Weyburn remembered then a passage of one of her steady looks, wherein an oracle was mute. He tried several of the diviner’s shots to interpret it: she was beyond his reach. She was in her blissful delirium of the flight, and reproached him with giving her the little bit less to resent –she who had no sense of resentment, except the claim on it to excuse.
Their landlady entered the room to lay the cloth for tea and eggs. She made offer of bacon as well, homecured. She was a Hampshire woman, and understood the rearing of pigs. Her husband had been a cricketer, and played for his county. He didn’t often beat Hampshire! They had a good garden of vegetables, and grass-land enough for two cows. They made their own bread, their own butter, but did not brew.
Weyburn pronounced for a plate of her home-cured. She had children, the woman told him–two boys and a girl. Her husband wished for a girl. Her eldest boy wished to be a sailor, and would walk miles to a pond to sail bits of wood on it, though there had never been a sea-faring man in her husband’s family or her own. She agreed with the lady and gentleman that it might be unwise to go contrary to the boy’s bent. Going to school or coming home, a trickle of water would stop him.
Aminta said to her companion in French, ‘Have you money?’
She chased his blood. ‘Some: sufficient. I think.’ It stamped their partnership.
‘I have but a small amount. Aunt was our paymaster. We will buy the little boy a boat to sail. You are pale.’
‘I ‘ve no notion of it.’
‘Something happened it Ashead.’
‘It would not have damaged my complexion.’
He counted his money. Aminta covertly handed him her purse. Their fingers touched. The very minor circumstance of their landlady being in the room dammed a flood.
Her money and his amounted to seventeen pounds. The sum-total was a symbol of days that were a fiery wheel.
Honour and blest adventure might travel together two days or three, he thought. If the chariot did not pass:–Lord Ormont had willed it. A man could not be said to swerve in his duty when acting to fulfil the master’s orders, and Mrs. Pagnell was proved a hoodwinked duenna, and Morsfield was in the air. The breathing Aminta had now a common purse with her first lover. For three days or more they were, it would seem, to journey together, alone together: the prosecution of his duty imposed it on him. Sooth to say, Weyburn knew that a spice of passion added to a bowl of reason makes a sophist’s mess; but he fancied an absolute reliance on Aminta’s dignity, and his respect for her was another barrier. He begged the landlady’s acceptance of two shillings for her boy’s purchase of a boat, advising her to have him taught early to swim. Both he and Aminta had a feeling that they could be helpful in some little things on the road if the chariot did not pass.
Justification began to speak loudly against the stopping of the chariot if it did pass. The fact that sweet wishes come second, and not so loudly, assured him they were quite secondary; for the lover sunk to sophist may be self-beguiled by the arts which render him the potent beguiler.
‘We are safe here,’ he said, and thrilled her with the ‘we’ behind the curtaining leaded window-panes.
‘What is it you propose?’ Her voice was lower than she intended. To that she ascribed his vivid flush. It kindled the deeper of her dark hue.
He mentioned her want of luggage, and the purchase of a kit.
She said, ‘Have we the means?’
‘We can adjust the means to the ends.’
‘We must be sparing of expenses.’
‘Will you walk part of the way?’
‘I should like it.’
‘We shall be longer on the journey.’
‘We shall not find it tiresome, I hope.’
‘We can say so, if we do.’
‘We are not strangers.’
The recurrence of the ‘we’ had an effect of wedding: it was fatalistic, it would come; but, in truth, there was pleasure in it, and the pleasure was close to consciousness of some guilt when vowing itself innocent.
And, no, they were not strangers; hardly a word could they utter without cutting memory to the quick; their present breath was out of the far past.
Love told them both that they were trembling into one another’s arms, not voluntarily, against the will with each of them; they knew it would be for life; and Aminta’s shamed reserves were matched to make an obstacle by his consideration for her good name and her station, for his own claim to honest citizenship also.
Weyburn acted on his instinct at sight of the postillion and the chariot; he flung the window wide and shouted. Then he said, ‘It is decided,’ and he felt the rightness of the decision, like a man who has given a condemned limb to the surgeon.
Aminta was passive as a water-weed in the sway of the tide. Hearing it to be decided, she was relieved. What her secret heart desired, she kept secret, almost a secret from herself. He was not to leave her; so she had her permitted wish, she had her companion plus her exclamatory aunt, who was a protection, and she had learnt her need of the smallest protection.
‘I can scarcely believe I see you, my dear, dear child!’ Mrs. Pagnell cried, upon entering the small inn parlour; and so genuine was her satisfaction that for a time she paid no heed to the stuffiness of the room, the meanness of the place, the unfitness of such a hostelry to entertain ladies–the Countess of Ormont!
‘Eat here?’ Mrs. Pagnell asked, observing the preparations for the meal. Her pride quailed, her stomach abjured appetite. But she forbore from asking how it was that the Countess of Ormont had come to the place.
At a symptom of her intention to indulge in disgust; Aminta brought up Mr. Morsfield by name; whereupon Mrs. Pagnell showed she had reflected on her conduct in relation to the gentleman, and with the fear of the earl if she were questioned.
Home-made bread and butter, fresh eggs and sparkling fat of bacon invited her to satisfy her hunger. Aminta let her sniff at the teapot unpunished; the tea had a rustic aroma of ground-ivy, reminding Weyburn of his mother’s curiosity to know the object of an old man’s plucking of hedgeside leaves in the environs of Bruges one day, and the simple reply to her French, ‘Tea for the English.’ A hint of an anecdote interested and enriched the stores of Mrs. Pagnell, so she capped it and partook of the infusion ruefully.
‘But the bread is really good,’ she said, ‘and we are unlikely to be seen leaving the place by any person of importance.’
‘Unless Mr. Morsfield should be advised to return this way,’ said Aminta.
Her aunt proposed for a second cup. She was a manageable woman; the same scourge had its instant wholesome effect on her when she snubbed the secretary.
So she complimented his trencherman’s knife, of which the remarkably fine edge was proof enough that he had come heart-whole out of the trial of an hour or so’s intimate companionship with a beautiful woman, who had never been loved, never could be loved by man, as poor Mr. Morsfield loved her! He had sworn to having fasted three whole days and nights after his first sight of Aminta. Once, he said, her eyes pierced him so that he dreamed of a dagger in his bosom, and woke himself plucking at it. That was love, as a born gentleman connected with a baronetcy and richer than many lords took the dreadful passion. A secretary would have no conception of such devoted extravagance. At the most he might have attempted to insinuate a few absurd, sheepish soft nothings, and the Countess of Ormont would know right well how to shrivel him with one of her looks. No lady of the land could convey so much either way, to attract or to repel, as Aminta, Countess of Ormont! And the man, the only man, insensible to her charm or her scorn, was her own wedded lord and husband. Old, to be sure, and haughty, his pride might not allow him to overlook poor Mr. Morsfield’s unintentional offence. But the presence of the countess’s aunt was a reply to any charge he might seek to establish. Unhappily, the case is one between men on their touchiest point, when women are pushed aside, and justice and religion as well. We might be living in a heathen land, for aught that morality has to say.
Mrs. Pagnell fussed about being seen on her emergence from the Jolly Cricketers. Aminta sent Weyburn to spy for the possible reappearance of Mr. Morsfield. He reported a horseman; a butcher-boy clattered by. Aminta took the landlady’s hand, under her aunt’s astonished gaze, and said: ‘I shall not forget your house and your attention to us.’ She spoke with a shake of her voice. The landlady curtseyed and smiled, curtseyed and almost whimpered. The house was a poor one, she begged to say; they didn’t often have such guests, but whoever came to it they did their best to give good food and drink.
Hearing from Weyburn that the chariot was bound to go through Winchester, she spoke of a brother, a baker there, the last surviving member of her family and, after some talk, Weyburn offered to deliver a message of health and greeting at the baker’s shop. There was a waving of hands, much nodding and curtseying, as the postillion resumed his demi-volts– all to the stupefaction of Mrs. Pagnell; but she dared not speak, she had Morsfield on the mouth. Nor could she deny the excellent quality of the bread and butter, and milk, too, at the sign of the Jolly Cricketers. She admitted, moreover, that the food and service of the little inn belonged in their unpretentious honesty to the, kind we call old English: the dear old simple country English of the brotherly interchange in sight of heaven–good stuff for good money, a matter with a blessing on it.
‘But,’ said she, ‘my dear Aminta, I do not and I cannot understand looks of grateful affection at a small innkeeper’s wife paid, and I don’t doubt handsomely paid, for her entertainment of you.’
‘I feel it,’ said Aminta; tears rushed to her eyelids, overflowing, and her features were steady.
‘Ah, poor dear! that I do understand,’ her aunt observed. ‘Any little kindness moves you to-day; and well it may.’
‘Yes, aunty,’ said Aminta, and in relation to the cause of her tears she was the less candid of the two.
So far did she carry her thanks for a kindness as to glance back through her dropping tears at the sign-board of the Jolly Cricketers; where two brave batsmen cross for the second of a certain three runs, if only the fellow wheeling legs, face up after the ball in the clouds, does but miss his catch: a grand suspensory moment of the game, admirably chosen by the artist to arrest the wayfarer and promote speculation. For will he let her slip through his fingers when she comes down? or will he have her fast and tight? And in the former case, the bats are tearing their legs off for just number nought. And in the latter, there ‘s a wicket down, and what you may call a widower walking it bat on shoulder, parted from his mate for that mortal innings, and likely to get more chaff than consolation when he joins the booth.
UNDER-CURRENTS IN THE MINDS OF LADY CHARLOTTE AND LORD ORMONT
Another journey of travellers to London, in the rear of the chariot, was not diversified by a single incident or refreshed by scraps of dialogue. Lady Charlotte had her brother Rowsley with her, and he might be taciturn,–she drove her flocks of thoughts, she was busily and contentedly occupied. Although separation from him stirred her mind more excitedly over their days and deeds of boy and girl, her having him near, and having now won him to herself, struck her as that old time’s harvest, about as much as can be hoped for us from life, when we have tasted it.
The scene of the invasion of Steignton by the woman and her aunt, and that man Morsfield, was a steel engraving among her many rapid and featureless cogitations. She magnified the rakishness of the woman’s hand on hip in view of the house, and she magnified the woman’s insolence in bringing that man Morsfield–to share probably the hospitality of Steignton during the master’s absence! Her trick of caricature, whenever she dealt with adversaries, was active upon the three persons under observation of the windows. It was potent to convince her that her brother Rowsley had cast the woman to her native obscurity. However, Lady Charlotte could be just: the woman’s figure, and as far as could be seen of her face, accounted for Rowsley’s entanglement.
Why chastize that man Morsfield at all? Calling him out would give a further dip to the name of Ormont. A pretty idea, to be punishing a roan for what you thank him for! He did a service; and if he’s as mad about her as he boasts, he can take her and marry her now Rowsley ‘s free of her.
Morsfield says he wants to marry her–wants nothing better. Then let him. Rowsley has shown him there ‘s no legal impediment. Pity that young Weyburn had to be sent to do watch-dog duty. But Rowsley would not have turned her back to travel alone: that is, without a man to guard. He ‘s too chivalrous.
The sending of Weyburn, she now fancied, was her own doing, and Lady Charlotte attributed it to her interpretation of her brother’s heart of chivalry; though it would have been the wiser course, tending straight and swift to the natural end, if the two women and their Morsfield had received the dismissal to travel as they came.
One sees it after the event. Yes, only Rowsley would not have dismissed her without surety that she would be protected. So it was the right thing prompted on the impulse of the moment. And young Weyburn would meet some difficulty in protecting his ‘Lady Ormont,’ if she had no inclination for it.
Analyzing her impulse of the moment, Lady Charlotte credited herself, not unjustly, with a certain considerateness for the woman, notwithstanding the woman’s violent intrusion between brother and sister. Knowing the world, and knowing the upper or Beanstalk world intimately, she winked at nature’s passions. But when the legitimate affection of a brother and sister finds them interposing, they are, as little parsonically as possible, reproved. If persistently intrusive, they are handed to the constable.
How, supposing the case of a wife? Well, then comes the contest; and it is with an inferior, because not a born, legitimacy of union; which may be, which here and there is, affection; is generally the habit of partnership. It is inferior, from not being the union of the blood; it is a matter merely of the laws and the tastes. No love, she reasoned, is equal to the love of brother and sister: not even the love of parents for offspring, or of children for mother and father. Brother and sister have the holy young days in common; they have lastingly the recollection of their youth, the golden time when they were themselves, or the best of themselves. A wife is a stranger from the beginning; she is necessarily three parts a stranger up to the finish of the history. She thinks she can absorb the husband. Not if her husband has a sister living! She may cry and tear for what she calls her own: she will act prudently in bowing her head to the stronger tie. Is there a wife in Europe who broods on her husband’s merits and his injuries as the sister of Thomas Rowsley, Earl of Ormont does? or one to defend his good name, one to work for his fortunes, as devotedly?
Over and over Lady Charlotte drove her flocks, of much the same pattern, like billows before a piping gale. They might be similar–a puffed iteration, and might be meaningless and wearisome; the gale was a power in earnest.
Her brother sat locked-up. She did as a wife would not have done, and held her peace. He spoke; she replied in a few words–blunt, to the point, as no wife would have done.
Her dear, warm-hearted Rowsley was shaken by the blow he had been obliged to deal to the woman–poor woman!–if she felt it. He was always the principal sufferer where the feelings were concerned. He was never for hurting any but the enemy.
His ‘Ha, here we dine!’ an exclamation of a man of imprisoned yawns at the apparition of the turnkey, was delightful to her, for a proof of health and sanity and enjoyment of the journey.
‘Yes, and I’ve one bottle left, in the hamper, of the hock you like,’ she said. ‘That Mr. Weyburn likes it too. He drank a couple coming down.’
She did not press for talk; his ready appetite was the flower of conversation to her. And he slept well, he said. Her personal experience on that head was reserved.
London enfolded them in the late evening of a day brewing storm. My lord heard at the door of his house that Lady Ormont had not arrived. Yet she had started a day in advance of him. He looked down, up and round at Charlotte. He looked into an empty hall. Pagnell was not there. A sight of Pagnell would, strange to say, have been agreeable.
Storm was in the air, and Aminta was on the road. Lightning has, before now, frightened carriage-horses. She would not misconduct herself; she would sit firm. No woman in England had stouter nerve–few men.
But the carriage might be smashed. He was ignorant of the road she had chosen for her return. Out of Wiltshire there would be no cliffs, quarries, river-banks, presenting dangers. Those dangers, however, spring up when horses have the frenzy.
Charlotte was nodded at, for a signal to depart; and she drove off, speculating on the bullet of a grey eye, which was her brother’s adieu to her.
The earl had apparently a curiosity to inspect vacant rooms. His Aminta’s drawing-room, her boudoir, her bed-chamber, were submissive in showing bed, knickknacks, furniture. They told the tale of a corpse.
He washed and dressed, and went out to his club to dine, hating the faces of the servants of the house, just able to bear with the attentions of his valet.
Thunder was rattling at ten at night. The house was again the tomb.
She had high courage, that girl. She might be in a bed, with her window- blind up, calmly waiting for the flashes: lightning excited her. He had seen her lying at her length quietly, her black hair scattered on the pillow, like shadow of twigs and sprays on moonlit grass, illuminated intermittently; smiling to him, but her heart out and abroad, wild as any witch’s. If on the road, she would not quail. But it was necessary to be certain of her having a trusty postillion.
He walked through the drench and scream of a burst cloud to the posting- office. There, after some trouble, he obtained information directing him to the neighbouring mews. He had thence to find his way to the neighbouring pot-house.
The report of the postillion was, on the whole, favourable. The man understood horses–was middle-aged–no sot; he was also a man with an eye for weather, proverbially in the stables a cautious hand–slow ‘Old Slow-and-sure,’ he was called; by name, Joshua Abnett.
‘Oh, Joshua Abnett?’ said the earl, and imprinted it on his memory, for the service it was to do during the night.
Slow-and-sure Joshua Abnett would conduct her safely, barring accidents. For accidents we must all be prepared. She was a heroine in an accident. The earl recalled one and more: her calm face, brightened eyes, easy laughter. Hysterics were not in her family.
She did wrong to let that fellow Morsfield accompany her. Possibly he had come across her on the road, and she could not shake him off. Judging by all he knew of her, the earl believed she would not have brought the fellow into the grounds of Steignton of her free will. She had always a particular regard for decency.
According to the rumour, Morsfield and the woman Pagnell were very thick together. He barked over London of his being a bitten dog. He was near to the mad dog’s fate, as soon as a convenient apology for stopping his career could be invented.
The thinking of the lesson to Morsfield on the one hand, and of the slow- and-sure postillion Joshua Abriett on the other, lulled Lord Ormont to a short repose in his desolate house. Of Weyburn he had a glancing thought, that the young man would be a good dog to guard the countess from a mad dog, as he had reckoned in commissioning him.
Next day was the day of sunlight Aminta loved.
It happens with the men who can strike, supposing them of the order of civilized creatures, that when they have struck heavily, however deserved the blow, a liking for the victim will assail them, if they discover no support in hatred; and no sooner is the spot of softness touched than they are invaded by hosts of the stricken person’s qualities, which plead to be taken as virtues, and are persuasive. The executioner did rightly. But it is the turn for the victim to declare the blow excessive.
Now, a just man, who has overdone the stroke, will indemnify and console in every way, short of humiliating himself.
He had an unusually clear vision of the scene at Steignton. Surprise and wrath obscured it at the moment, for reflection to bring it out in sharp outline; and he was able now to read and translate into inoffensive English the inherited Spanish of it, which violated nothing of Aminta’s native ‘donayre,’ though it might look on English soil outlandish or stagey.
Aminta stood in sunlight on the greensward. She stood hand on hip, gazing at the house she had so long desired to see, without a notion that she committed an offence. Implicitly upon all occasions she took her husband’s word for anything he stated, and she did not consequently imagine him to be at Steignton. So, then, she had no thought of running down from London to hunt and confound him, as at first it appeared. The presence of that white-faced Morsfield vindicated her sufficiently so far. And let that fellow hang till the time for cutting him down! Not she, but Pagnell, seems to have been the responsible party. And, by the way, one might prick the affair with Morsfield by telling him publicly that his visit to inspect Steignton was waste of pains, for he would not be accepted as a tenant in the kennels, et caetera.
Well, poor girl, she satisfied her curiosity, not aware that a few weeks farther on would have done it to the full.
As to Morsfield, never once, either in Vienna or in Paris, had she, warmly admired though she was, all eyes telescoping and sun-glassing on her, given her husband an hour or half an hour or two minutes of anxiety. Letters came. The place getting hot, she proposed to leave it.
She had been rather hardly tried. There are flowers we cannot keep growing in pots. Her fault was, that instead of flinging down her glove and fighting it out openly, she listened to Pagnell, and began the game of Pull. If he had a zest for the game, it was to stump the woman Pagnell. So the veteran fancied in his amended mind.
This intrusive sunlight chased him from the breakfast-table and out of the house. She would be enjoying it somewhere; but the house empty of a person it was used to contain had an atmosphere of the vaults, and inside it the sunlight she loved had an effect of taunting him singularly.
He called on his upholsterer and heard news to please her. The house hired for a month above Great Marlow was ready; her ladyship could enter it to-morrow. It pleased my lord to think that she might do so, and not bother him any more about the presentation at Court during the current year. In spite of certain overtures from the military authorities, and roused eulogistic citations of his name in the newspapers and magazines, he was not on friendly terms with his country yet, having contracted the fatal habit of irony, which, whether hitting or musing its object, stirs old venom in our wound, twitches the feelings. Unfortunately for him, they had not adequate expression unless he raged within; so he had to shake up wrath over his grievances, that he might be satisfactorily delivered; and he was judged irreconcilable when he had subsided into the quietest contempt, from the prospective seat of a country estate, in the society of a young wife who adored him.
An exile from the sepulchre of that house void of the consecration of ashes, he walked the streets and became reconciled to street sunlight. There were no carriage accidents to disturb him with apprehensions. Besides, the slowness of the postillion Joshua Abnett, which probably helped to the delay, was warrant of his sureness. And in an accident the stringy fellow, young Weyburn, could be trusted for giving his attention to the ladies–especially to the younger of the two, taking him for the man his elders were at his age. As for Pagnell, a Providence watches over the Pagnells! Mortals have no business to interfere.
An accident on water would be a frolic to his girl. Swimming was a gift she had from nature. Pagnell vowed she swam out a mile at Dover when she was twelve. He had seen her in blue water: he had seen her readiness to jump to the rescue once when a market-woman, stepping out of a boat to his yacht on the Tabus, plumped in. She had the two kinds of courage– the impulsive and the reasoned. What is life to man or woman if we are not to live it honourably? Men worthy of the name say this. The woman who says and acts on it is–well, she is fit company for them. But only the woman of natural courage can say it and act on it.
Would she come by Winchester, or choose the lower road by Salisbury and Southampton, to smell the sea? perhaps-like her!–dismissing the chariot and hiring a yacht for a voyage round the coast and up the Thames. She had an extraordinary love of the sea, yet she preferred soldiers to sailors. A woman? Never one of them more a woman! But it came of her quickness to take the colour and share the tastes of the man to whom she gave herself.
My lord was beginning to distinguish qualities in a character.
He was informed at the mews that Joshua Abnett was on the road still. Joshua seemed to be a roadster of uncommon unprogressiveness, proper to a framed picture.
While debating whether to lunch at his loathed club or at a home loathed more, but open to bright enlivenment any instant, Lord Ormont beheld a hat lifted and Captain May saluting him. They were near a famous gambling-house in St. James’s Street.
‘Good! I am glad to see you,’ he said. ‘Tell me you know Mr. Morsfield pretty well. I’m speaking of my affair. He has been trespassing down on my grounds at Steignton, and I think of taking the prosecution of him into my own hands. Is he in town?’
‘I ‘ve just left his lame devil Cumnock, my lord,’ said May, after a slight grimace. ‘They generally run in tandem.’
‘Will you let me know?’
‘At once, when I hear.’
‘You will call on me? Before noon?’
‘Any service required?’
‘My respects to your wife.’
‘Your lordship is very good.’
Captain May bloomed at a civility paid to his wife. He was a smallish, springy, firm-faced man, devotee of the lady bearing his name and wielding him. In the days when duelling flourished on our land, frail women could be powerful.
The earl turned from him to greet Lord Adderwood and a superior officer of his Profession, on whom he dropped a frigid nod. He held that all but the rank and file, and a few subalterns, of the service had abandoned him to do homage to the authorities. The Club he frequented was not his military Club. Indeed, lunching at any Club in solitariness that day, with Aminta away from home, was bitter penance. He was rejoiced by Lord Adderwood’s invitation, and hung to him after the lunch; for a horrible prospect of a bachelor dinner intimated astonishingly that he must have become unawares a domesticated man.
The solitary later meal of a bachelor was consumed, if the word will suit a rabbit’s form of feeding. He fatigued his body by walking the streets and the bridge of the Houses of Parliament, and he had some sleep under a roof where a life like death, or death apeing life, would have seemed to him the Joshua Abnett, if he had been one to take up images.
Next day he was under the obligation to wait at home till noon. Shortly before noon a noise of wheels drew him to the window. A young lady, in whom he recognized Aminta’s little school friend, of some name, stepped out of a fly. He met her in the hall.
She had expected to be welcomed by Aminta, and she was very timid on finding herself alone with the earl. He, however, treated her as the harbinger bird, wryneck of the nightingale, sure that Aminta would keep her appointment unless an accident delayed. He had forgotten her name, but not her favourite pursuit of botany; and upon that he discoursed, and he was interested, not quite independently of the sentiment of her being there as a guarantee of Aminta’s return. Still he knew his English earth, and the counties and soil for particular wild-flowers, grasses, mosses; and he could instruct her and inspire a receptive pupil on the theme of birds, beasts, fishes, insects, in England and other lands.
He remained discoursing without much weariness till four of the afternoon. Then he had his reward. The chariot was at the door, and the mounted figure of Joshua Abnett, on which he cast not a look or a thought. Aminta was alone. She embraced Selina Collett warmly, and said, in friendly tones, ‘Ah! my lord, you are in advance of me.’
She had dropped Mrs. Pagnell and Mr. Weyburn at two suburban houses; working upon her aunt’s dread of the earl’s interrogations as regarded Mr. Morsfield. She had, she said, chosen to take the journey easily on her return, and enjoyed it greatly.
My lord studied her manner more than her speech. He would have interpreted a man’s accurately enough. He read hers to signify that she had really enjoyed her journey, ‘made the best of it,’ and did not intend to be humble about her visit to Steignton without his permission; but that, if hurt at the time, she had recovered her spirits, and was ready for a shot or two–to be nothing like a pitched battle. And she might fire away to her heart’s content: wordy retorts would not come from him; he had material surprises in reserve for her. His question concerning Morsfield knew its answer, and would only be put under pressure.
Comparison of the friends Aminta and Selina was forced by their standing together, and the representation in little Selina of the inferiority of the world of women to his Aminta; he thought of several, and splendid women, foreign and English. The comparison rose sharply now, with Aminta’s novel, airy, homely, unchallengeing assumption of an equal footing beside her lord, in looks and in tones that had cast off constraint of the adoring handmaid, to show the full-blown woman, rightful queen of her half of the dominion. Between the Aminta of then and now, the difference was marked as between Northern and Southern women: the frozen-mouthed Northerner and the pearl and rose-nipped Southerner; those who smirk in dropping congealed monosyllables, and those who radiantly laugh out the voluble chatter.
Conceiving this to the full in a mind destitute of imagery, but indicative of the thing as clearly as the planed, unpolished woodwork of a cabinet in a carpenter’s shop, Lord Ormont liked her the better for the change, though she was not the woman whose absence from his house had caused him to go mooning half a night through the streets, and though it forewarned him of a tougher bit of battle, if battle there was to be.
He was a close reader of surfaces. But in truth, the change so notable came of the circumstance, that some little way down below the surface he perused, where heart weds mind, or nature joins intellect, for the two to beget a resolution, the battle of the man and the woman had been fought, and the man beaten.
TREATS OF THE FIRST DAY OF THE CONTENTION OF BROTHER AND SISTER
In the contest rageing at mid-sea still between the man and the woman, it is the one who is hard to the attractions of the other that will make choice of the spot and have the advantages. A short time earlier Lord Ormont could have marked it out at his leisure. He would have been unable to comprehend why it was denied him to do so now; for he was master of himself, untroubled by conscience, unaware, since he was assured of his Aminta’s perfect safety and his restored sense of possession, that any taint of softness in him had reversed the condition of their alliance. He felt benevolently the much he had to bestow, and was about to bestow. Meanwhile, without complicity on his part, without his knowledge, yet absolutely involving his fate, the battle had gone against him in Aminta’s breast.
Like many of his class and kind, he was thoroughly acquainted with the physical woman, and he took that first and very engrossing volume of the great Book of Mulier for all the history. A powerful wing of imagination, strong as the flappers of the great Roc of Arabian story, is needed to lift the known physical woman even a very little way up into azure heavens. It is far easier to take a snap-shot at the psychic, and tumble her down from her fictitious heights to earth. The mixing of the two make nonsense of her. She was created to attract the man, for an excellent purpose in the main. We behold her at work incessantly. One is a fish to her hook; another a moth to her light. By the various arts at her disposal she will have us, unless early in life we tear away the creature’s coloured gauzes and penetrate to her absurdly simple mechanism. That done, we may, if we please, dominate her. High priests of every religion have successively denounced her as the chief enemy. To subdue and bid her minister to our satisfaction is therefore a right employment of man’s unperverted superior strength. Of course, we keep to ourselves the woman we prefer; but we have to beware of an uxorious preference, or we are likely to resemble the Irishman with his wolf, and dance imprisoned in the hug of our captive.
For it is the creature’s characteristic to be lastingly awake, in her moments of utmost slavishness most keenly awake to the chances of the snaring of the stronger. Be on guard, then. Lord Ormont had been on guard then and always: his instinct of commandership kept him on guard. He was on guard now when his Aminta played, not the indignant and the frozen, but the genially indifferent. She did it well, he admitted.
Had it been the indignant she played, he might have stooped to cajole the handsome queen of gypsies she was, without acknowledgement of her right to complain. Feeling that he was about to be generous, he shrugged. He meant to speak in deeds.
Lady Charlotte’s house was at the distance of a stroller’s half-hour across Hyde Park westward from his own. Thither he walked, a few minutes after noon, prepared for cattishness. He could fancy that he had hitherto postponed the visit rather on her account, considering that he would have to crush her if she humped and spat, and he hoped to be allowed to do it gently. There would certainly be a scene.
Lady Charlotte was at home.
‘Always at home to you, Rowsley, at any hour. Mr. Eglett has driven down to the City. There ‘s a doctor in a square there’s got a reputation for treating weak children, and he has taken down your grand-nephew Bobby to be inspected. Poor boy comes of a poor stock on the father’s side. Mr. Eglett would have that marriage. Now he sees wealth isn’t everything. Those Benlews are rushlights. However, Elizabeth stood with her father to have Robert Benlew, and this poor child ‘s the result. I wonder whether they have consciences!’
My lord prolonged the sibilation of his ‘Yes,’ in the way of absent- minded men. He liked little Bobby, but had to class the boy second for the present.
‘You have our family jewels in your keeping, Charlotte?’
‘No, I haven’t,–and you know I haven’t, Rowsley.’ She sprang to arms, the perfect porcupine, at his opening words, as he had anticipated.
‘Where are the jewels?’
‘They’re in the cellars of my bankers, and safe there, you may rely on it.’
‘I want them.’
‘I want to have them safe; and there they stop.’
‘You must get them and hand them over.’
‘They will be worn by the Countess of Ormont’
‘Who ‘s she?’
‘The lady who bears the title.’
‘The only Countess of Ormont I know of is your mother and mine, Rowsley; and she’s dead.’
‘The Countess of Ormont I speak of is alive.’
Lady Charlotte squared to him. ‘Who gives her the title?’
‘She bears it by right.’
‘Do you mean to say, Rowsley, you have gone and married the woman since we came up from Steignton?’
‘She is my wife.’
‘Anyhow, she won’t have our family jewels.’
‘If you had swallowed them, you’d have to disgorge.’
‘I don’t give up our family jewels to such people.’
‘Do you decline to call on her?’
‘I do: I respect our name and blood.’
‘You will send the order to your bankers for them to deliver the jewels over to me at my house this day.’
‘Look here, Rowsley; you’re gone cracked or senile. You ‘re in the hands of one of those clever wenches who catch men of your age. She may catch you; she shan’t lay hold of our family jewels: they stand for the honour of our name and blood.’
‘They are to be at my house-door at four o’clock this afternoon.’
‘They’ll not stir.’
‘Then I go down to order your bankers and give them the order.’
‘My bankers won’t attend to it without the order from me.’
‘You will submit to the summons of my lawyers.’
‘You’re bent on a public scandal, are you?’
‘I am bent on having the jewels.’
‘They are not yours; you ‘ve no claim to them; they are heirlooms in our family. Things most sacred to us are attached to them. They belong to our history. There ‘s the tiara worn by the first Countess of Ormont. There ‘s the big emerald of the necklace-pendant–you know the story of it. Two rubies not counted second to any in England. All those diamonds! I wore the cross and the two pins the day I was presented after my marriage.’
‘The present Lady Ormont will wear them the day she is presented.’
‘She won’t wear them at Court.’
‘Don’t expect the Lady Ormont of tradesmen and footmen to pass the Lord Chamberlain.’
‘That matter will be arranged for next season. Now I ‘ve done.’
‘So have I; and you have my answer, Rowsley.’ They quitted their chairs.
‘You decline to call on my wife?’ said the earl.
Lady Charlotte replied: ‘Understand me, now. If the woman has won you round to legitimize the connection, first, I’ve a proper claim to see her marriage lines. I must have a certificate of her birth. I must have a testified account of her life before you met her and got the worst of it. Then, as the case may be, I ‘ll call on her.
‘You will behave yourself when you call.’
‘But she won’t have our family jewels.’
‘That affair has been settled by me.’
‘I should be expecting to hear of them as decorating the person of one of that man Morsfield’s mistresses.’
The earl’s brow thickened. ‘Charlotte, I smacked your cheek when you were a girl.’
‘I know you did. You might again, and I wouldn’t cry out. She travels with that Morsfield; you ‘ve seen it. He goes boasting of her. Gypsy or not, she ‘s got queer ways.’
‘I advise you, you had better learn at once to speak of her respectfully.’
‘I shall have enough to go through, if what you say’s true, with questions of the woman’s antecedents and her people, and the date of the day of this marriage. When was the day you did it? I shall have to give an answer. You know cousins of ours, and the way they ‘ll be pressing, and comparing ages and bawling rumours. None of them imagined my brother such a fool as to be wheedled into marrying her. You say it’s done, Rowsley. Was it done yesterday or the day before?’
Lord Ormont found unexpectedly that she struck on a weak point. Married from the first? Why not tell me of it? He could hear her voice as if she had spoken the words. And how communicate the pell-mell of reasons?
‘You’re running vixen. The demand I make is for the jewels,’ he said.
‘You won’t have them, Rowsley–not for her.’
‘You think of compelling me to use force?’
‘You swear the jewels are with your bankers?’
‘I left them in charge of my bankers, and they’ve not been moved by me.’
‘Well, it must be force.’
‘Nothing short of it when the honour of our family’s concerned.’
It was rather worse than the anticipated struggle with this Charlotte, though he had kept his temper. The error was in supposing that an hour’s sharp conflict would settle it, as he saw. The jewels required a siege.
‘When does Eglett return?’ he asked.
‘Back to lunch. You stay and lunch here, Rowsley we don’t often have you.’
The earl contemplated her, measuring her powers of resistance for a prolonged engagement. Odd that the pride which had withdrawn him from the service of an offending country should pitch him into a series of tussles with women, for its own confusion! He saw that, too, in his dim reflectiveness, and held the country answerable for it.
Mr. Eglett was taken into confidence by him privately after lunch. Mr. Eglett’s position between the brother and sister was perplexing; habitually he thought his wife had strong good sense, in spite of the costliness of certain actions at law not invariably confirming his opinion; he thought also that the earl’s demand must needs be considered obediently. At the same time, his wife’s objections to the new Countess of Ormont, unmasked upon the world, seemed very legitimate; though it might be asked why the earl should not marry, marrying the lady who pleased him. But if, in the words of his wife, the lady had no claim to be called a lady, the marriage was deplorable. On the other hand, Lord Ormont spoke of her in terms of esteem, and he was no fondling dotard.
How to compromise the matter for the sake of peace? The man perpetually plunged into strife by his combative spouse, cried the familiar question again; and at every suggestion of his on behalf of concord he heard from Lady Charlotte that he had no principles, or else from Lord Ormont that his head must be off his shoulders.
The man for peace had the smallest supply of language, and so, unless he took a side and fought, his active part was football between them.
It went on through the afternoon up to five o’clock. No impression was betrayed by Lady Charlotte.
She congratulated her brother on the recruit he had enlisted. He smiled his grimmest of the lips drawn in. A combat, perceptibly of some extension, would soon give him command of the man of peace; and energy to continue attacks will break down the energies of any dogged defensive stand.
He deferred the discussion with his unreasonable sister until the next day at half-past twelve o’clock. Lady Charlotte nodded to the appointment. She would have congratulated herself without irony on the result of the first day’s altercation but for her brother Rowsley’s unusual and ominous display of patience. Twice during the wrangle she had to conceal a difficult breathing. She felt a numbness in one arm now it was over, and mentally complimented her London physician on the unerringness of his diagnosis. Her heart, however, complained of the cruelty of having in the end, perhaps, if the wrangle should be protracted, to yield, for sheer weakness, without ceasing to beat.
THE ORMONT JEWELS
At half-past twelve of the noon next day Lord Ormont was at Lady Charlotte’s house door. She welcomed him affectionately, as if nothing were in dispute; he nodded an acceptance of her greetings, with a blunt intimation of the business to be settled; she put on her hump of the feline defensive; then his batteries opened fire and hers barked back on him. Each won admiration of the other’s tenacity, all the more determined to sap or split it. They had known one another’s character, but they had never seen it in such strong light. Never had their mutual and similar, though opposed, resources been drawn out so copiously and unreservedly. This was the shining scrawl of all that each could do to gain a fight. They admired one another’s contemptibly justifiable evasions, changes of front, statements bordering the lie, even to meanness in the withdrawal of admissions and the denial of the same ever having been made. That was Charlotte! That was Rowsley! Anything to beat down the adversary.
As to will, the woman’s will, of these two, equalled the man’s. They were matched in obstinacy and unscrupulousness.
Her ingenuitics of the defence eluded his attacks, and compelled him to fall on heavy iteration of his demand for the jewels, an immediate restitution of the jewels. ‘Why immediate?’ cried she.
He repeated it without replying to her.
‘But, you tell me, Rowsley, why immediate? If you’re in want of money for her, you come to me, tell me, you shall have thousands. I’ll drive down to the City to-morrow and sell out stock. Mr. Eglett won’t mind when he hears the purpose. I shall call five thousand cheap, and don’t ask to see the money again.’
‘Ah! double the sum to have your own way!’ said he.
She protested that she valued her money. She furnished instances of her carefulness of her money all along up to the present period of brutal old age. Yet she would willingly part with five thousand or more to save the family honour. Mr. Eglett would not only approve, he would probably advance a good part of the money himself.
‘Money! Who wants money?’ thundered the earl, and jumped out of her trap of the further diversion from the plain request. ‘To-morrow, when I am here, I shall expect to have the jewels delivered to me.’
‘That you may hand them over to her. Where are they likely to be this time next year? And what do you know about jewels? You may look at them when you ask to see them, and not know imitation paste–like the stuff Lady Beltus showed her old husband. Our mother wore them, and she prized them. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather hear they were exhibited in a Bond Street jeweller’s shop or a Piccadilly pawnbroker’s than have them on that woman.’
‘You speak of my wife.’
‘For a season, perhaps; and off they’re likely to go, to pay bills, if her Adderwoods and her Morsfields are out of funds, as they call it.’
‘You are aware you are speaking of my wife, Charlotte?’
‘You daren’t say my sister-in-law.’
He did not choose to say it; and once more she dared him. She could imagine she scored a point.
They were summoned to lunch by Mr. Eglett; and there was an hour’s armistice; following which the earl demanded the restitution of the jewels, and heard the singular question, childishly accentuated, ‘What for?’
Patience was his weapon and support, so he named his object with an air of inveteracy in tranquillity they were for his wife to wear.
Lady Charlotte dared him to say they were for her sister-in-law.
He despised the transparent artifice of the challenge.
‘But you have to own the difference,’ she said. ‘You haven’t lost respect for your family, thank God! No. It ‘s one thing to say she ‘s a wife: you hang fire when it ‘s to say she ‘s my sister-in-law.’
‘You’ll have to admit the fact, Charlotte.’
‘How long is it since I should have had to admit the fact?’
‘From the date of my marriage.’
‘Tell me the date.’
‘No, you don’t wear a wig, Charlotte; but you are fit to practise in the Law-courts!’ he said, exasperatedly jocular.
She had started a fresh diversion, and she pressed him for the date. ‘I ‘m supposed to have had a sister-in-law-how many weeks?–months?’
‘Married years! And if you’ve been married years, where were you married? Not in a church. That woman’s no church-bride.’
‘There are some clever women made idiots of by their trullish tempers.’
‘Abuse away. I’ve asked you where you were married, Rowsley.’
‘Go to Madrid. Go to the Embassy. Apply to the chaplain.’
‘Married in Madrid! Who’s ever married in Madrid! You flung her a yellow handkerchief, and she tied it round her neck–that ‘s your ceremony! Now you tell me you’ve been married years; and she’s a young woman; you fetch her over from Madrid, set her in a place where those Morsfields and other fungi-fellows grow, and she has to think herself lucky to be received by a Lady Staines and a Mrs. Lawrence Finchley, and she the talk of the town, refused at Court, for all an honourable-enough old woman countenanced her in pity; and I ‘m asked to believe she was my brother’s wife, sister-in-law of mine, all the while! I won’t.’
Lady Charlotte dilated on it for a length of time, merely to show she declined to believe it; pouring Morsfield over him and the talk of the town, the gypsy caught in Spain–now to be foisted on her as her sister- in-law! She could fancy she produced an effect.
She did indeed unveil to him a portion of the sufferings his Aminta had undergone; as visibly, too, the good argumentative reasons for his previous avoidance of the deadly, dismal wrangle here forced on him. A truly dismal, profitless wrangle! But the finish of it would be the beginning of some solace to his Aminta.
The finish of it must be to-morrow. He refrained from saying so, and simply appointed to-morrow for the resumption of the wrestle, departing in his invincible coat of patience: which one has to wear when dealing with a woman like Charlotte, he informed Mr. Eglett, on his way out at a later hour than on the foregone day. Mr. Eglett was of his opinion, that an introduction of lawyers into a family dispute was ‘rats in the pantry’; and he would have joined him in his gloomy laugh, if the thought of Charlotte in a contention had not been so serious a matter. She might be beaten; she could not be brought to yield.
She retired to her bedroom, and laid herself flat on her bed, immoveable, till her maid undressed her for the night. A cup of broth and strip of toast formed her sole nourishment. As for her doctor’s possible reproaches, the symptoms might crowd and do their worst; she fought for the honour of her family.
At midday of the third day Lady Charlotte was reduced to the condition of those fortresses which wave defiantly the flag, but deliver no further shot, awaiting the assault. Her body, affected by hideous old age, succumbed. Her will was unshaken. She would not write to her bankers. Mr. Eglett might go to them, if he thought fit. Rowsley was to understand that he might call himself married; she would have no flower- basket bunch of a sister-in-law thrust upon her.
Lord Ormont and Mr. Eglett walked down to her bankers in the afternoon. As a consequence of express injunctions given by my lady five years previously, the assistant-manager sought an interview with her.
The jewels were lodged at her house the day ensuing. They were examined, verified by the list in Lady Charlotte’s family record-book, and then taken away–forcibly, of course–by her brother.
He laughed in his dry manner; but the reminiscent glimpses, helping him to see the humour of it, stirred sensations of the tug it had been with that combative Charlotte, and excused him for having shrunk from the encounter until he conceived it to be necessary.
Settlement of the affair with Morsfield now claimed his attention. The ironical tolerance he practised in relation to Morsfield when Aminta had no definite station before the world changed to an angry irritability at the man’s behaviour now that she had stepped forth under his acknowledgement of her as the Countess of Ormont. He had come round to a rather healthier mind regarding his country, and his introduction of the Countess of Ormont to the world was his peace-offering.
As he returned home earlier on the third day, he found his diligent secretary at work. The calling on Captain May and the writing to the sort of man were acts obnoxious to his dignity; so he despatched Weyburn to the captain’s house, one in a small street of three narrow tenements abutting on aristocracy and terminating in mews. Weyburn’s mission was to give the earl’s address at Great Marlow for the succeeding days, and to see Captain May, if the captain was at home. During his absence the precious family jewel-box was locked in safety. Aminta and her friend, little Miss Collett, were out driving, by the secretary’s report. The earl considered it a wholesome feature of Aminta’s character that she should have held to her modest schoolmate the fact spoke well for both of them.
A look at the papers to serve for Memoirs was discomposing, and led him to think the secretary could be parted with as soon as he pleased to go: say, a week hence.
The Memoirs were no longer designed for issue. He had the impulse to treat them on the spot as the Plan for the Defence of the Country had been treated; and for absolutely obverse reasons. The secretary and the Memoirs were associated: one had sprung out of the other. Moreover, the secretary had witnessed a scene at Steignton. The young man had done his duty, and would be thanked for that, and dismissed, with a touch of his employer’s hand. The young man would have made a good soldier–a better soldier, good as he might be as a scribe. He ought to have been in his father’s footsteps, and he would then have disciplined or quashed his fantastical ideas. Perhaps he was right on the point of toning the Memoirs here and there. Since the scene at Steignton Lord Ormont’s views had changed markedly in relation to everybody about him, and most things.
Weyburn came back at the end of an hour to say that he had left the address with Mrs. May, whom he had seen.
‘A handsome person,’ the earl observed.
‘She must have been very handsome,’ said Weyburn.
‘Ah! we fall into their fictions, or life would be a bald business, upon my word!’
Lord Ormont had not uttered it before the sentiment of his greater luck with one of that queer world of the female lottery went through him on a swell of satisfaction, just a wave.
An old-world eye upon women, it seemed to Weyburn. But the man who could crown a long term of cruel injustice with the harshness to his wife at Steignton would naturally behold women with that eye.
However, he was allowed only to generalize; he could not trust himself to dwell on Lady Ormont and the Aminta inside the shell. Aminta and Lady Ormont might think as one or diversely of the executioner’s blow she had undergone. She was a married woman, and she probably regarded the wedding by law as the end a woman has to aim at, and is annihilated by hitting; one flash of success, and then extinction, like a boy’s cracker on the pavement. Not an elevated image, but closely resembling that which her alliance with Lord Ormont had been!
At the same time, no true lover of a woman advises her–imploring is horrible treason–to slip the symbolic circle of the law from her finger, and have in an instant the world for her enemy. She must consent to be annihilated, and must have no feelings; particularly no mind. The mind is the danger for her. If she has a mind alive, she will certainly push for the position to exercise it, and run the risk of a classing with Nature’s created mates for reptile men.
Besides, Lady Ormont appeared, in the company of her friend Selina Collett, not worse than rather too thoughtful; not distinctly unhappy. And she was conversable, smiling. She might have had an explanation with my lord, accepting excuses–or, who knows? taking the blame, and offering them. Weakness is pliable. So pliable is it, that it has been known for a crack of the masterly whip to fling off the victim and put on the culprit! Ay, but let it be as it may with Lady Ormont, Aminta is of a different composition. Aminta’s eyes of the return journey to London were haunting lights, and lured him to speculate; and for her sake he rejected the thought that for him they meant anything warmer than the passing thankfulness, though they were a novel assurance to him of her possession beneath her smothering cloud of the power to resolve, and show forth a brilliant individuality.
The departure of the ladies and my lord in the travelling carriage for the house on the Upper Thames was passably sweetened to Weyburn by the command to him to follow in a day or two, and continue his work there until he left England. Aminta would not hear of an abandonment of the Memoirs. She spoke on the subject to my lord as to a husband pardoned.
She was not less affable and pleasant with him out of Weyburn’s hearing. My lord earned her gratitude for his behaviour to Selina Collett, to whom he talked interestedly of her favourite pursuit, as he had done on the day when, as he was not the man to forget, her arrival relieved him of anxiety. Aminta, noticed the box on the seat beside him.
They drove up to their country house in time to dress leisurely for dinner. Nevertheless, the dinner-hour had struck several minutes before she descended; and the earl, as if not expecting her, was out on the garden path beside the river bank with Selina. She beckoned from the step of the open French window.
He came to her at little Selina’s shuffling pace, conversing upon water- plants.
‘No jewelry to-day?’ he said.
And Aminta replied: ‘Carstairs has shown me the box and given the key. I have not opened it.’
‘Time in the evening, or to-morrow. You guess the contents?’
‘I presume I do.’
She looked feverish and shadowed.
He murmured kindly: ‘Anything?’
‘Not now: we will dine.’
She had missed, had lost, she feared, her own jewelbox; a casket of no great treasure to others, but of a largely estimable importance to her.
After the heavy ceremonial entrance and exit of dishes, she begged the earl to accompany her for an examination of the contents of the box.
As soon as her chamber-door was shut, she said, in accents of alarm: ‘Mine has disappeared. Carstairs, I know, is to be trusted. She remembers carrying the box out of my room; she believes she can remember putting it into the fly. She had to confess that it had vanished, without her knowing how, when my boxes were unpacked.’
‘Is she very much upset?’ said the earl.
‘Carstairs? Why, yes, poor creature! you can imagine. I have no doubt she feels for me; and her own reputation is concerned. What do you think is best to be done?’
‘To be done! Overhaul the baggage again in all the rooms.’
‘We’ve not failed to do that.’
‘Control yourself, my dear. If, by bad luck, they’re lost, we can replace them. The contents of this box, now, we could not replace. Open it, and judge.’
‘I have no curiosity–forgive me, I beg. And the servant’s fly has been visited, ransacked inside and out, footmen questioned; we have not left anything we can conceive of undone. My lord, will you suggest?’
‘The intrinsic value of the gems would not be worth–not worth Aminta’s one beat of the heart. Upon my word–not one!’
An amatory knightly compliment breasting her perturbation roused an unwonted spite; and a swift reflection on it startled her with a suspicion. She cast it behind her. He could be angler and fish, he would not be cat and mouse.
She said, however, more temperately: ‘It is not the value of the gems. We are losing precious minutes!’
‘Association of them with the giver? Is it that? If that has a value for you, he is flattered.’
This betrayed him to the woman waxing as intensely susceptible in all her being as powder to sparks.
‘There is to be no misunderstanding, my lord,’ she said. ‘I like– I value my jewels; but–I am alarmed lest the box should fall into hands –into strange hands.’
‘The box!’ he exclaimed with an outline of a comic grimace; and, if proved a voluptuary in torturing, he could instance half a dozen points for extenuation: her charm of person, withheld from him, and to be embraced; her innocent naughtiness; compensation coming to her in excess for a transient infliction of pain. ‘Your anxiety is about the box?’
‘Yes, the box,’ Aminta said firmly. ‘It contains–‘
‘No false jewels? A thief might complain.’
‘It contains letters, my lord.’ ‘Blackmail?’
‘You would be at liberty to read them. I would rather they were burnt.’
‘Ah!’ The earl heaved his chest prodigiously. ‘Blackmail letters are better in a husband’s hands, if they can be laid there.’
‘If there is a necessity for him to read them–yes.’
‘There may be a necessity, there can’t be a gratification,–though there are dogs of thick blood that like to scratch their sores,’ he murmured to himself. ‘You used to show me these declaration epistles.’
‘Not the names.’
‘Not the names–no!’
‘When we had left the country, I showed you why it had been my wish to go.’
‘Xarifa was and is female honour. Take the key, open that box; I will make inquiries. But, my dear, you guess everything. Your little box was removed for the bigger impression to be produced by this one.’
A flash came out of her dark eyes.
‘No, you guess wrong this time, you clever shrew! I wormed nothing from you,’ said he. ‘I knew you kept particular letters in that receptacle of things of price: Aminta can’t conceal. The man has worried you. Why not have come to me?’
‘Oblige me, my lord, by restoring me my box.’
‘This is your box.’
Her bosom lifted with the words Oh, no! unspoken. He took the key and opened the box. A dazzling tray of stones was revealed; underneath it the constellations in cases, very heavens for the worldly Eve; and he doubted that Eve could have gone completely out of her. But she had, as observation instructed him, set her woman’s mind on something else, and must have it before letting her eyes fall on objects impossible for any of her sex to see without coveting them.
He bowed. ‘I will fetch it,’ he said magnanimously. Her own box was brought from his room. She then consented to look womanly at the Ormont jewels, over which the battle; whereof she knew nothing, and nothing could be told her, had been fought in her interests, for her sovereign pleasure.
She looked and admired. They were beautiful jewels the great emerald was wonderful, and there were two rubies to praise. She excused herself for declining to put the circlet for the pendant round her neck, or a glittering ring on her finger. Her remarks were encomiums, not quite so cold as those of a provincial spinster of an ascetic turn at an exhibition of the world’s flycatcher gewgaws. He had divided Aminta from the Countess of Ormont, and it was the wary Aminta who set a guard on looks and tones before the spectacle of his noble bounty, lest any, the smallest, payment of the dues of the countess should be demanded. Rightly interpreting him to be by nature incapable of asking pardon, or acknowledging a wrong done by him, however much he might crave exemption from blame and seek for peace, she kept to her mask of injury, though she hated unforgivingness; and she felt it little, she did it easily, because her heart was dead to the man. My lord’s hand touched her on her shoulder, propitiatingly in some degree, in his dumb way.
Offended women can be emotional to a towering pride, that bends while it assumes unbendingness: it must come to their sensations, as it were a sign of humanity in the majestic, speechless king of beasts; and they are pathetically melted, abjectly hypocritical; a nice confusion of sentiments, traceable to a tender bosom’s appreciation of strength and the perceptive compassion for its mortality.
In a case of the alienated wife, whose blood is running another way, no foul snake’s bite is more poisonous than that indicatory touch, however simple and slight. My lord’s hand, lightly laid on Aminta’s shoulder, became sensible of soft warm flesh stiffening to the skeleton.
ETEXT EDITOR’S BOOKMARKS:
A bird that won’t roast or boil or stew Acting is not of the high class which conceals the art Ah! we fall into their fictions
Bad luck’s not repeated every day Keep heart for the good Began the game of Pull
By nature incapable of asking pardon Consciousness of some guilt when vowing itself innocent Having contracted the fatal habit of irony He had to shake up wrath over his grievances Her vehement fighting against facts
His aim to win the woman acknowledged no obstacle in the means His restored sense of possession
How to compromise the matter for the sake of peace? I could be in love with her cruelty, if only I had her near me Men who believe that there is a virtue in imprecations Not men of brains, but the men of aptitudes Not the indignant and the frozen, but the genially indifferent One is a fish to her hook; another a moth to her light One night, and her character’s gone
Passion added to a bowl of reason makes a sophist’s mess Policy seems to petrify their minds
Rage of a conceited schemer tricked Respect one another’s affectations
To time and a wife it is no disgrace for a man to bend Uncommon unprogressiveness
When duelling flourished on our land, frail women powerful Where heart weds mind, or nature joins intellect With what little wisdom the world is governed
LORD ORMONT AND HIS AMINTA
By George Meredith
XXIV. LOVERS MATED
XXXV. PREPARATIONS FOR A RESOLVE
XXVI. VISITS OF FAREWELL
XXVII. A MARINE DUET
XXVIII. THE PLIGHTING
XXIX. AMINTA TO HER LORD
He was benevolently martial, to the extent of paternal, in thinking his girl, of whom he deigned to think now as his countess, pardonably foolish. Woman for woman, she was of a pattern superior to the world’s ordinary, and might run the world’s elect a race. But she was pitifully woman-like in her increase of dissatisfaction with the more she got. Women are happier enslaved. Men, too, if their despot is an Ormont. Colonel of his regiment, he proved that: his men would follow him anywhere, do anything. Grand old days, before he was condemned by one knows not what extraordinary round of circumstances to cogitate on women as fluids, and how to cut channels for them, that they may course along in the direction good for them, imagining it their pretty wanton will to go that way! Napoleon’s treatment of women is excellent example. Peterborough’s can be defended.
His Aminta could not reason. She nursed a rancour on account of the blow she drew on herself at Steignton, and she declined consolation in her being pardoned. The reconcilement evidently was proposed as a finale of one of the detestable feminine storms enveloping men weak enough to let themselves be dragged through a scene for the sake of domestic tranquillity.
A remarkable exhibition of Aminta the woman was, her entire change of front since he had taken her spousal chill. Formerly she was passive, merely stately, the chiselled grande dame, deferential in her bearing and speech, even when argumentative and having an opinion to plant. She had always the independent eye and step; she now had the tongue of the graceful and native great lady, fitted to rule her circle and hold her place beside the proudest of the Ormonts. She bore well the small shuffle with her jewel-box–held herself gallantly. There had been no female feignings either, affected misapprehensions, gapy ignorances, and snaky subterfuges, and the like, familiar to men who have the gentle twister in grip. Straight on the line of the thing to be seen she flew, and struck on it; and that is a woman’s martial action. He would right heartily have called her comrade, if he had been active himself. A warrior pulled off his horse, to sit in a chair and contemplate the minute evolutions of the sex is pettish with his part in such battle- fields at the stage beyond amusement.
Seen swimming, she charmed him. Abstract views of a woman summon opposite advocates: one can never say positively, That is she! But the visible fair form of a woman is hereditary queen of us. We have none of your pleadings and counter-pleadings and judicial summaries to obstruct a ravenous loyalty. My lord beheld Aminta take her three quick steps on the plank, and spring and dive and ascend, shaking the ends of her bound black locks; and away she went with shut mouth and broad stroke of her arms into the sunny early morning river; brave to see, although he had to flick a bee of a question, why he enjoyed the privilege of seeing, and was not beside her. The only answer confessed to a distaste for all exercise once pleasurable.
She and her little friend boated or strolled through the meadows during the day; he fished. When he and Aminta rode out for the hour before dinner, she seemed pleased. She was amicable, conversable, all that was agreeable as a woman, and she was the chillest of wives. My lord’s observations and reflections came to one conclusion: she pricked and challenged him to lead up to her desired stormy scene. He met her and meant to vanquish her with the dominating patience Charlotte had found too much for her: women cannot stand against it.
To be patient in contention with women, however, one must have a continuous and an exclusive occupation; and the tax it lays on us conduces usually to impatience with men. My lord did not directly connect Aminta’s chillness and Morsfield’s impudence; yet the sensation roused by his Aminta participated in the desire to punish Morsfield speedily. Without wishing for a duel, he was moved by the social sanction it had to consider whether green youths and women might not think a grey head had delayed it too long. The practice of the duel begot the peculiar animal logic of the nobler savage, which tends to magnify an offence in the ratio of our vanity, and hunger for a blood that is not demanded by the appetite. Moreover, a waning practice, in disfavour with the new generation, will be commended to the conservative barbarian, as partaking of the wisdom of his fathers. Further, too, we may have grown slothful, fallen to moodiness, done excess of service to Omphale, our tyrant lady of the glow and the chill; and then undoubtedly the duel braces.
He left Aminta for London, submissive to the terms of intimacy dictated by her demeanour, his unacknowledged seniority rendering their harshness less hard to endure. She had not gratified him with a display of her person in the glitter of the Ormont jewels; and since he was, under common conditions, a speechless man, his ineptitude for amorous remonstrances precipitated him upon deeds, that he might offer additional proofs of his esteem and the assurance of her established position as his countess. He proposed to engage Lady Charlotte in a conflict severer than the foregoing, until he brought her to pay the ceremonial visit to her sister-in-law. The count of time for this final trial of his masterfulness he calculated at a week. It would be an occupation, miserable occupation though it was. He hailed the prospect of chastising Morsfield, for a proof that his tussels with women, prolonged study of their tricks, manoeuvrings and outwittings of them, had not emasculated him.
Aminta willingly promised to write from day to day. Her senses had his absence insured to them by her anticipation of the task. She did not conceive it would be so ponderous a task. What to write to him when nothing occurred! Nothing did occur, unless the arrival of Mr. Weyburn was to be named an event. She alluded to it: ‘Mr. Weyburn has come, expecting to find you here. The dispatch-box is here. Is he to await you?’
That innocent little question was a day gained.
One day of boating on the upper reaches of the pastoral river, and walks in woods and golden meadows, was felicity fallen on earth, the ripe fruit of dreams. A dread surrounded it, as a belt, not shadowing the horizon; and she clasped it to her heart the more passionately, like a mother her rosy infant, which a dark world threatens and the universal fate.
Love, as it will be at her June of life, was teaching her to know the good and bad of herself. Women, educated to embrace principles through their timidity and their pudency, discover, amazed, that these are not lasting qualities under love’s influence. The blushes and the fears take flight. The principles depend much on the beloved. Is he a man whose contact with the world has given him understanding of life’s laws, and can hold him firm to the right course in the strain and whirling of a torrent, they cling to him, deeply they worship. And if they tempt him, it is not advisedly done. Nature and love are busy in conjunction. The timidities and pudencies have flown; they may hover, they are not present. You deplore it, you must not blame; you have educated them so. Muscular principles are sown only out in the world; and, on the whole, with all their errors, the worldly men are the truest as well as the bravest of men. Her faith in his guidance was equal to her dependence. The retrospect of a recent journey told her how he had been tried.
She could gaze tenderly, betray her heart, and be certain of safety. Can wine match that for joy? She had no schemes, no hopes, but simply the desire to bestow, the capacity to believe. Any wish to be enfolded by him was shapeless and unlighted, unborn; though now and again for some chance word or undefined thought she surprised the strange tenant of her breast at an incomprehensibly faster beat, and knew it for her own and not her own, the familiar the stranger–an utter stranger, as one who had snared her in a wreath and was pulling her off her feet.
She was not so guileless at the thought of little Selina Collett here, and of Selina as the letter-bearer of old; and the marvel that Matey and Browny and Selina were together after all! Was it not a kind of summons to her to call him Matey just once, only once, in play? She burned and ached to do it. She might have taxed her ingenuity successfully to induce little Selina to the boldness of calling him Matey–and she then repeating it, as the woman who revived with a meditative effort recollections of the girl. Ah, frightful hypocrite! Thoughts of the pleasure of his name aloud on her lips in his hearing dissolved through her veins, and were met by Matthew Weyburn’s open face, before which hypocrisy stood rent and stripped. She preferred the calmer, the truer pleasure of seeing him modestly take lessons in the nomenclature of weeds, herbs, grasses, by hedge and ditch. Selina could instruct him as well in entomology, but he knew better the Swiss, Tyrolese, and Italian valley-homes of beetle and butterfly species. Their simple talk was a cool zephyr fanning Aminta.
The suggestion to unite the two came to her, of course, but their physical disparity denied her that chance to settle her own difficulty, and a whisper of one physically the match for him punished her. In stature, in healthfulness, they were equals, perhaps: not morally or intellectually. And she could claim headship of him on one little point confided to her by his mother, who was bearing him, and startled by the boom of guns under her pillow, when her husband fronted the enemy: Matthew Weyburn, the fencer, boxer, cricketer, hunter, all things manly, rather shrank from firearms–at least, one saw him put on a screw to manipulate them. In danger–among brigands or mutineers, for example– she could stand by him and prove herself his mate. Intellectually, morally, she had to bow humbly. Nor had she, nor could she do more than lean on and catch example from his prompt spiritual valiancy. It shone out from him, and a crisis fulfilled the promise. Who could be his mate for cheerful courage, for skill, the ready mind, easy adroitness, and for self-command? To imitate was a woman’s utmost.
Matthew Weyburn appeared the very Matey of the first of May cricketing day among Cuper’s boys the next morning, when seen pacing down the garden-walk. He wore his white trousers of that happiest of old days– the ‘white ducks’ Aminta and Selina remembered. Selina beamed. ‘Yes, he did; he always wore them; but now it’s a frock-coat instead of a jacket.’
‘But now he will be a master instead of a schoolboy,’ said Aminta. ‘Let us hope he will prosper.’
‘He gives me the idea of a man who must succeed,’ Selina said; and she was patted, rallied, asked how she had the idea, and kissed; Aminta saying she fancied it might be thought, for he looked so confident.
‘Only not what the boys used to call “cocky,”‘ said Selina. ‘He won’t be contemptuous of those he outstrips.’
‘His choice of the schoolmaster’s profession points to a modesty in him, does it not, little woman?’
‘He made me tell him, while you were writing your letters yesterday, all about my brother and his prospects.’
‘Yes, that is like him. And I must hear of your brother, “little Collett.” Don’t forget, Sely, little Collett was our postman.’
The Countess of Ormont’s humorous reference to the circumstance passed with Selina for a sign of a poetic love of the past, and a present social elevation that allowed her to review it impassively. She admired the great lady and good friend who could really be interested in the fortunes of a mere schoolmaster and a merchant’s clerk. To her astonishment, by some agency beyond her fathoming, she found herself, and hardly for her own pleasure, pushing the young schoolmaster animatedly to have an account of his aims in the establishment of the foreign school.
Weyburn smiled. He set a short look at Aminta; and she, conscious of her detected diplomacy, had an inward shiver, mixed of the fascination and repugnance felt by a woman who knows that under one man’s eyes her character is naked and anatomized. Her character?–her soul. He held it in hand and probed it mercifully. She had felt the sweet sting again and again, and had shrunk from him, and had crawled to him. The love of him made it all fascination. How did he learn to read at any moment right to the soul of a woman? Did experience teach him, or sentimental sympathy? He was too young, he was too manly. It must be because of his being in heart and mind the brother to the sister with women.
Thames played round them on his pastoral pipes. Bee-note and woodside blackbird and meadow cow, and the fish of the silver rolling rings, composed the leap of the music.
She gave her mind to his voice, following whither it went; half was in air, higher than the swallow’s, exalting him.
How is it he is the brother of women? They are sisters for him because he is neither sentimentalist nor devourer. He will not flatter to feed on them. The one he chooses, she will know love. There are women who go through life not knowing love. They are inanimate automatic machines, who lay them down at last, inquiring wherefore they were caused to move. She is not of that sad flock. She will be mated; she will have the right to call him Matey. A certain Browny called him Matey. She lived and died. A certain woman apes Browny’s features and inherits her passion, but has forfeited her rights. Were she, under happiest conditions, to put her hand in his, shame would burn her. For he is just–he is Justice; and a woman bringing him less than his due, she must be a creature of the slime!
This was the shadowy sentiment that made the wall of division between them. There was no other. Lord Ormont had struck to fragments that barrier of the conventional oath and ceremonial union. He was unjust– he was Injustice. The weak may be wedded, they cannot be married; to Injustice. And if we have the world for the buttress of injustice, then is Nature the flaring rebel; there is no fixed order possible. Laws are necessary instruments of the majority; but when they grind the sane human being to dust for their maintenance, their enthronement is the rule of the savage’s old deity, sniffing blood-sacrifice. There cannot be a based society upon such conditions. An immolation of the naturally constituted individual arrests the general expansion to which we step, decivilizes more, and is more impious to the God in man, than temporary revelries of a licence that Nature soon checks.
Arrows of thoughts resembling these shot over the half of Aminta’s mind not listening. Her lover’s head was active on the same theme while he spoke. They converged to it from looks crossing or catching profiles, or from tones, from a motion of hand, from a chance word. Insomuch that the third person present was kept unobservant only by her studious and humble speculations on the young schoolmaster’s grand project to bring the nationalities together, and teach Old England to the Continent–the Continent to Old England: our healthy games, our scorn of the lie, manliness; their intellectual valour, diligence, considerate manners.
‘Just to name a few of the things for interchange,’ said Weyburn. ‘As to method, we shall be their disciples. But I look forward to our fellows getting the lead. No hurry. Why will they? you ask in petto. Well, they ‘re emulous, and they take a thrashing kindly. That ‘s the way to learn a lesson. I ‘ve seen our fellows beaten and beaten–never the courage beaten out of them. In the end, they won and kept the field. They have a lot to learn–principally not to be afraid of ideas. They lose heaps of time before they can feel at home with ideas. They call themselves practical for having an addiction to the palpable. It is a pretty wreath they clap on their deficiencies. Practical dogs are for bones, horses for corn. I want the practical Englishman to settle his muzzle in a nosebag of ideas. When he has once got hold of them, he makes good stuff of them. On the Continent ideas have wings and pay visits. Here, they’re stay-at-home. Then I want our fellows to have the habit of speaking from the chest. They shall return to England with the whoop of the mountains in them and ready to jump out. They shall have an Achillean roar; and they shall sing by second nature. Don’t fear: they’ll give double for anything they take. I’ve known Italians, to whom an Englishman’s honesty of mind and dealing was one of the dreams of a better humanity they had put in a box. Frenchmen, too, who, when they came to know us, were astonished at their epithet of perfide, and loved us.’
‘Emile,’ said Aminta. ‘You remember Emile, Selina: the dear little French boy at Mr. Cuper’s?’
‘Oh, I do,’ Selina responded.
‘He will work with Mr. Weyburn in Switzerland.’
‘Oh, that will be nice!’ the girl exclaimed.
Aminta squeezed Selina’s hand. A shower of tears clouded her eyes. She chose to fancy it was because of her envy of the modest, busy, peaceful girl, who envied none. Conquers also sincerity in the sincerest. She was vexed with her full breast, and had as little command of her thoughts as of her feelings.
‘Mr. Weyburn has ideas for the education of girls too,’ she said.
‘There’s the task,’ said he. ‘It’s to separate them as little as possible. All the–passez-moi le mot–devilry between the sexes begins at their separation. They ‘re foreigners when they meet; and their alliances are not always binding. The chief object in life, if happiness be the aim, and the growing better than we are, is to teach men and women how to be one; for, if they ‘re not, then each is a morsel for the other to prey on. Lady Charlotte Eglett’s view is, that the greater number of them on both sides hate one another.’
‘Hate!’ exclaimed Selina; and Aminta said: ‘Is Lady Charlotte Eglett an authority?’
‘She has observed, and she thinks. She has in the abstract the justest of minds: and that is the curious point about her. But one may say they are trained at present to be hostile. Some of them fall in love and strike a truce, and still they are foreigners. They have not the same standard of honour. They might have it from an education in common.’
‘But there must be also a lady to govern the girls?’ Selina interposed.
‘Ah, yes; she is not yet found!’
‘Would it increase their mutual respect?–or show of respect, if you like?’ said Aminta, with his last remark at work as the shattering bell of a city’s insurrection in her breast.
‘In time, under management; catching and grouping them young. A boy who sees a girl do what he can’t, and would like to do, won’t take refuge in his muscular superiority–which, by the way, would be lessened.’
‘You suppose their capacities are equal?’
‘Things are not equal. I suppose their excellencies to make a pretty nearly equal sum in the end. But we ‘re not weighing them each. The question concerns the advantage of both.’
‘That seems just!’
Aminta threw no voice into the word ‘just.’ It was the word of the heavens assuaging earth’s thirst, and she was earth to him. Her soul yearned to the man whose mind conceived it.
She said to Selina: ‘We must plan an expedition next year or the year after, and see how the school progresses.’
All three smiled; and Selina touched and held Aminta’s hand shyly. Visions of the unseen Switzerland awed her.
Weyburn named the Spring holiday time, the season of the flowering Alpine robes. He promised welcome, pressed for a promise of the visit. Warmly it was given. ‘We will; we will indeed!’
‘I shall look forward,’ he said.
There was nothing else for him or for her, except to doat on the passing minute that slipped when seized. The looking forward turned them to the looking back at the point they had flown from, and yielded a momentary pleasure, enough to stamp some section of a picture on their memories, which was not the burning now Love lives for, in the clasp, if but of hands. Desire of it destroyed it. They swung to the future, swung to the present it made the past, sensible to the quick of the now they could not hold. They were lovers. Divided lovers in presence, they thought and they felt in pieces. Feelings and thoughts were forbidden to speech. She dared look the very little of her heart’s fulness, without the disloyalty it would have been in him to let a small peep of his heart be seen. While her hand was not clasped she could look tenderly, and her fettered state, her sense of unworthiness muffled in the deeps, would keep her from the loosening to passion.
He who read through her lustrous, transiently dwelling eyes had not that security. His part, besides the watch over the spring of his hot blood, was to combat a host, insidious among which was unreason calling her Browny, urging him to take his own, to snatch her from a possessor who forfeited by undervaluing her. This was the truth in a better-ordered world: she belonged to the man who could help her to grow and to do her work. But in the world we have around us, it was the distorted truth: and keeping passion down, he was able to wish her such happiness as pertained to safety from shipwreck, and for himself, that he might continue to walk in the ranks of the sober citizens.
Oh, true and right, but she was gloriously beautiful! Day by day she surpassed the wondrous Browny of old days. All women were eclipsed by her. She was that fire in the night which lights the night and draws the night to look at it. And more: this queen of women was beginning to have a mind at work. One saw already the sprouting of a mind repressed. She had a distinct ability; the good ambition to use her qualities. She needed life and air–that is, comprehension of her, encouragement, the companion mate. With what strength would she now endow him! The pride in the sharp imagination of possessing her whispered a boast of the strength her mate would have from her. His need and her need rushed together somewhere down the skies. They could not, he argued, be separated eternally.
He had to leave her. Selina, shocked at a boldness she could not understand in herself, begged him to stay and tell her of Switzerland and Alpine flowers and herbs, and the valleys for the gold beetle and the Apollo butterfly. Aminta hinted that Lord Ormont might expect to find him there, if he came the next morning; but she would not try to persuade, and left the decision with him, loving him for the pain he inflicted by going.
Why, indeed, should he stay? Both could ask; they were one in asking. Anguish balanced pleasure in them both. The day of the pleasure was heaven to remember, heaven to hope for; not so heavenly to pray for. The praying for it, each knew, implored their joint will to decree the perilous blessing. A shadowy sentiment of duty and rectitude, born of what they had suffered, hung between them and the prayer for a renewal, that would renew the tempting they were conscious of when the sweet, the strained, throbbing day was over. They could hope for chance to renew it, and then they would be irresponsible. Then they would think and wish discreetly, so as to have it a happiness untainted. In refusing now to take another day or pray for it, they deserved that chance should grant it.
Aminta had said through Selina the utmost her self-defences could allow. But the idea of a final parting cut too cruelly into her life, and she murmured: ‘I shall see you before you go for good?’
‘I will come, here or in London.’
‘I can trust?’
A meeting of a few hasty minutes involved none of the dangers of a sunny, long summer day; and if it did, the heart had its claims, the heart had its powers of resistance. Otherwise we should be base verily.
He turned on a bow to leave her before there was a motion for the offer of her hand.
After many musings and frettings, she reached the wisdom of that. Wisdom was her only nourishment now. A cold, lean dietary it is; but he dispensed it, and it fed her, or kept her alive. It became a proud feeling that she had been his fellow in the achievement of a piece of wisdom; though the other feeling, that his hand’s kind formal touching, without pressure of hers, would have warmed her to go through the next interview with her lord, mocked at pure satisfaction. Did he distrust himself? Or was it to spare her? But if so, her heart was quite bare to him! But she knew it was.
Aminta drove her questioning heart as a vessel across blank circles of sea, where there was nothing save the solitary heart for answer. It answered intelligibly and comfortingly at last, telling her of proof given that she could repose under his guidance with absolute faith. Was ever loved woman more blest than she in such belief? She had it firmly; and a blessedness, too, in this surety wavering beneath shadows of the uncertainty. Her eyes knew it, her ears were empty of the words. Her heart knew it, and it was unconfirmed by reason. As for his venturing to love her, he feared none. And no sooner did that reflection surge than she stood up beside him in revolt against her lion and lord. Her instinct judged it impossible she could ever have yielded her heart to a man lacking courage. Hence–what? when cowardice appeared as the sole impediment to happiness now!
He had gone, and the day lived again for both of them–a day of sheer gold in the translation from troubled earth to the mind. One another’s beauty through the visage into the character was newly perceived and worshipped; and the beauties of pastoral Thames, the temple of peace, hardly noticed in the passing of the day–taken as air to the breather; until some chip of the scene, round which an emotion had curled, was vivid foreground and gateway to shrouded romance: it might be the stream’s white face browning into willow-droopers, or a wagtail on a water-lily leaf, or the fore-horse of an up-river barge at strain of legs, a red-finned perch hung a foot above the pebbles in sun-veined depths, a kingfisher on the scud under alders, the forest of the bankside weeds.
PREPARATIONS FOR A RESOLVE
That day receded like a spent billow, and lapsed among the others advancing, but it left a print deeper than events would have stamped. Aminta’s pen declined to run to her lord; and the dipping it in ink was no acceleration of the process. A sentence, bearing likeness to an artless infant’s trot of the half-dozen steps to mother’s lap, stumbled upon the full stop midway. Desperate determination pushed it along, and there was in consequence a dead stop at the head of the next sentence. A woman whose nature is insurgent against the majesty of the man to whom she must, among the singular injunctions binding her, regularly write, sees no way between hypocrisy and rebellion. For rebellion, she, with the pen in her hand, is avowedly not yet ripe, hypocrisy is abominable.
If she abstained from writing, he might travel down to learn the cause; a similar danger, or worse, haunted the writing frigidly. She had to be the hypocrite or else–leap.
But an honest woman who is a feeling woman, when she consents to play hypocrite, cannot do it by halves. From writing a short cold letter, Aminta wrote a short warm one, or very friendly. Length she could avoid, because she was unable to fill a page. It seemed that she could not compose a friendly few lines without letting her sex be felt in them. What she had put away from her, so as not to feel it herself, the simulation of ever so small a bit of feeling brought prominently back; and where she had made a cast for flowing independent simplicity, she was feminine, ultra-feminine to her reading of it.
Better take the leap than be guilty of double-dealing even on paper! The nature of the leap she did not examine.
Her keen apprehension of the price payable for his benevolent intentions caught scent of them in the air. Those Ormont jewels shone as emblems of a detested subjection, the penalty for being the beautiful woman rageing men proclaimed. Was there no scheme of some other sort, and far less agreeable, to make amends for Steignton? She was shrewd at divination; she guessed her lord’s design. Rather than meet Lady Charlotte, she proposed to herself the ‘leap’ immediately; knowing it must be a leap in the dark, hoping it might be into a swimmer’s water. She had her own pin-money income, and she loathed the chain of her title. So the leap would at least be honourable, as it assuredly would be unregretted, whatever ensued.
While Aminta’s heart held on to this debate, and in her bed, in her boat, across the golden valley meadows beside her peaceful little friend, she gathered a gradual resolution without sight of agencies or consequences, Lord Ormont was kept from her by the struggle to master his Charlotte a second time–compared with which the first was insignificant. And this time it was curious: he could not subdue her physique, as he did before; she was ready for him each day, and she was animated, much more voluble, she was ready to jest. The reason being, that she fought now on plausibly good grounds: on behalf of her independent action.
Previously, her intelligence of the ultimate defeat hanging over the more stubborn defence of a weak position had harassed her to death’s door. She had no right to retain the family jewels; she had the most perfect of established rights to refuse doing an ignominious thing. She refused to visit the so-called Countess of Ormont, or leave her card, or take one step to warrant the woman in speaking of her as her sister-in-law. And no,–it did not signify that her brother Rowsley was prohibited by her from marrying whom he pleased. It meant, that to judge of his acts as those of a reasoning man, he would have introduced his wife to his relatives–the relatives he had not quarrelled with–immediately upon his marriage unless he was ashamed of the woman; and a wife he was ashamed of was no sister-in-law for her nor aunt for her daughters. Nor should she come playing the Black Venus among her daughters’ husbands, Lady Charlotte had it in her bosom to say additionally.
Lord Ormont was disconcerted by her manifest pleasure in receiving him every day. Evidently she consented to the recurrence of a vexatious dissension for the enjoyment of having him with her hourly. Her dialectic, too, was cunning. Impetuous with meaning, she forced her way to get her meaning out, in a manner effective to strike her blow. Anything for a diversion or a triumph of the moment! He made no way. She was the better fencer at the tongue.
Yet there was not any abatement of her deference to her brother; and this little misunderstanding put aside, he was the Rowsley esteemed by her as the chief of men. She foiled him, it might seem, to exalt him the more. After he had left the house, visibly annoyed and somewhat stupefied, she talked of him to her husband, of the soul of chivalry Rowsley was, the loss to his country. Mr. Eglett was a witness to one of the altercations, when she, having as usual the dialectical advantage, praised her brother, to his face, for his magnanimous nature; regretting only that it could be said he was weak on the woman side of him–which was, she affirmed, a side proper to every man worth the name; but in his case his country might complain. Of what?–Well, of a woman.–What had she done, for the country to complain of her?–Why, then, arts or graces, she had bewitched and weaned him from his public duty, his military service, his patriotic ambition.
Lord Ormont’s interrogations, heightening the effect of Charlotte’s charge, appeared to Mr. Eglett as a giving of himself over into her hands; but the earl, after a minute of silence, proved he was a tricky combatant. It was he who had drawn on Charlotte, that he might have his opportunity to eulogize–‘this lady, whom you continue to call the woman, after I have told you she is my wife.’ According to him, her appeals, her entreaties, that he should not abandon his profession or let his ambition rust, had been at one period constant.
He spoke fervently, for him eloquently; and he gained his point; he silenced Lady Charlotte’s tongue, and impressed Mr. Eglett.
When the latter and his wife were alone, he let her see that the Countess of Ormont was becoming a personage in his consideration.
Lady Charlotte cried out: ‘Hear these men where it’s a good-looking woman between the winds! Do you take anything Rowsley says for earnest? You ought to know he stops at no trifle to get his advantage over you in a dispute. That ‘s the soldier in him. It ‘s victory at any cost!–and I like him for it. Do you tell me you think it possible my brother Rowsley would keep smothered years under a bushel the woman he can sit here magnifying because he wants to lime you and me: you to take his part, and me to go and call the noble creature decked out in his fine fiction my sister-in-law. Nothing ‘ll tempt me to believe my brother could behave in such a way to the woman he respected!’
So Mr. Eglett opined. But he had been impressed.
He relieved his mind on the subject in a communication to Lord Adderwood; who habitually shook out the contents of his to Mrs. Lawrence Finchley, and she, deeming it good for Aminta to have information of the war waging for her behoof, obtained her country address, with the resolve to drive down, a bearer of good news to the dear woman she liked to think of, look at, and occasionally caress; besides rather tenderly pitying her, now that a change of fortune rendered her former trials conspicuous.
An incident, considered grave even in the days of the duel and the kicks against a swelling public reprehension of the practice, occurred to postpone her drive for four-and-twenty hours. London was shaken by rumours of a tragic mishap to a socially well-known gentleman at the Chiallo fencing rooms. The rumours passing from mouth to mouth acquired, in the nature of them, sinister colours as they circulated. Lord Ormont sent Aminta word of what he called ‘a bad sort of accident at Chiallo’s,’ without mentioning names or alluding to suspicions.
He treated it lightly. He could not have written of it with such unconcern if it involved the secretary! Yet Aminta did seriously ask herself whether he could; and she flew rapidly over the field of his character, seizing points adverse, points favourably advocative, balancing dubiously–most unjustly: she felt she was unjust. But in her condition, the heart of a woman is instantly planted in jungle when the spirits of the two men closest to her are made to stand opposed by a sudden excitement of her fears for the beloved one. She cannot see widely, and is one of the wild while the fit lasts; and, after it, that savage narrow vision she had of the unbeloved retains its vivid print in permanence. Was she unjust? Aminta cited corroboration of her being accurate: such was Lord Ormont! and although his qualities of gallantry, courtesy, integrity, honourable gentleman, presented a fair low-level account on the other side, she had so stamped his massive selfishness and icy inaccessibility to emotion on her conception of him that the repulsive figure formed by it continued towering when her mood was kinder.