While Lady Lesbia was draining the cup of London folly and London care to the dregs, Lady Mary was leading her usual quiet life beside the glassy lake, where the green hill-sides and sheep walks were reflected in all their summer verdure under the cloudless azure of a summer sky. A monotonous life — passing dull as seen from the outside — and yet Mary was very happy, happy even in her solitude, with the grave deep joy of a satisfied heart, a mind at rest. All life had taken a new colour since her engagement to John Hammond. A sense of new duties, an awakening earnestness had given a graver tone to her character. Her spirits were less wild, yet not less joyous than of old. The joy was holier, deeper.
Her lover’s letters were the chief delight of her lonely days. To read them again and again, and ponder upon them, and then to pour out all her heart and mind in answering them. These were pleasures enough for her young like. Hammond’s letters were such as any woman might be proud to receive. They were not love-letters only. He wrote as friend to friend; not descending from the proud pinnacle of masculine intelligence to the lower level of feminine silliness; not writing down to a simple country girl’s capacity; but writing-fully and fervently, as if there were no subject too lofty or too grave for the understanding of his betrothed. He wrote as one sure of being sympathised with, wrote as to his second self: and Mary showed herself not unworthy of the honour thus rendered to her intellect.
There was one world which had newly opened to Mary since her engagement, and that was the world of politics. Hammond had told her that his ambition was to succeed as a politician — to do some good in his day as one of the governing body; and of late she had made it her business to learn how England and the world outside England were governed.
She had no natural leaning to the study of political economy. Instead, she had always imagined any question relating to the government of her country to be inherently dry-as-dust and uninviting. But had John Hammond devoted his days to the study of Coptic manuscripts, or the arrow headed inscriptions upon Assyrian tablets, she would have toiled her hardest in the endeavour to make herself a Coptic scholar, or an adept in the cuneiform characters. If he had been a student of Chinese, she would not have been discomfited by such a trifle as the fifty thousand characters in the Chinese alphabet.
And so, as he was to make his name in the arena of public life, she set herself to acquire a proper understanding of the science of politics; and to this end she gorged herself with English history — Hume, Hallam, Green, Justin McCarthy, Palgrave, Lecky, from the days of Witenagemote to the Reform Bill; the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, Ballot, Trade Unionism, and unreciprocated Free Trade. No question was deep enough to repel her; for was not her lover interested in the dryest thereof; and what concerned him and his welfare must needs be full of interest for her.
To this end she read the debates religiously day by day; and she one day ventured shyly to suggest that she should read them aloud to Lady Maulevrier.
‘Would it not be a little rest for you if I were to read your Times aloud to you every afternoon, grandmother?’ she asked. ‘You read so many books, French, English, and German, and I think your eyes must get a little tired sometimes.’
Mary ventured the remark with some timidity, for those falcon eyes were fixed upon her all the time, bright and clear and steady as the eyes of youth. It seemed almost an impertinence to suggest that such eyes could know weariness.
‘No, Mary, my sight, holds out wonderfully for an old woman,’ replied her ladyship, gently. ‘The new theory of the last oculist whose book I dipped into — a very amusing and interesting book, by-the-bye — is that the sight improves and strengthens by constant use, and that an agricultural labourer, who hardly uses his eyes at all, has rarely in the decline of life so good a sight as the watchmaker or the student. I have read immensely all my life, and find myself no worse for that indulgence. But you may read the debates to me if you like, my dear, for if my eyes are strong, I myself am very tired. Sick to death, Mary, sick to death.’
The splendid eyes turned from Mary, and looked away to the blue sky, to the hills in their ineffable beauty of colour and light — shifting, changing with every moment of the summer day. Intense weariness, a settled despair, were expressed in that look — tearless, yet sadder than all tears.
‘It must be very monotonous, very sad for you,’ murmured Mary, her own eyes brimming over with tears. ‘But it will not be always so, dear grandmother. I hope a time will come when you will be able to go about again, to resume your old life.’
‘I do not hope, Mary. No, child, I feel and know that time will never come. My strength is ebbing slowly day by day. If I live for another year, live to see Lesbia married, and you, too, perhaps — well, I shall die at peace. At peace, no; not ——’ she faltered, and the thin, semi-transparent hand was pressed upon her brow. ‘What will be said of me when I am dead?’
Mary feared that her grandmother’s mind was wandering. She came and knelt beside the couch, laid and her head against the satin pillows, tenderly, caressingly.
‘Dear grandmother, pray be calm,’ she murmured.
‘Mary, do not look at me like that, as if you would read my heart. There are hearts that must not be looked into. Mine is like a charnel-house. Monotonous, yes; my life has been monotonous. No conventual gloom was ever deeper than the gloom of Fellside. My boy did nothing to lighten it for me, and his son followed in his father’s footsteps. You and Lesbia have been my only consolation. Lesbia! I was so proud of her beauty, so proud and fond of her, because she was like me, and recalled my own youth. And see how easily she forgets me. She has gone into a new world, in which my age and my infirmities have no part; and I am as nothing to her.’
Mary changed from red to pale, so painful was her embarrassment. What could she say in defence of her sister? How could she deny that Lesbia was an ingrate, when those rare and hurried letters, so careless in their tone, expressing the selfishness of the writer in every syllable, told but too plainly of forgetfulness and ingratitude?
‘Dear grandmother, Lesbia has so much to do — her life is so full of engagements,’ she faltered feebly.
‘Yes, she goes from party to party — she gives herself up heart and mind and soul to pleasures which she ought to consider only as the trivial means to great ends; and she forgets the woman who reared her, and cared for her, and watched over her from her infancy, and who tried to inspire her with a noble ambition. — Yes, read to me, child, read. Give me new thoughts, if you can, for my brain is weary with grinding the old ones. There was a grand debate in the Lords last night, and Lord Hartfield spoke. Let me hear his speech. You can read what was said by the man before him; never mind the rest.’
Mary read Lord Somebody’s speech, which was passing dull, but which prepared the ground for a magnificent and exhaustive reply from Lord Hartfield. The question was an important one, affecting the well-being of the masses, and Lord Hartfield spoke with an eloquence which rose in force and fire as he wound himself like a serpent into the heart of his subject — beginning quietly, soberly, with no opening flashes of rhetoric, but rising gradually to the topmost heights of oratory.
‘What a speech!’ cried Lady Maulevrier, delighted, her cheeks glowing, her eyes kindling; ‘what a noble fellow the speaker must be! Oh, Mary, I must tell you a secret. I loved that man’s father. Yes, my dear, I loved him fondly, dearly, truly, as you love that young man of yours; and he was the only man I ever really loved. Fate parted us. But I have never forgotten him — never, Mary, never. At this moment I have but to close my eyes and I can see his face — see him looking at me as he looked the last time we met. He was a younger son, poor, his future quite hopeless in those days; but it was not my fault we were parted. I would have married him — yes, wedded poverty, just as you are going to marry this Mr. Hammond; but my people would not let me; and I was too young, too helpless, to make a good fight. Oh, Mary, if I had only fought hard enough, what a happy woman I might have been, and how good a wife.’
‘You were a good wife to my grandfather, I am sure,’ faltered Mary, by way of saying something consolatory.
A dark frown came over Lady Maulevrier’s face, which had softened to deepest tenderness just before.
‘A good wife to Maulevrier,’ she said, in a mocking tone. Well, yes, as good a wife as such a husband deserved. ‘I was better than Caesar’s wife, Mary, for no breath of suspicion ever rested upon my name. But if I had married Ronald Hollister, I should have been a happy woman; and that I have never been since I parted from him.’
‘You have never seen the present Lord Hartfield, I think?’
‘Never; but I have watched his career, I have thought of him. His father died while he was an infant, and he was brought up in seclusion by a widowed mother, who kept him tied to her apron-strings till he went to Oxford. She idolised him, and I am told she taught herself Latin and Greek, mathematics even, in order to help him in his boyish, studies, and, later on, read Greek plays and Latin poetry with him, till she became an exceptional classic for a woman. She was her son’s companion and friend, sympathised with his tastes, his pleasures, his friendships; devoted every hour of her life, every thought of her mind to his welfare, his interests, walked with him, rode with him, travelled half over Europe, yachted with him. Her friends all declared that the lad would grow up an odious milksop; but I am told that there never was a manlier man than Lord Hartfield. From his boyhood he was his mother’s protector, helped to administer her affairs, acquired a premature sense of responsibility, and escaped almost all those vices which make young men detestable. His mother died within a few months of his majority. He was broken-hearted at losing her, and left Europe immediately after her death. From that time he has been a great traveller. But I suppose now that he has taken his seat in the House of Lords, and has spoken a good many times, he means to settle down and take his place among the foremost men of his day. I am told that he is worthy to take such a place.’
‘You must feel warmly interested in watching his career,’ said Mary, sympathetically.
‘I am interested in everything that concerns him. I will tell you another secret, Mary. I think I am getting into my dotage, my dear, or I should hardly talk to you like this,’ said Lady Maulevrier, with a touch of bitterness.
Mary was sitting on a stool by the sofa, close to the invalid’s pillow. She clasped her grandmother’s hand and kissed it fondly.
‘Dear grandmother, I think you are talking to me like this to-day because you are beginning to care for me a little,’ she said, tenderly.
‘Oh, my dear, you are very good, very sweet and forgiving to care for me at all, after my neglect of you,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, with a sigh. ‘I have kept you out in the cold so long, Mary. Lesbia — well, Lesbia has been a kind of infatuation for me, and like all infatuations mine has ended in disappointment and bitterness. Ambition has been the bane of my life, Mary; and when I could no longer be ambitious for myself — when my own existence had become a mere death in life, I began to dream and to scheme for the aggrandisement of my granddaughter. Lesbia’s beauty, Lesbia’s elegance seemed to make success certain — and so I dreamt my dream — which may never be fulfilled.’
‘What was your dream, grandmother? May I know all about it?’
‘That was the secret I spoke of just now. Yes, Mary, you may know, for I fear the dream will never be realised. I wanted my Lesbia to become Lord Hartfield’s wife. I would have brought them together myself, could I have but gone to London; but, failing that, I fancied Lady Kirkbank would have divined my wishes without being told them, and would have introduced Hartfield to Lesbia; and now the London season is drawing to a close, and Hartfield and Lesbia have never met. He hardly goes anywhere, I am told. He devotes himself exclusively to politics; and he is not in Lady Kirkbank’s set. A terrible disappointment to me, Mary!’
‘It is a pity,’ said Mary. ‘Lesbia is so lovely. If Lord Hartfield were fancy-free he ought to fall in love with her, could they but meet. I thought that in London all fashionable people knew each other, and were continually meeting.’
‘It used to be so in my day, Mary. Almack’s was a common ground, even if there had been no other. But now there are circles and circles, I believe, rings that touch occasionally, but never break and mingle. I am afraid poor Georgie’s set is not quite so nice as I could have wished. Yet Lesbia writes as if she were in raptures with her chaperon, and with all the people she meets. And then Georgie tells me that this Mr. Smithson whom Lesbia has refused is a very important personage, a millionaire, and very likely to be made a peer.’
‘A new peer,’ said Mary, making a wry face. ‘One would rather have an old commoner. I always fancy a newly-made peer must be like a newly-built house, glaring, and staring, and arid and uncongenial.’
‘C’est selon,’ said Lady Maulevrier. ‘One would not despise a Chatham or a Wellington because of the newness of his title; but a man who has only money to recommend him ——’
Lady Maulevrier left her sentence unfinished, save by a shrug; while Mary made another wry face. She had that grand contempt for sordid wealth which is common to young people who have never known the want of money.
‘I hope Lesbia will marry some one better than Mr. Smithson,’ she said.
‘I hope so too, dear; and yet do you know I have an idea that Lesbia means to accept Mr. Smithson, or she would hardly have consented to go to his house for the Henley week. Here is a letter from Georgie Kirkbank which you will have to answer for me to-morrow — a letter full of raptures about Mr. Smithson’s place in Berkshire, Rood Hall. I remember the house well. I was there nearly fifty years ago, when the Heronvilles owned it; and now the Heronvilles are all dead or ruined, and this city person is master of the fine old mansion. It is a strange world, Mary.’
From that time forward Mary and her grandmother were on more confidential terms, and when, two days later, Fellside was startled into life by the unexpected arrival of Lord Maulevrier and Mr. Hammond, the dowager seemed almost as pleased as her granddaughter at the arrival of the young men.
As for Mary, she was almost beside herself with joy when she heard their voices from the lawn, and, rushing to the shrubbery, saw them walk up the hill, as she had seen them on that first evening nearly a year ago, when John Hammond came as a stranger to Fellside.
She tried to take her joy soberly, though her eyes were dancing with delight, as she went to the porch to meet them.
‘What extraordinary young men you are,’ she said, as she emerged breathless from her lover’s embrace. ‘The idea of your descending upon us without a moment’s notice. Why did you not write or telegraph, that your rooms might be ready?’
‘Am I to understand that all the spare rooms at Fellside are kept as damp as at the bottom of the lake?’ asked Maulevrier.
‘I did not think any preparation was necessary; but we can go back if we’re not wanted, can’t we, Jack?’
‘You darling,’ cried Mary, hanging affectionately upon her brother’s arm. ‘You know I was only joking, you know how enraptured I am to have you.’
‘To have me, only me,’ said Maulevrier. ‘Jack doesn’t count, I suppose?’
‘You know how glad I am, and that I want to hide my gladness,’ answered Mary, radiant and blushing like the rich red roses in the porch. ‘You men are so vain. And now come and see grandmother, she will be cheered by your arrival. She has been so good to me just lately, so sweet.’
‘She might have been good and sweet to you all your life,’ said Hammond. ‘I am not prepared to be grateful to her at a moment’s notice for any crumbs of affection she may throw you.’
‘Oh but you must be grateful, sir; and you must love her and pity her,’ retorted Mary. ‘Think how sadly she has suffered. We cannot be too kind to her, or too fond of her, poor dear.’
‘Mary is right,’ said Hammond, half in jest and half in earnest. ‘What wonderful instincts these young women have.’
‘Come and see her ladyship; and then you must have dinner, just as you had that first evening,’ said Mary. ‘We’ll act that first evening over again, Jack; only you can’t fall in love with Lesbia, as she isn’t here.’
‘I don’t think I surrendered that first evening, Mary. Though I thought your sister the loveliest girl I had ever seen.’
‘And what did you think of me, sir? Tell me that,’ said Mary.
‘Shall I tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’
‘Then I freely confess that I did not think about you at all. You were there — a pretty, innocent, bright young maiden, with big brown eyes and auburn hair; but I thought no more about you than I did about the Gainsborough on the wall, which you very much resemble.’
‘That is most humiliating,’ said Mary, pouting a little in the midst of her bliss.
‘No, dearest, it is only natural,’ answered Hammond. ‘I believe if all the happy lovers in this world could be questioned, at least half of them would confess to having thought very little about each other at first meeting. They meet, and touch hands, and part again, and never guess the mystery of the future, which wraps them round like a cloud, never say of each other, There is my fate; and then they meet again, and again, as hazard wills, and never know that they are drifting to their doom.’
Mary rang bells and gave orders, just as she had done in that summer gloaming a year ago. The young men had arrived just at the same hour, on the stroke of nine, when the eight o’clock dinner was over and done with; for a tête-à-tête meal with Fräulein Müller was not a feast to be prolonged on account of its felicity. Perhaps they had so contrived as to arrive exactly at this hour.
Lady Maulevrier received them both with extreme cordiality. But the young men saw a change for the worse in the invalid since the spring. The face was thinner, the eyes too bright, the flush upon the hollow cheek had a hectic tinge, the voice was feebler. Hammond was reminded of a falcon or an eagle pining and wasting in a cage.
‘I am very glad to see you, Mr. Hammond,’ said Lady Maulevrier, giving him her hand, and addressing him with unwonted cordiality. ‘It was a happy thought that brought you and Maulevrier here. When an old woman is as near the grave as I am her relatives ought to look after her. I shall be glad to have a little private conversation with you to-morrow, Mr. Hammond, if you can spare me a few minutes.’
‘As many hours, if your ladyship pleases,’ said Hammond. ‘My time is entirely at your service.’
‘Oh, no, you will want to be roaming about the hills with Mary, discussing your plans for the future. I shall not encroach too much on your time. But I am very glad you are here.’
‘We shall only trespass on you for a few days,’ said Maulevrier, ‘just a flying visit.’
‘How is it that you are not both at Henley?’ asked Mary. ‘I thought all the world was at Henley.’
‘Who is Henley? what is Henley?’ demanded Maulevrier, pretending ignorance.
‘I believe Maulevrier has lost so much money backing, his college boat on previous occasions that he is glad to run away from the regatta this year,’ said Hammond.
‘I have a sister there,’ replied his friend. ‘That’s an all-sufficient explanation. When a fellow’s women-kind take to going to races and regattas it is high time for him to stop away.’
‘Have you seen Lesbia lately?’ asked his grandmother.
‘About ten days ago.’
‘And did she seem happy?’
Maulevrier shrugged his shoulders.
‘She was vacillating between the refusal or the acceptance of a million of money and four or five fine houses. I don’t know whether that condition of mind means happiness. I should call it an intermediate state.’
‘Why do you make silly jokes about serious questions? Do you think Lesbia means to accept this Mr. Smithson?’
‘All London thinks so.’
‘And is he a good man?’
‘Good for a hundred thousand pounds at half an hour’s notice.’
‘Is he worthy of your sister?’
Maulevrier paused, looked at his grandmother with a curious expression, and then replied —
‘I think he is — quite.’
‘Then I am content that she should marry him,’ said Lady Maulevrier, ‘although he is a nobody.’
‘Oh, but he is a very important nobody, a nobody who can get a peerage next year, backed by the Maulevrier influence, which I suppose would count for something.’
‘Most of my friends are dead,’ said Lady Maulevrier, ‘but there are a few survivors of the past who might help me.’
‘I don’t think there’ll be any difficulty or doubt about the peerage. Smithson stumped up very handsomely at the last General Election, and the Conservatives are not strong enough to be ungrateful. “These have, no master.”’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05