BY "THE DUCHESS"
Author of "Molly Bawn," "Phyllis," "Lady Branksmere," "Beauty's Daughters," etc., etc.
Montreal: JOHN LOVELL & SON, 23 St. Nicholas Street.
Entered according to Act of Parliament in the year 1890, by John Lovell & Son, in the office of the Minister of Agriculture and Statistics at Ottawa.
"Must we part? or may I linger? Wax the shadows, wanes the day." Then, with voice of sweetest singer, That hath all but died away, "Go," she said, but tightened finger Said articulately, "Stay!"
"Philosophy triumphs easily over past and over future evils, but present evils triumph over philosophy."
"A letter from my father," says Mr. Monkton, flinging the letter in question across the breakfast-table to his wife.
"A letter from Sir George!" Her dark, pretty face flushes crimson.
"And such a letter after eight years of obstinate silence. There! read it," says her husband, contemptuously. The contempt is all for the writer of the letter.
Mrs. Monkton taking it up, with a most honest curiosity, that might almost be termed anxiety, reads it through, and in turn flings it from her as though it had been a scorpion.
"Never mind, Jack!" says she with a great assumption of indifference that does not hide from her husband the fact that her eyes are full of tears. "Butter that bit of toast for me before it is quite cold, and give Joyce some ham. Ham, darling? or an egg?" to Joyce, with a forced smile that makes her charming face quite sad.
"Have you two been married eight whole years?" asks Joyce laying her elbows on the table, and staring at her sister with an astonished gaze. "It seems like yesterday! What a swindler old Time is. To look at Barbara, one would not believe she could have been born eight years ago."
"Nonsense!" says Mrs. Monkton laughing, and looking as pleased as married women—even the happiest—always do, when they are told they look unmarried. "Why Tommy is seven years old."
"Oh! That's nothing!" says Joyce airily, turning her dark eyes, that are lovelier, if possible, than her sister's, upon the sturdy child who is sitting at his father's right hand. "Tommy, we all know, is much older than his mother. Much more advanced; more learned in the wisdom of this world; aren't you, Tommy?"
But Tommy, at this present moment, is deaf to the charms of conversation, his young mind being nobly bent on proving to his sister (a priceless treasure of six) that the salt-cellar planted between them belongs not to her, but to him! This sounds reasonable, but the difficulty lies in making Mabel believe it. There comes the pause eloquent at last, and then, I regret to say, the free fight!
It might perhaps have been even freer, but for the swift intervention of the paternal relative, who, swooping down upon the two belligerents with a promptitude worthy of all praise, seizes upon his daughter, and in spite of her kicks, which are noble, removes her to the seat on his left hand.
Thus separated hope springs within the breasts of the lookers-on that peace may soon be restored; and indeed, after a sob or two from Mabel, and a few passes of the most reprehensible sort from Tommy (entirely of the facial order), a great calm falls upon the breakfast-room.
"When I was your age, Tommy," says Mr. Monkton addressing his son, and striving to be all that the orthodox parent ought to be, "I should have been soundly whipped if I had behaved to my sister as you have just now behaved to yours!"
"You haven't a sister," says Tommy, after which the argument falls flat. It is true, Mr. Monkton is innocent of a sister, but how did the little demon remember that so apropos.
"Nevertheless," said Mr. Monkton, "if I had had a sister, I know I should not have been unkind to her."
"Then she'd have been unkind to you," says Tommy, who is evidently not afraid to enter upon a discussion of the rights and wrongs of mankind with his paternal relative. "Look at Mabel! And I don't care what she says," with a vindictive glance at the angelic featured Mabel, who glares back at him with infinite promise of a future settlement of all their disputes in her ethereal eyes. "'Twas my salt-cellar, not hers!"
"Ladies first—pleasure afterwards," says his father somewhat idly.
"Oh Freddy!" says his wife.
"Seditious language I call it," says Jocelyne with a laugh.
"Eh?" says Mr. Monkton. "Why what on earth have I been saying now. I quite believed I was doing the heavy father to perfection and teaching Tommy his duty."
"Nice duty," says Jocelyne, with a pretence of indignation, that makes her charming face a perfect picture. "Teaching him to regard us as second best! I like that."
"Good heavens! did I give that impression? I must have swooned," says Mr. Monkton penitently. "When last in my senses I thought I had been telling Tommy that he deserved a good whipping; and that if good old Time could so manage as to make me my own father, he would assuredly have got it."
"Oh! your father!" says Mrs. Monkton in a low tone; there is enough expression in it, however, to convey the idea to everyone present that in her opinion her husband's father would be guilty of any atrocity at a moment's notice.
"Well, 'twas my salt-cellar," says Tommy again stoutly, and as if totally undismayed by the vision of the grand-fatherly scourge held out to him. After all we none of us feel things much, unless they come personally home to us.
"Was it?" says Mr. Monkton mildly. "Do you know, I really quite fancied it was mine."
"What?" says Tommy, cocking his ear. He, like his sister, is in a certain sense a fraud. For Tommy has the face of a seraph with the heart of a hardy Norseman. There is nothing indeed that Tommy would not dare.
"Mine, you know," says his father, even more mildly still.
"No, it wasn't," says Tommy with decision, "it was at my side of the table. Yours is over there."
"Thomas!" says his father, with a rueful shake of the head that signifies his resignation of the argument; "it is indeed a pity that I am not like my father!"
"Like him! Oh no," says Mrs. Monkton emphatically, impulsively; the latent dislike to the family who had refused to recognize her on her marriage with their son taking fire at this speech.
Her voice sounds almost hard—the gentle voice, that in truth was only meant by Mother Nature to give expression to all things kind and loving.
She has leant a little forward and a swift flush is dyeing her cheek. She is of all women the youngest looking, for her years; as a matron indeed she seems absurd. The delicate bloom of girlhood seems never to have left her, but—as though in love of her beauty—has clung to her day by day. So that now, when she has known eight years of married life (and some of them deeply tinctured with care—the cruel care that want of money brings), she still looks as though the morning of womanhood was as yet but dawning for her.
And this is because love the beautifier went with her all the way! Hand in hand he has traveled with her on the stony paths that those who marry must undoubtedly pursue. Never once had he let go his hold, and so it is, that her lovely face has defied Time (though after all that obnoxious Ancient has not had yet much opportunity given him to spoil it), and at twenty-five she looks but a little older than her sister, who is just eighteen, and seven years younger than she is.
Her pretty soft grey Irish eyes, that are as nearly not black as it is possible for them to be, are still filled with the dews of youth. Her mouth is red and happy. Her hair—so distinctly chestnut as to be almost guilty of a shade of red in it here and there—covers her dainty head in rippling masses, that fall lightly forward, and rest upon a brow, snow-white, and low and broad as any Greek's might be.
She had spoken a little hurriedly, with some touch of anger. But quick as the anger was born, so quickly does it die.
"I shouldn't have said that, perhaps," says she, sending a little tremulous glance at her husband from behind the urn. "But I couldn't help it. I can't bear to hear you say you would like to be like him."
She smiles (a little, gentle, "don't-be-angry-with-me" smile, scarcely to be resisted by any man, and certainly not by her husband, who adores her). It is scarcely necessary to record this last fact, as all who run may read it for themselves, but it saves time to put it in black and white.
"But why not, my dear?" says Mr. Monkton, magisterially. "Surely, considering all things, you have reason to be deeply grateful to Sir George. Why, then, abuse him?"
"Grateful! To Sir George! To your father!" cries his wife, hotly and quick, and——
"Freddy!" from his sister-in-law brings him to a full stop for a moment.
"Do you mean to tell me," says he, thus brought to bay, "that you have nothing to thank Sir George for?" He is addressing his wife.
"Nothing, nothing!" declares she, vehemently, the remembrance of that last letter from her husband's father, that still lies within reach of her view, lending a suspicion of passion to her voice.
"Oh, my dear girl, consider!" says Mr. Monkton, lively reproach in his tone. "Has he not given you me, the best husband in Europe?"
"Ah, what it is to be modest," says Joyce, with her little quick brilliant laugh.
"Well, it's not true," says Mrs. Monkton, who has laughed also, in spite of herself and the soreness at her heart. "He did not give you to me. You made me that gift of your own free will. I have, as I said before, nothing to thank him for."
"I always think he must be a silly old man," says Joyce, which seems to put a fitting termination to the conversation.
The silence that ensues annoys Tommy, who dearly loves to hear the human voice divine. As expressed by himself first, but if that be impracticable, well, then by somebody else. Anything is better than dull silence.
"Is he that?" asks he, eagerly, of his aunt.
Though I speak of her as his aunt, I hope it will not be misunderstood for a moment that Tommy totally declines to regard her in any reverential light whatsoever. A playmate, a close friend, a confidante, a useful sort of person, if you will, but certainly not an aunt, in the general acceptation of that term. From the very first year that speech fell on them, both Mabel and he had refused to regard Miss Kavanagh as anything but a confederate in all their scrapes, a friend to rejoice with in all their triumphs; she had never been aunt, never, indeed, even so much as the milder "auntie" to them; she had been "Joyce," only, from the very commencement of their acquaintance. The united commands of both father and mother (feebly enforced) had been insufficient to compel them to address this most charming specimen of girlhood by any grown up title. To them their aunt was just such an one as themselves—only, perhaps, a little more so.
A lovely creature, at all events, and lovable as lovely. A little inconsequent, perhaps at times, but always amenable to reason, when put into a corner, and full of the glad, laughter of youth.
"Is he what?" says she, now returning Tommy's eager gaze.
"The best husband in Europe. He says he's that," with a doubtful stare at his father.
"Why, the very best, of course," says Joyce, nodding emphatically. "Always remember that, Tommy. It's a good thing to be, you know. You'll want to be that, won't you?"
But if she has hoped to make a successful appeal to Tommy's noble qualities (hitherto, it must be confessed, carefully kept hidden), she finds herself greatly mistaken.
"No, I won't," says that truculent person distinctly. "I want to be a big general with a cocked hat, and to kill people. I don't want to be a husband at all. What's the good of that?"
"To pursue the object would be to court defeat," says Mr. Monkton meekly. He rises from the table, and, seeing him move, his wife rises too.
"You are going to your study?" asks she, a little anxiously. He is about to say "no" to this, but a glance at her face checks him.
"Yes, come with me," says he instead, answering the lovely silent appeal in her eyes. That letter has no doubt distressed her. She will be happier when she has talked it over with him—they two alone. "As for you, Thomas," says his father, "I'm quite aware that you ought to be consigned to the Donjon keep after your late behavior, but as we don't keep one on the premises, I let you off this time. Meanwhile I haste to my study to pen, with the assistance of your enraged mother, a letter to our landlord that will induce him to add one on at once to this building. After which we shall be able to incarcerate you at our pleasure (but not at yours) on any and every hour of the day."
"Who's Don John?" asks Tommy, totally unimpressed, but filled with lively memories of those Spaniards and other foreign powers who have unkindly made more difficult his hateful lessons off and on.
"No love lost between us."
"Well," says Mr. Monkton, turning to his wife as the study (a rather nondescript place) is reached. He has closed the door, and is now looking at her with a distinctly quizzical light in his eyes and in the smile that parts his lips. "Now for it. Have no qualms. I've been preparing myself all through breakfast and I think I shall survive it. You are going to have it out with me, aren't you?"
"Not with you," says she, returning his smile indeed, but faintly, and without heart, "that horrid letter! I felt I must talk of it to someone, and——"
"I was that mythical person. I quite understand. I take it as a special compliment."
"I know it is hard on you, but when I am really vexed about anything, you know, I always want to tell you about it."
"I should feel it a great deal harder if you didn't want to tell me about it," says he. He has come nearer to her and has pressed her into a chair—a dilapidated affair that if ever it had a best day has forgotten it by now—and yet for all that is full of comfort. "I am only sorry"—moving away again and leaning against the chimney piece—"that you should be so foolish as to let my father's absurd prejudices annoy you at this time of day."
"He will always have it in his power to annoy me," says she quickly. "That perhaps," with a little burst of feeling, "is why I can't forgive him. If I could forget, or grow indifferent to it all, I should not have this hurt feeling in my heart. But he is your father, and though he is the most unjust, the cruellest man on earth, I still hate to think he should regard me as he does."
"There is one thing, however, you do forget," says Mr. Monkton gravely. "I don't want to apologize for him, but I would remind you that he has never seen you."
"That's only an aggravation of his offence," her color heightening; "the very fact that he should condemn me unseen, unheard, adds to the wrong he has done me instead of taking from it." She rises abruptly and begins to pace up and down the room, the hot Irish blood in her veins afire. "No"—with a little impatient gesture of her small hand—"I can't sit still. Every pulse seems throbbing. He has opened up all the old wounds, and——" She pauses and then turns upon her husband two lovely flashing eyes. "Why, why should he suppose that I am vulgar, lowly born, unfit to be your wife?"
"My darling girl, what can it matter what he thinks? A ridiculous headstrong old man in one scale, and——"
"But it does matter. I want to convince him that I am not—not—what he believes me to be."
"Then come over to England and see him."
"No—never! I shall never go to England. I shall stay in Ireland always. My own land; the land whose people he detests because he knows nothing about them. It was one of his chief objections to your marriage with me, that I was an Irish girl!"
She stops short, as though her wrath and indignation and contempt is too much for her.
"Barbara," says Monkton, very gently, but with a certain reproach, "do you know you almost make me think that you regret our marriage."
"No, I don't," quickly. "If I talked for ever I shouldn't be able to make you think that. But——" She turns to him suddenly, and gazes at him through large eyes that are heavy with tears. "I shall always be sorry for one thing, and that is—that you first met me where you did."
"At your aunt's? Mrs. Burke's?"
"She is not my aunt," with a little frown of distaste; "she is nothing to me so far as blood is concerned. Oh! Freddy." She stops close to him, and gives him a grief-stricken glance. "I wish my poor father had been alive when first you saw me. That we could have met for the first time in the old home. It was shabby—faded"—her face paling now with intense emotion. "But you would have known at once that it had been a fine old place, and that the owner of it——" She breaks down, very slightly, almost imperceptibly, but Monkton understands that even one more word is beyond her.
"That the owner of it, like St. Patrick, came of decent people," quotes he with an assumption of gaiety he is far from feeling. "My good child, I don't want to see anyone to know that of you. You carry the sign manual. It is written in large characters all over you."
"Yet I wish you had known me before my father died," says she, her grief and pride still unassuaged. "He was so unlike anybody else. His manners were so lovely. He was offered a baronetcy at the end of that Whiteboy business on account of his loyalty—that nearly cost him his life—but he refused it, thinking the old name good enough without a handle to it."
"Kavanagh, we all know, is a good name."
"If he had accepted that title he would have been as—the same—as your father!" There is defiance in this sentence.
"Quite the same!"
"No, no, he would not," her defiance now changes into, sorrowful honesty. "Your father has been a baronet for centuries, my father would have only been a baronet for a few years."
"For centuries!" repeats Mr. Monkton with an alarmed air. There is a latent sense of humor (or rather an appreciation of humor) about him that hardly endears him to the opposite sex. His wife, being Irish, condones it, because she happens to understand it, but there are moments, we all know, when even the very best and most appreciative women refuse to understand anything. This is one of them. "Condemn my father if you will," says Mr. Monkton, "accuse him of all the crimes in the calendar, but for my sake give up the belief that he is the real and original Wandering Jew. Debrett—Burke—either of those immaculate people will prove to you that my father ascended his throne in——"
"You can laugh at me if you like, Freddy," says Mrs. Monkton with severity tempered with dignity; "but if you laughed until this day month you couldn't make me forget the things that make me unhappy."
"I don't want to," says Mr. Monkton, still disgracefully frivolous. "I'm one of the things, and yet——"
"Don't!" says his wife, so abruptly, and with such an evident determination to give way to mirth, coupled with an equally strong determination to give way to tears, that he at once lays down his arms.
"Go on then," says he, seating himself beside her. She is not in the arm-chair now, but on an ancient and respectable sofa that gives ample room for the accommodation of two; a luxury denied by that old curmudgeon the arm-chair.
"Well, it is this, Freddy. When I think of that dreadful old woman, Mrs. Burke, I feel as though you thought she was a fair sample of the rest of my family. But she is not a sample, she has nothing to do with us. An uncle of my mother married her because she was rich, and there her relationship to us began and ended."
"Yes, I know, you needn't remind me, it seems burnt into my brain, I know she took us in after my father's death, and covered me and Joyce with benefits when we hadn't a penny in the world we could call our own. I quite understand, indeed, that we should have starved but for her, and yet—yet—" passionately, "I cannot forgive her for perpetually reminding us that we had not that penny!"
"It must have been a bad time," says Monkton slowly. He takes her hand and smoothes it lovingly between both of his.
"She was vulgar. That was not her fault; I forgive her that. What I can't forgive her, is the fact that you should have met me in her house."
"A little unfair, isn't it?"
"Is it? You will always now associate me with her!"
"I shan't indeed. Do you think I have up to this? Nonsense! A more absurd amalgamation I couldn't fancy."
"She was not one of us," feverishly. "I have never spoken to you about this, Freddy, since that first letter your father wrote to you just after our marriage. You remember it? And then, I couldn't explain somehow—but now—this last letter has upset me dreadfully; I feel as if it was all different, and that it was my duty to make you aware of the real truth. Sir George thinks of me as one beneath him; that is not true. He may have heard that I lived with Mrs. Burke, and that she was my aunt; but if my mother's brother chose to marry a woman of no family because she had money,"—contemptuously, "that might disgrace him, but would not make her kin to us. You saw her, you—" lifting distressed eyes to his—"you thought her dreadful, didn't you?"
"I have only had one thought about her. That she was good to you in your trouble, and that but for her I should never have met you."
"That is like you," says she gratefully, yet impatiently. "But it isn't enough. I want you to understand that she is quite unlike my own real people—my father, who was like a prince," throwing up her head, "and my uncle, his brother."
"You have an uncle, then?" with some surprise.
"Oh no, had," sadly.
"He is dead then?"
"Yes. I suppose so. You are wondering," says she quickly, "that I have never spoken to you of him or my father before. But I could not. The thought that your family objected to me, despised me, seemed to compel me to silence. And you—you asked me very little."
"How could I, Barbara? Any attempt I made was repulsed. I thought it kinder to——"
"Yes—I was wrong. I see it now. But I couldn't bear to explain myself. I told you what I could about my father, and that seemed to me sufficient. Your people's determination to regard me as impossible tied my tongue."
"I don't believe it was that," says he laughing. "I believe we were so happy that we didn't care to discuss anything but each other. Delightful subjects full of infinite variety! We have sat so lightly to the world all these years, that if my father's letter had not come this morning I honestly think we should never have thought about him again."
This is scarcely true, but he is bent on giving her mind a happier turn if possible.
"What's the good of talking to me like that, Freddy," says she reproachfully. "You know one never forgets anything of that sort. A slight I mean; and from one's own family. You are always thinking of it; you know you are."
"Well, not always, my dear, certainly—" says Mr. Monkton temporizing. "And if even I do give way to retrospection, it is to feel indignant with both my parents."
"Yes; and I don't want you to feel like that. It must be dreadful, and it is my fault. When I think how I felt towards my dear old dad, and my uncle—I——"
"Well, never mind that. I've got you, and without meaning any gross flattery, I consider you worth a dozen dads. Tell me about your uncle. He died?"
"We don't know. He went abroad fifteen years ago. He must be dead I think, because if he were alive he would certainly have written to us. He was very fond of Joyce and me; but no letter from him has reached us for years. He was charming. I wish you could have known him."
"So do I—if you wish it. But—" coming over and sitting down beside her, "don't you think it is a little absurd, Barbara, after all these years, to think it necessary to tell me that you have good blood in your veins? Is it not a self-evident fact; and—one more word dearest—surely you might do me the credit to understand that I could never have fallen in love with anyone who hadn't an ancestor or two."
"And yet your father——"
"I know," rising to his feet, his brow darkening. "Do you think I don't suffer doubly on your account? That I don't feel the insolence of his behavior toward you four-fold? There is but one excuse for him and my mother, and that lies in their terrible disappointment about my brother—their eldest son."
"I know; you have told me," begins she quickly, but he interrupts her.
"Yes, I have been more open with you than you with me. I feel no pride where you are concerned. Of course my brother's conduct towards them is no excuse for their conduct towards you, but when one has a sore heart one is apt to be unjust, and many other things. You know what a heart-break he has been to the old people, and is! A gambler, a dishonorable gambler!" He turns away from her, and his nostrils dilate a little; his right hand grows clenched. "Every spare penny they possess has been paid over to him of his creditors, and they are not over-burdened with riches. They had set their hearts on him, and all their hopes, and when he failed them they fell back on me. The name is an old one; money was wanted. They had arranged a marriage for me, that would have been worldly wise. I too disappointed them!"
"Oh!" she has sprung to her feet, and is staring at him with horrified eyes. "A marriage! There was someone else! You accuse me of want of candor, and now, you—did you ever mention this before?"
"Now, Barbara, don't be the baby your name implies," says he, placing her firmly back in her seat. "I didn't marry that heiress, you know, which is proof positive that I loved you, not her."
"But she—she—" she stammers and ceases suddenly, looking at him with a glance full of question. Womanlike, everything has given way to the awful thought, that this unknown had not been unknown to him, and that perhaps he had admired—loved——
"Couldn't hold a candle to you," says he, laughing in spite of himself at her expression which, indeed, is nearly tragic. "You needn't suffocate yourself with charcoal because of her. She had made her pile, or rather her father had, at Birmingham or elsewhere, I never took the trouble to inquire, and she was undoubtedly solid in every way, but I don't care for the female giant, and so I—you know the rest, I met you; I tell you this only to soften your heart, if possible, towards these lonely, embittered old people of mine."
"Do you mean that when your brother disappointed them that they——" she pauses.
"No. They couldn't make me their heir. The property is strictly entailed (what is left of it); you need not make yourself miserable imagining you have done me out of anything more than their good-will. George will inherit whatever he has left them to leave."
"It is sad," says she, with downcast eyes.
"Yes. He has been a constant source of annoyance to them ever since he left Eton."
"Where is he now?"
"Abroad, I believe. In Italy, somewhere, or France—not far from a gaming table, you may be sure. But I know nothing very exactly, as he does not correspond with me, and that letter of this morning is the first I have received from my father for four years."
"He must, indeed, hate me," says she, in a low tone. "His elder son such a failure, and you—he considers you a failure, too."
"Well, I don't consider myself so," says he, gaily.
"They were in want of money, and you—you married a girl without a penny."
"I married a girl who was in herself a mine of gold," returns he, laying his hands on her shoulders and giving her a little shake. "Come, never mind that letter, darling; what does it matter when all is said and done?"
"The first after all these years; and the, last—you remember it? It was terrible. Am I unreasonable if I remember it?"
"It was a cruel letter," says he slowly; "to forget it would be impossible, either for you or me. But, as I said just now, how does it affect us? You have me, and I have you; and they, those foolish old people, they have——" He pauses abruptly, and then goes on in a changed tone, "their memories."
"Oh! and sad ones!" cries she, sharply, as if hurt. "It is a terrible picture you have conjured up. You and I so happy, and they—Oh! poor old people!"
"They have wronged you—slighted you—ill-treated you," says he, looking at her.
"But they are unhappy; they must be wretched always about your brother, their first child. Oh! what a grief is theirs!"
"What a heart is yours!" says he, drawing her to him. "Barbara! surely I shall not die until they have met you, and learned why I love you."
"It was a lover and his lass With a hey and a ho, and a hey-nonino! That o'er the green cornfield did pass In the Spring-time, the only pretty ring-time, When birds do sing hey-ding-a-ding, Sweet lovers love the Spring."
Joyce is running through the garden, all the sweet wild winds of heaven playing round her. They are a little wild still. It is the end of lovely May, but though languid Summer is almost with us, a suspicion of her more sparkling sister Spring fills all the air.
Miss Kavanagh has caught up the tail of her gown, and is flying as if for dear life. Behind her come the foe, fast and furious. Tommy, indeed, is now dangerously close at her heels, armed with a ferocious-looking garden fork, his face crimson, his eyes glowing with the ardor of the chase; Mabel, much in the background, is making a bad third.
Miss Kavanagh is growing distinctly out of breath. In another moment Tommy will have her. By this time he has fully worked himself into the belief that he is a Red Indian, and she his lawful prey, and is prepared to make a tomahawk of his fork, and having felled her, to scalp her somehow, when Providence shows her a corner round a rhododendron bush that may save her for the moment. She makes for it, gains it, turns it, dashes round it, and all but precipitates herself into the arms of a young man who has been walking leisurely towards her.
He is a tall young man, not strictly handsome, but decidedly good to look at, with honest hazel eyes, and a shapely head, and altogether very well set up. As a rule he is one of the most cheerful people alive, and a tremendous favorite in his regiment, the —— Hussars, though just now it might suggest itself to the intelligent observer that he considers he has been hardly used. A very little more haste, and that precipitation must have taken place. He had made an instinctive movement towards her with protective arms outstretched; but though a little cry had escaped her, she had maintained her balance, and now stands looking at him with laughing eyes, and panting breath, and two pretty hands pressed against her bosom.
Mr. Dysart lets his disappointed arms fall to his sides, and assumes the aggrieved air of one who has been done out of a good thing.
"You!" says she, when at last she can speak.
"I suppose so," returns he discontentedly. He might just as well have been anyone else, or anywhere else—such a chance—and gone!
"Never were you so welcome!" cries she, dodging behind him as Tommy, fully armed, and all alive, comes tearing round the corner. "Ah, ha, Tommy, sold! I've got a champion now. I'm no longer shivering in my shoes. Mr. Dysart will protect me—won't you, Mr. Dysart?" to the young man, who says "yes" without stirring a muscle. The heaviest bribe would not have induced him to move, because, standing behind him, she has laid her dainty fingers on his shoulders, from which safe position she mocks at Tommy with security. Were the owners of the shoulders to stir, the owners of the fingers might remove the delightful members. Need it be said that, with this awful possibility before him, Mr. Dysart is prepared to die at his post rather than budge an inch.
And, indeed, death seems imminent. Tommy charging round the rhododendron, finding himself robbed of his expected scalp, grows frantic, and makes desperate passes at Mr. Dysart's legs, which that hero, being determined, as I have said, not to stir under any provocation, circumvents with a considerable display of policy, such as:
"I say, Tommy, old boy, is that you? How d'ye do? Glad to see me, aren't you?" This last very artfully with a view to softening the attacks. "You don't know what I've brought you!" This is more artful still, and distinctly a swindle, as he has brought him nothing, but on the spot he determines to redeem himself with the help of the small toy-shops and sweety shops down in the village. "Put down that fork like a good boy, and let me tell you how——"
"Oh, bother you!" says Tommy, indignantly. "I'd have had her only for you! What brought you here now? Couldn't you have waited a bit?"
"Yes! what brought you?" says Miss Kavanagh, most disgracefully going over to the other side, now that danger is at an end, and Tommy has planted his impromptu tomahawk in a bed close by.
"Do you want to know?" says he quickly.
The fingers have been removed from his shoulders, and he is now at liberty to turn round and look at the charming face beside him.
"No, no!" says she, shaking her head. "I've been rude, I suppose. But it is such a wonderful thing to see you here so soon again."
"Why should I not be here?"
"Of course! That is the one unanswerable question. But you must confess it is puzzling to those who thought of you as being elsewhere."
"If you are one of 'those' you fill me with gratitude. That you should think of me even for a moment——"
"Well, I haven't been thinking much," says she, frankly, and with the most delightful if scarcely satisfactory little smile: "I don't believe I was thinking of you at all, until I turned the corner just now, and then, I confess, I was startled, because I believed you at the Antipodes."
"Perhaps your belief was mother to your thought."
"Oh, no. Don't make me out so nasty. Well, but were you there?"
"Perhaps so. Where are they?" asks he gloomily. "One hears a good deal about them, but they comprise so many places that now-a-days one is hardly sure where they exactly lie. At all events no one has made them clear to me."
"Does it rest with me to enlighten you?" asks she, with a little aggravating half glance from under her long lashes; "well—the North Pole, Kamtschatka, Smyrna, Timbuctoo, Maoriland, Margate——"
"We'll stop there, I think," says he, with a faint grimace.
"There! At Margate? No, thanks. You can, if you like, but as for me——"
"I don't suppose you would stop anywhere with me," says he. "I have occasional glimmerings that I hope mean common sense. No, I have not been so adventurous as to wander towards Margate. I have only been to town and back again."
"Eh? What town?" says he astonished. "London, you know."
"No, I don't know," says Miss Kavanagh, a little petulantly. "One would think there was only one town in the world, and that all you English people had the monopoly of it. There are other towns, I suppose. Even we poor Irish insignificants have a town or two. Dublin comes under that head, I suppose?"
"Undoubtedly. Of course," making great haste to abase himself. "It is mere snobbery our making so much of London. A kind of despicable cant, you know."
"Well, after all, I expect it is a big place in every way," says Miss Kavanagh, so far mollified by his submission as to be able to allow him something.
"It's a desert," says Tommy, turning to his aunt, with all the air of one who is about to impart to her useful information. "It's raging with wild beasts. They roam to and fro and are at their wits' ends——" here Tommy, who is great on Bible history, but who occasionally gets mixed, stops short. "Father says they're there," he winds up defiantly.
"Wild beasts!" echoes Mr. Dysart, bewildered. "Is this the teaching about their Saxon neighbors that the Irish children receive at the hands of their parents and guardians. Oh, well, come now, Tommy, really, you know——"
"Yes; they are there," says Tommy, rebelliously. "Frightful beasts! Bears! They'd tear you in bits if they could get at you. They have no reason in them, father says. And they climb up posts, and roar at people."
"Oh, nonsense!" says Mr. Dysart. "One would think we were having a French Revolution all over again in England. Don't you think," glancing severely at Joyce, who is giving way to unrestrained mirth, "that it is not only wrong, but dangerous, to implant such ideas about the English in the breasts of Irish children? There isn't a word of truth in it, Tommy."
"There is!" says Monkton, junior, wagging his head indignantly. "Father told me."
"Father told us," repeats the small Mabel, who has just come up.
"And father says, too, that the reason that they are so wicked is because they want their freedom!" says Tommy, as though this is an unanswerable argument.
"Oh, I see! The socialists!" says Mr. Dysart. "Yes; a troublesome pack! But still, to call them wild beasts——"
"They are wild beasts," says Tommy, prepared to defend his position to the last. "They've got manes, and horns, and tails!"
"He's romancing," says Mr. Dysart looking at Joyce.
"He's not," says she demurely. "He is only trying to describe to you the Zoological Gardens. His father gives him a graphic description of them every evening, and—the result you see."
Here both she and he, after a glance at each other, burst out laughing.
"No wonder you were amused," says he, "but you might have given me a hint. You were unkind to me—as usual."
"Now that you have been to London," says she, a little hurriedly, as if to cover his last words and pretend she hasn't heard them, "you will find our poor Ireland duller than ever. At Christmas it is not so bad, but just now, and in the height of your season, too,——"
"Do you call this place dull?" interrupts he. "Then let me tell you you misjudge your native land; this little bit of it, at all events. I think it not only the loveliest, but the liveliest place on earth."
"You are easily pleased," says she, with a rather embarrassed smile.
"He isn't!" says Tommy, breaking into the conversation with great aplomb. He has been holding on vigorously to Mr. Dysart's right hand for the last five minutes, after a brief but brilliant skirmish with Mabel as to the possession of it—a skirmish brought to a bloodless conclusion by the surrender, on Mr. Dysart's part, of his left hand to the weaker belligerent. "He hates Miss Maliphant, nurse says, though Lady Baltimore wants him to marry her, and she's a fine girl, nurse says, an' raal smart, and with the gift o' the gab, an' lots o' tin——"
"Tommy!" says his aunt frantically. It is indeed plain to everybody that Tommy is now quoting nurse, au naturel, and that he is betraying confidences in a perfectly reckless manner.
"Don't stop him," says Mr. Dysart, glancing at Joyce's crimson cheeks with something of disfavor. "'What's Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba?' I defy you," a little stormily, "to think I care a farthing for Miss Maliphant or for any other woman on earth—save one!"
"Oh, you mustn't press your confidences on me," says she, smiling and dissembling rather finely; "I know nothing. I accuse you of nothing. Only, Tommy, you were a little rude, weren't you?"
"I wasn't," says Tommy, promptly, in whom the inborn instinct of self-defence has been largely developed. "It's true. Nurse says she has a voice like a cow. Is that true?" turning, unabashed to Dysart.
"She's expected at the Castle, next week. You shall come up and judge for yourself," says he, laughing. "And," turning to Joyce, "you will come, too, I hope."
"It is manners to wait to be asked," returns she, smiling.
"Oh, as for that," says he, "Lady Baltimore crossed last night with me and her husband. And here is a letter for you." He pulls a note of the cocked hat order out of one of his pockets.
"Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head? How begot, how nourished? Reply, reply."
"An invitation from Lady Baltimore," says Joyce, looking at the big red crest, and coloring slightly.
"How do you know?" asks she, rather suspiciously.
The young man raises his hands and eyes.
"I swear I had nothing to do with it," says he, "I didn't so much as hint at it. Lady Baltimore spent her time crossing the Channel in declaring to all who were well enough to hear her, that she lived only in the expectation of soon seeing you again."
"Nonsense!" scornfully; "it is only a month ago since I was staying there, just before they went to London. By the bye, what brings them home now? In the very beginning of their season?"
"I don't know. And it is as well not to inquire perhaps. Baltimore and my cousin, as all the world knows, have not hit it off together. Yet when Isabel married him, we all thought it was quite an ideal marriage, they were so much in love with each other."
"Hot love soon cools," says Miss Kavanagh in a general sort of way.
"I don't believe it," sturdily, "if it's the right sort of love. However, to go back to your letter—which you haven't even deigned to open—you will accept the invitation, won't you?"
"I don't know," hesitating.
"Oh! I say, do come! It is only for a week, and even if it does bore you, still, as a Christian, you ought to consider how much, even in that short time, you will be able to add to the happiness of your fellow creatures."
"Flattery means insincerity," says she, tilting her chin, "keep all that sort of thing for your Miss Maliphant; it is thrown away upon me."
"My Miss Maliphant! Really I must protest against your accrediting me with such a possession. But look here, don't disappoint us all; and you won't be dull either, there are lots of people coming. Dicky Brown, for one."
"Oh! will he be there?" brightening visibly.
"Yes," rather gloomily, and perhaps a little sorry that he has said anything about Mr. Browne's possible arrival—though to feel jealousy about that social butterfly is indeed to sound the depths of folly; "you like him?"
"I love him," says Miss Kavanagh promptly and with sufficient enthusiasm to restore hope in the bosom of any man except a lover.
"He is blessed indeed," says he stiffly. "Beyond his deserts I can't help thinking. I really think he is the biggest fool I ever met."
"Oh! not the biggest, surely," says she, so saucily, and with such a reprehensible tendency towards laughter, that he gives way and laughs too, though unwillingly.
"True. I'm a bigger," says he, "but as that is your fault, you should be the last to taunt me with it."
"Foolish people always talk folly," says she with an assumption of indifference that does not hide her red cheeks. "Well, go on, who is to be at the Court besides Dicky?"
"I like her too."
"But not so well as you like Dicky, you love him according to your own statement."
"Don't be matter-of-fact!" says Miss Kavanagh, giving him a well-deserved snub. "Do you always say exactly what you mean?"
"I daresay you would be more interesting if you didn't," says she, with a little, lovely smile, that quite spoils the harshness of her words. Of her few faults, perhaps the greatest is, that she seldom knows her own mind, where her lovers are concerned, and will blow hot and cold, and merry and sad, and cheerful, and petulant all in one breath as it were. Poor lovers! they have a hard time of it with her as a rule. But youth is often so, and the cold, still years, as they creep on us, with dull common sense and deadly reason in their train, cure us all too soon of our pretty idle follies.
Just now she was bent on rebuffing him, but you see her strength failed her, and she spoiled her effect by the smile she mingled with the rebuff. The smile indeed was so charming that he remembers nothing but it, and so she not only gains nothing, but loses something to the other side.
"Well, I'll try to mend all that," says he, but so lovingly, and with such unaffected tenderness, that she quails beneath his glance. Coquette as undoubtedly Nature has made her, she has still so gentle a soul within her bosom that she shrinks from inflicting actual pain. A pang or two, a passing regret to be forgotten the next hour—or at all events in the next change of scene—she is not above imparting, but when people grow earnest like—like Mr. Dysart for example—they grow troublesome. And she hasn't made up her mind to marry, and there are other people——
"The Clontarfs are to be there too," goes on Dysart, who is a cousin of Lady Baltimore's, and knows all about her arrangements; "and the Brownings, and Norman Beauclerk."
"The—Clontarfs," says Joyce, in a hurried way, that might almost be called confused; to the man who loves her, and who is watching her, it is quite plain that she is not thinking of Lord and Lady Clontarf, who are quite an ordinary couple and devoted to each other, but of that last name spoken—Norman Beauclerk; Lady Baltimore's brother, a man, handsome, agreeable, aristocratic—the man whose attentions to her a month ago had made a little topic for conversation amongst the country people. Dull country people who never go anywhere or see anything beyond their stupid selves, and who are therefore driven to do something or other to avoid suicide or the murdering of each other; gossip unlimited is their safety valve.
"Yes, and Beauclerk," persists Dysart, a touch of despair at his heart; "you and he were good friends when last he was over, eh?"
"I am generally very good friends with everybody; not an altogether desirable character, not a strong one," says she smiling, and still openly parrying the question.
"You liked Beauclerk," says he, a little doggedly perhaps.
"Very much! Why can't you be honest!" says he flashing out at her.
"I don't know what you mean," coldly. "If, however, you persist on my looking into it, I—" defiantly—"yes, I do like Mr. Beauclerk very much."
"Well, I don't know what you see in that fellow."
"Nothing," airily, having now recovered herself, "that's his charm."
"If," gravely, "you gave that as your opinion of Dicky Browne I could believe you."
"Poor Dicky," says she, "what a cruel judgment; and yet you are right;" she has changed her whole manner, and is now evidently bent on restoring him to good humor, and compelling him to forget all about Mr. Beauclerk. "I must give in to you about Dicky. There isn't even the vaguest suggestion of meaning about him. I—" with a deliberate friendly glance flung straight into his eyes—"don't often give in to you, do I?"
On this occasion, however, her coquetry—so generally successful—is completely thrown away. Dysart, with his dark eyes fixed uncompromisingly upon hers, makes the next move—an antagonistic one.
"You have a very high opinion of Beauclerk," says he.
"Have I?" laughing uneasily, and refusing to let her rising temper give way. "We all have our opinions on every subject that comes under our notice. You have one on this subject evidently."
"Yes, but it is not a high one," says he unpleasantly.
"After all, what does that matter? I don't pretend to understand you. I will only suggest to you that our opinions are but weak things—mere prejudices—no more."
"I am not prejudiced against Beauclerk, if you mean that," a little hotly.
"I didn't," with a light shrug. "Believe me, you think a great deal more about him than I do."
"Are you sure of that?"
"I am at all events sure of one thing," says she quickly darting at him a frowning glance, "that you have no right to ask me that question."
"I have not indeed," acknowledges he stiffly still, but with so open an apology in his whole air that she forgives him. "Many conflicting thoughts led me astray. I must ask your pardon."
"Why, granted!" says she. "And—I was cross, wasn't I? After all an old friend like you might be allowed a little laxity. There, never mind," holding out her hand. "Let us make it up."
Dysart grasps the little extended hand with avidity, and peace seems restored when Tommy puts an end to all things. To anyone acquainted with children I need hardly remark that he has been listening to the foregoing conversation with all his ears and all his eyes and every bit of his puzzled intelligence.
"Well, go on," says he, giving his aunt a push when the friendly hand-shake has come to an end.
"Go on? Where?" asks she, with apparent unconcern but a deadly foreboding at her breast. She knows her Tommy.
"You said you were going to make it up with him!" says that hero, regarding her with disapproving eyes.
"Well, I have made it up."
"No, you haven't! When you make it up with me you always kiss me! Why don't you kiss him?"
Consternation on the part of the principal actors. Dysart, strange to say, is the first to recover.
"Why indeed?" says he, giving way all at once to a fatal desire for laughter. This, Miss Kavanagh, being vexed with herself for her late confusion, resents strongly.
"I am sure, Tommy," says she, with a mildness that would not have imposed upon an infant, "that your lesson hour has arrived. Come, say good-bye to Mr. Dysart, and let us begin at once. You know I am going to teach you to-day. Good-bye, Mr. Dysart—if you want to see Barbara, you will find her very probably in the study."
"Don't go like this," says he anxiously. "Or if you will go, at least tell me that you will accept Lady Baltimore's invitation."
"I don't know," smiling coldly. "I think not. You see I was there for such a long time in the beginning of the year, and Barbara always wants me, and one should not be selfish you know."
"One should not indeed!" says he, with slow meaning. "What answer, then, must I give my cousin? You know," in a low tone, "that she is not altogether happy. You can lighten her burden a little. She is fond of you."
"I can lighten Barbara's burden also. Think me the very incarnation of selfishness if you will," says she rather unjustly, "but still, if Barbara says 'don't go,' I shall stay here."
"Mrs. Monkton won't say that."
"Perhaps not," toying idly with a rose, in such a careless fashion as drives him to despair. Brushing it to and fro across her lips she seems to have lost all interest in the question in hand.
"If she says to you 'go,' how then?"
"Why then—I may still remain here."
"Well stay then, of course, if you so desire it!" cries he angrily. "If to make all your world unhappy is to make you happy, why be so by all means."
"All my world! Do you suppose then that it will make Barbara and Freddy unhappy to have my company? What a gallant speech!" says she, with a provoking little laugh and a swift lifting of her eyes to his.
"No, but it will make other people (more than twice two) miserable to be deprived of it."
"Are you one of that quartette?" asks she, so saucily, yet withal so merrily that the hardest-hearted lover might forgive her. A little irresistible laugh breaks from her lips. Rather ruefully he joins in it.
"I don't think I need answer that question," says he. "To you at all events."
"To me of all people rather," says she still laughing, "seeing I am the interested party."
"No, that character belongs to me. You have no interest in it. To me it is life or death—to—you——"
"No, no, you mustn't talk to me like that. You know I forbid you last time we met, and you promised me to be good."
"I promised then the most difficult thing in the world. But never mind me; the principal thing is, your acceptance or rejection of that note. Joyce!" in a low tone, "say you will accept it."
"Well," relenting visibly, and now refusing to meet his eyes, "I'll ask Barbara, and if she says I may go I——" pause.
"You will then accept?" eagerly.
"I shall then—think about it."
"You look like an angel," says he, "and you have the heart of a flint."
This remark, that might have presumably annoyed another girl, seems to fill Miss Kavanagh with mirth.
"Am I so bad as that?" cries she, gaily. "Why I shall make amends then. I shall change my evil ways. As a beginning, see here. If Barbara says go to the Court, go I will. Now, stern moralist! where are you?"
"In the seventh heaven," says he, promptly. "Be it a Fool's Paradise or otherwise, I shall take up my abode there for the present. And now you will go and ask Mrs. Monkton?"
"In what a hurry to get rid of me!" says this coquette of all coquettes. "Well, good-bye then——"
"Oh no, don't go."
"To the Court? Was ever man so unreasonable? In one breath 'do' and 'don't'!"
"Was ever woman so tormenting?"
"Tormenting? No, so discerning if you will, or else so——"
"Adorable! You can't find fault with that at all events."
"And therefore my mission is at an end! Good-bye, again."
"Good-bye." He is holding her hand as though he never means to let her have it again. "That rose," says he, pointing to the flower that had kissed her lips so often. "It is nothing to you, you can pick yourself another, give it to me."
"I can pick you another too, a nice fresh one," says she. "Here," moving towards a glowing bush; "here is a bud worth having."
"Not that one," hastily. "Not one this garden, or any other garden holds, save the one in your hand. It is the only one in the world of roses worth having."
"I hate to give a faded gift," says she, looking at the rose she holds with apparent disfavor.
"Then I shall take it," returns he, with decision. He opens her pretty pink palm, releases the dying rosebud from it and places it triumphantly in his coat.
"You haven't got any manners," says she, but she laughs again as she says it.
"Except bad ones you should add."
"Yes, I forgot that. A point lost. Good-bye now, good-bye indeed."
She waves her hand lightly to him and calling to the children runs towards the house. It seems as if she has carried all the beauty and brightness and sweetness of the day with her.
As Dysart turns back again, the afternoon appears grey and gloomy.
"Look ere thou leap, see ere thou go."
"Well, Barbara, can I go?"
"I don't know"—doubtfully. There is a cloud on Mrs. Monkton's brow, she is staring out of the window instead of into her sister's face, and she is evidently a little distressed or uncertain. "You have been there so lately, and——"
"You want to say something," says the younger sister, seating herself on the sofa, and drawing Mrs. Monkton down beside her. "Why don't you do it?"
"You can't want to go so very much, can you now?" asks the latter, anxiously, almost entreatingly.
"It is I who don't know this time!" says Joyce, with a smile. "And yet——"
"It seems only like yesterday that you came back after spending a month there."
"A yesterday that dates from six weeks ago," a little reproachfully.
"I know. You like being there. It is a very amusing house to be at. I don't blame you in any way. Lord and Lady Baltimore are both charming in their ways, and very kind, and yet——"
"There, don't stop; you are coming to it now, the very heart of the meaning. Go on," authoritatively, and seizing her sister in her arms, "or I'll shake it out of you."
"It is this then," says Mrs. Monkton slowly. "I don't think it is a wise thing for you to go there so often."
"Oh Barbara! Owl of Wisdom as thou art, why not?" The girl is laughing, yet a deep flush of color has crept into each cheek.
"Never mind the why not. Perhaps it is unwise to go anywhere too often; and you must acknowledge that you spent almost the entire spring there."
"Well, I hinted all that to Mr. Dysart."
"Was he here?"
"Yes. He came down from the Court with the note."
"And—who else is to be there?"
"Oh! the Clontarfs, and Dicky Browne, and Lady Swansdown and a great many others."
"Mr. Beauclerk?" she does not look at Joyce as she asks this question.
A little silence follows, broken at last by Joyce.
"May I go?"
"Do you think it is the best thing for you to do?" says Mrs. Monkton, flushing delicately. "Think, darling! You know—you must know, because you have it always before you," flushing even deeper, "that to marry into a family where you are not welcomed with open heart is to know much private discomfiture."
"I know this too," says the girl, petulantly, "that to be married to a man like Freddy, who consults your lightest wish, and is your lover always, is worth the enduring of anything."
"I think that too," says Mrs. Monkton, who has now grown rather pale. "But there is still one more thing to know—that in making such a marriage as we have described, a woman lays out a thorny path for her husband. She separates him from his family, and as all good men have strong home ties, she naturally compels him to feel many a secret pang."
"But he has his compensations. Do you think if Freddy got the chance, he would give you up and go back to his family?"
"No—not that. But to rejoice in that thought is to be selfish. Why should he not have my love and the love of his people too? There is a want somewhere. What I wish to impress upon you, Joyce, is this, that a woman who marries a man against his parents' wishes has much to regret, much to endure."
"I think you are ungrateful," says the girl a little vehemently. "Freddy has made you endure nothing. You are the happiest married woman I know."
"Yes, but I have made him endure a great deal," says Mrs. Monkton in a low tone. She rises, and going to the window, stands there looking out upon the sunny landscape, but seeing nothing.
"Barbara! you are crying," says Joyce, going up to her abruptly, and folding her arms round her.
"It is nothing, dear. Nothing at all, darling. Only—I wish he and his father were friends again. Freddy is too good a man not to regret the estrangement."
"I believe you think Freddy is a little god!" says Joyce laughing.
"O! not a little one," says Mrs. Monkton, and as Freddy stands six foot one in his socks, they both laugh at this.
"Still you don't answer me," says the girl presently. "You don't say 'you may' or 'you shan't'—which is it to be, Barbara?"
Her tone is distinctly coaxing now, and as she speaks she gives her sister a little squeeze that is plainly meant to press the desired permission out of her.
Still Mrs. Monkton hesitates.
"You see," says she temporizing, "there are so many reasons. The Court," pausing and flushing, "is not quite the house for so young a girl as you."
"You can't misunderstand me," says her sister with agitation. "You know how I like, love Lady Baltimore, and how good Lord Baltimore has been to Freddy. When his father cast him off there was very little left to us for beginning housekeeping with, and when Lord Baltimore gave him his agency—Oh, well! it isn't likely we shall either of us forget to be grateful for that. If it was only for ourselves I should say nothing, but it is for you, dear; and—this unfortunate affair—this determined hostility that exists between Lord and Lady Baltimore, makes it unpleasant for the guests. You know," nervously, "I hate gossip of any sort, but one must defend one's own."
"But there is nothing unpleasant; one sees nothing. They are charming to each other. I have been staying there and I know."
"Have I not stayed there too? It is impossible Joyce to fight against facts. All the world knows they are not on good terms."
"Well, a great many other people aren't perhaps."
"When they aren't the tone of the house gets lowered. And I have noticed of late that they have people there, who——"
"Who what, Barbara?"
"Oh yes, I know they are all right; they are received everywhere, but are they good companions for a girl of your years? It is not a healthy atmosphere for you. They are rich people who think less of a hundred guineas than you do of five. Is it wise, I ask you again to accustom yourself to their ways?"
"Nonsense, Barbara!" says her sister, looking at her with a growing surprise. "That is not like you. Why should we despise the rich, why should we seek to emulate them? Surely both you and I have too good blood in our veins to give way to such follies." She leans towards Mrs. Monkton, and with a swift gesture, gentle as firm, turns her face to her own.
"Now for the real reason," says she.
Unthinkingly she has brought confusion on herself. Barbara, as though stung to cruel candor, gives her the real reason in a sentence.
"Tell me this," says she, "which do you like best, Mr. Dysart, or Mr. Beauclerk?"
Joyce, taking her arm from round her sister's neck, moves back from her. A deep color has flamed into her cheeks, then died away again. She looks quite calm now.
"What a question," says she.
"Well," feverishly, "answer it."
"Oh, no," says the girl quickly.
"Why not? Why not answer it to me, your chief friend? You think the question indelicate, but why should I shrink from asking a question on which, perhaps, the happiness of your life depends? If—if you have set your heart on Mr. Beauclerk——" She stops, checked by something in Miss Kavanagh's face.
"Well, what then?" asks the latter coldly.
"It will bring you unhappiness. He is Lady Baltimore's brother. She already plans for him. The Beauclerks are poor—he is bound to marry money."
"That is a good deal about Mr. Beauclerk, but what about the other possible suitor whom you suppose I am madly in love with?"
"Don't talk to me like that, Joyce. Do you think I have anything at heart except your interests? As to Mr. Dysart, if you like him, I confess I should be glad of it. He is only a cousin of the Baltimores, and of such moderate means that they would scarcely object to his marrying a penniless girl."
"You rate me highly," says Joyce, with a sudden rather sharp little laugh. "I am good enough for the cousin—I am not good enough for the brother, who may reasonably look higher."
"Not higher," haughtily. "He can only marry a girl of good birth. You are that, but he, in his position, will look for money, or else his people will look for it for him. Whereas, Mr. Dysart——"
"Yes, you needn't go over it all. Mr. Dysart is about on a level with me, he will never have any money, neither shall I." Suddenly she looks round at her sister, her eyes very bright. "Tell me then," says she, "what does it all come to? That I am bound to refuse to marry a man because he has money, and because I have none."
"That is not the argument," says Barbara anxiously.
"I think it is."
"It is not. I advise you strongly not to think of Mr. Beauclerk, yet he has no money to speak of."
"He has more than Freddy."
"But he is a different man from Freddy—with different tastes, different aspirations, different——He's different," emphatically, "in every way!"
"To be different from the person one loves is not to be a bad man," says Joyce slowly, her eyes on the ground.
"My dear girl, who has called Mr. Beauclerk a bad man?"
"You don't like him," says Miss Kavanagh, still more slowly, still with thoughtful eyes downcast.
"I like Mr. Dysart better if you mean that."
"No, I don't mean that. And, besides, that is no answer."
"Was there a question?"
"Yes. Why don't you like Mr. Beauclerk?"
"Have I said I didn't like him?"
"Not in so many words, but——Well, why don't you?"
"I don't know," rather lamely.
Miss Kavanagh laughs a little satirically, and Mrs. Monkton, objecting to mirth of that description, takes fire.
"Why do you like him?" asks she defiantly.
"I don't know either," returns Joyce, with a rueful smile. "And after all I'm not sure that I like him so very much. You evidently imagine me to be head over ears in love with him, yet I, myself, scarcely know whether I like him or not."
"You always look at him so kindly, and you always pull your skirts aside to give him a place by your side."
"I should do that for Tommy."
"Would you? That would be too kind," says Tommy's mother, laughing. "It would mean ruin to your skirts in two minutes."
"But, consider the gain. The priceless scraps, of wisdom I should hear, even whilst my clothes were being demolished."
This has been a mere interlude, unintentional on the part of either, and, once over, neither knows how to go on. The question must be settled one way or the other.
"There is one thing," says Mrs. Monkton, at length, "You certainly prefer Mr. Beauclerk to Mr. Dysart."
"Do I? I wish I knew as much about myself as you know about me. And, after all, it is of no consequence whom I like. The real thing is——Come, Barbara, you who know so much can tell me this——"
"Well?" says Mrs. Monkton, seeing she has grown very red, and is evidently hesitating.
"No. This absurd conversation has gone far enough. I was going to ask you to solve a riddle, but——"
"You are too serious about it."
"Not too serious. It is very important."
"Oh, Barbara, do you know what you are saying?" cries the girl with an angry little stamp, turning to her a face pale and indignant. "You have been telling me in so many words that I am in love with either Mr. Beauclerk or Mr. Dysart. Pray now, for a change, tell me which of them is in love with me."
"Mr. Dysart," says Barbara quietly.
Her sister laughs angrily.
"You think everybody who looks at me is in love with me."
"Meaning Mr. Beauclerk."
"No," slowly. "I think he likes you, too, but he is a man who will always think. You know he has come in for that property in Hampshire through his uncle's death, but he got no money with it. It is a large place, impossible to keep up without a large income, and his uncle left every penny away from him. It is in great disrepair, the house especially. I hear it is falling to pieces. Mr. Beauclerk is an ambitious man, he will seek means to rebuild his house."
"Well what of that? It is an interesting bit of history, but how does it concern me? Take that troubled look out of your eyes, Barbara. I assure you Mr. Beauclerk is as little to me as I am to him."
She speaks with such evident sincerity, with such an undeniable belief in the truth of her own words, that Mrs. Monkton, looking at her and reading her soul through her clear eyes, feels a weight lifted from her heart.
"That is all right then," says she simply. She turns as if to go away, but Miss Kavanagh has still a word or two to say.
"I may go to the Court?" says she.
"Yes; I suppose so."
"But you won't be vexed if I go, Barbie?"
"No; not now."
"Well," slipping her arm through hers, with an audible sigh of delight. "That's settled."
"Things generally do get settled the way you want them to be," says Mrs. Monkton, laughing. "Come, what about your frocks, eh?"
From this out they spend a most enjoyable hour or two.
"Or if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer, That leaves look pale, thinking the winter's near."
The visit to the Court being decided on, Miss Kavanagh undertakes life afresh, with a joyous heart. Lord and Lady Baltimore are the best host and hostess in the world, and a visit to them means unmixed pleasure while it lasts. The Court is, indeed, the pleasantest house in the county, the most desirable in all respects, and the gayest. Yet, strange and sad to add, happiness has found no bed within its walls.
This is the more remarkable in that the marriage of Lord and Lady Baltimore had been an almost idealistic one. They had been very much in love with each other. All the hosts of friends and relations that belonged to either side had been delighted with the engagement. So many imprudent marriages were made, so many disastrous ones; but here was a marriage where birth and money went together, and left no guardians or parents lamenting. All Belgravia stood still and stared at the young couple with genuine admiration. It wasn't often that love, pure and simple, fell into their midst, and such a satisfactory love too! None of your erratic darts that struck the wrong breasts, and created confusion for miles round, but a thoroughly proper, respectable winged arrow that pierced the bosoms of those who might safely be congratulated on the reception of it.
They had, indeed, been very much in love with each other. Few people have known such extreme happiness as fell to their lot for two whole years. They were wrapt up in each other, and when the little son came at the end of that time, nothing seemed wanted. They grew so strong in their belief in the immutability of their own relations, one to the other, that when the blow fell that separated them, it proved a very lightning-stroke, dividing soul from body.
Lady Baltimore could be at no time called a beautiful woman. But there is always a charm in her face, a strength, an attractiveness that might well defy the more material charms of a lovelier woman than herself. With a soul as pure as her face, and a mind entirely innocent of the world's evil ways—and the sad and foolish secrets she is compelled to bear upon her tired bosom from century to century—she took with a bitter hardness the revelations of her husband's former life before he married her, related to her by—of course—a devoted friend.
Unfortunately the authority was an undeniable one. It was impossible for Lady Baltimore to refuse to believe. The past, too, she might have condoned; though, believing in her husband as she did, it would always have been bitter to her, but the devoted friend—may all such meet their just reward!—had not stopped there; she had gone a step further, a fatal step; she had told her something that had not occurred since their marriage.
Perhaps the devoted friend believed in her lie, perhaps she did not. Anyway, the mischief was done. Indeed, from the beginning seeds of distrust had been laid, and, buried in so young and unlearned a bosom, had taken a fatal grip.
The more fatal in that there was truth in them. As a fact, Lord Baltimore had been the hero of several ugly passages in his life. His early life, certainly; but a young wife who has begun by thinking him immaculate, would hardly be the one to lay stress upon that. And when her friend, who had tried unsuccessfully to marry Lord Baltimore and had failed, had in the kindliest spirit, of course, opened her eyes to his misdoings, she had at first passionately refused to listen, then had listened, and after that was ready to listen to anything.
One episode in his past history had been made much of. The sorry heroine of it had been an actress. This was bad enough, but when the disinterested friend went on to say that Lord Baltimore had been seen in her company only so long ago as last week, matters came to a climax. That was a long time ago from to-day, but the shock when it came shattered all the sacred feelings in Lady Baltimore's heart. She grew cold, callous, indifferent. Her mouth, a really beautiful feature, that used to be a picture of serenity and charity personified, hardened. She became austere, cold. Not difficult, so much as unsympathetic. She was still a good hostess, and those who had known her before her misfortune still loved her. But she made no new friends, and she sat down within herself, as it were, and gave herself up to her fate, and would probably have died or grown reckless but for her little son.
And it was after the birth of this beloved child that she had been told that her husband had again been seen in company with Madame Istray; that seemed to add fuel to the fire already kindled. She could not forgive that. It was proof positive of his baseness.
To the young wife it was all a revelation, a horrible one. She had been so stunned by it, that she, accepted it as it stood, and learning that the stories of his life before marriage were true, had decided that the stories told of his life after marriage were true also. She was young, and youth is always hard.
To her no doubt remained of his infidelity. She had come of a brave old stock, who, if they could not fight, could at least endure in silence, and knew well the necessity of keeping her name out of the public mouth. She kept herself well in hand, therefore, and betrayed nothing of all she had been feeling. She dismissed her friend with a gentle air, dignified, yet of sufficient haughtiness to let that astute and now decidedly repentant lady know that never again would she enter the doors of the Court, or any other of Lady Baltimore's houses; yet she restrained herself all through so well that, even until the very end came, her own husband never knew how horribly she suffered through her disbelief in him.
He thought her heartless. There was no scandal, no public separation. She said a word or two to him that told him what she had heard, and when he tried to explain the truths of that last libel that had declared him unfaithful to her since her marriage, she had silenced him with so cold, so scornful, so contemptuous a glance and word, that, chilled and angered in his turn, he had left her.
Twice afterwards he had sought to explain matters, but it was useless. She would not listen; the treacherous friend, whom she never betrayed, had done her work well. Lady Baltimore, though she never forgave her, would not forgive her husband either; she would make no formal attempt at a separation. Before the world she and he lived together, seemingly on the best terms; at all events on quite as good terms as most of their acquaintances; yet all the world knew how it was with them. So long as there are servants, so long will it be impossible to effectually conceal our most sacred secrets.
Her friends, when the Baltimores went to visit them, made arrangements to suit them. It was a pity, everybody said, that such complications should have arisen, and one would not have expected it from Isabel, but then she seemed so cold, that probably a climax like that did not affect her as much as it might another. She was so entirely wrapped up in her boy—some women were like that—a child sufficed them. And as for Lord Baltimore—Cyril—why——Judgment was divided here; the women taking his part, the men hers. The latter finding an attraction hardly to be defined in her pure, calm, rather impenetrable face, that had yet a smile so lovely that it could warm the seemingly cold face into a something that was more effective than mere beauty. It was a wonderful smile, and, in spite of all her troubles, was by no means rare. Lady Baltimore, they all acknowledged, was a delightful guest and hostess.
As for Lord Baltimore, he—well, he would know how to console himself. Society, the crudest organization on earth, laughed to itself about him. He had known how to live before his marriage; now that the marriage had proved a failure, he would still know how to make life bearable.
In this they wronged him.
"Ils n'employent les paroles que pour deguiser leurs pensees."—VOLTAIRE.
Even the most dyspeptic of the guests had acknowledged at breakfast, some hours ago now, that a lovelier day could hardly be imagined. Lady Baltimore, with a smile, had agreed with him. It was, indeed, impossible not to agree with him. The sun was shining high in the heavens, and a soft, velvetty air blew through the open windows right on to the table.
"What shall we do to-day?" Lady Swansdown, one of the guests, had asked, addressing her question to Lord Baltimore, who just then was helping his little son to porridge.
Whatever she liked.
"Then nothing!" says she, in that soft drawl of hers, and that little familiar imploring, glance of hers at her hostess, who sat behind the urn, and glanced back at her ever so kindly.
"Yes, it was too warm to dream of exertion; would Lady Swansdown like, to remain at home then, and dream away the afternoon in a hammock?"
"Dreams were delightful; but to dream alone——"
"Oh, no; they would all, or at least most of them, stay with her." It was Lady Baltimore who had said this, after waiting in vain for her husband to speak—to whom, indeed, Lady Swansdown's question had been rather pointedly addressed.
So at home they all had stayed. No one being very keen about doing anything on a day so sultry.
Yet now, when luncheon is at an end, and the day still heavy with heat, the desire for action that lies in every breast takes fire. They are all tired of doing nothing. The Tennis-courts lie invitingly empty, and rackets thrust themselves into notice at every turn; as for the balls, worn out from ennui, they insert themselves under each arched instep, threatening to bring the owners to the ground unless picked up and made use of.
"Who wants a beating?" demands Mr. Browne at last, unable to pretend lassitude any longer. Taking up a racket he brandishes it wildly, presumably to attract attention. This is necessary. As a rule nobody pays any attention to Dicky Browne.
He is a nondescript sort of young man, of the negative order; with no features to speak of, and a capital opinion of himself. Income vague. Age unknown.
"Well! That's one way of putting it," says Miss Kavanagh, with a little tilt of her pretty chin.
"Is it a riddle?" asks Dysart. "If so I know it. The answer is—Dicky Browne."
"Oh, I like that!" says Mr. Browne unabashed. "See here, I'll give you plus fifteen, and a bisque, and start myself at minus thirty, and beat you in a canter."
"Dear Mr. Browne, consider the day! I believe there are such things as sunstrokes," says Lady Swansdown, in her sweet treble.
"There are. But Dicky's all right," says Lord Baltimore, drawing up a garden chair close to hers, and seating himself upon it. "His head is safe. The sun makes no impression upon granite!"
"Ah, granite! that applies to a heart not a head," says Lady Swansdown, resting her blue eyes on Baltimore's for just a swift second.
It is wonderful, however, what her eyes can do in a second. Baltimore laughs lightly, returns her glance four-fold, and draws his chair a quarter of an inch closer to hers. To move it more than that would have been an impossibility. Lady Swansdown makes a slight movement. With a smile seraphic as an angel's, she pulls her lace skirts a little to one side, as if to prove to Baltimore that he has encroached beyond his privileges upon her domain. "People should not crush people. And why do you want to get so very close to me?" This question lies within the serene eyes she once more raises to his.
She is a lovely woman, blonde, serene, dangerous! In each glance she turns upon the man who happens at any moment to be next to her, lies an entire chapter on the "Whole Art of Flirtation." Were she reduced to penury, and the world a little more advanced in its fashionable ways, she might readily make a small fortune in teaching young ladies "How to Marry Well." No man could resist her pupils, once properly finished by her and turned out to prey upon the stronger sex. "The Complete Angler" would be a title they might filch with perfect honor and call their own.
She is a tall beauty, with soft limbs, graceful as a panther, or a cat. Her eyes are like the skies in summer time, her lips sweet and full. The silken hair that falls in soft masses on her Grecian brow is light as corn in harvest, and she has hands and feet that are absolutely faultless. She has even more than all these—a most convenient husband, who is not only now but apparently always in a position of trust abroad. Very much abroad. The Fiji, or the Sandwich Islands for choice. One can't hear from those centres of worldly dissipation in a hurry. And after all, it really doesn't very much matter where he is!
There had been a whisper or two in the County about her and Lord Baltimore. Everybody knew the latter had been a little wild since his estrangement with his wife, but nothing to signify very much—nothing that one could lay one's finger on, until Lady Swansdown had come down last year to the Court. Whether Baltimore was in love with her was uncertain, but all were agreed that she was in love with him. Not that she made an esclandre of any sort, but one could see! And still! she was such a friend of Lady Baltimore's—an old friend. They had been girls together—that was what was so wonderful! And Lady Baltimore made very much of her, and treated her with the kindliest observances, and——But one had often heard of the serpent that one nourished in one's bosom only that it might come to life and sting one! The County grew wise over this complication; and perhaps when Mrs. Monkton had hinted to Joyce of the "odd people" the Baltimores asked to the Court, she had had Lady Swansdown in her mind.
"Whose heart?" asks Baltimore, a propos of her last remark. "Yours?"
It is a leading remark, and something in the way it is uttered strikes unpleasantly on the ears of Dysart. Baltimore is bending over his lovely guest, and looking at her with an admiration too open to be quite respectful. But she betrays no resentment. She smiles back at him indeed in that little slow, seductive way of hers, and makes him an answer in a tone too low for even those nearest to her to hear. It is a sort of challenge, a tacit acknowledgment that they two are alone even in the midst of all these tiresome people.
Baltimore accepts it. Of late he has grown a little reckless. The battling against circumstances has been too much for him. He has gone under. The persistent coldness of his wife, her refusal to hear, or believe in him, has had its effect. A man of a naturally warm and kindly disposition, thrown thus back upon himself, he has now given a loose rein to the carelessness that has been a part of his nature since his mother gave him to the world, and allows himself to swim or go down with the tide that carries his present life upon its bosom.
Lady Swansdown is lovely and kind. Always with that sense of injury full upon him, that half-concealed but ever-present desire for revenge upon the wife who has so coldly condemned and cast him aside, he flings himself willingly into a flirtation, ready made to his hand, and as dangerous as it seems light.
His life, he tells himself, is hopelessly embittered. The best things in it are denied him; he gives therefore the more heed to the honeyed words of the pretty creature near him, who in truth likes him too well for her own soul's good.
That detested husband of hers, out there somewhere, the only thought she ever gives him is when she remembers with horror how as a young girl she was sold to him. For years she had believed herself heartless—of all her numerous love affairs not one had really touched her until now, and now he is the husband of her oldest friend; of the one woman whom perhaps in all the world she really respects.
At times her heart smites her, and a terrible longing to go away—to die—to make an end of it—takes possession of her at other times. She leans towards Baltimore, her lovely eyes alight, her soft mouth smiling. Her whispered words, her only half-averted glances, all tell their tale. Presently it is clear to everyone that a very fully developed flirtation is well in hand.
Lady Baltimore coming across the grass with a basket in one hand and her little son held fondly by the other, sees and grasps the situation. Baltimore, leaning over Lady Swansdown, the latter lying back in her lounging chair in her usual indolent fashion, swaying her feather fan from side to side, and with white lids lying on the azure eyes.
Seeing it all, Lady Baltimore's mouth hardens, and a contemptuous expression destroys the calm dignity of her face. For the moment only. Another moment, and it is gone: she has recovered herself. The one sign of emotion she has betrayed is swallowed up by her stern determination to conceal all pain at all costs, and if her fingers tighten somewhat convulsively on those of her boy's, why, who can be the wiser of that? No one can see it.
Dysart, however, who is honestly fond of his cousin, has mastered that first swift involuntary contraction of the calm brow, and a sense of indignant anger against Baltimore and his somewhat reckless companion fires his blood. He springs quickly to his feet.
Lady Baltimore, noting the action, though not understanding the motive for it, turns and smiles at him—so controlled a smile that it quiets him at once.
"I am going to the gardens to try and cajole McIntyre out of some roses," says she, in her sweet, slow way, stopping near the first group she reaches on the lawn—the group that contains, amongst others, her husband, and——her friend. She would not willingly have stayed where they were, but she is too proud to pass them by without a word. "Who will come with me? Oh! no," as several rise to join her, laughing, though rather faintly. "It is not compulsory—even though I go alone, I shall feel that I am equal to McIntyre."
Lord Baltimore had started as her first words fell upon his ears. He had been so preoccupied that her light footfalls coming over the grass had not reached him, and her voice, when it fell upon the air, gave him a shock. He half rises from his seat:
"Shall I?" he is beginning, and then stops short, something in her face checking him.
"You!" she conquers herself a second later; all the scorn and contempt is crushed, by sheer force of will, out of look and tone, and she goes on as clearly, and as entirely without emotion, as though she were a mere machine—a thing she has taught herself to be. "Not you," she says gaily, waving him lightly from her. "You are too useful here"—as she says this she gives him the softest if fleetest smile. It is a masterpiece. "You can amuse one here and there, whilst I—I—I want a girl, I think," looking round. "Bertie,"—with a fond, an almost passionate glance at her little son—"always likes one of his sweethearts (and they are many) to accompany him when he takes his walks abroad."
"Like father, like son, I daresay. Ha, ha!" laughs a fatuous youth—a Mr. Courtenay—who lives about five miles from the Court, and has dropped in this afternoon, very unfortunately, it must be confessed, to pay his respects to Lady Baltimore. Fools always hit on the truth! Why, nobody knows, except the heavens above us—but so it is. Young Courtenay, who has heard nothing of the unpleasant relations existing between his host and hostess, and who would be quite incapable of understanding them if he had heard, now springs a remark upon the assembled five or six people present that almost reduces them to powder.
Dysart casts a murderous glance at him.
"A clever old proverb," says Lady Baltimore lightly. She is apparently the one unconcerned person amongst them. "I always like those old sayings. There is so much truth in them."
She has forced herself to say this; but as the words pass her lips she blanches perceptibly. As if unable to control herself she draws her little son towards her; her arms tighten round him. The boy responds gladly to the embrace, and to those present who know nothing, it seems the simplest thing in the world. The mother,—the child; naturally they would caress each other on each and every occasion. The agony of the mother is unknown to them; the fear that her boy, her treasure, may inherit something of his father, and in his turn prove unfaithful to the heart that trusts him.