There was a dinner party in one of the new houses in Grosvenor Place that evening, to which Lady Kirkbank and Lesbia had been bidden. The new house belonged to a new man, who was supposed to have made millions out of railways, and other gigantic achievements in the engineering line; and the new man and his wife were friends of Mr. Smithson, and had made the simple Georgie’s acquaintance only within the last three weeks.
‘Of course they are stupid, my dear,’ she remarked, in response to some slighting remark of Lesbia’s, ‘but I am always willing to know rich people. One drops in for so many good things; and they never want any return in kind. It is quite enough for them to be allowed to spend their money upon us.’
The house was gorgeous in all the glory of the very latest fashions in upholstery; hall Algerian; dining-room Pompeian; drawing-room Early Italian; music-room Louis Quatorze; billiard-room mediaeval English. The dinner was as magnificent as dinner can be made. Three-fourths of the guests were the haute gomme of the financial world, and perspired gold. The other third belonged to a class which Mr. Smithson described somewhat contemptuously as the shake-back nobility. An Irish peer, a younger son of a ducal house that had run to seed, a political agitator, a grass widow whose titled husband was governor of an obscure colony, an ancient dowager with hair which was too luxuriant to be anything but a wig, and diamonds which were so large as to suggest paste.
Lesbia sat by her affianced at the glittering table, lighted with clusters of wax candles, which shone upon a level parterre of tea roses, gardenias, and gloire de Malmaison carnations; from which rose at intervals groups of silver-gilt dolphins, supporting shallow golden dishes piled with peaches, grapes, and all the costliest produce of Covent Garden.
Conversation was not particularly brilliant, nor had the guests an elated air. The thermometer was near eighty, and at this period of the season everybody was tired of this kind of dinner, and would gladly have foregone the greatest achievements of culinary art, in favour of a chicken and a salad, eaten under green leaves, in a garden at Wargrave or Henley, within sound of the rippling river.
On Lesbia’s right hand there was a portly personage of Jewish type, dark to swarthiness, and somewhat oily, whose every word suggested bullion. He and Mr. Smithson were evidently acquaintances of long standing, and Mr. Smithson presented him to Lesbia, whereupon he joined in their conversation now and then.
His talk was of the usual standard. He had seen everything worth seeing in London and in Paris, between which cities he seemed to oscillate with such frequency that he might be said to live in both places at once. He had his stall at Covent Garden, and his stall at the Grand Opera. He was a subscriber at the Theatre Français. He had seen all the races at Longchamps and Chantilly, as well as at Sandown and Ascot. But every now and then he and Mr. Smithson drifted from the customary talk about operas and races, pictures and French novels, to the wider world of commerce and speculation, mines, waterworks, and foreign loans — and Lesbia leant back in her chair, and fanned herself languidly, with half-closed eyelids, while two or three courses went round, she giving the little supercilious look at each entree offered to her, to be observed on such occasions, as if the thing offered were particularly nasty.
She wondered how long the two men were going to prose about mines and shares, in those subdued half-mysterious voices, telling each other occult facts in half-expressed phrases, utterly dark to the outside world; but, while she was languidly wondering, a change in her lover’s manner startled her into keenest curiosity.
‘Montesma is in Paris,’ said Mr. Sampayo, the dark gentleman; ‘I dined last week with him at the Continental.’
Mr. Smithson’s complexion faded curiously, and a leaden darkness came over his countenance, as of a man whose heart and lungs suddenly refuse their office. But in a few moments he was smiling feebly.
‘Indeed! I thought he was played out years ago.’
‘A man of that kind is never played out. Don Gomez de Montesma is as clever as Satan, as handsome as Apollo, and he bears one of the oldest names in Castile. Such a man will always come to the front. C’est un rastaquouère mais rastaquouère de bon genre. You knew him intimately là bas, I believe?’
‘In Cuba; yes, we were pretty good friends once.’
‘And were useful to each other, no doubt,’ said Mr. Sampayo, pleasantly. ‘Was that Argentiferous Copper Company in sixty-four yours or his?’
‘There were a good many people concerned in it.’
‘No doubt; it takes a good many people to work that kind of thing, but I fancy you and Montesma were about the only two who came out of it pleasantly. And he and you did a little in the shipping line, didn’t you — African produce? However, that’s an old song. You have had so many good things since then.’
‘Did Montesma talk of coming to London?’
‘He did not talk about it; but he would hardly go back to the tropics without having a look round on both sides of the Channel. He was always fond of society, pretty women, dancing, and amusements of all kinds. I have no doubt we shall see him here before the end of the season.’
Mr. Smithson pursued the subject no further He turned to Lesbia, who had been curiously interested in this little bit of conversation — interested first because Smithson had seemed agitated by the mention of the Spaniard’s name; secondly, because of the description of the man, which had a romantic sound. The very word tropic suggested a romance. And Lesbia, whose mind was jaded by the monotony of a London season, the threadbare fabric of society conversation, kindled at any image which appealed to her fancy.
Clever as Satan, handsome as Apollo, scion of an old Castilian family, fresh from the tropics. Her imagination dwelt upon the ideas which these words had conjured up.
Three days after this she was at the opera with her chaperon, her lover in attendance as usual. The opera was “Faust,” with Nillson as Marguerite. After the performance they were to drive down to Twickenham on Mr. Smithson’s drag, and to dance and sup at the Orleans. The last ball of the season was on this evening; and Lesbia had been persuaded that it was to be a particular recherché ball, and that only the very nicest people were to be present. At any rate, the drive under the light of a July moon would be delicious; and if they did not like the people they found there they could eat their supper and come away immediately after, as Lady Kirkbank remarked philosophically.
The opera was nearly over — that grand scene of Valentine’s death was on — and Lesbia was listening breathlessly to every note, watching every look of the actors, when there came a modest little knock at the door of her box. She darted an angry glance round, and shrugged her shoulders vexatiously. What Goth had dared to knock during that thrilling scene?
Mr. Smithson rose and crept to the door and quietly opened it.
A dark, handsome man, who was a total stranger to Lesbia, glided in, shaking hands with Smithson as he entered.
Till this moment Lesbia’s whole being had been absorbed in the scene — that bitter anathema of the brother, the sister’s cry of anguish and shame. Where else is there tragedy so human, so enthralling — grief that so wrings the spectator’s heart? It needed a Goethe and a Gounod to produce this masterpiece.
In an instant, in a flash, Lesbia’s interest in the stage was gone. Her first glance at the stranger told, her who he was. The olive tint, the eyes of deepest black, the grand form of the head and perfect chiselling of the features could belong only to that scion of an old Castilian race whom she had heard described the other evening —‘clever as Satan, handsome as Apollo.’
Yes, this must be the man, Don Gomez de Montesma. There was nothing in Mr. Smithson’s manner to indicate that the Spaniard was an unwelcome guest. On the contrary, Smithson received him with a cordiality which in a man of naturally reserved manner seemed almost rapture. The curtain fell, and he presented Don Gomez to Lady Kirkbank and Lady Lesbia; whereupon dear Georgie began to gush, after her wont, and to ask a good many questions in a manner that was too girlish to seem impertinent.
‘How perfectly you speak English!’ she exclaimed. ‘You must have lived in England a good deal.’
‘On the contrary, it is my misfortune to have, lived here very little, but I have known a good many English and Americans in Cuba and in Paris.’
‘In Cuba! Do you really come from Cuba? I have always fancied that Cuba must be an altogether charming place to live in — like Biarritz or Pau, don’t you know, only further away. Do please tell me where it is, and what kind of a place.’
Geographically, Lady Kirkbank’s mind was a blank. It was quite a revelation to her to find that Cuba was an island.
‘It must be a lovely spot!’ exclaimed the fervid creature. ‘Let me see, now, what do we get from Cuba? — cigars — and — and tobacco. I suppose in Cuba everybody smokes?’
‘Men, women, and children.’
‘How delicious! Would that I were a Cuban! And the natives, are they nice?’
‘There are no aborigines. The Indians whom Columbus found soon perished off the face of the island. European civilisation generally has that effect. But one of our most benevolent captain-generals provided us with an imported population of niggers.’
‘How delightful. I have always longed to live among a slave population, dear submissive black things dressed in coral necklaces and feathers, instead of the horrid over-fed wretches we have to wait upon us. And if the aborigines were not wanted it was just as well for them to die out, don’t you know,’ prattled Lady Kirkbank.
‘It was very accommodating of them, no doubt. Yet we could employ half a million of them, if we had them, in draining our swamps. Agriculture suffered by the loss of Indian labour.’
‘I suppose they were like the creatures in Pizarro, poor dear yellow things with brass bracelets,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘I remember seeing Macready as Rolla when I was quite a little thing.’
And now the curtain rose for the last act.
‘Do you care about staying for the end?’ asked Mr. Smithson of Lesbia. ‘It will make us rather late at the Orleans.’
‘Never mind how late we are,’ said Lesbia, imperiously. ‘I have always been cheated out of this last act for some stupid party. Imagine losing Gounod and Nillson for the sake of struggling through the mob on a stifling staircase, and being elbowed by inane young men, with gardenias in their coats.’
Lady Lesbia had a pretty little way of always opposing any suggestion of her sweetheart. She was resolved to treat him as badly as a future husband could be treated. In consenting to marry him she had done him a favour which was a great deal more than such a person had any right to expect.
She leant forward to watch and listen, with her elbow resting on the velvet cushion — her head upon her hand, and she seemed absorbed in the scene. But this was mere outward seeming. All the enchantment of music and acting was over. She only heard and saw vaguely, as if it were a shadowy scene enacted ever so far away. Every now and then her eyes glanced involuntarily toward Don Gomez, who stood leaning against the back of the box, pale, languid, graceful, poetic, an altogether different type of manhood from that with which she had of late been satiated.
Those deep dark eyes of his had a dreamy look. They gazed across the dazzling house, into space, above Lady Lesbia’s head. They seemed to see nothing; and they certainly were not looking at her.
Don Gomez was the first man she ever remembered to have been presented to her who did not favour her with a good deal of hard staring, more or less discreetly managed, during the first ten minutes of their acquaintance. On him her beauty fell flat. He evidently failed to recognise her supreme loveliness. It might be that she was the wrong type for Cuba. Every nation has its own Venus; and that far away spot beyond the torrid zone might have a somewhat barbarous idea of beauty. At any rate, Don Gomez was apparently unimpressed. And yet Lesbia flattered herself that she was looking her best to-night, and that her costume was a success. She wore a white satin gown, short in the skirt, for the luxury of freedom in waltzing, and made with Quaker-like simplicity, the bodice high to the throat, fitting her like a sheath.
Her only ornaments were a garland of scarlet poppies wreathed from throat to shoulder, and a large diamond heart which Mr. Smithson had lately given her; ‘a bullock’s heart,’ as Lady Kirkbank called it.
When the curtain fell, and not till then, she rose and allowed herself to be clad in a brown velvet Newmarket, which completely covered her short satin gown. She had a little brown velvet toque to match the Newmarket, and thus attired she would be able to take her seat on the drag which was waiting on the quietest side of Covent Garden.
‘Why should not you go with us, Don Gomez?’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, in a gush of hospitality. ‘The drive will be charming — not equal to your tropical Cuba — but intensely nice. And the gardens will be something too sweet on such a night as this. I knew them when the dear Duc d’Aumale was there. Ay de mi, such a man!’
Lady Kirkbank sighed, with the air of having known his Altésse Royale intimately.
‘I should be charmed,’ said Don Gomez, ‘if I thought my friend Smithson wanted me. Would you really like to have me, Smithson?’
‘I should be enchanted.’
‘And there is room on the drag?’
‘Room enough for half-a-dozen. I am only taking Sir George Kirkbank and Colonel Delville — whom we are to pick up at the Haute Gomme — and Mr. and Mrs. Mostyn, who are in the stalls.’
‘A nice snug little party,’ exclaimed that charming optimist, Lady Kirkbank. ‘I hate a crowd on a drag. The way some of the members of the Four-in-hand Club load their coaches on parade reminds me of a Beanfeast!’
They found Lady Kirkbank’s footman and one of Mr. Smithson’s grooms waiting in the hall of the opera house. The groom to conduct them to the spot where the drag was waiting; the footman to carry wraps and take his mistress’s final orders. There was a Bohemian flavour in the little walk to the great fruit garden, which was odorous of bruised peaches and stale salads as they passed it. Waggon-loads of cabbages and other garden stuff were standing about by the old church; the roadway was littered with the refuse of the market; and the air was faint and heavy with the scent of herbs and flowers.
Lesbia mounted lightly to her place of honour on the box-seat; and Lady Kirkbank was hoisted up after her. Mr. and Mrs. Mostyn followed; and then Don Gomez took his seat by Lady Kirkbank’s side and behind Lesbia, a vantage point from which he could talk to her as much as he liked. Mr. Smithson seated himself a minute afterwards, and drove off by King Street and Leicester Square and on to Piccadilly, steering cleverly through the traffic of cabs and carriages, which was at its apogee just now, when all the theatres were disgorging their crowds. Piccadilly was quieter, yet there were plenty of carriages, late people going to parties and early people going home, horses slipping and sliding on stones or wood, half the roadway up, and luminous with lanterns. They stopped in front of the Haute Gomme, where they picked up Sir George Kirkbank and Colonel Delville, a big man with a patriarchal head, supposed to be one of the finest whist players in London, and to make a handsome income by his play. He had ridden in the Balaclava charge, was a favourite everywhere, and, albeit no genius, was much cleverer than his friend and school-fellow, George Kirkbank. They had been at Eton together, had both made love to the lively Georgie, and had been inseparables for the last thirty years.
‘Couldn’t get on without Delville,’ said Sir George; ‘dooced smart fellow, sir. Knows the ropes; and does all the thinking for both of us.’
And now they were fairly started, and the team fell into a rattling pace, with the road pretty clear before them. Hyde Park was one umbrageous darkness, edged by long lines of golden light. Coolness and silence enfolded all things in the summer midnight, and Lesbia, not prone to romance, sank into a dreamy state of mind, as she leaned back in her seat and watched the shadowy trees glide by, the long vista of lamps and verdure in front of her. She was glad that no one talked to her, for talk of any kind must have broken the spell. Don Gomez sat like a statue in his place behind her. From Lady Kirkbank, the loquacious, came a gentle sound of snoring, a subdued, ladylike snore, breathed softly at intervals, like a sigh. Mr. Smithson had his team, and his own thoughts, too, for occupation — thoughts which to-night were not altogether pleasant.
At the back of the coach Mrs. Mostyn was descanting on the evolution of the nautilus, and the relationship of protoplasm and humanity, to Colonel Delville, who sat smiling placidly behind an immense cigar, and accepted the most stupendous facts and the most appalling theories with a friendly little nod of his handsome head.
Mr. Mostyn frankly slept, as it was his custom to do upon all convenient occasions. He called it recuperating.
‘Frank ought to be delightfully fresh, for he recuperated all the way down,’ said his wife, when they alighted in the dewy garden at Twickenham, in front of the lamp-lit portico.
‘I wouldn’t have minded his recuperating if he hadn’t snored so abominably,’ remarked Colonel Delville.
It was nearly one o’clock, and the ball had thinned a little, which made it all the better for those who remained. Mr. Smithson’s orders had been given two days ago, and the very best of the waiters had been told off for his especial service. The ladies went upstairs to take off their wrappings and mufflings, and Lesbia emerged dazzling from her brown velvet Newmarket, while Lady Kirkbank, bending closely over the looking-glass, like a witch over a caldron, repaired her complexion with cotton wool.
They went through the conservatory to the octagon dining-room, where the supper was ready, a special supper, on a table by a window, a table laden with exotics and brilliant with glass and silver. The supper was, of course, perfect in its way. Mr. Smithson’s chef had been down to see about it, and Mr. Smithson’s own particular champagne and the claret grown in his own particular clos in the Gironde, had been sent down for the feast. No common cuisine, no common wine could be good enough; and yet there was a day when the cheapest gargote in Belleville or Montmartre was good enough for Mr. Smithson. There had been days on which he did not dine at all, and when the fumes of a gibelotte steaming from a workman’s restaurant made his mouth water.
The supper was all life and gaiety. Everyone was hungry and thirsty, and freshioned by the drive, except Lesbia. She was singularly silent, ate hardly anything, but drank three or four glasses of champagne.
Don Gomez was not a great talker. He had the air of a prince of the blood royal, who expects other people to talk and to keep him amused, But the little he said was to the point. He had a fine baritone, very low and subdued, and had a languor which was almost insolent, but not without its charm. There was an air of originality about the manner and the man.
He was the typical rastaquouère, a man of finished manners, and unknown antecedents, a foreigner, apparently rich, obviously accomplished, but with that indefinable air which bespeaks the adventurer; and which gives society as fair a warning as if the man wore a placard on his shoulder with the word cave.
But to Lesbia this Spaniard was the first really interesting man she had met since she saw John Hammond; and her interest in him was much more vivid than her interest in Hammond had been at the beginning of their acquaintance. That pale face, with its tint of old ivory, those thin, finely-cut lips, indicative of diabolical craft, could she but read aright, those unfathomable eyes, touched her fancy as it had never yet been touched, awoke within her that latent vein of romance, self-abnegation, supreme foolishness, which lurks in the nature of every woman, be she chaste as ice and pure as snow.
The supper was long. It was past two o’clock, and the ballroom was thinly occupied, when Mr. Smithson’s party went there.
‘You won’t dance to-night, I suppose?’ said Smithson, as Lesbia and he went slowly down the room arm in arm. It was in a pause between two waltzes. The wide window at the end was opened to the summer night, and the room was delightfully cool. ‘You must be horribly tired?’
‘I am not in the least tired, and I mean to waltz, if anyone will ask me,’ replied Lesbia, decisively.
‘I ought to have asked you to dance, and then it would have been the other way,’ said Smithson, with a touch of acrimony. ‘Surely you have dancing enough in town, and you might be obliging for once in a way, and come and sit with me in the garden, and listen to the nightingales.’
‘There are no nightingales after June. There is the Manola,’ as the band struck up, ‘my very favourite waltz.’
Don Gomez was at her elbow at this moment
‘May I have the honour of this waltz with you, Lady Lesbia?’ he asked; and then with a serio-comic glance at his stoutish friend, ‘I don’t think Smithson waltzes?’
‘I have been told that nobody can waltz who has been born on this side of the Pyrenees,’ answered Lesbia, withdrawing her arm from her lover’s, and slipping, it through the Spaniard’s, with the air of a slave who obeys a master.
Smithson looked daggers, and retired to a corner of the room glowering. Were a man twenty-two times millionaire, like the Parisian Rothschild, he could not find armour against the poisoned arrows of jealousy. Don Gomez possessed many of those accomplishments which make men dangerous, but as a dancer he was hors ligne; and Horace Smithson knew that there is no surer road to a girl’s fancy than the magic circle of a waltz.
Those two were floating round the room in the old slow legato step, which recalled to Smithson the picture of a still more spacious room in an island under the Southern Cross — the blue water of the bay shining yonder under the starlight of the tropics, fire-flies gleaming and flashing in the foliage beyond the open windows, fire-flies flashing amidst the gauzy draperies of the dancers, and this same Gomez revolving with the same slow languid grace, his arm encircling the svelte figure of a woman whose southern beauty outshone Lesbia’s blonde English loveliness as the tropical stars outshine the lamps that light our colder skies. Yes, every detail of the scene flashed back into his mind, as if a curtain had been suddenly plucked back from a long-hidden picture. The Cuban’s tall slim figure, the head gently bent towards his partner’s head, as at this moment, and those dark eyes looking up at him, intoxicated with that nameless, indefinable fascination which it is the lot of some men to exercise.
‘He robbed me of her!’ thought Smithson, gloomily. ‘Will he rob me of this one too? Surely not! Havana is Havana — and this one is not a Creole. If I cannot trust that lovely piece of marble, there is no woman on earth to be trusted.’
He turned his back upon the dancers, and went out into the garden. His soul was wrung with jealousy, yet he could watch no longer. There was too much pain — there were too many bitter memories of shame, and loss, and ignominy evoked by that infernal picture. If he had been free he would have asserted his authority as Lesbia’s future husband; he would have taken her away from the Orleans; he would have told her plainly and frankly that Don Gomez was no fit person for her to know; and he would have so planned that they two should never meet again. But Horace Smithson was not free. He was bound hand and foot by those fetters which the chain of past events had forged — stern facts which the man himself may forget, or try to forget, but which other people never forget. There is generally some dark spot in the history of such men as Smithson — men who climb the giddiest heights of this world with that desperate rapidity which implies many a perilous leap from crag to crag, many a moraine skimmed over, and many an awful gulf spanned by a hair-breadth bridge. Mr. Smithson’s history was not without such spots; and the darkest of all had relation to his career in Cuba. The story had been known by very few — perhaps completely known only by one man; and that man was Gomez de Montesma.
For the last fifteen years the most fervent desire of Horace Smithson’s heart had been the hope that tropical nature, in any one of her various disagreeable forms, would be obliging enough to make an end of Gomez. But the forces of nature had not worked on Mr. Smithson’s side. No loathsome leprosy had eaten his enemy’s flesh; neither cayman nor crocodile, neither Juba snake nor poisonous spider had marked him for its prey. The tropical sun had left him unsmitten. He had lived and he had prospered; and he was here, like a guilty conscience incarnate, to spoil Horace Smithson’s peace.
‘I must be diplomatic,’ Smithson said to himself, as he walked up and down an avenue of Irish yews, in a solitary part of the grounds, smoking his cigarette, and hearing the music swell and sink in the distance. ‘I will give her a hint as to that man’s character, and I will keep them apart as much as I can. But if he forces himself upon me there is no help for it. I cannot afford to be uncivil to him.’
‘Cannot afford’ in this instance meant ‘dare not,’ and Horace Smithson’s thoughts as he paced the yew-tree walk were full of gloom.
During that long meditation he made up his mind on one point, namely, that, let him suffer what pangs he might, he must not betray his jealousy. To do that would be to lower himself in Lesbia’s eyes, and to play into his rival’s hand; for a jealous man is almost always contemptible in the sight of his mistress. He would carry himself as if he were sure of her fidelity; and this very confidence, with a woman of honour, a girl reared as Lesbia had been reared, would render it impossible for her to betray him. He would show himself high-minded, confident, generous, chivalrous, even; and he would trust to chance for the issue. Chance were Mr. Smithson’s only idea of Divinity; and Chance had hitherto been kind to him. There had been dark hours in his life, but the darkness had not lasted long; and the lucky accidents of his career had been of a nature to beguile him into the belief that among the favourites of Destiny he stood first and foremost.
While Mr. Smithson mused thus, alone and in the darkness, Montesma and Lady Lesbia were wandering arm in arm in another and lovelier part of the grounds, where golden lights were scattered like Cuban fire-flies among the foliage of seringa and magnolia, arbutus and rhododendron, while at intervals a sudden flush of rosier light was shed over garden and river, as if by enchantment, surprising a couple here and there in the midst of a flirtation which had begun in darkness.
The grounds were lovely in the balmy atmosphere of a July night, the river gliding with mysterious motion under the stars, great masses of gloom darkening the stream with an almost awful look where the woods of Petersham and Ham House cast their dense shadows on the water. Don Gomez and his companion wandered by the river side to a spot where a group of magnolias sheltered them from the open lawn, and where there were some rustic chairs close to the balustrade which protected the parapet. In this spot, which was a kind of island, divided from the rest of the grounds by the intervening road, they found themselves quite alone, and in the midst of a summer stillness which was broken only by the low, lazy ripple of the tide running seawards. The lights of Richmond looked far away, and the little town with its variety of levels had an Italian air in the distance.
From the ballroom, faint and fitful, came the music of a waltz.
‘I’m afraid I’ve brought you too far,’ said Don Gomez.
‘On the contrary, it is a relief to get away from the lights and the people. How delicious this river is! I was brought up on the shores of a lake; but after all a lake is horribly tame. Its limits are always staring one in the face. There is no room for one’s imagination to wander. Now a river like this suggests an infinity of possibilities, drifting on and on and on into undiscovered regions, by ever-varying shores. I feel to-night as if I should like to step into that little boat yonder,’ pointing to a light skiff bobbing gently up and down with the tide, at the bottom of a flight of steps, ‘and let the stream take me wherever it chose.’
‘If I could but go with you,’ said Gomez, in that deep and musical tone which made the commonest words seem melody, ‘I would ask for neither compass nor rudder. What could it matter whither the boat took me? There is no place under the stars which would not be a paradise — with you.’
‘Please don’t make a dreamy aspiration the occasion for a compliment,’ exclaimed Lesbia, lightly. ‘What I said was so silly that I don’t wonder you thought it right to say something just a little sillier. But moonlight and running water have a curious effect upon me; and I, who am the most prosaic among women, become ridiculously sentimental.’
‘I cannot believe that you are prosaic.’
‘I assure you it is perfectly true. I am of the earth, earthy; a woman of the world, in my first season, ambitious, fond of pleasure, vain, proud, exacting, all those things which I am told a woman ought not to be.’
‘You pain me when you so slander yourself; and I shall make it the business of my life to find out how much truth there is in that self-slander. For my own part I do not believe a word of it; but as it is rude to contradict a lady I will only say that I reserve my opinion.’
‘Are you to stay long in England?’ asked Lesbia.
She was leaning against the stone balustrade in a careless attitude, as of one who was weary, her elbow on the stone slab, and her head thrown hack against her arm. The white satin gown, moulded to her figure, had a statuesque air, and she looked like a marble statue in the dim light, every line of the graceful form expressive of repose.
‘That will depend. I am not particularly fond of London. A very little of your English Babylon satisfies me, in a general way; but there are conditions which might make England enchanting. Where do you go at the end of the season?’
‘First to Goodwood, and then to Cowes. Mr. Smithson is so kind as to place his yacht at Lady Kirkbank’s disposal, and I am to be her guest on board the Cayman, just as I am in Arlington Street.’
‘The Cayman! That name is a reminiscence of Mr. Smithson’s South American travels.’
‘No doubt! Was he long in South America?’
‘Three or four years.’
‘But not in Cuba all that time, I suppose?’
‘He had business relations with Cuba all that time, and oscillated between our island and the main. He was rather fortunate in his little adventures with us — made almost as much money as General Tacon, of blessed memory. But I dare say Smithson has told you all his adventures in that part of the world.’
‘No, he very rarely talks about his travels: and I am not particularly interested in commercial speculations. There is always so much to think of and talk about in the business of the moment. Are you fond of Cuba?’
‘Not passionately. I always feel as if I were an exile there, and yet one of my ancestors was with Columbus when be discovered the island, and my race were among the earliest settlers. My family has given three Captain-generals to Cuba: but I cannot forget that I belong to an older world, and have forfeited that which ought to have been a brilliant place in Europe for the luxurious obscurity of a colony.’
‘But you must be attached to a place in which your family have lived for so many generations?’
‘I like the stars and the sea, the mountains and savannas, the tropical vegetation, and the dreamy, half-oriental life; but at best it is a kind of stagnation, and after a residence of a few months in the island of my birth I generally spread my wings for the wider world of the old continent or the new.’
‘You must have travelled so much,’ said Lesbia, with a sigh. ‘I have been nowhere and seen nothing. I feel like a child who has been shut up in a nursery all its life, and knows of no world beyond four walls.’
‘Not to travel is not to live,’ said Don Gomez.
‘I am to be in Italy next November, I believe,’ said Lesbia, not caring to own that this Italian trip was to be her honeymoon.
‘Italy!’ exclaimed the Spaniard, contemptuously. ‘Once the finishing school of the English nobility; now the happy hunting-ground of the Cockney tourist and the prosperous Yankee. All the poetry of Italy has been dried up, and the whole country vulgarised. If you want romance in the old world go to Spain; in the new, try Peru or Brazil, Mexico or California.’
‘I am afraid I am not adventurous enough to go so far.’
‘No: women cling to beaten tracks.’
‘We obey our masters,’ answered Lesbia, meekly.
‘Ah, I forgot. You are to have a master — and soon. I heard as much before I saw you to-night.’
Lesbia half rose, as if to leave this cool retreat above the rippling tide.
‘Yes, it is all settled,’ she said; ‘and now I think I must go back. Lady Kirkbank will be wondering what has become of me.’
‘Let her wonder a little longer,’ said Don Gomez. ‘Why should we hurry away from this delightful spot? Why break the spell of — the river? Life has so few moments of perfect contentment. If this is one with you — as it is with me — let us make the most of it. Lady Lesbia, do you see those weeds yonder, drifting with the tide, drifting side by side, touching as they drift? They have met heaven knows how, and will part heaven knows where, on their way to the sea; but they let themselves go with the tide. We have met like those poor weeds. Don’t let us part till the tide parts us.’
Lesbia gave a little sigh, and submitted. She had talked of women obeying their masters; and the implication was that she meant to obey Mr. Smithson. But there is a fate in these things; and the man who was to be her master, whose lightest breath was to sway her, whose lightest look was to rule her, was here at her side in the silence of the summer night.
They talked long, but of indifferent subjects; and their talk might have been heard by every member of the Orleans Club, and no harm done. Yet words and phrases count for very little in such a case. It is the tone, it is the melody of a voice, it is the magic of the hour that tells.
The tide came, in the person of Mr. Smithson, and parted these two weeds that were drifting towards the great mysterious ocean of fate.
‘I have been hunting for you everywhere,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘If you want another waltz, Lady Lesbia, you had better take the next. I believe it is to be the last. At any rate our party are clamouring to be driven home. I found poor Lady Kirkbank fast asleep in a corner of the drawing-room.’
‘Will you give me that last waltz?’ asked Don Gomez.
Lady Lesbia felt that the long-suffering Smithson had endured enough. Womanly instinct constrained her to refuse that final waltz: but it seemed to her as if she were making a tremendous sacrifice in so doing. And yet she had waltzed to her heart’s content during the season that was waning, and knew all the waltzes played by all the fashionable bands. She gave a little sigh, as she said —
‘No, I must not indulge myself. I must go and take care of Lady Kirkbank.’
Mr. Smithson offered his arm, and she took it and went away with him, leaving Don Gomez to follow at his leisure. There would be some delay no doubt before the drag started. The lamps had gone out among the foliage, and the stars were waning a little, and there was a faint cold light creeping over the garden which meant the advent of morning. Don Gomez strolled towards the lighted house, smoking a cigarette.
‘She is very lovely, and she is — well — not quite spoiled by her entourage, and they tell me she is an heiress — sure to inherit a fine fortune from some ancient grandmother, buried alive in Westmoreland,’ he mused. ‘What a splendid opportunity it would be if — if the business could be arranged on the square. But as it is — well — as it is there is the chance of an adventure; and when did a Montesma ever avoid an adventure, although there were dagger or poison lurking in the background? And here there is neither poison nor steel, only a lovely woman, and an infatuated stockbroker, about whom I know enough to disgrace and ruin an archbishop. Poor Smithson! How very unlucky that I should happen to come across your pathway in the heyday of your latest love affair. We have had our little adventures in that line already, and we have measured swords together, metaphorically, before to-night. When it comes to a question of actual swords my Smithson declines. Pas si bête.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05