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A LETTER FOR MY LADY
THE Earl and Countess did not meet again until breakfast-time the next morning, and then, Ella being present, no reference was made to the stormy conversation of the previous evening. Afterwards Sir Godfrey made his usual visit and remained to luncheon; subsequently he and Lord Hubert strolled off together, and my Lady took her afternoon drive with her daughter.
Much as my Lady longed to repair her mistake and to make peace with a husband whom she felt she must have deeply offended, no opportunity for the accomplishment of her purpose presented itself until that wearisome day had wholly passed and the household had again retired for the night.
My Lady had dismissed her maid, divested herself of her ornaments, donned her robe de chambre, and only waited for the sound of her husband’s approaching footstep. But she waited in vain. Somewhat alarmed, she took a lighted candle from the toilette table, opened the door of her room, which was the last of the suite occupied by the Cairnsmuir family, and crossed a tiny intermediate passage conducting to the Earl’s dressing-room. Her knock was answered by her husband, who unfastened the door, closing it again when she had entered, and placed a chaise-longue for her without speaking a word. But instead of seating herself, she put her candle on the mantlepiece, and stood looking at him a minute in painful silence, as he slowly resumed the chair from which he had risen to admit her. At last she said:
“Hubert, I have come to ask your pardon, I feel that I forgot myself last night.”
He bowed his head.
“I could wish, Lady Cairnsmuir,” said he, after a little pause, “that you had remembered ME a little earlier. You have injured beyond repair the fair honour of a line which until now has borne no slur nor blemish.”
His voice shook as he uttered the words, and his grey eyes roved about the room with strange and distressful restlessness; like the eyes of a hunted creature, hard pressed by the hounds and vainly seeking cover. ”Hubert!” She stopped, and beat her foot upon the ground.
“You spoke to me?” asked my lord, coldly.
“Yes! I came to ask your pardon – not for an injurious action but for a few hasty words! You insult me in reply; – the grievance has shifted sides now, and it is I who ought to upbraid you.”
“Indeed? There are some words, my Lady, which can never be cancelled. They are as absolute as actions. Last night you were weak; to-night, perhaps, you are strong.”
“Hubert,” said her ladyship, with unnatural calm, ”do you know how old I am?”
“Not quite forty-three, I believe,” said he, in a similar tone.
“Yes. And Tristan Le Rodeur is not quite twenty-one.”
“I understand your meaning, of course. But your ladyship is still an an exceedingly charming woman, and Le Rodeur is already an unusually handsome man. Such fancies are proverbially common.”
“I cannot bear this!” she cried, wildly, flinging back her long black hair from her lifted brows. ”Do you know what you are saying? Do you know who you are – who I am? Can you presume – can you dare to accuse me of that crime which every modest woman counts it a disgrace even to name? And with him – O God! is it possible! – what a horrible retribution!
He interrupted her with bitter scorn.
I know that names and words make the honours and shames of the world. I know that clergymen and their congregations now-a-days are
so modest that they must needs nave a new lectionary which shall exclude all the dubious chapters of the Bible – their decent ears and lips cannot be profaned by so much inspired plain-speaking. But their other senses, it would appear, are usually less susceptible.”
My Lady threw herself on her knees at his feet.
“I must tell it then at last!” she cried, in an awful voice – “Hubert, what will you think of me! l am not guilty as you suppose – my sin was an indiscretion only – a simple –”
She could add no more, for the Earl lifted her coldly and placed her in a chair.
“Dolores, I want no scenes if you please. This is a hateful subject. Now listen. On your word of honour, your solemn word of honour, tell me you are innocent, and I will believe you. It will be easy for me to do so, for I never believed otherwise until last night.”
She looked him straight in the eyes.
“God do so to me and more also,” she answered, slowly, ”if I do not speak the truth. I am guilty of no sin against Him or against you.”
“That is enough, Dolores. I wish to hear no more, nor shall I revert to the subject. It is then with the world only that we have now to deal. As for that indiscretion which causes you so much distress, much as I deplore it, yet I hope we may remedy what mischief it may have already caused by acting sensibly now. A very little exercise of that tact you possess in so eminent a degree, my dear, may easily persuade this young painter to return to his proper home of his own accord. And when he is there, should you still desire to continue your kind patronage and bounty to him, there can be no objection raised to such a reasonable proceeding."
My Lady listened, her eyes vacantly fixed upon a little silver-mounted pistol – a recent presentation gift to the Earl – lying on the toilette table against which she leaned, and as she answered she stroked and fingered its shining trigger nervously, as one might toy with a button or a trinket. Twice she had been on the point of confessing her former marriage, and her
relationship to Tristan, and each time some irresistible, inscrutable power had closed her lips at the supreme moment. It would after all, be better, she thought, as things had turned out, that Tristan should for the present return to Baldassare’s care in Rome. If once she were to make her husband partaker in her secret, there would be no possibility of recalling the confidence, in whatever manner it might affect him. Some words, as he had told her, were absolute. And she dreaded inexpressibly to break the truth to him. What would he say? What would he feel? He with his pride of rank and position, his lofty prejudices against misalliances and social transgressions of all sorts, his impervious coldness of heart and keen contempt of all romance and youthful passion? How would he receive the intelligence that he had married the widow of a vagabond painter, a man concerning whose history and parentage no one living could give him the least account, and that he, Earl of Cairnsmuir, head of the noblest house of Scottish peers, was step-father to a struggling lad trained to earn his bread by his father’s craft, and accustomed from his childhood to fraternize with Italian models, penniless artists, philosophing fishermen, picturesque beggars, or worse? My Lady shuddered to think of the danger she had so narrowly escaped! Now it would be easy enough to pacify the Earl – a week or two, and the thing would be forgotten – but had these words been uttered, which, in her frenzy had almost escaped her, how and when could the broil have ended!
“As you please, my dear Hubert,” said she. “I will speak to – the young fellow. I did not see him to-day, for after the wishes you expressed to me last night I thought it best to abstain from paying my ordinary visit to the studio. Shall I call there to morrow morning?”
“Arrange the affair in your own way, Dolores. I have mentioned my desires, and I believe I need do no more. There has never yet been a difference of opinion between us. Now let us go to bed, for it is getting extremely late.”
And thus tamely ended a conference, which, at its commencement had threatened such sensational horrors!
The next day was Christmas Eve. Lady Cairnsmuir had intended to ask Tristan if he would pass the Christmas Day at her hotel, but the occurrence of that recent domestic tempest obliged her to abandon all idea of offering him such an invitation. About noon on the the twenty-fourth, she crept sadly into Tristan’s atelier, resolved to recount to him the whole story of her conjugal conflict; but when she confronted her son’s brave valiant face, and met the glance of his radiant eyes, two clear wells of light, with truth at the bottom of each, the weak unworthy heart in her woman’s bosom yielded – she dared not confess to him that his mother had acted the coward, had basely renounced her child – and had deliberately chosen to sacrifice to the interests of her private peace, those natural ties and duties, the acknowledgment and fulfilment of which he had a right to demand.
He would not reproach her, that she well knew; he would go back to Rome and to Baldassare at her bidding, obedient as he had quitted them to follow her here; but how would she not sink in his reverent regard, in his filial love! Such an apprehension, nay, such a certainty was too distracting to be endured! She contemplated her own treachery, she anticipated his meek resignation, she trembled at the probability of Baldassare’s noble anger; each minute she fell lower in her own esteem. On every side an army of difficulties encompassed her and cut off her retreat; she imagined herself a fly in a spider’s web, and gave her soul up to despair.
Distraite, perplexed, and irresolute, she quitted Tristan’s studio and returned to lunch at her hotel, her errand unaccomplished, her purpose unachieved. She had not ventured after all to deliver the Earl’s message. Miserable creature!
Thus the Christmas week went by, but my Lord broached no more the unhappy topic of the former discussions between himself and my Lady.
He had intimated his desires; he now awaited her compliance. There was something really dignified and respectful in this studied silence, and Lady Dolores, while she could not fail to note and to admire his conduct, crimsoned in the retirement of her chamber as she reflected on her own ignoble double-dealing and faintheartedness. Ah, what prayers she prayed, what tears she shed, what sighs she breathed, kneeling there by the bedside, or sitting here in the velvet fanteuil before the dressing-table! What an anxious, careworn, agonizing wretch this fine toilette glass reflected day by day within its ormoulu frame of moulded vinery and laughing dimpled cupidons! What warning dreams disturbed her fitful sleep, what hydrate of chloral she swallowed night after night, what headaches oppressed her senses while she drank her morning chocolate, and thought that despite the celebrity of the “Compagnie Coloniale," the dainty potion tasted more bitter than aloes, and salter than all the brine of the Atlantic! Mes amis, don’t you pity this poor weak-minded woman? I do, heartily, and am not ashamed to own it!
But meanwhile a week has elapsed, and do you think that all that time Vaurien has remained unoccupied? Unoccupied, in Paris – with nothing to do? Oh no! Vide Dr. Watts, my friends, who knew something of human nature when he penned that playful little couplet about the Idle Hands and the Fourth Archangel. That winged hierarch had found some mischief for our worthy Vane to do, and you may depend that Vane was busy doing it. He was setting afloat a little judicious scandal, scattering it cunningly in and out of the most select Parisian coteries – here a little and there a little, like the seed by the wayside for the fowls of the air to devour. And they came, in flocks, sweeping down upon the precious grain with delighted avidity. The season had been getting a little slack of gossip lately – just beginning to feel the drag – and this titbit was Rahat Lokum to their hungry appetites. The poor Earl, on tenter hooks for his reputation, came and went from assembly to reception, from dinner to rout, with a sore heart and watchful eyes, nor did he miss a glance
that was flung askance at his Countess, nor a whisper that circled as she passed. There was a murmur in society, and my Lord knew it.
On the thirtieth of December a conversazione took place at one of the best houses in Paris, well attended, lively and exclusive, in the pleasures of which, however, the Earl, abstracted and gloomy beyond his wont, was observed to take no part, and at an early hour he quitted the salons with my Lady on his arm; my Lady, pallid, and scared, and agitated, as though she had seen a ghost. Vane stood lounging in the doorway as they passed, and saw their carriage drive up. He had been getting impatient during the last three days, and had begun to think about anonymous letter writing, but the spectacle he now beheld amply reassured and satisfied him.
And indeed on the last night of the year, the catastrophe occurred. It was on this wise.
My Lady, finding that the infrequency of her visits to the Opéra was fast becoming a topic of comment among her acquaintances, had resolved again to exhibit herself there for the confusion of society, and selected for that laudable purpose the Eve of the New Year, for which occasion a tempting programme had been issued announcing the appearance of the Fräulein in her favourite role of Marguerite, and a crowded house was confidently expected.
My Lady’s brougham waited at the door of the hotel, and my Lady herself in satin and diamonds, sweeping out of her chamber with her maid behind her, encountered that grim Earl of hers, standing on the hearthrug of the adjoining room with his back to the fire and the Times in his hand; while near him Lady Ella, seated cosily in the soft depths of a luxurious sociable, was languidly conning a new novel; but neither she nor her father were arrayed in evening attire. The Countess paused and glanced from one to the other.
“Not going to the Opéra?” said she, “neither of you?”
“No mamma, Godfrey said he should look in to-night for a game of chess with papa, and I thought I would stay too.”
“But it is Faust to-night, your pet Opéra, Ella!”
“I don’t care about these things now, mamma, I don’t care about anything that I used to like, I think. I would rather be quiet indeed.”
“And you, my dear?” asked my lady, turning to her husband.
“I am not very well to-night, Dolores,” he replied, with a peculiar hardness in his voice. “Chess will be more in my line just now than the glare and noise of a theatre. Still, my dear, if you wish me to accompany you, I am always ready as you know to exert myself for your –”
“Certainly not,” interrupted my Lady, breaking hastily through the polite little speech, “someone is sure to meet me in the box! Indeed, I made an appointment last night for this Opera with those nice Delisles!”
She beckoned her satellite as she spoke and asked for her mantle. It was soon adjusted, and my Lady, slipping her hand through the Earl’s proffered arm, suffered him to lead her down the vast colossal staircase to her carriage. As she drove off, the gleaming brougham-lamps flashed their light upon her husband’s face where he stood on the steps of the hotel watching her departure, and my Lady leaned back in her seat and moaned.
“He suffers,” she said, “and so patiently! O God, give me courage to end all this miserable suspense! To-morrow is the first day of the New Year – to-morrow Tristan comes of age – to-morrow I will turn a fresh page in all our lives, and Hubert shall hear the whole truth. It is the best thing to do, the only thing that can save us all! Yes I am resolved; I will waver no longer, my hesitation is at an end. To-morrow, all shall be told.”
Too late my Lady! ah, too late! Is it not written in the books of the round-hand copies of our school-days that Procrastination is the Thief of Time? How many a gallant life of youth and maiden has he not miserably destroyed – that ancient acquaintance of our classic days – Procrustes the Stretcher, arch homicide and man-devourer, who promises us
so fair and smiles so hospitably in our tired faces as he comes out in his rich array to meet us panting and toiling up the hill Difficulty? Only one of all his many guests he spared, for that one only fitted his wondrous bed, yet none were warned save the hero Theseus, Theseus the slayer of monsters, the favourite of the Immortals! “Cras! cras!” says the Raven bird of ill-omen, but the perpetual refrain of his cry is “Nevermore!” He is a fiendish bird, that Raven, he taps at many windows and sit above many chamber-doors uttering his monotonous croak, until poor Pallas Athene, despite her divine wisdom, is apt to be quite put out of countenance by him. Here I feel sadly inclined to stop on my way and moralize, my head is so seductively full of charming aphorisms which I fancy would just come in beautifully, with a score of ancedotes by way of illustration. But though Mr. Disraeli thinks so poorly of the critics I am dreadfully afraid of them, so pray, dear reader, to think of all the neat things you can about being too late, and imagine if you please that I have said them.
The rumble of my Lady’s carriage wheels was lost in the general murmur of the streets, and the Earl, feeling himself in too melancholy a humour for domestic chat, retired to his dressing-room, there to indulge in an hour’s reverie by his solitary fireside. They were not pleasant thoughts which occupied him, for despite his manliest endeavours that “foul harpy Jalousie” had got the upper hand of his lordship and was prodding him sorely with her barbed shaft. And yet, droll as it may seem, this jealousy did not relate so much to his wife’s affections as to the honour of his coronet and to the manes of defunct Thanes who had worn it in past ages. To offend or profane the sanctity of these household Lares and Penates was a worse crime in the estimation of this last inheritor of their glory than the rankest blasphemy of the Gods.
As I watch my Lord the Right Honourable, sitting there in the glow of the leaping, mocking firelight, with his chin on his hand and his discarded
Times on the carpet beside him, my heart is really moved for the poor fellow’s sorrows and mortifications. All the more is it moved, because he suffers, not in a noble cause (then would his reward be with him), but for a delusion – an hallucination – a vain shadow. Such a brief span as it is of our immortality that we pass on this petty sphere, such an insignificant trivial period as our whole terrestial existence is by comparison with the duration of our real life, such a minute speck as this world is in the mighty illimitable system upon system, nebulæ on nebulæ of planets that we have to get through during the vast revolving ages of Eternity; – and yet we absolutely fret our spirits and permit ourselves to get harrassed about a thousand local absurdities which should be less than nothing to the souls of divine beings! Psha! read that grand philosophic hymn of Thomas Moor’s, than which I think there is nothing in the language more cogent and beautiful; read it, con it, inwardly digest it. It contains a better lesson and a nobler, concerning the “Vanitas Vanitatum” than you will hear in many a forty minutes’ sermon from the lips of the most eloquent D.D. in Christendom. Listen to the sublime, roiling cadences;
“This World is all a fleeting Show
For Man’s Illusion given;
The smiles of Joy, the Tears of Woe
Deceitful shine, deceitful flow, –
There’s nothing true but Heaven!
And false the Light on Glory’s Plume
As fading Hues of Even;
And Love, and Hope, and Beauty’s Bloom
Are Blossoms gathered for the Tomb, –
There’s nothing bright but Heaven!
Poor Wanderers of a stormy Day,
From Wave to Wave we’re driven,
And Fancy’s Flash, and Reason’s Ray,
Serve but to light the troubled Way,
There’s nothing calm but Heaven!
By the way I do so much admire that old-fashioned German method of distinguishing nouns by capital initials! I wish some great author would revise the custom, once indeed prevalent in the days of Mr. Pepys, Dean Swift and Laurence Sterne, but now abandoned with shirt-ruffles, shoe-buckles and breeches, and all the other dear, quaint, delightful, picturesque fashions of the last century! Why should our Teutonic-neighbours monopolise all goodly properties of literature – poetic customs as well as beautiful letters? If ever I grow to be famous in the craft, if ever I take my degree in the academy of Parnassus, I now I will resuscitate the belles Iettres in a twofold sense, and print all my works in German type, with capitals at the beginning of every noun!
Here I am again, bowling my marbles over the pavement and neglecting my business as usual! A shadowy constable taps me on the shoulder with his ghostly truncheon, and authoritatively bids me “move on. No loitering here,” says he, “you are stopping up the thoroughfare with your games, don’t you see you’re hindering the folks from going by? Here’s a score of people waiting to pass – and my Lord’s barouche driving up too!”
So I pocket my marbles, shoulder once more my basket of literary wares, and on I go; the way is clear, the moving pageant proceeds, and enter –
What was that tap at the door of the Earl’s dressing-room? I think I was just dozing, and – dear! dear! how it startled me.
“A note, my Lord, for Madame the Countess. Shall I put it on the table, my Lord?”
It is the voice of an obsequious servant, who displays in his hand a glossy three-cornered billet.
“Is anyone waiting for a reply?”
“I think, not, my Lord, – now at least. The messenger had orders to wait, but when I mentioned that Madame the Countess was at the Opéra, the messenger left, my Lord.”
“You may put it down, then,”
The servant obeys, bows, and retires. When the door is shut again, the Earl moves his head, and glances negligently at the superscription of the letter. Ah! what makes him start, what changes his humour so suddenly from grim indifference to fervid emotion? It is the sight of that handwriting which affects him, that peculiar, fantastic, idiosyncratic handwriting upon the folded paper which flutters in his tremulous grasp. There is no mistaking Tristan’s calligraphy. From time to time my Lord has seen specimens of it, acknowledging invitations or kindnesses received from her ladyship, and he cannot possibly err in deciding the identity of these very remarkable characters which now so boldly stare him in the face. He turns the billet over, and observes that it is sealed. Horrible suspicions torment him, fearful suggestions, like a nest of scorpions, start up to bite and sting his miserable heart. Peevishly he tosses the note on the table, but he cannot so easily fling aside his alarms – his agonizing, sickening, paralizing, alarms. He rises and paces the tiny room, which like the legendary torture-chamber of the Inquisition, seems to grow hotter and hotter beneath his feet as he walks restlessly to and fro. Again he takes up that unlucky “billet pour Madame,” and closely examines its creamy exterior. Ah, my dear Earl, touch it not; have nothing to do with it; it is Pandora’s casket, with no Hope at the bottom!
In vain! Curiosity – acquisitiveness – desire to know – desire to possess – call it by what name you please – this is the key-note of all the passions and deeds of the world. My Lord yields to the voice of the serpent, and commits a fault of which he has never been guilty until this moment.
He breaks the seal of his wife’s letter and peruses a communication which was not intended for his eye. Within the note he finds these words, penned by Tristan’s hand in the Italian tongue: –
“I have great news for you to-night, which will, I think, make you happy. Why do I never see you now – have you then forgotten me? Surely the Earl cannot in any way have interfered between us? Come to me at once. l am impatient for your dear embrace! All when we meet, but pray make no delay!
“Eternally, my heart, your loving
The paper fell from my Lord’s hands. Do you wonder what was the expression of his illustrious physiognomy just then? Would you like to see a picture of it? Ask M. Gustave Doré to draw you one; such a one, for instance as you may light on now and then among his illustrations of the Contes Drolatiques of De Balzac. Or better still, if only he were alive – the mad painter of these wonderfully insane and powerful works in the Musée Wiertz at Bruxelles. I confess that with the feeble pen I wield, I am altogether incompetent to deal justly with my subject. So I leave the delineation of his lordship’s countenance to your masterly imagination, most gifted reader, while I proceed to chronicle only his lordship’s notions. Now there lay just under the Earl’s right honourable nose, that silver-mounted weapon of defence, with which, you remember, my Lady’s fair fingers dallied so harmlessly in the last chapter. With a quivering hand her noble husband pounced upon the dainty, deathly little instrument, loaded it, stowed it away in his vest, threw on his fur cloak, donned his hat, and went hastily downstairs.
Scarcely, however, had he quitted the room on his frantic errand, than the voice of his daughter Ella cried shrilly through the keyhole of the door.
“Papa, here is Godfrey!” Won’t you come and play chess with him? He’s all ready, and so is the table.”
But there was no reply. After listening a minute to no purpose, Ella gently turned the handle and entered the vacant chamber. There were the candles burning solemnly on the tall silver pedestals, there lay the open crumpled note on the toilette table, and there beside it was the empty pistol-case! A single glance suggested the catastrophe, and with a cry of dismay the girl darted forward and eagerly seized the fatal paper. Partner as she was in her mother’s secret, no magic was needed to inform her woman’s wit of the frightful crisis which had occurred. A moment’s thought, and she flew back to the salon with the letter in her hand.
“Godfrey!” she cried, breathlessly,” O Godfrey! there is not an instant to be lost. Look – this is a letter from Tristan Le Rodeur to mamma. Well, papa has opened it and read it, and has gone off to Tristan’s studio with his pistol! And he has loaded it too, for I found the powder and percussion-cap box open on his table. Now, listen Godfrey, papa does not know, but I do, – for mamma told me – that Tristan is her own son, my brother – Godfrey! Yes! yes! it is true, I swear it is, God knows it is true, true as heaven, true as Himself! Don’t say anything now; of course it is sudden news for you. I’ll explain it all afterwards. But now, you see you must act – you must run after Papa to the studio – you must prevent any mischief. Papa is so dreadful when he is angry. It might be murder, Godfrey! O run! quick! for God’s sake!”
She fell back on a sofa exhausted and weeping wildly. But Templar did not stay to restore her, – already the door of the salon had closed behind him.
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