Sir Tom Part 20

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"It is when a girl begins to go to parties--when she comes out of her home, out of the schoolroom, from being just a little girl----"

"Ah, I know! From the Convent," said Bice; "but I never was there."

"And have you always gone to parties--all your life?" asked Lucy, with wondering eyes.

Bice looked at her, wondering too. "We do not go to parties. What is a party?" she said. "We go to the rooms--oh yes, and to the great receptions sometimes, and at hotels. Parties? I don't know what that means. Of course, I go with the Contessa to the rooms, and to the tables d'hote. I give her my arm ever since I was tall enough. I carry her fan and her little things. When she sings I am always ready to play. They call me the shadow of the Contessa, for I always wear a black frock, and I never talk except when some one talks to me. It is most amusing how the English look at me. They say, Miss----? and then stop that I may tell them my name."

"And don't you?" said Lucy. "Do you know; though it is so strange to say it, I don't even know your name."



Bice laughed, but she made no attempt to supply the omission. "The Contessa thinks it is more piquant," she said. "But nothing is decided about me, till it is known how I turn out. If I am beautiful the Contessa will marry me well, and all will be right."

"And is that what you--wish?" said Lucy, in a tone of horror.

"Monsieur, your brother," said Bice, with a laugh, "says I am not pretty, even. He says it does not matter. How ignorant men are, and stupid! And then suddenly they are old, old, and sour. I do not know which is the worst. I do not like men."

"And yet you think of being married, which it is not nice to speak of,"

said Lucy, with disapproval.

"Not--nice? Why is that? Must not girls be married? and if so, why not think of it?" said Bice, gravely. There was not the ghost of a blush upon her cheek. "If you might live without being married that would understand itself; but otherwise----"

"Indeed," cried Lucy, "you can, indeed you can! In England, at least. To marry for a living, that is terrible."

"Ah!" cried Bice, with interest, drawing her chair nearer, "tell me how that is to be done."

There was the seriousness of a practical interest in the girl's manner.

The question was very vital to her. There was no other way of existence possible so far as she knew; but if there was it was well worth taking into consideration.

Lucy felt the question embarra.s.sing when it was put to her in this very decisive way. "Oh," she cried with an Englishwoman's usual monosyllabic appeal for help to heaven and earth: "there are now a great number of ways. There are so many things that girls can do; there are things open to them that never used to be--they can even be doctors when they are clever. There are many ways in which they can maintain themselves."

"By trades?" cried Bice, "by work?" She laughed. "We hear of that sometimes, and the doctors; everybody laughs; the men make jokes, and say they will have one when they are ill. If that is all, I do not think there is anything in it. I should not like to work even if I were a man, but a woman----! that gets no money, that is _mal vu_. If that is all! Work," she said, with a little oracular air, "takes up all your time, and the money that one can earn is so small. A girl avoids saying much to men who are like this. She knows how little they can have to offer her; and to work herself, why, it is impossible. What time would you have for anything?" cried the girl, with an impatient sense of the fatuity of the suggestion. Lucy was so much startled by this view of the subject that she made no reply.

"There is no question of working," said Bice with decision, "neither for women, neither for men. That is not in our world. But if I am only pretty, no more," she added, "what will become of me? It is not known. I shall follow the Contessa as before. I will be useful to her, and afterwards---- I prefer not to think of that. In the meantime I am young.

I do not wish for anything. It is all amusing. I become weary of the band playing, that is true; but then sometimes it plays not badly, and there is something always to laugh at. Afterwards, if I marry, then I can do as I like," the girl said.

Lucy gave her another look of surprised awe, for it was really with that feeling that she regarded this strange little philosopher. But she did not feel herself able to pursue the subject with so enlightened a person. She said: "How very well you speak English. You have scarcely any accent, and the Contessa has none at all. I was afraid she would speak only French, and my French is so bad."

"I have always spoken English all my life. When the Contessa is angry she says I am English all over; and she--she is of no country--she is of all countries; we are what you call vagabonds," the girl cried, with a laugh. She said it so calmly, without the smallest shadow of shame or embarra.s.sment, that Lucy could only gaze at her and could not find a word to say. Was it true? It was evident that Bice at least believed so, and was not at all afraid to say it. This conversation took place, as has been said, in the picture gallery, where Lady Randolph and her young visitor had first found a ground of amity. The rainy weather had continued, and this place had gradually become the scene of a great deal of intercourse between the young mistress of the house and her guest.

They scarcely spoke to each other in the evening. But in the morning after the game of romps with little Tom, by which Bice indemnified herself for the absence of other society, Lucy would join the party, and after the child had been carried off for his mid-day sleep, the others left behind would have many a talk. To Lucy the revelations thus made were more wonderful than any romance--so wonderful that she did not half take in the strange life to which they gave a clue, nor realise how perfectly right was Bice's description of herself and her patroness.

They were vagabonds, as she said; and like other vagabonds, they got a great deal of pleasure out of their life. But to Lucy it seemed the most terrible that mind could conceive. Without any home, without any retirement or quietness, with a noisy band always playing, and a series of migrations from one place to another--no work, no duties, nothing to represent home occupations but a piece of _tap.i.s.serie_. She put her hand very tenderly upon Bice's shoulder. There had been prejudices in her mind against this girl--but they all melted away in a womanly pity.

"Oh," she said, "Cannot I help you in any way? Cannot Sir Tom--" But here she paused. "I am afraid," she said, "that all we could think of would be an occupation for you; something to do, which would be far, far better, surely, than this wandering life."

Bice looked at her for a moment with a doubtful air. "I don't know what you mean by occupation," she said.

And this, to Lucy's discomfiture, she found to be true. Bice had no idea of occupation. Young Lady Randolph, who was herself not much instructed, made a conscientious effort at least to persuade the strange girl to read and improve her mind. But she flew off on all such occasions with a laugh that was half mocking and half merry. "To what good?" she said, with that simplicity of cynicism which is a quality of extreme youth.

"If I turn out beautiful, if I can marry whom I will, I will then get all I want without any trouble."

"But if not?" said Lucy, too careful of the other's feelings to express what her own opinions were on this subject.

"If not it will be still less good," said Bice, "for I shall never then do anything or be of any importance at all; and why should I tr-rouble?"

she said, with that rattle of the r's which was about the only sign that English was not her native speech. This was very distressing to Lucy, who wished the girl well, and altogether Lady Randolph was anxious to interfere on Bice's behalf, and put her on a more comprehensible footing.

"It will be very strange when you go among other people in London," she said. "Madame di Forno-Populo does not know England. People will want to know who you are. And if you were to be married, since you will talk of that," Lucy added with a blush, "your name and who you are will have to be known. I will ask Sir Tom to talk to the Contessa--or," she said with reluctance, "I will speak to her if you think she will listen to me."

"I am called," said Bice, making a sweeping curtsey, and waving her hand as she darted suddenly away, leaving Lucy in much doubt and perplexity.

Was she really called? Lucy heard nothing but a faint sound in the distance, as of a low whistle. Was this a signal between the strange pair who were not mother and daughter, nor mistress and servant, and yet were so linked together. It seemed to Lucy, with all her honest English prejudices, that to train so young a girl (and a girl so fond of children, and, therefore, a good girl at bottom, whatever her little faults might be) to such a wandering life, and to put her up as it were to auction for whoever would bid highest, was too terrible to be thought of. Better a thousand times to be a governess, or a sempstress, or any honest occupation by which she could earn her own bread. But then to Bice any such expedient was out of the question. Her incredulous look of wonder and mirth came back to Lucy with a sensation of dumb astonishment. She had no right feelings, no sense of the advantages of independence, no horror of being sold in marriage. Lady Randolph did not know what to think of a creature so utterly beyond all rules known to her. She was in such a condition of mind, unsettled, unhinged, feeling all her old landmarks breaking up, that a new interest was of great importance to her. It withdrew her thoughts from the Contessa, and the irksomeness of her sway, when she thought of Bice and what could be done for her. The strange thing was that the girl wanted nothing done for her. She was happy enough so far as could be seen. In her close confinement and subjection she was so fearless and free that she might have been thought the mistress of the situation. It was incomprehensible altogether. To state the circ.u.mstances from one side was to represent a victim of oppression. A poor girl stealing into a strange house and room in the shadow of her patroness; unnamed, unnoticed, made no more account of than the chair upon which she sat, held in a bondage which was almost slavery, and intended to be disposed of when the moment came without a reference to her own will and affections. Lucy felt her blood boil when she thought of all this, and determined that she would leave no expedient untried to free this white slave, this unfortunate thrall. But the other side was one which could not pa.s.s without consideration. The girl was careless and fearless and free, without an appearance of bondage about her. She scoffed at the thought of escaping, of somehow earning a personal independence--such was not for persons in her world, she said. She was not horrified by her own probable fate. She was not unhappy, but amused and interested in her life, and taking everything gaily, both the present quiet and the tumult of the many "seasons" in watering-places and other resorts of gaiety through which, young as she was, she had already gone. She had looked at Lucy with a smile, which was half cynical, and altogether decisive, when the anxious young matron had pointed out to her the way of escaping from such a sale and bargain.

She did not want to escape. It seemed to her right and natural. She walked as lightly as a bird with this yoke upon her shoulders. Lucy had never met anything of this kind before, and it called forth a sort of panic in her mind. She did not know how to deal with it; but neither would she give it up. She had something else to think upon, when the Contessa, lying back on her sofa, almost going to sleep before Sir Tom entered, roused herself on the moment to occupy and amuse him all the evening. Instead of thinking of that and making herself unhappy, Lucy looked the other way at Bice reading a novel rapidly at the other side of the table, with all her young savage faculties about her to see and hear everything. How to get her delivered from her fate! To make her feel that deliverance was necessary, to save her before she should be sacrificed, and take her out of her present slavery. It was very strange that it never occurred to Lucy to free the girl by making her one of the recipients of the money she had to give away. She was very faithful to the letter of her father's will, and he had excluded foreigners. But even that was not the reason. The reason was that it did not occur to her. She thought of every way of relieving the too-contented thrall before her except that way. And in the meantime the time wore on, and everything fell into a routine, and not a word was said of the Contessa's plans. It was evident, for the time being at least, that she meant to make no change, but was fully minded, notwithstanding the dullness of the country, to remain where she was.

CHAPTER XXVI.

THE TWO STRANGERS.

The Contessa did not turn her head or change her position when Bice entered. She said, "You have not been out?" in a tone which was half question and half reproof.

"It rained, and there is nothing to breathe but the damp and fog."

"What does it matter? it is very good for the complexion, this damp; it softens the skin, it clears your colour. I see the improvement every day."

"Do you think so?" said Bice, going up to the long mirror which had been established in a sort of niche against the wall, and draped as everything was draped, with graceful hangings. She went up to it and put her face close, looking with some anxiety at the image which she found there. "I do not see it," she said. "You are too sanguine. I am no better than I was. I have been racing in the long gallery with the child; that makes one's blood flow."

"You do well," said the Contessa, nodding her head. "I cannot take any notice of the child; it is too much for me. They are odious at that age."

"Ah! they are delightful," said Bice. "They are so good to play with, they ask no questions, and are always pleased. I put him on my shoulder and we fly. I wish that I might have a gymnastique, trapeze, what-you-call it, in that long gallery; it would be heaven."

The Contessa uttered an easy exclamation meaning nothing, which translated into English would have been a terrible oath. "Do not do it, in the name of----they will be shocked, oh, beyond everything."

Bice, still standing close to the gla.s.s, examining critically her cheek which she pinched, answered with a laugh. "She is shocked already. When I say that you will marry me well, if I turn out as I ought, she is full of horror. She says it is not necessary in England that a young girl should marry, that there are other ways."

The Contessa started to her feet. "Giove!" she cried, "Baccho! that insipidity, that puritan. And I who have kept you from every soil. _She_ speak of other ways. Oh, it is too much!"

Bice turned from the gla.s.s to address a look of surprise to her patroness. "Rea.s.sure yourself, Madama," she said. "What Milady said was this, that I might work if I willed, and escape from marrying--that to marry was not everything. It appears that in England one may make one's living as if (she says) one were a man."

"As if one were a man!"

"That is what Milady said," Bice answered demurely. "I think she would help me to work, to get something to do. But she did not tell me what it would be; perhaps to teach children; perhaps to work with the needle. I know that is how it happens in the Tauchnitz. You do not read them, and, therefore, do not know; but I am instructed in all these things. The girl who is poor like me is always beautiful; but she never thinks of it as we do. She becomes a governess, or perhaps an artiste; or even she will make dresses, or at the worst _tap.i.s.serie_."

"And this she says to you--to you!" cried the Contessa, with flaming eyes.

"Oh, restrain yourself, Madama! It does not matter at all. She makes the great marriage just the same. It is not Milady who says this, it is in the Tauchnitz. It is the English way. Supposing," said Bice, "that I remain as I am? Something will have to be done with me. Put me, then, as a governess in a great family where there is a son who is a great n.o.bleman, or very rich; and you shall see it will so happen, though I never should be beautiful at all."

"My child," said the Contessa, "all this is foolishness. You will not remain as you are. I see a little difference every day. In a little time you will be dazzling; you will be ready to produce. A governess! It is more likely that you will be a d.u.c.h.ess; and then you will laugh at everybody--except me," said Madame di Forno-Populo, tapping her breast with her delicate fingers, "except me."

Bice looked at her with a searching, inquiring look. "I want to ask something," she said. "If I should be beautiful, you were so before me--oh, more, more!--you we----are very lovely, Madama."

The Contessa smiled--who would not smile at such a speech? made with all the sincerity and simplicity possible--simplicity scarcely affected by the instinct which made Bice aware before she said it, that to use the past tense would spoil all. The Contessa smiled. "Well," she said, "and then?"

Sir Tom Part 20

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Sir Tom Part 20 summary

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