Sir Tom Part 24
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The Contessa gave him a look in which there was much of that feminine contempt at which men laugh as one of the pretences of women. "I am going to be good to her as she is to me," she said. "The Carnival will be short this year, and in England you have no Carnival. I will find myself a little house for the season. I will not too much impose upon that angel. There, now, is something good for you to relieve your mind.
I can read you, _mon ami_, like a book. You are fond of me--oh yes!--but not too long; not too much. I can read you like a book."
"Too long, too much, are not in my vocabulary," said Sir Tom; "have they a meaning? not certainly that has any connection with a certain charming Contessina. If that lady has a fault, which I doubt, it is that she gives too little of her gracious countenance to her friends."
"She does not come down to breakfast," said the Contessa, with her soft laugh, which in itself was a work of art. "She is not so foolish as to put herself in compet.i.tion with the lilies and the roses, the English flowers. Poverina! she keeps herself for the afternoon which is charitable, and the light of the lamps which is flattering. But she remembers other days--alas! in which she was not afraid of the sun himself, not even of the mid-day, nor of the dawn when it comes in above the lamps. There was a certain _bal costume_ in Florence, a year when many English came to the Populino palace. But why do I talk of that? You will not remember----"
There was something apparently in the recollection that touched Sir Tom.
His eye softened. An unaccustomed colour came to his middle-aged cheek.
"I! not remember? I remember every hour, every moment," he said, and then their voices sank lower, and a murmur of reminiscences, one filling up another, ensued between the pair. Their tone softened, there were broken phrases, exclamations, a rapid interchange which was far too indistinct to be audible. Lucy sat by her table and worked, and was vaguely conscious of it all. She had said to herself that she would take no heed any more, that the poor Contessa was too open-hearted, too generous to harm her, that they were but two old friends talking of the past. And so it was; but there was a something forlorn in sitting by at a distance, out of it all, and knowing that it was to go on and last, alas! by her own doing, who could tell how many evenings, how many long hours to come!
The time after this seemed to fly in the great quiet, all the entertainments of the Christmas season being over, and the houses in the neighbourhood gradually emptying of guests. The only visitors at the Hall were the clergyman, the doctor, an odd man now and then whom Sir Tom would invite in the character of a "native," for the Contessa's amus.e.m.e.nt; and Mr. Rushton, who came from Farafield two or three times on business, at first with a very keen curiosity, to know how it was that Lucy had subdued her husband and got him to relinquish his objection to her alienation of her money. This had puzzled the lawyer very greatly. There had been no uncertainty about Sir Tom's opinion when the subject was mooted to him first. He had looked upon it with very proper sentiments. It had seemed to him ridiculous, incredible, that Lucy should set up her will against his, or take her own way, when she knew how he regarded the matter. He had told the lawyer that he had little doubt of being able to bring her to hear reason. And then he had written to say that he withdrew his objection! Mr. Rushton felt that there must be some reason here more than met the eye. He made a pretence of business that he might discover what it was, and he had done so triumphantly, as he thought. Sir Tom, as everybody knew, had been "a rover" in his youth, and the world was charitable enough to conclude that in that youth there must be many things which he would not care to expose to the eye of day. When Mr. Rushton beheld at luncheon the Contessa, followed by the young and slim figure of Bice, it seemed to him that everything was solved. And Lady Randolph, he thought, did not look with very favourable eyes upon the younger lady. What doubt that Sir Tom had bought the a.s.sent of his wife to the presence of the guests by giving up on his side some of his reasonable rights?
"Did you ever hear of an Italian lady that Sir Tom was thick with before he married?" he asked his wife when he came home.
"How can you ask me such a question," said that virtuous woman, "when you know as well as I do that there were half-a-dozen?"
"Did you ever hear the name of Forno-Populo?" he asked.
Mrs. Rushton paused and did her best to look as if she was trying to recollect. As a matter of fact all Italian names sounded alike to her, as English names do to foreign ears. But after a moment she said boldly: "Of course I have heard it. That was the lady from Naples, or Venice, or some of those places, that ran away with him. You heard all about it at the time as well as I."
And upon this Mr. Rushton smote upon his thigh, and made a mighty exclamation. "By George!" he said, "he's got her there, under his wife's very nose; and that's why he has given in about the money." Nothing could have been more clearly reasoned out--there could be no doubt upon that subject. And the presence of Bice decided the question. Bice must be--they said, to be sure! Dates and everything answered to this view of the question. There could be no doubt as to who Bice was. They were very respectable, good people themselves, and had never given any scandal to the world; but they never hesitated for a moment or thought there was anything unnatural in attributing the most shameful scandal and domestic treachery to Sir Tom. In fact it would be difficult to say that they thought much less of him in consequence. It was Lucy, rather, upon whom their censure fell. She ought to have known better. She ought never to have allowed it. To pretend to such simplicity was sickening, Mrs.
It was early in February when they all went to London--a time when society is in a sort of promissory state, full of hopes of dazzling delights to come, but for the present not dazzling, parliamentary, residential, a society made up of people who live in London, who are not merely gay birds of fas.h.i.+on, basking in the suns.h.i.+ne of the seasons.
There was only a week or two of what the Contessa called Carnival, which indeed was not Carnival at all, but a sober time in which dinner parties began, and the men began to gather at the clubs. The Contessa did not object to this period of quiet. She acquainted Lucy with all she meant to do in the meantime, to the great confusion of that ingenious spirit.
"Bice must be dressed," the Contessa said, "which of itself requires no little time and thought. Unhappily M. Worth is not in London. Even with M. Worth I exert my own faculties. He is excellent, but he has not the intuitions which come when one is very much interested in an object.
Sweet Lucy! you have not thought upon that matter. Your dress is as your dressmaker sends it to you. Yes; but, my angel, Bice has her career before her. It is different."
"Oh, Madame di Forno-Populo," said Lucy, "do you still think in that way--must it still be exhibiting her, marrying her?"
"Marriage is honourable," said the Contessa. "It is what all girls are thinking of; but me, I think it better that their parents should take it in hand instead of the young ladies. There is something in Bice that is difficult, oh, very difficult. If one chooses well for her, one will be richly repaid; but if, on the contrary, one leaves it to the conventional, the ordinary--My sweetest! your pretty white dresses, your blues are delightful for you; but Bice is different, quite different.
And then she has no fortune. She must be piquant. She must be striking.
She must please. In England you take no trouble for that. It is not _comme il faut_ here; but it is in our country. Each of us we like the ways of our country best."
"I have often wondered," said Lucy, "to hear you speak such perfect English, and Bice too. It is, I suppose, because you are so musical and have such good ears----"
"Darling!" said the Contessa sweetly. She said this or a similar word when nothing else occurred to her. She had her room full of lovely stuffs, brought by obsequious shopmen, to whom Lady Randolph's name was sufficient warrant for any extravagance the Contessa might think of. But she said to herself that she was not at all extravagant; for Bice's wardrobe was her stock-in-trade, and if she did not take the opportunity of securing it while in her power, the Contessa thought she would be false to Bice's interests. The girl still wore nothing but her black frock. She went out in the park early in the morning when n.o.body was there, and sometimes had riding lessons at an unearthly hour, so that n.o.body should see her. The Contessa was very anxious on this point. When Lucy would have taken Bice out driving, when she would have taken her to the theatre, her patroness instantly interfered. "All that will come in its time," she said. "Not now. She must not appear now. I cannot have her seen. Recollect, my Lucy, she has no fortune. She must depend upon herself for everything." This doctrine, at which Lucy stood aghast, was maintained in the most matter-of-fact way by the neophyte herself. "If I were seen," she said, "now, I should be quite stale when I appear. I must appear before I go anywhere. Oh yes, I love the theatre. I should like to go with you driving. But I should forestall myself. Some persons do and they are never successful. First of all, before anything, I must appear."
"Oh my child," Lucy cried, "I cannot bear to hear of all this. You should not calculate so at your age. And when you appear, as you call it, what then, Bice? n.o.body will take any particular notice, perhaps, and you will be so disappointed you will not know what to do. Hundreds of girls appear every season and n.o.body minds."
Bice took no notice of these subduing and moderating previsions. She smiled and repeated what the Contessa said. "I must do the best for myself, for I have no fortune."
No fortune! and to think that Lucy, with her mind directed to other matters, never once realised that this was a state of affairs which she could put an end to in a moment. It never occurred to her--perhaps, as she certainly was matter of fact, the recollection that there was a sort of stipulation in the will against foreigners turned her thoughts into another channel.
It was, however, during this time of preparation and quiet that the household in Park Lane one day received a visit from Jock, accompanied by no less a person than MTutor, the leader of intellectual life and light of the world to the boy. They came to luncheon by appointment, and after visiting some museum on which Jock's mind was set, came to remain to dinner and go to the theatre. MTutor had a condescending appreciation of the stage. He thought it was an educational influence, not perhaps of any great utility to the youths under such care as his own, but of no small importance to the less fortunate members of society; and he liked to encourage the efforts of conscientious actors who looked upon their own calling in this light. It was rather for this purpose than with the idea of amus.e.m.e.nt that he patronised the play, and Jock, as in duty bound, though there was in him a certain boyish excitement as to the pleasure itself, did his best to regard the performance in the same exalted light. MTutor was a young man of about thirty, slim and tall. He was a man who had taken honours at college, though his admirers said not such high honours as he might have taken; "For MTutor," said Jock, "never would go in for pot-hunting, you know. What he always wanted was to cultivate his own mind, not to get prizes." It was with heartfelt admiration that this feature in his character was dwelt upon by his disciples. Not a doubt that he could have got whatever he liked to go in for, had he not been so fastidious and high-minded. He was fellow of his college as it was, had got a poetry prize which, perhaps, was not the Newdigate; and smiled indulgently at those who were more warm in the arena of compet.i.tion than himself. On other occasions when "men" came to luncheon, the Contessa, though quite ready to be amused by them in her own person, sternly forbade the appearance of Bice, the effect of whose future was not, she was determined, to be spoilt by any such preliminary peeps; but the Contessa's vigilance slackened when the visitors were of no greater importance than this. She was insensible to the greatness of MTutor. It did not seem to matter that he should be there sitting grave and dignified by Lucy's side, and talking somewhat over Lucy's head, any more than it mattered that Mr. Rushton should be there, or any other person of an inferior level. It was not upon such men that Bice's appearance was to tell. She took no precautions against such persons.
Jock himself at sixteen was not more utterly out of the question. And the Contessa herself, as it happened, was much amused by MTutor; his great ideas of everything, the exalted ideal that showed in all he did or said, gave great pleasure to this woman of the world. And when they came to the question of the educational influence of the stage, and the conscientious character of the actors' work, she could not conceal her satisfaction. "I will go with you, too," she said, "this evening." "We shall all go," said Sir Tom, "even Bice. There is a big box, and behind the curtain n.o.body will see her." To this the Contessa demurred, but, after a little while, being in a yielding humour, gave way. "It is for the play alone," she said in an undertone, raising her finger in admonition, "You will remember, my child, for the play alone."
"We are all going for the play alone," said Sir Tom, cheerfully. "Here is Lucy, who is a baby for a play. She likes melodrama best, disguises and trap-doors and long-lost sons, and all the rest of it."
"It is a taste that is very general," said MTutor, indulgently; "but I am sure Lady Randolph appreciates the efforts of a conscientious interpreter--one who calls all the resources of art to his aid----"
"I don't care for the play alone," said Bice to Jock in an undertone. "I want to see the people. They are always the most amusing. I have seen n.o.body yet in London. And though I must not be seen, I may look, that will do no harm. Then there will be the people who come into the box."
"The people who come into the box! but you know us all," said Jock, astonished, "before we go----"
"You all?" said Bice, with some disdain. "It is easy to see _you_; that is not what I mean; this will be the first time I put my foot into the world. The actors, that is nothing. Is it the custom in England to look much at the play? No, you go to see your friends."
MTutor was on the other side of this strange girl in her black frock. He took it upon him to reply. He said: "That is the case in some countries, but not here. In England the play is actually thought of. English actors are not so good as the French, nor even the Italian. And the Germans are much better trained. Nevertheless, we do what perhaps no other nation does. We give them our attention. It is this which makes the position of the actors more important, more interesting in England."
"Stop a little, stop a little!" cried Sir Tom; "don't let me interrupt you, Derwent.w.a.ter, if you are instructing the young ones; but don't forget the _Comedie Francaise_ and the aristocracy of art."
"I do not forget it," said Mr. Derwent.w.a.ter; "in that point of view we are far behind France; still I uphold that nowhere else do people go to the theatre for the sake of the play as we do; and it is this," he said, turning to Bice, "that makes it possible that the theatre may be an influence and a power."
Bice lifted her eyes upon this man with a wondering gaze of contempt.
She gave him a full look which abashed him, though he was so much more important, so much more intellectual, than she. Then, without deigning to take any notice, she turned to Jock at her other side. "If that is all I do not care for going," she said. "I have seen many plays--oh, many! I like quite as well to read at home. It is not for that I wish to go; but to see the world. The world, that is far more interesting. It is like a novel, but living. You look at the people and you read what they are thinking. You see their stories going on. That is what amuses me;--but a play on the stage, what is it? People dressed in clothes that do not belong to them, trying to make themselves look like somebody else--but they never do. One says--that is not I, but the people that know--Bravo, Got! Bravo Regnier! It does not matter what parts they are acting. You do not care for the part. Then why go and look at it?" said Bice with straightforward philosophy.
All this she poured forth upon Jock in a low clear voice, as if there was no one else near. Jock, for his part, was carried away by the flood.
"I don't know about Got and Regnier. But what we are going to see is Shakespeare," he said, with a little awe, "that is not just like a common play."
Mr. Derwent.w.a.ter had been astonished by Bice's indifference to his own instructive remarks. It was this perhaps more than her beauty which had called his attention to her, and he had listened as well as he could to the low rapid stream of her conversation, not without wonder that she should have chosen Jock as the recipient of her confidence. What she said, though he heard it but imperfectly, interested him still more. He wanted to make her out--it was a new kind of study. While Lucy, by his side, went on tranquilly with some soft talk about the theatre, of which she knew very little, he thought, he made her a civil response, but gave all his attention to what was going on at the other side; and there was suddenly a lull of the general commotion, in which he heard distinctly Bice's next words.
"_What_ is Shakespeare?" she said; then went on with her own reflections. "What I want to see is the world. I have never yet gone into the world; but I must know it, for it is there I have to live. If one could live in Shakespeare," cried the girl, "it would be easy; but I have not been brought up for that; and I want to see the world--just a little corner--because that is what concerns me, not a play. If it is only for the play, I think I shall not go."
"You had much better come," said Jock; "after all it is fun, and some of the fellows will be good. The world is not to be seen at the theatre that I know of," continued the boy. "Rows of people sitting one behind another, most of them as stupid as possible--you don't call that the world? But come--I wish you would come. It is a change--it stirs you up."
"I don't want to be stirred up. I am all living," cried Bice. There seemed to breathe out from her a sort of visible atmosphere of energy and impatient life. Looking across this thrill in the air, which somehow was like the vibration of heat in the atmosphere, Jock's eyes encountered those of his tutor, turned very curiously, and not without bewilderment, to the same point as his own. It gave the boy a curious sensation which he could not define. He had wished to exhibit to Mr.
Derwent.w.a.ter this strange phenomenon in the shape of a girl, with a sense that there was something very unusual in her, something in which he himself had a certain proprietors.h.i.+p. But when MTutor's eyes encountered Jock's with an astonished glance of discovery in them, which seemed to say that he had found out Bice for himself without the interposition of the original discoverer, Jock felt a thrill of displeasure, and almost pain, which he could not explain to himself.
What did it mean? It seemed to bring with it a certain defiance of, and opposition to, this king of men.
"Who was that young lady?" Mr. Derwent.w.a.ter said. "I did not catch the name."
Sir Tom Part 24
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Sir Tom Part 24 summary
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