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to show you a little poem I cut out of a newspaper to-day for you. I'll
steal along the passage - no one will ever know.'

'You'll promise to be very good, and you won't stop more than five
minutes.'

The words were spoken in low, soft tones, exquisitely expressive of the
overthrow of reason and the merging of all the senses in the sweet
abandonment of passion.

Alice sat unable to move, till at last, awakening with a pained look in
her grey eyes, she touched Harding's hand with hers, and, laying her
finger on her lips, she arose. Their footfalls made no sound on the
deep, soft carpet.

'This is very terrible,' she murmured, half to herself.

Harding had too much tact to answer; and, taking advantage of the
appearance of Violet Scully, who came walking gaily down the room on the
Marquis's arm, he said:

'Your friend Miss Scully seems to be in high spirits.'

Violet exchanged smiles with Alice as she passed. The smile was one of
triumph. She had waltzed three times with the Marquis, and was now going
to sit out a set of quadrilles.

'What a beautiful waltz the _Blue Danube_ is!' she said, leading her
admirer to where the blue fans were numerous. Upon the glistening piano
stood a pot filled with white azaleas; and, in the pauses of the
conversation, one heard the glass of the chandeliers tinkling gently to
the vibration of the music.

'It is a beautiful waltz when I am dancing it with you.'

'I am sure you say that to every girl you dance with.'

'No, I shouldn't know how to say so to anyone but you,' said the little
man humbly; and so instinct were the words with truth that the girl, in
the violence of her emotion, fancied her heart had ceased to beat.

'But you haven't known me a fortnight,' she answered involuntarily.

'But that doesn't matter; the moment I saw you, I - I - liked you. It is
so easy to know the people we - like; we know it at once - at least I do.'

She was more self-possessed than he, but the words 'Am I - am I going to
be a marchioness?' throbbed like a burning bullet sunk into the very
centre of her forehead. And to maintain her mental equipoise she was
forced, though by doing so she felt she was jeopardizing her chances, to
coquette with him. After a long silence she said:

'Oh, do you think we know at first sight the people we like? Do you
believe in first impressions?'

'My first and last impressions of you are always the same. All I know is
that when you are present all things are bright, beautiful, and
cheering, and when you are away I don't much care what happens. Now,
these Castle balls used to bore me to death last year; I used to go into
a back room and fall asleep. But this year I am as lively as a kitten - I
think I could go on for ever, and the Castle seems to me the most
glorious place on earth. I used to hate it; I was as bad as Parnell, but
not for the same reasons, of course. Now I am only afraid he will have
his way, and they'll shut the whole place up. Anyhow, even if they do, I
shall always look back upon this season as a very happy time.'

'But you do not really think that Parnell will be allowed to have his
way?' said Violet inadvertently.

'I don't know; I don't take much interest in politics, but I believe
things are going to the bad. Dublin, they say, is undermined with secret
societies, and the murder that was committed the other day in Sackville
Street was the punishment they inflict on those whom they suspect of
being informers, even remotely.'

'But don't you think the Government will soon be obliged to step in and
put an end to all this kind of thing?'

'I don't know; I'm afraid they'll do nothing until we landlords are all
ruined.'

Violet's thin face contracted. She had introduced a subject that might
prevent him from ever proposing to her. She knew how heavily the
Kilcarney estates were mortgaged; and, even now, as she rightly
conjectured, the poor little man was inwardly trembling at the folly it
had been on his lips to speak. Three of his immediate ancestors had
married penniless girls, and it was well known that another love-match
would precipitate the property over that precipice known to every Irish
landowner - the Encumbered Estates Court. But those dainty temples, so
finely shaded with light brown tresses, that delicately moulded
head - delicate as an Indian carven ivory, dispelled all thoughts of his
property, and he forgot his duty to marry an heiress. Violet meanwhile,
prompted by her instinct, said the right words:

'But things never turn out as well or as badly as we expect them to.'

This facile philosophy went like wine to the little Marquis's head, and
he longed to throw himself at the feet of his goddess and thank her for
the balm she had poured upon him. The gloom of approaching ruin
disappeared, and he saw nothing in the world but a white tulle skirt, a
thin foot, a thin bosom, and a pair of bright grey eyes. Vaguely he
sought for equivalent words, but loud-talking dancers passed into the
room, and, abashed by their stares, the Marquis broke off a flowering
branch and said, stammering the while incoherently:

'Will you keep this in memory of this evening?'

Violet thrust the flowers into her bosom, and was about to thank him,
when an A.D.C. came up and claimed her for the dance. She told him he
was mistaken, that she was engaged; and, taking Lord Kilcarney's arm,
they made their way in silence back to the ball-room. Violet was
satisfied; she felt now very sure of her Marquis, and, as they
approached Mrs. Scully, a quick glance said that things were going as
satisfactorily as could be desired. Not daring to trust herself to the
gossip of the chaperons, this excellent lady sat apart, maintaining the
solitary dignity to which the Galway counter had accustomed her. She
received the Marquis with the same smile as she used to bestow on her
best customers, and they talked for a few minutes of the different
aspects of the ball-room, of their friends, of things that did not
interest them. Then Violet said winsomely, affecting an accent of
command that enchanted him:

'Now I want you to go and dance with someone else; let me see - what do
you say to Olive Barton? If you don't, I shall be in her mother's black
books for the rest of my life. Now go. We shall be at home to-morrow;
you might come in for tea;' and, suffocated with secret joy, Lord
Kilcarney made his way across the room to Mrs. Barton, who foolishly
cancelled a couple of Olive's engagements, and sent her off to dance
with him, whereas wise Violet sat by her mother, refusing all her
partners; but, when _God Save the Queen_ was played, she accepted Lord
Kilcarney's arm, and they pressed forward to see the Lord-Lieutenant and
Her Excellency pass down the room.

Violet's eyes feasted on the bowing black coats and light toilettes,
and, leaning on her escutcheon, she dreamed vividly of the following
year when she would take her place amid all these noble people, and, as
high as they, stand a peeress on the daïs.




XX


'So you couldn't manage to keep him after all, my lady? When did he
leave the hotel?'

'Mr. Harding left Dublin last Monday week.'

Alice wondered if her mother hated her; if she didn't, it was difficult
to account for her cruel words. And this was the girl's grief, and she
feared that hatred would beget hatred, and that she would learn to hate
her mother. But Mrs. Barton was a loving and affectionate mother, who
would sacrifice herself for one child almost as readily for the other.
In each of us there are traits that the chances of life have never
revealed; and though she would have sat by the bedside, even if Alice
were stricken with typhoid fever, Mrs. Barton recoiled spitefully like a
cat before the stern rectitudes of a nature so dissimilar from her own.
She had fashioned Olive, who was now but a pale copy of her mother
according to her guise: all the affectations had been faithfully
reproduced, but the charm of the original had evaporated like a perfume.
It would be rash to say that Mrs. Barton did not see that the weapons
which had proved so deadly in her hands were ineffectual in her
daughter's; but twenty years of elegant harlotry had blunted her finer
perceptions, and now the grossest means of pushing Olive and the Marquis
morally and physically into each other's arms seemed to her the best.
Alice was to her but a plain girl, whose misfortune was that she had
ever been born. This idea had grown up with Mrs. Barton, and fifteen
years ago she had seen in the child's face the spinster of fifty. But
since the appearance of Harding, and the manifest interest he had shown
in her daughter, Mrs. Barton's convictions that Alice would never be
able to find a husband had been somewhat shaken, and she had almost
concluded that it would be as well - for there was no knowing what men's
tastes were - to give her a chance. Nor was the dawning fancy dispelled
by the fact that Harding had not proposed, and the cutting words she had
addressed to the girl were the result of the nervous irritation caused
by the marked attention the Marquis was paying Violet Scully.

For, like Alice, Mrs. Barton never lived long in a fool's paradise, and
she now saw that the battle was going against her, and would most
assuredly be lost unless a determined effort was made. So she delayed
not a moment in owning to herself that she had committed a mistake in
going to the Shelbourne Hotel. Had she taken a house in Mount Street or
Fitzwilliam Place, she could have had all the best men from the barracks
continually at her house. But at the hotel she was helpless; there were
too many people about, too many beasts of women criticizing her conduct.
Mrs. Barton had given two dinner-parties in a private room hired for the
occasion; but these dinners could scarcely be called successful. On one
occasion they had seven men to dinner, and as some half-dozen more
turned in in the evening, it became necessary to send down to the
ladies' drawing-room for partners. Bertha Duffy and the girl in red of
course responded to the call, but they had rendered everything odious by
continuous vulgarity and brogue. Then other mistakes had been made. A
charity costume ball had been advertised. It was to be held in the
Rotunda. An imposing list of names headed the prospectus, and it was
confidently stated that all the lady patronesses would attend. Mrs.
Barton fell into the trap, and, to her dismay, found herself and her
girls in the company of the rag, tag, and bobtail of Catholic Dublin:
Bohemian girls fabricated out of bed-curtains, negro minstrels that an
application of grease and burnt cork had brought into a filthy
existence. And from the single gallery that encircled this tomb-like
building the small tradespeople looked down upon the multicoloured crowd
that strove to dance through the mud that a late Land League meeting had
left upon the floor; and all the while grey dust fell steadily into the
dancers' eyes and into the sloppy tea distributed at counters placed
here and there like coffee-stands in the public street.

'I never felt so low in my life,' said the lady who always brought back
an A.D.C. from the Castle, and the phrase was cited afterwards as being
admirably descriptive of the festival.

When it became known that the Bartons had been present at this ball,
that the beauty had been seen dancing with the young Catholic nobodies,
their names were struck off the lists, and they were asked to no more
private dances at the Castle. Lord Dungory was sent to interview the
Chamberlain, but that official could promise nothing. Mrs. Barton's hand
was therefore forced. It was obligatory upon her to have some place
where she could entertain officers; the Shelbourne did not lend itself
to that purpose. She hired a house in Mount Street, and one that
possessed a polished floor admirably suited to dancing.

Then she threw off the mask, and pirate-like, regardless of the laws of
chaperons, resolved to carry on the war as she thought proper. She'd
have done once and for ever with those beasts of women who abused and
criticized her. Henceforth she would shut her door against them all, and
it would only be open to men - young men for her daughters, elderly men
for herself. At four o'clock in the afternoon the entertainment began.
Light refreshments, consisting of tea, claret, biscuits, and cigarettes,
were laid out in the dining-room. Having partaken, the company,
consisting of three colonels and some half-dozen subalterns, went
upstairs to the drawing-room. And in recognition of her flirtation with
Harding, a young man replaced Alice at the piano, and for half-a-crown
an hour supplied the necessary music.

Round and round the girls went, passing in turn out of the arms of an
old into those of a young man, and back again. If they stayed their feet
for a moment, Mrs. Barton glided across the floor, and, with insinuating
gestures and intonations of voice, would beg of them to continue. She
declared that it was _la grâce et la beauté_, etc. The merriment did not
cease until half-past six. Some of the company then left, and some few
were detained for dinner. A new pianist and fresh officers arrived about
nine o'clock, and dancing was continued until one or two in the morning.
To yawning subalterns the house in Mount Street seemed at first like a
little paradise. The incessant dancing was considered fatiguing, but
there were interludes in which claret was drunk, cigarettes smoked, and
loose conversation permitted in the dining-room.

Then the dinners! Mrs. Barton's dinners are worthy of special study. Her
circle of acquaintances being limited, the same guests were generally
found at her table. Lord Dungory always sat next to her. He displayed
his old-fashioned shirt-front, his cravat, his studs, his urbanity, his
French epigram. Lord Rosshill sat opposite him; he was thin, melancholy,
aristocratic, silent, and boring. There was a captain who, since he had
left the army, had grown to the image of a butler, and an ashen-tinted
young man who wore his arm in a sling; and an old man, who looked like a
dirty and worn-out broom, and who put his arm round the backs of the
chairs. These and three A.D.C.'s made up the party. There was very
little talking, and what there was was generally confined to asking the
young ladies if they had been to the Castle, and if they liked dancing.

The Marquis was a constant, although an unwilling guest at all these
entertainments. He would fain have refused Mrs. Barton's hospitalities,
but so pressing was she that this seemed impossible. There were times
when he started at the postman's knock as at the sound of a Land
Leaguer's rifle. Too frequently his worst fears were realized. '_Mon
cher Marquis_, it will give us much pleasure if you will dine with us
to-morrow night at half-past seven.' 'Dear Mrs. Barton, I regret
extremely that I am engaged for to-morrow night.' An hour later, '_Mon
cher Marquis_, I am very sorry you cannot come to-morrow night, but
Thursday will suit us equally well.' What was to be done? A second
excuse would result only in a proposal to fix a day next week; better
accept and get it over. He must do this or send a rude message to the
effect that he was engaged for every day he intended to dine out that
season, and he lacked the moral courage to write such a letter. Mrs.
Barton's formula for receiving the Marquis never varied. If he arrived
early he found Olive waiting to receive him in the drawing-room. She was
always prepared with a buttonhole, which she insisted on arranging and
pinning into his coat. Then allusion was made to the forget-me-nots that
the bouquet was sure to contain; and laughing vacantly - for laughter
with Olive took the place of conversation - she fled through the rooms,
encouraging him to pursue her. During dinner attempts were made to
exchange a few words, but without much success. Nor was it until Olive
pelted him with flowers, and he replied by destroying another bouquet
and applying it to the same purpose, that much progress was made towards
intimacy. But this little scene was exceptional, and on all other
occasions Lord Kilcarney maintained an attitude of reserve.

Mrs. Barton was at her wits' end. Three days ago she had met him walking
in Grafton Street with Violet; yesterday she had caught sight of him
driving towards Fitzwilliam Place in a four-wheeler. She had fortunately
a visit to pay in that neighbourhood, and was rewarded by seeing the
Marquis's cab draw up before the Scullys' door. The mere fact that he
should use a cab instead of an outside car was a point to consider, but
when she noticed that one of the blinds was partially drawn down, her
heart sank. Nor did the secret of this suspicious visit long remain her
exclusive property. As if revealed by those mysteriously subtle oral and
visual faculties observed in savage tribes, by which they divine the
approach of their enemies or their prey, two days had not elapsed before
the tongue of every chaperon was tipped with the story of the
four-wheeler and the half-drawn blind, but it was a distinctly
latter-day instinct that had led these ladies to speak of there having
been luggage piled upon the roof of this celebrated cab. Henceforth eye,
ear, and nostril were open, and in the quivering ardour of the chase
they scattered through the covers of Cork Hill and Merrion Square,
passing from one to the other, by means of sharp yelps and barkings,
every indication of the trail that came across their way. Sometimes
hearkening to a voice they had confidence in, they rallied at a single
point, and then an old bitch, her nose in the air, her capstrings
hanging lugubriously on either side of her weatherbeaten cheeks, would
utter a deep and prolonged baying; a little farther on the scent was
recovered, and, with sterns wagging and bristles erect, they hunted the
quarry vigorously. Every moment he was expected to break - fear was even
expressed that he might end by being chopped.

The Shelbourne Hotel was a favourite meet, and in the ladies'
drawing-room each fresh piece of news was torn with avidity. The
consumption of notepaper was extraordinary. Two, three, four, and even
five sheets of paper were often filled with what these scavengeresses
could rake out of the gutters of gossip. 'Ah! me arm aches, and the
sleeve of me little coat is wore; I am so eager to write it all off to
me ant, that I am too impatient to wait to take it off,' was the verbal
form in which the girl in red explained her feelings on the subject.
Bertha Duffy declared she would write no more; that she was ruining
herself in stamps. Nor were the pens of the Brennans silent; and looking
over their shoulders, on which the mantles of spinsterhood were fast
descending, one read: 'I hear they danced at the Castle three times
together last night . . . a friend of mine saw them sitting in Merrion
Square the whole of one afternoon. . . . They say that if he marries her,
that he'll be ruined. . . . The estates are terribly encumbered . . . his
family are in despair about it. . . . Violet is a very nice girl, but we
all know her mother sold bacon behind a counter in Galway. . . . He never
looks at Olive Barton now; this is a sad end to her beau, and after
feeding him up the whole season. . . . He dined there three times a week:
Mrs. Barton took the house on purpose to entertain him. . . . It is said
that she offered him twenty thousand pounds if he'd marry her
daughter. . . . The money that woman spends is immense, and no one knows
whence it comes.'

In these matrimonial excitements the amatories of the lady who brought
the A.D.C. home from the Castle passed unheeded. The critical gaze of
her friends was sorely distracted, and even the night porter forgot to
report the visits of her young gentlemen. May, too, profited largely by
the present ferment of curiosity; and, unobserved, she kept her trysts
with Fred Scully at the corners of this and that street, and in the
hotel they passed furtively down this passage and up that pair of
stairs; when disturbed they hid behind the doors.

Mrs. Gould lived in ignorance of all this chambering folly, spending her
time either writing letters or gossiping about Lord Kilcarney in the
drawing-room. And when she picked up a fragment of fresh news she lost
not a moment, but put on her bonnet and carried it over to Mount Street.
So assiduous was she in this self-imposed duty, that Mrs. Barton was
obliged at last to close her door against this obtrusive visitor.

But one day, after a moment of intense reflection, Mrs. Barton concluded
that she was losing the battle - that now, in the eleventh hour, it could
only be snatched out of defeat by a bold and determined effort. She sat
down and penned one of her admirable invitations to dinner. An hour
later a note feebly pleaded a 'previous engagement.' Undaunted, she sat
down again and wrote: 'Tomorrow will suit us equally well.' The Marquis
yielded; and Lord Dungory was ordered, when he found himself alone with
him in the dining-room, to lose no opportunity of insisting upon the
imminent ruin of all Irish landlords. He was especially enjoined to say
that, whatever chance of escape there was for the owners of unencumbered
properties, the doom of those who had mortgages to pay had been sounded.
Milord executed his task with consummate ability; and when the _grand
parti_ entered the drawing-room, his thoughts were racked with horrible
forebodings. The domain woods, the pride of centuries, he saw plundered
and cut down; lawns, pleasure-grounds, and gardens distributed among
peasants, and he, a miserable outcast, starving in a Belgian
boarding-house. Mrs. Barton's eyes brightened at the distressed
expression of his face. Olive brought in the buttonhole and went to the
piano; Milord engaged Alice's attention; and the Marquis was led into
the adjoining room.

'The season is now drawing to its close,' Mrs. Barton said; 'we shall be
soon returning to Galway. We shall be separating. I know Olive likes
you, but if there is no - if it is not to be, I should like to tell her
not to think about it any more.'

The Marquis felt the earth gliding. What could have tempted the woman to
speak like this to him? What answer was he to make her? He struggled
with words and thoughts that gave way, as he strove to formulate a
sentence, like water beneath the arms of one drowning.

'Oh, really, Mrs. Barton,' he said, stammering, speaking like one in a
dream, 'you take me by surprise. I did not expect this; you certainly
are too kind. In proposing this marriage to me, you do me an honour I
did not anticipate, but you know it is difficult offhand, for I am bound
to say . . . at least I am not prepared to say that I am in love with your
daughter. . . . She is, of course, very beautiful, and no one admires her
more than I, but - '

'Olive will have twenty thousand pounds paid down on her wedding-day;
not promised, you know, but paid down; and in the present times I think
this is more than most girls can say. Most Irish properties are
embarrassed, mortgaged,' she continued, risking everything to gain
everything, 'and twenty thousand pounds would be a material help to most
men. At my death she will have more; I - '

'Oh, Mrs. Barton, do not let us speak of that!' cried the little man.

'And why not? Does it prove that because we are practical, we do not
care for a person? I quite understand that it would be impossible for
you to marry without money, and that Olive will have twenty thousand
paid down on her wedding-day will not prevent you from being very fond
of her. On the contrary, I should think - '

'Twenty thousand pounds is, of course, a great deal of money,' said the
little man, shrinking, terror-stricken, from a suddenly protruding
glimpse of the future with which Milord had previously poisoned his
mind.

'Yes, indeed it is, and in these times,' urged Mrs. Barton.

The weak grey eyes were cast down, abashed by the daring determination
of the brown.

'Of course Olive is a beautiful girl,' he said.

'And she is so fond of you, and so full of affection. . . .'

The situation was now tense with fear, anxiety, apprehension; and with
resolute fingers Mrs. Barton tightened the chord until the required note
vibrated within the moral consciousness. The poor Marquis felt his
strength ebbing away; he was powerless as one lying in the hot chamber
of a Turkish bath. Would no one come to help him? The implacable melody
of _Dream Faces_, which Olive hammered out on the piano, agonized him.
If she would stop for one moment he would find the words to tell her
mother that he loved Violet Scully and would marry none other. But bang,
bang, bang the left hand pounded the bass into his stunned ears, and the


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Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 15 of 23)