Meanwhile the duchess had dropped Julie Le Breton at Lady Henry’s door. Julie groped her way upstairs through the sleeping house. She found her room in darkness, and she turned on no light. There was still a last glimmer of fire, and she sank down by it, her long arms clasped around her knees, her head thrown back as though she listened still to words in her ears.
“Oh, such a child! Such a dear, simpleminded child! Report engaged her to at least ten different people at Simla. She had a crowd of cavaliers there—I was one of them. The whole place adored her. She is a very rare little creature, but well looked after, I can tell you—a long array of guardians in the background.”
How was it possible not to trust that aspect and that smile? Her mind traveled back to the autumn days when she had seen them first; reviewed the steps, so little noticed at first, so rapid lately and full of fate, by which she had come into this bondage wherein she stood. She saw the first appearance of the young soldier in Lady Henry’s drawing room; her first conversation with him; and all the subtle development of that singular relation between them, into which so many elements had entered. The flattering sense of social power implied both in the homage of this young and successful man, and in the very services that she, on her side, was able to render him; impulsive gratitude for that homage, at a time when her very soul was smarting under Lady Henry’s contemptuous hostility; and then the sweet advances of a “friendship” that was to unite them in a bond, secret and unique, a bond that took no account of the commonplaces of love and marriage, the link of equal and kindred souls in a common struggle with hard and sordid circumstance.
“I have neither family nor powerful friends,” he had written to her a few weeks after their first meeting; “all that I have won, I have won for myself. Nobody ever made ‘interest’ for me but you. You, too, are alone in the world. You, too, have to struggle for yourself. Let us unite our forces—cheer each other, care for each other—and keep our friendship a sacred secret from the world that would misunderstand it. I will not fail you, I will give you all my confidence; and I will try and understand that noble, wounded heart of yours, with its memories, and all those singular prides and isolations that have been imposed on it by circumstance. I will not say, let me be your brother; there is something banal in that; ‘friend’ is good enough for us both; and there is between us a community of intellectual and spiritual interest which will enable us to add new meaning even to that sacred word. I will write to you every day; you shall know all that happens to me; and whatever grateful devotion can do to make your life smoother shall be done.”
Five months ago was it, that that letter was written?
Its remembered phrases already rang bitterly in an aching heart. Since it reached her, she had put out all her powers as a woman, all her influence as an intelligence, in the service of the writer.
And now, here she sat in the dark, tortured by a passion of which she was ashamed, before which she was beginning to stand helpless in a kind of terror. The situation was developing, and she found herself wondering how much longer she would be able to control herself or it. Very miserably conscious, too, was she all the time that she was now playing for a reward that was secretly, tacitly, humiliatingly denied her. How could a poor man, with Harry Warkworth’s ambitions, think for a moment of marriage with a woman in her ambiguous and dependent position? Her common sense told her that the very notion was absurd. And yet, since the duchess’s gossip had given point and body to a hundred vague suspicions, she was no longer able to calm, to master herself.
Suddenly a thought of another kind occurred to her. It added to her smart that Sir Wilfrid, in their meeting at Lady Hubert’s, had spoken to her and looked at her with that slight touch of laughing contempt. There had been no insincerity in that emotion with which she had first appealed to him as her mother’s friend; she did truly value the old man’s good opinion. And yet she had told him lies.
“I can’t help it,” she said to herself, with a little shiver. The story about the biography had been the invention of a moment. It had made things easy, and it had a small foundation in the fact that Lady Henry had talked vaguely of using the letters lent her by Captain Warkworth for the elucidation—perhaps in a Nineteenth Century article—of certain passages in her husband’s Indian career.
Jacob Delafield, too. There also it was no less clear to her than to Sir Wilfrid that she had “overdone it.” It was true, then, what Lady Henry said of her—that she had an overmastering tendency to intrigue—to a perpetual tampering with the plain fact?
“Well, it is the way in which such people as I defend themselves,” she said, obstinately, repeating to herself what she had said to Sir Wilfrid Bury.
And then she set against it, proudly, that disinterestedness of which, as she vowed to herself, no one but she knew the facts. It was true, what she had said to the duchess and to Sir Wilfrid. Plenty of people would give her money, would make her life comfortable, without the need for any daily slavery. She would not take it. Jacob Delafield would marry her, if she lifted her finger; and she would not lift it. Dr. Meredith would marry her, and she had said him nay. She hugged the thought of her own unknown and unapplauded integrity. It comforted her pride. It drew a veil over that wounding laughter which had gleamed for a moment through those long lashes of Sir Wilfrid Bury.
Last of all, as she sank into her restless sleep, came the remembrance that she was still under Lady Henry’s roof. In the silence of the night the difficulties of her situation pressed upon and tormented her. What was she to do? Whom was she to trust?
“Dixon, how is Lady Henry?”
“Much too ill to come downstairs, miss. She’s very much put out; in fact, miss (the maid lowered her voice), you hardly dare go near her. But she says herself it would be absurd to attempt it.”
“Has Hatton had any orders?”
“Yes, miss. I’ve just told him what her ladyship wishes. He’s to tell everybody that Lady Henry’s very sorry, and hoped up to the last moment to be able to come down as usual.”
“Has Lady Henry all she wants, Dixon? Have you taken her the evening papers?”
“Oh yes, miss. But if you go in to her much her ladyship says you’re disturbing her; and if you don’t go, why, of course, everybody’s neglecting her.”
“Do you think I may go and say good night to her, Dixon?”
The maid hesitated.
“I’ll ask her, miss—I’ll certainly ask her.”
The door closed, and Julie was left alone in the great drawing room of the Bruton Street house. It had been prepared as usual for the Wednesday—evening party. The flowers were fresh; the chairs had been arranged as Lady Henry liked to have them; the parquet floors shone under the electric light; the Gainsboroughs seemed to look down from the walls with a gay and friendly expectancy.
For herself, Julie had just finished her solitary dinner, still buoyed up while she was eating it by the hope that Lady Henry would be able to come down. The bitter winds of the two previous days, however, had much aggravated her chronic rheumatism. She was certainly ill and suffering; but Julie had known her make such heroic efforts before this to keep her Wednesdays going that not till Dixon appeared with her verdict did she give up hope.
So everybody would be turned away. Julie paced the drawing room a solitary figure amid its lights and flowers—solitary and dejected. In a couple of hours’ time all her particular friends would come to the door, and it would be shut against them. “Of course, expect me tonight,” had been the concluding words of her letter of the morning. Several people also had announced themselves for this evening whom it was extremely desirable she should see. A certain eminent colonel, professor at the staff college, was being freely named in the papers for the Mokembe mission. Never was it more necessary for her to keep all the threads of her influence in good working order. And these Wednesday evenings offered her the occasions when she was most successful, most at her ease—especially whenever Lady Henry was not well enough to leave the comparatively limited sphere of the back drawing room.
Moreover, the gatherings themselves ministered to a veritable craving in Julie Le Breton—the craving for society and conversation. She shared it with Lady Henry, but in her it was even more deeply rooted. Lady Henry had ten talents in the scriptural sense—money, rank, all sorts of inherited bonds and associations. Julie Le Breton had but this one. Society was with her both an instinct and an art. With the subtlest and most intelligent ambition she had trained and improved her natural gift for it during the last few years. And now, to the excitement of society was added the excitement of a new and tyrannous feeling, for which society was henceforth a mere weapon to be used.
She fumed and fretted for a while in silence. Every now and then she would pause in front of one of the great mirrors of the room, and look at the reflection of her tall thinness and the trailing satin of her gown.
“The girl—so pretty, in a gossamer sort of way,” The words echoed in her mind, and vaguely, beside her own image in the glass, there rose a vision of girlhood—pale, gold hair, pink cheeks, white frock—and she turned away, miserable, from that conscious, that intellectual distinction with which, in general, she could persuade herself to be very fairly satisfied.
Hutton, the butler, came in to look at the fire.
“Will you be sitting here tonight, miss?”
“Oh no, Hutton. I shall go back to the library. I think the fire in my own room is out.”
“I had better put out these lights, anyway,” said the man, looking around the brilliant room.
“Oh, certainly,” said Julie, and she began to assist him to do so.
Suddenly a thought occurred to her.
“Hutton!” She went up to him and spoke in a lower tone. “If the Duchess of Crowborough comes tonight, I should very much like to see her, and I know she wants to see me. Do you think it could possibly disturb Lady Henry if you were to show her into the library for twenty minutes?”
The man considered.
“I don’t think there could be anything heard upstairs, miss. I should, of course, warn her grace that her ladyship was ill.”
“Well, then, Hutton, please ask her to come in,” said Miss Le Breton, hurriedly. “And, Hutton, Dr. Meredith and Mr. Montresor, you know how disappointed they’ll be not to find Lady Henry at home?”
“Yes, miss. They’ll want to know how her ladyship is, no doubt. I’ll tell them you’re in the library. And Captain Warkworth, miss?—he’s never missed a Wednesday evening for weeks.”
“Oh, well, if he comes—you must judge for yourself, Hutton,” said Miss Le Breton, occupying herself with the electric switches. “I should like to tell them all—the old friends—how Lady Henry is.”
The butler’s face was respectful discretion itself.
“Of course, miss. And shall I bring tea and coffee?”
“Oh no,” said Miss Le Breton, hastily; and then, after reflection, “Well, have it ready; but I don’t suppose anybody will ask for it. Is there a good fire in the library?”
“Oh yes, miss. I thought you would be coming down there again. Shall I take some of these flowers down? The room looks rather bare, if anybody’s coming in.”
Julie colored a little.
“Well, you might—not many. And, Hutton, you’re sure we can’t disturb Lady Henry?”
Hutton’s expression was not wholly confident.
“Her ladyship’s very quick of hearing, miss. But I’ll shut those doors at the foot of the back stairs, and I’ll ask everyone to come in quietly.”
“Thank you, Hutton—thank you. That’ll be very good of you. And, Hutton—”
“Yes, miss.” The man paused with a large vase of white arums in his hand.
“You’ll say a word to Dixon, won’t you? If anybody comes in, there’ll be no need to trouble Lady Henry about it. I can tell her tomorrow.”
“Very good, miss. Dixon will be down to her supper presently.”
The butler departed. Julie was left alone in the now darkened room, lighted only by one lamp and the bright glow of the fire. She caught her breath—suddenly struck with the audacity of what she had been doing. Eight or ten of these people certainly would come in—eight or ten of Lady Henry’s “intimates.” If Lady Henry discovered it—after this precarious truce between them had just been patched up!
Julie made a step toward the door as though to recall the butler, then stopped herself. The thought that in an hour’s time Harry Warkworth might be within a few yards of her, and she not permitted to see him, worked intolerably in heart and brain, dulling the shrewd intelligence by which she was ordinarily governed. She was conscious, indeed, of some profound inner change. Life had been difficult enough before the duchess had said those few words to her. But since!
Suppose he had deceived her at Lady Hubert’s party! Through all her mounting passion her acute sense of character did not fail her. She secretly knew that it was quite possible he had deceived her. But the knowledge merely added to the sense of danger which, in this case, was one of the elements of passion itself.
“He must have money—of course he must have money,” she was saying, feverishly, to herself. “But I’ll find ways. Why should he marry yet—for years? It would be only hampering him.”
Again she paused before the mirrored wall; and again imagination evoked upon the glass the same white and threatening image—her own near kinswoman—the child of her mother’s sister! How strange! Where was the little gossamer creature now—in what safe haven of money and family affection, and all the spoiling that money brings? From the climbing paths of her own difficult and personal struggle Julie Le Breton looked down with sore contempt on such a degenerate ease of circumstance. She had heard it said that the mother and daughter were lingering abroad for a time on their way home from India. Yet was the girl all the while pining for England, thinking not of her garden, her horse, her pets, but only of this slim young soldier who in a few minutes, perhaps, would knock at Lady Henry’s door, in quest of Aileen Moffatt’s unknown, unguessed-of cousin? These thoughts sent wild combative thrills through Julie’s pulses. She turned to one of the old French clocks. How much longer now—till he came?
“Her ladyship would like to see you, miss.”
The voice was Dixon’s, and Julie turned hurriedly, recalling all her self-possession. She climbed some steep stairs, still unmodernized, to Lady Henry’s floor. That lady slept at the back of the house, so as to be out of noise. Her room was an old-fashioned apartment, furnished about the year Queen Victoria came to the throne, with furniture, chintzes, and carpet of the most approved early Victorian pattern. What had been ugly then was dingy now; and its strong mistress, who had known so well how to assimilate and guard the fine decorations and noble pictures of the drawing rooms, would not have a thing in it touched. “It suits me,” she would say, impatiently, when her stout sister-in-law pleaded placidly for white paint and bright colors. “If it’s ugly, so am I.”
Fierce, certainly, and forbidding she was on this February evening. She lay high on her pillow, tormented by her chronic bronchitis and by rheumatic pain, her brows drawn together, her vigorous hands clasped before her in an evident tension, as though she only restrained herself with difficulty from defying maid, doctor, and her own sense of prudence.
“Well, you have dressed?” she said, sharply, as Julie Le Breton entered her room.
“I did not get your message till I had finished dinner. And I dressed before dinner.”
Lady Henry looked her up and down, like a cat ready to pounce.
“You didn’t bring me those letters to sign?”
“No, I thought you were not fit for it.”
“I said they were to go tonight. Kindly bring them at once.”
Julie brought them. With groans and flinchings that she could not repress, Lady Henry read and signed them. Then she demanded to be read to. Julie sat down, trembling. How fast the hands of Lady Henry’s clock were moving on!
Mercifully, Lady Henry was already somewhat sleepy, partly from weakness, partly from a dose of bromide.
“I hear nothing,” she said, putting out an impatient hand. “You should raise your voice. I didn’t mean you to shout, of course. Thank you—that’ll do. Good night. Tell Hutton to keep the house as quiet as he can. People must knock and ring, I suppose; but if all the doors are properly shut it oughtn’t to bother me. Are you going to bed?”
“I shall sit up a little to write some letters. But—I shan’t be late.”
“Why should you be late?” said Lady Henry, tartly, as she turned away.
Julie made her way downstairs with a beating heart. All the doors were carefully shut behind her. When she reached the hall it was already half past ten o’clock. She hurried to the library, the large paneled room behind the dining room. How bright Hutton had made it look! Up shot her spirits. With a gay and dancing step she went from chair to chair, arranging everything instinctively as she was accustomed to do in the drawing room. She made the flowers less stiff; she put on another light; she drew one table forward and pushed its fellow back against the wall. What a charming old room, after all! What a pity Lady Henry so seldom used it! It was paneled in dark oak, while the drawing room was white. But the pictures, of which there were two or three, looked even better here than upstairs. That beautiful Lawrence—a “red boy” in gleaming satin—that pair of Hoppners, fine studies in blue, why, who had ever seen them before? And another light or two would show them still better.
A loud knock and ring. Julie held her breath. Ah! A distant voice in the hall. She moved to the fire, and stood quietly reading an evening paper.
“Captain Warkworth would be glad if you would see him for a few minutes, miss. He would like to ask you himself about her ladyship.”
“Please ask him to come in, Hutton.”
Hutton effaced himself, and the young man entered. Then Julie raised her voice.
“Remember, please, Hutton, that I particularly want to see the duchess.”
Hutton bowed and retired. Warkworth came forward.
“What luck to find you like this!”
He threw her one look—Julie knew it to be a look of scrutiny—and then, as she held out her hand, he stooped and kissed it.
“He wants to know that my suspicions are gone,” she thought. “At any rate, he should believe it.”
“The great thing,” she said, with her finger to her lip, “is that Lady Henry should hear nothing.”
She motioned her somewhat puzzled guest to a seat on one side of the fire, and, herself, fell into another opposite. A wild vivacity was in her face and manner.
“Isn’t this amusing? Isn’t the room charming? I think I should receive very well”—she looked around her—“in my own house.”
“You would receive well in a garret—a stable,” he said. “But what is the meaning of this? Explain.”
“Lady Henry is ill and is gone to bed. That made her very cross—poor Lady Henry! She thinks I, too, am in bed. But you see—you forced your way in—didn’t you?—to inquire with greater minuteness after Lady Henry’s health.”
She bent toward him, her eyes dancing.
“Of course I did. Will there presently be a swarm on my heels, all possessed with a similar eagerness, or—?”
He drew his chair, smiling, a little closer to her. She, on the contrary, withdrew hers.
“There will, no doubt, be six or seven,” she said, demurely, “who will want personal news. But now, before they come”—her tone changed—“is there anything to tell me?”
“Plenty,” he said, drawing a letter out of his pocket. “Your writ, my dear lady, runs as easily in the City as elsewhere.” And he held up an envelope.
“You have got your allotment? But I knew you would. Lady Froswick promised.”
“And a large allotment, too,” he said, joyously. “I am the envy of all my friends. Some of them have got a few shares, and have already sold them—grumbling. I keep mine three days more on the best advice—the price may go higher yet. But, anyway, there”—he shook the envelope—“there it is—deliverance from debt—peace of mind for the first time since I was a lad at school—the power of going, properly fitted out and equipped, to Africa—if I go—and not like a beggar—all in that bit of paper, and all the work of—someone you and I know. Fairy godmother! tell me, please, how to say a proper thank you.”
The young soldier dropped his voice. Those blue eyes which had done him excellent service in many different parts of the globe were fixed with brilliance on his companion; the lines of a full-lipped mouth quivered with what seemed a boyish pleasure. The comfort of money relief was never acknowledged more frankly or more handsomely.
Julie hurriedly repressed him. Did she feel instinctively that there are thanks which it sometimes humiliates a man to remember, lavishly as he may have poured them out at the moment—thanks which may easily count in the long run, not for, but against, the donor? She rather haughtily asked what she had done but say a chance word to Lady Froswick? The shares had to be allotted to somebody. She was glad, of course, very glad, if he were relieved from anxiety…
So did she free herself and him from a burdensome gratitude; and they passed to discussing the latest chances of the Mokembe appointment. The staff-college colonel was no doubt formidable; the commander-in-chief, who had hitherto allowed himself to be much talked to on the subject of young Warkworth’s claims by several men in high place—General McGill among them—well known in Lady Henry’s drawing room, was perhaps inclining to the new suggestion, which was strongly supported by important people in Egypt; he had one or two recent appointments on his conscience not quite of the highest order, and the staff-college man, in addition to a fine military record, was virtue, poverty, and industry embodied; was nobody’s cousin, and would, altogether, produce a good effect.
Could anything more be done, and fresh threads set in motion?
They bandied names a little, Julie quite as subtly and minutely informed as the man with regard to all the sources of patronage. New devices, fresh modes of approach revealed themselves to the woman’s quick brain. Yet she did not chatter about them; still less parade her own resources. Only, in talking with her, dead walls seemed to give way; vistas of hope and possibility opened in the very heart of discouragement. She found the right word, the right jest, the right spur to invention or effort; while all the time she was caressing and appeasing her companion’s self-love—placing it like a hot-house plant in an atmosphere of expansion and content—with that art of hers, which, for the ambitious and irritable man, more conscious of the kicks than of the kisses of fortune, made conversation with her an active and delightful pleasure.
“I don’t know how it is,” Warkworth presently declared; “but after I have been talking to you for ten minutes the whole world seems changed. The sky was ink, and you have turned it rosy. But suppose it is all mirage, and you the enchanter?”
He smiled at her—consciously, superabundantly. It was not easy to keep quite cool with Julie Le Breton; the self-satisfaction she could excite in the man she wished to please recoiled upon the woman offering the incense. The flattered one was apt to be foolishly responsive.
“That is my risk,” she said, with a little shrug. “If I make you confident, and nothing comes of it—”
“I hope I shall know how to behave myself,” cried Warkworth. “You see, you hardly understand—forgive me!—your own personal effect. When people are face to face with you, they want to please you, to say what will please you, and then they go away, and—”
“Resolve not to be made fools of?” she said, smiling. “But isn’t that the whole art—when you’re guessing what will happen—to be able to strike the balance of half a dozen different attractions?”
“Montresor as the ocean,” said Warkworth, musing, “with half a dozen different forces tugging at him? Well, dear lady, be the moon to these tides, while this humble mortal looks on—and hopes.”
He bent forward, and across the glowing fire their eyes met. She looked so cool, so handsome, so little yielding at that moment, that, in addition to gratitude and nattered vanity, Warkworth was suddenly conscious of a new stir in the blood. It begat, however, instant recoil. Wariness!—let that be the word, both for her sake and his own. What had he to reproach himself with so far? Nothing. He had never offered himself as the lover, as the possible husband. They were both esprits faits—they understood each other. As for little Aileen, well, whatever had happened, or might happen, that was not his secret to give away. And a woman in Julie Le Breton’s position, and with her intelligence, knows very well what the difficulties of her case are. Poor Julie! If she had been Lady Henry, what a career she would have made for herself! He was very curious as to her birth and antecedents, of which he knew little or nothing; with him she had always avoided the subject. She was the child, he understood, of English parents who had lived abroad; Lady Henry had come across her by chance. But there must be something in her past to account for this distinction, this ease with which she held her own in what passes as the best of English society.
Julie soon found herself unwilling to meet the gaze fixed upon her. She flushed a little and began to talk of other things.
“Everybody, surely, is unusually late. It will be annoying, indeed, if the duchess doesn’t come.”
“The duchess is a delicious creature, but not for me,” said Warkworth, with a laugh. “She dislikes me. Ah, now then for the fray!”
For the outer bell rang loudly, and there were steps in the hall.
“Oh, Julie”—in swept a white whirlwind with the smallest white satin shoes twinkling in front of it—“how clever of you—you naughty angel! Aunt Flora in bed—and you down here! And I who came prepared for such a dose of humble pie! What a relief! Oh, how do you do?”
The last words were spoken in quite another tone, as the duchess, for the first time perceiving the young officer on the more shaded side of the fireplace, extended to him a very high wrist and a very stiff hand. Then she turned again to Julie.
“My dear, there’s a small mob in the hall. Mr. Montresor—and General Somebody—and Jacob—and Dr. Meredith with a Frenchman. Oh, and old Lord Lackington, and Heaven knows who! Hutton told me I might come in, so I promised to come first and reconnoiter. But what’s Hutton to do? You really must take a line. The carriages are driving up at a fine rate.”
“I’ll go and speak to Hutton,” said Julie.
And she hurried into the hall.