All men may be vain, but the vanity of Granville Bligh was, so to speak, of a special brand. In the bandying of words (which, after all, was his profession) his vanity was not too easily satisfied by his own performances. This made him strong in attack, through setting up a high standard, of the kind; but it left his defence somewhat weak for want of practice. His war was always within the enemy’s lines. He paid too much attention to his attack. Thus, though seldom touched by an adversary, when touched he was wounded; and, what was likely to militate against his professional chances, when wounded he was generally winged. His own skin was too thin; he had not yet learned to take without a twinge what he gave without a qualm: for a smart and aggressive young man he was simply absurdly sensitive.
But, though weaker in defence than might have been expected, Granville was no mean hand at retaliation. He neither forgot nor forgave; and he paid on old scores and new ones with the heavy interest demanded by his exorbitant vanity. Here again his vanity was very fastidious. First or last, by fair means or foul, Granville was to finish a winner. Until he did, his vanity and he were not on speaking terms.
There were occasions, of course, when he was not in a position either to riposte at once or to whet his blade and pray for the next merry meeting. Such cases occurred sometimes in court, when the bench would stand no nonsense, and brusquely said as much, if not rather more. Incredible as it may seem, however, Granville felt his impotency hardly less in the public streets, when he happened to be unusually well dressed and gutter-chaff rose to the occasion. In fact, probably the worst half-hour he ever spent in his life was one fine morning when unaccountable energy actuated him to walk to Richmond, and take the train there, instead of getting in at Twickenham; for, encountering a motley and interminable string of vehicles en route to Kempton Park, he ran a gauntlet of plebeian satire during that half-hour, such as he never entirely could forget.
To these abominable experiences, the Bride’s piece of rudeness unrefined (which she had the bad taste to perpetrate at the very moment when he was being rude to her, but in a gentlemanlike way) was indeed a mere trifle; but Granville, it will now be seen, thought more of trifles than the ordinary rational animal; and this one completely altered his attitude towards Gladys.
If, hitherto, he had ridiculed her, delicately, to her face, and disparaged her — with less delicacy — behind her back, he had been merely pursuing a species of intellectual sport, without much malicious intent. He was not aware that he had ever made the poor thing uncomfortable. He had not inquired into that. He was only aware that he had more than once had his joke out of her, and enjoyed it, and felt pleased with himself. But his sentiment towards her was no longer so devoid of animosity. She had scored off him; he had felt it sufficiently at the moment; but he felt it much more when it had rankled a little. And he despised and detested himself for having been scored off, even without witnesses, by a creature so coarse and contemptible. He was too vain to satisfy himself with the comfortable, elastic, and deservedly popular principle that certain unpleasantnesses and certain unpleasant people are ‘beneath notice.’ Nobody was beneath Granville’s notice; he would have punished with his own boot the young blackguards of the gutter, could he have been sure of catching them, and equally sure of not being seen; and he punished Gladys in a fashion that precluded detection — even Gladys herself never knew that she was under the lash.
On the contrary, she ceased to dislike her brother-in-law. He was become more polite to her than he had ever been before; more affable and friendly in every way. Quite suddenly, they were brother and sister together.
‘How well those two get on!’ Lady Bligh would whisper to her husband, during the solemn game of bezique which was an institution of their quieter evenings; and, indeed, the Bride and her brother-in-law had taken to talking and laughing a good deal in the twilight by the open window. But, sooner or later, Granville was sure to come over to the card-table with Gladys’s latest story or saying, with which he would appear to be hugely amused: and the same he delighted to repeat in its original vernacular, and with its original slips of grammar, but with his own faultless accent — which emphasised those peculiarities, making Lady Bligh sigh sadly and Sir James look as though he did not hear. And Alfred was too well pleased that his wife had come to like Granville at last, to listen to what they were talking about; and the poor girl herself never once suspected the unkindness; far from it, indeed, for she liked Granville now.
‘I thought he would never forgive me for giving him that bit of my mind the other day; but you see, Alfred, it did him good; and now I like him better than I ever thought possible in this world. He’s awfully good to me. And we take an interest in the same sort of things. Didn’t you hear how interested he was in Bella’s sweetheart at lunch today?’
Alfred turned away from the fresh bright face that was raised to his. He could not repress a frown.
‘I do wish you wouldn’t call the girl Bella,’ he said, with some irritation. ‘Her name’s Bunn. Why don’t you call her Bunn, dear? And nobody dreams of making talk about their maids’ affairs, let alone their maids’ young men, at the table. It’s not the custom — not in England.’
A week ago he would not have remonstrated with her upon so small a matter; but the ice had been broken that morning in Richmond Park. And a week ago she would very likely have told him, laughingly, to hang his English customs; but now she looked both pained and puzzled, as she begged him to explain to her the harm in what she had said.
‘Harm?’ said Alfred, more tenderly. ‘Well, there was no real harm in it — that’s the wrong word altogether — especially as we were by ourselves, without guests. Still, you know, the mother doesn’t want to hear all about her servants’ family affairs, and what her servants’ sweethearts are doing in Australia, or anywhere else. All that — particularly when you talk of the woman by her Christian name — sounds very much — why, it sounds almost as though you made a personal friend of the girl, Gladdie!’
Gladys opened wide her lovely eyes. ‘Why, so I do!’
Alfred looked uncomfortable.
‘So I do!’ said the Bride again. ‘And why not, pray? There, you see, you know of no reason why I shouldn’t be friends with her, you goose! But I won’t speak of her any more as Bella, if you don’t like — except to her face. I shall call her what I please to her face, sir! But, indeed, I wouldn’t have spoken about her at all today, only I was interested to know her young man was out there; and Gran seemed as interested as me, for he went on asking questions ——’
Alfred was quite himself again.
‘Any way, darling,’ he said, interrupting her with a kiss, ‘I am glad you have got over your prejudice against Gran!’— and he went out, looking it; but leaving behind him less of gladness than he carried away.
The conversation had taken place in the little morning-room in the front of the house, which faced the west; and the strong afternoon sunshine, striking down through the trembling tree-tops, dappled the Bride’s face with lights and shadows. It was not, at the moment, a very happy face. All the reckless, radiant, aggressive independence of two or three weeks ago was gone out of it. The bold, direct glance was somewhat less bold. The dark, lustrous, lovely eyes were become strangely wistful. Gladys was in trouble.
It had crept upon her by slow degrees. Shade by shade the fatal truth had dawned even upon her — the fatal disparity between herself and her new relatives. This was plainer to no one now than to the Bride herself; and to her the disparity meant despair — it was so wide — and it grew wider day by day, as her realisation of it became complete. Well, she had made friends with Granville: but that was all. The Judge had been distant and ceremonious from the first: he was distant and ceremonious still. He had never again unbent so much as at that tragic moment when he bade her rise from her knees in the wet stable-yard. As for Lady Bligh, she had begun by being kind enough; but her kindness had run to silent sadness. She seemed full of regrets. Gladys was as far from her as ever. And Gladys knew the reasons for all this — some of them. She saw, now, the most conspicuous among her own shortcomings; and against those that she did see (Heaven knows) she struggled strenuously. But there were many she could not see, yet; she felt this, vaguely; and it was this that filled her with despair.
It was green grass that she gazed out upon from the morning-room window, as the trouble deepened in her eyes; and in Australia she had seldom seen grass that was green. But just then she would have given all the meadows of England for one strip of dry saltbush plain, with the sun dropping down behind the far-away line of sombre, low-sized scrub, and the sand-hills flushing in the blood-red light, and the cool evening wind coming up from the south. The picture was very real to her — as real, for the moment, as this shaven grass-plot, and the line of tall trees that shadowed it, with their trunks indistinguishable, in this light, against the old brick wall. Then she sighed, and the vision vanished — and she thought of Alfred.
‘He can’t go on loving me always, unless I improve,’ she said dismally. ‘I must get more like his own people, and get on better with them, and all that. I must! Yet he doesn’t tell me how to set to work; and it’s hard to find out for oneself. I am trying; but it’s very hard. If only somebody would show me how! For, unless I find out, he can’t care about me much longer — I see it — he can’t!’
Yet it seemed that he did.
If attending to the most extravagant wish most lightly spoken counts for anything, Alfred could certainly care for his wife still, and did care for her very dearly indeed. And that wish that Gladys had expressed while walking through the village of Ham — the desire to drive about in a coach-and-four — had been at least lightly uttered, and had never since crossed her mind, very possibly. Nevertheless, one day in the second week of June the coach-and-four turned up — spick and span, and startling and fairylike as Cinderella’s famous vehicle. It was Alfred’s surprise; he had got the coach for the rest of the season; and when he saw that his wife could find no words to thank him — but could only gaze at him in silence, with her lovely eyes grown soft and melting, and his hand pressed in hers — then, most likely, the honest fellow experienced a purer joy than he had ever known in all his life before. Nor did the surprise end there. By collusion with Lady Bligh and Granville, a strong party had been secretly convened for Ascot the very next day; and a charming dress, which Gladys had never ordered, came down from her dressmaker in Conduit Street that evening — when Alfred confessed, and was hugged. And thus, just as she was getting low and miserable and self-conscious, Gladys was carried off her feet and whirled without warning into a state of immense excitement.
Perhaps she could not have expressed her gratitude more eloquently than she did but a minute before they all drove off in the glorious June morning; when, getting her husband to herself for one moment, she flung her arms about his neck and whispered tenderly:—
‘I’m going to be as good as gold all day — it’s the least I can do, darling!’
And she was no worse than her word. The racing interested her vastly — she won a couple of sweepstakes too, by the way — yet all day she curbed her wild excitement with complete success. Only her dark eyes sparkled so that people declared they had never seen a woman so handsome, and in appearance so animated, who proved to have so little — so appallingly little — to say for herself. And it was Gladys herself who drove them all home again, handling the ribbons as no other woman handled them that season, and cracking her whip as very few men could crack one, so that it was heard for half a mile through the clear evening air, while for half that distance people twisted their necks and strained their eyes to see the last of the dark, bewitching, dashing driver who threaded her way with such nerve and skill through the moving maze of wheels and horseflesh that choked the country roads.
And, with it all, she kept her promise to the letter. And her husband was no less delighted than proud. And only her brother-in-law felt aggrieved.
‘But it’s too good to last,’ was that young man’s constant consolation. ‘It’s a record, so far; but she’ll break out before the day is over; she’ll entertain us yet — or I’ll know the reason why!’ he may have added in his most secret soul. At all events, as he sat next her at dinner, when the Lady Lettice Dunlop — his right-hand neighbour — remarked in a whisper the Bride’s silence, Granville was particularly prompt to whisper back:—
‘Try her about Australia. Sound her on the comparative merits of their races out there and Ascot. Talk in front of me, if you like; I don’t mind; and she’ll like it.’
So Lady Lettice Dunlop leant over gracefully, and said she had heard of a race called the Melbourne Cup; and how did it compare with the Gold Cup at Ascot?
The Bride shook her head conclusively, and a quick light came into her eyes. ‘There is no comparison.’
‘You mean, of course, that your race does not compare with ours? Well, it hardly would, you know!’ Lady Lettice smiled compassionately.
‘Not a bit of it!’ was the brusque and astonishing retort. ‘I mean that the Melbourne Cup knocks spots — I mean to say, is ten thousand times better than what we saw today!’
The Lady Lettice sat upright again and manipulated her fan. And it was Granville’s opening.
‘I can quite believe it,’ chimed in Gran. ‘I always did hear that that race of yours was the race of the world. Englishmen say so who have been out there, Lady Lettice. But you should tell us wherein the superiority lies, Gladys.’
The Bride complied with alacrity.
‘Why, the course is ever so much nicer; there are ever so many more people, but ever so much less crowding; the management of everything is ever so much better; and the dresses are gayer —ever so much!’
‘Ever so much’ was a recent reform suggested by Alfred. It was an undoubted improvement upon ‘a jolly sight,’ which it replaced; but, like most reforms, it was apt to be too much en evidence just at first.
She rattled off the points at a reckless rate, and paused fairly breathless. Her speaking looks and silent tongue no longer presented their curious contradiction; she not only looked excited, but spoke excitedly now. Lady Lettice smiled faintly, with elevated eyes and eyebrows, as she listened — till the comparison between Colonial and English dress, at which home-touch Lady Lettice was momentarily overcome behind her fan. But the Bride had other hearers besides Lady Lettice; and those who heard listened for more; and those who listened for more heard Granville remark pleasantly:—
‘You used to come down from the Bush for the Melbourne Cup, then?’
‘Did once,’ Gladys was heard to reply.
‘Have a good time?’
‘Old gentleman in luck, then?’
‘Pretty well. No; not altogether, I think.’
‘Didn’t care about going again, eh?’
‘No; but that was because he knocked up when we got back.’
The conversation had become entirely confidential between the two. Lady Lettice was out of it, and looked as though she were glad of that, though in reality she was listening with quite a fierce interest. Others were listening too, and not a few were watching the Bride with a thorough fascination: the good humour and high spirits with which she was now brimming over enhanced her beauty to a remarkable degree.
‘What was it that knocked him up?’ inquired Granville softly, but in distinct tones.
She smiled at him. ‘Never you mind!’
‘But I am interested.’ He looked it.
She smiled at him again, not dreaming that any other eye was upon her; then she raised her champagne glass two inches from the table and set it down again; and her smile broadened, as though it were the best joke in the world.
The refined tale was told. The action was understood by all who had listened to what went before.
The Judge was one of those who both saw and heard; and he spoke to Granville on the subject afterwards, and with some severity. But Gran’s defence was convincing enough.
‘Upon my honour, sir,’ he protested, ‘I had no kind of idea what was coming.’
‘Well,’ said the Judge, grimly, ‘I hope everybody did not take it in. Her own father, too! Apart from the offensiveness of the revelation, there was a filial disrespect in it which, to me, was the worst part of it all.’
Granville looked at his father humorously through his eyeglass.
‘I fear, sir, she is like our noble Profession — no Respecter of Persons!’
But the Judge saw nothing to smile at. ‘It is nothing to joke about, my boy,’ he observed. ‘It has provoked me more than I can say. It is enough to frighten one out of asking people to the house. It forces me to do what I am very unwilling to do: I shall speak seriously to Alfred before we go to bed.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09