The duchess was in her morning room. On the rug, in marked and, as it seemed to her plaintive eyes, brutal contrast with the endless photographs of her babies and women friends which crowded her mantelpiece, stood the duke, much out of temper. He was a powerfully built man, some twenty years older than his wife, with a dark complexion, enlivened by ruddy cheeks and prominent, red lips. His eyes were of a cold, clear gray; his hair very black, thick, and wiry. An extremely vigorous person, more than adequately aware of his own importance, tanned and seasoned by the life of his class, by the yachting, hunting, and shooting in which his own existence was largely spent, slow in perception, and of a sulky temper—so one might have read him at first sight. But these impressions only took you a certain way in judging the character of the duchess’s husband.
As to the sulkiness, there could be no question on this particular morning—though, indeed, his ill-humor deserved a more positive and energetic name.
“You have got yourself and me,” he was declaring, “into a most disagreeable and unnecessary scrape. This letter of Lady Henry’s”—he held it up—“is one of the most annoying that I have received for many a day. Lady Henry seems to me perfectly justified. You have been behaving in a quite unwarrantable way. And now you tell me that this woman, who is the cause of it all, of whose conduct I thoroughly and entirely disapprove, is coming to stay here, in my house, whether I like it or not, and you expect me to be civil to her. If you persist, I shall go down to Brackmoor till she is pleased to depart. I won’t countenance the thing at all, and, whatever you may do, I shall apologize to Lady Henry.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” cried the drooping duchess, plucking up a little spirit. “Nobody meant any harm. Why shouldn’t the old friends go in to ask after her? Hutton—that old butler that has been with Aunt Flora for twenty years—asked us to come in.”
“Then he did what he had no business to do, and he deserves to be dismissed at a day’s notice. Why, Lady Henry tells me that it was a regular party—that the room was all arranged for it by that most audacious young woman—that the servants were ordered about—that it lasted till nearly midnight, and that the noise you all made positively woke Lady Henry out of her sleep. Really, Evelyn, that you should have been mixed up in such an affair is more unpalatable to me than I can find words to describe.” And he paced, fuming, up and down before her.
“Anybody else than Aunt Flora would have laughed,” said the duchess, defiantly. “And I declare, Freddie, I won’t be scolded in such a tone. Besides, if you only knew—”
She threw back her head and looked at him, her cheeks flushed, her lips quivering with a secret that, once out, would perhaps silence him at once—would, at any rate, as children do when they give a shake to their spillikins, open up a number of new chances in the game.
“If I only knew what?”
The duchess pulled at the hair of the little spitz on her lap without replying.
“What is there to know that I don’t know?” insisted the duke. “Something that makes the matter still worse, I suppose?”
“Well, that depends,” said the duchess, reflectively. A gleam of mischief had slipped into her face, though for a moment the tears had not been far off.
The duke looked at his watch.
“Don’t keep me here guessing riddles longer than you can help,” he said, impatiently. “I have an appointment in the City at twelve, and I want to discuss with you the letter that must be written to Lady Henry.”
“That’s your affair,” said the duchess. “I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I mean to write at all. And as for the riddle, Freddie, you’ve seen Miss Le Breton?”
“Once. I thought her a very pretentious person,” said the duke, stiffly.
“I know—you didn’t get on. But, Freddie, didn’t she remind you of somebody?”
The duchess was growing excited. Suddenly she jumped up; the little spitz rolled off her lap; she ran to her husband and took him by the fronts of his coat.
“Freddie, you’ll be very much astonished.” And suddenly releasing him, she began to search among the photographs on the mantelpiece. “Freddie, you know who that is?” She held up a picture.
“Of course I know. What on earth has that got to do with the subject we have been discussing?”
“Well, it has a good deal to do with it,” said the duchess, slowly. “That’s my uncle, George Chantrey, isn’t it, Lord Lackington’s second son, who married Mamma’s sister? Well—oh, you won’t like it, Freddie, but you’ve got to know—that’s—Julie’s uncle, too!”
“What in the name of fortune do you mean?” said the duke, staring at her.
His wife again caught him by the coat, and, so imprisoning him, she poured out her story very fast, very incoherently, and with a very evident uncertainty as to what its effect might be.
And indeed the effect was by no means easy to determine. The duke was first incredulous, then bewildered by the very mixed facts which she poured out upon him. He tried to cross-examine her en route, but he gained little by that; she only shook him a little, insisting the more vehemently on telling the story her own way. At last their two impatiences had nearly come to a deadlock. But the duke managed to free himself physically, and so regained a little freedom of mind.
“Well, upon my word,” he said, as he resumed his march up and down—“upon my word!” Then, as he stood still before her, “You say she is Marriott Dalrymple’s daughter?”
“And Lord Lackington’s granddaughter.” said the duchess, panting a little from her exertions. “And, oh, what a blind bat you were not to see it at once—from the likeness!”
“As if one had any right to infer such a thing from a likeness!” said the duke, angrily. “Really, Evelyn, your talk is most—most unbecoming. It seems to me that Mademoiselle Le Breton has already done you harm. All that you have told me, supposing it to be true—oh, of course, I know you believe it to be true—only makes me”—he stiffened his back—“the more determined to break off the connection between her and you. A woman of such antecedents is not a fit companion for my wife, independently of the fact that she seems to be, in herself, an intriguing and dangerous character.”
“How could she help her antecedents?” cried the duchess.
“I didn’t say she could help them. But if they are what you say, she ought—well, she ought to be all the more careful to live in a modest and retired way, instead of, as I understand, making herself the rival of Lady Henry. I never heard anything so preposterous—so—so indecent! She shows no proper sense, and, as for you, I deeply regret you should have been brought into any contact with such a disgraceful story.”
“Freddie!” The duchess went into a helpless, half-hysterical fit of laughter.
But the duke merely expanded, as it seemed, still further—to his utmost height and bulk. “Oh, dear,” thought the duchess, in despair, “now he is going to be like his mother!” Her strictly Evangelical mother-in-law, with whom the duke had made his bachelor home for many years, had been the scourge of her early married life; and though for Freddie’s sake she had shed a few tears over her death, eighteen months before this date, the tears—as indeed the duke had thought at the time—had been only too quickly dried.
There could be no question about it, the duke was painfully like his mother as he replied:
“I fear that your education, Evelyn, has led you to take such things far more lightly than you ought. I am old-fashioned. Illegitimacy with me does carry a stigma, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. At any rate, we who occupy a prominent social place have no right to do anything which may lead others to think lightly of God’s law. I am sorry to speak plainly, Evelyn. I dare say you don’t like these sentiments, but you know, at least, that I am quite honest in expressing them.”
The duke turned to her, not without dignity. He was and had been from his boyhood a person of irreproachable morals—earnest and religious according to his lights, a good son, husband, and father. His wife looked at him with mingled feelings.
“Well, all I know is,” she said, passionately beating her little foot on the carpet before her, “that, by all accounts, the only thing to do with Colonel Delaney was to run away from him.”
The duke shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t expect me to be much moved by a remark of that kind? As to this lady, your story does not affect me in her favor in the smallest degree. She has had her education; Lord Lackington gives her one hundred pounds a year; if she is a self-respecting woman she will look after herself. I don’t want to have her here, and I beg you won’t invite her. A couple of nights, perhaps—I don’t mind that—but not for longer.”
“Oh, as to that, you may be very sure she won’t stay here unless you’re very particularly nice to her. There’ll be plenty of people glad—enchanted—to have her! I don’t care about that, but what I do want is”—the duchess looked up with calm audacity—“that you should find her a house.”
The duke paused in his walk and surveyed his wife with amazement.
“Evelyn, are you quite mad?”
“Not in the least. You have more houses than you know what to do with, and a great deal more money than anybody in the world ought to have. If they ever do set up the guillotine at Hyde Park Corner, we shall be among the first—we ought to be!”
“What is the good of talking nonsense like this, Evelyn?” said the duke, once more consulting his watch. “Let’s go back to the subject of my letter to Lady Henry.”
“It’s most excellent sense!” cried the duchess, springing up. “You have more houses than you know what to do with; and you have one house in particular—that little place at the back of Cureton Street where Cousin Mary Leicester lived so long—which is in your hands still, I know, for you told me so last week—which is vacant and furnished—Cousin Mary left you the furniture, as if we hadn’t got enough!—and it would be the very thing for Julie, if only you’d lend it to her till she can turn round.”
The duchess was now standing up, confronting her lord, her hands grasping the chair behind her, her small form alive with eagerness and the feminine determination to get her own way, by fair means or foul.
“Cureton Street!” said the duke, almost at the end of his tether. “And how do you propose that this young woman is to live—in Cureton Street, or anywhere else?”
“She means to write,” said the duchess, shortly. “Dr. Meredith has promised her work.”
“Sheer lunacy! In six months’ time you’d have to step in and pay all her bills.”
“I should like to see anybody dare to propose to Julie to pay her bills!” cried the duchess, with scorn. “You see, the great pity is, Freddie, that you don’t know anything at all about her. But that house—wasn’t it made out of a stable? It has got six rooms, I know—three bedrooms upstairs, and two sitting rooms and a kitchen below. With one good maid and a boy Julie could be perfectly comfortable. She would earn four hundred pounds—Dr. Meredith has promised her—she has one hundred pounds a year of her own. She would pay no rent, of course. She would have just enough to live on, poor, dear thing! And she would be able to gather her old friends around her when she wanted them. A cup of tea and her delightful conversation—that’s all they’d ever want.”
“Oh, go on—go on!” said the duke, throwing himself exasperated into an arm-chair; “the ease with which you dispose of my property on behalf of a young woman who has caused me most acute annoyance, who has embroiled us with a near relation for whom I have a very particular respect! Her friends, indeed! Lady Henry’s friends, you mean. Poor Lady Henry tells me in this letter that her circle will be completely scattered. This mischievous woman in three years has destroyed what it has taken Lady Henry nearly thirty to build up. Now look here, Evelyn”—the duke sat up and slapped his knee—“as to this Cureton Street plan, I will do nothing of the kind. You may have Miss Le Breton here for two or three nights if you like—I shall probably go down to the country—and, of course, I have no objection to make if you wish to help her find another situation—”
“Another situation!” cried the duchess, beside herself. “Freddie, you really are impossible! Do you understand that I regard Julie Le Breton as my relation, whatever you may say—that I love her dearly—that there are fifty people with money and influence ready to help her if you won’t, because she is one of the most charming and distinguished women in London—that you ought to be proud to do her a service—that I want you to have the honor of it—there! And if you won’t do this little favor for me—when I ask and beg it of you—I’ll make you remember it for a very long time to come—you may be sure of that!”
And his wife turned upon him as an image of war, her fair hair ruffling about her ears, her cheeks and eyes brilliant with anger—and something more.
The duke rose in silent ferocity and sought for some letters which he had left on the mantelpiece.
“I had better leave you to come to your senses by yourself, and as quickly as possible,” he said, as he put them into his pockets. “No good can come of any more discussion of this sort.”
The duchess said nothing. She looked out of the window busily, and bit her lip. Her silence served her better than her speech, for suddenly the duke looked around, hesitated, threw down a book he carried, walked up to her, and took her in his arms.
“You are a very foolish child,” he declared, as he held her by main force and kissed away her tears. “You make me lose my temper—and waste my time—for nothing.”
“Not at all,” said the sobbing duchess, trying to push herself away, and denying him, as best she could, her soft, flushed face. “You don’t, or you won’t, understand! I was—I was very fond of Uncle George Chantrey. He would have helped Julie if he were alive. And as for you, you’re Lord Lackington’s godson, and you’re always preaching what he’s done for the army, and what the nation owes him—and—and—”
“Does he know?” said the duke, abruptly, marveling at the irrelevance of these remarks.
“No, not a word. Only six people in London know—Aunt Flora, Sir Wilfrid Bury”—the duke made an exclamation—“Mr. Montresor, Jacob, you, and I.”
“Jacob!” said the duke. “What’s he got to do with it?”
The duchess suddenly saw her opportunity, and rushed upon it.
“Only that he’s madly in love with her, that’s all. And, to my knowledge, she has refused him both last year and this. Of course, naturally, if you won’t do anything to help her, she’ll probably marry him—simply as a way out.”
“Well, of all the extraordinary affairs!”
The duke released her, and stood bewildered. The duchess watched him in some excitement. He was about to speak, when there was a sound in the anteroom. They moved hastily apart. The door was thrown open, and the footman announced, “Miss Le Breton.”
Julie Le Breton entered, and stood a moment on the threshold, looking, not in embarrassment, but with a certain hesitation, at the two persons whose conversation she had disturbed. She was pale with sleeplessness; her look was sad and weary. But never had she been more composed, more elegant. Her closely fitting black cloth dress; her strangely expressive face, framed by a large hat, very simple, but worn as only the woman of fashion knows how; her miraculous yet most graceful slenderness; the delicacy of her hands; the natural dignity of her movements—these things produced an immediate, though, no doubt, conflicting impression upon the gentleman who had just been denouncing her. He bowed, with an involuntary deference which he had not at all meant to show to Lady Henry’s insubordinate companion, and then stood frowning.
But the duchess ran forward, and, quite heedless of her husband, threw herself into her friend’s arms.
“Oh, Julie, is there anything left of you? I hardly slept a wink for thinking of you. What did that old—oh, I forgot—do you know my husband? Freddie, this is my great friend, Miss Le Breton.”
The duke bowed again, silently. Julie looked at him, and then, still holding the duchess by the hand, she approached him, a pair of very fine and pleading eyes fixed upon his face.
“You have probably heard from Lady Henry, have you not?” she said, addressing him. “In a note I had from her this morning she told me she had written to you. I could not help coming today, because Evelyn has been so kind. But—is it your wish that I should come here?”
The Christian name slipped out unawares, and the duke winced at it. The likeness to Lord Lackington—it was certainly astonishing. There ran through his mind the memory of a visit paid long ago to his early home by Lord Lackington and two daughters, Rose and Blanche. He, the duke, had then been a boy home from school. The two girls, one five or six years older than the other, had been the life and charm of the party. He remembered hunting with Lady Rose.
But the confusion in his mind had somehow to be mastered, and he made an effort.
“I shall be glad if my wife is able to be of any assistance to you, Miss Le Breton,” he said, coldly; “but it would not be honest if I were to conceal my opinion—so far as I have been able to form it—that Lady Henry has great and just cause of complaint.”
“You are quite right—quite right,” said Julie, almost with eagerness. “She has, indeed.”
The duke was taken by surprise. Imperious as he was, and stiffened by a good many of those petty prides which the spoiled children of the world escape so hardly, he found himself hesitating—groping for his words.
The duchess meanwhile drew Julie impulsively toward a chair.
“Do sit down. You look so tired.”
But Julie’s gaze was still bent upon the duke. She restrained her friend’s eager hand, and the duke collected himself. He brought a chair, and Julie seated herself.
“I am deeply, deeply distressed about Lady Henry,” she said, in a low voice, by which the duke felt himself most unwillingly penetrated. “I don’t—oh no, indeed, I don’t defend last night. Only—my position has been very difficult lately. I wanted very much to see the duchess—and—it was natural—wasn’t it?—that the old friends should like to be personally informed about Lady Henry’s illness? But, of course, they stayed too long; it was my fault—I ought to have prevented it.”
She paused. This stern-looking man, who stood with his back to the mantelpiece regarding her, Philistine though he was, had yet a straight, disinterested air, from which she shrank a little. Honestly, she would have liked to tell him the truth. But how could she? She did her best, and her account certainly was no more untrue than scores of narratives of social incident which issue every day from lips most respected and most veracious. As for the duchess, she thought it the height of candor and generosity. The only thing she could have wished, perhaps, in her inmost heart, was that she had not found Julie alone with Harry Warkworth. But her loyal lips would have suffered torments rather than accuse or betray her friend.
The duke meanwhile went through various phases of opinion as Julie laid her story before him. Perhaps he was chiefly affected by the tone of quiet independence—as from equal to equal—in which she addressed him. His wife’s cousin by marriage; the granddaughter of an old and intimate friend of his own family; the daughter of a man known at one time throughout Europe, and himself amply well born—all these facts, warm, living, and still efficacious, stood, as it were, behind this manner of hers, prompting and endorsing it. But, good Heavens! was illegitimacy to be as legitimacy?—to carry with it no stains and penalties? Was vice to be virtue, or as good? The duke rebelled.
“It is a most unfortunate affair, of that there can be no doubt,” he said, after a moment’s silence, when Julie had brought her story to an end; and then, more sternly, “I shall certainly apologize for my wife’s share in it.”
“Lady Henry won’t be angry with the duchess long,” said Julie Le Breton. “As for me”—her voice sank—“my letter this morning was returned to me unopened.”
There was an uncomfortable pause; then Julie resumed, in another tone:
“But what I am now chiefly anxious to discuss is, how can we save Lady Henry from any further pain or annoyance? She once said to me in a fit of anger that if I left her in consequence of a quarrel, and any of her old friends sided with me, she would never see them again.”
“I know,” said the duke, sharply. “Her salon will break up. She already foresees it.”
“But why?—why?” cried Julie, in a most becoming distress. “Somehow, we must prevent it. Unfortunately I must live in London. I have the offer of work here—journalist’s work which cannot be done in the country or abroad. But I would do all I could to shield Lady Henry.”
“What about Mr. Montresor?” said the duke, abruptly. Montresor had been the well-known Chateaubriand to Lady Henry’s Madame Récamier for more than a generation.
Julie turned to him with eagerness.
“Mr. Montresor wrote to me early this morning. The letter reached me at breakfast. In Mrs. Montresor’s name and his own, he asked me to stay with them till my plans developed. He—he was kind enough to say he felt himself partly responsible for last night.”
“And you replied?” The duke eyed her keenly.
Julie sighed and looked down.
“I begged him not to think any more of me in the matter, but to write at once to Lady Henry. I hope he has done so.”
“And so you refused—excuse these questions—Mrs. Montresor’s invitation?”
The working of the duke’s mind was revealed in his drawn and puzzled brows.
“Certainly.” The speaker looked at him with surprise. “Lady Henry would never have forgiven that. It could not be thought of. Lord Lackington also”—but her voice wavered.
“Yes?” said the duchess, eagerly, throwing herself on a stool at Julie’s feet and looking up into her face.
“He, too, has written to me. He wants to help me. But—I can’t let him.”
The words ended in a whisper. She leaned back in her chair, and put her handkerchief to her eyes. It was very quietly done, and very touching. The duchess threw a lightning glance at her husband; and then, possessing herself of one of Julie’s hands, she kissed it and murmured over it.
“Was there ever such a situation?” thought the duke, much shaken. “And she has already, if Evelyn is to be believed, refused the chance—the practical certainty—of being Duchess of Chudleigh!”
He was a man with whom a gran rifiuto of this kind weighed heavily. His moral sense exacted such things rather of other people than himself. But, when made, he could appreciate them.
After a few turns up and down the room, he walked up to the two women.
“Miss Le Breton,” he said, in a far more hurried tone than was usual to him, “I cannot approve—and Evelyn ought not to approve—of much that has taken place during your residence with Lady Henry. But I understand that your post was not an easy one, and I recognize the forbearance of your present attitude. Evelyn is much distressed about it all. On the understanding that you will do what you can to soften this breach for Lady Henry, I shall be glad if you will allow me to come partially to your assistance.”
Julie looked up gravely, her eyebrows lifting. The duke found himself reddening as he went on.
“I have a little house near here—a little furnished house—Evelyn will explain to you. It happens to be vacant. If you will accept a loan of it, say for six months”—the duchess frowned—“you will give me pleasure. I will explain my action to Lady Henry, and endeavor to soften her feelings.”
He paused. Miss Le Breton’s face was grateful, touched with emotion, but more than hesitating.
“You are very good. But I have no claim upon you at all. And I can support myself.”
A touch of haughtiness slipped into her manner as she gently rose to her feet. “Thank God, I did not offer her money!” thought the duke, strangely perturbed.
“Julie, dear Julie,” implored the duchess. “It’s such a tiny little place, and it is quite musty for want of living in. Nobody has set foot in it but the caretaker for two years, and it would be really a kindness to us to go and live there—wouldn’t it, Freddie? And there’s all the furniture just as it was, down to the bellows and the snuffers. If you’d only use it and take care of it; Freddie hasn’t liked to sell it, because it’s all old family stuff, and he was very fond of Cousin Mary Leicester. Oh, do say yes, Julie! They shall light the fires, and I’ll send in a few sheets and things, and you’ll feel as though you’d been there for years. Do, Julie!”
Julie shook her head.
“I came here,” she said, in a voice that was still unsteady, “to ask for advice, not favors. But it’s very good of you.”
And with trembling fingers she began to refasten her veil.
“Julie!—where are you going?” cried the duchess “You’re staying here.”
“Staying here?” said Julie, turning around upon her. “Do you think I should be a burden upon you, or anyone?”
“But, Julie, you told Jacob you would come.”
“I have come. I wanted your sympathy, and your counsel. I wished also to confess myself to the duke, and to point out to him how matters could be made easier for Lady Henry.”
The penitent, yet dignified, sadness of her manner and voice completed the discomfiture—the temporary discomfiture—of the duke.
“Miss Le Breton,” he said, abruptly, coming to stand beside her, “I remember your mother.”
Julie’s eyes filled. Her hand still held her veil, but it paused in its task.
“I was a small schoolboy when she stayed with us,” resumed the duke. “She was a beautiful girl. She let me go out hunting with her. She was very kind to me, and I thought her a kind of goddess. When I first heard her story, years afterward, it shocked me awfully. For her sake, accept my offer. I don’t think lightly of such actions as your mother’s—not at all. But I can’t bear to think of her daughter alone and friendless in London.”
Yet even as he spoke he seemed to be listening to another person. He did not himself understand the feelings which animated him, nor the strength with which his recollections of Lady Rose had suddenly invaded him.
Julie leaned her arms on the mantelpiece, and hid her face. She had turned her back to them, and they saw that she was crying softly.
The duchess crept up to her and wound her arms around her.
“You will, Julie!—you will! Lady Henry has turned you out-of-doors at a moment’s notice. And it was a great deal my fault. You must let us help you!”
Julie did not answer, but, partially disengaging herself, and without looking at him, she held out her hand to the duke.
He pressed it with a cordiality that amazed him.
“That’s right—that’s right. Now, Evelyn, I leave you to make the arrangements. The keys shall be here this afternoon. Miss Le Breton, of course, stays here till things are settled. As for me, I must really be off to my meeting. One thing, Miss Le Breton—”
“I think,” he said, gravely, “you ought to reveal yourself to Lord Lackington.”
“You’ll let me take my own time for that?” was her appealing reply.
“Very well—very well. We’ll speak of it again.”
And he hurried away. As he descended his own stairs astonishment at what he had done rushed upon him and overwhelmed him.
“How on earth am I ever to explain the thing to Lady Henry?”
And as he went cityward in his cab, he felt much more guilty than his wife had ever done. What could have made him behave in this extraordinary, this preposterous way? A touch of foolish romance—immoral romance—of which he was already ashamed? Or the one bare fact that this woman had refused Jacob Delafield?