To-night there is no place to sit down in all the grand extent of the Winsleigh drawing-rooms,—puffy old dowagers occupy the sofas, ottomans, and chairs, and the largest and most brilliant portion of the assemblage are standing, grinning into each other's faces with praiseworthy and polite pertinacity, and talking as rapidly as though their lives depended on how many words they could utter within the space of two minutes. Mrs. Rush-Marvelle, Mrs. Van Clupp and Marcia make their way slowly through the gabbling, pushing, smirking crowd till they form a part of the little coterie immediately round Lady Winsleigh, to whom, at the first opportunity, Mrs. Marvelle whispers—
"Have they come?"
"The modern Paris and the new Helen?" laughs Lady Clara, with a shrug of her snowy shoulders. "No, not yet. Perhaps they won't turn up at all! Marcia dear, you look quite charming! Where is Lord Algy?"
"I guess he's not a thousand miles away!" returns Marcia, with a knowing twinkle of her dark eyes. "He'll hang round here presently! Why,—there's Mr. Lorimer worrying in at the doorway!"
"Worrying in" is scarcely the term to apply to the polite but determined manner in which George Lorimer coolly elbows a passage among the heaving bare shoulders, backs, fat arms, and long trains that seriously obstruct his passage, but after some trouble he succeeds in his efforts to reach his fair hostess, who receives him with rather a supercilious uplifting of her delicate eyebrows.
"Dear me, Mr. Lorimer, you are quite a stranger!" she observes somewhat satirically. "We thought you had made up your mind to settle in Norway!"
"Did you really, though!" and Lorimer smiles languidly. "I wonder at that,—for you knew I came back from that region in the August of last year."
"And since then I suppose you have played the hermit?" inquires her ladyship indifferently, unfurling her fan of ostrich feathers and waving it slowly to and fro.
"By no means! I went off to Scotland with a friend, Alec Macfarlane, and had some excellent shooting. Then, as I never permit my venerable mamma to pass the winter in London, I took her to Nice, from which delightful spot we returned three weeks ago."
Lady Winsleigh laughs. "I did not ask you for a categorical explanation of your movements, Mr. Lorimer," she says lightly—"I'm sure I hope you enjoyed yourself?"
He bows gravely. "Thanks! Yes,—strange to say, I did manage to extract a little pleasure here and there out of the universal dryness of things."
"Have you seen your friend, Sir Philip, since he came to town?" asks Mrs. Rush-Marvelle in her stately way.
"Several times. I have dined with him and Lady Errington frequently. I understand they are to be here to-night?"
Lady Winsleigh fans herself a little more rapidly, and her full crimson lips tighten into a thin, malicious line.
"Well, I asked them, of course,—as a matter of form," she says carelessly,—"but I shall, on the whole, be rather relieved if they don't come."
A curious, amused look comes over Lorimer's face.
"Indeed! May I ask why?"
"I should think the reason ought to be perfectly apparent to you"—and her ladyship's eyes flash angrily. "Sir Philip is all very well—he is by birth a gentleman,—but the person he has married is not a lady, and it is an exceedingly unpleasant duty for me to have to receive her."
A feint tinge of color flushes Lorimer's brow. "I think," he says slowly, "I think you will find yourself mistaken, Lady Winsleigh. I believe—" Here he pauses, and Mrs. Rush-Marvelle fixes him with a stony stare.
"Are we to understand that she is educated?" she inquires freezingly. "Positively well-educated?"
Lorimer laughs. "Not according to the standard of modern fashionable requirements!" he replies.
Mrs. Marvelle sniffs the air portentously,—Lady Clara curls her lip. At that moment everybody makes respectful way for one of the most important guests of the evening—a broad-shouldered man of careless attire, rough hair, fine features, and keen, mischievous eyes—a man of whom many stand in wholesome awe,—Beaufort Lovelace, or as he is commonly called. "Beau" Lovelace, a brilliant novelist, critic, and pitiless satirist. For him society is a game,—a gay humming-top which he spins on the palm of his hand for his own private amusement. Once a scribbler in an attic, subsisting bravely on bread and cheese and hope, he now lords it more than half the year in a palace of fairy-like beauty on the Lago di Como,—and he is precisely the same person who was formerly disdained and flouted by fair ladies because his clothes were poor and shabby, yet for whom they now practise all the arts known to their sex, in fruitless endeavors to charm and conciliate him. For he laughs at them and their pretty ways,—and his laughter is merciless. His arrowy glance discovers the "poudre de riz" on their blooming cheeks,—the carmine on their lips, and the "kohl" on their eyelashes. He knows purchased hair from the natural growth—and he has a cruel eye for discerning the artificial contour of a "made-up" figure. And like a merry satyr dancing in a legendary forest, he capers and gambols in the vast fields of Humbug—all forms of it are attacked and ridiculed by his powerful and pungent pen,—he is a sort of English Heine, gathering in rich and daily harvests from the never-perishing incessantly-growing crop of fools. And as he,—in all the wickedness of daring and superior intellect,— approaches, Lady Winsleigh draws herself up with the conscious air of a beauty who knows she is nearly perfect,—Mrs. Rush-Marvelle makes a faint endeavor to settle the lace more modestly over her rebellious bosom,—Marcia smiles coquettishly, and Mrs. Van Clupp brings her diamond pendant (value, a thousand guineas) more prominently forward,—for as she thinks, poor ignorant soul! "wealth always impresses these literary men more than anything!" In one swift glance Beau Lovelace observes all these different movements,—and the inner fountain of his mirth begins to bubble. "What fun those Van Clupps are!" he thinks. "The old woman's got a diamond plaster on her neck! Horrible taste! She's anxious to show how much she's worth, I suppose! Mrs. Marvelle wants a shawl, and Lady Clara a bodice. By Jove! What sights the women do make of themselves!"
But his face betrays none of these reflections,—its expression is one of polite gravity, though a sudden sweetness smooths it as he shakes hands with Lord Winsleigh and Lorimer,—a sweetness that shows how remarkably handsome Beau can look if he chooses. He rests one hand on Lorimer's shoulder.
"Why, George, old boy, I thought you were playing the dutiful son at Nice? Don't tell me you've deserted the dear old lady! Where is she? You know I've got to finish that argument with her about her beloved Byron."
Lorimer laughs. "Go and finish it when you like, Beau," he answers. "My mother's all right. She's at home. You know she's always charmed to see you. She's delighted with that new book of yours."
"Is she? She finds pleasure in trifles then—"
"Oh no, Mr. Lovelace!" interrupts Lady Clara, with a winning glance. "You must not run yourself down! The book is exquisite! I got it at once from the library, and read every line of it!"
"I am exceedingly flattered!" says Lovelace, with a grave bow, though there is a little twinkling mockery in his glance. "When a lady so bewitching condescends to read what I have written, how can I express my emotion!"
"The press is unanimous in its praise of you," remarks Lord Winsleigh cordially. "You are quite the lion of the day!"
"Oh quite!" agrees Beau laughing. "And do I not roar 'as sweet as any nightingale'? But I say, where's the new beauty?"
"I really do not know to whom you allude, Mr. Lovelace," replies Lady Winsleigh coldly. Lorimer smiles and is silent. Beau looks from one to the other amusedly.
"Perhaps I've made a mistake," he says, "but the Duke of Roxwell is responsible. He told me that if I came here to-night I should see one of the loveliest women living,—Lady Bruce-Errington. He saw her in the park. I think this gentleman"—indicating Sir Francis Lennox, who bites his moustache vexedly—"said quite openly at the Club last night that she was the new beauty,—and that she would be here this evening."
Lady Winsleigh darts a side glance at her "Lennie" that is far from pleasant.
"Really it's perfectly absurd!" she says, with a scornful toss of her head. "We shall have housemaids and bar-girls accepted as 'quite the rage' next. I do not know Sir Philip's wife in the least,—I hear she was a common farmer's daughter. I certainly invited her to-night out of charity and kindness in order that she might get a little accustomed to society—for, of course, poor creature! entirely ignorant and uneducated as she is, everything will seem strange to her. But she has not come—"
"SIR PHILIP AND LADY BRUCE-ERRINGTON!" announces Briggs at this juncture.
There is a sudden hush—a movement of excitement,—and the groups near the door fall apart staring, and struck momentarily dumb with surprise, as a tall, radiant figure in dazzling white, with diamonds flashing on a glittering coil of gold hair, and wondrous sea-blue earnest eyes, passes through their midst with that royal free step and composed grace of bearing that might distinguish an Empress of many nations.
"Good heavens! What a magnificent woman!" mutters Beau Lovelace—"Venus realized!"
Lady Winsleigh turns very pale,—she trembles and can scarcely regain her usual composure as Sir Philip, with a proud tenderness lighting up the depths of his hazel eyes, leads this vision of youth and perfect loveliness up to her, saying simply—
"Lady Winsleigh, allow me to introduce to you—my wife! Thelma, this is Lady Winsleigh."
There is a strange sensation in Lady Winsleigh's throat as though a very tight string were suddenly drawn round it to almost strangling point—and it is certain that she feels as though she must scream, hit somebody with her fan, and rush from the room in an undignified rage. But she chokes back these purely feminine emotions—she smiles and extends her jewelled hand.
"So good of you to come to-night!" she says sweetly. "I have been longing to see you, Lady Errington! I dare say you know your husband is quite an old acquaintance of mine!"
And a langourous glance, like fire seen through smoke, leaps from beneath her silky eyelashes at Sir Philip—but he sees it not—he is chatting and laughing gaily with Lorimer and Beau Lovelace.
"Indeed, yes!" answers Thelma, in that soft low voice of hers, which had such a thrilling richness within it—"and it is for that reason I am very glad to meet you. It is always pleasant for me to know my husband's friends."
Here she raises those marvellous, innocent eyes of hers and smiles;—why does Lady Winsleigh shrink from that frank and childlike openness of regard? Why does she, for one brief moment, hate herself?—why does she so suddenly feel herself to be vile and beneath contempt? God only knows!—but the first genuine blush that has tinged her ladyship's cheek for many a long day, suddenly spreads a hot and embarrassing tide of crimson over the polished pallor of her satiny skin, and she says hurriedly—
"I must find you some people to talk to. This is my dear friend, Mrs. Rush-Marvelle—I am sure you will like each other. Let me introduce Mrs. Van Clupp to you—Mrs. Van Clupp, and Miss Van Clupp!"
The ladies bow stiffly while Thelma responds to their prim salutation with easy grace.
"Sir Francis Lennox"—continues Lady Winsleigh, and there is something like a sneer in her smile, as that gentleman makes a deep and courtly reverence, with an unmistakable look of admiration in his sleepy tiger-brown eyes,—then she turns to Lord Winsleigh and adds in a casual way, "My husband!" Lord Winsleigh advances rather eagerly—there is a charm in the exquisite nobility of Thelma's face that touches his heart and appeals to the chivalrous and poetical part of his nature.
"Sir Philip and I have known each other for some years," he says, pressing her little fair hand cordially. "It is a great pleasure for me to see you to-night, Lady Errington—I realize how very much my friend deserves to be congratulated on his marriage!"
Thelma smiles. This little speech pleases her, but she does not accept the compliment implied to herself.
"You are very kind, Lord Winsleigh"—she answers; "I am glad indeed that you like Philip. I do think with you that he deserves every one's good wishes. It is my great desire to make him always happy."
A brief shadow crosses Lord Winsleigh's thoughtful brow, and he studies her sweet eyes attentively. Is she sincere? Does she mean what she says? Or is she, like others of her sex, merely playing a graceful part? A slight sigh escapes him,—absolute truth, innocent love, and stainless purity are written in such fair, clear lines on that perfect countenance that the mere idea of questioning her sincerity seems a sacrilege.
"Your desire is gratified, I am sure," he returns, and his voice is somewhat sad. "I never saw him looking so well. He seems in excellent spirits."
"Oh, for that!" and she laughs. "He is a very light-hearted boy! But once he would tell me very dreadful things about the world—how it was not at all worth living in—but I do think he must have been lonely. For he is very pleased with everything now, and finds no fault at all!"
"I can quite understand that!" and Lord Winsleigh smiles, though that shadow of pain still rests on his brow.
Mrs. Rush-Marvelle and the Van Clupps are listening to the conversation with straining ears. What strange person is this? She does not talk bad grammar, though her manner of expressing herself is somewhat quaint and foreign. But she is babyish—perfectly babyish! The idea of any well-bred woman condescending to sing the praises of her own husband in public! Absurd! "Deserves every-one's good wishes!"—pooh! her "great desire is to make him always happy!"—what utter rubbish!—and he is a "light-hearted boy!" Good gracious!—what next? Marcia Van Clupp is strongly inclined to giggle, and Mrs. Van Clupp is indignantly conscious that the Errington diamonds far surpass her own, both for size and lustre.
At that moment Sir Philip approaches his wife, with George Lorimer and Beau Lovelace. Thelma's smile at Lorimer is the greeting of an old friend—a sun-bright glance that makes his heart beat a little quicker than usual. He watches her as she turns to be introduced to Lovelace,—while Miss Van Clupp, thinking of the relentless gift of satire with which that brilliant writer is endowed, looks out for "some fun"—for, as she confides in a low tone to Mrs. Marvelle—"she'll never know how to talk to that man!"
"Thelma," says Sir Philip, "this is the celebrated author, Beaufort Lovelace,—you have often heard me speak of him."
She extends both her hands, and her eyes deepen and flash.
"Ah! you are one of those great men whom we all love and admire!" she says, with direct frankness,—and the cynical Beau, who has never yet received so sincere a compliment, feels himself coloring like a school-girl. "I am so very proud to meet you! I have read your wonderful book, 'Azaziel,' and it made me glad and sorry together. For why do you draw a noble example and yet say at the same time that it is impossible to follow it? Because in one breath you inspire us to be good, and yet you tell us we shall never become so! That is not right,—is it?"
Beau meets her questioning glance with a grave smile.
"It is most likely entirely wrong from your point of view, Lady Errington," he said. "Some day we will talk over the matter. You shall show me the error of my ways. Perhaps you will put life, and the troublesome business of living, in quite a new light for me! You see, we novelists have an unfortunate trick of looking at the worst or most ludicrous side of everything—we can't help it! So many apparently lofty and pathetic tragedies turn out, on close examination, to be the meanest and most miserable of farces,—it's no good making them out to be grand Greek poems when they are only base doggerel rhymes. Besides, it's the fashion nowadays to be chiffonniers in literature—to pick up the rags of life and sort them in all their uncomeliness before the morbid eyes of the public. What's the use of spending thought and care on the manufacture of a jewelled diadem, and offering it to the people on a velvet cushion, when they prefer an olla-podrida of cast-off clothing, dried bones and candle-ends? In brief, what would it avail to write as grandly as Shakespeare or Scott, when society clamors for Zola and others of his school?"
There was a little group round them by this time,—men generally collected wherever Beau Lovelace aired his opinions,—and a double attraction drew them together now in the person of the lovely woman to whom he was holding forth.
Marcia Van Clupp stared mightily—surely the Norwegian peasant would not understand Beau's similes,—for they were certainly incomprehensible to Marcia. As for his last remark—why! she had read all Zola's novels in the secrecy of her own room, and had gloated over them;—no words could describe her intense admiration of books that were so indelicately realistic! "He is jealous of other writers, I suppose," she thought; "these literary people hate each other like poison."
Meanwhile Thelma's blue eyes looked puzzled. "I do not know that name," she said. "Zola!—what is he? He cannot be great. Shakespeare I know,—he is the glory of the world, of course; I think him as noble as Homer. Then for Walter Scott—I love all his beautiful stories—I have read them many, many times, nearly as often as I have read Homer and the Norse Sagas. And the world must surely love such writings—or how should they last so long?" She laughed and shook her bright head archly. "Chiffonnier! Point du tout! Monsieur, les divines pensets que vous avez donne au monde ne sont pas des chiffons."
Beau smiled again, and offered her his arm. "Let me find you a chair!" he said. "It will be rather a difficult matter,—still I can but try. You will be fatigued if you stand too long." And he moved through the swaying crowd, with her little gloved hand resting lightly on his coat-sleeve,—while Marcia Van Clupp and her mother exchanged looks of wonder and dismay. The "fisherwoman" could speak French,—moreover, she could speak it with a wonderfully soft and perfect accent,—the "person" had studied Homer and Shakespeare, and was conversant with the best literature,—and, bitterest sting of all, the "peasant" could give every woman in the room a lesson in deportment, grace, and perfect taste in dress. Every costume looked tawdry beside her richly flowing velvet draperies—every low bodice became indecent compared with the modesty of that small square opening at Thelma's white throat—an opening just sufficient to display her collar of diamonds—and every figure seemed either dumpy and awkward, too big or too fat, or too lean and too lanky—when brought into contrast with her statuesque outlines.
The die was cast,—the authority of Beau Lovelace was nearly supreme in fashionable and artistic circles, and from the moment he was seen devoting his attention to the "new beauty," excited whispers began to flit from mouth to mouth,—"She will be the rage this season!"—"We must ask her to come to us!"—"Do ask Lady Winsleigh to introduce us!"—"She must come to our house!" and so on. And Lady Winsleigh was neither blind nor deaf—she saw and heard plainly enough that her reign was over, and in her secret soul she was furious. The "common farmer's daughter" was neither vulgar nor uneducated—and she was surpassingly lovely—even Lady Winsleigh could not deny so plain and absolute a fact. But her ladyship was a woman of the world, and she perceived at once that Thelma was not. Philip had married a creature with the bodily loveliness of a goddess and the innocent soul of a child—and it was just that child-like, pure soul looking serenely out of Thelma's eyes that had brought the long-forgotten blush of shame to Clara Winsleigh's cheek. But that feeling of self-contempt soon passed—she was no better and no worse than other women of her set, she thought—after all, what had she to be ashamed of? Nothing, except—except—perhaps, her "little affair" with "Lennie." A new emotion now stirred her blood—one of malice and hatred, mingled with a sense of outraged love and ungratified passion—for she still admired Philip to a foolish excess. Her dark eyes flashed scornfully as she noted the attitude of Sir Francis Lennox,—he was leaning against the marble mantel-piece, stroking his moustache with one hand, absorbed in watching Thelma, who, seated in an easy chair which Beau Lovelace had found for her, was talking and laughing gaily with those immediately around her, a group which increased in size every moment, and in which the men were most predominant.
"Fool!" muttered Lady Winsleigh to herself, apostrophizing "Lennie" in this uncomplimentary manner. "Fool! I wonder if he thinks I care! He may play hired lacquey to all the women in London if he likes! He looks a prig compared to Philip!"
And her gaze wandered,—Philip was standing by his wife, engaged in an animated conversation with Lord Winsleigh. They were all near the grand piano—and Lady Clara, smoothing her vexed brow, swept her ruby velvets gracefully up to that quarter of the room. Before she could speak, the celebrated Herr Machtenklinken confronted her with some sternness.
"Your ladyshib vill do me ze kindness to remember," he said, loftily, "zat I am here to blay! Zere has been no obbortunity—ze biano could not make itself to be heard in zis fery moch noise. It is bossible your ladyshib shall require not ze music zis efening? In zat case I shall take my fery goot leave."
Lady Winsleigh raised her eyes with much superciliousness.
"As you please," she said coolly. "If you are so indifferent to your advantages—then all I can say is, so am I! You are, perhaps, known on the Continent, Herr Machtenklinken,—but not here—and I think you ought to be more grateful for my influence."
So saying, she passed on, leaving the luckless pianist in a state of the greatest indignation.
"Gott in Himmel!" he gasped, in a sort of infuriated sotto voce. "Ze Emberor himself would not have speak to me so! I come here as a favor—her ladyshib do not offer me one pfenning,—ach! ze music is not for such beoble! I shall brefer to blay to bigs! Zere is no art in zis country!—"
And he began to make his way out of the room, when he was overtaken by Beau Lovelace, who had followed him in haste.
"Where are you off to, Hermann?" he asked good-naturedly. "We want you to play. There is a lady here who heard you in Paris quite recently—she admires you immensely. Won't you come and be introduced to her?"
Herr Machtenklinken paused, and a smile softened his hitherto angry countenance.
"You are fery goot, Mr. Lofelace," he remarked—"and I would do moch for you—but her ladyshib understands me not—she has offend me—it is better I should take my leave."
"Oh, bother her ladyship!" said Beau lightly. "Come along, and give us something in your best style."
So saying, he led the half-reluctant artist back to the piano, where he was introduced to Thelma, who gave him so sweet a smile that he was fairly dazzled.
"It is you who play Schumann so beautifully," she said. "My husband and I heard you at one of Lamoureux's concerts in Paris. I fear," and she looked wistfully at him, "that you would think it very rude and selfish of me if I asked you to play just one little piece? Because, of course, you are here to enjoy yourself, and talk to your friends, and it seems unkind to take you away from them!"
A strange moisture dimmed the poor German's eyes. This was the first time in England that the "celebrate" had been treated as a friend and a gentleman. Up to this moment, at all the "at homes" and "assemblies," he had not been considered as a guest at all,—he was an "artist," "a good pianist,"—"a man who had played before the Emperor of Germany"—and he was expected to perform for nothing, and be grateful for the "influence" exercised on his behalf—influence which as yet had not put one single extra guinea in his pocket. Now, here was a great lady almost apologizing for asking him to play, lest it should take him away from his "friends"! His heart swelled with emotion and gratitude—the poor fellow had no "friends" in London, except Beau Lovelace, who was kind to him, but who had no power in the musical world,—and, as Thelma's gentle voice addressed him, he could have knelt and kissed her little shoe for her sweet courtesy and kindness.
"Miladi," he said, with a profound reverence, "I will blay for you with bleasure,—it will be a joy for ze music to make itself beautiful for you!"
And with this fantastic attempt at a compliment, he seated himself at the instrument and struck a crashing chord to command silence.
The hum of conversation grew louder than ever—and to Thelma's surprise Lady Winsleigh seated herself by her and began to converse. Herr Machtenklinken struck another chord,—in vain! The deafening clamor of tongues continued, and Lady Winsleigh asked Thelma with much seeming interest if the scenery was very romantic in Norway?
The girl colored deeply, and after a little hesitation, said—
"Excuse me,—I would rather not speak till the music is over. It is impossible for a great musician to think his thoughts out properly unless there is silence. Would it not be better to ask every one to leave off talking while this gentleman plays?"
Clara Winsleigh looked amused. "My dear, you don't know them," she said carelessly. "They would think me mad to propose such a thing! There are always a few who listen."
Once more the pianist poised his hands over the keys of the instrument,—Thelma looked a little troubled and grieved. Beau Lovelace saw it, and acting on a sudden impulse, turned towards the chattering crowds, and, holding up his hand, called, "Silence, please!"
There was an astonished hush. Beau laughed. "We want to hear some music," he said, with the utmost coolness. "Conversation can be continued afterwards." He then nodded cheerfully towards Herr Machtenklinken, who, inspired by this open encouragement, started off like a race-horse into one of the exquisite rambling preludes of Chopin. Gradually, as he played, his plain face took upon itself a noble, thoughtful, rapt expression,—his wild eyes softened,—his furrowed, frowning brow smoothed,—and, meeting the grave, rare blue eyes of Thelma, he smiled. His touch grew more and more delicate and tender—from the prelude he wandered into a nocturne of plaintive and exceeding melancholy, which he played with thrilling and exquisite pathos—anon, he glided into one of those dreamily joyous yet sorrowful mazurkas, that remind one of bright flowers growing in wild luxuriance over lonely and forsaken graves. The "celebrate" had reason to boast of himself—he was a perfect master of the instrument,—and as his fingers closed on the final chord, a hearty burst of applause rewarded his efforts, led by Lovelace and Lorimer. He responded by the usual bow,—but his real gratitude was all for Thelma. For her he had played his best—and he had seen tears in her lovely eyes. He felt as proud of her appreciation as of the ring he had received from the Tsar,—and bent low over the fair hand she extended to him.
"You must be very happy," she said, "to feel all those lovely sounds in your heart! I hope I shall see and hear you again some day,—I thank you so very much for the pleasure you have given me!"
Lady Winsleigh said nothing—and she listened to Thelma's words with a sort of contempt.
"Is the girl half-witted?" she thought. "She must be, or she would not be so absurdly enthusiastic! The man plays well,—but it is his profession to play well—it's no good praising these sort of people,—they are never grateful, and they always impose upon you." Aloud she asked Sir Philip—
"Does Lady Errington play?"
"A little," he answered. "She sings."
At once there was a chorus of inanely polite voices round the piano, "Oh, do sing, Lady Errington! Please, give us one song!" and Sir Francis Lennox, sauntering up, fixed his languorous gaze on Thelma's face, murmuring, "You will not be so cruel as to refuse us such delight?"
"But, of course not!" answered the girl, greatly surprised at all these unnecessary entreaties. "I am always pleased to sing." And she drew off her long loose gloves and seated herself at the piano without the least affectation of reluctance. Then, glancing at her husband with a bright smile, she asked, "What song do you think will be best, Philip?"
"One of those old Norse mountain-songs," he answered.
She played a soft minor prelude—there was not a sound in the room now—everybody pressed towards the piano, staring with a curious fascination at her beautiful face and diamond-crowned hair. One moment—and her voice, in all its passionate, glorious fullness, rang out with a fresh vibrating tone that thrilled to the very heart—and the foolish crowd that gaped and listened was speechless, motionless, astonished, and bewildered.
A Norse mountain-song was it? How strange, and grand, and wild! George Lorimer stood apart—his eyes ached with restrained tears. He knew the melody well—and up before him rose the dear solemnity of the Altenguard hills, the glittering expanse of the Fjord, the dear old farmhouse behind its cluster of pines. Again he saw Thelma as he had seen her first—clad in her plain white gown, spinning in the dark embrasure of the rose-wreathed window—again the words of the self-destroyed Sigurd came back to his recollection, "Good things may come for others—but for you the heavens are empty!" He looked at her now,—Philip's wife—in all the splendor of her rich attire;—she was lovelier than ever, and her sweet nature was as yet unspoilt by all the wealth and luxury around her.
"Good God! what an inferno she has come into!" he thought vaguely. "How will she stand these people when she gets to know them? The Van Clupps, the Rush-Marvelles, and others like them,—and as for Clara Winsleigh—" He turned to study her ladyship attentively. She was sitting quite close to the piano—her eyes were cast down, but the rubies on her bosom heaved quickly and restlessly, and she furled and unfurled her fan impatiently. "I shouldn't wonder," he went on meditating gravely, "if she doesn't try and make some mischief somehow. She looks it."
At that moment Thelma ceased singing, and the room rang with applause. Herr Machtenklinken was overcome with admiration.
"It is a voice of heaven!" he said in a rapture.
The fair singer was surrounded with people.
"I hope," said Mrs. Van Clupp, with her usual ill-bred eagerness to ingratiate herself with the titled and wealthy, "I hope you will come and see me, Lady Errington? I am at home every Friday evening to my friends."
"Oh yes," said Thelma, simply. "But I am not your friend yet! When we do know each other better I will come. We shall meet each other many times first,—and then you will see if you like me to be your friend. Is it not so?"
A scarcely concealed smile reflected itself on the faces of all who heard this naive, but indefinite acceptance of Mrs. Van Clupp's invitation, while Mrs. Van Clupp herself was somewhat mortified, and knew not what to answer. This Norwegian girl was evidently quite ignorant of the usages of polite society, or she would at once have recognized the fact that an "at home" had nothing whatsoever to do with the obligations of friendship—besides, as far as friendship was concerned, had not Mrs. Van Clupp tabooed several of her own blood-relations and former intimate acquaintances? . . . for the very sensible reason that while she had grown richer, they had grown poorer. But now Mrs. Rush-Marvelle sailed up in all her glory, with her good-natured smile and matronly air. She was a privileged person, and she put her arm round Thelma's waist.
"You must come to me, my dear," she said with real kindness—her motherly heart had warmed to the girl's beauty and innocence,—"I knew Philip when he was quite a boy. He will tell you what a dreadfully old woman I am! You must try to like me for his sake."
Thelma smiled radiantly. "I always wish to like Philip's friends," she said frankly. "I do hope I shall please you!"
A pang of remorse smote Mrs. Rush-Marvelle's heart as she remembered how loth she had been to meet Philip's "peasant" wife,—she hesitated,—then, yielding to her warm impulse, drew the girl closer and kissed her fair rose-tinted cheek.
"You please everybody, my child," she said honestly. "Philip is a lucky man! Now I'll say good night, for it is getting late,—I'll write to you to-morrow and fix a day for you to come and lunch with me."
"But you must also come and see Philip," returned Thelma, pressing her hand.
"So I will—so I will!" and Mrs. Rush-Marvelle nodded beamingly, and made her way up to Lady Winsleigh, saying, "Bye-bye, Clara! Thanks for a most charming evening!"
Clara pouted. "Going already, Mimsey?" she queried,—then, in a lower tone, she said, "Well! what do you think of her?"
"A beautiful child—no more!" answered Mrs. Marvelle,—then, studying with some gravity the brilliant brunette face before her, she added in a whisper, "Leave her alone, Clara,—don't make her miserable! You know what I mean! It wouldn't take much to break her heart."
Clara laughed harshly and played with her fan.
"Dear me, Mimsey! . . . you are perfectly outrageous! Do you think I'm an ogress ready to eat her up? On the contrary, I mean to be a friend to her."
Mrs. Marvelle still looked grave.
"I'm glad to hear it," she said; "only some friends are worse than declared enemies."
Lady Winsleigh shrugged her shoulders.
"Go along, Mimsey,—go home to bed!" she exclaimed impatiently. "You are insense! I hate sentimental philosophy and copy-book platitudes!" She laughed again and folded her hands with an air of mock penitence, "There! I didn't mean to be rude! Good-night, dear old darling!"
"Good-night, Clara!" and Mrs. Marvelle, summoning her timid husband from some far corner, where he had remained in hiding, took her departure with much stateliness.
A great many people were going down to supper by this time, but Sir Philip was tired of the heat and glare and noise, and whispered as much to Thelma, who at once advanced to bid her hostess farewell.
"Won't you have some supper?" inquired her ladyship. "Don't go yet!"
But Thelma was determined not to detain her husband a moment longer than he wished—so Lady Winsleigh, seeing remonstrances were of no avail, bade them both an effusive good-night.
"We must see a great deal of each other!" she said, pressing Thelma's hands warmly in her own: "I hope we shall be quite dear friends!"
"Thank you!" said Thelma, "I do hope so too, if you wish it so much. Good-night, Lord Winsleigh!"
"Let me escort you to your carriage," said her noble host, at once offering her his arm.
"And allow me to follow," added Beau Lovelace, slipping his arm through Errington's, to whom he whispered, "How dare you, sir! How dare you be such a provokingly happy man in this miserable old world?" Errington laughed—and the little group had just reached the door of the drawing-room when Thelma suddenly turned with a look of inquiry in her eyes.
"Where is Mr. Lorimer?" she said. "I have forgotten to say good-night to him, Philip."
"Here I am, Lady Errington," and Lorimer sauntered forward with rather a forced smile,—a smile which altogether vanished, leaving his face strangely pale, as she stretched out her hand to him, and said laughingly—
"You bad Mr. Lorimer! Where were you? You know it would make me quite unhappy not to wish you good-night. Ah, you are a very naughty brother!"
"Come home with us, George," said Sir Philip eagerly. "Do, there's a good fellow!"
"I can't, Phil!" answered Lorimer, almost pathetically. "I can't to-night—indeed, I can't! Don't ask me!" And he wrung his friend's hand hard,—and then bravely met Thelma's bright glance.
"Forgive me!" he said to her. "I know I ought to have presented myself before—I'm a dreadfully lazy fellow, you know! Good-night!"
Thelma regarded him steadfastly.
"You look,—what is it you call yourself sometimes—seedy?" she observed. "Not well at all. Mind you come to us to-morrow!"
He promised—and then accompanied them down to their carriage—he and Beau Lovelace assisting to cover Thelma with her fur cloak, and being the last to shake hands with Sir Philip as he sprang in beside his wife, and called to the coachman "Home!" The magic word seemed to effect the horses, for they started at a brisk trot, and within a couple of minutes the carriage was out of sight. It was a warm star-lit evening,—and as Lorimer and Lovelace re-entered Winsleigh House, Beau stole a side-glance at his silent companion.
"A plucky fellow!" he mused; "I should say he'd die game. Tortures won't wring his secret out of him." Aloud he said, "I say, haven't we had enough of this? Don't let us sup here—nothing but unsubstantial pastry and claretcup—the latter abominable mixture would kill me. Come on to the Club, will you?"
Lorimer gladly assented—they got their over-coats from the officious Briggs, tipped him handsomely, and departed arm in arm. The last glimpse they caught of the Winsleigh festivities was Marcia Van Clupp sitting on the stairs, polishing off with much gusto the wing and half-breast of a capon,—while the mild Lord Masherville stood on the step just above her, consoling his appetite with a spoonful of tepid yellow jelly. He had not been able to secure any capon for himself—he had been frightened away by the warning cry of "Ladies first!" shouted forth by a fat gentleman, who was on guard at the head of the supper-table, and who had already secreted five plates of different edibles for his own consumption, in a neat corner behind the window-curtains. Meanwhile, Sir Philip Bruce-Errington, proud, happy, and triumphant, drew his wife into a close embrace as they drove home together, and said, "You were the queen of the evening, my Thelma! Have you enjoyed yourself?"
"Oh, I do not call that enjoyment!" she declared. "How is it possible to enjoy anything among so many strangers?"
"Well, what is it?" he asked laughingly.
She laughed also. "I do not know indeed what it is!" she said. "I have never been to anything like it before. It did seem to me as if all the people were on show for some reason or other. And the gentlemen did look very tired—there was nothing for them to do. Even you, my boy! You made several very big yawns! Did you know that?"
Philip laughed more than ever. "I didn't know it, my pet!" he answered; "but I'm not surprised. Big yawns are the invariable result of an 'at home.' Do you like Beau Lovelace?"
"Very much," she answered readily. "But, Philip, I should not like to have so many friends as Lady Winsleigh. I thought friends were rare?"
"So they are! She doesn't care for these people a bit. They are mere acquaintances."
"Whom does she care for then?" asked Thelma suddenly. "Of course I mean after her husband. Naturally she loves him best."
"Naturally," and Philip paused, adding, "she has her son—Ernest—he's a fine bright boy—he was not there to-night. You must see him some day. Then I think her favorite friend is Mrs. Rush-Marvelle."
"I do like that lady too," said Thelma. "She spoke very kindly to me and kissed me."
"Did she really!" and Philip smiled. "I think she was more to be congratulated on taking the kiss than you in receiving it! But she's not a bad old soul,—only a little too fond of money. But, Thelma, whom do you care for most? You did tell me once, but I forget!"
She turned her lovely face and star-like eyes upon him, and, meeting his laughing look, she smiled.
"How often must I tell you!" she murmured softly. "I do think you will never tire of hearing! You know that it is you for whom I care most, and that all the world would be empty to me without you! Oh, my husband—my darling! do not make me try to tell you how much I love you! I cannot—my heart is too full!"
The rest of their drive homeward was very quiet—there are times when silence is more eloquent than speech.
"A small cloud, so slight as to be a mere speck on the fair blue sky, was all the warning we received."—PLINY.
After that evening great changes came into Thelma's before peaceful life. She had conquered her enemies, or so it seemed,—society threw down all its barricades and rushed to meet her with open arms. Invitations crowded upon her,—often she grew tired and bewildered in the multiplicity of them all. London life wearied her,—she preferred the embowered seclusion of Errington Manor, the dear old house in green-wooded Warwickshire. But the "season" claimed her,—its frothy gaieties were deemed incomplete without her—no "at home" was considered quite "the" thing unless she was present. She became the centre of a large and ever-widening social circle,—painters, poets, novelists, wits savants, and celebrities of high distinction crowded her rooms, striving to entertain her as well as themselves with that inane small talk and gossip too often practiced by the wisest among us,—and thus surrounded, she began to learn many puzzling and painful things of which in her old Norwegian life, she had been happily ignorant.
For instance, she had once imagined that all the men and women of culture who followed the higher professions must perforce be a sort of "Joyous Fraternity," superior to other mortals not so gifted,—and, under this erroneous impression, she was at first eager to know some of the so-called "great" people who had distinguished themselves in literature or the fine arts. She had fancied that they must of necessity be all refined, sympathetic, large-hearted, and noble-minded—alas! how grievously was she disappointed! She found, to her sorrow, that the tree of modern Art bore but few wholesome roses and many cankered buds—that the "Joyous Fraternity" were not joyous at all—but, on the contrary, inclined to dyspepsia and discontentment. She found that even poets, whom she had fondly deemed were the angel-guides among the children of this earth,—were most of them painfully conceited, selfish in aim and limited in thought,—moreover, that they were often so empty of all true inspiration, that they were actually able to hate and envy one another with a sort of womanish spite and temper,—that novelists, professing to be in sympathy with the heart of humanity, were no sooner brought into contact one with another, than they plainly showed by look, voice, and manner, the contempt they entertained for each other's work,—that men of science were never so happy as when trying to upset each other's theories;—that men of religious combativeness were always on the alert to destroy each other's creeds,—and that, in short, there was a very general tendency to mean jealousies, miserable heart-burnings and utter weariness all round.
On one occasion, she, in the sweetest simplicity, invited two lady authoresses of note to meet at one of her "at homes,". . . she welcomed both the masculine-looking ladies with a radiant smile, and introduced them, saying gently,—"You will be so pleased to know each other!" But the stony stare, stiff nod, portentous sniff, and scornful smile with which these two eminent females exchanged cold greetings, were enough to daunt the most sympathetic hostess that ever lived—and when they at once retired to different corners of the room and sat apart with their backs turned to one another for the remainder of the evening, their attitude was so uncompromising that it was no wonder the gentle Thelma felt quite dismayed and wretched at the utter failure of the rencontre.
"They would not be sociable!" she afterwards complained to Lady Winsleigh. "They tried to be as rude to each other as they could!"
Lady Winsleigh laughed. "Of course!" she said. "What else did you expect! But if you want some fun, ask a young, pretty, and brilliant authoress (there are a few such) to meet an old, ugly and dowdy one (and there are many such), and watch the dowdy one's face! It will be a delicious study of expression, I assure you!"
But Thelma would not try this delicate experiment,—in fact, she began rather to avoid literary people, with the exception of Beau Lovelace. His was a genial, sympathetic nature, and, moreover, he had a winning charm of manner which few could resist. He was not a bookworm,—he was not, strictly speaking, a literary man,—and he was entirely indifferent to public praise or blame. He was, as he himself expressed it, "a servant and worshipper of literature," and there is a wide gulf of difference between one who serves literature for its own sake and one who uses it basely as a tool to serve himself.
But in all her new and varied experiences, perhaps Thelma was most completely bewildered by the women she met. Her simple Norse beliefs in the purity and gentleness of womanhood were startled and outraged,—she could not understand London ladies at all. Some of them seemed to have no idea beyond dress and show,—others looked upon their husbands, the lawful protectors of their name and fame, with easy indifference, as though they were mere bits of household furniture,—others, having nothing better to do, "went in" for spiritualism,—the low spiritualism that manifests itself in the turning of tables and moving of side-boards—not the higher spiritualism of an improved, perfected, and saint-like way of life—and these argued wildly on the theory of matter passing through matter, to the extent of declaring themselves able to send a letter or box through the wall without making a hole in it,—and this with such obstinate gravity as made Thelma fear for their reason. Then there were the women-atheists,—creatures who had voluntarily crushed all the sweetness of the sex within them—foolish human flowers without fragrance, that persistently turned away their faces from the sunlight and denied its existence, preferring to wither, profitless, on the dry stalk of their own theory;—there were the "platform-women," unnatural products of an unnatural age,—there were the great ladies of the aristocracy who turned with scorn from a case of real necessity, and yet spent hundreds of pounds on private theatricals wherein they might have the chance of displaying themselves in extravagant costumes,—and there were the "professional" beauties, who, if suddenly deprived of elegant attire and face-cosmetics, turned out to be no beauties at all, but very ordinary, unintelligent persons.
"What is the exact meaning of the term, 'professional beauty'?" Thelma had asked Beau Lovelace on one occasion. "I suppose it is some very poor beautiful woman, who takes money for showing herself to the public, and having her portraits sold in the shops? And who is it that pays her?"
Lovelace broke into a laugh. "Upon my word, Lady Errington,—you have put the matter in a most original but indubitably correct light! Who pays the 'professional beauty,' you ask? Well, in the case of Mrs. Smith-Gresham, whom you met the other day, it is a certain Duke who pays her to the tune of several thousands a year. When he gets tired of her, or she of him, she'll find somebody else—or perhaps she'll go on the stage and swell the list of bad amateurs. She'll get on somehow, as long as she can find a fool ready to settle her dressmaker's bill."
"I do not understand!" said Thelma,—and her fair brows drew together in that pained grave look that was becoming rather frequent with her now.
And she began to ask fewer questions concerning the various strange phases of social life that puzzled her,—why, for instance, religious theorists made so little practical use of their theories,—why there were cloudy-eyed eccentrics who admired the faulty drawing of Watts, and the common-place sentence-writing of Walt Whitman,—why members of Parliament talked so much and did so little,—why new poets, however nobly inspired, were never accepted unless they had influential friends on the press,—why painters always married their models or their cooks, and got heartily ashamed of them afterwards,—and why people all round said so many things they did not mean. And confused by the general insincerity, she clung,—poor child!—to Lady Winsleigh, who had the tact to seem what she was not,—and the cleverness to probe into Thelma's nature and find out how translucently clear and pure it was—a perfect well of sweet water, into which one drop of poison, or better still, several drops, gradually and insidiously instilled, might in time taint its flavor and darken its brightness. For if a woman have an innocent, unsuspecting soul as delicate as the curled cup of a Nile lily, the more easily will it droop and wither in the heated grasp of a careless, cruel hand. And to this flower-crushing task Lady Winsleigh set herself,—partly for malice pretense against Errington, whose coldness to herself in past days had wounded her vanity, and partly for private jealousy of Thelma's beauty and attractiveness.
Within a short time she had completely won the girl's confidence and affection,—Sir Philip, forgetting his former suspicions of her, was touched and disarmed by the attachment and admiration she openly displayed towards his young wife,—she and Thelma were constantly seen together, and Mrs. Rush-Marvelle, far-sighted as she generally was, often sighed doubtfully and rubbed her nose in perplexity as she confessed she "couldn't quite understand Clara." But Mrs. Rush-Marvelle had her hands full of other matters,—she was aiding and abetting Marcia Van Clupp to set traps for that mild mouse Lord Masherville,—and she was too much absorbed in this difficult and delicate business to attend to anything else just then. Otherwise, it is possible she might have scented danger for Thelma's peace of mind, and being good-natured, might have warded it off before it approached too closely,—but, like policeman who are never within call when wanted, so friends are seldom at hand when their influence might be of real benefit.
The Van Clupps were people Thelma could not get on with at all—she tried to do so because Mrs. Rush-Marvelle had assured her they were "charming"-and she liked Mrs. Marvelle sufficiently well to be willing to please her. But, in truth, these rich and vulgar Yankees seemed to her mind less to be esteemed than the peasants of the Altenfjord, who in many instances possessed finer tact and breeding than old Van Clupp, the man of many dollars, whose father had been nothing but a low navvy, but of whom he spoke now with smirking pride as a real descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers. An odd thing it is, by the way, how fond some Americans are of tracing back their ancestry to these virtuous old gentlemen! The Van Clupps were of course not the best types of their country—they were of that class who, because they have money, measure everything by the money-standard, and hold even a noble poverty in utter contempt. Poor Van Clupp! It was sometimes pitiable to see him trying to be a gentleman—"going in" for "style"—to an excess that was ludicrous,—cramming his house with expensive furniture like an upholsterer's show-room,—drinking his tea out of pure Sevres, with a lofty ignorance of its beauty and value,—dressing his wife and daughter like shilling fashion-plates, and having his portrait taken in precisely the same attitude as that assumed by the Duke of Wrigglesbury when his Grace sat to the same photographer! It was delicious to hear him bragging of his pilgrim ancestor,—while in the same breath he would blandly sneer at certain "poor gentry" who could trace back their lineage to Coeur de Lion! But because the Erringtons were rich as well as titled persons, Van Clupp and his belongings bent the servile knee before them, flattering Thelma with that ill-judged eagerness and zealous persistency which distinguish inborn vulgarity, and which, far from pleasing her, annoyed and embarrassed her because she could not respond sincerely to such attentions.
There were many others too, not dollar-crusted Americans, whose excessive adulation and ceaseless compliment vexed the sincere, frank spirit of the girl,—a spirit fresh and pure as the wind blowing over her own Norse mountains. One of these was Sir Francis Lennox, that fashionable young man of leisure,—and she had for him an instinctive, though quite unreasonable aversion. He was courtesy itself—he spared no pains to please her. Yet she felt as if his basilisk brown eyes were always upon her,—he seemed to be ever at hand, ready to watch over her in trifles, such as the passing of a cup of tea, the offering of her wrap,—the finding of a chair,—the holding of a fan,-he was always on the alert, like a remarkably well-trained upper servant. She could not, without rudeness, reject such unobtrusive, humble services,—and yet—they rendered her uncomfortable, though she did not quite know why. She ventured to mention her feeling concerning him to her friend Lady Winsleigh, who heard her timid remarks with a look on her face that was not quite pleasant.
"Poor Sir Francis!" her ladyship said with a slight, mocking laugh. "He's never happy unless he plays puppy-dog! Don't mind him, Thelma! He won't bite, I assure you,—he means no harm. It's only his little way of making himself agreeable!"
George Lorimer, during this particular "London season," fled the field of action, and went to Paris to stay with Pierre Duprez. He felt that it was dangerous to confront the fair enemy too often, for he knew in his own honest heart that his passion for Thelma increased each time he saw her—so, he avoided her. She missed him very much from her circle of intimates, and often went to see his mother, Mrs. Lorimer, one of the sweetest old ladies in the world,—who had at once guessed her son's secret, but, like a prudent dame, kept it to herself. There were few young women as pretty and charming as old Mrs. Lorimer, with her snow-white parted hair and mild blue eyes, and voice as cheery as the note of a thrush in spring-time. After Lady Winsleigh, Thelma liked her best of all her new friends, and was fond of visiting her quiet little house in Kensington,—for it was very quiet, and seemed like a sheltered haven of rest from the great rush of frivolity and folly in which the fashionable world delighted.
And Thelma was often now in need of rest. As the season drew towards its close, she found herself strangely tired and dispirited. The life she was compelled to lead was all unsuited to her nature—it was artificial and constrained,—and she was often unhappy. Why? Why, indeed! She did her best,—but she made enemies everywhere. Again, why? Because she had a most pernicious,—most unpleasant habit of telling the truth. Like Socrates, she seemed to say—"If any man should appear to me not to possess virtue, but to pretend that he does, I shall reproach him." This she expressed silently in face, voice, and manner,—and, like Socrates, she might have added that she went about "perceiving, indeed, and grieving and alarmed that she was making herself odious." For she discovered, by degrees, that many people looked strangely upon her—that others seemed afraid of her—and she continually heard that she was considered "eccentric." So she became more reserved—even cold,—she was content to let others argue about trifles, and air their whims and follies without offering an opinion on any side.
And by-and-by the first shadow began to sweep over the fairness of her married life. It happened at a time when she and her husband were not quite so much together,—society and its various claims had naturally separated them a little, but now a question of political ambition separated them still more. Some well-intentioned friends had persuaded Sir Philip to stand for Parliament—and this idea no sooner entered his head, than he decided with impulsive ardor that he had been too long without a "career,"—and a "career" he must have in order to win distinction for his wife's sake. Therefore, summoning his secretary, Neville to his aid, he plunged headlong into the seething, turgid waters of English politics, and shut himself up in his library day after day, studying blue-books, writing and answering letters, and drawing up addresses,—and with the general proneness of the masculine mind to attend to one thing only at a time, he grew so absorbed in his work that his love for Thelma, though all unchanged and deep as ever, fell slightly into the background of his thoughts. Not that he neglected her,—he simply concerned himself more with other things. So it happened that a certain indefinable sense of loss weighed upon her,—a vague, uncomprehended solitude began to encompass her,—a solitude even more keenly felt when she was surrounded by friends than when she was quite alone,—and as the sweet English June drew to its end, she grew languid and listless, and her blue eyes often filled with sudden tears. Her little watch-dog, Britta, began to notice this, and to wonder concerning the reason of her mistress's altered looks.
"It is this dreadful London," thought Britta. "So hot and stifling—there's no fresh air for her. And all this going about to balls and parties and shows—no wonder she is tired out!"
But it was something more than mere fatigue that made Thelma's eyes look sometimes so anxious, so gravely meditative and earnest. One day she seemed so much abstracted and lost in painful musings that Britta's loving heart ached, and she watched her for some moments without venturing to say a word. At last she spoke out bravely—
"Froeken!"—she paused,—Thelma seemed not to hear her. "Froeken!—has anything vexed or grieved you today?"
Thelma started nervously. "Vexed me—grieved me?" she repeated. "No, Britta—why do you ask?"
"You look very tired, dear Froeken," continued Britta gently. "You are not as bright as you were when we first came to London."
Thelma's lips quivered. "I—I am not well, Britta," she murmured, and suddenly her self-control gave way, and she broke into tears. In an instant Britta was kneeling by her, coaxing and caressing her, and calling her by every endearing name she could think of, while she wisely forbore from asking any more questions. Presently her sobs grew calmer,—she rested her fair head against Britta's shoulder and smiled faintly. At that moment a light tap was heard outside, and a voice called—
"Thelma! Are you there?"
Britta opened the door, and Sir Philip entered hurriedly and smiling—but stopped short to survey his wife in dismay.
"Why, my darling!" he exclaimed distressfully. "Have you been crying?"
Here the discreet Britta retired.
Thelma sprang to her husband and nestled in his arms.
"Philip, do not mind it," she murmured. "I felt a little sad—it is nothing! But tell me—you do love me? You will never tire of me? You have always loved me, I am sure?"
He raised her face gently with one hand, and looked at her in surprise.
"Thelma—what strange questions from you! Love you? Is not every beat of my heart for you? Are you not my life, my joy—my everything in this world?" And he pressed her passionately in his arms and kissed her.
"You have never loved any one else so much?" she whispered, half abashed.
"Never!" he answered readily. "What makes you ask such a thing?"
She was silent. He looked down at her flushing cheeks and tear-wet lashes attentively.
"You are fanciful to-day, my pet," he said at last. "You've been tiring yourself too much. You must rest. You'd better not go to the Brilliant Theatre to-night—it's only a burlesque, and is sure to be vulgar and noisy. We'll stop at home and spend a quiet evening together—shall we?"
She raised her eyes half wistfully and smiled. "I should like that very, very much, Philip!" she murmured; "but you know we did promise Clara to go with her to-night. And as we are so soon to leave London and return to Warwickshire, I should not like to disappoint her."
"You are very fond of Clara?" he asked suddenly.
"Very!" She paused and sighed slightly. "She is so kind and clever—much more clever than I can ever be—and she knows many things about the world which I do not. And she admires you so much, Philip!"
"Does she indeed?" Philip laughed and colored a little. "Very good of her, I'm sure! And so you'd really like to go to the Brilliant to-night?"
"I think so," she said hesitatingly. "Clara says it will be very amusing. And you must remember how much I enjoyed 'Faust' and 'Hamlet.'"
Errington smiled. "You'll find the Brilliant performance very different to either," he said amusedly. "You don't know what a burlesque is like!"
"Then I must be instructed," replied Thelma, smiling also, "I need to learn many things. I am very ignorant!"
"Ignorant!" and he swept aside with a caressing touch the clustering hair from her broad, noble brow. "My darling, you possess the greatest wisdom—the wisdom of innocence. I would not change it for all the learning of the sagest philosophers!"
"You really mean that?" she asked half timidly.
"I really mean that!" he answered fondly. "Little sceptic! As if I would ever say anything to you that I did not mean! I shall be glad when we're out of London and back at the Manor—then I shall have you all to myself again—for a time, at least."
She raised her eyes full of sudden joy,—all traces of her former depression had disappeared.
"And I shall have you!" she said gladly. "And we shall not disappoint Lady Winsleigh to-night, Philip—I am not tired—and I shall be pleased to go to the theatre."
"All right!" responded Philip cheerfully. "So let it be! Only I don't believe you'll like the piece,—though it certainly won't make you cry. Yet I doubt if it will make you laugh, either. However, it will be a new experience for you."
And a new experience it decidedly was,—an experience, too, which brought some strange and perplexing results to Thelma of which she never dreamed.
She went to the Brilliant, accompanied by Lady Winsleigh and her husband,—Neville, the secretary, making the fourth in their box; and during the first and second scene of the performance the stage effects were so pretty and the dancing so graceful that she nearly forgot the bewildered astonishment she had at first felt at the extreme scantiness of apparel worn by the ladies of the ballet. They represented birds, bees, butterflies, and the other winged denizens of the forest-world,—and the tout-ensemble was so fairy-like and brilliant with swift movement, light, and color that the eye was too dazzled and confused to note objectionable details. But in the third scene, when a plump, athletic young woman leaped on the stage in the guise of a humming-bird, with a feather tunic so short that it was a mere waist-belt of extra width,—a flesh-colored bodice about three inches high, and a pair of blue wings attached to her fat shoulders, Thelma started and half rose from her seat in dismay, while a hot tide of color crimsoned her cheeks. She looked nervously at her husband.
"I do not think this is pleasant to see," she said in a low tone. "Would it not be best to go away? I—I think I would rather be at home."
Lady Winsleigh heard and smiled,—a little mocking smile.
"Don't be silly, child!" she said. "If you leave the theatre just now you'll have every one staring at you. That woman's an immense favorite—she is the success of the piece. She's got more diamonds than either you or I."
Thelma regarded her friend with a sort of grave wonder,—but said nothing in reply. If Lady Winsleigh liked the performance and wished to remain, why—then politeness demanded that Thelma should not interfere with her pleasure by taking an abrupt leave. So she resumed her seat, but withdrew herself far behind the curtain of the box, in a corner where the stage was almost invisible to her eyes. Her husband bent over her and whispered—
"I'll take you home if you wish it, dear! only say the word."
She shook her head.
"Clara enjoys it!" she answered somewhat plaintively. "We must stay."
Philip was about to address Lady Winsleigh on the subject, when suddenly Neville touched him on the arm.
"Can I speak to you alone for a moment, Sir Philip?" he said in a strange, hoarse whisper. "Outside the box—away from the ladies—a matter of importance!"
He looked as if he were about to faint. He gasped rather than spoke these words; his face was white as death, and his eyes had a confused and bewildered stare.
"Certainly!" answered Philip promptly, though not without an accent of surprise,—and, excusing their absence briefly to his wife and Lady Winsleigh, they left the box together. Meanwhile the well-fed "Humming-Bird" was capering extravagantly before the footlights, pointing her toe in the delighted face of the stalls and singing in a in a loud, coarse voice the following refined ditty—
"Oh my ducky, oh my darling, oh my duck, duck, duck! If you love me you must have a little pluck, pluck, pluck! Come and put your arms around me, kiss me once, twice, thrice, For kissing may be naughty, but, by Jingo! it is nice! Once, twice, thrice! Nice, nice, nice! Bliss, bliss, bliss! Kiss, kiss, kiss! Kissing may be naughty, but it's nice!"
There were several verses in this graceful poem, and each one was hailed with enthusiastic applause. The "Humming-Bird" was triumphant, and when her song was concluded she executed a startling pas-seul full of quaint and astonishing surprises, reaching her superbest climax, when she backed off the stage on one portly leg,—kicking the other in regular time to the orchestra. Lady Winsleigh laughed, and leaning towards Thelma, who still sat in her retired corner, said with a show of kindness—
"You dear little goose! You must get accustomed to this kind of thing—it takes with the men immensely. Why, even your wonderful Philip has gone down behind the scenes with Neville—you may be sure of that!"
The startled, pitiful astonishment in the girl's face might have touched a less callous heart than Lady Winsleigh's,—but her ladyship was prepared for it and only smiled.
"Gone behind the scenes! To see that dreadful woman!" exclaimed Thelma in a low pained tone. "Oh no, Clara! He would not do such a thing. Impossible!"
"Well, my dear, then where is he? He has been gone quite ten minutes. Look at the stalls—all the men are out of them! I tell you Violet Vere draws everybody—of the male sex after her! At the end of all her 'scenes' she has a regular reception—for men only—of course! Ladies not admitted!" And Clara Winsleigh laughed. "Don't look so shocked for heaven's sake, Thelma,—you don't want your husband to be a regular nincompoop! He must have his amusements as well as other people. I believe you want him to be like a baby, tied to your apron-string! You'll find that an awful mistake,—he'll get tired to death of you, sweet little Griselda though you are!"
Thelma's face grew very pale, and her hand closed more tightly on the fan she held.
"You have said that so very, very often lately, Clara!" she murmured. "You seem so sure that he will get tired—that all men get tired. I do not think you know Philip—he is not like any other person I have ever met. And why should he go behind the scenes to such a person as Violet Vere—"
At that moment the box-door opened with a sharp click, and Errington entered alone. He looked disturbed and anxious.
"Neville is not well," he said abruptly, addressing his wife. "I've sent him home. He wouldn't have been able to sit this thing out." And he glanced half angrily towards the stage—the curtain had just gone up again and displayed the wondrous Violet Vere still in her "humming-bird" character, swinging on the branch of a tree and (after the example of all humming-birds) smoking a cigar with brazen-faced tranquillity.
"I am sorry he is ill," said Thelma gently. "That is why you were so long away?"
"Was I long?" returned Philip somewhat absently. "I didn't know it. I went to ask a question behind the scenes."
Lady Winsleigh coughed and glanced at Thelma, whose eyes dropped instantly.
"I suppose you saw Violet Vere?" asked Clara.
"Yes, I saw her," he replied briefly. He seemed irritable and vexed—moreover, decidedly impatient. Presently he said—
"Lady Winsleigh, would you mind very much if we left this place and went home? I'm rather anxious about Neville—he's had a shock. Thelma doesn't care a bit about this piece, I know, and if you are not very much absorbed—"
Lady Winsleigh rose instantly, with her usual ready grace.
"My dear Sir Philip!" she said sweetly. "As if I would not, do anything to oblige you! Let us go by all means! These burlesques are extremely fatiguing!"
He seemed relieved by her acquiescence—and smiled that rare sweet smile of his, which had once played such havoc with her ladyship's sensitive feelings. They left the theatre, and were soon on their way home, though Thelma was rather silent during the drive. They dropped Lady Winsleigh at her own door, and after they had bidden her a cordial good night, and were going on again towards home, Philip, turning towards his wife, and catching sight of her face by the light of a street-lamp, was struck by her extreme paleness and weary look.
"You are very tired, my darling, I fear?" he inquired, tenderly encircling her with one arm. "Lean your head on my shoulder—so!"
She obeyed, and her hand trembled a little as he took and held it in his own warm, strong clasp.
"We shall soon be home!" he added cheerily. "And I think we must have no more theatre-going this season. The heat and noise and glare are too much for you."
"Philip," said Thelma suddenly. "Did you really go behind the scenes to-night?"
"Yes, I did," he answered readily. "I was obliged to go on a matter of business—a very disagreeable and unpleasant matter too."
"And what was it?" she asked timidly, yet hopefully.
"My pet, I can't tell you! I wish I could! It's a secret I'm bound not to betray—a secret which involves the name of another person who'd be wretched if I were to mention it to you. There,—don't let us talk about it any more!"
"Very well, Philip," said Thelma resignedly,—but though she smiled, a sudden presentiment of evil depressed her. The figure of the vulgar, half-clothed, painted creature known as Violet Vere rose up mockingly before her eyes,—and the half-scornful, half-jesting words of Lady Winsleigh rang persistently in her ears.
On reaching home, Philip went straight to Neville's little study and remained with him in earnest conversation for a long time—while Thelma went to bed, and lay restless among her pillows, puzzling her brain with strange forebodings and new and perplexing ideas, till fatigue overpowered her, and she fell asleep with a few tear-drops wet on her lashes. And that night Philip wondered why his sweet wife talked so plaintively in her sleep,—though he smiled as he listened to the drift of those dove-like murmurings.
"No one knows how my boy loves me," sighed the dreaming voice. "No one in all the world! How should he tire? Love can never tire!"
Meanwhile, Lady Winsleigh, in the seclusion of her own boudoir, penned a brief note to Sir Francis Lennox as follows—
"DEAR OLD LENNIE,"
"I saw you in the stalls at the theatre this evening, though you pretended not to see me. What a fickle creature you are! not that I mind in the very least. The virtuous Bruce-Errington left his saintly wife and me to talk little platitudes together, while he, decorously accompanied by his secretary, went down to pay court to Violet Vere. How stout she is getting! Why don't you men advise her to diet herself? I know you also went behind the scenes—of course, you are an ami intime—promising boy you are, to be sure! Come and lunch with me to-morrow, if you're not too lazy."
"Yours ever, CLARA."
She gave this missive to her maid, Louise Renaud, to post,—that faithful attendant took it first to her own apartment where she ungummed the envelope neatly by the aid of hot water, and read every word of it. This was not an exceptional action of hers,—all the letters received and sent by her mistress were subjected to the same process,—even those that were sealed with wax she had a means of opening in such a manner that it was impossible to detect that they had been tampered with.
She was a very clever French maid was Louise,—one of the cleverest of her class. Fond of mischief, ever suspicious, always on the alert for evil, utterly unscrupulous and malicious, she was an altogether admirable attendant for a lady of rank and fashion, her skill as a coiffeur and needle-woman always obtaining for her the wages she so justly deserved. When will wealthy women reared in idleness and luxury learn the folly of keeping a trained spy attached to their persons?—a spy whose pretended calling is merely to arrange dresses and fripperies (half of which she invariably steals), but whose real delight is to take note of all her mistress's incomings and outgoings, tempers and tears—to watch her looks, her smiles and frowns,—and to start scandalous gossip concerning her in the servants' hall, from whence it gradually spreads to the society newspapers—for do you think these estimable and popular journals are never indebted for their "reliable" information to the "honest" statements of discharged footman or valet? Briggs, for instance, had tried his hand at a paragraph or two concerning the "Upper Ten," and with the aid of a dictionary, had succeeded in expressing himself quite smartly, though in ordinary conversation his h's were often lacking or superfluous, and his grammar doubtful. Whether he persuaded any editor to accept his literary efforts is quite another matter—a question to which the answer must remain for ever enveloped in mystery,—but if he did appear in print (it is only an if!) he must have been immensely gratified to consider that his statements were received with gusto by at least half aristocratic London, and implicitly believed as having emanated from the "best authorities." And Louise Renaud having posted her mistress's letter at last, went down to visit Briggs in his private pantry, and to ask him a question.
"Tell me," she said rapidly, with her tight, prim smile. "You read the papers—you will know. What lady is that of the theatres—Violet Vere?"
Briggs laid down the paper he was perusing and surveyed her with a superior air.
"What, Vi?" he exclaimed with a lazy wink. "Vi, of the Hopperer-Buff? You've 'erd of 'er surely, Mamzelle? No? There's not a man (as is worth calling a man) about town, as don't know 'er! Dukes, Lords, an' Royal 'Ighnesses—she's the style for 'em! Mag-ni-ficent creetur! all legs and arms! I won't deny but wot I 'ave an admiration for 'er myself—I bought a 'arf-crown portrait of 'er quite recently." And Briggs rose slowly and searched in a mysterious drawer which he invariably kept locked.
"'Ere she is, as large as life, Mamzelle," he continued, exhibiting a "promenade" photograph of the actress in question. "There's a neck for you! There's form! Vi, my dear, I saloot you!" and he pressed a sounding kiss on the picture—"you're one in a million! Smokes and drinks like a trooper, Mamzelle!" he added admiringly, as Louise Renaud studied the portrait attentively. "But with all 'er advantages, you would not call 'er a lady. No—that term would be out of the question. She is wot we men would call an enchantin' female!" And Briggs kissed the tips of his fingers and waved them in the air as he had seen certain foreign gentlemen do when enthusiastic.
"I comprehend," said the French maid, nodding emphatically. "Then, if she is so, what makes that proud Seigneur Bruce-Errington visit her?" Here she shook her finger at Briggs. "And leave his beautiful lady wife, to go and see her?" Another shake. "And that miserable Sieur Lennox to go also? Tell me that!" She folded her arms, like Napoleon at St. Helena, and smiled again that smile which was nothing but a sneer. Briggs rubbed his nose contemplatively.
"Little Francis can go ennywheres," he said at last. "He's laid out a good deal of tin on Vi and others of 'er purfession. You cannot make enny-think of that young feller but a cad. I would not accept 'im for my pussonal attendant. No! But Sir Philip Bruce-Errington—" He paused, then continued, "Air you sure of your facts, Mamzelle?"
Mamzelle was so sure, that the bow on her cap threatened to come off with the determined wagging of her head.
"Well," resumed Briggs, "Sir Philip may, like hothers, consider it 'the thing' you know, to 'ang on as it were to Vi. But I 'ad thought 'im superior to it. Ah! poor 'uman natur, as 'Uxley says!" and Briggs sighed. "Lady Errington is a sweet creetur, Mamzelle—a very sweet creetur! Has a rule I find the merest nod of my 'ed a sufficient saloot to a woman of the aristocracy—but for 'er, Mamzelle, I never fail to show 'er up with a court bow!" And involuntarily Briggs bowed then and there in his most elegant manner. Mamzelle tightened her thin lips a little and waved her hand expressively.
"She is an angel of beauty!" she said, "and Miladi Winsleigh is jealous—ah, Dieu! jealous to death of her! She is innocent too—like a baby—and she worships her husband. That is an error! To worship a man is a great mistake—she will find it so. Men are not to be too much loved—no, no!"
Briggs smiled in superb self-consciousness. "Well, well! I will not deny, Mamzelle, that it spoils us," he said complacently. "It certainly spoils us! 'When lovely woman stoops to folly,'—the hold, hold story!"
"You will r-r-r-emember," said Mamzelle, suddenly stepping up very close to him and speaking with a strong accent, "what I have said to-night! Monsieur Briggs, you will r-remember! There will be mees-cheef! Yes—there will be mees-cheef to Sieur Bruce-Errington, and when there is,—I—I, Louise Renaud—I know who ees at the bottom of eet!"
So saying, with a whirl of her black silk dress and a flash of her white muslin apron, she disappeared. Briggs, left alone, sauntered to a looking-glass hanging on the wall and studied with some solicitude a pimple that had recently appeared on his clean-shaven face.
"Mischief!" he soliloquized. "I des-say! Whenever a lot of women gets together, there's sure to be mischief. Dear creeturs! They love it like the best Clicquot. Sprightly young pusson is Mamzelle. Knows who's at the bottom of 'eet,' does she! Well—she's not the only one as knows the same thing. As long as doors 'as cracks and key'oles, it ain't in the least difficult to find out wot goes on inside boo-dwars and drorin'-rooms. And 'ighly interestin' things one 'ears now and then—'ighly interestin'!"
And Briggs leered suavely at his own reflection, and then resumed the perusal of his paper. He was absorbed in the piquant, highly flavored details of a particularly disgraceful divorce case, and he was by no means likely to disturb himself from his refined enjoyment for any less important reason than the summons of Lord Winsleigh's bell, which rang so seldom that, when it did, he made it a point of honor to answer it immediately, for, as he said—
"His lordship knows wot is due to me, and I knows wot is due to 'im—therefore it 'appens we are able to ekally respect each other!"
"If thou wert honorable, Thou would'st have told this tale for virtue, not For such an end thou seek'st; as base, as strange. Thou wrong'st a gentleman who is as far From thy report, as thou from honor." Cymbeline.
Summer in Shakespeare Land! Summer in the heart of England—summer in wooded Warwickshire,—a summer brilliant, warm, radiant with flowers, melodious with the songs of the heaven—aspiring larks, and the sweet, low trill of the forest-hidden nightingales. Wonderful and divine it is to hear the wild chorus of nightingales that sing beside Como in the hot languorous nights of an Italian July—wonderful to hear them maddening themselves with love and music, and almost splitting their slender throats with the bursting bubbles of burning song,—but there is something, perhaps, more dreamily enchanting still,—to hear them warbling less passionately but more plaintively, beneath the drooping leafage of those grand old trees, some of which may have stretched their branches in shadowy benediction over the sacred head of the grandest poet in the world. Why travel to Athens,—why wander among the Ionian Isles for love of the classic ground? Surely, though the clear-brained old Greeks were the founders of all noble literature, they have reached their fulminating point in the English Shakespeare,—and the Warwickshire lanes, decked simply with hawthorn and sweet-briar roses, through which Mary Arden walked leading her boy-angel by the hand, are sacred as any portion of that earth once trodden by the feet of Homer and Plato.
So, at least, Thelma thought, when, released from the bondage of London social life, she found herself once more at Errington Manor, then looking its loveliest, surrounded with a green girdle of oak and beech, and set off by the beauty of velvety lawns and terraces, and rose-gardens in full bloom. The depression from which she had suffered fell away from her completely—she grew light-hearted as a child, and flitted from room to room, singing to herself for pure gladness. Philip was with her all day now, save for a couple of hours in the forenoon which he devoted to letter-writing in connection with his Parliamentary aspirations,—and Philip was tender, adoring and passionate as lovers may be, but as husbands seldom are. They took long walks together through the woods,—they often rambled across the fragrant fields to Anne Hathaway's cottage, which was not very far away, and sitting down in some sequestered nook, Philip would pull from his pocket a volume of the immortal Plays, and read passages aloud in his fine mellow voice, while Thelma, making posies of the meadow flowers, listened entranced. Sometimes, when he was in a more business-like humor, he would bring out Cicero's Orations, and after pondering over them for a while would talk very grandly about the way in which he meant to speak in Parliament.
"They want dash and fire there," he said, "and these qualities must be united with good common sense. In addressing the House, you see, Thelma, one must rouse and interest the men—not bore them. You can't expect fellows to pass a Bill if you've made them long for their beds all the time you've been talking about it."
Thelma smiled and glanced over his shoulder at "Cicero's Orations."
"And do you wish to speak to them like Cicero, my boy?" she said gently. "But I do not think you will find that possible. Because when Cicero spoke it was in a different, age and to very different people—people who were glad to learn how to be wise and brave. But if you were Cicero himself, do you think you would be able to impress the English Parliament?"
"Why not, dear?" asked Errington with some fervor. "I believe that men, taken as men, pur et simple, are the same in all ages, and are open to the same impressions. Why should not modern Englishmen be capable of receiving the same lofty ideas as the antique Romans, and acting upon them?"
"Ah, do not ask me why," said Thelma, with a plaintive little shake of her head—"for I cannot tell you! But remember how many members of Parliament we did meet in London—and where were their lofty ideas? Philip, had they any ideas at all, do you think? There was that very fat gentleman who is a brewer,—well, to hear him talk, would you not think all England was for the making of beer? And he does not care for the country unless it continues to consume his beer! It was to that very man I said something about Hamlet, and he told me he had no interest for such nonsense as Shakespeare and play-going—his time was taken up at the ''Ouse.' You see, he is a member of Parliament—yet it is evident he neither knows the language nor the literature of his country! And there must be many like him, otherwise so ignorant a person would not hold such a position—and for such men, what would be the use of a Cicero?"