"Is that for me, Jock?" said MTutor, with a pensive gentleness of reproach. "Well, never mind. We must all put up with little misunderstandings from the younger generation. Some time or other you will judge differently. I should like to have had an opportunity again of such music as we heard last night; but I suppose I must not hope for it."
"Oh, do you mean Lord Montjoie's song?" cried one of the young ladies in blue, who had drawn near. "Wasn't it fun? Of course I know it wasn't to be compared to the Contessa; but I've no musical taste. I always confess it—that's Edith's line. But Lord Montjoie was fun. Don't you think so, dear Lady Randolph," Miss Minnie said.
Mr. Derwentwater gave her one glance, and retired, Jock following. "Perhaps that's your opinion too," he said, "that Lord Montjoie's was fun?"
"He's a scug," said Jock, laconically, "that's all I think about him."
Mr. Derwentwater took the lad's arm. "And yet," he said, "Jock, though you and I consider ourselves his superiors, that is the fellow that will carry off the prize. Beauty and genius are for him. He must have the best that humanity can produce. You ought to be too young to have any feeling on the subject; but it is a humiliating thought."
"Bice will have nothing to say to him," said Jock, with straightforward application of the abstract description; but MTutor shook his head.
"How can we tell the persecutions to which Woman is subject?" he said. "You and I, Jock, are in a very different position. But we should try to realise, though it is difficult, those dangers to which she is subject. Kept indoors," said MTutor, with pathos in his voice, "debarred from all knowledge of the world, with all the authorities about her leading one way. How can we tell what is said to her? with a host of petty maxims preaching down a daughter's heart—strange!" cried Mr. Derwentwater, with a closer pressure of the boy's arm, "that the most lovely existence should thus continually be led to link itself with the basest. We must not blame Woman; we must keep her idea sacred, whatever happens in our own experience."
"It always sets one right to talk to you," cried Jock, full of emotion. "I was a beast to say that."
"My boy, don't you think I understand the disturbance in your mind?" with a sigh, MTutor said.
They had left the drawing-room during the course of this conversation, and were crossing the hall on the way to the library, when some one suddenly drew back with a startled movement from the passage which led to Sir Tom's den. Then there followed a laugh, and "Oh, is it only you!" after which there came forth a slim shadow, as unlike as possible to the siren of the previous night. "We have met before, and I don't mind. Is there any one else coming?" Bice said.
"Why do you hide and skulk in corners?" cried Jock. "Why shouldn't you meet any one? Have you done something wrong?"
This made Bice laugh still more. "You don't understand," she said.
"Signorina," said Mr. Derwentwater (who was somewhat proud of having remembered this good abstract title to give to the mysterious girl), "I am going away to-morrow, and perhaps I shall never hear you again. Your voice seemed to open the heavenly gates. Why, since you are so good as to consider us different from the others, won't you sing to us once more?"
"Sing?" said Bice, with a little surprise; "but by myself my voice is not much——"
"It is like a voice out of heaven," Mr. Derwentwater said fervently.
"Do you really, really think so?" she said with a wondering look. She was surprised, but pleased too. "I don't think you would care for it without the Contessa's; but, perhaps——" Then she looked round her with a reflective look. "What can I do? There is no piano, and then these people would hear." After this a sudden idea struck her. She laughed aloud like a child with sudden glee. "I don't suppose it would be any harm! You belong to the house—and then there is Marietta. Yes! Come!" she cried suddenly, rushing up the great staircase and waving her hand impatiently, beckoning them to follow. "Come quick, quick," she cried; "I hear some one coming," and flew upstairs. They followed her, Mr. Derwentwater passing Jock, who hung back a little, and did not know what to think of this adventure. "Come quick," she cried, darting along the dimly-lighted corridor with a laugh that rang lightly along like the music to which her steps were set. "Oh, come in, come in. They will hear, but they will not know where it comes from." The young men stupefied, hesitating, followed her. They found themselves among all the curiosities and luxuries of the Contessa's boudoir. And in a moment Bice had placed herself at the little piano which was placed across one of the corners, its back covered with a wonderful piece of Eastern embroidery which would have invited Derwentwater's attention had he been able to fix that upon anything but Bice. As it was, he gave a half regard to these treasures. He would have examined them all with the devotion of a connoisseur but for her presence, which exercised a spell still more subtle than that of art.
The sound of the singing penetrated vaguely even into the drawing-room, where the Contessa, startled, rose from her seat much earlier than usual. Lucy, who attended her dutifully upstairs according to her usual custom, was dismayed beyond measure by seeing Jock and his tutor issue from that door. Bice came with them, with an air of excitement and triumphant satisfaction. She had been singing, and the inspiration and applause had gone to her head. She met the ladies not with the air of a culprit, but in all the boldness of innocence. "They like to hear me, even by myself," she cried; "they have listened, as if I had been an angel." And she clapped her hands with almost childish pleasure.
"Perhaps they think you are," said the Contessa, who shook her head, yet smiled with sympathy. "You must not say to these messieurs below that you have been in my room. Oh, I know the confidences of a smoking-room! You must not brag, mes amis. For Bice does not understand the convenances, nor remember that this is England, where people meet only in the drawing-room."
"Divine forgetfulness!" murmured Derwentwater. Jock, for his part, turned his back with a certain sense of shame. He had liked it, but he had not thought it right. The room altogether, with its draperies and mysteries, had conveyed to him a certain intoxication as of wrong-doing. Something that was dangerous was in the air of it. It was seductive, it was fascinating; he had felt like a man banished when Bice had started from the piano and bidden them "Go away; go away!" in the same laughing tone in which she had bidden them come. But the moment he was outside the threshold his impulse was to escape—to rush out of sight—and obliterate even from his own mind the sense that he had been there. To meet the Contessa, and still more his sister, full in the face, was a shock to all his susceptibilities. He turned his back upon them, and but that his fellow-culprit made a momentary stand, would have fled away. Lucy partook of Jock's feeling. It wounded her to see him at that door. She gave him a glance of mingled reproach and pity; a vague sense that these were siren-women dangerous to all mankind stole into her heart.
But Lucy was destined to a still greater shock. The party from the smoking-room was late in breaking up. The sound of their steps and voices as they came upstairs roused Lady Randolph, not from sleep—for she had been unable to sleep—but from the confused maze of recollections and efforts to think which distracted her placid soul. She was not made for these agitations. The constitution of her mind was overset altogether. The moment that suspicion and distrust came in there was no further strength in her. She was lying not thinking so much as remembering stray words and looks which drifted across her memory as across a dim mirror, with a meaning in them which she did not grasp. She was not clever. She could not put this and that together with the dolorous skill which some women possess. It is a skill which does not promote the happiness of the possessor, but perhaps it is scarcely more happy to stand in the midst of a vague mass of suggestions without being able to make out what they mean, which was Lucy's case. She did not understand her husband's sudden excitement; what it had to do with Bice, with the Contessa, with her own resolution and plans she could not tell, but felt vaguely that many things deeply concerning her were in the air, and was unhappy in the confusion of her thoughts. For a long time after the sounds of various persons coming upstairs had died away, Lucy lay silent waiting for her husband's appearance—but at last unable to bear the vague wretchedness of her thoughts any longer, got up and put on a dressing-gown and stole out into the dark gallery to go to the nursery to look at her boy asleep, which was her best anodyne. The lights were all extinguished except the faint ray that came from the nursery door, and Lucy went softly towards that, anxious to disturb little Tom by no sound. As she did so a door suddenly opened, sending a glare of light into the dark corridor. It was the door of the Contessa's room, and with the light came Sir Tom, the Contessa herself appearing after him on the threshold. She was still in her dinner dress, and her appearance remained long impressed upon Lucy's imagination like a photograph without colour, in shadow and light. She gave Sir Tom a little packet apparently of letters, and then she held out both hands to him, which he took in his. Something seemed to flash through Lucy's heart like a knife, quivering like the "pale death" of the poet, in sight and sense. The sudden surprise and pang of it was such for a moment that she seemed turned into stone, and stood gazing like a spectre in her white flowing dress, her face more white, her eyes and mouth open in the misery and trouble of the moment. Then she stole back softly into her room—her head throbbing, her heart beating—and buried her face in her pillow and closed her eyes. Even baby could not soothe her in this unlooked-for pang. And then she heard his step come slowly along the gallery. How was she to look at him? how listen to him in the shock of such an extraordinary discovery? She took refuge in a semblance of sleep.
When it happens to an innocent and simple soul to find out suddenly at a stroke the falsehood of some one upon whose truth the whole universe depends, the effect is such as perhaps has never been put forth by any attempt at psychological investigation. When it happens to a great mind, we have Hamlet with all the world in ruins round him—all other thoughts as of revenge or ambition are but secondary and spasmodic, since neither revenge nor advancement can put together again the works of life or make man delight him, or woman either. But Lady Randolph was not a Hamlet. She had no genius, nor even a great intellect to be unhinged—scarcely mind enough to understand how it was that the glory had paled out of earth and sky, and all the world seemed different when she rose from her uneasy bed next morning, pale, after a night without sleep, in which she had not been able to have even the relief of restlessness, but had lain motionless, without even a sigh or tear, so crushed by the unexpected blow that she could neither fathom nor understand what had happened to her. She was too pure herself to jump at any thought of gross infidelity. She felt she knew not what—that the world had gone to pieces—that she did not know how to shape it again into anything—that she could not look into her husband's face, or command her voice to speak to him, for shame of the thought that he had failed in truth. Lucy felt somehow as if she were the culprit. She was ashamed to look him in the face. She made an early visit to the nursery, and stayed there pretending various little occupations until she heard Sir Tom go down stairs. He had returned so much to the old ways, and now that the house was full, and there were other people to occupy the Contessa, had shown so clearly (as Lucy had thought) that he was pleased to be liberated from his attendance upon her, that the cloud that had risen between them had melted away; and indeed, for some time back, it had been Lucy who was the Contessa's stay and support, a change at which Sir Tom had sometimes laughed. All had been well between the husband and wife during the early part of the season parliamentary, the beginning of their life in London. Sir Tom had been much engrossed with the cares of public life, but he had been delightful to Lucy, whose faith in him and his new occupations was great. And it was exhilarating to think that the Contessa had secured that little house in Mayfair for her own campaign, and that something like a new honeymoon was about to begin for the pair, whose happiness had seemed for a moment to tremble in the balance. Lucy had been looking forward to the return to London with a more bright and conscious anticipation of well-being than she had ever experienced. In the first outset of life happiness seems a necessary of existence. It is calculated upon without misgiving; it is simple nature, beyond question. But when the natural "of course" has once been broken, it is with a warmer glow of content that we see the prospect once more stretching before us bright as at first and more assured. This is how Lucy had been regarding her life. It was not so simple, so easy as it once had been, but the happiness to which she was looking forward, and which she had already partially entered into possession of, was all the more sweet and dear, that she had known, or fancied herself about to know, the loss and absence of it. Now, in a moment, all that fair prospect, that blessed certainty, was gone. The earth was cut away from under her feet; she felt everything to be tottering, falling round her, and nothing in all the universe to lay hold of to prop herself up; for when the pillars of the world are thus unrooted the heaving of the earthquake and the falling of the ruins impart a certain vertigo and giddy instability even to heaven.
Fletcher, Lucy's maid, who was usually discreet enough, waited upon her mistress that morning with a certain air of importance, and of knowing something which she was bursting with eagerness to tell, such as must have attracted Lady Randolph's attention in any other circumstances. But Lucy was far too much occupied with what was in her own mind to observe the perturbation of the maid, who consequently had no resource, since her mistress would not question her, than to introduce herself the subject on which she was so anxious to utter her mind. She began by inquiring if her ladyship had heard the music last night. "The music?" Lucy said.
"Oh, my lady, haven't you heard what a singer Miss Beachy has turned out?" Fletcher cried.
Lucy, to whom all this seemed dim and far away as if it had happened years ago, answered with a faint smile—"Yes, she has a lovely voice."
"It is not my place," said Fletcher, "being only a servant, to make remarks; but, my lady, if I might make so bold, it do seem to the like of us an 'orrible thing to take advantage of a young lady like your ladyship that thinks no harm."
"You should not make such remarks," said Lucy, roused a little.
"No, my lady; but still a woman is a woman, even though but a servant. I said to Mrs. Freshwater I was sure your ladyship would never sanction it. I never thought that of Miss Beachy, I will allow. I always said she was a nice young lady; but evil communications, my lady—we all know what the Bible says. Gentlemen upstairs in her room and her singing to them, and laughing and talking like as no housemaid in the house as valued her character would do——"
"Fletcher," said Lucy, "you must say no more about this. It was Mr. Jock and Mr. Derwentwater only who were with Miss Bice—and with my permission," she added after a moment, "as he is going away to-morrow." Such deceits are so easy to learn.
"Oh-oh!" Miss Fletcher cried, with a quaver in her voice. "I beg your pardon, my lady; I'm sure—I thought—there must be something underneath, and that Miss Beachy would never—— And when she was down with Sir Thomas in the study it would be the same, my lady?" the woman said.
"With Sir Thomas in the study!" The words went vaguely into Lucy's mind. It had not seemed possible to increase the confusion and misery in her brain, but this produced a heightening of it, a sort of wave of bewilderment and pain greater than before, a sense of additional giddiness and failing. She gave a wave of her hand and said something, she scarcely knew what, which silenced Fletcher; and then she went down stairs to the new world. She did not go to the nursery even, as was her wont; her heart turned from little Tom. She felt that to look at him would be more than she could bear. There was no deceit in him, no falsehood—as yet; but perhaps when he grew up he would cheat her too. He would pretend to love her and betray her trust; he would kiss her, and then go away and scoff at her; he would smile, and smile, and be a villain. Such words were not in Lucy's mind, and it was altogether out of nature that she should even receive the thought: which made it all the more terrible when it was poured into her soul. And it cannot be told what discoveries she seemed to make even in the course of that morning in this strange condition of her mind. There was a haze over everything, but yet there was an enlightenment even in the haze. She saw in her little way, as Hamlet saw the falsehood of his courtiers, his gallant young companions, and the schemes of Polonius, and even Ophelia in the plot to trap him. She saw how false all these people were in their civilities, in their extravagant thanks and compliments to her as they went away; for the Easter recess was just over, and everybody was going. The mother and her daughters said to her, "Such a delightful visit, dear Lady Randolph!" with kisses of farewell and wreathed smiles; and she perceived, somehow by a sort of second sight, that they added to each other, "Oh, what a bore it has been; nobody worth meeting," and "how thankful I am it's over!" which was indeed what Miss Minnie and Miss Edith said. If Lucy had seen a little deeper she would have known that this too was a sort of conventional falsity which the young ladies said to each other, according to the fashion of the day, without any meaning to speak of; but one must have learned a great many lessons before one comes to that.
Then Jock, who had been woke up in quite a different way, took leave of MTutor, that god of his old idolatry, without being able to refrain from some semblance of the old absorbing affection.
"I am so sorry you are not coming with me, old fellow," Mr. Derwentwater said.
Jock replied, "So am I," with an effort, as if firing a parting volley in honour of his friend: but then turned gloomily with an expression of relief. "I'm glad he's gone, Lucy."
"Then you did not want to go with him, Jock?"
"I wouldn't have gone for anything. I've just got to that—that I can't bear him," cried Jock.
And Lucy, in the midst of the ruins, felt her head go round: though here too it was the falsehood that was fictitious, had she but known. It is not, however, in the nature of such a shock that any of those alleviating circumstances which modify the character of human sentiment can be taken into account. Lucy had taken everything for gospel in the first chapter of existence; she had believed what everybody said; and like every other human soul, after such a discovery as she had made, she went to the opposite extremity now—not wittingly, not voluntarily—but the pillars of the earth were shaken, and nothing stood fast.
They went up to town next day. In the meantime she had little or no intercourse with the Contessa, who was preparing for the journey and absorbed in letter-writing, making known to everybody whom she could think of, the existence of the little house in Mayfair. It is doubtful whether she so much as observed any difference in the demeanour of her hostess, having in fact the most unbounded confidence in Lucy, whom she did not believe capable of any such revulsion of feeling. Bice was more clear-sighted, but she thought Milady was displeased with her own proceedings, and sought no further for a cause. And the only thing the girl could do was to endeavour by all the little devices she could think of to show the warm affection she really felt for Lucy—a method which made the heart of Lucy more and more sick with that sense of falsehood which sometimes rose in her, almost to the height of passion. A woman who had ever learned to use harsh words, or to whose mind it had ever been possible to do or say anything to hurt another, would no doubt have burst forth upon the girl with some reproach or intimation of doubt which might have cleared the matter so far as Bice went. But Lucy had no such words at her command. She could not say anything unkind. It was not in her. She could be silent, indeed, but not even that, so far as to "hurt the feelings" of her companion. The effect, therefore, was only that Lucy laboured to maintain a little artificial conversation, which in its turn reacted upon her mind, showing that even in herself there was the same disposition to insincerity which she had begun to discover in the world. She could say nothing to Bice about the matters which a little while before, when all was well, she had grieved over and objected to. Now she had nothing to say on such subjects. That the girl should be set up to auction, that she should put forth all those arts in which she had been trained, to attract and secure young Montjoie, or any like him, were things which had passed beyond her sphere. To think of them rendered her heart more sick, her head more giddy. But if Bice married some one whom she did not love, that was not so bad as to think that perhaps she herself all this time had been living with, and loving, in sacred trust and faith, a man who even by her side was full of thoughts unknown to her, given to another. Sometimes Lucy closed her eyes in a sort of sick despair, feeling everything about her go round and round. But she said nothing to throw any light upon the state of her being. Sir Tom felt a little gravity—a little distance in his wife; but he himself was much occupied with a new and painful subject of thought. And Jock observed nothing at all, being at a stage when man (or boy) is wholly possessed with affairs of his own. He had his troubles, too. He was not easy about that breach with his master now that they were separated. When Bice was kind to him a gleam of triumph, mingled with pity, made him remorseful towards that earlier friend; and when she was unkind a bitter sense of fellowship turned Jock's thoughts towards that sublime ideal of masculine friendship which is above the lighter loves of women. How can a boy think of his sister when absorbed in such a mystery of his own?—even if he considered his sister at all as a person whom it was needful to think about—which he did not, Lucy being herself one of the pillars of the earth to his unopened eyes.
All this, however, made no difference in Lucy's determination. She wrote to Mr. Rushton that very morning, after this revolution in her soul, to instruct him as to her intentions in respect to Bice, and to her other trustee in London to request him to see her immediately on her arrival in Park Lane. Nothing should be changed in that matter, for why, she said to herself, should Bice suffer because Sir Tom was untrue? It seemed to her that there was more reason than ever why she should rouse herself and throw off her inaction. No doubt there were many people whom she could make, if not happy, yet comfortable. It was comfortable (everybody said) to have enough of money—to be well off. Lucy had no experience of what it was to be without it. She thought to herself she would like to try, to have only what she actually wanted, to cook the food for her little family, to nurse little Tom all by herself, to live as the cottagers lived. There was in her mind no repugnance to any of the details of poverty. Her wealth was an accident; it was the habit of her race to be poor, and it seemed to Lucy that she would be happier could she shake off now all those external circumstances which had grown, like everything else, into falsehoods, giving an appearance of well-being which did not exist. But other people thought it well to have money, and it was her duty to give it. A kind of contempt rose within her for all that withheld her previously. To avoid her duty because it would displease Sir Tom—what was that but falsehood too? All was falsehood, only she had never seen it before.
They reached town in the afternoon of a sweet April day, the sky aglow with a golden sunset, against which the trees in the park stood out with their half-developed buds: and all the freshness of the spring was in the long stretches of green, and the softened jubilee of sound to which somehow, as the air warms towards summer, the voices of the world outside tune themselves. The Contessa and Bice in great spirits and happiness, like two children home from school, had left the Randolph party at the railway, to take possession of the little house in Mayfair. They had both waved their hands from the carriage window and called out, "Be sure you come and see us," as they drove away. "You will come to-night," they had stipulated with Sir Tom and Jock. It was like a new toy which filled them with glee. Could it be possible that those two adventurers going off to their little temporary home with smiles so genuine, with so simple a delight in their new beginning, were not, in their strange way, innocent, full of guile and shifts as one was, and the other so apt a scholar? Lucy would have joined in all this pleasure two days ago, but she could not now. She went home to her luxurious house, where all was ready, as if she had not been absent an hour. How wonderfully wealth smooths away the inconveniences of change! and how little it has to do, Lucy thought, with the comfort of the soul! No need for any exertion on her part, any scuffling for the first arrival, any trouble of novelty. She came from the Hall to London without any sense of change. Had she been compelled to superintend the arrangement of her house, to make it habitable, to make it pretty, that would have done her good. But the only thing for her to do was to see Mr. Chervil, her trustee, who waited upon her according to her request, and who, after the usual remonstrances, took her instructions about the gift to Bice very unwillingly, but still with a forced submission. "If I cannot make you see the folly of it, Lady Randolph, and if Sir Thomas does not object, I don't know what more is to be said." "There is nothing more to be said," Lucy said, with a smile; but there was this difficulty in the proceeding which she had not thought of, that Bice's name all this time was unknown to her—Beatrice di Forno-Populo, she supposed, but the Contessa had never called her so, and it was necessary to be exact, Mr. Chervil said. He hailed this as an occasion of delay. He was not so violent as he had been on previous occasions when Lucy was young; and he did not, like Mr. Rushton, assume the necessity of speaking to Sir Tom. Mr. Chervil was a London solicitor, and knew very little about Sir Tom. But he was glad to seize upon anything that was good for a little delay.
After this interview was over it was a mingled vexation and relief to Lucy to see the Dowager drive up to the door. Lady Randolph the elder was always in London from the first moment possible. She preferred the first bursting of the spring in the squares and parks. She liked to see her friends arrive by degrees, and to feel that she had so far the better of them. She came in, full as she always was of matter, with a thousand things to say. "I have come to stay to dinner, if you will have me," she said, "for of course Tom will be going out in the evening. They are always so glad to get back to their life." And it was, perhaps, a relief to have Lady Randolph to dinner, to be saved from the purely domestic party, to which Jock scarcely added any new element; but it was hard for Lucy to encounter even the brief questionings which were addressed to her in the short interval before dinner. "So you have got rid of that woman at last," Lady Randolph said; "I hear she has got a house in Mayfair."
"Yes, Aunt Randolph, if you mean the Contessa," said Lucy.
"And that she intends to make a bold coup to get the girl off her hands. These sort of people so often succeed: I shouldn't wonder if she were to succeed. I always said the girl would be handsome, but I think she might have waited another year."
To this Lucy made no reply, and it was necessary for the Dowager to carry on the conversation, so to speak, at her own cost.
"I hope most earnestly, Lucy," she said, "that now you have got clear of them you will not mix yourself up with them again. You were placed in an uneasy position, very difficult to get out of, I will allow; but now that you have shaken them off, and they have proved they can get on without you, don't, I entreat you, mix yourself up with them again."
Lucy could not keep the blood from mounting, and colouring her face. She had always spoken of the Contessa calmly before. She tried to keep her composure now. "Dear Aunt Randolph, I have not shaken them off. They have gone away of themselves, and how can I refuse to see them? There is to be a party here for them on the 26th."
"Oh, my dear, my dear, that was very imprudent! I had hoped you would keep clear of them in London. It is one thing showing kindness to an old friend in the country, and it is quite another——"
Here Lucy made an imperative gesture, almost commanding silence. Sir Tom was coming into the room. She was seated in the great bay window against the early twilight, the soft radiance of which dazzled the eyes of the elder lady, and prevented her from perceiving her nephew's approach. But Lady Randolph, before she rose to meet him, gave a startled look at Lucy. "Have you found it out, then?" she said involuntarily, in her great surprise.
THE DOWAGER'S EXPLANATION.
The Dowager was a woman far more clever than Lucy, who knew the world. And she was apt perhaps, instead of missing the meaning of the facts around her, to put too much significance in them. Now, when the little party met at dinner, Lady Randolph saw in the faces of both husband and wife more than was there, though much was there. Sir Tom was more grave than became a man who had returned into life, as his aunt said, and was looking forward to resuming the better part of existence—the House, the clubs, the quick throb of living which is in London. His countenance was full of thought, and there was both trouble and perplexity in it, but not the excitement which the Dowager supposed she found there, and those signs of having yielded to an evil influence which eyes accustomed to the world are so ready to discover. Lucy for her part was pale and silent. She had little to say, and scarcely addressed her husband at all. Lady Randolph, and that was very natural, took those signs of heart sickness for tokens of complete enlightenment, for the passion of a woman who had entered upon that struggle with another woman for a man's love which, even when the man is her husband, has something degrading in it. There had been a disclosure, a terrible scene, no doubt, a stirring up of all the passions, Lady Randolph thought. No doubt that was the reason why the Contessa had loosed her clutches, and left the house free of her presence; but Lucy was still trembling after the tempest, and had not learned to take any pleasure in her victory. This was the conclusion of the woman of the world.
The dinner was not a lengthy one, and the ladies went upstairs again, with a suppressed constraint, each anxious to know what the other was on her guard not to tell. They sat alone expectant for some time, making conversation, taking their coffee, listening, and watching each how the other listened, for the coming of the gentlemen, or rather for Sir Tom; for Jock, in his boyish insignificance, counted for little. The trivial little words that passed between them during this interval were charged with a sort of moral electricity, and stung and tingled in the too conscious silence. At length, after some time had elapsed: "I am glad I came," said Lady Randolph, "to sit with you, Lucy, this first evening; for of course Tom cannot resist, the first evening in town, the charms of his club."
"His club! Oh, I think he has gone to see the house," Lucy said. "He promised——; it is not very far off."
"The house? You mean that woman's house. Lucy, I have no patience with you any more than I have with Tom. Why don't you put a stop to it? why don't you—for I suppose you have found out what sort of a woman she is by this time, and why she came here?"
"She came——to introduce Bice and establish her in the world," Lucy said, in a faint tone. "Oh! Aunt Randolph, please do not let us discuss it! It is not what I like to think of. Bice will be sacrificed to the first rich man who asks her; or at least that is what the Contessa means."
"My dear Lucy," said the Dowager, calmly, "that is reasonable enough. I wish the Contessa meant no worse than that. Most girls are persuaded to marry a rich man if he asks them. I don't think so much of that. But it will not be so easy as she thinks," the Dowager added. "It is true that beauty does much—but not everything; and a girl in that position, with no connections, or, at least, none that she would not be better without——"
Lucy's attention strayed from this question, which once had been so important, and which now seemed so secondary; but the conversation must be maintained. She said at random: "She has a beautiful voice."
"Has she? And the Contessa herself sings very well. That will no doubt be another attraction," said Lady Randolph, in her impartial way. "But the end of it all is, who will she get to go, and who will invite them? It is vain to lay snares if there is nothing to be caught."
"They will be invited—here," said Lucy, faltering a little. "I told you I am to have a great gathering on the 26th."
"I could not believe my ears. You!—and she is to appear here for the first time to make her debut. Good heavens, Lucy! What can I say to you—that girl!"
"Why not, Aunt Randolph?" said Lucy (oh, what does it matter—what does it matter, that she should make so much fuss about it? she was saying in herself); "I have always liked Bice, and she has been very good to little Tom."
"Well," cried the angry lady, forgetting herself, and smiling the fierce smile of wrath, "there is no doubt that it is perfectly appropriate—the very thing that ought to happen if we lived according to the rules of nature, without thought of conventionalities and decorums, and so forth—oh, perfectly appropriate! If you don't object I know no one who has any right to say a word."
Even now Lucy was scarcely roused enough to be surprised by the vehemence of these words. "Why should I object?" she said; "or why should any one say a word?" Her calm, which was almost indifference, excited Lady Randolph more and more.
"You are either superhuman," she said, with exasperation, "or you are—— Lucy, I don't know what words to use. You put one out of every reckoning. You are like nobody I ever knew before. Why should you object? Why, good heavens! you are the only person that has any right—— Who should object if not you?"
"Aunt Randolph," said Lucy, rousing herself with an effort, "would you please tell me plainly what you mean? I am not clever. I can't make things out. I have always liked Bice. To save her from being made a victim I am going to give her some of the money under my father's will—and if I could give her—— What is the matter?" she cried, stopping short suddenly, and in spite of herself growing pale.
Lady Randolph flung up her hands in dismay. She gave something like a shriek as she exclaimed: "And Tom is letting you do this?" with horror in her tone.
"He has promised that he will not oppose," Lucy said; "but why do you speak so, and look so? Bice—has done no harm."
"Oh, no; Bice has done no harm," cried Lady Randolph bitterly; "nothing, except being born, which is harm enough, I think. But do you mean to tell me, Lucy, that Tom—a man of honour, notwithstanding all his vagaries—Tom——lets you do this and never says a word? Oh, it is too much. I have always stood by him. I have been his support when every one else failed. But this is too much, that he should put the burden upon you—that he should make you responsible for this girl of his——"
"Aunt Randolph!" cried Lucy, rising up quickly and confronting the angry woman. She put up her hand with a serious dignity that was doubly impressive from her usual simpleness. "What is it you mean? This girl of his! I do not understand. She is not much more than a child. You cannot, cannot suppose that Bice—that it is she—that she is——" Here she suddenly covered her face with her hands. "Oh, you put things in my mind that I am ashamed to think of," Lucy cried.
"I mean," said Lady Randolph, who in the heat of this discussion had got beyond her own power of self-restraint, "what everybody but yourself must have seen long ago. That woman is a shameless woman, but even she would not have had the effrontery to bring any other girl to your house. It was more shameless, I think, to bring that one than any other; but she would not think so. Oh, cannot you see it even now? Why, the likeness might have told you; that was enough. The girl is Tom's girl. She is your husband's——"
Lucy uncovered her face, which was perfectly colourless, with eyes dilated and wide open. "What?" she whispered, looking intently into Lady Randolph's face.
"His own child—his—daughter—though I am bitterly ashamed to say it," the Dowager said.
For a moment everything seemed to waver and turn round in Lucy's eyes, as if the walls were making a circuit with her in giddy space. Then she came to her feet with the sensation of a shock, and found herself standing erect, with the most amazing incomprehensible sense of relief. Why should she have felt relieved by this communication which filled her companion with horror? A softer air seemed to breathe about Lucy, she felt solid ground under her feet. For the first moment there seemed nothing but ease and sweet soothing and refreshment in what she heard.
"His—daughter?" she said. Her mind went back with a sudden flash upon the past, gathering up instantaneously pieces of corroborative evidence, things which she had not noted at the moment, which she had forgotten, yet which came back nevertheless when they were needed: the Contessa's mysterious words about Bice's parentage, her intimation that Lucy would one day be glad to have befriended her: Sir Tom's sudden agitation when she had told him of Bice's English descent: finally, and most conclusive of all, touching Lucy with a most unreasonable conviction and bringing a rush of warm feeling to her heart, Baby's adoption of the girl and recommendation of her to his mother. Was it not the voice of nature, the voice of God? Lucy had no instinctive sense of recoil, no horror of the discovery. She did not realise the guilt involved, nor was she painfully struck, as some women might have been, by this evidence of her husband's previous life "If it is so," she said quietly, "there is more reason than ever, Aunt Randolph, that I should do everything I can for Bice. It never came into my mind before. I see now—various things: but I do not see why it should—make me unhappy," she added with a faint smile which brought the water to her eyes; "it must have been—long before I knew him. Will you tell me who was her mother? Was she a foreigner? Did she die long ago?"
"Oh, Lucy, Lucy," cried Lady Randolph, "is it possible you don't see? Who would take all that trouble about her? Who would burden themselves with another woman's girl that was no concern of theirs? Who would—can't you see? can't you see?"
There came over Lucy's face a hot and feverish flush. She grew red to her hair, agitation and shame took possession of her; something seemed to throb and swell as if it would burst in her forehead. She could not speak. She could not look at her informant for shame of the revelation that had been made. All the bewildered sensations which for the moment had been stilled in her breast sprang up again with a feverish whirl and tumult. She tottered back to the chair on which she had been sitting and dropped down upon it, holding by it as if that were the only thing in the world secure and steadfast. It was only now that Lady Randolph seemed to awake to the risks and dangers of this bold step she had taken. She had roused the placid soul at last. To what strange agony, to what revenge might she have roused it? She had looked for tears and misery, and fleeting rage and mad jealousy. But Lucy's look of utter giddiness and overthrow alarmed her more than she could say.
"Lucy! Oh, my love, you must recollect, as you say, that it was all long before he knew you—that there was no injury to you!"
Lucy made a movement with her hand to bar further discussion, but she could not say anything. She pointed Lady Randolph to her chair, and made that mute prayer for silence, for no more. But in such a moment of excitement there is nothing that is more difficult to grant than this.
"Oh, Lucy," the Dowager cried, "forgive me! Perhaps I ought not to have said anything. Oh, my dear, if you will but think what a painful position it was for me. To see you so unsuspicious, ready to do anything, and even Tom taking advantage of you. It is not more than a week since I found it all out, and how could I keep silence? Think what a painful position it was for me."
Lucy made no reply. There seemed nothing but darkness round her. She put out her hand imploring that no more might be said; and though there was a great deal more said, she scarcely made out what it was. Her brain refused to take in any more. She suffered herself to be kissed and blessed, and said good-night to, almost mechanically. And when the elder lady at last went away, Lucy sat where Lady Randolph had left her, she did not know how long, gazing woefully at the ruins of that crumbled world which had all fallen to pieces about her. All was to pieces now. What was she and what was the other? Why should she be here and not the other? Two, were there?—two with an equal claim upon him? Was everything false, even the law, even the external facts which made her Tom's wife. He had another wife and a child. He was two, he was not one true man; one for baby and her, another for Bice and the Contessa. When she heard her husband coming in Lucy fled upstairs like a hunted thing, and took refuge in the nursery where little Tom was sleeping. Even her bourgeoise horror of betraying herself, of letting the servants suspect that anything was wrong, had no effect upon her to-night.
Sir Tom came home later, so much later than he intended that he entered the house with such a sense of compunction as had not visited him since the days when the alarm of being caught was a part of the pleasure. He had no fear of a lecture from Lucy, whose gifts were not of that kind; but he was partially conscious of having neglected her on her first night in town, as well as having sinned against her in matters more serious. And he did not know how to explain his detention at the Contessa's new house, or the matters which he had been discussing there. It was a sensible relief to him not to find her in any of the sitting-rooms, all dark and closed up, except his own room, in which there was no trace of her. She had gone to bed, which was so sensible, like Lucy's unexaggerated natural good sense: he smiled to himself—though, at the same time, a wondering question within himself, whether she felt at all, passed through his mind—a reflection full of mingled disappointment and satisfaction. But when, a full hour after his return, after a tranquil period of reflection, he went leisurely upstairs, expecting to find her peacefully asleep, and found her not, nor any evidence that she had ever been there, a great wave of alarm passed over the mind of Sir Tom. He paused confounded, looking at her vacant place, startled beyond expression. "Lucy!" he cried, looking in his dismay into every corner, into his own dressing-room, and even into the large wardrobe where her dresses hung, like shells and husks, which she had laid aside. And then he made an agitated pause, standing in the middle of the room, not knowing what to think. It was by this time about two in the morning; the middle of the night, according to Lucy. Where could she have gone? Then he bethought himself with an immediate relief, which was soon replaced by poignant anxiety, of the only possible reason for her absence—a reason which would explain everything—little Tom. When this thought occurred to him all the excitement that had been in Sir Tom's mind disappeared in a moment, and he thought of nothing but that baby lying, perhaps tossing uneasily, upon his little bed, his mother watching over him; most sacred group on earth to him, who, whatever his faults might be, loved them both dearly. He took a candle in his hand and, stepping lightly, went up the stairs to the nursery door. There was no sound of wailing within, no pitiful little cry to tell the tale; all was still and dark. He tried the door softly, but it would not open. Then another terror awoke, and for the moment took his breath from him. What had happened to the child? Sir Tom suffered enough at this moment to have expiated many sins. There came upon him a vision of the child extended motionless upon his bed, and his mother by him refusing to be comforted. What could it mean? The door looked as if hope had departed. He knocked softly, yet imperatively, divided between the horror of these thoughts and the gentle every-day sentiment which forbade any noise at little Tom's door. It was some time before he got any reply—a time which seemed to him interminable. Then he suddenly heard Lucy's voice close to the door whispering. There had been no sound of any footsteps. Had she been there all the time listening to all his appeals and taking no notice?
"Open the door," he said anxiously. "Speak to me. What is the matter? Is he ill? Have you sent for the doctor? Let me in."
"We are all shut up and settled for the night," said Lucy, through the door.
"Shut up for the night? Has he been very ill?" Sir Tom cried.
"Oh, hush, you will wake him; no, not very ill: but I am going to stay with him," said the voice inside with a quiver in it.
"Lucy, what does this mean? You are concealing something from me. Have you had the doctor? Good God, tell me. What is the matter? Can't I see my boy?"
"There is nothing—nothing to be alarmed about," said Lucy from within. "He is asleep—he is—doing well. Oh! go to bed and don't mind us. I am going to stay with him."
"Don't mind you? that is so easy," he cried, with a broken laugh; then the silence stealing to his heart, he cried out, "Is the child——?" But Sir Tom could not say the word. He shivered, standing outside the closed door. The mystery seemed incomprehensible, save on the score of some great calamity. The bitterness of death went over him; but then he asked himself what reason there could be to conceal from him any terrible sudden blow. Lucy would have wanted him in such a case, not kept him from her. In this dread moment of sudden panic he thought of everything but the real cause, which made a more effectual barrier between them than that closed door.
"He is well enough now," said Lucy's voice, coming faintly out of the darkness. "Oh, indeed, there is nothing the matter. Please go away; go to bed. It is so late. I am going to stay with him."
"Lucy," said Sir Tom, "I have never been shut out before. There is something you are concealing from me. Let me see him and then you shall do as you please."
There was a little pause, and then slowly, reluctantly, Lucy opened the door. She was still fully dressed as she had been for dinner. There was not a particle of colour in her face. Her eyes had a scared look and were surrounded by wide circles, as if the orbit had been hollowed out. She stood aside to let him pass without a word. The room in which little Tom slept was an inner room. There was scarcely any light in either, nothing but the faint glimmer of the night-lamp. The sleeping-room was hushed and full of the most tranquil quiet, the regular soft breathing of the sleeping child in his little bed, and of his nurse by him, who was as completely unaware as he of any intrusion. Sir Tom stole in and looked at his boy, in the pretty baby attitude of perfect repose, his little arms thrown up over his head. The anxiety vanished from his heart, but not the troubled sense of something wrong, a mystery which altogether baffled him. Mystery had no place here in this little sanctuary of innocence. But what did it mean? He stole out again to where Lucy stood, scared and silent in her white dress, with a jewelled pendant at her neck which gleamed strangely in the half light.
"He seems quite well now. What was it, and why are you so anxious?" he asked. "Did the doctor——"
"There was no need for a doctor. It is only—myself. I must stay with him, he might want me——" And nobody else does, Lucy was about to say, but pride and modesty restrained her. Her husband looked at her earnestly. He perceived with a curious pang of astonishment that she drew away from him, standing as far off as the limited space permitted and avoiding his eye.
"I don't understand it," he said; "there is something underneath; either he has been more ill than you will let me know, or—there is something else——"
She gave him no answering look, made no wondering exclamation what could there be else? as he had hoped; but replied hurriedly, as she had done before, "I want to stay with him. I must stay with him for to-night——"
It was with the most extraordinary sense of some change, which he could not fathom or divine, that Sir Tom consented at last to leave his wife in the child's room and go to his own. What did it mean? What had happened to him, or was about to happen? He could not explain to himself the aspect of the slight little youthful figure in her airy white dress, with the diamonds still at her throat, careless of the hour and time, standing there in the middle of the night, shrinking away from him, forlorn and wakeful with her scared eyes. At this hour on ordinary occasions Lucy was fast asleep. When she came to see her boy, if society had kept her up late, it was in the ease of a dressing-gown, not with any cold glitter of ornaments. And to see her shrink and draw herself away in that strange repugnance from his touch and shadow confounded him. He was not angry, as he might have been in another case, but pitiful to the bottom of his heart. What could have come to Lucy? Half a dozen times he turned back on his way to his room. What meaning could she have in it? What could have happened to her? Her manifest shrinking from him had terrified him, and filled his mind with confusion. But controversy of any kind in the child's room at the risk of waking him in the middle of the night was impossible, and no doubt, he tried to say to himself, it must be some panic she had taken, some sudden alarm for the child, justified by reasons which she did not like to explain to him till the morning light restored her confidence. Women were so, he had often heard: and the women he had known in his youth had certainly been so—unreasoning creatures, subject to their imagination, taking fright when no occasion for fright was, incapable of explaining. Lucy had never been like this; but yet Lucy, though sensible, was a woman too, and if it is not permitted to a woman to take an unreasoning panic about her only child, she must be hardly judged indeed. Sir Tom was not a hard judge. When he got over the painful sense that there must be something more in this than met the eye, he was half glad to find that Lucy was like other women—a dear little fool, not always sensible. He thought almost the better of her for it, he said to himself. She would laugh herself at her panic, whatever it was, when little Tom woke up fresh and fair in the morning light.
With this idea he did what he could to satisfy himself. The situation was strange, unprecedented in his experience; but he had many subjects of thought on his own part which returned to his mind as the surprise of the moment calmed down. He had a great deal to think about. Old difficulties which seemed to have passed away for long years were now coming back again to embarrass and confuse him. "Our pleasant vices are made the whips to scourge us," he said to himself. The past had come back to him like the opening of a book, no longer merely frivolous and amusing, as in the Contessa's talk, touched with all manner of light emotions, but bitter, with tragedy in it, and death and desolation. Death and life: he had heard enough of the dead to make them seem alive again, and of the living to confuse their identity altogether; but he had not yet succeeded in clearing up the doubt which had been thrown into his mind. That question about Bice's parentage, "English on one side," tormented him still. He had made again an attempt to discover the truth, and he had been foiled. The probabilities seemed all in favour of the solution which at the first word had presented itself to him; but still there was a chance that it might not be so.
His mind had been full and troubled enough, when he returned to the still house, and thought with compunction how many thoughts which he could not share with her he was bringing back to Lucy's side. He could not trust them to her, or confide in her, and secure her help, as in many other circumstances he would have done without hesitation. But he could not do that in this case,—not so much because she was his wife, as because she was so young, so innocent, so unaware of the complications of existence. How could she understand the temptations that assail a young man in the heyday of life, to whom many indulgences appear permissible or venial, which to her limited and innocent soul would seem unpardonable sins? To live even for a few years with a stainless nature like that of Lucy, in whom there was not even so much knowledge as would make the approaches of vice comprehensible, is a new kind of education to the most experienced of men. He had not believed it to be possible to be so altogether ignorant of evil as he had found her; and how could he explain to her and gain her indulgent consideration of the circumstances which had led him into what in her vocabulary would be branded with the name of vice? Sir Tom even now did not feel it to be vice. It was unfortunate that it had so happened. He had been a fool. It was almost inconceivable to him now how for the indulgence of a momentary passion he could have placed himself in a position that might one day be so embarrassing and disagreeable. He had not behaved ill at the moment; it was the woman who had behaved ill. But how in the name of wonder to explain all this to Lucy? Lucy, who was not conscious of any reason why a man's code of morals should be different from that of a woman! When Sir Tom returned to this painful and difficult subject, the immediate question as to Lucy's strange conduct died from his mind. It became more easy, by dint of repeating it, to believe that a mere unreasonable panic about little Tom was the cause of her withdrawal. It was foolish, but a loving and lovely foolishness which a man might do more than forgive, which he might adore and smile at, as men love to do, feeling that for a woman to be thus silly is desirable, a counterpoise to the selfishness and want of feeling which are so common in the world. But how to make this spotless creature understand that a man might slip aside and yet not be a dissolute man, that he might be betrayed into certain proceedings which would not perhaps bear the inspection of severe judges, and yet be neither vicious nor heartless. This problem, after he had considered it in every possible way, Sir Tom finally gave up with a sort of despair. He must keep his secret within his own bosom. He must contrive some means of doing what, in case his hypothesis was right, would now be clearly a duty, without exciting any suspicion on Lucy's part. That, he thought with a compunction, would be easy enough. There was no one whom it would cost less trouble to deceive. With these thoughts he went to sleep in the room which seemed strangely lonely without her presence. Perhaps, however, it was not ungrateful to him to be alone to think all those thoughts without the additional sense of treachery which must have ensued had he thought them in her presence. There was no treachery. He had been all along, he thought to himself, a man somewhat sinned against in the matter. To be sure it was wrong—according to all rules of morals, it was necessary to admit this; but not more wrong, not so much wrong, as most other men had been. And, granting the impropriety of that first step, he had nothing to reproach himself with afterwards. In that respect he knew he had behaved both liberally and honourably, though he had been deceived. But how—how—good heavens!—explain this to Lucy? In the silence of her room, where she was not, he actually laughed out to himself at the thought; laughed with a sense of all impossibility beyond all laws or power of reasoning. What miracle would make her understand? It would be easier to move the solid earth than to make her understand.
But it was altogether a very strange night—such a night as never had been passed in that house before; and fearful things were about in the darkness, ill dreams, strange shadows of trouble. When Sir Tom woke in the morning and found no sign that his wife had been in the room or any trace of her, there arose once more a painful apprehension in his mind. He hurried half-dressed to the nursery to ask for news of the child, but was met by the nurse with the most cheerful countenance, with little Tom holding by her skirts, in high spirits, and fun of babble and glee.
"He has had a good night, then?" the father said aloud, lifting the little fellow to his shoulder.
"An excellent night, Sir Thomas," the woman said, "and not a bit tired with his journey, and so pleased to see all the carriages and the folks passing."
Sir Tom put the boy down with a cloud upon his face.
"What was the cause, then, of Lady Randolph's anxiety last night?"
"Anxiety, Sir Thomas! Oh no; her ladyship was quite pleased. She do always say he is a regular little town-bird, and always better in London. And so she said when I was putting of him to sleep. And he never stirred, not from the moment he went off till six o'clock this morning, the darling. I do think now, Sir Thomas, as we may hope he's taken hold of his strength."
Sir Tom turned away with a blank countenance. What did it mean, then? He went back to his dressing-room, and completed his toilette without seeing anything of Lucy. The nurse seemed quite unconscious of her mistress's vigil by the baby's side. Where, then, had Lucy passed the night, and why taken refuge in that nursery? Sir Tom grew pale, and saw his own countenance white and full of trouble, as if it had been a stranger's, in the glass. He hurried downstairs to the breakfast-room, into which the sun was shining. There could not have been a more cheerful sight. Some of the flowers brought up from the Hall were on the table; there was a merry little fire burning; the usual pile of newspapers were arranged for him by Williams's care, who felt himself a political character too, and understood the necessity of seeing what the country was thinking. Jock stood at the window with a book, reading and watching the changeful movements outside. But the chair at the head of the table was vacant. "Have you seen Lucy?" he said to Jock, with an anxiety which he could scarcely disguise. At this moment she came in, very guilty, very pale, like a ghost. She gave him no greeting, save a sort of attempt at a smile and warning look, calling his attention to Williams, who had followed her into the room with that one special dish which the butler always condescended to place on the table. Sir Tom sat down to his newspapers confounded, not knowing what to think or to say.
LADY RANDOLPH WINDS UP HER AFFAIRS.
Lucy contrived somehow to elude all private intercourse with her husband that morning. She was not alone with him for a moment. To his question about little Tom and her anxiety of last night she made as slight an answer as possible. "Nurse tells me he is all right." "He is quite well this morning," Lucy replied with quiet dignity, as if she did not limit herself to nurse's observations. She talked a little to Jock about his school and how long the holidays lasted, while Sir Tom retired behind the shield of his newspapers. He did not get much benefit from them that morning, or instruction as to what the country was thinking. He was so much more curious to know what his wife was thinking, that simple little girl who knew no evil. The most astute of men could not have perplexed Sir Tom so much. It seemed to him that something must have happened, but what? What was there that any one could betray to her? not the discovery that he himself thought he had made. That was impossible. If any one else had known it he surely must have known it. It could not be anything so unlikely as that.
But Lucy gave him no opportunity of inquiring. She went away to see the housekeeper, to look after her domestic affairs; and then Sir Tom made sure he should find her in the nursery, whither he took his way, when he thought he had left sufficient time for her other occupations. But Lady Randolph was not there. He heard from Fletcher, whose disturbed countenance seemed to reflect his own, that her mistress had gone out. She was the only one of the household who shared his certainty that something had happened out of the ordinary routine. Fletcher knew that her mistress had not undressed in the usual way; that she had not gone to bed. Her own services had not been required either in the morning or evening, and she had a strong suspicion that Lady Randolph had passed the night on a sofa in the little morning-room upstairs. To Fletcher's mind it was not very difficult to account for this. Quarrels between husband and wife are common enough. But her consciousness and sympathetic significance of look struck Sir Tom with a troubled sense of the humour of the situation which broke the spell of his increasing agitation, if but for a moment. It was droll to think that Fletcher should be in a manner his confidant, the only participator in his woes.
Lucy had gone out half to avoid her husband, half with a determination to expedite the business which she had begun, with very different feelings the day before. The streets were very gay and bright on that April morning, with all the quickening of life which many arrivals and the approach of the season, with all its excitements, brings. Houses were opening up, carriages coming out, even the groups of children and nurse-maids in the Park making a sensible difference on the other side of the great railing. It was very unusual for her to find herself in the streets alone, and this increased the curious dazed sensation with which she went out among all these real people, so lively and energetic, while she was still little more than a dream-woman, possessed by one thought, moving along, she knew not how, with a sense of helplessness and unprotectedness, which made the novelty all the more sensible to her. She went on for what seemed to be a long time, following mechanically the line of the pavement, without knowing what she was doing, along the long course of Park Lane, and then into the cheerful bustle of Piccadilly, where, with a sense of morning ease and leisure, not like the artificiality of the afternoon, so many people were coming and going, all occupied in business of their own, though so different from the bustle of more absorbing business, the haste and obstruction of the city. Lucy was not beautiful enough or splendid enough to attract much attention from the passers-by in the streets, though one or two sympathetic and observant wayfarers were caught by the look of trouble in her face. She had never walked about London, and she did not know where she was going. But she did not think of this. She thought only on one subject,—about her husband and that other life which he had, of which she knew nothing, which might, for anything she could tell, have been going on side by side with the life she knew and shared. This was the point upon which Lucy's mind had given way. The revelation as to Bice had startled and shaken her soul to its foundations; but after the shock things had fallen into their place again, and she had felt no anger, though much pain and pity. Her mind had thrown itself back into the unknown past almost tenderly towards the mother who had died long ago, to whom perhaps Bice had been what little Tom was now to herself. But when the further statement reached her ears all that softening which seemed to have swept over her disappeared in a moment. A horrible bewilderment had seized her. Was he two men, with two wives, two lives, two children dear to him?
It is usual to talk of women as being the most severe judges of each other's failures in one particular at least, an accusation which no doubt is true of both sexes, though generally applied, like so many universal truths, to one. And an injured wife is a raging fury in those primitive characterisations which are so common in the world. But the ideas which circled like the flakes in a snowstorm through the mind of Lucy were of a kind incomprehensible to the vulgar critic who judges humanity in the general. Her ways of thinking, her modes of judging were as different as possible from those of minds accustomed to generalisation and lightly acquainted with the vices of the world. Lucy knew no general; she knew three persons involved in an imbroglio so terrible that she saw no way out of it. Herself, her husband, another woman. Her mind was the mind almost of a child. It had resisted all that dismal information which the chatter of society conveys. She knew that married people were "not happy" sometimes. She knew that there were wretched stories of which she held that they could not be true. She was of Desdemona's mind, and did not believe that there was any such woman. And when she was suddenly strangely brought face to face with a tragedy of her own, that was not enough to turn this innocent and modest girl into a raging Eleanor. She was profoundly reasonable in her simple way, unapt to blame; thinking no evil, and full of those prepossessions and fixed canons of innocence which the world-instructed are incapable not only of understanding, but of believing in the existence of. A connection between a man and a woman was to her, in one way or other, a marriage. Into the reasons, whatever they might have been, that could have brought about any such connection without the rites that made it sacred, she could not penetrate or inquire. It was a subject too terrible, from which her mind retreated with awe and incomprehension. Never could it, she felt, have been intended so, at least on the woman's side. The mock marriage of romance, the deceits practised on the stage and in novels upon the innocent, she believed in without hesitation, everything in the world being more comprehensible than impurity. There might be villainous men, betrayers, seducers, Lucy could not tell; there might be monsters, griffins, fiery dragons, for anything she knew; but a woman abandoned by all her natural guard of modesties and reluctances, moved by passion, capable of being seduced, she could not understand. And still more impossible was it to imagine such sins as the outcome of mere levity, without any tragic circumstances; or to conceive of the mysteries of life as outraged and intruded upon by folly, or for the darker bait of interest. Her heart sickened at such suggestions. She knew there were poor women in the streets, victims of want and vice, poor degraded creatures for whom her heart bled, whom she could not think of for the intolerable pang of pity and shame. But all these questions had nothing to do with the sudden revelation in which she herself had so painful a part. These broken reflections were in her mind like the falling of snow. They whirled through the vague world of her troubled soul without consequence or coherence; all that had nothing to do with her. Her husband was no villain, and the woman—the beautiful, smiling woman, so much fairer, greater, more important than Lucy, she was no wretched, degraded creature. What was she then? His wife—his true wife? And if so, what was Lucy? Her brain reeled and the world went round her in a sickening whirl. The circumstances were too terrible for resentment. What could anger do, or any other quick-springing short-lived emotion? What did it matter even what Lucy felt, what any one felt? It was far beyond that. Here was fact which no emotion could undo. A wife and a child on either side, and what was to come of it; and how could life go on with this to think of, never to be forgotten, not to be put aside for a moment? It brought existence to a stand-still. She did not know what was the next step she must take, or how she could go back, or what she must say to the man who, perhaps, was not her husband, or how she could continue under that roof, or arrange the commonest details of life. There was but one thing clear before her, the business which she was bent on hurrying to a conclusion now.
She found herself in the bustle of the streets that converge upon the circus at the end of Piccadilly as she thus went on thinking, and there Lucy looked about her in some dismay, finding that she had reached the limit of the little world she knew. She was afraid of plunging alone into those bustling ways, and almost afraid of the only other alternative, which, however, she adopted, of calling a cab and giving the driver the address of Mr. Chervil in the city. To do this, and to mount into the uneasy jingling cab, gave her a little shock of the unaccustomed, which was like a breach of morals to Lucy. It seemed, though she had been independent enough in more important matters, the most daring step she had ever taken on her own responsibility. But the matter of the cab, and the aspect of this unknown world into which it conveyed her, occupied her mind a little, and stopped the tumult of her thoughts. She seemed scarcely to know what she had come about when she found herself set down at the door of Mr. Chervil's office, and ascending the grimy staircase, meeting people who stared at her, and wondered what a lady could be doing there. Mr. Chervil himself was scarcely less surprised. He said, "Lady Randolph!" with a cry of astonishment when she was shown in. And she found some difficulty, which she had not thought of, in explaining her business. He reminded her that she had given him the same instructions yesterday when he had the honour of waiting upon her in Park Lane. He was far more respectful to Lady Randolph than he had been to Lucy Trevor in her first attempts to carry out her father's will.
"I assure you," he said, "I have not neglected your wishes. I have written to Rushton on the subject. We both know by this time, Lady Randolph, that when you have made up your mind—and you have the most perfect right to do so—though we may not like it, nor think it anything but a squandering of money, still we are aware we have no right to oppose——"
"It is not that," said Lucy faintly. "It is that the circumstances have changed since yesterday. I want to—I should like to——"
"Give up your intention? I am delighted to hear it. For you must allow me to say, as a man of business——"
"It is not that," Lucy repeated. "I want to increase the sum. I find the young lady has a claim—and I want it to be done immediately, without the loss of a day. Oh, I am more, much more in earnest about it than I was yesterday. I want it settled at once. If it is not settled at once difficulties might arise. I want to double the amount. Could you not telegraph to Mr. Rushton instead of writing? I have heard that people telegraph about business."
"Double the amount! Have you thought over this? Have you had Sir Thomas's advice? It is a very important matter to decide so suddenly. Pardon me, Lady Randolph, but you must know that if you bestow at this rate you will soon not have very much left to you."
"Ah, that would be a comfort!" cried Lucy; and then there came over her the miserable thought that all the circumstances were changed, and to have a subject of disagreement between her husband and herself removed would not matter now. Once it had been the only subject, now—— The suddenness of this realisation of the change filled her eyes with tears. But she restrained herself with a great effort. "Yes," she said, "I should be glad, very glad, to have done all my father wished—for many things might happen. I might die—and then who would do it?"
"We need not discuss that very unlikely contingency," said Mr. Chervil. (He said to himself: Sir Tom wouldn't, that is certain.) "But even under Mr. Trevor's will," he added, "this will be a very large sum to give—larger, don't you think, than he intended; unless there is some very special claim?"
"It is a special claim," cried Lucy, "and papa made no conditions. I was to be free in doing it. He left me quite free."
"Without doubt," the lawyer said. "I need not repeat my opinion on the subject, but you are certainly quite free. And you have brought me the young lady's name, no doubt, Lady Randolph? Yesterday, you recollect you were uncertain about her name. It is important to be quite accurate in an affair of so much importance. She is a lucky young lady. A great many would like to learn the secret of pleasing you to this extent."
Lucy looked at him with a gasp. She did not understand the rest of his speech or care to hear it. Her name? What was her name? If she had not known it before, still less did she know it now.
"Oh," she cried, "what does it matter about a name? People, girls, change their names. She is Beatrice. You might leave a blank and it could be filled up after. She is going to—marry. She is—must everything be delayed for that?—and yet it is of no importance—no importance that I can see," Lucy said, wringing her hands.
"My dear Lady Randolph! Let me say that to give a very large sum of money to a person with whose very name you are unacquainted—forgive me, but in your own interests I must speak. Let me consult with Sir Thomas."
"I do not wish my husband to be consulted. He has promised me not to interfere, and it is my business, not his," Lucy said, with a flush of excitement. And though there was much further conversation, and the lawyer did all he could to move her, it need not be said that Lucy was immovable. He went down to the door with her to put her into her carriage, as he supposed, not unwilling even in that centre of practical life to have the surrounding population see on what confidential terms he was with this fine young lady. But when he perceived that no carriage was there, and Lucy, not without a tremor, as of a very strange request, and one which might shock the nerves of her companion, asked him to get a cab for her, Mr. Chervil's astonishment knew no bounds.
"I never thought how far it was," Lucy said, faltering and apologetic. "I thought I might perhaps have been able to walk."
"Walk!" he cried, "from Park Lane?" with consternation. He stood looking after her as she drove away, saying to himself that the old man had undoubtedly been mad, and that this poor young thing was evidently cracked too. He thought it would be best to write to Sir Thomas, who was not Sir Tom to Mr. Chervil; but if it was going to happen that the poor young lady should show what he had no doubt was the hereditary weakness, Mr. Chervil could not restrain a devout wish that it might show itself decisively before half her fortune was alienated. No Sir Thomas in existence would carry out a father-in-law's will of such an insane character as that.
In the meanwhile Lucy jingled home in her cab, feeling more giddy, more heartsick than ever. There now came upon her with more potency than ever, since now it was the matter immediately before her, the question what was she to do? What was she to do? She had eluded Sir Tom on the night before, and obliged him to accept, without any demand for explanation, her strange retirement. But now what was she to do? Little Tom would not answer for a pretext again. She must either resume the former habits of her life, subdue herself entirely, meet him with a cheerful face, ignore the sudden chasm that had been made between them—or—— She looked with terrified eyes at this blank wall of impossibility, and could see no way through it. Live with him as of old, in a pretence of union where no union could be, or explain how it was that she could not do so. Both these things were impossible—impossible!—and what, then, was she to do?
THE LITTLE HOUSE IN MAYFAIR.
The little house in Mayfair was very bright and gay. What conventional words are those! It was nothing of the kind. It was dim and poetical. No light that could be kept out of it was permitted to come in. The quality of light in London, even in April, is not exquisite, and perhaps the Contessa's long curtains and all the delicate draperies which she loved to hang about her were more desirable to see than that very poor thing in the way of daylight which exists in Mayfair. Bice, who was a child of light, objected a little to this shutting out, and she would have objected strongly, being young enough to love the sunshine for itself, but for the exquisite reason which the Contessa gave for the interdict she had put upon it. "Cara," she said, "if you were all white and red like those English girls (it is tant soit peu vulgar between ourselves, and not half so effective as your blanc mat), then you might have as much light as you pleased; but to put yourself in competition with them on their own ground—no, Bice mia. But in this light there is nothing to desire."
"Don't you think, then, Madama," said Bice, piqued, "that no light at all would be better still, and not to be seen the best——"
"Darling!" said the Contessa, with that smile which embodied so many things. It answered for encouragement and applause and gentle reproof, and many other matters which words could but indifferently say, and it was one of her favourite ways of turning aside a question to which she did not think fit to give any reply. And Bice swallowed her pique and asked no more. The lamps were all shaded like the windows in this bower of beauty. There was scarcely a corner that was not draped with some softly-falling, richly-tinted tissue. A delicate perfume breathed through this half-lighted world. Thus, though neither gay nor bright, it realised the effect which in our day, in the time when everything was different, was meant by these words. It was a place for pleasure, for intimate society, and conversation, and laughter, and wit; for music and soft words; and, above all, for the setting off of beauty, and the expression of admiration. The chairs were soft, the carpets like moss; there were flowers everywhere betraying themselves by their odour, even when you could not see them. The Contessa had spared no expense in making the little place—which she laughed at softly, calling it her doll's house—as perfect as it could be made.
And here the two ladies began to live a life very different from that of the Randolphs' simple dwelling. Bice, it need scarcely be said, had fulfilled all the hopes of her patroness, else had she never been produced with such bewildering mystery, yet deftness, to dazzle the eyes of young Montjoie at the Hall. She had realised all the Contessa's expectations, and justified the bills which Madame di Forno-Populo looked upon with a certain complacency as they came in, as something creditable to her, as proof of her magnificence of mind and devotion to the best interests of her protegee. And now they had entered upon their campaign. It had annoyed her in this new beginning, amid all its excitements and hopes, to be called upon by Sir Tom for explanations which it was not to her interest to give; which she had, indeed, when she deliberately sowed the seed of mystery, resolved not to give. To allow herself to be brought to book was not in her mind at all, and she was clever enough to mystify even Sir Tom, and keep his mind in a suspense and uncertainty very painful to him. But she had managed to elude his inquiries, and though it had changed the demeanour of Sir Tom, and entirely done away with the careless good humour which had been so pleasant, still she felt herself now independent of the Randolphs, and had begun her life very cheerfully and with every promise of great enjoyment. The Contessa "received" every day and all day long, from the time when she was visible, which was not, however, at a very early hour. About four the day of the ladies began. Sometimes, indeed, before that hour two favoured persons, not always the same, who had accompanied them home from the Park, would be admitted to share a dainty little luncheon. Bice now rode at the hour when everybody rides, with the Contessa, who was a graceful horsewoman, and never looked to greater advantage than in the saddle. The two beautiful Italians, as they were called, had in this way, within a week of their arrival, caused a sensation in the Row, and already their days overflowed with amusement and society. Few ladies visited the little house in Mayfair, but then they were not much wanted there. The Contessa was not one of those vulgar practitioners who profess in words their preference for men's society. But she said, so sweetly that it was barbarous to laugh (though many of her friends did so), that, having one close companion of her own sex, her dearest Bice, who was everything to her, she was independent of the feminine element. "And then they are so busy, these ladies of fashion; they have no leisure; they have so many things to do. It is a thraldom, a heavy thraldom, though the chains are gilded." "Shall we see you at Lady Blank Blank's to-night? You must be going to the Duchess's? Of course we shall meet at the Highton Grandmodes!" "Ah!" cried the Contessa, spreading out her white hands, "it is fatiguing even only to hear of it. We love our ease, Bice and I; we go nowhere where we are expected to go."
The gentlemen to whom this speech was made laughed "consumedly." They even made little signs to each other behind back, and exploded again. When she looked round at them they said the Contessa was a perfect mimic, better than anything on the stage, and that she had perfectly caught the tone of that old Lady Barbe Montfichet, who went everywhere (whom, indeed, the Contessa did not know), and laughed again. But it was not at the Contessa's power of mimicry that they laughed. It was at the delicious falsehood of her pretensions, and the thought that if she pleased she might appear at the Highton Grandmodes, or meet the best society at Lady Blank Blank's. These gentlemen knew better; and it was a joke of which they never tired. They were not, perhaps, the most desirable class of people in society who had the entree in the Contessa's little house; they were old acquaintances who had known her in her progress through the world, mingled with a few young men whom they brought with them, partly because the boys admired these two lovely foreign women; partly because, with a certain easy benevolence that cost them nothing, they wanted the Contessa's little girl, whoever she was, to have her chance. But few, if any, of these astute gentlemen, young or old, was in any doubt as to the position she held.
Nor was she altogether without female visitors. Lady Anastasia, that authority of the press, who made the public acquainted with the movements of distinguished strangers and was not afraid of compromising herself, sometimes made one at the little parties and enjoyed them much. The Dowager Lady Randolph's card was left at the Contessa's door, as was that of the Duchess, who had looked upon her with such consternation at Lucy's party in the country. What these ladies meant it would be curious to know. Perhaps it was a lingering touch of kindness, perhaps a wish to save their credit in case it should happen by some bewildering turn of fortune that La Forno-Populo might come uppermost again. Would she dare to have herself put forward at the Drawing-room was what these ladies asked each other with bated breath. It was possible, nay, quite likely, that she might succeed in doing so, for there were plenty of good-natured people who would not refuse if she asked them, and of course so close a scrutiny was not kept upon foreigners as upon native subjects; while, as a matter of fact, the Dowager Lady Randolph was right in her assertion that, so far as could be proved, there was nothing absolutely fatal to a woman's reputation in the history of the Contessa. Would she have the courage to dare that ordeal, or would she set up a standard of revolt, and declare herself superior to that hall-mark of fashion? She was clever enough, all the people who knew her allowed, for either role; either to persuade some good woman, innocent and ignorant enough, to be responsible for her, and elude the researches of the Lord Chamberlain, or else to retreat bravely in gay rebellion and declare that she was not rich enough, nor her diamonds good enough, for that noonday display. For either part the Contessa was clever enough.
Meanwhile Bice had all the enjoyment, without any of the drawbacks of this new life. It was far more luxurious, splendid, and even amusing, than the old existence of the watering-places. To ride in the Park and feel herself one of that brilliant crowd, to be surrounded by a succession of lively companions, to have always "something going on," that delight of youth, and a continual incense of admiration rising around her enough to have turned a less steady head, filled Bice's cup with happiness. But perhaps the most penetrating pleasure of all was that of having carried out the Contessa's expectations and fulfilled her hopes. Had not Madame di Forno-Populo been satisfied with the beauty of her charge, none of these expenses would have been incurred, and this life of many delights would never have been; so that the soothing and exhilarating consciousness of having indeed deserved and earned her present well-being was in Bice's mind. The future, too, opened before her a horizon of boundless hope. To have everything she now had and more, along with that one element of happiness which had always been wanting, the certainty that it would last, was the happy prospect within her grasp. Her head was so steady, and the practical sense of the advantage so great, that the excitement and pleasure did not intoxicate her; but everything was delightful, novel, breathing confidence and hope. The guests at the table, where she now took her place, equal in importance to the Contessa herself, all flattered and did their best to please her. They amused her, either because they were clever or because they were ridiculous—Bice, with youthful cynicism, did not much mind which it was. When they went to the opera, a similar crowd would flutter in and out of the box, and appear afterwards to share the gay little supper and declare that no prime-donne on the stage could equal the two lovely blending voices of the Contessa and her ward. To sit late talking, laughing, singing, surrounded by all this worship, and to wake up again to a dozen plans and the same routine of pleasure next day, what heart of seventeen (and she was not quite seventeen) could resist it? One thing, however, Bice missed amid all this. It was the long gallery at the Hall, the nursery in Park Lane, little Tom crowing upon her shoulder, digging his hands into her hair, and Lucy looking on—many things, yet one. She missed this, and laughed at herself, and said she was a fool—but missed it all the same. Lucy had come, as in duty bound, and paid her call. She had been very grave—not like herself. And Sir Tom was very grave; looking at her she could not tell how; no longer with his old easy good humour, with a look of criticism and anxiety—an uneasy look, as if he had something to say to her and could not. Bice felt instinctively that if he ever said that something it would be disagreeable, and avoided his presence. But it troubled her to lose this side of her landscape, so to speak. The new was entrancing, but the old was a loss. She missed it, and thought herself a fool for missing it, and laughed, but felt it the more.