It was a somewhat depressed company that found its straggling way into the duchess’s drawing room that evening between tea and dinner.
Miss Le Breton did not appear at tea. The duchess believed that, after her inspection of the house in Heribert Street, Julie had gone on to Bloomsbury to find Madame Bornier. Jacob Delafield was there, not much inclined to talk, even as Julie’s champion. And, one by one, Lady Henry’s oldest habitués, the “criminals” of the night before, dropped in.
Dr. Meredith arrived with a portfolio containing what seemed to be proof-sheets.
“Miss Le Breton not here?” he said, as he looked around him.
The duchess explained that she might be in presently. The great man sat down, his portfolio carefully placed beside him, and drank his tea under what seemed a cloud of preoccupation.
Then appeared Lord Lackington and Sir Wilfrid Bury. Montresor had sent a note from the House to say that if the debate would let him he would dash up to Grosvenor Square for some dinner, but could only stay an hour.
“Well, here we are again—the worst of us!” said the duchess, presently, with a sigh of bravado, as she handed Lord Lackington his cup of tea and sank back in her chair to enjoy her own.
“Speak for yourselves, please,” said Sir Wilfrid’s soft, smiling voice, as he daintily relieved his mustache of some of the duchess’s cream.
“Oh, that’s all very well,” said the duchess, throwing up a hand in mock annoyance; “but why weren’t you there?”
“I knew better.”
“The people who keep out of scrapes are not the people one loves,” was the duchess’s peevish reply.
“Let him alone,” said Lord Lackington, coming for some more tea cake. “He will get his deserts. Next Wednesday he will be tête-à-tête with Lady Henry.”
“Lady Henry is going to Torquay tomorrow,” said Sir Wilfrid, quietly.
There was a general chorus of interrogation, amid which the duchess made herself heard.
“Then you’ve seen her?”
“Today, for twenty minutes—all she was able to bear. She was ill yesterday. She is naturally worse today. As to her state of mind—”
The circle of faces drew eagerly nearer.
“Oh, it’s war,” said Sir Wilfrid, nodding—“undoubtedly war—upon the Cave—if there is a Cave.”
“Well, poor things, we must have something to shelter us!” cried the duchess. “The Cave is being aired today.”
The interrogating faces turned her way. The duchess explained the situation, and drew the house in Heribert Street—with its Cyclops-eye of a dormer window, and its Ionian columns—on the tea cloth with her nail.
“Ah,” said Sir Wilfrid, crossing his knees reflectively. “Ah, that makes it serious.”
“Julie must have a place to live in,” said the duchess, stiffly.
“I suppose Lady Henry would reply that there are still a few houses in London which do not belong to her kinsman, the Duke of Crowborough.”
“Not perhaps to be had for the lending, and ready to step into at a day’s notice,” said Lord Lackington, with his queer smile, like the play of sharp sunbeams through a mist. “That’s the worst of our class. The margin between us and calamity is too wide. We risk too little. Nobody goes to the workhouse.”
Sir Wilfrid looked at him curiously. “Do I catch your meaning?” he said, dropping his voice; “is it that if there had been no duchess, and no Heribert Street, Miss Le Breton would have managed to put up with Lady Henry?”
Lord Lackington smiled again. “I think it probable…As it is, however, we are all the gainers. We shall now see Miss Julie at her ease and ours.”
“You have been for some time acquainted with Miss Le Breton?”
“Oh, some time. I don’t exactly remember. Lady Henry, of course, is an old friend of mine, as she is of yours. Sometimes she is rude to me. Then I stay away. But I always go back. She and I can discuss things and people that nobody else recollects—no, as far as that’s concerned, you’re not in it, Bury. Only this winter, somehow, I have often gone round to see Lady Henry, and have found Miss Le Breton instead so attractive—”
“Precisely,” said Sir Wilfrid, laughing; “the whole case in a nutshell.”
“What puzzles me,” continued his companion, in a musing voice, “is how she can be so English as she is—with her foreign bringing up. She has a most extraordinary instinct for people—people in London—and their relations. I have never known her make a mistake. Yet it is only five years since she began to come to England at all; and she has lived but three with Lady Henry. It was clear, I thought, that neither she nor Lady Henry wished to be questioned. But, do you, for instance—I have no doubt Lady Henry tells you more than she tells me—do you know anything of Mademoiselle Julie’s antecedents?”
Sir Wilfrid started. Through his mind ran the same reflection as that to which the duke had given expression in the morning—“she ought to reveal herself!” Julie Le Breton had no right to leave this old man in his ignorance, while those surrounding him were in the secret. Thereby she made a spectacle of her mother’s father—made herself and him the sport of curious eyes. For who could help watching them—every movement, every word? There was a kind of indelicacy in it.
His reply was rather hesitating. “Yes, I happen to know something. But I feel sure Miss Le Breton would prefer to tell you herself. Ask her. While she was with Lady Henry there were reasons for silence—”
“But, of course, I’ll ask her,” said his companion, eagerly, “if you suppose that I may. A more hungry curiosity was never raised in a human breast than in mine with regard to this dear lady. So charming, handsome, and well bred—and so forlorn! That’s the paradox of it. The personality presupposes a milieu—else how produce it? And there is no milieu, save this little circle she has made for herself through Lady Henry…Ah, and you think I may ask her? I will—that’s flat—I will!”
And the old man gleefully rubbed his hands, face and form full of the vivacity of his imperishable youth.
“Choose your time and place,” said Sir Wilfrid, hastily. “There are very sad and tragic circumstances—”
Lord Lackington looked at him and nodded gaily, as much as to say, “You distrust me with the sex? Me, who have had the whip hand of them since my cradle!”
Suddenly the duchess interrupted. “Sir Wilfrid, you have seen Lady Henry; which did she mind most—the coming-in or the coffee?”
Bury returned, smiling, to the tea table.
“The coming-in would have been nothing if it had led quickly to the going-out. It was the coffee that ruined you.”
“I see,” said the duchess, pouting—“it meant that it was possible for us to enjoy ourselves without Lady Henry. That was the offense.”
“Precisely. It showed that you were enjoying yourselves. Otherwise there would have been no lingering, and no coffee.”
“I never knew coffee so fatal before,” sighed the duchess. “And now”—it was evident that she shrank from the answer to her own question—“she is really irreconcilable?”
“Absolutely. Let me beg you to take it for granted.”
“She won’t see any of us—not me?”
Sir Wilfrid hesitated.
“Make the duke your ambassador.”
The duchess laughed, and flushed a little.
“And Mr. Montresor?”
“Ah,” said Sir Wilfrid in another tone, “that’s not to be lightly spoken of.”
“You don’t mean—”
“How many years has that lasted?” said Sir Wilfrid, meditatively.
“Thirty, I think—if not more. It was Lady Henry who told him of his son’s death, when his wife daren’t do it.”
There was a silence. Montresor had lost his only son, a subaltern in the Lancers, in the action of Alumbagh, on the way to the relief of Lucknow.
Then the duchess broke out:
“I know that you think in your heart of hearts that Julie has been in fault, and that we have all behaved abominably!”
“My dear lady,” said Sir Wilfrid, after a moment, “in Persia we believe in fate; I have brought the trick home.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it!” exclaimed Lord Lackington—“that’s it! When Lady Henry wanted a companion—and fate brought her Miss Le Breton—”
“Last night’s coffee was already drunk,” put in Sir Wilfrid.
Meredith’s voice, raised and a trifle harsh, made itself heard.
“Why you should dignify an ugly jealousy by fine words I don’t know. For some women—women like our old friend—gratitude is hard. That is the moral of this tale.”
“The only one?” said Sir Wilfrid, not without a mocking twist of the lip.
“The only one that matters. Lady Henry had found, or might have found, a daughter—”
“I understand she bargained for a companion.”
“Very well. Then she stands upon her foolish rights, and loses both daughter and companion. At seventy, life doesn’t forgive you a blunder of that kind.”
Sir Wilfrid silently shook his head. Meredith threw back his blanched mane of hair, his deep eyes kindling under the implied contradiction.
“I am an old comrade of Lady Henry’s,” he said, quickly. “My record, you’ll find, comes next to yours, Bury. But if Lady Henry is determined to make a quarrel of this, she must make it. I regret nothing.”
“What madness has seized upon all these people?” thought Bury, as he withdrew from the discussion. The fire, the unwonted fire, in Meredith’s speech and aspect, amazed him. From the corner to which he had retreated he studied the face of the journalist. It was a face subtly and strongly lined by much living—of the intellectual, however, rather than the physical sort; breathing now a studious dignity, the effect of the broad sweep of brow under the high-peaked lines of grizzled hair, and now broken, tempestuous, scornful, changing with the pliancy of an actor. The head was sunk a little in the shoulders, as though dragged back by its own weight. The form which it commanded had the movements of a man no less accustomed to rule in his own sphere than Montresor himself.
To Sir Wilfrid the famous editor was still personally mysterious, after many years of intermittent acquaintance. He was apparently unmarried; or was there perhaps a wife, picked up in a previous state of existence, and hidden away with her offspring at Clapham or Hornsey or Peckham? Bury could remember, years before, a dowdy old sister, to whom Lady Henry had been on occasion formally polite. Otherwise, nothing. What were the great man’s origins and antecedents—his family, school, university? Sir Wilfrid did not know; he did not believe that anyone knew. An amazing mastery of the German, and, it was said, the Russian tongues, suggested a foreign education; but neither on this ground nor any other connected with his personal history did Meredith encourage the inquirer. It was often reported that he was of Jewish descent, and there were certain traits, both of feature and character, that lent support to the notion. If so, the strain was that of Heine or Disraeli, not the strain of Commerce.
At any rate, he was one of the most powerful men of his day—the owner, through The New Rambler, of an influence which now for some fifteen years had ranked among the forces to be reckoned with. A man in whom politics assumed a tinge of somber poetry; a man of hatreds, ideals, indignations, yet of habitually sober speech. As to passions, Sir Wilfrid could have sworn that, wife or no wife, the man who could show that significance of mouth and eye had not gone through life without knowing the stress and shock of them.
Was he, too, beguiled by this woman?—he, too? For a little behind him, beside the duchess, sat Jacob Delafield; and, during his painful interview that day with Lady Henry, Sir Wilfrid had been informed of several things with regard to Jacob Delafield he had not known before. So she had refused him—this lady who was now the heart of this whirlwind? Permanently? Lady Henry had poured scorn on the notion. She was merely sure of him; could keep him on a string to play with as she chose. Meanwhile the handsome soldier was metal more attractive. Sir Wilfrid reflected, with an inward shrug, that, once let a woman give herself to such a fury as possessed Lady Henry, and there did not seem to be much to choose between her imaginings and those of the most vulgar of her sex.
So Jacob could be played with—whistled on and whistled off as Miss Le Breton chose? Yet his was not a face that suggested it, any more than the face of Dr. Meredith. The young man’s countenance was gradually changing its aspect for Sir Wilfrid, in a somewhat singular way, as old impressions of his character died away and new ones emerged. The face, now, often recalled to Bury a portrait by some Holbeinesque master, which he had seen once in the Basle Museum and never forgotten. A large, thin-lipped mouth that, without weakness, suggested patience; the long chin of a man of will; nose, bluntly cut at the tip, yet in the nostril and bridge most delicate; grayish eyes, with a veil of reverie drawn, as it were, momentarily across them, and showing behind the veil a kind of stern sweetness; fair hair low on the brow, which was heavy, and made a massive shelter for the eyes. So looked the young German who had perhaps heard Melanchthon; so, in this middle nineteenth century, looked Jacob Delafield. No, anger makes obtuse; that, no doubt, was Lady Henry’s case. At any rate, in Delafield’s presence her theory did not commend itself.
But if Delafield had not echoed them, the little duchess had received Meredith’s remarks with enthusiasm.
“Regret! No, indeed! Why should we regret anything, except that Julie has been miserable so long? She has had a bad time. Every day and all day. Ah, you don’t know—none of you. You haven’t seen all the little things as I have.”
“The errands, and the dogs,” said Sir William, slyly.
The duchess threw him a glance half conscious, half resentful, and went on:
“It has been one small torture after another. Even when a person’s old you can’t bear more than a certain amount, can you? You oughtn’t to. No, let’s be thankful it’s all over, and Julie—our dear, delightful Julie—who has done everybody in this room all sorts of kindnesses, hasn’t she?”
An assenting murmur ran around the circle.
“Julie’s free! Only she’s very lonely. We must see to that, mustn’t we? Lady Henry can buy another companion tomorrow—she will. She has heaps of money and heaps of friends, and she’ll tell her own story to them all. But Julie has only us. If we desert her—”
“Desert her!” said a voice in the distance, half amused, half electrical. Bury thought it was Jacob’s.
“Of course we shan’t desert her!” cried the duchess. “We shall rally round her and carry her through. If Lady Henry makes herself disagreeable, then we’ll fight. If not, we’ll let her cool down. Oh, Julie, darling—here you are!”
The duchess sprang up and caught her entering friend by the hand.
“And here are we,” with a wave around the circle. “This is your court—your St. Germain.”
“So you mean me to die in exile,” said Julie, with a quavering smile, as she drew off her gloves. Then she looked at her friends. “Oh, how good of you all to come! Lord Lackington!” She went up to him impetuously, and he, taken by surprise, yielded his hands, which she took in both hers. “It was foolish, I know, but you don’t think it was so bad, do you?”
She gazed up at him wistfully. Her lithe form seemed almost to cling to the old man. Instinctively, Jacob, Meredith, Sir Wilfrid Bury withdrew their eyes. The room held its breath. As for Lord Lackington, he colored like a girl.
“No, no; a mistake, perhaps, for all of us; but more ours than yours, mademoiselle—much more! Don’t fret. Indeed, you look as if you hadn’t slept, and that mustn’t be. You must think that, sooner or later, it was bound to come. Lady Henry will soften in time, and you will know so well how to meet her. But now we have your future to think of. Only sit down. You mustn’t look so tired. Where have you been wandering?”
And with a stately courtesy, her hand still in his, he took her to a chair and helped her to remove her heavy cloak.
“My future!” She shivered as she dropped into her seat.
How weary and beaten down she looked—the heroine of such a turmoil! Her eyes traveled from face to face, shrinking—unconsciously appealing. In the dim, soft color of the room, her white face and hands, striking against her black dress, were strangely living and significant. They spoke command—through weakness, through sex. For that, in spite of intellectual distinction, was, after all, her secret. She breathed femininity—the old common spell upon the blood.
“I don’t know why you’re all so kind to me,” she murmured. “Let me disappear. I can go into the country and earn my living there. Then I shall be no more trouble.”
Unseen himself, Sir Wilfrid surveyed her. He thought her a consummate actress, and reveled in each new phase.
The duchess, half laughing, half crying, began to scold her friend. Delafield bent over Julie Le Breton’s chair.
“Have you had some tea?”
The smile in his eyes provoked a faint answer in hers. While she was declaring that she was in no need whatever of physical sustenance, Meredith advanced with his portfolio. He looked the editor merely, and spoke with a businesslike brevity.
“I have brought the sheets of the new Shelley book, Miss Le Breton. It is due for publication on the 22nd. Kindly let me have your review within a week. It may run to two columns—possibly even two and a half. You will find here also the particulars of one or two other things—let me know, please, what you will undertake.”
Julie put out a languid hand for the portfolio.
“I don’t think you ought to trust me.”
“What do you want of her?” said Lord Lackington, briskly. “‘Chatter about Harriet?’ I could write you reams of that myself. I once saw Harriet.”
Meredith, with whom the Shelley cult was a deep-rooted passion, started and looked around; then sharply repressed the eagerness on his tongue and sat down by Miss Le Breton, with whom, in a lowered voice, he began to discuss the points to be noticed in the sheets handed over to her. No stronger proof could he have given of his devotion to her. Julie knew it, and, rousing herself, she met him with a soft attention and docility; thus tacitly relinquishing, as Bury noticed with amusement, all talk of “disappearance.”
Only with himself, he suspected, was the fair lady ill at ease. And, indeed, it was so. Julie, by her pallor, her humility, had thrown herself, as it were, into the arms of her friends, and each was now vying with the other as to how best to cheer and console her. Meanwhile her attention was really bent upon her critic—her only critic in this assembly; and he discovered various attempts to draw him into conversation. And when Lord Lackington, discomfited by Meredith, had finished discharging his literary recollections upon him, Sir Wilfrid became complaisant; Julie slipped in and held him.
Leaning her chin on both hands, she bent toward him, fixing him with her eyes. And in spite of his antagonism he no longer felt himself strong enough to deny that the eyes were beautiful, especially with this tragic note in them of fatigue and pain.
“Sir Wilfrid”—she spoke in low entreaty—“you must help me to prevent any breach between Lady Henry and Mr. Montresor.”
He looked at her gaily.
“I fear,” he said, “you are too late. That point is settled, as I understand from herself.”
“Surely not—so soon!”
“There was an exchange of letters this morning.”
“Oh, but you can prevent it—you must!” She clasped her hands.
“No,” he said, slowly, “I fear you must accept it. Their relation was a matter of old habit. Like other things old and frail, it bears shock and disturbance badly.”
She sank back in her chair, raising her hands and letting them fall with a gesture of despair.
One little stroke of punishment—just one! Surely there was no cruelty in that. Sir Wilfrid caught the Horatian lines dancing through his head:
Just oblige me and touch
With your wand that minx Chloe—
But don’t hurt her much!
Yet here was Jacob interposing!—Jacob, who had evidently been watching his mild attempt at castigation, no doubt with disapproval. Lover or no lover—what did the man expect? Under his placid exterior, Sir Wilfrid’s mind was, in truth, hot with sympathy for the old and helpless.
Delafield bent over Miss Le Breton.
“You will go and rest? Evelyn advises it.”
She rose to her feet, and most of the party rose, too.
“Goodbye—goodbye,” said Lord Lackington, offering her a cordial hand. “Rest and forget. Everything blows over. And at Easter you must come to me in the country. Blanche will be with me, and my granddaughter Aileen, if I can tempt them away from Italy. Aileen’s a little fairy; you’d be charmed with her. Now mind, that’s a promise. You must certainly come.”
The duchess had paused in her farewell nothings with Sir Wilfrid to observe her friend. Julie, with her eyes on the ground, murmured thanks; and Lord Lackington, straight as a dart tonight, carrying his seventy-five years as though they were the merest trifle, made a stately and smiling exit. Julie looked around upon the faces left. In her own heart she read the same judgment as in their eyes: “The old man must know!”
The duke came into the drawing room half an hour later in quest of his wife. He was about to leave town by a night train for the north, and his temper was, apparently, far from good.
The duchess was stretched on the sofa in the firelight, her hands behind her head, dreaming. Whether it was the sight of so much ease that jarred on the duke’s ruffled nerves or not, certain it is that he inflicted a thorny goodbye. He had seen Lady Henry, he said, and the reality was even worse than he had supposed. There was absolutely nothing to be said for Miss Le Breton, and he was ashamed of himself to have been so weakly talked over in the matter of the house. His word once given, of course, there was an end of it—for six months. After that, Miss Le Breton must provide for herself. Meanwhile, Lady Henry refused to receive the duchess, and would be some time before she forgave himself. It was all most annoying, and he was thankful to be going away, for, Lady Rose or no Lady Rose, he really could not have entertained the lady with civility.
“Oh, well, never mind, Freddie,” said the duchess, springing up. “She’ll be gone before you come back, and I’ll look after her.”
The duke offered a rather sulky embrace, walked to the door, and came back.
“I really very much dislike this kind of gossip,” he said, stiffly, “but perhaps I had better say that Lady Henry believes that the affair with Delafield was only one of several. She talks of a certain Captain Warkworth—”
“Yes,” said the duchess, nodding. “I know; but he shan’t have Julie.”
Her smile completed the duke’s annoyance.
“What have you to do with it? I beg, Evelyn—I insist—that you leave Miss Le Breton’s love affairs alone.”
“You forget, Freddie, that she is my friend.”
The little creature fronted him, all willfulness and breathing hard, her small hands clasped on her breast.
With an angry exclamation the duke departed.
At half past eight a hansom dashed up to Crowborough House. Montresor emerged.
He found the two ladies and Jacob Delafield just beginning dinner, and stayed with them an hour; but it was not an hour of pleasure. The great man was tired with work and debate, depressed also by the quarrel with his old friend. Julie did not dare to put questions, and guiltily shrank into herself. She divined that a great price was being paid on her behalf, and must needs bitterly ask whether anything that she could offer or plead was worth it—bitterly suspect, also, that the query had passed through other minds than her own.
After dinner, as Montresor rose with the duchess to take his leave, Julie got a word with him in the corridor.
“You will give me ten minutes’ talk?” she said, lifting her pale face to him. “You mustn’t, mustn’t quarrel with Lady Henry because of me.”
He drew himself up, perhaps with a touch of haughtiness.
“Lady Henry could end it in a moment. Don’t, I beg of you, trouble your head about the matter. Even as an old friend, one must be allowed one’s self-respect.”
“But mayn’t I—”
“Nearly ten o’clock!” he cried, looking at his watch. “I must be off this moment. So you are going to the house in Heribert Street? I remember Lady Mary Leicester perfectly. As soon as you are settled, tell me, and I will present myself. Meanwhile”—he smiled and bent his black head toward her—“look in tomorrow’s papers for some interesting news.”
He sprang into his hansom and was gone.
Julie went slowly up-stairs. Of course she understood. The long intrigue had reached its goal, and within twelve hours the Times would announce the appointment of Captain Warkworth, D.S.O., to the command of the Mokembe military mission. He would have obtained his heart’s desire—through her.
How true were those last words, perhaps only Julie knew. She looked back upon all the maneuvers and influences she had brought to bear—flattery here, interest or reciprocity there, the lures of Crowborough House, the prestige of Lady Henry’s drawing room. Wheel by wheel she had built up her cunning machine, and the machine had worked. No doubt the last completing touch had been given the night before. Her culminating offense against Lady Henry—the occasion of her disgrace and banishment—had been to Warkworth the stepping-stone of fortune.
What “gossamer girl” could have done so much? She threw back her head proudly and heard the beating of her heart.
Lady Henry was fiercely forgotten. She opened the drawing-room door, absorbed in a counting of the hours till she and Warkworth should meet.
Then, amid the lights and shadows of the duchess’s drawing room, Jacob Delafield rose and came toward her. Her exaltation dropped in a moment. Some testing, penetrating influence seemed to breathe from this man, which filled her with a moral discomfort, a curious restlessness. Did he guess the nature of her feeling for Warkworth? Was he acquainted with the efforts she had been making for the young soldier? She could not be sure; he had never given her the smallest sign. Yet she divined that few things escaped him where the persons who touched his feelings were concerned. And Evelyn—the dear chatterbox—certainly suspected.
“How tired you are!” he said to her, gently. “What a day it has been for you! Evelyn is writing letters. Let me bring you the papers—and please don’t talk.”
She submitted to a sofa, to an adjusted light, to the papers on her knee. Then Delafield withdrew and took up a book.
She could not rest, however; visions of the morrow and of Warkworth’s triumphant looks kept flashing through her. Yet all the while Delafield’s presence haunted her—she could not forget him, and presently she addressed him.
He heard the low voice and came.
“I have never thanked you for your goodness last night. I do thank you now—most earnestly.”
“You needn’t. You know very well what I would do to serve you if I could.”
“Even when you think me in the wrong?” said Julie, with a little, hysterical laugh.
Her conscience smote her. Why provoke this intimate talk—wantonly—with the man she had made suffer? Yet her restlessness, which was partly nervous fatigue, drove her on.
Delafield flushed at her words.
“How have I given you cause to say that?”
“Oh, you are very transparent. One sees that you are always troubling yourself about the right and wrong of things.”
“All very well for one’s self,” said Delafield, trying to laugh. “I hope I don’t seem to you to be setting up as a judge of other people’s right and wrong?”
“Yes, yes, you do!” she said, passionately. Then, as he winced, “No, I don’t mean that. But you do judge—it is in your nature—and other people feel it.”
“I didn’t know I was such a prig,” said Delafield, humbly. “It is true I am always puzzling over things.”
Julie was silent. She was indeed secretly convinced that he no more approved the escapade of the night before than did Sir Wilfrid Bury. Through the whole evening she had been conscious of a watchful anxiety and resistance on his part. Yet he had stood by her to the end—so warmly, so faithfully.
He sat down beside her, and Julie felt a fresh pang of remorse, perhaps of alarm. Why had she called him to her? What had they to do with each other? But he soon reassured her. He began to talk of Meredith, and the work before her—the important and glorious work, as he naïvely termed it, of the writer.
And presently he turned upon her with sudden feeling.
“You accused me, just now, of judging what I have no business to judge. If you think that I regret the severance of your relation with Lady Henry, you are quite, quite mistaken. It has been the dream of my life this last year to see you free—mistress of your own life. It—it made me mad that you should be ordered about like a child—dependent upon another person’s will.”
She looked at him curiously.
“I know. That revolts you always—any form of command? Evelyn tells me that you carry it to curious lengths with your servants and laborers.”
He drew back, evidently disconcerted.
“Oh, I try some experiments. They generally break down.”
“You try to do without servants, Evelyn says, as much as possible.”
“Well, if I do try, I don’t succeed,” he said, laughing. “But”—his eyes kindled—“isn’t it worthwhile, during a bit of one’s life, to escape, if one can, from some of the paraphernalia in which we are all smothered? Look there! What right have I to turn my fellow creatures into bedizened automata like that?”
And he threw out an accusing hand toward the two powdered footmen, who were removing the coffee cups and making up the fire in the next room, while the magnificent groom of the chambers stood like a statue, receiving some orders from the duchess.
Julie, however, showed no sympathy.
“They are only automata in the drawing room. Downstairs they are as much alive as you or I.”
“Well, let us put it that I prefer other kinds of luxury,” said Delafield. “However, as I appear to have none of the qualities necessary to carry out my notions, they don’t get very far.”
“You would like to shake hands with the butler?” said Julie, musing. “I knew a case of that kind. But the butler gave warning.”
“Perhaps the simpler thing would be to do without the butler.”
“I am curious,” she said, smiling—“very curious. Sir Wilfrid, for instance, talks of going down to stay with you?”
“Why not? He’d come off extremely well. There’s an ex-butler, and an ex-cook of Chudleigh’s settled in the village. When I have a visitor, they come in and take possession. We live like fighting cocks.”
“So nobody knows that, in general, you live like a workman?”
Delafield looked impatient.
“Somebody seems to have been cramming Evelyn with ridiculous tales, and she’s been spreading them. I must have it out with her.”
“I expect there is a good deal in them,” said Julie. Then, unexpectedly, she raised her eyes and gave him a long and rather strange look. “Why do you dislike having servants and being waited upon so much, I wonder? Is it—you won’t be angry?—that you have such a strong will, and you do these things to tame it?”
Delafield made a sudden movement, and Julie had no sooner spoken the words than she regretted them.
“So you think I should have made a jolly tyrannical slave-owner?” said Delafield, after a moment’s pause.
Julie bent toward him with a charming look of appeal—almost of penitence. “On the contrary, I think you would have been as good to your slaves as you are to your friends.”
His eyes met hers quietly.
“Thank you. That was kind of you. And as to giving orders, and getting one’s way, don’t suppose I let Chudleigh’s estate go to ruin! It’s only”—he hesitated—“the small personal tyrannies of every day that I’d like to minimize. They brutalize half the fellows I know.”
“You’ll come to them,” said Julie, absently. Then she colored, suddenly remembering the possible dukedom that awaited him.
His brow contracted a little, as though he understood. He made no reply. Julie, with her craving to be approved—to say what pleased—could not leave it there.
“I wish I understood,” she said, softly, after a moment, “what, or who it was that gave you these opinions.”
Getting still no answer, she must perforce meet the gray eyes bent upon her, more expressively, perhaps, than their owner knew. “That you shall understand,” he said, after a minute, in a voice which was singularly deep and full, “whenever you choose to ask.”
Julie shrank and drew back.
“Very well,” she said, trying to speak lightly. “I’ll hold you to that. Alack! I had forgotten a letter I must write.”
And she pretended to write it, while Delafield buried himself in the newspapers.