THE SERPENT AND THE DOVE.
On the very next day after this conversation took place a marked change occurred in the manner of the Contessa. She had been always caressing to Lucy, calling her by pretty names, and using a hundred tender expressions as if to a child; but had never pretended to talk to her otherwise than in a condescending way. On this occasion, however, she exerted herself to a most unusual extent during their drive to captivate and charm Lady Randolph; and as Lucy was very simple and accessible to everything that seemed kindness, and the Contessa very clever and with full command of her powers, it is not wonderful that her success was easy. She led her to talk of Mr. Churchill, who had been kept to dinner on the previous night, and to whom Sir Tom had been very polite, and Lucy anxiously kind, doing all that was possible to put the good man at his ease, though with but indifferent success. For the thought of such an obligation was too great to be easily borne, and the agitation of his mind was scarcely settled, even by the commonplaces of the dinner, and the devotion which young Lady Randolph showed him. Perhaps the grave politeness of Sir Tom, which was not very encouraging, and the curiosity of the great lady, whom he had mistaken for his benefactress, counterbalanced Mr. Churchill's satisfaction, for he did not regain his confidence, and it was evidently with great relief of mind that he got up from his seat when the carriage was announced to take him away. The Contessa had given her attention to all he said and did, with a most lively and even anxious interest, and it was from this that she had mastered so many details which Bice had reluctantly confirmed by her report of the information she had derived from Jock. It was not long before Madame di Forno-Populo managed to extract everything from Lucy. Lady Randolph was not used to defend herself against such inquiries, nor was there any reason why she should do so. She was glad indeed when she saw how sweetly her companion looked, and how kind were her tones, to talk over her own difficult position with another woman, one who was interested, and who did not express her disapproval and horror as most people did. The Contessa, on the contrary, took a great deal of interest. She was astonished, indeed, but she did not represent to Lucy that what she had to do was impossible or even vicious, as most people seemed to suppose. She listened with the gravest attention; and she gave a soothing sense of sympathy to Lucy's troubled soul. She was so little prepared for sympathy from such a quarter that the unexpectedness of it made it more soothing still.
"This is a great charge to be laid upon you," the Contessa said, with the most kind look. "Upon you so young and with so little experience. Your father must have been a man of very original mind, my Lucy. I have heard of a great many schemes of benevolence, but never one like this."
"No?" said Lucy, anxiously watching the Contessa's eye, for it was so strange to her to have sympathy on this point, that she felt a sort of longing for it, and that this new critic, who treated the whole matter with more moderation and reasonableness than usual, should approve.
"Generally one endows hospitals or builds churches; in my country there is a way which is a little like yours; it is to give marriage portions—that is very good I am told. It is done by finding out who is the most worthy. And it is said also that not the most worthy is always taken. Don't you remember there is a Rosiere in Barbe Bleue? Oh, I believe you have never heard of Barbe Bleue."
"I know the story," said Lucy, with a smile, "of the many wives, and the key, and sister Anne—sister Anne."
"Ah! that is not precisely what I mean; but it does not matter. So it is this which makes you so grave, my pretty Lucy. I do not wonder. What a charge for you! To encounter all the prejudices of the world which will think you mad. I know it. And now your husband—the excellent Tom—he," said the Contessa, laying a caressing and significant touch upon Lucy's arm, "does not approve?"
"Oh, Madame di Forno-Populo, that is the worst of it," cried Lucy, whose heart was opened, and who had taken no precaution against assault on this side; "but how do you know? for I thought that nobody knew."
The Contessa this time took Lucy's hand between hers, and pressed it tenderly, looking at her all the time with a look full of meaning. "Dear child," she said, "I have been a great deal in the world. I see much that other people do not see. And I know his face, and yours, my little angel. It is much for you to carry upon those young shoulders. And all for the sake of goodness and charity."
"I do not know," said Lucy, "that it is right to say that; for, had it been left to me, perhaps I should never have thought of it. I should have been content with doing just what I could for the poor. No one," said Lucy, with a sigh, "objects to that. When people are quite poor it is natural to give them what they want; but the others——"
"Ah, the others," said the Contessa. "Dear child, the others are the most to be pitied. It is a greater thing, and far more difficult to give to this good clergyman enough to make his children happy, than it is to supply what is wanted in a cottage. Ah yes, your father was wise, he was a person of character. The poor are always cared for. There are none of us, even when we are ourselves poor, who do not hold out a hand to them. There is a society in my Florence which is like you. It is for the Poveri Vergognosi. You don't understand Italian? That means those who are ashamed to beg. These are they," said the Contessa impressively, "who are to be the most pitied. They must starve and never cry out; they must conceal their misery and smile; they must put always a fair front to the world, and seem to want nothing, while they want everything. Oh!" The Contessa ended with a sigh, which said more than words. She pressed Lucy's hand, and turned her face away. Her feelings were too much for her, and on the delicate cheek, which Lucy could see, there was the trace of a tear. After a moment she looked round again, and said, with a little quiver in her voice: "I respect your father, my Lucy. It was a noble thought, and it is original. No one I have ever heard of had such an intention before."
Lucy, at this unlooked-for applause, brightened with pleasure; but at the same time was so moved that she could only look up into her companion's face and return the pressure of her hand. When she recovered a little she said: "You have known people like that?"
"Known them? In my country," said the Contessa (who was not an Italian at all), "they are as plentiful as in England—blackberries. People with noble names, with noble old houses, with children who must never learn anything, never be anything, because there is no money. Know them! dear child, who can know better? If I were to tell you my history! I have for my own part known—what I could not trouble your gentle spirit to hear."
"But, Madame di Forno-Populo, oh! if you think me worthy of your confidence, tell me!" cried Lucy. "Indeed, I am not so insensible as you may think. I have known more than you suppose. You look as if no harm could ever have touched you," Lucy cried, with a look of genuine admiration. The Contessa had found the right way into her heart.
The Contessa smiled with mournful meaning and shook her head. "A great deal of harm has touched me," she said; "I am the very person to meet with harm in the world. A solitary woman without any one to take care of me, and also a very silly one, with many foolish tastes and inclinations. Not prudent, not careful, my Lucy, and with very little money; what could be more forlorn? You see," she said, with a smile "I do not put all this blame upon Providence, but a great deal on myself. But to put me out of the question——"
Lucy put a hand upon the Contessa's arm. She was much moved by this revelation.
"Oh! don't do that," she said; "it is you I want to hear of."
Madame di Forno-Populo had an object in every word she was saying, and knew exactly how much she meant to tell and how much to conceal. It was indeed a purely artificial appeal that she was making to her companion's feelings; and yet, when she looked upon the simple sympathy and generous interest in Lucy's face, her heart was touched.
"How good you are," she said; "how generous! though I have come to you against your will, and am staying—when I am not wanted."
"Oh! do not say so," cried Lucy with eagerness; "do not think so—indeed, it was not against my will. I was glad, as glad as I could be, to receive my husband's friend."
"Few women are so," said the Contessa gravely. "I knew it when I came. Few, very few, care for their husband's friend—especially when she is a woman——"
Lucy fixed her eyes upon her with earnest attention. Her look was not suspicious, yet there was investigation in it.
"I do not think I am like that," she said simply.
"No, you are not like that," said the Contessa. "You are the soul of candour and sweetness; but I have vexed you. Ah, my Lucy, I have vexed you. I know it—innocently, my love—but still I have done it. That is one of the curses of poverty. Now look," she said, after a momentary pause, "how truth brings truth! I did not intend to say this when I began" (and this was perfectly true), "but now I must open my heart to you. I came without caring much what you would think, meaning no harm—Oh, trust me, meaning no harm! but since I have come all the advantages of being here have appeared to me so strongly that I have set my heart upon remaining, though I knew it was disagreeable to you."
"Indeed:" cried Lucy, divided between sincerity and kindness: "if it was ever so for a moment, it was only because I did not understand."
"My sweetest child! this I tell you is one of the curses of poverty. I knew it was disagreeable to you; but because of the great advantage of being in your house, not only for me, but for Bice, for whom I have sworn to do my best—Lucy, pardon me—I could not make up my mind to go away. Listen! I said to myself, I am poor, I cannot give her all the advantages; and they are rich; it is nothing to them—I will stay, I will continue, though they do not want me, not for my sake, for the sake of Bice. They will not be sorry afterwards to have made the fortune of Bice. Listen, dear one; hear me out. I had the intention of forcing myself upon you—oh no! the words are not too strong—in London, always for Bice's sake, for she has no one but me; and if her career is stopped—— I am not a woman," said the Contessa, with dignity, "who am used to find myself de trop. I have been in my life courted, I may say it, rather than disagreeable; yet this I was willing to bear—and impose myself upon you for Bice's sake——"
Lucy listened to this moving address with many differing emotions. It gave her a pang to think that her hopes of having her house to herself were thus permanently threatened. But at the same time her heart swelled, and all her generous feelings were stirred. Was she indeed so poor a creature as to grudge to two lonely women the shelter and advantage of her wealth and position? If she did this, what did it matter if she gave money away? This would indeed be keeping to the letter of her father's will, and abjuring its meaning. She could not resist the pathos, the dignity, the sweetness of the Contessa's appeal, which was not for herself but for Bice, for the girl who was so good to baby, and whom that little oracle had bound her to with links of gratitude and tenderness. "Oh," Lucy said to herself, "if I should ever have to appeal to any one for kindness to him!" And Bice was the Contessa's child—the child of her heart, at least—the voluntary charge which she had taken upon her, and to which she was devoting herself. Was it possible that only because she wanted to have her husband to herself in the evenings, and objected to any interruption of their privacy, a woman should be made to suffer who was a good woman, and to whom Lucy could be of use? No, no, she cried within herself, the tears coming to her eyes; and yet there was a very real pang behind.
"But reassure yourself, dear child," said the Contessa, "for now that I see what you are doing for others, I cannot be so selfish. No; I cannot do it any longer. In England you do not love society; you love your home unbroken; you do not like strangers. No, my Lucy, I will learn a lesson from your goodness. I too will sacrifice—oh, if it was only myself and not Bice!"
"Contessa," said Lucy with an effort, looking up with a smile through some tears, "I am not like that. It never was that you were—disagreeable. How could you be disagreeable? And Bice is—oh, so kind, so good to my boy. You must never think of it more. The town house is not so large as the Hall, but we shall find room in it. Oh, I am not so heartless, not so stupid, as you think! Do you suppose I would let you go away after you have been so kind as to open your heart to me, and let me know that we are really of use? Oh, no, no! And I am sure," she added, faltering slightly, "that Tom—will think the same."
"It is not Tom—excellent, cher Tom! that shall be consulted," cried the Contessa. "Lucy, my little angel! if it is really so that you will give my Bice the advantage of your protection for her debut—— But that is to be an angel indeed, superior to all our little, petty, miserable—— Is it possible, then," cried the Contessa, "that there is some one so good, so noble in this low world?"
This gratitude confused Lucy more than all the rest. She did her best to deprecate and subdue; but in her heart she felt that it was a great sacrifice she was making. "Indeed, it is nothing," she said faintly. "I am fond of her, and she has been so good to baby; and if we can be of any use—but oh, Madame di Forno-Populo," Lady Randolph cried, taking courage. "Her debut? do you really mean what she says that she must marry——"
"That I mean to marry her," said the Contessa, "that is how we express it," with a very concise ending to her transports of gratitude. "Sweet Lucy," she continued, "it is the usage of our country. The parents, or those who stand in their place, think it their duty. We marry our children as you clothe them in England. You do not wait till your little boy can choose. You find him what is necessary. Just so do we. We choose so much better than an inexperienced girl can choose. If she has an aversion, if she says I cannot suffer him, we do not press it upon her. Many guardians will pay no attention, but me," said the Contessa, putting forth a little foreign accent, which she displayed very rarely—"I have lived among the English, and I am influenced by their ways. Neither do I think it right," she added, with an air of candour, "to offer an old person, or one who is hideous, or even very disagreeable. But, yes, she must marry well. What else is there that a girl of family can do?"
Lucy was about to answer with enthusiasm that there were many things she could do; but stopped short, arrested by these last words. "A girl of family,"—that, no doubt, made a difference. She paused, and looked somewhat wistfully in her companion's face. "We think," she said, "in England that anything is better than a marriage without——"
The Contessa put up her hand to stay the words. "Without love—— I know what you are going to say; but, my angel, that is a word which Bice has never heard spoken. She knows it not. She has not the habit of thinking it necessary—she is a good girl, and she has no sentiment. Besides, why should we go so fast? If she produces the effect I hope—— Why should not some one present himself whom she could also love? Oh yes; fall in love with, as you say in English—such an innocent phrase; let us hope that, when the proper person comes who satisfies my requirements, Bice—to whom not a word shall be said—will fall in love with him comme il faut!"
Lucy did not make any reply. She was troubled by the light laugh with which the Contessa concluded, and with the slight change of tone which was perceptible. But she was still too much moved by her own emotion to have got beyond its spell, and she had committed herself beyond recall. While the Contessa talked on with—was it a little, little change?—a faint difference, a levity that had not been in her voice before? Lucy's thoughts went back upon what she had done with a little tremor. Not this time as to what Tom might say, but with a deeper wonder and pang as to what might come of it; was she going voluntarily into new danger, such as she had no clue to, and could not understand? After a little while she asked almost timidly—
"But if Bice should not see any one——"
"You mean if no one suitable should present himself?" The Contessa suddenly grew very grave. She put her hands together with a gesture of entreaty. "My sweet one, let us not think of that. When she is dressed as I shall dress her, and brought out—as you will enable me to bring her out. My Lucy, we do not know what is in her. She will shine, she will charm. Even now, if she is excited, there are moments in which she is beautiful. If she fails altogether—— Ah, my love, as I tell you, there is where the curse of poverty comes in. Had she even a moderate fortune, poor child; but alas, orphan, with no one but me——"
"Is she an orphan?" said Lucy, feeling ashamed of the momentary failure of her interest, "and without relations—except——"
"Relations?" said the Contessa; there was something peculiar in her tone which attracted Lucy's attention, and came back to her mind in other days. "Ah, my Lucy, there are many things in this life which you have never thought of. She has relations who think nothing of her, who would be angry, be grieved, if they knew that she existed. Yes, it is terrible to think of, but it is true. She is, on one side, of English parentage. But pardon me, my sweetest, I did not mean to tell you all this: only, my Lucy, you will one time be glad to think that you have been kind to Bice. It will be a pleasure to you. Now let us think of it no more. Marry; yes, she must marry. She has not even so much as your poor clergyman; she has nothing, not a penny. So I must marry her, there is nothing more to be said."
THE CONTESSA'S TRIUMPH.
And it was with very mingled sensations that Sir Tom heard from Lucy (for it was from her lips he heard it) the intimation that Madame di Forno-Populo was going to be so good as to remain at the Hall till they moved to London, and then to accompany them to Park Lane. Sir Tom was taken entirely by surprise. He was not a man who had much difficulty in commanding himself, or showing such an aspect as he pleased to the general world; but on this occasion he was so much surprised that his very jaw dropped with wonder and astonishment. It was at luncheon that the intimation was made, in the Contessa's presence, so that he did not venture to let loose any expression of his feelings. He gave a cry, only half uttered, of astonishment, restrained by politeness, turning his eyes, which grew twice their size in the bewilderment of the moment, from Lucy to the Contessa and back again. Then he burst into a breathless laugh—a twinkle of humour lighted in those eyes which were big with wonder, and he turned a look of amused admiration towards the Contessa. How had she done it? There was no fathoming the cleverness of women, he said to himself, and for the rest of the day he kept bursting forth into little peals of laughter all by himself. How had she managed to do it? It was a task which he himself would not have ventured to undertake. He would not, he said to himself, have had the slightest idea how to bring forward such a proposition. On the contrary, had not his sense that Lucy had much to forgive in respect to this invasion of her home and privacy induced him to make a great sacrifice, to withdraw his opposition to those proceedings of hers of which he so much disapproved? And yet in an afternoon, in one interview, the Contessa had got the upper hand! Her cleverness was extraordinary. It tickled him so that he could not take time to think how very little satisfied he was with the result. He, too, had fallen under her enchantments in the country, in the stillness, if not dulness, of those long evenings, and he had been very willing to be good to her for the sake of old times, to make her as comfortable as possible, to give her time to settle her plans for her London campaign. But that she should begin that campaign under his own roof, and that Lucy, his innocent and simple wife, should be visible to the world as the friend and ally of a lady whose name was too well known to society, was by no means satisfactory to Sir Tom. When his first astonishment and amazement was over, he began to look grave; but what was he to do? He had so much respect for Lucy that when the idea occurred to him of warning her that the Contessa's antecedents were not of a comfortable kind, and that her generosity was mistaken, he rejected it again with a sort of panic, and did not dare, experienced and courageous as he was, to acknowledge to his little wife that he had ventured to bring to her house a woman of whom it could be said that she was not above suspicion. Sir Tom had dared a great many perils in his life, but he did not venture to face this. He recoiled from before it, as he would not have done from any lion in the way. He could not even suggest to her any reticence in her communications, any reserve in showing herself at the Contessa's side, or in inviting other people to meet her. If all his happiness depended upon it, he felt that he could not disturb Lucy's mind by any such warning. Confess to her that he had brought to her a woman with whom scandal had been busy, that he had introduced to her as his friend, and recommended to honour and kindness, one whose name had been in all men's mouths! Sir Tom ran away morally from this suggestion as if he had been the veriest coward; he could not breathe a word of it in Lucy's ear. How could he explain to her that mixture of amazement at the woman's boldness, and humorous sense of the incongruity of her appearance in the absolute quiet of an English home, without company, which, combined with ancient kindness and careless good humour, had made him sanction her first appearance? Still less, how could he explain the mingling of more subtle sensations, the recollections of a past which Sir Tom could not himself much approve of, yet which was full of interest still, and the formation of an intercourse which renewed that past, and brought a little tingling of agreeable excitement into life when it had fallen to too low an ebb to be agreeable in itself? He would not say a word of all this to Lucy. Her purity, her simplicity, even her want of imagination and experience, her incapacity to understand that debatable land between vice and virtue in which so many men find little harm, and which so many women regard with interest and curiosity, closed his mouth. And then he comforted himself with the reflection that, as his aunt herself had admitted, the Contessa had never brought herself openly within the ban. Men might laugh when the name of La Forno-Populo was introduced, and women draw themselves up with indignation, or stare with astonishment not unmingled with consternation as the Duchess had done; but they could not refuse to recognise her, nor could any one assert that there was sufficient reason to exclude her from society. Not even when she was younger, and surrounded by worshippers, could this be said. And now when she was less—— But here Sir Tom paused to ask himself, was she less attractive than of old? When he came to consider the question he was obliged to allow that he did not think so; and if she really meant to bring out that girl—— Did she mean to bring out that girl? Could she make up her mind to exhibit beside her own waning (if they were waning) charms the first flush of this young beauty? Sir Tom, who thought he knew women (at least of the kind of La Forno-Populo), shook his head and felt it very doubtful whether the Contessa was sincere, or if she could indeed make up her mind to take a secondary place. He thought with a rueful anticipation of the sort of people who would flock to Park Lane to renew their acquaintance with La Forno-Populo. "By Jove! but shall they though? Not if I know it," said Sir Tom firmly to himself.
Williams, the butler, was still more profoundly discomposed. He had opened his mind to Mrs. Freshwater on various occasions when his feelings were too many for him. Naturally, Williams gave the Contessa the benefit of no doubt as to her reputation. He was entirely convinced, as is the fashion of his class, that all that could have been said of her was true, and that she was as unfit for the society of the respectable as any wretched creature could be. "That foreign madam" was what he called her, in the privacy of the housekeeper's room, with many opprobrious epithets. Mrs. Freshwater, who was, perhaps, more good-natured than was advantageous to the housekeeper and manager of a large establishment, was melted whenever she saw her, by the Contessa's gracious looks and ways, but Williams was immovable. "If you'd seen what I've seen," he said, shaking his head. The women, for Lucy's maid Fletcher sometimes shared these revelations, were deeply excited by this—longing, yet fearing to ask what it was that Williams had seen. "And when I think of my lady, that is as innocent as the babe unborn," he said, "mixed up in all that—— You'll see such racketing as never was thought of," cried Williams. "I know just how things will go. Night turned into day, carriages driving up at all hours, suppers going on after the play all the night through, masks and dominoes arriving;—no—to be sure this is England. There will be no veglionis, at least—which in England, ladies, would be masked balls—with Madam the Countess and her gentlemen—and even ladies too, a sort of ladies—in all sorts of dresses."
"O-oh!" the women cried.
They were partially shocked, as they were intended to be, but partially their curiosity was excited, and a feeling that they would like to see all these gaieties and fine dresses moved their minds. The primitive intelligence always feel certain that "racketing" and orgies that go on all night, must be at least guiltily delightful, exciting, and amusing, if nothing else. They were not of those who "held with" such dissipation; still for once in a way to see it, the responsibility not being theirs, would be something. They held their breath, but it was not altogether in horror; there was in it a mixture of anticipation too.
"And I know what will come of it," said Williams. "What has come afore: the money will have to come out o' some one's pocket; and master never knew how to keep his to himself, never, as long as I've known him. To be sure, he hadn't got a great deal in the old days. But I know what'll happen; he'll just have to pay up now—he's that soft," said Williams; "a man that can't say no to a woman. Not that I care for the money. I'd a deal sooner he gave her an allowance, or set her up in some other place, or just give her a good round sum—as he could afford to do—and get shut of her. That is what I should advise. Just a round sum and get shut of her."
"I've always heard," said Miss Fletcher, "as the money was my lady's, and not from the Randolph side at all."
"What's hers is his," said Williams; "what's my lady's is her husband's; and a good bargain too—on her side."
"I declare," cried Fletcher energetically, stung with that sense of wrong to her own side which gives heat to party feeling—"I declare if any man took my money to keep up his—his—his old sweetheart, I'd murder him. I'd take his life, that's what I should do."
"Poor dear," said Mrs. Freshwater, wiping her eyes with her apron. "Poor dear! She'll never murder no one, my lady. Bless her innocent face. I only hope as she'll never find it out."
"Sooner than she don't find it out I'll tell her myself," cried Williams. "Now I don't understand you women. You'd let my lady be deceived and made game of, rather than tell her."
"Made game of!" cried Fletcher, with a shriek of indignation. "I should like to see who dared to do that."
"Oh, they'll dare do it, soon enough, and take their fun out of her—it's just what them foreigners are fond of," said Williams, who knew them and all their tricks down to the ground, as he said. Still, however, notwithstanding his evil reports, good Mrs. Freshwater, who was as good-natured as she was fat, could scarcely make up her mind to believe all that of the Contessa. "She do look so sweet, and talk so pretty, not as if she was foreign at all," the housekeeper said.
That evening, however, the Contessa herself took occasion to explain to Sir Tom what her intentions were. She had thought the subject all over while she dressed for dinner, with a certain elation in her success, yet keen clear-mindedness which never deserted her. And then, to be sure, her object had not been entirely the simple one of getting an invitation to Park Lane. She had intended something more than this. And she was not sure of success in that second and still more important point. She meant that Lady Randolph should endow Bice largely, liberally. She intended to bring every sort of motive to bear—even some that verged upon tragedy—to procure this. She had no compunction or faltering on the subject, for it was not for herself, she said within herself, that she was scheming, and she did not mean to be foiled. In considering the best means to attain this great and final object, she decided that it would be well to go softly, not to insist too much upon the advantages she had secured, or to give Lucy too much cause to regret her yielding. The Contessa had the soul of a strategist, the imagination of a great general. She did not ignore the feelings of the subject of her experiment. She even put herself in Lucy's place, and asked herself how she could bear this or that. She would not oppose or overwhelm the probable benefactress to whom she, or at least Bice, might afterwards owe so much. When Sir Tom approached her chair in the evening when he came in after dinner, as he always did, she made room for him on the sofa beside her. "I am going to make you my confidant," she said in her most charming way, with that air of smiling graciousness which made Sir Tom laugh, yet fascinated him in spite of himself. He knew that she put on the same air for whomsoever she chose to charm; but it had a power which he could not resist all the same. "But perhaps you don't care to be taken into my confidence," she added, smiling, too, as if willing to admit all he could allege as to her syren graces. She had a delightful air of being in the joke which entirely deceived Sir Tom.
"On the contrary," he said. "But as we have just heard your plans from my wife——"
The Contessa kissed her hand to Lucy, who occupied her usual place at the table.
"I wonder," she said, "if you understand, being only a man, what there is in that child; for she is but a child. You and I, we are Methuselahs in comparison."
"Not quite so much as that," he said, with a laugh.
"Methuselahs," she said reflectively. "Older, if that is possible; knowing everything, while she knows nothing. She is our good angel. It is what you would not have dared to offer, you who know me—yes, I believe it—and like me. Oh no, I do not go beyond that English word, never! You like the Forno-Populo. I know how you men speak. You think that there is amusement to be got from her, and you will do me the honour to say, no harm. That is, no permanent harm. But you would not offer to befriend me, no, not the best of you. But she who by nature is against such women as I am—Sweet Lucy! Yes it is you I am talking of," the Contessa said, who was skilful to break any lengthened speeches like this by all manner of interruptions, so that it should never tire the person to whom it was addressed. "She, who is not amused by me, who does not like me, whose prejudices are all against me, she it is who offers me her little hand to help me. It is a lovely little hand, though she is not a beauty——"
"My wife is very well," said Sir Tom, with a certain hauteur and abruptness, such as in all their lengthened conversations he had never shown before.
The Contessa gave him a look in which there was much of that feminine contempt at which men laugh as one of the pretences of women. "I am going to be good to her as she is to me," she said. "The Carnival will be short this year, and in England you have no Carnival. I will find myself a little house for the season. I will not too much impose upon that angel. There, now, is something good for you to relieve your mind. I can read you, mon ami, like a book. You are fond of me—oh yes!—but not too long; not too much. I can read you like a book."
"Too long, too much, are not in my vocabulary," said Sir Tom; "have they a meaning? not certainly that has any connection with a certain charming Contessina. If that lady has a fault, which I doubt, it is that she gives too little of her gracious countenance to her friends."
"She does not come down to breakfast," said the Contessa, with her soft laugh, which in itself was a work of art. "She is not so foolish as to put herself in competition with the lilies and the roses, the English flowers. Poverina! she keeps herself for the afternoon which is charitable, and the light of the lamps which is flattering. But she remembers other days—alas! in which she was not afraid of the sun himself, not even of the mid-day, nor of the dawn when it comes in above the lamps. There was a certain bal costume in Florence, a year when many English came to the Populino palace. But why do I talk of that? You will not remember——"
There was something apparently in the recollection that touched Sir Tom. His eye softened. An unaccustomed colour came to his middle-aged cheek. "I! not remember? I remember every hour, every moment," he said, and then their voices sank lower, and a murmur of reminiscences, one filling up another, ensued between the pair. Their tone softened, there were broken phrases, exclamations, a rapid interchange which was far too indistinct to be audible. Lucy sat by her table and worked, and was vaguely conscious of it all. She had said to herself that she would take no heed any more, that the poor Contessa was too open-hearted, too generous to harm her, that they were but two old friends talking of the past. And so it was; but there was a something forlorn in sitting by at a distance, out of it all, and knowing that it was to go on and last, alas! by her own doing, who could tell how many evenings, how many long hours to come!
The time after this seemed to fly in the great quiet, all the entertainments of the Christmas season being over, and the houses in the neighbourhood gradually emptying of guests. The only visitors at the Hall were the clergyman, the doctor, an odd man now and then whom Sir Tom would invite in the character of a "native," for the Contessa's amusement; and Mr. Rushton, who came from Farafield two or three times on business, at first with a very keen curiosity, to know how it was that Lucy had subdued her husband and got him to relinquish his objection to her alienation of her money. This had puzzled the lawyer very greatly. There had been no uncertainty about Sir Tom's opinion when the subject was mooted to him first. He had looked upon it with very proper sentiments. It had seemed to him ridiculous, incredible, that Lucy should set up her will against his, or take her own way, when she knew how he regarded the matter. He had told the lawyer that he had little doubt of being able to bring her to hear reason. And then he had written to say that he withdrew his objection! Mr. Rushton felt that there must be some reason here more than met the eye. He made a pretence of business that he might discover what it was, and he had done so triumphantly, as he thought. Sir Tom, as everybody knew, had been "a rover" in his youth, and the world was charitable enough to conclude that in that youth there must be many things which he would not care to expose to the eye of day. When Mr. Rushton beheld at luncheon the Contessa, followed by the young and slim figure of Bice, it seemed to him that everything was solved. And Lady Randolph, he thought, did not look with very favourable eyes upon the younger lady. What doubt that Sir Tom had bought the assent of his wife to the presence of the guests by giving up on his side some of his reasonable rights?
"Did you ever hear of an Italian lady that Sir Tom was thick with before he married?" he asked his wife when he came home.
"How can you ask me such a question," said that virtuous woman, "when you know as well as I do that there were half-a-dozen?"
"Did you ever hear the name of Forno-Populo?" he asked.
Mrs. Rushton paused and did her best to look as if she was trying to recollect. As a matter of fact all Italian names sounded alike to her, as English names do to foreign ears. But after a moment she said boldly: "Of course I have heard it. That was the lady from Naples, or Venice, or some of those places, that ran away with him. You heard all about it at the time as well as I."
And upon this Mr. Rushton smote upon his thigh, and made a mighty exclamation. "By George!" he said, "he's got her there, under his wife's very nose; and that's why he has given in about the money." Nothing could have been more clearly reasoned out—there could be no doubt upon that subject. And the presence of Bice decided the question. Bice must be—they said, to be sure! Dates and everything answered to this view of the question. There could be no doubt as to who Bice was. They were very respectable, good people themselves, and had never given any scandal to the world; but they never hesitated for a moment or thought there was anything unnatural in attributing the most shameful scandal and domestic treachery to Sir Tom. In fact it would be difficult to say that they thought much less of him in consequence. It was Lucy, rather, upon whom their censure fell. She ought to have known better. She ought never to have allowed it. To pretend to such simplicity was sickening, Mrs. Rushton thought.
It was early in February when they all went to London—a time when society is in a sort of promissory state, full of hopes of dazzling delights to come, but for the present not dazzling, parliamentary, residential, a society made up of people who live in London, who are not merely gay birds of fashion, basking in the sunshine of the seasons. There was only a week or two of what the Contessa called Carnival, which indeed was not Carnival at all, but a sober time in which dinner parties began, and the men began to gather at the clubs. The Contessa did not object to this period of quiet. She acquainted Lucy with all she meant to do in the meantime, to the great confusion of that ingenious spirit. "Bice must be dressed," the Contessa said, "which of itself requires no little time and thought. Unhappily M. Worth is not in London. Even with M. Worth I exert my own faculties. He is excellent, but he has not the intuitions which come when one is very much interested in an object. Sweet Lucy! you have not thought upon that matter. Your dress is as your dressmaker sends it to you. Yes; but, my angel, Bice has her career before her. It is different."
"Oh, Madame di Forno-Populo," said Lucy, "do you still think in that way—must it still be exhibiting her, marrying her?"
"Marriage is honourable," said the Contessa. "It is what all girls are thinking of; but me, I think it better that their parents should take it in hand instead of the young ladies. There is something in Bice that is difficult, oh, very difficult. If one chooses well for her, one will be richly repaid; but if, on the contrary, one leaves it to the conventional, the ordinary—My sweetest! your pretty white dresses, your blues are delightful for you; but Bice is different, quite different. And then she has no fortune. She must be piquant. She must be striking. She must please. In England you take no trouble for that. It is not comme il faut here; but it is in our country. Each of us we like the ways of our country best."
"I have often wondered," said Lucy, "to hear you speak such perfect English, and Bice too. It is, I suppose, because you are so musical and have such good ears——"
"Darling!" said the Contessa sweetly. She said this or a similar word when nothing else occurred to her. She had her room full of lovely stuffs, brought by obsequious shopmen, to whom Lady Randolph's name was sufficient warrant for any extravagance the Contessa might think of. But she said to herself that she was not at all extravagant; for Bice's wardrobe was her stock-in-trade, and if she did not take the opportunity of securing it while in her power, the Contessa thought she would be false to Bice's interests. The girl still wore nothing but her black frock. She went out in the park early in the morning when nobody was there, and sometimes had riding lessons at an unearthly hour, so that nobody should see her. The Contessa was very anxious on this point. When Lucy would have taken Bice out driving, when she would have taken her to the theatre, her patroness instantly interfered. "All that will come in its time," she said. "Not now. She must not appear now. I cannot have her seen. Recollect, my Lucy, she has no fortune. She must depend upon herself for everything." This doctrine, at which Lucy stood aghast, was maintained in the most matter-of-fact way by the neophyte herself. "If I were seen," she said, "now, I should be quite stale when I appear. I must appear before I go anywhere. Oh yes, I love the theatre. I should like to go with you driving. But I should forestall myself. Some persons do and they are never successful. First of all, before anything, I must appear."
"Oh my child," Lucy cried, "I cannot bear to hear of all this. You should not calculate so at your age. And when you appear, as you call it, what then, Bice? Nobody will take any particular notice, perhaps, and you will be so disappointed you will not know what to do. Hundreds of girls appear every season and nobody minds."
Bice took no notice of these subduing and moderating previsions. She smiled and repeated what the Contessa said. "I must do the best for myself, for I have no fortune."
No fortune! and to think that Lucy, with her mind directed to other matters, never once realised that this was a state of affairs which she could put an end to in a moment. It never occurred to her—perhaps, as she certainly was matter of fact, the recollection that there was a sort of stipulation in the will against foreigners turned her thoughts into another channel.
It was, however, during this time of preparation and quiet that the household in Park Lane one day received a visit from Jock, accompanied by no less a person than MTutor, the leader of intellectual life and light of the world to the boy. They came to luncheon by appointment, and after visiting some museum on which Jock's mind was set, came to remain to dinner and go to the theatre. MTutor had a condescending appreciation of the stage. He thought it was an educational influence, not perhaps of any great utility to the youths under such care as his own, but of no small importance to the less fortunate members of society; and he liked to encourage the efforts of conscientious actors who looked upon their own calling in this light. It was rather for this purpose than with the idea of amusement that he patronised the play, and Jock, as in duty bound, though there was in him a certain boyish excitement as to the pleasure itself, did his best to regard the performance in the same exalted light. MTutor was a young man of about thirty, slim and tall. He was a man who had taken honours at college, though his admirers said not such high honours as he might have taken; "For MTutor," said Jock, "never would go in for pot-hunting, you know. What he always wanted was to cultivate his own mind, not to get prizes." It was with heartfelt admiration that this feature in his character was dwelt upon by his disciples. Not a doubt that he could have got whatever he liked to go in for, had he not been so fastidious and high-minded. He was fellow of his college as it was, had got a poetry prize which, perhaps, was not the Newdigate; and smiled indulgently at those who were more warm in the arena of competition than himself. On other occasions when "men" came to luncheon, the Contessa, though quite ready to be amused by them in her own person, sternly forbade the appearance of Bice, the effect of whose future was not, she was determined, to be spoilt by any such preliminary peeps; but the Contessa's vigilance slackened when the visitors were of no greater importance than this. She was insensible to the greatness of MTutor. It did not seem to matter that he should be there sitting grave and dignified by Lucy's side, and talking somewhat over Lucy's head, any more than it mattered that Mr. Rushton should be there, or any other person of an inferior level. It was not upon such men that Bice's appearance was to tell. She took no precautions against such persons. Jock himself at sixteen was not more utterly out of the question. And the Contessa herself, as it happened, was much amused by MTutor; his great ideas of everything, the exalted ideal that showed in all he did or said, gave great pleasure to this woman of the world. And when they came to the question of the educational influence of the stage, and the conscientious character of the actors' work, she could not conceal her satisfaction. "I will go with you, too," she said, "this evening." "We shall all go," said Sir Tom, "even Bice. There is a big box, and behind the curtain nobody will see her." To this the Contessa demurred, but, after a little while, being in a yielding humour, gave way. "It is for the play alone," she said in an undertone, raising her finger in admonition, "You will remember, my child, for the play alone."
"We are all going for the play alone," said Sir Tom, cheerfully. "Here is Lucy, who is a baby for a play. She likes melodrama best, disguises and trap-doors and long-lost sons, and all the rest of it."
"It is a taste that is very general," said MTutor, indulgently; "but I am sure Lady Randolph appreciates the efforts of a conscientious interpreter—one who calls all the resources of art to his aid——"
"I don't care for the play alone," said Bice to Jock in an undertone. "I want to see the people. They are always the most amusing. I have seen nobody yet in London. And though I must not be seen, I may look, that will do no harm. Then there will be the people who come into the box."
"The people who come into the box! but you know us all," said Jock, astonished, "before we go——"
"You all?" said Bice, with some disdain. "It is easy to see you; that is not what I mean; this will be the first time I put my foot into the world. The actors, that is nothing. Is it the custom in England to look much at the play? No, you go to see your friends."
MTutor was on the other side of this strange girl in her black frock. He took it upon him to reply. He said: "That is the case in some countries, but not here. In England the play is actually thought of. English actors are not so good as the French, nor even the Italian. And the Germans are much better trained. Nevertheless, we do what perhaps no other nation does. We give them our attention. It is this which makes the position of the actors more important, more interesting in England."
"Stop a little, stop a little!" cried Sir Tom; "don't let me interrupt you, Derwentwater, if you are instructing the young ones; but don't forget the Comedie Francaise and the aristocracy of art."
"I do not forget it," said Mr. Derwentwater; "in that point of view we are far behind France; still I uphold that nowhere else do people go to the theatre for the sake of the play as we do; and it is this," he said, turning to Bice, "that makes it possible that the theatre may be an influence and a power."
Bice lifted her eyes upon this man with a wondering gaze of contempt. She gave him a full look which abashed him, though he was so much more important, so much more intellectual, than she. Then, without deigning to take any notice, she turned to Jock at her other side. "If that is all I do not care for going," she said. "I have seen many plays—oh, many! I like quite as well to read at home. It is not for that I wish to go; but to see the world. The world, that is far more interesting. It is like a novel, but living. You look at the people and you read what they are thinking. You see their stories going on. That is what amuses me;—but a play on the stage, what is it? People dressed in clothes that do not belong to them, trying to make themselves look like somebody else—but they never do. One says—that is not I, but the people that know—Bravo, Got! Bravo Regnier! It does not matter what parts they are acting. You do not care for the part. Then why go and look at it?" said Bice with straightforward philosophy.
All this she poured forth upon Jock in a low clear voice, as if there was no one else near. Jock, for his part, was carried away by the flood.
"I don't know about Got and Regnier. But what we are going to see is Shakespeare," he said, with a little awe, "that is not just like a common play."
Mr. Derwentwater had been astonished by Bice's indifference to his own instructive remarks. It was this perhaps more than her beauty which had called his attention to her, and he had listened as well as he could to the low rapid stream of her conversation, not without wonder that she should have chosen Jock as the recipient of her confidence. What she said, though he heard it but imperfectly, interested him still more. He wanted to make her out—it was a new kind of study. While Lucy, by his side, went on tranquilly with some soft talk about the theatre, of which she knew very little, he thought, he made her a civil response, but gave all his attention to what was going on at the other side; and there was suddenly a lull of the general commotion, in which he heard distinctly Bice's next words.
"What is Shakespeare?" she said; then went on with her own reflections. "What I want to see is the world. I have never yet gone into the world; but I must know it, for it is there I have to live. If one could live in Shakespeare," cried the girl, "it would be easy; but I have not been brought up for that; and I want to see the world—just a little corner—because that is what concerns me, not a play. If it is only for the play, I think I shall not go."
"You had much better come," said Jock; "after all it is fun, and some of the fellows will be good. The world is not to be seen at the theatre that I know of," continued the boy. "Rows of people sitting one behind another, most of them as stupid as possible—you don't call that the world? But come—I wish you would come. It is a change—it stirs you up."
"I don't want to be stirred up. I am all living," cried Bice. There seemed to breathe out from her a sort of visible atmosphere of energy and impatient life. Looking across this thrill in the air, which somehow was like the vibration of heat in the atmosphere, Jock's eyes encountered those of his tutor, turned very curiously, and not without bewilderment, to the same point as his own. It gave the boy a curious sensation which he could not define. He had wished to exhibit to Mr. Derwentwater this strange phenomenon in the shape of a girl, with a sense that there was something very unusual in her, something in which he himself had a certain proprietorship. But when MTutor's eyes encountered Jock's with an astonished glance of discovery in them, which seemed to say that he had found out Bice for himself without the interposition of the original discoverer, Jock felt a thrill of displeasure, and almost pain, which he could not explain to himself. What did it mean? It seemed to bring with it a certain defiance of, and opposition to, this king of men.
"Who was that young lady?" Mr. Derwentwater said. "I did not catch the name."
"What young lady?" To suppose for a moment that Jock did not know who was meant would be ridiculous, of course; but, for some reason which he did not explain even to himself, this was the reply he made.
"My dear Jock, there was but one," said MTutor, with much friendliness. "At your age you do not take much notice of the other sex, and that is very well and right; but still it would be wrong to imagine that there is not something interesting in girls occasionally. I did not make her out. She was quite a study to me at the theatre. I am afraid the greater part of the performance, and all the most meritorious portion of it, was thrown away upon her; but still there were gleams of interest. She is not without intelligence, that is clear."
"You mean Bice," said Jock, with a certain dogged air which Mr. Derwentwater had seldom seen in him before, and did not understand. He spoke as if he intended to say as little as was practicable, and as if he resented being made to speak at all.
"Bice—ah! like Dante's Bice," said MTutor. "That makes her more interesting still. Though it is not perhaps under that aspect that one represents to oneself the Bice of Dante—ben son, ben son, Beatrice. No, not exactly under that aspect. Dante's Bice must have been more grand, more imposing, in her dress of crimson or dazzling white."
Jock made no response. It was usual for him to regard MTutor devoutly when he talked in this way, and to feel that no man on earth talked so well. Jock in his omnivorous reading knew perhaps Dante better than his instructor, but he had come to the age when the mind, confused in all its first awakening of emotions, cannot talk of what affects it most. The time had been at which he had discussed everything he read with whosoever would listen, and instructed the world in a child's straightforward way. At that period he had often improved Lucy's mind on the subject of Dante, telling her all the details of that wonderful pilgrimage through earth and heaven, to her great interest and wonder, as something that had happened the other day. Lucy had not in those days been quite able to understand how it was that the gentleman of Florence should have met everybody he knew in the unseen, but she had taken it all in respectfully, as was her wont. Jock, however, had passed beyond this stage, and no longer told Lucy, or any one, stories from his reading; and other sensations had begun to stir in him which he could not put into words. In this way it was a constant admiration to him to hear MTutor, who could always, he thought, say the right thing and never was at a loss. But this evening he was dissatisfied. They were returning from the theatre by a late train, and nothing but Jock's reputation and high character as a boy of boys, high up in everything intellectual, and without reproach in any way, besides the devoted friendship which subsisted between himself and his tutor, could have justified Mr. Derwentwater in permitting him in the middle of the half to go to London to the theatre, and return by the twelve o'clock train. This privilege came to him from the favour of his tutor, and yet for the first time his tutor did not seem the superhuman being he had always previously appeared to Jock. But Mr. Derwentwater was quite unsuspicious of this.
"There is something very much out of the way in the young lady altogether," he said. "That little black dress, fitting her like a glove, and no ornament or finery of any description. It is not so with girls in general. It was very striking—tell me——"
"I didn't think," cried Jock, "that you paid any attention to what women wore."
Mr. Derwentwater yielded to a gentle smile. "Tell me," he said, as if he had not been interrupted, "who this young lady may be. Is she a daughter of the Italian lady, a handsome woman, too, in her way, who was with your people?" The railway carriage in which they were coursing through the blackness of the night was but dimly lighted, and it was not easy to see from one corner to another the expression of Jock's face.
"I don't know," said Jock, in a voice that sounded gruff, "I can't tell who she is—I never asked. It did not seem any business of mine."
"Old fellow," said MTutor, "don't cultivate those bearish ways. Some men do, but it's not good form. I don't like to see it in you."
This silenced Jock, and made his face flame in the darkness. He did not know what excuse to make. He added reluctantly: "Of course I know that she came with the Contessa; but who she is I don't know, and I don't think Lucy knows. She is just—there."
"Well, my boy," said Mr. Derwentwater, "if there is any mystery, all right; I don't want to be prying;" but, as was natural, this only increased his curiosity. After an interval, he broke forth again. "A little mystery," he said, "suits them; a woman ought to be mysterious, with her long robes falling round her, and her mystery of long hair, and all the natural veils and mists that are about her. It is more poetic and in keeping that they should only have a lovely suggestive name, what we call a Christian name, instead of a commonplace patronymic, Miss So-and-so! Yes; I recognise your Bice as by far the most suitable symbol."
It is impossible to say what an amount of unexpressed and inexpressible irritation arose in the mind of Jock with every word. "Your Bice!" The words excited him almost beyond his power of control. The mere fact of having somehow got into opposition to MTutor was in itself an irritation almost more than he could bear. How it was he could not explain to himself; but only felt that from the moment when they had got into their carriage together, Mr. Derwentwater, hitherto his god, had become almost odious to him. The evening altogether had been exciting, but uncomfortable. They had all gone to the theatre, where Jock had been prepared to look on not so much at a fine piece of acting as at a conscientious study, the laboriousness of which was one of its chief qualities. Neither the Contessa nor Bice had been much impressed by that fine view of the performance. Madame di Forno-Populo, indeed, had swept the audience with her opera-glass, and paid very little attention to the stage. She had yawned at the most important moments. When the curtain fell she had woke up, looking with interest for visitors, as it appeared, though very few visitors had come. Bice was put into the corner under shelter of the Contessa, and thence had taken furtive peeps, though without any opera-glass, with her own keen, intelligent young eyes, at the people sitting near, whom Jock had declared not to be in any sense of the word the world. Bice too looked up, when the box door opened, with great interest. She kept well in the shade, but it was evident that she was anxious to see whosoever might come. And very few people came; one or two men who came to pay their respects to Lucy, one or two who appeared with faces of excitement and surprise to ask if it was indeed Madame di Forno-Populo whom they had seen? At these Bice from out her corner gazed with large eyes; they were not persons of an interesting kind. One of them was a Lord Somebody, who was red-faced and had an air which somehow did not suit the place in which Lucy was, and towards whom Sir Tom, though he knew him, maintained an aspect of seriousness not at all usual to his cordial countenance. Bice, it was evident, was struck with a contemptuous amaze at the appearance of these visitors. There was a quick interchange of glances between her and the Contessa with shrugs of the shoulders and much play of fans. Bice's raised eyebrows and curled lips perhaps meant—"Are those your famous friends? Is this all?" Whereas the Contessa answered deprecatingly, with a sort of "wait a little" look. Jock, who generally was pleased to stroll about the lobbies in a sort of mannish way in the intervals between the acts, sat still in his place to watch all this with a wondering sense that here was something going on in which there was a still closer interest, and to notice everything almost without knowing that he noted it, following in this respect, as in most others, the lead of his tutor, who likewise addressed himself to the supervision of everything that went on, discoursing in the meantime to Lucy about the actors' "interpretation" of the part, and how far he, Mr. Derwentwater, agreed with their view. To Lucy, indeed, the action of the play was everything, and the intervals between tedious. She laughed and cried, and followed every movement, and looked round, hushing the others when they whispered, almost with indignation. Lucy was far younger, Jock decided, than Bice or even himself. He, too, had learned already—how had he learned it?—that the play going on upon the stage was less interesting than that which was being performed outside. Even Jock had found this out, though he could not have told how. Shakespeare, indeed, was far greater, nobler; but the excitement of a living story, the progress of events of which nobody could tell what would come next, had an interest transcending even the poetry. That was what people said, Jock was aware, in novels and other productions; but until to-night he never believed it was true.
And then there was the journey from town, with all the curious sensation of parting at the theatre doors, and returning from that shining world of gaslight, and ladies' dresses, into the dimness of the railway, the tedious though not very long journey, the plunging of the carriage through the blackness of the night; and along with these the questions of Mr. Derwentwater, so unlike him, so uncalled-for, as Jock could not help thinking. What had he to do with Bice? What had any one to do with her? So far as she belonged to any one, it was to himself, Jock; her first friend, her companion in her walks, he to whom she had spoken so freely, and who had told her his opinion with such simplicity. When Jock remembered that he had told her she was not pretty his cheeks burned. There had stolen into his mind, he could not tell how, a very different feeling now—not perhaps a different opinion. When he reflected it did not seem to him even now that pretty was the word to use—but the impression of Bice which was in his mind was something that made the boy thrill. He did not understand it, nor could he tell what it was. But it made him quiver with resentment when there was any question about her—anything like this cold-blooded investigation which Mr. Derwentwater had attempted to make. It troubled Jock all the more that it should be MTutor who made it. When our god, our model of excellence, comes down from his high state to anything that is petty, or less than perfect, how sore is the pang with which we acknowledge it. "To be wroth with those we love doth work like madness in the brain." Jock had both these pangs together. He was angry because MTutor had been interfering with matters in which he had no concern, and he was pained because MTutor had condescended to ask questions and invite gossip, like the smaller beings well enough known in the boy-world as in every other, who make gossip the chief object of their existence. Could there be anything in the idol of his youth akin to these? He felt sore and disappointed, without knowing why, with a dim consciousness that there were many other people whom Mr. Derwentwater might have inquired about without awakening any such feelings in him. When the train stopped, and they got out, it was strange to walk down the silent, midnight streets by MTutor's side, without the old sensation of pleasure with which the boy felt himself made into the man's companion. He was awakened out of his maze of dark and painful feelings by the voice of Derwentwater calling upon him to admire the effect of the moonlight upon the river as they crossed the bridge. For long after that scene remained in Jock's mind against a background of mysterious shadows and perplexity. The moon rode in the midst of a wide clearing of blue between two broken banks of clouds. She was almost full, and approaching her setting. She shone full upon the river, sweeping from side to side in one flood of silver, broken only by a few strange little blacknesses, the few boats, like houseless stragglers out by night and without shelter, which lay here and there by a wharf or at the water's edge. The scene was wonderfully still and solemn, not a motion to be seen either on street or stream. "How is it, do you think," said Mr. Derwentwater, "that we think so little of the sun when it is he that lights up a scene like this, and so much of the moon?"
Jock was taken by surprise by this question, which was of a kind which his tutor was fond of putting, and which brought back their old relations instantaneously. Jock seemed to himself to wake up out of a strange inarticulate dream of displeasure and embarrassment, and to feel himself with sudden remorse, a traitor to his friend. He said, faltering: "I don't know; it is always you that finds out the analogies. I don't think that my mind is poetical at all."
"You do yourself injustice, Jock," said Derwentwater, his arm within that of his pupil in their old familiar way. And then he said: "The moon is the feminine influence which charms us by showing herself clearly as the source of the light she sheds. The sun we rarely think of at all, but only of what he gives us—the light and the heat that are our life. Her," he pointed to the sky, "we could dispense with, save for the beauty of her."
"I wish," said Jock, "I could think of anything so fine. But do you think we could do without women like that?" said the inquiring young spirit, ready to follow with his bosom bare whithersoever this refined philosophy might lead.
"You and I will," said the instructor. "There are grosser and there are tamer spirits to whom it might be different. I would not wrong you by supposing that you, my boy, could ever be tempted in the gross way; and I don't think you are of the butterfly dancing kind."
"I should rather think not!" said Jock, with a short laugh.
"Then, except as a beautiful object, setting herself forth in conscious brightness, like that emblem of woman yonder," said MTutor with a wave of his hand, admiring, familiar, but somewhat contemptuous, towards the moon, "what do we want with that feminine influence? Our lives are set to higher uses, and occupied with other aims."
Jock was perfectly satisfied with this profession of faith. He went along the street with his tutor's arm in his, and a vague elation as of something settled and concluded upon in his mind. Their footsteps rang upon the pavement with a manly tramp as they paced away from the light on the bridge into the shadow of the old houses with their red roofs. They had gone some way before, being above all things loyal, Jock thought it right to put in a proviso. "Not intellectually, perhaps," he said, "but I can't forget how much I owe to my sister. I should have been a most forlorn little wretch when I was a child, and I shouldn't be much now, but for Lucy standing by me. It's not well to forget that, is it, sir? though Lucy is not at all clever," he added in an undertone.
"You are a loyal soul," said MTutor, with a pressure of his arm, "but Woman does not mean our mothers and sisters." Here he permitted himself a little laugh. "It shows me how much inferior is my position to that of your youth, my dear boy," he said, "when you give me such an answer. Believe me it is far finer than anything you suppose me to be able to say."
Jock did not know how to respond to this speech. It half angered, half pleased him, but on the whole he was more ashamed of the supposed youthfulness than satisfied with the approbation. No one, however young, likes the imputation of innocence; and Jock had feelings rising within him of which he scarcely knew the meaning, but which made him still more sensible of the injustice of this view. He was too proud, however, to explain himself even if he had been able to do so, and the little way that remained was trodden in silence. The boy, however, could not help a curious sensation of superiority as he went to his room through the sleeping-house, feeling the stillness of the slumber into which he stole, treading very quietly that he might not disturb any one. He stopped for a moment with a candle in his hand and looked down the long passage with its line of closed doors on each side, holding his breath with a half smile of sympathy, respect for the hush of sleep, yet keen superiority of life and emotion over all the unconscious household. His own brain and heart seemed tingling with the activity and tumult of life in them. It seemed to him impossible to sleep, to still the commotion in his mind, and bring himself into harmony with that hushed atmosphere and childish calm.
Easter was very early that year, about as early as Easter can be, and there was in Jock's mind a disturbing consciousness of the holidays, and the manner in which he was likely to spend them, which no doubt interfered to a certain extent with his work. He ought to have been first in the competition for a certain school prize, and he was not. It was carried off to the disappointment of Jock's house, and, indeed, of the greater part of the school, by a King's scholar, which was the fate of most of the prizes. Mr. Derwentwater was deeply cast down by this disappointment. He expressed himself on the subject indeed with all the fine feeling for which he was distinguished. "The loss of a distinction," he said, "is not in itself a matter to disturb us; but I own I should be sorry to think that you were failing at all in that intellectual energy which has already placed you so often at the head of the lists—that, my dear fellow, I should unfeignedly regret; but not a mere prize, which is nothing." This was a very handsome way of speaking of it; but that MTutor was disappointed there could be no doubt. To Jock himself it gave a keen momentary pang to see his own name only third in that beadroll of honour; but so it was. The holidays had all that to answer for; the holidays, or rather what they were to bring. When he thought of the Hall and the company there, Jock felt a certain high tide in his veins, an awakening of interest and anticipation which he did not understand. He did not say to himself that he was going to be happy. He only looked forward with an eager heart, with a sense of something to come, which was different from the routine of ordinary life. MTutor after many hindrances and hesitations was at last going to accept the invitation of Sir Tom, and accompany his pupil. This Jock had looked forward to as the greatest of pleasures. But somehow he did not feel so happy about it now. He did not seem to himself to want Mr. Derwentwater. In some ways, indeed, he had become impatient of Mr. Derwentwater. Since that visit to the theatre, involuntarily without any cause for it, there had commenced to be moments in which MTutor was tedious. This sacrilege was unconscious, and never yet had been put into words; but still the feeling was there; and the beginning of any such revolution in the soul must be accompanied with many uneasinesses. Jock was on the stroke, so to speak, of seventeen. He was old for his age, yet he had been almost childish too in his devotion to his books, and the subjects of his school life. The last year had introduced many new thoughts to his mind by restoring him to the partial society of his sister and her house; but into these new subjects he had carried the devotion of his studious habits and the enthusiasm of his discipleship, transferring himself bodily with all his traditions into the new atmosphere. But a change somehow had begun in him, he could not tell how. He was stirred beyond the lines of his former being—sentiments, confusions of spirit quite new to him, were vaguely fermenting, he could not tell how; and school work, and prizes, and all the emulations of sixth form had somehow tamed and paled. The colour seemed to have gone out of them. And the library of MTutor, that paradise of thought, that home of conversation, where so many fine things used to be said—that too had palled upon the boy's uneasy soul. He felt as if he should prefer to leave everything behind him,—books and compositions and talk, and even MTutor himself. Such a state of mind is sure to occur some time or other in a boy's experiences; but in this case it was too early, and Mr. Derwentwater, who was very deeply devoted to his pupils, was much exercised on the subject. He had lost Jock's confidence, he thought. How had he lost his confidence? was it that some other less wholesome influence was coming in? Thus there were feelings of discomfort between them, hesitations as to what to say, instinctive avoidance of some subjects, concealed allusions to others. It might even be said that in a very refined and superior way, such as was alone possible to such a man, Mr. Derwentwater occasionally talked at Jock. He talked of the pain and grief of seeing a young heart closed to you which once had been open, and of the poignant disappointment which arises in an elder spirit when its spiritual child—its disciple—gets beyond its leading. Jock, occupied with his own thoughts, only partially understood.
It was in this state of mind that they set out together, amid all the bustle of breaking up, to pay their promised visit. Jock, who up to this moment had hated London, and looked with alarm upon society, had eagerly accepted his tutor's proposal that after the ten days which they were to spend at the Hall they should go to Normandy together for the rest of the holidays, which was an arrangement very pleasant in anticipation. But by this time neither of the two was at all anxious to carry it out. Mr. Derwentwater had begun to talk of the expediency of giving a little attention to one's own country. "We are just as foolish as the ignorant masses," he said, "though we think ourselves so wise. Why not Devonshire instead of Normandy? it is finer in natural scenery. Why not London instead of Paris? there is no spell in mere going, as the ignorant say 'abroad.'" When you come to think of it, in just the same proportion as one is superior to the common round of gaping British tourists, by going on a walking tour in Normandy, one is superior to the walkers in Normandy by choosing Devonshire.
These remarks were preliminary to the intention of giving up the plan altogether, and by the time they set out it was tacitly understood that this was to be the case. It was to be given up—not for Devonshire. The pair of friends had become two—they were to do each what was good in his own eyes. Jock would remain "at home," whether that home meant the Hall or Park Lane, and Mr. Derwentwater, after his week's visit, should go on—where seemed to him good.
There was a considerable party gathered in the inner drawing-room when Jock and his companion presented themselves there. The scene was very different from that to which Jock had been accustomed, when the tea-table was a sort of fireside adjunct to the warmth and brightness centred there. Now the windows were full of a clear yellow sky, shining a little shrilly after rain, and promising in its too-clear and watery brightness more rain to come; and many people were about, some standing up against the light, some lounging in the comfortable chairs, some talking together in groups, some hanging about Lucy and her tea service. Lucy said, "Oh, is it you, Jock?" and kissed him, with a look of pleasure; but she had not run out to meet him as of old. Lucy, indeed, was changed, perhaps more evidently changed than any member of the family. She was far more self-possessed than she had ever been before. She did not now turn to her husband with that pretty look, half-smiling, half-wistful, to know how she had got through her domestic duties. There was a slight air of hurry and embarrassment about her eyes. The season had not begun, and she could not have been overdone by her social duties; but something had aged and changed her. Some old acquaintances came forward and shook hands with Jock; and Sir Tom, when he saw who it was, detached himself from the person he was talking to, and came forward and gave him a sufficiently cordial welcome. The person with whom he was talking was the Contessa. She was in her old place in the room, the comfortable sofa which she had taken from Lady Randolph, and where Sir Tom, leaning upon the mantelpiece, as an Englishman loves to do, could talk to her in the easiest of attitudes. Jock, though he was not discerning, thought that Sir Tom looked aged and changed too. The people in general had a tired afternoon sort of look about them. They were not like people exulting to get out of town, and out of darkness and winter weather to the fresh air and April skies. Perhaps, however, this effect was produced by the fact that looking for one special person in the assembly Jock had not found her. He had never cared who was there before. Except Lucy, the whole world was much the same to him. To talk to her now and then, but by preference alone, when he could have her to himself and nobody else was by, and then to escape to the library, had been the height of his desire. Now he no longer thought of the library, or even, save in a secondary way, of Lucy. He looked about for some one else. There was the Contessa, sure enough, with one man on the sofa by her side and another seated in front of her, and Sir Tom against the mantelpiece lounging and talking. She was enchanting them all with her rapid talk, with the pretty, swift movements of her hands, her expressive looks and ways. But there was no shadow of Bice about the room. Jock looked at once behind the table, where she had been always visible when the Contessa was present. But Bice was not there. There was not a trace of her among the people whom Jock neither knew nor cared to know. But everything went on cheerfully, notwithstanding this omission, which nobody but Jock seemed to remark. Ladies chattered softly as they sipped their tea, men standing over them telling anecdotes of this person and that, with runs of soft laughter here and there. Lucy at the tea-table was the only one who was at all isolated. She was bending over her cups and saucers, supplying now one and now another, listening to a chance remark here and there, giving an abstracted smile to the person who might chance to be next to her. What was she thinking of? Not of Jock, who had only got a smile a little more animated than the others. Mr. Derwentwater did not know anybody in this company. He stood on the outskirts of it, with that look of mingled conciliation and defiance which is natural to a man who feels himself overlooked. He was more disappointed even than Jock, for he had anticipated a great deal of attention, and not to find himself nobody in a fashionable crowd.
Things did not mend even at dinner. Then the people were more easily identified in their evening clothes, exposing themselves steadily to all observers on either side of the table; but they did not seem more interesting. There were two or three political men, friends of Sir Tom, and some of a very different type who were attached to the Contessa—indeed, the party consisted chiefly of men, with a few ladies thrown in. The ladies were not much more attractive. One of them, a Lady Anastasia something, was one of the most inveterate of gossip collectors, a lady who not only provided piquant tales for home consumption, but served them up to the general public afterwards in a newspaper—the only representatives of ordinary womankind being a mother and two daughters, who had no particular qualities, and who duly occupied a certain amount of space, without giving anything in return. But Bice was not visible. She who had been so little noticed, yet so far from insignificant, where was she? Could it be that the Contessa had left her behind, or that Lucy had objected to her, or that she was ill, or that—Jock did not know what to think. The company was a strange one. Those sedate, political friends of Sir Tom found themselves with a little dismay in the society of the lady who wrote for what she called the Press, and the gentlemen from the clubs. One of the guests was the young Marquis Montjoie, who had quite lately come into his title and the world. He had been at school with Jock a few years before, and he recognised Mr. Derwentwater with a curious mixture of awe and contempt. "Hallo!" he had cried when he perceived him first, and he had whispered something to the Contessa which made her laugh also. All this Jock remarked vaguely in his uneasiness and disappointment. What was the good of coming home, he said to himself, if—— What was the use of having so looked forward to the holidays and lost that prize, and disappointed everybody, if—— There rose such a ferment in Jock's veins as had never been there before. When the ladies left the room after dinner it was he that opened the door for them, and as Lucy looked up with a smile into her brother's face she met from him a scowl which took away her breath. Why did he scowl at Lucy? and why think that in all his life he had never seen so dull a company before? Their good things after dinner were odious to his ears; and to think, that even MTutor should be able to laugh at such miserable jokes and take an interest in such small talk! That fellow Montjoie, above all, was intolerable to Jock. He had been quite low down in the school when he left, a being of no account, a creature called by opprobrious names, and not worthy to tie the shoes of a member of Sixth Form. But when he rattled loudly on about nothing at all, even Sir Tom did not refuse to listen. What was Montjoie doing here? When the gentlemen streamed into the drawing-room, a procession of black coats, Jock, who came last, could not help being aware that he was scowling at everybody. He met the eyes of one of those inoffensive little girls in blue, and made her jump, looking at her as if he would eat her. And all the evening through he kept prowling about with his hands in his pockets, now looking at the books in the shelves, now frowning at Lucy, who could not think what was the matter with her brother. Was Jock ill? What had happened to him? The young ladies in blue sang an innocent little duet, and Jock stared at the Contessa, wondering if she was going to sing, and if the door would open and the slim figure in the black frock come in as by a signal and place herself at the piano. But the Contessa only laughed behind her fan, and made a little pretence at applause when the music ceased, having talked all through it, she and the gentlemen about her, of whom Montjoie was one and the loudest. No, she was not going to sing. When the door opened it was only to admit the servants with their trays and the tea which nobody wanted. What was the use of looking forward to the holidays if—— Mr. Derwentwater, perhaps, had similar thoughts. He came up to Jock behind the backs of the other people, and put an uneasy question to him.
"I thought you said that Madame di Forno-Populo sang?"
"She used to," said Jock laconically.
"The music here does not seem of a high class," said MTutor. "I hope she will sing. Italians, though their music is sensuous, generally know something about the art."
To this Jock made no reply, but hunched his shoulders a little higher, and dug his hands down deeper into his pockets.
"By the way, is the—young lady who was with Madame di Forno-Populo here no longer?" said MTutor in a sort of accidental manner, as if that had for the first time occurred to him. He raised his eyes to Jock's face, which was foolish, and they both reddened in spite of themselves; Mr. Derwentwater with sudden confusion, and Jock with angry dismay.
"Not that I know of," said the boy. "I haven't heard anything." Then he went on hurriedly: "No more than I know what Montjoie's doing here. What's he been asked here for I wonder? He can't amuse anybody much." These words, however, were contradicted practically as soon as they were said by a peal of laughter which rose from the Contessa's little corner, all caused as it was evident by some pleasantry of Montjoie's.
"It seems that he does, though," said Mr. Derwentwater; and then he added with a smile, "We are novices in society, you and I. We do best in our own class; not to know that Montjoie will be in the very front of society, the admired of all admirers at least for a season or two! Isn't he a favourite of fortune, the best parti, a golden youth in every sense of the word——"
"Why, he was a scug!" cried Jock, with illimitable disdain. This mysterious and terrible monosyllable was applied at school to a youth hopelessly low down and destitute of any personal advantages to counterbalance his inferiority. Jock launched it at the Marquis, evidently now in a very different situation, as if it had been a stone.
"Hush!" said MTutor blandly. "You will meet a great many such in society, and they will think themselves quite as good as you."
Then the mother of the young ladies in blue approached and disturbed this tete-a-tete.
"I think you were talking of Lord Montjoie," she said. "I hear he is so clever; there are some comic songs he sings, which, I am told, are quite irresistible. Mr. Trevor, don't you think you could induce him to sing one?—as you were at school with him, and are a sort of son of the house?"
At this Jock glowered with eyes that were alarming to see under the deep cover of his eyebrows, and MTutor laughed out. "We had not so exalted an opinion of Montjoie," he said; and then, with a politic diversion of which he was proud, "Would not your daughters favour us again? A comic song in the present state of our feelings would be more than we could bear."
"What a clever fellow he is after all!" said Jock to himself admiringly, "how he can manage people and say the right thing at the right moment! I dare say Lucy will tell me if I ask her," he said, quite irrelevantly, as the lady, well pleased to hear her daughters appreciated, sailed away. There was something in the complete sympathy of Mr. Derwentwater's mind, even though it irritated, which touched him. He put the question point blank to Lucy when he found an opportunity of speaking to her. "I say, Lucy, where is Bice? You have got all the old fogeys about the place, and she is not here," the boy said.
"Is that why you are glooming upon everybody so?" said the unfeeling Lucy. "You cannot call your friend Lord Montjoie an old fogey, Jock. He says you were such friends at school."
"I—friends!" cried Jock with disdain. "Why, he was nothing but a scug."
Thus Lucy, too, avoided the question; but it was not because she had any real reluctance to speak of Bice, though this was what Jock could not know.
THE CONTESSA PREPARES THE WAY.
"I never sing," said the Contessa, with that serene smile with which she was in the habit of accompanying a statement which her hearers knew to be quite untrue. "Oh never! It is one of my possibilities which are over—one of the things which you remember of me in—other days——"
"So far back as March," said Sir Tom; "but we all recognise that in a lady's calendar that may mean a century."
"Put it in the plural, mon ami—centuries, that is more correct," said the Contessa, with her dazzling smile.
"And might one ask why this sudden acceleration of time?" asked one of the gentlemen who were always in attendance, belonging, so to speak, to the Contessa's side of the party. She opened out her lovely hands and gave a little shrug to her shoulders, and elevation of her eyebrows.
"It is easy to tell: but whether I shall tell you is another question——"
"Oh, do, do, Countess," cried young Montjoie, who was somewhat rough in his attentions, and treated the lady with less ceremony than a less noble youth would have ventured upon. "Come, don't keep us all in suspense. I must hear you, don't you know; all the other fellows have heard you. So, please, get over the preliminaries, and let's come to the music. I'm awfully fond of music, especially singing. I'm a dab at that myself——"
The Contessa let her eyes dwell upon this illustrious young man. "Why," she said, "have I been prevented from making acquaintance with the art in which my Lord Montjoie is—a dab——"
At this there was a laugh, in which the good-natured young nobleman did not refuse to join. "I say, you know! it's too bad to make fun of me like this," he cried; "but I'll tell you what, Countess, I'll make a bargain with you. I'll sing you three of mine if you'll sing me one of yours."
The Contessa smiled with that gracious response which so often answered instead of words. The other ladies had withdrawn, except Lucy, who waited somewhat uneasily till her guest was ready. Though Madame di Forno-Populo had never lost the ascendency which she had acquired over Lady Randolph by throwing herself upon her understanding and sympathy, there were still many things which Lucy could not acquiesce in without uneasiness, in the Contessa's ways. The group of men about her chair, when all the other ladies took their candles and made their way upstairs, wounded Lucy's instinctive sense of what was befitting. She waited, punctilious in her feeling of duty, though the Contessa had not hesitated to make her understand that the precaution was quite unnecessary—and though even Sir Tom had said something of a similar signification. "She is old enough to take care of herself. She doesn't want a chaperon," Sir Tom had said; but nevertheless Lucy would take up a book and sit down at the table and wait: which was the more troublesome that it was precisely at this moment that the Contessa was most amusing and enjoyed herself most. Sir Tom's parliamentary friends had disappeared to the smoking-room when the ladies left the room. It was the other kind of visitors, the gentlemen who had known the Contessa in former days, and were old friends likewise of Sir Tom, who gathered round her now—they and young Lord Montjoie, who was rather out of place in the party, but who admired the Contessa greatly, and thought her better fun than any one he knew.
The Contessa gave the young man one of those speaking smiles which were more eloquent than words. And then she said: "If I were to tell you why, you would not believe me. I am going to retire from the world."
At this there was a little tumult of outcry and laughter. "The world cannot spare you, Contessa." "We can't permit any such sacrifice." And, "Retire! Till to-morrow?" her courtiers said.
"Not till to-morrow. I do more than retire. I abdicate," said the Contessa, waving her beautiful hands as if in farewell.
"This sounds very mysterious; for an abdication is different from a withdrawal; it suggests a successor."
"Which is an impossibility," another said.
The Contessa distributed her smiles with gracious impartiality to all, but she kept a little watch upon young Montjoie, who was eager amid the ring of her worshippers. "Nevertheless, it is more than a successor," she said, playing with them, with a strange pleasure. To be thus surrounded, flattered more openly than men ever venture to flatter a woman whom they respect, addressed with exaggerated admiration, contemplated with bold and unwavering eyes, had come by many descents to be delightful to the Contessa. It reminded her of her old triumphs—of the days when men of a different sort brought homage perhaps not much more real but far more delicate, to her feet. A long career of baths and watering-places, of Baden and Homburg, and every other conceivable resort of temporary gaiety and fashion, had brought her to this. Sir Tom, who was not taking much share in the conversation, stood with his arm on the mantelpiece, and watched her and her little court with compassionate eyes. He had laughed often before; but he did not laugh now. Perhaps the fact that he was himself no longer her first object helped to change the aspect of affairs. He had consented to invite these men as old acquaintances; but it was intolerable to him to see this scene going on in the room in which his wife was; and the Contessa's radiant satisfaction seemed almost horrible to him in Lucy's presence. Lucy was seated at some distance from the group, her face turned away, her head bent, to all appearance very intent upon the book she was reading. He looked at her with a sort of reverential impatience. She was not capable of understanding the degradation which her own pure and simple presence made apparent. He could not endure her to be there sanctioning the indecorum;—and yet the tenacity with which she held her place, and did what she thought her duty to her guest, filled him with a wondering pride. No other scene, perhaps, he thought, in all England, could have presented a contrast so curious.
"The Contessa speaks in riddles," said one of the circle. "We want an OEdipus."
"Oh, come, Countess," said young Montjoie, "don't hang us up like this. We are all of us on pins and needles, don't you know? It all began about you singing. Why don't you sing? All the fellows say it's as good as Grisi. I never heard Grisi, but I know every note Patti's got in her voice; and I want to compare, don't you know?"
The Contessa contemplated the young man with a sort of indulgent smile like a mother who withholds a toy.
"When are you going away?" she said. "You will soon go back to your dear London, to your clubs and all your delights."
"Oh, come, Countess," repeated Montjoie, "that isn't kind. You talk as if you wanted to get rid of a fellow. I'm due at the Duke's on Friday, don't you know?"
"Then it shall be on Thursday," said the Contessa, with a laugh.
"What shall be on Thursday?"
The others all came round her with eager questions.
"I am going on Wednesday," said one. "What is this that is going to happen?"
"And why am I to be excluded?"
"And I? If there is to be anything new, tell us what it is."
"Inquisitors! and they say that curiosity belongs to women," said the Contessa. "Messieurs, if I were to tell you what it was, it would be no longer new."
"Well, but hang it all," cried young Montjoie, who was excited and had forgotten his manners, "do tell us what it is. Don't you see we don't even know what kind of thing you mean? If it's music——"
Madame di Forno-Populo laughed once more. She loved to mystify and raise expectations. "It is not music," she said. "It is my reason for withdrawing. When you see that, you will understand. You will all say the Contessa is wise. She has foreseen exactly the right moment to retire."
And with this she rose from the sofa with a sudden movement which took her attendants by surprise. She was not given to shaking hands. She withdrew quickly from Montjoie's effort to seize her delicate fingers, which she waved to the company in general. "My Lucy," she said, "I have kept you waiting! to this extent does one forget one's self in your delightful house. But, my angel, you should not permit me to do it. You should hold up your finger, and I would obey."
"Bravo," said Montjoie's voice behind their backs in a murmur of delight. "Oh, by Jove, isn't that good? Fancy, a woman like her, and that simple——"
One of the elder men gave Montjoie something like a kick, inappropriate as the scene was for such a demonstration. "You little——think what you are saying," he cried.
But Sir Tom was opening the door for the ladies, and did not hear. Lucy was tired and pale. She looked like a child beside the stately Contessa. She had taken no notice of Madame di Forno-Populo's profession of submission. In her heart she was longing to run to the nursery, to see her boy asleep, and make sure that all was well; and she was not only tired with her vigil, but uneasy, disapproving. She divined what the Contessa meant, though not even Sir Tom had made it out. Perhaps it was feminine instinct that instructed her on this point. Perhaps the strong repugnance she had, and sense of opposition to what was about to be done, quickened her powers of divination. She who had never suspected anybody in all her life fathomed the Contessa's intentions at a glance. "That boy!" she said to herself as she followed up the great staircase. Lucy divined the Contessa, and the Contessa divined that she had divined her. She turned round when they reached the top of the stairs and paused for a moment looking at Lady Randolph's face, lit up with the light of her candle. "My sweetest," said the Contessa, "you do not approve. It breaks my heart to see it. But what can I do! This is my way, it is not yours; but to me it is the only way."
Lucy could do nothing but shake her head as she turned the way of the nursery where her boy was sleeping. The contrast gave her a pang. Bice, too, was no doubt sleeping the deep and dreamless sleep of youth behind one of those closed doors; poor Bice! secluded there to increase the effect of her eventual appearance, and about whom her protectress was draping all those veils of mystery in order to tempt the fancy of a commonplace youth not much more than a schoolboy! And yet the Contessa loved her charge, and persuaded herself that she was acting for Bice's good. Poor Bice, who was so good to little Tom! Was there nothing to be done to save her?
"What's going to happen on Thursday?" the men of the Contessa's train asked of Sir Tom, as they followed him to the smoking-room, where Mr. Derwentwater, in a velvet coat, was already seated smoking a mild cigarette, and conversing with one of the parliamentary gentlemen. Jock hung about in the background, turning over the books (for there were books everywhere in this well-provided house) rather with the intention of making it quite evident that he went to bed when he liked, and could stay up as late as any one, than from any hankering after that cigar which a Sixth Form fellow, so conscientious as Jock was, might not trifle with. "Oh, here are those two duffers; those saps, don't you know," Montjoie said, with a grimace, as he perceived them on entering the room; in which remark he was perhaps justified by the epithets which these two superior persons applied to him. The two parties did not amalgamate in the smoking-room any more than in other places. The new comers surrounded Sir Tom in a noisy little crowd, demanding of him an explanation of the Contessa's meaning. This, however, was subdued presently by a somewhat startling little incident. The gentlemen were discussing the Contessa with the greatest freedom. "It's rather astounding to meet her in a good house, just like any one else," one man forgot himself sufficiently to say, but he came to his recollection very quickly on meeting Sir Tom's eyes. "I beg your pardon, Randolph, of course that's not what I mean. I mean after all those years." "Then I hope you will remember to say exactly what you mean," said Sir Tom, "on other occasions. It will simplify matters."