Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 31

“A Worthless Woman, Mere Cold Clay.”

Neither Lydia Graham nor her brother were quick to recover from the disappointment caused by the untimely fate of Lionel Dale. Miss Graham endeavoured to sustain her failing spirits with the hope that in Douglas she might find a wealthier prize than his brother; but Douglas was yet to be enslaved by those charms which Lydia herself felt were on the wane, and by fascinations which twelve years of fashionable existence had rendered somewhat stale even to the fair Lydia’s most ardent admirers.

It was very bitter — the cup had been so near her lips, when an adverse destiny had dashed it from her. The lady’s grief was painfully sincere. She did not waste one lamentation on her lover’s sad fate, but she most bitterly regretted her own loss of a rich husband.

She watched and hoped day after day for the promised visit from Douglas Dale, but he did not come. Every day during visiting hours she wore her most becoming toilets; she arranged her small drawing-room with the studied carelessness of an elegant woman; she seated herself in her most graceful attitudes every time the knocker heralded the advent of a caller; but it was all so much wasted labour. The only guest whom she cared to see was not among those morning visitors; and Lydia’s heart began to be oppressed by a sense of despair.

“Well, Gordon, have you heard anything of Douglas Dale?” she asked her brother, day after day.

One day he came home with a very gloomy face, and when she uttered the usual question, he answered her in his gloomiest tone.

“I’ve heard something you’ll scarcely care to learn,” he said, “as it must sound the death-knell of all your hopes in that quarter. You know, Douglas Dale is a member of the Phoenix, as well as the Forum. I don’t belong to the Phoenix, as you also know, but I meet Dale occasionally at the Forum. Yesterday I lunched with Lord Caversham, a member of the Phoenix, and an acquaintance of Dale’s; and from him I learned that Douglas Dale has publicly announced his intended marriage with Paulina Durski.”

“Impossible!” exclaimed Lydia.

She had heard of Paulina and the villa at Fulham from her brother, and she hated the lovely Austrian for the beauty and the fascination which won her a kind of renown amongst the fops and lordlings — the idlers and spendthrifts of the fashionable clubs.

“It cannot be true,” cried Miss Graham, flushing crimson with anger. “It is one of Lord Caversham’s absurd stories; and I dare say is without the slightest foundation. I cannot and will not believe that Douglas Dale would throw himself away upon such a woman as this Madame Durski.”

“You have never seen her?”

“Of course not.”

“Then don’t speak so very confidently,” said Captain Graham, who was malicious enough to take some pleasure in his sister’s discomfiture. “Paulina Durski is one of the handsomest women I ever saw; not above five-and-twenty years of age — elegant, fascinating, patrician — a woman for whose sake a wiser man than Douglas Dale might be willing to sacrifice himself.”

“I will see Mr. Dale,” exclaimed Lydia. “I will ascertain from his own lips whether there is any foundation for this report.”

“How will you contrive to see him?” “You must arrange that for me. You can invite him to dinner.”

“I can invite him; but the question is whether he will come. Perhaps, if you were to write him a note, he would be more flattered than by any verbal invitation from me.”

Lydia was not slow to take this hint. She wrote one of those charming and flattering epistles which an artful and self-seeking woman of the world so well knows how to pen. She expressed her surprise and regret at not having seen Mr. Dale since her return to town — her fear that he might be ill, her hope that he would accept an invitation to a friendly dinner with herself and her brother, who was also most anxious about him.

She was not destined to disappointment. On the following day she received a brief note from Mr. Dale, accepting her invitation for the next evening.

The note was very stiffly — nay, almost coldly worded; but Lydia attributed the apparent lack of warmth to the reserved nature of Douglas Dale, rather than to any failure of her own scheme.

The fact that he accepted her invitation at all, she considered a proof of the falsehood of the report about his intended marriage, and a good omen for herself.

She took care to provide a recherché little dinner for her important guest, low as the finances of herself and her brother were — and were likely to be for some time to come. She invited a dashing widow, who was her obliging friend and neighbour, and who was quite ready to play propriety for the occasion. Lydia Graham looked her handsomest when Douglas Dale was ushered into her presence that evening; but she little knew how indifferent were the eyes that contemplated her bold, dark beauty; and how, even as he looked at her, Douglas Dale’s thoughts wandered to the fair, pale face of Paulina Durski — that face, which for him was the loveliest that had ever beamed with light and beauty below the stars.

The dinner was to all appearance a success. Nothing could be more cordial or friendly, as it seemed, than that party of four, seated at a prettily decorated circular table, attended by a well-trained man~servant — the dashing widow’s butler and factotum, borrowed for the occasion.

Mrs. Marmaduke, the dashing widow, made herself very agreeable, and took care to engage Captain Graham in conversation all the evening, leaving Lydia free to occupy the entire attention of Douglas Dale.

That young lady made excellent use of her time. Day by day her chances of a rich marriage had grown less and less, and day by day she had grown more and more anxious to secure a position and a home. She had a very poor opinion of Mr. Dale’s intellect, for she believed only in the cleverness of those bolder and more obtrusive men who make themselves prominent in every assembly. She thought him a man easily to be beguiled by honeyed words and bewitching glances, and she had, therefore, determined to play a bold, if not a desperate game. While Mrs. Marmaduke and Captain Graham were talking in the front drawing~room, Lydia contrived to detain her guest in the inner apartment — a tiny chamber, just large enough to hold a small cottage piano, a stand of music-books, and a couple of chairs.

Miss Graham seated herself at the piano, and played a few bars with an absent and somewhat pensive air.

“That is a mournful melody,” said Douglas. “I don’t think I ever heard it before.”

“Indeed!” murmured Lydia; “and yet I think it is very generally known. The air is pretty, is it not? But the words are ultra-sentimental.”

And then she began to sing softly —

“I do not ask to offer thee

   A timid love like mine;

I lay it, as the rose is laid,

   On some immortal shrine.”

“I think the words are rather pretty,” said Douglas.

“Do you?” murmured Miss Graham; and then she stopped suddenly, looking downward, with one of those conscious blushes which were always at her command.

There was a pause. Douglas Dale stood by the music-stand, listlessly turning over a volume of songs.

Lydia was the first to break the silence.

“Why did you not come to see us sooner, Mr. Dale?” she asked. “You promised me you would come.”

“I have been too much engaged to come,” answered Douglas.

This reply sounded almost rude; but to Lydia this unpolished manner seemed only the result of extreme shyness, and, indeed, embarrassment, which to her appeared proof positive of her intended victim’s enthralment.

Her eyes grew bright with a glance of triumph.

“I shall win,” she thought to herself; “I shall win.”

“Have you really wished to see me?” asked Douglas, after another pause.

“I did indeed wish to see you,” she murmured, in tremulous tones.

“Indeed!” said Douglas, in a tone that might mean astonishment, delight, or anything else. “Well, Miss Graham, that was very kind of you. I go out very little, and never except to the houses of intimate friends.”

“Surely you number us — my brother, I mean — among that privileged class,” said Lydia, once more blushing bewitchingly.

“I do, indeed,” said Douglas Dale, in a candid, kind, unembarrassed tone, which, if she had been a little less under the dominion of that proverbially blinding quality, vanity, would have been the most discouraging of all possible tones, to the schemes which she had formed; “I never forget how high you stood in my poor brother’s esteem, Miss Graham; indeed, if you will pardon my saying so, I thought there was a much warmer feeling than that, on his part.”

Lydia hardly knew how to take this observation. In one sense it was flattering, in another discouraging. If the belief brought Douglas Dale into easier relations with her, if it induced him to feel that a bond of friendship, cemented by the memory of the past, subsisted between them, so much the better for her purpose; but if he believed that this supposed love of Lionel’s had been returned, and proposed to cultivate her on the mutual sympathy, or “weep with thee, tear for tear,” principle, so much the worse. The position was undeniably embarrassing even to a young lady of Miss Lydia Graham’s remarkable strength of mind, and savoir faire. But she extricated herself from it, without speaking, by some wonderful management of her eyes, and a slight deprecatory movement of her shoulders, which made even Douglas Dale, a by no means ready man, though endowed with deep feelings and strong common sense, understand, as well as if she had spoken, that Lionel had indeed entertained feelings of a tender nature towards her, but that she had not returned them by any warmer sentiment than friendship. It was admirably well done; and the next sentence which Douglas Dale spoke was certainly calculated to nourish Lydia’s hopes.

“He might have sustained a terrible grief, then, had he lived longer,” said Douglas; “but I see this subject pains you, Miss Graham; I will touch upon it no more. But perhaps you will allow the recollection of what we must both believe to have been his feelings and his hopes, to plead with you for me.”

“For you, Mr. Dale!” and Lydia Graham’s breast heaved with genuine emotion, and her voice trembled with no artificial faltering.

“Yes, Miss Graham, for me. I need a friend, such a friend as you could be, if you would, to counsel and to aid me. But, pardon me, I am detaining you, and you have another guest.” (How ardently Lydia Graham wished she had not invited the accommodating widow to play propriety!) “You will permit me to visit you soon again, and we will speak of much which cannot now be discussed. May I come soon?”

As he spoke these hope-inspiring words, there was genuine eagerness in the tone of Douglas Dale’s voice, there was brightness in his frank eyes. No wonder Lydia held the story her brother had told her in scornful disbelief; no wonder she felt all the glow of the fulfilment of long-deferred hope. What would have been her sensations had she known that Douglas Dale’s only actuating motive in the proposed friendly alliance, was to secure a female friend for his adored Paulina, to gain for her the countenance and protection of a woman whose place in society was recognized and unassailable?

“You will excuse my joining your brother and your friend now, will you not, Miss Graham? I must, at all events, have taken an early leave of you, and this conversation has given me much to think of. I shall see you soon again. Good night!”

He moved hastily, passed through the door of the small apartment which, opened on the staircase, and was gone. Lydia Graham remained alone for a few moments, in a triumphant reverie, then she joined Gordon Graham and the bewitching widow, who had been making the most of the opportunity for indulging in her favourite florid style of flirtation.

“I have won,” Lydia said to herself; “and how easily! Poor fellow; his agitation was really painful. He did not even stop to shake hands with me.”

Mrs. Marmaduke took leave of her dearest Lydia, and her dearest Lydia’s brother, soon after Douglas Dale had departed, and Miss Graham and her brother were left tête-à-tête.

“Well,” said Gordon Graham, with rather a sulky air, “you don’t seem to have done much execution by your dinner-party, my young lady. Dale went off in a great hurry, which does not say much for your powers of fascination.”

Lydia gave her head a triumphant little toss as she looked at her brother.

“You are remarkably clever, my dear Gordon,” she said; “but you are apt to make mistakes occasionally, in spite of your cleverness. What should you say if I were to tell you that Mr. Dale has this evening almost made me an offer of his hand?”

“You don’t mean to say so?”

“I do mean to say so,” answered Lydia, triumphantly. “He is one of that eccentric kind of people who have their own manner of doing things, and do not care to tread the beaten track; or it may be that it is only his reserved nature which renders him strange and awkward in his manner of avowing himself.”

“Never mind how awkwardly the offer has been made, provided it is genuine,” returned the practical Captain Graham. “But I don’t like ‘almosts.’ Besides, you really must mind what you are about, Lydia; for I assure you there is no doubt at all about the fact of his engagement. He stated it himself.”

“Well, and suppose he did,” said Lydia, “and suppose some good-for~nothing woman, in an equivocal position, has trapped him into an offer. Is he the first man who has got into a dilemma of that kind, and got out of it? He thought I cared for Lionel, and that so there was no hope for him. I can quite understand his getting himself into an entanglement of the kind, under such circumstances.”

Gordon Graham smiled, a certain satirical smile, intensely irritating to his sister’s temper (which she called her nerves), and which it was rather fortunate she did not see. He was perfectly alive to the omnivorous quality of his sister’s vanity, and perfectly aware that it had on many occasions led her into a fool’s paradise, whence she had been ejected into the waste regions of disappointment and bitterness of spirit. He had been quite willing that she should try the experiment upon Douglas Dale, to which that gentleman had just been subjected; but he had not been sanguine as to its results, and he did not implicitly confide in the very exhilarating statement now made to him by Lydia. If Douglas Dale’s “almost” proposal meant nothing more than that he would be glad, or implied that he would be glad to be off with Paulina and on with Lydia, he did not think very highly of the chances of the latter. A man of the world, in the worst sense of that widely significant word, Gordon Graham was inclined to think that Douglas Dale was merely trifling with his sister, indulging in a “safe” flirtation, under the aegis of an avowed engagement. Graham felt very anxious to know the particulars of the conversation between Dale and his sister, in order to discover how far they bore out his theory; but he knew Lydia too well to place implicit reliance on any statement of them he might elicit from her.

“Well, but,” said he, “supposing you are right in all this, the ‘entanglement,’ as you call it, exists. How did he explain, or excuse it?”

Lydia smiled, a self-satisfied, contemptuous smile. She was not jealous of Madame Durski; she despised her. “He did not excuse it; he did not explain; he knows he has no severity to fear from me. All he needs is to induce me to acknowledge my affection for him, and then he will soon rid himself of all obstacles. Don’t be afraid, Gordon; this is a great falling off from the ambitions I once cherished, the hopes I once formed; this is a very different kind of thing from Sir Oswald Eversleigh and Raynham Castle, but I have made up my mind to be content with it.”

Lydia spoke with a kind of virtuous resignation and resolution, infinitely assuring to her brother. But he was getting tired of the discussion, and desirous to end it. Anxious as he was to be rid of his sister, and to effect the riddance on the best possible terms, he did not mean to be bored by her just then. So he spoke to the point at once.

“That’s rather a queer mode of proceeding,” he said. “You are to avow your affection for this fine gentleman, and then he is to throw over another lady in order to reward your devotion. There was a day when Miss Graham’s pride would have been outraged by a proposition which certainly seems rather humiliating.”

Lydia flushed crimson, and looked at her brother with angry eyes. She felt the sting of his malicious speech, and knew that it was intended to wound her.

“Pride and I have long parted company,” she answered, bitterly. “I have learnt to endure degradation as placidly as you do when you condescend to become the toady and flatterer of richer men than yourself.”

Captain Graham did not take the trouble to resent this remark. He smiled at his sister’s anger, with the air of a man who is quite indifferent to the opinion of others.

“Well, my dear Lydia,” he said, good-humouredly, “all I can say is, that if you have caught the brother of your late admirer, you are very lucky. The merest schoolboy knows enough arithmetic to be aware that ten thousand a year is twice as good as five. And it certainly is not every woman’s fortune to be able to recover a chance which seemed so nearly lost as yours when we left Hallgrove. By all means nail him to his proposition, and let him throw over the lovely Paulina. What a fool the man must be not to know his mind a little better!”

“Madame Durski entrapped him into the engagement,” said Lydia, scornfully.

“Ah, to be sure, women have a way of laying snares of the matrimonial kind, as you and I know, my dear Lydia. And now, good night. Go and think about your trousseau in the silence of your own apartment.”

Lydia Graham fell asleep that night, secure in the certainty that the end and aim of her selfish life had been at last attained, and disposed to regard the interval as very brief that must elapse before Douglas Dale would come to throw himself at her feet.

For a day or two unwonted peace and serenity were observable in Lydia Graham’s demeanour and countenance. She took even more than the ordinary pains with her dress; she arranged her little drawing-room more than ever effectively and with sedulous care, and she remained at home every afternoon, in spite of fine weather and an unusual number of invitations. But Douglas Dale made no sign, he did not come, he did not write, and all his enthusiastic declarations seemed to have ended in nothing. The truth was that Paulina Durski was ill, and in his anxiety and uneasiness, Douglas forgot even the existence of Lydia Graham.

A vague alarm began to fill Lydia’s mind, and she felt as if the good establishment, the liberal allowance of pin-money, the equipages, the clever French maid, the diamonds, and all the other delightful things which she had looked upon almost as already her own, were suddenly vanishing away like a dream.

Miss Graham was in no very amiable humour when, after a week’s watching and suspense, she descended to the dining-room, a small and shabbily furnished apartment, which bore upon it the stamp peculiar to London lodging-houses — an aspect which is just the reverse of everything we look for in a home.

Gordon Graham was already seated at the breakfast-table.

A letter for Miss Graham lay by the side of her breakfast-cup — a bulky document, with four stamps upon the envelope.

Lydia knew the hand too well. It was that of her French milliner, Mademoiselle Susanne, to whom she owed a sum which she knew never could be paid out of her own finances. The thought of this debt had been a perpetual nightmare to her. There was no such thing as bankruptcy for a lady of fashion in those days; and it was in the power of Mademoiselle Susanna to put her high-bred creditor into a common prison, and detain her there until she had passed the ordeal of the Insolvent Debtors’ Court.

Lydia opened the packet with a sinking heart. There it was, the awful bill, with its records of elegant dresses — every one of which had been worn with the hope of conquest, and all of which had, so far, failed to attain the hoped-for victory. And at the end of that long list came the fearful total — close upon three hundred pounds!

“I can never pay it!” murmured Lydia; “never! never!”

Her involuntary exclamation sounded almost like a cry of despair.

Gordon Graham looked up from the newspaper in which he had been absorbed until this moment, and stared at his sister.

“What’s the matter?” he exclaimed. “Oh, I see! it’s a bill — Susanne’s, I suppose? Well, well, you women will make yourselves handsome at any cost, and you must pay for it sooner or later. If you can secure Douglas Dale, a cheque from him will soon settle Mademoiselle Susanne, and make her your humble slave for the future. But what has gone wrong with you, my Lydia? Your brow wears a gloomy shade this morning. Have you received no tidings of your lover?”

“Gordon,” said Lydia, passionately, “do not taunt me. I don’t know what to think. But I have played a desperate game — I have risked all upon the hazard of this die — and if I have failed I must submit to my fate. I can struggle no longer; I am utterly weary of a life that has brought me nothing but disappointment and defeat.”

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