This momentary incident, though it was quiet enough, and expressed in tones rather less than more loud than the ordinary conversation, made a sensation in the room, and produced first an involuntary stillness, and then an eager access of talk. It had the effect, however, of making everybody aware that the Contessa intended to make, on Thursday, some revelation or other, an intimation which moved Jock and his tutor as much or even more than it moved the others. Mr. Derwentwater even made advances to Montjoie, whom he had steadily ignored, in order to ascertain what it was. "Something's coming off, that's all we can tell," that young patrician said. "She is going to retire, so she says, from the world, don't you know? That's like a tradesman shutting up shop when he's made his fortune, or a prima donna going off the stage. It ain't so easy to make out, is it, how the Forno-Populo can retire from the world? She can't be going to take poison, like the great Sarah, and give us a grand dying seance in Lady Randolph's drawing-room. That would be going a bit too far, don't you know?"
"It is going a bit too far to imagine such a thing," Derwentwater said.
"Oh, come, you know, it isn't school-time," cried Montjoie, with a laugh. And though Mr. Derwentwater was as much superior to the little lordling as could be conceived, he retired disconcerted from this passage of arms. To be reminded that you are a pedagogue is difficult to bear, especially an unsuccessful pedagogue, attempting to exert authority which exists no longer. MTutor prided himself on being a man of the world, but he retired a little with an involuntary sense of offence from this easy setting down. He rose shortly after and took Jock by the arm and led him away. "You are not smoking, which I am glad to see—and shows your sense," he said. "Come out and have a breath of air before we go upstairs. Can you imagine anything more detestable than that little precocious roue, that washed-out little man-about-town," he added with some energy, as they stepped out of the open windows of the library, left open in case the fine night should have seduced the gentlemen on to the terrace to smoke their cigars. It was a lovely spring night, soft and balmy, with a sensation of growth in the air, the sky very clear, with airy white clouds all lit up by the moon. The quiet and freshness gave to those who stepped into it a curious sensation of superiority to the men whom they left in the warm brightly-lit room, with its heavy atmosphere and artificial delights. It felt like a moral atmosphere in contrast with the air all laden with human emanations, smoke, and the careless talk of men. These two were perhaps somewhat inclined to feel a superiority in any circumstances. They did so doubly in these.
"He was always a little cad," said Jock.
"To hear a lady's name from his mouth is revolting," said Derwentwater. "We are all too careless in that respect. I admire Madame di Forno-Populo for keeping her—is it her daughter or niece?—out of the way while that little animal is here."
"Oh, Bice would soon make him know his place," said Jock; "she is not just like one of the girls that are civil, you know. She is not afraid of telling you what she thinks of you. I know exactly how she'd look at Montjoie." Jock permitted himself an abrupt laugh in the pleasure of feeling that he knew her ways far better than any one. "She would soon set him down—the little beast!—in his right place."
As they walked up and down the terrace their steps and voices were very audible in the stillness of the night; and the windows were lighted in the east wing, showing that the inhabitants were still up there and about. While Jock spoke, one of these windows opened quite suddenly, and for a single moment a figure like a shadow appeared in it. The light movement, sudden as a bird's on the wing, would have betrayed her (she felt) to Jock, even if she had not spoken. But she waved her hand and called out "Good-night" in a voice full of laughter. "Don't talk secrets, for we can hear you," she said. "Good-night!" And so vanished again, with a little echo of laughter from within. The young men were both excited and disconcerted by this interruption. It gave them a sensation of shame for the moment as if they had been caught in a discussion of a forbidden subject; and then a tingling ran through their veins. Even MTutor for the moment found no fine speech in which to express his sense of this sudden momentary tantalising appearance of the mystic woman standing half visible out of the background of the unknown. He did think some very fine things on the subject after a time, with a side glance of philosophical reflection that her light laugh of mockery as she momentarily revealed herself, was an outcome of this sceptical century, and that in a previous age her utterance would have been a song or a sigh. But at the moment even Mr. Derwentwater was subjugated by the thrill of sensation and feeling, and found nothing to say.
It was thus that Bice was engaged while Lucy imagined her asleep in her innocence, unaware of the net that was being spread for her unsuspecting feet. Bice was neither asleep nor unsuspecting. She was innocent in a way inconceivable to the ordinary home-keeping imagination, knowing no evil in the devices to which she was a party; but she was not innocent in the conventional sense. That any high feminine ideal should be affected by the design of the Contessa or by her own participation in it had not occurred to the girl. She had been accustomed to smile at the high virtue of those ladies in the novels who would not receive the addresses of the eldest son of their patroness, and who preferred a humble village and the delights of self-sacrifice to all the grandeurs of an ambitious marriage. That might be well enough in a novel, Bice thought, but it was not so in life. In her own case there was no question about it. The other way it was which seemed to her the virtuous way. Had it been proposed to her to throw herself away upon a poor man whom she might be supposed to love, and so prove herself incapable of being of any use to the Contessa, and make all her previous training and teaching of no effect, Bice's moral indignation would have been as elevated as that of any English heroine at the idea of marrying for interest instead of love. The possibility did not occur to her at all; but it would have been rejected with disdain had it attempted to force its way across the threshold of her mind. She loved nobody—except the Contessa; which was a great defence and preservation to her thoughts. She accepted the suggestion that Montjoie should be the means of raising her to that position she was made for, with composure and without an objection. It was not arranged upon secretly, without her knowledge, but with her full concurrence. "He is not very much to look at. I wish he had been more handsome," the Contessa said; but Bice's indifference on this point was sublime. "What can it matter?" she said loftily. She was not even very deeply interested in his disposition or mental qualities. Everything else being so suitable, it would have been cowardly to shrink from any minor disadvantage. She silenced the Contessa in the attempt to make the best of him. "All these things are so secondary," the girl said. Her devotion to the career chosen for her was above all weakly arguments of this kind. She looked upon them even with a certain scorn. And though there was in her mind some excitement as to her appearance "in the world," as she phrased it, and her skill "to please," which was as yet untried, it was, notwithstanding with the composure of a nature quite unaware of any higher questions involved, that she took her part in all the preparations. Her knowledge of the very doubtful world in which she had lived had been of a philosophical character. She was quite impartial. She had no prejudices. Those of whom she approved were those who had carried out their intentions, whatever they might be, as she should do by marrying an English Milord with a good title and much money. She meant, indeed, to spend his money, but legitimately. She meant to become a great lady by his means, but not to do him any harm. Bice had an almost savage purity of heart, and the thought that any of the stains she knew of should touch her was incredible, impossible; neither was it in her to be unkind, or unjust, or envious, or ungenerous. Nothing of all this was involved in the purely business operation in which she was engaged. According to her code no professions of attachment or pretence of feeling were necessary. She had indeed no theories in her mind about being a good wife; but she would not be a bad one. She would keep her part of the compact; there should be nothing to complain of, nothing to object to. She would do her best to amuse the man she had to live with and make his life agreeable to him, which is a thing not always taken into consideration in marriage-contracts much more ideal in character. He should not be allowed to be dull, that was one thing certain. Regarding the matter in this reasonable point of view, Bice prepared for the great event of Thursday with just excitement enough to make it amusing. It might be that she should fail. Few succeed at the very first effort without difficulty, she said to herself; but if she failed there would be nothing tragical in the failure, and the season was all before her. It could scarcely be hoped that she would bring down her antagonist the first time she set lance in rest.
She was carefully kept out of sight during the intervening days; no one saw her; no one had any acquaintance with the fact of her existence. The precautions taken were such that Bice was never even encountered on the staircase, never seen to flit in or out of a room, and indeed did not exist at all for the party in the house. Notwithstanding these precautions she had the needful exercise to keep her in health and good looks, and still romped with the baby and held conversations with the sympathetic Lucy, who did not know what to say to express her feeling of anxious disapproval and desire to succour, without, at the same time, injuring in Bice's mind her nearest friend and protectress. She might, indeed, have spared herself the trouble of any such anxiety, for Bice neither felt injured by the Contessa's scheme nor degraded by her precautions. It amused the girl highly to be made a secret of, to run all the risks of discovery and baffle the curious. The fun of it was delightful to her. Sometimes she would amuse herself by hanging till the last practicable moment in the gallery at the top of the staircase, on the balcony at the window, or at the door of the Contessa's room which was commanded by various other doors; but always vanished within in time to avoid all inquisitive eyes, with the laughter and delight of a child at the danger escaped, and the fun of the situation. In these cases the Contessa would sometimes take fright, but never, so light was the temper of this scheming woman, this deep plotter and conspirator, refused to join in the laughter when the flight was made and safety secured. They were like a couple of children with a mystification in hand, notwithstanding that they were planning an invasion so serious of all the proprieties, and meant to make so disreputable and revolting a bargain. But this was not in their ideas. Bice went out very early in the morning before any one was astir, to take needful exercise in the park, and gather early primroses and the catkins that hung upon the trees. On one of these occasions she met Mr. Derwentwater, of whom she was not afraid; and at another time, when skirting the shrubberies at a somewhat later hour to keep clear of any stragglers, Jock. Mr. Derwentwater talked to her in a tone which amused the girl. He spoke of Proserpina gathering flowers, herself a——and then altered and grew confused under her eye.
"Herself a—— What?" said Bice. "Have you forgotten what you were going to say?"
"I have not forgotten—herself a fairer flower. One does not forget such lovely words as these," he said, injured by the question. "But when one comes face to face with the impersonation of the poet's idea——"
"It was poetry, then?" said Bice. "I know very little of that. It is not in Tauchnitz, perhaps? All I know of English is from the Tauchnitz. I read, chiefly, novels. You do not approve of that? But, yes, I like them; because it is life."
"Is it life?" said Derwentwater, who was somewhat contemptuous of fiction.
"At least it is England," said Bice. "The girls who will not make a good marriage because of some one else, or because it is their parents who arrange it. That is how Lady Randolph speaks. She says that nothing is right but to fall—how do you call it?—in love?—It is not comme il faut even to talk of that."
Derwentwater blushed like a girl. He was more inexperienced in many ways than Bice. "And do you regard it in another point of view?" he said.
Bice laughed out with frank disdain. "Certainly, I regard it different—oh, quite different. That is not what happens in life."
"And do you consider life is chiefly occupied with getting married?" he continued, feeling, along with a good deal of quite unnecessary excitement, a great desire to know what was her way of looking at this great subject. Visions had been flashing recently through his mind, which pointed a little this way too.
"Altogether," said Bice, with great gravity, "how can you begin to live till you have settled that? Till then you do not know what is going to happen to you. When you get up in the morning you know not what may come before the night; when you walk out you know not who may be the next person you meet; perhaps your husband. But then you marry, and that is all settled; henceforward nothing can happen!" said Bice, throwing out her hands. "Then, after all is settled, you can begin to live."
"This is very interesting," said Derwentwater, "I am so glad to get at a real and individual view. But this, perhaps, only applies to—ladies? It is, perhaps, not the same with men?"
Bice gave him a careless, half-contemptuous glance. "I have never known anything," she said, "about men."
There are many girls, much more innocent in outward matters than Bice, who would have said these words with an intention agacante—the intention of leading to a great deal more badinage. But Bice spoke with a calm, almost scornful, composure. She had no desire to agacer. She looked him in the face as tranquilly as if he had been an old woman. And so far as she was concerned he might have been an old woman; for he had virtually no existence in his capacity of young man. Had she possessed any clue to the thoughts that had taken rise in his mind, the new revelation which she had conveyed to him, Bice's amazement would have been without bounds. But instinct indicated to her that the interview should proceed no further. She waved her hand to him as she came to a cross road which led into the woods. "I am going this way," she cried, darting off round the corner of a great tree. He stood and looked after her bewildered, as her light figure skimmed along into the depths of the shadows. "Then, after all is settled, you can begin to live," he repeated to himself. Was it true? He had got up the morning on which he saw her first without any thought that everything might be changed for him that day. And now it was quite true that there lay before him an interval which must be somehow filled up before he could begin to live. How was it to be filled up? Would she have anything to do with the settling which must precede his recommencement of existence? He went on with his mind altogether absorbed in these thoughts, and with a thrill and tingling through all his veins. And that was the only time he encountered Bice, for whom in fact, though he had not hitherto allowed it even to himself, he had come to the Hall—till the great night.
Jock encountered her the next day not so early, at the hour indeed when the great people were at breakfast. He had been one of the first to come downstairs, and he had not lingered at table as persons do who have letters to read, and the newspapers, and all that is going on to talk about. He met her coming from the park. She put out her hand when she saw him as if to keep him off.
"If you wish to speak to me," she said, "you must turn back and walk with me. I do not want any one to see me, and they will soon be coming out from breakfast."
"Why don't you want any one to see you?" Jock said.
Bice had learned the secret of the Contessa's smile; but this which she cast upon Jock had something mocking in it, and ended in a laugh. "Oh, don't you know?" she said, "it is so silly to be a boy!"
"You are no older than I am," cried Jock, aggrieved; "and why don't you come down to dinner as you used to do? I always liked you to come. It is quite different when you are not there. If I had known I should not have come home at all this Easter," Jock cried.
"Oh!" cried Bice, "that means that you like me, then?—and so does Milady. If I should go away altogether——"
"You are not going away altogether? Why should you? There is no other place you could be so well as here. The Contessa never says a word, but laughs at a fellow, which is scarcely civil; and she has those men about her that are—not——; but you——why should you go away?" cried Jock with angry vehemence. He looked at her with eyes lowering fiercely under his eyebrows; yet in his heart he was not angry but wretched, as if something were rending him. Jock did not understand how he felt.
"Oh, now, you look at me as if you would eat me," said Bice, "as if I were the little girl in the red hood and you the wolf—— But it is silly, for how should I stay here when Milady is going away? We are all going to London—and then! it will soon be decided, I suppose," said Bice, herself feeling a little sad for the first time at the idea, "what is going to be done with me."
"What is going to be done with you?" cried Jock hoarsely, for he was angry and grieved, and full of impatient indignation, though he scarcely knew why.
Bice turned upon him with that lingering smile which was like the Contessa's. But, unlike the Contessa's, it ended as usual in a laugh. She kissed her hand to him, and darted round the corner of the shrubbery just as some one appeared from breakfast. "Good-bye," she said, "do not be angry," and so vanished like lightning. This was one of the cases which made her heart beat with fun and exhilaration, when she was, as she told the Contessa, nearly caught. She got into the shelter of the east rooms, panting with the run she had made, her complexion brilliant, her eyes shining. "I thought I should certainly be seen this time," she said.
The Contessa looked at the girl with admiring eyes. "I could almost have wished you had," she said. "You are superb like that." They talked without a shade of embarrassment on this subject, upon which English mothers and children would blush and hesitate.
This was the day, the great day of the revelation which the Contessa had promised. There had been a great deal of discussion and speculation about it in the company. No one, even Sir Tom, knew what it was. Lucy, though she was not clever, had her wits sharpened in this respect, and she had divined; but no one else had any conception of what was coming. Two of the elder men had gone, very sorry to miss the great event, whatever it was. And young Montjoie had talked of nothing else since the promise had been made. The conversation in the drawing-room late in the afternoon chiefly turned on this subject, and the lady visitors too heard of it, and were not less curious. She who had the two daughters addressed herself to Lucy for information. She said: "I hear some novelty is expected to-night, Lady Randolph, something the Contessa has arranged. She is very clever, is she not? and sings delightfully, I know. There is so much more talent of that kind among foreigners than there is among us. Is it tableaux? The girls are so longing to know."
"Oh, yes, we want so much to know," said the young ladies in blue.
"I don't think it is tableaux," Lucy said; "but I have not been told what it is."
This the ladies did not believe, but they asked no further questions. "It is clear that she does not wish us to know; so, girls, you must say nothing," was the conclusion of the mother.
They said a great deal, notwithstanding this warning. The house altogether was excited on the subject, and even Mr. Derwentwater took part in the speculations. He looked upon the Contessa as one of those inscrutable women of the stage, the Sirens who beguile everybody. She had some design upon Montjoie, he felt, and it was only the youth's impertinence which prevented Mr. Derwentwater from interfering. He watched with the natural instinct of his profession and a strong impulse to write to the lad's parents and have him taken away. But Montjoie had no parents. He had attained his majority, and was supposed by the law capable of taking care of himself. What did that woman mean to do with the boy? She had some designs upon him. But there was nobody to whom Mr. Derwentwater could confide his suspicions, or whom he could ask what the Contessa meant. MTutor had not on the whole a pleasant visit. He was disappointed in that which had been his chief object—his favourite pupil was detached from him, he knew not how—and this other boy, whom, though he did not love him, he could not help feeling a sort of responsibility for, was in danger from a designing woman, a woman out of a French play, L'Aventuriere, something of that sort. Mr. Derwentwater felt that he could not drag himself away, the attractions were so strong. He wanted to see the denouement; still more he wanted to see Bice. No drama in the world had so powerful an interest. But though it was so impossible to go away, it was not pleasant to stay. Jock did not want him. Lucy, though she was always sweet and friendly, had a look of haste and over-occupation; her eyes wandered when she talked to him; her mind was occupied with other things. Most of the men of the party were more than indifferent; were disagreeable to him. He thought they were a danger for Jock. And Bice never was visible; that moment on the balcony—those few minutes in the park—the half dozen words which had been so "suggestive," he thought, which had woke so many echoes in his mind—these were all he had had of her. Had she intended them to awaken echoes? He asked himself this question a thousand times. Had she willingly cast this seed of thought into his mind to germinate—to produce—what result? If it was so, then, indeed, all the little annoyances of his stay would be a cheap price to pay. It did not occur to this judicious person, whose influence over his pupils was so great, and who had studied so deeply the mind of youth, that a girl of sixteen was but little likely to be consciously suggestive—to sow, with any intention in her mind, seeds of meaning to develop in his. To do him justice, he was as unconscious of the limits of sixteen in Bice's case as we all are in the case of Juliet. She was of no age. She was the ideal woman capable of comprehensions and intentions as far above anything possible to the genus boy as heaven was above earth. It would have been a profanation, a sacrilege too dreadful to be thought of, to compare that ethereal creature with the other things of her age with which he was so familiar. Of her age! Her age was the age of romance, of love, of poetry, of all ineffable things.
"I say, Countess," said Montjoie, "I hope you're not forgetting. This is the night, don't you know. And here we are all ready for dinner and nothing has happened. When is it coming? You are so awfully mysterious; it ain't fair upon a fellow."
"Is every one in the room?" said the Contessa, with an indulgent smile at the young man's eagerness. They all looked round, for everybody was curious. And all were there—the lady who wrote for the Press, and the lady with the two daughters, the girls in blue; and Sir Tom's parliamentary friends standing up against the mantelpiece, and Mr. Derwentwater by himself, more curious than any one, keeping one eye on Montjoie, as if he would have liked to send him to the pupil-room to do a poena; and Jock indifferent, with his back to the door. All the rest were expectant except Jock, who took no notice. The Contessa's special friends were about her chair, rubbing their hands, and ready to back the Forno-Populo for a new sensation. The Contessa looked round, her eye dwelling for a moment upon Lucy, who looked a little fluttered and uncomfortable, and upon Sir Tom, who evidently knew nothing, and was looking on with a smile.
"Now you shall see," she said, "why I abdicate," and made a sign, clapping softly her beautiful hands.
There was a momentary pause. Montjoie, who was standing out in the clear space in the centre of the room, turned round at the Contessa's call. He turned towards the open door, which was less lighted than the inner room. It was he who saw first what was coming. "Oh, by Jove!" the young Marquis said.
The door was open. The long drawing-room afforded a sort of processional path for the newcomer. Her dress was not white like that of the ordinary debutante. It had a yellow golden glow of colour, warm yet soft. She walked not with the confused air of a novice perceiving herself observed, but with a slow and serene gait like a young queen. She was not alarmed by the consciousness that everybody was looking at her. Not to have been looked at would have been more likely to embarrass Bice. Her beautiful throat and shoulders were uncovered, her hair dressed more elaborately than that of English girls in general. English girls—the two innocents in blue, who were nice girls enough, and stood with their mouths and eyes open in speechless wonder and admiration—seemed of an entirely different species from this dazzling creature. She made a momentary pause on the threshold, while all the beholders held their breath. Montjoie, for one, was struck dumb. His commonplace countenance changed altogether. He looked at her with his face growing longer, his jaw dropping. It was more than a sensation, it was such a climax of excitement and surprise as does not happen above once or twice in a lifetime. The whole company were moved by similar feelings, all except the Contessa, lying back in her chair, and Lucy, who stood rather troubled, moving from one foot to another, clasping and unclasping her hands. Jock, roused by the murmur, turned round with a start, and eyed her too with looks of wild astonishment. She stood for a moment looking at them all—with a smile which was half mischievous, half appealing—on the threshold, as Bice felt it, not only of Lady Randolph's drawing-room, but of the world.
Sir Tom had started at the sight of her as much as any one. He had not been in the secret. He cried out, "By Jove!" like Montjoie. But he had those instincts which are, perhaps, rather old-fashioned, of protection and service to women. He belonged to the school which thinks a girl should not walk across a room without some man's arm to sustain her, or open a door for herself. He started forward with a little sense of being to blame, and offered her his arm. "Why didn't you send for me to bring you in if you were late?" he cried, with a tone in which there was some tremor and vexation. The effectiveness of her appearance was terrible to Sir Tom. She looked up at him with a look of pleasure and kindness, and said, "I was not late," with a smile. She looked taller, more developed in a single day. But for that little pucker of vexation on Sir Tom's forehead they would have looked like a father and daughter, the father proudly bringing his young princess into the circle of her adorers. Bice swept him towards Lucy, and made a low obeisance to Lady Randolph, and took her hand and kissed it. "I must come to you first," she said.
"Well?" said the Contessa, turning round to her retainers with a quick movement. They were all gazing at the debutante so intently that they had no eyes for her. One of them at length replied, with something like solemnity: "Oh, I understand what you mean, Contessa; anybody but you would have to abdicate." "But not you," said another, who had some kindness in his heart. The Contessa rose up with an air of triumph. "I do not want to be compelled," she said, "I told you. I give up. I will take your arm Mr. St. John, as a private person, having relinquished my claims, and leave milord to the new regime."
This was how it came about, in the slight scuffle caused by the sudden change of programme, that Bice, in all her splendour, found herself going in to the dining-room on Lord Montjoie's arm. Notwithstanding that he had been struck dumb by her beauty, little Montjoie was by no means happy when this wonderful good fortune fell upon him. He would have preferred to gaze at her from the other side of the table: on the whole, he would have been a great deal more at his ease with the Contessa. He would have asked her a hundred questions about this wonderful beauty; but the beauty herself rather frightened the young man. Presently, however, he regained his courage, and as lack of boldness was not his weak point, soon began to lose the sense of awe which had been so strong upon him. She smiled; she was as ready to talk as he was, as the overwhelming impression she had made upon him began to be modified by familiarity. "I suppose," he said, when he had reached this point, "that you arrived to-day?" And then, after a pause, "You speak English?" he added, in a hesitating tone. She received this question with so merry a laugh that he was quite encouraged.
"Always," she said, "since I was a child. Was that why you were afraid of me?"
"Afraid?" he said; and then he looked at her almost with a recurrence of his first fright, till her laugh reassured him. "Yes I was frightened," Lord Montjoie said; "you looked so—so—don't you know? I was struck all of a heap. I suppose you came to-day? We were all on the outlook from something the Contessa said. You must be clever to get in without anybody seeing you."
"I was far more clever than that," said Bice; "you don't know how clever I am."
"I dare say," said Lord Montjoie, admiringly, "because you don't want it. That's always the way."
"I am so clever that I have been here all the time," said Bice, with another laugh so joyous,—"so jolly," Montjoie said, that his terrors died away. But his surprise took another development at this extraordinary information.
"By Jove!" he cried, "you don't mean that, Miss—Mademoiselle—I am so awfully stupid I never heard—that is to say I ain't at all clever at foreign names."
"Oh, never mind," cried Bice; "neither am I. But yours is delightful; it is so easy, Milord. Ought I to say Milord?"
"Oh," cried Montjoie, a little confused. "No; I don't think so—people don't as a rule."
"Lord Montjoie, that is right? I like always to know——"
"So do I," said Montjoie; "it's always best to ask, ain't it, and then there can be no mistakes? But you don't mean to say that? You here yesterday and all the time? I shouldn't think you could have been hid. Not the kind of person, don't you know."
"I can't tell about being the kind of person. It has been fun," said Bice; "sometimes I have seen you all coming, and waited till there was just time to fly. I like leaving it till the last moment, and then there is the excitement, don't you know."
"By Jove, what fun!" said Montjoie. He was not clever enough, few people are, to perceive that she had mimicked himself in tone and expression. "And I might have caught you any day," he cried. "What a muff I have been."
"If I had allowed myself to be caught I should have been a greater—what do you call it? You wear beautiful things to do your smoking in, Lord Montjoie; what is it? Velvet? And why don't you wear them to dinner?—you would look so much more handsome. I am very fond myself of beautiful clothes."
"Oh, by Jove!" cried Montjoie again, with something like a blush. "You've seen me in those things! I only wear them when I think nobody sees. They're something from the East," he added, with a tone of careless complacency; for, as a matter of fact, he piqued himself very much upon this smoking-suit which had not, at the Hall, received the applause it deserved.
"You go and smoke like that among other men? Yes, I perceive," said Bice, "you are just like women, there is no difference. We put on our pretty things for other ladies, because you cannot understand them; and you do the same."
"Oh, come now, Miss—— Forno-Populo! you don't mean to tell me that you got yourself up like that for the sake of the ladies?" cried the young man.
"For whom, then?" said Bice, throwing up her head; but afterwards, with the instinct of a young actress, she remembered her role, which it was fun to carry out thoroughly. She laughed. "You are the most clever," she said. "I see you are one that women cannot deceive."
Montjoie laughed, too, with gratified vanity and superior knowledge. "You are about right there," he said. "I am not to be taken in, don't you know. It's no good trying it on with me. I see through ladies' little pretences. If there were no men you would not care what guys you were; and no more do we."
Bice made no reply. She turned upon him that dazzling smile of which she had learned the secret from the Contessa, which was unfathomable to the observer but quite simple to the simple-minded; and then she said: "Do you amuse yourself very much in the evening? I used to hear the voices and think how pleasant it would have been to be there."
"Not so pleasant as you think," said the young man. "The only fun was the Contessa's, don't you know. She's a fine woman for her age, but she's—— Goodness! I forgot. She's your——"
"She is passee," said the girl calmly. "You make me afraid, Lord Montjoie. How much of a critic you are, and see through women, through and through." At this the noble Marquis laughed with true enjoyment of his own gifts.
"But you ain't offended?" he said. "There was no harm meant. Even a lady can't, don't you know, be always the same age."
"Don't you think so?" said Bice. "Oh, I think you are wrong. The Contessa is of no age. She is the age she pleases—she has all the secrets. I see nobody more beautiful."
"That may be," said Montjoie; "but you can't see everybody, don't you know. She's very handsome and all that—and when the real thing isn't there—but when it is, don't you know——"
"English is very perplexing," said Bice, shaking her head, but with a smile in her eyes which somewhat belied her air of simplicity. "What may that be—the real thing? Shall I find it in the dictionary?" she asked; and then their eyes met and there was another burst of laughter, somewhat boisterous on his part, but on hers with a ring of lightheartedness which quenched the malice. She was so young that she had a pleasure in playing her role, and did not feel any immorality involved.
While this conversation was going on, which was much observed and commented on by all the company, Jock from one end of the table and Mr. Derwentwater from the other, looked on with an eager observation and breathless desire to make out what was being said which gave an expression of anxiety to the features of MTutor, and one of almost ferocity to the lowering countenance of Jock. Both of these gentlemen were eagerly questioned by the ladies next them as to who this young lady might be.
"Terribly theatrical, don't you think, to come into a room like that?" said the mother of the girls in blue. "If my Minnie or Edith had been asked to do it they would have died of shame."
"I do not deny," said Mr. Derwentwater, "the advantage of conventional restraints. I like the little airs of seclusion, of retirement, that surround young ladies. But the——" he paused a little for a name, and then with that acquaintance with foreign ways on which Mr. Derwentwater prided himself, added, "the Signorina was at home."
"The Signorina! Is that what you call her—just like a person that is going on the stage. She will be the—niece, I suppose?"
Jock's next neighbour was the lady who was engaged in literature. She said to Jock: "I must get you to tell me her name. She is lovely. She will make a great sensation. I must make a few notes of her dress after dinner—would you call that yellow or white? Whoever dressed her knew what they were about. Mademoiselle, I imagine, one ought to call her. I know that's French, and she's Italian, but still—— The new beauty! that's what she will be called. I am so glad to be the first to see her; but I must get you to tell me her name."
Among the gentlemen there was no other subject of conversation, and but one opinion. A little hum of curiosity ran round the table. It was far more exciting than tableaux, which was what some of the guests had expected to be arranged by the Contessa. Tableaux! nothing could have been equal to the effect of that dramatic entry and sudden revelation. "As for Montjoie, all was up with him, but the Contessa knew what she was about. She was not going to throw away her effects," they said. "There could be no doubt for whose benefit it all was." The Contessa graciously baffled with her charming smile all the questions that were poured upon her. She received the compliments addressed to her with gracious bows, but she gave no reply to any one. As she swept out of the room after dinner she tapped Montjoie lightly on the arm with her fan. "I will sing for you to-night," she said.
In the drawing-room the elements were a little heterogeneous without the gentlemen. The two girls in blue gazed at this wonderful new competitor with a curiosity which was almost alarm. They would have liked to make acquaintance, to draw her into their little party of youth outside the phalanx of the elders. But Bice took no more note of them than if they had been cabbages. She was in great excitement, all smiles and glory. "Do I please you like this?" she said, going up to Lucy, spreading out all her finery with the delight of a child. Lucy shrank a little. She had a troubled anxious look, which did not look like pleasure; but Lady Anastasia, who wrote for the newspapers, walked round and round the debutante and took notes frankly. "Of course I shall describe her dress. I never saw anything so lovely," the lady said. Bice, in the glow of her golden yellow, and of her smiles and delight, with the noble correspondent of the newspapers examining her, found the acutest interest in the position. The Contessa from her sofa smiled upon the scene, looking on with the air of a gratified exhibitor whose show had succeeded beyond her hopes. Lady Randolph, with an air of anxiety in her fair and simple countenance, stood behind, looking at Bice with protecting yet disturbed and troubled looks. The mother and daughters at the other side looked on, she all solid and speechless with disapproval, they in a flutter of interest and wonder and gentle envy and offence. More than a tableau; it was like an act out of a play. And when the gentlemen came in what a sudden quickening of the interest! Bice rose to the action like a heroine when the great scene has come, and the others all gathered round with a spectatorship that was almost breathless. The worst feature of the whole to those who were interested in Bice was her own evident enjoyment. She talked, she distributed her smiles right and left, she mimicked yet flattered Montjoie with a dazzling youthful assurance which confounded Mr. Derwentwater, and made Jock furious, and brought looks of pain not only to the face of Lucy but also to that of Sir Tom, who was less easily shocked. She was like a young actress in her first triumph, filling her role with a sort of enthusiasm, enjoying it with all her heart. And when the Contessa rose to sing, Bice followed her to the piano with an air as different as possible from the swift, noiseless self-effacement of her performance on previous occasions. She looked round upon the company with a sort of malicious triumph, a laugh on her lips as of some delightful mystification, some surprise of which she was in the secret. "Come and listen," she said to Jock, lightly touching him on the shoulder as she passed him. The Contessa's singing was already known. It was considered by some with a certain contempt, by others with admiration, as almost as good as professional. But when instead of one of her usual performances there arose in splendid fulness the harmony of two voices, that of Bice suddenly breaking forth in all the freshness of youth, unexpected, unprepared for, the climax of wonder and enthusiasm was reached. Lady Anastasia, after the first start and thrill of wonder, rushed to the usual writing-table and dashed off a hurried note, which she fastened to her fan in her excitement. "Everybody must know of this!" she cried. One of the young ladies in the background wept with admiration, crying, "Mamma, she is heavenly," while even the virtuous mother was moved. "They must intend her for the stage," that lady said, wondering, withdrawing from her role of disapproval. As for the gentlemen, those of them who were not speechless with enthusiasm were almost noisy in their excitement. Montjoie pressed into the first rank, almost touching Bice's dress, which she drew away between two bars, turning half round with a slight shake of her head and a smile in her eyes, even while the loveliest notes were flowing forth from her melodious throat. The listeners could hear the noble lord's "by Jove," in the midst of the music, and even detect the slight quaver of laughter which followed in Bice's wonderful voice.
The commotion of applause, enthusiasm, and wonder afterwards was indescribable. The gentlemen crowded round the singers—even the parliamentary gentlemen had lost their self-control, while the young lady who had wept forgot her timidity to make an eager approach to the debutante.
"It was heavenly: it was a rapture: oh, sing again!" cried Miss Edith, which was much prettier than Lord Montjoie's broken exclamations, "Oh, by Jove! don't you know," to which Bice was listening with delighted mockery.
Bice had been trained to pay very little attention to the opinions of other girls, but she gave the young lady in blue a friendly look, and launched over her shoulder an appeal to Jock. "Didn't you like it, you?" she cried, with a slight clap together of her hands to call his attention.
Jock glared at her over Miss Edith's shoulder. "I don't understand music," he said, in his most surly voice. These were the distinct utterances which enchanted Bice amid the murmurs of more ordinary applause. She was delighted with them. She clapped her hands once more with a delight which was contagious. "Ah, I know now, this is what it is to have succes," she cried.
"Now," said the Contessa, "it is the turn of Lord Montjoie, who is a dab—that is the word—at singing, and who promised me three for one."
At this there rose a hubbub of laughter, in the midst of which, though with many protestations and remonstrances, "don't you know," that young nobleman was driven to the fulfilment of his promise. In the midst of this commotion, a sign as swift as lightning, but, unlike lightning, imperceptible, a lifting of the eyebrows, a movement of a finger, was given and noted. In such a musical assembly the performance of a young marquis, with nobody knows how many thousands a year and entirely his own master, is rarely without interest. Mr. Derwentwater turned his back with marked indifference, and Jock with a sort of snort went away altogether. But of the others, the majority, though some with laughter and some with sneers, were civil, and listened to the performance. Jock marched off with a disdain beyond expression; but he had scarcely issued forth into the hall before he heard a rustle behind him, and, looking back, to his amazement saw Bice in all the glory of her golden robes.
"Hush!" she cried, smothering a laugh, and with a quick gesture of repression, "don't say anything. It must not be discovered that I have run away!"
"Why have you run away? I thought you thought no end of that little scug," cried savage Jock.
Bice turned upon him that smile that said everything and nothing, and then flew like a bird upstairs.
THE EVENING AFTER.
The outcry that rose when, after Montjoie's comic song, a performance of the broadest and silliest description, was over, it was discovered that Bice had disappeared, and especially the blank look of the performer himself when turning round from the piano he surveyed the company in vain for her, gratified the Contessa beyond measure. She smiled radiantly upon the assembly in answer to all their indignant questions. "It has been for once an indulgence," she said; "but little girls must keep early hours." Montjoie was wounded and disappointed beyond measure that it should have been at the moment of his performance that she was spirited away. His reproaches were vehement, and there was something of the pettishness of a boy in their indignant tones. "I shouldn't have sung a note if I'd thought what was going on," he cried. "Contessa, I would not have believed you could have been so mean—and I singing only to please you."
"But think how you have pleased me—and all these ladies!" cried the Contessa. "Does not that recompense you?" Montjoie guessed that she was laughing at him, but he did not, in fact, see anything to laugh about. It was natural enough that the other ladies should be pleased; still he did not care whether they were pleased or not, and he did care much that the object of his admiration had not waited to hear him. The Contessa found the greatest amusement in his boyish sulk and resentment, and the rest of the evening was passed in baffling the questions with which, now that Bice was gone, her friends overpowered her. She gave the smallest possible dole of reply to their interrogations, but smiled upon the questioners with sunshiny smiles. "You must come and see me in town," she said to Montjoie. It was the only satisfaction she would give him. And she perceived at a much earlier hour than usual that Lucy was waiting for her to go to bed. She gave a little cry of distress when this seemed to flash upon her.
"Sweet Lucy! it is for me you wait!" she cried. "How could I keep you so late, my dear one?"
Montjoie was the foremost of those who attended her to the door, and got her candle for her, that indispensable but unnecessary formula.
"Of course I shall look you up in town; but we'll talk of that to-morrow. I don't go till three—to-morrow," the young fellow said.
The Contessa gave him her hand with a smile, but without a word, in that inimitable way she had, leaving Montjoie a prey to such uncertainty as poisoned his night's rest. He was not humble-minded, and he knew that he was a prize which no lady he had met with as yet had disregarded; but for the first time his bosom was torn by disquietude. Of course he must see her to-morrow. Should he see her to-morrow? The Contessa's smile, so radiant, so inexplainable, tormented him with a thousand doubts.
Lucy had looked on at all this with an uneasiness indescribable. She felt like an accomplice, watching this course of intrigue, of which she indeed disapproved entirely, but could not clear herself from a certain guilty knowledge of. That it should all be going on under her roof was terrible to her, though it was not for Montjoie but for Bice that her anxieties were awakened. She followed the Contessa upstairs, bearing her candle as if they formed part of a procession, with a countenance absolutely opposed in expression to the smiles of Madame di Forno-Populo. When they reached the Contessa's door, Lucy, by a sudden impulse, followed her in. It was not the first time that she had been allowed to cross the threshold of that little enchanted world which had filled her with wonder on her first entrance, but which by this time she regarded with composure, no longer bewildered to find it in her own house. Bice sprang up from a sofa on which she was lying on their entrance. She had taken off her beautiful dress, and her hair was streaming over her shoulders, her countenance radiant with delight. She threw herself upon the Contessa, without perceiving the presence of Lady Randolph.
"But it is enchanting; it is ravishing. I have never been so happy," she cried.
"My child," said the Contessa, "here is our dear lady who is of a different opinion."
"Of what opinion?" Bice cried. She was startled by the sudden appearance, when she had no thought of such an apparition, of Lucy's face so grave and uneasy. It gave a contradiction which was painful to the girl's excitement and delight.
"Indeed, I did not mean to find fault," said Lucy. "I was only sorry——" and here she paused, feeling herself incapable of expressing her real meaning, and convicted of interference and unnecessary severity by the girl's astonished eyes.
"My dear one," said the Contessa, "it is only that we look from two different points of view. You will not object to little Bice that she finds society intoxicating when she first goes into it. The child has made what you call a sensation. She has had her little succes. That is nothing to object to. An English girl is perhaps more reticent. She is brought up to believe that she does not care for succes. But Bice is otherwise. She has been trained for that, and to please makes her happy."
"To please—whom?" cried Lady Randolph. "Oh, don't think I am finding fault. We are brought up to please our parents and people who—care for us—in England."
Here Bice and the Contessa mutually looked at each other, and the girl laughed, putting her hands together. "She is pleased most of all," she cried; "she is all my parents. I please her first of all."
"What you say is sweet," said the Contessa, smiling upon Lucy; "and she is right too. She pleases me most of all. To see her have her little triumph, looking really her very best, and her dress so successful, is to me a delight. I am nearly as much excited as the child herself!"
Lucy looked from one to another, and felt that it was impossible for her to say what she wished to say. The girl's pleasure seemed so innocent, and that of her protectress and guardian so generous, so tender. All that had offended Lucy's instincts, the dramatic effort of the Contessa, the careful preparation of all the effects, the singling out of young Montjoie as the object, all seemed to melt away in the girlish delight of Bice, and the sympathetic triumph of her guardian. She did not know what to say to them. It was she who was the culprit, putting thoughts of harm which had not found any entrance there into the girl's mind. She flushed with shame and an uneasy sense that the tables were thus turned upon her; and yet how could she depart without some warning? It was not only her own troubled uncomfortable feeling; but had she not read the same, still more serious and decided, in her husband's eyes?
"I don't know what to say," said Lucy. "But Sir Tom thinks so too. He will tell you better, he knows better. Lord Montjoie is—I do not know why he was asked. I did not wish it. He is—dear Madame di Forno-Populo, you have seen so much more than I—he is vulgar—a little. And Bice is so young; she may be deceived."
For a moment a cloud, more dark than had ever been seen there before, overshadowed the Contessa's face. But Bice burst forth into a peal of laughter, clapping her hands. "Is that vulgar?" the girl cried. "I am glad. Now I know how he is different. It is what you call fun, don't you know?" she cried with sudden mimicry, at which Lucy herself could not refuse to laugh.
"I waited outside to hear a little of the song. It was so wonderful that I could not laugh; and to utter all that before you, Madama, after he had heard you—oh, what courage! what braveness!" cried Bice. "I did not think any one could be so brave!"
"You mean so simple, dear child," said the Contessa, whose brow had cleared; "that is really what is so wonderful in these English men. They are so simple, they never see how it is different. It is brave if you please, but still more simple-minded. Little Montjoie is so. He knows no better; not to me only, but even to you, Bice, with that voice of yours, so pure, so fresh, he listens, then performs as you heard. It is wonderful, as you say. But you have not told me, Lucy, my sweetest, what you think of the little one's voice."
"I think," said Lucy, with that disapproval which she could not altogether restrain, "that it is very wonderful, when it is so fine, that we never heard it before——"
"Ah, Bice," cried the Contessa, "our dear lady is determined that she will not be pleased to-night. We had prepared a little surprise, and it is a failure. She will not understand that we love to please. She will have us to be superior, as if we were English."
"Indeed, indeed," cried Lucy, full of compunction, "I know you are always kind. And I know your ways are different—but——" with a sort of regretful reflectiveness, shaking her head.
"All England is in that but," said the Contessa. "It is what has always been said to me. In our country we love to arrange these little effects, to have surprises, impromptus, events that are unexpected. Bice, go, my child, go to bed, after this excitement you must rest. You did well, and pleased me at least. My sweet Lucy," she said, when the girl with instant obedience had disappeared into the next room, "I know how you see it all from your point of view. But we are not as you, rich, secure. We must make while we can our coup. To succeed by one coup, that is my desire. And you will not interfere?"
"Oh, Contessa," cried Lucy, "will you not spare the child? It is like selling her. She is too good for such a man. He is scarcely a man; he is a boy. I am ashamed to think that you should care to please——him, or any one like him. Oh, let it come naturally! Do not plan like this, and scheme and take trouble for——"
"For an establishment that will make her at once safe and sure; that will give her so many of the things that people care for—beautiful houses, a good name, money—— I have schemed, as you say, for little things much of my life," said the Contessa, shaking her head with a mournful smile; "I have told you my history: for very, very little things—for a box at the opera, for a carriage, things which are nothing, sweetest Lucy. You have plenty; such things are nothing to you. You cannot understand it. But that is me, my dear one. I have not a higher mind like you; and shall I not scheme," cried the Contessa, with sudden energy, "for the child, to make her safe that she may never require scheming? Ah, my Lucy! I have the heart of a mother to her, and you know what a mother will do."
Lucy was silent, partly touched, partly resisting. If it ever could be right to do evil that good might come, perhaps this motive might justify it. And then came the question how much, in the Contessa's code, was evil, of these proceedings? She was silenced, if not satisfied. There is a certain casuistry involved in the most Christian charity: "thinketh no evil," sometimes even implies an effort to think that there is no harm in evil according to the intention in it. Lucy's intellect was confused, though not that unobtrusive faculty of judgment in her which was infallible, yet could be kept dumb.
"My love," said the Contessa, suddenly kissing her as a sort of dismissal, "think that you are rich and we poor. If Bice had a provision, if she had even as much as you give away to your poor friends and never think of again, how different would all things be for her! But she has nothing; and therefore I prepare my little tableaux, and study all the effects I can think of, and produce her as in a theatre, and shut her up to agacer the audience, and keep her silent and make her sing, all for effect; yes, all for effect. But what can I do? She has not a penny, not a penny, not even like your poor friends."
The sudden energy with which this was said was indescribable. The Contessa's countenance, usually so ivory-pale, shone with a sort of reflection as if of light within, her eyes blazed, her smile gave place to a seriousness which was almost indignation. She looked like a heroine maintaining her right to do all that human strength could do for the forlorn and oppressed; and there was, in fact, a certain abandon of feeling in her which made her half unconsciously open the door, and do what was tantamount to turning her visitor out, though her visitor was mistress of the house. Her feelings had, indeed, for the moment, got the better of the Contessa. She had worked herself up to the point of indignation, that Lucy who could, if she would, deliver Bice from all the snares of poverty, had not done so, and was not, so far as appeared, intending to do so. To find fault with the devices of the poor, and yet not to help them—is not that one of the things least easily supportable of all the spurns of patient merit? The Contessa was doing what she could, all she could in her own fashion, strenuously, anxiously. But Lucy was doing nothing, though she could have done it so easily: and yet she found fault and criticised. Madame di Forno-Populo was swept by a great flood of instinctive resentment. She put her hostess to the door in the strength of it, tenderly with a kiss but not less hotly, and with full meaning. Such impulses had stood her instead of virtue on other occasions; she felt a certain virtue as of superior generosity and self-sacrifice in her proceedings now.
As for Lucy, still much confused and scarcely recognising the full meaning of the Contessa's warmth, she made her way to her own room in a haze of disturbed and uneasy feeling. Somehow—she could not tell how—she felt herself in the wrong. What was it she had done? What was it she had left undone? To further the scheme by which young Montjoie was to be caught and trapped and made the means of fortune and endowment to Bice was not possible. In such cases it is usually of the possible victim, the man against whom such plots are formed, that the bystander thinks; but Lucy thought of young Montjoie only with an instinctive dislike, which would have been contempt in a less calm and tolerant mind. That Bice, with all her gifts, a creature so full of life and sweetness and strength, should be handed over to this trifling commonplace lad, was in itself terrible to think of. Lucy did not think of the girl's beauty, or of that newly-developed gift of song which had taken her by surprise, but only and simply of herself, the warm-hearted and smiling girl, the creature full of fun and frolic whom she had learned to be fond of, first, for the sake of little Tom, and then for her own. Little Tom's friend, his playmate, who had found him out in his infant weakness and made his life so much brighter! And then Lucy asked herself what the Contessa could mean, what it was that made her own interference a sort of impertinence, why her protests had been received with so little of the usual caressing deference? Thoughts go fast, and Lucy had not yet reached the door of her own room, when it flashed upon her what it was. She put down her candle on a table in the corridor, and stood still to realise it. This gallery at the head of the great staircase was dimly lighted, and the hall below threw up a glimmer, reflected in the oaken balusters and doors of the closed rooms, and dying away in the half-lit gloom above. There were sounds below far off that betrayed the assembly still undispersed in the smoking-room, and some fainter still, above, of the ladies who had retired to their rooms, but were still discussing the strange events of the evening. In the centre of this partial darkness stood Lucy, with her candle, the only visible representative of all the hidden life around, suddenly pausing, asking herself—
Was this what it meant? Undoubtedly, this was what it meant. She had the power, and she had not used it. With a word she could make all their schemes unnecessary, and relieve the burden on the soul of the woman who had the heart of a mother for Bice. Tears sprang up into Lucy's eyes unawares as this recollection suddenly seized her. The Contessa was not perfect—there were many things in her which Lady Randolph could with difficulty excuse to herself: but she had the heart of a mother for Bice. Oh, yes, it was true, quite true. The heart of a mother! and how was it possible that another mother could look on at this and not sympathise; and how was it that the idea had never occurred to her before—that she had never thought how changed in a moment might be Bice's position, if only—— Here she picked up her candle again, and went away hastily to her room. She said to herself that she was keeping Fletcher up, and that this was unkind. But, as a matter of fact, she was not thinking about Fletcher. There had sprung up in her soul a fear which was twofold and contradictory. If one of those alarms was justified, then the other would be fallacious; and yet the existence of the one doubled the force of the other. One of these elements of fear—the contradiction, the new terror—was wholly unthought of, and had never troubled her peace before. She thought—and this was her old burden, the anxiety which had already restrained her action and made her forego what she had never failed to feel as her duty, the carrying out of her father's will—of her husband's objection, of his opposition, of the terrible interview she had once had with him, when she had refused to acquiesce in his command. And then, with a sort of stealthy horror, she thought of his departure from that opposition, and asked herself, would he, for Bice's sake, consent to that which he had so much objected to in other cases? This it was that made her shrink from herself and her own thoughts, and hurry into her room for the solace of Fletcher's companionship, and to put off as long as she could the discussion of the question. Would Sir Tom agree to everything? Would he make no objections—for Bice's sake?
THE CONTESSA'S TACTICS.
That morning the whole party came down to breakfast expectant, for, notwithstanding the Contessa's habit of not appearing, it was supposed that the young lady whom most people supposed to have arrived very recently must be present at the morning meal. Young Montjoie, who was generally very late, appeared among the first; and there was a look of curiosity and anxiety in his face as he turned towards the door every time it was opened, which betrayed his motive. But this expectation was not destined to be repaid. Bice did not appear at breakfast. She did not even come downstairs, though the Contessa did, for luncheon. When Madame di Forno-Populo came in to this meal there was a general elevation of all heads and eager look towards her, to which she replied with her usual smile but no explanation of any kind; nor would she make any reply, even to direct questions. She did nothing but smile when Montjoie demanded to know if Miss Forno-Populo was not coming downstairs, if she had gone away, if she were ill, if she would appear before three o'clock—with which questions he assailed her in downright fashion. When the Contessa did not smile she put on a look of injured sweetness. "What!" she said, "Am I then so little thought of? You have no more pleasure, ficklest of young men, in seeing me?" "Oh, I assure you, Countess," he cried, "that's all right, don't you know; but a fellow may ask. And then it was your own doing to make us so excited."
"Yes, a fellow may ask," said the Contessa, smiling; but this was all the response she would give, nothing that could really throw the least light upon the subject of his curiosity. The other men of her following looked on with undisguised admiration at this skilled and accomplished woman. To see how she held in hand the youth whom they all considered as her victim was beautiful they thought; and bets even were going amongst them as to the certainty that she would land her big fish. Sir Tom, at the head of the table, did not regard the matter so lightly. There was a curve of annoyance in his forehead. He did not understand what game she was playing. It was, without doubt, a game of some sort, and its object was transparent enough; and Sir Tom could not easily forgive the dramatic efforts of the previous night, or endure the thought that his house was the scene of tactics so little creditable. He was vexed with the Contessa, with Bice, even with Lucy, who, he could not keep from saying to himself, should have found some means of baulking such an intention. He was somewhat mollified by the absence of Bice now, which seemed to him, perhaps, a tribute to his own evident disapproval; but still he was uneasy. It was not a fit thing to take place in his house. He saw far more clearly than he had done before that a stop should have been put ere now to the Contessa's operations, and in the light of last night's proceedings perceived his own errors in judgment—those errors which he had, indeed, been sensible of, yet condoned in himself with that wonderful charity which we show towards our own mistakes and follies. He ought not to have asked her to the Hall; he ought not to have permitted himself to be flattered and amused by her society, or to have encouraged her to remain, or to have been so weak as to ask the people she wished, which was the crowning error of all. He had invited Montjoie, a trifling boy in whom he felt little or no interest, to please her, without any definite idea as to what she meant, but only with an amused sense that she had designs on the lad which Montjoie was quite knowing enough to deliver himself from. But the turn things had taken displeased Sir Tom. It was too barefaced, he said to himself. He, too, felt like his more innocent wife, as if he were an accomplice in a social crime.
"I've been swindled, don't you know," Montjoie said; "I've been taken a mean advantage of. None of these other beggars are going away like me. They will get all the good of the music to-night, and I shall be far away. I could cry to think of it, I could, don't you know; but you don't care a bit, Countess."
The Contessa, as usual, smiled. "Enfant!" she said.
"I am not an infant. I am just the same age as everybody, old enough to look after myself, don't you know, and pay for myself, and all that sort of thing. Besides, I haven't got any parents and guardians. Is that why you take such a base advantage of me?" cried the young man.
"It is, perhaps, why——" The Contessa was not much in the way of answering questions; and when she had said this she broke off with a laugh. Was she going to say that this was why she had taken any trouble about him, with a frankness which it is sometimes part of the astutest policy to employ.
"Why what? why what? Oh, come, you must tell me now," the young man said.
"Why one takes so much interest in you," said the Contessa sweetly. "You shall come and see me, cher petit Marquis, in my little house that is to be, in Mayfair; for you have found me, n'est ce pas, a little house in Mayfair?" she said, turning to another of her train.
"Hung with rose-coloured curtains and pink glass in the windows, according to your orders, Contessa," said the gentleman appealed to.
"How good it is to have a friend! but those curtains will be terrible," said the Contessa, with a shiver, "if it were not that I carry with me a few little things in a great box."
"Oh, my dear Contessa, how many things you must have picked up!" cried Lady Anastasia. "That peep into your boudoir made me sick with envy; those Eastern embroideries, those Persian rugs! They have furnished me with a lovely paragraph for my paper, and it is such a delightful original idea to carry about one's pet furniture like one's dresses. It will become quite the fashion when it is known. And how I shall long to see that little house in Mayfair!"
The Contessa smiled upon Lady Anastasia as she smiled upon the male friends that surrounded her. Her paper and her paragraphs were not to be despised, and those little mysterious intimations about the new beauty which it delighted her to make. Madame di Forno-Populo turned to Montjoie afterwards with a little wave of the hand. "You are going?" she said; "how sad for us! we shall have no song to make us gay to-night. But come and you shall sing to us in Mayfair."
"Countess, you are only laughing at me. But I shall come, don't you know," said Montjoie, "whether you mean it or not."
The company, who were so much interested in this conversation, did not observe the preoccupied looks of the master and mistress of the house, although to some of the gentlemen the gravity of Sir Tom was apparent enough. And not much wonder that he should be grave. Even the men who were most easy in their own code looked with a certain severity and astonishment upon him who had opened his door to the adventuress-Contessa, of whom they all judged the worst, without even the charitable acknowledgment which her enemy the Dowager had made, that there was nothing in her past history bad enough to procure her absolute expulsion from society. The men who crowded round her when she appeared, who flattered and paid their court to her, and even took a little credit to themselves as intimates of the siren, were one and all of opinion that to bring her into his house was discreditable to Sir Tom. They were even a little less respectful to Lucy for not knowing or finding out the quality of her guest. If Tom Randolph was beginning to find out that he had been a fool it was wonderful he had not made the discovery sooner. For he had been a fool, and no mistake! To bring that woman to England, to keep her in his house, to associate her in men's minds with his wife—the worst of his present guests found it most difficult to forgive him. But they were all the more interested in the situation from the fact that Sir Tom was beginning to feel the effects of his folly. He said very little during that meal. He took no notice of the badinage going on between the Contessa and her train. When he spoke at all it was to that virtuous mother at his other hand, who was not at all amusing, and talked of nothing but Edith and Minnie, and her successful treatment of them through all the nursery troubles of their life.
Lucy, at the other end of the table, was scarcely more expansive. She had been relieved by the absence of Bice, which, in her innocence, she believed to be a concession to her own anxiety, feeling a certain gratitude to the Contessa for thus foregoing the chance of another interview with Montjoie. It could never have occurred to Lucy to suppose that this was policy on the Contessa's part, and that her refusal to satisfy Montjoie was in reality planned to strengthen her hold on him, and to increase the curiosity she pretended to baffle. Lucy had no such artificial idea in her mind. She accepted the girl's withdrawal as a tribute to her own powers of persuasion, and a proof that though the Contessa had been led astray by her foreign notions, she was yet ready to perceive and adopt the more excellent way. This touched Lucy's heart and made her feel that she was herself bound to reciprocate the generosity. They had done it without knowing anything about the intention in her mind, and it should be hers to carry out that intention liberally, generously, not like an unwilling giver. She cast many a glance at her husband while this was going through her mind. Would he object as before? or would he, because it was the Contessa who was to be benefited, make no objection? Lucy did not know which of the two it would be most painful to her to bear. She had read carefully the paragraph in her father's will about foreigners, and had found there was no distinct objection to foreigners, only a preference the other way. She knew indeed, but would not permit herself to think, that these were not persons who would have commended themselves to Mr. Trevor as objects of his bounty. Mr. Churchill, with his large family, was very different. But to endow two frivolous and expensive women with a portion of his fortune was a thing to which he never would have consented. With a certain shiver she recognised this; and then she made a rush past the objection and turned her back upon it. It was quite a common form of beneficence in old times to provide a dower for a girl that she might marry. What could there be wrong in providing a poor girl with something to live upon that she might not be forced into a mercenary marriage? While all the talk was going on at the other end of the table she was turning this over in her mind—the manner of it, the amount of it, all the details. She did not hear the talk, it was immaterial to her, she cared not for it. Now and then she gave an anxious look at Sir Tom at the other end. He was serious. He did not laugh as usual. What was he thinking of? Would his objections be forgotten because it was the Contessa or would he oppose her and struggle against her? Her heart beat at the thought of the conflict which might be before her; or perhaps if there was no conflict, if he were too willing, might not that be the worst of all!
Thus the background against which the Contessa wove her web of smiles and humorous schemes was both dark and serious. There were many shadows behind that frivolous central light. Herself the chief actor, the plotter, she to whom only it could be a matter of personal advantage, was perhaps the least serious of all the agents in it. The others thought of possibilities dark enough, of perhaps the destruction of family peace in this house which had been so hospitable to her, which had received her when no other house would; and some, of the success of a plan which did not deserve to succeed, and some of the danger of a youth to whom at present all the world was bright. All these things seemed to be involved in the present crisis. What more likely than that Lucy, at last enlightened, should turn upon her husband, who no doubt had forced this uncongenial companion upon her, should turn from Sir Tom altogether, and put her trust in him no longer! And the men who most admired the Contessa were those who looked with the greatest horror upon a marriage made by her, and called young Montjoie poor little beggar and poor devil, wondering much whether he ought not to be "spoken to." The men were not sorry for Bice, nor thought of her at all in the matter, save to conclude her a true pupil of the guardian whom most of them believed to be her mother. But in this point where the others were wanting Lucy came in, whose simple heart bled for the girl about to be sacrificed to a man whom she could not love. Thus tragical surmises floated in the air about Madame di Forno-Populo, that arch plotter whose heart was throbbing indeed with her success, and the hope of successes to come, but who had no tragical alarms in her breast. She was perfectly easy in her mind about Sir Tom and Lucy. Even if a matrimonial quarrel should be the result, what was that to an experienced woman of the world, who knew that such things are only for the minute? and neither Bice nor Montjoie caused her any alarm. Bice was perfectly pleased with the little Marquis. He amused her. She had not the slightest objection to him; and as for Montjoie, he was perfectly well able to take care of himself. So that while everybody else was more or less anxious, the Contessa in the centre of all her webs was perfectly tranquil. She was not aware that she wished harm to any man, or woman either. Her light heart and easy conscience carried her quite triumphantly through all.
When Montjoie had gone away, carrying in his pocket-book the address of the little house in Mayfair, and when the party had dispersed to walk or ride or drive, as each thought fit, Lucy, who was doing neither, met her husband coming out of his den. Sir Tom was full of a remorseful sense that he had wronged Lucy. He took her by both hands, and drew her into his room. It was a long time since he had met her with the same effusion. "You are looking very serious," he said, "you are vexed, and I don't wonder; but I see land, Lucy. It will be over directly—only a week more——"
"I thought you were looking serious, Tom," she said.
"So I was, my love. All that business last night was more than I could stand. You may think me callous enough, but I could not stand that."
"Tom!" said Lucy, faltering. It seemed an opportunity she could not let slip—but how she trembled between her two terrors! "There is something that I want to say to you."
"Say whatever you like, Lucy," he cried; "but for God's sake don't tremble, my little woman, when you speak to me. I've done nothing to deserve that."
"I am not trembling," said Lucy, with the most innocent and transparent of falsehoods. "But oh, Tom, I am so sorry, so unhappy."
"For what?" he said. He did not know what accusation she might be going to bring against him; and how could he defend himself? Whatever she might say he was sure to be half guilty; and if she thought him wholly guilty, how could he prevent it? A hot colour came up upon his middle-aged face. To have to blush when you are past the age of blushing is a more terrible necessity than the young can conceive.
"Oh, Tom!" cried Lucy again, "for Bice! Can we stand by and let her be sacrificed? She is not much more than a child; and she is always so good to little Tom."
"For Bice!" he cried. In the relief of his mind he was ready to have done anything for Bice. He laughed with a somewhat nervous tremulous outburst. "Why, what is the matter with her?" he said. "She did her part last night with assurance enough. She is young indeed, but she ought to have known better than that."
"She is very young, and it is the way she has been brought up—how should she know any better? But, Tom, if she had any fortune she would not be compelled to marry. How can we stand by and see her sacrificed to that odious young man?"
"What odious young man?" said Sir Tom, astonished, and then with another burst of his old laughter such as had not been heard for weeks, he cried out: "Montjoie! Why, Lucy, are you crazy? Half the girls in England are in competition for him. Sacrificed to——! She will be in the greatest luck if she ever has such a chance."
Lucy gave him a reproachful look.
"How can you say so? A little vulgar boy—a creature not worthy to——"
"My dear, you are prejudiced. You are taking Jock's view. That worthy's opinion of a fellow who never rose above Lower Fourth is to be received with reservation. A fellow may be a scug, and yet not a bad fellow—that is what Jock has yet to learn."
"Oh, Tom, I cannot laugh," said Lucy. "What can she do, the Contessa says? She must marry the first that offers, and in the meantime she attracts notice like that. It is dreadful to think of it. I think that some one—that we—I—ought to interfere."
"My innocent Lucy," said Sir Tom, "how can you interfere? You know nothing about the tactics of such people. I am very penitent for my share in the matter. I ought not to have brought so much upon you."
"Oh, Tom," cried Lucy again, drawing closer to him, eager to anticipate with her pardon any blame to which he might be liable. And then she added, returning to her own subject: "She is of English parentage—on one side."
Why this fact, so simply stated, should have startled her husband so much, Lucy could not imagine. He almost gasped as he met her eyes, as if he had received or feared a sudden blow, and underneath the brownness of his complexion grew suddenly pale, all the ruddy colour forsaking his face. "Of English parentage!" he said, faltering, "do you mean?—what do you mean? Why—do you tell this to me?"
Lucy was surprised, but saw no significance in his agitation. And her mind was full of her own purpose. "Because of the will which is against foreigners," she said simply. "But in that case she would not be a foreigner, Tom. I think a great deal of this. I want to do it. Oh, don't oppose me! It makes it so much harder when you go against me."
He gazed at her with a sort of awe. He did not seem able to speak. What she had said, though she was unconscious of any special meaning in it, seemed to have acted upon him like a spell. There was something tragic in his look which frightened Lucy. She came closer still and put her hand upon his arm.
"Oh, it is not to trouble you, Tom; it is not that I want to go against you! But give me your consent this once. Baby is so fond of her, and she is so good to him. I want to give something to Bice. Let me make a provision for her?" she said, pleading. "Do not take all the pleasure out of it and oppose me. Oh, dear Tom, give me your free consent!" Lucy cried.
He kept gazing at her with that look of awe. "Oppose you!" he said. What was the shock he had received which made him so unlike himself? His very lips quivered as he spoke. "God forgive me; what have I been doing?" he cried. "Lucy, I think I will never oppose you more."
This interview had an agitating and painful effect upon Lucy, though she could not tell why. It was not what she expected or feared—neither in one sense nor the other. He had neither distressed her by opposing her proceedings, nor accepted her beneficence towards the Contessa with levity and satisfaction, both of which dangers she had been prepared for. Instead, however, of agitating her by the reception he gave to her proposal, it was he who was agitated by something which in entire unconsciousness she had said. But what that could be Lucy could not divine. She had said nothing that could affect him personally so far as she knew. She went over every word of the conversation without being able to discover what could have had this effect. But she could find nothing, there was no clue anywhere that her unconscious mind could discover. She concluded finally with much compunction that it was the implied reproach that he had taken away all pleasure in what she did by opposing her, that had so disturbed her husband. He was so kind. He had not been able to bear even the possibility that his opposition had been a source of pain. "I think I will never oppose you any more." In an answering burst of generosity Lucy said to herself that she did not desire this; that she preferred that he should find fault and object when he disapproved, not consent to everything. But the reflection of the disturbance she had seen in her husband's countenance was in her mind all day; she could not shake it off; and he was so grave that every look she cast at him strengthened the impression. He did not approach the circle in which the Contessa sat all the evening, but stood apart, silent, taking little notice of anybody until Mr. Derwentwater secured his ear, when Sir Tom, instead of his usual genial laugh at MTutor's solemnities, discharged little caustic criticisms which astonished his companion. Mr. Derwentwater was going away next day, and he, too, was preoccupied. After that conversation with Sir Tom, he betook himself to Lucy, who was very silent too, and doing little for the entertainment of her guests. He made her sundry pretty speeches, such as are appropriate from a departing guest.
"Jock has made up his mind to stay behind," he said. "I am sorry, but I am not surprised. I shall lose a most agreeable travelling companion; but, perhaps, home influences are best for the young."
"I don't know why Jock has changed his mind, Mr. Derwentwater. He wanted very much to go."
"He would say that here's metal more attractive," said the tutor with an offended smile; and then he paused, and, clearing his throat, asked in a still more evident tone of offence—"Does not your young friend the Signorina appear again? I thought from her appearance last night that she was making her debut."
"Yes, it was like it," said Lucy. "The Contessa is not like one of us," she added after a moment. "She has her own ways—and, perhaps, I don't know—that may be the Italian fashion."
"Not at all," Mr. Derwentwater said promptly. He was an authority upon national usages. "But I am afraid it was very transparent what the Contessa meant," he said, after a pause.
To this Lucy made no reply, and the tutor, who was sensitive, especially as to bad taste, reddened at his inappropriate observation. He went on hastily; "The Signorina—or should I say Mademoiselle di Forno-Populo?—has a great deal of charm. I do not know if she is so beautiful as her mother——"
"Oh, not her mother," cried Lucy quickly, with a smile at the mistake.
"Is she not her mother? The young lady's face indeed is different. It is of a higher order—it is full of thought. It is noble in repose. She does not seem made for these scenes of festivity, if you will pardon me, Lady Randolph, but for the higher retirements——"
"Oh, she is very fond of seeing people," said Lucy. "You must not suppose she is too serious for her age. She enjoyed herself last night."
"There is no age," said Mr. Derwentwater, "at which one can be too serious—and especially in youth, when all the world is before one, when one cannot tell what effect a careless step may have one way or another. It is just that sweet gravity that charms me. I think she was quite out of her element, excuse me for saying so, Lady Randolph, last night."
"Do you think so? Oh, I am afraid not. I am afraid she liked it," said Lucy. "Jock, don't you think Bice liked it. I should much rather think not, but I am afraid—I am afraid——"
"She couldn't like that little cad," said Jock, who had drawn near with an instinctive sense that something was going on which concerned him. "But she's never solemn either," added the boy.