M.E. Braddon.

Phantom Fortune, a Novel online

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fine acting and a powerful play, was enthralled by the stage, so wrapt
in the scene that she was quite unaware of her brother's presence in a
stall just below Lady Kirkbank's box. He too had a stall at the Gaiety.
He had come in very late, when the play was half over. Lesbia was
surprised when he presented himself at the door of the box, after the
fourth act.

Maulevrier and his sister had met very seldom since the young lady's
_début_. The young Earl did not go to many parties, and the society he
cultivated was chiefly masculine; and as he neither played polo nor shot
pigeons his masculine pursuits did not bring him in his sister's way.
Lady Kirkbank had asked him to her house with that wide and general
invitation which is so easily evaded. He had promised to go, and he had
not gone. And thus Lesbia and he had pursued their several ways, only
crossing each other's paths now and then at a race meeting or in a
theatre.

'How d'ye do, Lady Kirkbank? - how d'ye do, Lesbia? Just caught sight of
you from below as the curtain was going down,' said Maulevrier, shaking
hands with the ladies and saluting Mr. Smithson with a somewhat
supercilious nod. 'Rather surprised to see you and Lesbia here to-night,
Lady Kirkbank. Isn't the Demi-monde rather strong meat for babes, eh?
Not _exactly_ the play one would take a young lady to see.'

'Why should a young lady be forbidden to see a fine play, because there
are some hard and bitter truths told in it?' asked Lady Kirkbank.
'Lesbia sees Madame d'Ange and all her sisterhood in the Park and about
London every day of her life. Why should not she see them on the stage,
and hear their history, and understand how cruel their fate is, and
learn to pity them, if she can? I really think this play is a lesson in
Christian charity; and I should like to see that Oliver man strangled,
though Delaunay plays the part divinely. What a voice! What a manner!
How polished! How perfect! And they tell me he is going to leave the
stage in a year or two. What will the world do without him?'

Maulevrier did not attempt to suggest a solution of this difficulty. He
was watching Mr. Smithson as he leant against the back of Lesbia's chair
and talked to her. The two seemed very familiar, laughingly discussing
the play and the actors. Smithson knew, or pretended to know, all about
the latter. He told Lesbia who made Croizette's gowns - the upholsterer
who furnished that lovely house of hers in the Bois - the sums paid for
her horses, her pictures, her diamonds. It seemed to Lesbia, when she
had heard all, that Croizette was a much-to-be-envied person.

Mr. Smithson had unpublished _bon-mots_ of Dumas at his finger ends; he
knew Daudet, and Sarcey, and Sardou, and seemed to be thoroughly at home
in Parisian artistic society. Lesbia began to think that he would hardly
be so despicable a person as she had at first supposed. No wonder he and
his wealth had turned poor Belle Trinder's head. How could a rural
vicar's daughter, accustomed to poverty, help being dazzled by such
magnificence?

Maulevrier stayed in the box only a short time, and refused Lady
Kirkbank's invitation to supper. She did not urge the point, as she had
surprised one or two very unfriendly glances at Mr. Smithson in
Maulevrier's honest eyes. She did not want an antagonistic brother to
interfere with her plans. She had made up her mind to 'run' Lesbia
according to her own ideas, and any counter influence might be fatal.
So, when Maulevrier said he was due at the Marlborough after the play
she let him go.

'I might as well be at Fellside and you in London, for anything I see of
you,' said Lesbia.

'You are up to your eyes in engagements, and I don't suppose you want to
see any more of me.' Maulevrier answered, bluntly. 'But I'll call to-morrow
morning, if I am likely to find you at home. I've some news for you.'

'Then I'll stay at home on purpose to see you. News is always
delightful. Is it good news, by-the-bye?'

'Very good; at least, I think so.'

'What is it about?'

'Oh! that's a long story, and the curtain is just going up. The news is
about Mary.'

'About Mary!' exclaimed Lesbia, elevating her eyebrows. 'What news can
there possibly be about Mary?'

'Such news as there generally is about every nice jolly girl, at least
once in her life.'

'You don't mean that she is engaged - to a curate?'

'No, not to a curate. There goes the curtain. "I'll see you later," as
the Yankee President used to say when people bothered him, and he didn't
like to say no.'

Engaged: Mary engaged! The idea of such an altogether unexpected event
distracted Lesbia's mind all through the last act of the Demi-monde. She
hardly knew what the actors were talking about. Mary, her younger
sister! Mary, a good looking girl enough, but by no means a beauty, and
with manners utterly unformed. That Mary should be engaged to be
married, while she, Lesbia, was still free, seemed an obvious absurdity.

And yet the fact was, on reflection, easily to be accounted for. These
unattractive girls are generally the first to bind themselves with the
vows of betrothal. Lady Kirkbank had told her of many such cases. The
poor creatures know that their chances will be few, and therefore
gratefully welcome the first wooer.

'But who can the man be?' thought Lesbia. 'Mary has been kept as
secluded as a cloistered nun. There are so few families we have ever
been allowed to mix with. The man must be a curate, who has taken
advantage of grandmother's illness to force his way into the family
circle at Fellside - and who has made love to Mary in some of her lonely
rambles over the hills, I daresay. It is really very wrong to allow a
girl to roam about in that way.'

Sir George and a couple of his horsey friends were waiting for supper
when Lady Kirkbank and her party arrived in Arlington Street. The
dining-room looked a picture of comfort. The oval table, the low lamps,
the clusters of candles under coloured shades, the great Oriental bowl
of wild flowers - eglantine, honeysuckle, foxglove, all the sweet hedge
flowers of midsummer, made a central mass of colour and brightness
against the subdued and even sombre tones of walls and curtains. The
room was old, the furniture old. Nothing had been altered since the time
of Sir George's great grandfather; and the whirligig of time had just
now made the old things precious. Yes, those chairs and tables and
sideboards and bookcases and wine-coolers against which Georgie's soul
had revolted in the early years of her wedded life were now things of
beauty, and Georgie's friends envied her the possession of indisputable
Chippendale furniture.

Mr. Mostyn, a distinguished owner of race-horses, with his pretty wife,
made up the party. The gentleman was full of his entries for Liverpool
and Chester, and discoursed mysteriously with Sir George and the horsey
bachelors all supper time. The lady had lately taken up science as a new
form of excitement, not incompatible with frocks, bonnets, Hurlingham,
the Ranelagh, and Sandown. She raved about Huxley and Tyndall, and was
perpetually coming down upon her friends with awful facts about the sun,
and startling propositions about latent heat, or spontaneous generation.
She knew all about gases, and would hardly accept a glass of water
without explaining what it was made of. Drawn by Mr. Smithson for
Lesbia's amusement, the scientific matron was undoubtedly 'good fun.'
The racing men were full of talk. Lesbia and Lady Kirkbank raved about
the play they had just been seeing, and praised Delaunay with an
enthusiasm which was calculated to make the rest of mankind burst with
envy.

'Do you know you are making me positively wretched by your talk about
that man?' said Colonel Delville, one of Sir George's racing friends,
and an ancient adorer of the fair Georgie's. 'No, I tell you there was
never anything offered higher than five to four on the mare,'
interjectionally, to Sir George. 'There was a day when I thought I was
your idea of an attractive man. Yes, George, a clear case of roping,'
again interjectionally. 'And to hear you raving about this play-acting
fellow - it is too humiliating.'

Lady Kirkbank simpered, and then sighed.

'We are getting old together,' she murmured. 'I have come to an age when
one can only admire the charm of manner in the abstract - the Beautiful
for the sake of the Beautiful. I think if I were lying in my grave, the
music of Delaunay's voice would thrill me, under six feet of London
clay. Will no one take any more wine? No. Then we may as well go into
the next room and begin our little Nap.'

The adjoining room was Sir George's snuggery; and it was here that the
cosy little round games after supper were always played. Sir George was
not a studious person. He never read, and he never wrote, except an
occasional cheque on account, for an importunate tradesman. His
correspondence was conducted by the telegraph or telephone; and the
room, therefore, was absorbed neither by books nor writing desks. It was
furnished solely with a view to comfort. There was a round table in the
centre, under a large moderator lamp which gave an exceptionally
brilliant light. A divan covered with dark brown velvet occupied three
sides of the room. A few choice pieces of old blue Oriental ware in the
corners enlivened the dark brown walls. Three or four easy chairs stood
about near the broad, old-fashioned fireplace, which had been improved
with a modern-antique brass grate and a blue and white tiled hearth.

'There isn't a room in my house that looks half as comfortable as this
den of yours, George,' said Mr. Smithson, as he seated himself by
Lesbia's side at the card table.

They had agreed to be partners. 'Partners at cards, even if we are not
to be partners for life,' Smithson had whispered, tenderly; and Lesbia's
only reply had been a modest lowering of lovely eyelids, and a faint,
faint blush. Lesbia's blushes were growing fainter every day.

'That is because everything in your house is so confoundedly handsome
and expensive,' retorted Sir George, who did not very much care about
being called George, _tout court_, by a person of Mr. Smithson's obscure
antecedents, but who had to endure the familiarity for reasons known
only to himself and Mr. Smithson. 'No man can expect to be comfortable
in a house in which every room has cost a small fortune. My wife
re-arranged this den half-a-dozen years ago when we took to sittin' here
of an evenin'. She picked up the chairs and the blue pots at Bonham's,
had everythin' covered with brown velvet - nice subdued tone, suit old
people - hung up that yaller curtain, just for a bit of colour, and here
we are.'

'It's the cosiest room in town,' said Colonel Delville, whereupon Mrs.
Mostyn, while counters were being distributed, explained to the company
on scientific principles _why_ the room was comfortable, expatiating
upon the effect of yellow and brown upon the retina, and some curious
facts relating to the optic machinery of water-fleas, as lately
discovered by a great naturalist.

Unfortunately for science, the game had now begun, and the players were
curiously indifferent as to the visual organs of water-fleas.

The game went on merrily till the pearly lights of dawn began to creep
through the chinks of Lady Kirkbank's yellow curtain. Everybody seemed
gay, yet everybody could not be winning. Fortune had not smiled upon
Lesbia's cards, or on those of her partner. The Smithson and Haselden
firm had come to grief. Lesbia's little ivory purse had been emptied of
its three or four half-sovereigns, and Mr. Smithson had been
capitalising a losing concern for the last two hours. And the play had
been fast and furious, although nominally for small stakes.

'I am afraid to think of how much I must owe you,' said Lesbia, when Mr.
Smithson bade her good night.

'Oh, nothing worth speaking of - sixteen or seventeen pounds, at most.'

Lesbia felt cold and creepy, and hardly knew whether it was the chill of
new-born day, or the sense of owing money to Horace Smithson. Those
three or four half-sovereigns to-night were the end of her last
remittance from Lady Maulevrier. She had had a great many remittances
from that generous grandmother; and the money had all gone, somehow. It
was gone, and yet she had paid for hardly anything. She had accounts
with all Lady Kirkbank's tradesmen. The money had melted away - it had
oozed out of her pockets - at cards, on the race-course, in reckless
gifts to servants and people, at fancy fairs, for trifles bought here
and there by the way-side, as it were, for the sake of buying. If she
had been suddenly asked for an account of her stewardship she could not
have told what she had done with half of the money. And now she must ask
for twenty pounds more, and immediately, to pay Mr. Smithson.

She went up to her room in the clear early light, and stood like a
statue, with fixed thoughtful eyes, while Kibble took off her finery,
the pretty pale yellow gown which set off her dark brown hair, her
violet eyes. For the first time in her life she felt the keen pang of
anxiety about money matters - the necessity to think of ways and means.
She had no idea how much money she had received from her grandmother
since she had begun her career in Scotland last autumn. The cheques had
been sent her as she asked for them; sometimes even before she asked for
them; and she had kept no account. She thought her grandmother was so
rich that expenditure could not matter. She supposed that she was
drawing upon an inexhaustible supply. And now Lady Kirkbank had told her
that Lady Maulevrier was not rich, as the world reckons nowadays. The
savings of a dowager countess even in forty years of seclusion could be
but a small fund to draw upon for the expenses of life at high pressure.

'The sums people spend nowadays are positively appalling,' said Lady
Kirkbank. 'A man with five or six thousand a year is an absolute pauper.
I'm sure our existence is only genteel beggary, and yet we spend over
ten thousand.'

Enlightened thus by the lips of the worldly-wise, Lesbia thought
ruefully of the bills which her grandmother would have to pay for her at
the end of the season, bills of the amount whereof she could not even
make an approximate guess. Seraphine's charges had never been discussed
in her hearing - but Lady Kirkbank had admitted that the creature was
dear.




CHAPTER XXIX.

'SWIFT SUBTLE POST, CARRIER OF GRISLY CARE.'


Maulevrier called in Arlington Street before twelve o'clock next day,
and found Lesbia just returning from her early ride, looking as fresh
and fair as if there had been no such thing as Nap or late hours in the
story of her life. She was reposing in a large easy chair by the open
window, in habit and hat, just as she had come from the Row, where she
had been laughing and chatting with Mr. Smithson, who jogged demurely by
her side on his short-legged hunter, dropping out envenomed little jokes
about the passers by. People who saw him riding by her side upon this
particular morning fancied there was something more than usual in the
gentleman's manner, and made up their minds that Lady Lesbia Haselden
was to be mistress of the fine house in Park Lane. Mr. Smithson had
fluttered and fluttered for the last five seasons; but this time the
flutterer was caught.

In her newly-awakened anxiety about money matters, Lesbia had forgotten
Mary's engagement: but the sight of Maulevrier recalled the fact.

'Come over here and sit down,' she said, 'and tell me this nonsense
about Mary. I am expiring with curiosity. The thing is too absurd.'

'Why absurd?' asked Maulevrier, sitting where she bade him, and
studiously perusing the name in his hat, as if it were a revelation.

'Oh, for a thousand reasons,' answered Lesbia, switching the flowers in
the balcony with her light little whip. 'First and foremost it is absurd
to think of any one so buried alive as poor Mary is finding an admirer;
and secondly - well - I don't want to be rude to my own sister - but Mary
is not particularly attractive.'

'Mary is the dearest girl in the world.'

'Very likely. I only said that she is not particularly attractive.'

'And do you think there is no attraction in goodness, in freshness and
innocence, candour, generosity - ?'

'I don't know. But I think that if Mary's nose had been a thought
longer, and if she had kept her skin free from freckles she would have
been almost pretty.'

'Do you really? Luckily for Mary the man who is going to marry her
thinks her lovely.'

'I suppose he likes freckles. I once heard a man say he did. He said
they were so original - so much character about them. And, pray, who is
the man?'

'Your old adorer, and my dear friend, John Hammond.'

Lesbia turned as pale as death - pale with rage and mortification. It was
not jealousy, this pang which rent her shallow soul. She had ceased to
care for John Hammond. The whirlpool of society had spun that first
fancy out of her giddy brain. But that a man who had loved the highest,
who had worshipped her, the peerless, the beautiful, should calmly
transfer his affections to her younger sister, was to the last degree
exasperating.

'Your friend Mr. Hammond must be a fickle fool,' she exclaimed, 'who
does not know his own mind from day to day.'

'Oh, but it was more than a day after you rejected him that he engaged
himself to Molly. It was all my doing, and I am proud of my work. I took
the poor fellow back to Fellside last March, bruised and broken by your
cruel treatment, heartsore and depressed. I gave him over to Molly, and
Molly cured him. Unconsciously, innocently, she won that noble heart.
Ah, Lesbia, you don't know what a heart it is which you so nearly
broke.'

'Girls in our rank of life can't afford to marry noble hearts,' said
Lesbia, scornfully. 'Do you mean to tell me that Lady Maulevrier
consented to the engagement?'

'She cut up rather rough at first; but Molly held her own like a young
lioness - and the grandmother gave way. You see she has a fixed idea that
Molly is a very second-rate sort of person compared with you, and that a
husband who was not nearly good enough for you might pass muster for
Molly; and so she gave way, and there isn't a happier young woman in
the three kingdoms than Mary Haselden.'

'What are they to live upon?' asked Lesbia, with an incredulous air.

'Mary will have her five hundred a year. And Hammond is a very clever
fellow. You may be sure he will make his mark in the world.'

'And how are they to live while he is making his mark? Five hundred a
year won't do more than pay for Mary's frocks, if she goes into
society.'

'Perhaps they will live without society.'

'In some horrid little hovel in one of those narrow streets off
Ecclestone Square,' suggested Lesbia, shudderingly. 'It is too dreadful
to think of - a young woman dooming herself to life-long penury, just
because she is so foolish as to fall in love.'

'Your days for falling in love are over, I suppose, Lesbia?' said
Maulevrier, contemplating his sister with keen scrutiny.

The beautiful face, so perfect in line and colour, curiously recalled
that other face at Fellside; the dowager's face, with its look of marble
coldness, and the half-expressed pain under that outward calm. Here was
the face of one who had not yet known pain or passion. Here was the cold
perfection of beauty with unawakened heart.

'I don't know; I am too busy to think of such things.'

'You have done with love; and you have begun to think of marriage, of
establishing yourself properly. People tell me you are going to marry
Mr. Smithson.'

'People tell you more about me than I know about myself.'

'Come now, Lesbia, I have a right to know the truth upon this point.
Your brother - your only brother - should be the first person to be told.'

'When I am engaged, I have no doubt you will be the first person, or the
second person,' answered Lesbia, lightly. 'Lady Kirkbank, living on the
premises, is likely to be the first.'

'Then you are not engaged to Smithson?'

'Didn't I tell you so just now? Mr. Smithson did me the honour to make
me an offer yesterday, at about this hour; and I did myself the honour
to reject him.'

'And yet you were whispering together in the box last night, and you
were riding in the Row with him this morning. I just met a fellow who
saw you together. Do you think it is right, Lesbia, to play fast and
loose with the man - to encourage him, if you don't mean to marry him?'

'How can you accuse me of encouraging a person whom I flatly refused
yesterday morning? If Mr. Smithson likes my society as a friend, must I
needs deny him my friendship, ask Lady Kirkbank to shut her door against
him? Mr. Smithson is very pleasant as an acquaintance; and although I
don't want to marry him, there's no reason I should snub him.'

'Smithson is not a man to be trifled with. You will find yourself
entangled in a web which you won't easily break through.'

'I am not afraid of webs. By-the-bye, is it true that Mr. Smithson is
likely to get a peerage?'

'I have heard people say as much. Smithson has spent no end of money on
electioneering, and is a power in the House, though he very rarely
speaks. His Berkshire estate gives him a good deal of influence in that
county; at the last general election he subscribed twenty thou to the
Conservative cause; for, like most men who have risen from nothing, your
friend Smithson is a fine old Tory. He was specially elected at the
Carlton six years ago, and has made himself uncommonly useful to his
party. He is supposed to be great on financial questions, and comes out
tremendously on colonial railways or drainage schemes, about which the
House in general is in profound ignorance. On those occasions Smithson
scores high. A man with immense wealth has always chances. No doubt, if
you were to marry him, the peerage would be easily managed. Smithson's
money, backed by the Maulevrier influence, would go a long way. My
grandmother would move heaven and earth in a case of that kind. You had
better take pity on Smithson.'

Lesbia laughed. That idea of a possible peerage elevated Smithson in her
eyes. She knew nothing of his political career, as she lived in a set
which ignored politics altogether. Mr. Smithson had never talked to her
of his parliamentary duties; and it was a new thing for her to hear that
he had some kind of influence in public affairs.

'Suppose I were inclined to accept him, would you like him as a
brother-in-law?' she asked lightly. 'I thought from your manner last
night that you rather disliked him.'

'I don't quite like him or any of his breed, the newly rich, who go
about in society swelling with the sense of their own importance,
perspiring gold, as it were. And one has always a faint suspicion of men
who have got rich very quickly, an idea that there must be some kind of
juggling. Not in the case of a great contractor, perhaps, who can point
to a viaduct and docks and railways, and say, "I built that, and that,
and that. These are the sources of my wealth." But a man who gets
enormously rich by mere ciphering! Where can his money come from, except
out of other people's pockets? I know nothing against your Mr. Smithson,
but I always suspect that class of men,' concluded Maulevrier shaking
his head significantly.

Lesbia was not much influenced by her brother's notions, she had never
been taught to think him an oracle. On the contrary, she had been told
that his life hitherto had been all foolishness.

'When are Mary and Mr. Hammond to be married?' she asked, 'Grandmother
says they must wait a year. Mary is much too young - and so on, and so
forth. But I see no reason for waiting.'

'Surely there are reasons - financial reasons. Mr. Hammond cannot be in a
position to begin housekeeping.'

'Oh, they will risk all that. Molly is a daring girl. He proposed to her
on the top of Helvellyn, in a storm of wind and rain.'

'And she never wrote me a word about it. How very unsisterly!'

'She is as wild as a hawk, and I daresay she was too shy to tell you
anything about it.'

'Pray when did it all occur?'

'Just before I came to London.'

'Two months ago. How absurd for me to be in ignorance all this time!
Well, I hope Mary will be sensible, and not marry till Mr. Hammond is
able to give her a decent home. It would be so dreadful to have a sister
muddling in poverty, and clamouring for one's cast-off gowns.'

Maulevrier laughed at this gloomy suggestion.

'It is not easy to foretell the future,' he said, 'but I think I may
venture to promise that Molly will never wear your cast-off gowns.'



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