'And now she does not need patronage,' said Jane.
'No; and now Theodora has found her out for herself—a better thing,' said Mrs. Finch. 'You look all the better for it! I never saw you look so bright or so handsome, Theodora! You are a happy girl!'—and there was a sigh. Some interruption here occurring, Theodora took her leave, and walked home. She felt ruffled by her visit, and as she came indoors, ran up-stairs and knocked at her sister's door. The room looked cool and pleasant, and Violet was lying down in her white, frilled dressing-gown, so freshly, purely, delicately neat, and with so calm and sweet a smile, that the contrast marked itself strongly, and Theodora thought no one ever looked more innocent and engaging. 'I hope you are not tired?'
'Oh, no; I only thought it wiser to rest, thank you.'
'I came to tell you that Georgina Finch wants us to go to a party next Tuesday week. There's nothing to prevent it, is there?'
'I know of nothing; but Arthur will say—'
'We are to bring Percy. I meant to have told them of our affair; but I did not think they deserved it just then. I am glad he is no real relation to that Mr. Gardner.'
'Was it Mr. Gardner who met me going down-stairs?' said Violet, with an unpleasant recollection of having been stared at. 'Is he their brother?'
'No; their cousin. I wonder what you think of them?' said Theodora, hastily throwing aside her bonnet and gloves, and seating herself.
'Miss Gardner is very good-natured and pleasing.'
'Those words are made for her. But what of Georgina?'
'I hardly know her,' said Violet, hesitating. 'This is only the second time I have seen her; and last year I was so unwell that her liveliness was too much for me.'
'Overpowering,' said Theodora. 'So people say. It is time she should steady; but she will not think. I'm provoked with her. I did not like her looks to-day, and yet she has a good warm heart. She is worth a dozen Janes! Don't prefer Jane to her, whatever you do, Violet!' Then breaking off, she began earnestly: 'You see, Violet, those are my oldest friends; I never could care for any girl but Georgina, and we have done such things together as I never can forget. They had great disadvantages; a set of wretched governesses—one worse than the other, and were left entirely to their mercy. My education was no pattern; but it was a beauty to theirs, thanks to my father. I do believe I was the only person with any serious notions that Georgina ever came in contact with, in all her growing up. Their father died just as she was coming out, leaving very little provision for them; and they were shifted about among fine relations, who only wanted to get rid of them, and gave them to understand they must marry for a home.'
'Poor girls! What a miserable life!'
'Jane knew she was no beauty, and took to the obliging line. She fawns, and is intimate and popular. I never liked her silkiness, though it creeps into one at the time. Georgina had more in her. I wish you could have seen her at eighteen. She was such a fine, glowing, joyous-looking girl, with those bright cheeks, and her eyes dancing and light hair waving, and exuberant spirits that no neglect or unkindness could daunt—all wild gaiety, setting humbug at defiance, and so good-natured! Oh! dear, it makes one melancholy!'
'And what made the change?'
'She had a long, low, nervous fever, as they called it; but I have never known much about it, for it was when we were all taken up with John's illness. She was very long in recovering, and I suppose her spirit was broken, and that the homelessness grew unbearable; for, whereas she had always declared for honest independence and poverty, the next thing I heard of her was, that she had accepted this miserable money-making old wretch!'
'Perhaps she liked him.'
'No, indeed! She despises him, and does not hide it! She is true! that is the best of her. I cannot help caring for Georgina. Poor thing, I hate to see it! Her spirits as high as ever, and with as little ballast; and yet she looks so fagged. She was brought up to dissipation—and does not know where else to turn. She has not a creature to say a word the right way!'
'Not her sister?' said Violet. 'She seemed serious and good.'
'No one can tell what is the truth in Jane,' said Theodora; 'and her sister, who knows her best, is the last person to be influenced by her. Some one to whom she could look up is the only chance. Oh, how I wish she had a child! Anything to love would make her think. But there was something in the appearance of that room I cannot get over.'
'The confusion of arriving—'
'No, nothing ever could have made it so with you! I don't know what it was, but—Well, I do think nothing else prevented me from telling them about Percy. I meant it when I said I would stay after you; and they talked about his book, and asked if I saw much of him, and I faced it out, so that they never suspected it, and now I think it was cowardly. I know! I will go at once, and write Georgina a note, and tell her the truth.'
She went, and after a little interval, Violet began to dress for a party at the house of a literary friend of Lady Martindale's, where they were to meet an Eastern grandee then visiting London. As she finished, she bethought herself that Theodora had never before had to perform a grand toilette without a lady's maid; and going to her room, found her, indeed, with her magnificent black tresses still spread over her shoulders, flushed, humiliated, almost angry at her own failures in disposing of them.
'Don't I look like an insane gipsy?' said she, looking up, and tossing back the locks that hung over her face.
'Can I do anything to help you?'
'Thank you; sit down, and I'll put all this black stuff out of the way,' said Theodora, grasping her hair with the action of the Tragic Muse. 'I'll put it up in every-day fashion. I wish you would tell me what you do to yours to get it into those pretty plaits.'
'I could show you in a minute; but as it is rather late, perhaps you would not dislike my trying to put it up for you.'
'Thank you—no, pray don't; you will tire yourself.' But it was spoken with none of the old disdain, and left an opening for coaxing.
'I used to be thought a good hand with my sisters' hair. It will be such a treat if you will only let me try,' said she, emboldened to stroke the raven tresses, and then take the comb, while Theodora yielded, well pleased. 'On condition you give me a lesson to-morrow. I am not to be maid-ridden all my life,' and it ended with 'Thank you! That is comfortable. You came in my utmost need. I am only ashamed of having troubled you.'
'Don't say so. I am so much obliged to you for letting me try. It is more like being at home with you,' murmured Violet, turning away; but her voice as well as the glass betrayed her tearful eyes, and Theodora's sensation was a reward for her pride having slumbered and allowed her to accept a service.
Mr. Fotheringham came to dinner that he might go with them to the party. As they were drinking coffee before setting out, Mrs. Finch's invitation was mentioned.
'You had better leave your card for her, Percy,' said Theodora. He made no answer.
'Will you dine with us first and go?' said Violet.
Thank you; I do not mean to visit them.'
'No!' exclaimed Theodora. 'They are connections!'
'The more cause for avoiding them.'
'I have promised to introduce you.'
'I am afraid you reckoned without your host.'
'Ha!' cried Arthur, 'the lion is grown coquettish with fine feeding. He is not easy of leading.'
'She is my greatest friend,' said Theodora, as if it was conclusive; but Percy only answered, I should be very sorry to believe so,' set down his cup, and began to read the paper. She was the more irritated. 'Percy,' she said, 'do you really not intend to go to the party!'
'Not to visit a relation of your own, and my most intimate friend, when it is my especial desire?'
'You do not know what you are talking of,' he answered, without raising his eyes.
'Percy!' exclaimed Theodora, her pride and affection so mortified that she forgot that Arthur was looking on with mischievous glee, 'have you any reason for this neglect?'
'Of course I have,' said he, reading on.
'Then let me hear it.'
'You force it from me, Theodora,' said Percy, laying down the paper: 'it is because I will not enter into any intercourse I can avoid with persons whose conduct I disapprove.'
Violet coloured and shrank closer to her husband. Theodora's face and neck turned almost crimson, and her eyes sparkled, but her voice only showed unmoved disdain. 'Remember, she is my FRIEND.'
'You do not know her history, or you would not call her so.'
'I do. What is there to be ashamed of?'
'I see, you know nothing of the prior attachment,' said Percy, not without anger at her pertinacity.
'A boy and girl liking that had been long past.'
'O it had, had it?' said Percy, ironically. 'So you approve her marrying an old rogue and miser, who had heaped up his hoards by extortion of wretched Indians and Spaniards, the very scum of Mammon, coming to the top like everything detestable?'
'I never heard his money was ill-gotten.'
'Those who spend don't ask whence gold comes. And you justify her keeping the old love, this cousin, dangling about her house all the winter till she is the talk of Paris!'
'I don't believe gossip.'
'Can you deny that he is in London in her train?'
'He has come into some property, and means to turn over a new leaf.'
'Ay, and a worse leaf than before.'
'How can you judge of his resolutions?'
Arthur laughed, saying, 'I'd not bet much on Mark Gardner's.'
Much to Violet's relief, the carriage was announced; the gentlemen walked, and Theodora talked of indifferent matters fast and gaily. Percy handed Mrs. Martindale out, and gave her his arm, leaving Theodora to her brother.
It was a small select party, almost every one known to Theodora; and she was soon in eager conversation at some distance from Violet, who was sorry for Percy, as he stood in silence beside her own chair, vexation apparent on his honest face.
'Who is that talking to Theodora?' he presently asked. It was a small light-complexioned gentleman, whose head and face, and the whole style of his dress and person, might have made him appear a boy of seventeen, but for a pale moustache and tuft on the chin. Theodora looked very animated, and his face was glowing with the pleasure of her notice.
'I cannot tell,' said Violet; 'there is Arthur, ask him.'
Percy was moving towards Arthur, when he was caught by the master of the house, and set to talk to the Oriental in his own language. Violet had never been so impressed by his talents as while listening to his fluent conversation in the foreign tongue, making the stranger look delighted and amused, and giving the English audience lively interpretations, which put them into ready communication with the wonder at whom they had hitherto looked in awkwardness. Theodora did not come near the group, nor seem to perceive Violet's entreating glances; and when the Eastern prince departed, Percy had also disappeared. Violet was gratified by the ladies around her descanting on his book and his Syriac, and wished Theodora could hear them.
At that moment she found Theodora close to her, presenting Lord St. Erme to Mrs. Arthur Martindale! After so much dislike to that little insignificant light man for being the means of vexing Percy, to find him the poet hero, the feudal vision of nobility, the Lord of Wrangerton! What an adventure for her mother to hear of!
It was a pleasant and rather pretty face when seen near, with very good blue eyes, and an air of great taste and refinement, and the voice was very agreeable, as he asked some question about the Eastern prince. Violet hardly knew what she answered.
'I met him yesterday, but it was flat,' he said. 'They had a man there whose Syriac was only learnt from books, and who could not understand him. The interpreter to-night was far more au-fait—very clever he seemed. Who was he?'
'Mr. Fotheringham,' said Theodora.
'The Crusader? Was it, indeed?' said Lord St. Erme, eagerly. 'Is he here? I wish particularly to make his acquaintance.'
'I believe he is gone,' said Violet, pitying the unconscious victim, and at once amused, provoked, and embarrassed.
'You know him?'
Violet marvelled at the composure of Theodora's reply. 'Yes, my eldest brother was his travelling companion.'
'Is it possible? Your brother the "M" of the book?' exclaimed the young Earl, with enthusiastic delight and interest. 'I never guessed it! I must read it again for the sake of meeting him.'
'You often do meet him there,' said Theodora, 'as my sister can testify. She was helping him to revise it last summer at Ventnor.'
'I envy you!' cried Lord St. Erme; 'to go through such a book with such a companion was honour indeed!'
'It was delightful,' said Violet.
'Those are such delicious descriptions,' proceeded he. 'Do you remember the scene where he describes the crusading camp at Constantinople? It is the perfection of language—places the whole before you—carries you into the spirit of the time. It is a Tasso unconscious of his powers, borne along by his innate poetry;' then pausing, 'surely you admire it, Miss Martindale?'
'O, yes,' said Theodora, annoyed at feeling a blush arising. The Earl seemed sensible of a check, and changed his tone to a sober and rather timid one, as he inquired after Mr. Martindale. The reply was left to Violet.
'He has never been so well in his life. He is extremely busy, and much enjoys the beauty of the place.'
'I suppose it is very pretty,' said Lord St. Erme.
'Nothing can be more lovely than the colour of the sea, and the wonderful foliage, and the clearness. He says all lovers of fine scenery ought to come there.'
'Scenery can hardly charm unless it has a past,' he replied.
'I can controvert that,' said Theodora.
With much diffidence he replied: 'I speak only of my own feeling. To me, a fine landscape without associations has no soul. It is like an unintellectual beauty.'
'There are associations in the West Indies,' said Theodora.
'Not the most agreeable,' said Lord St. Erme.
'There is the thought of Columbus,' said Violet, 'his whole character, and his delight as each island surpassed the last.'
'Now, I have a fellow-feeling for the buccaneers,' said Theodora. 'Bertram Risingham was always a hero of mine. I believe it is an ancestral respect, probably we are their descendants.'
Violet wondered if she said so to frighten him.
'"Rokeby" has given a glory to buccaneering,' he replied. 'It is the office of poetry to gild nature by breathing a soul into her. It is what the Americans are trying to do for their new world, still turning to England as their Greece.'
'I meant no past associations,' said Theodora, bluntly. 'John carries his own with him.'
'Yes; all may bear the colour of the imagination within.'
'And of the purpose,' said Theodora. 'It is work in earnest, no matter where, that gives outward things their interest. Dreaming will never do it. Working will.'
Their conversation here closed; but Theodora said as they went home: 'What did you think of him, Violet?'
'He looks younger than I expected.'
'He would be good for something if he could be made to work. I long to give him a pickaxe, and set him on upon the roads. Then he would see the beauty of them! I hate to hear him maunder on about imagination, while he leaves his tenantry to take their chance. HE knows what eyes Percy and John see things with!'
'I am glad to have seen him,' said Violet, reassured.
'He desired to be introduced to you.'
'I wonder—do you think—do you suppose he remembers—?'
'I don't suppose he thinks anything about it,' said Theodora, shortly.
I am not yet of Earl Percy's mind.
—King Henry IV
'Violet,' said Theodora, the next morning, 'I want to know if Percy said more to Arthur than to us?'
She spoke with deepening colour, and Violet's glowed still more, as she answered: 'Arthur asked him, and he said he would not BEGIN an acquaintance, but that there was no occasion to break off the ordinary civilities of society. He accused her of no more than levity. Yes, those were Arthur's words.'
'I am going to get to the bottom of it,' said Theodora; 'and give Georgina a thorough lecture.'
She departed; and Violet sat down to her letters, with little Johnnie crawling at her feet; but in a few minutes she was interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Fotheringham, asking for Theodora.
'She is gone out. She could not rest without an explanation from Mrs. Finch.'
'A proper farrago she will hear,' said Percy. 'I found I could settle to nothing, so I thought it best to come and have it out.'
'I hope she will soon come in.'
'Don't let me interrupt you. Go on with your letters.—Ha! little master!'
In his present temper, play with the baby was the most congenial occupation, and he made the little fellow very happy till he was carried off for his midday sleep. Then he tried to read, but seemed so uneasy, that Violet wondered if it would be intermeddling to hint at Theodora's real views. At last, as if he could bear it no longer, he abruptly said, 'Mrs. Martindale, do you know anything of these people?'
'Very little,' she answered. 'Theodora was telling me about them yesterday, before you came. I believe she only likes them for old acquaintance' sake.'
'Is it true that she used to go out with them last year?'
'I believe that she did sometimes.'
'At least, I hope that will not happen again.'
'No, I should not think it would. I am sure Theodora does not entirely approve of Mrs. Finch.'
'She defended her through thick and thin.'
'You shocked her with the suddenness of what you said. She cannot forget the having been happy together as children; but she thinks as you do, and disliked the marriage very much. Before you came, she had been lamenting over Mrs. Finch.'
'Then, it was pure perverseness!'
'If I said so, I wonder what you would answer,' said Violet, with a bright, arch look.
'I should hear reason,' said Percy, roughly, as if to repel the sweetness; yet it had a mollifying effect, and he presently spoke with less irritation and more regret.
'She suspects no evil, and cannot understand any imputation on her friend. She fancies I speak from report, but I have known this fellow, Mark, all my life. His mother is a sister of my Aunt Fotheringham. They wanted me to hunt up an appointment to get him out of the young lady's way.'
'Before her marriage?'
'Ay. When I was last in England, there was a great to-do at the discovery of an engagement between this youth and Miss Georgina. I suppose, considering her bringing-up, she was not much to be blamed. I remember my aunt thought the poor girl harshly dealt with.'
'O, that must have been the cause of the nervous fever Theodora mentioned. She said she knew no particulars.'
'She has not been openly dealt with,' said Percy. 'They do not dare to let her see their doings.'
'So the poor thing was tormented into this marriage?'
'No torment needed. The elder sister did try to warn her that it could not turn out well. I should think the old rogue had found his punishment for his extortions. Fine stories I could tell you of him in South America. Now, am I not justified in keeping clear of them? Let Theodora say what she will, it does not make it right for me to put myself in the way of those great extravagant dinners and parties of theirs, where they want me for nothing but a show-off.'
'I am sure Theodora will think with you, when she is cooler, and not taken by surprise.'
The clock struck.
'There, I have an appointment!'
'I wish you could wait for luncheon. She must come then.'
'What are you going to do this evening?'
'I am sorry to say that we dine out; but to-morrow is Sunday, and you will be sure to find us at home.'
He went, and one o'clock came, but no Theodora. Violet had waited ten minutes for luncheon before she returned.
'I did not know how late it was,' said she. 'I wish you had begun without me.'
Then, throwing her bonnet into a chair, and cutting some cake, she proceeded: 'Such hours as they keep! No one but Jane was up when I came, so I went to her room, and told her I would hear the rights of it.'
'Were you satisfied?'
'Georgina has been foolish and unguarded, and the world is very ill-natured. I hate it altogether, from beginning to end,' said Theodora, with an impatient gesture. 'Most decidedly,' she added, 'Georgina never ought to have married. I forced it from Jane that she had never cared for any one but this Mark. The discovery of his extravagance and misconduct was the real overthrow of my poor Georgina. It was that which brought on her illness; the family were very unkind; and at last weakness and persecution broke down her spirit, and she was ready to do anything to escape.'
'Poor thing! poor thing!'
'She had nothing to fall back upon. Oh, if I had but been there! If I had but known it at the time!'
'Well, and now?' said Violet, anxiously.
'The having Mr. Gardner there now? Really, I don't think she deserves all this abuse. The other matter is entirely passed away. Mr. Finch likes him, and they understand each other fully. Coming to them detaches him from his former habits, and gives him the best chance. His mother is so relieved to know he is with them. If Jane saw anything in the least amiss, she says she would be the first to take alarm, and I do trust her for that, for the sake of appearances.'
'I suppose it is a question of appearances,' said Violet, with the diffident blushes of her eighteen years.
'Is she to throw away the hope of rescuing her cousin, to save herself from spiteful tongues?' cried Theodora. 'Not that I suppose Lady Fotheringham means to be spiteful, but Percy hears it all from her, and we know very well that good ladies in the country have a tendency to think every one good-for-nothing that lives in London or Paris, especially their relations. That is all nonsense. If Percy goes by gossip, I don't. I go by my own observation, and I see there is nothing at which to take exception. I watched her and Mr. Gardner together, and I do declare there was nothing but ease and frankness. I am sure he was more inclined to pay that sort of attention to me. He really is very entertaining. I must tell you some of his stories.'
'Percy has been here,' said Violet.
'He waited till twelve, and then was obliged to go.'
Theodora kept silence for some minutes, then said: 'If he thinks to make me give my friends up, he is much mistaken! You know I had written to Georgina last night. Well, she thought I had come to be congratulated; and if you had but seen the greeting—the whole manner—when she met me! Oh! you would know how impossible it is not to feel for her, with all one's heart!'
'Yes, yes. I suppose you could not say anything about this to her. No, of course not.'
'Not of course at all, if I could have had her alone, but Jane was there all the time. It was a pleasure to see the contrast between her manner and Jane's. There was soul in her, real hopes I should be happy, while Jane seemed only to think it tolerable, because I might end in being an ambassadress. I will see her again before the party, and draw my own conclusions.'
'Does she know that Percy will not go?'
'I know no such thing.'
She was too proud to ask what had passed in Violet's interview with him, and indeed was ready to take fire at the idea of their affairs having been discussed with her.
She strove to believe herself the offended party, but her conscience was not easily appeased, though she tried to set it at rest by affectionate care of Violet, and was much gratified by Arthur's stopping her after Violet had gone up-stairs at night, to beg her to stay, while he was at Windsor with his regiment.
'Thank you, for making me of use,' she said.
'I shall come backwards and forwards continually,' said Arthur, 'but she must not be alone; I shall be very glad if you can stay, or I shall be driven to have one of the Mosses here.'
'Oh, no, no! I shall be most happy to stay. I will take every care of her.'
'Thank you, Theodora; good night. You have got to know her better now,' he continued, lingering as on that first night to gain some word of commendation of her.
'Much better,' said Theodora cordially. 'One cannot help growing fond of her—so gentle and engaging.'
She was pleased with his satisfaction; and while she owned Violet's sincerity and sweetness, considered her one of those soft dependent beings formed to call forth tenderness from strong and superior spirits, and gloried in being necessary to her: it almost restored her balance of complacency.
On Sunday afternoon Violet stayed at home with little Johnnie, and the vacant place in the seat at church was filled by Mr. Fotheringham. Many thoughts floated through Theodora's mind; but whether the better or the worse would gain the advantage seemed rather to depend on chance than on herself. Perhaps she was not yet conscious what were her besetting sins, and thus the conflict was merely a struggle between her feelings for her friend and for her lover.
Arthur walked home with an acquaintance; but Theodora turned from Percy, and threw herself into eager conversation with Lady Elizabeth.
On entering the house, as Violet was not in the drawing-room, Theodora was going up-stairs, when Percy said, in a tone of authority, 'How long do you intend to go on in this way!'
'In what way?'
'Do you wish to keep all our disputes as a spectacle for Arthur's edification?'
Colouring with shame and displeasure, she sat down with a sort of 'I am ready' air, and took off her walking things, laying them down deliberately, and waiting in complete silence. Did she wish to embarrass him, or did she await his first word to decide what line she should take?
'Theodora,' he said at length, 'when I spoke last night, I did not know how early your acquaintance with this lady had begun, or I should have shown more regard to the feeling that arises between old companions. I am afraid I gave you some unnecessary pain.'
This was unexpected; and she could not at once harden herself in displeasure, so that though she spoke not, her countenance was relenting.
'Did Mrs. Martindale mention what I told her yesterday!'
'No; she only said you had been here while I was gone to satisfy my mind.'
'And did you?'
'I should never have defended Georgina's marriage if I had known the whole; but the rest of what you have heard is slander.'
'That is what I came to explain;' and Percy repeated the history he had before given to Violet, adding a warning of the same kind as John's against placing Arthur in Mr. Gardner's way.
'The point is,' said Theodora, 'what construction is to be placed on the present state of things? You and Lady Fotheringham, who have not seen them, take one view; I, who do see them, and who know Georgina intimately, take another, in which I agree with her husband and with the elder sister, who lives with her.'
'Intimately! When you had no idea of this first affair!'
'Such follies are not to be published.'
'You WILL defend them!' cried Percy, impatiently.
'Am I to sit quiet when I hear injustice done to my oldest friend?'
'I wish that unhappy friendship had never begun!'
A silence broken by her coolly saying, 'Well, what is to come of all this?'
Percy walked about the room and said, 'What do you mean?'
With a provoking air of meekness she said, 'I only want to know what you expect of me.'
Excessively annoyed, he sharply answered, 'To be a reasonable woman.'
'Well?' said Theodora, with the same submissive voice. He had recovered himself, and with no further show of temper, he sat down by her, saying, 'This is folly. We had better say what we mean. You feel strongly with regard to your old playfellow; I cannot think well of her; but while this is matter of opinion, it is childish to dispute. Time will show which is the correct view—I shall be glad if it is yours. The elder sister is a steady amiable person, whom my aunt likes, and that is in their favour. I do not wish you to break with an old friend while we know of no positive charge against her, though I should think there could be little to attract you. For me it is another matter, and I will not.'
'You will not adopt my friends?'
I will not be talked into it.'
'I do not understand your principle,' said Theodora, but without asperity. 'Why do you decline an acquaintance to which you do not object for me?'
'The beginning has been made in your case, and I know it is old affection, not present approval. You can't be hurt by one like her. But for my part, knowing what I do of them, I will enter on no acquaintance; it is a line of which I have resolved to keep clear. She would think herself patronizing a literary man.'
'Oh! you could not submit to that!' cried Theodora—'never. Stay away, I beg of you.'
'It is for no such nonsense,' said Percy. 'But thinking of them as I do, I cannot receive from them the favours which rich folks consider invitations to poor ones. My connection with them makes it all the more undesirable. I totally disapprove their style of conduct, and will not seem to sanction it by beginning an acquaintance, or appearing at their grand dinners and parties. If I had known them before, the case might be different.'
'I will say no more. You are quite right,' said Theodora, well able to appreciate the manliness of his independence.
She thought over several times the way of communicating to Mrs. Finch, Percy's rejection of her invitation, and made some attempts at seeing her, but without success, until the night of the party. Violet had an undefined dread of it, and was especially glad that her husband was able to go with them. It was one of the occasions when he was most solicitous about her appearance; and he was well pleased, for she was in very good looks, and prettily dressed with some Irish lace, that to Theodora's amusement she had taken off Miss Marstone's hands; and with his beautiful wife and distinguished-looking sister, he had his wish of displaying woman as she should be.
The room was full, but Violet saw few acquaintance; as Mrs. Finch, with much display of streamer, flounce, jewellery, and shoulders, came to meet them with vehement welcome, and quite oppressed Violet with her attention in finding a seat for her on the sofa.
With a nod and look of gay displeasure at Theodora, she said, 'So, you have brought me no Crusader, you naughty girl! Where's your Red Cross Knight?'
'He would not come,' said Theodora, gravely.
'You dare own it! Where's your power? Ah! you will say it was idleness.'
'I will tell you another time,' said Theodora, blushing inconveniently, and Violet, as she felt her cheeks responding, fancied Mrs. Finch must know why.
'You won't confess! No, you never tried. If you had once set your mind on it, you would have accomplished it. I always cite Theodora Martindale as the person who cannot be resisted.'
'You see your mistake,' returned Theodora. A gentleman here greeted her, then claimed Mrs. Finch's attention, and evidently by his desire, she turned to Violet, and presented him as her cousin, Mr. Gardner, an old friend of Captain Martindale.
Violet acknowledged the courtesy, but it was in confusion and distress.
'I am delighted to make your acquaintance,' was his address. 'Is Captain Martindale here? I have not seen him for years.'
'He is in the room,' said Violet, looking round for him, hoping either that he would come, or that Mr. Gardner would go in search of him, but the conversation continued, though she answered without knowing what she said, till at last he moved away to communicate to Mrs. Finch that Arthur Martindale's pretty wife had nothing but fine eyes and complexion.
Theodora was satisfied to see a very slight recognition pass between Mr. Gardner and her brother, who was intent on conducting to Violet an officer newly returned from the West Indies, where he had met John. After a pleasant conversation, the two gentlemen moved away, and presently the place next to her was taken by Miss Gardner, with civil inquiries for her little boy.
'We are so vexed at not seeing Mr. Fotheringham! Georgina is furious. We reckoned on him as the lion of the night.'
Violet had no answer to make, and Jane continued. 'I have taken Theodora to task. Fame makes men capricious, and he is very odd; but I tell her she ought to have more influence, and I seriously think so. Do you not?'
'I believe he convinced her,' said Violet, wishing the next moment to recall her words.
'Indeed! I am curious.'
'I believe he thinks it better—fashionable life—' faltered Violet.
'He might have made an exception in favour of such near connections! Why, we shall be related ourselves, Mrs. Martindale. How charmed I shall be.'
Violet turned a bracelet on her arm, and could make no response.
'It is strange enough that we have never met Percival Fotheringham,' said Miss Gardner. 'He is an eccentric being, I hear, but our dear Theodora has a spice of eccentricity herself. I hope it will be for the best.'
'He is an admirable person,' said Violet.
'I rejoice to hear it. I had some doubts. The dear girl is so generous, of such peculiar decision, so likely to be dazzled by talent, and so warmly attached to her eldest brother, that I almost feared it might not have been well weighed. But you are satisfied?'
'O, yes, entirely so.'
'I am relieved to hear it. In confidence I may tell YOU, it is said in our OWN family, that there is a rough overbearing temper about him. I could not bear to think of dear Theodora's high spirit being subjected to anything of that kind.'
'He is abrupt,' said Violet, eagerly; 'but I assure you the better he is known, the more he is liked. My little boy is so fond of him.'
'I am glad. No doubt you have every means of judging, but I own I was surprised at such ready consent. You were behind the scenes, no doubt, and can tell how that determined spirit carried the day.'
'Lord Martindale gave his consent most readily and gladly,' said Violet; but Jane was only the more convinced that Mrs. Martindale was as ignorant as ever of family secrets.
'It was best to do so with a good grace; but I did think our dear Theodora might have looked higher! Poor Lord St. Erme! He would have been a more eligible choice. The family must have been much disappointed, for she might have had him at her feet any day last summer.'
'I do not think he would have suited her.'
'Well! perhaps not, but an easy gentle temper might. However, it cannot be helped! Only the long engagement is unfortunate—very trying to both parties. I have seen so few turn out well! Poor Pelham Fotheringham! It is a pity he should stand between them and the baronetcy.'
'Is he Sir Antony's son?'
'Yes; it is a sad affair. A fine tall youth, quite imbecile. He is his poor mother's darling, but no more fit to take care of himself than a child of five years old. A most melancholy thing! Old Sir Antony ought to set him aside, and let Percival enjoy the estate. Indeed, I should think it very probable he would do so—it would be greatly for the happiness of all parties.'
'I think it would,' said Violet.
'Percival can do anything with the old people, and they will be so delighted with the Martindale connection! Perhaps it is an understood thing. Do you know whether it is?'
'I should not think so. I never heard anything of it.'
'Has Theodora ever been introduced to the uncle and aunt?'
'Good old folks, exceedingly primitive. Very kind too, and a fine old-fashioned place; but, oh, so dull! All their ideas are of the seventeenth century. It will be a severe ordeal for poor Theodora, but if Lady Fotheringham, good old soul, is pleased with her, I shall expect grand consequences.'
Violet was glad that Miss Gardner was asked to dance. Presently Arthur returned to her side. 'Tired, Violet?' he asked. 'Slow work, is not it? They have a queer lot here. Scarcely a soul one ever saw before.'
'I was thinking so. Are there not a great many foreigners? I saw some immense moustaches.'
'Ay. Percy would think himself back in Blue Beard's country. There is the King of the Clothes Brushes himself polking with Mrs. Finch. Can't you see?'
'No! I wish I could.'
'An economical fellow! Every man his own clothes brush—two expenses saved at once, to say nothing of soap, an article that mayhap he does not deal in.'
'Oh! hush! you will make me laugh too much. Where 's Theodora?'
'Dancing with Gardner. He seems inclined to make up to her, unless it is a blind.'
'He said he used to know you at school.'
'Yes, scamp that he is. I had rather he had never turned up again. He is not worth Theodora's quarrelling about. I hear she is chattering away like fun. Have you had any one to speak to?'
'Miss Gardner came to me. She seemed to think Sir Antony might settle his property on Percy instead of on his son. Do you think there is any chance of it?'
'I wish he would. He could not do a wiser thing. But of course it is entailed—there's always a provision of nature for starving the younger branches. What does she say to Percy's absence!'
'I fancy she guesses the reason, but I don't know.'
'He is a lucky fellow, I know!' said Arthur, 'to be safe in his bed at home! This evening is a bore, and I wish the whole set were further off, instead of deluding Theodora! I'll get her away when this dance is over.'
'Ha!' cried Mrs. Finch, suddenly stopping in front of them, and disengaging herself from her partner, as she breathlessly threw herself down beside Violet. 'So there's Captain Martindale, after all! How exemplary! And my poor Mrs. Martindale, that I told Jane and Mark to take such care of, left deserted to her husband's mercy!'
'Suppose she wished for nothing better,' said Arthur, good-humouredly.
'I can't allow such things. Such a monopoly of our Guardsmen after two years' marriage is beyond bearing! What would they say to you in France?'
'We don't follow French fashions,' said Arthur, his gay tone making his earnest like jest. 'I am going to take my ladies home. I shall see for the carriage, Violet.'
'Mrs. Martindale will learn my maxim—Never bring a husband to an evening party. There is nothing so much in the way.'
'Or that would be so glad to be let off,' said Arthur, going.
'You don't mean to take them away? That is the climax of all your crimes. Quite unallowable.'
'Many things unallowable are done,' said Arthur; 'and I don't allow her to be over-tired.'
'"Barbare",' began Mrs. Finch, but with a bow, as if it was a compliment, he was gone in search of the carriage. She sat for a moment silent, then said, 'Well, I must forgive him. I never thought to see him so careful of anything. How happy Theodora seems in your "menage". Quite a different creature; but perhaps that is from another cause?'
Violet made a little attempt at a laugh.
'I am glad of it,' said Mrs. Finch, heartily. 'It is a horrid stiff place for her at home, is it not? And I am delighted she should escape from it. How she got consent, I can't imagine; and Theodora has notions of her own, and would do nothing without.'
'Lord Martindale has a very high opinion of Mr. Fotheringham.'
'I am not surprised. I read that book—a wonder for me, and was perfectly "eprise". But I did not think a genius with empty pockets would have gone down at Martindale; and he is a bit of a bear, too, they say, though perhaps Theodora likes him the better for that.'
'Perhaps she does.'
'I hope he is worthy of her. He is the great pride of the old folks at Worthbourne. One heard of Percy's perfections there morning, noon, and night, till I could have hated the sound of his name. Very generous of me to ask him here to-night, is it not? but I wish he would have come. I want to judge of him myself. I could not bear all not to be perfect with Theodora.'
There was little occasion for Violet to speak, Mrs. Finch always kept the whole conversation to herself; but she could not but perceive that though the exaggeration and recklessness of style were unpleasing, yet it really was frank and genuine, and Theodora's declaration that Georgina was far preferable to Jane was less incomprehensible.
The evening was over, much to her relief; but there remained Theodora's bold undertaking to tell Mrs. Finch of Percy's refusal to visit her. Any one else would have let the subject drop, but Theodora thought this would be shabby and cowardly, and was resolved not to shrink from warning her friend.
She found Georgina looking over some cards of invitation, with an air of great dissatisfaction, and almost the first words that greeted her were, 'Have you a card for Lady Albury's party?'
'Yes; I heard Violet ask Arthur if he should be at home for it.'
'Very strange! We left our cards, I know, yet they never asked us to their party this week, and now seem to have missed us again. I wished particularly to go, for one is sure to meet all that is worth seeing, your knight among the rest. They are prim, strait-laced, exclusive people themselves; but it is a house worth going to.'
'I did not remember that you knew them.'
'Oh! yes, we did; we used to be there pretty often when we lived with my Uncle Edward; and it is not that they do not think my poor old man good enough for them, for we went to their parties last year. So, Mrs. Martindale has a card, you say!'
Theodora's colour rose as she said, 'Georgina, I am going to say what no one else will tell you. It is not your marriage, but you must take care—'
The crimson of Mrs. Finch's cheeks, and the precipitation with which she started to her feet, would have disconcerted most persons; but Theodora, though she cast down her eyes, spoke the more steadily. 'You must be more guarded and reserved in manner if you wish to avoid unkind remarks.'
'What—what—what?' cried Georgina, passionately; 'what can the most ill-natured, the most censorious, accuse me of?'
'It is not merely the ill-natured,' said Theodora. 'I know very well that you mean no harm; but you certainly have an air of trying to attract attention.'
'Well, and who does not? Some do so more demurely and hypocritically than others; but what else does any one go into company for? Do you expect us all to act the happy couple, like Captain and Mrs. Martindale the other night? You should have brought your own Percy to set us the example!' said she, ending with a most unpleasant laugh.
'Georgina, you must not expect to see Percy. He has rigid notions; he always avoids people who seek much after fashion and amusement, and (I must say it) he will not begin an acquaintance while you go on in this wild way.'
'So!' exclaimed Georgina. 'It is a new thing for the gentlemen to be particular and fastidious! I wonder what harm he thinks I should do him! But I see how it is: he means to take you away, turn you against me, the only creature in this world that ever cared for me. Are not you come to tell me he forbids you ever to come near me!'
'No, no; he does not, and if he did, would I listen?'
'No, don't, don't displease him on my account,' cried Mrs. Finch. 'Go and be happy with him; I am not worth caring for, or vexing yourself about!'
The tears stood on her burning cheeks, and Theodora eagerly replied, 'Have no fancies about me. Nothing shall ever make me give up my oldest friend. You ought to know me better than to think I would.'
'You are so unlike those I live with,' said Georgina sadly, as an excuse for the distrust. 'Oh, you don't know what I have gone through, or you would pity me. You are the only thing that has not failed me. There is Jane, with her smooth tongue and universal obligingness, she is the most selfish creature in existence—her heart would go into a nutshell! One grain of sympathy, and I would never have married. It was all her doing—she wanted luxuries! O Theodora, if I had but been near you!'
'Hush, Georgina, this is no talk for a wife,' said Theodora, severely.
'I thought you pitied me!'
'I do, indeed I do; but I cannot let you talk in that way.'
'I never do so: no one else would care to hear me.'
'Now listen to me, Georgina. You say you rely on me as you do on no one else; will you hear me tell you the only way to be happy yourself—'
'That is past,' she murmured.
'Or to stand well in the opinion of others! I am putting it on low grounds.'
'I know what you are going to say—Go and live in the country, and set up a charity-school.'
'I say no such thing. I only ask you to be cautious in your manners, to make Mr. Finch of more importance, and not to let yourself be followed by your cousin—'
Again Georgina burst into her 'thorn crackling' laugh. 'Poor Mark! I thought that was coming. People will treat him as if he was a dragon!'
'I know you mean no harm,' repeated Theodora; 'but it cannot be right to allow any occasion for observations.'
'Now, Theodora, hear me. I dare say Jane has been telling you some of her plausible stories, which do more harm than good, because no one knows which part to believe. There was some nonsense between Mark and me when we were young and happy—I confess that. Perhaps I thought he meant more than he did, and dwelt upon it as silly girls do, especially when they have nothing else to care for. Then came the discovery of all his debts and scrapes, poor fellow, and—I won't deny it—it half killed me, more especially when I found he had been attached to some low girl, and avowed that he had never seriously thought of me—he believed I understood it as all sport. I was very ill. I wish I had died. There was no more to be done but to hate him. My uncle and aunt Edward were horridly savage, chiefly because I hindered them from going to Italy; and Mrs. George Gardner thought I had been deluding Mark! Then Lady Fotheringham asked us, and—it was dull enough to be sure, and poor Pelham was always in the way—but they were kind comfortable folks. Lady Fotheringham is a dear old dame, and I was in dull spirits just then, and rather liked to poke about with her, and get her to tell me about your brother and his Helen—'
'Why, Jane said you were dying of low spirits!'
'Well, so I was. I hated it excessively sometimes. Jane is not entirely false in that. The evenings were horrid, and Sundays beyond everything unbearable. I confess I was delighted to get away to Bath; but there—if Jane would but have helped me—I would, indeed I would, have been thankful to have gone back to Worthbourne, even if I had had to play at draughts with Pelham for the rest of my days. But Jane was resolved, and all my strength and spirit had been crushed out of me. She would not even let me write to you nor to Lady Fotheringham till it was too late.'
'Well, that is all past,' said Theodora, whose face had shown more sympathy than she thought it right to express in words. 'The point is, what is right now?'
And you see it is folly to say there is any harm or danger in my seeing Mark: he never had any attachment to me seven years ago, nor any other time, and whatever I felt for him had a thorough cure. I am not ashamed to say I am glad he should be here to give him a chance of marrying a fortune. That is the whole story. Are you satisfied?'
'Satisfied on what I never doubted, your own intentions, but no further. You ought to abstain from all appearance of evil.'
'I am not going to give my cousin up to please Lady Albury—no, nor all the Fotheringhams put together! You used to say you did not care for gossip.'
'No more I do, but I care for a proper appearance.'
'Very well—hush—here he comes!
HE was Mr. Gardner, and whether it was that Mrs. Finch was more guarded, or that her pleading influenced Theodora's judgment, nothing passed that could excite a suspicion that anything remained of the former feeling between the cousins. It was in truth exactly as Mrs. Finch said; for whatever were her faults, she was perfectly frank and sincere, clinging to truth, perhaps out of opposition to her sister. Mark was not a man capable of any genuine or strong affection; and as Theodora rightly perceived, the harm of Georgina's ways was not so much what regarded him, as in the love of dissipation, the unguarded forward manner with all gentlemen alike, and the reckless pursuit of excitement. There was a heart beneath, and warmth that might in time be worked upon by better things.
'It is a great pity that people will drop her,' she said to Violet. 'The more she is left to that stamp of society, the worse it is for her whole tone of mind.'
Violet agreed, pitied, and wished it could be helped; but whenever they met Mrs. Finch in company, saw it was not wonderful that people did not like her.
Mr. Gardner was, on the contrary, a general favourite. Every one called him good for nothing; but then, he was so very amusing! Violet could never find this out, shrank from his notice, and withdrew as much as possible from his neighbourhood; Emma Brandon generally adhering closely to her, so as to avoid one whom she viewed as a desperate designer on the Priory.
It was in parties that Violet chiefly saw Emma this spring. Theodora's presence in Cadogan-place frightened her away; and, besides, her mornings were occupied by Miss Marstone's pursuits. Lady Elizabeth made no objection to her sharing in these, though sometimes not fully convinced of the prudence of all the accessories to their charities, and still less pleased at the influence exercised by Theresa over her daughter's judgment.
Emma's distaste to society was now far more openly avowed, and was regarded by her not as a folly to be conquered, but a mark of superiority. Her projects for Rickworth were also far more prominent. Miss Marstone had swept away the veil that used to shroud them in the deepest recess of Emma's mind, and to Violet it seemed as if they were losing their gloss by being produced whenever the friends wanted something to talk about. Moreover, Emma, who was now within a few months of twenty-one, was seized with a vehement desire to extort her mother's consent to put them at once in execution, and used to startle Violet by pouring out lamentations over her promise, as if it was a cruel thraldom. Violet argued that the scheme was likely to be much better weighed by taking time to think.
'It has been the thought of my life! Besides, I have Theresa's judgment; and, oh! Violet, mamma means it well, I know; but she does not know what she asks of me! Think, think if I should die in the guilt of sacrilege!'
'Really, Emma, you should not say such dreadful things. It is not your doing.'
'No; but I reap the benefit of it. My grandfather bought it. Oh! if it should bring a curse with it!'
'Well, but, Emma, I should think, even if it be wrong to hold it, that cannot be your fault yet. You mean to restore it; and surely it must be better to keep it as yet, than to act directly against your mother's wishes.'
'I don't mean to act against her wishes; but if she would only wish otherwise!'
'Perhaps it is the best preparation to be obliged to wait patiently.'
'If it was for any good reason; but I know it is only because it would better suit mamma's old English notions to see me go and marry in an ordinary way, like any commonplace woman, as Theresa says. Ah! you would like it too, Violet. It is of no use talking to you! As Theresa says, the English domestic mind has but one type of goodness.'
Violet did not like to hear her dear Lady Elizabeth contemned; but she had no ready answer, and humbly resigned herself to Emma's belief that she was less able to enter into her feelings than that most superior woman, Theresa Marstone.
Give unto me, made lowly wise, The spirit of self-sacrifice.
When Arthur went with his regiment to Windsor, the ladies intended to spend their evenings at home, a rule which had many exceptions, although Violet was so liable to suffer from late hours and crowded rooms, that Lady Elizabeth begged her to abstain from parties, and offered more than once to take charge of Theodora; but the reply always was that they went out very little, and that this once it would not hurt her.
The truth was that Theodora had expressed a decided aversion to going out with the Brandons. 'Lady Elizabeth sits down in the most stupid part of the room,' she said, 'and Emma stands by her side with the air of a martyr. They look like a pair of respectable country cousins set down all astray, wishing for a safe corner to run into, and wondering at the great and wicked world. And they go away inhumanly early, whereas if I do have the trouble of dressing, it shall not be for nothing. I ingeniously eluded all going out with them last year, and a great mercy it was to them.'
So going to a royal ball was all Theodora vouchsafed to do under Lady Elizabeth's protection; and as her objections could not be disclosed, Violet was obliged to leave it to be supposed that it was for her own gratification that she always accompanied her; although not only was the exertion and the subsequent fatigue a severe tax on her strength, but she was often uneasy and distressed by Theodora's conduct. Her habits in company had not been materially changed by her engagement; she was still bent on being the first object, and Violet sometimes felt that her manner was hardly fair upon those who were ignorant of her circumstances. For Theodora's own sake, it was unpleasant to see her in conversation with Mr. Gardner; and not only on her account, but on that of Lord St. Erme, was her uncertain treatment of him a vexation to Violet.
Violet, to whom Theodora's lovers were wont to turn when suffering from her caprice, was on very friendly terms with the young Earl. He used to come and stand by her, and talk to her about Wrangerton, and seemed quite amused and edified by her quiet enthusiasm for it, and for Helvellyn, and her intimacy with all the pictures which he had sent home and almost forgotten. His sister was another favourite theme; she was many years younger than himself, and not yet come out; but he was very desirous of introducing her to Mrs. and Miss Martindale; and Violet, who had heard of Lady Lucy all her life, was much pleased when a day was fixed for a quiet dinner at Mrs. Delaval's, the aunt with whom she lived. How Mrs. Moss would enjoy hearing of it!
The day before was one of the first hot days of summer, and Violet was so languid that she looked forward with dread to the evening, when they were to go to a soiree at Mrs. Bryanstone's, and she lay nursing herself, wishing for any pretence for declining it. Theodora coming in, declared that her going was out of the question; but added, 'Georgina Finch is to be there, she will call for me.'
'I shall be better when the heat of the day is over.'
'So you may, but you shall not go for all that. You know Arthur is coming home; and you must save yourself for your Delavals to-morrow.'
'I thank you, but only'—she hesitated—'if only you would be so kind as to go with Lady Elizabeth.'
'I will manage for myself, thank you. I shall not think of seeing you go out to-night. Why, I went out continually with Georgina last summer'—as she saw Violets look of disappointment.
'Yes, but all is not the same now.'
'The same in effect. I am not going to attend to nonsensical gossip. Georgina is what she was then, and the same is right for me now as was right last year. I am not going to turn against her—'
'But, Theodora,' said Violet's weak voice, 'Percy said he hoped you never would go out with her; and I said you never should, if I could help it.'
Never was Theodora more incensed than on hearing that Percy and this young girl had been arranging a check on her actions, and she was the more bent on defiance.
'Percy has nothing to do with it,' she began; but she was interrupted by a message to know whether Lady Elizabeth Brandon might see Mrs. Martindale.
Her entrance strengthened Theodora's hands, and she made an instant appeal to her, to enforce on Violet the necessity of resting that evening. Lady Elizabeth fully assented, and at once asked Theodora to join her.
'I thank you, I have another arrangement,' she said, reckless of those entreating eyes; 'I am to go with Mrs. Finch.'
'And I believe I shall be quite well enough by and by,' said Violet.
'My dear, it is not to be thought of for you.'
'Yes, Lady Elizabeth, I trust her to you to make her hear reason,' said Theodora. 'I shall leave her to you.'
Poor Violet, already in sufficient dread of the evening, was obliged to endure a reiteration of all its possible consequences. Lady Elizabeth was positively grieved and amazed to find her, as she thought, resolutely set upon gaieties, at all risks, and spared no argument that could alarm her into remaining quietly at home, even assuring her that it was her duty not to endanger herself for the sake of a little excitement or amusement. Violet could only shut her eyes to restrain the burning tears, and listen, without one word in vindication, until Lady Elizabeth had exhausted her rhetoric, and, rising, with some coolness told her she still hoped that she would think better of it, but that she wished her husband was at home.
Violet would fain have hid her face in her good friend's bosom, and poured out her griefs, but she could only feel that she was forfeiting for ever the esteem of one she loved so much. She held out, however. Not till the door had closed did she relax her restraint on herself, and give way to the overwhelming tears. Helpless, frightened, perplexed, forced into doing what might be fatal to her! and every one, even Arthur, likely to blame her! The burst of weeping was as terrified, as violent, as despairing as those of last year.
But she was not, as then, inconsolable; and as the first agitation spent itself she resumed her self-command, checked her sobs by broken sentences of prayer, growing fuller and clearer, then again soft and misty, till she fairly cried herself to sleep.
She slept only for a short interval, but it had brought back her composure, and she was able to frame a prayer to be directed to do right and be guarded from harm; and then to turn her mind steadily to the decision. It was her duty, as long as it was in her power, to be with her husband's sister, and guard her from lowering herself by her associates. She was bound by her promise to Percy, and she could only trust that no harm would ensue.
'If it should,' thought poor Violet, 'I may honestly hope it is in the way of what I believe my duty; so it would be a cross, and I should be helped under it. And if the Brandons blame me—that is a cross again. Suppose I was to be as ill again as I was before—suppose I should not get through it—Oh! then I could not bear to have wilfully neglected a duty! And the next party? Oh! no need for thinking of that! I must only take thought for the day.'
And soon again she slept.
Theodora had gone out so entirely convinced that Violet would relinquish her intention, that, meeting Mrs. Finch, she arranged to be taken up at eleven o'clock.
On returning home she heard that Mrs. Martindale was asleep; and, as they had dined early, she drank coffee in her own room, and read with the Brogden girl, as part of her system of compensation, intending to spare further discussion by seeing Violet no more that night. She proceeded to dress her hair—not as helplessly as at first, for the lessons had not been without fruit; but to-night nothing had a good effect. Not being positively handsome, her good looks depended on colour, dress, and light; and the dislike to failure, and the desire to command attention, made it irritating to find her hair obstinate and her ornaments unbecoming; and she was in no placid state when Violet entered the room, ready dressed.
'Violet! This is too foolish!'
'I am a great deal better now, thank you.'
'But I have settled it with Georgina; she is coming to call for me.'
'This is not out of her way; it will make no difference to her.'
'But, Violet, I will not let you go; Arthur would not allow it. You are not fit for it.'
'Yes, thank you, I believe I am.'
'You believe! It is very ridiculous of you to venture when you only believe,' said Theodora, never imagining that those mild weary tones could withstand her for a moment. 'Stay at home and rest. You know Arthur may come at any time.'
'I mean to go, if you please; I know I ought.'
'Then remember, if you are ill, it is your fault, not mine.'
Violet attempted a meek smile.
Theodora could only show her annoyance by impatience with her toilette. Her sister tried to help her; but nothing suited nothing pleased her—all was untoward; and at last Violet said, 'Is Percy to be there?'
'Not a chance of it. What made you think so?'
'Because you care so much.'
Somehow, that saying stung her to the quick, and the more because it was so innocently spoken.
'I do not care,' she said. 'You are so simple, Violet, you fancy all courtships must be like your own. One can't spend six years like six weeks.'
The colour rushed painfully into Violet's face, and she quitted the room. It was a moment of dire shame and grief to Theodora, who had not intended a taunt, but rather to excuse her own doings; and as the words came back on her, and she perceived the most unmerited reproach they must have conveyed, she was about to hurry after her sister, explain, and entreat her pardon. Almost immediately, however, Violet returned, with her hands full of some beautiful geraniums, that morning sent to her by Mrs. Harrison.
'See!' said she; 'I think a wreath of these might look well.'
Theodora trusted the blush had been the work of her own guilty fancy, and, recollecting how often Mrs. Nesbit's innuendoes had glanced aside, thought it best not to revive the subject. She did not estimate even the sacrifice it was to part with the glowing fragrant flowers, the arrangement of which had freshened Violet's spirits that evening when not in tune for other occupation; and she did not know that there was one little sigh of fellow-feeling at their destiny of drooping and fading in the crowd and glare. Their brilliant hues had great success, and set off the deep black eyes and hair to unusual advantage when woven by those dexterous fingers. The toilette was complete, and Theodora as kind as she could be, between shame at her own speech and dislike to being softened by little female arts.
'I only wish you looked better yourself,' she said. 'You are too pale for that old white dress.'
'It is the coolest I have ready. It must do.'
Theodora could not accuse her of over-carefulness of her renown as a beauty. Her dress was, of course, appropriate, but aimed at no more; and her worn, languid appearance did not cause her a moment's thought, since Arthur was not there to see.
They found the room very warm and crowded. Theodora saw Violet lodged on an ottoman, and then strayed away to her own friends. Mrs. Finch soon arrived, and attacked her for having let them go on a fool's errand.
'I could not help it,' said Theodora; 'she would come.'
'She looks very unwell,' said Mrs. Finch; 'but, poor thing, it would be too hard to miss everything this year.'
'Or does she come as your trusty knight's deputy?' asked Jane.
There was dancing; but when Captain Fitzhugh brought Theodora back to her seat, Violet whispered, 'I am sorry, but would you dislike coming home now?'
'Oh! I am engaged to Lord St. Erme, and then to Mr. Gardner, and—but you go home; you have done your duty, my dear. Go home, and to sleep. Georgina will bring me. Captain Fitzhugh will find you the carriage.'
She walked off with Lord St. Erme, and came no more that way. Presently there was some confusion.
'A lady fainting,' said her partner, and she saw Emma looking dreadfully frightened. Conscience was enough, without the name passing from mouth to mouth. Theodora sprang forward, and following the movement, found herself in a room where Violet's insensible figure had just been placed on a bed. Lady Elizabeth was there, and Emma, and Mrs. Bryanstone. Theodora felt as if no one but herself should touch Arthur's wife; but she had never before witnessed a fainting fit, and, in her consternation and guiltiness, knew not how to be serviceable, so that all that was required was done by the other ladies. She had never experienced such alarm and remorse as now, while standing watching, until the eyes slowly opened, looked round uneasily till they fell on her, then closed for a few moments, but soon were again raised, while the soft low words were heard, 'Thank you, I beg your pardon!' then, with an imploring, deprecating gaze on her, 'I am sorry; indeed I could not help it!'
Theodora was almost overcome; but Lady Elizabeth gave a warning squeeze to her arm, whispering, 'Take care, don't agitate her:' and this, recalling the sense that others were present, brought back her self-possession, and she only kissed Violet, tenderly bade her lie still, and hoped she was better.
She smiled, and declared herself refreshed, as the wind blew on her from the open window, and she felt the cold water on her face, and there was no silencing her thanks and apologies for giving trouble. She said she was well enough to go home; and, as soon as the carriage was found, sat up, looking shivering and forlorn, but still summoning up smiles. 'Good night, dear Lady Elizabeth,' she said; 'thank you very much. You see you were right.'
Lady Elizabeth offered to go home with her; but she could not bear to occasion further sensation, and, besides, understood Theodora's face. She refused, and her friend kissed her, and promised to come early to-morrow to see her; but, mingled with all this care and kindness there was something of 'I told you so.'
She trembled so much when she stood up, that Theodora put her strong arm round her, and nearly carried her down-stairs, gratified to find her clinging to her, and refusing all other support. Scarcely a word was spoken as they went home; but Theodora held the hand, which was cold, limp, and shaking, and now and then she made inquiries, always answered by 'Better, thank you.'
Theodora had her directions from Lady Elizabeth, and intended to make up for her misdeeds by most attentive care; but, on coming home, they found that Arthur had arrived, and gone to bed, so that nothing was in her power but to express more kind wishes and regrets than she could stay to hear or to answer in her extinguished voice.
Theodora was a good deal shocked, but also provoked, at having been put in the wrong. She felt as if she had sustained a defeat, and as if Violet would have an advantage over her for the future, managing her by her health, just as she ruled Arthur.
'But I will not submit,' thought Theodora. 'I will not bear with interference, if not from Percy, certainly not from his deputy—a mere spoilt child, a very good child, but spoilt by her position, by John's over-estimate of her, and by the deference exacted by her weakness and her engagingness. She has very sweet, winning ways, and I am very fond of her in reason, but it will be very good for her to see I can be kind to her without being her slave.'
In this mind Theodora went to sleep, but was wakened in the early morning by Arthur's voice on the stairs, calling to Sarah. She threw on her dressing-gown, and half-opening her door, begged to know what was the matter.
'Only that you have done for her with your freaks and your wilfulness,' answered Arthur, roughly.
'She is not ill?' exclaimed the terrified sister.
'Of course she is. I can't think what possessed you.'
'I tried hard to keep her at home. But, oh! Arthur, where are you going?'
'To fetch Harding.'
'Can I do anything? Can I be of use? Let me go to her. Oh! Arthur, pray let me.'
He went into the room, and brought back word that Violet wanted no one but Sarah, and was a little more comfortable; only begging Theodora would be so kind as to go to the nursery, lest little Johnnie should awake.
Thither she repaired, but without the satisfaction of usefulness, for the child slept soundly till his nurse returned. Mr. Harding had been there, and Mrs. Martindale was better, needing only complete quiet; but Sarah was extremely brief, scornful, and indignant, and bestowed very few words on Miss Martindale. 'Yes, ma'am—no, ma'am,' was all that hard pumping could extract, except funereal and mysterious sighs and shakes of the head, and a bustling about, that could only be understood to intimate that she wished to have her nursery to herself.
It was still so early that Theodora had time to go to church; as usual, she met the Brandons; and Lady Elizabeth, much concerned at her tidings, came home with her to see how the patient was going on.
Lady Elizabeth forbore to reproach Violet, but she lectured Arthur on allowing her to be imprudent. He took it in very good part, not quite disagreeing when told they were all too young together, and made a hearty protest that she should be well looked after for the future.
He was certainly doing his part. All the morning he was in and out, up and down stairs, effectually preventing any rest, as his sister thought.
Theodora's time passed in strange variations of contrition, jealousy, and perverseness. She was hurt at his displeasure,—she was injured by her exclusion from Violet's room,—she was wounded even by her little nephew, who cried down-stairs for mamma, and up-stairs for Sarah, and would not be content with her best endeavours to make him happy. And yet, when, after carefully looking to see that he could come to no harm, Sarah was obliged to place him on the floor and leave him for the first time alone with his father, he sat motionless, fixed in earnest, intent contemplation, like a sort of distant worship of him, keeping him likewise in a silent amused wonder, what would come next; and when it ended in a gravely, distinctly pronounced, 'Papa!' Arthur started as if it had been a jackdaw speaking, then picked up the little fellow in his arms and carried him off to show, as a natural curiosity, to his mother! At any other time, Theodora would have been charmed at the rare sight of Arthur fondling his little boy; now she only felt that nobody wanted her, and that she was deprived of even the dignity of a nursery-maid.
Her chief occupation was answering inquiries, and writing notes to decline their evening engagements—the dinner at Mrs. Delaval's among the rest; for she and Arthur were equally resolved to remain at home that evening, and she wished to persuade herself that they were Violet's friends, not her own.
In the midst, Mrs. Finch and Miss Gardner called, and in her state of irritation the smooth tongue of the latter was oil to the flame.
'Poor thing, no doubt she thinks she has been making a heroic exertion. Well, she has her reward! It must be delightful to have caused such a sensation. Your brother is a most devoted husband.'
'And did she really go because she would not trust you without her?' said Mrs. Finch. 'Well, that is a good joke!'
'I think you must be glad they do not live at Brogden,' quietly added Jane, in the midst of her sister's laughter.
'It has been put into her head,' said Theodora, 'that she ought to look after me, and a great mistake it is.'
'Yes, you are not come here to be less free than last year, when Lord and Lady Martindale had you in their own hands, said Georgina. 'If I were you I would do something strong all at once, and settle that matter. That was the way you used to dispose of the governesses.'
'I am not quite what I was then, Georgina.'
'But what is it that she objects to? I see,' as Jane made a sign, as if to advise her not to inquire. 'Is it to your coming out with me? Well! I declare, that is pretty well, considering who she was. I thought better things of her, with her soft voice, as if she was thankful to be spoken to, after all the notice I have taken of her.'
'Hush, hush! I tell you, she would never have originated the notion, but it has been put into her, and when she thinks a thing right nothing will stop her.'
'We will see that!' said Georgina. 'Come and dine with us to-night, and then we are going to "Der Freischutz". Come—'
'That is impossible, thank you. We have given up the dinner at the Delavals', and I do not intend to go out in the evening any more. I came here to take care of her, and I mean to do so thoroughly.'
'Not to go out any more!' cried Georgina, horrified. 'I honour Theodora,' said Jane. 'Such devotion is like her, and must win her brother's gratitude.'
'No devotion at all. I like a rational evening with her much better than a cram like last night's.'
'With her alone?' said Jane, slyly.
Theodora crimsoned. Percy had instigated Violet's opposition, and she was in no charity with him. Jane saw there was annoyance, and turned the subject before her sister could open on it. With all her quiet ways, Jane had the mastery over the impetuous Georgina, whom she apparently flattered and cherished as a younger sister, but in reality made subservient to her own purposes. Indeed, Jane was like the Geraldine of Christabel; without actually speaking evil she had the power of insinuating her own views, so that even the lofty and sincere nature of Theodora was not proof against her. Poor Violet! while she perilled herself, and sacrificed her friend's good opinion, her sister's mind was being hardened and poisoned against her.
'I am afraid,' said Jane, 'that it is of no use then to talk to you of what Georgina and I have been planning.'
'Oh! Theodora must come to that at any rate,' cried Georgina, 'or I will never forgive her nor Mrs. Martindale neither. Do you remember our old birthday treat to Richmond?'
'To be sure I do!' cried Theodora. 'It was one of the most delightful days I ever had in my life. I have loved cowslips doubly for the treat the sight of them was, in the midst of London and masters, seven years ago. Why, you will be twenty-four next week, Georgina.'
'Growing to an unmentionable age,' said Georgina. 'Well, I have set my heart on a picnic to Richmond again. Mark is to take a steamer for us, and I know of plenty of people who will make a charming party!'
'I should like it better without the people,' said Theodora.
'Oh, nonsense; one can't babble of green fields and run after cowslips, at our age, unless one is in love,' said Georgina. 'If you were going to bring your Percy, perhaps we would not interfere with your sweet rural felicity, my dear.'
'We will bring some one else,' said Jane. 'After poor Mrs. Martindale had carried you off', Theodora, I found the author of "Pausilippo" looking extremely disconsolate, and hinting to him that such a scheme was in agitation, and that you were included in it, he looked so eager, that he will be for ever beholden to Georgina for an invitation.'
'Poor Lord St. Erme!' said Georgina. 'It really is a shame, Theodora. I rather take him under my protection. Shall he come, or shall he not?'
'It makes no difference to me,' said Theodora, coolly.
'Whatever it does to him, eh?'
'But, Georgina, you are not in the least secure of Theodora,' said Jane, satirically. 'She is devoted to Mrs. Martindale.'
'If my sister-in-law is not well I shall not leave her, if she is, you may depend upon me.'
'I shall do no such thing, whatever Georgina does,' said Jane.
'I am sure Mrs. Martindale has ways and means.'
'I shall not stay without real reason.'
'And bring the Captain,' entreated Mrs. Finch.
'Still more doubtful,' suggested Jane.
'Yes, I think you will not get him,' said Theodora; 'but I will certainly join you, provided Violet is not really ill.'
'I am very good friends with that pretty sister of yours,' said Jane. 'I will call some day, and try to get her permission for him.'
'Once—twice—you have failed us,' said Mrs. Finch, rising to take leave. 'This third time, and I shall believe it is some one else in the shape of Theodora Martindale.'
'I will not fail,' repeated Theodora.
They departed, and presently Arthur came down. 'How long those women have been here! Have they been hatching treason? I want you to go up and sit with Violet; I am going out for an hour.'
It was a tame conclusion to the morning's alarms when a brisk voice answered, 'Come in,' at her knock, and Violet lay very comfortably reading, her eyes bright and lively, and her cheeks with almost their own colour. Her sweet smile and grateful face chased away ill humour; and Theodora was so affectionate and agreeable as to surprise herself, and make her believe herself subject to the fascination Violet exercised over her brothers.
She told Arthur, on his return, that Violet was just ill enough to make waiting on her pretty pastime; but was something between alarmed and angry to find him still uneasy.
Lord Percy sees my fall!
Two days after, Miss Gardner calling, found Mrs. Martindale alone in the drawing-room, and pretty well again. The project for the party was now fully developed, and it was explained to Violet with regrets that she was unable to share it, and hopes that Theodora and her brother would not fail to join it.
'Thank you, I believe Captain Martindale will be at Windsor; he will be on guard next week.'
'Ah! that is provoking. He is so valuable at this kind of thing, and I am sure would enjoy it. He would meet some old schoolfellows. You must use your influence to prevent him from being lazy. Guardsmen can always get leave when they think it worth while.'
'Perhaps if Theodora wishes to go, he may manage it; but I am afraid it is not likely that he will be able.'
'You will trust us for taking care of our dear Theodora,' said Miss Gardner; 'we know she is rather high-spirited, and not very fond of control. I can quite enter into your feelings of responsibility, but from my knowledge of her character, I should say that any sense of restraint is most galling to her. But even if we have not the pleasure of Captain Martindale's company, you may fully reckon on our watching over her, myself in especial, as a most dear younger sister.'
'Is your party arranged?' asked Violet.
'Yes, I may say so. We hope for Mrs. Sedley and her daughters. Do you know them? Charming people whom we met in Paris.'
Violet was not acquainted with them, and tried to find out who were the rest. They seemed to be all young ladies, or giddy young wives, like Mrs. Finch herself, and two or three foreigners. Few were personally known to the Martindales; Lord St. Erme was the only gentleman of their own set; and Violet could not smile, as her visitor expected, on hearing how he had been enticed by hopes of meeting Miss Martindale.
Jane Gardner perceived the disapprobation. 'Ah! well,—yes. One cannot but own that our dear Theodora's spirits do now and then make her a little bit of a flirt. It is the way with all such girls, you know. I am sure it was with my sister, but, as in her case, marriage is the only cure. You need not be in the least uneasy, I assure you. All will right itself, though a good deal may go on that startles sober-minded people like us. I could condole with you on the charge, but you will find it the only way not to seem to thwart her. Violet thought it best to laugh, and talk of something else.
'Then I depend on you for the cream of our party,' said Miss Gardner, taking leave.
'I cannot tell whether Captain Martindale can come,' said Violet, somewhat bewildered by the conversation.
'Is that girl a nonentity, or is she a deep genius?' said Jane to herself as she walked home. 'I cannot make her out. Now for the trial of power! If Theodora Martindale yields to the Fotheringhams now, and deserts Georgina, it will be a confirmation of all the absurd reports. As long as I have it to say the Martindale family are as intimate as ever, I have an answer for Lady Fotheringham, and if Mark is smitten with her, so much the better. I hope Percy Fotheringham may be properly rewarded for his presumption and ill-nature. The sooner they quarrel the better. I will send Theodora a note to put her on her mettle.'
The note arrived while Percy was spending the evening in Cadogan-place, and Theodora talking so happily that she grudged the interruption of opening and reading it.
'DEAREST THEODORA,—One line further to secure you, though I told Mrs. Martindale of our plans. She would make no promises, but we reckon on your independence of action, at least. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot?"
'P.S.—Mrs. Martindale looked very well. I hope she will have no recurrence of faintings.'
'From Jane Gardner,' said Theodora; 'only to put me in mind of the picnic. Will you go, Arthur?'
'I never was more glad to be on her Majesty's service. What an abominable bore it would be!'
'That is what gentlemen always say of picnics,' said Theodora.
'Not at all,' said Percy. 'A real country party of merry happy people, knowing each other well, and full of genuine honest glee, is one of the most enjoyable things that can be.'
'That it is!' cried Violet. 'There was the day we went up Skiddaw, with no one but our cousins and Mr. Fanshawe, and dined on the mountain in sight of the valley of St. John; and the rain came on, and Mr. Fanshawe sat all the time holding an umbrella over Annette and the pigeon-pie.'
'That was worth doing,' said Percy; 'but for a parcel of fine ladies and gentlemen to carry the airs and graces, follies and competitions, born in ball-rooms and nursed in soirees, out into pure country air and daylight, is an insult to the green fields and woods.'
'That is a speech in character of author,' said Theodora.
'In character of rational being.'
'Which you would not have made if the party had not been Georgina Finch's.'
'I had no notion whose it was, or anything about it.'
'It is for her birthday, Tuesday,' said Violet. 'They are to have a steamer to Richmond, walk about and dine there; but I should not think that it would be very pleasant. Mrs. Bryanstone had one of these parties last year to Hampton Court, and she told me that unless they were well managed they were the most disagreeable things in the world; people always were losing each other, and getting into scrapes. She declared she never would have another.'
'Mrs. Bryanstone has no idea of management,' said Theodora.
'I know who has less,' said Arthur. 'Your Georgina will let every one take their chance, and the worse predicaments people get into the louder she will laugh.'
'There is nothing so intolerable as a woman who thinks herself too fashionable for good manners,' said Percy.
'Is any one waiting for an answer?' asked Violet.
'There is none,' said Theodora. 'They know I mean to go.'
'To go!' exclaimed all three, who had thought the question settled by Arthur's refusal.
'Yes, of course; I go with Georgina.'
'With Mark Gardner, and the king of the clothes-brushes, and all their train, in moustaches and parti-coloured parasols!' cried Percy. 'Theodora, I thought you were a sensible woman.'
'I am sorry if I forfeit that claim to your regard.'
'Well, if I was your mother! However, it is devoutly to be hoped that it may rain.'
He then changed the conversation, and no more passed on this subject till, as he wished her good night, he said, in a low voice, 'Think better of it, Theodora.'
'My mind is made up,' was the proud reply. In a few seconds he called Arthur to him on the stairs. 'Arthur,' he said, 'if your sister is set on this wrong-headed scheme, at least don't let her go with no one to look after her. Let her have some respectable person with her, merely for propriety's sake. She fancies me prejudiced, and we have agreed to dispute no more on the woman's goings on; but you have the keeping of her now.'
'I wish Mrs. Finch was at Jericho, and Theodora after her!' exclaimed Arthur, petulantly; 'they will worry my wife to death between them.'