control it. Upon the elastic moorland road wheels stole upon one without sound. So the wheels of a rapidly driven high cart approached her and were almost at her side before she lifted her head, startled by a sudden consciousness that a vehicle was near her.
It was Lord Walderhurst's cart, and even as she gazed at him with alarmed wet eyes, his lordship descended from it and made a sign to his groom, who at once impassively drove on.
Emily's lips tried to tremble into a smile; she put out her hand fumblingly toward the fish-basket, and having secured it, began to rise.
"I—sat down to rest," she faltered, even apologetically. "I walked to Maundell, and it was so hot."
Just at that moment a little breeze sprang up and swept across her cheek. She was so grateful that her smile became less difficult.
"I got what Lady Maria wanted," she added, and the childlike dimple in her cheek endeavoured to defy her eyes.
The Marquis of Walderhurst looked rather odd. Emily had never seen him look like this before. He took a silver flask out of his pocket in a matter-of-fact way, and filled its cup with something.
"That is sherry," he said. "Please drink it. You are absolutely faint."
She held out her hand eagerly. She could not help it.
"Oh, thank you—thank you!" she said. "I am so thirsty!" And she drank it as if it were the nectar of the gods.
"Now, Miss Fox-Seton," he said, "please sit down again. I came here to drive you back to Mallowe, and the cart will not come back for a quarter of an hour."
"You came on purpose!" she exclaimed, feeling, in truth, somewhat awe-struck. "But how kind of you, Lord Walderhurst—how good!"
It was the most unforeseen and amazing experience of her life, and at once she sought for some reason which could connect with his coming some more interesting person than mere Emily Fox-Seton. Oh,—the thought flashed upon her,—he had come for some reason connected with Lady Agatha. He made her sit down on the heather again, and he took a seat beside her. He looked straight into her eyes.
"You have been crying," he remarked.
There was no use denying it. And what was there in the good gray-brown eye, gazing through the monocle, which so moved her by its suggestion of kindness and—and some new feeling?
"Yes, I have," she admitted. "I don't often—but—well, yes, I have."
"What was it?"
It was the most extraordinary thump her heart gave at this moment. She had never felt such an absolute thump. It was perhaps because she was tired. His voice had lowered itself. No man had ever spoken to her before like that. It made one feel as if he was not an exalted person at all; only a kind, kind one. She must not presume upon his kindness and make much of her prosaic troubles. She tried to smile in a proper casual way.
"Oh, it was a small thing, really," was her effort at treating the matter lightly; "but it seems more important to me than it would to any one with—with a family. The people I live with—who have been so kind to me—are going away."
"The Cupps?" he asked.
She turned quite round to look at him.
"How," she faltered, "did you know about them?"
"Maria told me," he answered, "I asked her."
It seemed such a human sort of interest to have taken in her. She could not understand. And she had thought he scarcely realised her existence. She said to herself that was so often the case—people were so much kinder than one knew.
She felt the moisture welling in her eyes, and stared steadily at the heather, trying to wink it away.
"I am really glad," she explained hastily. "It is such good fortune for them. Mrs. Cupp's brother has offered them such a nice home. They need never be anxious again."
"But they will leave Mortimer Street—and you will have to give up your room."
"Yes. I must find another." A big drop got the better of her, and flashed on its way down her cheek. "I can find a room, perhaps, but—I can't find——" She was obliged to clear her throat.
"That was why you cried?"
"Yes." After which she sat still.
"You don't know where you will live?"
She was looking so straight before her and trying so hard to behave discreetly that she did not see that he had drawn nearer to her. But a moment later she realised it, because he took hold of her hand. His own closed over it firmly.
"Will you," he said—"I came here, in fact, to ask you if you will come and live with me?"
Her heart stood still, quite still. London was so full of ugly stories about things done by men of his rank—stories of transgressions, of follies, of cruelties. So many were open secrets. There were men, who, even while keeping up an outward aspect of respectability, were held accountable for painful things. The lives of well-born struggling women were so hard. Sometimes such nice ones went under because temptation was so great. But she had not thought, she could not have dreamed——
She got on her feet and stood upright before him. He rose with her, and because she was a tall woman their eyes were on a level. Her own big and honest ones were wide and full of crystal tears.
"Oh!" she said in helpless woe. "Oh!"
It was perhaps the most effective thing a woman ever did. It was so simple that it was heartbreaking. She could not have uttered a word, he was such a powerful and great person, and she was so without help or stay.
Since the occurring of this incident, she has often been spoken of as a beauty, and she has, without doubt, had her fine hours; but Walderhurst has never told her that the most beautiful moment of her life was undoubtedly that in which she stood upon the heather, tall and straight and simple, her hands hanging by her sides, her large, tear-filled hazel eyes gazing straight into his. In the femininity of her frank defencelessness there was an appeal to nature's self in man which was not quite of earth. And for several seconds they stood so and gazed into each other's souls—the usually unilluminated nobleman and the prosaic young woman who lodged on a third floor back in Mortimer Street.
Then, quite quickly, something was lighted in his eyes, and he took a step toward her.
"Good heavens!" he demanded. "What do you suppose I am asking of you?"
"I don't—know," she answered; "I don't—know."
"My good girl," he said, even with some irritation, "I am asking you to be my wife. I am asking you to come and live with me in an entirely respectable manner, as the Marchioness of Walderhurst."
Emily touched the breast of her brown linen blouse with the tips of her fingers.
"You—are—asking—me?" she said.
"Yes," he answered. His glass had dropped out of his eye, and he picked it up and replaced it. "There is Black with the cart," he said. "I will explain myself with greater clearness as we drive back to Mallowe."
The basket of fish was put in the cart, and Emily Fox-Seton was put in. Then the marquis got in himself, and took the reins from his groom.
"You will walk back, Black," he said, "by that path," with a wave of the hand in a diverging direction.
As they drove across the heather, Emily was trembling softly from head to foot. She could have told no human being what she felt. Only a woman who had lived as she had lived and who had been trained as she had been trained could have felt it. The brilliance of the thing which had happened to her was so unheard of and so undeserved, she told herself. It was so incredible that, even with the splendid gray mare's high-held head before her and Lord Walderhurst by her side, she felt that she was only part of a dream. Men had never said "things" to her, and a man was saying them—the Marquis of Walderhurst was saying them. They were not the kind of things every man says or said in every man's way, but they so moved her soul that she quaked with joy.
"I am not a marrying man," said his lordship, "but I must marry, and I like you better than any woman I have ever known. I do not generally like women. I am a selfish man, and I want an unselfish woman. Most women are as selfish as I am myself. I used to like you when I heard Maria speak of you. I have watched you and thought of you ever since I came here. You are necessary to every one, and you are so modest that you know nothing about it. You are a handsome woman, and you are always thinking of other women's good looks."
Emily gave a soft little gasp.
"But Lady Agatha," she said. "I was sure it was Lady Agatha."
"I don't want a girl," returned his lordship. "A girl would bore me to death. I am not going to dry-nurse a girl at the age of fifty-four. I want a companion."
"But I am so far from clever," faltered Emily.
The marquis turned in his driving-seat to look at her. It was really a very nice look he gave her. It made Emily's cheeks grow pink and her simple heart beat.
"You are the woman I want," he said. "You make me feel quite sentimental."
When they reached Mallowe, Emily had upon her finger the ruby which Lady Maria had graphically described as being "as big as a trouser button." It was, indeed, so big that she could scarcely wear her glove over it. She was still incredible, but she was blooming like a large rose. Lord Walderhurst had said so many "things" to her that she seemed to behold a new heaven and a new earth. She had been so swept off her feet that she had not really been allowed time to think, after that first gasp, of Lady Agatha.
When she reached her bedroom she almost returned to earth as she remembered it. Neither of them had dreamed of this—neither of them. What could she say to Lady Agatha? What would Lady Agatha say to her, though it had not been her fault? She had not dreamed that such a thing could be possible. How could she, oh, how could she?
She was standing in the middle of her room with clasped hands. There was a knock upon the door, and Lady Agatha herself came to her.
What had occurred? Something. It was to be seen in the girl's eyes, and in a certain delicate shyness in her manner.
"Something very nice has happened," she said.
"Something nice?" repeated Emily.
Lady Agatha sat down. The letter from Curzon Street was in her hand half unfolded.
"I have had a letter from mamma. It seems almost bad taste to speak of it so soon, but we have talked to each other so much, and you are so kind, that I want to tell you myself. Sir Bruce Norman has been to talk to papa about—about me."
Emily felt that her cup filled to the brim at the moment.
"He is in England again?"
Agatha nodded gently.
"He only went away to—well, to test his own feelings before he spoke. Mamma is delighted with him. I am going home to-morrow."
Emily made a little swoop forward.
"You always liked him?" she said.
Lady Agatha's delicate mounting colour was adorable.
"I was quite unhappy," she owned, and hid her lovely face in her hands.
In the morning-room Lord Walderhurst was talking to Lady Maria.
"You need not give Emily Fox-Seton any more clothes, Maria," he said. "I am going to supply her in future. I have asked her to marry me."
Lady Maria lightly gasped, and then began to laugh.
"Well, James," she said, "you have certainly much more sense than most men of your rank and age."
When Miss Emily Fox-Seton was preparing for the extraordinary change in her life which transformed her from a very poor, hardworking woman into one of the richest marchionesses in England, Lord Walderhurst's cousin, Lady Maria Bayne, was extremely good to her. She gave her advice, and though advice is a cheap present as far as the giver is concerned, there are occasions when it may be a very valuable one to the recipient. Lady Maria's was valuable to Emily Fox-Seton, who had but one difficulty, which was to adjust herself to the marvellous fortune which had befallen her.
There was a certain thing Emily found herself continually saying. It used to break from her lips when she was alone in her room, when she was on her way to her dressmaker's, and in spite of herself, sometimes when she was with her whilom patroness.
"I can't believe it is true! I can't believe it!"
"I don't wonder, my dear girl," Lady Maria answered the second time she heard it. "But what circumstances demand of you is that you should learn to."
"Yes," said Emily, "I know I must. But it seems like a dream. Sometimes," passing her hand over her forehead with a little laugh, "I feel as if I should suddenly find myself wakened in the room in Mortimer Street by Jane Cupp bringing in my morning tea. And I can see the wallpaper and the Turkey-red cotton curtains. One of them was an inch or so too short. I never could afford to buy the new bit, though I always intended to."
"How much was the stuff a yard?" Lady Maria inquired.
"How many yards did you need?"
"Two. It would have cost one and twopence, you see. And I really could get on without it."
Lady Maria put up her lorgnette and looked at her protegee with an interest which bordered on affection, it was so enjoyable to her epicurean old mind.
"I didn't suspect it was as bad as that, Emily," she said. "I should never have dreamed it. You managed to do yourself with such astonishing decency. You were actually nice—always."
"I was very much poorer than anyone knew," said Emily. "People don't like one's troubles. And when one is earning one's living as I was, one must be agreeable, you know. It would never do to seem tiresome."
"There's cleverness in realising that fact," said Lady Maria. "You were always the most cheerful creature. That was one of the reasons Walderhurst admired you."
The future marchioness blushed all over. Lady Maria saw even her neck itself blush, and it amused her ladyship greatly. She was intensely edified by the fact that Emily could be made to blush by the mere mention of her mature fiance's name.
"She's in such a state of mind about the man that she's delightful," was the old woman's internal reflection; "I believe she's in love with him, as if she was a nurse-maid and he was a butcher's boy."
"You see," Emily went on in her nice, confiding way (one of the most surprising privileges of her new position was that it made it possible for her to confide in old Lady Maria), "it was not only the living from day to day that made one anxious, it was the Future!" (Lady Maria knew that the word began in this case with a capital letter.) "No one knows what the Future is to poor women. One knows that one must get older, and one may not keep well, and if one could not be active and in good spirits, if one could not run about on errands, and things fell off, what could one do? It takes hard work, Lady Maria, to keep up even the tiniest nice little room and the plainest presentable wardrobe, if one isn't clever. If I had been clever it would have been quite different, I dare say. I have been so frightened sometimes in the middle of the night, when I wakened and thought about living to be sixty-five, that I have lain and shaken all over. You see," her blush had so far disappeared that she looked for the moment pale at the memory, "I had nobody—nobody."
"And now you are going to be the Marchioness of Walderhurst," remarked Lady Maria.
Emily's hands, which rested on her knee, wrung themselves together.
"That is what it seems impossible to believe," she said, "or to be grateful enough for to—to—" and she blushed all over again.
"Say 'James'," put in Lady Maria, with a sinful if amiable sense of comedy; "you will have to get accustomed to thinking of him as 'James' sometimes, at all events."
But Emily did not say "James." There was something interesting in the innocent fineness of her feeling for Lord Walderhurst. In the midst of her bewildered awe and pleasure at the material splendours looming up in her horizon, her soul was filled with a tenderness as exquisite as the religion of a child. It was a combination of intense gratitude and the guileless passion of a hitherto wholly unawakened woman—a woman who had not hoped for love or allowed her thoughts to dwell upon it, and who therefore had no clear understanding of its full meaning. She could not have explained her feeling if she had tried, and she did not dream of trying. If a person less inarticulate than herself had translated it to her she would have been amazed and abashed. So would Lord Walderhurst have been amazed, so would Lady Maria; but her ladyship's amazement would have expressed itself after its first opening of the eyes, with a faint elderly chuckle.
When Miss Fox-Seton had returned to town she had returned with Lady Maria to South Audley Street. The Mortimer Street episode was closed, as was the Cupps' house. Mrs. Cupp and Jane had gone to Chichester, Jane leaving behind her a letter the really meritorious neatness of which was blotted by two or three distinct tears. Jane respectfully expressed her affectionate rapture at the wondrous news which "Modern Society" had revealed to her before Miss Fox-Seton herself had time to do so.
"I am afraid, miss," she ended her epistle, "that I am not experienced enough to serve a lady in a grand position, but hoping it is not a liberty to ask it, if at any time your own maid should be wanting a young woman to work under her, I should be grateful to be remembered. Perhaps having learned your ways, and being a good needlewoman and fond of it, might be a little recommendation for me."
"I should like to take Jane for my maid," Emily had said to Lady Maria. "Do you think I might make her do?"
"She would probably be worth half a dozen French minxes who would amuse themselves by getting up intrigues with your footmen," was Lady Maria's astute observation. "I would pay an extra ten pounds a year myself for slavish affection, if it was to be obtained at agency offices. Send her to a French hairdresser to take a course of lessons, and she will be worth anything. To turn you out perfectly will be her life's ambition."
To Jane Cupp's rapture the next post brought her the following letter:—
DEAR JANE,—It is just like you to write such a nice letter to me, and I can assure you I appreciated all your good wishes very much. I feel that I have been most fortunate, and am, of course, very happy. I have spoken to Lady Maria Bayne about you, and she thinks that you might make me a useful maid if I gave you the advantage of a course of lessons in hairdressing. I myself know that you would be faithful and interested and that I could not have a more trustworthy young woman. If your mother is willing to spare you, I will engage you. The wages would be thirty-five pounds a year (and beer, of course) to begin with, and an increase later as you became more accustomed to your duties. I am glad to hear that your mother is so well and comfortable. Remember me to her kindly.
Jane Cupp trembled and turned pale with joy as she read her letter.
"Oh, mother!" she said, breathless with happiness. "And to think she is almost a marchioness this very minute. I wonder if I shall go with her to Oswyth Castle first, or to Mowbray, or to Hurst?"
"My word!" said Mrs. Cupp, "you are in luck, Jane, being as you'd rather be a lady's maid than live private in Chichester. You needn't go out to service, you know. Your uncle's always ready to provide for you."
"I know he is," answered Jane, a little nervous lest obstacles might be put in the way of her achieving her long-cherished ambition. "And it's kind of him, and I'm sure I'm grateful. But—though I wouldn't hurt his feelings by mentioning it—it is more independent to be earning your own living, and there's more life, you see, in waiting on a titled lady and dressing her for drawing-rooms and parties and races and things, and travelling about with her to the grand places she lives in and visits. Why, mother, I've heard tell that the society in the servants' halls is almost like high life. Butlers and footmen and maids to high people has seen so much of the world and get such manners. Do you remember how quiet and elegant Susan Hill was that was maid to Lady Cosbourne? And she'd been to Greece and to India. If Miss Fox-Seton likes travel and his lordship likes it, I may be taken to all sorts of wonderful places. Just think!"
She gave Mrs. Cupp a little clutch in her excitement. She had always lived in the basement kitchen of a house in Mortimer Street and had never had reason to hope she might leave it. And now!
"You're right, Jane!" her mother said, shaking her head. "There's a great deal in it, particular when you're young. There's a great deal in it."
When the engagement of the Marquis of Walderhurst had been announced, to the consternation of many, Lady Maria had been in her element. She was really fine at times in her attitude towards the indiscreetly or tactlessly inquiring. Her management of Lady Malfry in particular had been a delightful thing. On hearing of her niece's engagement, Lady Malfry had naturally awakened to a proper and well-behaved if belated interest in her. She did not fling herself upon her breast after the manner of worldly aunts in ancient comedies in which Cinderella attains fortune. She wrote a letter of congratulation, after which she called at South Audley Street, and with not too great obviousness placed herself and her house at the disposal of such female relatives as required protection during the period of their preparation for becoming marchionesses. She herself could not have explained exactly how it was that, without being put through any particular process, she understood, before her call was half over, that Emily's intention was to remain with Lady Maria Bayne and that Lady Maria's intention was to keep her. The scene between the three was far too subtle to be of the least use upon the stage, but it was a good scene, nevertheless. Its expression was chiefly, perhaps, a matter of inclusion and exclusion, and may also have been largely telepathic; but after it was over, Lady Maria chuckled several times softly to herself, like an elderly bird of much humour, and Lady Malfry went home feeling exceedingly cross.
She was in so perturbed a humour that she dropped her eyelids and looked rather coldly down the bridge of her nose when her stupidly cheery little elderly husband said to her,—
"I beg pardon," she replied. "I don't quite understand."
"Of course you do. How about Emily Fox-Seton?"
"She seems very well, and of course she is well satisfied. It would not be possible for her to be otherwise. Lady Maria Bayne has taken her up."
"She is Walderhurst's cousin. Well, well! It will be an immense position for the girl."
"Immense," granted Lady Malfry, with a little flush. A certain tone in her voice conveyed that discussion was terminated. Sir George knew that her niece was not coming to them and that the immense position would include themselves but slightly.
Emily was established temporarily at South Audley Street with Jane Cupp as her maid. She was to be married from Lady Maria's lean old arms, so to speak. Her ladyship derived her usual epicurean enjoyment from the whole thing,—from too obviously thwarted mothers and daughters; from Walderhurst, who received congratulations with a civilly inexpressive countenance which usually baffled the observer; from Emily, who was overwhelmed by her emotions, and who was of a candour in action such as might have appealed to any heart not adapted by the flintiness of its nature to the macadamising of roads.
If she had not been of the most unpretentious nice breeding and unaffected taste, Emily might have been ingenuously funny in her process of transformation.
"I keep forgetting that I can afford things," she said to Lady Maria. "Yesterday I walked such a long way to match a piece of silk, and when I was tired I got into a penny bus. I did not remember until it was too late that I ought to have called a hansom. Do you think," a shade anxiously, "that Lord Walderhurst would mind?"
"Just for the present, perhaps, it would be as well that I should see that you shop in the carriage," her ladyship answered with a small grin. "When you are a marchioness you may make penny buses a feature of the distinguished insouciance of your character if you like. I shouldn't myself, because they jolt and stop to pick up people, but you can, with originality and distinction, if it amuses you."
"It doesn't," said Emily. "I hate them. I have longed to be able to take hansoms. Oh! how I have longed—when I was tired."
The legacy left her by old Mrs. Maytham had been realised and deposited as a solid sum in a bank. Since she need no longer hoard the income of twenty pounds a year, it was safe to draw upon her capital for her present needs. The fact made her feel comfortable. She could make her preparations for the change in her life with a decent independence. She would have been definitely unhappy if she had been obliged to accept favours at this juncture. She felt as if she could scarcely have borne it. It seemed as if everything conspired to make her comfortable as well as blissfully happy in these days.
Lord Walderhurst found an interest in watching her and her methods. He was a man who, in certain respects, knew himself very well and had few illusions respecting his own character. He had always been rather given to matter-of-fact analysis of his own emotions; and at Mallowe he had once or twice asked himself if it was not disagreeably possible that the first moderate glow of his St. Martin's summer might die away and leave him feeling slightly fatigued and embarrassed by the new aspect of his previously regular and entirely self-absorbed existence. You might think that you would like to marry a woman and then you might realise that there were objections—that even the woman herself, with all her desirable qualities, might be an objection in the end, that any woman might be an objection; in fact, that it required an effort to reconcile oneself to the fact of a woman's being continually about. Of course the arriving at such a conclusion, after one had committed oneself, would be annoying. Walderhurst had, in fact, only reflected upon this possible aspect of affairs before he had driven over the heath to pick Emily up. Afterwards he had, in some remote portion of his mentality, vaguely awaited developments.
When he saw Emily day by day at South Audley Street, he found he continued to like her. He was not clever enough to analyse her; he could only watch her, and he always looked on at her with curiosity and a novel sensation rather like pleasure. She wakened up at sight of him, when he called, in a way that was attractive even to an unimaginative man. Her eyes seemed to warm, and she often looked flushed and softly appealing. He began to note vaguely that her dresses were better, and oftener changed, than they had been at Mallowe. A more observant man might have been touched by the suggestion that she was unfolding petal by petal like a flower, and that each carefully chosen costume was a new petal. He did not in the least suspect the reverent eagerness of her care of herself as an object hoping to render itself worthy of his qualities and tastes.
His qualities and tastes were of no exalted importance in themselves, but they seemed so to Emily. It is that which by one chance or another so commends itself to a creature as to incite it to the emotion called love, which is really of importance, and which, not speaking in figures, holds the power of life and death. Personality sometimes achieves this, circumstances always aid it; but in all cases the result is the same and sways the world it exists in—during its existence. Emily Fox-Seton had fallen deeply and touchingly in love with this particular prosaic, well-behaved nobleman, and her whole feminine being was absorbed in her adoration of him. Her tender fancy described him by adjectives such as no other human being would have assented to. She felt that he had condescended to her with a generosity which justified worship. This was not true, but it was true for her. As a consequence of this she thought out and purchased her wardrobe with a solemnity of purpose such as might well have been part of a religious ceremonial. When she consulted fashion plates and Lady Maria, or when she ordered a gown at her ladyship's dressmaker's, she had always before her mind, not herself, but the Marchioness of Walderhurst—a Marchioness of Walderhurst whom the Marquis would approve of and be pleased with. She did not expect from him what Sir Bruce Norman gave to Lady Agatha.
Agatha and her lover were of a different world. She saw them occasionally, not often, because the simple selfishness of young love so absorbed them that they could scarcely realise the existence of other persons than themselves. They were to be married, and to depart for fairyland as soon as possible. Both were fond of travel, and when they took ship together their intention was to girdle the world at leisure, if they felt so inclined. They could do anything they chose, and were so blissfully sufficient for each other that there was no reason why they should not follow their every errant fancy.
The lines which had been increasing in Lady Claraway's face had disappeared, and left her blooming with the beauty her daughters had reproduced. This delightful marriage had smoothed away every difficulty. Sir Bruce was the "most charming fellow in England." That fact acted as a charm in itself, it seemed. It was not necessary to go into details as to the mollifying of tradespeople and rearranging of the entire aspect of life at Curzon Street. When Agatha and Emily Fox-Seton met in town for the first time—it was in the drawing room at South Audley Street—they clasped each other's hands with an exchange of entirely new looks.
"You look so—so well, Miss Fox-Seton," said Agatha, with actual tenderness.
If she had not been afraid of seeming a little rudely effusive she would have said "handsome" instead of "well," for Emily was sweetly blooming.
"Happiness is becoming to you," she added. "May I say how glad I am?"
"Thank you, thank you!" Emily answered. "Everything in the world seems changed, doesn't it?"
They stood and gazed into each other's eyes a few seconds, and then loosed hands with a little laugh and sat down to talk.
It was, in fact, Lady Agatha who talked most, because Emily Fox-Seton led her on and aided her to delicate expansion by her delight in all that in these days made up her existence of pure bliss. It was as if an old-time fairy story were being enacted before Emily's eyes. Agatha without doubt had grown lovelier, she thought; she seemed even fairer, more willowy, the forget-me-not eyes were of a happier blue, as forget-me-nots growing by clear water-sides are bluer than those grown in a mere garden. She appeared, perhaps, even a little taller, and her small head had, if such a thing were possible, a prettier flower-like poise. This, at least, Emily thought, and found her own happiness added to by her belief in her fancy. She felt that nothing was to be wondered at when she heard Agatha speak of Sir Bruce. She could not utter his name or refer to any act of his without a sound in her voice which had its parallel in the light floating haze of blush on her cheeks. In her intercourse with the world in general she would have been able to preserve her customary sweet composure, but Emily Fox-Seton was not the world. She represented a something which was so primitively of the emotions that one's heart spoke and listened to her. Agatha was conscious that Miss Fox-Seton had seen at Mallowe—she could never quite understand how it had seemed so naturally to happen—a phase of her feelings which no one else had seen before. Bruce had seen it since, but only Bruce. There had actually been a sort of confidence between them—a confidence which had been like intimacy, though neither of them had been effusive.
"Mamma is so happy," the girl said. "It is quite wonderful. And Alix and Hilda and Millicent and Eve—oh! it makes such a difference to them. I shall be able," with a blush which expressed a world of relieved affection, "to give them so much pleasure. Any girl who marries happily and—and well—can alter everything for her sisters, if she remembers. You see, I shall have reason to remember. I know things from experience. And Bruce is so kind, and gay, and proud of their prettiness. Just imagine their excitement at all being bridesmaids! Bruce says we shall be like a garden of spring flowers. I am so glad," her eyes suddenly quite heavenly in their joyful relief, "that he is young!"
The next second the heavenly relieved look died away. The exclamation had been involuntary. It had sprung from her memory of the days when she had dutifully accepted, as her portion, the possibility of being smiled upon by Walderhurst, who was two years older than her father, and her swift realisation of this fact troubled her. It was indelicate to have referred to the mental image even ever so vaguely.
But Emily Fox-Seton was glad too that Sir Bruce was young, that they were all young, and that happiness had come before they had had time to tire of waiting for it. She was so happy herself that she questioned nothing.
"Yes. It is nice," she answered, and glowed with honest sympathy. "You will want to do the same things. It is so agreeable when people who are married like to do the same things. Perhaps you will want to go out a great deal and to travel, and you could not enjoy it if Sir Bruce did not."
She was not reflecting in the least upon domestic circles whose male heads are capable of making themselves extremely nasty under stress of invitations it bores them to accept, and the inclination of wives and daughters to desire acceptance. She was not contemplating with any premonitory regrets a future in which, when Walderhurst did not wish to go out to dinner or disdained a ball, she should stay at home. Far from it. She simply rejoiced with Lady Agatha, who was twenty-two marrying twenty-eight.
"You are not like me," she explained further. "I have had to work so hard and contrive so closely that everything will be a pleasure to me. Just to know that I never need starve to death or go into the workhouse is such a relief that—"
"Oh!" exclaimed Lady Agatha, quickly and involuntarily laying a hand on hers, startled by the fact that she spoke as if referring to a wholly matter-of-fact possibility.
Emily smiled, realising her feeling.
"Perhaps I ought not to have said that. I forgot. But such things are possible when one is too old to work and has nothing to depend on. You could scarcely understand. When one is very poor one is frightened, because occasionally one cannot help thinking of it."
"But now—now! Oh! how different!" exclaimed Agatha, with heartfelt earnestness.
"Yes. Now I need never be afraid. It makes me so grateful to—Lord Walderhurst."
Her neck grew pink as she said it, just as Lady Maria had seen it grow pink on previous occasions. Moderate as the words were, they expressed ardour.
Lord Walderhurst came in half an hour later and found her standing smiling by the window.
"You look particularly well, Emily. It's that white frock, I suppose. You ought to wear a good deal of white," he said.
"I will," Emily answered. He observed that she wore the nice flush and the soft appealing look, as well as the white frock. "I wish—"
Here she stopped, feeling a little foolish.
"What do you wish?"
"I wish I could do more to please you than wear white—or black—when you like."
He gazed at her, always through the single eyeglass. Even the vaguest approach to emotion or sentiment invariably made him feel stiff and shy. Realising this, he did not quite understand why he rather liked it in the case of Emily Fox-Seton, though he only liked it remotely and felt his own inaptness a shade absurd.
"Wear yellow or pink occasionally," he said with a brief, awkward laugh.
What large, honest eyes the creature had, like a fine retriever's or those of some nice animal one saw in the Zoo!
"I will wear anything you like," she said, the nice eyes meeting his, not the least stupidly, he reflected, though women who were affectionate often looked stupid. "I will do anything you like; you don't know what you have done for me, Lord Walderhurst."
They moved a trifle nearer to each other, this inarticulate pair. He dropped his eyeglass and patted her shoulder.
"Say 'Walderhurst' or 'James'—or—or 'my dear,'" he said. "We are going to be married, you know." And he found himself going to the length of kissing her cheek with some warmth.
"I sometimes wish," she said feelingly, "that it was the fashion to say 'my lord' as Lady Castlewood used to do in 'Esmond.' I always thought it nice."
"Women are not so respectful to their husbands in these days," he answered, with his short laugh. "And men are not so dignified."
"Lord Castlewood was not very dignified, was he?"
He chuckled a little.
"No. But his rank was, in the reign of Queen Anne. These are democratic days. I'll call you 'my lady' if you like."
"Oh! No—no!" with fervour, "I wasn't thinking of anything like that."
"I know you were not," he reassured her. "You are not that kind of woman."
"Oh! how could I be?"
"You couldn't," good-naturedly. "That's why I like you."
Then he began to tell her his reason for calling at this particular hour. He came to prepare her for a visit from the Osborns, who had actually just returned from India. Captain Osborn had chosen, or chance had chosen for him, this particular time for a long leave. As soon as she heard the name of Osborn, Emily's heart beat a little quickly. She had naturally learned a good deal of detail from Lady Maria since her engagement. Alec Osborn was the man who, since Lord Walderhurst's becoming a widower, had lived in the gradually strengthening belief that the chances were that it would be his enormous luck to inherit the title and estates of the present Marquis of Walderhurst. He was not a very near relation, but he was the next of kin. He was a young man and a strong one, and Walderhurst was fifty-four and could not be called robust. His medical man did not consider him a particularly good life, though he was not often ill.
"He's not the kind of chap who lives to be a hundred and fifty. I'll say that for him," Alec Osborn had said at mess after dinner had made him careless of speech, and he had grinned not too pleasantly when he uttered the words. "The only thing that would completely wipe my eye isn't as likely to happen to him as to most men. He's unsentimental and level headed, and doesn't like marriage. You can imagine how he's chivied by women. A fellow in his position couldn't be let alone. But he doesn't like marriage, and he's a man who knows jolly well what he likes and what he doesn't. The only child died, and if he doesn't marry again, I'm in a safe place. Good Lord! the difference it would make!" and his grin extended itself.
It was three months after this that the Marquis of Walderhurst followed Emily Fox-Seton out upon the heath, and finding her sitting footsore and depressed in spirit beside the basket of Lady Maria's fish, asked her to marry him.
When the news reached him, Alec Osborn went and shut himself up in his quarters and blasphemed until his face was purple and big drops of sweat ran down it. It was black bad luck—it was black bad luck, and it called for black curses. What the articles of furniture in the room in the bungalow heard was rather awful, but Captain Osborn did not feel that it did justice to the occasion.
When her husband strode by her to his apartment, Mrs. Osborn did not attempt to follow him. She had only been married two years, but she knew his face too well; and she also knew too well all the meaning of the fury contained in the words he flung at her as he hurled himself past her.
"Walderhurst is going to be married!" Mrs. Osborn ran into her own room and sat down clutching at her hair as she dropped her face in her little dark hands. She was an Anglo-Indian girl who had never been home, and had not had much luck in life at any time, and her worst luck had been in being handed over by her people to this particular man, chiefly because he was the next of kin to Lord Walderhurst. She was a curious, passionate creature, and had been in love with him in her way. Her family had been poor and barely decently disreputable. She had lived on the outskirts of things, full of intense girlish vanity and yearnings for social recognition, poorly dressed, passed over and snubbed by people she aspired to know socially, seeing other girls with less beauty and temperament enjoying flirtations with smart young officers, biting her tongue out with envy and bitterness of thwarted spirit. So when Captain Osborn cast an eye on her and actually began a sentimental episode, her relief and excitement at finding herself counting as other girls did wrought itself up into a passion. Her people were prompt and sharp enough to manage the rest, and Osborn was married before he knew exactly whither he was tending. He was not pleased with himself when he wakened to face facts. He could only console himself for having been cleverly led and driven into doing the thing he did not want to do, by the facts that the girl was interesting and clever and had a good deal of odd un-English beauty.
It was a beauty so un-English that it would perhaps appear to its greatest advantage in the contrasts afforded by life in England. She was so dark, of heavy hair and drooping-lidded eyes and fine grained skin, and so sinuous of lithe, slim body, that among native beauties she seemed not to be sufficiently separated by marks of race. She had tumbled up from childhood among native servants, who were almost her sole companions, and who had taught her curious things. She knew their stories and songs, and believed in more of their occult beliefs than any but herself knew.
She knew things which made her interesting to Alec Osborn, who had a bullet head and a cruel lower jaw, despite a degree of the ordinary good looks. The fact that his chances were good for becoming Marquis of Walderhurst and taking her home to a life of English luxury and splendour was a thing she never forgot. It haunted her in her sleep. She had often dreamed of Oswyth Castle and of standing amidst great people on the broad lawns her husband had described feelingly during tropical days when they had sat together panting for breath. When there had been mention made of the remote, awful possibility that Walderhurst might surrender to the siege laid to him, she had turned sick at the thought. It made her clench her hands until the nails almost pressed into the skin of her palms. She could not bear it. She had made Osborn burst into a big, harsh laugh one day when she had hinted to him that there were occult things to be done which might prevent ill luck. He had laughed first and scowled afterwards, cynically saying that she might as well be working them up.
He had not come out to India followed by regrets and affection. He had been a black sheep at home, and had rather been hustled away than otherwise. If he had been a more admirable kind of fellow, Walderhurst would certainly have made him an allowance; but his manner of life had been such as the Marquis had no patience with in men of any class, and especially abhorred in men whom the accident of birth connected with good names. He had not been lavish in his demonstrations of interest in the bullet-headed young man. Osborn's personableness was not of a kind attractive to the unbiassed male observer. Men saw his cruel young jowl and low forehead, and noticed that his eyes were small. He had a good, swaggering military figure to which uniform was becoming, and a kind of animal good looks which would deteriorate early. His colour would fix and deepen with the aid of steady daily drinking, and his features would coarsen and blur, until by the time he was forty the young jowl would have grown heavy and would end by being his most prominent feature.
While he had remained in England, Walderhurst had seen him occasionally, and had only remarked and heard unpleasant things of him,—a tendency to selfish bad manners, reckless living, and low flirtation. He once saw him on the top of a bus with his arm round the waist of an awful, giggling shop-girl kind of person, who was adorned with tremendous feathers and a thick fringe coming unfrizzled with the heat and sticking out here and there in straight locks on her moist forehead. Osborn thought that the arm business had been cleverly managed with such furtiveness that no one could see it, but Walderhurst was driving solemnly by in his respectable barouche, and he found himself gazing through his monocle directly at his relative, and seeing, from the street below, the point at which the young man's arm lost itself under the profusely beaded short cape. A dull flush rose to his countenance, and he turned away without showing any sign of recognition; but he was annoyed and disgusted, because this particular kind of blatantly vulgar bad taste was the sort of thing he loathed. It was the sort of thing which made duchesses of women who did alluring "turns" at music halls or sang suggestive songs in comic opera, and transformed into the chatelaines of ancient castles young persons who had presided at the ribbon counter. He saw as little as possible of his heir presumptive after this, and if the truth were told, Captain Alec Osborn was something of a factor in the affair of Miss Emily Fox-Seton. If Walderhurst's infant son had lived, or if Osborn had been a refined, even if dull, fellow, there are ten chances to one his lordship would have chosen no second marchioness.
Captain Osborn's life in India had not ended in his making no further debts. He was not a man to put the brake on in the matter of self-indulgence. He got into debt so long as a shred of credit remained to him, and afterwards he tried to add to his resources by cards and betting at races. He made and lost by turn, and was in a desperate state when he got his leave. He applied for it because he had conceived the idea that his going home as a married man might be a good thing for him. Hester, it seemed not at all improbable, might accomplish something with Walderhurst. If she talked to him in her interesting semi-Oriental way, and was fervid and picturesque in her storytelling, he might be attracted by her. She had her charm, and when she lifted the heavy lids of her long black eyes and fixed her gaze upon her hearer as she talked about the inner side of native life, of which she knew such curious, intimate things, people always listened, even in India, where the thing was not so much of a novelty, and in England she might be a sort of sensation.
Osborn managed to convey to her gradually, by a process of his own, a great deal of what he wanted her to do. During the months before the matter of the leave was quite decided, he dropped a word here and there which carried a good deal of suggestion to a mind used to seizing on passing intimations. The woman who had been Hester's Ayah when she was a child had become her maid. She was a woman with a wide, silent acquaintance with her own people. She was seldom seen talking to anyone and seldom seemed to leave the house, but she always knew everything. Her mistress was aware that if at any time she chose to ask her a question about the secret side of things concerning black or white peoples, she would receive information to be relied upon. She felt that she could have heard from her many things concerning her husband's past, present, and future, and that the matter of the probable succession was fully comprehended by her.
When she called her into the room after recovering outwardly from her hour of desperation, she saw that the woman was already aware of the blow that had fallen upon the household. What they said to each other need not be recorded here, but there was more in the conversation than the mere words uttered, and it was one of several talks held before Mrs. Osborn sailed for England with her husband.
"He may be led into taking into consideration the fact that he has cut the ground from under a fellow's feet and left him dangling in the air," said Osborn to his wife. "Best thing will be to make friends with the woman, hang her!"
"Yes, Alec, yes," Hester Osborn answered, just a little feverishly. "We must make friends with her. They say she is a good sort and was frightfully poor herself."
"She won't be poor now, hang her!" remarked Captain Osborn with added fervour. "I should like to break her neck! I wonder if she rides?"
"I'm sure she has not been well enough off to do anything like that."
"Good idea to begin to teach her." And he laughed as he turned on his heel and began to walk the deck with a fellow passenger.
It was these people Lord Walderhurst had come to prepare her for.
"Maria has told you about them, I know," he said. "I dare say she has been definite enough to explain that I consider Osborn altogether undesirable. Under the veneer of his knowledge of decent customs he is a cad. I am obliged to behave civilly to the man, but I dislike him. If he had been born in a low class of life, he would have been a criminal."
"Oh!" Emily exclaimed.
"Any number of people would be criminals if circumstances did not interfere. It depends a good deal on the shape of one's skull."
"Oh!" exclaimed Emily again, "do you think so?"
She believed that people who were bad were bad from preference, though she did not at all understand the preference. She had accepted from her childhood everything she had ever heard said in a pulpit. That Walderhurst should propound ideas such as ministers of the Church of England might regard as heretical startled her, but he could have said nothing startling enough to shake her affectionate allegiance.
"Yes, I do," he answered. "Osborn's skull is quite the wrong shape."
But when, a short time after, Captain Osborn brought the skull in question into the room, covered in the usual manner with neatly brushed, close-cropped hair, Emily thought it a very nice shape indeed. Perhaps a trifle hard and round-looking and low of forehead, but not shelving or bulging as the heads of murderers in illustrated papers generally did. She owned to herself that she did not see what Lord Walderhurst evidently saw, but then she did not expect of herself an intelligence profound enough to follow his superior mental flights.
Captain Osborn was well groomed and well mannered, and his demeanour towards herself was all that the most conventional could have demanded. When she reflected that she herself represented in a way the possible destruction of his hopes of magnificent fortune, she felt almost tenderly towards him, and thought his easy politeness wonderful. Mrs. Osborn, too! How interesting and how beautiful in an odd way Mrs. Osborn was! Every movement of her exceeding slimness was curiously graceful. Emily remembered having read novels whose heroines were described as "undulating." Mrs. Osborn was undulating. Her long, drooping, and dense black eyes were quite unlike other girls' eyes. Emily had never seen anything like them. And she had such a lonely, slow, shy way of lifting them to look at people. She was obliged to look up at tall Emily. She seemed a schoolgirl as she stood near her. Emily was the kind of mistaken creature whose conscience, awakening to unnecessary remorses, causes its owner at once to assume all the burdens which Fate has laid upon the shoulders of others. She began to feel like a criminal herself, irrespective of the shape of her skull. Her own inordinate happiness and fortune had robbed this unoffending young couple. She wished that it had not been so, and vaguely reproached herself without reasoning the matter out to a conclusion. At all events, she was remorsefully sympathetic in her mental attitude towards Mrs. Osborn, and being sure that she was frightened of her husband's august relative, felt nervous herself because Lord Walderhurst bore himself with undated courtesy and kept his monocle fixed in his eye throughout the interview. If he had let it drop and allowed it to dangle in an unbiassed manner from its cord, Emily would have felt more comfortable, because she was sure his demeanour would have appeared a degree more encouraging to the Osborns.
"Are you glad to be in England again?" she asked Mrs. Osborn.
"I never was here before," answered the young woman. "I have never been anywhere but in India."
In the course of the conversation she explained that she had not been a delicate child, and also conveyed that even if she had been one, her people could not have afforded to send her home. Instinct revealed to Emily that she had not had many of the good things of life, and that she was not a creature of buoyant spirits. The fact that she had spent a good many hours of most of her young days in reflecting on her ill-luck had left its traces on her face, particularly in the depths of her slow-moving, black eyes.
They had come, it appeared, in the course of duty, to pay their respects to the woman who was to be their destruction. To have neglected to do so would have made them seem to assume an indiscreet attitude towards the marriage.
"They can't like it, of course," Lady Maria summed them up afterwards, "but they have made up their minds to lump it as respectably as possible."
"I am so sorry for them," said Emily.
"Of course you are. And you will probably show them all sorts of indiscreet kindnesses, but don't be too altruistic, my good Emily. The man is odious, and the girl looks like a native beauty. She rather frightens me."
"I don't think Captain Osborn is odious," Emily answered. "And she is pretty, you know. She is frightened of us, really."
Remembering days when she herself had been at a disadvantage with people who were fortunate enough to be of importance, and recalling what her secret tremor before them had been, Emily was very nice indeed to little Mrs. Osborn. She knew from experience things which would be of use to her—things about lodgings and things about shops. Osborn had taken lodgings in Duke Street, and Emily knew the quarter thoroughly. Walderhurst watched her being nice, through his fixed eyeglass, and he decided that she had really a very good manner. Its goodness consisted largely in its directness. While she never brought forth unnecessarily recollections of the days when she had done other people's shopping and had purchased for herself articles at sales marked 11-3/4d, she was interestingly free from any embarrassment in connection with the facts. Walderhurst, who had been much bored by himself and other people in time past, actually found that it gave a fillip to existence to look on at a woman who, having been one of the hardest worked of the genteel labouring classes, was adapting herself to the role of marchioness by the simplest of processes, and making a very nice figure at it too, in her entirely unbrilliant way. If she had been an immensely clever woman, there would have been nothing special in it. She was not clever at all, yet Walderhurst had seen her produce effects such as a clever woman might have laboured for and only attained by a stroke of genius. As, for instance, when she had met for the first time after her engagement, a certain particularly detestable woman of rank, to whom her relation to Walderhurst was peculiarly bitter. The Duchess of Merwold had counted the Marquis as her own, considering him fitted by nature to be the spouse of her eldest girl, a fine young woman with projecting teeth, who had hung fire. She felt Emily Fox-Seton's incomprehensible success to be a piece of impudent presumption, and she had no reason to restrain the expression of her sentiments so long as she conveyed them by methods of inference and inclusion.
"You must let me congratulate you very warmly, Miss Fox-Seton," she said, pressing her hand with maternal patronage. "Your life has changed greatly since we last saw each other."
"Very greatly indeed," Emily flushed frankly in innocent gratitude as she answered. "You are very kind. Thank you, thank you."
"Yes, a great change." Walderhurst saw that her smile was feline and asked himself what the woman was going to say next. "The last time we met you called to ask me about the shopping you were to do for me. Do you remember? Stockings and gloves, I think."
Walderhurst observed that she expected Emily to turn red and show herself at a loss before the difficulties of the situation. He was on the point of cutting into the conversation and disposing of the matter himself when he realised that Emily was neither gaining colour nor losing it, but was looking honestly into her Grace's eyes with just a touch of ingenuous regret.
"It was stockings," she said. "There were some marked down to one and elevenpence halfpenny at Barratt's. They were really quite good for the price. And you wanted four pairs. And when I got there they were all gone, and those at two and three were not the least bit better. I was so disappointed. It was too bad!"
Walderhurst fixed his monocle firmly to conceal the fact that he was verging upon a cynical grin. The woman was known to be the stingiest of small great persons in London, her economies were noted, and this incident was even better than many others society had already rejoiced over. The picture raised in the minds of the hearers of her Grace foiled in the purchase of stockings marked down to 1s. 11-1/2d. would be a source of rapture for some time to come. And Emily's face! The regretful kindness of it, the retrospective sympathy and candid feeling! It was incredibly good!
"And she did it quite by accident!" he repeated to himself in his inward glee. "She did it quite by accident! She's not clever enough to have done it on purpose. What a brilliantly witty creature she would be if she had invented it!"
As she had been able unreluctantly to recall her past upon this occasion, so she was able to draw for Mrs. Osborn's benefit from the experience it had afforded her. She wanted to make up to her, in such ways as she could, for the ill turn she had inadvertently done her. As she had at once ranged herself as an aid on the side of Lady Agatha, so she ranged herself entirely without obtrusiveness on the side of the Osborns.
"It's true that she's a good sort," Hester said when they went away. "Her days of being hard up are not far enough away to be forgotten. She hasn't any affectation, at any rate. It makes it easier to stand her."
"She looks like a strong woman," said Osborn. "Walderhurst got a good deal for his money. She'll make a strapping British matron."
Hester winced and a dusky red shot up in her cheek. "So she will," she sighed.
It was quite true, and the truer it was the worse for people who despairingly hung on and were foolish enough to hope against hope.
The marriage of Lady Agatha came first, and was a sort of pageant. The female writers for fashion papers lived upon it for weeks before it occurred and for some time after. There were numberless things to be written about it. Each flower of the garden of girls was to be described, with her bridesmaid's dress, and the exquisite skin and eyes and hair which would stamp her as the beauty of her season when she came out. There yet remained five beauties in Lady Claraway's possession, and the fifth was a baby thing of six, who ravished all beholders as she toddled into church carrying her sister's train, aided by a little boy page in white velvet and point lace.
The wedding was the most radiant of the year. It was indeed a fairy pageant, of youth and beauty, and happiness and hope.
One of the most interesting features of the occasion was the presence of the future Marchioness of Walderhurst, "the beautiful Miss Fox-Seton." The fashion papers were very strenuous on the subject of Emily's beauty. One of them mentioned that the height and pose of her majestic figure and the cut of her profile suggested the Venus of Milo. Jane Cupp cut out every paragraph she could find and, after reading them aloud to her young man, sent them in a large envelope to Chichester. Emily, faithfully endeavouring to adjust herself to the demands of her approaching magnificence, was several times alarmed by descriptions of her charms and accomplishments which she came upon accidentally in the course of her reading of various periodicals.
The Walderhurst wedding was dignified and distinguished, but not radiant. The emotions Emily passed through during the day—from her awakening almost at dawn to the silence of her bedroom at South Audley Street, until evening closed in upon her sitting in the private parlour of an hotel in the company of the Marquis of Walderhurst—it would require too many pages to describe.
Her first realisation of the day brought with it the physical consciousness that her heart was thumping—steadily thumping, which is quite a different matter from the ordinary beating—at the realisation of what had come at last. An event which a year ago the wildest dream could not have depicted for her was to-day an actual fact; a fortune such as she would have thought of with awe if it had befallen another woman, had befallen her unpretending self. She passed her hand over her forehead and gasped as she thought of it.
"I hope I shall be able to get accustomed to it and not be a—a disappointment," she said. "Oh!" with a great rising wave of a blush, "how good of him! How can I ever—"
She lived through the events of the day in a sort of dream within a dream. When Jane Cupp brought her tea, she found herself involuntarily making a mental effort to try to look as if she was really awake. Jane, who was an emotional creature, was inwardly so shaken by her feelings that she herself had stood outside the door a few moments biting her lips to keep them from trembling, before she dared entirely trust herself to come in. Her hand was far from steady as she set down the tray.
"Good morning, Jane," Emily said, by way of trying the sound of her voice.
"Good morning, miss," Jane answered. "It's a beautiful morning, miss. I hope—you are very well?"
And then the day had begun.
Afterwards it marched on with solemn thrill and stately movement through hours of wondrous preparation for an imposing function, through the splendid gravity of the function itself, accompanied by brilliant crowds collected and looking on in a fashionable church, and motley crowds collected to look on outside the edifice, the latter pushing and jostling each other and commenting in more or less respectful if excited undertones, but throughout devouring with awe-struck or envious eyes. Great people whom Emily had only known through the frequent mention of their names in newspapers or through their relationship or intimacy with her patrons, came to congratulate her in her role of bride. She seemed to be for hours the centre of a surging, changing crowd, and her one thought was to bear herself with an outward semblance of composure. No one but herself could know that she was saying internally over and over again, to steady herself, making it all seem real, "I am being married. This is my wedding. I am Emily Fox-Seton being married to the Marquis of Walderhurst. For his sake I must not look stupid or excited. I am not in a dream."
How often she said this after the ceremony was over and they returned to South Audley Street, for the wedding breakfast could scarcely be computed. When Lord Walderhurst helped her from the carriage and she stepped on to the strip of red carpet and saw the crowd on each side of it and the coachman and footmen with their big white wedding favours and the line of other equipages coming up, her head whirled.
"That's the Marchioness," a young woman with a bandbox exclaimed, nudging her companion. "That's 'er! Looks a bit pale, doesn't she?"
"But, oh Gawd! look at them di-monds an' pearls—jess look at 'em!" cried the other. "Wish it was me."
The breakfast seemed splendid and glittering and long; people seemed splendid and glittering and far off; and by the time Emily went to change her bridal magnificence for her travelling costume she had borne as much strain as she was equal to. She was devoutly grateful for the relief of finding herself alone in her bedroom with Jane Cupp.
"Jane," she said, "you know exactly how many minutes I can dress in and just when I must get into the carriage. Can you give me five minutes to lie down quite flat and dab my forehead with eau de cologne? Five minutes, Jane. But be quite sure."
"Yes, miss—I do beg pardon—my lady. You can have five—safe."
She took no more,—Jane went into the dressing-room and stood near its door, holding the watch in her hand,—but even five minutes did her good.
She felt less delirious when she descended the stairs and passed through the crowds again on Lord Walderhurst's arm. She seemed to walk through a garden in resplendent bloom. Then there were the red carpet once more, and the street people, and the crowd of carriages and liveries, and big, white favours.
Inside the carriage, and moving away to the echo of the street people's cheer, she tried to turn and look at Lord Walderhurst with an unalarmed, if faint, smile.
"Well," he said, with the originality which marked him, "it is really over!"
"Yes," Emily agreed with him. "And I never can forget Lady Maria's goodness."
Walderhurst gazed at her with a dawning inquiry in his mind. He himself did not know what the inquiry was. But it was something a trifle stimulating. It had something to do with the way in which she had carried herself throughout the whole thing. Really few women could have done it as well. The pale violet of her travelling costume which was touched with sable was becoming to her fine, straight figure. And at the moment her eyes rested on his with the suggestion of trustful appeal. Despite the inelasticity of his mind, he vaguely realised his bridegroom honours.
"I can begin now," he said with stiff lightness, if such a paradox can be, "to address you as the man in Esmond addressed his wife. I can call you 'my lady.'"
"Oh!" she said, still trying to smile, but quivering.
"You look very nice," he said. "Upon my word you do."
And kissed her trembling honest mouth almost as if he had been a man—not quite—but almost.
They began the new life at Palstrey Manor, which was ancient and most beautiful. Nothing Walderhurst owned was as perfect an example of olden time beauty, and as wonderful for that reason. Emily almost wept before the loveliness of it, though it would not have been possible for her to explain or particularise the grounds for her emotion. She knew nothing whatever of the venerable wonders of the architecture. To her the place looked like an immense, low-built, rambling fairy palace—the palace of some sleeping beauty during whose hundred years of slumber rich dark-green creepers had climbed and overgrown its walls and towers, enfolding and festooning them with leaves and tendrils and actual branches. The huge park held an enchanted forest of trees; the long avenue of giant limes, their writhen limbs arching and interlocking, their writhen roots deep in velvet moss, was an approach suited to a fairy story.
* * * * *
During her first month at Palstrey Emily went about still in her dream. It became more a dream every day. The old house was part of it, the endless rooms, the wonderful corridors, the gardens with their revelations of winding walks, labyrinths of evergreens, and grass paths leading into beautiful unexpected places, where one suddenly came upon deep, clear pools where water plants grew and slow carp had dreamed centuries away. The gardens caused Emily to disbelieve in the existence of Mortimer Street, but the house at times caused her to disbelieve in herself. The picture gallery especially had this effect upon her. The men and women, once as alive as her everyday self, now gazing down at her from their picture frames sometimes made her heart beat as if she stood in the presence of things eerie. Their strange, rich, ugly, or beautiful garments, their stolid or fervid, ugly or beautiful, faces, seemed to demand something of her; at least she had just enough imagination to feel somewhat as if they did. Walderhurst was very kind to her, but she was afraid she might bore him by the exceeding ignorance of her questions about people whom he had known from his childhood as his own kith and kin. It was not unlikely that one might have become so familiar with a man in armour or a woman in a farthingale that questions connected with them might seem silly. Persons whose ancestors had always gazed intimately at them from walls might not unnaturally forget that there were other people to whom they might wear only the far-away aspect of numbers in catalogues of the Academy, or exhibitions of that order.
There was a very interesting catalogue of the Palstrey pictures, and Emily found and studied it with deep interest. She cherished a touching secret desire to know what might be discoverable concerning the women who had been Marchionesses of Walderhurst before. None of them but herself, she gathered, had come to their husbands from bed-sitting rooms in obscure streets. There had been noble Hyrsts in the reign of Henry I., and the period since then elapsed had afforded time for numerous bridals. Lady Walderhurst was overcome at moments by her reflections upon what lay behind and before her, but not being a complex person or of fervid imagination, she was spared by nature the fevers of complex emotions.
In fact, after a few weeks had passed she came out of her dream and found her happiness enduring and endurable. Each day's awakening was a delight to her, and would probably be so to the end of her existence, absolutely because she was so sane and uncomplex a creature. To be deftly assisted in her dressing by Jane Cupp, and to know that each morning she might be fittingly and becomingly attired without anxiety as to where her next gown was to come from, was a lovely thing. To enjoy the silent, perfect workings of the great household, to drive herself or be driven, to walk and read, to loiter through walled gardens and hothouses at will,—such things to a healthy woman with an unobscured power of enjoyment were luxuries which could not pall.
Walderhust found her an actual addition to his comfort. She was never in the way. She seemed to have discovered the trick of coming and going undisturbingly. She was docile and affectionate, but not in the least sentimental. He had known men whose first years of marriage, not to speak of the first months, had been rendered unbearable by the fact that their wives were constantly demanding or expecting the expression of sentiments which unsentimental males had not at their fingers' ends. So the men had been annoyed or bored, and the women had been dissatisfied. Emily demanded nothing of the sort, and was certainly not dissatisfied. She looked very handsome and happy. Her looks positively improved, and when people began to call and she to pay visits, she was very much liked. He had certainly been quite right in deciding to ask her to marry him. If she had a son, he should congratulate himself greatly. The more he saw of Osborn the more he disliked him. It appeared that there was a prospect of a child there.
This last was indeed true, and Emily had been much touched and awakened to sympathy. It had gradually become revealed to her that the Osborns were poorer than they could decently admit. Emily had discovered that they could not even remain in the lodgings in Duke Street, though she did not know the reason, which was that Captain Osborn had been obliged to pay certain moneys to stave off a scandal not entirely unconnected with the young woman his arm had encircled the day Walderhurst had seen him on the top of the bus. He was very well aware that if he was to obtain anything from Lord Walderhurst, there were several things which must be kept entirely dark. Even a scandal belonging to the past could be made as unpleasant as an error of to-day. Also the young woman of the bead cape knew how to manage him. But they must remove to cheaper lodgings, and the rooms in Duke Street had been far from desirable.
Lady Walderhurst came in one morning from a walk, with a fresh colour and bright eyes, and before taking off her hat went to her husband's study.
"May I come in?"
Walderhurst had been writing some uninteresting letters and looked up with a smile.
"Certainly," he answered. "What a colour you have! Exercise agrees with you. You ought to ride."
"That was what Captain Osborn said. If you don't mind, I should like to ask you something."
"I don't mind. You are a reasonable woman, Emily. One's safe with you."
"It is something connected with the Osborns."
"Indeed!" chilling slightly. "I don't care about them, you know."
"You don't dislike her, do you?"
"No-o, not exactly."
"She's—the truth is, she is not at all well," with a trifle of hesitance; "she ought to be better taken care of than she is in lodgings, and they are obliged to take very cheap ones."
"If he had been a more respectable fellow his circumstances would have been different," rather stiffly.
Emily felt alarmed. She had not dreamed of the temerity of any remark suggestive of criticism.
"Yes," hastily, "of course. I am sure you know best; but—I thought perhaps—"
Walderhurst liked her timidity. To see a fine, tall, upstanding creature colour in that way was not disagreeable when one realised that she coloured because she feared she might offend one.
"What did you think 'perhaps'?" was his lenient response.
Her colour grew warmer, but this time from a sense of relief, because he was evidently not as displeased as he might have been.
"I took a long walk this morning," she said. "I went through the High Wood and came out by the place called The Kennel Farm. I was thinking a good deal of poor Mrs. Osborn because I had heard from her this morning, and she seemed so unhappy. I was looking at her letter again when I turned into the lane leading to the house. Then I saw that no one was living there, and I could not help going in to look—it is such a delightful old building, with its queer windows and chimneys, and the ivy which seems never to have been clipped. The house is so roomy and comfortable—I peeped in at windows and saw big fireplaces with benches inside them. It seems a pity that such a place should not be lived in and—well, I thought how kind it would be of you to lend it to the Osborns while they are in England."
"It would indeed be kind," remarked his lordship, without fervour.
Her momentary excitement led Emily to take the liberty of putting out her hand to touch his. She always felt as if connubial familiarities were rather a liberty; at least she had not, so far, been able to overcome a feeling rather of that order. And this was another thing Walderhurst by no means disliked. He himself was not aware that he was a man with a good deal of internal vanity which enjoyed soothing food. In fact, he had not a sufficiently large brain to know very much about himself or to be able to analyse his reasons for liking or disliking people or things. He thought he knew his reasons for his likes and dislikes, but he was frequently very far away from the clear, impersonal truth about them. Only the brilliant logic and sensitiveness of genius really approaches knowledge of itself, and as a result it is usually extremely unhappy. Walderhurst was never unhappy. He was sometimes dissatisfied or annoyed, but that was as far as his emotions went.
Being pleased by the warm touch of Emily's hand, he patted her wrist and looked agreeably marital.
"The place was built originally for a family huntsman, and the pack was kept there. That is why it is called The Kennel Farm. When the last lease fell out it remained unlet because I don't care for an ordinary tenant. It's the kind of house that is becoming rare, and the bumpkin farmer and his family don't value antiquities."
"If it were furnished as it could be furnished," said Emily, "it would be beautiful. One can get old things in London if one can afford them. I've seen them when I've been shopping. They are not cheap, but you can get them if you really search."
"Would you like to furnish it?" Walderhurst inquired. The consciousness that he could, if he chose, do the utmost thing of its kind in this way, at the moment assumed a certain proportion of interest to him under the stimulation of the wonder and delight which leaped into Emily's eyes as the possibility confronted her. Having been born without imagination, his wealth had not done for him anything out of the ordinary every-day order.