“Jacob, what brings you back so soon?” The duchess ran into the room, a trim little figure in her morning dress of blue-and-white cloth, with her small spitz leaping beside her.
“I came to tell you that I got your telegram yesterday, and that in the evening, by an extraordinary and fortunate chance, I met Miss Le Breton in Paris—”
“You met Julie in Paris?” echoed the duchess, in astonishment.
“She had come to spend a couple of days with some friends there before going on to Bruges. I gave her the news of Lord Lackington’s illness, and she at once turned back. She was much fatigued and distressed, and the night was stormy. I put her into the sleeping car, and came back myself to see if I could be any assistance to her. And at Calais I was of some use. The crossing was very rough.”
“Julie was in Paris?” repeated the duchess, as though she had heard nothing else of what he had been saying.
Her eyes, so blue and large in her small, irregular face, sought those of her cousin and endeavored to read them.
“It seems to have been a rapid change of plan. And it was a great stroke of luck my meeting her.”
“But how—and where?”
“Oh, there is no time for going into that,” said Delafield, impatiently. “But I knew you would like to know that she was here—after your message yesterday. We arrived a little after six this morning. About nine I went for news to St. James’s Square. There is a slight rally.”
“Did you see Lord Uredale? Did you say anything about Julie?” asked the duchess, eagerly.
“I merely asked at the door, and took the bulletin to Miss Le Breton. Will you see Uredale and arrange it? I gather you saw him yesterday.”
“By all means,” said the duchess, musing. “Oh, it was so curious yesterday. Lord Lackington had just told them. You should have seen those two men.”
The duchess nodded.
“They don’t like it. They were as stiff as pokers. But they will do absolutely the right thing. They see at once that she must be provided for. And when he asked for her they told me to telegraph, if I could find out where she was. Well, of all the extraordinary chances.”
She looked at him again, oddly, a spot of red on either small cheek. Delafield took no notice. He was pacing up and down, apparently in thought.
“Suppose you take her there?” he said, pausing abruptly before her.
“To St. James’s Square? What did you tell her?”
“That he was a trifle better, and that you would come to her.”
“Yes, it would be hard for her to go alone,” said the duchess, reflectively. She looked at her watch. “Only a little after eleven. Ring, please, Jacob.”
The carriage was ordered. Meanwhile the little lady inquired eagerly after her Julie. Had she been exhausted by the double journey? Was she alone in Paris, or was Madame Bornier with her?
Jacob had understood that Madame Bornier and the little girl had gone straight to Bruges.
The duchess looked down and then looked up.
“Did—did you come across Major Warkworth?”
“Yes, I saw him for a moment in the Rue de la Paix. He was starting for Rome.”
The duchess turned away as though ashamed of her question, and gave her orders for the carriage. Then her attention was suddenly drawn to her cousin. “How pale you look, Jacob,” she said, approaching him. “Won’t you have something—some wine?”
Delafield refused, declaring that all he wanted was an hour or two’s sleep.
“I go back to Paris tomorrow,” he said, as he prepared to take his leave. “Will you be here tonight if I look in?”
“Alack! we go to Scotland tonight! It was just a piece of luck that you found me this morning. Freddie is fuming to get away.”
Delafield paused a moment. Then he abruptly shook hands and went.
“He wants news of what happens at St. James’s Square,” thought the duchess, suddenly, and she ran after him to the top of the stairs. “Jacob! If you don’t mind a horrid mess tonight, Freddie and I shall be dining alone—of course we must have something to eat. Somewhere about eight. Do look in. There’ll be a cutlet—on a trunk—anyway.”
Delafield laughed, hesitated, and finally accepted.
The duchess went back to the drawing room, not a little puzzled and excited.
“It’s very, very odd,” she said to herself. “And what is the matter with Jacob?”
Half an hour later she drove to the splendid house in St. James’s Square where Lord Lackington lay dying.
She asked for Lord Uredale, the eldest son, and waited in the library till he came.
He was a tall, squarely built man, with fair hair already gray, and somewhat absent and impassive manners.
At sight of him the duchess’s eyes filled with tears. She hurried to him, her soft nature dissolved in sympathy.
“How is your father?”
“A trifle easier, though the doctors say there is no real improvement. But he is quite conscious—knows us all. I have just been reading him the debate.”
“You told me yesterday he had asked for Miss Le Breton,” said the duchess, raising herself on tiptoe as though to bring her low tones closer to his ear. “She’s here—in town, I mean. She came back from Paris last night.”
Lord Uredale showed no emotion of any kind. Emotion was not in his line.
“Then my father would like to see her,” he said, in a dry, ordinary voice, which jarred upon the sentimental duchess.
“When shall I bring her?”
“He is now comfortable and resting. If you are free—”
The duchess replied that she would go to Heribert Street at once. As Lord Uredale took her to her carriage a young man ran down the steps hastily, raised his hat, and disappeared.
Lord Uredale explained that he was the husband of the famous young beauty, Mrs. Delaray, whose portrait Lord Lackington had been engaged upon at the time of his seizure. Having been all his life a skillful artist, a man of fashion, and a harmless haunter of lovely women, Lord Lackington, as the duchess knew, had all but completed a gallery of a hundred portraits, representing the beauty of the reign. Mrs. Delaray’s would have been the hundredth in a series of which Mrs. Norton was the first.
“He has been making arrangements with the husband to get it finished,” said Lord Uredale; “it has been on his mind.”
The duchess shivered a little.
“He knows he won’t finish it?”
“And he still thinks of those things?”
“Yes—or politics,” said Lord Uredale, smiling faintly. “I have written to Mr. Montresor. There are two or three points my father wants to discuss with him.”
“And he is not depressed, or troubled about himself?”
“Not in the least. He will be grateful if you will bring him Miss Le Breton.”
“Julie, my darling, are you fit to come with me?”
The duchess held her friend in her arms, soothing and caressing her. How forlorn was the little house, under its dust-sheets, on this rainy, spring morning! And Julie, amid the dismantled drawing room, stood spectrally white and still, listening, with scarcely a word in reply, to the affection, or the pity, or the news which the duchess poured out upon her.
“Shall we go now? I am quite ready.”
And she withdrew herself from the loving grasp which held her, and put on her hat and gloves.
“You ought to be in bed,” said the duchess. “Those night journeys are too abominable. Even Jacob looks a wreck. But what an extraordinary chance, Julie, that Jacob should have found you! How did you come across each other?”
“At the Nord Station,” said Julie, as she pinned her veil before the glass over the mantelpiece.
Some instinct silenced the duchess. She asked no more questions, and they started for St. James’s Square.
“You won’t mind if I don’t talk?” said Julie, leaning back and closing her eyes. “I seem still to have the sea in my ears.”
The duchess looked at her tenderly, clasping her hand close, and the carriage rolled along. But just before they reached St. James’s Square, Julie hastily raised the fingers which held her own and kissed them.
“Oh, Julie,” said the duchess, reproachfully, “I don’t like you to do that!”
She flushed and frowned. It was she who ought to pay such acts of homage, not Julie.
“Father, Miss Le Breton is here.”
“Let her come in, Jack—and the duchess, too.”
Lord Uredale went back to the door. Two figures came noiselessly into the room, the duchess in front, with Julie’s hand in hers.
Lord Lackington was propped up in bed, and breathing fast. But he smiled as they approached him.
“This is goodbye, dear duchess,” he said, in a whisper, as she bent over him. Then, with a spark of his old gaiety in the eyes, “I should be a cur to grumble. Life has been very agreeable. Ah, Julie!”
Julie dropped gently on her knees beside him and laid her cheek against his arm. At the mention of her name the old man’s face had clouded as though the thoughts she called up had suddenly rebuked his words to the duchess. He feebly moved his hands toward hers, and there was silence in the room for a few moments.
“This is Rose’s daughter.”
His eyes lifted themselves to those of his son.
“I know, father. If Miss Le Breton will allow us, we will do what we can to be of service to her.”
Bill Chantrey, the younger brother, gravely nodded assent. They were both men of middle age, the younger over forty. They did not resemble their father, nor was there any trace in either of them of his wayward fascination. They were a pair of well-set-up, well-bred Englishmen, surprised at nothing, and quite incapable of showing any emotion in public; yet just and kindly men. As Julie entered the house they had both solemnly shaken hands with her, in a manner which showed at once their determination, as far as they were concerned, to avoid anything sentimental or in the nature of a scene, and their readiness to do what could be rightly demanded of them.
Julie hardly listened to Lord Uredale’s little speech. She had eyes and ears only for her grandfather. As she knelt beside him, her face bowed upon his hand, the ice within her was breaking up, that dumb and straitening anguish in which she had lived since that moment at the Nord Station in which she had grasped the meaning and the implications of Delafield’s hurried words. Was everything to be swept away from her at once—her lover, and now this dear old man, to whom her heart, crushed and bleeding as it was, yearned with all its strength?
Lord Lackington supposed that she was weeping.
“Don’t grieve, my dear,” he murmured. “It must come to an end sometime—‘cette charmante promenade à travers la réalité!’”
And he smiled at her, agreeably vain to the last of that French accent and that French memory which—so his look implied—they two could appreciate, each in the other. Then he turned to the duchess.
“Duchess, you knew this secret before me. But I forgive you, and thank you. You have been very good to Rose’s child. Julie has told me—and—I have observed—”
“Oh, dear Lord Lackington!” Evelyn bent over him. “Trust her to me,” she said, with a lovely yearning to comfort and cheer him breathing from her little face.
He did not finish the sentence.
After a pause he made a little gesture of farewell which the duchess understood. She kissed his hand and turned away weeping.
“Nurse—where is nurse?” said Lord Lackington.
Both the nurse and the doctor, who had withdrawn a little distance from the family group, came forward.
“Doctor, give me some strength,” said the laboring voice, not without its old willfulness of accent.
He moved his arm toward the young homoeopath, who injected strychnine. Then he looked at the nurse.
All was done as he desired.
“Now go, please,” he said to his sons. “I wish to be left with Julie.”
For some moments, that seemed interminable to Julie, Lord Lackington lay silent. A feverish flush, a revival of life in the black eyes had followed on the administration of the two stimulants. He seemed to be gathering all his forces.
At last he laid his hand on her arm. “You shouldn’t be alone,” he said, abruptly.
His expression had grown anxious, even imperious. She felt a vague pang of dread as she tried to assure him that she had kind friends, and that her work would be her resource.
Lord Lackington frowned.
“That won’t do,” he said, almost vehemently. “You have great talents, but you are weak—you are a woman—you must marry.”
Julie stared at him, whiter even than when she had entered his room—helpless to avert what she began to foresee.
“Jacob Delafield is devoted to you. You should marry him, dear—you should marry him.”
The room seemed to swim around her. But his face was still plain—the purpled lips and cheeks, the urgency in the eyes, as of one pursued by an overtaking force, the magnificent brow, the crown of white hair.
She summoned all her powers and told him hurriedly that he was mistaken—entirely mistaken. Mr. Delafield had, indeed, proposed to her, but, apart from her own unwillingness, she had reason to know that his feelings toward her were now entirely changed. He neither loved her nor thought well of her.
Lord Lackington lay there, obstinate, patient, incredulous. At last he interrupted her.
“You make yourself believe these things. But they are not true. Delafield is attached to you. I know it.”
He nodded to her with his masterful, affectionate look. And before she could find words again he had resumed.
“He could give you a great position. Don’t despise it. We English bigwigs have a good time.”
A ghostly, humorous ray shot out upon her; then he felt for her hand.
“Dear Julie, why won’t you?”
“If you were to ask him,” she cried, in despair, “he would tell you as I do.”
And across her miserable thoughts there flashed two mingled images—Warkworth waiting, waiting for her at the Sceaux Station, and that look of agonized reproach in Delafield’s haggard face as he had parted from her in the dawn of this strange, this incredible day.
And here beside her, with the tyranny of the dying, this dear babbler wandered on in broken words, with painful breath, pleading, scolding, counseling. She felt that he was exhausting himself. She begged him to let her recall nurse and doctor. He shook his head, and when he could no longer speak, he clung to her hand, his gaze solemnly, insistently, fixed upon her.
Her spirit writhed and rebelled. But she was helpless in the presence of this mortal weakness, this affection, half earthly, half beautiful, on its knees before her.
A thought struck her. Why not content him? Whatever pledges she gave would die with him. What did it matter? It was cruelty to deny him the words—the mere empty words—he asked of her.
“I—I would do anything to please you!” she said, with a sudden burst of uncontrollable tears, as she laid her head down beside him on the pillow. “If he were to ask me again, of course, for your sake, I would consider it once more. Dear, dear friend, won’t that satisfy you?”
Lord Lackington was silent a few moments, then he smiled.
“That’s a promise?”
She raised herself and looked at him, conscious of a sick movement of terror. What was there in his mind, still so quick, fertile, ingenious, under the very shadow of death?
He waited for her answer, feebly pressing her hand.
“Yes,” she said, faintly, and once more hid her face beside him.
Then, for some little time, the dying man neither stirred nor spoke. At last Julie heard:
“I used to be afraid of death—that was in middle life. Every night it was a torment. But now, for many years, I have not been afraid at all…Byron—Lord Byron—said to me, once, he would not change anything in his life; but he would have preferred not to have lived at all. I could not say that. I have enjoyed it all—being an Englishman, and an English peer—pictures, politics, society—everything. Perhaps it wasn’t fair. There are so many poor devils.”
Julie pressed his hand to her lips. But in her thoughts there rose the sudden, sharp memory of her mother’s death—of that bitter stoicism and abandonment in which the younger life had closed, in comparison with this peace, this complacency.
Yet it was a complacency rich in sweetness. His next words were to assure her tenderly that he had made provision for her. “Uredale and Bill—will see to it. They’re good fellows. Often—they’ve thought me—a pretty fool. But they’ve been kind to me—always.”
Then, after another interval, he lifted himself in bed, with more strength than she had supposed he could exert, looked at her earnestly, and asked her, in the same painful whisper, whether she believed in another life.
“Yes,” said Julie. But her shrinking, perfunctory manner evidently distressed him. He resumed, with a furrowed brow:
“You ought. It is good for us to believe it.”
“I must hope, at any rate, that I shall see you again—and mamma,” she said, smiling on him through her tears.
“I wonder what it will be like,” he replied, after a pause. His tone and look implied a freakish, a whimsical curiosity, yet full of charm. Then, motioning to her to come nearer, and speaking into her ear:
“Your poor mother, Julie, was never happy—never! There must be laws, you see—and churches—and religious customs. It’s because—we’re made of such wretched stuff. My wife, when she died—made me promise to continue going to church—and praying. And—without it—I should have been a bad man. Though I’ve had plenty of skeptical thoughts—plenty. Your poor parents rebelled—against all that. They suffered—they suffered. But you’ll make up—you’re a noble woman—you’ll make up.”
He laid his hand on her head. She offered no reply; but through the inner mind there rushed the incidents, passions, revolts of the preceding days.
But for that strange chance of Delafield’s appearance in her path—a chance no more intelligible to her now, after the pondering of several feverish hours, than it had been at the moment of her first suspicion—where and what would she be now? A dishonored woman, perhaps, with a life-secret to keep; cut off, as her mother had been, from the straight-living, law-abiding world.
The touch of the old man’s hand upon her hair roused in her a first recoil, a first shattering doubt of the impulse which had carried her to Paris. Since Delafield left her in the early dawn she had been pouring out a broken, passionate heart in a letter to Warkworth. No misgivings while she was writing it as to the all-sufficing legitimacy of love!
But here, in this cold neighborhood of the grave—brought back to gaze in spirit; on her mother’s tragedy—she shrank, she trembled. Her proud intelligence denied the stain, and bade her hate and despise her rescuer. And, meanwhile, things also inherited and inborn, the fruit of a remoter ancestry, rising from the dimmest and deepest caverns of personality, silenced the clamor of the naturalist mind. One moment she felt herself seized with terror lest anything should break down the veil between her real self and this unsuspecting tenderness of the dying man; the next she rose in revolt against her own fear. Was she to find herself, after all, a mere weak penitent—meanly grateful to Jacob Delafield? Her heart cried out to Warkworth in a protesting anguish.
So absorbed in thought was she that she did not notice how long the silence had lasted.
“He seems to be sleeping,” said a low voice beside her.
She looked up to see the doctor, with Lord Uredale. Gently releasing herself, she kissed Lord Lackington’s forehead, and rose to her feet.
Suddenly the patient opened his eyes, and as he seemed to become aware of the figures beside him, he again lifted himself in bed, and a gleam most animated, most vivacious, passed over his features.
“Brougham’s not asked,” he said, with a little chuckle of amusement. “Isn’t it a joke?”
The two men beside him looked at each other. Lord Uredale approached the bed.
“Not asked to what, father?” he said, gently.
“Why, to the queen’s fancy ball, of course,” said Lord Lackington, still smiling. “Such a to-do! All the elderly sticks practicing minuets for their lives!”
A voluble flow of talk followed—hardly intelligible. The words “Melbourne” and “Lady Holland” emerged—the fragment, apparently, of a dispute with the latter, in which “Allen” intervened—the names of “Palmerston” and “that dear chap, Villiers.”
Lord Uredale sighed. The young doctor looked at him interrogatively.
“He is thinking of his old friends,” said the son. “That was the queen’s ball, I imagine, of ’42. I have often heard him describe my mother’s dress.”
But while he was speaking the fitful energy died away. The old man ceased to talk; his eyelids fell. But the smile still lingered about his mouth, and as he settled himself on his pillows, like one who rests, the spectators were struck by the urbane and distinguished beauty of his aspect. The purple flush had died again into mortal pallor. Illness had masked or refined the weakness of mouth and chin; the beautiful head and countenance, with their characteristic notes of youth, impetuosity, a kind of gay detachment, had never been more beautiful.
The young doctor looked stealthily from the recumbent figure to the tall and slender woman standing absorbed and grief-stricken beside the bed. The likeness was as evident to him as it had been, in the winter, to Sir Wilfrid Bury.
As he was escorting her downstairs, Lord Uredale said to his companion, “Foster thinks he may still live twenty-four hours.”
“If he asks for me again,” said Julie, now shrouded once more behind a thick, black veil, “you will send?”
He gravely assented.
“It is a great pity,” he said, with a certain stiffness—did it unconsciously mark the difference between her and his legitimate kindred?—“that my sister Lady Blanche and her daughter cannot be with us.”
“They are in Italy?”
“At Florence. My niece has had an attack of diphtheria. She could neither travel nor could her mother leave her.”
Then pausing in the hall, he added in a low voice, and with some embarrassment:
“My father has told you, I believe, of the addition he has made to his will?”
Julie drew back.
“I neither asked for it nor desired it,” she said, in her coldest and clearest voice.
“That I quite understand,” said Lord Uredale. “But—you cannot hurt him by refusing.”
“No. But afterward—I must be free to follow my own judgment.”
“We cannot take what does not belong to us,” he said, with some sharpness. “My brother and I are named as your trustees. Believe me, we will do our best.”
Meanwhile the younger brother had come out of the library to bid her farewell. She felt that she was under critical observation, though both pairs of gray eyes refrained from any appearance of scrutiny. Her pride came to her aid, and she did not shrink from the short conversation which the two brothers evidently desired. When it was over, and the brothers returned to the hall after putting her into the duchess’s carriage, the younger said to the elder:
“She can behave herself, Johnnie.”
They looked at each other, with their hands in their pockets. A little nod passed between them—an augur-like acceptance of this new and irregular member of the family.
“Yes, she has excellent manners,” said Uredale. “And really, after the tales Lady Henry has been spreading—that’s something!”
“Oh, I always thought Lady Henry an old cat,” said Bill, tranquilly. “That don’t matter.”
The Chantrey brothers had not been among Lady Henry’s habitués. In her eyes, they were the dull sons of an agreeable father. They were humorously aware of it, and bore her little malice.
“No,” said Uredale, raising his eyebrows; “but the ‘affaire Warkworth’? If there’s any truth in what one hears, that’s deuced unpleasant.”
Bill Chantrey whistled.
“It’s hard luck on that poor child Aileen that it should be her own cousin interfering with her preserves. By the way”—he stooped to look at the letters on the hall table—“do you see there’s a letter for father from Blanche? And in a letter I got from her by the same post, she says that she has told him the whole story. According to her, Aileen’s too ill to be thwarted, and she wants the governor to see the guardians. I say, Johnnie”—he looked at his brother—“we’ll not trouble the father with it now?”
“Certainly not,” said Uredale, with a sigh. “I saw one of the trustees—Jack Underwood—yesterday. He told me Blanche and the child were more infatuated than ever. Very likely what one hears is a pack of lies. If not, I hope this woman will have the good taste to drop it. Father has charged me to write to Blanche and tell her the whole story of poor Rose, and of this girl’s revealing herself. Blanche, it appears, is just as much in the dark as we were.”
“If this gossip has got round to her, her feelings will be mixed. Oh, well, I’ve great faith in the money,” said Bill Chantrey, carelessly, as they began to mount the stairs again. “It sounds disgusting; but if the child wants him I suppose she must have him. And, anyway, the man’s off to Africa for a twelvemonth at least. Miss Le Breton will have time to forget him. One can’t say that either he or she has behaved with delicacy—unless, indeed, she knew nothing of Aileen, which is quite probable.”
“Well, don’t ask me to tackle her,” said Uredale. “She has the ways of an empress.”
Bill Chantrey shrugged his shoulders. “And, by George! she looks as if she could fall in love,” he said, slowly. “Magnificent eyes, Johnnie. I propose to make a study of our new niece.”
“Lord Uredale!” said a voice on the stairs.
The young doctor descended rapidly to meet them.
“His lordship is asking for someone,” he said. “He seems excited. But I cannot catch the name.”
Lord Uredale ran upstairs.
Later in the day a man emerged from Lackington House and walked rapidly toward the Mall. It was Jacob Delafield.
He passed across the Mall and into St. James’s Park. There he threw himself on the first seat he saw, in an absorption so deep that it excited the wondering notice of more than one passerby.
After about half an hour he roused himself, and walked, still in the same brown study, to his lodgings in Jermyn Street. There he found a letter which he eagerly opened.
Dear Jacob,—Julie came back this morning about one o’clock. I waited for her—and at first she seemed quite calm and composed. But suddenly, as I was sitting beside her, talking, she fainted away in her chair, and I was terribly alarmed. We sent for a doctor at once. He shakes his head over her, and says there are all the signs of a severe strain of body and mind. No wonder, indeed—our poor Julie! Oh, how I loathe some people! Well, there she is in bed, Madame Bornier away, and everybody. I simply can’t go to Scotland. But Freddie is just mad. Do, Jacob, there’s a dear, go and dine with him tonight and cheer him up. He vows he won’t go north without me. Perhaps I’ll come tomorrow. I could no more leave Julie tonight than fly.
She’ll be ill for weeks. What I ought to do is to take her abroad. She’s very dear and good; but, oh, Jacob, as she lies there I feel her heart’s broken. And it’s not Lord Lackington. Oh no! though I’m sure she loved him. Do go to Freddie, there’s a dear.
“No, that I won’t!” said Delafield, with a laugh that choked him, as he threw the letter down.
He tried to write an answer, but could not achieve even the simplest note. Then he began a pacing of his room, which lasted till he dropped into his chair, worn out with the sheer physical exhaustion of the night and day. When his servant came in he found his master in a heavy sleep. And, at Crowborough House, the duke dined and fumed alone.