Harry Clavering had heard the news of his little cousin’s death before he went to Bolton Street to report the result of his negotiation with the count. His mother’s letter with the news had come to him in the morning, and on the same evening he called on Lady Ongar. She also had then received Mrs. Clavering’s letter, and knew what had occurred at the park. Harry found her alone, having asked the servant whether Madam Gordeloup was with his mistress. Had such been the case he would have gone away, and left his message untold.
As he entered the room his mind was naturally full of the tidings from Clavering. Count Pateroff and his message had lost some of their importance through this other event, and the emptiness of the childless house was the first subject of conversation between him and Lady Ongar. “I pity my sister greatly,” said she. “I feel for her as deeply as I should have done had nothing occurred to separate us — but I cannot feel for him.”
“I do,” said Harry.
“He is your cousin, and perhaps has been your friend?”
“No, not especially. He and I have never pulled well together; but still I pity him deeply.”
“He is not my cousin, but I know him better than you do, Harry. He will not feel much himself, and his sorrow will be for his heir, not for his son. He is a man whose happiness does not depend on the life or death of any one. He likes some people, as he once liked me; but I do not think that he ever loved any human being. He will get over it, and he will simply wish that Hermy may die, that he may marry another wife. Harry, I know him so well!”
“Archie will marry now,” said Harry.
“Yes; if he can get any one to have him. There are very few men who can’t get wives, but I can fancy Archie Clavering to be one of them. He has not humility enough to ask the sort of girl who would be glad to take him. Now, with his improved prospects, he will want a royal princess or something not much short of it. Money, rank, and blood might have done before, but he’ll expect youth, beauty, and wit now, as well as the other things. He may marry after all, for he is just the man to walk out of a church some day with the cookmaid under his arm as his wife.”
“Perhaps he may find something between a princess and a cookmaid.”
“I hope, for your sake, he may not — neither a princess nor a cookmaid, nor anything between.”
“He has my leave to marry to-morrow, Lady Ongar. If I had my wish, Hugh should have his house full of children.”
“Of course that is the proper thing to say, Harry.”
“I won’t stand that from you, Lady Ongar. What I say, I mean; and no one knows that better than you.”
“Won’t you, Harry? From whom, then, if not from me? But come, I will do you justice, and believe you to be simple enough to wish anything of the kind. The sort of castle in the air which you build, is not to be had by inheritance, but to be taken by storm. You must fight for it.”
“Or work for it.”
“Or win it in some way off your own bat; and no lord ever sat prouder in his castle than you sit in those that you build from day to day in your imagination. And you sally forth and do all manner of magnificent deeds. You help distressed damsels — poor me, for instance; and you attack enormous dragons — shall I say that Sophie Gordeloup is the latest dragon? — and you wish well to your enemies, such as Hugh and Archie; and you cut down enormous forests, which means your coming miracles as an engineer — and then you fall gloriously in love. When is that last to be, Harry?”
“I suppose, according to all precedent, that must be done with the distressed damsel,” he said — fool that he was.
“No, Harry, no; you shall take your young, fresh, generous heart to a better market than that; not but that the distressed damsel will ever remember what might once have been.”
He knew that he was playing on the edge of a precipice — that he was fluttering as a moth round a candle. He knew that it behooved him now at once to tell her all his tale as to Stratton and Florence Burton — that if he could tell it now, the pang would be over and the danger gone. But he did not tell it. Instead of telling it he thought of Lady Ongar’s beauty, of his own early love, of what might have been his had he not gone to Stratton. I think he thought, if not of her wealth, yet of the power and place which would have been his were it now open to him to ask her for her hand. When he had declared that he did not want his cousin’s inheritance, he had spoken the simple truth. He was not covetous of another’s money. Were Archie to marry as many wives as Henry, and have as many children as Priam, it would be no offence to him. His desires did not lie in that line. But in this other case, the woman before him who would so willingly have endowed him with all she possessed, had been loved by him before he had ever seen Florence Burton. In all his love for Florence — so he now told himself, but so told himself falsely — he had ever remembered that Julia Brabazon had been his first love, the love whom he had loved with all his heart. But things had gone with him most unfortunately — with a misfortune that had never been paralleled. It was thus he was thinking instead of remembering that now was the time in which his tale should be told.
Lady Ongar, however, soon carried him away from the actual brink of the precipice. “But how about the dragon,” said she, “or rather about the dragon’s brother, at whom you were bound to go and tilt on my behalf? Have you tilted, or are you a recreant knight?”
“I have tilted,” said he, “but the he-dragon professes that he will not regard himself as killed. In other words, he declares that he will see you.”
“That he will see me?” said Lady Ongar, and as she spoke there came an angry spot on each cheek. “Does he send me that message as a threat?”
“He does not send it as a threat, but I think he partly means it so.”
“He will find, Harry, that I will not see him; and that should he force himself into my presence, I shall know how to punish such an outrage. If he sent me any message, let me know it.”
“To tell the truth, he was most unwilling to speak to me at all, though he was anxious to be civil to me. When I had inquired for him some time in vain, he came to me with another man, and asked me to dinner. So I went, and as there were four of us, of course I could not speak to him then. He still had the other man, a foreigner —”
“Colonel Schmoff, perhaps?”
“Yes; Colonel Schmoff. He kept Colonel Schmoff by him, so as to guard him from being questioned.”
“That is so like him. Everything he does he does with some design — with some little plan. Well, Harry, you might have ignored Colonel Schmoff for what I should have cared.”
“I got the count to come out into another room at last, and then he was very angry — with me, you know — and talked of what he would do to men who interfered with him.”
“You will not quarrel with him, Harry? Promise me that there shall be no nonsense of that sort — no fighting.”
“Oh, no; we were friends again very soon. But he bade me tell you that there was something important for him to say and for you to hear, which was no concern of mine, and which required an interview.”
“I do not believe him, Harry.”
“And he said that he had once been very courteous to you —”
“Yes; once insolent — and once courteous. I have forgiven the one for the other.”
“He then went on to say that you made him a poor return for his civility by shutting your door in his face, but that he did not doubt you would think better of it when you had heard his message. Therefore, he said, he should call again. That, Lady Ongar, was the whole of it.”
“Shall I tell you what his intention was, Harry?” Again her face became red as she asked this question; but the color which now came to her cheeks was rather that of shame than of anger.
“What was his intention?”
“To make you believe that I am in his power; to make you think that he has been my lover; to lower me in your eyes, so that you might believe all that others have believed — all that Hugh Clavering has pretended to believe. That has been his object, Harry, and perhaps you will tell me what success he has had.”
“You know the old story, that the drop which is ever dropping will wear the stone. And after all why should your faith in me be as hard even as a stone?”
“Do you believe that what he said had any such effect?”
“It is very hard to look into another person’s heart; and the dearer and nearer that heart is to your own, the greater, I think, is the difficulty. I know that man’s heart — what he calls his heart — but I don’t know yours.”
For a moment or two Clavering made no answer, and then, when he did speak, he went back from himself to the count.
“If what you surmise of him be true, he must be a very devil. He cannot be a man —”
“Man or devil, what matters which he be? Which is the worst, Harry, and what is the difference? The Fausts of this day want no Mephistopheles to teach them guile or to harden their hearts.”
“I do not believe that there are such men. There may be one.”
“One, Harry! What was Lord Ongar? What is your cousin Hugh? What is this Count Pateroff? Are they not all of the same nature — hard as stone, desirous simply of indulging their own appetites, utterly without one generous feeling, incapable even of the idea of caring for any one? Is it not so? In truth, this count is the best of the three I have named. With him a woman would stand a better chance than with either of the others.”
“Nevertheless, if that was his motive, he is a devil.”
“He shall be a devil if you say so. He shall be anything you please, so long as he has not made you think evil of me.”
“No, he has not done that.”
“Then I don’t care what he has done, or what he may do. You would not have me see him, would you?” This she asked with a sudden energy, throwing herself forward from her seat with her elbows on the table, and resting her face on her hands, as she had already done more than once when he had been there; so that the attitude, which became her well, was now customary in his eyes.
“You will hardly be guided by my opinion in such a matter.”
“By whose, then, will I be guided? Nay, Harry, since you put me to a promise, I will make the promise. I will be guided by your opinion. If you bid me see him, I will do it — though, I own, it would be distressing to me.”
“Why should you see him, if you do not wish it?”
“I know no reason. In truth there is no reason. What he says about Lord Ongar is simply some part of his scheme. You see what his scheme is, Harry?”
“What is his scheme?”
“Simply this — that I should be frightened into becoming his wife. My darling bosom friend Sophie, who, as I take it, has not quite managed to come to satisfactory terms with her brother — and I have no doubt her price for assistance has been high — has informed me more than once that her brother desires to do me so much honor. The count, perhaps, thinks that he can manage such a bagatelle without any aid from his sister; and my dearest Sophie seems to feel that she can do better with me herself in my widowed state, than if I were to take another husband. They are so kind and so affectionate; are they not?”
At this moment tea was brought in, and Clavering sat for a time silent with his cup in his hand. She, the meanwhile, had resumed the old position with her face upon her hands, which she had abandoned when the servant entered the room, and was now sitting looking at him as he sipped his tea with his eyes averted from her. “I cannot understand,” at last he said, “why you should persist in your intimacy with such a woman.”
“You have not thought about it, Harry, or you would understand it. It is, I think, very easily understood.”
“You know her to be treacherous, false, vulgar, covetous, unprincipled. You cannot like her. You say she is a dragon.”
“A dragon to you, I said.”
“You cannot pretend that she is a lady, and yet you put up with her society.”
“Exactly. And now tell me what you would have me do.”
“I would have you part from her.”
“But how? It is so easy to say, part. Am I to bar my door against her when she has given me no offence? Am I to forget that she did me great service, when I sorely needed such services? Can I tell her to her face that she is all these things that you say of her, and that therefore I will for the future dispense with her company? Or do you believe that people in this world associate only with those they love and esteem?”
“I would not have one for my intimate friend whom I did not love and esteem.”
“But, Harry, suppose that no one loved and esteemed you; that you had no home down at Clavering with a father that admires you and a mother that worships you; no sisters that think you to be almost perfect, no comrades with whom you can work with mutual regard and emulation, no self-confidence, no high hopes of your own, no power of choosing companions whom you can esteem and love — suppose with you it was Sophie Gordeloup or none — how would it be with you then?”
His heart must have been made of stone if this had not melted it. He got up, and coming round to her, stood over her. “Julia,” he said, “it is not so with you.”
“But it is so with Julia,” she said. “That is the truth. How am I better than she, and why should I not associate with her?”
“Better than she! As women you are poles asunder.”
“But as dragons,” she said, smiling, “we come together.”
“Do you mean that you have no one to love you?”
“Yes, Harry; that is just what I do mean. I have none to love me. In playing my cards, I have won my stakes in money and rank, but have lost the amount ten times told in affection, friendship, and that general unpronounced esteem which creates the fellowship of men and women in the world. I have a carriage and horses, and am driven about with grand servants; and people, as they see me, whisper and say that is Lady Ongar, whom nobody knows. I can see it in their eyes till I fancy that I can hear their words.”
“But it is all false.”
“What is false? It is not false that I have deserved this. I have done that which has made me a fitting companion for such a one as Sophie Gordeloup, though I have not done that which perhaps these people think.”
He paused again before he spoke, still standing near her on the rug. “Lady Ongar —” he said.
“Nay, Harry; not Lady Ongar when we are together thus. Let me feel that I have one friend who can dare to call me by my name — from whose mouth I shall be pleased to hear my name. You need not fear that I shall think that it means too much. I will not take it as meaning what it used to mean.” He did not know how to go on with his speech, or in truth what to say to her. Florence Burton was still present to his mind, and from minute to minute he told himself that he would not become a villain. But now it had come to that with him, that he would have given all that he had in the world that he had never gone to Stratton. He sat down by her in silence, looking away from her at the fire, swearing to himself that he would not become a villain, and yet wishing, almost wishing, that he had the courage to throw his honor overboard. At last, half turning round toward her, he took her hand, or rather took her arm by the wrist till he could possess himself of her hand. As he did so he touched her hair and her cheek, and she let her hand drop till it rested in his. “Julia,” he said, “what can I do to comfort you?” She did not answer him, but looked away from him as she sat, across the table into vacancy. “Julia,” he said again, “is there anything that will comfort you?” But still she did not answer him.
He understood it all as well as the reader will understand it. He knew how it was with her, and was aware that he was at that instant false almost equally to her and to Florence. He knew that the question he had asked was one to which there could be made a true and satisfactory answer, but that his safety lay in the fact that that answer was all but impossible for her to give. Could she say, “Yes, you can comfort me. Tell me that you yet love me, and I will be comforted?” But he had not designed to bring her into such difficulty as this. He had not intended to be cruel. He had drifted into treachery unawares, and was torturing her, not because he was wicked, but because he was weak. He had held her hand now for some minute or two, but still she did not speak to him. Then he raised it and pressed it warmly to his lips.
“No, Harry,” she said, jumping from her seat and drawing her hand rapidly from him; “no; it shall not be like that. Let it be Lady Ongar again if the sound of the other name brings back too closely the memory of other days. Let it be Lady Ongar again. I can understand that it will be better.” As she spoke she walked away from him across the room, and he followed her.
“Are you angry?” he asked her.
“No, Harry; not angry. How should I be angry with you who alone are left to me of my old friends? But, Harry, you must think for me, and spare me in my difficulty.”
“Spare you, Julia?”
“Yes, Harry, spare me; you must be good to me and considerate, and make yourself like a brother to me. But people will know you are not a brother, and you must remember all that for my sake. But you must not leave me or desert me. Anything that people might say would be better than that.”
“Was I wrong to kiss your hand?”
“Yes, wrong, certainly wrong — that is, not wrong, but unmindful.”
“I did it,” he said, “because I love you.” As he spoke the tears stood in both his eyes.
“Yes; you love me, and I you; but not with love that may show itself in that form. That was the old love, which I threw away, and which has been lost. That was at an end when I— jilted you. I am not angry; but you will remember that that love exists no longer? You will remember that, Harry?”
He sat himself down in a chair in the far part of the room, and two tears coursed their way down his cheeks. She stood over him and watched him as he wept. “I did not mean to make you sad,” she said. “Come, we will be sad no longer. I understand it all. I know how it is with you. The old love is lost, but we shall not the less be friends.” Then he rose suddenly from his chair, and taking her in his arms, and holding her closely to his bosom, pressed his lips to hers.
He was so quick in this that she had not the power, even if she had the wish, to restrain him. But she struggled in his arms, and held her face aloof from him as she gently rebuked his passion. “No, Harry, no; not so,” she said, “it must not be so.”
“Yes, Julia, yes; it shall be so; ever so — always so.” And he was still holding her in his arms, when the door opened, and with stealthy, cat-like steps Sophie Gordeloup entered the room. Harry immediately retreated from his position, and Lady Ongar turned upon her friend, and glared upon her with angry eyes.
“Ah,” said the little Franco-Pole, with an expression of infinite delight on her detestable visage, “ah, my dears, is it not well that I thus announce myself?”
“No,” said Lady Ongar, “it is not well. It is anything but well.”
“And why not well, Julie? Come, do not be foolish. Mr. Clavering is only a cousin, and a very handsome cousin, too. What does it signify before me?”
“It signifies nothing before you,” said Lady Ongar.
“But before the servant, Julie —?”
“It would signify nothing hefore anybody.”
“Come, come, Julie, dear; that is nonsense.”
“Nonsense or no nonsense, I would wish to be private when I please. Will you tell me, Madam Gordeloup, what is your pleasure at the present moment?”
“My pleasure is to beg your pardon and to say you must forgive your poor friend. Your fine man-servant is out, and Bessy let me in. I told Bessy I would go up by myself, and that is all. If I have come too late I beg pardon.”
“Not too late, certainly — as I am still up.”
“And I wanted to ask you about the pictures to-morrow? You said, perhaps you would go to-morrow — perhaps not.”
Clavering had found himself to be somewhat awkwardly situated while Madam Gordeloup was thus explaining the causes of her having come unannounced into the room; as soon, therefore, as he found it practicable, he took his leave. “Julia,” he said, “as Madam Gordeloup is with you, I will now go.”
“But you will let me see you soon?”
“Yes, very soon; that is, as soon as I return from Clavering. I leave town early to-morrow morning.”
“Good-by then,” and she put out her hand to him frankly, smiling sweetly on him. As he felt the warm pressure of her hand he hardly knew whether to return it or reject it. But he had gone too far now for retreat, and he held it firmly for a moment in his own. She smiled again upon him, oh! so passionately, and nodded her head at him. He had never, he thought, seen a woman look so lovely, or move light of heart. How different was her countenance now from that she had worn when she told him, earlier on that fatal evening, of all the sorrows that made her wretched! That nod of hers said so much. “We understand each other now — do we not? Yes; although this spiteful woman has for the moment come between us, we understand each other. And is it not sweet? Ah! the troubles of which I told you you, you have cured them all.” All that had been said plainly in her farewell salutation, and Harry had not dared to contradict it by any expression of his countenance.
“By, by, Mr. Clavering,” said Sophie.
“Good evening, Madam Gordeloup,” said Harry, turning upon her a look of bitter anger. Then he went, leaving the two women together, and walked home to Bloomsbury Square — not with the heart of a joyous, thriving lover.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55