Delafield was walking through the Park toward Victoria Gate. A pair of beautiful roans pulled up suddenly beside him, and a little figure with a waving hand bent to him from a carriage.
“Jacob, where are you off to? Let me give you a lift?”
The gentleman addressed took off his hat.
“Much obliged to you, but I want some exercise. I say, where did Freddie get that pair?”
“I don’t know, he doesn’t tell me. Jacob, you must get in. I want to speak to you.”
Rather unwillingly, Delafield obeyed, and away they sped.
“J’ai un tas de choses à vous dire,” she said, speaking low, and in French, so as to protect herself from the servants in front. “Jacob, I’m very unhappy about Julie.”
Delafield frowned uncomfortably.
“Why? Hadn’t you better leave her alone?”
“Oh, of course, I know you think me a chatterbox. I don’t care. You must let me tell you some fresh news about her. It isn’t gossip, and you and I are her best friends. Oh, Freddie’s so disagreeable about her. Jacob, you’ve got to help and advise a little. Now, do listen. It’s your duty—your downright catechism duty.”
And she poured into his reluctant ear the tale which Miss Emily Lawrence nearly a fortnight before had confided to her.
“Of course,” she wound up, “you’ll say it’s only what we knew or guessed long ago. But you see, Jacob, we didn’t know. It might have been just gossip. And then, besides”—she frowned and dropped her voice till it was only just audible—“this horrid man hadn’t made our Julie so—so conspicuous, and Lady Henry hadn’t turned out such a toad—and, altogether, Jacob, I’m dreadfully worried.”
“Don’t be,” said Jacob, dryly.
“And what a creature!” cried the duchess, unheeding. “They say that poor Moffatt child will soon have fretted herself ill, if the guardians don’t give way about the two years.”
“What two years?”
“The two years that she must wait—till she is twenty-one. Oh, Jacob, you know that!” exclaimed the duchess, impatient with him. “I’ve told you scores of times.”
“I’m not in the least interested in Miss Moffatt’s affairs.”
“But you ought to be, for they concern Julie,” cried the duchess. “Can’t you imagine what kind of things people are saying? Lady Henry has spread it about that it was all to see him she bribed the Bruton Street servants to let her give the Wednesday party as usual—that she had been flirting with him abominably for months, and using Lady Henry’s name in the most impertinent ways. And now, suddenly, everybody seems to know something about this Indian engagement. You may imagine it doesn’t look very well for our poor Julie. The other night at Chatton House I was furious. I made Julie go. I wanted her to show herself, and keep up her friends. Well, it was horrid! One or two old frights, who used to be only too thankful to Julie for reminding Lady Henry to invite them, put their noses in the air and behaved odiously. And even some of the nicer ones seemed changed—I could see Julie felt it.”
“Nothing of all that will do her any real harm,” said Jacob, rather contemptuously.
“Well, no. I know, of course, that her real friends will never forsake her—never, never! But, Jacob”—the duchess hesitated, her charming little face furrowed with thought—“if only so much of it weren’t true. She herself—”
“Please, Evelyn,” said Delafield, with decision, “don’t tell me anything she may have said to you.”
The duchess flushed.
“I shouldn’t have betrayed any confidence,” she said, proudly. “And I must consult with someone who cares about her. Dr. Meredith lunched with me today, and he said a few words to me afterward. He’s quite anxious, too—and unhappy. Captain Warkworth’s always there—always! Even I have been hardly able to see her the last few days. Last Sunday they took the little lame child and went into the country for the whole day—”
“Well, what is there to object to in that?” cried Jacob.
“I didn’t say there was anything to object to,” said the duchess, looking at him with eyes half angry, half perplexed. “Only it’s so unlike her. She had promised to be at home that afternoon for several old friends, and they found her flown, without a word. And think how sweet Julie is always about such things—what delicious notes she writes, how she hates to put anybody out or disappoint them! And now, not a word of excuse to anybody. And she looks so ill—so white, so fixed—like a person in a dream which she can’t shake off. I’m just miserable about her. And I hate, hate that man—engaged to her own cousin all the time!” cried the little duchess, under her breath, as she passionately tore some violets at her waist to pieces and flung them out of the carriage. Then she turned to Jacob.
“But, of course, if you don’t care twopence about all this, Jacob, it’s no good talking to you!”
Her taunt fell quite unnoticed. Jacob turned to her with smiling composure.
“You have forgotten, my dear Evelyn, all this time, that Warkworth goes away—to mid-Africa—in little more than two weeks.”
“I wish it was two minutes,” said the duchess, fuming.
Delafield made no reply for a while. He seemed to be studying the effect of a pale shaft of sunlight which had just come stealing down through layers of thin gray cloud to dance upon the Serpentine. Presently, as they left the Serpentine behind them, he turned to his companion with more apparent sympathy.
“We can’t do anything, Evelyn, and we’ve no right whatever to talk of alarm, or anxiety—to talk of it, mind! It’s—it’s disloyal. Forgive me,” he added, hastily, “I know you don’t gossip. But it fills me with rage that other people should be doing it.”
The brusquerie of his manner disconcerted the little lady beside him. She recovered herself, however, and said, with a touch of sarcasm, tempered by a rather trembling lip:
“Your rage won’t prevent their gossiping, Mr. Jacob, I thought, perhaps, your friendship might have done something to stop it—to—to influence Julie,” she added, uncertainly.
“My friendship, as you call it, is of no use whatever,” he said, obstinately. “Warkworth will go away, and if you and others do their best to protect Miss Le Breton, talk will soon die out. Behave as if you had never heard the man’s name before—stare the people down. Why, good Heavens! you have a thousand arts! But, of course, if the little flame is to be blown into a blaze by a score of so-called friends—”
He shrugged his shoulders.
The duchess did not take his rebukes kindly, not having, in truth, deserved them.
“You are rude and unkind, Jacob,” she said, almost with the tears in her eyes. “And you don’t understand—it is because I myself am so anxious—”
“For that reason, play the part with all your might,” he said, unyieldingly. “Really, even you and I oughtn’t to talk of it anymore. But there is one thing I want very much to know about Miss Le Breton.”
He bent toward her, smiling, though in truth he was disgusted with himself, vexed with her, and out of tune with all the world.
The duchess made a little face.
“All very well, but after such a lecture as you have indulged in, I think I prefer not to say any more about Julie.”
“Do. I’m ashamed of myself—except that I don’t retract one word, not one. Be kind, all the same, and tell me—if you know—has she spoken to Lord Lackington?”
The duchess still frowned, but a few more apologetic expressions on his part restored a temper that had always a natural tendency to peace. Indeed, Jacob’s boutades never went long unpardoned. An only child herself, he, her first cousin, had played the part of brother in her life, since the days when she first tottered in long frocks, and he had never played it in any mincing fashion. His words were often blunt. She smarted and forgave—much more quickly than she forgave her husband. But then, with him, she was in love.
So she presently vouchsafed to give Jacob the news that Lord Lackington at last knew the secret—that he had behaved well—had shown much feeling, in fact—so that poor Julie—
But Jacob again cut short the sentimentalisms, the little touching phrases in which the woman delighted.
“What is he going to do for her?” he said, impatiently. “Will he make any provision for her? Is there any way by which she can live in his house—take care of him?”
The duchess shook her head.
“At seventy-five one can’t begin to explain a thing as big as that. Julie perfectly understands, and doesn’t wish it.”
“But as to money?” persisted Jacob.
“Julie says nothing about money. How odd you are, Jacob! I thought that was the last thing needful in your eyes.”
Jacob did not reply. If he had, he would probably have said that what was harmful or useless for men might be needful for women—for the weakness of women. But he kept silence, while the vague intensity of the eyes, the pursed and twisted mouth, showed that his mind was full of thoughts.
Suddenly he perceived that the carriage was nearing Victoria Gate. He called to the coachman to stop, and jumped out.
“Goodbye, Evelyn. Don’t bear me malice. You’re a good friend,” he said in her ear—“a real good friend. But don’t let people talk to you—not even elderly ladies with the best intentions. I tell you it will be a fight, and one of the best weapons is”—he touched his lips significantly, smiled at her, and was gone.
The duchess passed out of the Park. Delafield turned as though in the direction of the Marble Arch, but as soon as the carriage was out of sight he paused and quickly retraced his steps toward Kensington Gardens. Here, in this third week of March, some of the thorns and lilacs were already in leaf. The grass was springing, and the chatter of many sparrows filled the air. Faint patches of sun flecked the ground between the trees, and blue hazes, already redeemed from the dreariness of winter, filled the dim planes of distance and mingled with the low, silvery clouds. He found a quiet spot, remote from nursery-maids and children, and there he wandered to and fro, indefinitely, his hands behind his back. All the anxieties for which he had scolded his cousin possessed him, only sharpened tenfold; he was in torture, and he was helpless.
However, when at last he emerged from his solitude, and took a hansom to the Chudleigh estate office in Spring Gardens, he resolutely shook off the thoughts which had been weighing upon him. He took his usual interest in his work, and did it with his usual capacity.
Toward five o’clock in the afternoon, Delafield found himself in Cureton Street. As he turned down Heribert Street he saw a cab in front of him. It stopped at Miss Le Breton’s door, and Warkworth jumped out. The door was quickly opened to him, and he went in without having turned his eyes toward the man at the far corner of the street.
Delafield paused irresolute. Finally he walked back to his club in Piccadilly, where he dawdled over the newspapers till nearly seven.
Then he once more betook himself to Heribert Street.
“Is Miss Le Breton at home?”
Thérèse looked at him with a sudden flickering of her clear eyes.
“I think so, sir,” she said, with soft hesitation, and she slowly led him across the hall.
The drawing-room door opened. Major Warkworth emerged.
“Ah, how do you do?” he said, shortly, staring in a kind of bewilderment as he saw Delafield. Then he hurriedly looked for his hat, ran down the stairs, and was gone.
“Announce me, please,” said Delafield, peremptorily, to the little girl. “Tell Miss Le Breton that I am here.” And he drew back from the open door of the drawing room. Thérèse slipped in, and reappeared.
“Please to walk in, sir,” she said, in her shy, low voice, and Delafield entered. From the hall he had caught one involuntary glimpse of Julie, standing stiff and straight in the middle of the room, her hands clasped to her breast—a figure in pain. When he went in, she was in her usual seat by the fire, with her embroidery frame in front of her.
“May I come in? It is rather late.”
“Oh, by all means! Do you bring me any news of Evelyn? I haven’t seen her for three days.”
He seated himself beside her. It was hard, indeed, for him to hide all signs of the tumult within. But he held a firm grip upon himself.
“I saw Evelyn this afternoon. She complained that you had had no time for her lately.”
Julie bent over her work. He saw that her fingers were so unsteady that she could hardly make them obey her.
“There has been a great deal to do, even in this little house. Evelyn forgets; she has an army of servants; we have only our hands and our time.”
She looked up, smiling. He made no reply, and the smile died from her face, suddenly, as though someone had blown out a light. She returned to her work, or pretended to. But her aspect had left him inwardly shaken. The eyes, disproportionately large and brilliant, were of an emphasis almost ghastly, the usually clear complexion was flecked and cloudy, the mouth dry-lipped. She looked much older than she had done a fortnight before. And the fact was the more noticeable because in her dress she had now wholly discarded the touch of stateliness—almost old-maidishness—which had once seemed appropriate to the position of Lady Henry’s companion. She was wearing a little gown of her youth, a blue cotton, which two years before had been put aside as too slight and juvenile. Never had the form within it seemed so girlish, so appealing. But the face was heartrending.
After a pause he moved a little closer to her.
“Do you know that you are looking quite ill?”
“Then my looks are misleading. I am very well.”
“I am afraid I don’t put much faith in that remark. When do you mean to take a holiday?”
“Oh, very soon. Léonie, my little housekeeper, talks of going to Bruges to wind up all her affairs there and bring back some furniture that she has warehoused. I may go with her. I, too, have some property stored there. I should go and see some old friends—the soeurs, for instance, with whom I went to school. In the old days I was a torment to them, and they were tyrants to me. But they are quite nice to me now—they give me patisserie, and stroke my hands and spoil me.”
And she rattled on about the friends she might revisit, in a hollow, perfunctory way, which set him on edge.
“I don’t see that anything of that kind will do you any good. You want rest of mind and body. I expect those last scenes with Lady Henry cost you more than you knew. There are wounds one does not notice at the time—”
“Which afterward bleed inwardly?” She laughed. “No, no, I am not bleeding for Lady Henry. By the way, what news of her?”
“Sir Wilfrid told me today that he had had a letter. She is at Torquay, and she thinks there are too many curates at Torquay. She is not at all in a good temper.”
Julie looked up.
“You know that she is trying to punish me. A great many people seem to have been written to.”
“That will blow over.”
“I don’t know. How confident I was at one time that, if there was a breach, it would be Lady Henry that would suffer! It makes me hot to remember some things I said—to Sir Wilfrid, in particular. I see now that I shall not be troubled with society in this little house.”
“It is too early for you to guess anything of that kind.”
“Not at all! London is pretty full. The affair has made a noise. Those who meant to stand by me would have called, don’t you think?”
The quivering bitterness of her face was most pitiful in Jacob’s eyes.
“Oh, people take their time,” he said, trying to speak lightly.
She shook her head.
“It’s ridiculous that I should care. One’s self-love, I suppose—that bleeds! Evelyn has made me send out cards for a little housewarming. She said I must. She made me go to that smart party at Chatton House the other night. It was a great mistake. People turned their backs on me. And this, too, will be a mistake—and a failure.”
“You were kind enough to send me a card.”
“Yes—and you must come?”
She looked at him with a sudden nervous appeal, which made another tug on his self-control.
“Of course I shall come.”
“Do you remember your own saying—that awful evening—that I had devoted friends? Well, we shall soon see.”
“That depends only on yourself,” he replied, with gentle deliberation.
She started—threw him a doubtful look.
“If you mean that I must take a great deal of trouble, I am afraid I can’t. I am too tired.”
And she sank back in her chair.
The sigh that accompanied the words seemed to him involuntary, unconscious.
“I didn’t mean that—altogether,” he said, after a moment.
She moved restlessly.
“Then, really, I don’t know what you meant. I suppose all friendship depends on one’s self.”
She drew her embroidery frame toward her again, and he was left to wonder at his own audacity. “Do you know,” she said, presently, her eyes apparently busy with her silks, “that I have told Lord Lackington?”
“Yes. Evelyn gave me that news. How has the old man behaved?”
“Oh, very well—most kindly. He has already formed a habit, almost, of ‘dropping in’ upon me at all hours. I have had to appoint him times and seasons, or there would be no work done. He sits here and raves about young Mrs. Delaray—you know he is painting her portrait, for the famous series?—and draws her profile on the backs of my letters. He recites his speeches to me; he asks my advice as to his fights with his tenants or his miners. In short, I’m adopted—I’m almost the real thing.”
She smiled, and then again, as she turned over her silks, he heard her sigh—a long breath of weariness. It was strange and terrible in his ear—the contrast between this unconscious sound, drawn as it were from the oppressed heart of pain, and her languidly, smiling words.
“Has he spoken to you of the Moffatts?” he asked her, presently, not looking at her.
A sharp crimson color rushed over her face.
“Not much. He and Lady Blanche are not great friends. And I have made him promise to keep my secret from her till I give him leave to tell it.”
“It will have to be known to her some time, will it not?”
“Perhaps,” she said, impatiently. “Perhaps, when I can make up my mind.”
Then she pushed aside her frame and would talk no more about Lord Lackington. She gave him, somehow, the impression of a person suffocating, struggling for breath and air. And yet her hand was icy, and she presently went to the fire, complaining of the east wind; and as he put on the coal he saw her shiver.
“Shall I force her to tell me everything?” he thought to himself.
Did she divine the obscure struggle in his mind? At any rate she seemed anxious to cut short their tête-à-tête. She asked him to come and look at some engravings which the duchess had sent around for the embellishment of the dining room. Then she summoned Madame Bornier, and asked him a number of questions on Léonie’s behalf, with reference to some little investment of the ex-governess’s savings, which had been dropping in value. Meanwhile, as she kept him talking, she leaned herself against the lintel of the door, forgetting every now and then that anyone else was there, and letting the true self appear, like some drowned thing floating into sight. Delafield disposed of Madame Bornier’s affairs, hardly knowing what he said, but showing in truth his usual conscience and kindness. Then when Léonie was contented, Julie saw the little cripple crossing the hall, and called to her.
“Ah, ma chérie! How is the poor little foot?”
And turning to Delafield, she explained volubly that Thérèse had given herself a slight twist on the stairs that morning, pressing the child to her side the while with a tender gesture. The child nestled against her.
“Shall maman keep back supper?” Thérèse half whispered, looking at Delafield.
“No, no, I must go!” cried Delafield, rousing himself and looking for his hat.
“I would ask you to stay,” said Julie, smiling, “just to show off Léonie’s cooking; but there wouldn’t be enough for a great big man. And you’re probably dining with dukes.”
Delafield disclaimed any such intention, and they went back to the drawing room to look for his hat and stick. Julie still had her arm round Thérèse and would not let the child go. She clearly avoided being left alone with him; and yet it seemed, even to his modesty, that she was loath to see him depart. She talked first of her little ménage, as though proud of their daily economies and contrivances; then of her literary work and its prospects; then of her debt to Meredith. Never before had she thus admitted him to her domestic and private life. It was as though she leaned upon his sympathy, his advice, his mere neighborhood. And her pale, changed face had never seemed to him so beautiful—never, in fact, truly beautiful till now. The dying down of the brilliance and energy of the strongly marked character, which had made her the life of the Bruton Street salon, into this mildness, this despondency, this hidden weariness, had left her infinitely more lovely in his eyes. But how to restrain himself much longer from taking the sad, gracious woman in his arms and coercing her into sanity and happiness!
At last he tore himself away.
“You won’t forget Wednesday?” she said to him, as she followed him into the hall.
“No. Is there anything else that you wish—that I could do?”
“No, nothing. But if there is I will ask.”
Then, looking up, she shrank from something in his face—something accusing, passionate, profound.
He wrung her hand.
“Promise that you will ask.”
She murmured something, and he turned away.
She came back alone into the drawing room.
“Oh, what a good man!” she said, sighing. “What a good man!”
And then, all in a moment, she was thankful that he was gone—that she was alone with and mistress of her pain.
The passion and misery which his visit had interrupted swept back upon her in a rushing swirl, blinding and choking every sense. Ah, what a scene, to which his coming had put an end—scene of bitterness, of recrimination, not restrained even by this impending anguish of parting!
It came as a close to a week during which she and Warkworth had been playing the game which they had chosen to play, according to its appointed rules—the delicacies and restraints of friendship masking, and at the same time inflaming, a most unhappy, poisonous, and growing love. And, finally, there had risen upon them a storm-wave of feeling—tyrannous, tempestuous—bursting in reproach and agitation, leaving behind it, bare and menacing, the old, ugly facts, unaltered and unalterable.
Warkworth was little less miserable than herself. That she knew. He loved her, as it were, to his own anger and surprise. And he suffered in deserting her, more than he had ever suffered yet through any human affection.
But his purpose through it all remained stubbornly fixed; that, also, she knew. For nearly a year Aileen Moffatt’s fortune and Aileen Moffatt’s family connections had entered into all his calculations of the future. Only a few more years in the army, then retirement with ample means, a charming wife, and a seat in Parliament. To jeopardize a plan so manifestly desirable, so easy to carry out, so far-reaching in its favorable effects upon his life, for the sake of those hard and doubtful alternatives in which a marriage with Julie would involve him, never seriously entered his mind. When he suffered he merely said to himself, steadily, that time would heal the smart for both of them.
“Only one thing would be absolutely fatal for all of us—that I should break with Aileen.”
Julie read these obscure processes in Warkworth’s mind with perfect clearness. She was powerless to change them; but that afternoon she had, at any rate, beaten her wings against the bars, and the exhaustion and anguish of her revolt, her reproaches, were still upon her.
The spring night had fallen. The room was hot, and she threw a window open. Some thorns in the garden beneath had thickened into leaf. They rose in a dark mass beneath the window. Overhead, beyond the haze of the great city, a few stars twinkled, and the dim roar of London life beat from all sides upon this quiet corner which still held Lady Mary’s old house.
Julie’s eyes strained into the darkness; her head swam with weakness and weariness. Suddenly she gave a cry—she pressed her hands to her heart. Upon the darkness outside there rose a face, so sharply drawn, so lifelike, that it printed itself forever upon the quivering tissues of the brain. It was Warkworth’s face, not as she had seen it last, but in some strange extremity of physical ill—drawn, haggard, in a cold sweat—the eyes glazed, the hair matted, the parched lips open as though they cried for help. She stood gazing. Then the eyes turned, and the agony in them looked out upon her.
Her whole sense was absorbed by the phantom; her being hung upon it. Then, as it faded on the quiet trees, she tottered to a chair and hid her face. Common sense told her that she was the victim of her own tired nerves and tortured fancy. But the memory of Cousin Mary Leicester’s second sight, of her “visions” in this very room, crept upon her and gripped her heart. A ghostly horror seized her of the room, the house, and her own tempestuous nature. She groped her way out, in blind and hurrying panic—glad of the lamp in the hall, glad of the sounds in the house, glad, above all, of Thérèse’s thin hands as they once more stole lovingly round her own.