When Miss Le Breton reached the hall, a footman was at the outer door reciting Lady Henry’s excuses as each fresh carriage drove up; while in the inner vestibule, which was well screened from the view of the street, was a group of men, still in their hats and overcoats, talking and laughing in subdued voices.
Julie Le Breton came forward. The hats were removed, and the tall, stooping form of Montresor advanced.
“Lady Henry is so sorry,” said Julie, in a soft, lowered voice. “But I am sure she would like me to give you her message and to tell you how she is. She would not like her old friends to be alarmed. Would you come in for a moment? There is a fire in the library. Mr. Delafield, don’t you think that would be best?…Will you tell Hutton not to let in anybody else?”
She looked at him uncertainly, as though appealing to him, as a relation of Lady Henry’s, to take the lead.
“By all means,” said that young man, after perhaps a moment’s hesitation, and throwing off his coat.
“Only please make no noise!” said Miss Le Breton, turning to the group. “Lady Henry might be disturbed.”
Everyone came in, as it were, on tiptoe. In each face a sense of the humor of the situation fought with the consciousness of its dangers. As soon as Montresor saw the little duchess by the fire, he threw up his hands in relief.
“I breathe again,” he said, greeting her with effusion. “Duchess, where thou goest, I may go. But I feel like a boy robbing a henroost. Let me introduce my friend, General Fergus. Take us both, pray, under your protection!”
“On the contrary,” said the duchess, as she returned General Fergus’s bow, “you are both so magnificent that no one would dare to protect you.”
For they were both in uniform, and the general was resplendent with stars and medals.
“We have been dining with royalty.” said Montresor. “We want some relaxation.”
He put on his eyeglasses, looked around the room, and gently rubbed his hands.
“How very agreeable this is! What a charming room! I never saw it before. What are we doing here? Is it a party? Why shouldn’t it be? Meredith, have you introduced Monsieur du Bartas to the duchess? Ah, I see—”
For Julie Le Breton was already conversing with the distinguished Frenchman wearing the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole, who had followed Dr. Meredith into the room. As Montresor spoke, however, she came forward, and in a French which was a joy to the ear, she presented M. du Bartas, a tall, well-built Norman with a fair mustache, first to the duchess and then to Lord Lackington and Jacob.
“The director of the French Foreign Office,” said Montresor, in an aside to the duchess. “He hates us like poison. But if you haven’t already asked him to dinner—I warned you last week he was coming—pray do it at once!”
Meanwhile the Frenchman, his introductions over, looked curiously around the room, studied its stately emptiness, the books on the walls under a trelliswork, faintly gilt, the three fine pictures; then his eyes passed to the tall and slender lady who had addressed him in such perfect French, and to the little duchess in her flutter of lace and satin, the turn of her small neck, and the blaze of her jewels. “These Englishwomen overdo their jewels,” he thought, with distaste. “But they overdo everything. That is a handsome fellow, by the way, who was with la petite fée when we arrived.”
And his shrewd, small eyes traveled from Warkworth to the duchess, his mind the while instinctively assuming some hidden relation between them.
Meanwhile, Montresor was elaborately informing himself as to Lady Henry.
“This is the first time for twenty years that I have not found her on a Wednesday evening,” he said, with a sudden touch of feeling which became him. “At our age, the smallest break in the old habit—”
He sighed, and then quickly threw off his depression.
“Nonsense! Next week she will be scolding us all with double energy. Meanwhile, may we sit down, mademoiselle? Ten minutes? And, upon my word, the very thing my soul was longing for—a cup of coffee!”
For at the moment Hutton and two footmen entered with trays containing tea and coffee, lemonade and cakes.
“Shut the door, Hutton, please,” Mademoiselle Le Breton implored, and the door was shut at once.
“We mustn’t, mustn’t make any noise!” she said, her finger on her lip, looking first at Montresor and then at Delafield. The group laughed, moved their spoons softly, and once more lowered their voices.
But the coffee brought a spirit of festivity. Chairs were drawn up. The blazing fire shone out upon a semicircle of people representing just those elements of mingled intimacy and novelty which go to make conversation. And in five minutes Mademoiselle Le Breton was leading it as usual. A brilliant French book had recently appeared dealing with certain points of the Egyptian question in a manner so interesting, supple, and apparently impartial that the attention of Europe had been won. Its author had been formerly a prominent official of the French Foreign Office, and was now somewhat out of favor with his countrymen. Julie put some questions about him to M. du Bartas.
The Frenchman feeling himself among comrades worthy of his steel, and secretly pricked by the presence of an English cabinet minister, relinquished the half-disdainful reserve with which he had entered, and took pains. He drew the man in question, en silhouette, with a hostile touch so sure, an irony so light, that his success was instant and great.
Lord Lackington woke up. Handsome, white-haired dreamer that he was, he had been looking into the fire, half-smiling, more occupied, in truth, with his own thoughts than with his companions. Delafield had brought him in; he did not exactly know why he was there, except that he liked Mademoiselle Le Breton, and often wondered how the deuce Lady Henry had ever discovered such an interesting and delightful person to fill such an uncomfortable position. But this Frenchman challenged and excited him. He, too, began to talk French, and soon the whole room was talking it, with an advantage to Julie Le Breton which quickly made itself apparent. In English she was a link, a social conjunction; she eased all difficulties, she pieced all threads. But in French her tongue was loosened, though never beyond the point of grace, the point of delicate adjustment to the talkers around her.
So that presently, and by insensible gradations, she was the queen of the room. The duchess in ecstasy pinched Jacob Delafield’s wrist, and forgetting all that she ought to have remembered, whispered, rapturously, in his ear, “Isn’t she enchanting—Julie—tonight?” That gentleman made no answer. The duchess, remembering, shrank back, and spoke no more, till Jacob looked around upon her with a friendly smile which set her tongue free again.
M. du Bartas, meanwhile, began to consider this lady in black with more and more attention. The talk glided into a general discussion of the Egyptian position. Those were the days before Arabi, when elements of danger and of doubt abounded, and none knew what a month might bring forth. With perfect tact Julie guided the conversation, so that all difficulties, whether for the French official or the English statesman, were avoided with a skill that no one realized till each separate rock was safely passed. Presently Montresor looked from her to Du Bartas with a grin. The Frenchman’s eyes were around with astonishment. Julie had been saying the lightest but the wisest things; she had been touching incidents and personalities known only to the initiated with a restrained gaiety which often broke down into a charming shyness, which was ready to be scared away in a moment by a tone—too serious or too polemical—which jarred with the general key of the conversation, which never imposed itself, and was like the ripple on a summer sea. But the summer sea has its depths, and this modest gaiety was the mark of an intimate and firsthand knowledge.
“Ah, I see,” thought Montresor, amused. “P—— has been writing to her, the little minx. He seems to have been telling her all the secrets. I think I’ll stop it. Even she mayn’t quite understand what should and shouldn’t be said before this gentleman.”
So he gave the conversation a turn, and Mademoiselle Le Breton took the hint at once. She called others to the front—it was like a change of dancers in the ballet—while she rested, no less charming as a listener than as a talker, her black eyes turning from one to another and radiant with the animation of success.
But one thing—at last—she had forgotten. She had forgotten to impose any curb upon the voices around her. The duchess and Lord Lackington were sparring like a couple of children, and Montresor broke in from time to time with his loud laugh and gruff throat voice. Meredith, the Frenchman, Warkworth, and General Fergus were discussing a grand review which had been held the day before. Delafield had moved around to the back of Julie’s chair, and she was talking to him, while all the time her eyes were on General Fergus and her brain was puzzling as to how she was to secure the five minutes’ talk with him she wanted. He was one of the intimates of the commander-in-chief. She herself had suggested to Montresor, of course in Lady Henry’s name, that he should be brought to Bruton Street some Wednesday evening.
Presently there was a little shifting of groups. Julie saw that Montresor and Captain Warkworth were together by the fireplace, that the young man with his hands held out to the blaze and his back to her was talking eagerly, while Montresor, looking outward into the room, his great black head bent a little toward his companion, was putting sharp little questions from time to time, with as few words as might be. Julie understood that an important conversation was going on—that Montresor, whose mind various friends of hers had been endeavoring to make up for him, was now perhaps engaged in making it up for himself.
With a quickened pulse she turned to find General Fergus beside her. What a frank and soldierly countenance!—a little roughly cut, with a strong mouth slightly underhung, and a dogged chin, the whole lit by eyes that were the chosen homes of truth, humanity, and will. Presently she discovered, as they drew their chairs a little back from the circle, that she, too, was to be encouraged to talk about Warkworth. The General was, of course, intimately acquainted with his professional record; but there were certain additional Indian opinions—a few incidents in the young man’s earlier career, including, especially, a shooting expedition of much daring in the very district to which the important Mokembe mission was now to be addressed, together with some quotations from private letters of her own, or Lady Henry’s, which Julie, with her usual skill, was able to slip into his ear, all on the assumption, delicately maintained, that she was merely talking of a friend of Lady Henry’s, as Lady Henry herself would have talked, to much better effect, had she been present.
The general gave her a grave and friendly attention. Few men had done sterner or more daring feats in the field. Yet here he sat, relaxed, courteous, kind, trusting his companions simply, as it was his instinct to trust all women. Julie’s heart beat fast. What an exciting, what an important evening!…
Suddenly there was a voice in her ear.
“Do you know, I think we ought to clear out. It must be close on midnight.”
She looked up, startled, to see Jacob Delafield. His expression—of doubt or discomfort—recalled her at once to the realities of her own situation.
But before she could reply, a sound struck on her ear. She sprang to her feet.
“What was that?” she said.
A voice was heard in the hall.
Julie Le Breton caught the chair behind her, and Delafield saw her turn pale. But before she or he could speak again, the door of the library was thrown open.
“Good Heavens!” said Montresor, springing to his feet. “Lady Henry!”
M. du Bartas lifted astonished eyes. On the threshold of the room stood an old lady, leaning heavily on two sticks. She was deathly pale, and her fierce eyes blazed upon the scene before her. Within the bright, firelit room the social comedy was being played at its best; but here surely was Tragedy—or Fate. Who was she? What did it mean?
The duchess rushed to her, and fell, of course, upon the one thing she should not have said.
“Oh, Aunt Flora, dear Aunt Flora! But we thought you were too ill to come down!”
“So I perceive,” said Lady Henry, putting her aside. “So you, and this lady”—she pointed a shaking finger at Julie—“have held my reception for me. I am enormously obliged. You have also”—she looked at the coffee-cups—“provided my guests with refreshment. I thank you. I trust my servants have given you satisfaction.
“Gentlemen”—she turned to the rest of the company, who stood stupefied—“I fear I cannot ask you to remain with me longer. The hour is late, and I am—as you see—indisposed. But I trust, on some future occasion, I may have the honor—”
She looked around upon them, challenging and defying them all.
Montresor went up to her.
“My dear old friend, let me introduce to you M. du Bartas, of the French Foreign Office.”
At this appeal to her English hospitality and her social chivalry, Lady Henry looked grimly at the Frenchman.
“M. du Bartas, I am charmed to make your acquaintance. With your leave, I will pursue it when I am better able to profit by it. Tomorrow I will write to you to propose another meeting—should my health allow.”
“Enchanté, madame,” murmured the Frenchman, more embarrassed than he had ever been in his life. “Permettez‐moi de vous faire mes plus sincères excuses.”
“Not at all, monsieur, you owe me none.”
Montresor again approached her.
“Let me tell you,” he said, imploringly, “how this has happened—how innocent we all are—”
“Another time, if you please,” she said, with a most cutting calm. “As I said before, it is late. If I had been equal to entertaining you”—she looked around upon them all—“I should not have told my butler to make my excuses. As it is, I must beg you to allow me to bid you good night. Jacob, will you kindly get the duchess her cloak? Good night. Good night. As you see”—she pointed to the sticks which supported her—“I have no hands tonight. My infirmities have need of them.”
Montresor approached her again, in real and deep distress.
“Dear Lady Henry—”
“Go!” she said, under her breath, looking him in the eyes, and he turned and went without a word. So did the duchess, whimpering, her hand in Delafield’s arm. As she passed Julie, who stood as though turned to stone, she made a little swaying movement toward her.
“Dear Julie!” she cried, imploringly.
But Lady Henry turned.
“You will have every opportunity tomorrow,” she said. “As far as I am concerned, Miss Le Breton will have no engagements.”
Lord Lackington quietly said, “Good night, Lady Henry,” and, without offering to shake hands, walked past her. As he came to the spot where Julie Le Breton stood, that lady made a sudden, impetuous movement toward him. Strange words were on her lips, a strange expression in her eyes.
“You must help me,” she said, brokenly. “It is my right!”
Was that what she said? Lord Lackington looked at her in astonishment. He did not see that Lady Henry was watching them with eagerness, leaning heavily on her sticks, her lips parted in a keen expectancy.
Then Julie withdrew.
“I beg your pardon,” she said, hurriedly. “I beg your pardon. Good night.”
Lord Lackington hesitated. His face took a puzzled expression. Then he held out his hand, and she placed hers in it mechanically.
“It will be all right,” he whispered, kindly. “Lady Henry will soon be herself again. Shall I tell the butler to call for someone—her maid?”
Julie shook her head, and in another moment he, too, was gone. Dr. Meredith and General Fergus stood beside her. The general had a keen sense of humor, and as he said good night to this unlawful hostess, whose plight he understood no more than his own, his mouth twitched with repressed laughter. But Dr. Meredith did not laugh. He pressed Julie’s hand in both of his. Looking behind him, he saw that Jacob Delafield, who had just returned from the hall, was endeavoring to appease Lady Henry. He bent toward Julie.
“Don’t deceive yourself,” he said, quickly, in a low voice; “this is the end. Remember my letter. Let me hear tomorrow.”
As Dr. Meredith left the room, Julie lifted her eyes. Only Jacob Delafield and Lady Henry were left.
Harry Warkworth, too, was gone—without a word? She looked around her piteously. She could not remember that he had spoken—that he had bade her farewell. A strange pang convulsed her. She scarcely heard what Lady Henry was saying to Jacob Delafield. Yet the words were emphatic enough.
“Much obliged to you, Jacob. But when I want your advice in my household affairs, I will ask it. You and Evelyn Crowborough have meddled a good deal too much in them already. Good night. Hutton will get you a cab.”
And with a slight but imperious gesture, Lady Henry motioned toward the door. Jacob hesitated, then quietly took his departure. He threw Julie a look of anxious appeal as he went out. But she did not see it; her troubled gaze was fixed on Lady Henry.
That lady eyed her companion with composure, though by now even the old lips were wholly blanched.
“There is really no need for any conversation between us, Miss Le Breton,” said the familiar voice. “But if there were, I am not tonight, as you see, in a condition to say it. So—when you came up to say good night to me—you had determined on this adventure? You had been good enough, I see, to rearrange my room—to give my servants your orders.”
Julie stood stonily erect. She made her dry lips answer as best they could.
“We meant no harm,” she said, coldly. “It all came about very simply. A few people came in to inquire after you. I regret they should have stayed talking so long.”
Lady Henry smiled in contempt.
“You hardly show your usual ability by these remarks. The room you stand in”—she glanced significantly at the lights and the chairs—“gives you the lie. You had planned it all with Hutton, who has become your tool, before you came to me. Don’t contradict. It distresses me to hear you. Well, now we part.”
“Of course. Perhaps tomorrow you will allow me a few last words?”
“I think not. This will cost me dear,” said Lady Henry, her white lips twitching. “Say them now, mademoiselle.”
“You are suffering.” Julie made an uncertain step forward. “You ought to be in bed.”
“That has nothing to do with it. What was your object tonight?”
“I wished to see the duchess—”
“It is not worthwhile to prevaricate. The duchess was not your first visitor.”
“Captain Warkworth arrived first; that was a mere chance.”
“It was to see him that you risked the whole affair. You have used my house for your own intrigues.”
Julie felt herself physically wavering under the lash of these sentences. But with a great effort she walked toward the fireplace, recovered her gloves and handkerchief, which were on the mantelpiece, and then turned slowly to Lady Henry.
“I have done nothing in your service that I am ashamed of. On the contrary, I have borne what no one else would have borne. I have devoted myself to you and your interests, and you have trampled upon and tortured me. For you I have been merely a servant, and an inferior—”
Lady Henry nodded grimly.
“It is true,” she said, interrupting, “I was not able to take your romantic view of the office of companion.”
“You need only have taken a human view,” said Julie, in a voice that pierced; “I was alone, poor—worse than motherless. You might have done what you would with me. A little indulgence, and I should have been your devoted slave. But you chose to humiliate and crush me; and in return, to protect myself, I, in defending myself, have been led, I admit it, into taking liberties. There is no way out of it. I shall, of course, leave you tomorrow morning.”
“Then at last we understand each other,” said Lady Henry, with a laugh. “Good night, Miss Le Breton.”
She moved heavily on her sticks. Julie stood aside to let her pass. One of the sticks slipped a little on the polished floor. Julie, with a cry, ran forward, but Lady Henry fiercely motioned her aside.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t come near me!”
She paused a moment to recover breath and balance. Then she resumed her difficult walk. Julie followed her.
“Kindly put out the electric lights,” said Lady Henry, and Julie obeyed.
They entered the hall in which one little light was burning. Lady Henry, with great difficulty, and panting, began to pull herself up the stairs.
“Oh, do let me help you!” said Julie, in an agony. “You will kill yourself. Let me at least call Dixon.”
“You will do nothing of the kind,” said Lady Henry, indomitable, though tortured by weakness and rheumatism. “Dixon is in my room, where I bade her remain. You should have thought of the consequences of this before you embarked upon it. If I were to die in mounting these stairs, I would not let you help me.”
“Oh!” cried Julie, as though she had been struck, and hid her eyes with her hand.
Slowly, laboriously, Lady Henry dragged herself from step to step. As she turned the corner of the staircase, and could therefore be no longer seen from below, someone softly opened the door of the dining room and entered the hall.
Julie looked around her, startled. She saw Jacob Delafield, who put his finger to his lip.
Moved by a sudden impulse, she bowed her head on the banister of the stairs against which she was leaning and broke into stifled sobs.
Jacob Delafield came up to her and took her hand. She felt his own tremble, and yet its grasp was firm and supporting.
“Courage!” he said, bending over her. “Try not to give way. You will want all your fortitude.”
“Listen!” She gasped, trying vainly to control herself, and they both listened to the sounds above them in the dark house—the labored breath, the slow, painful step.
“Oh, she wouldn’t let me help her. She said she would rather die. Perhaps I have killed her. And I could—I could—yes, I could have loved her.”
She was in an anguish of feeling—of sharp and penetrating remorse.
Jacob Delafield held her hand close in his, and when at last the sounds had died in the distance he lifted it to his lips.
“You know that I am your friend and servant,” he said, in a queer, muffled voice. “You promised I should be.”
She tried to withdraw her hand, but only feebly. Neither physically nor mentally had she the strength to repulse him. If he had taken her in his arms, she could hardly have resisted. But he did not attempt to conquer more than her hand. He stood beside her, letting her feel the whole mute, impetuous offer of his manhood—thrown at her feet to do what she would with.
Presently, when once more she moved away, he said to her, in a whisper:
“Go to the duchess tomorrow morning, as soon as you can get away. She told me to say that—Hutton gave me a little note from her. Your home must be with her till we can all settle what is best. You know very well you have devoted friends. But now good night. Try to sleep. Evelyn and I will do all we can with Lady Henry.”
Julie drew herself out of his hold. “Tell Evelyn I will come to see her, at any rate, as soon as I can put my things together. Good night.”
And she, too, dragged herself upstairs sobbing, starting at every shadow. All her nerve and daring were gone. The thought that she must spend yet another night under the roof of this old woman who hated her filled her with terror. When she reached her room she locked her door and wept for hours in a forlorn and aching misery.