Lady Lesbia ate no luncheon that day. She went to her own room and had a cup of tea to steady her nerves, and sent to ask Lady Kirkbank to go to her as soon as she had finished luncheon. Lady Kirkbank’s luncheon was a serious business, a substantial leisurely meal with which she fortified herself for the day’s work. It enabled her to endure all the fatigues of visits and park, and to be airily indifferent to the charms of dinner; for Lady Kirkbank was not one of those matrons who with advanced years take to gourmandise as a kind of fine art. She gave good dinners, because she knew people would not come to Arlington Street to eat bad ones; but she was not a person who lived only to dine. At luncheon she gave her healthy appetite full scope, and ate like a ploughman.
She found Lesbia in her white muslin dressing-gown, with cheeks as pale as the gown she wore. She was sitting in an easy chair, with a low tea-table at her side, and the two bills were in the tray among the tea-things.
‘Have you any idea how much I owe Seraphine and Cabochon?’ she asked, looking up despairingly at Lady Kirkbank.
‘What, have they sent in their bills already?’
‘Already! I wish they had sent them before. I should have known how deeply I was getting into debt.’
‘Are they very heavy?’
‘They are dreadful! I owe over two thousand pounds. How can I tell Lady Maulevrier that? Two thousand one hundred pounds! It is awful.’
‘There are women in London who would think very little of owing twice as much,’ said Lady Kirkbank, in a comforting tone, though the fact, seriously considered, could hardly afford comfort. ‘Your grandmother said you were to have carte blanche. She may think that you have been just a little extravagant; but she can hardly be angry with you for having taken her at her word. Two thousand pounds! Yes, it certainly is rather stiff.’
‘Seraphine is a cheat!’ exclaimed Lesbia, angrily. ‘Her prices are positively exorbitant!’
‘My dear child, you must not say that. Seraphine is positively moderate in comparison with the new people.’
‘And Mr. Cabochon, too. The idea of his charging me three hundred guineas for re-setting those stupid old amethysts.’
‘My dear, you would have diamonds mixed with them,’ said Lady Kirkbank, reproachfully.
Lesbia turned away her head with an impatient sigh. She remembered perfectly that it was Lady Kirkbank who had persuaded her to order the diamond setting; but there was no use in talking about it now. The thing was done. She was two thousand pounds in debt — two thousand pounds to these two people only — and there were ever so many shops at which she had accounts — glovers, bootmakers, habit-makers, the tailor who made her Newmarket coats and cloth gowns, the stationer who supplied her with note-paper of every variety, monogrammed, floral; sporting, illuminated with this or that device, the follies of the passing hour, hatched by penniless Invention in a garret, pandering to the vanities of the idle.
‘I must write to my grandmother by this afternoon’s post,’ said Lesbia, with a heavy sigh.
‘Impossible. We have to be at the Ranelagh by four o’clock. Smithson and some other men are to meet us there. I have promised to drive Mrs. Mostyn down. You had better begin to dress.’
‘But I ought to write to-day. I had better ask for this money at once, and have done with it. Two thousand pounds! I feel as if I were a thief. You say my grandmother is not a rich woman?’
‘Not rich as the world goes nowadays. Nobody is rich now, except your commercial magnates, like Smithson. Great peers, unless their money is in London ground-rents, are great paupers. To own land is to be destitute. I don’t suppose two thousand pounds will break your grandmother’s bank; but of course it is a large sum to ask for at the end of two months; especially as she sent you a good deal of money while we were at Cannes. If you were engaged — about to make a really good match — you could ask for the money as a matter of course; but as it is, although you have been tremendously admired, from a practical point of view you are a failure.’
A failure. It was a hard word, but Lesbia felt it was true. She, the reigning beauty, the cynosure of every eye, had made no conquest worth talking about, except Mr. Smithson.
‘Don’t tell your grandmother anything about the bills for a week or two,’ said Lady Kirkbank, soothingly. ‘The creatures can wait for their money. Give yourself time to think.’
‘I will,’ answered Lesbia, dolefully.
‘And now make haste, and get ready for the Ranelagh. My love, your eyes are dreadfully heavy. You must use a little belladonna. I’ll send Rilboche to you.’
And for the first time in her life, Lesbia, too depressed to argue the point, consented to have her eyes doctored by Rilboche.
She was gay enough at the Ranelagh, and looked her loveliest at a dinner party that evening, and went to three parties after the dinner, and went home in the faint light of early morning, after sitting out a late waltz in a balcony with Mr. Smithson, a balcony banked round with hot-house flowers which were beginning to droop a little in the chilly morning air, just as beauty drooped under the searching eye of day.
Lesbia put the bills in her desk, and gave herself time to think, as Lady Kirkbank advised her. But the thinking progress resulted in very little good. All the thought of which she was capable would not reduce the totals of those two dreadful accounts. And every day brought some fresh bill. The stationer, the bootmaker, the glover, the perfumer, people who had courted Lady Lesbia’s custom with an air which implied that the honour of serving fashionable beauty was the first consideration, and the question of payment quite a minor point — these now began to ask for their money in the most prosaic way. Every straw added to Lesbia’s burden; and her heart grew heavier with every post.
‘One can see the season is waning when these people begin to pester with their accounts,’ said Lady Kirkbank, who always talked of tradesmen as if they were her natural enemies.
Lesbia accepted this explanation of the avalanche of bills, and never suspected Lady Kirkbank’s influence in the matter. It happened, however, that the chaperon, having her own reasons for wishing to bring Mr. Smithson’s suit to a successful issue, had told Seraphine and the other people to send in their bills immediately. Lady Lesbia would be leaving London in a week or so, she informed these purveyors, and would like to settle everything before she went away.
Mr. Smithson appeared in Arlington Street almost every day, and was full of schemes for new pleasures — or pleasures as nearly new as the world of fashion can afford. He was particularly desirous that Sir George and Lady Kirkbank, with Lady Lesbia, should stay at his Berkshire place during the Henley week. He had a large steam launch, and the regatta was a kind of carnival for his intimate friends, who were not too proud to riot and batten upon the parvenu’s luxurious hospitality, albeit they were apt to talk somewhat slightingly of his antecedents.
Lady Kirkbank felt that this invitation was a turning point, and that if Lesbia went to stay at Rood Hall, her acceptance of Mr. Smithson was a certainty. She would see him at his place in Berkshire in the most flattering aspect; his surroundings as lord of the manor, and owner of one of the finest old places in the county, would lend dignity to his insignificance. Lesbia at first expressed a strong disinclination to go to Rood Hall. There would be a most unpleasant feeling in stopping at the house of a man whom she had refused, she told Lady Kirkbank.
‘My dear, Mr. Smithson has forgiven you,’ answered her chaperon. ‘He is the soul of good nature.’
‘One would think he was accustomed to be refused,’ said Lesbia. ‘I don’t want to go to Rood Hall, but I don’t want to spoil your Henley week. Could not I run down to Grasmere for a week, with Kibble to take care of me, and see dear grandmother? I could tell her about those dreadful bills.’
‘Bury yourself at Grasmere in the height of the season! Not to be thought of! Besides, Lady Maulevrier objected before to the idea of your travelling alone with Kibble. No! if you can’t make up your mind to go to Rood Hall, George and I must make up our minds to stay away. But it will be rather hard lines; for that Henley week is quite the jolliest thing in the summer.’
‘Then I’ll go,’ said Lesbia, with a resigned air. ‘Not for worlds would I deprive you and Sir George of a pleasure.’
In her heart of hearts she rather wished to see Rood Hall. She was curious to behold the extent and magnitude of Mr. Smithson’s possessions. She had seen his Italian villa in Park Lane, the perfection of modern art, modern skill, modern taste, reviving the old eternally beautiful forms, recreating the Pitti Palace — the homes of the Medici — the halls of dead and gone Doges — and now she was told that Rood Hall — a genuine old English manor-house, in perfect preservation — was even more interesting than the villa in Park Lane. At Rood Hall there were ideal stables and farm, hot-houses without number, rose gardens, lawns, the river, and a deer park.
So the invitation was accepted, and Mr. Smithson immediately laid himself at Lesbia’s feet, as it were, with regard to all other invitations for the Henley festival. Whom should he ask to meet her? — whom would she have?
‘You are very good,’ she said, ‘but I have really no wish to be consulted. I am not a royal personage, remember. I could not presume to dictate.’
‘But I wish you to dictate. I wish you to be imperious in the expression of your wishes.’
‘Lady Kirkbank has a better right than I, if anybody is to be consulted,’ said Lesbia, modestly.
‘Lady Kirkbank is an old dear, who gets on delightfully with everybody. But you are more sensitive. Your comfort might be marred by an obnoxious presence. I will ask nobody whom you do not like — who is not thoroughly simpatico. Have you no particular friends of your own choosing whom you would like me to ask?’
Lesbia confessed that she had no such friends. She liked everybody tolerably; but she had not a talent for friendship. Perhaps it was because in the London season one was too busy to make friends.
‘I can fancy two girls getting quite attached to each other, out of the season,’ she said, ‘but in May and June life is all a rush and a scramble ——’
‘And one has no time to gather wayside flowers of friendship,’ interjected Mr. Smithson. ‘Still, if there are no people for whom you have an especial liking, there must be people whom you detest.’
Lesbia owned that it was so. Detestation came of itself, naturally.
‘Then let me be sure I do not ask any of your pet aversions,’ said Mr. Smithson. ‘You met Mr. Plantagenet Parsons, the theatrical critic, at my house. Shall we have him?’
‘I like all amusing people.’
‘And Horace Meander, the poet. Shall we have him? He is brimful of conceits and affectations, but he’s a tremendous joke.’
‘Mr. Meander is charming.’
‘Suppose we ask Mostyn and his wife? Her scraps of science are rather good fun.’
‘I haven’t the faintest objection to the Mostyns,’ replied Lesbia. ‘But who are “we”?’
‘We are you and I, for the nonce. The invitations will be issued ostensibly by me, but they will really emanate from you.’
‘I am to be the shadow behind the throne,’ said Lesbia. ‘How delightful!’
‘I would rather you were the sovereign ruler, on the throne,’ answered Smithson, tenderly. ‘That throne shall be empty till you fill it.’
‘Please go on with your list of people,’ said Lesbia, checking this gush of sentiment.
She began to feel somehow that she was drifting from all her moorings, that in accepting this invitation to Rood Hall she was allowing herself to be ensnared into an alliance about which she was still doubtful. If anything better had appeared in the prospect of her life — if any worthier suitor had come forward, she would have whistled Mr. Smithson down the wind; but no worthier suitor had offered himself. It was Smithson or nothing. If she did not accept Smithson, she would go back to Fellside heavily burdened with debt, and an obvious failure. She would have run the gauntlet of a London season without definite result; and this, to a young woman so impressed with her own transcendent merits, was a most humiliating state of things.
Other people’s names were suggested by Mr. Smithson and approved by Lesbia, and a house party of about fourteen in all was made up. Mr. Smithson’s steam launch would comfortably accommodate that number. He had a couple of barges for chance visitors, and kept an open table on board them during the regatta.
The visit arranged, the next question was gowns. Lesbia had gowns enough to have stocked a draper’s shop; but then, as she and Lady Kirkbank deplored, the difficulty was that she had worn them all, some as many as three or four times. They were doubtless all marked and known. Some of them had been described in the society papers. At Henley she would be expected to wear something distinctly new, to introduce some new fashion of gown or hat or parasol. No matter how ugly the new thing might be, so long as it was startling; no matter how eccentric, provided it was original.
‘What am I to do?’ asked Lesbia, despairingly.
‘There is only one thing that can be done. We must go instantly to Seraphine and insist upon her inventing something. If she has no idea ready she must telegraph Worth and get him to send something over. Your old things will do very well for Rood Hall. You have no end of pretty gowns for morning and evening; but you must be original on the race days. Your gowns will be in all the papers.’
‘But I shall be only getting deeper into debt,’ said Lesbia, with a sigh.
‘That can’t be helped. If you go into society you must be properly dressed. We’ll go to Clanricarde Place directly after luncheon, and see what that old harpy has to show us.’
Lesbia had a rather uncomfortable feeling about facing the fair Seraphine, without being able to give her a cheque upon account of that dreadful bill. She had quite accepted Lady Kirkbank’s idea that bills never need be discharged in full, and that the true system of finance was to give an occasional cheque on account, as a sop to Cerberus. True, that while Cerberus fattened on the sops the bill seemed always growing; and the final crash, when Cerberus grew savage and sops could be no more accepted, was too awful to be thought about.
Lesbia entered Seraphine’s Louis-seize drawing-room with a faint expectation of unpleasantness; but after a little whispering between Lady Kirkbank and the dressmaker, the latter came to Lesbia smiling graciously, and seemingly full of eagerness for new orders.
‘Miladi says you want something of the most original —tant soit peu risqué— for ‘Enley,’ she said. ‘Let us see now,’ and she tapped her forehead with a gold thimble which nobody had ever seen her use, but which looked respectable. ‘There is ze dresses that Chaumont wear in zis new play, Une Faute dans le Passé. Yes, zere is the watare dress — a boating party at Bougival, a toilet of the most new, striking, écrasant, what you English call a “screamer.”’
‘What a genius you are, Fifine,’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, rapturously. ‘The Faute dans le Passé was only produced last week. No one will have thought of copying Chaumont’s gowns yet awhile. The idea is an inspiration.’
‘What is the boating costume like?’ asked Lady Lesbia, faintly.
‘An exquisite combination of simplicity with vlan,’ answered the dressmaker. ‘A skin-tight indigo silk Jersey bodice, closely studded with dark blue beads, a flounced petticoat of indigo and amber foulard, an amber scarf drawn tightly round the hips, and a dark blue toque with a largo bunch of amber poppies. Tan-coloured mousquetaire gloves, and Hessian boots of tan-coloured kid.’
‘Hessian boots!’ ejaculated Lesbia.
‘But, yes, Miladi. The petticoat is somewhat short, you comprehend, to escape the damp of the deck, and, after all, Hessians are much less indelicate than silk stockings, legs à cru, as one may say.’
‘Lesbia, you will look enchanting in yellow Hessians,’ said Lady Kirkbank, ‘Let the dress be put in hand instantly, Seraphine.’
Lesbia was inclined to remonstrate. She did not admire the description of the costume, she would rather have something less outrageous.
‘Outrageous! It is only original,’ exclaimed her chaperon. ‘If Chaumont wears it you may be sure it is perfect.’
‘But on the stage, by gaslight, in the midst of unrealities,’ argued Lesbia. ‘That makes such a difference.’
‘My dear, there is no difference nowadays between the stage and the drawing-room. Whatever Chaumont wears you may wear. And now let us think of the second day. I think as your first costume is to be nautical, and rather masculine, your second should be somewhat languishing and vaporeux. Creamy Indian muslin, wild flowers, a large Leghorn hat.’
‘And what will Miladi herself wear?’ asked the French woman of Lady Kirkbank. ‘She must have something of new.’
‘No, at my age, it doesn’t matter. I shall wear one of my cotton frocks, and my Dunstable hat.’
Lesbia shuddered, for Lady Kirkbank in her cotton frock was a spectacle at which youth laughed and age blushed. But after all it did not matter to Lesbia. She would have liked a less rowdy chaperon; but as a foil to her own fresh young beauty Lady Kirkbank was admirable.
They drove down to Rood Hall early next week, Sir George conveying them in his drag, with a change of horses at Maidenhead. The weather was peerless; the country exquisite, approached from London. How different that river landscape looks to the eyes of the traveller returning from the wild West of England, the wooded gorges of Cornwall and Devon, the Tamar and the Dart. Then how small and poor and mean seems silvery Thames, gliding peacefully between his willowy bank, singing his lullaby to the whispering sedges; a poor little river, a flat commonplace landscape, says the traveller, fresh from moorland and tor, from the rocky shore of the Atlantic, the deep clefts of the great, red hills.
To Lesbia’s eyes the placid stream and the green pastures, breathing odours of meadow-sweet and clover, seemed passing lovely. She was pleased with her own hat and parasol too, which made her graciously disposed towards the landscape; and the last packet of gloves from North Audley Street fitted without a wrinkle. The glovemaker was beginning to understand her hand, which was a study for a sculptor, but which had its little peculiarities.
Nor was she ill-disposed to Mr. Smithson, who had come up to town by an early train, in order to lunch in Arlington Street and go back by coach, seated just behind Lady Lesbia, who had the box seat beside Sir George.
The drive was delightful. It was a few minutes after five when the coach drove past the picturesque old gate-house into Mr. Smithson’s Park, and Rood Hall lay on the low ground in front of them, with its back to the river. It was an old red brick house in the Tudor style, with an advanced porch, and four projecting wings, three stories high, with picturesque spire roofs overtopping the main building. Around the house ran a boldly-carved stone parapet, bearing the herons and bulrushes which were the cognisance of the noble race for which the mansion was built. Numerous projecting mullioned windows broke up the line of the park front. Lesbia was fain to own that Rood Hall was even better than Park Lane. In London Mr. Smithson had created a palace; but it was a new palace, which still had a faint flavour of bricks and mortar, and which was apt to remind the spectator of that wonderful erection of Aladdin, the famous Parvenu of Eastern story. Here, in Berkshire, Mr. Smithson had dropped into a nest which had been kept warm for him for three centuries, aired and beautified by generations of a noble race which had obligingly decayed and dwindled in order to make room for Mr. Smithson. Here the Parvenu had bought a home mellowed by the slow growth of years, touched into poetic beauty by the chastening fingers of time. His artist friends told him that every brick in the red walls was ‘precious,’ a mystery of colour which only a painter could fitly understand and value. Here he had bought associations, he had bought history. He had bought the dust of Elizabeth’s senators, the bones of her court beauties. The coffins in the Mausoleum yonder in the ferny depths of the Park, the village church just outside the gates — these had all gone with the property.
Lesbia went up the grand staircase, through the long corridors, in a dream of wonder. Brought up at Fellside, in that new part of the Westmoreland house which had been built by her grandmother and had no history, she felt thrilled by the sober splendour of this fine old manorial mansion. All was sound and substantial, as if created yesterday, so well preserved had been the goods and chattels of the noble race; and yet all wore such unmistakeable marks of age. The deep rich colouring of the wainscot, the faded hues of the tapestry, the draperies of costliest velvet and brocade, were all sobered by the passing of years.
Mr. Smithson had shown his good taste in having kept all things as Sir Hubert Heronville, the last of his race, had left them; and the Heronvilles had been one of those grand old Tory races which change nothing of the past.
Lady Lesbia’s bedroom was the State chamber, which had been occupied by kings and queens in days of yore. That grandiose four-poster, with the carved ebony columns, cut velvet curtains, and plumes of ostrich feathers, had been built for Elizabeth, when she deigned to include Rood Hall in one of her royal progresses. Charles the First had rested his weary head upon those very pillows, before he went on to the Inn at Uxbridge, where he was to be lodged less luxuriously. James the Second had stayed there when Duke of York, with Mistress Anne Hyde, before he acknowledged his marriage to the multitude; and Anne’s daughter had occupied the same room as Queen of England forty years later; and now the Royal Chamber, with adjacent dressing-room, and oratory, and spacious boudoir all in the same suite, was reserved for Lady Lesbia Haselden.
‘I’m afraid you are spoiling me,’ she told Mr. Smithson, when he asked if she approved of the rooms that had been allotted to her. ‘I feel quite ashamed of myself among the ghosts of dead and gone queens.’
‘Why so? Surely the Royalty of beauty has as divine a right as that of an anointed sovereign.’
‘I hope the Royal personages don’t walk,’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, in her girlish tone; ‘this is just the house in which one would expect ghosts.’
Whereupon Mrs. Mostyn hastened to enlighten the company upon the real causes of ghost-seeing, which she had lately studied in Carpenter’s ‘Mental Physiology,’ and favoured them with a diluted version of the views of that authority.
This was at afternoon tea in the library, where the brass-wired bookcases, filled with mighty folios and handsome octavos in old bindings, looked as if they had not been opened for a century. The literature of past ages furnished the room, and made a delightful background. The literature of the present lay about on the tables, and testified that the highest intellectual flight of the inhabitants of Rood Hall was a dip into the Contemporary or the Nineteenth Century, or the perusal of the last new scandal in the shape of Reminiscences or Autobiography. One large round table was consecrated to Mudie, another to Rolandi. On the one side you had Mrs. Oliphant, on the other Zola, exemplifying the genius of the two nations.
After tea Mr. Smithson’s visitors, most of whom had arrived in Sir George’s drag, explored the grounds. These were lovely beyond expression in the low afternoon light. Cedars of Lebanon spread their broad shadows on the velvet lawn, yews and Wellingtonias of mighty growth made an atmosphere of gloom in some parts of the grounds. One great feature was the Ladies’ Garden, a spot apart, a great square garden surrounded with a laurel wall, eight feet high, containing a rose garden, where the choicest specimens grew and flourished, while in the centre there was a circular fish-pond with a fountain. There was a Lavender Walk too, another feature of the grounds at Rood Hall, an avenue of tall lavender bushes, much affected by the stately dames of old.
Modern manners preferred the river terrace, as a pleasant place on which to loiter after dinner, to watch the boats flashing by in the evening light, or the sun going down behind a fringe of willows on the opposite bank. This Italian terrace, with its statues, and carved vases filled with roses, fuchsias, and geraniums, was the great point of rendezvous at Rood Hall — an ideal spot whereon to linger in the deepening twilight, from which to gaze upon the moonlit river later on in the night.
The windows of the drawing-room, and music-room, and ballroom opened on to this terrace, and the royal wing — the tower-shaped wing now devoted to Lady Lesbia, looked upon the terrace and the river.
‘Lovely, as your house is altogether, I think this river view is the best part of it,’ said Lady Lesbia, as she strolled with Mr. Smithson on the terrace after dinner, dressed in Indian muslin which was almost as poetical as a vapour, and with a cloud of delicate lace wrapped round her head. ‘I think I shall spend half of my life at my boudoir window, gloating over that delicious landscape.’
Horace Meander, the poet, was discoursing to a select group upon that peculiar quality of willows which causes them to shiver, and quiver, and throw little lights and shadows on the river, and on the subtle, ineffable beauty of twilight, which perhaps, however utterly beautiful in the abstract, would have been more agreeable to him personally if he had not been surrounded by a cloud of gnats, which refused to be buffeted off his laurel-crowned head.
While Mr. Meander poetised in his usual eloquent style, Mrs. Mostyn, as a still newer light, discoursed as eloquently to little a knot of women, imparting valuable information upon the anatomical structure and individual peculiarities of those various insects which are the pests of a summer evening.
‘You don’t like gnats!’ exclaimed the lady; ‘how very extraordinary. Do you know I have spent days and weeks upon the study of their habits and dear little ways. They are the most interesting creatures — far superior to us in intellect. Do you know that they fight, and that they have tribes which are life-long enemies — like those dreadful Corsicans — and that they make little sepulchres in the bark of trees, and bury each other — alive, if they can; and they hold vestries, and have burial boards. They are most absorbing creatures, if you only give yourself up to the study of them; but it is no use to be half-hearted in a study of that kind. I went without so much as a cup of tea for twenty-four hours, watching my gnats, for fear the opening of the door should startle them. Another time I shall make the nursery governess watch for me.’
‘How interesting, how noble of you,’ exclaimed the other ladies; and then they began to talk about bonnets, and about Mr. Smithson, to speculate how much money this house and all his other houses had cost him, and to wonder if he was really rich, or if he were only one of those great financial windbags which so often explode and leave the world aghast, marvelling at the ease with which it has been deluded.
They wondered, too, whether Lady Lesbia Haselden meant to marry him.
‘Of course she does, my dear,’ answered Mrs. Mostyn, decisively.
‘You don’t suppose that after having studied the habits of gnats I cannot read such a poor shallow creature as a silly vain girl. Of course Lady Lesbia means to marry Mr. Smithson’s fine houses; and she is only amusing herself and swelling her own importance by letting him dangle in a kind of suspense which is not suspense; for he knows as well as she does that she means to have him.’
The next day was given up, first to seeing the house, an amusement which lasted very well for an hour or so after breakfast, and then to wandering in a desultory manner, to rowing and canoeing, and a little sailing, and a good deal of screaming and pretty timidity upon the blue bright river; to gathering wild flowers and ferns in rustic lanes, and to an al fresco luncheon in the wood at Medmenham, and then dinner, and then music, an evening spent half within and half without the music-room, cigarettes sparkling, like glowworms on the terrace, tall talk from Mr. Meander, long quotations from his own muse and that of Rossetti, a little Shelley, a little Keats, a good deal of Swinburne. The festivities were late on this second evening, as Mr. Smithson had invited a good many people from the neighbourhood, but the house party were not the less early on the following morning, which was the first Henley day.
It was a peerless morning, and all the brasswork of Mr. Smithson’s launch sparkled and shone in the sun, as she lay in front of the terrace. A wooden pier, a portable construction, was thrown out from the terrace steps, to enable the company to go on board the launch without the possibility of wet feet or damaged raiment.
Lesbia’s Chaumount costume was a success. The women praised it, the men stared and admired. The dark-blue silken jersey, sparkling with closely studded indigo beads, fitted the slim graceful figure as a serpent’s scales fit the serpent. The coquettish little blue silk toque, the careless cluster of gold-coloured poppies, against the glossy brown hair, the large sunshade of old gold satin lined with indigo, the flounced petticoat of softest Indian silk, the dainty little tan-coloured boots with high heels and pointed toes, were all perfect after their fashion; and Mr. Smithson felt that the liege lady of his life, the woman he meant to marry willy nilly, would be the belle of the race-course. Nor was he disappointed. Everybody in London had heard of Lady Lesbia Haselden. Her photograph was in all the West–End windows, was enshrined in the albums of South Kensington and Clapham, Maida Vale and Haverstock Hill. People whose circles were far remote from Lady Lesbia’s circle, were as familiar with her beauty as if they had known her from her cradle. And all these outsiders wanted to see her in the flesh, just as they always thirst to behold Royal personages. So when it became known that the beautiful Lady Lesbia Haselden was on board Mr. Smithson’s launch, all the people in the small boats, or on neighbouring barges, made it their business if have a good look at her. The launch was almost mobbed by those inquisitive little boats in the intervals between the races.
‘What are the people all staring and hustling one another for?’ asked Lesbia, innocently. She had seen the same hustling and whispering and staring in the hall at the opera, when she was waiting for her carriage; but she chose to affect unconsciousness. ‘What do they all want?’
‘I think they want to see you,’ said Mr. Smithson, who was sitting by her side. ‘A very natural desire.’
Lesbia laughed, and lowered the big yellow sunshade, so as to hide herself altogether from the starers.
‘How silly!’ she exclaimed. ‘It is all the fault of those horrid photographers: they vulgarise everything and everybody. I will never be photographed again.’
‘Oh yes, you will, and in that frock. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve seen for a long time. Why do you hide yourself from those poor wretches, who keep rowing backwards and forwards in an obviously aimless way, just to get a peep at you en passant? What happiness for us who live near you, and can gaze when we will, without all those absurd manoeuvres. There goes the signal — and now for a hard-fought race.’
Lesbia pretended to be interested in the racing — she pretended to be gay, but her heart was as heavy as lead. The burden of debt, which had been growing ever since Seraphine sent in her bill, was weighing her down to the dust.
She owed three thousand pounds. It seemed incredible that she should owe so much, that a girl’s frivolous fancies and extravagances could amount to such a sum within so short a span. But thoughtless purchases, ignorant orders, had run on from week to week, and the main result was an indebtedness of close upon three thousand pounds.
Three thousand pounds! The sum was continually sounding in her ears like the cry of a screech owl. The very ripple of the river flowing so peacefully under the blue summer sky seemed to repeat the words. Three thousand pounds! ‘Is it much?’ she wondered, having no standard of comparison. ‘Is it very much more than my grandmother will expect me to have spent in the time? Will it trouble her to have to pay those bills? Will she be very angry?’
These were questions which Lesbia kept asking herself, in every pause of her frivolous existence; in such a pause as this, for instance, while the people round her were standing breathless, open-mouthed, gazing after the boats. She did not care a straw for the boats, who won, or who lost the race. It was all a hollow mockery. Indeed it seemed just now that the only real thing in life was those accursed bills, which would have to be paid somehow.
She had told Lady Maulevrier nothing about them as yet. She had allowed herself to be advised by Lady Kirkbank, and she had taken time to think. But thought had given her no help. The days were gliding onward, and Lady Maulevrier would have to be told.
She meditated perplexedly about her grandmother’s income. She had never heard the extent of it, but had taken for granted that Lady Maulevrier was rich. Would three thousand pounds make a great inroad on that income? Would it be a year’s income? — half a year’s? Lesbia had no idea. Life at Fellside was carried on in an elegant manner — with considerable luxury in house and garden — a luxury of flowers, a lavish expenditure of labour. Yet the expenditure of Lady Maulevrier’s existence, spent always on the same spot, must be as nothing to the money spent in such a life as Lady Kirkbank’s, which involved the keeping up of three or four houses, and costly journeys to and fro, and incessant change of attire.
No doubt Lady Maulevrier had saved money; yes, she must have saved thousands during her long seclusion, Lesbia argued. Her grandmother had told her that she was to look upon herself as an heiress. This could only mean that Lady Maulevrier had a fortune to leave her; and this being so, what could it matter if she had anticipated some of her portion? And yet there was in her heart of hearts a terrible fear of that stern dowager, of the cold scorn in those splendid eyes when she should stand revealed in all her foolishness, her selfish, mindless, vain extravagances. She, who had never been reproved, shrank with a sickly dread from the idea of reproof. And to be told that her career as a fashionable beauty had been a failure! That would be the bitterest pang of all.
Soon came luncheon, and Heidseck, and then an afternoon which was gayer than the morning had been, inasmuch as every one babbled and laughed more after luncheon. And then there was five o’clock tea on deck, under the striped Japanese awning, to the jingle of banjos, enlivened by the wit of black-faced minstrels, amidst wherries and canoes and gondolas, and ponderous houseboats, and snorting launches, crowding the sides of the sunlit river, in full view of the crowd yonder in front of the Red Lion, and here on this nearer bank, and all along either shore, fringing the green meadows with a gaudy border of smartly-dressed humanity.
It was a gay scene, and Lesbia gave herself up to the amusement of the hour, and talked and chaffed as she had learned to talk and chaff in one brief season, holding her own against all comers.
Rood Hall looked lovely when they went back to it in the gloaming, an Elizabethan pile crowned with towers. The four wings with their conical roofs, the massive projecting windows, grey stone, ruddy brickwork, lattices reflecting the sunlight, Italian terrace and blue river in the foreground, cedars and yews at the back, all made a splendid picture of an English ancestral home.
‘Nice old place, isn’t it?’ asked Mr. Smithson, seeing Lesbia’s admiring gaze as the launch neared the terrace. They two were standing in the bows, apart from all the rest.
‘Nice! it is simply perfect.’
‘Oh no, it isn’t. There is one thing wanted yet.’
‘What is that?’
‘A wife. You are the only person who can make any house of mine perfect. Will you?’ He took her hand, which she did not withdraw from his grasp. He bent his head and kissed the little hand in its soft Swedish glove.
‘Will you, Lesbia?’ he repeated earnestly; and she answered softly, ‘Yes.’
That one brief syllable was more like a sigh than a spoken word, and it seemed to her as if in the utterance of that syllable the three thousand pounds had been paid.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05