Fully ten days were wanting before the Eton and Harrow cricket-match, which appears to be pretty generally recognised as the last ‘turn’ in the great variety entertainment of the season; there was plenty of life, and of high life, too, in the town yet; and, what was even more essential to a thorough enjoyment of the Park, the afternoon, as regarded the weather, was for once beyond all praise. Moreover, Royalty was there for at least half an hour; so that the circumstances attendant upon young Mrs Bligh’s first appearance in the ring of fashion were in every way all that could be desired.
It was an ‘appearance’; for Lady Bligh, though in no sense a woman of fashion, was sufficiently well known to attract attention, which was heightened by the increasing rarity of her appearances in the fashionable world. Even had it been otherwise, the robust, striking beauty of the dark young woman at her side must have awakened interest on its own account. It did, among those who did not know the Blighs by sight. But with most people the questions were: Where had Lady Bligh discovered such a fresh and taking type of prettiness? Was the girl a relative? Was that Alfred Bligh sitting opposite to the ladies, come back from Australia disfigured by a beard? Was she his fiancée — or were they already married? It is intended by no means to imply that the modest and even homely equipage of Lady Bligh became the cynosure of Hyde Park; but it was certainly seen; and few saw it with unawakened curiosity.
One or two persons were able to satisfy to some extent this curiosity, and took a delight in doing so; Lady Lettice Dunlop, for one. The curiosity that Lady Lettice relieved was of a languid and peculiarly well-bred kind. A coronet adorned the barouche in which she rode. She said rather more than she knew, yet not quite all that she did know, and said it with a gentle disdain. But Lady Lettice was stopped by a deprecatory gesture of her mother the Countess before she came to the end — which made her regret having over-elaborated the beginning. The Countess considered the story most coarse, and regretted the almost friendly nature of the bow with which she had just favoured poor Lady Bligh. Yet, as the Lady Lettice was generous enough to fancy, the Colonial creature did seem on her very best behaviour this afternoon. And in her fancy Lady Lettice was nearer the mark than in her facts.
Another person, in an even better position to answer questions concerning the Bride, was Mr Travers, M.P. — now the newest M.P. but one. He was walking under the trees with his daughter, whom he was boring somewhat with his political ‘shop’; for he was enough of a new boy still to be full of his nice new lessons. This Miss Travers, however, was no young girl, but a woman of thirty, with a kind, sweet, sympathetic face, and a nature intensely independent. She was best known for her splendid work in Whitechapel, though how splendid that work really was no one knew outside the slums, where her face was her only protection — but a greater one than a cordon of police. But she had also a reputation as a singer, which need not have been confined to a few drawing-rooms in the West, and numberless squalid halls in the East, had she been ambitiously inclined. And this Miss Travers was attracted and charmed by the bold, conspicuous beauty of young Mrs Bligh; pressed for an introduction; pressed all the harder on hearing some plain truths about the Bride and her Bush manners; and presently had her way.
It was now six o’clock. The crowning period of the afternoon had commenced with the arrival of Royalty a few minutes before the hour. Carriages were drawn up by the rails on either side in long, regular ranks. The trough between presented visions of glossy horseflesh and flashing accoutrements and flawless japan, to say nothing of fine looks and finer dress; visions changeful as those of the shaken kaleidoscope; marvellous, magical visions — no matter how much or how little they owed to the golden glamour of the sinking sun, visions of intrinsic wonder.
The Blighs’ serviceable vehicle had found an anchorage by the inner rails in the thick of all this, but not in the thickest. They were, in fact, no farther than a furlong from the Corner, and thus in comparatively open water. At this point the shrubs planted between the two converging courses come to an end, and the two roads are separated by little more than twenty yards. A little way farther on you can see only the bobbing heads of the riders over in Rotten Row; but at this point you have indeed ‘the whole show’ before you. The position had been taken up on the Bride’s express petition. It was the riding that interested Gladys. She had no eyes for the smart people in the carriages when once she could watch with as little trouble the hacks and their riders in Rotten Row. The little interest she took in the passing and repassing of Royalty was somewhat disappointing. But it was plain that she was enjoying herself in her own way; and that was everything. When the Traverses came up, the interruption of this innocent enjoyment was a distinct annoyance to Gladys.
Alfred — to whom it was not an afternoon of wild delight — got out of the carriage with some alacrity; and Miss Travers, with a very engaging freedom of manner, got in. She button-holed the Bride (if that is not an exclusively masculine act — as between man and man), and at first the Bride did not like it. Very soon, however, Gladys was pleased to withdraw her attention, partially, from Rotten Row and transfer it to Miss Travers. Like everybody else, the Bride was immensely attracted; Miss Travers’s manner was so sympathetic, yet unaffected, and so amazingly free (Gladys thought) from English stiffness; and her face was infinitely kind and sweet, and her voice musical and soft.
So Mr Travers, with one foot upon the carriage-step, brought Lady Bligh up to date in her politics generally, and in his own political experiences in particular; and Alfred made aimless patterns on the ground with his feet; and Miss Travers questioned Gladys on the subject upon which all strangers who were told where she came from invariably and instantly did question her. But Miss Travers did this in a way of her own, and a charming way. You would have thought it had been the dream of her life to go to Australia; you would have inferred that it was her misfortune and not her fault that her lines were cast in England instead of out there; and yet you would not, you could not, have suspected her of hypocrisy. She was one of those singular people who seem actually to prefer, in common conversation, the tuum to the meum. Gladys was charmed. But still she stole furtive glances across the space dividing them from the tan; and her answers, which would have been eager and impetuous enough in any other circumstances, came often slowly; she was obviously distraite.
Miss Travers saw this, and followed the direction of the dark, eager eyes, and thought she understood. But suddenly there came a quick gleam into the Bride’s eyes which Miss Travers did not understand. A horsewoman was crossing their span of vision in the Row at a brisk canter. The Bride became strangely agitated. Her face was transfigured with surprise and delight and incredulity. Her lips came apart, but no breath escaped them. Her flashing eyes followed the cantering horsewoman, who, in figure and in colouring, if not in feature, was just such another as Gladys herself, and who sat her horse to perfection. But she was cantering past; she would not turn her head, she would not look; a moment more and the shrubs would hide her from Gladys — perhaps for ever.
Before that moment passed, Gladys stood up in the carriage, trembling with excitement. Careless of the place — forgetful of Lady Bligh, of all that had passed, of the good understanding so hardly gained — attracting the attention of Royalty by conspicuously turning her back upon them as they passed for the fourth time — the Bride encircled her lips with her two gloved palms, and uttered a cry that few of the few hundreds who heard it ever forgot:—
That was the startling cry as nearly as it can be written. But no letters can convey the sustained shrillness of the long, penetrating note represented by the first syllable, nor the weird, die-away wail of the second. It is the well-known Bush call, the ‘jodel’ of the black-fellow; but it has seldom been heard from a white throat as Gladys Bligh let it out that afternoon in Hyde Park, in the presence of Royalty.
To say that there was a sensation in the vicinity of the Blighs’ carriage — to say that its occupants were for the moment practically paralysed — is to understate matters, rather. But, before they could recover themselves, the Bride had jumped from the carriage, pressed through the posts, rushed across to the opposite railings, and seized in both hands the hand of the other dark and strapping young woman, who had reined in her horse at once upon the utterance of the ‘Coo-ee!’
And there was a nice little observation, audible to many, which Gladys had let fall in flying:—
‘Good Lord deliver us — it’s her!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55