It will be remembered that Harry Clavering, on returning one evening to his lodgings in Bloomsbury Square, had been much astonished at finding there the card of Count Pateroff, a man of whom he had only heard, up to that moment, as the friend of the late Lord Ongar. At first be bad been very angry with Lady Ongar, thinking that she and this count were in some league togetber, some league of which he would greatly disapprove; but his anger had given place to a new interest when he learned direct from herself that she had not seen the count, and that she was simply anxious that he, as her friend, should have an interview with the man. He had then become very eager in the matter, offering to subject himself to any amount of inconvenience so that he might effect that which Lady Ongar asked of him. He was not, however, called upon to endure any special trouble or expense, as he heard nothing more from Count Pateroff till he had been back in London for two or three weeks.
Lady Ongar’s statement to him had been quite true. It had been even more than true; for when she had written she had not even heard directly from the count. She had learned by letter from another person that Count Pateroff was in London, and had then communicated the fact to her friend. This other person was a sister of the count’s, who was now living in London, one Madame Gordeloup — Sophie Gordeloup — a lady whom Harry had found sitting in Lady Ongar’s room when last he had seen her in Bolton Street. He had not then heard her name; nor was he aware then, or for some time subsequently, that Count Pateroff had any relative in London.
Lady Ongar had been a fortnight in the country before she received Madame Gordeloup’s letter. In that letter the sister had declared herself to be most anxious that her brother should see Lady Ongar. The letter had been in French, and had been very eloquent — more eloquent in its cause than any letter with the same object could have been if written by an Englishwoman in English; and the eloquence was less offensive than it might, under all concurrent circumstances, have been had it reached Lady Ongar in English. The reader must not, however, suppose that the letter contained a word that was intended to support a lover’s suit. It was very far indeed from that, and spoke of the count simply as a friend; but its eloquence went to show that nothing that had passed should be construed by Lady Ongar as offering any bar to a fair friendship. What the world said! — Bah! Did not she know — she, Sophie — and did not her friend know — her friend Julie — that the world was a great liar? Was it not even now telling wicked venomous lies about her friend Julie? Why mind what the world said, seeing that the world could not be brought to speak one word of truth? The world indeed! Bah!
But Lady Ongar, though she was not as yet more than half as old as Madame Gordeloup, knew what she was about almost as well as that lady knew what Sophie Gordeloup was doing. Lady Ongar had known the count’s sister in France and Italy, having seen much of her in one of those sudden intimacies to which English people are subject when abroad; and she had been glad to see Madame Gordeloup in London — much more glad than she would have been had she been received there on her return by a crowd of loving native friends. But not on that account was she prepared to shape her conduct in accordance with her friend Sophie’s advice, and especially not so when that advice had reference to Sophie’s brother. She had, therefore, said very little in return to the lady’s eloquence, answering the letter on that matter very vaguely; but, having a purpose of her own, had begged that Count Pateroff might be asked to call upon Harry Clavering. Count Pateroff did not feel himself to care very much about Harry Clavering, but wishing to do as he was bidden, did leave his card in Bloomsbury Square.
And why was Lady Ongar anxious that the young man who was her friend should see the man who had been her husband’s friend, and whose name had been mixed with her own in so grievous a manner? She had called Harry her friend, and it might be that she desired to give this friend every possible means of testing the truth of that story which she herself had told. The reader, perhaps, will hardly have believed in Lady Ongar’s friendship; will, perhaps, have believed neither the friendship nor the story. If so, the reader will have done her wrong, and will not have read her character aright. The woman was not heartless because she had once, in one great epoch of her life, betrayed her own heart; nor was she altogether false because she had once lied; nor altogether vile, because she had once taught herself that, for such an one as her, riches were a necessity. It might be that the punishment of her sin could meet with no remission in this world, but not on that account should it be presumed that there was no place for repentance left to her.
As she walked alone through the shrubberies at Ongar Park she thought much of those other paths at Clavering, and of the walks in which she had not been alone; and she thought of that interview in the garden when she had explained to Harry — as she had then thought so successfully — that they two, each being poor, were not fit to love and marry each other. She had brooded over all that, too, during the long hours of her sad journey home to England. She was thinking of it still when she had met him, and had been so cold to him on the platform of the railway station, when she had sent him away angry because she had seemed to slight him. She had thought of it as she had sat in her London room, telling him the terrible tale of her married life, while her eyes were fixed on his and her head was resting on her hands. Even then, at that moment, she was asking herself whether he believed her story, or whether, within his breast, he was saying that she was vile and false. She knew that she had been false to him, and that he must have despised her when, with her easy philosophy, she had made the best of her own mercenary perfidy. He had called her a jilt to her face, and she had been able to receive the accusation with a smile. Would he now call her something worse, and in a louder voice, within his own bosom? And if she could convince him that to that accusation she was not fairly subject, might the old thing come back again? Would he walk with her again, and look into her eyes as though he only wanted her commands to show himself ready to be her slave? She was a widow, and had seen many things, but even now she had not reached her six-and-twentieth year.
The apples at her rich country-seat had quickly become ashes between her teeth, but something of the juice of the fruit might yet reach her palate if he would come and sit with her at the table. As she complained to herself of the coldness of the world, she thought that she would not care how cold might be all the world if there might be but one whom she could love, and who would love her. And him she had loved. To him, in old days — in days which now seemed to her to be very old — she had made confession of her love. Old as were those days, it could not be but he should still remember them. She had loved him, and him only. To none other had she ever pretended love. From none other had love been offered to her. Between her and that wretched being to whom she had sold herself, who had been half dead before she had seen him, there had been no pretence of love. But Harry Clavering she had loved. Harry Clavering was a man, with all those qualities which she valued, and also with those foibles which saved him from being too perfect for so slight a creature as herself. Harry had been offended to the quick, and had called her a jilt; but yet it might be possible that he would return to her.
It should not be supposed that since her return to England she had had one settled, definite object before her eyes with regard to this renewal of her love. There had been times in which she had thought that she would go on with the life which she had prepared for herself, and that she would make herself contented, if not happy, with the price which had been paid to her. And there were other times, in which her spirits sank low within her, and she told herself that no contentment was longer possible to her. She looked at herself in the glass, and found herself to be old and haggard. Harry, she said, was the last man in the world to sell himself for wealth, when there was no love remaining. Harry would never do as she had done with herself! Not for all the wealth that woman ever inherited — so she told herself — would he link himself to one who had made herself vile and tainted among women! In this, I think, she did him no more than justice, though it maybe that in some other matters she rated his character too highly. Of Florence Burton she had as yet heard nothing, though had she heard of her, it may well be that she would not on that account have desisted. Such being her thoughts and her hopes, she had written to Harry, begging him to see this man who had followed her — she knew not why — from Italy; and had told the sister simply that she could not do as she was asked, because she was away from London, alone in a country house.
And quite alone she was sitting one morning, counting up her misery, feeling that the apples were, in truth, ashes, when a servant came to her, telling her that there was a gentleman in the hall desirous of seeing her. The man had the visitor’s card in his hand, but before she could read the name, the blood had mounted into her face as she told herself that it was Harry Clavering. There was joy for a moment at her heart; but she must not show it — not as yet. She had been but four months a widow, and he should not have come to her in the country. She must see him and in some way make him understand this — but she would be very gentle with him. Then her eye fell upon the card, and she saw, with grievous disappointment, that it bore the name of Count Pateroff. No; she was not going to be caught in that way. Let the result be what it might, she would not let Sophie Gordeloup, or Sophie’s brother, get the better of her by such a ruse as that! “Tell the gentleman, with my compliments,” she said, as she handed back the card, “that I regret it greatly, but I can see no one now.” Then the servant went away, and she sat wondering whether the count would be able to make his way into her presence. She felt rather than knew that she had some reason to fear him. All that had been told of him and of her had been false. No accusation brought against her had contained one spark of truth. But there had been things between Lord Ongar and this man which she would not care to have told openly in England. And though, in his conduct to her, he had been customarily courteous, and on one occasion had been generous, still she feared him. She would much rather that he should have remained in Italy. And though, when all alone in Bolton Street, she had in her desolation welcomed his sister Sophie, she would have preferred that Sophie should not have come to her, claiming to renew their friendship. But with the count she would hold no communion now, even though he should find his way into the room.
A few minutes passed before the servant returned, and then he brought a note with him. As the door opened Lady Ongar rose, ready to leave the room by another passage; but she took the note and read it. It was as follows: “I cannot understand why you should refuse to see me, and I feel aggrieved. My present purpose is to say a few words to you on private matters connected with papers that belonged to Lord Ongar. I still hope that you will admit me — P.” Having read these words while standing, she made an effort to think what might he the best course for her to follow. As for Lord Ongar’s papers, she did not believe in the plea. Lord Ongar could have had no papers interesting to her in such a manner as to make her desirous of seeing this man or of hearing of them in private. Lord Ongar, though she had nursed him to the hour of his death, earning her price, had been her bitterest enemy; and though there had been something about this count that she had respected, she had known him to be a man of intrigue and afraid of no falsehoods in his intrigues — a dangerous man, who might perhaps now and again do a generous thing, but one who would expect payment for his generosity. Besides, had he not been named openly as her lover? She wrote to him, therefore, as follows: “Lady Ongar presents her compliments to Count Pateroff and finds it to be out of her power to see him at present.” This answer the visitor took and walked away from the front door without showing any disgust to the servant, either by his demeanor or in his countenance. On that evening she received from him a long letter, written at the neighbor ing inn, expostulating with her as to her conduct toward him, and saying in the last line, that it was “impossible now that they should be strangers to each other.” “Impossible that we should be strangers,” she said almost out aloud. “Why impossible? I know no such impossibility.” After that she carefully burned both the letter and the note.
She remained at Ongar Park something over six weeks, and then, about the beginning of May, she went back to London. No one had been to see her, except Mr. Sturm, the clergyman of the parish; and he, though something almost approaching to an intimacy had sprung up hetween them, had never yet spoken to her of his wife. She was not quite sure whether her rank might not deter him — whether under such circumstances as those now in question, the ordinary social rules were not ordinarily broken — whether a countess should not call on a clergyman’s wife first, although the countess might be the stranger; but she did not dare to do as she would have done, had no blight attached itself to her name. She gave, therefore, no hint; she said no word of Mrs. Sturm, though her heart was longing for a kind word from some woman’s mouth. But she allowed herself to feel no anger against the husband, and went through her parish work, thanking him for his assistance.
Of Mr. Giles she had seen very little, and since her misfortune with Enoch Gubby, she had made no further attempt to interfere with the wages of the persons employed. Into the houses of some of the poor she had made her way, but she fancied that they were not glad to see her. They might, perhaps, have all heard of her reputation, and Gubby’s daughter may have congratulated herself that there was another in the parish as bad as herself, or perhaps, happily, worse. The owner of all the wealth around strove to make Mrs. Button become a messenger of charity between herself and some of the poor; but Mrs. Button altogether declined the employment, although, as her mistress had ascertained, she herself performed her own little missions of charity with zeal. Before the fortnight was over, Lady Ongar was sick of her house and her park, utterly disregardful of her horses and oxen, and unmindful even of the pleasant stream which in these Spring days rippled softly at the bottom of her gardens.
She had undertaken to be back in London early in May, by appointment with her lawyer, and had unfortunately communicated the fact to Madame Gordeloup. Four or five days before she was due in Bolton Street, her mindful Sophie, with unerring memory, wrote to her, declaring her readiness to do all and anything that the most diligent friendship could prompt. Should she meet her dear Julie at the station in London? Should she bring any special carriage? Should she order any special dinner in Bolton Street? She herself would of course come to Bolton Street, if not allowed to be present at the station. It was still chilly in the evenings, and she would have fires lit. Might she suggest a roast fowl and some bread sauce, and perhaps a sweetbread — and just one glass of champagne? And might she share the banquet? There was not a word in the note about the too obtrusive brother, either as to the offence committed by him, or the offence felt by him.
The little Franco-Polish woman was there in Bolton Street, of course — for Lady Ongar had not dared to refuse her. A little, dry, bright woman she was, with quick eyes, and thin lips, and small nose, and mean forehead, and scanty hair drawn back quite tightly from her face and head; very dry, but still almost pretty with her quickness and her brightness. She was fifty, was Sophie Gordeloup, but she had so managed her years that she was as active on her limbs as most women are at twenty-five. And the chicken and the bread sauce, and the sweetbread, and the champagne were there, all very good of their kind; for Sophie Gordeloup liked such things to be good, and knew how to indulge her own appetite, and to coax that, of another person.
Some little satisfaction Lady Ongar received from the fact that she was not alone; but the satisfaction was not satisfactory. When Sophie had left her at ten o’clock, running off by herself to her lodgings in Mount Street, Lady Ongar, after but one moment’s thought, sat down and wrote, a note to Harry Clavering.
“DEAR HARRY— I am back in town. Pray come and see me to-morrow evening.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55