Sir Tom Part 14

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"I don't want you to be under-dressed; there is plenty of time. Don't you think you might do a little more in the way of toilette? Put on some lace or something; Fletcher will know. Look here, Fletcher, I want Lady Randolph to look very well to-night. Don't you think this get-up would stand improvement? I dare say you could do it with ribbons, or something. We must not have her look like my grandchild, you know."

Upon which Fletcher, somewhat mollified and murmuring that Sir Thomas was a gentleman that would always have his joke, answered boldly that _that_ was not how she would have dressed her lady had she had the doing of it. "But I know my place," Fletcher said, "though to see my lady like this always goes against me, Sir Thomas, and especially with foreigners in the house that are always dressed up to the nines and don't think of nothing else. But if Lady Randolph would wear her blue it could all be done in five minutes, and look far nicer and more like the lady of the house."

This transfer was finally made, for Lucy had no small obstinacies and was glad to please her husband. The "blue" was of the lightest tint of s.h.i.+mmering silk, and gave a little background of colour, upon which Lucy's fairness and whiteness stood out. Sir Thomas always took an interest in his wife's dress; but it was seldom he occupied himself so much about it. It was he who went to the conservatory to get a flower for her hair. He took her downstairs upon his arm "as if they were out visiting," Lucy said, instead of at home in their own house. She was amused at all this form and ceremony, and came down to the drawing-room with a little flush of pleasure and merriment about her, quite different from the demure little Lady Randolph, half frightened and very serious, with the weight on her mind of a strange language to be spoken, who but for Sir Tom's intervention would have been standing by the fire awaiting her visitor. The Dowager was downstairs before her, looking grave enough, and Jock, slim and dark, supporting a corner of the mantelpiece, like a young Caryatides in black. Lucy's brightness, her pretty s.h.i.+mmer of blue, the flower in her hair, relieved these depressing influences.

She stood in the firelight with the ruddy irregular glare playing on her, a pretty youthful figure; and her husband's a.s.siduities, and the entire cessation of any apparent consciousness on his part that any question had ever arisen between them, made Lucy's heart light in her breast. She forgot even the possibility of having to talk French in the ease of her mind; and before she had time to remember her former alarm there came gliding through the subdued light of the greater drawing-room two figures. Sir Tom stepped forward to meet the stranger, who gave him her hand as if she saw him for the first time, and Lucy advanced with a little tremor. Here was the Contessa--the Forno-Populo--the foreign great lady and great beauty at last.

She was tall--almost as tall as Sir Tom--and had the majestic grace which only height can give. She was clothed in dark velvet, which fell in long folds to her feet, and her hair, which seemed very abundant, was much dressed with puffs and curlings and frizzings, which filled Lucy with wonder, but furnished a delicate frame-work for her beautiful, clear, high features, and the wonderful tint of her complexion--a sort of warm ivory, which made all brighter colours look excessive. Her eyes were large and blue, with long but not very dark eyelashes; her throat was like a slender column out of a close circle of feathery lace. Lucy, who had a great deal of natural taste, felt on the moment a thrill of shame on account of her blue gown, and an almost disgust of Lady Randolph's old-fas.h.i.+oned openness about the shoulders. The stranger was one of those women whose dress always impresses other women with such a sense of fitness that fas.h.i.+on itself looks vulgar or insipid beside her.



She gave Sir Tom her left hand in pa.s.sing, and then she turned with both extended to Lucy. "So this is the little wife," she said. She did not pause for the modest little word of welcome which Lucy had prepared. She drew her into the light, and gazed at her with benignant but dauntless inspection, taking in, Lucy felt sure, every particular of her appearance--the something too much of the blue gown, the deficiency of dignity, the insignificance of the smooth fair locks, and open if somewhat anxious countenance. "_Bel enfant_," said the Contessa, "your husband and I are such old friends that I cannot meet you as a stranger.

You must let me kiss you, and accept me as one of yours too." The salutation that followed made Lucy's heart jump with mingled pleasure and distaste. She was swallowed up altogether in that embrace. When it was over, the lady turned from her to Sir Tom without another word. "I congratulate you, _mon ami_. Candour itself, and sweetness, and every English quality"--upon which she proceeded to seat herself in the chair which Lucy had set for her in the afternoon with the screen and the footstool. "How thoughtful some one has been for my comfort," she said, sinking into it, and distributing a gracious smile all round. There was something in the way in which she seized the central place in the scene, and made all the others look like surroundings which bewildered Lucy, who did nothing but gaze, forgetting everything she meant to say, and even that it was she who was the mistress of the house.

"You do not see my aunt, Contessa," said Sir Tom, "and yet I think you ought to know each other."

"Your aunt," said the Contessa, looking round, "that dear Lady Randolph--who is now Dowager. Chere dame!" she added, half rising, holding out again both hands.

Lady Randolph the elder knew the world better than Lucy. She remained in the background into which the Contessa was looking with eyes which she called shortsighted. "How do you do, Madame di Forno-Populo!" she said.

"It is a long time since we met. We have both grown older since that period. I hope you have recovered from your fatigue."

The Contessa sank back again into her chair. "Ah, _both_, yes!" she said, with an eloquent movement of her hands. At this Sir Tom gave vent to a faint chuckle, as if he could not contain himself any longer.

"The pa.s.sage of time is a myth," he said; "it is a fable; it goes the other way. To look at you----"

"Both!" said the Contessa, with a soft, little laugh, spreading out her beautiful hands.

Lucy hoped that Lady Randolph, who had kept behind, did not hear this last monosyllable, but she was angry with her husband for laughing, for abandoning his aunt's side, upon which she herself, astonished, ranged herself without delay. But what was still more surprising to Lucy, with her old-fas.h.i.+oned politeness, was to see the second stranger who had followed the Contessa into the room, but who had not been introduced or noticed. She had the air of being very young--a dependent probably, and looking for no attention--and with a little curtsey to the company, withdrew to the other side of the table on which the lamp was standing.

Lucy had only time to see that there was a second figure, very slim and slight, and that the light of the lamp seemed to reflect itself in the soft oval of a youthful face as she pa.s.sed behind it; but save for this noiseless movement the young lady gave not the smallest sign of existence, nor did any one notice her. And it was only when the summons came to dinner, and when Lucy called forth the bashful Jock to offer his awkward arm to Lady Randolph, that the unannounced and unconsidered guest came fully into sight.

"There are no more gentlemen, and I think we must go in together," Lucy said.

"It is a great honour for me," said the girl. She had a very slight foreign accent, but she was not in the least shy. She came forward at once with the utmost composure. Though she was a stranger and a dependent without a name, she was a great deal more at her ease than Lucy was, who was the mistress of everything. Lucy for her part was considerably embarra.s.sed. She looked at the girl, who smiled at her, not without a little air of encouragement and almost patronage in return.

"I have not heard your name," Lucy at last prevailed upon herself to say, as they went through the long drawing-room together. "It is very stupid of me; but I was occupied with Madame di Forno-Populo----"

"You could not hear it, for it was never mentioned," said the girl. "The Contessa does not think it worth while. I am at present in the coc.o.o.n.

If I am pretty enough when I am quite grown up, then she will tell my name----"

"Pretty enough? But what does that matter? one does not talk of such things," said the decorous little matron, startled and alarmed.

"Oh, it means everything to me," said the anonymous. "It is doubtful what I shall be. If I am only a little pretty I shall be sent home; but if it should happen to me--ah! no such luck!--to be beautiful, then the Contessa will introduce me, and everybody says I may go far--farther, indeed, than even she has ever done. Where am I to sit? Beside you?"

"Here, please," said Lucy, trembling a little, and confounded by the ease of this new actor on the scene, who spoke so frankly. She was dressed in a little black frock up to her throat; her hair in great s.h.i.+ning bands coiled about her head, but not an ornament of any kind about her. A little charity girl could not have been dressed more plainly. But she showed no consciousness of this, nor, indeed, of anything that was embarra.s.sing. She looked round the table with a free and fearless look. There was not about her any appearance of timidity, even in respect to the Contessa. She included that lady in her inspection as well as the others, and even made a momentary pause before she sat down, to complete her survey. Lucy, who had on ordinary occasions a great deal of gentle composure, and had sat with a Cabinet Minister by her side without feeling afraid, was more disconcerted than it would be easy to say by this young creature, of whom she did not know the name. It was so small a party that a separate little conversation with her neighbour was scarcely practicable, but the Contessa was talking to Sir Tom with the confidential air of one who has a great deal to say, and Lady Randolph on his other side was keeping a stern silence, so that Lucy was glad to make a little attempt at her end of the table.

"You must have had a very fatiguing journey?" she said. "Travelling by night, when you are not used to it----"

"But we are quite used to it," said the girl. "It is our usual way. By land it is so much easier: and even at sea one goes to bed, and one is at the other side before one knows."

"Then you are a good sailor, I suppose----"

"_Pas mal_," said the young lady. She began to look at Jock, and to turn round from time to time to the elder Lady Randolph, who sat on the other side of her. "They are not dumb, are they?" she asked. "Not once have I heard them speak. That is very English, so like what one reads in books."

"You speak English very well, Mademoiselle," said the Dowager suddenly.

The girl turned round and examined her with a candid surprise. "I am so glad you do," she said calmly: a little _mot_ which brought the colour to Lady Randolph's cheeks.

"A pupil of the Contessa naturally knows a good many languages," she said, "and would be little at a loss wherever she went. You have come last from Florence, Rome, or perhaps some other capital. The Contessa has friends everywhere--still."

This last little syllable caught the Contessa's fine ear, though it was not directed to her. She gave the Dowager a very gracious smile across the table. "Still," she repeated, "everywhere! People are so kind. My invitations are so many it was with difficulty I managed to accept that of our excellent Tom. But I had made up my mind not to disappoint him nor his dear young wife. I was not prepared for the pleasure of finding your ladys.h.i.+p here."

"How fortunate that you were able to manage it! I have been complimenting Mademoiselle on her English. She does credit to her instructors. Tell me, is this your first visit," Lady Randolph said, turning to the young lady "to England?" Even in this innocent question there was more than met the eye. The girl, however, had begun to make a remark to Lucy, and thus evaded it in the most easy way.

"I saw you come home soon after our arrival," she said. "I was at my window. You came with--Monsieur----" She cast a glance at Jock as she spoke, with a smile in her eyes that was not without its effect. There was a little provocation in it, which an older man would have known how to answer. But Jock, in the awkwardness of his youth, blushed fiery red, and turned away his gaze, which, indeed, had been dwelling upon her with an absorbed but shy attention. The boy had never seen anything at all like her before.

"My brother," said Lucy, and the young lady gave him a beaming smile and bow which made Jock's head turn round. He did not know how to reply to it, whether he ought not to get up to answer her salutation; and being so uncertain and abashed and excited, he did nothing at all, but gazed again with an absorption which was not uncomplimentary. She gave him from time to time a little encouraging glance.

"That was what I thought. You drive out always at that early hour in England, and always with--Monsieur?" The girl laughed now, looking at him, so that Jock longed to say something witty and clever. Oh, why was not MTutor here? He would have known the sort of thing to say.

"Oh not, not always with Jock," Lucy answered, with honest matter-of-fact. "He is still at school, and we have him only for the holidays. Perhaps you don't know what that means?"

"The holidays? yes, I know. Monsieur, no doubt, is at one of the great schools that are nowhere but in England, where they stay till they are men."

"We stay," said Jock, making an almost convulsive effort, "till we are nineteen. We like to stay as long as we can."

"How innocent," said the girl with a pretty elderly look of superiority and patronage; and then she burst into a laugh, which neither Lucy nor Jock knew how to take, and turned back again in the twinkling of an eye to Lady Randolph, who had relapsed into silence. "And you drive in the afternoon," she said. "I have already made my observations. And the baby in the middle, between. And Sir Tom always. He goes out and he goes in, and one sees him continually. I already know all the habits of the house."

"You were not so very tired, then, after all. Why did you not come down stairs and join us in what we were doing?"

The young lady did not make any articulate reply, but her answer was clear enough. She cast a glance across the table to the Contessa, and laid her hand upon her own cheek. Lucy was a little mystified by this pantomime, but to Lady Randolph there was no difficulty about it. "That is easily understood," she said, "when one is _sur le retour_. But the same precautions are not necessary with all."

A smile came upon the girl's lip. "I am sympathetic," she said. "Oh, troppo! I feel just like those that I am with. It is sometimes a trouble, and sometimes it is an advantage." This was to Lucy like the utterance of an oracle, and she understood it not.

"Another time," she said kindly, "you must not only observe us from the window, but come down and share what we are doing. Jock will show you the park and the grounds, and I will take you to the village. It is quite a pretty village, and the cottages are very nice now."

The young stranger's eyes blazed with intelligence. She seemed to perceive everything at a glance.

"I know the village," she said, "it is at the park gates, and Milady takes a great deal of trouble that all is nice in the cottages. And there is an old woman that knows all about the family, and tells legends of it; and a school and a church, and many other _objets-de-piete_. I know it like that," she cried, holding out the pretty pink palm of her hand.

"This information is preternatural," said Lady Randolph. "You are astonished, Lucy. Mademoiselle is a sorceress. I am sure that Jock thinks so. Nothing save an alliance with something diabolical could have made her so well instructed, she who has never been in England before."

"Do you ask how I know all that?" the girl said laughing. "Then I answer, novels. It is all Herr Tauchnitz and his pretty books."

"And so you really never were in England before--not even as a baby?"

Lady Randolph said.

The girl's gaiety had attracted even the pair at the other end of the table, who had so much to say to each other. The Contessa and Sir Tom exchanged a look, which Lucy remarked with a little surprise, and remarked in spite of herself: and the great lady interfered to help her young dependent out.

"How glad I am to give her that advantage, dear lady! It is the crown of the pet.i.te's education. In England she finds the most fine manners, as well as villages full of _objets-de-piete_. It is what is needful to form her," the Contessa said.

Sir Tom Part 14

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Sir Tom Part 14 summary

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