“Here it is,” said the duchess, as the carriage stopped. “Isn’t it an odd little place?”
And as she and Julie paused on the pavement, Julie looked listlessly at her new home. It was a two-story brick house, built about 1780. The front door boasted a pair of Ionian columns and a classical canopy or pediment. The windows had still the original small panes; the mansard roof, with its one dormer, was untouched. The little house had rather deep eaves; three windows above; two, and the front door, below. It wore a prim, old-fashioned air, a good deal softened and battered, however, by age, and it stood at the corner of two streets, both dingily quiet, and destined, no doubt, to be rebuilt before long in the general rejuvenation of Mayfair.
As the duchess had said, it occupied the site of what had once—about 1740—been the westerly end of a mews belonging to houses in Cureton Street, long since pulled down. The space filled by these houses was now occupied by one great mansion and its gardens. The rest of the mews had been converted into three-story houses of a fair size, looking south, with a back road between them and the gardens of Cureton House. But at the southwesterly corner of what was now Heribert Street, fronting west and quite out of line and keeping with the rest, was this curious little place, built probably at a different date and for some special family reason. The big planes in the Cureton House gardens came close to it and overshadowed it; one side wall of the house, in fact, formed part of the wall of the garden.
The duchess, full of nervousness, ran up the steps, put in the key herself, and threw open the door. An elderly Scotchwoman, the caretaker, appeared from the back and stood waiting to show them over.
“Oh, Julie, perhaps it’s too queer and musty!” cried the duchess, looking around her in some dismay. “I thought, you know, it would be a little out-of-the-way and quaint—unlike other people—just what you ought to have. But—”
“I think it’s delightful,” said Julie, standing absently before a case of stuffed birds, somewhat moth-eaten, which took up a good deal of space in the little hall. “I love stuffed birds.”
The duchess glanced at her uneasily. “What is she thinking about?” she wondered. But Julie roused herself.
“Why, it looks as though everything here had gone to sleep for a hundred years,” she said, gazing in astonishment at the little hall, with its old clock, its two or three stiff hunting pictures, its drab-painted walls, its poker-work chest.
And the drawing room! The caretaker had opened the windows. It was a mild March day, and there were misty sun-gleams stealing along the lawns of Cureton House. None entered the room itself, for its two semicircular windows looked north over the gardens. Yet it was not uncheerful. Its faded curtains of blue rep, its buff walls, on which the pictures and miniatures in their tarnished gilt frames were arranged at intervals in stiff patterns and groups; the Italian glass, painted with dilapidated Cupids, over the mantelpiece; the two or three Sheraton armchairs and settees, covered with threadbare needlework from the days of “Evelina”; a carpet of old and well-preserved Brussels—blue arabesques on a white ground; one or two pieces of old satinwood furniture, very fine and perfect; a heavy center-table, its cloth garnished with some early Victorian woolwork, and a pair of pink glass vases; on another small table close by, of a most dainty and spindle-legged correctness, a set of Indian chessmen under a glass shade; and on another a collection of tiny animals, stags and dogs for the most part, deftly “pinched” out of soft paper, also under glass, and as perfect as when their slender limbs were first fashioned by Cousin Mary Leicester’s mother, somewhere about the year that Marie Antoinette mounted the scaffold. These various elements, ugly and beautiful, combined to make a general effect—clean, fastidious, frugal, and refined—that was, in truth, full of a sort of acid charm.
“Oh, I like it! I like it so much!” cried Julie, throwing herself down into one of the straight-backed armchairs and looking first around the walls and then through the windows to the gardens outside.
“My dear,” said the duchess, flitting from one thing to another, frowning and a little fussed, “those curtains won’t do at all. I must send some from home.”
“No, no, Evelyn. Not a thing shall be changed. You shall lend it me just as it is or not at all. What a character it has! I taste the person who lived here.”
“Cousin Mary Leicester?” said the duchess. “Well, she was rather an oddity. She was Low Church, like my mother-in-law; but, oh, so much nicer! Once I let her come to Grosvenor Square and speak to the servants about going to church. The groom of the chambers said she was ‘a dear old lady, and if she were his cousin he wouldn’t mind her being a bit touched,’ My maid said she had no idea poke bonnets could be so sweet. It made her understand what the queen looked like when she was young. And none of them have ever been to church since that I can make out. There was one very curious thing about Cousin Mary Leicester,” added the duchess, slowly—“she had second sight. She saw her old mother, in this room, once or twice, after she had been dead for years. And she saw Freddie once, when he was away on a long voyage—”
“Ghosts, too!” said Julie, crossing her hands before her with a little shiver—“that completes it.”
“Sixty years,” said the duchess, musing. “It was a long time—wasn’t it?—to live in this little house, and scarcely ever leave it. Oh, she had quite a circle of her own. For many years her funny little sister lived here, too. And there was a time, Freddie says, when there was almost a rivalry between them and two other famous old ladies who lived in Bruton Street—what was their name? Oh, the Miss Berrys! Horace Walpole’s Miss Berrys. All sorts of famous people, I believe, have sat in these chairs. But the Miss Berrys won.”
“Not in years? Cousin Mary outlived them.”
“Ah, but she was dead long before she died,” said the duchess as she came to perch on the arm of Julie’s chair, and threw her arm around her friend’s neck. “After her little sister departed this life she became a very silent, shriveled thing—except for her religion—and very few people saw her. She took a fancy to me—which was odd, wasn’t it, when I’m such a worldling?—and she let me come in and out. Every morning she read the Psalms and Lessons, with her old maid, who was just her own age—in this very chair. And two or three times a month Freddie would slip around and read them with her—you know Freddie’s very religious. And then she’d work at flannel petticoats for the poor, or something of that kind, till lunch. Afterward she’d go and read the Bible to people in the workhouse or in hospital. When she came home, the butler brought her the Times; and sometimes you’d find her by the fire, straining her old eyes over ‘a little Dante.’ And she always dressed for dinner—everything was quite smart—and her old butler served her. Afterward her maid played dominoes or spillikins with her—all her life she never touched a card—and they read a chapter, and Cousin Mary played a hymn on that funny little old piano there in the corner, and at ten they all went to bed. Then, one morning, the maid went in to wake her, and she saw her dear sharp nose and chin against the light, and her hands like that, in front of her—and—well, I suppose, she’d gone to play hymns in heaven—dear Cousin Mary! Julie, isn’t it strange the kind of lives so many of us have to lead? Julie”—the little duchess laid her cheek against her friend’s—“do you believe in another life?”
“You forget I’m a Catholic,” said Julie, smiling rather doubtfully.
“Are you, Julie? I’d forgotten.”
“The good nuns at Bruges took care of that.”
“Do you ever go to mass?”
“Then you’re not a good Catholic, Julie?”
“No,” said Julie, after a pause, “not at all. But it sometimes catches hold of me.”
The old clock in the hall struck. The duchess sprang up.
“Oh, Julie, I have got to be at Clarisse’s by four. I promised her I’d go and settle about my drawing room dress today. Let’s see the rest of the house.”
And they went rapidly through it. All of it was stamped with the same character, representing, as it were, the meeting-point between an inherited luxury and a personal asceticism. Beautiful chairs, or cabinets transported sixty years before from one of the old Crowborough houses in the country to this little abode, side by side with things the cheapest and the commonest—all that Cousin Mary Leicester could ever persuade herself to buy with her own money. For all the latter part of her life she had been half a mystic and half a great lady, secretly hating the luxury from which she had not the strength to free herself, dressing ceremoniously, as the duchess had said, for a solitary dinner, and all the while going in sore remembrance of a Master who “had not where to lay his head.”
At any rate, there was an ample supply of household stuff for a single woman and her maids. In the china cupboard there were still the old-fashioned Crown Derby services, the costly cut glass, the Leeds and Wedgewood dessert dishes that Cousin Mary Leicester had used for half a century. The caretaker produced the keys of the iron-lined plate cupboard, and showed its old-world contents, clean and in order.
“Why, Julie! If we’d only ordered the dinner I might have come to dine with you tonight!” cried the duchess, enjoying and peering into everything like a child with its doll’s house. “And the linen—gracious!” as the doors of another cupboard were opened to her. “But now I remember, Freddie said nothing was to be touched till he made up his mind what to do with the little place. Why, there’s everything!”
And they both looked in astonishment at the white, fragrant rows, at the worn monogram in the corners of the sheets, at the little bags of lavender and potpourri ranged along the shelves.
Suddenly Julie turned away and sat down by an open window, carrying her eyes far from the house and its stores.
“It is too much, Evelyn,” she said, somberly. “It oppresses me. I don’t think I can live up to it.”
“Julie!” and again the little duchess came to stand caressingly beside her. “Why, you must have sheets—and knives and forks! Why should you get ugly new ones, when you can use Cousin Mary’s? She would have loved you to have them.”
“She would have hated me with all her strength,” said Miss Le Breton, probably with much truth.
The two were silent a little. Through Julie’s stormy heart there swept longings and bitternesses inexpressible. What did she care for the little house and all its luxuries! She was sorry that she had fettered herself with it…Nearly four o’clock in the afternoon, and no letter—not a word!
“Julie,” said the duchess, softly, in her ear, “you know you can’t live here alone. I’m afraid Freddie would make a fuss.”
“I’ve thought of that,” said Julie, wearily. “But, shall we really go on with it, Evelyn?”
The duchess looked entreaty. Julie repented, and, drawing her friend toward her, rested her head against the chinchilla cloak.
“I’m tired, I suppose,” she said, in a low voice. “Don’t think me an ungrateful wretch. Well, there’s my foster sister and her child.”
“Madame Bornier and the little cripple girl?” cried the duchess. “Excellent! Where are they?”
“Léonie is in the French Governesses’ Home, as it happens, looking out for a situation, and the child is in the Orthopedic Hospital. They’ve been straightening her foot. It’s wonderfully better, and she’s nearly ready to come out.”
“Are they nice, Julie?”
“Thérèse is an angel—you must be the one thing or the other, apparently, if you’re a cripple. And as for Léonie—well, if she comes here, nobody need be anxious about my finances. She’d count every crust and cinder. We couldn’t keep any English servant; but we could get a Belgian one.”
“But is she nice?” repeated the duchess.
“I’m used to her,” said Julie, in the same inanimate voice.
Suddenly the clock in the hall below struck four.
“Heavens!” cried the duchess. “You don’t know how Clarisse keeps you to your time. Shall I go on, and send the carriage back for you?”
“Don’t trouble about me. I should like to look round me here a little longer.”
“You’ll remember that some of our fellow criminals may look in after five? Dr. Meredith and Lord Lackington said, as we were getting away last night—oh, how that doorstep of Aunt Flora’s burned my shoes!—that they should come around. And Jacob is coming; he’ll stay and dine. And, Julie, I’ve asked Captain Warkworth to dine tomorrow night.”
“Have you? That’s noble of you—for you don’t like him.”
“I don’t know him!” cried the duchess, protesting. “If you like him—of course it’s all right. Was he—was he very agreeable last night?” she added, slyly.
“What a word to apply to anybody or anything connected with last night!”
“Are you very sore, Julie?”
“Well, on this very day of being turned out it hurts. I wonder who is writing Lady Henry’s letters for her this afternoon?”
“I hope they are not getting written,” said the duchess, savagely; “and that she’s missing you abominably. Goodbye—au revoir! If I am twenty minutes late with Clarisse, I shan’t get any fitting, duchess or no duchess.”
And the little creature hurried off; not so fast, however, but that she found time to leave a number of parting instructions as to the house with the Scotch caretaker, on her way to her carriage.
Julie rose and made her way down to the drawing room again. The Scotchwoman saw that she wanted to be alone and left her.
The windows were still open to the garden outside. Julie examined the paths, the shrubberies, the great plane trees; she strained her eyes toward the mansion itself. But not much of it could be seen. The little house at the corner had been carefully planted out.
What wealth it implied—that space and size, in London! Evidently the house was still shut up. The people who owned it were now living the same cumbrous, magnificent life in the country which they would soon come up to live in the capital. Honors, parks, money, birth—all were theirs, as naturally as the sun rose. Julie envied and hated the big house and all it stood for; she flung a secret defiance at this coveted and elegant Mayfair that lay around her, this heart of all that is recognized, accepted, carelessly sovereign in our “materialized” upper class.
And yet all the while she knew that it was an unreal and passing defiance. She would not be able in truth to free herself from the ambition to live and shine in this world of the English rich and well born. For, after all, as she told herself with rebellious passion, it was or ought to be her world. And yet her whole being was sore from the experiences of these three years with Lady Henry—from those, above all, of the preceding twenty-four hours. She wove no romance about herself. “I should have dismissed myself long ago,” she would have said, contemptuously, to anyone who could have compelled the disclosure of her thoughts. But the long and miserable struggle of her self-love with Lady Henry’s arrogance, of her gifts with her circumstances; the presence in this very world, where she had gained so marked a personal success, of two clashing estimates of herself, both of which she perfectly understood—the one exalting her, the other merely implying the cool and secret judgment of persons who see the world as it is—these things made a heat and poison in her blood.
She was not good enough, not desirable enough, to be the wife of the man she loved. Here was the plain fact that stung and stung.
Jacob Delafield had thought her good enough! She still felt the pressure of his warm, strong fingers, the touch of his kiss upon her hand. What a paradox was she living in! The duchess might well ask: why, indeed, had she refused Jacob Delafield—that first time? As to the second refusal, that needed no explanation, at least for herself. When, upon that winter day, now some six weeks past, which had beheld Lady Henry more than commonly tyrannical, and her companion more than commonly weary and rebellious, Delafield’s stammered words—as he and she were crossing Grosvenor Square in the January dusk—had struck for the second time upon her ear, she was already under Warkworth’s charm. But before—the first time? She had come to Lady Henry firmly determined to marry as soon and as well as she could—to throw off the slur on her life—to regularize her name and place in the world. And then the possible heir of the Chudleighs proposes to her—and she rejects him!
It was sometimes difficult for her now to remember all the whys and wherefores of this strange action of which she was secretly so proud. But the explanation was in truth not far from that she had given to the duchess. The wild strength in her own nature had divined and shrunk from a similar strength in Delafield’s. Here, indeed, one came upon the fact which forever differentiated her from the adventuress, had Sir Wilfrid known. She wanted money and name; there were days when she hungered for them. But she would not give too reckless a price for them. She was a personality, a soul—not a vulgar woman—not merely callous or greedy. She dreaded to be miserable; she had a thirst for happiness, and the heart was, after all, stronger than the head.
Jacob Delafield? No! Her being contracted and shivered at the thought of him. A will tardily developed, if all accounts of his school and college days were true, but now, as she believed, invincible; a mystic; an ascetic; a man under whose modest or careless or self-mocking ways she, with her eye for character, divined the most critical instincts, and a veracity, iron, scarcely human—a man before whom one must be always posing at one’s best—that was a personal risk too great to take for a Julie Le Breton.
Unless, indeed, if it came to this—that one must think no more of love—but only of power—why, then—
A ring at the door, resounding through the quiet side street. After a minute the Scotchwoman opened the drawing-room door.
“Please, miss, is this meant for you?”
Julie took the letter in astonishment. Then through the door she saw a man standing in the hall and recognized Captain Warkworth’s Indian servant.
“I don’t understand him,” said the Scotchwoman, shaking her head.
Julie went out to speak with him. The man had been sent to Crowborough House with instructions to inquire for Miss Le Breton and deliver his note. The groom of the chambers, misinterpreting the man’s queer English, and thinking the matter urgent—the note was marked “immediate”—had sent him after the ladies to Heribert Street.
The man was soon tipped and dismissed, and Miss Le Breton took the letter back to the drawing room.
So, after all, he had not failed; there on her lap was her daily letter. Outside the scanty March sun, now just setting, was touching the garden with gold. Had it also found its way into Julie’s eyes?
Now for his explanation:
First, how and where are you? I called in Bruton Street at noon. Hutton told me you had just gone to Crowborough House. Kind—no, wise little Duchess! She honors herself in sheltering you.
I could not write last night—I was too uncertain, too anxious. All I said might have jarred. This morning came your note, about eleven. It was angelic to think so kindly and thoughtfully of a friend—angelic to write such a letter at such a time. You announced your flight to Crowborough House, but did not say when, so I crept to Bruton Street, seeing Lady Henry in every lamppost, got a few clandestine words with Hutton, and knew, at least, what had happened to you—outwardly and visibly.
Last night did you think me a poltroon to vanish as I did? It was the impulse of a moment. Mr. Montresor had pulled me into a corner of the room, away from the rest of the party, nominally to look at a picture, really that I might answer a confidential question he had just put to me with regard to a disputed incident in the Afridi campaign. We were in the dark and partly behind a screen. Then the door opened. I confess the sight of Lady Henry paralyzed me. A great, murderous, six-foot Afridi—that would have been simple enough. But a woman—old and ill and furious—with that Medusa’s face—no! My nerves suddenly failed me. What right had I in her house, after all? As she advanced into the room, I slipped out behind her. General Fergus and M. du Bartas joined me in the hall. We walked to Bond Street together. They were divided between laughter and vexation. I should have laughed—if I could have forgotten you.
But what could I have done for you, dear lady, if I had stayed out the storm? I left you with three or four devoted adherents, who had, moreover, the advantage over me of either relationship or old acquaintance with Lady Henry. Compared to them, I could have done nothing to shield you. Was it not best to withdraw? Yet all the way home I accused myself bitterly. Nor did I feel, when I reached home, that one who had not grasped your hand under fire had any right to rest or sleep. But anxiety for you, regrets for myself, took care of that; I got my deserts.
After all, when the pricks and pains of this great wrench are over, shall we not all acknowledge that it is best the crash should have come? You have suffered and borne too much. Now we shall see you expand in a freer and happier life. The Duchess has asked me to dinner tomorrow—the note has just arrived—so that I shall soon have the chance of hearing from you some of those details I so much want to know. But before then you will write?
As for me, I am full of alternate hopes and fears. General Fergus, as we walked home, was rather silent and bearish—I could not flatter myself that he had any friendly intentions toward me in his mind. But Montresor was more than kind, and gave me some fresh opportunities of which I was very glad to avail myself. Well, we shall know soon.
You told me once that if, or when, this happened, you would turn to your pen, and that Dr. Meredith would find you openings. That is not to be regretted, I think. You have great gifts, which will bring you pleasure in the using. I have got a good deal of pleasure out of my small ones. Did you know that once, long ago, when I was stationed at Gibraltar, I wrote a military novel?
No, I don’t pity you because you will need to turn your intellect to account. You will be free, and mistress of your fate. That, for those who, like you and me, are the “children of their works,” as the Spaniards say, is much.
Dear friend—kind, persecuted friend!—I thought of you in the watches of the night—I think of you this morning. Let me soon have news of you.
Julie put the letter down upon her knee. Her face stiffened. Nothing that she had ever received from him yet had rung so false.
Grief? Complaint? No! Just a calm grasp of the game—a quick playing of the pieces—so long as the game was there to play. If he was appointed to this mission, in two or three weeks he would be gone—to the heart of Africa. If not—
Anyway, two or three weeks were hers. Her mind seemed to settle and steady itself.
She got up and went once more carefully through the house, giving her attention to it. Yes, the whole had character and a kind of charm. The little place would make, no doubt, an interesting and distinguished background for the life she meant to put into it. She would move in at once—in three days at most. Ways and means were for the moment not difficult. During her life with Lady Henry she had saved the whole of her own small rentes. Three hundred pounds lay ready to her hand in an investment easily realized. And she would begin to earn at once.
Thérèse—that should be her room—the cheerful, blue-papered room with the south window. Julie felt a strange rush of feeling as she thought of it. How curious that these two—Léonie and little Thérèse—should be thus brought back into her life! For she had no doubt whatever that they would accept with eagerness what she had to offer. Her foster-sister had married a schoolmaster in one of the communal schools of Bruges while Julie was still a girl at the convent. Léonie’s lame child had been much with her grandmother, old Madame Le Breton. To Julie she had been at first unwelcome and repugnant. Then some quality in the frail creature had unlocked the girl’s sealed and often sullen heart.
While she had been living with Lady Henry, these two, the mother and child, had been also in London; the mother, now a widow, earning her bread as an inferior kind of French governess, the child boarded out with various persons, and generally for long periods of the year in hospital or convalescent home. To visit her in her white hospital bed—to bring her toys and flowers, or merely kisses and chat—had been, during these years, the only work of charity on Julie’s part which had been wholly secret, disinterested, and constant.