Sir Tom Part 30

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As for Lucy, still much confused and scarcely recognising the full meaning of the Contessa's warmth, she made her way to her own room in a haze of disturbed and uneasy feeling. Somehow--she could not tell how--she felt herself in the wrong. What was it she had done? What was it she had left undone? To further the scheme by which young Montjoie was to be caught and trapped and made the means of fortune and endowment to Bice was not possible. In such cases it is usually of the possible victim, the man against whom such plots are formed, that the bystander thinks; but Lucy thought of young Montjoie only with an instinctive dislike, which would have been contempt in a less calm and tolerant mind. That Bice, with all her gifts, a creature so full of life and sweetness and strength, should be handed over to this trifling commonplace lad, was in itself terrible to think of. Lucy did not think of the girl's beauty, or of that newly-developed gift of song which had taken her by surprise, but only and simply of herself, the warm-hearted and smiling girl, the creature full of fun and frolic whom she had learned to be fond of, first, for the sake of little Tom, and then for her own. Little Tom's friend, his playmate, who had found him out in his infant weakness and made his life so much brighter! And then Lucy asked herself what the Contessa could mean, what it was that made her own interference a sort of impertinence, why her protests had been received with so little of the usual caressing deference? Thoughts go fast, and Lucy had not yet reached the door of her own room, when it flashed upon her what it was. She put down her candle on a table in the corridor, and stood still to realise it. This gallery at the head of the great staircase was dimly lighted, and the hall below threw up a glimmer, reflected in the oaken bal.u.s.ters and doors of the closed rooms, and dying away in the half-lit gloom above. There were sounds below far off that betrayed the a.s.sembly still undispersed in the smoking-room, and some fainter still, above, of the ladies who had retired to their rooms, but were still discussing the strange events of the evening. In the centre of this partial darkness stood Lucy, with her candle, the only visible representative of all the hidden life around, suddenly pausing, asking herself--

Was this what it meant? Undoubtedly, this was what it meant. She had the power, and she had not used it. With a word she could make all their schemes unnecessary, and relieve the burden on the soul of the woman who had the heart of a mother for Bice. Tears sprang up into Lucy's eyes unawares as this recollection suddenly seized her. The Contessa was not perfect--there were many things in her which Lady Randolph could with difficulty excuse to herself: but she had the heart of a mother for Bice. Oh, yes, it was true, quite true. The heart of a mother! and how was it possible that another mother could look on at this and not sympathise; and how was it that the idea had never occurred to her before--that she had never thought how changed in a moment might be Bice's position, if only---- Here she picked up her candle again, and went away hastily to her room. She said to herself that she was keeping Fletcher up, and that this was unkind. But, as a matter of fact, she was not thinking about Fletcher. There had sprung up in her soul a fear which was twofold and contradictory. If one of those alarms was justified, then the other would be fallacious; and yet the existence of the one doubled the force of the other. One of these elements of fear--the contradiction, the new terror--was wholly unthought of, and had never troubled her peace before. She thought--and this was her old burden, the anxiety which had already restrained her action and made her forego what she had never failed to feel as her duty, the carrying out of her father's will--of her husband's objection, of his opposition, of the terrible interview she had once had with him, when she had refused to acquiesce in his command. And then, with a sort of stealthy horror, she thought of his departure from that opposition, and asked herself, would he, for Bice's sake, consent to that which he had so much objected to in other cases? This it was that made her shrink from herself and her own thoughts, and hurry into her room for the solace of Fletcher's companions.h.i.+p, and to put off as long as she could the discussion of the question. Would Sir Tom agree to everything? Would he make no objections--for Bice's sake?

CHAPTER x.x.xVII.

THE CONTESSA'S TACTICS.

That morning the whole party came down to breakfast expectant, for, notwithstanding the Contessa's habit of not appearing, it was supposed that the young lady whom most people supposed to have arrived very recently must be present at the morning meal. Young Montjoie, who was generally very late, appeared among the first; and there was a look of curiosity and anxiety in his face as he turned towards the door every time it was opened, which betrayed his motive. But this expectation was not destined to be repaid. Bice did not appear at breakfast. She did not even come downstairs, though the Contessa did, for luncheon. When Madame di Forno-Populo came in to this meal there was a general elevation of all heads and eager look towards her, to which she replied with her usual smile but no explanation of any kind; nor would she make any reply, even to direct questions. She did nothing but smile when Montjoie demanded to know if Miss Forno-Populo was not coming downstairs, if she had gone away, if she were ill, if she would appear before three o'clock--with which questions he a.s.sailed her in downright fas.h.i.+on. When the Contessa did not smile she put on a look of injured sweetness.



"What!" she said, "Am I then so little thought of? You have no more pleasure, ficklest of young men, in seeing me?" "Oh, I a.s.sure you, Countess," he cried, "that's all right, don't you know; but a fellow may ask. And then it was your own doing to make us so excited."

"Yes, a fellow may ask," said the Contessa, smiling; but this was all the response she would give, nothing that could really throw the least light upon the subject of his curiosity. The other men of her following looked on with undisguised admiration at this skilled and accomplished woman. To see how she held in hand the youth whom they all considered as her victim was beautiful they thought; and bets even were going amongst them as to the certainty that she would land her big fish. Sir Tom, at the head of the table, did not regard the matter so lightly. There was a curve of annoyance in his forehead. He did not understand what game she was playing. It was, without doubt, a game of some sort, and its object was transparent enough; and Sir Tom could not easily forgive the dramatic efforts of the previous night, or endure the thought that his house was the scene of tactics so little creditable. He was vexed with the Contessa, with Bice, even with Lucy, who, he could not keep from saying to himself, should have found some means of baulking such an intention. He was somewhat mollified by the absence of Bice now, which seemed to him, perhaps, a tribute to his own evident disapproval; but still he was uneasy. It was not a fit thing to take place in his house.

He saw far more clearly than he had done before that a stop should have been put ere now to the Contessa's operations, and in the light of last night's proceedings perceived his own errors in judgment--those errors which he had, indeed, been sensible of, yet condoned in himself with that wonderful charity which we show towards our own mistakes and follies. He ought not to have asked her to the Hall; he ought not to have permitted himself to be flattered and amused by her society, or to have encouraged her to remain, or to have been so weak as to ask the people she wished, which was the crowning error of all. He had invited Montjoie, a trifling boy in whom he felt little or no interest, to please her, without any definite idea as to what she meant, but only with an amused sense that she had designs on the lad which Montjoie was quite knowing enough to deliver himself from. But the turn things had taken displeased Sir Tom. It was too barefaced, he said to himself. He, too, felt like his more innocent wife, as if he were an accomplice in a social crime.

"I've been swindled, don't you know," Montjoie said; "I've been taken a mean advantage of. None of these other beggars are going away like me.

They will get all the good of the music to-night, and I shall be far away. I could cry to think of it, I could, don't you know; but you don't care a bit, Countess."

The Contessa, as usual, smiled. "_Enfant_!" she said.

"I am not an infant. I am just the same age as everybody, old enough to look after myself, don't you know, and pay for myself, and all that sort of thing. Besides, I haven't got any parents and guardians. Is that why you take such a base advantage of me?" cried the young man.

"It is, perhaps, why----" The Contessa was not much in the way of answering questions; and when she had said this she broke off with a laugh. Was she going to say that this was why she had taken any trouble about him, with a frankness which it is sometimes part of the astutest policy to employ.

"Why what? why what? Oh, come, you must tell me now," the young man said.

"Why one takes so much interest in you," said the Contessa sweetly.

"You shall come and see me, _cher pet.i.t Marquis_, in my little house that is to be, in Mayfair; for you have found me, _n'est ce pas_, a little house in Mayfair?" she said, turning to another of her train.

"Hung with rose-coloured curtains and pink gla.s.s in the windows, according to your orders, Contessa," said the gentleman appealed to.

"How good it is to have a friend! but those curtains will be terrible,"

said the Contessa, with a s.h.i.+ver, "if it were not that I carry with me a few little things in a great box."

"Oh, my dear Contessa, how many things you must have picked up!" cried Lady Anastasia. "That peep into your boudoir made me sick with envy; those Eastern embroideries, those Persian rugs! They have furnished me with a lovely paragraph for my paper, and it is such a delightful original idea to carry about one's pet furniture like one's dresses. It will become quite the fas.h.i.+on when it is known. And how I shall long to see that little house in Mayfair!"

The Contessa smiled upon Lady Anastasia as she smiled upon the male friends that surrounded her. Her paper and her paragraphs were not to be despised, and those little mysterious intimations about the new beauty which it delighted her to make. Madame di Forno-Populo turned to Montjoie afterwards with a little wave of the hand. "You are going?" she said; "how sad for us! we shall have no song to make us gay to-night.

But come and you shall sing to us in Mayfair."

"Countess, you are only laughing at me. But I shall come, don't you know," said Montjoie, "whether you mean it or not."

The company, who were so much interested in this conversation, did not observe the preoccupied looks of the master and mistress of the house, although to some of the gentlemen the gravity of Sir Tom was apparent enough. And not much wonder that he should be grave. Even the men who were most easy in their own code looked with a certain severity and astonishment upon him who had opened his door to the adventuress-Contessa, of whom they all judged the worst, without even the charitable acknowledgment which her enemy the Dowager had made, that there was nothing in her past history bad enough to procure her absolute expulsion from society. The men who crowded round her when she appeared, who flattered and paid their court to her, and even took a little credit to themselves as intimates of the siren, were one and all of opinion that to bring her into his house was discreditable to Sir Tom. They were even a little less respectful to Lucy for not knowing or finding out the quality of her guest. If Tom Randolph was beginning to find out that he had been a fool it was wonderful he had not made the discovery sooner. For he had been a fool, and no mistake! To bring that woman to England, to keep her in his house, to a.s.sociate her in men's minds with his wife--the worst of his present guests found it most difficult to forgive him. But they were all the more interested in the situation from the fact that Sir Tom was beginning to feel the effects of his folly. He said very little during that meal. He took no notice of the badinage going on between the Contessa and her train. When he spoke at all it was to that virtuous mother at his other hand, who was not at all amusing, and talked of nothing but Edith and Minnie, and her successful treatment of them through all the nursery troubles of their life.

Lucy, at the other end of the table, was scarcely more expansive. She had been relieved by the absence of Bice, which, in her innocence, she believed to be a concession to her own anxiety, feeling a certain grat.i.tude to the Contessa for thus foregoing the chance of another interview with Montjoie. It could never have occurred to Lucy to suppose that this was policy on the Contessa's part, and that her refusal to satisfy Montjoie was in reality planned to strengthen her hold on him, and to increase the curiosity she pretended to baffle. Lucy had no such artificial idea in her mind. She accepted the girl's withdrawal as a tribute to her own powers of persuasion, and a proof that though the Contessa had been led astray by her foreign notions, she was yet ready to perceive and adopt the more excellent way. This touched Lucy's heart and made her feel that she was herself bound to reciprocate the generosity. They had done it without knowing anything about the intention in her mind, and it should be hers to carry out that intention liberally, generously, not like an unwilling giver. She cast many a glance at her husband while this was going through her mind. Would he object as before? or would he, because it was the Contessa who was to be benefited, make no objection? Lucy did not know which of the two it would be most painful to her to bear. She had read carefully the paragraph in her father's will about foreigners, and had found there was no distinct objection to foreigners, only a preference the other way.

She knew indeed, but would not permit herself to think, that these were not persons who would have commended themselves to Mr. Trevor as objects of his bounty. Mr. Churchill, with his large family, was very different. But to endow two frivolous and expensive women with a portion of his fortune was a thing to which he never would have consented. With a certain s.h.i.+ver she recognised this; and then she made a rush past the objection and turned her back upon it. It was quite a common form of beneficence in old times to provide a dower for a girl that she might marry. What could there be wrong in providing a poor girl with something to live upon that she might not be forced into a mercenary marriage?

While all the talk was going on at the other end of the table she was turning this over in her mind--the manner of it, the amount of it, all the details. She did not hear the talk, it was immaterial to her, she cared not for it. Now and then she gave an anxious look at Sir Tom at the other end. He was serious. He did not laugh as usual. What was he thinking of? Would his objections be forgotten because it was the Contessa or would he oppose her and struggle against her? Her heart beat at the thought of the conflict which might be before her; or perhaps if there was no conflict, if he were too willing, might not that be the worst of all!

Thus the background against which the Contessa wove her web of smiles and humorous schemes was both dark and serious. There were many shadows behind that frivolous central light. Herself the chief actor, the plotter, she to whom only it could be a matter of personal advantage, was perhaps the least serious of all the agents in it. The others thought of possibilities dark enough, of perhaps the destruction of family peace in this house which had been so hospitable to her, which had received her when no other house would; and some, of the success of a plan which did not deserve to succeed, and some of the danger of a youth to whom at present all the world was bright. All these things seemed to be involved in the present crisis. What more likely than that Lucy, at last enlightened, should turn upon her husband, who no doubt had forced this uncongenial companion upon her, should turn from Sir Tom altogether, and put her trust in him no longer! And the men who most admired the Contessa were those who looked with the greatest horror upon a marriage made by her, and called young Montjoie poor little beggar and poor devil, wondering much whether he ought not to be "spoken to." The men were not sorry for Bice, nor thought of her at all in the matter, save to conclude her a true pupil of the guardian whom most of them believed to be her mother. But in this point where the others were wanting Lucy came in, whose simple heart bled for the girl about to be sacrificed to a man whom she could not love. Thus tragical surmises floated in the air about Madame di Forno-Populo, that arch plotter whose heart was throbbing indeed with her success, and the hope of successes to come, but who had no tragical alarms in her breast. She was perfectly easy in her mind about Sir Tom and Lucy. Even if a matrimonial quarrel should be the result, what was that to an experienced woman of the world, who knew that such things are only for the minute? and neither Bice nor Montjoie caused her any alarm. Bice was perfectly pleased with the little Marquis. He amused her. She had not the slightest objection to him; and as for Montjoie, he was perfectly well able to take care of himself. So that while everybody else was more or less anxious, the Contessa in the centre of all her webs was perfectly tranquil. She was not aware that she wished harm to any man, or woman either. Her light heart and easy conscience carried her quite triumphantly through all.

When Montjoie had gone away, carrying in his pocket-book the address of the little house in Mayfair, and when the party had dispersed to walk or ride or drive, as each thought fit, Lucy, who was doing neither, met her husband coming out of his den. Sir Tom was full of a remorseful sense that he had wronged Lucy. He took her by both hands, and drew her into his room. It was a long time since he had met her with the same effusion. "You are looking very serious," he said, "you are vexed, and I don't wonder; but I see land, Lucy. It will be over directly--only a week more----"

"I thought you were looking serious, Tom," she said.

"So I was, my love. All that business last night was more than I could stand. You may think me callous enough, but I could not stand that."

"Tom!" said Lucy, faltering. It seemed an opportunity she could not let slip--but how she trembled between her two terrors! "There is something that I want to say to you."

"Say whatever you like, Lucy," he cried; "but for G.o.d's sake don't tremble, my little woman, when you speak to me. I've done nothing to deserve that."

"I am not trembling," said Lucy, with the most innocent and transparent of falsehoods. "But oh, Tom, I am so sorry, so unhappy."

"For what?" he said. He did not know what accusation she might be going to bring against him; and how could he defend himself? Whatever she might say he was sure to be half guilty; and if she thought him wholly guilty, how could he prevent it? A hot colour came up upon his middle-aged face. To have to blush when you are past the age of blus.h.i.+ng is a more terrible necessity than the young can conceive.

"Oh, Tom!" cried Lucy again, "for Bice! Can we stand by and let her be sacrificed? She is not much more than a child; and she is always so good to little Tom."

"For Bice!" he cried. In the relief of his mind he was ready to have done anything for Bice. He laughed with a somewhat nervous tremulous outburst. "Why, what is the matter with her?" he said. "She did her part last night with a.s.surance enough. She is young indeed, but she ought to have known better than that."

"She is very young, and it is the way she has been brought up--how should she know any better? But, Tom, if she had any fortune she would not be compelled to marry. How can we stand by and see her sacrificed to that odious young man?"

"What odious young man?" said Sir Tom, astonished, and then with another burst of his old laughter such as had not been heard for weeks, he cried out: "Montjoie! Why, Lucy, are you crazy? Half the girls in England are in compet.i.tion for him. Sacrificed to----! She will be in the greatest luck if she ever has such a chance."

Lucy gave him a reproachful look.

"How can you say so? A little vulgar boy--a creature not worthy to----"

"My dear, you are prejudiced. You are taking Jock's view. That worthy's opinion of a fellow who never rose above Lower Fourth is to be received with reservation. A fellow may be a scug, and yet not a bad fellow--that is what Jock has yet to learn."

"Oh, Tom, I cannot laugh," said Lucy. "What can she do, the Contessa says? She must marry the first that offers, and in the meantime she attracts notice _like that_. It is dreadful to think of it. I think that some one--that we--I--ought to interfere."

"My innocent Lucy," said Sir Tom, "how can you interfere? You know nothing about the tactics of such people. I am very penitent for my share in the matter. I ought not to have brought so much upon you."

"Oh, Tom," cried Lucy again, drawing closer to him, eager to antic.i.p.ate with her pardon any blame to which he might be liable. And then she added, returning to her own subject: "She is of English parentage--on one side."

Why this fact, so simply stated, should have startled her husband so much, Lucy could not imagine. He almost gasped as he met her eyes, as if he had received or feared a sudden blow, and underneath the brownness of his complexion grew suddenly pale, all the ruddy colour forsaking his face. "Of English parentage!" he said, faltering, "do you mean?--what do you mean? Why--do you tell this to me?"

Lucy was surprised, but saw no significance in his agitation. And her mind was full of her own purpose. "Because of the will which is against foreigners," she said simply. "But in that case she would not be a foreigner, Tom. I think a great deal of this. I want to do it. Oh, don't oppose me! It makes it so much harder when you go against me."

He gazed at her with a sort of awe. He did not seem able to speak. What she had said, though she was unconscious of any special meaning in it, seemed to have acted upon him like a spell. There was something tragic in his look which frightened Lucy. She came closer still and put her hand upon his arm.

"Oh, it is not to trouble you, Tom; it is not that I want to go against you! But give me your consent this once. Baby is so fond of her, and she is so good to him. I want to give something to Bice. Let me make a provision for her?" she said, pleading. "Do not take all the pleasure out of it and oppose me. Oh, dear Tom, give me your free consent!" Lucy cried.

He kept gazing at her with that look of awe. "Oppose you!" he said. What was the shock he had received which made him so unlike himself? His very lips quivered as he spoke. "G.o.d forgive me; what have I been doing?" he cried. "Lucy, I think I will never oppose you more."

Sir Tom Part 30

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Sir Tom Part 30 summary

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