Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 42

‘Shall it Be?’

While Lord Hartfield sat in his friend’s office in Great George Street reading the life story of Gomez de Montesma, told with the cruel precision and the unvarnished language of a criminal indictment, the hero of that history was gliding round the spacious ballroom of the Cowes Club, with Lady Lesbia Haselden’s dark-brown head almost reclining on his shoulder, her violet eyes looking up at his every now and then, shyly, entrancingly, as he bent his head to talk to her.

The Squadron Ball was in full swing between midnight and the first hour of morning. The flowers had not lost their freshness, the odours of dust and feverish human breath had not yet polluted the atmosphere. The windows were open to the purple night, the purple sea. The stars seemed to be close outside the verandah, shining on purpose for the dancers; and these two — the man tall, pale, dark, with flashing eyes and short, sleek raven hair, small head, noble bearing; the girl divinely lovely in her marble purity of complexion, her classical grace of form — these two were, as every one avowed and acknowledged, the handsomest couple in the room.

‘We’re none of us in it compared with them,’ said a young naval commander to his partner, whereupon the young lady looked somewhat sourly, and replied that Lady Lesbia’s features were undeniably regular and her complexion good, but that she was wanting in soul.

‘Is she?’ asked the sailor, incredulously, ‘Look at her now. What do you call that, if it isn’t soul?’

‘I call it simply disgraceful,’ answered his partner, sharply turning away her head.

Lesbia was looking up at the Spaniard, her lips faintly parted, all her face listening eagerly as she caught some whispered word, breathed among the soft ripples of her hair, from lips that almost touched her brow. People cannot go on waltzing for ten minutes in a dead silence, like automatic dancers. There must be conversation. Only it is better that the lips should do most of the talking. When the eyes have so much to say society is apt to be censorious.

Mr. Smithson was smoking a cigarette on the lawn with a sporting peer. A man to whom tobacco is a necessity cannot be always on guard; but it is quite possible that in the present state of Lady Lesbia’s feelings Smithson would have had no restraining influence had he been ever so watchful. To what act in the passion drama had her love come to-night as she floated round the room, with her head inclined towards her lover’s breast, the strong pulsation of his heart sounding in her ear, like the rhythmical beat of the basses yonder in Waldteufel’s last waltz? Was there still the uncertainty as to the denouement which marks the third act of a good play? or was there the dread foreboding, the sense of impending doom which should stir the spectators with pity and terror as the fourth act hurries to its passionate close? Who could tell? She had been full of life and energy to-day on board the yacht during the racing, in which she seemed to take an ardent interest. The Cayman had followed the racers for three hours through a freshening sea, much to Lady Kirkbank’s disgust, and Lesbia had been the soul of the party. The same yesterday. The yacht had only got back to Cowes in time for the ball, and all had been hurry and excitement while the ladies dressed and crossed to the club, the spray dashing over their opera mantles, poor Lady Kirkbank’s complexion yellow with mal de mer, in spite of a double coating of Blanc de Fedora, the last fashionable cosmetic.

To-night Lesbia was curiously silent, depressed even, as it seemed to those who were interested in observing her; and all the world is interested in a famous beauty. She was very pale, even her lips were colourless, and the large violet eyes and firmly pencilled brows alone gave colour to her face. She looked like a marble statue, the eyes and eyebrows accentuated with touches of colour. Those lovely eyes had a heavy look, as of trouble, weariness; nay, absolute distress.

Never had she looked less brilliant than to-night; never had she looked more beautiful. It was the loveliness of a newly-awakened soul. The wonderful Pandora-casket of life, with its infinite evil, its little good, had given up its secret. She knew what passionate love really means. She knew what such love mostly means — self-sacrifice, surrender of the world’s wealth, severance from friends, the breaking of all old ties. To love as she loved means the crossing of a river more fatal than the Rubicon, the casting of a die more desperate than that which Caesar flung upon the board when he took up arms against the Republic.

The river was not yet crossed, but her feet were on the margin, wet with the ripple of the stream. The fatal die was not yet cast, but the dice-box was in her hand ready for the throw. Lesbia and Montesma danced together — not too often, three waltzes out of sixteen — but when they were so waltzing they were the cynosure of the room. That betting of which Maulevrier had heard was rife to-night, and the odds upon the Cuban had gone up. It was nine to four now that those two would be over the border before the week was out.

Mr. Smithson was not neglectful of his affianced. He took her into the supper-room, where she drank some Moselle cup, but ate nothing. He sat out three or four waltzes with her on the lawn, listening to the murmer of the sea, and talking very little.

‘You are looking wretchedly ill to-night, Lesbia,’ he said, after a dismal silence.

‘I am sorry that I should put you to shame by my bad looks,’ she answered, with that keen acidity of tone which indicates irritated nerves.

‘You know that I don’t mean anything of the kind; you are always lovely, always the loveliest everywhere; but I don’t like to see you so ghastly pale.’

‘I suppose I am over-fatigued: that I have done too much in London and here. Life in Westmoreland was very different,’ she added, with a sigh, and a touch of wonder that the Lesbia Haselden, whose methodical life had never been stirred by a ruffle of passion, could have been the same flesh and blood — yes, verily, the same woman, whose heart throbbed so vehemently to-night, whose brain seemed on fire.

‘Are you sure there is nothing the matter?’ he asked, with a faint quiver in his voice.

‘What should there be the matter?’

‘Who can say? God knows that I know no cause for evil. I am honest enough, and faithful enough, Lesbia. But your face to-night is like a presage of calamity, like the dull, livid sky that goes before a thunderstorm.’

‘I hope there is no thunderbolt coming,’ she answered, lightly. ‘What very tall talk about a headache, for really that is all that ails me. Hark, they have begun “My Queen.” I am engaged for this waltz.’

‘I am sorry for that.’

‘So am I. I would ever so much rather have stayed out here.’

Two hours later, in the steely morning light, when sea and land and sky had a metallic look as if lit by electricity, Lady Lesbia stood with her chaperon and her affianced husband on the landing stage belonging to the club, ready to step into the boat in which six swarthy seamen in red shirts and caps were to row them back to the yacht. Mr. Smithson drew the warm sortie de bal, with its gold-coloured satin lining and white fox border, closer round Lesbia’s slender form.

‘You are shivering,’ he said; ‘you ought to have warmer wraps.

‘This is warm enough for St. Petersburg. I am only tired — very tired.’

‘The Cayman will rock you to sleep.’

Don Gomez was standing close by, waiting for his host. The two men were to walk up the hill to Formosa, a village with a classic portico, delightfully situated above the town.

‘What time are we to come to breakfast? asked Mr. Smithson.

‘Not too early, in mercy’s name. Two o’clock in the afternoon, three, four; — why not make it five — combine breakfast with afternoon tea,’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, with a tremendous yawn. ‘I never was so thoroughly fagged; I feel as if I had been beaten with sticks, basti — what’s its name.’

She was leaning all her weight upon Mr. Smithson, as he handed her down the steps and into the boat. Her normal weight was not a trifle, and this morning she was heavy with champagne and sleep. Carefully as Smithson supported her she gave a lurch at the bottom of the steps, and plunged ponderously into the boat, which dipped and careened under her, whereat she shrieked, and implored Mr. Smithson to save her.

All this, occupied some minutes, and gave Lesbia and the Cuban just time for a few words that had to be said somehow.

‘Good-night,’ said Montesma, as they clasped hands; ‘good-night;’ and then in a lower voice he said, ‘Well, have you decided at last? Shall it be?’

She looked at him for a moment or so, pale in the starlight, and then murmured an almost inaudible syllable.

‘Yes.’

He bent quickly and pressed his lips upon her gloved hand, and when Mr. Smithson looked round they two were standing apart, Montesma in a listless attitude, as if tired of waiting for his host.

It was Smithson who handed Lesbia into the boat and arranged her wraps, and hung over her tenderly as he performed those small offices.

‘Now really,’ he asked, just before the boat put off, ‘when are we to be with you to-morrow?’

‘Lady Kirkbank says not till afternoon tea, but I think you may come a few hours earlier. I am not at all sleepy.’

‘You look as if you needed sleep badly,’ answered Smithson. ‘I’m afraid you are not half careful enough of yourself. Good-night.’

The boat was gliding off, the oars dipping, as he spoke. How swiftly it shot from his ken, flashing in and out among the yachts, where the lamps were burning dimly in that clear radiance of new-born day.

Montesma gave a tremendous yawn as he took out his cigar-case, and he and Mr. Smithson did not say twenty words between them during the walk to Formosa, where servants were sitting up, lamps burning, a great silver tray, with brandy, soda, liqueurs, coffee, in readiness.

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