It was nearly four o’clock. Sir Wilfrid had just closed Lady Henry’s door behind him, and was again walking along Bruton Street.
He was thinking of the little scene of Mademoiselle Le Breton’s appearance on the threshold of Lady Henry’s dining room; of the insolent sharpness with which Lady Henry had given her order upon order—as to the dogs, the books for the circulating library, a message for her dressmaker, certain directions for the tradesmen, etc., etc.—as though for the mere purpose of putting the woman who had dared to be her rival in her right place before Sir Wilfrid Bury. And at the end, as she was departing, Mademoiselle Le Breton, trusting no doubt to Lady Henry’s blindness, had turned toward himself, raising her downcast eyes upon him suddenly, with a proud, passionate look. Her lips had moved; Sir Wilfrid had half risen from his chair. Then, quickly, the door had closed upon her.
Sir Wilfrid could not think of it without a touch of excitement.
“Was she reminding me of Gherardtsloo?” he said to himself. “Upon my word, I must find some means of conversation with her, in spite of Lady Henry.”
He walked toward Bond Street, pondering the situation of the two women—the impotent jealousy and rancor with which Lady Henry was devoured, the domestic slavery contrasted with the social power of Mademoiselle Le Breton. Through the obscurity and difficulty of circumstance, how marked was the conscience of race in her, and, as he also thought, of high intelligence! The old man was deeply interested. He felt a certain indulgent pity for his lifelong friend Lady Henry; but he could not get Mademoiselle Julie out of his head.
“Why on earth does she stay where she is?”
He had asked the same question of Lady Henry, who had contemptuously replied:
“Because she likes the fleshpots, and won’t give them up. No doubt she doesn’t find my manners agreeable; but she knows very well that she wouldn’t get the chances she gets in my house anywhere else. I give her a foothold. She’ll not risk it for a few sour speeches on my part. I may say what I like to her—and I intend to say what I like! Besides, you watch her, and see whether she’s made for poverty. She takes to luxury as a fish to water. What would she be if she left me? A little visiting teacher, perhaps, in a Bloomsbury lodging. That’s not her line at all.”
“But somebody else might employ her as you do?” Sir Wilfrid had suggested.
“You forget I should be asked for a character,” said Lady Henry. “Oh, I admit there are possibilities—on her side. That silly goose, Evelyn Crowborough, would have taken her in, but I had a few words with Crowborough, and he put his foot down. He told his wife he didn’t want an intriguing foreigner to live with them. No; for the present we are chained to each other. I can’t get rid of her, and she doesn’t want to get rid of me. Of course, things might become intolerable for either of us. But at present self-interest on both sides keeps us going. Oh, don’t tell me the thing is odious! I know it. Every day she stays in the house I become a more abominable old woman.”
A more exacting one, certainly. Sir Wilfrid thought with pity and amusement of the commissions with which Mademoiselle Julie had been loaded. “She earns her money, anyway,” he thought. “Those things will take her a hard afternoon’s work. But, bless my soul!”—he paused in his walk—“what about that engagement to Duchess Evelyn that I heard her make? Not a word, by the way, to Lady Henry about it! Oh, this is amusing!”
He went meditatively on his way, and presently turned into his club to write some letters. But at five o’clock he emerged, and told a hansom to drive him to Grosvenor Square. He alighted at the great red-brick mansion of the Crowboroughs, and asked for the duchess. The magnificent person presiding over the hall, an old family retainer, remembered him, and made no difficulty about admitting him.
“Anybody with her grace?” he inquired, as the man handed him over to the footman who was to usher him up-stairs.
“Only Miss Le Breton and Mr. Delafield, Sir Wilfrid. Her grace told me to say ‘not at home’ this afternoon, but I am sure, sir, she will see you.”
Sir Wilfrid smiled.
As he entered the outer drawing room, the duchess and the group surrounding her did not immediately perceive the footman nor himself, and he had a few moments in which to take in a charming scene.
A baby girl in a white satin gown down to her heels, and a white satin cap, lace-edged and tied under her chin, was holding out her tiny skirt with one hand and dancing before the duchess and Miss Le Breton, who was at the piano. The child’s other hand held up a morsel of biscuit wherewith she directed the movements of her partner, a small black spitz, of a slim and silky elegance, who, straining on his hind legs, his eager attention fixed upon the biscuit, followed every movement of his small mistress; while she, her large blue eyes now solemn, now triumphant, her fair hair escaping from her cap in fluttering curls, her dainty feet pointed, her dimpled arm upraised, repeated in living grace the picture of her great-great-grandmother which hung on the wall in front of her, a masterpiece from Reynolds’s happiest hours.
Behind Mademoiselle Le Breton stood Jacob Delafield; while the duchess, in a low chair beside them, beat time gaily to the gavotte that Mademoiselle Julie was playing and laughed encouragement and applause to the child in front of her. She herself, with her cloud of fair hair, the delicate pink and white of her skin, the laughing lips and small white hands that rose and fell with the baby steps, seemed little more than a child. Her pale blue dress, for which she had just exchanged her winter walking-costume, fell around her in sweeping folds of lace and silk—a French fairy dressed by Wörth, she was possessed by a wild gaiety, and her silvery laugh held the room.
Beside her, Julie Le Breton, very thin, very tall, very dark, was laughing too. The eyes which Sir Wilfrid had lately seen so full of pride were now alive with pleasure. Jacob Delafield, also, from behind, grinned applause or shouted to the babe, “Brava, Tottie; well done!” Three people, a baby, and a dog more intimately pleased with one another’s society it would have been difficult to discover.
The duchess sprang up astonished, and in a moment, to Sir Wilfrid’s chagrin, the little scene fell to pieces. The child dropped on the floor, defending herself and the biscuit as best she could against the wild snatches of the dog. Delafield composed his face in a moment to its usual taciturnity. Mademoiselle Le Breton rose from the piano.
“No, no!” said Sir Wilfrid, stopping short and holding up a deprecating hand. “Too bad! Go on.”
“Oh, we were only fooling with baby!” said the duchess. “It is high time she went to her nurse. Sit here, Sir Wilfrid. Julie, will you take the babe, or shall I ring for Mrs. Robson?”
“I’ll take her,” said Mademoiselle Le Breton.
She knelt down by the child, who rose with alacrity. Catching her skirts around her, with one eye half laughing, half timorous, turned over her shoulder toward the dog, the baby made a wild spring into Mademoiselle Julie’s arms, tucking up her feet instantly, with a shriek of delight, out of the dog’s way. Then she nestled her fair head down upon her bearer’s shoulder, and, throbbing with joy and mischief, was carried away.
Sir Wilfrid, hat in hand, stood for a moment watching the pair. A bygone marriage uniting the Lackington family with that of the duchess had just occurred to him in some bewilderment. He sat down beside his hostess, while she made him some tea. But no sooner had the door of the farther drawing room closed behind Mademoiselle Le Breton, than with a dart of all her lively person she pounced upon him.
“Well, so Aunt Flora has been complaining to you?”
Sir Wilfrid’s cup remained suspended in his hand. He glanced first at the speaker and then at Jacob Delafield.
“Oh, Jacob knows all about it!” said the duchess, eagerly. “This is Julie’s headquarters; we are on her staff. You come from the enemy!”
Sir Wilfrid took out his white silk handkerchief and waved it.
“Here is my flag of truce,” he said. “Treat me well.”
“We are only too anxious to parley with you,” said the duchess, laughing. “Aren’t we, Jacob?”
Then she drew closer.
“What has Aunt Flora been saying to you?”
Sir Wilfrid paused. As he sat there, apparently studying his boots, his blond hair, now nearly gray, carefully parted in the middle above his benevolent brow, he might have been reckoned a tame and manageable person. Jacob Delafield, however, knew him of old.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Sir Wilfrid, at last, looking up. “I’m the newcomer; I ought to be allowed the questions.”
“Go on,” said the duchess, her chin on her hand. “Jacob and I will answer all we know.”
Delafield nodded. Sir Wilfrid, looking from one to the other, quickly reminded himself that they had been playmates from the cradle—or might have been.
“Well, in the first place,” he said, slowly, “I am lost in admiration at the rapidity with which Mademoiselle Le Breton does business. An hour and a half ago”—he looked at his watch—“I stood by while Lady Henry enumerated commissions it would have taken any ordinary man-mortal half a day to execute.”
The duchess clapped her hands.
“My maid is now executing them,” she said, with glee. “In an hour she will be back. Julie will go home with everything done, and I shall have had nearly two hours of her delightful society. What harm is there in that?”
“Where are the dogs?” said Sir Wilfrid, looking round.
“Aunt Flora’s dogs? In the housekeeper’s room, eating sweet biscuit. They adore the groom of the chambers.”
“Is Lady Henry aware of this—this division of labor?” said Sir Wilfrid, smiling.
“Of course not,” said the duchess, flushing. “She makes Julie’s life such a burden to her that something has to be done. Now what has Aunt Flora been telling you? We were certain she would take you into council—she has dropped various hints of it. I suppose she has been telling you that Julie has been intriguing against her—taking liberties, separating her from her friends, and so on?”
Sir Wilfrid smilingly presented his cup for some more tea.
“I beg to point out,” he said, “that I have only been allowed two questions so far. But if things are to be at all fair and equal, I am owed at least six.”
The duchess drew back, checked, and rather annoyed. Jacob Delafield, on the other hand, bent forward.
“We are anxious, Sir Wilfrid, to tell you all we know,” he replied, with quiet emphasis.
Sir Wilfrid looked at him. The flame in the young man’s eyes burned clear and steady—but flame it was. Sir Wilfrid remembered him as a lazy, rather somnolent youth; the man’s advance in expression, in significant power, of itself, told much.
“In the first place, can you give me the history of this lady’s antecedents?”
He glanced from one to the other.
The duchess and Jacob Delafield exchanged glances. Then the duchess spoke—uncertainly.
“Yes, we know. She has confided in us. There is nothing whatever to her discredit.”
Sir Wilfrid’s expression changed.
“Ah!” cried the duchess, bending forward. “You know, too?”
“I knew her father and mother,” said Sir Wilfrid, simply.
The duchess gave a little cry of relief. Jacob Delafield rose, took a turn across the room, and came back to Sir Wilfrid.
“Now we can really speak frankly,” he said. “The situation has grown very difficult, and we did not know—Evelyn and I—whether we had a right to explain it. But now that Lady Henry—”
“Oh yes,” said Sir Wilfrid, “that’s all right. The fact of Mademoiselle Le Breton’s parentage—”
“Is really what makes Lady Henry so jealous!” cried the duchess, indignantly. “Oh, she’s a tyrant, is Aunt Flora! It is because Julie is of her own world—of our world, by blood, whatever the law may say—that she can’t help making a rival out of her, and tormenting her morning, noon, and night. I tell you, Sir Wilfrid, what that poor girl has gone through no one can imagine but we who have watched it. Lady Henry owes her everything this last three years. Where would she have been without Julie? She talks of Julie’s separating her from her friends, cutting her out, imposing upon her, and nonsense of that kind! How would she have kept up that salon alone, I should like to know—a blind old woman who can’t write a note for herself or recognize a face? First of all she throws everything upon Julie, is proud of her cleverness, puts her forward in every way, tells most unnecessary falsehoods about her—Julie has felt that very much—and then when Julie has a great success, when people begin to come to Bruton Street, for her sake as well as Lady Henry’s, then Lady Henry turns against her, complains of her to everybody, talks about treachery and disloyalty and Heaven knows what, and begins to treat her like the dirt under her feet! How can Julie help being clever and agreeable—she is clever and agreeable! As Mr. Montresor said to me yesterday, ‘As soon as that woman comes into a room, my spirits go up!’ And why? Because she never thinks of herself, she always makes other people show at their best. And then Lady Henry behaves like this!” The duchess threw out her hands in scornful reprobation. “And the question is, of course, Can it go on?”
“I don’t gather,” said Sir Wilfrid, hesitating, “that Lady Henry wants immediately to put an end to it.”
Delafield gave an angry laugh.
“The point is whether Mademoiselle Julie and Mademoiselle Julie’s friends can put up with it much longer.”
“You see,” said the duchess, eagerly, “Julie is such a loyal, affectionate creature. She knows Lady Henry was kind to her, to begin with, that she gave her great chances, and that she’s getting old and infirm. Julie’s awfully sorry for her. She doesn’t want to leave her all alone—to the mercy of her servants—”
“I understand the servants, too, are devoted to Mademoiselle Julie?” said Sir Wilfrid.
“Yes, that’s another grievance,” said Delafield, contemptuously. “Why shouldn’t they be? When the butler had a child very ill, it was Mademoiselle Julie who went to see it in the mews, who took it flowers and grapes—”
“Lady Henry’s grapes?” threw in Sir Wilfrid.
“What does it matter!” said Delafield, impatiently. “Lady Henry has more of everything than she knows what to do with. But it wasn’t grapes only! It was time and thought and consideration. Then when the younger footman wanted to emigrate to the States, it was Mademoiselle Julie who found a situation for him, who got Mr. Montresor to write to some American friends, and finally sent the lad off, devoted to her, of course, for life. I should like to know when Lady Henry would have done that kind of thing! Naturally the servants like her—she deserves it.”
“I see—I see,” said Sir Wilfrid, nodding gently, his eyes on the carpet. “A very competent young lady.”
Delafield looked at the older man, half in annoyance, half in perplexity.
“Is there anything to complain of in that?” he said, rather shortly.
“Oh, nothing, nothing!” said Sir Wilfrid, hastily. “And this word intrigue that Lady Henry uses? Has mademoiselle always steered a straightforward course with her employer?”
“Oh, well,” said the duchess, shrugging her shoulders, “how can you always be perfectly straightforward with such a tyrannical old person! She has to be managed. Lately, in order to be sure of every minute of Julie’s time, she has taken to heaping work upon her to such a ridiculous extent that unless I come to the rescue the poor thing gets no rest and no amusement. And last summer there was an explosion, because Julie, who was supposed to be in Paris for her holiday with a school-friend, really spent a week of it with the Buncombes, Lady Henry’s married niece, who has a place in Kent. The Buncombes knew her at Lady Henry’s parties, of course. Then they met her in the Louvre, took her about a little, were delighted with her, and begged her to come and stay with them—they have a place near Canterbury—on the way home. They and Julie agreed that it would be best to say nothing to Lady Henry about it—she is too absurdly jealous—but then it leaked out, unluckily, and Lady Henry was furious.”
“I must say,” said Delafield, hurriedly, “I always thought frankness would have been best there.”
“Well, perhaps,” said the duchess, unwillingly, with another shrug. “But now what is to be done? Lady Henry really must behave better, or Julie can’t and shan’t stay with her. Julie has a great following—hasn’t she, Jacob? They won’t see her harassed to death.”
“Certainly not,” said Delafield. “At the same time we all see”—he turned to Sir Wilfrid—“what the advantages of the present combination are. Where would Lady Henry find another lady of Mademoiselle Le Breton’s sort to help her with her house and her salon? For the last two years the Wednesday evenings have been the most brilliant and successful things of their kind in London. And, of course, for Mademoiselle Le Breton it is a great thing to have the protection of Lady Henry’s name—”
“A great thing?” cried Sir Wilfrid. “Everything, my dear Jacob!”
“I don’t know,” said Delafield, slowly. “It may be bought too dear.”
Sir Wilfrid looked at the speaker with curiosity. It had been at all times possible to rouse Jacob Delafield—as child, as schoolboy, as undergraduate—from a habitual carelessness and idleness by an act or a tale of injustice or oppression. Had the duchess pressed him into her service, and was he merely taking sides for the weaker out of a natural bent toward that way of looking at things? Or—
“Well, certainly we must do our best to patch it up,” said Sir Wilfrid, after a pause. “Perhaps Mademoiselle Le Breton will allow me a word with her by-and-by. I think I have still some influence with Lady Henry. But, dear goddaughter”—he bent forward and laid his hand on that of the duchess—“don’t let the maid do the commissions.”
“But I must!” cried the duchess. “Just think, there is my big bazaar on the 16th. You don’t know how clever Julie is at such things. I want to make her recite—her French is too beautiful! And then she has such inventiveness, such a head! Everything goes if she takes it in hand. But if I say anything to Aunt Flora, she’ll put a spoke in all our wheels. She’ll hate the thought of anything in which Julie is successful and conspicuous. Of course she will!”
“All the same, Evelyn,” said Delafield, uncomfortable apparently for the second time, “I really think it would be best to let Lady Henry know.”
“Well, then, we may as well give it up,” said the duchess, pettishly, turning aside.
Delafield, who was still pacing the carpet, suddenly raised his hand in a gesture of warning. Mademoiselle Le Breton was crossing the outer drawing room.
“Julie, come here!” cried the duchess, springing up and running toward her. “Jacob is making himself so disagreeable. He thinks we ought to tell Lady Henry about the 16th.”
The speaker put her arm through Julie Le Breton’s, looking up at her with a frowning brow. The contrast between her restless prettiness, the profusion of her dress and hair, and Julie’s dark, lissome strength, gowned and gloved in neat, close black, was marked enough.
As the duchess spoke, Julie looked smiling at Jacob Delafield.
“I am in your hands,” she said, gently. “Of course I don’t want to keep anything from Lady Henry. Please decide for me.”
Sir Wilfrid’s mouth showed a satirical line. He turned aside and began to play with a copy of the Spectator.
“Julie,” said the duchess, hesitating, “I hope you won’t mind, but we have been discussing things a little with Sir Wilfrid. I felt sure Aunt Flora had been talking to him.”
“Of course,” said Julie, “I knew she would.” She looked toward Sir Wilfrid, slightly drawing herself up. Her manner was quiet, but all her movements were somehow charged with a peculiar and interesting significance. The force of the character made itself felt through all disguises.
In spite of himself, Sir Wilfrid began to murmur apologetic things.
“It was natural, mademoiselle, that Lady Henry should confide in me. She has perhaps told you that for many years I have been one of the trustees of her property. That has led to her consulting me on a good many matters. And evidently, from what she says and what the duchess says, nothing could be of more importance to her happiness, now, in her helpless state, than her relations to you.”
He spoke with a serious kindness in which the tinge of mocking habitual to his sleek and well-groomed visage was wholly lost. Julie Le Breton met him with dignity.
“Yes, they are important. But, I fear they cannot go on as they are.”
There was a pause. Then Sir Wilfrid approached her:
“I hear you are returning to Bruton Street immediately. Might I be your escort?”
The duchess, a little sobered by the turn events had taken and the darkened prospects of her bazaar, protested in vain against this sudden departure. Julie resumed her furs, which, as Sir Wilfrid, who was curious in such things, happened to notice, were of great beauty, and made her farewells. Did her hand linger in Jacob Delafield’s? Did the look with which that young man received it express more than the steadfast support which justice offers to the oppressed? Sir Wilfrid could not be sure.
As they stepped out into the frosty, lamplit dark of Grosvenor Square, Julie Le Breton turned to her companion.
“You knew my mother and father,” she said, abruptly. “I remember your coming,”
What was in her voice, her rich, beautiful voice? Sir Wilfrid only knew that while perfectly steady, it seemed to bring emotion near, to make all the aspects of things dramatic.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, in some confusion. “I knew her well, from the time when she was a girl in the schoolroom. Poor Lady Rose!”
The figure beside him stood still.
“Then if you were my mother’s friend,” she said, huskily, “you will hear patiently what I have to say, even though you are Lady Henry’s trustee.”
“Indeed I will!” cried Sir Wilfrid, and they walked on.