The only member of the household with whom she remained on the same easy terms as before was Jock, who came to the house in Mayfair at hours when nobody else was admitted, though he was quite unaware of the privilege he possessed. He came in the morning when Bice, too young to want the renewal which the Contessa sought in bed and in the mysteries of the toilette, sometimes fretted a little indoors at the impossibility of getting the air into her lungs, and feeling the warmth of the morning light. She was so glad to see him that Jock was deeply flattered, and sweet thoughts of the most boundless foolishness got in to his head. Bice ran to her room, and found one of her old hats which she had worn in the country, and tied a veil over her face, and came flying downstairs like a bird.
"We may go out and run in the Park so long as no one sees us," she cried. "Oh, come; nobody can see me through this veil."
"And what good will the air do you through that veil?" said Jock contemptuously. "You can't see the sun through it; it makes the whole world black. I would not go out if I were you with that thing over my face, the only chance I had for a walk. I'd rather stay at home; but perhaps you like it. Girls are such——"
"What? You are going to swear, and if you swear I will simply turn my back. Well, perhaps you didn't mean it. But I mean it. Boys are such—— What? little prudes, like the old duennas in the books, and that is what you are. You think things are wrong that are not wrong. But it is to an Englishman the right thing to grumble," Bice said, with a smile of reconciliation as they stepped into the street. On that sweet morning even the street was delightful. It restored them to perfect satisfaction with each other as they made their way to the Park, which stretched its long lines of waving grass almost within sight.
"And I suppose," said Jock, after a pause, "that you like being here?"
Bice gave him a look half friendly, half disdainful. "I like living," she said. "In the country in what you call the quiet, it is only to be half alive: we are always living here. But you never come to see us ride, to be among the crowd. You are never at the opera. You don't talk as those others do——"
"Montjoie, for instance," said Jock, with a strange sense of jealousy and pain.
"Very well, Montjoie. He is what you call fun; he has always something to say, betises perhaps, but what does that matter? He makes me laugh."
"Makes you laugh! at his wit perhaps?" cried Jock. "Oh, what things girls are! Laugh at what a duffer like that, an ass, a fellow that has not two ideas, says."
"You have a great many ideas," said Bice; "you are clever—you know a number of things; but you are not so amusing, and you are not so good-natured. You scold me; and you say another, a friend, is an ass——"
"He was never any friend of mine," said Jock, with a hot flush of anger. "That fellow! I never had anything to say to him."
"No," said Bice, with a smiling disdain which cut poor Jock like a knife. "I made a mistake, that was not possible, for he is a man and you are only a boy."
To describe Jock's feelings under this blow would be beyond the power of words. He inferior to Montjoie! he only a boy while the other was a man! Rage was nothing in such an emergency. He looked at her with eyes that were almost pathetic in their sense of unappreciated merit, and, deeper sting still, of folly preferred. In spite of himself, Locksley Hall and those musings which have become, by no fault of the poet's, the expression of a despair which is half ridiculous, came into his mind. He did not see the ridicule. "Having known me to decline"—his eyes became moist with a dew of pain—"If you think that," he said slowly, "Bice——"
Bice answered only with a laugh. "Let us make haste; let us run," she cried. "It is so early, no one will see us. Why don't you ride, it is like flying? And to run is next best." She stopped after a flight, swift as a bird, along an unfrequented path which lay still in the April sunshine, the lilac bushes standing up on each side all athrill and rustling with the spring, with eyes that shone like stars, and that unusual colour which made her radiant. Jock, though he could have gone on much faster, was behind her for the moment, and came up after her, more occupied by the shame of being outrun and laughed at than by admiration of the girl and her beauty. She was more conscious of her own splendour of bloom than he was: though Bice was not vain, and he was more occupied by the thought of her than by any other thought.
"Girls never think of being able to stay," he said, "you do only what can be done with a rush; but that's not running. If you had ever seen the School Mile——"
"Oh no, I want to see no miles," cried Bice; "this is what I like, to have all my fingers tingle." Then she suddenly calmed down in a moment, and walked along demurely as the paths widened out to a more frequented thoroughfare. "What I want," she said, "is little Tom upon my shoulder, and to hear him scream and hold by my hair. Milady does not look as if I pleased her now. She has come once only and looked—not as she once looked. But she is still kind. She has made this ball for me—for me only. Did you know? do you dance then, if nothing else? Oh, you shall dance since the ball is for me. I love dancing—to distraction; but not once have I had a single turn, not once, since we came to England," Bice said with a sigh, which rose into a laugh in another moment, as she added, "It will be for me to come out, as you say, to be introduced into society, and after that we shall go everywhere, the Contessa says."
THE SIEGE OF LONDON.
The Contessa, but perhaps not more than half, believed what she said. Everything was on the cards in this capricious society of England, which is not governed by the same absolute laws as in other places. It seemed to be quite possible that she and her charge might be asked everywhere after their appearance at the ball which, she should take care to tell everybody, Lucy was giving for Bice. It was always possible in England that some leader of fashion, some great lady whose nod gave distinction, might take pity upon Bice's youth and think it hard that she should suffer, even if without any relentings towards the Contessa. And Madame di Forno-Populo was very strong on the point, already mentioned, that there was nothing against her which could give any one a right to shut her out. The mere suggestion that the doors of society might or could be closed in her face would have driven another woman into frantic indignation, but the Contessa had passed that stage. She took the matter quite reasonably, philosophically. There was no reason. She had been poor and put to many shifts. Sometimes she had been compelled to permit herself to be indebted to a man in a way no woman should allow herself to be. She was quite aware of this, and was not, therefore, angry with society for its reluctance to receive her; but she said to herself, with great energy, that there was no cause. She was not hopeless even of the drawing-room, nor of getting the Duchess herself, a model of all the virtues, to present her, if the ball went off well at Park Lane. She said to herself that there was nothing on her mind which would make her shrink from seeking admission to the presence of the Queen. She was not afraid even of that royal lady's penetrating eye. Shiftiness, poverty, debts, modes of getting money that were, perhaps, equivocal, help too lightly accepted, all these are bad enough; but they are not in a woman the unpardonable sin. And a caprice in English society was always possible. The young beauty of Bice might attract the eye of some one whose notice would throw down all obstacles; or it might touch the heart of some woman who was so high placed as to be able to defy prejudice. And after that, of course, they would go everywhere, and every prognostication of success and triumph would come true.
Nevertheless, if things did not go on so well as this, the Contessa had furnished herself with what to say. She would tell Bice that the women were jealous, that she had been pursued by their hostility wherever she went, that a woman who secured the homage of men was always an object of their spite and malice, that it was a sort of persecution which the lovely had to bear from the unlovely in all regions. Knowing that it was fully more likely that she should fail than succeed, the Contessa had carefully provided herself with this ancient plea and would not hesitate to use it if necessary; but these were grands moyens, not to be resorted to save in case of necessity. She would herself have been willing enough to dispense with recognition and live as she was doing now, among the old and new admirers who had never failed her, enjoying everything except those dull drawing-rooms and heavy parties for which her soul longed, yet which she despised heartily, which she would have undergone any humiliation to get admission to, and turned to ridicule afterwards with the best grace in the world. She despised them, but there was nothing that could make up for absence from them; they alone had in their power the cachet, the symbol of universal acceptance. All these things depended upon the ball at Park Lane. Something had been going on there since she separated herself from that household which the Contessa did not understand. Sir Tom, indeed, was comprehensible. The discovery which he thought he had made, the things which she had allowed him to divine, and even permitted him to prove for himself without making a single assertion on her own part, were quite sufficient to account for his changed looks. But Lucy, what had she found out? It was not likely that Sir Tom had communicated his discovery to her. Lucy's demeanour confused the Contessa more than words can say. The simple creature had grown into a strange dignity, which nothing could explain. Instead of the sweet compliance and almost obedience of former days, the deference of the younger to the older woman, Lucy looked at her with grave composure, as of an equal or superior. What had happened to the girl? And it was so important that she should be friendly now and kept in good humour! Madame di Forno-Populo put forth all her attractions, gave her dear Lucy her sweetest looks and words, but made very little impression. This gave her a little tremor when she thought of it; for all her plans for the future were connected with the ball on the 26th at Park Lane.
This ball appeared to Lucy, too, the most important crisis in her life. She had made a sacrifice which was heroic that nothing might go wrong upon that day. Somehow or other, she could not tell how, for the struggle had been desperate within her, she had subdued the emotion in her own heart and schooled herself to an acceptance of the old routine of her life until that event should be over. All her calculations went to that date, but not beyond. Life seemed to stop short there. It had been arranged and settled with a light heart in the pleasure of knowing that the Contessa had taken a house for herself, and that, consequently, Lucy was henceforward to be once more mistress of her own. She had been so ashamed of her own pleasure in this prospect, so full of compunctions in respect to her guest, whose departure made her happy, that she had thrown herself with enthusiasm into this expedient for making it up to them. She had said it was to be Bice's ball. When the Dowager's revelation came upon her like a thunderbolt, as soon as she was able to think at all, she had thought of this ball with a depth of emotion which was strange to be excited by so frivolous a matter. It was a pledge of the warmest friendship, but those for whom it was to be, had turned out the enemies of her peace, the destroyers of her happiness: and it was high festival and gaiety, but her heart was breaking. Lady Randolph, afraid of what she had done, yet virulent against the Contessa, had suggested that it should be given up. It was easy to do such a thing—a few notes, a paragraph in the newspaper, a report of a cousin dead, or a sudden illness; any excuse would do. But Lucy was not to be so moved. There was in her soft bosom a sense of justice which was almost stern, and through all her troubles she remembered that Bice, at least, had a claim upon all Sir Thomas Randolph could do for her, such as nobody else could have. Under what roof but his should she make her first appearance in the world? Lucy held sternly with a mixture of bitterness and tenderness to Bice's rights. In all this misery Bice was without blame, the only innocent person, the one most wronged, more wronged even than was Lucy herself. She it was who would have to bear the deepest stigma, without any fault of hers. Whatever could be done to advance her (as she counted advancement), to make her happy (as she reckoned happiness) it was right she should have it done. Lucy suppressed her own wretchedness heroically for this cause. She bore the confusion that had come into her life without saying a word for the sake of the other young creature who was her fellow-sufferer. How hard it was to do she could not have told, nor did any one suspect, except, vaguely, Sir Tom himself, who perceived some tragic mischief that was at work without knowing how it had come there or what it was. He tried to come to some explanation, but Lucy would have no explanation. She avoided him as much as it was possible to do. She had nothing to say when he questioned her. Till the 26th! Nothing, she was resolved, should interfere with that. And then—but not the baby in the nursery knew less than Lucy what was to happen then.
They had come to London on the 2d, so that this day of fate was three weeks off, and during that time the Contessa had made no small progress in her affairs. Three weeks is a long time in a house which is open to visitors, even if only from four o'clock in the afternoon, every day, and without intermission; and indeed that was not the whole, for the ladies were accessible elsewhere than in the house in Mayfair. It had pleased the Contessa not to be visible when Lord Montjoie called at a somewhat early hour on the very earliest day. He was a young man who knew the world, and not one to have things made too easy for him. He was all aflame accordingly to gain the entree thus withheld, and when the Contessa appeared for the first time in the Park, with her lovely companion, Montjoie was eagerly on the watch, and lost no time in claiming acquaintance, and joining himself to her train. He was one of the two who were received to luncheon two or three days afterwards. When the ladies went to the opera he was on thorns till he could join them. He was allowed to go home with them for one song, and to come in next afternoon for a little music. And from that time forward there was no more question of shutting him out. He came and went almost when he pleased, as a young man may be permitted to do when he has become one of the intimates in an easy-going, pleasure-loving household, where there is always "something going on." He was so little flattered that never during all these days and nights had he once been allowed to repeat the performance upon which he prided himself, and with which he had followed up the singing of the Contessa and Bice at the Hall. The admirable lady whom they had met there, with her two daughters, had been eager that Lord Montjoie should display this accomplishment of his, and the girls had been enchanted by his singing; but the Contessa, though not so irreproachable, would have none of it. And Bice laughed freely at the young nobleman who had so much to bestow, and they both threw at him delicate little shafts of wit, which never pierced his stolid complacency, though he was quite quick withal to see the fun when other gentlemen looked at each other over the Contessa's shoulder, and burst into little peals of laughter at her little speeches about the Highton Grandmodes and other such exclusive houses. Montjoie knew all about La Forno-Populo. "But yet that little Bice," he said, "don't you know?" No one like her had come within Montjoie's ken. He knew all about the girls in blue or in pink or in white, who asked him to sing. But Bice, who laughed at his accomplishment and at himself, and was so saucy to him, and made fun of him, he allowed, to his face, that was very different. He described her in terms that were not chivalrous, and his own emotions in words still less ornate; but before the fortnight was over the best judges declared among themselves that, by Jove, the Forno-Populo had done it this time, that the little one knew how to play her cards, that it was all up with Montjoie, poor little beggar, with other elegances of a similar kind. The man who had taken the Contessa's house for her, and a great deal of trouble about all her arrangements, whom she described as a very old friend, and whose rueful sense that house-agents and livery stables might eventually look to him if she had no success in her enterprise did not impair his fidelity, went so far as to speak seriously to Montjoie on the subject. "Look here, Mont," he said, "don't you think you are going it rather too strong? There is not a thing against the girl, who is as nice as a girl can be, but then the aunt, you know——"
"I'm glad she is the aunt," said Montjoie. "I thought she was the mother: and I always heard you were devoted to her."
"We are very old friends," said this disinterested adviser. "There's nothing I would not do for her. She is the best soul out, and was the loveliest woman I can tell you—the girl is nothing to what she was. Aunt or cousin, I am not sure what is the relationship; but that's not the question. Don't you think you are coming it rather strong?"
"Oh, I've got my wits about me," said Montjoie; and then he added, rather reluctantly—for it is the fashion of his kind to be vulgar and to keep what generosity or nobleness there is in them carefully out of sight—"and I've no relations, don't you know? I've got nobody to please but myself——"
"Well, that is a piece of luck anyhow," the Mentor said; and he told the Contessa the gist of the conversation next morning, who was highly pleased by the news.
The curious point in all this was that Bice had not the least objection to Montjoie. She was a clever girl and he was a stupid young man, but whether it was that her entirely unawakened heart had no share at all in the matter, or that her clear practical view of affairs influenced her sentiments as well as her mind, it is certain that she was quite pleased with her fate, and ready to embrace it without the least sense that it was a sacrifice or anything but the happiest thing possible. He amused her, as she had said to Jock. He made her laugh, most frequently at himself; but what did that matter? He had a kind of good looks, and that good nature which is the product of prosperity and well-being, and a sense of general superiority to the world. Perhaps the girl saw no man of a superior order to compare him with; but, as a matter of fact, she was perfectly satisfied with Montjoie. Mr. Derwentwater and Jock were more ridiculous to her than he was, and were less in harmony with everything she had previously known. Their work, their intellectual occupations, their cleverness and aspirations were out of her world altogether. The young man-about-town who had nothing to do but amuse himself, who was always "knocking about," as he said, whose business was pleasure, was the kind of being with whom she was acquainted. She had no understanding of the other kind. He who had been her comrade in the country, whose society had amused her there, and for whom she had a sort of half-condescending affection, was droll to her beyond measure, with his ambitions and great ideas as to what he was to do. He, too, made her laugh; but not as Montjoie did. She laughed, though this would have immeasurably surprised Jock, with much less sympathy than she had with the other, upon whom he looked with so much contempt. They were both silly to Bice,—silly as, in her strange experience, she thought it usual and natural for men to be,—but Montjoie's manner of being silly was more congenial to her than the other. He was more in tune with the life she had known. Hamburg, Baden, Wiesbaden, and all the other Bads, even Monaco, would have suited Montjoie well enough. The trade of pleasure-making has its affinities like every other, and a tramp on his way from fair to fair is more en rapport with a duke than the world dreams of. Thus Bice found that the young English marquis, with more money than he knew how to spend, was far more like the elegant adventurer living on his wits, than all those intervening classes of society, to whom life is a more serious, and certainly a much less festive and costly affair. She understood him far better. And instead of being, as Lucy thought, a sacrifice, an unfortunate victim sold to a loveless marriage for the money and the advantages it would bring, Bice went on very gaily, her heart as unmoved as possible, to what she felt to be a most congenial fate.
And they all waited for the 26th and the ball with growing excitement. It would decide many matters. It would settle what was to be the character of the Contessa's campaign. It might reintroduce her into society under better auspices than ever, or it might—but there was no need to foretell anything unpleasant. And very likely it would conclude at the same source as it began, Bice's triumph—a debutante who was already the affianced bride of the young Marquis of Montjoie, the greatest parti in the kingdom. The idea was like wine, and went to the Contessa's head.
She had in this interval of excitement a brief little note from Lucy, which startled her beyond measure for the moment. It was to ask the exact names of Bice. "You shall know in a few days why I ask, but it is necessary they should be written down in full and exactly," Lucy said. The Contessa had half forgotten, in the new flood of life about her, what was in Lucy's power, and the further advantage that might come of their relations, and she did not think of this even now, but felt with momentary tremor as if some snare lay concealed under these simple words. After a moment's consideration, however, she wrote with a bold and flowing hand:
"SWEET LUCY—The child's name is Beatrice Ersilia. You cannot, I am sure, mean her anything but good by such a question. She has not been properly introduced, I know—I am fantastic, I loved the Bice, and no more.
"DARLING, A TE."
This was signed with a cipher, which it was not very easy to make out—a little mystery which pleased the Contessa. She thus involved in a pleasant little uncertainty her own name, which nobody knew.
Lady Randolph's ball was one of the first of the season, and as it was the first ball she had ever given, and both Lucy and her husband were favourites in society, it was looked forward to as the forerunner of much excitement and pleasure, and with a freshness of interest and anticipation which, unless in April, is scarcely to be expected in town. The rooms in Park Lane, though there was nothing specially exquisite or remarkable in their equipment, were handsome and convenient. They formed a good background for the people assembled under their many lights without withdrawing the attention of any one from the looks, the dresses, the bright eyes, and jewels collected within, which, perhaps, after all, is an advantage in its way. And everybody who was in town was there, from the Duchess, upon whom the Contessa had designs of so momentous a character, down to those wandering young men-about-town who form the rank and file of the great world and fill up all the corners. There was, it is true, not much room to dance, but a bewildering amount of people, great names, fine toilettes, and beautiful persons.
The Contessa timed her arrival at the most effective moment, when the rooms were almost full, but not yet crowded, and most of the more important guests had already arrived. It was just after the first greetings of people seeing each other for the first time were over, and an event of some kind was wanted. At such a moment princes and princesses are timed to arrive and bring the glory of the assembly to a climax. Lucy had no princess to honour her. But when out of the crowd round the doorway there were seen to emerge two beautiful and stately women unknown, the sensation was almost as great. One of them, who had the air of a Queen-Mother, was in dark dress studiously arranged to be a little older, a little more massive and magnificent than a woman of the Contessa's age required to wear (and which, accordingly, threw up all the more, though this, to do her justice, was a coquetry more or less unintentional, her unfaded beauty); and the other, an impersonation of youth, contemplated the world by her side with that open-eyed and sovereign gaze, proud and modest, but without any of the shyness or timidity of a debutante which becomes a young princess in her own right. There was a general thrill of wonder and admiration wherever they were seen. Who were they, everybody asked? Though the name of the Forno-Populo was too familiarly known to a section of society, that is not to say that the ladies of Lucy's party, or even all the men had heard it bandied from mouth to mouth, or were aware that it had ever been received with less than respect: and the universal interest was spoiled only here and there in a corner by the laugh of the male gossips, who made little signs to each other, in token of knowing more than their neighbours. It was said among the more innocent that this was an Italian lady of distinction with her daughter or niece, and her appearance, if a little more marked and effective than an English lady's might have been, was thus fully explained and accounted for by the difference in manners and that inalienable dramatic gift, which it is common to believe in England, foreigners possess. No doubt their entrance was very dramatic. The way in which they contrasted and harmonised with each other was too studied for English traditions, which, in all circumstances, cling to something of the impromptu, an air of accidentalism. They were a spectacle in themselves as they advanced through the open central space, from which the ordinary guests instinctively withdrew to leave room for them. "Is it the Princess?" people asked, and craned their necks to see. It must at least be a German Serenity—the Margravine of Pimpernikel, the Hereditary Princess of Weissnichtwo—but more beautiful and graceful than English prejudice expects German ladies to be. Ah, Italian! that explained everything—their height, their grace, their dark beauty, their effective pose. The Latin races alone know how to arrange a spectacle in that easy way, how to produce themselves so that nobody could be unimpressed. There was a dramatic pause before them, a hum of excitement after they had passed. Who were they? Evidently the most distinguished persons present—the guests of the evening. Sir Tom, uneasy enough, and looking grave and preoccupied, which was so far from being his usual aspect, led them into the great drawing-room, where the Duchess, who had daughters who danced, had taken her place. He did not look as if he liked it, but the Contessa, for her part, looked round her with a radiant smile, and bowed very much as the Queen does in a state ceremonial to the people she knew. She performed a magnificent curtsey, half irony, half defiance, before the Dowager Lady Randolph, who looked on at this progress speechless. How Lucy could permit it; how Tom could have the assurance to do it; occupied the Dowager's thoughts. She had scarcely self-command to make a stiff sweep of recognition as the procession passed.
The Duchess was at the upper end of the room, with all her daughters about her. Besides the younger ones who danced, there were two countesses supporting their mother. She was the greatest lady present, and she felt the dignity. But when she perceived the little opening that took place among the groups about, and, looking up, perceived the Contessa sweeping along in that regal separation, you might have blown her Grace away with a breath. Not only was the Duchess the most important person in the room, but her reception of the newcomer would be final, a sort of social life or death for the Contessa. But the supplicant approached with the air of a queen, while the arbiter of fate grew pale and trembled at the sight. If there was a tremor in her Grace's breast there was no less a tremor under the Contessa's velvet. But Madame di Forno-Populo had this great advantage, that she knew precisely what to do, and the Duchess did not know: she was fully prepared, and the Duchess taken by surprise: and still more that her Grace was a shy woman, whose intellect, such as it was, moved slowly, while the Contessa was very clever, and as prompt as lightning. She perceived at a glance that the less time the great lady had to think the better, and hastened forward for a step or two, hurrying her stately pace, "Ah, Duchess!" she said, "how glad I am to meet so old an acquaintance. And I want, above all things, to have your patronage for my little one. Bice—the Duchess, an old friend of my prosperous days, permits me to present you to her." She drew her young companion forward as she spoke, while the Duchess faltered and stammered a "How d'ye do?" and looked in vain for succour to her daughters, who were looking on. Then Bice showed her blood. It had not been set down in the Contessa's programme what she was to do, so that the action took her patroness by surprise, as well as the great lady whom it was so important to captivate. While the Duchess stood stiff and awkward, making a conventional curtsey against her will, and with a conventional smile on her mouth, Bice, with the air of a young princess, innocently, yet consciously superior to all her surroundings, suddenly stepped forward, and taking the Duchess's hand, bent her stately young head to kiss it. There was in the sudden movement that air of accident, of impulse, which we all love. It overcame all the tremors of the great lady. She said, "My dear!" in the excitement of the moment, and bent forward to kiss the cheek of this beautiful young creature, who was so deferential, so reverent in her young pride. And the Duchess's daughters did not disapprove! Still more wonderful than the effect on the Duchess was the effect upon these ladies, of whose criticisms their mother stood in dread. They drew close about the lovely stranger, and it immediately became apparent to the less important guests that the Italian ladies, the heroines of the evening, had amalgamated with the ducal party—as it was natural they should.
Never had there been a more complete triumph. The Contessa stepped in and made hay while the sun shone. She waved off with a scarcely perceptible movement of her hand several of her intimates who would have gathered round her, and vouchsafed only a careless word to Montjoie, who had hastened to present himself. The work to which she devoted herself was the amusement of the Duchess, who was not, to tell the truth, very easily amused. But Madame di Forno-Populo had infinite resources, and she succeeded. She selected the Dowager Lady Randolph for her butt, and made fun of her so completely that her Grace almost exceeded the bounds of decorum in her laughter.
"You must not, really; you must not—she is a great friend of mine," the Duchess said. But perhaps there was not much love between the two ladies. And thus by degrees the conversation was brought round to the Populina palace and the gay scenes so long ago.
"You must have heard of our ruin," the Contessa said, looking full into the Duchess's face; "everybody has heard of that. I have been too poor to live in my own house. We have wandered everywhere, Bice and I. When one is proud it is more easy to be poor away from home. But we are in very high spirits to-day, the child and I," she added. "All can be put right again. My little niece has come into a fortune. She has made an inheritance. We received the news to-night only. That is how I have recovered my spirits—and to see you, Duchess, and renew the beautiful old times."
"Oh, indeed!" the Duchess said, which was not much; but then she was a woman of few words.
"Yes, we came to London very poor," said the Contessa. "What could I do? It was the moment to produce the little one. We have no Court. Could I seek for her the favour of the Piedmontese? Oh no! that was impossible. I said to myself she shall come to that generous England, and my old friends there will not refuse to take my Bice by the hand."
"Oh no; I am sure not," said the Duchess.
As for Bice she had long ere now set off with Montjoie, who had hung round her from the moment of her entrance into the room, and whose admiration had grown to such a height by the cumulative force of everybody else's admiration swelling into it, that he could scarcely keep within those bounds of compliment which are permitted to an adorer who has not yet acquired the right to be hyperbolical.
"Oh yes, it's pretty enough: but you don't see half how pretty it is, for you can't see yourself, don't you know?" said this not altogether maladroit young practitioner. Bice gave him a smile like one of the Contessa's smiles, which said everything that was needful without giving her any trouble. But now that the effect of her entrance was attained, and all that dramatic business done with, the girl's soul was set upon enjoyment. She loved dancing as she loved every other form of rapid movement. The only drawback was that there was so little room. "Why do they make the rooms so small?" she said pathetically; a speech which was repeated from mouth to mouth like a witticism, as something so characteristic of the young Italian, w hose marble halls would never be overcrowded: though, as a matter of fact, Bice knew very little of marble halls.
"Were you ever in the gallery at the Hall?" she asked. "To go from one end to the other, that was worth the while. It was as if one flew."
"I never knew they danced down there," said Montjoie. "I thought it very dull, don't you know, till you appeared. If I had known you had dances, and fun going on, and other fellows cutting one out——"
"There was but one other fellow," said Bice gravely. "I have seen in this country no one like him. Ah, why is he not here? He is more fun than any one, but better than fun. He is——"
Montjoie's countenance was like a thunder-cloud big with fire and flame.
"Trevor, I suppose you mean. I never thought that duffer could dance. He was a great sap at school, and a hideous little prig, giving himself such airs! But if you think all that of him——"
"It was not Mr. Trevor," said Bice. Then catching sight of Lady Randolph at a little distance, she made a dart towards her on her partner's arm.
"I am telling Lord Montjoie of my partner at the Hall," she said. "Ah, Milady, let him come and look! How he would clap his hands to see the lights and the flowers. But we could not have our gymnastique with all the people here."
Lucy was very pale; standing alone, abstracted amid the gay crowd, as if she did not very well know where she was.
"Baby? Oh, he is quite well, he is fast asleep," she said, looking up with dim eyes. And then there broke forth a little faint smile on her face. "You were always good to him," she said.
"So it was the baby," said Montjoie, delighted. "What a one you are to frighten a fellow. If it had been Trevor I think I'd have killed him. How jolly of you to do gymnastics with that little beggar; he's dreadfully delicate, ain't he, not likely to live? But you're awfully cruel to me. You think no more of giving a wring to my heart than if it was a bit of rag. I think you'd like to see the blood come."
"Let us dance," said Bice with great composure. She was bent upon enjoyment. She had not calculated upon any conversation. Indeed she objected to conversation on this point even when it did not interfere with the waltz. All could be settled much more easily by the Contessa, and if marriage was to be the end, that was a matter of business not adapted for a ballroom. She would not allow herself to be led away to the conservatory or any other retired nook such as Montjoie felt he must find for this affecting purpose. Bice did not want to be proposed to. She wanted to dance. She abandoned him for other partners without the slightest evidence of regret. She even accepted, when he was just about to seize upon her at the end of a dance, Mr. Derwentwater, preferring to dance the Lancers with him to the bliss of sitting out with Lord Montjoie. That forsaken one gazed at her with a consternation beyond words. To leave him and the proposal that was on his very lips for a square dance with a tutor! The young Marquis gazed after her as she disappeared with a certain awe. It could not be that she preferred Derwentwater. It must be her cleverness which he could not fathom, and some wonderful new system of Italian subtlety to draw a fellow on.
"I like it better than standing still—I like it—enough," said Bice. "To dance, that is always something." Mr. Derwentwater also felt, like Lord Montjoie, that the young lady gave but little importance to her partner.
"You like the rhythm, the measure, the woven paces and the waving hands," her companion said.
Bice stared at him a little, not comprehending. "But you prefer," he continued, "like most ladies, the modern Bacchic dance, the whirl, the round, though what the old Puritans call promiscuous dancing of men and women together was not, I fear, Greek——"
"I know nothing of the Greeks," said Bice. "Vienna is the best place for the valse, but Greek—no, we never were there."
"I am thinking of classic terms," said MTutor with a smile, but he liked her all the better for not knowing. "We have in vases and in sculpture the most exquisite examples. You have never perhaps given your attention to ancient art? I cannot quite agree with Mr. Alma Tadema on that point. He is a great artist, but I don't think the wild leap of his dances is sanctioned by anything we possess."
"Do not take wild leaps," said Bice, "but keep time. That is all you require in a quadrille. Why does every one laugh and go wrong. But it is a shame! One should not dance if one will not take the trouble. And why does he not do anything?" she said, in the pause between two figures, suddenly coming in sight of Jock, who stood against the wall in their sight, following her about with eyes over which his brows were curved heavily; "he does not dance nor ride; he only looks on."
"He reads," said Mr. Derwentwater. "The boy will be a great scholar if he keeps it up."
"One cannot read in society," said Bice. "Now, you must remember, you go that way; you do not come after me."
"I should prefer to come after you. That is the heavenly way when one can follow such a leader. You remember what your own Dante——"
"Oh!" murmured Bice, with a long sigh of impatience, "I have no Dante. I have a partner who will not give himself the pains—Now," she said, with an emphatic little pat of her foot and movement of her hands. Her soul was in the dance, though it was only the Lancers. With a slight line of annoyance upon her forehead she watched his performance, taking upon herself the responsibility, pushing him by his elbow when he went wrong, or leading him in the right way. Mr. Derwentwater had thought to carry off his mistakes with a laugh, but this was not Bice's way of thinking. She made him a little speech when the dance was over.
"I think you are a great scholar too," she said; "but it will be well that you should not come forward again with a lady to dance the Lancers, for you cannot do it. And that will sometimes make a girl to have the air of being also awkward, which is not just."
Mr. Derwentwater grew very red while this speech was making to him. He was a man of great and varied attainments, and had any one told him that he would blush about so trivial a matter as a Lancers——! But he grew very red and almost stammered as he said with humility, "I am afraid I am very deficient, but with you to guide me—Signorina, there is one divine hour which I never forget—when you sang that evening. May I call? May I see you for half an hour to-morrow?"
"Oh," said Bice, with a deep-drawn breath, "here is some one else coming who does not dance very well! Talk to him about the Greek, and Lord Montjoie will take me. To-morrow! oh yes, with pleasure," she said as she took Montjoie's arm and darted away into the crowd. Montjoie was all glowing and radiant with pride and joy.
"I thought I'd hang off and on and take my chance, don't you know? I thought you'd soon get sick of that sort. You and I go together like two birds. I have been watching you all this time, you and old Derwentwater. What was that he said about to-morrow? I want to talk about to-morrow too—unless, indeed to-night——"
"Oh, Lord Montjoie," cried Bice, "dance! It was not to talk you came here, and you can dance better than you talk," she added, with that candour which distinguished her. And Montjoie flew away with her rushing and whirling. He could dance. It was almost his only accomplishment.
THE BALL CONTINUED.
Other eyes than those of her lovers followed Bice through this brilliant scene. Sir Tom had been living a strange stagnant life since that day before he left the Hall, when Lucy, innocently talking of Bice's English parentage, had suddenly roused him to the question—Who was Bice, and who her parents, English or otherwise? The suggestion was very sudden and very simple, conveying in it no intended hint or innuendo. But it came upon Sir Tom like a sudden thunderbolt, or rather like the firing of some train that had been laid and prepared for explosion. The tenor of his fears and suspicions has already been indicated. Nor has it ever been concealed from the reader of this history that there were incidents in Sir Tom's life upon which he did not look back with satisfaction, and which it would have grieved him much to have revealed to his wife in her simplicity and unsuspecting trust in him. One of these was a chapter of existence so long past as to be almost forgotten, yet unforgettable, which gave, when he thought of it, an instant meaning to the fact that a half-Italian girl of English parentage on one side should have been brought mysteriously, without warning or formal introduction, to his house by the Contessa. From that time, as has been already said, the disturbance in his mind was great. He could get no satisfaction one way or another. But to-night his uneasiness had taken a new and unexpected form. Should it so happen that Bice's identity with a certain poor baby, born in Tuscany seventeen years before, might some day be proved, what new cares, what new charge might it not place upon his shoulders? At such a thought Sir Tom held his very breath.
The first result of such a possibility was, that he might find himself to stand in a relationship to the girl for whom he had hitherto had a careless liking and no more, which would change both his life and hers; and already he watched her with uneasy eyes and with a desire to interfere which bewildered him like a new light upon his own character. He could scarcely understand how he had taken it all so lightly before and interested himself so little in the fate of a young creature for whom it would not be well to be brought up according to the Contessa's canons, and follow her example in the world. He remembered, in the light of this new possibility, the levity with which he had received his wife's distress about Bice, and how lightly he had laughed at Lucy's horror as to the Contessa's ideas of marriage, and of what her protegee was to do. He had said if they could catch any decent fellow with money enough it was the best thing that could happen to the girl, and that Bice would be no worse off than others, and that she herself, after the training she had gone through, was very little likely to have any delicacy on the subject. But when it had once occurred to him that the girl of whom he spoke so lightly might be his own child, an extraordinary change came over Sir Tom's views. He laughed no longer—he became so uneasy lest something should be done or said to affect Bice's good name, or throw her into evil hands, that his thoughts had circled unquietly round the house in Mayfair, and he had spent far more of his time there on the watch than he himself thought right. He knew very well the explanation that would be given of those visits of his, and he did not feel sure that some good-natured friends might not have already suggested suspicion to Lucy, who had certainly been very strange since their arrival in town. But he would not give up his watch, which was in a way, he said to himself, his duty, if—— He followed the girl's movements with disturbed attention, and would hurry into the Park to ride by her, to shut out an unsuitable cavalier, and make little lectures to her as to her behaviour with an embarrassed anxiety which Bice could not understand but which amused more than it benefited the Contessa, to whom this result of her mystification was the best fun in the world. But it was not amusing to Sir Tom. He regarded the society of men who gathered about the ladies with disgust. Montjoie was about the best—he was not old enough to be much more than silly—but even Montjoie was not a person whom he would himself choose to be closely connected with. Then came the question: If it should turn out that she was that child, was it expedient that any one should know of it? Would it be better for her to be known as Sir Thomas Randolph's daughter, even illegitimate, or as the relative and dependent of the Forno-Populo? In the one case, her interests would have no guardian at all; in the other, what a shock it would give to his now-established respectability and the confidence all men had in him, to make such a connection known. Turning over everything in his thoughts, it even occurred to Sir Tom that it would be better for him to confess an early secret marriage, and thus save his own reputation and give to Bice a lawful standing ground. The poor young mother was dead long ago; there could be no harm in such an invention. Lucy could not be wounded by anything which happened so long before he ever saw her. And Bice would be saved from all stigma; if only it was Bice! if only he could be sure!
But Sir Tom, whose countenance had not the habit of expressing anything but a large and humorous content, the careless philosophy of a happy temper and easy mind, was changed beyond description by the surging up of such thoughts. He became jealous and suspicious, watching Bice with a constant impulse to interfere, and even—while disregarding all the safeguards of his own domestic happiness for this reason—in his heart condemned the girl because she was not like Lucy, and followed her movements with a criticism which was as severe as that of the harshest moralist.
Nobody in that lighthearted house could understand what had come over the good Sir Tom, not even the Contessa, who after a manner knew the reason, yet never imagined that the idea, which gave her a sort of malicious pleasure, would have led to such a result. Sir Tom had always been the most genial of hosts, but in his present state of mind even in this respect he was not himself. He kept his eye on Bice with a sternness of regard quite out of keeping with his character. If she should flirt unduly, if she began to show any of those arts which made the Contessa so fascinating, he felt, with a mingling of self-ridicule which tickled him in spite of his seriousness, that nothing could keep him from interposing. He had been charmed in spite of himself, even while he saw through and laughed at the Contessa's cunning ways; but to see them in a girl who might, for all he knew, have his own blood in her veins was a very different matter. He felt it was in him to interpose roughly, imperiously—and if he did so, would Bice care? She would turn upon him with smiling defiance, or perhaps ask what right had he to meddle in her affairs. Thus Sir Tom was so preoccupied that the change in Lucy, the effort she made to go through her necessary duties, the blotting out of all her simple kindness and brightness, affected him only dully as an element of the general confusion, and nothing more.
But the Contessa, for her part, was radiant. She was victorious all along the line. She had received Lucy's note informing her of the provision she meant to make for Bice only that afternoon, and her heart was dancing with the sense of wealth, of money to spend and endless capability of pleasure. Whatever happened this was secure, and she had already in the first hour planned new outlays which would make Lucy's beneficence very little of a permanent advantage. But she said nothing of it to Bice, who might (who could tell, girls being at all times capricious) take into her little head that it was no longer necessary to encourage Montjoie, on whom at present she looked complacently enough as the probable giver of all that was best in life. This was almost enough for one day; but the Contessa fully believed in the proverb that there is nothing that succeeds like success, and had faith in her own fortunate star for the other events of the evening. And she had been splendidly successful. She had altogether vanquished the timid spirit of the Duchess, that model of propriety. Her entry upon the London world had been triumphant, and she had all but achieved the honours of the drawing-room. Unless the Lord Chamberlain should interfere, and why should he interfere? her appearance in the larger world of society would be as triumphant as in Park Lane. Her beautiful eyes were swimming in light, the glow of satisfaction and triumph. It fatigued her a little indeed to play the part of a virtuous chaperon, and stand or sit in one place all the evening, awaiting her debutante between the dances, talking with the other virtuous ladies in the same exercise of patience, and smilingly keeping aloof from all participation at first hand in the scene which would have helped to amuse her indeed, but interfered with the fulfilment of her role. But she had internal happiness enough to make up to her for her self-denial. She would order that set of pearls for Bice and the emerald pendant for herself which had tempted her so much, to-morrow. And the Duchess was to present her, and probably this evening Montjoie would propose. Was it possible to expect in this world a more perfect combination of successes?
Mr. Derwentwater went off somewhat discomfited to make a tour of the rooms after the remorseless address of Bice. He tried to smile at the mock severity of her judgment. He, no more than Montjoie, would believe that she meant only what she said. This accomplished man of letters and parts agreed, if in nothing else, in this, with the young fool of quality, that such extreme candour and plain speaking was some subtle Italian way of drawing an admirer on. He put it into finer words than Montjoie could command, and said to himself that it was that mysterious adorable feminine instinct which attracted by seeming to repel. And even on a more simple explanation it was comprehensible enough. A girl who attached so much importance to the accomplishments of society would naturally be annoyed by the failure in these of one to whom she looked up. A regret even moved his mind that he had not given more attention to them in earlier days. It was perhaps foolish to neglect our acquirements, which after all would not take very much trouble, and need only be brought forward, as Dogberry says, when there was no need for such vanities. He determined with a little blush at himself to note closely how other men did, and so be able another time to acquit himself to her satisfaction. And even her severity was sweet; it implied that he was not to her what other men were, that even in the more trifling accessories of knowledge she would have him to excel. If he had been quite indifferent to her, why should she have taken this trouble? And then that "To-morrow; with pleasure." What did it mean? That though she would not give him her attention to-night, being devoted to her dancing (which is what girls are brought up to in this strangely imperfect system), she would do so on the earliest possible occasion. He went about the room like a man in a dream, following everywhere with his eyes that vision of beauty, and looking forward to the next step in his life-drama with an intoxication of hope which he did not attempt to subdue. He was indeed pleased to experience a grande passion. It was a thing which completed the mental equipment of a man. Love—not humdrum household affection, such as is all that is looked for when the exigencies of life make a wife expedient, and with full calculation of all he requires the man sets out to look for her and marry her. This was very different, an all-mastering passion, disdainful of every obstacle. To-morrow! He felt an internal conviction that, though Montjoie might dance and answer for the amusement of an evening, that bright and peerless creature would not hesitate as to who should be her guide for life.
It was while he was thus roaming about in a state of great excitement and a subdued ecstasy of anticipation, that he encountered Jock, who had not been enjoying himself at all. At this great entertainment Jock had been considered a boy, and no more. Even as a boy, had he danced there might have been some notice taken of him, but he was incapable in this way, and in no other could he secure any attention. At a party of a graver kind there were often people who were well enough pleased to talk to Jock, and from men who owed allegiance to his school a boy who had distinguished himself and done credit to the old place was always sure of notice. But then, though high up in Sixth Form, and capable of any eminence in Greek verse, he was nobody; while a fellow like Montjoie, who had never got beyond the rank of lower boy, was in the front of affairs, the admired of all admirers, Bice's chosen partner and companion. The mind develops with a bound when it has gone through such an experience. Jock stood with his back against the wall, and watched everything from under his eyebrows. Sometimes there was a glimmer as of moisture in those eyes, half veiled under eyelids heavily curved and puckered with wrath and pain, for he was very young, not much more than a child, notwithstanding his manhood. But what with a keenness of natural sight, and what with the bitter enlightening medium of that moisture, Jock saw the reality of the scene more clearly than Mr. Derwentwater, roaming about in his dream of anticipation, self-deceived, was capable of doing. He caught sight of Jock in his progress, and, though it was this sentiment which had separated them, its natural effect was also to throw them together. MTutor paused and took up a position by his pupil's side. "What a foolish scene considered philosophically," he said; "and yet how many human interests in solution, and floating adumbrations of human fate! I have been dancing," Mr. Derwentwater continued, with some solemnity and a full sense of the superior position involved, "with, I verily believe, the most beautiful creature in the world."
Jock looked up, fixing him with a critical, slightly cynical regard. He had been well aware of Mr. Derwentwater's very ineffective performance, and divined too clearly the sentiments of Bice not to feel all a spectator's derision for this uncalled-for self-complacency; but he made no remark.
"There is nothing trivial in the exercise in such a combination. I incline to think that beauty is almost the greatest of all the spectacles that Nature sets before us. The effect she has upon us is greater than that produced by any other influence. You are perhaps too young to have your mind awakened on such a subject——"
To hear this foolish wisdom pouring forth, while the listener felt at every breath how his own bosom thrilled with an emotion too deep to be put into words, with a passion, hopeless, ridiculous, to which no one would accord any sympathy or comment but a laugh! Heaven and earth! and all because a fellow was some dozen years older, thinking himself a man, and you only a boy!
"——but you have a fine intelligence, and it can never be amiss for you to approach a great subject on its most elevated side. She is not much older than you are, Jock."
"She is not so old as I am. She is three months younger than I am," cried Jock, in his gruffest voice.
"And yet she is a revelation," said Mr. Derwentwater. "I feel that I am on the eve of a great crisis in my being. You have always been my favourite, my friend, though you are so much younger; and in this I feel we are more than ever sympathetic. Jock, to-morrow—to-morrow I am to see her, to tell her—— Come out on the balcony, there is no one there, and the moonlight and the pure air of night are more fit for such heart opening than this crowded scene."
"What are you going to tell her?" said Jock, with his eyebrows meeting over his eyes and his back against the wall. "If you think she'll listen to what you tell her! She likes Montjoie. It is not that he's rich and that, but she likes him, don't you know, better than any of us. Oh, talk about mysteries," cried Jock, turning his head away, conscious of that moisture which half-blinded him, but which he could not get rid of, "how can you account for that? She likes him, that fellow, better than either you or me!"
Better than Jock; far better than this man, his impersonation of noble manhood, whom the most levelling of all emotions, the more than Red Republican Love, had suddenly brought down to, nay, below, Jock's level—for not only was he a fool like Jock, but a hopeful fool, while Jock had penetrated the fulness of despair, and dismissed all illusion from his youthful bosom. The boy turned his head away, and the voice which he had made so gruff quavered at the end. He felt in himself at that moment all the depths of profound and visionary passion, something more than any man ever was conscious of who had an object and a hope. The boy had neither; he neither hoped to marry her nor to get a hearing, nor even to be taken seriously. Not even the remorse of a serious passion rejected, the pain of self-reproach, the afterthought of pity and tenderness would be his. He would get a laugh, nothing more. That schoolboy, that brother of Lady Randolph's, who does not leave school for a year! He knew what everybody would say. And yet he loved her better than any one of them! MTutor startled, touched, went after him as Jock turned away, and linking his arm in his, said something of the kind which one would naturally say to a boy. "My dear fellow, you don't mean to tell me——? Come, Jock! This is but your imagination that beguiles you. The heart has not learned to speak so soon," MTutor said, leaning upon Jock's shoulder. The boy turned upon him with a fiery glow in his eyes.
"What were you saying about dancing?" he said. "They seem to be making up that Lancers business again."
"You have news to tell me, Bice mia?"
There was a faint daylight in the streets, a blueness of dawn as the ladies drove home.
"Have I? I have amused myself very much. I am not fatigued, no. I could continue as long—as long as you please," Bice answered, who was sitting up in her corner with more bloom than at the beginning of the evening, her eyes shining, a creature incapable of fatigue. The Contessa lay back in hers, with a languor which was rather adapted to her role as a chaperon than rendered necessary by the fatigue she felt. If she had not been amused, she was triumphant, and this supplied a still more intoxicating exhilaration than that of mere pleasure.
"Darling!" she said, in her most expressive tone. She added a few moments after, "But Lord Montjoie! He has spoken? I read it in his face——"
"Spoken? He said a great deal—some things that made me laugh, some things that were not amusing. After all he is perhaps a little stupid, but to dance there is no one like him!"
"And you go together—to perfection——"
"Ah!" said Bice, with a long breath of pleasure, "when the people began to go away, when there was room! Certainly we deserted our other partners, both he and I. Does that matter in London? He says No."
"Not, my angel, if you are to marry."
"That was what he said," said Bice, with superb calm. "Now, I remember that was what he said; but I answered that I knew nothing of affairs—that it was to dance I wanted, not to talk; and that it was you, Madama, who disposed of me. It seemed to amuse him," the girl said reflectively. "Is it for that reason you kiss me? But it was he that spoke, as you call it, not I."
"You are like a little savage," cried the Contessa. "Don't you care then to make the greatest marriage, to win the prize, to settle everything with no trouble, before you are presented or anything has been done at all?"
"Is it settled then?" said Bice. She shrugged her shoulders a little within her white cloak. "Is that all?—no more excitement, nothing to look forward to, no tr-rouble? But it would have been more amusing if there had been a great deal of tr-rouble," the girl said.
This was in the blue dawn, when the better portion of the world which does not go to balls was fast asleep, the first pioneers of day only beginning to stir about the silent streets, through which now and then the carriage of late revellers like themselves darted abrupt with a clang that had in it something of almost guilt. Twelve hours after, the Contessa in her boudoir—with not much more than light enough to see the flushed and happy countenance of young Montjoie, who had been on thorns all the night and morning with a horrible doubt in his mind lest, after all, Bice's careless reply might mean nothing more than that fine system of drawing a fellow on—settled everything in the most delightful way.
"Nor is she without a sou, as perhaps you think. She has something that will not bear comparison with your wealth, yet something—which has been settled upon her by a relation. The Forno-Populi are not rich—but neither are they without friends."
Montjoie listened to this with a little surprise and impatience. He scarcely believed it, for one thing; and when he was assured that all was right as to Bice herself, he cared but little for the Forno-Populi. "I don't know anything about the sous. I have plenty for both," he said, "that had a great deal better go to you, don't you know. She is all I want. Bice! oh that's too foreign. I shall call her Bee, for she must be English, don't you know, Countess, none of your Bohem—Oh, I don't mean that; none of your foreign ways. They draw a fellow on, but when it's all settled and we're married and that sort of thing, she'll have to be out and out English, don't you know?"
"But that is reasonable," said the Contessa, who could when it was necessary reply very distinctly. "When one has a great English name and a position to keep up, one must be English. You shall call her what you please."
"There's one thing more," Montjoie said with a little redness and hesitation, but a certain dogged air, with which the Contessa had not as yet made acquaintance. "It's best to understand each other, don't you know; it's sort of hard-hearted to take her right away. But, Countess, you're a woman of the world, and you know a fellow must start fair. You keep all those sous you were talking of, and just let us knock along our own way. I don't want the money, and I dare say you'll find a use for it. And let's start fair; it'll be better for all parties, don't you know," the young man said. He reddened, but he met the Contessa's eye unflinchingly, though the effort to respond to this distinct statement in the spirit in which it was made cost her a struggle. She stared at him for a moment across the dainty little table laden with knick-knacks. It was strange in the moment of victory to receive such a sudden decisive defeat. There was just a possibility for a moment that this brave spirit should own itself mere woman, and break down and cry. For one second there was a quiver on her lip; then she smiled, which for every purpose was the better way.
"You would like," she said, "to see Bice. She is in the little drawing-room. The lawyers will settle the rest; but I understand your suggestion, Lord Montjoie." She rose with all her natural stately grace, which made the ordinary young fellow feel very small in spite of himself. The smile she gave him had something in it that made his knees knock together.
"I hope," he said, faltering, "you don't mind, Countess. My people, though I've not got any people to speak of, might make themselves disagreeable about—don't you know? you—you're a woman of the world."
The Contessa smiled upon him once more with dazzling sweetness. "She is in the little drawing-room," she said.
And so it was concluded, the excitement, the tr-rouble, as Bice said; it would have been far more amusing if there had been a great deal more tr-rouble. The Contessa dropped down in the corner of the sofa from which she had risen. She closed her eyes for the moment, and swallowed the affront that had been put upon her, and what was worse than the affront, the blow at her heart which this trifling little lord had delivered without flinching. This was to be the end of her schemes, that she was to be separated summarily and remorselessly from the child she had brought up. The Contessa knew, being of the same order of being, that, already somewhat disappointed to find the ardour of the chase over and all the excitement of bringing down the quarry, Bice, who cared little more about Montjoie than about any other likely person, would be as ready as not to throw him off if she were to communicate rashly the conditions on which he insisted. But, though she was of the same order of being, the Contessa was older and wiser. She had gone through a great many experiences. She knew that rich young English peers, marquises, uncontrolled by any parent or guardians, were fruit that did not grow on every bush, and that if this tide of fortune was not taken at its flood there was no telling when another might come. Now, though Bice was so dear, the Contessa had still a great many resources of her own, and was neither old nor tired of life. She would make herself a new career even without Bice, in which there might still be much interest—especially with the aid of a settled income. The careless speech about the sous was not without an eloquence of its own. Sous make everything that is disagreeable less disagreeable, and everything that is pleasant more pleasant. And she had got her triumph. She had secured for her Bice a splendid lot. She had accomplished what she had vowed to do, which many scoffers had thought she would never do. She was about to be presented at the English Court, and all her soils and spots from the world cleared from her, and herself rehabilitated wherever she might go. Was it reasonable then to break her heart over Montjoie and his miserable conditions? He could not separate Bice's love from her, though he might separate their lives—and that about the sous was generous. She was not one who would have sold her affections or given up anybody whom she loved for money. But still there were many things to be said, and for Bice's advantage what would she not do? The Contessa ended by a resolution which many a better woman would not have had the courage to make. She buried Montjoie's condition in her own heart—never to hint its existence—to ignore it as if it had not been. Many a more satisfactory person would have flinched at this. Most of us would at least have allowed the object of our sacrifice to be aware what we were doing for them. The Contessa did not even, so far as this, yield to the temptation of fate.
In the meantime Bice had gone through her own little episode. Mr. Derwentwater came about noon, before the Contessa was up; but he did not know the Contessa's habits, and he was admitted, which neither Montjoie nor any of the Contessa's friends would have been. He was overjoyed to find the lady of his affections alone. This made everything, he thought, simple and easy for him, and filled him with a delightful confidence that she was prepared for the object of his visit and had contrived to keep the Contessa out of the way. His heart was beating high, his mind full of excitement. He took the chair she pointed him to, and then got up again, poising his hat between his hands.
"Signorina," he said, "they say that a woman always knows the impression she has made."
"Why do you call me Signorina?" said Bice. "Yes, it is quite right. But then it is so long that I have not heard it, and it is only you that call me so."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Derwentwater, with a little natural complacency, "others are not so well acquainted with your beautiful country and language. What should I call you? Ah, I know what I should like to call you. Beatrice, loda di deo vera. You are like the supreme and sovran lady whom every one must think of who hears your name."
Bice looked at him with a half-comic attention. "You are a very learned man," she said, "one can see that. You always say something that is pretty, that one does not understand."
This piqued the suitor a little and brought the colour to his cheek. "Teach me," he said, "to make you understand me. If I could show you my heart, you would see that from the first moment I saw you the name of Bice has been written——"
"Oh, I know it already," cried Bice, "that you have a great devotion for poetry. Unhappily I have no education. I know it so very little. But I have found out what you mean about Bice. It is more soft than you say it. There is no sound of tch in it at all. Beeshe, like that. Your Italian is very good," she added, "but it is Tuscan, and the bocca romana is the best."
Mr. Derwentwater was more put out than it became a philosopher to be. "I came," he cried, with a kind of asperity, "for a very different purpose, not to be corrected in my Italian. I came——" but here his feelings were too strong for him, "to lay my life and my heart at your feet. Do you understand me now? To tell you that I love you—no, that is not enough, it is not love, it is adoration," he said. "I have never known what it meant before. However fair women might be, I have passed them by; my heart has never spoken. But now! Since the first moment I saw you, Bice——"
The girl rose up; she became a little alarmed. Emotion was strange to her, and she shrank from it. "I have given," she said, "to nobody permission to call me by my name."
"But you will give it to me! to your true lover," he cried. "No one can admire and adore you as much as I do. It was from the first moment. Bice, oh, listen! I have nothing to offer you but love, the devotion of a life. What could a king give more? A true man cannot think of anything else when he is speaking to the woman he loves. Nothing else is worthy to offer you. Bice, I love you! I love you! Have you nothing, nothing in return to say to me?"
All his self-importance and intellectual superiority had abandoned him. He was so much agitated that he saw her but dimly through the mists of excitement and passion. He stretched out his hands appealing to her. He might have been on his knees for anything he knew. It seemed incredible to him that his strong passion should have no return.
"Have you nothing, nothing to say to me?" he cried.
Bice had been frightened, but she had regained her composure. She looked on at this strange exhibition of feeling with the wondering calm of extreme youth. She was touched a little, but more surprised than anything else. She said, with a slight tremor, "I think it must be all a mistake. One is never so serious—oh, never so serious! It is not something of—gravity like that. Did not you know? I am intended to make a marriage—to marry well, very well—what you call a great marriage. It is for that I am brought here. The Contessa would never listen—Oh, it is a mistake altogether—a mistake! You do not know what is my career. It has all been thought of since I was born. Pray, pray, go away, and do not say any more."
"Bice," he cried, more earnestly than ever, "I know. I heard that you were to be sacrificed. Who is the lady who is going to sacrifice you to Mammon? she is not your mother; you owe her no obedience. It is your happiness, not hers, that is at stake. And I will preserve you from her. I will guard you like my own soul; the winds of heaven shall not visit your cheek roughly. I will cherish you; I will adore you. Come, only come to me."
His voice was husky with emotion; his last words were scarcely audible, said within his breath in a high strain of passion which had got beyond his control. The contrast between this tremendous force of feeling and her absolute youthful calm was beyond description. It was more wonderful than anything ever represented on the tragic stage. Only in the depth and mystery of human experience could such a wonderful juxtaposition be.
"Mr. Derwentwater," she said, trembling a little, "I cannot understand you. Go away, oh, go away!"
"Go away, oh, go away! I am not able to bear it; no one is ever so serious. I am not great enough, nor old enough. Don't you know," cried Bice, with a little stamp of her foot, "I like the other way best? Oh, go away, go away!"
He stood quiet, silently gazing at her till he had regained his power of speech, which was not for a moment or two. Then he said hoarsely, "You like—the other way best?"
She clasped her hands together with a mingling of impatience and wonder and rising anger. "I am made like that," she cried. "I don't know how to be so serious. Oh, go away from me. You tr-rouble me. I like the other best."
He never knew how he got out of the strange, unnatural atmosphere of the house in which he seemed to leave his heart behind him. The perfumes, the curtains, the half lights, the blending draperies, were round him one moment; the next he found himself in the greenness of the Park, with the breeze blowing in his face, and his dream ended and done with.
He had a kind of vision of having touched the girl's reluctant hand, and even of having seen a frightened look in her eyes as if he had awakened some echo or touched some string whose sound was new to her. But if that were so, it was not he, but only some discovery of unknown feeling that moved her. When he came to himself, he felt that all the innocent morning people in the Park, the children with their maids, the sick ladies and old men sunning themselves on the benches, the people going about their honest business, cast wondering looks at his pale face and the agitation of his aspect. He took a long walk, he did not know how long, with that strange sense that something capital had happened to him, something never to be got over or altered, which follows such an incident in life. He was even conscious by and by, habit coming to his aid, of a curious question in his mind if this was how people usually felt after such a wonderful incident—a thing that had happened quite without demonstration, which nobody could ever know of, yet which made as much change in him as if he had been sentenced to death. Sentenced to death! that was what it felt like more or less. It had happened, and could never be undone, and he walked away and away, but never got beyond it, with the chain always round his neck. When he got into the streets where nobody took any notice of him, it struck him with surprise, almost offence. Was it possible that they did not see that something had happened—a mystery, something that would never be shaken off but with life?
He met Jock as he walked, and without stopping gave him a sort of ghastly smile, and said, "You were right; she likes that best," and went on again, with a sense that he might go on for ever like the wandering Jew, and never get beyond the wonder and the pain.
And there is no doubt that Bice was glad to hear Montjoie's laugh, and the nonsense he talked, and to throw off that sudden impression which had frightened her. What was it? Something which was in life, but which she had not met with before. "We are to have it all our own way, don't you know?" Montjoie said. "I have no people, to call people, and she is not going to interfere. We shall have it all our own way, and have a good time, as the Yankees say. And I am not going to call you Bice, which is a silly sort of name, and spells quite different from its pronunciation. What are you holding back for? You have no call to be shy with me now. Bee, you belong to me now, don't you know?" the young fellow said, with demonstrations from which Bice shrunk a little. She liked, yes, his way; but, but yet—she was perhaps a little savage, as the Contessa said.
THE LAST BLOW.
Lucy stood out stoutly to the last gasp. She did not betray herself, except by the paleness, the seriousness which she could not banish from her countenance. Her guests thought that Lady Randolph must be ill, that she was disguising a bad headache, or even something more serious, under the smile with which she received them. "I am sure you ought to be in bed," the older ladies said, and when they took their leave of her, after their congratulations as to the success of the evening, they all repeated this in various tones. "I am sure you are quite worn out; I shall send in the morning to ask how you are," the Duchess said. Lucy listened to everything with a smile which was somewhat set and painful. She was so worn out with emotion and pain that at last neither words nor looks made much impression upon her. She saw the Contessa and Bice stream by to their carriage with a circle of attendants, still in all the dazzle and flash of their triumph; and after that the less important crowd, the insignificant people who lingered to the last, the girls who would not give up a last waltz, and the men who returned for a final supper, swam in her dazed eyes. She stood at the door mechanically shaking hands and saying "Good-night." The Dowager, moved by curiosity, anxiety, perhaps by pity, kept by her till a late hour, though Lucy was scarcely aware of it. When she went away at last, she repeated with earnestness and a certain compunction the advice of the other ladies. "You don't look fit to stand," she said. "If you will go to bed I will wait till all these tiresome people are gone. You have been doing too much, far too much." "It does not matter," Lucy said, in her semi-consciousness hearing her own voice like something in a dream. "Oh, my dear, I am quite unhappy about you!" Lady Randolph cried. "If you are thinking of what I told you, Lucy, perhaps it may not be true." There was a bevy of people going away at that moment, and she had to shake hands with them. She waited till they were gone and then turned, with a laugh that frightened the old lady, towards her.
"You should have thought of that before," she said. Perhaps it might not be true! Can heaven be veiled and the pillars of the earth pulled down by a perhaps? The laugh sounded even to herself unnatural, and the elder Lady Randolph was frightened by it, and stole away almost without another word. When everybody was gone Sir Tom stood by her in the deserted rooms, with all the lights blazing and the blue day coming in through the curtains, as grave and as pale as she was. They did not look like the exhausted yet happy entertainers of the (as yet) most successful party of the season. Lucy could scarcely stand and could not speak at all, and he seemed little more fit for those mutual congratulations, even the "Thank heaven it is well over," with which the master and the mistress of the house usually salute each other in such circumstances. They stood at different ends of the room, and made no remark. At last, "I suppose you are going to bed," Sir Tom said. He came up to her in a preoccupied way. "I shall go and smoke a cigar first, and it does not seem much good lighting a candle for you." They both looked somewhat drearily at the daylight, now no longer blue, but rosy. Then he laid his hand upon her shoulder. "You are dreadfully tired, Lucy, and I think there has been something the matter with you these few days. I'd ask you what it was, but I'm dead beat, and you are dreadfully tired too." He stopped and kissed her forehead, and took her hand in his in a sort of languid way. "Good-night; go to bed my poor little woman," he said.
It is terrible to be wroth with those we love. Anger against them is deadly to ourselves. It "works like madness in the brain;" it involves heaven and earth in a gloom that nothing can lighten. But when that anger being just, and such as we must not depart from, is crossed by those unspeakable relentings, those quick revivals of love, those sudden touches of tenderness that carry all before them, what anguish is equal to those bitter sweetnesses? Lucy felt this as she stood there with her husband's hand upon her shoulder, in utter fatigue, and broken down in all her faculties. Through all those dark and bitter mists which rose about her, his voice broke like a ray of light: her timid heart sprang up in her bosom and went out to him with an abandon which, but for the extreme physical fatigue which produces a sort of apathy, must have broken down everything. For a moment she swayed towards him as if she would have thrown herself upon his breast.
When this movement comes to both the estranged persons, there follows a clearing away of difficulties, a revolution of the heart, a reconciliation when that is possible, and sometimes when it is not possible. But it very seldom happens that this comes to both at the same time. Sir Tom remained unmoved while his wife had that sudden access of reawakened tenderness. He was scarcely aware even how far she had been from him, and now was quite unaware how near. His mind was full of cares and doubts, and an embarrassing situation which he could not see how to manage. He was not even aware that she was moved beyond the common. He took his hand from her shoulder, and without another word let her go away.
Oh, those other words that are never spoken! They are counterbalanced in the record of human misfortune by the many other words which are too much, which should never have been spoken at all. Thus all explanation, all ending of the desperate situation, was staved off for another night.
Lucy woke next morning in a kind of desperation. No new event had happened, but she could not rest. She felt that she must do something or die, and what could she do? She spent the early morning in the nursery, and then went out. This time she was reasonable, not like that former time when she went out to the city. She knew very well now that nothing was to be gained by walking or by jolting in a disagreeable cab. On the former occasion that had been something of a relief to her; but not now. It is scarcely so bad when some out-of-the-way proceeding like this, some strange thing to be done, gives the hurt and wounded spirit a little relief. She had come to the further stage now when she knew that nothing of the sort could give any relief; nothing but mere dull endurance, going on, and no more. She drove to Mr. Chervil's office quietly, as she might have gone anywhere, and thus, though it seems strange to say so, betrayed a deeper despair than before. She took with her a list of names with sums written opposite. There was enough there put down to make away with a large fortune. This one so much, that one so much. This too was an impulse of the despair in her mind. She was carrying out her father's will in a lump. It meant no exercise of discrimination, no careful choice of persons to be benefited, such as he had intended, but only a hurried rush at a duty which she had neglected, a desire to be done with it. Lucy was on the eve, she felt, of some great change in her life. She could not tell what she might be able to do after; whether she should live through it or bring her mind and memory unimpaired through it, or think any longer of anything that had once been her duty. She would get it done while she could. She was very sensible that the money she had given to Bice was not in accordance with what her father would have wished: neither were these perhaps. She could not tell, she did not care. At least it would be done with, and could not be done over again.