The newcomer drew all eyes as he approached the group surrounding Lady Henry. Montresor put up his glasses and bestowed on him a few moments of scrutiny, during which the minister’s heavily marked face took on the wary, fighting aspect which his department and the House of Commons knew. The statesman slipped in for an instant between the trifler coming and the trifler gone.
As for Wilfrid Bury, he was dazzled by the young man’s good looks. “‘Young Harry with his beaver up!’” he thought, admiring against his will, as the tall, slim soldier paid his respects to Lady Henry, and, with a smiling word or two to the rest of those present, took his place beside her in the circle.
“Well, have you come for your letters?” said Lady Henry, eying him with a grim favor.
“I think I came—for conversation,” was Warkworth’s laughing reply, as he looked first at his hostess and then at the circle.
“Then I fear you won’t get it,” said Lady Henry, throwing herself back in her chair. “Mr. Montresor can do nothing but quarrel and contradict.”
Montresor lifted his hands in wonder.
“Had I been Aesop,” he said, slyly, “I would have added another touch to a certain tale. Observe, please!—even after the Lamb has been devoured he is still the object of calumny on the part of the Wolf! Well, well! Mademoiselle, come and console me. Tell me what new follies the duchess has on foot.”
And, pushing his chair back till he found himself on a level with Julie Le Breton, the great man plunged into a lively conversation with her. Sir Wilfrid, Warkworth, and a few other habitués endeavored meanwhile to amuse Lady Henry. But it was not easy. Her brow was lowering, her talk forced. Throughout, Sir Wilfrid perceived in her a strained attention directed toward the conversation on the other side of the room. She could neither see it nor hear it, but she was jealously conscious of it. As for Montresor, there was no doubt an element of malice in the court he was now paying to Mademoiselle Julie. Lady Henry had been thorny over much during the afternoon; even for her oldest friend she had passed bounds; he desired perhaps to bring it home to her.
Meanwhile, Julie Le Breton, after a first moment of reserve and depression, had been beguiled, carried away. She yielded to her own instincts, her own gifts, till Montresor, drawn on and drawn out, found himself floating on a stream of talk, which Julie led first into one channel and then into another, as she pleased; and all to the flattery and glorification of the talker. The famous minister had come to visit Lady Henry, as he had done for many Sundays in many years; but it was not Lady Henry, but her companion, to whom his homage of the afternoon was paid, who gave him his moment of enjoyment—the moment that would bring him there again. Lady Henry’s fault, no doubt; but Wilfrid Bury, uneasily aware every now and then of the dumb tumult that was raging in the breast of the haughty being beside him, felt the pathos of this slow discrowning, and was inclined, once more, rather to be sorry for the older woman than to admire the younger.
At last Lady Henry could bear it no longer.
“Mademoiselle, be so good as to return his father’s letters to Captain Warkworth,” she said, abruptly, in her coldest voice, just as Montresor, dropping his—head thrown back and knees crossed—was about to pour into the ears of his companion the whole confidential history of his appointment to office three years before.
Julie Le Breton rose at once. She went toward a table at the farther end of the large room, and Captain Warkworth followed her. Montresor, perhaps repenting himself a little, returned to Lady Henry; and though she received him with great coolness, the circle around her, now augmented by Dr. Meredith, and another politician or two, was reconstituted; and presently, with a conscious effort, visible at least to Bury, she exerted herself to hold it, and succeeded.
Suddenly—just as Bury had finished a very neat analysis of the Shah’s public and private character, and while the applauding laughter of the group of intimates amid which he sat told him that his epigrams had been good—he happened to raise his eyes toward the distant settee where Julie Le Breton was sitting.
His smile stiffened on his lips. Like an icy wave, a swift and tragic impression swept through him. He turned away, ashamed of having seen, and hid himself, as it were, with relief, in the clamor of amusement awakened by his own remarks.
What had he seen? Merely, or mainly, a woman’s face. Young Warkworth stood beside the sofa, on which sat Lady Henry’s companion, his hands in his pockets, his handsome head bent toward her. They had been talking earnestly, wholly forgetting and apparently forgotten by the rest of the room. On his side there was an air of embarrassment. He seemed to be choosing his words with difficulty, his eyes on the floor. Julie Le Breton, on the contrary, was looking at him—looking with all her soul, her ardent, unhappy soul—unconscious of aught else in the wide world.
“Good God! she is in love with him!” was the thought that rushed through Sir Wilfrid’s mind. “Poor thing! Poor thing!”
Sir Wilfrid outstayed his fellow guests. By seven o’clock all were gone. Mademoiselle Le Breton had retired. He and Lady Henry were left alone.
“Shut the doors!” she said, peremptorily, looking around her as the last guest disappeared. “I must have some private talk with you. Well, I understand you walked home from the Crowboroughs’ the other night with—that woman.”
She turned sharply upon him. The accent was indescribable. And with a fierce hand she arranged the folds of her own thick silk dress, as though, for some relief to the stormy feeling within, she would rather have torn than smoothed it.
Sir Wilfrid seated himself beside her, knees crossed, fingertips lightly touching, the fair eyelashes somewhat lowered—Calm beside Tempest.
“I am sorry to hear you speak so,” he said, gravely, after a pause. “Yes, I talked with her. She met me very fairly, on the whole. It seemed to me she was quite conscious that her behavior had not been always what it should be, and that she was sincerely anxious to change it. I did my best as a peacemaker. Has she made no signs since—no advances?”
Lady Henry threw out her hand in disdain.
“She confessed to me that she had pledged a great deal of the time for which I pay her to Evelyn Crowborough’s bazaar, and asked what she was to do. I told her, of course, that I would put up with nothing of the kind.”
“And were more annoyed, alack! than propitiated by her confession?” said Sir Wilfrid, with a shrug.
“I dare say,” said Lady Henry. “You see, I guessed that it was not spontaneous; that you had wrung it out of her.”
“What else did you expect me to do?” cried Sir Wilfrid. “I seem, indeed, to have jolly well wasted my time.”
“Oh no. You were very kind. And I dare say you might have done some good. I was beginning to—to have some returns on myself, when the duchess appeared on the scene.”
“Oh, the little fool!” ejaculated Sir Wilfrid, under his breath.
“She came, of course, to beg and protest. She offered me her valuable services for all sorts of superfluous things that I didn’t want—if only I would spare her Julie for this ridiculous bazaar. So then my back was put up again, and I told her a few home truths about the way in which she had made mischief and forced Julie into a totally false position. On which she flew into a passion, and said a lot of silly nonsense about Julie, that showed me, among other things, that Mademoiselle Le Breton had broken her solemn compact with me, and had told her family history both to Evelyn and to Jacob Delafield. That alone would be sufficient to justify me in dismissing her. N’est-ce pas?”
“Oh yes,” murmured Sir Wilfrid, “if you want to dismiss her.”
“We shall come to that presently,” said Lady Henry, shortly. “Imagine, please, the kind of difficulties in which these confidences, if they have gone any further—and who knows?—may land me. I shall have old Lord Lackington—who behaved like a brute to his daughter while she was alive, and is, all the same, a poseur from top to toe—walking in here one night and demanding his granddaughter—spreading lies, perhaps, that I have been ill-treating her. Who can say what absurdities may happen if it once gets out that she is Lady Rose’s child? I could name half a dozen people, who come here habitually, who would consider themselves insulted if they knew—what you and I know.”
“Insulted? Because her mother—”
“Because her mother broke the seventh commandment? Oh, dear, no! That, in my opinion, doesn’t touch people much nowadays. Insulted because they had been kept in the dark—that’s all. Vanity, not morals.”
“As far as I can ascertain,” said Sir Wilfrid, meditatively, “only the duchess, Delafield, Montresor, and myself are in the secret.”
“Montresor!” cried Lady Henry, beside herself. “Montresor! That’s new to me. Oh, she shall go at once—at once!” She breathed hard.
“Wait a little. Have you had any talk with Jacob?”
“I should think not! Evelyn, of course, brings him in perpetually—Jacob this and Jacob that. He seems to have been living in her pocket, and the three have been intriguing against me, morning, noon, and night. Where Julie has found the time I can’t imagine; I thought I had kept her pretty well occupied.”
Sir Wilfrid surveyed his angry companion and held his peace.
“So you don’t know what Jacob thinks?”
“Why should I want to know?” said Lady Henry, disdainfully. “A lad whom I sent to Eton and Oxford, when his father couldn’t pay his bills—what does it matter to me what he thinks?”
“Women are strange folk,” thought Sir Wilfrid. “A man wouldn’t have said that.”
“I thought you were afraid lest he should want to marry her?”
“Oh, let him cut his throat if he likes!” said Lady Henry, with the inconsistency of fury. “What does it matter to me?”
“By the way, as to that”—he spoke as though feeling his way—“have you never had suspicions in quite another direction?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I hear a good deal in various quarters of the trouble Mademoiselle Le Breton is taking—on behalf of that young soldier who was here just now—Harry Warkworth.”
Lady Henry laughed impatiently.
“I dare say. She is always wanting to patronize or influence somebody. It’s in her nature. She’s a born intrigante. If you knew her as well as I do, you wouldn’t think much of that. Oh no—make your mind easy. It’s Jacob she wants—it’s Jacob she’ll get, very likely. What can an old, blind creature like me do to stop it?”
“And as Jacob’s wife—the wife perhaps of the head of the family—you still mean to quarrel with her?”
“Yes, I do mean to quarrel with her!” and Lady Henry lifted herself in her chair, a pale and quivering image of war—“Duchess or no duchess! Did you see the audacious way in which she behaved this afternoon?—how she absorbs my guests?—how she allows and encourages a man like Montresor to forget himself?—eggs him on to put slights on me in my own drawing room!”
“No, no! You are really unjust,” said Sir Wilfrid, laying a kind hand upon her arm. “That was not her fault.”
“It is her fault that she is what she is!—that her character is such that she forces comparisons between us—between her and me!—that she pushes herself into a prominence that is intolerable, considering who and what she is—that she makes me appear in an odious light to my old friends. No, no, Wilfrid, your first instinct was the true one. I shall have to bring myself to it, whatever it costs. She must take her departure, or I shall go to pieces, morally and physically. To be in a temper like this, at my age, shortens one’s life—you know that.”
“And you can’t subdue the temper?” he asked, with a queer smile.
“No, I can’t! That’s flat. She gets on my nerves, and I’m not responsible. C’est fini.”
“Well,” he said, slowly, “I hope you understand what it means?”
“Oh, I know she has plenty of friends!” she said, defiantly. But her old hands trembled on her knee.
“Unfortunately they were and are yours. At least,” he entreated, “don’t quarrel with everybody who may sympathize with her. Let them take what view they please. Ignore it—be as magnanimous as you can.”
“On the contrary!” She was now white to the lips. “Whoever goes with her gives me up. They must choose—once for all.”
“My dear friend, listen to reason.”
And, drawing his chair close to her, he argued with her for half an hour. At the end of that time her gust of passion had more or less passed away; she was, to some extent, ashamed of herself, and, as he believed, not far from tears.
“When I am gone she will think of what I have been saying,” he assured himself, and he rose to take his leave. Her look of exhaustion distressed him, and, for all her unreason, he felt himself astonishingly in sympathy with her. The age in him held out secret hands to the age in her—as against encroaching and rebellious youth.
Perhaps it was the consciousness of this mood in him which at last partly appeased her.
“Well, I’ll try again. I’ll try to hold my tongue,” she granted him, sullenly. “But, understand, she, shan’t go to that bazaar!”
“That’s a great pity,” was his naïve reply. “Nothing would put you in a better position than to give her leave.”
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” she vowed. “And now good night, Wilfrid—good night. You’re a very good fellow, and if I can take your advice, I will.”
Lady Henry sat alone in her brightly lighted drawing room for some time. She could neither read nor write nor sew, owing to her blindness, and in the reaction from her passion of the afternoon she felt herself very old and weary.
But at last the door opened and Julie Le Breton’s light step approached.
“May I read to you?” she said, gently.
Lady Henry coldly commanded the Observer and her knitting.
She had no sooner, however, begun to knit than her very acute sense of touch noticed something wrong with the wool she was using.
“This is not the wool I ordered,” she said, fingering it carefully. “You remember, I gave you a message about it on Thursday? What did they say about it at Winton’s?”
Julie laid down the newspaper and looked in perplexity at the ball of wool.
“I remember you gave me a message,” she faltered.
“Well, what did they say?”
“I suppose that was all they had.”
Something in the tone struck Lady Henry’s quick ears. She raised a suspicious face.
“Did you ever go to Winton’s at all?” she said, quickly.
“I am so sorry. The duchess’s maid was going there,” said Julie, hurriedly, “and she went for me. I thought I had given her your message most carefully.”
“Hm,” said Lady Henry, slowly. “So you didn’t go to Winton’s. May I ask whether you went to Shaw’s, or to Beatson’s, or the Stores, or any of the other places for which I gave you commissions?” Her voice cut like a knife.
Julie hesitated. She had grown very white. Suddenly her face settled and steadied.
“No,” she said, calmly. “I meant to have done all your commissions. But I was persuaded by Evelyn to spend a couple of hours with her, and her maid undertook them.”
Lady Henry flushed deeply.
“So, mademoiselle, unknown to me, you spent two hours of my time amusing yourself at Crowborough House. May I ask what you were doing there?”
“I was trying to help the duchess in her plans for the bazaar.”
“Indeed? Was anyone else there? Answer me, mademoiselle.”
Julie hesitated again, and again spoke with a kind of passionate composure.
“Yes. Mr. Delafield was there.”
“So I supposed. Allow me to assure you, mademoiselle”—Lady Henry rose from her seat, leaning on her stick; surely no old face was ever more formidable, more withering—“that whatever ambitions you may cherish, Jacob Delafield is not altogether the simpleton you imagine. I know him better than you. He will take some time before he really makes up his mind to marry a woman of your disposition—and your history.”
Julie Le Breton also rose.
“I am afraid, Lady Henry, that here, too, you are in the dark,” she said, quietly, though her thin arm shook against her dress. “I shall not marry Mr. Delafield. But it is because—I have refused him twice.”
Lady Henry gasped. She fell back into her chair, staring at her companion.
“You have—refused him?”
“A month ago, and last year. It is horrid of me to say a word. But you forced me.”
Julie was now leaning, to support herself, on the back of an old French chair. Feeling and excitement had blanched her no less than Lady Henry, but her fine head and delicate form breathed a will so proud, a dignity so passionate, that Lady Henry shrank before her.
“Why did you refuse him?”
Julie shrugged her shoulders.
“That, I think, is my affair. But if—I had loved him—I should not have consulted your scruples, Lady Henry.”
“That’s frank,” said Lady Henry. “I like that better than anything you’ve said yet. You are aware that he may inherit the dukedom of Chudleigh?”
“I have several times heard you say so,” said the other, coldly.
Lady Henry looked at her long and keenly. Various things that Wilfrid Bury had said recurred to her. She thought of Captain Warkworth. She wondered.
Suddenly she held out her hand.
“I dare say you won’t take it, mademoiselle. I suppose I’ve been insulting you. But—you have been playing tricks with me. In a good many ways, we’re quits. Still, I confess, I admire you a good deal. Anyway, I offer you my hand. I apologize for my recent remarks. Shall we bury the hatchet, and try and go on as before?”
Julie Le Breton turned slowly and took the hand—without unction.
“I make you angry,” she said, and her voice trembled, “without knowing how or why.”
Lady Henry gulped.
“Oh, it mayn’t answer,” she said, as their hands dropped. “But we may as well have one more trial. And, mademoiselle, I shall be delighted that you should assist the duchess with her bazaar.”
Julie shook her head.
“I don’t think I have any heart for it,” she said, sadly; and then, as Lady Henry sat silent, she approached.
“You look very tired. Shall I send your maid?”
That melancholy and beautiful voice laid a strange spell on Lady Henry. Her companion appeared to her, for a moment, in a new light—as a personage of drama or romance. But she shook off the spell.
“At once, please. Another day like this would put an end to me.”