"I don't know about repairs," replied Mrs. Marvelle. "It is a magnificent place, and certainly the grounds are ravishing. But one of the best rooms in the house, is the former Lady Errington's boudoir—it is full of old-fashioned dirty furniture, and Bruce-Errington won't have it touched,—he will insist on keeping it as his mother left it. Now that is ridiculous—perfectly morbid! It's just the same thing with his father's library—he won't have that touched either—and the ceiling wants fresh paint, and the windows want new curtains—and all sorts of things ought to be done. Marcia would have managed all that splendidly—she'd have had everything new throughout—Americans are so quick, and there's no nonsensical antiquated sentiment about Marcia."
"She might even have had new pictures and done away with the old ones," observed Mr. Marvelle, with a feeble attempt at satire. His wife darted a keen look at him, but smiled a little too. She was not without a sense of humor.
"Nonsense, Montague! She knows the value of works of art better than many a so-called connoisseur. I won't have you make fun of her. Poor girl! She did speculate on Bruce-Errington,—you know he was very attentive to her, at that ball I gave just before he went off to Norway."
"He certainly seemed rather amused by her," said Mr. Marvelle. "Did she take it to heart when she heard he was married?"
"I should think not," replied Mrs. Marvelle loftily. "She has too much sense. She merely said, 'All right! I must stick to Masherville!'"
Mr. Marvelle nodded blandly. "Admirable,—admirable!" he murmured, with a soft little laugh, "A very clever girl—a very bright creature! And really there are worse fellows than Masherville! The title is old."
"Yes, the title is all very well," retorted his wife—"but there's no money—or at least very little."
"Marcia has sufficient to cover any deficit?" suggested Mr. Marvelle, in a tone of meek inquiry.
"An American woman never has sufficient," declared Mrs. Marvelle. "You know that as well as I do. And poor dear Mrs. Van Clupp has so set her heart on a really brilliant match for her girl—and I had positively promised she should have Bruce-Errington. It is really too bad!" And Mrs. Marvelle paced the room with a stately, sweeping movement, pausing every now and then to glance at herself approvingly in the mirror above the chimney-piece, while her husband resumed his perusal of the Times. By-and-by she said abruptly—
Mr. Marvelle dropped his paper with an alarmed air.
"I shall go to Clara Winsleigh this morning—and see what she means to do in the matter. Poor Clara! She must be disgusted at the whole affair!"
"She had rather a liking for Errington, hadn't she?" inquired Mr. Marvelle, folding up the Times in a neat parcel, preparatory to taking it with him in order to read it in peace on his way to the Law Courts.
"Liking? Well!" And Mrs. Marvelle, looking at herself once more in the glass, carefully arranged the ruffle of Honiton lace about her massive throat,—"It was a little more than liking—though, of course, her feelings were perfectly proper, and all that sort of thing,—at least, I suppose they were! She had a great friendship for him,—one of those emotional, perfectly spiritual and innocent attachments, I believe, which are so rare in this wicked world." Mrs. Marvelle sighed, then suddenly becoming practical again, she continued. "Yes, I shall go there and stop to luncheon, and talk this thing over. Then I'll drive on to the Van Clupps, and bring Marcia home to dinner. I suppose you don't object?"
"Object!" Mr. Marvelle made a deprecatory gesture, and raised his eyes in wonder. As if he dared object to anything whatsoever that his wife desired!
She smiled graciously as he approached, and respectfully kissed her smooth cool cheek, before taking his departure for his daily work as a lawyer in the city, and when he was gone, she betook herself to her own small boudoir, where she busied herself for more than an hour in writing letters, and answering invitations.
She was, in her own line, a person of importance. She made it her business to know everything and everybody—she was fond of meddling with other people's domestic concerns, and she had a finger in every family pie. She was, moreover, a regular match-maker,—fond of taking young ladies under her maternal wing, and "introducing" them to the proper quarters, and when, as was often the case, a distinguished American of many dollars but no influence offered her three or four hundred guineas for chaperoning his daughter into English society and marrying her well, Mrs. Rush-Marvelle pocketed the douceur quite gracefully, and did her best for the girl. She was a good-looking woman, tall, portly, and with an air of distinction about her, though her features were by no means striking, and the smallness of her nose was out of all proportion to the majesty of her form—but she had a very charming smile, and a pleasant, taking manner, and she was universally admired in that particular "set" wherein she moved. Girls adored her, and wrote her gushing letters, full of the most dulcet flatteries—married ladies on the verge of a scandal came to her to help them out of their difficulties—old dowagers, troubled with rheumatism or refractory daughters, poured their troubles into her sympathizing ears—in short, her hands were full of other people's business to such an extent that she had scarcely any leisure to attend to her own. Mr. Rush-Marvelle,—but why describe this gentleman at all? He was a mere nonentity—known simply as the husband of Mrs. Rush-Marvelle. He knew he was nobody—and, unlike many men placed in a similar position, he was satisfied with his lot. He admired his wife intensely, and never failed to flatter her vanity to the utmost excess, so that, on the whole, they were excellent friends, and agreed much better than most married people.
It was about twelve o'clock in the day, when Mrs. Rush-Marvelle's neat little brougham and pair stopped at Lord Winsleigh's great house in Park Lane. A gorgeous flunkey threw open the door with a virtuously severe expression on his breakfast-flushed countenance,—an expression which relaxed into a smile of condescension on seeing who the visitor was.
"I suppose Lady Winsleigh is at home, Briggs?" inquired Mrs. Marvelle, with the air of one familiar with the ways of the household.
"Yes'm," replied Briggs slowly, taking in the "style" of Mrs. Rush-Marvelle's bonnet, and mentally calculating its cost. "Her ladyship is in the boo-dwar."
"I'll go there," said Mrs. Marvelle, stepping into the hall, and beginning to walk across it, in her own important and self-assertive manner. "You needn't announce me."
Briggs closed the street-door, settled his powdered wig, and looked after her meditatively. Then he shut up one eye in a sufficiently laborious manner and grinned. After this he retired slowly to a small ante-room, where he found the World with its leaves uncut. Taking up his master's ivory paper-knife, he proceeded to remedy this slight inconvenience,—and, yawning heavily, he seated himself in a velvet arm-chair, and was soon absorbed in perusing the pages of the journal in question.
Meanwhile Mrs. Marvelle, in her way across the great hall to the "boo-dwar," had been interrupted and nearly knocked down by the playful embrace of a handsome boy, who sprang out upon her suddenly with a shout of laughter,—a boy of about twelve years old, with frank, bright blue eyes and clustering dark curls.
"Hullo, Mimsey!" cried this young gentleman-"here you are again! Do you want to see papa? Papa's in there!"—pointing to the door from which he had emerged—"he's correcting my Latin exercise. Five good marks to-day, and I'm going to the circus this afternoon! Isn't it jolly?"
"Dear me, Ernest!" exclaimed Mrs. Marvelle half crossly, yet with an indulgent smile,—"I wish you would not be so boisterous! You've nearly knocked my bonnet off."
"No, I haven't," laughed Ernest; "it's as straight as—wait a bit!" And waving a lead pencil in the air, he drew an imaginary stroke with it. "The middle feather is bobbing up and down just on a line with your nose—it couldn't be better!"
"There, go along, you silly boy!" said Mrs. Marvelle, amused in spite of herself. "Get back to your lessons. There'll be no circus for you if you don't behave properly! I'm going to see your mother."
"Mamma's reading," announced Ernest. "Mudie's cart has just been and brought a lot of new novels. Mamma wants to finish them all before night. I say, are you going to stop to lunch?"
"Ernest, why are you making such a noise in the passage?" said a gentle, grave voice at this juncture. "I am waiting for you, you know. You haven't finished your work yet. Ah, Mrs. Marvelle! How do you do?"
And Lord Winsleigh came forward and shook hands. "You will find her ladyship in, I believe. She will be delighted to see you. This young scapegrace," here he caressed his son's clustering curls tenderly—"has not yet done with his lessons—the idea of the circus to-day seems to have turned his head."
"Papa, you promised you'd let me off Virgil this morning!" cried Ernest, slipping his arm coaxingly through his father's. Lord Winsleigh smiled. Mrs. Rush-Marvelle shook her head with a sort of mild reproachfulness.
"He really ought to go to school," she said, feigning severity. "You will find him too much for you, Winsleigh, in a little while."
"I think not," replied Lord Winsleigh, though an anxious look troubled for an instant the calm of his deep-set grey eyes. "We get on very well together, don't we, Ernest?" The boy glanced up fondly at his father's face and nodded emphatically. "At a public-school, you see, the boys are educated on hard and fast lines—all ground down to one pattern,—there's no chance of any originality possible. But don't let me detain you, Mrs. Marvelle—you have no doubt much to say to Lady Winsleigh. Come, Ernest! If I let you off Virgil, you must do the rest of your work thoroughly."
And with a courteous salute, the grave, kindly-faced nobleman re-entered his library, his young son clinging to his arm and pouring forth boyish confidences, which seemingly received instant attention and sympathy,—while Mrs. Rush-Marvelle looked after their retreating figures with something of doubt and wonder on her placid features. But whatever her thoughts, they were not made manifest just then. Arriving at a door draped richly with old-gold plush and satin, she knocked.
"Come in!" cried a voice that, though sweet in tone, was also somewhat petulant.
Mrs. Marvelle at once entered, and the occupant of the room sprang up in haste from her luxurious reading-chair, where she was having her long tresses brushed out by a prim-looking maid, and uttered an exclamation of delight.
"My dearest Mimsey!" she cried, "this is quite too sweet of you! You're just the very person I wanted to see!" And she drew an easy fauteuil to the sparkling fire,—for the weather was cold, with that particularly cruel coldness common to an English May,—and dismissed her attendant. "Now sit down, you dear old darling," she continued, "and let me have all the news!"
Throwing herself back on her lounge, she laughed, and tossed her waving hair loose over her shoulders, as the maid had left it,—then she arranged, with a coquettish touch here and there, the folds of her pale pink dressing-gown, showered with delicate Valenciennes. She was undeniably a lovely woman. Tall and elegantly formed, with an almost regal grace of manner, Clara, Lady Winsleigh, deserved to be considered, as she was, one of the reigning beauties of the day. Her full dark eyes were of a bewitching and dangerous softness,—her complexion was pale, but of such a creamy, transparent pallor as to be almost brilliant,—her mouth was small and exquisitely shaped. True,—her long eyelashes were not altogether innocent of "kohl,"—true, there was a faint odor about her as of rare perfumes and cosmetics,—true, there was something not altogether sincere or natural even in her ravishing smile and fascinating ways—but few, save cynics, could reasonably dispute her physical perfections, or question the right she had to tempt and arouse the passions of men, or to trample underfoot? with an air of insolent superiority, the feelings of women less fair and fortunate. Most of her sex envied her,—but Mrs. Rush-Marvelle, who was past the prime of life, and, who, moreover, gained her social successes through intelligence and tact alone, was far too sensible to grudge any woman her beauty. On the contrary, she was a frank admirer of handsome persons, and she surveyed Lady Winsleigh now through her glasses with a smile of bland approval.
"You are looking very well, Clara," she said. "Let me see—you went to Kissingen in the summer, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," laughed her ladyship. "It was delicious! I suppose you know Lennie came after me there! Wasn't it ridiculous!"
Mrs. Marvelle coughed dubiously. "Didn't Winsleigh put in an appearance at all?" she asked.
Lady Clara's brow clouded. "Oh yes! For a couple of weeks or so. Ernest came with him, of course, and they rambled about together all the time. The boy enjoyed it."
"I remember now," said Mrs. Marvelle. "But I've not seen anything of you since you came back, Clara, except once in the park and once at the theatre. You've been all the time at Winsleigh Court—by-the-by, was Sir Francis Lennox there too?"
"Why, naturally!" replied the beauty, with a cool smile. "He follows me everywhere like a dog! Poor Lennie!"
Again the elder lady coughed significantly.
Clara Winsleigh broke into a ringing peal of laughter, and rising from her lounge, knelt beside her visitor in a very pretty coaxing attitude.
"Come, Mimsey!" she said, "you are not going to be proper at this time of day! That would be a joke! Darling, indulgent, good old Mimsey!—you don't mean to turn into a prim, prosy, cross Mrs. Grundy! I won't believe it! And you mustn't be severe on poor Lennie—he's such a docile, good boy, and really not bad-looking!"
Mrs. Marvelle fidgeted a little on her chair. "I don't want to talk about Lennie, as you call him," she said, rather testily—"Only I think you'd better be careful how far you go with him. I came to consult you on something quite different. What are you going to do about the Bruce-Errington business? You know it was in the Post to-day that they've arrived in town. The idea of Sir Philip bringing his common wife into society!—It's too ridiculous!"
Lady Winsleigh sprang to her feet, and her eyes flashed disdainfully.
"What am I going to do?" she repeated, in accents of bitter contempt. "Why, receive them, of course! It will be the greatest punishment Bruce-Errington can have! I'll get all the best people here that I know—and he shall bring his peasant woman among them, and blush for her! It will be the greatest fun out! Fancy a Norwegian farmer's girl lumbering along with her great feet and red hands! . . . and, perhaps, not knowing whether to eat an ice with a spoon or with her fingers! I tell you Bruce-Errington will be ready to die for shame—and serve him right too!"
Mrs. Marvelle was rather startled at the harsh, derisive laughter with which her ladyship concluded her excited observations, but she merely observed mildly—
"Well, then, you will leave cards?"
"Very good—so shall I," and Mrs. Marvelle sighed resignedly. "What must be, must be! But it's really dreadful to think of it all—I would never have believed Philip Errington could have so disgraced himself!"
"He is no gentleman!" said Lady Winsleigh freezingly. "He has low tastes and low desires. He and his friend Lorimer are two cads, in my opinion!"
"Clara!" exclaimed Mrs. Marvelle warningly. "You were fond of him once!—now, don't deny it!"
"Why should I deny it?" and her ladyship's dark eyes blazed with concentrated fury. "I loved him! There! I would have done anything for him! He might have trodden me down under his feet! He knew it well enough—cold, cruel, heartless cynic as he was and is! Yes, I loved him!—but I hate him now!"
And she stamped her foot to give emphasis to her wild words. Mrs. Marvelle raised her hands and eyes in utter amazement.
"Clara, Clara! Pray, pray be careful! Suppose any one else heard you going on in this manner! Your reputation would suffer, I assure you! Really, you're horribly reckless! Just think of your husband—"
"My husband!" and a cold gleam of satire played round Lady Winsleigh's proud mouth. She paused and laughed a little. Then she resumed in her old careless way—"You must be getting very goody-goody, Mimsey, to talk to me about my husband! Why don't you read me a lecture on the duties of wives and the education of children? I am sure you know how profoundly it would interest me!"
She paced up and down the room slowly while Mrs. Marvelle remained discreetly silent. Presently there came a tap at the door, and the gorgeous Briggs entered. He held himself like an automaton, and spoke as though repeating a lesson.
"His lordship's compliments, and will her la'ship lunch in the dining-room to-day?"
"No," said Lady Winsleigh curtly. "Luncheon for myself and Mrs. Marvelle can be sent up here."
Briggs still remained immovable. "His lordship wished to know if Master Hernest was to come to your la'ship before goin' out?"
"Certainly not!" and Lady Winsleigh's brows drew together in a frown. "The boy is a perfect nuisance!"
Briggs bowed and vanished. Mrs. Rush-Marvelle grew more and more restless. She was a good-hearted woman, and there was something in the nature of Clara Winsleigh that, in spite of her easy-going conscience, she could not altogether approve of.
"Do you never lunch with your husband, Clara?" she asked at last.
Lady Winsleigh looked surprised. "Very seldom. Only when there is company, and I am compelled to be present. A domestic meal would be too ennuyant! I wonder you can think of such a thing! And we generally dine out."
Mrs. Marvelle was silent again, and, when she did speak, it was on a less delicate matter.
"When is your great 'crush,' Clara?" she inquired, "You sent me a card, but I forget the date."
"On the twenty-fifth," replied Lady Winsleigh. "This is the fifteenth. I shall call on Lady Bruce-Errington"—here she smiled scornfully—"this afternoon—and to-morrow I shall send them their invitations. My only fear is whether they mayn't refuse to come. I would not miss the chance for the world! I want my house to be the first in which her peasant-ladyship distinguishes herself by her blunders!"
"I'm afraid it'll be quite a scandal!" sighed Mrs. Rush-Marvelle. "Quite! Such a pity! Bruce-Errington was such a promising, handsome young man!"
At that moment Briggs appeared again with an elegantly set luncheon-tray, which he placed on the table with a flourish.
"Order the carriage at half-past three," commanded Lady Winsleigh. "And tell Mrs. Marvelle's coachman that he needn't wait,—I'll drive her home myself."
"But, my dear Clara," remonstrated Mrs. Marvelle, "I must call at the Van Clupps'—"
"I'll call there with you. I owe them a visit. Has Marcia caught young Masherville yet?"
"Well," hesitated Mrs. Marvelle, "he is rather slippery, you know—so undecided and wavering!"
Lady Winsleigh laughed. "Never mind that! Marcia's a match for him! Rather a taking girl—only what an accent! My nerves are on edge whenever I hear her speak."
"It's a pity she can't conquer that defect," agreed Mrs. Marvelle. "I know she has tried. But, after all, they're not the best sort of Americans—"
"The best sort! I should think not! But they're of the richest sort, and that's something, Mimsey! Besides, though everybody knows what Van Clupp's father was, they make a good pretense at being well-born,—they don't cram their low connections down your throat, as Bruce-Errington wants to do with his common wife. They ignore all their vulgar belongings delightfully! They've been cruelly 'cut' by Mrs. Rippington—she's American—but, then, she's perfect style. Do you remember that big 'at home' at the Van Clupp's when they had a band to play in the back-yard, and everybody was deafened by the noise? Wasn't it quite too ridiculous!"
Lady Winsleigh laughed over this reminiscence, and then betook herself to the consideration of lunch,—a tasty meal which both she and Mrs. Marvelle evidently enjoyed, flavored as it was with the high spice of scandal concerning their most immediate and mutual friends, who were, after much interesting discussion, one by one condemned as of "questionable" repute, and uncertain position. Then Lady Winsleigh summoned her maid, and was arrayed cap-a-pie in "carriage-toilette," while Mrs. Marvelle amused herself by searching the columns of Truth for some new tit-bit of immorality connected with the royalty or nobility of England. And at half-past three precisely, the two ladies drove off together in an elegant victoria drawn by a dashing pair of greys, with a respectably apoplectic coachman on the box, supported by the stately Briggs, in all the glory of the olive-green and gold liveries which distinguished the Winsleigh equipage. By her ladyship's desire, they were driven straight to Prince's Gate.
"We may as well leave our cards together," said Clara, with a malicious little smile, "though I hope to goodness the creature won't be at home."
Bruce-Errington's town-house was a very noble-looking mansion—refined and simple in outer adornment, with a broad entrance, deep portico, and lofty windows—windows which fortunately were not spoilt by gaudy hangings of silk or satin in "aesthetic" colors. The blinds were white—and, what could be seen of the curtains from the outside, suggested the richness of falling velvets, and gold-woven tapestries. The drawing-room balconies were full of brilliant flowers, shaded by quaint awnings of Oriental pattern, thus giving the place an air of pleasant occupation and tasteful elegance.
Lady Winsleigh's carriage drew up at the door, and Briggs descended.
"Inquire if Lady Bruce-Errington is at home," said his mistress. "And if not, leave these cards."
Briggs received the scented glossy bits of pasteboard in his yellow-gloved hand with due gravity, and rang the bell marked "Visitors" in his usual ponderous manner, with a force that sent it clanging loudly through the corridors of the stately mansion. The door was instantly opened by a respectable man with grey hair and a gentle, kindly face, who was dressed plainly in black, and who eyed the gorgeous Briggs with the faintest suspicion of a smile. He was Errington's butler, and had served the family for twenty-five years.
"Her ladyship is driving in the Park," he said in response to the condescending inquiries of Briggs. "She left the house about half an hour ago."
Briggs thereupon handed in the cards, and forthwith reported the result of his interview to Lady Winsleigh, who said with some excitement—
"Turn into the Park and drive up and down till I give further orders."
Briggs mutely touched his hat, mounted the box, and the carriage rapidly bowled in the required direction, while Lady Winsleigh remarked laughingly to Mrs. Marvelle—
"Philip is sure to be with his treasure! If we can catch a glimpse of her, sitting, staring open-mouthed at everything, it will be amusing! We shall then know what to expect."
Mrs. Marvelle said nothing, though she too was more or less curious to see the "peasant" addition to the circle of fashionable society,—and when they entered the Park, both she and Lady Winsleigh kept a sharp look-out for the first glimpse of the quiet grey and silver of the Bruce-Errington liveries. They watched, however, in vain—it was not yet the hour for the crowding of the Row—and there was not a sign of the particular equipage they were so desirous to meet. Presently Lady Winsleigh's face flushed—she laughed, and bade her coachman come to a halt.
"It is only Lennie," she said in answer to Mrs. Marvelle's look of inquiry. "I must speak to him a moment!"
And she beckoned coquettishly to a slight, slim young man with a dark moustache and rather handsome features, who was idling along on the footpath, apparently absorbed in a reverie, though it was not of so deep a character that he failed to be aware of her ladyship's presence—in fact he had seen her as soon as she appeared in the Park. He saw everything apparently without looking—he had lazily drooping eyes, but a swift under-glance which missed no detail of whatever was going on. He approached now with an excessively languid air, raising his hat slowly, as though the action bored him.
"How do, Mrs. Marvelle!" he drawled lazily, addressing himself first to the elder lady, who responded somewhat curtly,—then leaning his arms on the carriage door, he fixed Lady Winsleigh with a sleepy stare of admiration. "And how is our Clara? Looking charming, as usual! By Jove! Why weren't you here ten minutes ago? You never saw such a sight in your life! Thought the whole Row was going crazy, 'pon my soul!"
"Why, what happened?" asked Lady Winsleigh, smiling graciously upon him. "Anything extraordinary?"
"Well, I don't know what you'd call extraordinary;" and Sir Francis Lennox yawned and examined the handle of his cane attentively. "I suppose if Helen of Troy came driving full pelt down the Row all of a sudden, there'd be some slight sensation!"
"Dear me!" said Clara Winsleigh pettishly. "You talk in enigmas to-day. What on earth do you mean?"
Sir Francis condescended to smile. "Don't be waxy, Clara!" he urged—"I mean what I say—a new Helen appeared here to-day, and instead of 'tall Troy' being on fire, as Dante Rossetti puts it, the Row was in a burning condition of excitement—fellows on horseback galloped the whole length of the Park to take a last glimpse of her—her carriage dashed off to Richmond after taking only four turns. She is simply magnificent!"
"Who is she?" and in spite of herself, Lady Winsleigh's smile vanished and her lips quivered.
"Lady Bruce-Errington," answered Sir Francis readily. "The loveliest woman in the world, I should say! Phil was beside her—he looks in splendid condition—and that meek old secretary fellow sat opposite—Neville—isn't that his name? Anyhow they seemed as jolly as pipers,—as for that woman, she'll drive everybody out of their wits about her before half the season's over."
"But she's a mere peasant!" said Mrs. Marvelle loftily. "Entirely uneducated—a low, common creature!"
"Ah, indeed!" and Sir Francis again yawned extensively. "Well, I don't know anything about that! She was exquisitely dressed, and she held herself like a queen. As for her hair—I never saw such wonderful hair,—there's every shade of gold in it."
"Dyed!" said Lady Winsleigh, with a sarcastic little laugh. "She's been in Paris,—I dare say a good coiffeur has done it for her there artistically!"
This time Sir Francis's smile was a thoroughly amused one.
"Commend me to a woman for spite!" he said carelessly. "But I'll not presume to contradict you, Clara! You know best, I dare say! Ta-ta! I'll come for you to-night,—you know we're bound for the theatre together. By-bye, Mrs. Marvelle! You look younger than ever!"
And Sir Francis Lennox sauntered easily away, leaving the ladies to resume their journey through the Park. Lady Winsleigh looked vexed—Mrs. Marvelle bewildered.
"Do you think," inquired this latter, "she can really be so wonderfully lovely?"
"No, I don't!" answered Clara snappishly. "I dare say she's a plump creature with a high color—men like fat women with brick-tinted complexions—they think it's healthy. Helen of Troy indeed! Pooh! Lennie must be crazy."
The rest of their drive was very silent,-they were both absorbed in their own reflections. On arriving at the Van Clupps', they found no one at home—not even Marcia—so Lady Winsleigh drove her "dearest Mimsey" back to her own house in Kensington, and there left her with many expressions of tender endearment—then, returning home, proceeded to make an elaborate and brilliant toilette for the enchantment and edification of Sir Francis Lennox that evening. She dined alone, and was ready for her admirer when he called for her in his private hansom, and drove away with him to the theatre, where she was the cynosure of many eyes; meanwhile her husband, Lord Winsleigh, was pressing a good-night kiss on the heated forehead of an excited boy, who, plunging about in his little bed and laughing heartily, was evidently desirous of emulating the gambols of the clown who had delighted him that afternoon at Hengler's.
"Papa! could you stand on your head and shake hands with your foot?" demanded this young rogue, confronting his father with towzled curls and flushed cheeks.
Lord Winsleigh laughed. "Really, Ernest, I don't think I could!" he answered good-naturedly. "Haven't you talked enough about the circus by this time? I thought you were ready for sleep, otherwise I should not have come up to say good-night."
Ernest studied the patient, kind features of his father for a moment, and then slipped penitently under the bedclothes, settling his restless young head determinedly on the pillow.
"I'm all right now!" he murmured, with a demure, dimpling smile. Then, with a tender upward twinkle of his merry blue eyes, he added, "Good-night, papa dear! God bless you!"
A sort of wistful pathos softened the grave lines of Lord Winsleigh's countenance as he bent once more over the little bed, and pressed his bearded lips lightly on the boy's fresh cheek, as cool and soft as a rose-leaf.
"God bless you, little man!" he answered softly, and there was a slight quiver in his calm voice. Then he put out the light and left the room, closing the door after him with careful noiselessness. Descending the broad stairs slowly, his face changed from its late look of tenderness to one of stern and patient coldness, which was evidently its habitual expression. He addressed himself to Briggs, who was lounging aimlessly in the hall.
"Her ladyship is out?"
"Yes, my lord! Gone to the theayter with Sir Francis Lennox."
Lord Winsleigh turned upon him sharply. "I did not ask you, Briggs, where she had gone, or who accompanied her. Have the goodness to answer my questions simply, without adding useless and unnecessary details."
Briggs's mouth opened a little in amazement at his master's peremptory tone, but he answered promptly—
"Very good, my lord!"
Lord Winsleigh paused a moment, and seemed to consider. Then he said—
"See that her ladyship's supper is prepared in the dining-room. She will most probably return rather late. Should she inquire for me, say I am at the Carlton."
Again Briggs responded, "Very good, my lord!" And, like an exemplary servant as he was, he lingered about the passage while Lord Winsleigh entered his library, and, after remaining there some ten minutes or so, came out again in hat and great coat. The officious Briggs handed him his cane, and inquired—
"'Ansom, my lord?"
"Thanks, no. I will walk."
It was a fine moonlight night, and Briggs stood for some minutes on the steps, airing his shapely calves and watching the tall, dignified figure of his master walking, with the upright, stately bearing which always distinguished him, in the direction of Pall Mall. Park Lane was full of crowding carriages with twinkling lights, all bound to the different sources of so-called "pleasure" by which the opening of the season is distinguished. Briggs surveyed the scene with lofty indifference, sniffed the cool breeze, and, finding it somewhat chilly, re-entered the house and descended to the servant's hall. Here all the domestics of the Winsleigh household were seated at a large table loaded with hot and savory viands,—a table presided over by a robust and perspiring lady, with a very red face and sturdy arms bare to the elbow.
"Lor', Mr. Briggs!" cried this personage, rising respectfully as he approached, "'ow late you are! Wot 'ave you been a-doin' on? 'Ere I've been a-keepin' your lamb-chops and truffles 'ot all this time, and if they's dried up 'taint my fault, nor that of the hoven, which is as good a hoven as you can wish to bake in. . . ."
She paused breathless, and Briggs smiled blandly.
"Now, Flopsie!" he said in a tone of gentle severity. "Excited again—as usual! It's bad for your 'elth—very bad! Hif the chops is dried, your course is plain—cook some more! Not that I am enny ways particular—but chippy meat is bad for a delicate digestion. And you would not make me hill, my Flopsie, would you?"
Whereupon he seated himself, and looked condescendingly round the table. He was too great a personage to be familiar with such inferior creatures as housemaids, scullery-girls, and menials of that class,—he was only on intimate terms with the cook, Mrs. Flopper, or, as he called her, "Flopsie,"—the coachman, and Lady Winsleigh's own maid, Louise Renaud, a prim, sallow-faced Frenchwoman, who, by reason of her nationality, was called by all the inhabitants of the kitchen, "mamzelle," as being a name both short, appropriate, and convenient.
On careful examination, the lamb-chops turned out satisfactorily—"chippiness" was an epithet that could not justly be applied to them,—and Mr. Briggs began to eat them leisurely, flavoring them with a glass or two of fine port out of a decanter which he had taken the precaution to bring down from the dining-room sideboard.
"I ham, late," he then graciously explained—"not that I was detained in enny way by the people upstairs. The gay Clara went out early, but I was absorbed in the evenin' papers—Winsleigh forgot to ask me for them. But he'll see them at his club. He's gone there now on foot-poor fellah!"
"I suppose she's with the same party?" grinned the fat Flopsie, as she held a large piece of bacon dipped in vinegar on her fork, preparatory to swallowing it with a gulp.
Briggs nodded gravely, "The same! Not a fine man at all, you know—no leg to speak of, and therefore no form. Legs—good legs—are beauty. Now, Winsleigh's not bad in that particular,—and I dare say Clara can hold her own,—but I wouldn't bet on little Francis."
Flopsie shrieked with laughter till she had a "stitch in her side," and was compelled to restrain her mirth.
"Lor', Mr. Briggs!" she gasped, wiping the moisture from her eyes, "you are a regular one, aren't you! Mussy on us, you ought to put all wot you say in the papers—you'd make your fortin!"
"Maybe, maybe, Flopsie," returned Briggs with due dignity. "I will not deny that there may be wot is called 'sparkle' in my natur. And 'sparkle' is wot is rekwired in polite literatoor. Look at 'Hedmund' and ''Enery!' Sparkle again,—read their magnificent productions, the World and Truth,—all sparkle, every line! It is the secret of success, Flopsie—be a sparkler and you've got everything before you."
Louise Renaud looked across at him half-defiantly. Her prim, cruel mouth hardened into a tight line.
"To spark-el?" she said—"that is what we call etinceler—eclater. Yes, I comprehend! Miladi is one spark-el! But one must be a very good jewel to spark-el always—yes—yes—not a sham!"
And she nodded a great many times, and ate her salad very fast. Briggs surveyed her with much complacency.
"You are a talented woman, Mamzelle," he said, "very talented! I admire your ways—I really do!"
Mamzelle smiled with a gratified air, and Briggs settled his wig, eyeing her anew with fresh interest.
"Wot a witness you would be in a divorce case!" he continued enthusiastically. "You'd be in your helement!"
"I should—I should indeed!" exclaimed Mamzelle, with sudden excitement,—then as suddenly growing calm, she made a rapid gesture with her hands—"But there will be no divorce. Milord Winsleigh is a fool!"
Briggs appeared doubtful about this, and meditated for a long time over his third glass of port with the profound gravity of a philosopher.
"No, Mamzelle," he said at last, when he rose from the table to return to his duties upstairs—"No! there I must differ from you. I am a close observer. Wotever Winsleigh's faults,—and I do not deny that they are many,—he is a gentleman-that I must admit—and with hevery respect for you, Mamzelle—I can assure you he's no fool!"
And with these words Briggs betook himself to the library to arrange the reading-lamp and put the room in order for his master's return, and as he did so, he paused to look at a fine photograph of Lady Winsleigh that stood on the oak escritoire, opposite her husband's arm-chair.
"No," he muttered to himself. "Wotever he thinks of some goings-on, he ain't blind nor deaf—that's certain. And I'd stake my character and purfessional reputation on it—wotever he is, he's no fool!"
For once in his life, Briggs was right. He was generally wrong in his estimate of both persons and things—but it so happened on this particular occasion that he had formed a perfectly correct judgment.
"Could you not drink her gaze like wine? Yet in its splendor swoon Into the silence languidly, As a tune into a tune?" DANTE ROSSETTI.
On the morning of the twenty-fifth of May, Thelma, Lady Bruce-Errington, sat at breakfast with her husband in their sun-shiny morning-room, fragrant with flowers and melodious with the low piping of a tame thrush in a wild gilded cage, who had the sweet habit of warbling his strophes to himself very softly now and then, before venturing to give them full-voiced utterance. A bright-eyed, feathered poet he was, and an exceeding favorite with his fair mistress, who occasionally leaned back in her low chair to look at him and murmur an encouraging "Sweet, sweet!" which caused the speckled plumage on his plump breast to ruffle up with suppressed emotion and gratitude.
Philip was pretending to read the Times, but the huge, self-important printed sheet had not the faintest interest for him,—his eyes wandered over the top of its columns to the golden gleam of his wife's hair, brightened just then by the sunlight streaming through the window,—and finally he threw it down beside him with a laugh.
"There's no news," he declared. "There never is any news!"
Thelma smiled, and her deep-blue eyes sparkled.
"No?" she half inquired—then taking her husband's cup from his hand to re-fill it with coffee, she added, "but I think you do not give yourself time to find the news, Philip. You will never read the papers more than five minutes."
"My dear girl," said Philip gaily, "I am more conscientious than you are, at any rate, for you never read them at all!"
"Ah, but you must remember," she returned gravely, "that is because I do not understand them! I am not clever. They seem to me to be all about such dull things—unless there is some horrible murder or cruelty or accident—and I would rather not hear of these. I do prefer books always—because the books last, and news is never certain—it may not even be true."
Her husband looked at her fondly; his thoughts were evidently very far away from newspapers and their contents.
As she met his gaze, the rich color flushed her soft cheeks and her eyes drooped shyly under their long lashes. Love, with her, had not yet proved an illusion,—a bright toy to be snatched hastily and played with for a brief while, and then thrown aside as broken and worthless. It seemed to her a most marvellous and splendid gift of God, increasing each day in worth and beauty,—widening upon her soul and dazzling her life in ever new and expanding circles of glory. She felt as if she could never sufficiently understand it,—the passionate adoration Philip lavished upon her, filled her with a sort of innocent wonder and gratitude, while her own overpowering love and worship of him, sometimes startled her by its force into a sweet shame and hesitating fear. To her mind he was all that was great, strong, noble, and beautiful—he was her master, her king,—and she loved to pay him homage by her exquisite humility, clinging tenderness, and complete, contented submission. She was neither weak nor timid,—her character, moulded on grand and simple lines of duty, saw the laws of Nature in their true light, and accepted them without question. It seemed to her quite clear that man was the superior,—woman the inferior, creature—and she could not understand the possibility of any wife not rendering instant and implicit obedience to her husband, even in trifles.
Since her wedding-day no dark cloud had crossed her heaven of happiness, though she had been a little confused and bewildered at first by the wealth and dainty luxury with which Sir Philip had delighted to surround her. She had been married quietly at Christiania, arrayed in one of her own simple white gowns, with no ornament save a cluster of pale blush-roses, the gift of Lorimer. The ceremony was witnessed by her father and Errington's friends,—and when it was concluded they had all gone on their several ways,—old Gueldmar for a "toss" on the Bay of Biscay,—the yacht Eulalie, with Lorimer, Macfarlane, and Duprez on board, back to England, where these gentlemen had separated to their respective homes,—while Errington, with his beautiful bride, and Britta in demure and delighted attendance on her, went straight to Copenhagen. From there they travelled to Hamburg, and through Germany to the Schwarzwald, where they spent their honeymoon at a quiet little hotel in the very heart of the deep-green Forest.
Days of delicious dreaming were these,—days of roaming on the emerald green turf under the stately and odorous pines, listening to the dash of the waterfalls, or watching the crimson sunset burning redly through the darkness of the branches,—and in the moonlit evenings sitting under the trees to hear the entrancing music of a Hungarian string-band, which played divine and voluptuous melodies of the land,—"lieder" and "walzer" that swung the heart away on a golden thread of sound to a paradise too sweet to name! Days of high ecstacy, and painfully passionate joy!—when "love, love!" palpitated in the air, and struggled for utterance in the jubilant throats of birds, and whispered wild suggestions in the rustling of the leaves! There were times when Thelma,—lost and amazed and overcome by the strength and sweetness of the nectar held to her innocent lips by a smiling and flame-winged Eros,—would wonder vaguely whether she lived indeed, or whether she were not dreaming some gorgeous dream, too brilliant to last? And even when her husband's arms most surely embraced her, and her husband's kiss met hers in all the rapture of victorious tenderness, she would often question herself as to whether she were worthy of such perfect happiness, and she would pray in the depths of her pure heart to be made more deserving of this great and wonderful gift of love—this supreme joy, almost too vast for her comprehension.
On the other hand, Errington's passion for his wife was equally absorbing—she had become the very moving-spring of his existence. His eyes delighted in her beauty,—but more than this, he revelled in and reverenced the crystal-clear parity and exquisite refinement of her soul. Life assumed for him a new form,—studied by the light of Thelma's straightforward simplicity and intelligence, it was no longer, as he had once been inclined to think, a mere empty routine,—it was a treasure of inestimable value fraught with divine meanings. Gradually, the touch of modern cynicism that had at one time threatened to spoil his nature, dropped away from him like the husk from an ear of corn,—the world arrayed itself in bright and varying colors—there was good—nay, there was glory—in everything.
With these ideas, and the healthy satisfaction they engendered, his heart grew light and joyous,—his eyes more lustrous,—his step gay and elastic,—and his whole appearance was that of man at his best,—man, as God most surely meant him to be—not a rebellious, feebly-repining, sneering wretch, ready to scoff at the very sunlight,—but a being both brave and intelligent, strong and equally balanced in temperament, and not only contented, but absolutely glad to be alive,—glad to feel the blood flowing through the veins,—glad and grateful for the gifts of breathing and sight.
As each day passed, the more close and perfect grew the sympathies of husband and wife,—they were like two notes of a perfect chord, sounding together in sweetest harmony. Naturally, much of this easy and mutual blending of character and disposition arose from Thelma's own gracious and graceful submissiveness,—submissiveness which, far from humiliating her, actually placed her (though she knew it not) on a throne of almost royal power, before which Sir Philip was content to kneel—an ardent worshipper of her womanly sweetness. Always without question or demur, she obeyed his wishes implicitly,—though, as has been before mentioned, she was at first a little overpowered and startled by the evidences of his wealth, and did not quite know what to do with all the luxuries and gifts he heaped upon her. Britta's worldly prognostications had come true,—the simple gowns her mistress had worn at the Altenfjord were soon discarded for more costly apparel,—though Sir Philip had an affection for his wife's Norwegian costumes, and in his heart thought they were as pretty, if not prettier, than the most perfect triumphs of a Parisian modiste.
But in the social world, Fashion, the capricious deity, must be followed, if not wholly, yet in part; and so Thelma's straight, plain garments were laid carefully by as souvenirs of the old days, and were replaced by toilettes of the most exquisite description,—some simple,—some costly,—and it was difficult to say in which of them the lovely wearer looked her best. She herself was indifferent in the matter—she dressed to please Philip,—if he was satisfied, she was happy—she sought nothing further. It was Britta whose merry eyes sparkled with pride and admiration when she saw her "Froeken" arrayed in gleaming silk or sweeping velvets, with the shine of rare jewels in her rippling hair,—it was Britta who took care of all the dainty trifles that gradually accumulated on Thelma's dressing table,—in fact, Britta had become a very important personage in her own opinion. Dressed neatly in black, with a coquettish muslin apron and cap becomingly frilled, she was a very taking little maid, with her demure rosy face and rebellious curls, though very different to the usual trained spy whose officious ministrations are deemed so necessary by ladies of position, whose lofty station in life precludes them from the luxury of brushing their own hair. Britta's duties were slight—she invented most of them—yet she was always busy sewing, dusting, packing, or polishing. She was a very wide-awake little person, too,—no hint was lost upon her,—and she held her own wherever she went with her bright eyes and sharp tongue. Though secretly in an unbounded state of astonishment at everything new she saw, she was too wise to allow this to be noticed, and feigned the utmost coolness and indifference, even when they went from Germany to Paris, where the brilliancy and luxury of the shops almost took away her breath for sheer wonderment.
In Paris, Thelma's wardrobe was completed—a certain Madame Rosine, famous for "artistic arrangements," was called into requisition, and viewing with a professional eye the superb figure and majestic carriage of her new customer, rose to the occasion in all her glory, and resolved that Miladi Bruce-Errington's dresses should be the wonder and envy of all who beheld them.
"For," said Madame, with a grand air, "it is to do me justice. That form so magnificent is worth draping,—it will support my work to the best advantage. And persons without figures will hasten to me and entreat me for costumes, and will think that if I dress them I can make them look as well as Miladi. And they will pay!"—Madame shook her head with much shrewdness—"Mon Dieu! they will pay!—and that they still look frightful will not be my fault."
And undoubtedly Madame surpassed her usual skill in all she did for Thelma,—she took such pains, and was so successful in all her designs, that "Miladi," who did not as a rule show more than a very ordinary interest in her toilette, found it impossible not to admire the artistic taste, harmonious coloring, and exquisite fit of the few choice gowns supplied to her from the "Maison Rosine"—and only on one occasion had she any discussion with the celebrated modiste. This was when Madame herself, with much pride, brought home an evening dress of the very palest and tenderest sea-green silk, showered with pearls and embroidered in silver, a perfect chef-d'oeuvre of the dressmaker's art. The skirt, with its billowy train and peeping folds of delicate lace, pleased Thelma,—but she could not understand the bodice, and she held that very small portion of the costume in her hand with an air of doubt and wonderment. At last she turned her grave blue eyes inquiringly on Madame.
"It is not finished?" she asked. "Where is the upper part of it and the sleeves?"
Madame Rosine gesticulated with her hands and smiled.
"Miladi, there is no more!" she declared. "Miladi will perceive it is for the evening wear—it is decolletee—it is to show to everybody Miladi's most beautiful white neck and arms. The effect will be ravishing!"
Thelma's face grew suddenly grave—almost stern.
"You must be very wicked!" she said severely, to the infinite amazement of the vivacious Rosine. "You think I would show myself to people half clothed? How is it possible! I would not so disgrace myself! It would bring shame to my husband!"
Madame was almost speechless with surprise. What strange lady was this who was so dazzlingly beautiful and graceful, and yet so ignorant of the world's ways? She stared,—but was soon on the defensive.
"Miladi is in a little error!" she said rapidly and with soft persuasiveness. "It is la mode. Miladi has perhaps lived in a country where the fashions are different. But if she will ask the most amiable Sieur Bruce-Errington, she will find that her dress is quite in keeping with les convenances."
A pained blush crimsoned Thelma's fair cheek. "I do not like to ask my husband such a thing," she said slowly, "but I must. For I could not wear this dress without shame. I cannot think he would wish me to appear in it as you have made it—but—" She paused, and taking up the objectionable bodice, she added gently—"You will kindly wait here, madame, and I will see what Sir Philip says."
And she retired, leaving the modiste in a state of much astonishment, approaching resentment. The idea was outrageous,—a woman with such divinely fair skin,—a woman with the bosom of a Venus, and arms of a shape to make sculptors rave,—and yet she actually wished to hide these beauties from the public gaze! It was ridiculous—utterly ridiculous,—and Madame sat fuming impatiently, and sniffing the air in wonder and scorn. Meanwhile Thelma, with flushing cheeks and lowered eyes, confided her difficulty to Philip, who surveyed the shocking little bodice she brought for his inspection with a gravely amused, but very tender smile.
"There certainly doesn't seem much of it, does there, darling?" he said. "And so you don't like it?"
"No," she confessed frankly—"I think I should feel quite undressed in it. I often wear just a little opening at the throat—but this—! Still, Philip, I must not displease you—and I will always wear what you wish, even if it is uncomfortable to myself."
"Look here, my pet," and he encircled her waist fondly with his arm, "Rosine is quite right. The thing's perfectly fashionable,—and there isn't a woman in society who wouldn't be perfectly charmed with it. But your ideas are better than Rosine's and all society's put together. Obey your own womanly instinct, Thelma!"
"But what do you wish?" she asked earnestly. "You must tell me. It is to please you that I live."
He kissed her. "You want me to issue a command about the affair?" he said half laughingly.
She smiled up into his eyes. "Yes!—and I will obey!"
"Very well! Now listen!" and he held her by both hands, and looked with sudden gravity into her sweet face—"Thelma, my wife, thus sayeth your lord and master,—despise the vulgar indecencies of fashion, and you will gratify me more than words can say;—keep your pure and beautiful self sacred from the profaning gaze of the multitude,—sacred to me and my love for you, and I shall be the proudest man living! Finally,"—and he smiled again—"give Rosine back this effort at a bodice, and tell her to make something more in keeping with the laws of health and modesty. And Thelma—one more kiss! You are a darling!"
She laughed softly and left him, returning at once to the irate dressmaker who waited for her.
"I am sorry," she said very sweetly, "to have called you wicked! You see, I did not understand! But though this style of dress is fashionable, I do not wish to wear it—so you will please make me another bodice, with a small open square at the throat, and elbow-sleeves,—and you will lose nothing at all—for I shall pay you for this one just the same. And you must quite pardon me for my mistake and hasty words!"
Maladi's manner was so gracious and winning, that Madame Rosine found it impossible not to smile in a soothed and mollified way,—and though she deeply regretted that so beautiful a neck and arms were not to be exposed to public criticism, she resigned herself to the inevitable, and took away the offending bodice, replacing it in a couple of days by one much prettier and more becoming by reason of its perfect modesty.
On leaving Paris, Sir Philip had taken his wife straight home to his fine old Manor in Warwickshire. Thelma's delight in her new abode was unbounded—the stately oaks that surrounded it,—the rose-gardens, the conservatories,—the grand rooms, with their fine tapestries, oak furniture, and rare pictures,—the splendid library, the long, lofty drawing-rooms, furnished and decorated after the style of Louis Quinze,—all filled her with a tender pride and wistful admiration. This was Philip's home! and she was here to make it bright and glad for him!—she could imagine no fairer fate. The old servants of the place welcomed their new mistress with marked respect and evident astonishment at her beauty, though, when they knew her better, they marvelled still more at her exceeding gentleness and courtesy. The housekeeper, a stately white-haired dame, who had served the former Lady Errington, declared she was "an angel"—while the butler swore profoundly that "he knew what a queen was like at last!"
The whole household was pervaded with an affectionate eagerness to please her, though, perhaps, the one most dazzled by her entrancing smile and sweet consideration for his comfort was Edward Neville, Sir Philip's private secretary and librarian,—a meek, mild-featured man of some five and forty years old, whose stooping shoulders, grizzled hair, and weak eyes gave him an appearance of much greater age. Thelma was particularly kind to Neville, having heard his history from her husband. It was brief and sad. He had married a pretty young girl whom he had found earning a bare subsistence as a singer in provincial music-halls,—loving her, he had pitied her unprotected state, and had rescued her from the life she led—but after six months of comparative happiness, she had suddenly deserted him, leaving no clue as to where or why she had gone. His grief for her loss, weighed heavily upon his mind—he brooded incessantly upon it—and though his profession was that of a music master and organist, he grew so abstracted and inattentive to the claims of the few pupils he had, that they fell away from him one by one—and, after a bit, he lost his post as organist to the village church as well. This smote him deeply, for he was passionately fond of music, and was, moreover, a fine player,—and it was at this stage of his misfortunes that he met by chance Bruce-Errington. Philip, just then, was almost broken-hearted—his father and mother had died suddenly within a week of one another,—and he, finding the blank desolation of his home unbearable, was anxious to travel abroad for a time, so soon as he could find some responsible person in whose hands to leave the charge of the Manor, with its invaluable books and pictures, during his absence.
Hearing Neville's history through a mutual friend, he decided, with his usual characteristic impulse, that here was the very man for him—a gentleman by birth, rumored to be an excellent scholar,—and he at once offered him the post he had in view,—that of private secretary at a salary of 200 pounds per annum. The astonished Neville could not at first believe in his good fortune, and began to stammer forth his gratitude with trembling lips and moistening eyes,—but Errington cut him short by declaring the whole thing settled, and desiring him to enter on his duties at once. He was forthwith installed in his position,—a highly enviable one for a man of his dreamy and meditative turn of mind. To him, literature and music were precious as air and light, he handled the rare volumes on the Errington book-shelves with lingering tenderness, and often pored over some difficult manuscript, or dusty folio till long past midnight, almost forgetful of his griefs in the enchantment thus engendered. Nor did he lack his supreme comforter, music,—there was a fine organ at the lower end of the long library, and seated at his beloved instrument, he wiled away many an hour,—steeping his soul in the divine and solemn melodies of Palestrina and Pergolesi, till the cruel sorrow that had darkened his life seemed nothing but a bad dream, and the face of his wife as he had first known it, fair, trustful, and plaintive, floated before his eyes unchanged, and arousing in him the old foolish throbbing emotions of rapture and passion that had gladdened the bygone days.
He never lost the hope of meeting her again, and from time to time he renewed his search for her, though all uselessly—he studied the daily papers with an almost morbid anxiety lest he should see the notice of her death—and he would even await each post with a heart beating more rapidly than usual, in case there should be some letter from her, imploring forgiveness, explaining everything, and summoning him once more to her side. He found a true and keenly sympathizing friend in Sir Philip, to whom he became profoundly attached,—to satisfy his wishes, to forward his interests, to attend to his affairs with punctilious exactitude—all this gave Neville the supremest happiness. He felt some slight doubt and anxiety, when he first received the sudden announcement of his patron's marriage,—but all forebodings as to the character and disposition of the new Lady Bruce-Errington fled like mist before sunshine, when he saw Thelma's fair face and felt her friendly hand-clasp.
Every morning on her way to the breakfast-room, she would look in at the door of his little study, which adjoined the library, and he learned to watch for the first glimmer of her dress, and to listen for her bright "Good morning, Mr. Neville!" with a sensation of the keenest pleasure. It was a sort of benediction on the whole day. A proud man was he when she asked him to give her lessons on the organ,—and never did he forget the first time he heard her sing. He was playing an exquisite "Ave Maria," by Stradella, and she, standing by her husband's side was listening, when she suddenly exclaimed—
"Why, we used to sing that at Arles!"—and her rich, round voice pealed forth clear, solemn, and sweet, following with pure steadiness the sustained notes of the organ. Neville's heart thrilled,—he heard her with a sort of breathless wonder and rapture, and when she ceased, it seemed as though heaven had closed upon him.
"One cannot praise such a voice as that!" he said. "It would be a kind of sacrilege. It is divine!"
After this, many were the pleasant musical evenings they all passed together in the grand old library, and,—as Mrs. Rush-Marvelle had so indignantly told her husband,—no visitors were invited to the Manor during that winter. Errington was perfectly happy—he wanted no one but his wife, and the idea of entertaining a party of guests who would most certainly interfere with his domestic enjoyment, seemed almost abhorrent to him. The county-people called,—but missed seeing Thelma, for during the daytime she was always out with her husband taking long walks and rambling excursions to the different places hallowed by Shakespeare's presence,—and when she, instructed by Sir Philip, called on the county-people, they also seemed to be never at home.
And so, as yet, she had made no acquaintances, and now that she had been married eight months and had come to London, the same old story repeated itself. People called on her in the afternoon just at the time when she went out driving,—when she returned their visits, she, in her turn, found them absent. She did not as yet understand the mystery of having "a day" on which to receive visitors in shoals—a day on which to drink unlimited tea, talk platitudes, and utterly bored and exhausted at the end thereof—in fact, she did not see the necessity of knowing many people,—her husband was all-sufficient for her,—to be in his society was all she cared for. She left her card at different houses because he told her to do so, but this social duty amused her immensely.
"It is like a game!" she declared, laughing, "some one comes and leaves these little cards which explain who they are, on me,—then I go and leave my little cards and yours, explaining who we are on that some one—and we keep on doing this, yet we never see each other by any chance! It is so droll!"
Errington did not feel called upon to explain what was really the fact,—namely, that none of the ladies who had left cards on his wife had given her the option of their "at home" day on which to call,—he did not think it necessary to tell her what he knew very well, that his "set," both in county and town, had resolved to "snub" her in every petty fashion they could devise,—that he had already received several invitations which, as they did not include her, he had left unanswered,—and that the only house to which she had as yet been really asked in proper form was that of Lady Winsleigh. He was more amused than vexed at the resolute stand made by the so-called "leaders" of society against her, knowing as he did, most thoroughly, how she must conquer them all in the end. She had been seen nowhere as yet but in the Park, and Philip had good reason to be contented with the excitement her presence had created there,—but he was a little astonished at Lady Winsleigh's being the first to extend a formal welcome to his unknown bride. Her behavior seemed to him a little suspicious,—for he certainly could not disguise from himself that she had at one time been most violently and recklessly in love with him. He recollected one or two most painful scenes he had had with her, in which he had endeavored to recall her to a sense of the duty she owed to her husband,—and his face often flushed with vexation when he thought of her wild and wicked abandonment of despair, her tears, her passion, and distracted, dishonoring words. Yet she was the very woman who now came forward in the very front of society to receive his wife!—he could not quite understand it. After all, he was a man,—and the sundry artful tricks and wiles of fashionable ladies were, naturally, beyond him. Thelma had never met Lady Winsleigh—not even for a passing glance in the Park,—and when she received the invitation for the grand reception at Winsleigh House, she accepted it, because her husband wished her so to do, not that she herself anticipated any particular pleasure from it. When the day came round at last she scarcely thought of it, till at the close of their pleasant breakfast tete-a-tete described at the commencement of this chapter, Philip suddenly said,—"By-the-by, Thelma, I have sent to the bank for the Errington diamonds. They'll be here presently. I want you to wear them to-night."
Thelma looked puzzled and inquiring. "To-night? What is it that we do? I forget! Oh! now I know—it is to go to Lady Winsleigh. What will it be like, Philip?"
"Well, there'll be heaps of people all cramming and crowding up the stairs and down them again,—you'll see all those women who have called on you, and you'll be introduced to them,—I dare say there'll be some bad music and an indigestible supper—and—and—that's all!"
She laughed and shook her head reproachfully. "I cannot believe you, my naughty boy!" she said, rising from her seat, and kneeling beside him with arms round his neck, and soft eyes gazing lovingly into his. "You are nearly as bad as that very bad Mr. Lorimer, who will always see strange vexations in everything! I am quite sure Lady Winsleigh will not have crowds up and down her stairs,—that would be bad taste. And if she has music, it will be good—and she would not give her friends a supper to make them ill."
Philip did not answer. He was studying every delicate tint in his wife's dazzling complexion and seemed absorbed.
"Wear that one gown you got from Worth," he said abruptly. "I like it—it suits you."
"Of course I will wear it if you wish," she answered, laughing still. "But why? What does it matter? You want me to be something very splendid in dress to-night?"
Philip drew a deep breath. "I want you to eclipse every woman in the room!" he said with remarkable emphasis.
She grew rather pensive. "I do not think that would be pleasant," she said gravely. "Besides, it is impossible. And it would be wrong to wish me to make every one else dissatisfied with themselves. That is not like you, my Philip!"
He touched with tender fingers the great glistening coil of hair that was twisted up at the top of her graceful head.
"Ah, darling! You don't know what a world it is, and what very queer people there are in it! Never mind! . . . don't bother yourself about it. You'll have a good bird's-eye view of society tonight, and you shall tell me afterwards how you like it. I shall be curious to know what you think of Lady Winsleigh."
"She is beautiful, is she not?"
"Well, she is considered so by most of her acquaintances, and by herself," he returned with a smile.
"I do like to see very pretty faces," said Thelma warmly; "it is as if one looked at pictures. Since I have been in London I have seen so many of them—it is quite pleasant. Yet none of these lovely ladies seem to me as if they were really happy or strong in health."
"Half of them have got nervous diseases and all sorts of things wrong with them from over-much tea and tight lacing," replied Errington, "and the few who are tolerably healthy are too bouncing by half, going in for hunting and such-like amusements till they grow blowsy and fat, and coarse as tom-boys or grooms. They can never hit the juste milieu. Well!" and he rose from the breakfast-table. "I'll go and see Neville and attend to business. We'll drive out this afternoon for some fresh air, and afterwards you must rest, my pet—for you'll find an 'at home' more tiring than climbing a mountain in Norway."
He kissed, and left her to her usual occupations, of which she had many, for she had taken great pains to learn all the details of the work in the Errington Establishment,—in fact, she went every morning to the little room where Mistress Parton, the housekeeper, received her with much respect and affection, and duly instructed her on every point of the domestic management and daily expenditure, so that she was thoroughly acquainted with everything that went on.
She had very orderly quiet ways of her own, and though thoughtful for the comfort and well-being of the lowest servant in her household she very firmly checked all extravagance and waste, yet in such a gentle, unobtrusive manner that her control was scarcely felt—though her husband at once recognized it in the gradually decreasing weekly expenses, while to all appearance, things were the same as ever. She had plenty of clear, good common sense,—she saw no reason why she should waste her husband's wealth simply because it was abundant,—so that under her mild sway, Sir Philip found himself getting richer without any trouble on his own part. His house assumed an air of lighter and more tasteful elegance,—flowers, always arranged by Thelma herself, adorned the rooms,—birds filled the great conservatory with their delicious warblings, and gradually that strange fairy sweet fabric known as "Home" rose smilingly around him. Formerly he had much disliked his stately town mansion—he had thought it dull and cold—almost gloomy,—but now he considered it charming, and wondered he had missed so many of its good points before.
And when the evening for Lady Winsleigh's "crush" came,—he looked regretfully round the lovely luxurious drawing-room with its bright fire, deep easy chairs, books, and grand piano, and wished he and his wife could remain at home in peace. He glanced at his watch—it was ten o'clock. There was no hurry—he had not the least intention of arriving at Winsleigh House too early. He knew what the effect of Thelma's entrance would be—and he smiled as he thought of it. He was waiting for her now,—he himself was ready in full evening dress—and remarkably handsome he looked. He walked up and down restlessly for a minute or so,—then taking up a volume of Keats, he threw himself into an easy chair and soon became absorbed. His eyes were still on the printed page, when a light touch on his shoulder startled him,—a soft, half-laughing voice inquired—"Philip! Do I please you?"
He sprang up and faced her,—but for a moment could not speak. The perfection of her beauty had never ceased to arouse his wonder and passionate admiration,—but on this night, as she stood before him, arrayed in a simple, trailing robe of ivory-tinted velvet, with his family diamonds flashing in a tiara of light on her hair, glistening against the whiteness of her throat and rounded arms, she looked angelically lovely—so radiant, so royal, and withal so innocently happy, that, wistfully gazing at her, and thinking of the social clique into which she was about to make her entry, he wondered vaguely whether he was not wrong to take so pure and fair a creature among the false glitter and reckless hypocrisy of modern fashion and folly. And so he stood silent, till Thelma grew anxious.
"Ah, you are not satisfied!" she said plaintively. "I am not as you wish! There is something wrong."
He drew her closely into his arms, kissing her with an almost pathetic tenderness.
"Thelma, my love, my sweet one!" and his strong voice trembled. "You do not know—how should you? what I think of you! Satisfied? Pleased? Good Heavens—what little words those are to express my feelings! I can tell you how you look, for nothing can ever make you vain. You are beautiful! . . . you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and you look your very best tonight. But you are more than beautiful—you are good and pure and true, while society is—But why should I destroy your illusions? Only, my wife,—we have been all in all to each other,—and now I have a foolish feeling as if things were going to be different—as if we should not be so much together—and I wish—I wish to God I could keep you all to myself without anybody's interference!"
She looked at him in wonder, though she smiled.
"But you have changed, my boy, since the morning," she said. "Then you did wish me to be particular in dress,—and to wear your jewels, for this Lady Winsleigh. Now your eyes are sad, and you seem as if you would rather not go at all. Well, is it not easy to remain at home? I will take off these fine things, and we will sit together and read. Shall it be so?"
He laughed. "I believe you would do it if I asked you!" he said.
"But, of course! I am quite happy alone with you. I care nothing for this party,—what is it to me if you do not wish to go?"
He kissed her again. "Thelma, don't spoil me too much! If you let me have my own way to such an extent, who knows what an awful domestic tyrant I may become! No, dear—we must go tonight—there's no help for it. You see we've accepted the invitation, and it's no use being churlish. Besides, after all"—he gazed at her admiringly—"I want them to see my Norwegian rose! Come along! The carriage is waiting."
They passed out into the hall, where Britta was in attendance with a long cloak of pale-blue plush lined with white fur, in which she tenderly enveloped her beloved "Froeken," her rosy face beaming with affectionate adoration as she glanced from the fair diamond-crowned head down to the point of a small pearl-embroidered shoe that peeped beneath the edge of the rich, sheeny white robe, and saw that nothing was lacking to the most perfect toilette that ever woman wore.
"Good-night, Britta!" said Thelma kindly. "You must not sit up for me. You will be tired."
Britta smiled—it was evident she meant to outwatch the stars, if necessary, rather than allow her mistress to be unattended on her return. But she said nothing—she waited at the door while Philip assisted his wife into the carriage—and still stood musingly under the wide portico, after they had driven away.
"Hadn't you better come in, Miss Britta?" said the butler respectfully,—he had a great regard for her ladyship's little maid.
Britta, recalled to herself, started, turned, and re-entered the hall.
"There will be many fine folks there to-night, I suppose?" she asked.
The butler rubbed his nose perplexedly. "Fine folks at Winsleigh House? Well, as far as clothes go, I dare say there will. But there'll be no one like her ladyship—no one!" And he shook his grey head emphatically.
"Of course not!" said Britta, with a sort of triumphant defiance. "We know that very well, Morris! There's no one like her ladyship anywhere in the wide world! But I tell you what—I think a great many people will be jealous of her."
Morris smiled. "You may take your oath of that, Miss Britta," he said with placid conviction. "Jealous! Jealous isn't the word for it! Why," and he surveyed Britta's youthful countenance with fatherly interest, "you're only a child as it were, and you don't know the world much. Now, I've been five and twenty years in this family, and I knew Sir Philip's mother, the Lady Eulalie—he named his yacht after her. Ah! she was a sweet creature—she came from Austria, and she was as dark as her present ladyship is fair. Wherever she went, I tell you, the women were ready to cry for spite and envy of her good looks—and they would say anything against her they could invent. That's the way they go on sometimes in society, you know."
"As bad as in Bosekop," murmured Britta, more to herself than to him, "only London is a larger place." Then raising her voice again, she said, "Perhaps there will be some people wicked enough to hate her ladyship, Morris?"
"I shouldn't wonder," said Morris philosophically. "I shouldn't wonder at all! There's a deal of hate about one way or another,—and if a lady is as beautiful as an angel, and cuts out everybody wherever she goes, why you can't expect the other ladies to be very fond of her. 'Tisn't in human nature—at least not in feminine human nature. Men don't care much about their looks, one way or the other, unless they're young chaps—then one has a little patience with them and they come all right."
But Britta had become meditative again. She went slowly up into her mistress's room and began arranging the few trifles that had been left in disorder.
"Just fancy!"—she said to herself—"some one may hate the Froeken even in London just as they hated her in Bosekop, because she is so unlike everybody else. I shall keep my eyes open,—and I shall soon find out any wickedness against her! My beautiful, dear darling! I believe the world is a cruel place after all,—but she shan't be made unhappy in it, if I can help it!"
And with this emphatic declaration, she kissed a little shoe of Thelma's that she was just putting by—and, smoothing her curls, went down to her supper.
"Such people there are living and flourishing in the world,—Faithless, Hopeless, Charityless,—let us have at them, dear friends, with might and main!"—THACKERAY.
Who can adequately describe the thrilling excitement attending an aristocratic "crush,"—an extensive, sweeping-off-of-old-cores "at home,"—that scene of bewildering confusion which might be appropriately set forth to the minds of the vulgar in the once-popular ditty, "Such a getting-up-stairs I never did see!" Who can paint in sufficiently brilliant colors the mere outside of a house thus distinguished by this strange festivity, in which there is no actual pleasure,—this crowding of carriages—this shouting of small boys and policemen?—who can, in words, delineate the various phases of lofty indignation and offense on the countenances of pompous coachmen, forced into contention with vulgar but good-natured "cabbys"—for right of way? . . . who can sufficiently set forth the splendors of a striped awning avenue, lined on both sides with a collection of tropical verdure, hired for the occasion at so much per dozen pots, and illuminated with Chinese lanterns! Talk of orange groves in Italy and the languid light of a southern moon! What are they compared to the marvels of striped awning? Mere trees—mere moonlight—(poor products of Nature!) do not excite either wonder or envy—but, strange to say, an awning avenue invariably does! As soon as it is erected in all its bland suggestiveness, no matter at what house, a small crowd of street-arabs and nursemaids collect to stare at it,—and when tired of staring, pass and repass under it with peculiar satisfaction; the beggar, starving for a crust, lingers doubtfully near it, and ventures to inquire of the influenza-smitten crossing-sweeper whether it is a wedding or a party? And if Awning Avenue means matrimony, the beggar waits to see the guests come out; if, on the contrary, it stands for some evening festivity, he goes, resolving to return at the appointed hour, and try if he cannot persuade one "swell" at least to throw him a penny for his night's supper. Yes—a great many people endure sharp twinges of discontent at the sight of Awning Avenue,—people who can't afford to give parties, and who wish they could,—pretty, sweet girls who never go to a dance in their lives, and long with all their innocent hearts for a glimpse,—just one glimpse!—of what seems to them inexhaustible, fairy-like delight,—lonely folks, who imagine in their simplicity that all who are privileged to pass between the lines of hired tropical foliage aforementioned, must perforce be the best and most united of friends—hungry men and women who picture, with watering mouths, the supper-table that lies beyond the awning, laden with good things, of the very names of which they are hopelessly ignorant,—while now and then a stern, dark-browed Thinker or two may stalk by and metaphorically shake his fist at all the waste, extravagance, useless luxury, humbug, and hypocrisy Awning Avenue usually symbolizes, and may mutter in his beard, like an old-fashioned tragedian, "A time will come!" Yes, Sir Thinker!—it will most undoubtedly—it must—but not through you—not through any mere human agency. Modern society contains within itself the seed of its own destruction,—the most utter Nihilist that ever swore deadly oath need but contain his soul in patience and allow the seed to ripen. For God's justice is as a circle that slowly surrounds an evil and as slowly closes on it with crushing and resistless force,—and feverish, fretting humanity, however nobly inspired, can do nothing either to hasten or retard the round, perfect, absolute and Divine Law. So let the babes of the world play on, and let us not frighten them with stories of earthquakes; they are miserable enough as it is, believe it!—their toys are so brittle, and snap in their feeble hands so easily, that one is inclined to pity them! And Awning Avenue, with its borrowed verdure and artificial light, is frequently erected for the use of some of the most wretched among the children of the earth,—children who have trifled with and lost everything,—love, honor, hope, and faith, and who are travelling rapidly to the grave with no consolation save a few handfuls, of base coin, which they must, perforce, leave behind them at the last.
So it may be that the crippled crossing-sweeper outside Winsleigh House is a very great deal happier than the master of that stately mansion. He has a new broom,—and Master Ernest Winsleigh has given him two oranges, and a rather bulky stick of sugar candy. He is a protege of Ernest's—that bright handsome boy considers it a "jolly shame"—to have only one leg,—and has said so with much emphasis,—and though the little sweeper himself has never regarded his affliction quite in that light, he is exceedingly grateful for the young gentleman's patronage and sympathy thus frankly expressed. And on this particular night of the grand reception he stands, leaning on his broom and munching his candy, a delighted spectator of the scene in Park Lane,—the splendid equipages, the prancing horses, the glittering liveries, the excited cabmen, the magnificent toilettes of the ladies, the solemn and resigned deportment of the gentlemen,—and he envies none of them—not he! Why should he? His oranges are in his pocket—untouched as yet—and it is doubtful whether the crowding guests at the Winsleigh supper-table shall find anything there to yield them such entire enjoyment as he will presently take in his humble yet refreshing desert. And he is pleased as a child at a pantomime—the Winsleigh "at home" is a show that amuses him,—and he makes sundry remarks on "'im" and "'er" in a meditative sotto voce. He peeps up Awning Avenue heedless of the severe eye of the policeman on guard,—he sweeps the edge of the crimson felt foot-cloth tenderly with his broom,—and if he has a desire ungratified, it is that he might take a peep just for a minute inside the front door, and see how "they're all a'goin' it!"
And how are they a'goin' it! Well, not very hilariously, if one may judge by the aspect of the gentlemen in the hall and on the stairs,—gentlemen of serious demeanor, who are leaning, as though exhausted, against the banisters, with a universal air of profound weariness and dissatisfaction. Some of these are young fledglings of manhood,—callow birds who, though by no means innocent,—are more or less inexperienced,—and who have fluttered hither to the snare of Lady Winsleigh's "at home," half expecting to be allowed to make love to their hostess, and so have something to boast of afterwards,—others are of the middle-aged complacent type, who, though infinitely bored, have condescended to "look in" for ten minutes or so, to see if there are any pretty women worth the honor of their criticism—others again (and these are the most unfortunate) are the "nobodies"—or husbands, fathers, and brothers of "beauties," whom they have dutifully escorted to the scene of triumph, in which they, unlucky wights! are certainly not expected to share. A little desultory conversation goes on among these stair-loungers,—conversation mingled with much dreary yawning,—a trained opera-singer is shaking forth chromatic roulades and trills in the great drawing-room above,—there is an incessant stream of people coming and going,—there is the rustle of silk and satin,—perfume, shaken out of lace kerchiefs, and bouquets oppresses the warm air,—the heat is excessive,—and there is a never-ending monotonous hum of voices, only broken at rare intervals by the "society laugh"—that unmeaning giggle on the part of the women,—that strained "ha, ha, ha!" on the part of the men, which is but the faint ghostly echo of the farewell voice of true mirth.
Presently, out of the ladies' cloak-room come two fascinating figures—the one plump and matronly, with grey hair and a capacious neck glittering with diamonds,—the other a slim girl in pale pink, with dark eyes and a ravishing complexion, for whom the lazy gentlemen on the stairs make immediate and respectful room.
"How d'ye do, Mrs. Van Clupp?" says one of the loungers.
"Glad to see you, Miss Marcia!" says another, a sandy-haired young man, with a large gardenia in his button-hole, and a glass in his eye.
At the sound of his voice Miss Marcia stops and regards him with a surprised smile. She is very pretty, is Marcia,—bewitchingly pretty,—and she has an air of demure grace and modesty about her that is perfectly charming. Why? oh, why does she not remain in that sylph-like, attitude of questioning silence? But she speaks—and the charm is broken.
"Waal now! Dew tell!" she exclaims. "I thought yew were in Pa-ar—is! Ma, would yew have concluded to find Lord Algy here? This is too lovely! If I'd known yew were coming I'd have stopped at home—yes, I would—that's so!"
And she nods her little head, crowned with its glossy braids of chestnut hair, in a very coquettish manner, while her mother, persistently beaming a stereotyped company smile on all around her, begins to ascend the stairs, beckoning her daughter to follow. Marcia does so, and Lord Algernon Masherville escorts her.
"You—you didn't mean that!" he stammers rather feebly—"You—you don't mind my being here, do you? I'm—I'm awfully glad to see you again, you know—and—er—all that sort of thing!"
Marcia darts a keen glance at him,—the glance of an observant, clear-headed magpie.
"Oh yes! I dare say!" she remarks with airy scorn. "S'pect me to believe yew! Waal! Did yew have a good time in Pa-ar—is?"
"Fairly so," answers Lord Masherville indifferently. "I only came back two days ago. Lady Winsleigh met me by chance at the theatre, and asked me to look in to-night for 'some fun' she said. Have you any idea what she meant?"
"Of course!" says the fair New Yorker, with a little nasal laugh,—"don't yew know? We're all here to see the fisherwoman from the wilds of Norway,—the creature Sir Philip Errington married last year. I conclude she'll give us fits all round, don't yew?"
Lord Masherville, at this, appears to hesitate. His eye-glass troubles him, and he fidgets with its black string. He is not intellectual—he is the most vacillating, most meek and timid of mortals—but he is a gentleman in his own poor fashion, and has a sort of fluttering chivalry about him, which, though feeble, is better than none.
"I really cannot tell you, Miss Marcia," he replies almost nervously. "I hear—at the Club,—that—that Lady Bruce-Errington is a great beauty."
"Dew tell!" shrieks Marcia, with a burst of laughter. "Is she really though! But I guess her looks won't mend her grammar any way!"
He makes no reply, as by this time they have reached the crowded drawing-room, where Lady Winsleigh, radiant in ruby velvet and rose-brilliants, stands receiving her guests, with a cool smile and nod for mere acquaintances,—and a meaning flash of her dark eyes for her intimates, and a general air of haughty insolence and perfect self-satisfaction pervading her from head to foot. Close to her is her husband, grave, courtly, and kind to all comers, and fulfilling his duty as host to perfection,—still closer is Sir Francis Lennox, who in the pauses of the incoming tide of guests finds occasion to whisper trifling nothings in her tiny white ear, and even once ventures to arrange more tastefully a falling cluster of pale roses that rests lightly on the brief shoulder-strap (called by courtesy a sleeve) which, keeps her ladyship's bodice in place.
Mrs. Rush-Marvelle is here too, in all her glory,—her good-humored countenance and small nose together beam with satisfaction,—her voluminous train of black satin showered with jet gets in everybody's way,—her ample bosom heaves like the billowy sea, somewhat above the boundary line of transparent lace that would fain restrain it—but in this particular she is prudence itself compared with her hostess, whose charms are exhibited with the unblushing frankness of a ballet-girl,—and whose example is followed, it must be confessed, by most of the women in the room. Is Mr. Rush-Marvelle here? Oh yes—after some little trouble we discover him,—squeezed against the wall and barricaded by the grand piano,—in company with a large album, over which he pores, feigning an almost morbid interest in the portraits of persons he has never seen, and never will see. Beside him is a melancholy short man with long hair and pimples, who surveys the increasing crowd in the room with an aspect that is almost tragic. Once or twice he eyes Mr. Marvelle dubiously as though he would speak—and, finally, he does speak, tapping that album-entranced gentleman on the arm with an energy that is somewhat startling.
"It is to blay I am here!" he announces. "To blay ze biano! I am great artist!" He rolls his eyes wildly and with a sort of forced calmness proceeds to enumerate on his fingers—"Baris, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, St. Betersburg—all know me! All resbect me! See!" And he holds out his button-hole in which there is a miniature red ribbon. "From ze Emberor! Kaiser Wilhelm!" He exhibits a ring on his little finger. "From ze Tsar!" Another rapid movement and a pompous gold watch is thrust before the bewildered gaze of his listener. "From my bubils in Baris! I am bianist—I am here to blay!"
And raking his fingers through his long locks, he stares defiantly around him. Mr. Rush-Marvelle is a little frightened. This is an eccentric personage—he must be soothed. Evidently he must be soothed!
"Yes, yes, I quite understand!" he says, nodding persuasively at the excited genius. "You are here to play. Exactly! Yes, yes! We shall all have the pleasure of hearing you presently. Delightful, I'm sure! You are the celebrated Herr—?"
"Machtenklinken," adds the pianist haughtily. "Ze celebrated Machtenklinken!"
"Yes—oh—er,—yes!" And Mr. Marvelle grapples desperately with this terrible name. "Oh—er—yes! I—er know you by reputation Herr—er—Machten—. Oh, er—yes! Pray excuse me for a moment!"
And thankfully catching the commanding eye of his wife, he scrambles hastily away from the piano and joins her. She is talking to the Van Clupps, and she wants him to take away Mr. Van Clupp, a white-headed, cunning-looking old man, for a little conversation, in order that she may be free to talk over certain naughty bits of scandal with Mrs. Van Clupp and Marcia.