Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13

‘Since Painted or Not Painted All Shall Fade.’

Fräulein Müller and her charge returned from St. Bees after a sojourn of about three weeks upon that quiet shore: but Lady Lesbia did not appear to be improved in health or spirits by the revivifying breezes of the ocean.

‘It is a dull, horrid place, and I was bored to death there!’ she said, when Mary asked how she had enjoyed herself. ‘There was no question of enjoyment. Grandmother took it into her head that I was looking ill, and sent me to the sea; but I should have been just as well at Fellside.’

This meant that between Lesbia and that distinctly inferior being, her younger sister, there was to be no confidence. Mary had watched the life-drama acted under her eyes too closely not to know all about it, and was not inclined to be so put off.

That pale perturbed countenance of John Hammond’s, those eager inquiring eyes looking to the door which opened not, had haunted Mary’s waking thoughts, had even mingled with the tangled web of her dreams. Oh, how could any woman scorn such love? To be so loved, and by such a man, seemed to Mary the perfection of earthly bliss. She had never been educated up to those wider and loftier views of life, which teach a woman that houses and lands, place and power, are the supreme good.

‘I can’t understand how you could treat that noble-minded man so badly,’ she exclaimed one day, when she and Lesbia were alone in the library, and after she had sat for ever so long, staring out of the window, meditating upon her sister’s cruelty.

‘Of whom are you speaking, pray?’

‘As if you didn’t know! Of Mr. Hammond.’

‘And pray, how do you know that he is noble-minded, or that I treated him badly?’

‘Well, as to his being noble-minded, that jumps to the eyes, as French books say. As for your treatment of him, I was looking on all the time, and I know how unkind you were, and I heard him talking to you in the fir-copse that day.’

‘You Were listening’ cried Lesbia indignantly.

‘I was not listening! I was passing by. And if people choose to carry on their love affairs out of doors they must expect to be overheard. I heard him pleading to you, telling you how he would work for you, fight the battle of life for you, asking you to be trustful and brave for his sake. But you have a heart of stone. You and grandmother both have hearts of stone. I think she must have taken out your heart when you were little, and put a stone in its place.’

‘Really,’ said Lesbia, trying to carry things with a high hand, albeit her very human heart was beating passionately all the time, ‘I think you ought to be very grateful to me — and grandmother — for refusing Mr. Hammond.’

‘Why grateful?’

‘Because it leaves you a chance of getting him for yourself; and everybody can see that you are over head and ears in love with him. That jumps to the eyes, as you say.’

Mary turned crimson, trembled with rage, looked at her sister as if she would kill her, for a moment or so, and finally burst into tears.

‘That is not true, and it is shameful for you to say such a thing,’ she cried.

‘Why, what a virago you are, Mary. Well, I’m very glad it is not true. Mr. Hammond is — yes, I will be quite candid with you — he is the only man I am ever likely to admire for his own sake. He is good, brave, clever, all that you think him. But you and I do not live in a world in which girls are free to follow their own inclinations. I should break Lady Maulevrier’s heart if I were to make a foolish marriage; and I owe her too much to set her wishes at naught, or to make her declining years unhappy. I must obey her, at any cost to my own feelings. Please never mention Mr. Hammond’s name. I’m sure I’ve had quite enough unhappiness about him.’

‘I see,’ said Mary, bitterly. ‘It is your own pain you think of, not his. He may suffer, so long as you are not worried.’

‘You are an impertinent chit,’ retorted Lesbia, ‘and you know nothing about it.’

After this there was no more said about Mr. Hammond; but Mary did not forget him. She wrote long letters to her brother, who was still in Scotland, shooting, deer-stalking, fishing, killing something or other daily, in the most approved fashion of an Englishman taking his pleasure. Maulevrier occasionally repaid her with a telegram; but he was not a good correspondent. He declared that life was too short for letter-writing.

Summer was gone; the lake was no longer a shining emerald floor, dotted with the reflection of the flock upon the verdant slopes above it, but dull and grey of hue, and broken by white-edged wavelets. Patches of snow gleamed on the misty heights of Helvellyn, and the autumn winds howled and shrieked around Fellside in the evenings, when all the shutters were shut, and the outside world seemed little more than an idea: that mystic hour when the sheep are slumbering under the starry sky, and when, as the Westmoreland peasant believes, the fairies help the housewife at her spinning-wheel.

Those October evenings were very long and weary for Lesbia and her sister. Lady Maulevrier read and mused in her low chair beside the fire, with her books piled upon her own particular table, and lighted by her own particular lamp. She talked very little, but she was always gracious to her granddaughters and their governess, and she liked them to be with her in the evening. Lesbia played or sang, or sat at work at her basket-table, which occupied the other side of the fireplace; and Fräulein and Mary had the rest of the room to themselves, as it were, those two places by the hearth being sacred, as if dedicated to household gods. Mary read immensely in those long evenings, devouring volume after volume, feeding her imagination with every kind of nutriment, good, bad, and indifferent. Fräulein Müller knitted a woollen shawl, which seemed to have neither beginning, middle, nor end, and was always ready for conversation, but there were times when silence brooded over the scene for long intervals, and when every sound of the light wood-ashes dropping on the tiled hearth was distinctly audible.

This state of things went on for about three weeks after Lesbia’s return from St. Bees, Lady Maulevrier watchful of her granddaughter all the time, though saying nothing. She saw that Lesbia was not happy, not as she had been in the time before the coming of John Hammond. She had never been particularly gay or light-hearted, never gifted with the wild spirits and buoyancy which make girlhood so lovely a season to some natures, a time of dance and song and joyousness, a morning of life steeped in the beauty and gladness of the universe. She had never been gay as young lambs and foals and fawns and kittens and puppy dogs are gay, by reason of the well-spring of delight within them, needing no stimulus from the outside world. She had been just a little inclined to murmur at the dulness of her life at Fellside; yet she had borne herself with a placid sweetness which had been Lady Maulevrier’s delight. But now there was a marked change in her manner. She was not the less submissive and dutiful in her bearing to her grandmother, whom she both loved and feared; but there were moments of fretfulness and impatience which she could not conceal. She was captious and sullen in her manner to Mary and the Fräulein. She would not walk or drive with them, or share in any of their amusements. Sometimes of an evening that studious silence of the drawing-room was suddenly broken by Lesbia’s weary sigh, breathed unawares as she bent over her work.

Lady Maulevrier saw, too, that Lesbia’s cheek was paler than of old, her eyes less bright. There was a heavy look that told of broken slumbers, there was a pinched look in that oval check. Good heavens! if her beauty were to pale and wane, before society had bowed down and worshipped it; if this fair flower were to fade untimely; if this prize rose in the garden of beauty were to wither and decay before it won the prize.

Her ladyship was a woman of action, and no sooner did this fear shape itself in her mind than she took steps to prevent the evil her thoughts foreshadowed.

Among those friends of her youth and allies of her house with whom she had always maintained an affectionate correspondence was Lady Kirkbank, the fashionable wife of a sporting baronet, owner of a castle in Scotland, a place in Yorkshire, a villa at Cannes, and a fine house in Arlington Street, with an income large enough for their enjoyment. When Lady Diana Angersthorpe shone forth in the West End world as the acknowledged belle of the season, the star of Georgina Lorimer was beginning to wane. She was the eldest daughter of Colonel Lorimer, a man of good old family, and a fine soldier, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with Gough and Lawrence, and who had contrived to make a figure in society with very small means. Georgina’s sisters had all married well. It was a case of necessity, the Colonel told them; they must either marry or gravitate ultimately to the workhouse. So the Miss Lorimers made the best use of their youth and freshness, and ‘no good offer refused’ was the guiding rule of their young lives. Lucy married an East India merchant, and set up a fine house in Porchester Terrace. Maud married wealth personified in the person of a leading member of the Tallow Chandlers’ Company, and had her town house and country house, and as fine a set of diamonds as a duchess.

But Georgina, the eldest, trifled with her chances, and her twenty-seventh birthday beheld her pouring out her father’s tea in a small furnished house in a street off Portland Place, which the Colonel had hired on his return from India, and which he declared himself unable to maintain another year.

‘Directly the season is over I shall give up housekeeping and take a lodging at Bath,’ said Colonel Lorimer. ‘If you don’t like Bath all the year round you can stay with your sisters.’

‘That is the last thing I am likely to do,’ answered Georgina; ‘my sisters were barely endurable when they were single and poor. They are quite intolerable now they are married and rich. I would sooner live in the monkey-house at the Zoological than stay with either Lucy or Maud.’

‘That’s rank envy,’ retorted her father ‘You can’t forgive them for having done so much better than you.’

‘I can’t forgive them for having married snobs. When I marry I shall marry a gentleman.’

‘When!’ echoed the parent, with a sneering laugh. ‘Hadn’t you better say “if”’?

At this period Georgina’s waning good looks were in some measure counterbalanced by the cumulative effects of half a dozen seasons in good society, which had given style to her person, ease to her manners, and sharpness to her tongue. Nobody in society said sharper or more unpleasant things than Miss Lorimer, and by virtue of this gift she got invited about a great deal more than she might have done had she been distinguished for sweetness of speech and manner. Georgie Lorimer’s presence at a dinner table gave just that pungent flavour which is like the faint suspicion of garlic in a fricassee or of tarragon in a salad.

Now in this very season, when Colonel Lorimer was inclined to speak of his daughter, as Sainte Beuve wrote of Musset, as a young woman with a very brilliant past, a lucky turn of events gave Georgina a fresh start in life, which may be called a new departure. Lady Diana Angersthorpe, the belle of the season, took a fancy to her, was charmed with her sharp tongue and acute sense of the ridiculous. The two became fast friends, and were seen everywhere together. The best men all flocked round the beauty, and all talked to the beauty’s companion: and before the season was over, Sir George Kirkbank, who had had half made up his mind to propose to Lady Diana, found himself engaged to that uncommonly jolly girl, Lady Diana’s friend. Georgina spent August and September with Lady Di, at the Marchioness of Carisbroke’s delightful villa in the Isle of Wight, and Sir George kept his yacht at Cowes all the time, and was in constant attendance upon his fiancée. It was George and Georgie everywhere. In October Colonel Lorimer had the profound pleasure of giving away his daughter, before the altar in St. George’s, Hanover Square, and it may be said of him that nothing in his relations with that young lady became him better than his manner of parting with her.

So the needy Colonel’s daughter became Lady Kirkbank, and in the following spring Diana Angersthorpe was married at the same St. George’s to the Earl of Maulevrier. The friends were divided by distance and by circumstance as the years rolled on; but friendship was steadily maintained; and a regular correspondence with Lady Kirkbank, whose pen was as sharp as her tongue, was one of the means by which Lady Maulevrier had kept herself thoroughly posted in all those small events, unrecorded by newspapers, which make up the secret history of society.

It was of her old friend Georgie that her ladyship thought in her present anxiety. Lady Kirkbank had more than once suggested that Lady Maulevrier’s granddaughters should vary the monotony of Fellside by a visit to her place near Doncaster, or her castle north of Aberdeen; but her ladyship had evaded these friendly suggestions, being very jealous of any strange influence upon Lesbia’s life. Now, however, there had come a time when Lesbia must have a complete change of scenery and surroundings, lest she should pine and dwindle in sullen submission to fate, or else defy the world and elope with John Hammond.

Now, therefore, Lady Maulevrier decided to accept Lady Kirkbank’s hospitality. She told her friend the whole story with perfect frankness, and her letter was immediately answered by a telegram.

‘I start for Scotland to-morrow, will break my journey by staying a night at Fellside, and will take Lady Lesbia on to Kirkbank with me next day, if she can be ready to go.’

‘She shall be ready,’ said Lady Maulevrier.

She told Lesbia that she had accepted an invitation for her, and that she was to go to Kirkbank Castle the day after to-morrow. She was prepared for unwillingness, resistance even; but Lesbia received the news with evident pleasure.

‘I shall be very glad to go,’ she said, ‘this place is so dull. Of course I shall be sorry to leave you, grandmother, and I wish you would go with me; but any change will be a relief. I think if I had to stay here all the winter, counting the days and the hours, I should go out of my mind.’

The tears came into her eyes, but she wiped them away hurriedly, ashamed of her emotion.

‘My dearest child, I am so sorry for you,’ murmured Lady Maulevrier. ‘But believe me the day will come when you will be very glad that you conquered the first foolish inclination of your girlish heart.’

‘Yes, I daresay, when I am eighty,’ Lesbia answered, impatiently. She had made up her mind to submit to the inevitable. She had loved John Hammond — had been as near breaking her heart for him as it was in her nature to break her heart for anybody; but she wanted to make a great marriage, to be renowned and admired. She had been reared and trained for that; and she was not going to belie her training.

A visitor from the great London world was so rare an event that there was naturally a little excitement in the idea of Lady Kirkbank’s arrival. The handsomest and most spacious of the spare bedrooms was prepared for the occasion. The housekeeper was told that the dinner must be perfect. There must be nothing old-fashioned or ponderous; there must be mind as well as matter in everything. Rarely did Lady Maulevrier look at a bill of fare; but on this particular morning she went carefully through the menu, and corrected it with her own hand.

A pair of post-horses brought Lady Kirkbank and her maid from Windermere station, in time for afternoon tea, and the friends who had only met twice within the last forty years, embraced each other on the threshold of Lady Maulevrier’s morning-room.

‘My dearest Di,’ cried Lady Kirkbank, ‘what a delight to see you again after such ages; and what a too lovely spot you have chosen for your retreat from the world, the flesh, and the devil. If I could be a recluse anywhere, it would be amongst just such delicious surroundings.’

Without, twilight shades were gathering; within, there was only the light of a fire and a shaded lamp upon the tea table; there was just light enough for the two women to see each other’s faces, and the change which time had wrought there.

Never did womanhood in advanced years offer a more striking contrast than that presented by the woman of fashion and the recluse. Lady Maulevrier was almost as handsome in the winter of her days as she had been when life was in its spring. The tall, slim figure, erect as a dart, the delicately chiselled features and alabaster complexion, the soft silvery hair, the perfect hand, whiter and more transparent than the hand of girlhood, the stately movements and bearing, all combined to make Lady Maulevrier a queen among woman. Her brocade gown of a deep shade of red, with a border of dark sable on cuffs and collar, suggested a portrait by Velasquez. She wore no ornaments except the fine old Brazilian diamonds which flashed and sparkled upon her slender fingers.

If Lady Maulevrier looked like a picture in the Escurial, Lady Kirkbank resembled a caricature in La Vie Parisienne. Everything she wore was in the very latest fashion of the Parisian demi-monde, that exaggerated elegance of a fashion plate which only the most exquisite of women could redeem from vulgarity. Plush, brocade, peacock’s feathers, golden bangles, mousquetaire gloves, a bonnet of purple plumage set off by ornaments of filagree gold, an infantine little muff of lace and wild flowers, buttercups and daisies; and hair, eyebrows and complexion as artificial as the flowers on the muff.

All that art could do to obliterate the traces of age had been done for Georgina Kirkbank. But seventy years are not to be obliterated easily, and the crow’s feet showed through the bloom de Ninon, and the eyes under the painted arches were glassy and haggard, the carnation lips had a withered look. Age was made all the more palpable by the artifice which would have disguised it.

Lady Maulevrier suffered an absolute shock at beholding the friend of her youth. She had not accustomed herself to the idea that women in society could raddle their cheeks, stain their lips, and play tricks before high heaven with their eyebrows and eyelashes. In her own youth painted faces had been the ghastly privilege of a class of womankind of which the women of society were supposed to know nothing. Persons who showed their ankles and rouged their cheeks were to be seen of an afternoon in Bond Street; but Lady Diana Angersthorpe had been taught to pass them by as if she saw them not, to behold without seeing these creatures outside the pale. And now she saw her own dearest friend, a person distinctly within the pale, plastered with bismuth and stained with carmine, and wearing hair of a colour so obviously false and inharmonious, that child-like faith could hardly accept it as reality. Forty years ago Lady Kirkbank’s long ringlets had been darkest glossiest brown, to-day she wore a tousled fringe of bright yellow, piquantly contrasting with Vandyke brown eyebrows.

It took Lady Maulevrier some moments to get over the shock. She drew a chair to the fire and established her friend in it, and then, with a little gasp, she said:

‘I am charmed to see you again, Georgie!’

‘You darling, I was sure you would be glad. But you must find me awfully changed — awfully.’

For worlds Lady Maulevrier could not have denied this truth. Happily Lady Kirkbank did not wait for an answer.

‘Society is so wearing, and George and I never seem to get an interval of quiet. Kirkbank is to be full of men next week. Your granddaughter will have a good time.’

‘There will be a few women, of course?’

‘Oh, yes, there’s no avoiding that; only one doesn’t reckon them. Sir George only counts his guns. We expect a splendid season. I shall send you some birds of my own shooting.’

‘You shoot!’ exclaimed Lady Maulevrier, amazed.

‘Shoot! I should think I do. What else is there to amuse one in Scotland, after the salmon fishing is over? I have never missed a season for the last thirty years, unless we have been abroad.’

‘Please, don’t innoculate Lesbia with your love of sport.’

‘What! you wouldn’t like her to shoot? Well, perhaps you are right. It is hardly the thing for a pretty girl with her fortune to make. It spoils the delicacy of the skin. But I’m afraid she’ll find Kirkbank dull if she doesn’t go out with the guns. She can meet us with the rest of the women at luncheon. We have some capital picnic luncheons on the moor, I can assure you.’

‘I know she will enjoy herself with you. She has been accustomed to a very quiet life here.’

‘It is a lovely spot; but I own I cannot understand how you can have lived here exclusively during all these years — you who used to be all life and fire, loving change, action, political and diplomatic society, to dance upon the crest of the wave, as it were. Your whole nature must have suffered some curious change.’

Their close intimacy of the past warranted freedom of speech in the present.

‘My nature did undergo a change, and a severe one,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, gloomily.

‘It was that horrid — and I daresay unfortunate scandal about his lordship; and then the sad shock of his death,’ murmured Lady Kirkbank, sympathetically. ‘Most women, with your youth and beauty, would have forgotten the scandal and the husband in a twelvemonth, and would have made a second marriage more brilliant than the first. But no Indian widow who ever performed suttee was more worthy of praise than you, or even that person of Ephesus, whose story I have heard somewhere. Indeed, I have always spoken of your life as a long suttee. But you mean to re-appear in society next season, I hope, when you present your granddaughter?’

‘I shall certainly go up to London to present her, and possibly I may spend the season in town; but I shall feel like Rip Van Winkle.’

‘No, no, you won’t, my dear Di. You have kept yourself au courant, I know. Even my silly gossiping letters may have been of some use.’

‘They have been most valuable. Let me give you another cup of tea,’ said Lady Maulevrier, who had been officiating at her own exquisite tea-table, an arrangement of inlaid woods, antique silver, and modern china, which her friend pronounced a perfect poem.

Indeed, the whole room was poetic, Lady Kirkbank declared, and there are many highly praised scenes which less deserve the epithet. The dark red walls and cedar dado, the stamped velvet curtains, of an indescribable shade between silver-grey and olive, the Sheraton furniture, the parqueterie floor and Persian prayer-rugs, the deep yet brilliant hues of crackle porcelain and Chinese cloisonné enamel, the artistic fireplace, with dog-stove, low brass fender, and ingle-nook recessed under the high mantelpiece, all combined to form a luxurious and harmonious whole.

Lady Kirkbank admired the tout ensemble in the fitful light of the fire, the dim grey of deepening twilight.

‘There never was a more delicious cell!’ she exclaimed, ‘but still I should feel it a prison, if I had to spend six weeks in the year in it. I never stay more than six weeks anywhere out of London; and I always find six weeks more than enough. The first fortnight is rapture, the third and fourth weeks are calm content, the fifth is weariness, the sixth a fever to be gone. I once tried a seventh week at Pontresina, and I hated the place so intensely that I dared not go back there for the next three years. But now tell me. Diana, have you really performed suttee, have you buried yourself alive in this sweet spot deliberately, or has the love of retirement grown upon you, and have you become a kind of lotus-eater?’

‘I believe I have become a kind of lotus-eater. My retirement here has been no sentimental sacrifice to Lord Maulevrier’s memory.’

‘I am glad to hear that; for I really think the worst possible use a woman can make of her life is in wasting it on lamentation for a dead and gone husband. Life is odiously short at the best, and it is mere imbecility to fritter away any of our scanty portion upon the dead, who can never be any the better for our tears.’

‘My motive in living at Fellside was not reverence for the dead. And now let us talk of the gay world, of which you know all the secrets. Have you heard anything more about Lord Hartfield?’

‘Ah, there is a subject in which you have reason to be interested. I have not forgotten the romance of your youth — that first season in which Ronald Hollister used to haunt every place at which you appeared. Do you remember that wet afternoon at the Chiswick flower-show, when you and he and I took shelter in the orange house, and you two made love to each other most audaciously in an atmosphere of orange-blossoms that almost stifled me? Yes, those were glorious days!’

‘A short summer of gladness, a brief dream,’ sighed Lady Maulevrier. ‘Is young Lord Hartfield like his father?’

‘No, he takes after the Ilmingtons; but still there is a look of your old sweetheart — yes, I think there is an expression. I have not seen him for nearly a year. He is still abroad, roaming about somewhere in search of adventures. These young men who belong to the Geographical and the Alpine Club are hardly ever at home.’

‘But though they may be sometimes lost to society, they are all the more worthy of society’s esteem when they do appear,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘I think there must be an ennobling influence in Alpine travel, or in the vast solitudes of the Dark Continent. A man finds himself face to face with unsophisticated nature, and with the grandest forces of the universe. Professor Tyndall writes delightfully of his Alpine experiences; his mind seems to have ripened in the solitude and untainted air of the Alps. And I believe Lord Hartfield is a young man of very high character and of considerable cultivation, is he not?’

‘He is a splendid young fellow. I never heard a word to his disparagement, even from those people who pretend to know something bad about everybody. What a husband he would make for one of your girls!’

‘Admirable! But those perfect arrangements, which seem predestined by heaven itself, are so rarely realised on earth,’ answered the dowager, lightly.

She was not going to show her cards, even to an old friend.

‘Well, it would be very sweet if they were to meet next season and fall in love with each other,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘He is enormously rich, and I daresay your girls will not be portionless.’

‘Lesbia may take a modest place among heiresses,’ answered Lady Maulevrier. ‘I have lived so quietly during the last forty years that I could hardly help saving money.’

‘How nice!’ sighed Georgie. ‘I never saved sixpence in my life, and am always in debt.’

‘The little fortune I have saved is much too small for division. Lesbia will therefore have all I can leave her. Mary has the usual provision as a daughter of the Maulevrier house.’

‘And I suppose Lesbia has that provision also?’

‘Of course.’

‘Lucky Lesbia. I only wish Hartfield were coming to us for the shooting. I would engage he should fall in love with her. Kirkbank is a splendid place for match-making. But the fact is I am not very intimate with him. He is almost always travelling, and when he is at home he is not in our set. And now, my dear Diana, tell me more about yourself, and your own life in this delicious place.’

‘There is so little to tell. The books I have read, the theories of literature and art and science which I have adopted and dismissed, learnt and forgotten — those are the history of my life. The ideas of the outside world reach me here only in books and newspapers; but you who have been living in the world must have so much to say. Let me be the listener.’

Lady Kirkbank desired nothing better. She rattled on for three-quarters of an hour about her doings in the great world, her social triumphs, the wonderful things she had done for Sir George, who seemed to be as a puppet in her hands, the princes and princelings she had entertained, the songs she had composed, the comedy she had written, for private representation only, albeit the Haymarket manager was dying to produce it, the scathing witticisms with which she had withered her social enemies. She would have gone on much longer, but for the gong, which reminded her that it was time to dross for dinner.

Half-an-hour later Lady Kirkbank was in the drawing-room, where Mary had retired to the most shadowy corner, anxious to escape the gaze of the fashionable visitor.

But Lady Kirkbank was not inclined to take much notice of Mary. Lesbia’s brilliant beauty, the exquisite Greek head, the faultless complexion, the deep, violet eyes, caught Georgina Kirkbank’s eye the moment she had entered the room, and she saw that this girl and no other must be the beauty, the beloved and chosen grandchild.

‘How do you do, my dear?’ she said, taking Lesbia’s hand, and then, as if with a gush of warm feeling, suddenly drawing the girl towards her and kissing her on both cheeks. ‘I am going to be desperately fond of you, and I hope you will soon contrive to like me — just a little.’

‘I feel sure that I shall like you very much,’ Lesbia answered sweetly. ‘I am prepared to love you as grandmother’s old friend.’

‘Oh, my dear, to think that I should ever be the old friend of anybody’s grandmother!’ sighed Lady Kirkbank, with unaffected regret. ‘When I was your age I used to think all old people odious. It never occurred to me that I should live to be one of them.’

‘Then you had no dear grandmother whom you loved,’ said Lesbia, ‘or you would have liked old people for her sake.’

‘No, my love, I had no grandparents. I had a father, and he was all-sufficient — anything beyond him in the ancestral line would have been a burden laid upon me greater than I could bear, as the poet says.’

Dinner was announced, and Mary came shyly out of her corner, blushing deeply.

‘And this is Lady Mary, I suppose?’ said Lady Kirkbank, in an off-hand way, ‘How do you do, my dear? I am going to steal your sister.’

‘I am very glad,’ faltered Mary. ‘I mean I am glad that Lesbia should enjoy herself.’

‘And some fine day, when Lesbia is married and a great lady, I shall ask you to come to Scotland,’ said Lady Kirkbank, condescendingly, and than she murmured in her friend’s ear, as they went to the dining-room, ‘Quite an English girl. Very fresh and frank and nice,’ which was great praise for such a second-rate young person as Lady Mary.

‘What do you think of Lesbia?’ asked Lady Maulevrier, in the same undertone.

‘She is simply adorable. Your letters prepared me to expect beauty, but not such beauty. My dear, I thought the progress of the human race was all in a downward line since our time; but your granddaughter is as handsome as you were in your first season, and that is going very far.’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31