George Moore.

Muslin online

. (page 16 of 23)
Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 16 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


eyes that he feared were fixed upon him. He gasped for words, he felt
like a drunkard who clutches the air as he reels over a precipice, and
the shades of his ancestors seemed to crowd menacingly around him. He
strove against his fears until a thin face with luminous eyes shone
through the drifting wrack like a stars.

'But we have seen so little of each other,' he said at last; 'Miss
Barton is a great beauty, I know, and nobody appreciates her beauty more
than I, but I am not what you call in love with her.'

He deplored the feebleness of his words, and Mrs. Barton swooped upon
him again.

'You do not love her because, as you say, you have seen very little of
each other. We are going down to Brookfield to-morrow. We shall be very
glad if you will come with us, and in the country you will have an
opportunity of judging, of knowing her: and she is such an affectionate
little thing.'

Affrighted, the Marquis sought again for words, and he glanced at his
torturer timidly, like the hare on the ever-nearing hounds. Why did she
pursue him, he asked, in this terrible way? Had she gone mad? What was
he to say? He had not the courage to answer no to her face. Besides, if
Violet would not have him, he might as well save the family estates. If
Violet refused him! Then he didn't care what became of him! He sought,
and he struggled for words, for words that would save him; and, in this
hour of deep tribulation, words came and they saved him.

'I have a great deal of business to attend to to-morrow. I am - that is
to say, my solicitor is, raising for me a large sum of money at four per
cent. On one large mortgage I am paying six per cent., therefore if I
can get the money at four I shall be by some hundreds of pounds a richer
man than I am at present. At the end of the week this matter will be
settled. I will write to you and say when I shall be able to accept your
invitation.'

Mrs. Barton would have preferred to have brought the matter at once to a
conclusion, but in the hesitation that ensued, the Marquis, unable to
withstand the strain set upon his feelings any longer, moved away from
her. And in the next room, to save himself from further persecution, he
engaged at once in conversation with Alice. Ten minutes after he said
good-night. To get out of the light into the dark, to feel the cool wind
upon his cheek, oh! what a relief! 'What could have persuaded that woman
to speak to me as she did? She must be mad.' He walked on as if in a
dream, the guineas she had promised him chinking dubiously through his
brain. Then stopping suddenly, overcome by nerve-excitement, he threw
his arms in the air: his features twitched convulsively. The spasm
passed; and, unconscious of all save the thoughts that held and tore
him - their palpitating prey - he walked onwards. . . . Black ruin on one
side, and oh! what sweet white vision of happiness on the other! Why was
he thus tortured - why was he thus torn on the rack of such a terrible
discussion? He stopped again, and his weak neck swayed plaintively.
Then, in the sullen calm that followed, the thought crossed his mind: If
he only knew. . . . She might refuse him; if so, he did not care what
became of him, and he would accept the other willingly. But would she
refuse him? That he must know at once. If she did refuse, he would, at
all events, escape the black looks of his relations, and in the
cowardice of the thought the weary spirit was healed, assuaged, as tired
limbs might be in a bath of cool, clear water. Why lose a moment? It was
only half-past ten - an 'outside' would take him in less than two minutes
to Fitzwilliam Place. Yes, he would go.

And as the car clattered he feasted on the white thin face and the grey
allurements of her eyes. But if she weren't at home.

He was shown upstairs. Mother and daughter were alone, talking over the
fire in the drawing-room. Nothing could be more propitious, but his
fears returned to him, and when he strove to explain the lateness of his
visit his face had again grown suddenly haggard and worn. Violet
exchanged glances, and said in looks, if not in words: 'It is clear they
have been hunting him pretty closely to-day.'

'I must apologize,' he said, 'for calling on you at such an hour; I
really did not think it was so late, but the fact is I was rather
anxious to see. . . .'

'But won't you sit down, Lord Kilcarney?' said Violet. 'I assure you we
never go to bed before twelve, and sometimes we sit up here until
one - don't we, mamma?'

Mrs. Scully smiled jocosely, and the Marquis sat down. In an instant his
fate was decided. Overcome by the girl's frail sweetness, by the
pellucid gaiety of her grey eyes, he surrendered; and his name and
fortune fluttered into her lap, helplessly as a blown leaf. He said:

'I came to see you to-night . . . I took the liberty of calling on you at
this late hour, because things had occurred that . . . well, I mean . . .
you must have observed that I was attached to you. I don't know if you
guessed it, but the fact is that I never cared for anyone as I do for
you, and I felt I could bear with uncertainty no longer, and that I must
come to-night, and ask you if you will have me.'

Violet raised her eyes.

'Say yes,' murmured the Marquis, and it seemed to him that in the words
life had fallen from his lips.

'Yes,' was the answer, and he clasped the thin hand she extended to him.

'Ah, how happy you have made me, I never thought such honours were in
store for me,' exclaimed Mrs. Scully. The discipline of years was lost
in a moment; and, reverting to her long-buried self, she clasped the
Marquis to her agitated bosom. Violet looked annoyed, ashamed; and Mrs.
Scully, whom excitement had stripped of all her grand manners, said:

'And now, me dear children, I'll leave you to yerselves.'

The lovers sat side by side. Violet thought of the great love she had
inspired, and the Marquis of the long years of happiness that
would - that must now be his, of the frail grace that as a bland odour
seemed to float about his beloved. And now that she was his, he would
have her know that his love of her rose out of his deepest sense of
soul; but words were weak: he seemed to be tongue-tied.

'Where did you dine to-night?' she said suddenly.

'With the Bartons.'

He told her everything - of the proposal and the invitation to
Brookfield.

'And are you going down to Galway to stay with them?'

'Of course not. How can you ask such a question?'

'And why not - why shouldn't you go? I wish you would,' she added; and
the light in her grey eyes was malign.

'You're joking? You surely don't mean what you say. I thought you said
you loved me.'

'Yes, my dear Harry, that is the very reason. We love each other,
therefore I know I can trust you.'

He pressed the hand - the silken skin, the palm delicately moist - in
recognition of her kind words.

'I wouldn't go for anything in the world. I hate those people. 'Pon my
word, I don't think anything would tempt me to spend a week with them in
the country.'

'Yes; I could.'

The Marquis laughed. 'Yes, you could - you could tempt me to do anything.
But why should you want me to go and spend a week with them in Galway?'

'Because, dear, they were rude to me; because,' she added, casting down
her eyes - 'because they tried to buy you from me. That is why I should
like to humiliate them.'

The enchantment of the Marquis was completed, and he said:

'What, a whole week away from you! a whole week with Mrs. Barton! I
could not endure it.'

'What, not for my sake?'

'Anything for your sake, darling.' He clasped her in his arms, and then
they lapsed into silence that to him was even sweeter than the kiss she
had given him. Love's deepest delight is the ineffable consciousness of
our own weakness. We drink the sweetened cup in its entirety when,
having ceased to will, we abandon ourselves with the lethal languors of
the swimmer to the vague depths of dreams. And it was past midnight when
the Marquis left Fitzwilliam Place. The ladies accompanied him
downstairs; their hands helped him to his hat and coat, and then the
lock slipped back sharply, and in the gloom, broken in one spot by the
low-burning gas, the women wondered.

'Oh, mamma, mamma, mamma! I am so happy!' the girl exclaimed, and,
weeping passionately, she threw herself for rest upon Mrs. Scully's
arms.

'Yes, my child; you have been very good, you have made me very happy.
You'll be a marchioness. Who would have thought I'd have lived to see
all this honour when I served in the little shop at Galway!'

At the mention of the shop Violet recovered her composure, and mother
and daughter listened to the receding footfalls.

'I wonder if he is happy,' Violet murmured; 'as happy as I am. For I do
like him. He is a good sort.'

'Your happiness is a different happiness,' Mrs. Scully answered.

Like a flowering tree, a luxuriant joy bloomed in the Marquis's heart;
in its shade and fragrance his thoughts lay supinely; and, a prey to
many floating and fanciful imaginings, he walked onwards through the
darkness. In the lowering skies he saw the fair face that had led him to
the verge on which he now stood.

'Was anybody as happy as he? And what did his happiness mean?' he asked
himself.

Shades flitted across yellow window-panes, and he remembered he had
received an invitation for this very ball.

Cats slunk through the area railings; policemen moved from their hiding
corners; a lover passed on with his dreams.




XXI


Mrs. Barton rarely took anyone into her confidence, and her plan for the
capture of the Marquis was locked within her breast. Not to her husband,
nor yet to Milord, did she think of going for advice. Her special
experience of life had taught her to trust none, to be self-reliant, and
never to give up hope. For as she often said, it is the last effort that
wins the battle. Mrs. Barton's knowledge of the world, when it came to
be analyzed, was only that of the courtesan - skin deep.

Two days after she received a note from the Marquis, saying he would be
glad to spend a week with them at Brookfield. She read it quietly,
slipped it into the pocket of the black silk that covered the unseen
feet, and glided out of the room. Every detail was clear to her. They
must leave Dublin to-morrow morning; they need not trouble about calling
on a pack of women, but they would have all their men friends to dinner.

Mr. Barton, when he was informed of these sudden determinations, was in
the act of rehearsing a song he was to sing the following day at a
concert.

'But, my dear,' he said, tightening one of the strings; 'the public will
be awfully disappointed.'

'Yes, my dear, yes; I am very sorry, but I have my reasons - serious
reasons; and in this world we must only do what's right.'

'Then in the next world we shall be able to do everything that's wrong,'
said Mr. Barton; and he threw back his blond locks with troubadour-like
waves of his lymphatic hand. 'I shall like the next world better than
this,' he added, and his wife and daughter laughed; for papa was
supposed to be very naughty.

'Olive, dear - '

'Oh, mamma, I wish you wouldn't call me Olive. I shall change my name.
Captain Talbot was chaffing me about it yesterday. Everybody chaffs me
about it.'

'Never mind, my dear; it makes a subject of conversation. But I was
going to tell you that we shall have to start for Brookfield to-morrow.'

'Go to Brookfield! I couldn't possibly leave Dublin yet a while; what
would all my young men do - they'd die of broken hearts!'

'It won't matter much if they do; there aren't a dozen worth two
thousand a year each.'

'No? You are joking, mamma. And the Marquis?'

'That's a secret, dear.'

'Then you don't think he'll propose to me after all; and I gave up
Edward - Captain Hibbert.'

'I thought you had forgotten that horrid man's name. I didn't say, dear,
that the Marquis wouldn't propose to you - of course he will. But we must
leave Dublin to-morrow - I have serious reasons.'

'Oh, mamma, I didn't think you were so cruel, to go back to that hateful
place, where everybody talks of rents, and that odious Land League.'

'Now, I will not allow my darling to cry like that,' exclaimed Mrs.
Barton, and she threw her arms round the girl's shoulders. 'I didn't say
that there wouldn't be a man within seven miles. On the contrary, there
will be one very charming man indeed.'

'What do you mean, mamma?'

'That's a secret - that's a secret.'

Alice was told that she had better come home early that afternoon, so
that she might have plenty of time to pack her own things and help her
sister with hers; and it seemed to her unbelievable that she was at last
leaving that hateful little varnished floor, complimenting old beaux and
young A.D.C.'s.

But if to nobody else, she must say good-bye to May. She had hardly seen
her since the night of the State ball - the night she had given Fred
Scully permission to see her in her room. She found her in the ladies'
drawing-room.

'How do you do, May?'

'Oh, how do you do, Alice? I am so glad to see you. What a dreadful
day!'

'Yes, isn't it? Don't you find it very depressing?'

'I should think I did. I'm feeling rather out of sorts. Do you ever feel
out of sorts? you know, when everything seems as if it were reflected in
a darkened glass? There are times when we girls are nervous and weak,
and ready to quarrel with anyone. I don't know what I wish for now; I
think I should like to go back to the country.'

'We are going back to-morrow morning.'

'You don't say so; and how's that? There are plenty of balls and
afternoon dances. What does Olive say to going home?'

'She doesn't mind. You know mamma always said she would return
immediately after the Castle balls.'

'And now that it is all over, tell me what you think of the Castle. Did
it come up to your expectations?'

'I don't know that I think much about the matter. I am not so fond of
dancing as you are.'

'Oh, goodness me, goodness me, how ill I do feel,' said May, as she
started and yawned in a way that betokened the nervous lassitude she was
suffering from.

'Perhaps you had better see the doctor,' said Alice significantly.

'I'm worried. Fred hasn't been as nice lately as he used to be.'

'What has he done?'

'Last night he promised to meet me in the Square, and he wrote to say he
couldn't come, that he was forced to go and see an important customer
about some horses.'

'Perhaps he had.'

'I dare say he had, but what of that? It does not make it any less
disagreeable for me to be disappointed.'

'How cross you are, May! I came out on purpose to talk to you on this
very subject. I hope you won't be angry, but I think it is my duty to
tell you that people are beginning to talk about you.'

'And what do they say?'

'Well, they say many unpleasant things; you know how ill-natured people
are.'

'Yes, but what do they say?'

'They say you are desperately in love with Fred Scully.'

'Supposing I were; is there any very great harm in that?'

'I only want to put you on your guard, May dear; and since I have come
here for the purpose of speaking out, I had better do so, however
unpleasant it may be; and I must say that you often forget yourself when
he is in the room, and by your whole manner betray your feelings. You
look at him - '

'You needn't talk. Now that Harding has left town, these moral
reflections come very easy to you!'

Alice blushed a little; she trembled, and pursuing her advantage, May
said:

'Oh, yes; I have watched you in the Castle sitting out dances; and when
girls like you butter! 'Pon my word, it was painful to look at you.'

'Mr. Harding and I talked merely of books and pictures.'

'If you come here to insinuate that Fred and I are in the habit of
indulging in improper conversation. . . . I didn't expect this from you. I
shan't stop another moment. I shan't speak to you again.'

Picking up her novel, and deaf to all explanations, May walked haughtily
out of the room. Alice would have given much to help; and, her heart
filled with gentle disappointment, she returned home. The evening was
spent in packing; and next morning at dawn, looking tired, their eyes
still heavy with sleep, the Bartons breakfasted for the last time in
Mount Street.

At the Broadstone they met Lord Dungory. Then, their feet and knees
cosily wrapped up in furs, with copies of the _Freeman's Journal_ lying
on the top, they deplored the ineffectiveness of Mr. Forster's Coercion
Act. Eight hundred people were in prison, and still the red shadow of
murder pointed across the land. Milord read from the newspaper:

'A dastardly outrage was committed last night in the neighbourhood of
Mullingar. A woman named Mary - - had some differences with her sister
Bridget - - . One day, after some angry words, it appears that she left
the house, and seeing a man working in a potato-field, she asked him if
he could do anything to help her. He scratched his head, and, after a
moment's reflection, he said he was going to meet a "party," and he
would see what could be done. On the following day he suggested that
Bridget might be removed for the sum of one pound. Mary - - could not,
however, procure more than fifteen shillings, and a bargain was struck.
On the night arranged for the assassination Mary wished to leave the
house, not caring to see her sister shot in her presence, but Pat
declared that her absence would excite suspicion. In the words of one of
the murderers, the deed was accomplished "nately and without unnecessary
fuss."'

'I wonder,' said Mrs. Barton, 'what those wretches will have to do
before the Government will consent to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act, and
place the country in the hands of the military. Do they never think of
how wickedly they are behaving, and of how God will punish them when
they die? Do they never think of their immortal souls?'

'_L'âme du paysan se vautre dans la boue comme la mienne se plaît dans
la soie_.'

'_Dans la soie! dans la soie! oh, ce Milord, ce Milord!'_

'_Oui, madame_,' he added, lowering his voice, '_dans le blanc paradis
de votre corsage_.'

Three days after life at Brookfield had resumed its ordinary course.
Once breakfast was over, Arthur retired to the consideration of the
pectoral muscles of the ancient Briton, Milord drank his glass of sherry
at half-past one, and Mrs. Barton devoted herself to the double task of
amusing him and encouraging Olive with visions of future fame. Alice was
therefore left definitely to herself, and without hindrance or comment
was allowed to set up her writing-table, and spend as much time as she
pleased in her bedroom.

Several sheets of foolscap paper covered with large open handwriting lay
upon the table. Upon the first page, with a line ruled beneath it, stood
the title: 'The Diary of a Plain Girl - Notes and Sensations.' She had
just laid aside her pen and was waiting for Cecilia.

'Oh, Alice darling, how are you? I am delighted - I am so delighted to
see you. Let me kiss you, let me see you; I have been longing for you
for weeks - for months.'

Alice bent her face down, and then, holding each other's hands, the
girls stood looking through a deep and expressive silence into each
other's eyes.

'I wish, Alice, I could tell you how glad I am to have you back: it
seems like heaven to see you again. You look so nice, so true, so sweet,
so perfect. There never was anyone so perfect as you, Alice.'

'Cecilia dear, you shouldn't talk to me like that; it is absurd. Indeed,
I don't think it is quite right.'

'Not quite right,' replied the cripple sadly; 'what do you mean? Why is
it wrong - why should it be wrong for me to love you?'

'I don't mean to say that it is wrong; you misunderstand me;
but - but - well, I don't know how to explain myself, but - '

'I know, I know, I know,' said Cecilia, and her nervous sensitivity
revealed thoughts in Alice's mind - thoughts of which Alice herself was
not distinctly conscious, just as a photograph exposes irregularities in
the texture of a leaf that the naked eye would not perceive.

'If Harding were to speak to you so, you wouldn't think it wrong.'

Alice's face flushed a little, and she said, with a certain resoluteness
in her voice, 'Cecilia, I wish you wouldn't talk to me in this way. You
give me great pain.'

'I am sorry if I do, but I can't help it. I am jealous of the words that
are spoken to you, of the air you breathe, of the ground you walk upon.
How, then, can I help hating that man?'

'I do not wish to argue this point with you, Cecilia, nor am I sure that
I understand it. There is no one I like better than you, dear, but that
we should be jealous of each other is absurd.'

'For you perhaps, but not for me.' Cecilia looked at Alice
reproachfully, and at the end of a long and morose silence she said:

'You received the long letter I wrote to you about him?'

'Yes, Cecilia, and I answered it. It seems to me very foolish to
pronounce condemnatory opinion on the whole world; and particularly for
you who have seen so little of it.'

'That doesn't matter. People are blinded by their passions; but when
these have worn themselves out, they see the truth in all its horrible
nakedness. One of these days you'll tell me that I am right. You have
been a good deal in the world lately; tell me if you have found it
beautiful. You didn't believe me when I told you that men were vile and
abominable; you said there were good men in the world, that you were
sure of it. Have you found them? Was Mr. Harding so very perfect?'

Alice coloured again; she hesitated, and in the silence Cecilia again
divined her friend's thoughts.

'A very poor ideal indeed, it seems to me that you set yourself - to make
the best of this wretched world.'

'I cannot understand what good can come of craving after the
unattainable,' said Alice, looking earnestly out of her grey sharp eyes.

'True beauty lies only in the unattainable,' said Cecilia, lifting her
eyes with that curious movement of the eyeball by which painters
represent faith and mysticism.

At the end of a long silence, Alice said:

'But you'll have some tea, will you not, Cecilia?'

'Yes; but don't let us go downstairs.'

'We'll have it up here; Barnes will bring it up.'

'Oh, that will be so nice.'

The girls drew closer to the fire, and in its uniting warmth they looked
into the ardent face of their friendship, talking, at first, conscious
of the appropriateness of their conversation; but soon forgetful of the
more serious themes they had been discussing, questions were asked and
answered, and comments passed, upon the presentations, the dresses, the
crowds, upon all their acquaintances.

'It is given out, Alice dear, that Lord Kilcarney is coming down to stay
at Brookfield. Is it true?'

'I have heard nothing of it. Whom did you hear it from?'

'Well, the Duffys wrote it to my sisters. The Duffys, you know, have all
the Dublin news.'

'What dreadful gossips they are! And the wonderful part of it is that
they often tell you that things have happened long before they do
happen.'

'Yes; I have noticed that. They anticipate the news.'

The girls laughed lightly, and Cecilia continued:

'But tell me, which do you think he admires most, Olive or Violet? The
rumour goes that he pays Violet great attentions. The family is, of
course, wild about it. She hasn't a penny piece, and Olive, they say,
has a good deal of money.'

'I don't know.'

'You must show me the dress you wore. You described it beautifully in
your letter. You must have looked very sweet. Did everybody say so?'

'I am not sure that they did. Men, you know, do not always admire what
women do.'

'I should think not. Men only admire beastliness.'

'Cecilia dear, you shouldn't talk like that; it isn't nice.'

Cecilia looked at Alice wistfully, and she said:

'But tell me about the presentations. I suppose there were an immense
number of people present?'

'Yes, and particularly _débutantes_; there were a great number presented
this year. It was considered a large Drawing-Room.'

'And how are you presented? I've heard my sister speak about it, but I
never quite understood.'

At that moment Barnes brought in the tea. She set it on a little table
used for the purpose.

'There is a letter for you, miss, on the tray,' she said as she left the
room; 'it came by the afternoon post.'

Without answering, Alice continued to pour out the tea, but when she
handed Cecilia her cup, she said, surprised at the dull, sullen stare
fixed upon her:

'What is the matter? Why do you look at me like that?'

'That letter, I am sure, is from Harding; it is a man's handwriting.'


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 16 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryGeorge MooreMuslin → online text (page 16 of 23)