Originally published under the title of 'A Drama in Muslin,' 1886.
New Edition, September, 1915.
My excuse for modifying the title of this book is, that A Drama in Muslin has long seemed to me to be the vulgar one among the titles of my many books. But to change the title of a book that has been in circulation, however precarious, for more than thirty years, is not permissible, and that is why I rejected the many titles that rose up in my mind while correcting the proofs of this new edition. In Neophytes, Debutantes, and The Baiting of Mrs. Barton, readers would have divined a new story, but the dropping out of the unimportant word 'drama' will not deceive the most casual follower of literature. The single word 'muslin' is enough. Mousseline would be more euphonious, a fuller, richer word; and Bal Blanc, besides being more picturesque, would convey my meaning; but a shade of meaning is not sufficient justification for the use of French titles or words, for they lessen the taste of our language; we don't get the smack, and Milord's epigrams poisoned my memory of A Drama in Muslin. But they cannot be omitted without much re-writing, I said, and remembering my oath never to attempt the re-writing of an old book again, I fell back on the exclusion of A Drama in Muslin as the only way out of the dilemma. A wavering resolution was precipitated by recollection of some disgraceful pages, but a moment after I was thinking that the omission of the book would create a hiatus. A Drama in Muslin, I reflected, is a link between two styles; and a book that has achieved any notoriety cannot be omitted from a collected edition, so my publishers said, and they harped on this string, until one day I flung myself out of their office and rattled down the stairs muttering, 'What a smell of shop!' But in the Strand near the Cecil Inn, the thought glided into my mind that the pages that seemed so disgraceful in memory might not seem so in print, 'and the only way to find out if this be so,' the temptation continued, 'will be to ask the next policeman the way to Charing Cross Road.' Another saw me over a dangerous crossing (London is the best policed city in Europe), a third recommended a shop 'over yonder: you've just passed it by, sir.' 'Thank you, thank you,' I cried back, and no sooner was I on the other side than, overcome by shyness, as always in these stores of dusty literature, I asked for the Drama in Muslin, pronouncing the title so timidly that the bookseller guessed me at once to be the author, and began telling of the books that were doing well in first editions. 'If I had any I wanted to get rid of?' he mentioned several he would be glad to buy. Whereupon in turn I grew confidential and confided to him my present dilemma, failing, however, to dissuade him from his opinion that A Drama in Muslin ought to be included. 'Any corrections you make in the new edition will keep up the price of the old,' he added as he wrapped up the brown paper parcel. 'You will like the book better than you think for.' 'Thank you, thank you,' I cried after me, and hopped into a taxi, unsuspicious that I carried a delightful evening under my arm. A comedy novel, written with sprightliness and wit, I said, as I turned to the twentieth page, and it needs hardly any editing. A mere re-tying of a few bows that the effluxion of time has untied, or were never tied by the author, who, if I remember right, used to be less careful of his literary appearance than his prefacer, neglecting to examine his sentences, and to scan them as often as one might expect from an admirer, not to say disciple, of Walter Pater.
An engaging young man rose out of the pages of his book, one that Walter Pater would admire (did admire), one that life, I added, seems to have affected through his senses violently, and who was (may we say therefore) a little over anxious to possess himself of a vocabulary which would suffer him to tell all he saw, heard, smelt and touched.
Upon this sudden sympathy the book, of which I had read but twenty pages, dropped on my knees, and I sat engulfed in a reverie of the charming article I should have written about this book if it had come to me for review. 'But it couldn't have come to me,' I reflected, 'for myself and the young man that wrote it were not contemporaries.' It would be true, however, to say that our lives overlapped; but when did the author of the Drama in Muslin disappear from literature? His next book was Confession of a Young Man. It was followed by Spring Days; he must have died in the last pages of that story, for we find no trace of him in Esther Waters! And my thoughts, dropping away from the books he had written, began to take pleasure in the ridiculous appearance that the author of A Drama in Muslin presented in the mirrors of Dublin Castle as he tripped down the staircases in parly morning. And a smile played round my lips as I recalled his lank yellow hair (often standing on end), his sloping shoulders and his female hands—a strange appearance which a certain vivacity of mind sometimes rendered engaging.
He was writing at that time A Mummer's Wife in his bedroom at the Shelbourne Hotel, and I thought how different were the two visions, A Mummer's Wife and A Drama in Muslin and how the choice of these two subjects revealed him to me. 'It was life that interested him rather than the envelope' I said. 'He sought Alice Barton's heart as eagerly as Kate Ede's;' and my heart went out to the three policemen to whose assiduities I owed this pleasant evening, all alone with my cat and my immediate ancestor; and as I sat looking into the fire I fell to wondering how it was that the critics of the 'eighties could have been blind enough to dub him an imitator of Zola. 'A soul searcher, if ever there was one,' I continued, 'whose desire to write well is apparent on every page, a headlong, eager, uncertain style (a young hound yelping at every trace of scent), but if we look beneath the style we catch sight of the young man's true self, a real interest in religious questions and a hatred as lively as Ibsen's of the social conventions that drive women into the marriage market. It seems strange,' I said, abandoning myself to recollection, 'that the critics of the 'eighties failed to notice that the theme of A Drama in Muslin is the same as that of the Doll's House; the very title should have pointed this put to them.' But they were not interested in themes; but in morality, and how they might crush a play which, if it were uncrushed by them, would succeed in undermining the foundations of society—their favourite phrase at the time, it entered into every article written about the Doll's House—and, looking upon themselves as the saviours of society, these master-builders kept on staying and propping the damaged construction till at length they were joined by some dramatists and story-tellers who feared with them for the 'foundations of society,' and these latter set themselves the task of devising new endings that would be likely to catch the popular taste and so mitigate the evil, the substitution of an educational motive for a carnal one. For Nora does not leave her husband for a lover, but to educate herself. The critics were used to lovers, and what we are used to is bearable, but a woman who leaves her husband and her children for school-books is unbearable, and much more immoral than the usual little wanton. So the critics thought in the 'eighties, and they thought truly, if it be true that morality and custom are interchangeable terms. The critics were right in a way; everybody is right in a way, for nothing is wholly right and nothing wholly wrong, a truth often served up by philosophers; but the public has ever eschewed it, and perhaps our argument will be better appreciated if we dilute this truth a little, saying instead that it is the telling that makes a story true or false, and that the dramatic critics of the 'eighties were not altogether as wrong as Mr. Archer imagined them to be, but failed to express themselves.
The public is without power of expression, and it felt that it was being fooled for some purpose not very apparent and perhaps anarchical. Nor is a sudden revelation very convincing in modern times. In the space of three minutes, Nora, who has been her husband's sensual toy, and has taken pleasure in being that, and only that, leaves her husband and her children, as has been said, for school-books. A more arbitrary piece of stage craft was never devised; but it was not the stage craft the critics were accustomed to, and the admirers of Ibsen did not dare to admit that he had devised Nora to cry aloud that a woman is more than a domestic animal. It would have been fatal for an apostle or even a disciple to admit the obvious fact that Ibsen was a dramatist of moral ideas rather than of sensuous emotions; and there was nobody in the 'eighties to explain the redemption of Ibsen by his dialogue, the strongest and most condensed ever written, yet coming off the reel like silk. A wonderful thread, that never tangles in his hands. Ibsen is a magical weaver, and so closely does he weave that we are drawn along in the net like fishes.
But it is with the subject of the Doll's House rather than with the art with which it is woven that we are concerned here. The subject of A Drama in Muslin is the same as that of A Doll's House, and for this choice of subject I take pride in my forerunner. It was a fine thing for a young man of thirty to choose the subject instinctively that Ibsen had chosen a few years before; it is a feather in his cap surely; and I remember with pleasure that he was half through his story when Dr. Aveling read him the first translation of A Doll's House, a poor thing, done by a woman, that withheld him from any appreciation of the play. The fact that he was writing the same subject from an entirely different point of view prejudiced him against Ibsen; and the making of a woman first in a sensual and afterward transferring her into an educational mould with a view to obtaining an instrument to thunder out a given theme could not be else than abhorrent to one whose art, however callow, was at least objective. In the Doll's House Ibsen had renounced all objectivity. It does not seem to me that further apologies are necessary for my predecessor's remark to Dr. Aveling after the reading that he was engaged in moulding a woman in one of Nature's moulds. 'A puritan,' he said, 'I am writing of, but not a sexless puritan, and if women cannot win their freedom without leaving their sex behind they had better remain slaves, for a slave with his sex is better than a free eunuch;' and he discoursed on the book he was writing, convinced that Alice Barton represented her sex better than the archetypal hieratic and clouded figure of Nora which Ibsen had dreamed so piously, allowing, he said, memories of Egyptian sculpture to mingle with his dreams.
My ancestor could not have understood the Doll's House while he was writing A Drama in Muslin, not even in Mr. Archer's translation; he was too absorbed in his craft at that time, in observing and remembering life, to be interested in moral ideas. And his portrait of Alice Barton gives me much the same kind of pleasure as a good drawing. She keeps her place in the story, moving through it with quiet dignity, commanding our sympathy and respect always, and for her failure to excite our wonder like Nora we may say that the author's design was a comedy, and that in comedy the people are not and perhaps should not be above life size. But why apologize for what needs no apology? Alice Barton is a creature of conventions and prejudices, not her mother's but her own; so far she had freed herself, and it may well be that none obtains a wider liberty. She leaves her home with the dispensary doctor, who has bought a small practice in Notting Hill, and the end seems a fulfilment of the beginning. The author conducts her to the door of womanhood, and there he leaves her with the joys and troubles, no doubt, of her new estate; but with these he apparently does not consider himself to be concerned, though he seems to have meditated at this time a sort of small comedie humaine—small, for he must have known that he could not withstand the strain of Balzac's shifts of fourteen hours. We are glad he was able to conquer the temptation to imitate, yet we cannot forego a regret that he did not turn to Violet Scully that was and look into the married life of the Marchioness of Kilcamey—her grey intense eyes shining through a grey veil, and her delightful thinness—her epicene bosom and long thighs are the outward signs of a temper, constant perhaps, but not narrow. He would have been able to discover an intrigue of an engaging kind in her, and the thinking out of the predestined male would have been as agreeable a task as falls to the lot of a man of letters. And being a young man he would begin by considering the long series of poets, painters and musicians, he had read of in Balzac's novels, but as none of these would be within the harmony of Violet's perverse humour, he would turn to life, and presently a vague shaggy shape would emerge from the back of his mind, but it would refuse to condense into any recognizable face; which is as well, perhaps, else I might be tempted to pick up this forgotten flower, though I am fain to write no more long stories.
But though we regret that the author of Muslin did not gather this Violet for his literary buttonhole, let no one suggest that the old man should return to his Springtime to do what the young man left undone. Our gathering-time is over, and we are henceforth prefacers. The Brook Cherith is our last. Some may hear this decision with sorrow, but we have written eighteen books, which is at least ten too many, and none shall persuade us to pick up the burden of another long story. We swear it and close our ears to our admirers, and to escape them we plunge into consideration of Violet's soul and her aptitudes, saying, and saying well, that if polygamy thrives with Mohammedanism in the East, polyandry has settled down in the West with Christianity, and that since Nora slammed the door the practice of acquiring a share in a woman's life, rather than insisting on the whole of it, has caught such firm root in our civilization that it is no exaggeration to say that every married woman to-day will admit she could manage two men better than her husband could manage two wives. If we inquire still further, we submit, and confidently, that every woman—saint or harlot, it matters not which—would confess she would prefer to live with two men rather than share her husband with another woman. All women are of one mind on this subject; it is the one thing on which they all agree irrespective of creed or class, so these remarks barely concern them; but should male eyes fall on this page, and if in the pride of his heart he should cry out, 'This is not so,' I would have him make application to his wife or sister, and if he possess neither he may discover the truth in his own mind. Let him ask himself if it could be otherwise, since our usage and wont is that a woman shall prepare for the reception of visitors by adorning her rooms with flowers and dressing herself in fine linen and silk attire, and be to all men alike as they come and go. She must cover all with winning glances, and beguile all with seductive eyes and foot, and talk about love, though, perhaps she would prefer to think of one who is far away. Men do not live under such restraint. A man may reserve all his thoughts for his mistress, but the moment he leaves, his mistress must begin to cajole the new-comer, however indifferent he may be to her. The habit of her life is to cajole, to please, to inspire, if possible, and if she be not a born coquette she becomes one, and takes pleasure in her art, devoting her body and mind to it, reading only books about love and lovers, singing songs of love, and seeking always new scents and colours and modes of fascination. If lovers are away and none calls, she abandons herself to dreams, and her imagination furnishes quickly a new romance. Somebody she has half-forgotten rises up in her memory, and she thinks that she could like him if he were to come into her drawing-room now. It would be happiness indeed to walk forward into his arms and to call her soul into her eyes; or, if a letter were to come from him asking her to dinner, she would accept it; and, lying back among her silken cushions, she thinks she could spend many hours in his company without weariness. She creates his rooms and his person and his conversation, and when he is exhausted a new intrigue rises up in her mind, and then another and another. Some drop away and remain for ever unfulfilled, while others 'come into their own,' as the saying is.
If this be a true analysis of a woman's life—and who will say it is not?—the dreams of the Marchioness of Kilcarney would begin in her easy-chair about the second spring after her marriage, the shaggy shape that haunts the back of my mind would hear her dreams, and the wooing that began with the daffodils would continue always, for she is a woman that could keep a lover till the end of time. At her death husband and lover would visit her grave together and talk of her perfections in the winter evenings. But if Violet did not die another vagrant male would steal through the ilex-trees, a hunter in pursuit of game, or else it might be a fisher, seated among the rocks waiting, for tunny-fish. Either might take Violet's fancy. The author of Muslin seems to have entertained a thought of some such pastoral frolic in the Shelbourne Hotel—the opposition of husband and lover to the newcomer, Harding, whom it had occurred to Mrs. Barton to invite to Brookfield, and whom she would have invited had it not been for her great matrimonial projects; my forerunner, who was an artist, saw that any deflection of Mrs. Barton's thoughts would jeopardize his composition, and he allowed Mrs. Barton to remain a chaperon. He was right in this, but Violet should have been the impulse and nucleus of a new story. . . . I began to think suddenly of the blight that would fall on the twain if Violet's lover were to die, and to figure them sitting in the evenings meditating on the admirable qualities of the deceased till in their loneliness he would come to seem to them as a being more than human, touching almost on the Divine. Their ears would retain the sound of his voice, and the familiar furniture would provoke remembrances of him. Ashamed of their weakness, their eyes would seek the chair he used to sit in: it is away in a far corner, lest a casual visitor should draw it forward and defile it with his presence—a thing that happened once (the unhappy twain remember how they lacked moral courage to beg him to choose another chair). The table, laid for two, was too painful to behold, and they never enjoyed a meal, hardly could they eat, till at last it was decided that his place should be laid for him as if he had gone away on a journey, and might appear in the doorway and sit down with them and share the repast as of yore—a pretty deception the folly of which they were alive to (a little) but would not willingly be without.
His room, too, awaits him, and his clothes have not been destroyed or given to the poor, but he folded by charitable hands in the drawers kept safe from moth with orris-root and lavender. His hat hangs on its accustomed peg in the hall, and they think of it among many other things. At last the silence of these lonely meditations is broken by sudden recollections—for dinner the cook had sent up a boiled chicken instead of roast, and he had looked upon boiled chicken as a vulgar insularism always. Nor were there bananas on the table. Bananas were an acquired taste with them, they had learned to eat the fruit for love of their friend, and since he has gone they have not eaten the chicken roast nor the fruit, and it seems to them that they should have eaten of these things in memory of him. In the Spring they come upon his pruning-knife, and discourse sadly on the changes he would have advised. Spring opens into summer, and when summer drops into the autumn Kilcarney's black passes into grey; he appears one morning in a violet tie, and the tie, picked out of a drawer with indifferent hand, causes Violet to doubt her husband's constancy. It was soon after this thoughtless act that he began, for the thousandth time, to remind her that the world might be searched in its dimmest corners and no friend again found like the one they had lost. . . . The reflection had become part of their habitual thought, and, feeling a little trite and commonplace, Violet listened, or half-listened, engulfed in retrospect.
'I met in Merrion Square,' and she mentioned a name, 'and do you know whom he seemed to be very like?' The colour died out of Kilcarney's cheek and he could but murmur, 'Oh, Violet!' and colouring at being caught up on what might be looked upon as a mental infidelity, she answered, 'of course, none is like him . . . I wish you would not seek to misunderstand me.'
The matter passed off, but next evening she sat looking at her husband, her thoughts suspended for so long that he began to fear, wrongly however, that she was about to put forward some accusation, to twit him perchance on his lack of loyalty to his dead friend. He had not eaten a banana for dinner, though he had intended to eat one. 'Of course, we shall never find anyone like him,' she said—'not if we were to search all the corners of the world. That is so, we're both agreed on that point, but I've been thinking which of all our friends and acquaintances would least unworthily fill his place in our lives.' 'Violet! Violet!' 'If you persist in misunderstanding me,' she answered, 'I have no more to say,' whereupon the Marquis tried to persuade the Marchioness out of the morose silence that had fallen upon them, and failing to move her he raised the question that had divided them. 'If you mean, Violet, that our racing friend would be a poor shift for our dead friend, meaning thereby that nobody in Dublin is comparable'—'could I have meant anything else, you old dear?' she replied; and the ice having been broken, the twain plunged at once into the waters of recollection, and coming upon a current they were borne onward, swiftly and more swiftly, till at length a decision had to be come to—they would invite their racing friend.
It was on the Marquis's lips to say a word or two in disparagement of the invited guest, but on second thoughts it seemed to him that he had better refrain; the Marchioness, too, was about to plead, she did not know exactly what, but she thought she would like to reassure the Marquis. . . . On second thoughts she decided too that it would be better (perhaps) to refrain. Well, to escape from the toils of an interesting story (for I'm no longer a story-teller but a prefacer) I will say that three nights later Sir Hugh took the Marchioness in to dinner; he sat in his predecessor's chair, knowing nothing of him, thereby startling his hosts, who, however, soon recovered their presence of mind. After dinner the Marquis said, 'Now, Sir Hugh, I hope you will excuse me if I go upstairs. I am taking the racing calendar with me, you see.'
My forerunner, the author of Muslin, should have written the story sketched here with a failing hand, his young wit would have allowed him to tell how the marriage that had wilted sadly after the death of Uncle Toby now renewed its youth, opening its leaves to the light again, shaking itself in the gay breezes floating by. He would have been able in this story to present three exemplars of the domestic virtues, telling how they went away to the seaside together, and returned together to their castle among tall trees in October compelling the admiration of the entire countryside. He would have shown us the Marchioness entertaining visitors while the two men talked by the fireplace, delighting in each other's company, and he would not have forgotten to put them before us in their afternoon walks, sharing between them Violet's knick-knacks, her wraps, her scarf, her fan, her parasol, her cushion. His last chapter would probably be in a ball-room, husband and lover standing by the door watching the Marchioness swinging round the room on the arm of a young subaltern. 'Other women are younger than she, Kilcarney, but who is as graceful? Have you ever seen a woman hold herself like Violet?' One of the daughters (for there have been children by this second, or shall we say by this third, marriage) comes up breathless after the dance. 'Darling Uncle Hughie, won't you take me for an ice?' and he gives her his arm affectionately, but as they pass away to the buffet Sir Hugh hears Kilcarney speaking of Lily as his daughter. Sir Hugh's face clouds suddenly, but he remembers that, after all, Kilcarney is a guardian of his wife's honour. A very ingenious story, no doubt, and if, as the young man's ascendant—the critics of 1915 are pleased to speak of me as ascendant from the author of Muslin—I may be permitted to remark upon it, I would urge the very grave improbability that three people ever lived contemporaneously who were wise enough to prefer, and so consistently, happiness to the conventions.
There are still May Gould and Olive to consider, but this preface has been prolonged unduly, and it may be well to leave the reader to imagine a future for these girls, and to decide the interests that will fill Mrs. Barton's life when Lord Dungory's relations with this world have ceased.
The convent was situated on a hilltop, and through the green garden the white dresses of the schoolgirls fluttered like the snowy plumage of a hundred doves. Obeying a sudden impulse, a flock of little ones would race through a deluge of leaf-entangled rays towards a pet companion standing at the end of a gravel-walk examining the flower she has just picked, the sunlight glancing along her little white legs proudly and charmingly advanced. The elder girls in their longer skirts were more dignified, but when they caught sight of a favourite sister, they too ran forward, and then retreated timidly, as if afraid of committing an indiscretion.
It was prize-day in the Convent of the Holy Child, and since early morning all had been busy preparing for the arrival of the Bishop. His throne had been set at one end of the school-hall, and at the other the carpenters had erected a stage for the performance of King Cophetua, a musical sketch written by Miss Alice Barton for the occasion.
Alice Barton was what is commonly known as a plain girl. At home, during the holidays, she often heard that the dressmaker could not fit her; but though her shoulders were narrow and prim, her arms long and almost awkward, there was a character about the figure that commanded attention. Alice was now turned twenty; she was the eldest, the best-beloved, and the cleverest girl in the school. It was not, therefore, on account of any backwardness in her education that she had been kept so long out of society, but because Mrs. Barton thought that, as her two girls were so different in appearance, it would be well for them to come out together. Against this decision Alice said nothing, and, like a tall arum lily, she had grown in the convent from girl to womanhood. To her the little children ran to be comforted; and to walk with her in the garden was considered an honour and a pleasure that even the Reverend Mother was glad to participate in.
Lady Cecilia Cullen sat next to Alice, and her high shoulders and long face and pathetic eyes drew attention to her shoulders—they were a little wry, the right seemingly higher than the left. Her eyes were on Alice, and it was plain that she wished the other girls away, and that her nature was delicate, sensitive, obscure, if not a little queer. At home her elder sisters complained that an ordinary look or gesture often shocked her, and so deeply that she would remain for hours sitting apart refusing all consolation; and it was true that a spot on the tablecloth or presence of one repellent to her was sufficient to extinguish a delight or an appetite.
Violet Scully occupied the other end of the garden bench. She was very thin, but withal elegantly made. Her face was neat and delicate, and it was set with light blue eyes; and when she was not changing her place restlessly, or looking round as if she fancied someone was approaching, when she was still (which was seldom), a rigidity of feature and an almost complete want of bosom gave her the appearance of a convalescent boy.
If May Gould, who stood at the back, her hand leaning affectionately on Alice's shoulder, had been three inches taller, she would have been classed a fine figure, but her features were too massive for her height. Her hair was not of an inherited red. It was the shade of red that is only seen in the children of dark-haired parents. In great coils it rolled over the dimpled cream of her neck, and with the exception of Alice, May was the cleverest girl in the school. For public inspection she made large water-coloured drawings of Swiss scenery; for private view, pen-and-ink sketches of officers sitting in conservatories with young ladies. The former were admired by the nuns, the latter occasioned some discussion among a select few.
Violet Scully and May Gould would appeal to different imaginations.
Olive, Alice's sister, was more beautiful than either, but there was danger that her corn-coloured hair, wound round a small shapely head, might fail to excite more than polite admiration. Her nose was finely chiselled, but it was high and aquiline, and though her eyes were well drawn and coloured, they lacked personal passion and conviction; but no flower could show more delicate tints than her face—rose tints fading into cream, cream rising into rose. Her ear was curved like a shell, her mouth was faint and weak as a rose, and her moods alternated between sudden discontent and sudden gaiety.
'I don't see, Alice, why you couldn't have made King Cophetua marry the Princess. Whoever heard of a King marrying a beggar-maid? Besides, I hear that lots of people are going to be present, and to be jilted before them all isn't very nice. I am sure mamma wouldn't like it.'
'But you are not jilted, my dear Olive. You don't like the King, and you show your nobleness of mind by refusing him.'
'I don't see that. Whoever refused a King?'
'Well, what do you want?' exclaimed May. 'I never saw anyone so selfish in all my life; you wouldn't be satisfied unless you played the whole piece by yourself.'
Olive would probably have made a petulant and passionate reply, but at that moment visitors were coming up the drive.
'It's papa,' cried Olive.
'And he is with mamma,' said Violet; and she tripped after Olive.
Mr. Barton, a tall, handsome man, seemed possessed of all the beauty of a cameo, and Olive had inherited his high aquiline nose and the moulding of his romantic forehead; and his colour, too. He wore a flowing beard, and his hair and beard were the colour of pale cafe-au-lait. Giving a hand to each daughter, he said:
'Here is learning and here is beauty. Could a father desire more? And you, Violet, and you, May, are about to break into womanhood. I used to kiss you in old times, but I suppose you are too big now. How strange—how strange! There you are, a row of brunettes and blondes, who before many days are over will be charming the hearts of all the young men in Galway. I suppose it was in talking of such things that you spent the morning?'
'Our young charges have been, I assure you, very busy all the morning. We are not as idle as you think, Mr. Barton,' said the nun in a tone of voice that showed that she thought Mr. Barton's remark ill-considered. 'We have been arranging the stage for the representation of a little play that your daughter Alice composed.'
'Oh yes, I know; she wrote to me about it. King Cophetua is the name, isn't it? I am very curious indeed, for I have set Tennyson's ballad to music myself. I sing it to the guitar, and if life were not so hurried I should have sent it to you. However—however, we are all going home to-morrow. I have promised to take charge of Cecilia, and Mrs. Scully is going to look after May.'
'Oh, how nice! Oh, how jolly that will be!' Olive cried; and, catching Violet by the hands, she romped with her for glee.
But the nun, taking advantage of this break in the conversation, said:
'Come, now, young ladies, it is after two o'clock; we shall never be ready in time if you don't make haste—and it won't do to keep the Bishop waiting.' Like a hen gathering her chickens, the Sister hurried away with Violet, Olive, and May.
'How happy they seem in this beautiful retreat!' said Mrs. Scully, drawing her black lace shawl about her grey-silk shoulders. 'How little they know of the troubles of the world! I am afraid it would be hard to persuade them to leave their convent if they knew the trials that await them.'
'We cannot escape our trials,' a priest said, who had just joined the group; 'they are given to us that we may overcome them.'
'I suppose so, indeed,' said Mrs. Scully; and, trying to find consolation in the remark, she sighed. Another priest, as if fearing further religious shop from his fellow-worker, informed Mr. Barton, in a cheerful tone of voice, that he had heard he was a great painter.
'I don't know—I don't know,' replied Mr. Barton; 'painting is, after all, only dreaming. I should like to be put at the head of an army, but when I am seized with an idea I have to rush to put it down.'
Finding no appropriate answer to these somewhat erratic remarks, the priest joined in a discussion that had been started concerning the action taken by the Church during the present agrarian agitation. Mr. Barton, who was weary of the subject, stepped aside, and, sitting on one of the terrace benches between Cecilia and Alice, he feasted his eyes on the colour-changes that came over the sea, and in long-drawn-out and disconnected phrases explained his views on nature and art until the bell was rung for the children to assemble in the school-hall.
It was a large room with six windows; these had been covered over with red cloth, and the wall opposite was decorated with plates, flowers, and wreaths woven out of branches of ilex and holly.
Chairs for the visitors had been arranged in a semicircle around the Bishop's throne—a great square chair approached by steps, and rendered still more imposing by the canopy, whose voluminous folds fell on either side like those of a corpulent woman's dress. Opposite was the stage. The footlights were turned down, but the blue mountains and brown palm-trees of the drop-curtain, painted by one of the nuns, loomed through the red obscurity of the room. Benches had been set along the walls. Between them a strip of carpet, worked with roses and lilies, down which the girls advanced when called to receive their prizes, stretched its blue and slender length.
'His Grace is coming!' a nun cried, running in, and instantly the babbling of voices ceased, and four girls hastened to the pianos placed on either side of the stage, two left-hands struck a series of chords in the bass, the treble notes replied, and, to the gallant measure of a French polka, a stately prelate entered, smiling benediction as he advanced, the soft clapping of feminine palms drowning, for a moment, the slangy strains of the polka.
When the Bishop was seated on his high throne, the back of which extended some feet above his head, and as soon as the crowd of visitors had been accommodated with chairs around him, a nun made her way through the room, seeking anxiously among the girls. She carried in her hand a basket filled with programmes, all rolled and neatly tied with pieces of different coloured ribbon. These she distributed to the ten tiniest little children she could find, and, advancing five from either side, they formed in a line and curtsied to the Bishop. One little dot, whose hair hung about her head like a golden mist, nearly lost her balance; she was, however, saved from falling by a companion, and then, like a group of kittens, they tripped down the strip of blue carpet and handed the programmes to the guests, who leaned forward as if anxious to touch their hands, to stroke their shining hair.
The play was now ready to begin, and Alice felt she was going from hot to cold, for when the announcement printed on the programme, that she was the author of the comedy of King Cophetua had been read, all eyes were fixed upon her; the Bishop, after eyeing her intently, bent towards the Reverend Mother and whispered to her. Cecilia clasped Alice's hand and said: 'You must not be afraid, dear; I know it will be all right.'
And the little play was as charming as it was guileless. The old legend had been arranged—as might have been expected from a schoolgirl—simply and unaffectedly. The scene opened in a room in the palace of the King, and when a chorus, supposed to be sung by the townspeople, was over, a Minister entered hurriedly. The little children uttered a cry of delight; they did not recognize their companion in her strange disguise. A large wig, with brown curls hanging over the shoulders, almost hid the face, that had been made to look quite aged by a few clever touches of the pencil about the eyes and mouth. She was dressed in a long garment, something between an ulster and a dressing-gown. It fell just below her knees, for it had been decided by the Reverend Mother that it were better that there should be a slight display of ankles than the least suspicion of trousers. The subject was a delicate one, and for some weeks past a look of alarm had not left the face of the nun in charge of the wardrobe. But these considerations only amused the girls, and now, delighted at the novelty of her garments, the Minister strutted about the stage complaining of the temper of the Dowager Queen. 'Who could help it if the King wouldn't marry? Who could make him leave his poetry and music for a pretty face if he didn't care to do so? He had already refused blue eyes, black eyes, brown eyes. However, the new Princess was a very beautiful person, and ought, all things considered, to be accepted by the King. She must be passing through the city at the moment.'
On this the Queen entered. The first words she spoke were inaudible, but, gathering courage, she trailed her white satin, with its large brocaded pattern, in true queenly fashion, and questioned the Minister as to his opinion of the looks of the new Princess. But she gave no point to her words. The scene was, fortunately, a short one, and no sooner had they disappeared than a young man entered. He held a lute in his left hand, and with his right he twanged the strings idly. He was King Cophetua, and many times during rehearsal Alice had warned May that her reading of the character was not right; but May did not seem able to accommodate herself to the author's view of the character, and, after a few minutes, fell back into her old swagger; and now, excited by the presence of an audience, by the footlights, by the long coat under which she knew her large, well-shaped legs could be seen, she forgot her promises, and strolled about like a man, as she had seen young Scully saunter about the stable-yard at home. She looked, no doubt, very handsome, and, conscious of the fact, she addressed her speeches to a group of young men, who, for no ostensible reason except to get as far away as possible from the Bishop, had crowded into the left-hand corner of the hall.
And so great was May's misreading of the character, that Alice could hardly realize that she was listening to her own play. Instead of speaking the sentence, 'My dear mother, I could not marry anyone I did not love; besides, am I not already wedded to music and poetry?' slowly, dreamily, May emphasized the words so jauntily, that they seemed to be poetic equivalents for wine and tobacco. There was no doubt that things were going too far; the Reverend Mother frowned, and shifted her position in her chair uneasily; the Bishop crossed his legs and took snuff methodically.
But at this moment the attention of the audience was diverted by the entrance of the Princess. May's misbehaviour was forgotten, and a murmur of admiration rose through the red twilight. Dressed in a tight-fitting gown of pale blue, opening in front, and finishing in a train held up by the smallest child in the school, Olive moved across the stage like a beautiful bird. Taking a wreath of white roses from her hair, she presented them to the King. He had then to kiss her hand, and lead her to a chair. In the scene that followed, Alice had striven to be intensely pathetic. She had intended that the King, by a series of kindly put questions, should gradually win the Princess's confidence, and induce her to tell the truth—that her affections had already been won by a knight at her father's Court; that she could love none other.
KING. But if this knight did not exist; if you had never seen him, you would, I suppose, have accepted my hand?
PRINCESS. You will not be offended if I tell you the truth?
KING. No; my word on it.
PRINCESS. I could never have listened to your love.
KING (rising hastily). Am I then so ugly, so horrible, so vile, that even if your heart were not engaged elsewhere you could not have listened to me?
PRINCESS. You are neither horrible nor vile, King Cophetua; but again promise me secrecy, and I will tell you the whole truth.
KING. I promise.
PRINCESS. You are loved by a maiden far more beautiful than I; she is dying of love for your sake! She has suffered much for her love; she is suffering still.
KING. Who is this maiden?
PRINCESS. Ah! She is but a beggar-maid; she lives on charity, the songs she sings, and the flowers she sells in the streets. And now she is poorer than ever, for your royal mother has caused her to be driven out of the city.
Here the King weeps—he is supposed to be deeply touched by the Princess's account of the wrongs done to the beggar-maid—and it is finally arranged between him and the Princess that they shall pretend to have come to some violent misunderstanding, and that, in their war of words, they shall insult each other's parents so grossly that all possibilities of a marriage will be for ever at an end. Throwing aside a chair so as to bring the Queen within ear-shot, the King declares that his royal neighbour is an old dunce, and that there is not enough money in his treasury to pay the Court boot-maker; the Princess retaliates by saying that the royal mother of the crowned head she is addressing is an old cat, who paints her face and beats her maids-of-honour.
The play that up to this point had been considered a little tedious now engaged the attention of the audience, and when the Queen entered she was greeted with roars of laughter. The applause was deafening. Olive played her part better than had been expected, and all the white frocks trembled with excitement. The youths in the left-hand corner craned their heads forward so as not to lose a syllable of what was coming; the Bishop recrossed his legs in a manner that betokened his entire satisfaction; and, delighted, the mammas and papas whispered together. But the faces of the nuns betrayed the anxiety they felt. Inquiring glances passed beneath the black hoods; all the sleek faces grew alive and alarmed. May was now alone on the stage, and there was no saying what indiscretion she might not be guilty of.
The Reverend Mother, however, had anticipated the danger of the scene, and had sent round word to the nun in charge of the back of the stage to tell Miss Gould that she was to set the crown straight on her head, and to take her hands out of her pockets. The effect of receiving such instructions from the wings was that May forgot one-half her words, and spoke the other half so incorrectly that the passage Alice had counted on so much—'At last, thank Heaven, that tiresome trouble is over, and I am free to return to music and poetry'—was rendered into nonsense, and the attention of the audience lost. Nor were matters set straight until a high soprano voice was heard singing:
'Buy, buy, who will buy roses of me? Roses to weave in your hair. A penny, only a penny for three, Roses a queen might wear! Roses! I gathered them far away In gardens, white and red. Roses! Make presents of roses to-day And help me to earn my bread.'
The King divined that this must be the ballad-singer—the beggar-maid who loved him, who, by some secret emissaries of the Queen, had been driven away from the city, homeless and outcast; and, snatching his lute from the wall, he sang a few plaintive verses in response. The strain was instantly taken up, and then, on the current of a plain religious melody, the two voices were united, and, as two perfumes, they seemed to blend and become one.
Alice would have preferred something less ethereal, for the exigencies of the situation demanded that the King should get out of the window and claim the hand of the beggar-maid in the public street. But the nun who had composed the music could not be brought to see this, and, after a comic scene between the Queen and the Chancellor, the King, followed by his Court and suite, entered, leading the beggar-maid by the hand. In a short speech he told how her sweetness, her devotion, and, above all, her beautiful voice, had won his heart, and that he intended to make her his Queen. A back cloth went up, and it disclosed a double throne, and as the young bride ascended the steps to take her place by the side of her royal husband, a joyful chorus was sung, in which allusion was made to a long reign and happy days.
Everyone was enchanted but Alice, who had wished to show how a man, in the trouble and bitterness of life, must yearn for the consoling sympathy of a woman, and how he may find the dove his heart is sighing for in the lowliest bracken; and, having found her, and having recognized that she is the one, he should place her in his bosom, confident that her plumes are as fair and immaculate as those that glitter in the sunlight about the steps and terraces of the palace. Instead of this, she had seen a King who seemed to regard life as a sensual gratification; and a beggar-maid, who looked upon her lover, not timidly, as a new-born flower upon the sun, but as a clever huckstress at a customer who had bought her goods at her valuing. But the audience did not see below the surface, and, in answer to clapping of hands and cries of Encore, the curtain was raised once more, and King Cophetua, seated on his throne by the side of his beggar-maid, was shown to them again.
The excitement did not begin to calm until the tableaux vivants were ready. For, notwithstanding the worldliness of the day, it was thought that Heaven should not be forgotten. The convent being that of the Holy Child, something illustrative of the birth of Christ naturally suggested itself. No more touching or edifying subject than that of the Annunciation could be found. Violet's thin, elegant face seemed representative of an intelligent virginity, and in a long, white dress she knelt at the prie-dieu. Olive, with a pair of wings obtained from the local theatre, and her hair, blonde as an August harvesting, lying along her back, took the part of the Angel. She wore a star on her forehead, and after an interval that allowed the company to recover their composure, and the carpenter to prepare the stage, the curtain was again raised. This time the scene was a stable. At the back, in the right-hand corner, there was a manger to which was attached a stuffed donkey; Violet sat on a low stool and held the new-born Divinity in her arms; May, who for the part of Joseph had been permitted to wear a false beard, held a staff, and tried to assume the facial expression of a man who had just been blessed with a son. In the foreground knelt the three wise men from the East; with outstretched hands they held forth their offerings of frankincense and myrrh. The picture of the world's Redemption was depicted with such taste that a murmur of pious admiration sighed throughout the hall.
Soon after a distribution of prizes began, and when the different awards had been distributed, and the Bishop had made a speech, there was benediction in the convent-church.
'And to think,' said Alice, 'that this is the very last evening we shall ever pass here!'
'I don't see why you should be so very sorry for that,' replied May; 'I should have thought that you must have had enough of the place. Why, you have been here nearly ten years! I never would have consented to remain so long as that.'
'I didn't mind; we have been very happy here, and to say good-bye, and for ever, to friends we have known so long, and who have been so good to us, seems very sad—at least, it does to me.'
'It is all very well for you,' said Olive; 'I dare say you have been happy here, you have always been the petted and spoilt child of the school. Nothing was ever too good for Alice; no matter who was wrong or what was done, Alice was sure to be right.'
'I never knew anyone so unreasonable,' said Cecilia. 'You grumble at everything, and you are always dying of jealousy of your sister.'
'That's not true, and you haven't much to talk of; after beating your brains out you only just got the prize for composition. Besides, if you like the convent as much as I dare say you do, although you aren't a Catholic, you had better stop here with my sister.'
'Oh, Olive! how can you speak to Cecilia in that horrid way? I am ashamed of you.'
'So you are going to turn against me, Alice; but that's your way. I shan't stay here.'
The retreating figure of the young girl stood out in beautiful distinctness in the pale light; behind her the soft evening swept the sea, effacing with azure the brown sails of the fishing-boats; in front of her the dresses of the girls flitted white through the sombre green of the garden.
'I am sorry,' said Cecilia, 'you spoke to her. She is put out because she didn't get a prize, and Sister Agnes told her that she nearly spoilt the play by the stupid way she played the Princess.'
'She will find that that temper of hers will stand in her way if she doesn't learn to control it,' Violet said; 'but, now she is gone, tell me, Alice, how do you think she played her part? As far as I can judge she didn't seem to put any life into it. You meant the Princess to be a sharp, cunning woman of the world, didn't you?'
'No, not exactly; but I agree with you that Olive didn't put life into it.'
'Well, anyhow, the play was a great success, and you got, dear Alice, the handsomest prize that has ever been given in the school.'
'And how do you think I did the King? Did I make him look like a man? I tried to walk just as Fred Scully does when he goes down to the stables.'
'You did the part very well, May; but I think I should like him to have been more sentimental.'
'I don't think men are sentimental—at least, not as you think they are. I tried to copy Fred Scully.'
'My part was a mere nothing. You must write me a something, Alice, one of these days—a coquettish girl, you know, who could twist a man round her fingers. A lot of bavardage in it.'
'I suppose you'll never be able to speak English again, now you've got the prize for French conversation.'
'Sour grapes! You would like to have got it yourself. I worked hard for it. I was determined to get it, for ma says it is of great advantage in society for a girl to speak French well.'
'Jealous! I should like to know why I should be jealous. Of what? I got all I tried for. Besides, the truth about your French prize is that you may consider yourself very fortunate, for if' (she mentioned the name of one of her schoolfellows) 'hadn't been so shy and timid, you'd have come off second best.'
The rudeness of this retort drew a sharp answer from Violet; and then, in turn, but more often simultaneously, the girls discussed the justice of the distribution. The names of an infinite number of girls were mentioned; but when, in the babbling flow of convent-gossip, a favourite nun was spoken of, one of the chatterers would sigh, and for a moment be silent.
The violet waters of the bay had darkened, and, like the separating banners of a homeward-moving procession, the colours of the sky went east and west. The girdle of rubies had melted, had become the pale red lining of a falling mantle; the large spaces of gold grew dim; orange and yellow streamers blended; lilac and blue pennons faded to deep greys; dark hoods and dark veils were drawn closer; purple was gathered like garments about the loins; the night fell, and the sky, now decorated with a crescent moon and a few stars, was filled with stillness and adoration. The day's death was exquisite, even human; and as she gazed on the beautiful corpse lowered amid the fumes of a thousand censers into an under-world, even Violet's egotism began to dream.
'The evening is lovely. I am glad; it is the last we shall pass here,' said the girl pensively, 'and all good-byes are sad.'
'Yes, we have been happy,' said May, 'and I too am sorry to leave; but then we couldn't spend our lives here. There are plenty of things to be done at home; and I suppose we shall all get married one of these days? And there will be balls and parties before we get married. I don't think that I'd care to get married all at once. Would you, Violet?'
'I don't know. Perhaps not, unless it was to someone very grand indeed.'
'Oh, would you do that? I don't think I could marry a man unless I loved him,' said May.
'Yes, but you might love someone who was very grand as well as someone who wasn't.'
'That's true enough; but then—' and May stopped, striving to readjust her ideas, which Violet's remark had suddenly disarranged. After a pause she said:
'But does your mother intend to bring you to Dublin for the season? Are you going to be presented this year?'
'I hope so. Mamma said I should be, last vacation.'
'I shall take good care that I am. The best part of the hunting will be over, and I wouldn't miss the Castle balls for anything. Do you like officers?'
The crudity of the question startled Alice, and it was with difficulty she answered she didn't know—that she had not thought about the matter.
May and Violet continued the conversation; and over the lingering waste of yellow, all that remained to tell where the sun had set, the night fell like a heavy, blinding dust, sadly and regretfully, as the last handful of earth thrown upon a young girl's grave.
In the tiny cornfields the reapers rose from their work to watch the carriage. Mr. Barton commented on the disturbed state of the country. Olive asked if Mr. Parnell was good-looking. A railway-bridge was passed and a pine-wood aglow with the sunset, and a footman stepped down from the box to open a swinging iron gate.
This was Brookfield. Sheep grazed on the lawn, at the end of which, beneath some chestnut-trees, was the house. It had been built by the late Mr. Barton out of a farmhouse, but the present man, having travelled in Italy and been attracted by the picturesque, had built a verandah; and for the same reason had insisted on calling his daughter Olive.
'Oh there, mamma!' cried Olive, looking out of the carriage window; and the two girls watched their mother, a pretty woman of forty, coming across the greensward to meet them.
She moved over the greensward in a skirt that seemed a little too long—a black silk skirt trimmed with jet. As she came forward her daughters noticed that their mother dyed her hair in places where it might be suspected of turning grey. It was parted in the middle and she wore it drawn back over her ears and slightly puffed on either side in accordance with the fashion that had come in with the Empress Eugenie. Even in a photograph she was like a last-century beauty sketched by Romney in pastel—brown, languid, almond-shaped eyes, a thin figure a little bent. Even in youth it had probably resembled Alice's rather than Olive's, but neither had inherited her mother's hands—the most beautiful hands ever seen—and while they trifled with the newly bought foulards a warbling voice inquired if Olive was sure she was not tired.
'Five hours in the train! And you, Alice? You must be starving, my dear, and I'm afraid the saffron buns are cold. Milord brought us over such a large packet to-day. We must have some heated up. They won't be a minute.'
'Oh, mamma, I assure you I am not in the least hungry!' cried Olive.
'La beaute n'a jamais faim, elle se nourrit d'elle meme,' replied Lord Dungory, who had just returned from the pleasure-ground whither he had gone for a little walk with Arthur.
'You will find Milord the same as ever—toujours galant; always thinking of la beaute, et les femmes.'
Lord Dungory was the kind of man that is often seen with the Mrs. Barton type of woman. An elderly beau verging on the sixties, who, like Mrs. Barton, suggested a period. His period was very early Victorian, but he no longer wore a silk hat in the country. A high silk hat in Galway would have called attention to his age, so the difficulty of costume was ingeniously compromised by a tall felt, a cross between a pot and a chimney-pot. For collars, a balance had been struck between the jaw-scrapers of old time and the nearest modern equivalent; and in the tying of the large cravat there was a reminiscence, but nothing more, of the past generation.
He had modelled himself, consciously or unconsciously, on Lord Palmerston, and in the course of conversation one gathered that he was on terms of intimacy with the chiefs of the Liberal party, such as Lord Granville and Lord Hartington, and if the listener was credited with any erudition, allusion was made to the most celebrated artists and authors, and to their works. There was a celebrated Boucher in Dungory Castle, which Milord, it was hinted, had bought for some very small sum many years ago on the Continent; there was also a cabinet by Buhl and a statue supposed to be a Jean Gougon, and the proofs of their authenticity were sometimes spoken of after a set dinner-party. His speech was urbane, and, on all questions of taste, Lord Dungory's opinion was eagerly sought for. He gave a tone to the ideas put forward in the surrounding country houses, and it was through him that Mr. Barton held the title of a genius born out of due time. If Arthur, he said, had lived two centuries ago, when the gift of imagination was considered indispensable in the artist, he would have achieved high distinction. His subjects—The Bridal of Triermain and Julius Caesar overturning the Altars of the Druids—would have been envied, perhaps stolen, by the Venetian painters. And this tribute to Arthur's genius, so generously expressed, enabled him to maintain the amenities of his life at Brookfield. He never forgot to knock at Arthur's studio-door, and the moment his eyes fell on a new composition, he spoke of it with respect; and he never failed to allude to it at lunch. He lunched at Brookfield every day. At half-past one his carriage was at the door. In the afternoons he went out to drive with Mrs. Barton or sat in the drawing-room with her. Four times in the week he remained to dinner, and did not return home until close on midnight.
Whether he ever made any return to Mrs. Barton for her hospitalities, and, if so, in what form he repaid his obligations to her, was, when friends drew together, a favourite topic of conversation in the county of Galway. It had been remarked that the Bartons never dined at Dungory Castle except on state occasions; and it was well-known that the Ladies Cullen hated Mrs. Barton with a hatred as venomous as the poison hid in the fangs of adders.
But Lord Dungory knew how to charm his tame snakes. For fortune they had but five thousand pounds each, and, although freedom and a London lodging were often dreamed of, the flesh-pots of Dungory Castle continued to be purchased at the price of smiles and civil words exchanged with Mrs. Barton. Besides, as they grew old and ugly, the Ladies Cullen had developed an inordinate passion for the conversion of souls. They had started a school of their own in opposition to the National school, which was under the direction of the priest, and to persuade the peasants to read the Bible and to eat bacon on Friday, were good works that could not be undertaken without funds; and these were obtained, it was said, by the visits of the Ladies Cullen to Brookfield.
Mrs. Gould declared she could estimate to a fraction the prosperity of Protestantism in the parish by the bows these ladies exchanged with Mrs. Barton when their carriages crossed on the roads.
'Here are the saffron buns at last, my dear children;' and Mrs. Barton pressed them upon her girls, saying that Milord had brought them from Dungory Castle especially for them. 'Take a bottom piece, Olive, and Alice, you really must. . . Well, if you won't eat, tell Milord about your play of King Cophetua and the beggar-maid. Arthur, tell me, how did you like the play, and how did the nuns like it? To think of my daughter, so prim and demure, writing a play, and on such a subject.'
'But, mamma, what is there odd in the subject? We all know the old ballad.'
'Yes, we all know the ballad,' Arthur answered; 'I sing stanzas of it to the guitar myself.' He began to chant to himself, and Mrs. Barton listened, her face slanted in the pose of the picture of Lady Hamilton; and Milord rejoiced in the interlude, for it gave him opportunity to meditate. Anna (Mrs. Barton) seemed to him more charming and attractive than he had ever seen her, as she sat in the quiet shadow of the verandah: beyond the verandah, behind her, the autumn sunshine fell across the shelving meadows. A quiet harmony reigned over Brookfield. The rooks came flapping home through the sunlight, and when Arthur had ceased humming Mrs. Barton said:
'And now, my dear children, if you have finished your tea, come, and I will show you your room.'
She did not leave the verandah, however, without paying a pretty compliment to Milord, one that set him thinking how miserable his life would have been with his three disagreeable daughters if he had not fallen in with this enchantment. He remembered that it had lasted for nearly twenty years, and it was as potent as ever. In what did it consist, he asked himself. He sometimes thought her laughter too abundant, sometimes it verged on merriment. He did not like to think of Anna as a merry woman; he preferred to think that wherever she went she brought happiness with her. He had known her sad, but never melancholy, for she was never without a smile even when she was melancholy.
Awakening from his reverie he drew his chair closer to Arthur's, and, with a certain parade of interest, asked him if he had been to the Academy.
'Did you see anything, Arthur, that in design approached your picture of Julius Caesar Overturning the Altars of the Druids?'
'There were some beautiful bits of painting there,' replied Arthur, whose modesty forbade him to answer the question directly. 'I saw some lovely landscapes, and there were some babies' frocks,' he added satirically. 'In one of these pictures I saw a rattle painted to perfection.'
'Ah, yes, yes! You don't like the pettiness of family feeling dragged into art; but if you only condescend to take a little more notice of the craft—the craft is, after all—'
'I am carried along too rapidly by my feelings. I feel that I must get my idea on canvas. But when I was in London I saw such a lovely woman—one of the most exquisite creatures possible to imagine! Oh, so sweet, and so feminine! I have it all in my head. I shall do something like her to-morrow.'
Here he began to sketch with his stick in the dust, and from his face it might be judged he was satisfied with the invisible result. At last he said:
'You needn't say anything about it, but she sent me some songs, with accompaniments written for the guitar. You shall hear some of the songs to-night. . . . Ah, there is the dinner-bell!'
Olive was placed next to Milord, and the compliments paid to her by the old courtier delighted her. She pretended to understand when he said: 'La femme est comme une ombre: si vous la suives, elle vous fuit; si vous fuyez, elle vous poursuit.' A little later the champagne she had drunk set her laughing hysterically, and she begged him to translate (he had just whispered to her mother, 'L'amour est la conscience du plaisir donne et recu, la certitude de donner et de recevoir'); and he would have complied with her request, but Mrs. Barton forbade him. Alice, who had understood, found herself obliged to say that she had not understood, which little fib begot a little annoyance in her against her mother; and Milord, as if he thought that he had been guilty of a slight indiscretion, said, addressing himself to both girls: 'Gardez bien vos illusions, mon enfant, car les illusions sont le miroir de l'amour.'
'Ah! mais il ne faut pas couvrir trop l'abime avec des fleurs,' said Mrs. Barton, as a sailor from his point of vantage might cry, 'Rocks ahead!'
Arthur only joined occasionally in the conversation; he gazed long and ardently on his daughter, and then sketched with his thumb-nail on the cloth, and when they arose from the table, Mrs. Barton said:
'Now, now, I am not going to allow you gentlemen to spend any more time over your wine. This is our first evening together; come into the drawing-room with us, and we shall have some music.'
Like most men of an unevenly balanced mind, Arthur loved an eccentric costume, and soon after he appeared in a long-tasselled cap and a strangely coloured smoking jacket; he wore a pair of high-heeled brocaded slippers, and, twanging a guitar, hummed to himself plaintively. Then, when he thought he had been sufficiently admired, he sang A che la morte, Il Balen, and several other Italian airs, in which frequent allusion was made to the inconstancy of woman's and the truth of man's affection. At every pause in the music these sentiments were laughingly contested by Mrs. Barton. She appealed to Milord. He never had had anything to complain of. Was it not well known that the poor woman had been only too true to him? Finally, it was arranged there should be a little dancing.
As Mrs. Barton said, it was of great importance to know if Olive knew the right step, and who could put her up to all the latest fashions as well as Milord? The old gentleman replied in French, and settled his waistcoat, fearing the garment was doing him an injustice.
'But who is to play?' asked the poetical-looking Arthur, who, on the highest point of the sofa, hummed and tuned his guitar after true troubadour fashion.
'Alice will play us a waltz,' said Mrs. Barton winningly.
'Oh yes, Alice dear, play us a waltz,' cried Olive.
'You know how stupid I am; I can't play a note without my music, and it is all locked up in my trunk upstairs.'
'It won't take you a minute to get it out,' said Mrs. Barton; and moving, as if she were on wheels, towards her daughter, she whispered: 'Do as I tell you—run upstairs at once and get your music.'
She looked questioningly at her mother and hesitated. But Mrs. Barton had a way of compelling obedience, and the girl went upstairs, to return soon after with a roll of music. At the best of times she had little love of the art, but now, sick with disappointment, and weary from a long railway journey, to spell through the rhythm of the My Queen Waltz and the jangle of L'Esprit Francais was to her an odious and, when the object of it was considered, an abominable duty to perform. She had to keep her whole attention fixed on the page before her, but when she raised her eyes the picture she saw engraved itself on her mind. It was a long time before she could forget Olive's blond, cameo-like profile seen leaning over the old beau's fat shoulder. Mrs. Barton laughed and laughed again, declaring the while that it was la grace et la beaute reunies. Mr. Barton shouted and twanged in measure, the excitement gaining on him until he rushed at his wife, and, seizing her round the waist, whirled her and whirled her, holding his guitar above her head. At last they bumped against Milord, and shot the old man and his burden on to the nearest sofa. Then Alice, who thought her mission at the piano was over, rose to go, but Mrs. Barton ordered her to resume her seat, and the dancing was continued till the carriage came up the gravel sweep to fetch Milord away. This was generally about half-past eleven, and as he muffled himself up in overcoats, the girls were told to cram his pockets with cigarettes and bon-bons.
'Bedad, I think it is revolvers and policemen you ought to be givin' me, not swatemates,' he said, affecting a brogue.
'Oh yes, is it not dreadful?' exclaimed Mrs. Barton. 'I don't know what we shall do if the Government don't put down the Land League; we shall all be shot in our beds some night. Did you hear of that murder the other day?'
'And it is said there will be no rents collected this year,' said Mr. Barton, as he tightened one of the strings of his guitar.
'Oh, do cease that noise!' said Mrs. Barton. 'And tell me, Lord Dungory, will the Government refuse us soldiers and police to put the people out?'
'If we go to the Castle, we shall want more money to buy dresses,' said Olive.
'La mer a toujours son ecume pour habiller ses deesses,' replied Milord; and he got into his carriage amid pearly peals of laughter from Mrs. Barton, intermingled with a few high notes from Olive, who had already taken to mimicking her mother.
Mr. Barton, or Arthur, as he was usually called, always returned to his studio immediately after breakfast, and, as Mrs. Barton had domestic duties to attend to, the girls were left to themselves to appreciate their return home from school and look forward to their entry into the life of the world.
The two girls descended the stairs with their summer hats and sunshades, and Alice stopped at the door of the schoolroom. It was here that, only a few years ago, she had interceded with the dear old governess, and aided Olive to master the difficulties against which the light brain could not contend singly—the hardships of striving to recall the number of continents the world possesses, the impossibility of learning to say definitely if seven times four made twenty-eight or thirty.
At the end of the passage under the stairs the children used to play for hours, building strange houses out of boxes of bricks, or dressing dolls in fantastic costumes. Olive had forgotten, but Alice remembered, and her thoughts wandered through the land of toys. The box of bricks had come from an aunt that was now dead; the big doll mother had brought from Dublin when she went to see the oculist about her eyes; and then there were other toys that suggested nothing, and whose history was entirely forgotten. But the clock that stood in the passage was well remembered, and Alice thought how this old-fashioned timepiece used to be the regulator and confidant of all their joys and hopes. She saw herself again listening, amid her sums, for the welcome voice that would call her away; she saw herself again examining its grave face and striving to calculate, with childish eagerness, if she would have time to build another Tower of Babel or put another tack in the doll's frock before the ruthless iron tongue struck the fatal hour.
'Olive, is it possible you don't remember how we used to listen to the dear old clock when we were children?'
'You are a funny girl, Alice; you remember everything. Fancy thinking of that old clock! I hated it, for it brought me to lessons when it struck eleven.'
'Yes, but it brought you out to play when it struck twelve. See! the hands are just on the hour; let us wait to hear it strike.'
The girls listened vainly for a sound; and Alice felt as if she had been apprised of the loss of a tried friend when one of the servants told them the clock had been broken some years ago.
The kitchen windows looked on a street made by a line of buildings parallel with the house. These were the stables and outhouses, and they formed one of the walls of the garden that lay behind, sheltered on the north side by a thin curtain of beeches, filled every evening with noisy rooks; and, coming round to the front of the house, the girls lingered beneath the chestnut-trees, and in the rosary, where a little fountain played when visitors were present, and then stood leaning over the wooden paling that defended the pleasure-ground from the cows that grazed in the generous expanse of grass extending up to the trees of the Lawler domain. Brookfield was therefore without pretensions—it could hardly be called 'a place'—but, manifolded in dreams past and present, it extended indefinitely before Alice's eyes, and, absorbed by the sad sweetness of retrospection, she lingered while Olive ran through the rosary from the stables and back again, calling to her sister, making the sunlight ring with her light laughter. She refrained, therefore, from reminding her that it was here they used to play with Nell, the old setter, and that it was there they gave bread to the blind beggar; Olive had no heart for these things, and when she admired the sleek carriage-horses that had lately been bought to take them to balls and tennis-parties, Alice thought of the old brown mare that used to take them for such delightful drives.
Suddenly Mrs. Barton's voice was heard calling. Milord had arrived: they were to go into the garden and pick a few flowers to make a buttonhole for him. Olive darted off at once to execute the commission, and soon returned with a rose set round with stephanotis. The old lord, seated in the dining-room, in an arm-chair which Mrs. Barton had drawn up to the window so that he might enjoy the air, sipped his sherry, and Alice, as she entered the room, heard him say:
'Quand on aime on est toujours bien portant.'
She stopped abruptly, and Mrs. Barton, who already suspected her of secret criticism, whispered, as she glided across the room:
'Now, my dear girl, go and talk to Milord and make yourself agreeable.'
The girl felt she was incapable of this, and it pained her to listen to her sister's facile hilarity, and her mother's coaxing observations. Milord did not, however, neglect her; he made suitable remarks concerning her school successes, and asked appropriate questions anent her little play of King Cophetua. But whatever interest the subject possessed was found in the fact that Olive had taken the part of the Princess; and, re-arranging the story a little, Mrs. Barton declared, with a shower of little laughs, and many waves of the white hands, that 'my lady there had refused a King; a nice beginning, indeed, and a pleasant future for her chaperon.'
The few books the house possessed lay on the drawing-room table, or were piled, in dusty confusion, in the bookcase in Mr. Barton's studio; and, thinking of them, Alice determined she would pay her father a visit in his studio.
At her knock he ceased singing Il Balen, and cried, 'Come in!'
'I beg your pardon, papa; I'm afraid I am interrupting you.'
'Not at all—not at all, I assure you; come in. I will have a cigarette; there is nothing like reconsidering one's work through the smoke of a cigarette. The most beautiful pictures I have ever seen I have seen in the smoke of a cigarette; nothing can beat those, particularly if you are lying back looking up at a dirty ceiling.'
War and women were the two poles of Arthur's mind. Cain shielding his Wife from Wild Beasts had often been painted, numberless Bridals of Triermain; and as for the Rape of the Sabines, it seemed as if it could never be sufficiently accomplished. Opposite the door was a huge design representing Samson and Delilah; opposite the fireplace, Julius Caesar overturning the Altars of the Druids occupied nearly the entire wall. Nymphs and tigers were scattered in between; canvases were also propped against almost every piece of furniture.
At last Alice's eyes were suddenly caught by a picture representing three women bathing. It was a very rough sketch, but, before she had time to examine it, Arthur turned it against the wall. Why he hid two pictures from her she could not help wondering. It could not be for propriety's sake, for there were nudities on every side of her.
Then, lying upon the sofa, he explained how So-and-so had told him, when he was a boy in London, that no one since Michael Angelo had been able to design as he could; how he had modelled a colossal statue of Lucifer before he was sixteen, how he had painted a picture of the Battle of Arbela, forty feet by twenty, before he was eighteen; but that was of no use, the world nowadays only cared for execution, and he could not wait until he had got the bit of ribbon in Delilah's hair to look exactly like silk.
Alice listened to her father babbling, her heart and her mind at variance. A want of knowledge of painting might blind her to the effects of his pictures (there was in them all a certain crude merit of design), but it was impossible not to see that they were lacking in something, in what she could not say, having no knowledge of painting. Nor was she sure that her father believed in his pictures, though he had just declared they had all the beauties of Raphael and other beauties besides. He had a trick of never appearing to thoroughly believe in them and in himself. She listened interested and amused, not knowing how to take him. She had been away at school for nearly ten years, coming home for rare holidays, and was, therefore, without any real knowledge of her parents. She understood her father even less than her mother; but she was certain that if he were not a great genius he might have been one, and she resolved to find out Lord Dungory's opinions on her father. But the opportunity for five minutes quiet chat behind her mother's back did not present itself. As soon as he arrived her mother sent her out of the room on some pretext more or less valid, and at the end of the week the gowns that had been ordered in Dublin arrived: ecstasy consumed the house, and she heard him say that he would give a great dinner-party to show them off.
Arthur, who rarely dined out, handed the ladies into the carriage.
Mrs. Barton was beautifully dressed in black satin; Olive was lost in a mass of tulle; Alice wore a black silk trimmed with passementerie and red ribbons. Behind the Clare mountains the pale transitory colours of the hour faded, and the women, their bodies and their thoughts swayed together by the motion of the vehicle, listened to the irritating barking of the cottage-dog. Surlily a peasant, returning from his work, his frieze coat swung over one shoulder, stepped aside. A bare-legged woman, surrounded by her half-naked children, leaving the potato she was peeling in front of her door, gazed, like her husband, after the rolling vision of elegance that went by her, and her obtuse brain probably summed up the implacable decrees of Destiny in the phrase:
'Shure there misht be a gathering at the big house this evening.'
'But tell me, mamma,' said Olive, after a long silence, 'how much champagne ought I to drink at dinner? You know, it is a long time since I have tasted it. Indeed, I don't remember that I ever did taste it.'
Mrs. Barton laughed softly:
'Well, my dear, I don't think that two glasses could do you any harm; but I would not advise you to drink any more.'
'And what shall I say to the man who takes me down to dinner? Shall I have to begin the conversation, or will he?'
'He will be sure to say something; you need not trouble yourself about that. I think we shall meet some nice men to-night. Captain Hibbert will be there. He is very handsome and well-connected. I hope he will take you down. Then there will be the Honourable Mr. Burke. He is a nice little man, but there's not much in him, and he hasn't a penny. His brother is Lord Kilcarney, a confirmed bachelor. Then there will be Mr. Adair; he is very well off. He has at least four thousand a year in the country; but it would seem that he doesn't care for women. He is very clever; he writes pamphlets. He used to sympathize with the Land League, but the outrages went against his conscience. You never know what he really does think. He admires Gladstone, and Gladstone says he can't do without him.'
They had now passed the lodge-gates, and were driving through the park. Herds of fallow deer moved away, but the broad bluff forms of the red deer gazed steadfastly as lions from the crest of a hill.
'Did you ever meet Lady Dungory, mamma?' asked Alice. 'Is she dead?'
'No, dear, she is not dead; but it would be better, perhaps, if she were. She behaved very badly. Lord Dungory had to get a separation. No one ever speaks of her now. Mind, you are warned!'
At this moment the carriage stopped before a modern house, built between two massive Irish towers entirely covered with huge ivy.
'I am afraid we are a little late,' said Mrs. Barton to the servant, as he relieved them of their sorties de bal.
'Eight o'clock has just struck, ma'am.'
'The two old things will make faces at us, I know,' murmured Mrs. Barton, as she ascended the steps.
On either side there were cases of stuffed birds; a fox lay in wait for a pheasant on the right; an otter devoured a trout on the left. These attested the sporting tastes of a former generation. The white marble statues of nymphs sleeping in the shadows of the different landings and the Oriental draperies with which each cabinet was hung suggested the dilettantism of the present owner.
Mrs. Barton walked on in front; the girls drew together like birds. They were amazed at the stateliness of the library, and they marvelled at the richness of the chandeliers and the curiously assorted pictures. The company was assembled in a small room at the end of the suite.
Two tall, bony, high-nosed women advanced and shook hands menacingly with Mrs. Barton. They were dressed alike in beautiful gowns of gold-brown plush.
With a cutting stare and a few cold conventional words, they welcomed Olive and Alice home to the country again. Lord Dungory whispered something to Mrs. Barton. Olive passed across the room; the black coats gave way, and, as a white rose in a blood-coloured glass, her shoulders rose out of the red tulle. Captain Hibbert twisted his brown-gold moustache, and, with the critical gaze of the connoisseur, examined the undulating lines of the arms, the delicate waist, and the sloping hips: her skirts seemed to fall before his looks.
Immediately after, the roaring of a gong was heard, and the form of the stately butler was seen approaching. Lord Dungory and Lady Jane exchanged looks. The former offered his arm to Mrs. Gould; the latter, her finger on her lips, in a movement expressive of profound meditation, said:
'Mr. Ryan, will you take down Mrs. Barton; Mr. Scully, will you take Miss Olive Barton; Mr. Adair, will you take Miss Gould; Mr. Lynch, will you take Miss Alice Barton; Mr. Burke, will you take my sister?' Then, smiling at the thought that she had checkmated her father, who had ordered that Olive Barton should go down with Captain Hibbert, she took Captain Hibbert's arm, and followed the dinner-party. About the marble statues and stuffed birds on the staircase flowed a murmur of amiability, and, during a pause, skirts were settled amid the chairs, which the powdered footmen drew back ceremoniously to make way for the guests to pass.
A copy of Murillo's Madonna presenting the Divine Child to St. Joseph hung over the fireplace; between the windows another Madonna stood on a half-moon, and when Lord Dungory said, 'For what we are going to receive, the Lord make us truly thankful,' these pictures helped the company to realize a suitable, although momentary emotion.
Turtle soup was handed round. The soft steaming fragrance mixed with the fresh perfume of the roses that bloomed in a silver vase beneath the light of the red-shaded wax candles. A tree covered with azaleas spread notes of delicate colour over the gold screen that hid the door by which the servants came and went.
'Oh, Lady Sarah,' exclaimed Mrs. Gould, 'I do not know how you have such beautiful flowers—and in this wretched climate!'
'Yes, it is very trying; but then we have a great deal of glass.'
'Which do you prefer, roses or azaleas?' asked Mrs. Barton.
'Les roses sont les fleurs en corsage, mais les azalees sont les fleurs en peignoir.'
Lady Sarah and Lady Jane, who had both overheard the remark, levelled indignant glances at their father, scornful looks at Mrs. Barton, and, to avoid further amatory allusions, Lady Sarah said:
'I do not think we shall soon have bread, much less flowers, to place on our tables, if the Government do not step in and put down the revolution that is going on in this country.'
Everyone, except the young girls, looked questioningly at each other, and the mutuality of their interests on this point became at once apparent.
'Ah, Lord Dungory! do you think we shall be able to collect our rents this year? What reduction do you intend to give?'
Lord Dungory, who had no intention of showing his hand, said:
'The Land League has, I believe, advised the people to pay no more than Griffith's valuation. I do not know if your lands are let very much above it?'
'If you have not seen the Evening Mail you have probably not heard of the last terrible outrage,' said Captain Hibbert; and, amid a profound silence, he continued: 'I do not know if anybody here is acquainted with a Mr. Macnamara; he lives in Meath.'
'Oh! you don't say anything has happened to him? I knew his cousin,' exclaimed Mrs. Gould.
Captain Hibbert looked round with his bland, good-looking stare, and, as no nearer relative appeared to be present, he resumed his story:
'He was, it seems, sitting smoking after dinner, when suddenly two shots were fired through the windows.'
At this moment a champagne-cork slipped through the butler's fingers and went off with a bang.
'Oh, goodness me! what's that?' exclaimed Mrs. Gould; and, to pass off their own fears, everyone was glad to laugh at the old lady. It was not until Captain Hibbert told that Mr. Macnamara had been so severely wounded that his life was despaired of, that the chewing faces became grave again.
'And I hear that Macnamara had the foinest harses in Mathe,' said Mr. Ryan; 'I very nearly sold him one last year at the harse show.'
Mr. Ryan was the laughing-stock of the country, and a list of the grotesque sayings he was supposed, on different occasions, to have been guilty of, was constantly in progress of development. He lived with his cousin, Mr. Lynch, and, in conjunction, they farmed large tracts of land. Mr. Ryan was short and thick; Mr. Lynch was taller and larger, and a pair of mutton-chop whiskers made his bloated face look bigger still. On either side of the white tablecloth their dirty hands fumbled at their shirt-studs, that constantly threatened to fall through the worn buttonholes. They were, nevertheless, received everywhere, and Pathre, as Mr. Ryan was called by his friends, was permitted the licences that are usually granted to the buffoon.
'Arrah!' he said, 'I wouldn't moind the lague being hard on them who lives out of the counthry, spendin' their cash on liquor and theatres in London; but what can they have agin us who stops at home, mindin' our properties and riding our harses?'
This criticism of justice, as administered by the league, did not, however, seem to meet with the entire approval of those present. Mr. Adair looked grave; he evidently thought it was based on a superficial notion of political economy. Mr. Burke, a very young man with a tiny red moustache and a curious habit of wriggling his long weak neck, feeling his amusements were being unfairly attacked, broke the silence he had till then preserved, and said:
'I haven't an acre of land in the world, but if my brother chooses to live in London, I don't see why he should be deprived of his rents. For my part, I like the Gaiety Theatre, and so does my brother. Have you seen the Forty Thieves, Lady Jane? Capital piece—I saw it twenty times.'
'I think what Pathre, me cousin, means to say,' said Mr. Lynch, declining the venison the servant offered him, 'is that there are many in the country who don't deserve much consideration. I am alluding to those who acquired their property in the land courts, and the Cromwellians, and the—I mean the rack-renters.'
The sudden remembrance that Lord Dungory dated from the time of James so upset Mr. Lynch that he called back the servant and accepted the venison, which he failed, however, to eat.
'I do not see,' said Lord Dungory, with the air of a man whose words are conclusive, 'why we should go back to the time of Cromwell to discuss the rights of property rather than to that of the early Kings of Ireland. If there is to be a returning, why not at once put in a claim on the part of the Irish Elk? No! there must be some finality in human affairs.' And on this phrase the conversation came to a pause.
But if the opinions of those present were not in accord concerning the rights of property, their tastes in conversation certainly differed as widely. Olive's white face twitched from time to time with nervous annoyance. Alice looked up in a sort of mild despair as she strove to answer Mr. Lynch's questions; May had fallen into a state of morose lassitude. If Mr. Adair would only cease to explain to her how successfully he had employed concrete in the construction of his farm-buildings! She felt that if he started again on the saw-mill she must faint, and Olive's senses, too, were swimming, but just as she thought she was going off Captain Hibbert looked so admiringly at her that she recovered herself; and at the same time Mr. Scully succeeded in making May understand that he would infinitely prefer to be near her than Lady Sarah. In return for this expression of feeling the young lady determined to risk a remark across the table; but she was cut short by Mrs. Gould, who pithily summed up the political situation in the words: