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Sir Tom
by Mrs. Oliphant
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It did not make Sir Tom any the less kind, and full of tender impulses, that he was wounding his wife in the profoundest sensibilities of her heart. In this point the greater does not include the lesser. He was cruel in the more important matter, without intending it indeed, and from what he considered a fatality, a painful combination of circumstances out of which he could not escape; but in the lesser particulars he was as kind as ever. He could not bear to see her suffering. The quiver in her lip, the failure of the colour in her cheeks affected him so that he could scarcely contain himself.

"My dear love," he cried, "my little Lucy! you are not afraid of what I am going to say to you?" These words came to his lips naturally, by the affectionate impulse of his kind nature. But when he had said them, an impulse, which was perhaps more crafty than loving, followed. Quick as thought he changed his intention, his purpose altogether. He could not resist the appeal of Lucy's face; but he slipped instinctively from the more serious question that lay between them, and resolved to sacrifice the other, which was indeed very important, yet could be treated in an easier way and without involving anything more painful. Sir Tom was at an age when money has a great value, and the mere sense of possession is pleasant; and there was a principle involved which he had determined a few weeks ago not to relinquish. But the position in which he found himself placed was one out of which some way of escape had to be invented at once. "Lucy," he said, "you are frightened; you think I am going to cross you in the matter that lies so near your heart. But you mistake me, my dear. I think I ought to be your chief adviser in that as in all matters. It is my duty: but I hope you never thought that I would exercise any force upon you to put a stop to—what you thought right."

Lucy had overcome herself, though with a painful effort. She followed with a quivering humility what he was saying. She acknowledged to herself that this was, indeed, the great thing in her life, and that it was only her childishness and foolishness which had made her place other matters in the chief place. Most likely, she said to herself, Tom was not aware of anything that required explanation; he would never think it possible that she could be so ungracious and unkind as to grudge his guests their place in his house. She gathered herself up hastily to meet him when he entered upon the great question which was far more important, which was indeed the only question between them. "I know," she said, "that you were always kind, Tom. If I did not ask you first it was because——"

"We need not enter upon that, my dear. I was angry, and went too far. At the same time, Lucy, it is a mad affair altogether. Your father himself, had he realised the difficulty of carrying it out, would have seen this. I only say so to let you know my opinion is unchanged. And you know your trustees are of the same mind. But if you think this is your duty, as I am sure you do——"

It seemed to Lucy that her duty had sailed far away from her on some sea of strange distance and dullness where she could scarcely keep it in sight. Her own very voice seemed strange and dull to her and far away, as she said almost mechanically: "I do think it is my duty—to my father——"

"I am aware that you think so, my love. As you get older you will, perhaps, see as I do—that to carry out the spirit of your father's will would be better than to follow so closely the letter of it. But you are still very young, and Jock is younger; and, fortunately, you can afford to indulge a freak of this sort. I shall let Mr. Rushton know that I withdraw all opposition. And now, give me a kiss, and let us forget that there ever was any controversy between us—it never went further than a controversy, did it, darling?" Sir Tom said.

Lucy could not speak for the moment. She looked up into his face with her eyes all liquid with tears, and a great confusion in her soul. Was this all? as he kissed her, and smiled, leaning over her in the old kind way, with a tenderness that was half-fatherly and indulgent to her weakness, she did not seem at all sure what it was that had moved like a ghost between him and her; was it in reality only this—this and no more? She almost thought so as she looked up into his kind face. Only this! How glad it would have made her three weeks ago to have his sanction for the thing she was so reluctant to attempt, which it was so much her duty to do, which Jock urged with so much pertinacity, and which her father from his grave enjoined. If it affected her but dully now, whose was the fault? Not Tom's, who was so generously ready to yield to her, although he disapproved. When he retired behind his newspaper once more with a kind smile at her, to end the matter, Lucy sat quite still in a curious stunned confusion trying to account for it all to herself. There could be no doubt, she thought, that it was she who was in the wrong. She it was who had created the embarrassment altogether. He was not even aware of any other cause. It had never occurred to his greater mind that she could be so petty as to fret under the interruption which their visitors had made in her life. He had thought that the other matter was the cause of her dullness and silence, and generously had put an end to it, not by requiring any sacrifice from her, but by making one in his own person. She sat silent trying to realise all this, but unable to get quite free from the confusion and dimness that had invaded her soul.



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE ORACLE SPEAKS.

Lucy went up to the nursery when breakfast was over. It was her habit to go and take counsel of little Tom when her heart was troubled or heavy. He was now eighteen months old, an age at which you will say the judicial faculties are small; but a young mother has superstitions, and there are many dilemmas in life in which it will do a woman, though the male critic may laugh, great good to go and confide it all to her baby, and hold that little bundle of white against her heart to conquer the pain of it. When little Tom was lively and well, when he put his arms about her neck and dabbed his velvety mouth against her cheek, Lucy felt that she was approved of and her heart rose. When he was cross and cried and pushed her away from him, as sometimes happened, she ceased to be sure of anything, and felt dissatisfied with herself and all the world. It was with a great longing to consult this baby oracle and see what heaven might have to say to her through his means, that she ran upstairs, neglecting even Mrs. Freshwater, who advanced ceremoniously from her own retirement with her bill of fare in her hand, as Lucy darted past. "Wait a little and I will come to you," she cried. What was the dinner in comparison? She flew up to the nursery only to find it vacant. The morning was clingy and damp, no weather for the delicate child to go out, and Lucy was not alarmed but knew well enough where to find him. The long picture gallery which ran along the front of the house was his usual promenade on such occasions, and there she betook herself hurriedly. There could not be much doubt as to little Tom's whereabouts. Shrieks of baby fun were audible whenever she came within hearing, and the sound of a flying foot careering from end to end of the long space, which certainly was not the foot of Tom's nurse, whose voice could be heard in cries of caution, "Oh, take care, Miss! Oh, for goodness sake—oh, what will my lady say to me if you should trip with him!" Lucy paused suddenly, checked by the sound of this commotion. Once before she had surprised a scene of the kind, and she knew what it meant. She stopped short, and stood still to get possession of herself. It was a circumstance which pulled her up sharply and changed the current of her mind. Her first feeling was one of disappointment and almost irritation. Could she not even have the baby to herself, she murmured? But there was in reality so little of the petty in Lucy's disposition that this was but a momentary sentiment. It changed, however, the manner of her entrance. She came in quietly, not rushing to seize her boy as she had intended, but still with her superstition strong in her heart, and as determined to resort to the Sortes Tomianae as ever. The sight she saw was one to make a picture of. Skimming along the long gallery with that free light step which scarcely seemed to touch the ground was Bice, a long stream of hair flying behind her, the child seated on her shoulder, supported by one raised arm, while the other held aloft the end of a red scarf which she had twisted round him. Little Tom had one hand twisted in her hair, and with his small feet beating upon her breast, and his little chest expanded with cries of delight, encouraged his steed in her wild career. The dark old pictures, some full-length Randolphs of an elder age, good for little but a background, threw up this airy group with all the perfection of contrast. They flew by as Lucy came in, so joyous, so careless, so delightful in pose and movement, that she could not utter the little cry of alarm that came to her lips. Bice had never in her life looked so near that beauty which she considered as so serious a necessity. She was flushed with the movement, her fine light figure, too light and slight as yet for the full perfection of feminine form, was the very impersonation of youth. She flew, she did not glide nor run—her elastic foot spurned the floor. She was like a runner in a Greek game. Lucy stood breathless between admiration and pleasure and alarm, as the animated figure turned and came fast towards her in its airy career. Little Tom perceived his mother as they came up. He was still more daring than his bearer. He detached himself suddenly from Bice's shoulder, and with a shout of pleasure threw himself upon Lucy. The oracle had spoken. It almost brought her to her knees indeed, descending upon her like a little thunderbolt, catching her round the throat and tearing off with a hurried clutch the lace upon her dress; while the flying steed, suddenly arrested, came to a dead stop in front of her, panting, blushing, and disconcerted. "There was no fear," she cried, with involuntary self-defence, "I held him fast." Bice forgot even in the surprise how wildly she stood with her hair floating, and the scarf in her hand still knotted round the baby's waist.

"There was no danger, my lady. I was watching every step; and it do Master Tom a world of good," cried the nurse, coming to the rescue.

"Why should you think I am afraid?" said Lucy. "Don't you know I am most grateful to you for being so kind to him? and it was pretty to see you. You looked so bright and strong, and my boy so happy."

"Miss is just our salvation, my lady," said the nurse; "these wet days when we can't get out, I don't know what I should do without her. Master Tom, bless him, is always cross when he don't get no air; but once set on Miss' shoulder he crows till it do your heart good to hear him," the woman cried.

Bice stood with the colour still in her face, her head thrown back a little, and her breath coming less quickly. She laughed at this applause. "I like it," she said. "I like him; he is my only little companion. He is pleased when he sees me."

This went to Lucy's heart. "And so are we all," she said; "but you will not let me see you. I am often alone, too. If you will come and—and give me your company——"

Bice gave her a wistful look; then shook her head.

"I know you do not wish for us here; and why should you?" she said.

"My dear!" cried Lucy in alarm, with a glance at the woman who stood by, all ears. And now it was that little Tom at eighteen months showed that precocious judgment in which his mother had an instinctive belief. He had satisfied himself with the destruction of Lucy's lace, and with printing the impression of his mouth all over her cheeks. That little wet wide open mouth was delicious to Lucy. No trouble had befallen her yet that could not be wiped out by its touch. But now a new distraction was necessary for the little hero; and his eye caught the red sash which still was round his waist. He transferred all his thoughts to it with an instant revolution of idea, and holding on by it like a little sailor on a rope, drew Bice close till he could succeed in the arduous task, not unattended by danger, of flinging himself from one to another. This game enchanted Master Tom. Had he been a little older it would have been changed into that daring faltering hop from one eminence, say a footstool, to another, which flutters the baby soul. He was too insecure in possession of those aimless little legs to venture on any such daring feat now; but, with a valour more desperate still, he flung himself across the gulf from Lucy's arms to those of Bice and back again, with cries of delight. These cries, it must be allowed, were not very articulate, but they soon became urgent, with a demand which the little tyrant insisted upon with increasing vehemence.

"Oh, my lady," cried the nurse, "it is as plain as if he said it, and he is saying of it, the pet, as pretty!—— He wants you to kiss Miss, he do. Ain't that it, my own? Nursey knows his little talk. Ain't that it, my darling lamb?"

There was a momentary pause in the strange little group linked together by the baby's clutches. The young mother and the girl with their heads so near each other, looked in each other's faces. In Lucy's there was a kind of awe, in Bice's a sort of wondering wistfulness mingled with incipient defiance. They were not born to be each other's friends. They were different in everything; they were even on different sides in this house—the one an intruder, belonging to the party which was destroying the other's domestic peace. It would be vain to say that there was not a little reluctance in Lucy's soul as she gazed at the younger girl, come from she knew not where, established under her roof she knew not how. She hesitated for one moment, then she bent forward almost with solemnity and kissed Bice's cheek. She seemed to communicate her own agitation to the girl who stood straight up with her head a little back, half eager, half defiant. When Bice felt the touch of Lucy's lips, however, she melted in a moment. Her slight figure swayed, she took Lucy's disengaged hand with her own, and, stooping over it, kissed it with lips that quivered. There was not a word said between them; but a secret compact was thus made under little Tom's inspiration. The little oracle clambered up upon his mother afterwards, and laid down his head upon her shoulder and dropped off to sleep with that entire confiding and abandonment of the whole little being which is one of the deepest charms of childhood. Who is there with any semblance of a heart in his, much more her, bosom, who is not touched in the tenderest part when a child goes to sleep in his arms? The appeal conveyed in the act is one which scarcely a savage could withstand. The three women gathered round to see this common spectacle, so universal, so touching. Bice, who was almost too young for the maternal sentiment, and who was a stern young Stoic by nature, never shedding a tear, could not tell how it was that her eyes moistened. But Lucy's filled with an emotion which was sharp and sore with alarm. "Oh, nurse, don't call my boy a little angel!" she said, with a sentiment which a woman will understand.

This baby scene upstairs was balanced by one of a very different character below. Sir Tom had gone into his own room a little disturbed and out of sorts. Circumstances had been hard upon him, he felt. The Contessa's letter offering her visit had been a jest to him. He was one of those who thought the best of the Contessa. He had seen a good deal of her one time and another in his life, and she held the clue to one or two matters which it would not have pleased him, at this mature period of his existence, to have published abroad. She was an adventuress, he knew, and her friends were not among the best of humanity. She had led a life which, without being positively evil, had shut her out from the sympathies of many good people. When a woman has to solve the problem how to obtain all the luxuries and amusements of life without money, it is to be expected that her attempts to do so should lead her into risky places, where the footing was far from sure. But she had never, as Lady Randolph acknowledged, gone so far as that society should refuse to receive her, and Sir Tom was always an indulgent critic. If she were coming to England, as she gave him to understand, he saw no reason why she should not come to the Hall. For himself, it would be rather amusing than otherwise, and Lucy would take no harm—even if there was harm in the Forno-Populo (which he did not believe), his wife was far too innocent even to suspect it. She would not know evil if she saw it, he said to himself proudly; and then there was no chance that the Contessa, who loved merriment and gaiety, could long be content with anything so humdrum as his quiet life in the country. Thus it will be seen that Sir Tom had got himself innocently enough into this imbroglio. He had meant no particular harm. He had meant to be kind to a poor woman, who after all needed kindness much; and if the comic character of the situation touched his sense of humour, and he was not unwilling in his own person to get a little amusement out of it, who could blame him? This was the worst that Sir Tom meant. To amuse himself partly by the sight of the conventional beauty and woman of the world in the midst of circumstances so incongruous, and partly by the fluttering of the dovecotes which the appearance of such an adventuress would cause. He liked her conversation too, and to hear all about the more noisy company, full of talk and diversion in which he had wasted so much of his youth. But there were two or three things which Sir Tom did not take into his calculations. The first was the sort of fascination which that talk, and all the associations of the old world, and the charms of the professional sorceress, would exercise upon himself after his settling down as the head of a family and pillar of the State. He had not thought how much amused he would be, how the contrast even would tickle his fancy and affect (for the moment) his life. He laughed within himself at the transparent way in which his old friend bade for his sympathy and society. She was the same as ever, living upon admiration, upon compliments whether fictitious or not, and demanding a show of devotion, somebody always at her feet. She thought, no doubt, he said to himself, that she had got him at her feet, and he laughed to himself when he was alone at the thought. But, nevertheless, it did amuse him to talk to the Contessa, and before long, what with skilful reminders of the past, what with hints and reference to a knowledge which he would not like extended to the world, he had begun by degrees to find himself in a confidential position with her. "We know each other's secrets," she would say to him with a meaning look. He was caught in her snare. On the other hand an indefinite visit prolonged and endless had never come within his calculation. He did not know how to put an end to the situation—perhaps as it was an amusement for his evenings to see the siren spread her snares, and even to be more or less caught in them, he did not sincerely wish to put an end to it as yet. He was caught in them more or less, but never so much as to be unaware of the skill with which the snares were laid, which would have amused him whatever had been the seriousness of the attendant circumstances. He did not, however, allow that he had no desire to make an end of these circumstances, but only said to himself, with a shrug of his shoulders, how could he do it? He could not send his old friend away. He could not but be civil and attentive to her so long as she was under his roof. It distressed him that Lucy should feel it, as this morning's experience proved her to do, but how could he help it? He made that other sacrifice to Lucy by way of reconciling her to the inevitable, but he could do no more. When you invite a friend to be your guest, he said to himself, you must be more or less at the mercy of that friend. If he (or she) stays too long, what can you do? Sir Tom was not the sort of man to be reduced to helplessness by such a difficulty. Yet this was what he said to himself.

It vexed him, however, that Lucy should feel it so much. He could not throw off this uneasy feeling. He had stopped her mouth as one might stop a child's mouth with a sugar plum; but he could not escape from the consciousness that Lucy felt her domain invaded, and that her feeling was just. He had thrown himself into the great chair, and was pondering not what to do, but the impossibility of doing anything, when Williams, his confidential man, who knew all about the Contessa almost as well as he did, suddenly appeared before him. Williams had been all over the world with Sir Tom before he settled down as his butler at the Hall. He was, therefore, not one who could be dismissed summarily if he interfered in any matter out of his sphere. He appeared on the other side of Sir Tom's writing-table with a face as long as his arm, the face with which Sir Tom was so well acquainted—the same face with which he had a hundred times announced the failure of supplies, the delay of carriages, the general hopelessness of the situation. There was tragedy in it of the most solemn kind, but there was a certain enjoyment too.

"What is the matter?" said Sir Tom; and then he jumped to his feet. "Something is wrong with the baby," he cried.

"No, Sir Thomas; Mr. Randolph is pretty well, thank you, Sir Thomas. It is about something else that I made so bold. There is Antonio, sir, in the servants' hall; Madame the Countess' man."

"Oh, the Countess," cried Sir Tom, and he seated himself again; then said, with the confidence of a man to the follower who has been his companion in many straits, "You gave me a fright, Williams. I thought that little shaver—— But what's the matter with Antonio? Can't you keep a fellow like that in order without bothering me?"

"Sir Thomas," said Williams, solemnly, "I am not one as troubles my master when things are straightforward. But them foreigners, you never know when you have 'em. And an idle man about an establishment, that is, so to speak, under nobody, and for ever a-kicking of his heels, and following the women servants about, and not a blessed hand's turn to do"—a tone of personal offence came into Williams' complaint; "there is a deal to do in this house," he added, "and neither me nor any of the men haven't got a moment to spare. Why, there's your hunting things, Sir Thomas, is just a man's work. And to see that fellow loafing, and a-hanging on about the women—I don't wonder, Sir Thomas, that it's more than any man can stand," said Williams, lighting up. He was a married man himself, with a very respectable family in the village, but he was not too old to be able to understand the feelings of John and Charles, whose hearts were lacerated by the success of the Italian fellow with his black eyes.

"Well, well, don't worry me," said Sir Tom, "take him by the collar and give him a shake. You're big enough." Then he laughed unfeelingly, which Williams did not expect. "Too big, eh, Will? Not so ready for a shindy as we used to be." This identification of himself with his factotum was mere irony, and Williams felt it; for Sir Tom, if perhaps less slim than in his young days, was still what Williams called a "fine figger of a man;" whereas the butler had widened much round the waist, and was apt to puff as he came upstairs, and no longer contemplated a shindy as a possibility at all.

"Sir Thomas," he said, with great gravity, "if I'm corpulent, which I don't deny, but never thought to have it made a reproach, it's neither over-feeding nor want of care, but constitootion, as derived from my parents, Sir Thomas. There is nothing," he added with a pensive superiority, "as is so gen'rally misunderstood." Then Williams drew himself up to still greater dignity, stimulated by Sir Tom's laugh. "If this fellow is to be long in the house, Sir Thomas, I won't answer for what may happen; for he's got the devil's own temper, like all of them, and carries a knife like all of them."

"What do you want of me, man? Say it out! Am I to represent to Madame di Forno-Populo that three great hulking fellows of you are afraid of her slim Neapolitan?" Sir Tom cried impatiently.

"Not afraid, Sir Thomas, of nothing, but of breaking the law," said Williams, quickly. Then he added in an insinuating tone: "But I tell them, ladies don't stop long in country visits, not at this time of the year. And a thing can be put up with for short that any man'd kick at for long. Madame the Countess will be moving on to pay her other visits, Sir Thomas, if I might make so bold? She is a lady as likes variety; leastways she was so in the old times."

Sir Thomas stared at the bold questioner, who thus went to the heart of the matter. Then he burst into a hearty laugh. "If you knew so much about Madame the Countess," he cried, "my good fellow, what need have you to come and consult me?"



CHAPTER XXV.

THE CONTESSA'S BOUDOIR.

The east rooms in which Madame di Forno-Populo had been placed on her arrival at the Hall were handsome and comfortable, though they were not the best in the house, and they were furnished as English rooms generally are, the bed forming the principal object in each chamber. The Contessa had looked around her in dismay when first ushered into the spacious room with its huge couch, and wardrobes, and its unmistakable destination as a sleeping-room merely: and it was only the addition of a dressing-room of tolerable proportions which had made her quarters so agreeable to her as they proved. The transformation of this room from a severe male dressing-room into the boudoir of a fanciful and luxurious woman, was a work of art of which neither the master nor the mistress of the house had the faintest conception. The Contessa was never at home; so that she was—having that regard for her own comfort which is one of the leading features in such a life as hers—everywhere at home, carrying about with her wherever she went the materials for creating an individual centre (a chez soi, which is something far more intimate and personal than a home), in which everything was arranged according to her fancy. Had Lucy, or even had Sir Tom, who knew more about such matters, penetrated into that sacred retirement, they would not have recognised it for a room in their own house. Out of one of the Contessa's boxes there came a paraphernalia of decoration such as would turn the head of the aesthetic furnisher of the present day. As she had been everywhere, and had "taste," when it was not so usual to have taste as it is now, she had "picked up" priceless articles, in the shape of tapestries, embroideries, silken tissues no longer made, delicate bits of Eastern carpet, soft falling drapery of curtains, such as artistically arranged in almost any room, impressed upon it the Contessa's individuality, and made something dainty and luxurious among the meanest surroundings. The Contessa's maid, from long practice, had become almost an artist in the arrangement of these properties, without which her mistress could not live; and on the evening of the first day of their arrival at the Hall, when Madame di Forno-Populo emerged from the darkness of the chamber in which she had rested all day after her journey, she stepped into a little paradise of subdued colour and harmonious effect. Antonio and Marietta were the authors of these wonders. They took down Mrs. Freshwater's curtains, which were of a solid character adapted to the locality, and replaced them by draperies that veiled the light tenderly and hung with studied grace. They took to pieces the small bed and made a divan covered with old brocade of the prosaic English mattress. They brought the finest of the furniture out of the bedchamber to add to the contents of this, and covered tables with Italian work, and veiled the bare wall with tapestry. This made such a magical change that the maids who penetrated by chance now and then into this little temple of the Graces could only stand aghast and gaze with open mouths; but no profane hand of theirs was ever permitted to touch those sacred things. There were even pictures on the wall, evolved out of the depths of that great coffer, which, more dear to the Contessa even than her wardrobe, went about with her everywhere—and precious pieces of porcelain: Madame di Forno-Populo, it need not be said, being quite above the mean and cheap decoration made with fans or unmeaning scraps of colour. The maids aforesaid, who obtained perilous and breathless glimpses from time to time of all these wonders, were at a loss to understand why so much trouble should be taken for a room that nobody but its inmate ever saw. The finer intelligence of the reader will no doubt set it down as something in the Contessa's favour that she could not live, even when in the strictest privacy, without her pretty things about her. To be sure it was not always so; in other regions, where other habits prevailed, this shrine so artistically prepared was open to worshippers; but the Contessa knew better than to make any such innovation here. She intended, indeed, nothing that was not entirely consistent with the strictest propriety. Her objects, no doubt, were her own interest and her own pleasure, which are more or less the objects of most people; but she intended no harm. She believed that she had a hold over Sir Tom which she could work for her advantage, but she did not mean to hurt Lucy. She thought that repose and a temporary absence from the usual scenes of her existence would be of use to her, and she thought also that a campaign in London under the warrant of the highest respectability would further her grand object. It amused her besides, perhaps, to flutter the susceptibilities of the innocent little ingenue whom Sir Tom had married; but she meant no harm. As for seizing upon Sir Tom in the evenings, and occupying all his attention, that was the most natural and simple of proceedings. She did this as another woman played bezique. Some entertainment was a necessity, and everybody had something. There were people who insisted upon whist—she insisted only upon "some one to talk to." What could be more natural? The Contessa's "some one" had to be a man and one who could pay with sense and spirit the homage to which she was accustomed. It was her only stipulation—and surely it must be an ungracious hostess indeed who could object to that.

She had just finished her breakfast on one of those gray mornings—seated before the fire in an easy-chair, which was covered with a shawl of soft but bright Indian colouring. She had her back to the light, but it was scarcely necessary even had there been any eyes to see her save those of Marietta, who naturally was familiar with her aspect at all times. Marietta made the Contessa's chocolate, as well as arranged and kept in order the Contessa's boudoir. To such a retainer nothing comes amiss. She would sit up till all hours, and perform marvels of waiting, of working, service of every kind. It never occurred to her that it "was not her place" to do anything that her mistress required. Antonio was her brother, which was insipid, but she generally managed to indemnify herself, one way or another, for the loss of this legitimate method of flirtation. She had not great wages, and she had a great deal of work, but Marietta felt her life amusing, and did not object to it. Here in England the excitement indeed flagged a little. Williams was stout and married, and the other men had ties of the heart with which, as has been seen, Antonio ruthlessly interfered. Marietta was not unwilling to give to Charles the footman, who was a handsome young fellow, the means of avenging himself, but as yet this expedient for a little amusement had not succeeded, and there had been a touch of peevishness in the tone with which she asked whether it was true that the Contessa intended remaining here. Madame di Forno-Populo was a woman who disliked the bondage of question and reply.

"You do not amuse yourself, Marietta mia?" said the Contessa. She spoke Italian with her servants, and she was always caressing, fond of tender appellatives. "Patience! the country even in England is very good for the complexion, and in London there is a great deal that is amusing. Wheel this table away and give me the other with my writing things. The cushion for my elbow. Thanks! You forget nothing. My Marietta, you will have a happy life."

"Do you think so, Signora Contessa?" said the girl, a little wistfully.

The Contessa smiled upon her and said "Cara!" with an air of tenderness that might have made any one happy. Then she addressed herself to her correspondence, while Marietta removed into the other room not only the tray but the table with the tray which her mistress had used. The Contessa did not like to know or see anything of the processes of readjustment and restoration. She glanced over her morning's letters again with now and then a smile of satisfaction, and addressed herself to the task of answering them with apparent pleasure. Indeed, her own letters amused her even more than the others had done. When she had finished her task she took up a silver whistle and blew into it a long melodious note. She made the most charming picture, leaning back in her chair, in a white cashmere dressing-gown covered with lace, and a little cap upon her dark locks. All the accessories of her toilette were exquisite, as well as the draperies about her that relieved and set off her whiteness. Her shoes were of white plush with a cockade of lace to correspond. Her sleeves, a little more loose than common, showed her beautiful arms through a mist of lace. She was not more carefully nor more elegantly dressed when she went downstairs in all her panoply of conquest. What a pity there was no one to see it! but the Contessa did not even think of this. In other circumstances, no doubt, there might have been spectators, but in the meantime she pleased herself, which after all is the first object with every well-constituted mind. She leaned back in her chair pleased with herself and her surroundings, in a gentle languor after her occupation, and conscious of a yellow novel within reach should her young companion be slow of appearing. But Bice she knew had the ears of a savage, and would hear her summons wherever she might be.

Bice at this moment was in a very different scene. She was in the large gallery, which was a little chill and dreary of a morning when all the windows were full of a gray, indefinable mist instead of light, and the ancestors were indistinguishable in their frames. She had just been going through her usual exercise with the baby, and had joined Lucy at the upper end of the gallery, that sport being over, and little Tom carried off to his mid-day sleep. There was a fire there, in the old-fashioned chimney, and Lucy had been sitting beside it watching the sport. Bice seated herself on a stool at a little distance. She had a half affection half dislike for this young woman, who was most near her in age of any one in the house. For one thing they were on different sides and representing different interests; and Bice had been trained to dislike the ordinary housekeeping woman. They had been brought together, indeed, in a moment of emotion by the instrumentality of the little delicate child, for whom Bice had conceived a compassionate affection. But the girl felt that they were antagonistic. She did not expect understanding or charity, but to be judged harshly and condemned summarily by this type of the conventional and proper. She believed that Lucy would be "shocked" by what she said, and horrified by her freedom and absence of prejudice. Yet, notwithstanding all this, there was an attraction in the candid eyes and countenance of little Lady Randolph which drew her in spite of herself. It was of her own will, though with a little appearance of reluctance, that she drew near, and soon plunged into talk—for to tell the truth, now that Jock was gone, Bice felt occasionally as if she must talk to the winds and trees, and could not at the hazard of her life keep silence any more. She could scarcely tell how it was that she was led into confessions of all kinds and descriptions of the details of her past life.

"We are a little alike," said Lucy. "I was not much older than you are when my father died, and afterwards we had no real home: to be sure, I had always Jock. Even when papa was living it was not very homelike, not what I should choose for a girl. I felt how different it was when I went to Lady Randolph, who thought of everything——"

Bice did not say anything for some time, and then she laughed. "The Contessa does not think of everything," she said.

Lucy looked at her with a question in her eyes. She wanted to ask if the Contessa was kind. But there was a certain domestic treachery involved in asking such a question.

"People are different," she said, with a certain soothing tone. "We are not made alike, you know; one person is good in one way and one in another." This abstract deliverance was not at all in Lucy's way. She returned to the particular point before them with relief. "England," she said, "must seem strange to you after your own country. I suppose it is much colder and less bright?"

"I have no country" said Bice; "everywhere is my country. We have a house in Rome, but we travel; we go from one place to another—to all the places that are what you call for pleasure. We go in the season. Sometimes it is for the waters, sometimes for the sports or the games—always festa wherever we go."

"And you like that? To be sure, you are so very young; otherwise I should think it was rather tiresome," Lucy said.

"No, it is not rather tiresome," said Bice, with a roll of her "r," "it is horrible! When we came here I did not know why it was, but I rejoiced myself that there was no band playing. I thought at first it was merely jour de relache: but when morning after morning came and no band, that was heavenly," she said, drawing a long breath.

"A band playing!" Lucy's laugh at the absurdity of the idea rang out with all the gaiety of a child. It amused her beyond measure, and Bice, always encouraged by approbation, went on.

"I expected it every morning. The house is so large. I thought the season, perhaps, was just beginning, and the people not arrived yet. Sometimes we go like that too soon. The rooms are cheaper. You can make your own arrangement."

Lucy looked at her very compassionately. "That is why you pass the mornings in your own room," she said, "were you never then in a country house before?"

"I do not know what is a country house. We have been in a great castle where there was the chase every day. No, that is not what la chasse means in England—to shoot I would say. And then in the evening the theatre, tableaux, or music. But to be quiet all day and all night too, that is what I have never seen. We have never known it. It is confusing. It makes you feel as if all went on without any division; all one day, all one night."

Bice laughed, but Lucy looked somewhat grave. "This is our natural life in England," she said; "we like to be quiet; though I have not thought we were very quiet, we have had people almost every night."

To this Bice made no reply. But at Lucy's next question she stared, not understanding what it meant. "You go everywhere with the Contessa," she said; "are you out?"

"Out!" Bice's eyes opened wide. She shook her head. "What is out?" she said.

"It is when a girl begins to go to parties—when she comes out of her home, out of the schoolroom, from being just a little girl——"

"Ah, I know! From the Convent," said Bice; "but I never was there."

"And have you always gone to parties—all your life?" asked Lucy, with wondering eyes.

Bice looked at her, wondering too. "We do not go to parties. What is a party?" she said. "We go to the rooms—oh yes, and to the great receptions sometimes, and at hotels. Parties? I don't know what that means. Of course, I go with the Contessa to the rooms, and to the tables d'hote. I give her my arm ever since I was tall enough. I carry her fan and her little things. When she sings I am always ready to play. They call me the shadow of the Contessa, for I always wear a black frock, and I never talk except when some one talks to me. It is most amusing how the English look at me. They say, Miss——? and then stop that I may tell them my name."

"And don't you?" said Lucy. "Do you know; though it is so strange to say it, I don't even know your name."

Bice laughed, but she made no attempt to supply the omission. "The Contessa thinks it is more piquant," she said. "But nothing is decided about me, till it is known how I turn out. If I am beautiful the Contessa will marry me well, and all will be right."

"And is that what you—wish?" said Lucy, in a tone of horror.

"Monsieur, your brother," said Bice, with a laugh, "says I am not pretty, even. He says it does not matter. How ignorant men are, and stupid! And then suddenly they are old, old, and sour. I do not know which is the worst. I do not like men."

"And yet you think of being married, which it is not nice to speak of," said Lucy, with disapproval.

"Not—nice? Why is that? Must not girls be married? and if so, why not think of it?" said Bice, gravely. There was not the ghost of a blush upon her cheek. "If you might live without being married that would understand itself; but otherwise——"

"Indeed," cried Lucy, "you can, indeed you can! In England, at least. To marry for a living, that is terrible."

"Ah!" cried Bice, with interest, drawing her chair nearer, "tell me how that is to be done."

There was the seriousness of a practical interest in the girl's manner. The question was very vital to her. There was no other way of existence possible so far as she knew; but if there was it was well worth taking into consideration.

Lucy felt the question embarrassing when it was put to her in this very decisive way. "Oh," she cried with an Englishwoman's usual monosyllabic appeal for help to heaven and earth: "there are now a great number of ways. There are so many things that girls can do; there are things open to them that never used to be—they can even be doctors when they are clever. There are many ways in which they can maintain themselves."

"By trades?" cried Bice, "by work?" She laughed. "We hear of that sometimes, and the doctors; everybody laughs; the men make jokes, and say they will have one when they are ill. If that is all, I do not think there is anything in it. I should not like to work even if I were a man, but a woman——! that gets no money, that is mal vu. If that is all! Work," she said, with a little oracular air, "takes up all your time, and the money that one can earn is so small. A girl avoids saying much to men who are like this. She knows how little they can have to offer her; and to work herself, why, it is impossible. What time would you have for anything?" cried the girl, with an impatient sense of the fatuity of the suggestion. Lucy was so much startled by this view of the subject that she made no reply.

"There is no question of working," said Bice with decision, "neither for women, neither for men. That is not in our world. But if I am only pretty, no more," she added, "what will become of me? It is not known. I shall follow the Contessa as before. I will be useful to her, and afterwards—— I prefer not to think of that. In the meantime I am young. I do not wish for anything. It is all amusing. I become weary of the band playing, that is true; but then sometimes it plays not badly, and there is something always to laugh at. Afterwards, if I marry, then I can do as I like," the girl said.

Lucy gave her another look of surprised awe, for it was really with that feeling that she regarded this strange little philosopher. But she did not feel herself able to pursue the subject with so enlightened a person. She said: "How very well you speak English. You have scarcely any accent, and the Contessa has none at all. I was afraid she would speak only French, and my French is so bad."

"I have always spoken English all my life. When the Contessa is angry she says I am English all over; and she—she is of no country—she is of all countries; we are what you call vagabonds," the girl cried, with a laugh. She said it so calmly, without the smallest shadow of shame or embarrassment, that Lucy could only gaze at her and could not find a word to say. Was it true? It was evident that Bice at least believed so, and was not at all afraid to say it. This conversation took place, as has been said, in the picture gallery, where Lady Randolph and her young visitor had first found a ground of amity. The rainy weather had continued, and this place had gradually become the scene of a great deal of intercourse between the young mistress of the house and her guest. They scarcely spoke to each other in the evening. But in the morning after the game of romps with little Tom, by which Bice indemnified herself for the absence of other society, Lucy would join the party, and after the child had been carried off for his mid-day sleep, the others left behind would have many a talk. To Lucy the revelations thus made were more wonderful than any romance—so wonderful that she did not half take in the strange life to which they gave a clue, nor realise how perfectly right was Bice's description of herself and her patroness. They were vagabonds, as she said; and like other vagabonds, they got a great deal of pleasure out of their life. But to Lucy it seemed the most terrible that mind could conceive. Without any home, without any retirement or quietness, with a noisy band always playing, and a series of migrations from one place to another—no work, no duties, nothing to represent home occupations but a piece of tapisserie. She put her hand very tenderly upon Bice's shoulder. There had been prejudices in her mind against this girl—but they all melted away in a womanly pity. "Oh," she said, "Cannot I help you in any way? Cannot Sir Tom—" But here she paused. "I am afraid," she said, "that all we could think of would be an occupation for you; something to do, which would be far, far better, surely, than this wandering life."

Bice looked at her for a moment with a doubtful air. "I don't know what you mean by occupation," she said.

And this, to Lucy's discomfiture, she found to be true. Bice had no idea of occupation. Young Lady Randolph, who was herself not much instructed, made a conscientious effort at least to persuade the strange girl to read and improve her mind. But she flew off on all such occasions with a laugh that was half mocking and half merry. "To what good?" she said, with that simplicity of cynicism which is a quality of extreme youth. "If I turn out beautiful, if I can marry whom I will, I will then get all I want without any trouble."

"But if not?" said Lucy, too careful of the other's feelings to express what her own opinions were on this subject.

"If not it will be still less good," said Bice, "for I shall never then do anything or be of any importance at all; and why should I tr-rouble?" she said, with that rattle of the r's which was about the only sign that English was not her native speech. This was very distressing to Lucy, who wished the girl well, and altogether Lady Randolph was anxious to interfere on Bice's behalf, and put her on a more comprehensible footing.

"It will be very strange when you go among other people in London," she said. "Madame di Forno-Populo does not know England. People will want to know who you are. And if you were to be married, since you will talk of that," Lucy added with a blush, "your name and who you are will have to be known. I will ask Sir Tom to talk to the Contessa—or," she said with reluctance, "I will speak to her if you think she will listen to me."

"I am called," said Bice, making a sweeping curtsey, and waving her hand as she darted suddenly away, leaving Lucy in much doubt and perplexity. Was she really called? Lucy heard nothing but a faint sound in the distance, as of a low whistle. Was this a signal between the strange pair who were not mother and daughter, nor mistress and servant, and yet were so linked together. It seemed to Lucy, with all her honest English prejudices, that to train so young a girl (and a girl so fond of children, and, therefore, a good girl at bottom, whatever her little faults might be) to such a wandering life, and to put her up as it were to auction for whoever would bid highest, was too terrible to be thought of. Better a thousand times to be a governess, or a sempstress, or any honest occupation by which she could earn her own bread. But then to Bice any such expedient was out of the question. Her incredulous look of wonder and mirth came back to Lucy with a sensation of dumb astonishment. She had no right feelings, no sense of the advantages of independence, no horror of being sold in marriage. Lady Randolph did not know what to think of a creature so utterly beyond all rules known to her. She was in such a condition of mind, unsettled, unhinged, feeling all her old landmarks breaking up, that a new interest was of great importance to her. It withdrew her thoughts from the Contessa, and the irksomeness of her sway, when she thought of Bice and what could be done for her. The strange thing was that the girl wanted nothing done for her. She was happy enough so far as could be seen. In her close confinement and subjection she was so fearless and free that she might have been thought the mistress of the situation. It was incomprehensible altogether. To state the circumstances from one side was to represent a victim of oppression. A poor girl stealing into a strange house and room in the shadow of her patroness; unnamed, unnoticed, made no more account of than the chair upon which she sat, held in a bondage which was almost slavery, and intended to be disposed of when the moment came without a reference to her own will and affections. Lucy felt her blood boil when she thought of all this, and determined that she would leave no expedient untried to free this white slave, this unfortunate thrall. But the other side was one which could not pass without consideration. The girl was careless and fearless and free, without an appearance of bondage about her. She scoffed at the thought of escaping, of somehow earning a personal independence—such was not for persons in her world, she said. She was not horrified by her own probable fate. She was not unhappy, but amused and interested in her life, and taking everything gaily, both the present quiet and the tumult of the many "seasons" in watering-places and other resorts of gaiety through which, young as she was, she had already gone. She had looked at Lucy with a smile, which was half cynical, and altogether decisive, when the anxious young matron had pointed out to her the way of escaping from such a sale and bargain. She did not want to escape. It seemed to her right and natural. She walked as lightly as a bird with this yoke upon her shoulders. Lucy had never met anything of this kind before, and it called forth a sort of panic in her mind. She did not know how to deal with it; but neither would she give it up. She had something else to think upon, when the Contessa, lying back on her sofa, almost going to sleep before Sir Tom entered, roused herself on the moment to occupy and amuse him all the evening. Instead of thinking of that and making herself unhappy, Lucy looked the other way at Bice reading a novel rapidly at the other side of the table, with all her young savage faculties about her to see and hear everything. How to get her delivered from her fate! To make her feel that deliverance was necessary, to save her before she should be sacrificed, and take her out of her present slavery. It was very strange that it never occurred to Lucy to free the girl by making her one of the recipients of the money she had to give away. She was very faithful to the letter of her father's will, and he had excluded foreigners. But even that was not the reason. The reason was that it did not occur to her. She thought of every way of relieving the too-contented thrall before her except that way. And in the meantime the time wore on, and everything fell into a routine, and not a word was said of the Contessa's plans. It was evident, for the time being at least, that she meant to make no change, but was fully minded, notwithstanding the dullness of the country, to remain where she was.



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE TWO STRANGERS.

The Contessa did not turn her head or change her position when Bice entered. She said, "You have not been out?" in a tone which was half question and half reproof.

"It rained, and there is nothing to breathe but the damp and fog."

"What does it matter? it is very good for the complexion, this damp; it softens the skin, it clears your colour. I see the improvement every day."

"Do you think so?" said Bice, going up to the long mirror which had been established in a sort of niche against the wall, and draped as everything was draped, with graceful hangings. She went up to it and put her face close, looking with some anxiety at the image which she found there. "I do not see it," she said. "You are too sanguine. I am no better than I was. I have been racing in the long gallery with the child; that makes one's blood flow."

"You do well," said the Contessa, nodding her head. "I cannot take any notice of the child; it is too much for me. They are odious at that age."

"Ah! they are delightful," said Bice. "They are so good to play with, they ask no questions, and are always pleased. I put him on my shoulder and we fly. I wish that I might have a gymnastique, trapeze, what-you-call it, in that long gallery; it would be heaven."

The Contessa uttered an easy exclamation meaning nothing, which translated into English would have been a terrible oath. "Do not do it, in the name of——they will be shocked, oh, beyond everything."

Bice, still standing close to the glass, examining critically her cheek which she pinched, answered with a laugh. "She is shocked already. When I say that you will marry me well, if I turn out as I ought, she is full of horror. She says it is not necessary in England that a young girl should marry, that there are other ways."

The Contessa started to her feet. "Giove!" she cried, "Baccho! that insipidity, that puritan. And I who have kept you from every soil. She speak of other ways. Oh, it is too much!"

Bice turned from the glass to address a look of surprise to her patroness. "Reassure yourself, Madama," she said. "What Milady said was this, that I might work if I willed, and escape from marrying—that to marry was not everything. It appears that in England one may make one's living as if (she says) one were a man."

"As if one were a man!"

"That is what Milady said," Bice answered demurely. "I think she would help me to work, to get something to do. But she did not tell me what it would be; perhaps to teach children; perhaps to work with the needle. I know that is how it happens in the Tauchnitz. You do not read them, and, therefore, do not know; but I am instructed in all these things. The girl who is poor like me is always beautiful; but she never thinks of it as we do. She becomes a governess, or perhaps an artiste; or even she will make dresses, or at the worst tapisserie."

"And this she says to you—to you!" cried the Contessa, with flaming eyes.

"Oh, restrain yourself, Madama! It does not matter at all. She makes the great marriage just the same. It is not Milady who says this, it is in the Tauchnitz. It is the English way. Supposing," said Bice, "that I remain as I am? Something will have to be done with me. Put me, then, as a governess in a great family where there is a son who is a great nobleman, or very rich; and you shall see it will so happen, though I never should be beautiful at all."

"My child," said the Contessa, "all this is foolishness. You will not remain as you are. I see a little difference every day. In a little time you will be dazzling; you will be ready to produce. A governess! It is more likely that you will be a duchess; and then you will laugh at everybody—except me," said Madame di Forno-Populo, tapping her breast with her delicate fingers, "except me."

Bice looked at her with a searching, inquiring look. "I want to ask something," she said. "If I should be beautiful, you were so before me—oh, more, more!—you we——are very lovely, Madama."

The Contessa smiled—who would not smile at such a speech? made with all the sincerity and simplicity possible—simplicity scarcely affected by the instinct which made Bice aware before she said it, that to use the past tense would spoil all. The Contessa smiled. "Well," she said, "and then?"

"They married you," said Bice with a curious tone between philosophical remark and interrogation.

"Ah!" the Contessa said. She leaned back in her chair making herself very comfortable, and shook her head. "I understand. You think then it has been a—failure in my case? Yes, they married me—that is to say there was no they at all. I married myself, which makes a great difference. Ah, yes, I follow your reasoning very well. This woman you say was beautiful, was all that I hope to be, and married; and what has come of it? It is quite true. I speak to you as I speak to no one, Bice mia. The fact was we deceived each other. The Conte expected to make his fortune by me, and I by him. I was English, you perceive, though no one now remembers this. Poor Forno-Populo! He was very handsome; people were pleased to say we were a magnificent pair—but we had not the sous: and though we were fond of each other, he proceeded in one direction to repair his fortunes, and I—on another to—enfin to do as best I could. But no such accident shall happen in your case. It is not only your interest I have in hand; it is my own. I want a home for my declining years."

She said this with a smile at the absurdity of the expression in her case, but Bice at sixteen naturally took the words au pied de la lettre, and did not see any absurdity in them. To her forty was very much the same as seventy. She nodded her head very seriously in answer to this, and turning round to the glass surveyed herself once more, but not with that complacency which is supposed to be excited in the feminine bosom by the spectacle. She was far too serious for vanity—the gaze she cast upon her own youthful countenance was severely critical, and she ended by a shrug of her shoulders, as she turned away. "The only thing is," she said, "that perhaps the young brother is right, and at present I am not even pretty at all."

The Contessa had a great deal to think of during this somewhat dull interval. The days flowed on so regular, and with so little in them, that it was scarcely possible to take note of the time at all. Lucy was always scrupulously polite and sometimes had little movements of anxious civility, as if to make up for impulses that were less kind. And Sir Tom, though he enjoyed the evenings as much as ever, and felt this manner of passing the heavy hours to retain a great attraction, was at other times a little constrained, and made furtive attempts to find out what the Contessa's intentions were for the future, which betrayed to a woman who had always her wits about her, a certain strain of the old bonds, and uneasiness in the indefinite length of her visit. She had many reasons, however, for determining to ignore this uneasiness, and to move on upon the steady tenor of her way as if unconscious of any reason for change, opposing a smiling insensibility to all suggestions as to the approaching removal of the household to London. It seemed to the Contessa that the association of her debutante with so innocent and wealthy a person as Lady Randolph would do away with all the prejudices which her own dubious antecedents might have provoked; while the very dubiousness of those antecedents had procured her friends in high quarters and acquaintances everywhere, so that both God and Mammon were, so to speak, enlisted in her favour, and Bice would have all the advantage, without any of the disadvantage, of her patroness' position, such as it was. This was so important that she was quite fortified against any pricks of offence, or intrusive consciousness that she was less welcome than might have been desired. And in the end of January, when the entire household at the Hall had begun to be anxious to make sure of her departure, an event occurred which strengthened all her resolutions in this respect, and made her more and more determined, whatever might be the result, to cling to her present associations and shelter.

This was the arrival of a visitor, very unexpected and unthought of, who came in one afternoon after the daily drive, often a somewhat dull performance, which Lucy, when there was nothing more amusing to do, dutifully took with her visitor. Madame di Forno-Populo was reclining in the easiest of chairs after the fatigue of this expedition. There had been a fresh wind, and notwithstanding a number of veils, her delicate complexion had been caught by the keen touch of the breeze. Her cheeks burned, she declared, as she held up a screen to shield her from the glow of the fire. The waning afternoon light from the tall window behind threw her beautiful face into shadow, but she was undeniably the most important person in the tranquil domestic scene, occupying the central position, so that it was not wonderful that the new comer suddenly ushered in, who was somewhat timid and confused, and advanced with the hesitating step of a stranger, should without any doubt have addressed himself to her as the mistress of the house. Lucy, little and young, who was moving about the room, with her light step and in the simple dress of a girl, appeared to Mr. Churchill, who had many daughters of his own, to be (no doubt) the eldest, the mother's companion. He came in with a slightly embarrassed air and manner. He was a man beyond middle age, gray haired, stooping, with the deprecating look of one who had been obliged in many ways to propitiate fate in the shape of superiors, officials, creditors, all sorts of alien forces. He came up with his hesitating step to the Contessa's chair. "Madam," he said, with a voice which had a tremor in it, "my name will partly tell you the confused feelings that I don't know how to express. I am come in a kind of bewilderment, scarcely able to believe that what I have heard is true——"

The Contessa gazed at him calmly from the depths of her chair. The figure before her, thin, gray haired, submissive, with the long clerical coat and deprecating air, did not promise very much, but she had no objection to hear what he had to say in the absolute dearth of subjects of interest. Lucy, to whom his name seemed vaguely familiar, without recalling any distinct idea, and who was a little startled by his immediate identification of the Contessa, came forward a little and put a chair for him, then withdrew again, supposing his business to be with her guest.

"I will not sit down," Mr. Churchill said, faltering a little, "till I have said what I have no words to say. If what I am told is actually true, and your ladyship means to confer upon me a gift so—so magnificent—oh! pardon me—I cannot help thinking still that there must be some extraordinary mistake."

"Oh!" Lucy began, hurriedly making a step forward again; but the Contessa, to her surprise, accepted the address with great calm.

"Be seated, sir," Madame di Forno-Populo said, with a dignity which Lucy was far from being able to emulate. "And pray do not hesitate to say anything which occurs to you. I am already interested——" She waved her hand to him with a sort of regal grace, without moving in any other way. She had the air of a princess not deeply concerned indeed, but benevolently willing to listen. It was evident that this reception of him confused the stranger more and more. He became more deeply embarrassed in sight of the perfect composure with which he was contemplated, and cleared his throat nervously three or four times.

"I think," he said, "that there must be some mistake. It was, indeed, impossible that it should be true; but as I heard it from two quarters at once—and it was said to be something in the nature of a trust—— But," he added, looking with a nervous intentness at the unresponsive face which he could with difficulty see, "it must be, since your ladyship does not recognise my name, a—mistake. I felt it was so from the beginning. A lady of whom I know nothing!—to bestow what is really a fortune—upon a man with no claim——"

He gave a little nervous laugh as he went on—the disappointment, after such a dazzling giddy hope, took away every vestige of colour from his face. "I will sit down for a moment, if you please," he said suddenly. "I—am a little tired with the walk—you will excuse me, Lady Randolph——"

"Oh, sir," cried Lucy, coming forward, "forgive me that I did not understand at once. It is no mistake at all. Oh, I am afraid you are very much fatigued, and I ought to have known at once when I heard your name."

He put out his hand in his deprecating way as she came close to the chair into which he had dropped. "It is nothing—nothing—my dear young lady: in a moment," he said.

"My Lucy," said the Contessa, "this is one of your secret bounties. I am quite interested. But do not interrupt; let us hear it out."

"It is something which is entirely between Mr. Churchill and me," cried Lucy. "Indeed, it would not interest you at all. But, pray, don't think it is a mistake," she said, earnestly turning to him. "It is quite right—it is a trust—there is nothing that need distress you. I am obliged to do it, and you need not mind. Indeed, you must not mind. I will tell you all about it afterwards."

"My dear young lady!" the clergyman said. He was relieved, but he was perplexed; he turned still towards the stately lady in the chair—"If it is really so, which I scarcely can allow myself to believe, how can I express my obligation? It seems more than any man ought to take; it is like a fairy tale. I have not ventured to mention it to my children, in case,—— Thanks are nothing," he cried, with excitement; "thanks are for a trifle, a little every-day service; but this is a fortune; it is something beyond belief. I have been a poor man all my life, struggling to do my best for my children; and now, what I have never been able to do with all my exertions, you—put me in a position to do in a moment. What am I to say to you? Words can't reach such a case. It is simply unspeakable—incredible; and why out of all the world you should have chosen me——"

He had to stop, his emotion getting the better of him. Bice had come into the room while this strange scene was going on, and she stood in the shadow, unseen by the speaker, listening too.

"Pray compose yourself," said the Contessa, in her most gracious voice. "Your expressions are full of feeling. To have a fortune given to one must be very delightful; it is an experience that does not often happen. Probably a little tea, as I hear tea is coming, will restore Mr. —— Pardon me, they are a little difficult to catch those, your English names."

The Contessa produced a curious idiom now and then like a work of art. It was almost the only sign of any uncertainty in her English; and while the poor clergyman, not quite understanding in his own emotion what she was saying, made an effort to gulp it down and bring himself to the level of ordinary life, the little stir of the bringing-in of tea suddenly converted everything into commonplace. He sat in a confusion that made all dull to him while this little stir went on. Then he rose up and said, faltering: "If your ladyship will permit me, I will go out into the air a little. I have got a sort of singing in my ears. I am—not very strong; I shall come back presently if you will allow me, and try to make my acknowledgments—in a less confused way."

Lucy followed him out of the room; he was not confused with her. "My dear young lady," he said, "my head is going round and round. Perhaps you will explain it all to me." He looked at her with a helpless, appealing air. Lucy had the appearance of a girl of his own. He was not afraid to ask her anything. But the great lady, his benefactress, who spoke so regally and responded so little to his emotion, alarmed him. Lucy, too, on her side, felt as if she had been a girl of his own. She put her arm within his, and led him to the library, where all was quiet, and where she felt by instinct—though she was not bookish—that the very backs of the books would console him and make him feel himself at home.

"It is very easy to explain," she said. "It is all through my brother Jock and your son, who is at school with him. And it is I who am Lady Randolph," she said, smiling, supporting him with her arm through his. The shock would have been almost too much for poor Mr. Churchill if she had not been so like a child of his own.

The moment this pair had left the room the Contessa raised herself eagerly from the chair. She looked round to Bice in the background with an imperative question. "What does this all mean?" she said, in a voice as different from the languor of her former address as night from day. "Who is it that gives away fortunes, that makes a poor man rich? Did you know all that? Is it that chit of a girl, that piece of simplicity—that—Giove! You have been her friend; you know her secrets. What does it mean?"

"She has no secrets," said Bice, coming slowly forward. "She is not like us, she is like the day."

"Fool!" the Contessa said, stamping her foot—"don't you see there must be something in it. I am thinking of you, though you are so ungrateful. One knows she is rich, all the money is hers; but I thought it had gone to Sir Tom. I thought it was he who could— ... Happily, I have always kept her in hand; and you, you have become her friend——"

"Madama," said Bice, with ironical politeness, "since it happens that Milady is gone, shall I pour out for you your cup of tea?"

"Oh, tea! do I care for tea? when there are possibilities—possibilities!" said the Contessa. She got up from her chair and began to pace about the room, a grand figure in the gathering twilight. As for Bice, some demon of perversity possessed her. She began to move about the tea-table, making the china ring, and pouring out the tea as she had said, betook herself to the eating of cake with a relish which was certainly much intensified by the preoccupation of her patroness. She remembered well enough, very well, what Jock had told her, and her own incredulity; but she would have died rather than give a sign of this—and there was a tacit defiance in the way in which she munched her cake under the Contessa's excited eyes, but this was only a momentary perversity.



CHAPTER XXVII.

AN ADVENTURESS.

"When he told me first, I was angry like you, I would not believe it. Money! that is a thing to keep, I said, not to give away."

"To give away!" Few things in all her life, at least in all her later life, had so moved the Contessa. She was walking about the pretty room in an excitement which was like agitation, now sitting down in one place, now in another, turning over without knowing it the things on the table, arranging a drapery here and there instinctively. To how few people in the world would it be a matter of indifference that money, so to speak, was going begging, and might fall into their hands as well as another's! The best of us on this argument would prick up our ears. Nobody cared less for money in itself than Madame di Forno-Populo. She liked not to spend it only, but to squander—to make it fly on all hands. To be utterly extravagant one must be poor, and the money hunger which belongs to poverty is almost, one might say, a disinterested quality, so little is it concerned with the possession of the thing coveted. "Oh," she said, "this is too wonderful! and you are sure you have not been deceived by the language? You know English so well—are you sure that you were not deceived?"

Bice did not deign any reply to this question. She gave her head a slight toss of scorn. The suggestion that she could be mistaken was unworthy of an answer, and indeed was not put in seriousness, nor did the Contessa wait for a reply. "What then," the Contessa went on, "is the position of Sir Tom? Has he no control? Does he permit this? To have it taken away from himself and his family, thrown into the sea, parted with—Oh, it is too much! But how can it be done? I was aware that settlements were very troublesome, but I had not thought it possible—Bice! Bice! this is very exciting, it makes one's heart beat! And you are her friend."

"I am her—friend?" Bice turned one ear to her patroness with a startled look of interrogation.

"Oh!" cried the Contessa once more; by which exclamation, naturally occurring when she was excited, she proved that she was of English race. "What difficulty is there in my meaning? You have English enough for that. What! do you feel no impatience when you hear of money running away?—going into a different channel—to strangers—to people that have nothing to do with it—that have no right to it—anybody—a clergyman, a——"

Her feelings were too much for her. She threw herself into a chair, out of breath.

"He looked a very good man," said Bice, with that absolute calm which is so exasperating to an excited woman, "and what does it matter, if it has to be given away, who gets it? I should give it to the beggars. I should fling it for them, as you do the bajocchi when you are out driving."

"You are a fool! you are a fool!" cried the Contessa, "or rather you are a child, and don't understand anything. Fling it to the beggars? Yes, if it was in shillings or even sovereigns. You don't understand what money is."

"That is true, Madama, for I never had any," cried the girl, with a laugh. She was perfectly unmoved—the desire of money was not in her as yet, though she was far more enlightened as to its uses than most persons of her age. It amused her to see the excitement of her companion; and she knew very well what the Contessa meant, though she would not betray any consciousness of it. "If I marry," she said, "then perhaps I shall know."

"Bice! you are not a fool—you are very sharp, though you choose not to see. Why should not you have this as well as another?—oh, much better than another! I can't stand by and see it all float into alien channels, while you—it would not be doing my duty while you—— Oh, don't look at me with that blank face, as if it did not move you in the least! Would it be nothing to have it in your power to dress as you like, to do as you like, to go into the world, to have a handsome house, to enjoy life?——"

"But, yes!" said Bice, "is it necessary to ask?" She was still as calm as if the question they were discussing had been of the very smallest importance. "But we are not good poor people that will spend the money comme il faut. If we had it we should throw it away. Me also—I would throw it away. It would be for nothing good; why should it be given to us? Oh no, Madama. The good old clergyman had many children. He will not waste the money—which we should. What do you care for money, but to spend it fast, fast; and I too——"

"You are a child," said the Contessa. "No, perhaps I am not what people call good, though I am poor enough—but you are a child. If it was given to you it would be invested; you would have power over the income only. You could not throw it away, nor could I, which, perhaps, is what you are thinking of. You are just the person she wants, so far as I can see. She objects to my plan of putting you out in the world; she says it would be better if you were to work; but this is the best of all. Let her provide for you, and then it will not need that you should either marry or work. This is, beyond all description, the best way. And you are her friend. Tell me, was it before or after the boy informed you of this that you advised yourself to become her friend?"

"Contessa!" cried Bice, with a shock of angry feeling which brought the blood to her face. She was not sensitive in many matters which would have stung an English girl; but this suggestion, which was so undeserved, moved her to passion. She turned away with an almost tragic scorn, and seizing the tapisserie, which was part of the Contessa's mise en scene, flung a long strip of the many-coloured embroidery over her arm, and began to work with a sort of savage energy. The Contessa watched her movements with a sudden pause in her own excitement. She stopped short in the eagerness of her own thoughts, and looked with keen curiosity at the young creature upon whom she had built so many expectations. She was not an ungenerous or mercenary woman, though she had many faults, and as she gazed a certain compunction awoke within her, mingled with amusement. She was sorry for the unworthy suggestion she had made, but the sight of the girl in her indignation was like a scene in a play to this woman of the world. Her youthful dignity and wrath, her silent scorn, the manner in which she flung her needle through the canvas, working out her rage, were full of entertainment to the Contessa. She was not irritated by the girl's resentment; it even took off her thoughts from the primary matter to watch this exhibition of feeling. She gave vent to a little laugh as she noted how the needle flew.

"Cara! I was nasty when I said that. I did not mean it. I suffered myself to talk as one talks in the world. You are not of the world—it is not applicable to you."

"Yes, Madama, I am of the world," cried Bice. "What have I known else? But I did not mean to become Milady's friend, as you say. It was by accident. I was in the gallery only to amuse myself, and she came—it was not intention. I think that Milady is——"

Here Bice stopped, looked up from the sudden fervour of her working, threw back her head, and said nothing more.

"That Milady is—what?" the Contessa cried.

A laugh so joyous, so childish, that no one could have refused to be sympathetic, burst from Bice's lips. She gave her patroness a look of merriment and derision, in which there was something tender and sweet. "Milady is—sorry for me," she said.

This speech had a strange effect upon the Contessa. She coloured, and the tears seemed to flood in a moment to her eyes. "Poor child!" she said—"poor child! She has reason. But that amuses you, Bice mia," she said, in a voice full of the softest caressing, looking at her through those sudden tears. The Contessa was an adventuress, and she had brought up this girl after her own traditions; but it was clear as they looked at each other that they loved each other. There was perfect confidence between them. Bice looked with fearless laughing eyes, and a sense of the absurdity of the fact that some one was sorry for her, into the face of her friend.

"She thinks I would be happier if I worked. To give lessons to little children and be their slave would be better, she thinks. To know nothing and see nothing, but live far away from the world and be independent, and take no trouble about my looks, or, if I please—that is Milady's way of thinking," Bice said.

The Contessa's face softened more and more as she looked at the girl. There even dropped a tear from her full eyes. She shook her head. "I am not sure," she said, "dear child, that I am not of Milady's opinion. There are ways in which it is better. Sometimes I think I was most happy when I was like that—without money, without experience, with no wishes."

"No wishes, Madama! Did you not wish to go out into the beautiful bright world, to see people, to hear music, to talk, to please? It is impossible. Money, that is different, and experience that is different: but to wish, every one must do that."

"Bice, you have a great deal of experience for so young a girl. You have seen so much. I ought to have brought you up otherwise, perhaps, but how could I? You have always shared with me, and what I had I gave you. And you know besides how little satisfaction there is in it—how sick one becomes of a crowd of faces that are nothing to you, and of music that goes on just the same whatever you are feeling—and this to please, as you call it! Whom do I please? Persons who do not care at all for me except that I amuse them sometimes—who like me to sing; who like to look at me; who find themselves less dull when I am there. That is all. And that will be all for you, unless you marry well, my Bice, which it is the object of my life to make you do."

"I hope I shall marry well," said the girl, composedly. "It would be very pleasant to find one's self above all shifts, Madama. Still that is not everything; and I would much rather have led the life I have led, and enjoyed myself and seen so much, than to have been the little governess of the English family—the little girl who is always so quiet, who walks out with the children, and will not accept the eldest son even when he makes love to her. I should have laughed at the eldest son. I know what they are like—they are so stupid; they have not a word to say; that would have amused me; but in the Tauchnitz books it is all honour and wretchedness. I am glad I know the world, and have seen all kinds of people, and wish for everything that is pleasant, instead of being so good and having no wishes as you say."

The Contessa laughed, having got rid of all her incipient tears. "There is more life in it," she said. "You see now what it is—this life in England; one day is like another, one does the same things. The newspaper comes in the morning, then luncheon, then to go out, then tea, dinner; there is no change. When we talk in the evening, and I remind Sir Tom of the past when I lived in Florence, and he was with me every day,"—the Contessa once more uttered that easy exclamation which would sound so profane in English. "Quelle vie!" she cried, "how much we got out of every day. There were no silences! They came in one after another with some new thing, something to see and to do. We separated to dress, to make ourselves beautiful for the evening, and then till the morning light came in through the curtains, never a pause or a weariness. Yes! sometimes one had a terrible pang. There would be a toilette, which was ravishing, which was far superior to mine—for I never had money to dress as I wished—or some one else would have a success, and attract all eyes. But what did that matter?" the Contessa cried, lighting up more and more. "One did not really grudge what lasted only for a time; for one knew next day one would have one's turn. Ah!" she said, with a sigh, "I knew what it was to be a queen, Bice, in those days."

"And so you do still, Madama," said the girl, soothingly.

Madama di Forno-Populo shook her head. "It is no longer the same," she said. "You have known only the worst side, my poverina. It is no longer one's own palace, one's own people, and the best of the strangers, the finest company. You saw the Duchess at Milady's party the other day. To see me made her lose her breath. She could not refuse to speak to me—to salute me—but it was with a consternation! But, Bice, that lady was only too happy to be invited to the Palazzo Populino. To make one of our expeditions was her pride. I believe in my soul," cried the Contessa, "that when she looks back she remembers those days as the most bright of her life."

Bice's clear shining eyes rested upon her patroness with a light in them which was keen with indignation and wonder. She cried, "And why the change—and why the change, Madama?" with a high indignant tone, such as youth assumes in presence of ingratitude and meanness. Bice knew much that a young girl does not usually know; but the reason why her best friend should be thus slighted was not one of these things.

The Contessa shrank a little from her gaze. She rose up again and went to the window and looked out upon the wintry landscape, and standing there with her face averted, shrugged her shoulders a little and made answer in a tone of levity very different from the sincerer sound of her previous communications. "It is poverty, my child, poverty, always the easiest explanation! I was never rich, but then there had been no crash, no downfall. I was in my own palace. I had the means of entertaining. I was somebody. Ah! very different; it was not then at the baths, in the watering-places, that the Contessa di Forno-Populo was known. It is this, my Bice, that makes me say that sometimes I am of Milady's opinion; that to have no wishes, to know nothing, to desire nothing—that is best. When I knew the Duchess first I could be of service to her. Now that I meet her again it is she only that can be of service to me."

"But——" Bice began and stopped short. She was, as has been said, a girl of many experiences. When a very young creature is thus prematurely introduced to a knowledge of human nature she approaches the subject with an impartiality scarcely possible at an older age. She had seen much. She had been acquainted with those vicissitudes that occur in the lives of the seekers of pleasure almost since ever she was born. She had been acquainted with persons of the most gay and cheerful appearance, who had enjoyed themselves highly, and called all their acquaintances round them to feast, and who had then suddenly collapsed and after an interval of tears and wailings had disappeared from the scene of their downfall. But Bice had not learnt the commonplace lesson so deeply impressed upon the world from the Athenian Timon downwards, that a downfall of this kind instantly cuts all ties. She was aware, on the contrary, that a great deal of kindness, sympathy, and attempts to aid were always called forth on such occasions; that the women used to form a sort of rampart around the ruined with tears and outcries, and that the men had anxious meetings and consultations and were constantly going to see some one or other upon the affairs of the downfallen. Bice had not seen in her experience that poverty was an argument for desertion. She was so worldly wise that she did not press her question as a simple girl might have done. She stopped short with an air of bewilderment and pain, which the Contessa, as her head was turned, did not see. She gave up the inquiry; but there arose in her mind a suspicion, a question, such as had not ever had admission there before.

"Ah!" cried the Contessa, suddenly turning round, clasping her hands, "it was different indeed when my house was open to all these English, and they came as they pleased. But now I do not know, if I am turned out of this house, this dull house in which I have taken refuge, where I shall go. I don't know where to go!"

"Madama!" Bice sprang to her feet too, and clasped her hands.

"It is true—it is quite true. We have spent everything. I have not the means to go even to a third-rate place. As for Cannes it is impossible. I told you so before we came here. Rome is impossible—the apartment is let, and without that I could not live at all. Everything is gone. Here one may manage to exist a little while, for the house is good, and Sir Tom is rather amusing. But how to get to London unless they will take us I know not, and London is the place to produce you, Bice. It is for that I have been working. But Milady does not like me; she is jealous of me, and if she can she will send us away. Is it wonderful, then, that I am glad you are her friend? I am very glad of it, and I should wish you to let her know that to no one could she give her money more fitly. You see," said the Contessa, with a smile, resuming her seat and her easy tone, "I have come back to the point we started from. It is seldom one does that so naturally. If it is true (which seems so impossible) that there is money to give away, no one has a better right to it than you."

Bice went away from this interview with a mind more disturbed than it had ever been in her life before. Naturally, the novel circumstances which surrounded her awakened deeper questions as her mind developed, and she began to find herself a distinct personage. They set her wondering. Madame di Forno-Populo had been of a tenderness unparalleled to this girl, and had sheltered her existence ever since she could remember. It had not occurred to her mind as yet to ask what the relations were between them, or why she had been the object of so much affection and thought. She had accepted this with all the composure of a child ever since she was a child. And the prospect of achieving a marriage should she turn out beautiful, and thus being in a position to return some of the kindness shown her, seemed to Bice the most natural thing in the world. But the change of atmosphere had done something, and Lucy's company, and the growth, perhaps, of her own young spirit. She went away troubled. There seemed to be more in the world and its philosophy than Bice's simple rules could explain.

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