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WHICH IS CHIEFLY CONJUGAL
WHEN I began to write this novel it was my intention to make a great deal of the Countess of Cairnsmuir, as the little inscribed upon the initial page will testify, but I have become so fascinated by worthy Miss Di and her fairy favourite that somehow her Ladyship has been neglected most discourteously; – and here we are at chapter twenty-seven! But I hope my readers have not forgotten all I have had the honour to tell them about her, and her troubles, and the secret which she will persist in hiding from her coroneted spouse, because we shall want it all in these last chapters, which will contain some of the most startling, sparkling, and sensational pages you ever read!
But let us begin at the beginning, and “start fair,” as schoolchildren say.
I don’t think Vane was particularly shocked when he heard about poor Vivian’s demise. Vane was a philosopher of a certain school, you know, and always took everything with excessive coolness, – a habit by the way, that he may possibly be finding especially useful to him at present; (it is now about two years since he died.)
Indeed I heard that the only observation he vouchsafed on being told of poor Diana’s bereavement was something like this, – “Ah, he would go out in that rain without an umbrella!”
It happened a day or two after the funeral that Mr. Vaurien walking through the Bois de Boulogne, – (alas, poor old Paris! where is your charming playground now? They say it is to be replanted!) – it happened, I repeat, that Vane had the good luck to meet Adelheid in her black dress, – looking – well – looking as I have described her in the last chapter. – His admiration of her splendid beauty thus marvellously
enhanced, burst forth into so ardent a blaze that he resolved in his wicked heart, like Pharoah of old, not to let Israel go. To have done so much and have gone so far, and then to let the matter drop to the ground, – that would be a pity indeed! “And that last coup of mine,” said he to himself, “succeeded beyond my wildest hopes, – for is not Brabazon now more effectually disposed of than he would have been could I even have contrived to get him packed off to the Antipodes?”
One wonders at his assurance, but such men as Vane can do anything, and it chanced that both Adelheid and her plump duenna were wholly ignorant of the terrible squabble which had taken place in the hotel of the Rue S. Honoré, although of course they knew where, and with whom poor Vivian had been dining on that fatal evening. And Vane, who had not passed forty years in the world for nothing, knew sufficient of his fellow-men to guess with tolerable accuracy what line of conduct certain people would pursue under certain conditions. He opined therefore, that Vivian, even on his deathbed, would not have mentioned that quarrel aforesaid, to anybody. So he made no bones about raising his hat as he passed the ladies in the wood of Boulogne, and addressing a pretty little speech to Fräulein Stern. It only consisted of half-a-dozen words or so, but they were exactly the right ones for the circumstance, – delicate – respectful – sympathetic. They were in fact, so unlike any expressions which Adelheid had beard from Vane’s lips on former occasions that she flushed with surprise, and was betrayed into a far more gracious acknowledgment of his courtesy than she had intended to give when, seeing him approach, she had whispered to Diana, – “Here comes that monster, meine Königinn, – I wonder what impertinent thing he will say to me?”
Vane saw the flush and marked the look of surprise, – they pleased and gave him fresh courage.
“A naughty little Peri after all,” thought he. “If only we can deposit M. Leander on the shelf as easily as the elder admirer, the
child is mine! But her head is turned by the fine rhodomontade of that young imbecile!”
Then he lighted a cigar and began to think.
In five minutes his scheme was completed, and he strolled off to get his déjeuner at the Trois Frères.
Did I say that that the Rt. Hon. the Earl or Cairnsmuir was a peer of a peculiar temperament, – highly reserved, – even frigid at times in his manner, – a man who seemed to be always mounting guard over some formidable skeleton in his cardiacal cupboard, – a man of taciturnity, gloom, and moroseness? Did I say all that? It is so long since I began this interesting fiction, and I have pursued its course in so rambling and erratic a fashion, leaving intervals of months at a time between chapter and chapter that l positively forget whether or not I have already mentioned the little facts above submitted to the public eye. But at all events those aristocratic characteristics did distinguish the noble earl in question, and were palpable and patent to all his acquaintance. But he also possessed in an intense degree another remarkable quality which had not so saliently presented itself to general observation – my lord, when sufficiently roused, was apt to be dangerously jealous, Aha! do I see your cloven foot, Othello, my sable friend? Do I hear the clink of your steel, magnificent Osman? Are these your husband’s green spectacles, Mrs. Geraint? Alas, who would have thought it of you, noble Moor – gentlemanly sultan – chivalrous knight? And you were all three of you so egregiously misled, two of you so miserably punished! Let us hope you profited wisely by your experience on this ill-regulated planet and have not gone hence to repeat the like follies elsewhere – in Mercury, or Mars, or Jupiter, for instance.
“It was delicately intimated in a recent sentence that my lord’s particular vice was of such deliberate mettle, that like the British Lion, it required some stirring up ere it would shew its teeth and growl. In one point at least it resembled the chief of the virtues; it was “not
easily provoked.” His lordship held some such vary rare and quaint opinions upon general subjects that his mind might aptly he compared to an old curiosity shop, stocked with queer and outworn ideas of past centuries; discarded wares and antique properties, which, modern folks having no further use for them, had been forced to abandon. In this depository my lord valued principally certain strong and feudal notions concerning the dignity of his “Order” and of himself, and his own House in particular. He spoke much in public and thought more in private about the importance of the Upper House as a national institution; – the democratic proclivities of the day, – the paramount necessity of making an uncompromising stand against encroachments of every Key-ind, Sir, (for under the influence of excitement, my lord was prone to slip into the idioms of Caledonia rude and wild;) – the deplorable irresolution and retrogressive tendencies of modern policy, – the atrocity of permitting the existence of Trades Unions, whose secret meeting places, he denounced as hotbeds of rank insubordination and anarchy. Catholic though ho was, he interested himself in Irish affairs, abhorred a Fenian as being an absolute “inkeyarnation” of Satanic mischief, and shook his head with exceeding grimness over the question of Disestablishment. Of all minor innovations, political and social, he ever remained a staunch and bitter opponent; the Women’s Suffrage and Property Bills, the National Education Bill, the Permissive Liquor Bill, the Life Peerages Bill, and especially the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill, were to him one and all ‘abominations of desolation.’ And yet his lordship was at times so republican as to wish that it were possible for the heiress of the Cairnsmuir coronet to transmit the title to her posterity! Very proud indeed was the noble Earl, – pride was the mainspring of all his tenets, the bane of all his healthier impulses, – the ruin of his manhood as it had been the destroyer of his youth. And pride only was the source of his latent jealousy. He had trained himself to great ideas about the dignity of his name and the importance of his
position, which he imagined to be placed upon so lofty and sublime a pedestal that the possibility of any insult offered to his greatness, any scraping of humbler names upon its lordly facade, any soil of vulgar mud upon its immaculate whiteness, was to be repudiated as alike absurd and unendurable. These being the recognised opinions of his Lordship, the beau monde received with some surprise the intelligence that his only child was about to make a match, which, although undoubtedly distinguished, was not so brilliant a one as might have been expected to meet the approval of even an ordinarily exclusive peer. Some few astute minds suspected, what indeed was the truth, that his lordship was too proud to seek a noble alliance for his daughter, and desired rather that the Glory of his House should openly expire in the odour of its own ineffable sanctity, than that it should he merged in the equal splendours of some kindred lineage, or buried under the strawberry leaves of a yet princelier coronet.
And besides, that which my lord chiefly admired and prized among the honours of his own family was its antiquity of origin, and in this respect Sir Godfrey Templar could claim a distinction greater even than the House of Cairnsmuir; while Ella, giving her hand to so eminent a minister, would become, not the mere mistress of some fine Belgravian residence and country seat, mated perhaps with an upstart marquis or a duke of yesterday, but a real Power in the world, capable, in conjunction with her husband and under him and her father’s directions, of working positive miracles with the Government, of restoring the rightful order of state and social distinctions; and finally of closing the career of so unique a Line in a blaze of éclat and political glory which should only perish with History itself. Were she to die Duchess of Mounteagle, or Princess of Carrara, the story of her life might perhaps be related as a legend for half a century; but as the guiding star and darling of the failing Conservative interest, the reviver of the decaying constitution; the brilliant successful partner of England’s greatest Prime Minister
her name would gain a conspicuous shrine in the pages of future Frouds and Macaulays, and become a monument of famous achievement for the worshipful reverence of coming generations.
Dear, dear! Will these fantastic hopes of the right hon. peer be ever realised, I wonder?
Now, our friend Vane Vaurien had not spoken to Earl Cairnsmuir more than twice in the course of his chequered existence, but he had watched him much and often, and knew that he knew him pretty well. It was Vane’s constant aim and purpose, paraphrasing the maxim of the apostle James, to be acquainted with all eminent men and women in their prosperity, and to keep himself well up in the worldly topics of the day.
This then is a short and easy statement of the case in hand, as it presented itself to Vaurien, with an appended compendium of his adopted resolutions: –
“I want to marry Adelheid Stern.
“She will not marry me as long as Tristan Le Rodeur remains in her way.
“She will marry him if she can.
“Since she cannot, for Operatic reasons, be got out of Paris, Le Rodeur must depart instead. Le Rodeur can only be moved by order of the Earl, since he is here in the suite of the Countess.”
The Earl will interfere only in the interests of the honour of his house.
“The Earl must be made to feel that Le Rodeur, if he remain in Paris, may speedily become a blot on the Escutcheon of Cairnsmuir.
“If you want a thing done, do it yourself.
“I will therefore discreetly warn the Earl; the Earl will be fired in a minute; the entreaties of the Countess will succeed in making him more suspicious and resolute (for I am sure she dotes on the boy). Le Rodeur will be returned to Rome, and Adelheid will no longer have the chance of falling in love with him.
“And if I do not then take care that she shall fall in love with me, – Alexander never won a battle, and Bonaparte never was beaten at Waterloo.”
Vaurien had an inventive mind. He and Cora together might have done magnificent things in the world, (ah, wayward Destiny, why, O why did you dispose so rashly of the fair Golightly? – and to a heavy curate down at Little-bog-cum-Mudbury!) I tell you, gentle public, that Vaurien had a ready and inventive mind, and three or four days after he met Adelheid in the Bolognese Wood he contrived to meet Lord Hubert of Cairnsmuir at the Embassy, and to ask him in a manner the most well-bred, the most unconscious, the most exquisitely insinuating, the most irritably suggestive, a few easy questions regarding the foreign painter of whom his noble Countess had become so singularly partial a patroness and so sudden and intimate a friend.
My Lord was fascinated by Vane’s elaborate style – it savoured remarkably of the vieille cour, and a word or two concerning his Tory principles, hereditary faith and Norman pedigree, which somehow escaped him in the course of the colloquy, amazingly tickled the peer’s fastidious fancy. Earl Hubert, as he drove home from Lord Oxley’s lighted mansion, thought a great deal about Mr. Vaurien and his brilliant conversation.
“A man of decided talent,” said his lordship, “a gentleman of cultivated taste and perfect breeding, the last, as he says, of an old and powerful race; – Ah-h! He sympathises with me, he keenly estimates the nice honour of my position and the imperative necessity which exists for its scrupulous support and jealous guardianship. An agreeable man too, well versed in all objects of interest, and yet, I should say, for his age a shade too grave and serious, a trifle too melancholy. But that, no doubt, poor fellow, is the effect of a solitary fate. I am grave myself, and for a similar reason.”
Such, absolutely, beloved and intelligent reader, was the impression
of his us character which our clever Vane had managed to convey to the mind of his noble companion.
That evening the following dialogue between husband and wife occurred in the seclusion of my Lady’s dressing-room. Please to imagine the Countess en déshabillé reclining is a velvet dormeuse, candles burning on the toilette-table, and a fire flickering pleasantly in the polished stove.
Says his lordship, seating himself in a comfortable fauteuil opposite my Lady, and speaking in a tone of more affection than he generally permitted himself to suppose consistent with his dignity:
“My dear Dolores, I wish, if you please, to say a few words to you on a subject, which possesses, as I presume, considerable interest for you.”
Having got so far on his way, he pauses and hesitates; while her ladyship begins to think this must be a rehearsal of a speech for some charity dinner at which the Earl has been asked to preside, and to propose the health of the Charity. But the next sentence is a fall from a great height.
“I refer, my dear, – to – to the young man who paints, – your friend, Le Rodeur – Tristan Le Rodeur.”
She, looking at the Earl very intently. “And what have you to say, my dear Hubert?”
He, slightly embarrassed by the look, and with less deliberation.
“My dear; you have brought that young man, – a very talented young man, I make no doubt, – you have brought him from Rome to this place, to Paris in point of fact, and he is now living under your known protection, – excuse the phrase my dear, it is the only one that occurs to me, – in apartments a stone’s throw from our hotel. You visit him there alone every day, you carry him about with you to every assembly, and lately you have accustomed yourself to address him by his Christian name.
Now my dear, pray be patient with me, I do not for a moment accuse you of the slightest intention to act indiscreetly in all this, I know your
kindness of heart and the earnestness with which you have sought to benefit a young fellow whose friendless condition you pitied, and whose talent moved your admiration. But others, Dolores, do not see such things as I see them, and I have heard sufficient this evening to give me a soupcon that Paris has, in fact, begun to notice your patronage, and to interpret it unfavorably. Now, my dear, no breath of suspicion must he allowed to touch our House, no taint of scandal must he suffered to connect itself, for so much as a single day, with your name or mine. Other families might outface such a thing, or live it down, we cannot - we must not – endure it. You understand me, Dolores, I am sure and perfectly agree in what I am saying.”
She, very pale, and appearing to speak with some difficulty. “Really, my dear Hubert, I think there is too much disparity between Tristan’s age and mine for sensible people to attach the least credence to such absurd stories.”
He. “The world, my dear Dolores, is not composed of sensible people. It is composed for the most part, of knaves and fools, I am afraid you have not read your Carlyle very carefully. But notwithstanding this unhappy circumstance, we have a position to support, and an honour to maintain before the world, which must not he imperilled by any personal whims or favouritism. We, who are great people, stand upon so high a footing and in so bright a light that all eyes see us, we can do nothing sub rosa; nor can we afford to toss our names down to the crowd to be handled and befouled and passed about like common property. We must respect our integrity in the world’s opinion.”
She, with a sudden burst of heat. ”Then Hubert, if the case be so, I say that we are not great people at all, but shameful, fawning slaves and despicable cowards!”
He. “Dolores, these are strong words, and you are excited.”
She, white to the lips and looking fixedly in his face. ”Yes – strong
words Hubert, for I feel strongly. I am deeply agitated. All my life I have been tracked and hunted down by a Phantom, I have been the victim of a Shade, – the prey of an Idea. When I was born my father execrated me because I was a feminine creature, – all my miserable childhood was passed in bitter suffering for that involuntary crime, – all my youth was unjustly blighted by its shadow! And when I grew to womanhood the same curse pursued me to my bridal bed, I became the mother of another being like myself, a babe of that most unhappy sex that is doomed to lifelong excommunication and social ban, a babe disinherited from the first hour of her innocent life for no sin or natural incapacity, but by virtue only of an intolerable law, whose origin, – God forgive us! – we ascribe to Him!
“Hear me out, Hubert, – I have heard you! All this vexation, all this injustice was not enough for me to bear! There was yet more laid upon my miserable heart! Ah, how often in the weary course of my most wretched years have I been told that “noblesse oblige,” that a debt I never contracted, must he paid by me to the World! Who made the world my creditor? Hubert, I am prouder yet than you are, for I tell you I Will Not bow myself at the feet of this senseless Idol which you condescend to worship! I refuse to humble myself before these knaves and fools of whom you speak. I will not sacrifice my friendships in order to lull their idiot chatter, nor will I forgo a rare solace of my saddened life, because forsooth, that solace offends the noses of a dainty crowd, the most important member of which is less to me than the least of the swallows that build beneath my window-sill at Kelpies! As a woman I have told you how much I have endured, – as a peeress I may at least be spared! God is my witness, Lord Hubert, Earl of Cairnsmuir, that my true pride immeasurably excels your paltry, whining vanity! O phantoms of a false Honour, – of a spurious Noblesse – of a shameful law, would that I could for ever lay you; – would that you were tangible realities of flesh or stone
that I might tear you limb from limb with these hands, or grind you to dust beneath my heel!”
Her deep glittering eyes burned with a Sybilline brilliancy, her face, surrounded by the plenteous tresses of her black and unbound hair, was white as the face of a corpse.
“Dolores!” exclaimed her husband is a tone of surprise and agitation; and he rose from his seat and clasped her hand. It was icy cold.
“You are not well to-night, my love,” pursued he more calmly.
Something has disturbed you; I never saw you thus. Let us suspend our conversation till to-morrow, for I and sure you require rest.”
He moved from her a step or two, and would have quitted the room but she stayed him with an imperious wave of her hand.
“No.” she said, struggling with a terrible emotion, “after what has passed to-night I cannot rest till more has been said between us. Hubert, you cannot believe – you cannot suspect, –”
“Dolores!” He was at her side again in an instant.
“No,” she resumed, ”you are at least too noble for that, my husband. l should have known it! It is Paris that you dread? Do you think you have cause?”
She bent her brows upon him.
“So much cause I think,” answered the Earl gaining fresh courage, ”that I must ask you, my dear, to do me a kindness; – I must beg you to dismiss your young friend.”
She remained silent.
“Dolores, I will not urge upon you that this dismissal is a duty you owe to society, since you deny with so much vehemence the existence of that duty, nor will I speak to you again of honour, because you have already stigmatised it as a falsity. But I will appeal to you, my dear wife, in the words of a teacher, whose authority I believe you will not
refuse to acknowledge. It was an inspired Apostle of our Church who bade us “avoid even the appearance of evil.”
He stopped and waited for her reply, but she gave none. (Ah, my dear madame, why couldn’t you have told the truth now? Four words would have saved you so much distracting trouble and botheration. And here was an opportunity for you, – here was an effective pause of which you might have taken advantage! Why not, oh, why not have got rid of your secret now? Fatal irresolution! miserable timidity, ignoble dissimulation! Take notice, in this parenthesis, ye fair readers, whose gentle eyes may chance to honour these unworthy pages, that they are written for your learning and counsel. Have nothing to do with secrets, – never hear one, never keep one, and above all, – never make one! They are, I assure you, the very Devil!)
“Dolores,” continued my lord with painful hesitation, ”what answer do you give me?”
She lifted her head and turned upon him a countenance of unutterable woe and entreaty.
“I implore you,” she pleaded rapidly and incoherently, “I beseech I you to let him remain! You do not know what you are doing. If you send him away I shall be more miserable than I ever was in my life. I cannot let him go, – I have reasons – Oh Hubert, – forgive me, you do not know what a wretched woman I am! You do not guess –”
Her feeble courage deserted her, she burst into tears and lost her voice in wild hysteric sobs. . . . .
When at last she dared again to look round, Earl Cairnsmuir was no longer in the room. My Lady found herself alone.
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