Julie le Breton was sitting alone in her own small sitting room. It was the morning of the Tuesday following her Sunday scene with Lady Henry, and she was busy with various household affairs. A small hamper of flowers, newly arrived from Lady Henry’s Surrey garden, and not yet unpacked, was standing open on the table, with various empty flower-glasses beside it. Julie was, at the moment, occupied with the “Stores order” for the month, and Lady Henry’s cook-housekeeper had but just left the room after delivering an urgent statement on the need for “relining” a large number of Lady Henry’s copper saucepans.
The room was plain and threadbare. It had been the schoolroom of various generations of Delafields in the past. But for an observant eye it contained a good many objects which threw light upon its present occupant’s character and history. In a small bookcase beside the fire were a number of volumes in French bindings. They represented either the French classics—Racine, Bossuet, Châteaubriand, Lamartine—which had formed the study of Julie’s convent days, or those other books—George Sand, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, Mazzini, Leopardi, together with the poets and novelists of revolutionary Russia or Polish nationalism or Irish rebellion—which had been the favorite reading of both Lady Rose and her lover. They were but a hundred in all; but for Julie Le Breton they stood for the bridge by which, at will, memory and dreamful pity might carry her back into that vanished life she had once shared with her parents—those strange beings, so calm and yet so passionate in their beliefs, so willful and yet so patient in their deeds, by whose acts her own experience was still wholly conditioned. In her little room there were no portraits of them visible. But on a side table stood a small carved triptych. The oblong wings, which were open, contained photographs of figures from one of the great Bruges Memlings. The center was covered by two wooden leaves delicately carved, and the leaves were locked. The inquisitive housemaid who dusted the room had once tried to open them—in vain.
On a stand near the fire lay two or three yellow volumes—some recent French essays, a volume of memoirs, a tale of Bourget’s, and so forth. These were flanked by Sir Henry Maine’s Popular Government, and a recent brilliant study of English policy in Egypt—both of them with the name “Richard J. Montresor” on the title page. The last number of Dr. Meredith’s paper, The New Rambler, was there also; and, with the paper knife still in its leaves, the journal of the latest French traveler in Mokembe, a small “H.W.” inscribed in the top right-hand corner of its gray cover.
Julie finished her Stores order with a sigh of relief. Then she wrote half a dozen business notes, and prepared a few checks for Lady Henry’s signature. When this was done the two dachshunds, who had been lying on the rug spying out her every movement, began to jump upon her.
But Julie laughed in their faces. “It’s raining,” she said, pointing to the window—“raining! So there! Either you won’t go out at all, or you’ll go with John.”
John was the second footman, whom the dogs hated. They returned crestfallen to the rug and to a hungry waiting on Providence. Julie took up a letter on foreign paper which had reached her that morning, glanced at the door, and began to reread its closely written sheets. It was from an English diplomat on a visit to Egypt, a man on whom the eyes of Europe were at that moment fixed. That he should write to a woman at all, on the subjects of the letter, involved a compliment hors ligne; that he should write with this ease, this abandonment, was indeed remarkable. Julie flushed a little as she read. But when she came to the end she put it aside with a look of worry. “I wish he’d write to Lady Henry,” was her thought. “She hasn’t had a line from him for weeks. I shouldn’t wonder if she suspects already. When anyone talks of Egypt, I daren’t open my lips.”
For fear of betraying the very minute and first-hand information that was possessed by Lady Henry’s companion? With a smile and a shrug she locked the letter away in one of the drawers of her writing table, and took up an envelope which had lain beneath it. From this—again with a look around her—she half drew out a photograph. The grizzled head and spectacled eyes of Dr. Meredith emerged. Julie’s expression softened; her eyebrows went up a little; then she slightly shook her head, like one who protests that if something has gone wrong, it isn’t—isn’t—their fault. Unwillingly she looked at the last words of the letter:
So, remember, I can give you work if you want it, and paying work. I would rather give you my life and my all. But these, it seems, are commodities for which you have no use. So be it. But if you refuse to let me serve you, when the time comes, in such ways as I have suggested in this letter, then, indeed, you would be unkind—I would almost dare to say ungrateful! Yours always
This letter also she locked away. But her hand lingered on the last of all. She had read it three times already, and knew it practically by heart. So she left the sheets undisturbed in their envelope. But she raised the whole to her lips, and pressed it there, while her eyes, as they slowly filled with tears, traveled—unseeing—to the wintry street beyond the window. Eyes and face wore the same expression as Wilfrid Bury had surprised there—the dumb utterance of a woman hard pressed, not so much by the world without as by some wild force within.
In that still moment the postman’s knock was heard in the street outside. Julie Le Breton started, for no one whose life is dependent on a daily letter can hear that common sound without a thrill. Then she smiled sadly at herself. “My joy is over for today!” And she turned away with the letter in her hand.
But she did not place it in the same drawer with the others. She moved across to the little carved triptych, and, after listening a moment to the sounds in the house, she opened its closed doors with a gold key that hung on her watch chain and had been hidden in the bosom of her dress.
The doors fell open. Inside, on a background of dark velvet, hung two miniatures, lightly framed in gold and linked together by a graceful scrollwork in gold. They were of fine French work, and they represented a man and woman, both handsome, young, and of a remarkable distinction of aspect. The faces, nevertheless, hardly gave pleasure. There was in each of them a look at once absent and eager—the look of those who have cared much and ardently for “man,” and very little, comparatively, for men.
The miniatures had not been meant for the triptych, nor the triptych for them. It had been adapted to them by loving hands; but there was room for other things in the velvet-lined hollow, and a packet of letters was already reposing there. Julie slipped the letter of the morning inside the elastic band which held the packet; then she closed and locked the doors, returning the key to its place in her dress. Both the lock and hinges of this little hiding place were well and strongly made, and when the wings also were shut and locked one saw nothing but a massively framed photograph of the Bruges belfry resting on a wooden support.
She had hardly completed her little task when there was a sudden noise of footsteps in the passage outside.
“Julie!” said a light voice, subdued to a laughing whisper. “May I come in?”
The duchess stood on the threshold, her small, shell-pink face emerging from a masterly study in gray, presented by a most engaging costume.
Julie, in surprise, advanced to meet her visitor, and the old butler, who was Miss Le Breton’s very good friend, quickly and discreetly shut the door upon the two ladies.
“Oh, my dear!” said the duchess, throwing herself into Julie’s arms. “I came up so quietly! I told Hutton not to disturb Lady Henry, and I just crept upstairs, holding my skirts. Wasn’t it heroic of me to put my poor little head into the lion’s den like this? But when I got your letter this morning saying you couldn’t come to me, I vowed I would just see for myself how you were, and whether there was anything left of you. Oh, you poor, pale thing!”
And drawing Julie to a chair, the little duchess sat down beside her, holding her friend’s hands and studying her face.
“Tell me what’s been happening—I believe you’ve been crying! Oh, the old wretch!”
“You’re quite mistaken,” said Julie, smiling. “Lady Henry says I may help you with the bazaar.”
“No!” The duchess threw up her hands in amazement. “How have you managed that?”
“By giving in. But, Evelyn, I’m not coming.”
“Oh, Julie!” The duchess threw herself back in her chair and fixed a pair of very blue and very reproachful eyes on Miss Le Breton.
“No, I’m not coming. If I’m to stay here, even for a time, I mustn’t provoke her anymore. She says I may come, but she doesn’t mean it.”
“She couldn’t mean anything civil or agreeable. How has she been behaving—since Sunday?”
Julie looked uncertain.
“Oh, there is an armed truce. I was made to have a fire in my bedroom last night. And Hutton took the dogs out yesterday.”
The duchess laughed.
“And there was quite a scene on Sunday? You don’t tell me much about it in your letter. But, Julie”—her voice dropped to a whisper—“was anything said about Jacob?”
Julie looked down. A bitterness crept into her face.
“Yes. I can’t forgive myself. I was provoked into telling the truth.”
“You did! Well? I suppose Aunt Flora thought it was all your fault that he proposed, and an impertinence that you refused?”
“She was complimentary at the time,” said Julie, half smiling. “But since—No, I don’t feel that she is appeased.”
“Of course not. Affronted, more likely.”
There was a silence. The duchess was looking at Julie, but her thoughts were far away. And presently she broke out, with the étourderie that became her:
“I wish I understood it myself, Julie. I know you like him.”
“Immensely. But—we should fight!”
Miss Le Breton looked up with animation.
“Oh, that’s not a reason,” said the duchess, rather annoyed.
“It’s the reason. I don’t know—there is something of iron in Mr. Delafield;” and Julie emphasized the words with a shrug which was almost a shiver. “And as I’m not in love with him, I’m afraid of him.”
“That’s the best way of being in love,” cried the duchess. “And then, Julie”—she paused, and at last added, naïvely, as she laid her little hands on her friend’s knee—“haven’t you got any ambitions?”
“Plenty. Oh, I should like very well to play the duchess, with you to instruct me,” said Julie, caressing the hands. “But I must choose my duke. And till the right one appears, I prefer my own wild ways.”
“Afraid of Jacob Delafield? How odd!” said the duchess, with her chin on her hands.
“It may be odd to you,” said Julie, with vivacity. “In reality, it’s not in the least odd. There’s the same quality in him that there is in Lady Henry—something that beats you down,” she added, under her breath. “There, that’s enough about Mr. Delafield—quite enough.”
And, rising, Julie threw up her arms and clasped her hands above her head. The gesture was all strength and will, like the stretching of a seabird’s wings.
The duchess looked at her with eyes that had begun to waver.
“Julie, I heard such an odd piece of news last night.”
“You remember the questions you asked me about Aileen Moffatt?”
“Well, I saw a man last night who had just come home from Simla. He saw a great deal of her, and he says that she and her mother were adored in India. They were thought so quaint and sweet—unlike other people—and the girl so lovely, in a sort of gossamer way. And who do you think was always about with them—at Peshawar first, and then at Simla—so that everybody talked? Captain Warkworth! My man believed there was an understanding between them.”
Julie had begun to fill the flower-glasses with water and unpack the flower-basket. Her back was toward the duchess. After a moment she replied, her hands full of forced narcissuses:
“Well, that would be a coup for him.”
“I should think so. She is supposed to have half a million in coal mines alone, besides land. Has Captain Warkworth ever said anything to you about them?”
“No. He has never mentioned them.”
The duchess reflected, her eyes still on Julie’s back.
“Everybody wants money nowadays. And the soldiers are just as bad as anybody else. They don’t look money, as the City men do—that’s why we women fall in love with them—but they think it, all the same.”
Julie made no reply. The duchess could see nothing of her. But the little lady’s face showed the flutter of one determined to venture yet a little farther on thin ice.
“Julie, I’ve done everything you’ve asked me. I sent a card for the 20th to that rather dreadful woman, Lady Froswick. I was very clever with Freddie about that living; and I’ve talked to Mr. Montresor. But, Julie, if you don’t mind, I really should like to know why you’re so keen about it?”
The duchess’s cheeks were by now one flush. She had a romantic affection for Julie, and would not have offended her for the world.
Julie turned round. She was always pale, and the duchess saw nothing unusual.
“Am I so keen?”
“Julie, you have done everything in the world for this man since he came home.”
“Well, he interested me,” said Julie, stepping back to look at the effect of one of the vases. “The first evening he was here, he saved me from Lady Henry—twice. He’s alone in the world, too, which attracts me. You see, I happen to know what it’s like. An only son, and an orphan, and no family interest to push him—”
“So you thought you’d push him? Oh, Julie, you’re a darling—but you’re rather a wire-puller, aren’t you?”
Julie smiled faintly.
“Well, perhaps I like to feel, sometimes, that I have a little power. I haven’t much else.”
The duchess seized one of her hands and pressed it to her cheek.
“You have power, because everyone loves and admires you. As for me, I would cut myself in little bits to please you…Well, I only hope, when he’s married his heiress, if he does marry her, they’ll remember what they owe to you.”
Did she feel the hand lying in her own shake? At any rate, it was brusquely withdrawn, and Julie walked to the end of the table to fetch some more flowers.
“I don’t want any gratitude,” she said, abruptly, “from anyone. Well, now, Evelyn, you understand about the bazaar? I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“Yes, I understand. Julie!” The duchess rose impulsively, and threw herself into a chair beside the table where she could watch the face and movements of Mademoiselle Le Breton. “Julie, I want so much to talk to you—about business. You’re not to be offended. Julie, if you leave Lady Henry, how will you manage?”
“How shall I live, you mean?” said Julie, smiling at the euphemism in which this little person, for whom existence had rained gold and flowers since her cradle, had enwrapped the hard facts of bread-and-butter—facts with which she was so little acquainted that she approached them with a certain delicate mystery.
“You must have some money, you know, Julie,” said the duchess, timidly, her upraised face and Paris hat well matched by the gay poinsettias, the delicate eucharis and arums with which the table was now covered.
“I shall earn some,” said Julie, quietly.
“Oh, but, Julie, you can’t be bothered with any other tiresome old lady!”
“No. I should keep my freedom. But Dr. Meredith has offered me work, and got me a promise of more.”
The duchess opened her eyes.
“Writing! Well, of course, we all know you can do anything you want to do. And you won’t let anybody help you at all?”
“I won’t let anybody give me money, if that’s what you mean,” said Julie, smiling. But it was a smile without accent, without gaiety.
The duchess, watching her, said to herself, “Since I came in she is changed—quite changed.”
“Julie, you’re horribly proud!”
Julie’s face contracted a little.
“How much ‘power’ should I have left, do you think—how much self-respect—if I took money from my friends?”
“Well, not money, perhaps. But, Julie, you know all about Freddie’s London property. It’s abominable how much he has. There are always a few houses he keeps in his own hands. If Lady Henry does quarrel with you, and we could lend you a little house—for a time—wouldn’t you take it, Julie?”
Her voice had the coaxing inflections of a child. Julie hesitated.
“Only if the duke himself offered it,” she said, finally, with a brusque stiffening of her whole attitude.
The duchess flushed and stood up.
“Oh, well, that’s all right,” she said, but no longer in the same voice. “Remember, I have your promise. Goodbye, Julie, you darling!…Oh, by the way, what an idiot I am! Here am I forgetting the chief thing I came about. Will you come with me to Lady Hubert tonight? Do! Freddie’s away, and I hate going by myself.”
“To Lady Hubert’s?” said Julie, starting a little. “I wonder what Lady Henry would say?”
“Tell her Jacob won’t be there,” said the duchess, laughing. “Then she won’t make any difficulties.”
“Shall I go and ask her?”
“Gracious! let me get out of the house first. Give her a message from me that I will come and see her tomorrow morning. We’ve got to make it up, Freddie says; so the sooner it’s over, the better. Say all the civil things you can to her about tonight, and wire me this afternoon. If all’s well, I come for you at eleven.”
The duchess rustled away. Julie was left standing by the table, alone. Her face was very still, but her eyes shone, her teeth pressed her lip. Unconsciously her hand closed upon a delicate blossom of eucharis and crushed it.
“I’ll go,” she said, to herself. “Yes, I’ll go.”
Her letter of the morning, as it happened, had included the following sentences:
“I think tonight I must put in an appearance at the Hubert Delafields’, though I own that neither the house nor the son of the house is very much to my liking. But I hear that he has gone back to the country. And there are a few people who frequent Lady Hubert, who might just now be of use.”
Lady Henry gave her consent that Mademoiselle Le Breton should accompany the duchess to Lady Hubert’s party almost with effusion. “It will be very dull,” she said. “My sister-in-law makes a desert and calls it society. But if you want to go, go. As to Evelyn Crowborough, I am engaged to my dentist tomorrow morning.”
When at night this message was reported to the duchess, as she and Julie were on their way to Rutland Gate, she laughed.
“How much leek shall I have to swallow? What’s tomorrow? Wednesday. Hm—cards in the afternoon; in the evening I appear, sit on a stool at Lady Henry’s feet, and look at you through my glasses as though I had never seen you before. On Thursday I leave a French book; on Friday I send the baby to see her. Goodness, what a time it takes!” said the duchess, raising her very white and very small shoulders. “Well, for my life, I mustn’t fail tomorrow night.”
At Lady Hubert’s they found a very tolerable, not to say lively, gathering, which quite belied Lady Henry’s slanders. There was not the same conscious brilliance, the same thrill in the air, as pertained to the gatherings in Bruton Street. But there was a more solid social comfort, such as befits people untroubled by the certainty that the world is looking on. The guests of Bruton Street laughed, as well-bred people should, at the estimation in which Lady Henry’s salon was held, by those especially who did not belong to it. Still, the mere knowledge of this outside estimate kept up a certain tension. At Lady Hubert’s there was no tension, and the agreeable nobodies who found their way in were not made to blush for the agreeable nothings of their conversation.
Lady Hubert herself made for ease—partly, no doubt, for stupidity. She was fair, sleepy, and substantial. Her husband had spent her fortune, and ruffled all the temper she had. The Hubert Delafields were now, however, better off than they had been—investments had recovered—and Lady Hubert’s temper was once more placid, as Providence had meant it to be. During the coming season it was her firm intention to marry her daughter, who now stood beside her as she received her guests—a blonde, sweet-featured girl, given, however, so it was said, to good works, and not at all inclined to trouble herself overmuch about a husband.
The rooms were fairly full; and the entry of the duchess and Mademoiselle Le Breton was one of the incidents of the evening, and visibly quickened the pulses of the assembly. The little Dresden-china duchess, with her clothes, her jewels, and her smiles, had been, since her marriage, one of the chief favorites of fashion. She had been brought up in the depths of the country, and married at eighteen. After six years she was not in the least tired of her popularity or its penalties. All the life in her dainty person, her glancing eyes, and small, smiling lips rose, as it were, to meet the stir that she evoked. She vaguely saw herself as Titania, and played the part with childish glee. And like Titania, as she had more than once ruefully reflected, she was liable to be chidden by her lord.
But the duke was on this particular evening debating high subjects in the House of Lords, and the duchess was amusing herself. Sir Wilfrid Bury, who arrived not long after his goddaughter, found her the center first of a bodyguard of cousins, including among them apparently a great many handsome young men, and then of a small crowd, whose vaguely smiling faces reflected the pleasure that was to be got, even at a distance, out of her young and merry beauty.
Julie Le Breton was not with her. But in the next room Sir Wilfrid soon perceived the form and face which, in their own way, exacted quite as much attention from the world as those of the duchess. She was talking with many people, and, as usual, he could not help watching her. Never yet had he seen her wide, black eyes more vivid than they were tonight. Now, as on his first sight of her, he could not bring himself to call them beautiful. Yet beautiful they were, by every canon of form and color. No doubt it was something in their expression that offended his own well-drilled instincts.
He found himself thinking suspicious thoughts about most of the conversations in which he saw her engaged. Why was she bestowing those careful smiles on that intolerable woman, Lady Froswick? And what an acquaintance she seemed to have among these elderly soldiers, who might at all times be reckoned on at Lady Hubert’s parties! One gray-haired veteran after another recalled himself to her attention, got his few minutes with her, and passed on smiling. Certain high officials, too, were no less friendly. Her court, it seemed to him, was mainly composed of the middle-aged; tonight, at any rate, she left the young to the duchess. And it was on the whole a court of men. The women, as he now perceived, were a trifle more reserved. There was not, indeed, a trace of exclusion. They were glad to see her; glad, he thought, to be noticed by her. But they did not yield themselves—or so he fancied—with the same wholeness as their husbands.
“How old is she?” he asked himself. “About nine-and-twenty?…Jacob’s age—or a trifle older.”
After a time he lost sight of her, and in the amusement of his own evening forgot her. But as the rooms were beginning to thin he walked through them, looking for a famous collection of miniatures that belonged to Lady Hubert. English family history was one of his hobbies, and he was far better acquainted with the Delafield statesmen, and the Delafield beauties of the past, than were any of their modern descendants. Lady Hubert’s Cosways and Plimers had made a lively impression upon him in days gone by, and he meant to renew acquaintance with them.
But they had been moved from the room in which he remembered them, and he was led on through a series of drawing rooms, now nearly empty, till on the threshold of the last he paused suddenly.
A lady and gentleman rose from a sofa on which they had been sitting. Captain Warkworth stood still. Mademoiselle Le Breton advanced to the newcomer.
“Is it very late?” she said, gathering up her fan and gloves. “We have been looking at Lady Hubert’s miniatures. That lady with the muff”—she pointed to the case which occupied a conspicuous position in the room—“is really wonderful. Can you tell me, Sir Wilfrid, where the duchess is?”
“No, but I can help you find her,” said that gentleman, forgetting the miniatures and endeavoring to look at neither of his companions.
“And I must rush,” said Captain Warkworth, looking at his watch. “I told a man to come to my rooms at twelve. Heavens!”
He shook hands with Miss Le Breton and hurried away.
Sir Wilfrid and Julie moved on together. That he had disturbed a most intimate and critical conversation was somehow borne in upon Sir Wilfrid. But kind and even romantic as was the old man’s inmost nature, his feelings were not friendly.
“How does the biography get on?” he asked his companion, with a smile.
A bright flush appeared in Mademoiselle Le Breton’s cheek.
“I think Lady Henry has dropped it.”
“Ah, well, I don’t imagine she will regret it;” he said, dryly.
She made no reply. He mentally accused himself for a brute, and then shook off the charge. Surely a few pinpricks were her desert! That she should defend her own secrets was, as Delafield had said, legitimate enough. But when a man offers you his services, you should not befool him beyond a certain point.
She must be aware of what he was thinking. He glanced at her curiously; at the stately dress gleaming with jet, which no longer affected anything of the girl; at the fine but old-fashioned necklace of pearls and diamonds—no doubt her mother’s—which clasped her singularly slender throat. At any rate, she showed nothing. She began to talk again of the Delafield miniatures, using her fan the while with graceful deliberation; and presently they found the duchess.
“Is she an adventuress, or is she not?” thought Bury, as his hansom carried him away from Rutland Gate. “If she marries Jacob, it will be a queer business.”