Thrice within the next three weeks did Lord Silverbridge go forth to ask Mabel to be his wife, but thrice in vain. On one occasion she would talk on other things. On the second Miss Cassewary would not leave her. On the third the conversation turned in a very disagreeable way on Miss Boncassen, as to whom Lord Silverbridge could not but think that Lady Mabel said some very ill-natured things. It was no doubt true that he, during the last three weeks, had often been in Miss Boncassen’s company, that he had danced with her, ridden with her, taken her to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and was now engaged to attend upon her at a river-party up above Maidenhead. But Mabel had certainly no right to complain. Had he not thrice during the same period come there to lay the coronet at her feet; — and now, at this very moment, was it not her fault that he was not going through the ceremony?
‘I suppose,’ she said, laughing, ‘that it is all settled.’
‘What is all settled?’
‘About you and the American beauty.’
‘I am not aware that anything in particular has been settled.’
‘Then it ought to be — oughtn’t it? For her sake, I mean.’
‘That is so like an English woman,’ said Lord Silverbridge. ‘Because you cannot understand a manner of life a little different from your own you will impute evil.’
‘I have imputed no evil, Lord Silverbridge, and you have no right to say so.’
‘If you mean to assert,’ said Miss Cass, ‘that the manners of American young ladies are freer than those of English young ladies, it is you that are taking away their characters.’
‘I don’t say it would be at all bad,’ continued Lady Mabel. ‘She is a beautiful girl, and very clever, and would make a charming Duchess. And then it would be such a delicious change to have an American Duchess.’
‘She wouldn’t be a Duchess.’
‘Well, Countess, with Duchessship before her in the remote future. Wouldn’t it be a change, Miss Cass?’
‘Oh decidedly!’ said Miss Cass.
‘And very much for the better. Quite a case of new blood, you know. Pray don’t suppose that I mean to object. Everybody who talks about it approves. I haven’t heard a single dissentient voice. Only as it has gone so far, and English people are too stupid you know to understand all these new ways — don’t you think perhaps —?’
‘No, I don’t think. I don’t think anything except that you are very ill-natured.’ Then he got up and, after making formal adieux to both the ladies, left the house.
As soon as he was gone Lady Mabel began to laugh, but the least apprehensive ears would have perceived that the laughter was affected. Miss Cassewary did not laugh at all, but sat bolt upright and looked very serious. ‘Upon my honour,’ said the younger lady, ‘he is the most beautifully simple-minded human being I ever knew in my life.’
‘Then I wouldn’t laugh at him.’
‘How can one help it? But of course I do it with a purpose.’
‘I think he is making a fool of himself. If somebody does not interfere he will go so far that he will not be able to draw back without misbehaving.’
‘I thought,’ said Miss Cassewary, in a very low voice, almost whispering. ‘I thought that he was looking for a wife elsewhere.’
‘You need not think of it again,’ said Lady Mab, jumping up from her seat. ‘I had thought of it too. But as I told you before, I spared him. He did not really mean it with me; — nor does he mean it with this American girl. Such young men seldom mean. They drift into matrimony. But she will not spare him. It would be a national triumph. All the States would sing a paean of glory. Fancy a New York belle having compassed a Duke!’
‘I don’t think it possible. It would be too horrid.’
‘I think it is quite possible. As for me, I could teach myself to think it best as it is, were I not so sure that I should be better for him than to many others. But I shouldn’t love him.’
‘Why not love him?’
‘He is such a boy. I should always treat him like a boy — spoiling him and petting him, but never respecting him. Don’t run away with any idea that I should refuse him from conscientious motives, if he were really to ask me. I too should like to be a Duchess. I should like to bring all this misery at home to an end.’
‘But you did refuse him.’
‘Not exactly; — because he never asked me. For the moment I was weak, and so I let have another chance. I shall not have been a good friend to him if it ends in his marrying this Yankee.’
Lord Silverbridge went out of the house in a very ill humour — which however left him when in the course of the afternoon he found himself up at Maidenhead with Miss Boncassen. Miss Boncassen at any rate did not laugh at him. And then she was so pleasant, so full of common sense, and so completely intelligent! ‘I like you,’ she said, ‘because I feel that you will not think that you ought to make love to me. There is nothing I hate so much as the idea that a young man and a young woman can’t be acquainted with each other without some tomfoolery as that.’ This had exactly expressed his own feeling. Nothing could be so pleasant as his intimacy with Isabel Boncassen.
Mrs Boncassen seemed to be a homely person, with no desire either to speak, or to be spoken to. She went out but seldom, and on those rare occasions did not in any way interfere with her daughter. Mr Boncassen filled a prouder situation. Everybody knew that Miss Boncassen was in England because it suited Mr Boncassen to spend many hours in the British Museum. But still the daughter hardly seemed to be under control from her father. She went alone where she liked; talked to those she liked; and did what she liked. Some of the young ladies of the day thought that there was a good deal to be said in favour of the freedom which she enjoyed.
There is however a good deal to be said against it. All young ladies cannot be Miss Boncassens, with such an assurance of admirers as to be free from all fear of loneliness. There is comfort for a young lady in having a pied-a-terre to which she may retreat in case of need. In American circles, where girls congregate without their mothers, there is a danger felt by young men that if a lady be once taken in hand, there will be no possibility of getting rid of her — no mamma to whom she may be taken and under whose wings she may be dropped. ‘My dear,’ said an old gentleman the other day walking through an American ball-room, and addressing himself to a girl whom he knew well — ‘My dear —’ But the girl bowed and passed on, still clinging to the arm of the young man who accompanied her. But the old gentleman was cruel, and possessed of a determined purpose. ‘My dear,’ he said again, catching the young man tightly by the collar and holding him fast. ‘Don’t be afraid; I’ve got him; he shan’t desert you; I’ll hold him here till you have told me how your father does.’ The young lady looked as if she didn’t like it, and the sight of her misery gave rise to a feeling that, after all, mammas perhaps may be a comfort.
But in her present phase of life Miss Boncassen suffered no misfortune of this kind. It had become a privilege to be allowed to attend upon Miss Boncassen, and the feeling of this privilege had been enhanced by the manner in which Lord Silverbridge had devoted himself to her. Fashion of course makes fashion. Had not Lord Silverbridge been so very much struck by the charm of the young lady, Lords Glasslough and Popplecourt would not perhaps have found it necessary to run after her. As it was, even that most unenergetic of young men, Dolly Longstaff, was moved to profound admiration.
On this occasion they were all up the river at Maidenhead. Mr Boncassen had looked about for some means of returning the civilities offered to him, and had been instigated by Mrs Montacute Jones to do it after this fashion. There was a magnificent banquet spread in a summer-house on the river bank. There were boats, and there was a band, and there was a sward for dancing. There was lawn-tennis, and fishing-rods — which nobody used — and better still, long shady secluded walks in which gentlemen might stroll — and ladies too, if they were kind enough. The whole thing had been arranged by Mrs Montacute Jones. As the day was fine, as many of the old people had abstained from coming, as there were plenty of young men of the best sort, and as nothing had been spared in reference to external comforts, the party promised to be a success. Every most lovely girl in London of course was there — except Lady Mabel Grex. Lady Mabel was in the habit of going everywhere, but on this occasion, she had refused Mrs Boncassen’s invitation. ‘I don’t want to see her triumphs,’ she had said to Miss Cass.
Everybody went down by railway of course, and innumerable flies and carriages had been provided to take them to the scene of action. Some immediately got into boats and rowed themselves up from the bridge — which, as the thermometer was standing at eighty in the shade, was an inconsiderate proceeding. ‘I don’t think I am quite up to that,’ said Dolly Longstaff, when it was proposed to him to take an oar. ‘Miss Amazon will do it. She rows so well, and is strong.’ Whereupon Miss Amazon, not at all abashed, did take the oar; and as Lord Silverbridge was on the seat behind her with the other oar she probably enjoyed the task.
‘What a very nice sort of person Lady Cantrip is.’ This was said to Silverbridge by that generally silent young nobleman Lord Popplecourt. The remark was the more singular because Lady Cantrip was not at the party — and the more so again because, as Silverbridge thought, there could be but little in common between the Countess who had his sister in charge and the young lord beside him, who was not fast only because he did not like to risk his money.
‘Well; — I dare say she is.’
‘I thought so, peculiarly. Because I was at that place at Richmond yesterday.’
‘The devil you were! What were you doing at the Horns?’
‘Lady Cantrip’s grandmother was — I don’t quite know what she was, but something to us. I know I’ve got a picture of her at Popplecourt. Lady Cantrip wanted to ask me something about it, and so I went down. I was so glad to make acquaintance with your sister.’
‘You saw Mary, did you?’
‘Oh yes; I lunched there. I’m to go down and meet the Duke some day.’
‘Meet the Duke!’
‘No reason on earth — only I can’t imagine the governor going to Richmond for his dinner. Well! I am very glad to hear it. I hope you’ll get on well with him.’
‘I was so much struck by your sister.’
‘Yes I dare say,’ said Silverbridge, turning away into the path where he saw Miss Boncassen standing with some other ladies. It certainly did not occur to him that Popplecourt was to be brought forward as a suitor for his sister’s hand.
‘I believe this is the most lovely place in the world,’ Miss Boncassen said to him.
‘We are so much the more obliged to you for bringing us here.’
‘We don’t bring you. You allow us to come with you and see all that is pretty and lovely.’
‘Is it not your party?’ ‘Father will pay the bill, I suppose — as far as that goes. And mother’s name was put on the cards. But of course we know what that means. It is because you and a few others like you have been so kind to us, that we are able to be here at all.’
‘Everybody, I should think, must be kind to you.’
‘I do have a good time pretty much; but nowhere so good as here. I fear that when I get back I shall not like New York.’
‘I have heard you say, Miss Boncassen, that Americans were more likeable than the English.’
‘Have you? Well, yes; I think I have said so. And I think it is so. I’d sooner have to dance with a bank clerk in New York, than with a bank clerk here.’
‘Do you ever dance with bank clerks?’
‘Oh dear yes. At least I suppose so. I dance with whoever comes up. We haven’t got lords in America, you know!’
‘You have got gentlemen.’
‘Plenty of them.-but they are not so easily defined as lords. I do like lords.’
‘Oh yes — and ladies; — Countesses I mean and women of that sort. Your Lady Mabel Grex is not here. Why wouldn’t she come?’
‘Perhaps you didn’t ask her.’
‘Oh yes I did; — especially for your sake.’
‘She is not my Lady Mabel Grex,’ said Lord Silverbridge with unnecessary energy.
‘But she will be.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘You are devoted to her.’
‘Much more to you, Miss Boncassen.’
‘That is nonsense, Lord Silverbridge.’
‘Not at all.’
‘It is also — untrue.’
‘Surely I must be the best judge of that myself.’
‘Not a doubt; a judge not only whether it be true, but if true whether expedient — or even possible. What did I say to you when we first began to know each other?’
‘What did you say?’
‘That I liked knowing you; — that was frank enough; — not that I liked knowing you because I knew that there would be no tomfoolery of lovemaking.’ Then she paused; but he did not quite know how to go on with the conversation at once, and she continued her speech. ‘When you condescend to tell me that you are devoted to me, as though that were the kind of thing that I expect to have said when I take a walk with a young man in a wood, is not that the tomfoolery of love-making?’ She stopped and looked at him, so that he was obliged to answer.
‘Then why do you ask me if I am devoted to Lady Mabel Grex? Would not that be tomfoolery too?’
‘No. If I thought so, I would not have asked the question. I did specially invite her to come her because I thought you would like it. You have got to marry somebody.’
‘Some day, perhaps.’
‘And why not her?’
‘If you come to that, why not you?’ He felt himself to be getting into deep waters as he said this — but he had a meaning to express if only he could find the words to express it. ‘I don’t say whether it is tomfoolery, as you call it, or not; but whatever it is, you began it.’
‘Yes; — yes. I see. You punish me for my unpremeditated impertinence in suggesting that you are devoted to Lady Mabel by the premeditated impertinence of pretending to be devoted to me.’
‘Stop a moment. I cannot follow that.’ Then she laughed. ‘I will swear that I did not intend to be impertinent.’
‘I hope not.’
‘I am devoted to you.’
‘I think you are —’
‘Stop, stop. Do not say it.’
‘Well I won’t; — not now. But there has been no tomfoolery.’
‘May I ask a question, Lord Silverbridge? You will not be angry? I would not have you angry with me.’
‘I will not be angry,’ he said.
‘Are you not engaged to marry Lady Mabel Grex?’
‘Then I beg your pardon. I was told that you were engaged to her. And I thought your choice was so fortunate, so happy! I have seen no girl here that I admire half so much. She almost comes up to my idea of what a young woman should be.’
‘Now I am sure that if you are not engaged to her you must be in love with her, or my praise would have sufficed.’
‘Though one knows a Lady Mabel Grex, one may become acquainted with a Miss Boncassen.’
There are moments in which stupid people say clever things, obtuse people say sharp things, and good-natured people say ill-natured things. ‘Lord Silverbridge,’ she said, ‘I did not expect that from you.’
‘Expect what? I meant it simply.’
‘I have no doubt you meant it simply. We Americans think ourselves sharp, but I have long since found out that we may meet more than our matches here. I think we will go back. Mother means to try to get up a quadrille.’
‘You will dance with me?’
‘I think not. I have been walking with you, and I had better dance with someone else.’
‘You can let me have one dance.’
‘I think not. There will not be many.’
‘Are you angry with me?’
‘Yes, I am; there.’ But as she said this she smiled. ‘The truth is, I thought I was getting the better of you, and you turned round and gave me a pat on the head to show me that you could be master when it pleased you. You have defended your intelligence at the expense of your good-nature.’
‘I’ll be shot if I know what it all means,’ he said, just as he was parting with her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01