“But, first of all,” said Mademoiselle Le Breton, looking in some annoyance at the brace of terriers circling and barking around them, “we must take the dogs home, otherwise no talk will be possible.”
“You have no more business to do?”
His companion smiled.
“Everything Lady Henry wants is here,” she said, pointing to the bag upon her arm which had been handed to her, as Sir Wilfrid remembered, after some whispered conversation, in the hall of Crowborough House by an elegantly dressed woman, who was no doubt the duchess’s maid.
“Allow me to carry it for you.”
“Many thanks,” said Mademoiselle Le Breton, firmly retaining it, “but those are not the things I mind.”
They walked on quickly to Bruton Street. The dogs made conversation impossible. If they were on the chain it was one long battle between them and their leader. If they were let loose, it seemed to Sir Wilfrid that they ranged every area on the march, and attacked all elderly gentlemen and most errand boys.
“Do you always take them out?” he asked, when both he and his companion were crimson and out of breath.
“Do you like dogs?”
“I used to. Perhaps someday I shall again.”
“As for me, I wish they had but one neck!” said Sir Wilfrid, who had but just succeeded in dragging Max, the bigger of the two, out of the interior of a pastrycook’s handcart which had been rashly left with doors open for a few minutes in the street, while its responsible guardian was gossiping in an adjacent kitchen. Mademoiselle Julie meanwhile was wrestling with Nero, the younger, who had dived to the very heart of a peculiarly unsavory dustbin standing near the entrance of a mews.
“So you commonly go through the streets of London in this whirlwind?” asked Sir Wilfrid, again, incredulous, when at last they had landed their charges safe at the Bruton Street door.
“Morning and evening,” said Mademoiselle Julie, smiling. Then she addressed the butler: “Tell Lady Henry, please, that I shall be at home in half an hour.”
As they turned westward, the winter streets were gay with lights and full of people. Sir Wilfrid was presently conscious that among all the handsome and well-dressed women who brushed past them, Mademoiselle Le Breton more than held her own. She reminded him now not so much of her mother as of Marriott Dalrymple. Sir Wilfrid had first seen this woman’s father at Damascus, when Dalrymple, at twenty-six, was beginning the series of Eastern journeys which had made him famous. He remembered the brilliance of the youth; the power, physical and mental, which radiated from him, making all things easy; the scorn of mediocrity, the incapacity for subordination.
“I should like you to understand,” said the lady beside him, “that I came to Lady Henry prepared to do my very best.”
“I am sure of that,” said Sir Wilfrid, hastily recalling his thoughts from Damascus. “And you must have had a very difficult task.”
Mademoiselle Le Breton shrugged her shoulders.
“I knew, of course, it must be difficult. And as to the drudgery of it—the dogs, and that kind of thing—nothing of that sort matters to me in the least. But I cannot be humiliated before those who have become my friends, entirely because Lady Henry wished it to be so.”
“Lady Henry at first showed you every confidence?”
“After the first month or two she put everything into my hands—her household, her receptions, her letters, you may almost say her whole social existence. She trusted me with all her secrets.” (“No, no, my dear lady,” thought Sir Wilfrid.) “She let me help her with all her affairs. And, honestly, I did all I could to make her life easy.”
“That I understand from herself.”
“Then why,” cried Mademoiselle Le Breton, turning around to him with sudden passion—“why couldn’t Lady Henry leave things alone? Are devotion, and—and the kind of qualities she wanted, so common? I said to myself that, blind and helpless as she was, she should lose nothing. Not only should her household be well kept, her affairs well managed, but her salon should be as attractive, her Wednesday evenings as brilliant, as ever. The world was deserting her; I helped her to bring it back. She cannot live without social success; yet now she hates me for what I have done. Is it sane—is it reasonable?”
“She feels, I suppose,” said Sir Wilfrid, gravely, “that the success is no longer hers.”
“So she says. But will you please examine that remark? When her guests assemble, can I go to bed and leave her to grapple with them? I have proposed it often, but of course it is impossible. And if I am to be there I must behave, I suppose, like a lady, not like the housemaid. Really, Lady Henry asks too much. In my mother’s little flat in Bruges, with the two or three friends who frequented it, I was brought up in as good society and as good talk as Lady Henry has ever known.”
They were passing an electric lamp, and Sir Wilfrid, looking up, was half thrilled, half repelled by the flashing energy of the face beside him. Was ever such language on the lips of a paid companion before? His sympathy for Lady Henry revived.
“Can you really give me no clue to the—to the sources of Lady Henry’s dissatisfaction?” he said, at last, rather coldly.
Mademoiselle Le Breton hesitated.
“I don’t want to make myself out a saint,” she said, at last, in another voice and with a humility which was, in truth, hardly less proud than her self-assertion. “I—I was brought up in poverty, and my mother died when I was fifteen. I had to defend myself as the poor defend themselves—by silence. I learned not to talk about my own affairs. I couldn’t afford to be frank, like a rich English girl. I dare say, sometimes I have concealed things which had been better made plain. They were never of any real importance, and if Lady Henry had shown any consideration—”
Her voice failed her a little, evidently to her annoyance. They walked on without speaking for a few paces. “Never of any real importance?” Sir Wilfrid wondered.
Their minds apparently continued the conversation though their lips were silent, for presently Julie Le Breton said, abruptly:
“Of course I am speaking of matters where Lady Henry might have some claim to information. With regard to many of my thoughts and feelings, Lady Henry has no right whatever to my confidence.”
“She gives us fair warning,” thought Sir Wilfrid.
Aloud he said:
“It is not a question of thoughts and feelings, I understand, but of actions.”
“Like the visit to the Duncombes’?” said Mademoiselle Le Breton, impatiently. “Oh, I quite admit it—that’s only one of several instances Lady Henry might have brought forward. You see, she led me to make these friendships; and now, because they annoy her, I am to break them. But she forgets. Friends are too—too new in my life, too precious—”
Again the voice wavered. How it thrilled and penetrated! Sir Wilfrid found himself listening for every word.
“No,” she resumed. “If it is a question of renouncing the friends I have made in her house, or going—it will be going. That may as well be quite clear.”
Sir Wilfrid looked up.
“Let me ask you one question, mademoiselle.”
“Certainly. Whatever you like.”
“Have you ever had, have you now, any affection for Lady Henry?”
“Affection? I could have had plenty. Lady Henry is most interesting to watch. It is magnificent, the struggles she makes with her infirmities.”
Nothing could have been more agreeable than the modulation of these words, the passage of the tone from a first note of surprise to its grave and womanly close. Again, the same suggestions of veiled and vibrating feeling. Sir Wilfrid’s nascent dislike softened a little.
“After all,” he said, with gentleness, “one must make allowance for old age and weakness, mustn’t one?”
“Oh, as to that, you can’t say anything to me that I am not perpetually saying to myself,” was her somewhat impetuous reply. “Only there is a point when ill-temper becomes not only tormenting to me but degrading to herself…Oh, if you only knew!”—the speaker drew an indignant breath. “I can hardly bring myself to speak of such misères. But everything excites her, everything makes her jealous. It is a grievance that I should have a new dress, that Mr. Montresor should send me an order for the House of Commons, that Evelyn Crowborough should give me a Christmas present. Last Christmas, Evelyn gave me these furs—she is the only creature in London from whom I would accept a farthing or the value of a farthing.”
She paused, then rapidly threw him a question:
“Why, do you suppose, did I take it from her?”
“She is your kinswoman,” said Wilfrid, quietly.
“Ah, you knew that! Well, then, mayn’t Evelyn be kind to me, though I am what I am? I reminded Lady Henry, but she only thought me a mean parasite, sponging on a duchess for presents above my station. She said things hardly to be forgiven. I was silent. But I have never ceased to wear the furs.”
With what imperious will did the thin shoulders straighten themselves under the folds of chinchilla! The cloak became symbolic, a flag not to be struck.
“I never answer back, please understand—never,” she went on, hurriedly. “You saw today how Lady Henry gave me her orders. There is not a servant in the house with whom she would dare such a manner. Did I resent it?”
“You behaved with great forbearance. I watched you with admiration.”
“Ah, forbearance! I fear you don’t understand one of the strangest elements in the whole case. I am afraid of Lady Henry, mortally afraid! When she speaks to me I feel like a child who puts up its hands to ward off a blow. My instinct is not merely to submit, but to grovel. When you have had the youth that I had, when you have existed, learned, amused yourself on sufferance, when you have had somehow to maintain yourself among girls who had family, friends, money, name, while you—”
Her voice stopped, resolutely silenced before it broke. Sir Wilfrid uncomfortably felt that he had no sympathy to produce worthy of the claim that her whole personality seemed to make upon it. But she recovered herself immediately.
“Now I think I had better give you an outline of the last six months,” she said, turning to him. “Of course it is my side of the matter. But you have heard Lady Henry’s.”
And with great composure she laid before him an outline of the chief quarrels and grievances which had embittered the life of the Bruton Street house during the period she had named. It was a wretched story, and she clearly told it with repugnance and disgust. There was in her tone a note of offended personal delicacy, as of one bemired against her will.
Evidently, Lady Henry was hardly to be defended. The thing had been “odious,” indeed. Two women of great ability and different ages, shut up together and jarring at every point, the elder furiously jealous and exasperated by what seemed to her the affront offered to her high rank and her past ascendency by the social success of her dependent, the other defending herself, first by the arts of flattery and submission, and then, when these proved hopeless, by a social skill that at least wore many of the aspects of intrigue—these were the essential elements of the situation; and, as her narrative proceeded, Sir Wilfrid admitted to himself that it was hard to see any way out of it. As to his own sympathies, he did not know what to make of them.
“No. I have been only too yielding,” said Mademoiselle Le Breton, sorely, when her tale was done. “I am ashamed when I look back on what I have borne. But now it has gone too far, and something must be done. If I go, frankly, Lady Henry will suffer.”
Sir Wilfrid looked at his companion.
“Lady Henry is well aware of it.”
“Yes,” was the calm reply, “she knows it, but she does not realize it. You see, if it comes to a rupture she will allow no half measures. Those who stick to me will have to quarrel with her. And there will be a great many who will stick to me.”
Sir Wilfrid’s little smile was not friendly.
“It is indeed evident,” he said, “that you have thought it all out.”
Mademoiselle Le Breton did not reply. They walked on a few minutes in silence, till she said, with a suddenness and in a low tone that startled her companion:
“If Lady Henry could ever have felt that she humbled me, that I acknowledged myself at her mercy! But she never could. She knows that I feel myself as well born as she, that I am not ashamed of my parents, that my principles give me a free mind about such things.”
“Your principles?” murmured Sir Wilfrid.
“You were right,” she turned upon him with a perfectly quiet but most concentrated passion. “I have had to think things out. I know, of course, that the world goes with Lady Henry. Therefore I must be nameless and kinless and hold my tongue. If the world knew, it would expect me to hang my head. I don’t! I am as proud of my mother as of my father. I adore both their memories. Conventionalities of that kind mean nothing to me.”
“My dear lady—”
“Oh, I don’t expect you or anyone else to feel with me,” said the voice which for all its low pitch was beginning to make him feel as though he were in the center of a hailstorm. “You are a man of the world, you knew my parents, and yet I understand perfectly that for you, too, I am disgraced. So be it! So be it! I don’t quarrel with what anyone may choose to think, but—”
She recaptured herself with difficulty, and there was silence. They were walking through the purple February dusk toward the Marble Arch. It was too dark to see her face under its delicate veil, and Sir Wilfrid did not wish to see it. But before he had collected his thoughts sufficiently his companion was speaking again, in a wholly different manner.
“I don’t know what made me talk in this way. It was the contact with someone, I suppose, who had seen us at Gherardtsloo.” She raised her veil, and he thought that she dashed away some tears. “That never happened to me before in London. Well, now, to return. If there is a breach—”
“Why should there be a breach?” said Sir Wilfrid. “My dear Miss Le Breton, listen to me for a few minutes. I see perfectly that you have a great deal to complain of, but I also see that Lady Henry has something of a case.”
And with a courteous authority and tact worthy of his trade, the old diplomat began to discuss the situation.
Presently he found himself talking with an animation, a friendliness, an intimacy that surprised himself. What was there in the personality beside him that seemed to win a way inside a man’s defenses in spite of him? Much of what she had said had seemed to him arrogant or morbid. And yet as she listened to him, with an evident dying down of passion, an evident forlornness, he felt in her that woman’s weakness and timidity of which she had accused herself in relation to Lady Henry, and was somehow, manlike, softened and disarmed. She had been talking wildly, because no doubt she felt herself in great difficulties. But when it was his turn to talk she neither resented nor resisted what he had to say. The kinder he was, the more she yielded, almost eagerly at times, as though the thorniness of her own speech had hurt herself most, and there were behind it all a sad life, and a sad heart that only asked in truth for a little sympathy and understanding.
“I shall soon be calling her ‘my dear’ and patting her hand,” thought the old man, at last, astonished at himself. For the dejection in her attitude and gait began to weigh upon him; he felt a warm desire to sustain and comfort her. More and more thought, more and more contrivance did he throw into the straightening out of this tangle between two excitable women, not, it seemed, for Lady Henry’s sake, not, surely, for Miss Le Breton’s sake. But—ah! those two poor, dead folk, who had touched his heart long ago, did he feel the hovering of their ghosts beside him in the wintry wind?
At any rate, he abounded in shrewd and fatherly advice, and Mademoiselle Le Breton listened with a most flattering meekness.
“Well, now I think we have come to an understanding,” he urged, hopefully, as they turned down Bruton Street again.
Mademoiselle Le Breton sighed.
“It is very kind of you. Oh, I will do my best. But—”
She shook her head uncertainly.
“No—no ‘buts,’” cried Sir Wilfrid, cheerfully. “Suppose, as a first step,” he smiled at his companion, “you tell Lady Henry about the bazaar?”
“By all means. She won’t let me go. But Evelyn will find someone else.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that,” said the old man, almost crossly. “If you’ll allow me I’ll try my hand.”
Julie Le Breton did not reply, but her face glimmered upon him with a wistful friendliness that did not escape him, even in the darkness. In this yielding mood her voice and movements had so much subdued sweetness, so much distinction, that he felt himself more than melting toward her.
Then, of a sudden, a thought—a couple of thoughts—sped across him. He drew himself rather sharply together.
“Mr. Delafield, I gather, has been a good deal concerned in the whole matter?”
Mademoiselle Le Breton laughed and hesitated.
“He has been very kind. He heard Lady Henry’s language once when she was excited. It seemed to shock him. He has tried once or twice to smooth her down. Oh, he has been most kind!”
“Has he any influence with her?”
“Do you think well of him?”
He turned to her with a calculated abruptness. She showed a little surprise.
“I? But everybody thinks well of him. They say the duke trusts everything to him.”
“When I left England he was still a rather lazy and unsatisfactory undergraduate. I was curious to know how he had developed. Do you know what his chief interests are now?”
Mademoiselle Le Breton hesitated.
“I’m really afraid I don’t know,” she said, at last, smiling, and, as it were, regretful. “But Evelyn Crowborough, of course, could tell you all about him. She and he are very old friends.”
“No birds out of that cover,” was Sir Wilfrid’s inward comment.
The lamp over Lady Henry’s door was already in sight when Sir Wilfrid, after some talk of the Montresors, with whom he was going to dine that night, carelessly said:
“That’s a very good-looking fellow, that Captain Warkworth, whom I saw with Lady Henry last night.”
“Ah, yes. Lady Henry has made great friends with him,” said Mademoiselle Julie, readily. “She consults him about her memoir of her husband.”
“Memoir of her husband!” Sir Wilfrid stopped short. “Heavens above! Memoir of Lord Henry?”
“She is halfway through it. I thought you knew.”
“Well, upon my word! Whom shall we have a memoir of next? Henry Delafield! Henry Delafield! Good gracious!”
And Sir Wilfrid walked along, slashing at the railings with his stick, as though the action relieved him. Julie Le Breton quietly resumed:
“I understand that Lord Henry and Captain Warkworth’s father went through the Indian Mutiny together, and Captain Warkworth has some letters—”
“Oh, I dare say—I dare say,” muttered Sir Wilfrid. “What’s this man home for just now?”
“Well, I think Lady Henry knows,” said Mademoiselle Julie, turning to him an open look, like one who, once more, would gladly satisfy a questioner if they could. “He talks to her a great deal. But why shouldn’t he come home?”
“Because he ought to be doing disagreeable duty with his regiment instead of always racing about the world in search of something to get his name up,” said Sir Wilfrid, rather sharply. “At least, that’s the view his brother officers mostly take of him.”
“Oh,” said Mademoiselle Julie, with amiable vagueness, “is there anything particular that you suppose he wants?”
“I am not at all in the secret of his ambitions,” said Sir Wilfrid, lifting his shoulders. “But you and Lady Henry seemed well acquainted with him.”
The straw-colored lashes veered her way.
“I had some talk with him in the Park this morning,” said Julie Le Breton, reflectively. “He wants me to copy his father’s letters for Lady Henry, and to get her to return the originals as soon as possible. He feels nervous when they are out of his hands.”
“Hm!” said Sir Wilfrid.
At that moment Lady Henry’s doorbell presented itself. The vigor with which Sir Wilfrid rang it may, perhaps, have expressed the liveliness of his unspoken skepticism. He did not for one moment believe that General Warkworth’s letters had been the subject of the conversation he had witnessed that morning in the Park, nor that filial veneration had had anything whatever to say to it.
Julie Le Breton gave him her hand.
“Thank you very much,” she said, gravely and softly.
Sir Wilfrid at the moment before had not meant to press it at all. But he did press it, aware the while of the most mingled feelings.
“On the contrary, you were very good to allow me this conversation. Command me at any time if I can be useful to you and Lady Henry.”
Julie Le Breton smiled upon him and was gone.
Sir Wilfrid ran down the steps, chafing at himself.
“She somehow gets around one,” he thought, with a touch of annoyance. “I wonder whether I made any real impression upon her. Hm! Let’s see whether Montresor can throw any more light upon her. He seemed to be pretty intimate. Her ‘principles,’ eh? A dangerous view to take, for a woman of that provenance.”
An hour or two later Sir Wilfrid Bury presented himself in the Montresors’ drawing room in Eaton Place. He had come home feeling it essential to impress upon the cabinet a certain line of action with regard to the policy of Russia on the Persian Gulf. But the first person he perceived on the hearthrug, basking before the minister’s ample fire, was Lord Lackington. The sight of that vivacious countenance, that shock of white hair, that tall form still boasting the spareness and almost the straightness of youth, that unsuspecting complacency, confused his ideas and made him somehow feel the whole world a little topsy-turvy.
Nevertheless, after dinner he got his fifteen minutes of private talk with his host, and conscientiously made use of them. Then, after an appointment had been settled for a longer conversation on another day, both men felt that they had done their duty, and, as it appeared, the same subject stirred in both their minds.
“Well, and what did you think of Lady Henry?” said Montresor, with a smile, as he lighted another cigarette.
“She’s very blind,” said Sir Wilfrid, “and more rheumatic. But else there’s not much change. On the whole she wears wonderfully well.”
“Except as to her temper, poor lady!” laughed the minister. “She has really tried all our nerves of late. And the worst of it is that most of it falls upon that poor woman who lives with her”—the minister lowered his voice—“one of the most interesting and agreeable creatures in the world.”
Sir Wilfrid glanced across the table. Lord Lackington was telling scandalous tales of his youth to a couple of Foreign Office clerks, who sat on either side of him, laughing and spurring him on. The old man’s careless fluency and fun were evidently contagious; animation reigned around him; he was the spoiled child of the dinner, and knew it.
“I gather that you have taken a friendly interest in Miss Le Breton,” said Bury, turning to his host.
“Oh, the duchess and Delafield and I have done our best to protect her, and to keep the peace. I am quite sure Lady Henry has poured out her grievances to you, hasn’t she?”
“Alack, she has!”
“I knew she couldn’t hold her tongue to you, even for a day. She has really been losing her head over it. And it is a thousand pities.”
“So you think all the fault’s on Lady Henry’s side?”
The minister gave a shrug.
“At any rate, I have never myself seen anything to justify Lady Henry’s state of feeling. On the famous Wednesdays, Mademoiselle Julie always appears to make Lady Henry her first thought. And in other ways she has really worn herself to death for the old lady. It makes one rather savage sometimes to see it.”
“So in your eyes she is a perfect companion?”
“Oh, as to perfection—”
“Lady Henry accuses her of intrigue. You have seen no traces of it?”
The minister smiled a little oddly.
“Not as regards Lady Henry. Oh, Mademoiselle Julie is a very astute lady.”
A ripple from some source of secret amusement spread over the dark-lined face.
“What do you mean by that?”
“She knows how to help her friends better than most people. I have known three men, at least, made by Mademoiselle Le Breton within the last two or three years. She has just got a fresh one in tow.”
Sir Wilfrid moved a little closer to his host. They turned slightly from the table and seemed to talk into their cigars.
“Young Warkworth?” said Bury.
The minister smiled again and hesitated.
“Oh, she doesn’t bother me, she is much too clever. But she gets at me in the most amusing, indirect ways. I know perfectly well when she has been at work. There are two or three men—high up, you understand—who frequent Lady Henry’s evenings, and who are her very good friends…Oh, I dare say she’ll get what she wants,” he added, with nonchalance.
“Between you and me, do you suspect any direct interest in the young man?”
Montresor shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Not necessarily. She loves to feel herself a power—all the more, I think, because of her anomalous position. It is very curious—at bottom very feminine and amusing—and quite harmless.”
“You and others don’t resent it?”
“No, not from her,” said the minister, after a pause. “But she is rather going it, just now. Three or four batteries have opened upon me at once. She must be thinking of little else.”
Sir Wilfrid grew a trifle red. He remembered the comedy of the doorstep. “Is there anything that he particularly wants?” His tone assumed a certain asperity.
“Well, as for me, I cannot help feeling that Lady Henry has something to say for herself. It is very strange—mysterious even—the kind of ascendency this lady has obtained for herself in so short a time.”
“Oh, I dare say it’s hard for Lady Henry to put up with,” mused Montresor. “Without family, without connections—”
He raised his head quietly and put on his eyeglasses. Then his look swept the face of his companion.
Sir Wilfrid, with a scarcely perceptible yet significant gesture, motioned toward Lord Lackington. Mr. Montresor started. The eyes of both men traveled across the table, then met again.
“You know?” said Montresor, under his breath.
Sir Wilfrid nodded. Then some instinct told him that he had now exhausted the number of the initiated.
When the men reached the drawing room, which was rather emptily waiting for the “reception” Mrs. Montresor was about to hold in it, Sir Wilfrid fell into conversation with Lord Lackington. The old man talked well, though flightily, with a constant reference of all topics to his own standards, recollections, and friendships, which was characteristic, but in him not unattractive. Sir Wilfrid noticed certain new and pitiful signs of age. The old man was still a rattle. But every now and then the rattle ceased abruptly and a breath of melancholy made itself felt—like a chill and sudden gust from some unknown sea.
They were joined presently, as the room filled up, by a young journalist—an art critic, who seemed to know Lord Lackington and his ways. The two fell eagerly into talk about pictures, especially of an exhibition at Antwerp, from which the young man had just returned.
“I looked in at Bruges on the way back for a few hours,” said the newcomer, presently. “The pictures there are much better seen than they used to be. When were you there last?” He turned to Lord Lackington.
“Bruges?” said Lord Lackington, with a start. “Oh, I haven’t been there for twenty years.”
And he suddenly sat down, dangling a paper knife between his hands, and staring at the carpet. His jaw dropped a little. A cloud seemed to interpose between him and his companions.
Sir Wilfrid, with Lady Henry’s story fresh in his memory, was somehow poignantly conscious of the old man. Did their two minds hold the same image—of Lady Rose drawing her last breath in some dingy room beside one of the canals that wind through Bruges, laying down there the last relics of that life, beauty, and intelligence that had once made her the darling of the father, who, for some reason still hard to understand, had let her suffer and die alone?