It was a cold, clear morning in February, with a little pale sunshine playing on the bare trees of the Park. Sir Wilfrid, walking southward from the Marble Arch to his luncheon with Lady Henry, was gladly conscious of the warmth of his fur-collared coat, though none the less ready to envy careless youth as it crossed his path now and then, greatcoat-less and ruddy, courting the keen air.
Just as he was about to make his exit toward Mount Street he became aware of two persons walking southward like himself, but on the other side of the roadway. He soon identified Captain Warkworth in the slim, soldierly figure of the man. And the lady? There also, with the help of his glasses, he was soon informed. Her trim, black hat and her black cloth costume seemed to him to have a becoming and fashionable simplicity; and she moved in morning dress, with the same ease and freedom that had distinguished her in Lady Henry’s drawing room the night before.
He asked himself whether he should interrupt Mademoiselle Le Breton with a view to escorting her to Bruton Street. He understood, indeed, that he and Lady Henry were to be alone at luncheon; Mademoiselle Julie had, no doubt, her own quarters and attendants. But she seemed to be on her way home. An opportunity for some perhaps exploratory conversation with her before he found himself face to face with Lady Henry seemed to him not undesirable.
But he quickly decided to walk on. Mademoiselle Le Breton and Captain Warkworth paused in their walk, about no doubt to say goodbye, but, very clearly, loath to say it. They were, indeed, in earnest conversation. The Captain spoke with eagerness; Mademoiselle Julie, with downcast eyes, smiled and listened.
“Is the fellow making love to her?” thought the old man, in some astonishment, as he turned away. “Hardly the place for it either, one would suppose.”
He vaguely thought that he would both sound and warn Lady Henry. Warn her of what? He happened on the way home to have been thrown with a couple of Indian officers whose personal opinion of Harry Warkworth was not a very high one, in spite of the brilliant distinction which the young man had earned for himself in the Afridi campaign just closed. But how was he to hand that sort of thing on to Lady Henry?—and because he happened to have seen her lady companion and Harry Warkworth together? No doubt Mademoiselle Julie was on her employer’s business.
Yet the little encounter added somehow to his already lively curiosity on the subject of Lady Henry’s companion. Thanks to a remarkable physical resemblance, he was practically certain that he had guessed the secret of Mademoiselle Le Breton’s parentage. At any rate, on the supposition that he had, his thoughts began to occupy themselves with the story to which his guess pointed.
Some thirty years before, he had known, both in London and in Italy, a certain Colonel Delaney and his wife, once Lady Rose Chantrey, the favorite daughter of Lord Lackington. They were not a happy couple. She was a woman of great intelligence, but endowed with one of those natures—sensitive, plastic, eager to search out and to challenge life—which bring their possessors some great joys, hardly to be balanced against a final sum of pain. Her husband, absorbed in his military life, silent, narrowly able, and governed by a strict Anglicanism that seemed to carry with it innumerable “shalts” and “shalt nots,” disagreeable to the natural man or woman, soon found her a tiring and trying companion. She asked him for what he could not give; she coquetted with questions he thought it impious to raise; the persons she made friends with were distasteful to him; and, without complaining, he soon grew to think it intolerable that a woman married to a soldier should care so little for his professional interests and ambitions. Though when she pretended to care for them she annoyed him, if possible, still more.
As for Lady Rose, she went through all the familiar emotions of the femme incomprise. And with the familiar result. There presently appeared in the house a man of good family, thirty-five or so, traveler, painter, and dreamer, with fine, long-drawn features bronzed by the sun of the East, and bringing with him the reputation of having plotted and fought for most of the “lost causes” of our generation, including several which had led him into conflict with British authorities and British officials. To Colonel Delaney he was an “agitator,” if not a rebel; and the careless pungency of his talk soon classed him as an atheist besides. In the case of Lady Rose, this man’s free and generous nature, his independence of money and convention, his passion for the things of the mind, his contempt for the mode, whether in dress or politics, his light evasions of the red tape of life as of something that no one could reasonably expect of a vagabond like himself—these things presently transformed a woman in despair to a woman in revolt. She fell in love with an intensity befitting her true temperament, and with a stubbornness that bore witness to the dreary failure of her marriage. Marriott Dalrymple returned her love, and nothing in his view of life predisposed him to put what probably appeared to him a mere legality before the happiness of two people meant for each other. There were no children of the Delaney marriage; and in his belief the husband had enjoyed too long a companionship he had never truly deserved.
So Lady Rose faced her husband, told him the truth, and left him. She and Dalrymple went to live in Belgium, in a small country house some twenty or thirty miles from Brussels. They severed themselves from England; they asked nothing more of English life. Lady Rose suffered from the breach with her father, for Lord Lackington never saw her again. And there was a young sister whom she had brought up, whose image could often rouse in her a sense of loss that showed itself in occasional spells of silence and tears. But substantially she never repented what she had done, although Colonel Delaney made the penalties of it as heavy as he could. Like Karenin in Tolstoy’s great novel, he refused to sue for a divorce, and for something of the same reasons. Divorce was in itself impious, and sin should not be made easy. He was at any time ready to take back his wife, so far as the protection of his name and roof were concerned, should she penitently return to him.
So the child that was presently born to Lady Rose could not be legitimized.
Sir Wilfrid stopped short at the Park end of Bruton Street, with a start of memory.
“I saw it once! I remember now—perfectly.”
And he went on to recall a bygone moment in the Brussels Gallery, when, as he was standing before the great Quentin Matsys, he was accosted with sudden careless familiarity by a thin, shabbily dressed man, in whose dark distinction, made still more fantastic and conspicuous by the fever and the emaciation of consumption, he recognized at once Marriott Dalrymple.
He remembered certain fragments of their talk about the pictures—the easy mastery, now brusque, now poetic, with which Dalrymple had shown him the treasures of the gallery, in the manner of one whose learning was merely the food of fancy, the stuff on which imagination and reverie grew rich.
Then, suddenly, his own question—“And Lady Rose?”
And Dalrymple’s quiet, “Very well. She’d see you, I think, if you want to come. She has scarcely seen an English person in the last three years.”
And as when a gleam searches out some blurred corner of a landscape, there returned upon him his visit to the pair in their country home. He recalled the small eighteenth-century house, the “château” of the village, built on the French model, with its high mansard roof; the shabby stateliness of its architecture matching plaintively with the field of beetroot that grew up to its very walls; around it the flat, rich fields, with their thin lines of poplars; the slow, canalized streams; the unlovely farms and cottages; the mire of the lanes; and, shrouding all, a hot autumn mist sweeping slowly through the damp meadows and blotting all cheerfulness from the sun. And in the midst of this pale landscape, so full of ragged edges to an English eye, the English couple, with their books, their child, and a pair of Flemish servants.
It had been evident to him at once that their circumstances were those of poverty. Lady Rose’s small fortune, indeed, had been already mostly spent on “causes” of many kinds, in many countries. She and Dalrymple were almost vegetarians, and wine never entered the house save for the servants, who seemed to regard their employers with a real but half-contemptuous affection. He remembered the scanty, ill-cooked luncheon; the difficulty in providing a few extra knives and forks; the wrangling with the old bonne-housekeeper, which was necessary before serviettes could be produced.
And afterward the library, with its deal shelves from floor to ceiling put up by Dalrymple himself, its bare, polished floor, Dalrymple’s table and chair on one side of the open hearth, Lady Rose’s on the other; on his table the sheets of verse translation from Aeschylus and Euripides, which represented his favorite hobby; on hers the socialist and economical books they both studied and the English or French poets they both loved. The walls, hung with the faded damask of a past generation, were decorated with a strange crop of pictures pinned carelessly into the silk—photographs or newspaper portraits of modern men and women representing all possible revolt against authority, political, religious, even scientific, the Everlasting No of an untiring and ubiquitous dissent.
Finally, in the center of the polished floor, the strange child, whom Lady Rose had gone to fetch after lunch, with its high crest of black hair, its large, jealous eyes, its elfin hands, and the sudden smile with which, after half an hour of silence and apparent scorn, it had rewarded Sir Wilfrid’s advances. He saw himself sitting bewitched beside it.
Poor Lady Rose! He remembered her as he and she parted at the gate of the neglected garden, the anguish in her eyes as they turned to look after the bent and shrunken figure of Dalrymple carrying the child back to the house.
“If you meet any of his old friends, don’t—don’t say anything! We’ve just saved enough money to go to Sicily for the winter—that’ll set him right.”
And then, barely a year later, the line in a London newspaper which had reached him at Madrid, chronicling the death of Marriott Dalrymple, as of a man once on the threshold of fame, but long since exiled from the thoughts of practical men. Lady Rose, too, was dead—many years since; so much he knew. But how, and where? And the child?
She was now “Mademoiselle Le Breton”?—the center and apparently the chief attraction of Lady Henry’s once famous salon?
“And, by Jove! several of her kinsfolk there, relations of the mother or the father, if what I suppose is true!” thought Sir Wilfrid, remembering one or two of the guests. “Were they—was she—aware of it?”
The old man strode on, full of a growing eagerness, and was soon on Lady Henry’s doorstep.
“Her ladyship is in the dining room,” said the butler, and Sir Wilfrid was ushered there straight.
“Good morning, Wilfrid,” said the old lady, raising herself on her silver-headed sticks as he entered. “I prefer to come downstairs by myself. The more infirm I am, the less I like it—and to be helped enrages me. Sit down. Lunch is ready, and I give you leave to eat some.”
“And you?” said Sir Wilfrid, as they seated themselves almost side by side at the large, round table in the large, dingy room.
The old lady shook her head.
“All the world eats too much. I was brought up with people who lunched on a biscuit and a glass of sherry.”
“Lord Russell?—Lord Palmerston?” suggested Sir Wilfrid, attacking his own lunch meanwhile with unabashed vigor.
“That sort. I wish we had their like now.”
“Their successors don’t please you?”
Lady Henry shook her head.
“The Tories have gone to the deuce, and there are no longer enough Whigs even to do that. I wouldn’t read the newspapers at all if I could help it. But I do.”
“So I understand,” said Sir Wilfrid; “you let Montresor know it last night.”
“Montresor!” said Lady Henry, with a contemptuous movement. “What a poseur! He lets the army go to ruin, I understand, while he joins Dante societies.”
Sir Wilfrid raised his eyebrows.
“I think, if I were you, I should have some lunch,” he said, gently pushing the admirable salmi which the butler had left in front of him toward his old friend.
Lady Henry laughed.
“Oh, my temper will be better presently, when those men are gone”—she nodded toward the butler and footman in the distance—“and I can have my say.”
Sir Wilfrid hurried his meal as much as Lady Henry—who, as it turned out, was not at all minded to starve him—would allow. She meanwhile talked politics and gossip to him, with her old, caustic force, nibbling a dry biscuit at intervals and sipping a cup of coffee. She was a willful, characteristic figure as she sat there, beneath her own portrait as a bride, which hung on the wall behind her. The portrait represented a very young woman, with plentiful brown hair gathered into a knot on the top of her head, a high waist, a blue waist-ribbon, and inflated sleeves. Handsome, imperious, the corners of the mouth well down, the look straight and daring—the Lady Henry of the picture, a bride of nineteen, was already formidable. And the old woman sitting beneath it, with the strong, white hair, which the ample cap found some difficulty even now in taming and confining, the droop of the mouth accentuated, the nose more masterful, the double chin grown evident, the light of the eyes gone out, breathed pride and will from every feature of her still handsome face, pride of race and pride of intellect, combined with a hundred other subtler and smaller prides that only an intimate knowledge of her could detect. The brow and eyes, so beautiful in the picture, were, however, still agreeable in the living woman; if generosity lingered anywhere, it was in them.
The door was hardly closed upon the servants when she bent forward.
“Well, have you guessed?”
Sir Wilfrid looked at her thoughtfully as he stirred the sugar in his coffee.
“I think so,” he said. “She is Lady Rose Delaney’s daughter.”
Lady Henry gave a sudden laugh.
“I hardly expected you to guess! What helped you?”
“First your own hints. Then the strange feeling I had that I had seen the face, or some face just like it, before. And, lastly, at the Foreign Office I caught sight, for a moment, of Lord Lackington. That finished it.”
“Ah!” said Lady Henry, with a nod. “Yes, that likeness is extraordinary. Isn’t it amazing that that foolish old man has never perceived it?”
“He knows nothing?”
“Oh, nothing! Nobody does. However, that’ll do presently. But Lord Lackington comes here, mumbles about his music and his water-colors, and his flirtations—seventy-four, if you please, last birthday!—talks about himself endlessly to Julie or to me—whoever comes handy—and never has an inkling, an idea.”
“Oh, she knows. I should rather think she does.” And Lady Henry pushed away her coffee cup with the ill-suppressed vehemence which any mention of her companion seemed to produce in her. “Well, now, I suppose you’d like to hear the story.”
“Wait a minute. It’ll surprise you to hear that I not only knew this lady’s mother and father, but that I’ve seen her, herself, before.”
“You?” Lady Henry looked incredulous.
“I never told you of my visit to that ménage, four-and-twenty years ago?”
“Never, that I remember. But if you had I should have forgotten. What did they matter to me then? I myself only saw Lady Rose once, so far as I remember, before she misconducted herself. And afterward—well, one doesn’t trouble one’s self about the women that have gone under.”
Something lightened behind Sir Wilfrid’s straw-colored lashes. He bent over his coffee cup and daintily knocked off the end of his cigarette with a beringed little finger.
“The women who have—not been able to pull up?”
Lady Henry paused.
“If you like to put it so,” she said, at last. Sir Wilfrid did not raise his eyes. Lady Henry took up her strongest glasses from the table and put them on. But it was pitifully evident that even so equipped she saw but little, and that her strong nature fretted perpetually against the physical infirmity that teased it. Nevertheless, some unspoken communication passed between them, and Sir Wilfrid knew that he had effectually held up a protecting hand for Lady Rose.
“Well, let me tell you my tale first,” he said; and gave the little reminiscence in full. When he described the child, Lady Henry listened eagerly.
“Hm,” she said, when he came to an end; “she was jealous, you say, of her mother’s attentions to you? She watched you, and in the end she took possession of you? Much the same creature, apparently, then as now.”
“No moral, please, till the tale is done,” said Sir Wilfrid, smiling. “It’s your turn.”
Lady Henry’s face grew somber.
“All very well,” she said. “What did your tale matter to you? As for mine—”
The substance of hers was as follows, put into chronological order:
Lady Rose had lived some ten years after Dalrymple’s death. That time she passed in great poverty in some chambres garnies at Bruges, with her little girl and an old Madame Le Breton, the maid, housekeeper, and general factotum who had served them in the country. This woman, though of a peevish, grumbling temper, was faithful, affectionate, and not without education. She was certainly attached to little Julie, whose nurse she had been during a short period of her infancy. It was natural that Lady Rose should leave the child to her care. Indeed, she had no choice. An old Ursuline nun, and a kind priest who at the nun’s instigation occasionally came to see her, in the hopes of converting her, were her only other friends in the world. She wrote, however, to her father, shortly before her death, bidding him goodbye, and asking him to do something for the child. “She is wonderfully like you,” so ran part of the letter. “You won’t ever acknowledge her, I know. That is your strange code. But at least give her what will keep her from want, till she can earn her living. Her old nurse will take care of her, I have taught her, so far. She is already very clever. When I am gone she will attend one of the convent schools here. And I have found an honest lawyer who will receive and pay out money.”
To this letter Lord Lackington replied, promising to come over and see his daughter. But an attack of gout delayed him, and, before he was out of his room, Lady Rose was dead. Then he no longer talked of coming over, and his solicitors arranged matters. An allowance of a hundred pounds a year was made to Madame Le Breton, through the “honest lawyer” whom Lady Rose had found, for the benefit of “Julie Dalrymple,” the capital value to be handed over to that young lady herself on the attainment of her eighteenth birthday—always provided that neither she nor anybody on her behalf made any further claim on the Lackington family, that her relationship to them was dropped, and her mother’s history buried in oblivion.
Accordingly the girl grew to maturity in Bruges. By the lawyer’s advice, after her mother’s death, she took the name of her old gouvernante, and was known thenceforward as Julie Le Breton. The Ursuline nuns, to whose school she was sent, took the precaution, after her mother’s death, of having her baptized straightway into the Catholic faith, and she made her première communion in their church. In the course of a few years she became a remarkable girl, the source of many anxieties to the nuns. For she was not only too clever for their teaching, and an inborn skeptic, but wherever she appeared she produced parties and the passions of parties. And though, as she grew older, she showed much adroitness in managing those who were hostile to her, she was never without enemies, and intrigues followed her.
“I might have been warned in time,” said Lady Henry, in whose wrinkled cheeks a sharp and feverish color had sprung up as her story approached the moment of her own personal acquaintance with Mademoiselle Le Breton. “For one or two of the nuns when I saw them in Bruges, before the bargain was finally struck, were candid enough. However, now I come to the moment when I first set eyes on her. You know my little place in Surrey? About a mile from me is a manor house belonging to an old Catholic family, terribly devout and as poor as church mice. They sent their daughters to school in Bruges. One summer holiday these girls brought home with them Julie Dalrymple as their quasi-holiday governess. It was three years ago. I had just seen Liebreich. He told me that I should soon be blind, and, naturally, it was a blow to me.”
Sir Wilfrid made a murmur of sympathy.
“Oh, don’t pity me! I don’t pity other people. This odious body of ours has got to wear out sometime—it’s in the bargain. Still, just then I was low. There are two things I care about—one is talk, with the people that amuse me, and the other is the reading of French books. I didn’t see how I was going to keep my circle here together, and my own mind in decent repair, unless I could find somebody to be eyes for me, and to read to me. And as I’m a bundle of nerves, and I never was agreeable to illiterate people, nor they to me, I was rather put to it. Well, one day these girls and their mother came over to tea, and, as you guess, of course, they brought Mademoiselle Le Breton with them. I had asked them to come, but when they arrived I was bored and cross, and like a sick dog in a hole. And then, as you have seen her, I suppose you can guess what happened.”
“You discovered an exceptional person?”
Lady Henry laughed.
“I was limed, there and then, old bird as I am. I was first struck with the girl’s appearance—une belle laide—with every movement just as it ought to be; infinitely more attractive to me than any pink-and-white beauty. It turned out that she had just been for a month in Paris with another schoolfellow. Something she said about a new play—suddenly—made me look at her. ‘Venez vous asseoir ici, mademoiselle, s’il vous plaît—près de moi,’ I said to her—I can hear my own voice now, poor fool, and see her flush up. Ah!” Lady Henry’s interjection dropped to a note of rage that almost upset Sir Wilfrid’s gravity; but he restrained himself, and she resumed: “We talked for two hours; it seemed to me ten minutes. I sent the others out to the gardens. She stayed with me. The new French books, the theatre, poems, plays, novels, memoirs, even politics, she could talk of them all; or, rather—for, mark you, that’s her gift—she made me talk. It seemed to me I had not been so brilliant for months. I was as good, in fact, as I had ever been. The difficulty in England is to find anyone to keep up the ball. She does it to perfection. She never throws to win—never!—but so as to leave you all the chances. You make a brilliant stroke; she applauds, and in a moment she has arranged you another. Oh, it is the most extraordinary gift of conversation—and she never says a thing that you want to remember.”
There was a silence. Lady Henry’s old fingers drummed restlessly on the table. Her memory seemed to be wandering angrily among her first experiences of the lady they were discussing.
“Well,” said Sir Wilfrid, at last, “so you engaged her as lectrice, and thought yourself very lucky?”
“Oh, don’t suppose that I was quite an idiot. I made some inquiries—I bored myself to death with civilities to the stupid family she was staying with, and presently I made her stay with me. And of course I soon saw there was a history. She possessed jewels, laces, little personal belongings of various kinds, that wanted explaining. So I laid traps for her; I let her also perceive whither my own plans were drifting. She did not wait to let me force her hand. She made up her mind. One day I found, left carelessly on the drawing-room table, a volume of Saint-Simon, beautifully bound in old French morocco, with something thrust between the leaves. I opened it. On the fly-leaf was written the name Marriott Dalrymple, and the leaves opened, a little farther, on a miniature of Lady Rose Delaney. So—”
“Apparently it was her traps that worked,” said Sir Wilfrid, smiling. Lady Henry returned the smile unwillingly, as one loath to acknowledge her own folly.
“I don’t know that I was trapped. We both desired to come to close quarters. Anyway, she soon showed me books, letters—from Lady Rose, from Dalrymple, Lord Lackington—the evidence was complete…
“‘Very well,’ I said; ‘it isn’t your fault. All the better if you are well born—I am not a person of prejudices. But understand, if you come to me, there must be no question of worrying your relations. There are scores of them in London. I know them all, or nearly all, and of course you’ll come across them. But unless you can hold your tongue, don’t come to me. Julie Dalrymple has disappeared, and I’ll be no party to her resurrection. If Julie Le Breton becomes an inmate of my house, there shall be no raking up of scandals much better left in their graves. If you haven’t got a proper parentage, consistently thought out, we must invent one—’”
“I hope I may someday be favored with it,” said Sir Wilfrid.
Lady Henry laughed uncomfortably.
“Oh, I’ve had to tell lies,” she said, “plenty of them.”
“What! It was you that told the lies?”
Lady Henry’s look flashed.
“The open and honest ones,” she said, defiantly.
“Well,” said Sir Wilfrid, regretfully, “some sort were indispensable. So she came. How long ago?”
“Three years. For the first half of that time I did nothing but plume myself on my good fortune. I said to myself that if I had searched Europe through I could not have fared better. My household, my friends, my daily ways, she fitted into them all to perfection. I told people that I had discovered her through a Belgian acquaintance. Everyone was amazed at her manners, her intelligence. She was perfectly modest, perfectly well behaved. The old duke—he died six months after she came to me—was charmed with her. Montresor, Meredith, Lord Robert, all my habitués congratulated me. ‘Such cultivation, such charm, such savoir-faire! Where on earth did you pick up such a treasure? What are her antecedents?’ etc., etc. So then, of course—”
“I hope no more than were absolutely necessary!” said Sir Wilfrid, hastily.
“I had to do it well,” said Lady Henry, with decision; “I can’t say I didn’t. That state of things lasted, more or less, about a year and a half. And by now, where do you think it has all worked out?”
“You gave me a few hints last night,” said Sir Wilfrid, hesitating.
Lady Henry pushed her chair back from the table. Her hands trembled on her stick.
“Hints!” she said, scornfully. “I’m long past hints. I told you last night—and I repeat—that woman has stripped me of all my friends! She has intrigued with them all in turn against me. She has done the same even with my servants. I can trust none of them where she is concerned. I am alone in my own house. My blindness makes me her tool, her plaything. As for my salon, as you call it, it has become hers. I am a mere courtesy-figurehead—her chaperon, in fact. I provide the house, the footmen, the champagne; the guests are hers. And she has done this by constant intrigue and deception—by flattery—by lying!”
The old face had become purple. Lady Henry breathed hard.
“My dear friend,” said Sir Wilfrid, quickly, laying a calming hand on her arm, “don’t let this trouble you so. Dismiss her.”
“And accept solitary confinement for the rest of my days? I haven’t the courage—yet,” said Lady Henry, bitterly. “You don’t know how I have been isolated and betrayed! And I haven’t told you the worst of all. Listen! Do you know whom she has got into her toils?”
She paused, drawing herself rigidly erect. Sir Wilfrid, looking up sharply, remembered the little scene in the Park, and waited.
“Did you have any opportunity last night,” said Lady Henry, slowly, “of observing her and Jacob Delafield?”
She spoke with passionate intensity, her frowning brows meeting above a pair of eyes that struggled to see and could not. But the effect she listened for was not produced. Sir Wilfrid drew back uncertainly.
“Jacob Delafield?” he said. “Jacob Delafield? Are you sure?”
“Sure?” cried Lady Henry, angrily. Then, disdaining to support her statement, she went on: “He hesitates. But she’ll soon make an end of that. And do you realize what that means—what Jacob’s possibilities are? Kindly recollect that Chudleigh has one boy—one sickly, tuberculous boy—who might die any day. And Chudleigh himself is a poor life. Jacob has more than a good chance—ninety chances out of a hundred”—she ground the words out with emphasis—“of inheriting the dukedom.”
“Good gracious!” said Sir Wilfrid, throwing away his cigarette.
“There!” said Lady Henry, in somber triumph. “Now you can understand what I have brought on poor Henry’s family.”
A low knock was heard at the door.
“Come in,” said Lady Henry, impatiently.
The door opened, and Mademoiselle Le Breton appeared on the threshold, carrying a small gray terrier under each arm.
“I thought I had better tell you,” she said, humbly, “that I am taking the dogs out. Shall I get some fresh wool for your knitting?”