Prologue.--The Irish Marriage. Part the First. The Villa At Hampstead. (Page 2)
"What do you want here?"
The man was a well-bred English servant. In other words, a human machine, doing its duty impenetrably when it was once wound up. He had his words to speak, and he spoke them.
"There is a lady at the door, Sir, who wishes to see the house."
"The house is not to be seen at this time of the evening."
The machine had a message to deliver, and delivered it.
"The lady desired me to present her apologies, Sir. I was to tell you she was much pressed for time. This was the last house on the house agent's list, and her coachman is stupid about finding his way in strange places."
"Hold your tongue, and tell the lady to go to the devil!"
Mr. Delamayn interfered--partly in the interests of his client, partly in the interests of propriety.
"You attach some importance, I think, to letting this house as soon as possible?" he said.
"Of course I do!"
"Is it wise--on account of a momentary annoyance--to lose an opportunity of laying your hand on a tenant?"
"Wise or not, it's an infernal nuisance to be disturbed by a stranger."
"Just as you please. I don't wish to interfere. I only wish to say--in case you are thinking of my convenience as your guest--that it will be no nuisance to me."
The servant impenetrably waited. Mr. Vanborough impatiently gave way.
"Very well. Let her in. Mind, if she comes here, she's only to look into the room, and go out again. If she wants to ask questions, she must go to the agent."
Mr. Delamayn interfered once more, in the interests, this time, of the lady of the house.
"Might it not be desirable," he suggested, to consult Mrs. Vanborough before you quite decide?"
"Where's your mistress?"
"In the garden, or the paddock, Sir--I am not sure which."
"We can't send all over the grounds in search of her. Tell the house-maid, and show the lady in."
The servant withdrew. Mr. Delamayn helped himself to a second glass of wine.
"Excellent claret," he said. "Do you get it direct from Bordeaux?"
There was no answer. Mr. Vanborough had returned to the contemplation of the alternative between freeing himself or not freeing himself from the marriage tie. One of his elbows was on the table, he bit fiercely at his finger-nails. He muttered between his teeth, "What am I to do?"
A sound of rustling silk made itself gently audible in the passage outside. The door opened, and the lady who had come to see the house appeared in the dining-room.
She was tall and elegant; beautifully dressed, in the happiest combination of simplicity and splendor. A light summer veil hung over her face. She lifted it, and made her apologies for disturbing the gentlemen over their wine, with the unaffected ease and grace of a highly-bred woman.
"Pray accept my excuses for this intrusion. I am ashamed to disturb you. One look at the room will be quite enough."
Thus far she had addressed Mr. Delamayn, who happened to be nearest to her. Looking round the room her eye fell on Mr. Vanborough. She started, with a loud exclamation of astonishment.
"You!" she said. "Good Heavens! who would have thought of meeting you here?"
Mr. Vanborough, on his side, stood petrified.
"Lady Jane!" he exclaimed. "Is it possible?"
He barely looked at her while she spoke. His eyes wandered guiltily toward the window which led into the garden. The situation was a terrible one--equally terrible if his wife discovered Lady Jane, or if Lady Jane discovered his wife. For the moment nobody was visible on the lawn. There was time, if the chance only offered--there was time for him to get the visitor out of the house. The visitor, innocent of all knowledge of the truth, gayly offered him her hand.
"I believe in mesmerism for the first time," she said. "This is an instance of magnetic sympathy, Mr. Vanborough. An invalid friend of mine wants a furnished house at Hampstead. I undertake to find one for her, and the day I select to make the discovery is the day you select for dining with a friend. A last house at Hampstead is left on my list--and in that house I meet you. Astonishing!" She turned to Mr. Delamayn. "I presume I am addressing the owner of the house?" Before a word could be said by either of the gentlemen she noticed the garden. "What pretty grounds! Do I see a lady in the garden? I hope I have not driven her away." She looked round, and appealed to Mr. Vanborough. "Your friend's wife?" she asked, and, on this occasion, waited for a reply.
In Mr. Vanborough's situation what reply was possible?
Mrs. Vanborough was not only visible--but audible--in the garden; giving her orders to one of the out-of-door servants with the tone and manner which proclaimed the mistress of the house. Suppose he said, "She is not my friend's wife?" Female curiosity would inevitably put the next question, "Who is she?" Suppose he invented an explanation? The explanation would take time, and time would give his wife an opportunity of discovering Lady Jane. Seeing all these considerations in one breathless moment, Mr. Vanborough took the shortest and the boldest way out of the difficulty. He answered silently by an affirmative inclination of the head, which dextrously turned Mrs. Vanborough into to Mrs. Delamayn without allowing Mr. Delamayn the opportunity of hearing it.
But the lawyer's eye was habitually watchful, and the lawyer saw him.
Mastering in a moment his first natural astonishment at the liberty taken with him, Mr. Delamayn drew the inevitable conclusion that there was something wrong, and that there was an attempt (not to be permitted for a moment) to mix him up in it. He advanced, resolute to contradict his client, to his client's own face.
The voluble Lady Jane interrupted him before he could open his lips.
"Might I ask one question? Is the aspect south? Of course it is! I ought to see by the sun that the aspect is south. These and the other two are, I suppose, the only rooms on the ground-floor? And is it quiet? Of course it's quiet! A charming house. Far more likely to suit my friend than any I have seen yet. Will you give me the refusal of it till to-morrow?" There she stopped for breath, and gave Mr. Delamayn his first opportunity of speaking to her.
"I beg your ladyship's pardon," he began. "I really can't--"
Mr. Vanborough--passing close behind him and whispering as he passed--stopped the lawyer before he could say a word more.
"For God's sake, don't contradict me! My wife is coming this way!"
At the same moment (still supposing that Mr. Delamayn was the master of the house) Lady Jane returned to the charge.
"You appear to feel some hesitation," she said. "Do you want a reference?" She smiled satirically, and summoned her friend to her aid. "Mr. Vanborough!"
Mr. Vanborough, stealing step by step nearer to the window--intent, come what might of it, on keeping his wife out of the room--neither heeded nor heard her. Lady Jane followed him, and tapped him briskly on the shoulder with her parasol.
At that moment Mrs. Vanborough appeared on the garden side of the window.
"Am I in the way?" she asked, addressing her husband, after one steady look at Lady Jane. "This lady appears to be an old friend of yours." There was a tone of sarcasm in that allusion to the parasol, which might develop into a tone of jealousy at a moment's notice.
Lady Jane was not in the least disconcerted. She had her double privilege of familiarity with the men whom she liked--her privilege as a woman of high rank, and her privilege as a young widow. She bowed to Mrs. Vanborough, with all the highly-finished politeness of the order to which she belonged.
"The lady of the house, I presume?" she said, with a gracious smile.
Mrs. Vanborough returned the bow coldly--entered the room first--and then answered, "Yes."
Lady Jane turned to Mr. Vanborough.
"Present me!" she said, submitting resignedly to the formalities of the middle classes.
Mr. Vanborough obeyed, without looking at his wife, and without mentioning his wife's name.
"Lady Jane Parnell," he said, passing over the introduction as rapidly as possible. "Let me see you to your carriage," he added, offering his arm. "I will take care that you have the refusal of the house. You may trust it all to me."
No! Lady Jane was accustomed to leave a favorable impression behind her wherever she went. It was a habit with her to be charming (in widely different ways) to both sexes. The social experience of the upper classes is, in England, an experience of universal welcome. Lady Jane declined to leave until she had thawed the icy reception of the lady of the house.
"I must repeat my apologies," she said to Mrs. Vanborough, "for coming at this inconvenient time. My intrusion appears to have sadly disturbed the two gentlemen. Mr. Vanborough looks as if he wished me a hundred miles away. And as for your husband--" She stopped and glanced toward Mr. Delamayn. "Pardon me for speaking in that familiar way. I have not the pleasure of knowing your husband's name."
In speechless amazement Mrs. Vanborough's eyes followed the direction of Lady Jane's eyes--and rested on the lawyer, personally a total stranger to her.
Mr. Delamayn, resolutely waiting his opportunity to speak, seized it once more--and held it this time.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "There is some misapprehension here, for which I am in no way responsible. I am not that lady's husband."
It was Lady Jane's turn to be astonished. She looked at the lawyer. Useless! Mr. Delamayn had set himself right--Mr. Delamayn declined to interfere further. He silently took a chair at the other end of the room. Lady Jane addressed Mr. Vanborough.
"Whatever the mistake may be," she said, "you are responsible for it. You certainly told me this lady was your friend's wife."
"What!!!" cried Mrs. Vanborough--loudly, sternly, incredulously.
The inbred pride of the great lady began to appear behind the thin outer veil of politeness that covered it.
"I will speak louder if you wish it," she said. "Mr. Vanborough told me you were that gentleman's wife."
Mr. Vanborough whispered fiercely to his wife through his clenched teeth.
"The whole thing is a mistake. Go into the garden again!"
Mrs. Vanborough's indignation was suspended for the moment in dread, as she saw the passion and the terror struggling in her husband's face.
"How you look at me!" she said. "How you speak to me!"
He only repeated, "Go into the garden!"
Lady Jane began to perceive, what the lawyer had discovered some minutes previously--that there was something wrong in the villa at Hampstead. The lady of the house was a lady in an anomalous position of some kind. And as the house, to all appearance, belonged to Mr. Vanborough's friend, Mr. Vanborough's friend must
(in spite of his recent disclaimer) be in some way responsible for it. Arriving, naturally enough, at this erroneous conclusion, Lady Jane's eyes rested for an instant on Mrs. Vanborough with a finely contemptuous expression of inquiry which would have roused the spirit of the tamest woman in existence. The implied insult stung the wife's sensitive nature to the quick. She turned once more to her husband--this time without flinching.
"Who is that woman?" she asked.
Lady Jane was equal to the emergency. The manner in which she wrapped herself up in her own virtue, without the slightest pretension on the one hand, and without the slightest compromise on the other, was a sight to see.
"Mr. Vanborough," she said, "you offered to take me to my carriage just now. I begin to understand that I had better have accepted the offer at once. Give me your arm."
"Stop!" said Mrs. Vanborough, "your ladyship's looks are looks of contempt; your ladyship's words can bear but one interpretation. I am innocently involved in some vile deception which I don't understand. But this I do know--I won't submit to be insulted in my own house. After what you have just said I forbid my husband to give you his arm.
Lady Jane looked at Mr. Vanborough--at Mr. Vanborough, whom she loved; whom she had honestly believed to be a single man; whom she had suspected, up to that moment, of nothing worse than of trying to screen the frailties of his friend. She dropped her highly-bred tone; she lost her highly-bred manners. The sense of her injury (if this was true), the pang of her jealousy (if that woman was his wife), stripped the human nature in her bare of all disguises, raised the angry color in her cheeks, and struck the angry fire out of her eyes.
"If you can tell the truth, Sir," she said, haughtily, "be so good as to tell it now. Have you been falsely presenting yourself to the world--falsely presenting yourself to me--in the character and with the aspirations of a single man? Is that lady your wife?"
"Do you hear her? do you see her?" cri ed Mrs. Vanborough, appealing to her husband, in her turn. She suddenly drew back from him, shuddering from head to foot. "He hesitates!" she said to herself, faintly. "Good God! he hesitates!"
Lady Jane sternly repeated her question.
"Is that lady your wife?"
He roused his scoundrel-courage, and said the fatal word:
Mrs. Vanborough staggered back. She caught at the white curtains of the window to save herself from falling, and tore them. She looked at her husband, with the torn curtain clenched fast in her hand. She asked herself, "Am I mad? or is he?"
Lady Jane drew a deep breath of relief. He was not married! He was only a profligate single man. A profligate single man is shocking--but reclaimable. It is possible to blame him severely, and to insist on his reformation in the most uncompromising terms. It is also possible to forgive him, and marry him. Lady Jane took the necessary position under the circumstances with perfect tact. She inflicted reproof in the present without excluding hope in the future.
"I have made a very painful discovery," she said, gravely, to Mr. Vanborough. "It rests with you to persuade me to forget it! Good-evening!"
She accompanied the last words by a farewell look which aroused Mrs. Vanborough to frenzy. She sprang forward and prevented Lady Jane from leaving the room.
"No!" she said. "You don't go yet!"
Mr. Vanborough came forward to interfere. His wife eyed him with a terrible look, and turned from him with a terrible contempt. "That man has lied!" she said. "In justice to myself, I insist on proving it!" She struck a bell on a table near her. The servant came in. "Fetch my writing-desk out of the next room." She waited--with her back turned on her husband, with her eyes fixed on Lady Jane. Defenseless and alone she stood on the wreck of her married life, superior to the husband's treachery, the lawyer's indifference, and her rival's contempt. At that dreadful moment her beauty shone out again with a gleam of its old glory. The grand woman, who in the old stage days had held thousands breathless over the mimic woes of the scene, stood there grander than ever, in her own woe, and held the three people who looked at her breathless till she spoke again.
The servant came in with the desk. She took out a paper and handed it to Lady Jane.
"I was a singer on the stage," she said, "when I was a single woman. The slander to which such women are exposed doubted my marriage. I provided myself with the paper in your hand. It speaks for itself. Even the highest society, madam, respects
Lady Jane examined the paper. It was a marriage-certificate. She turned deadly pale, and beckoned to Mr. Vanborough. "Are you deceiving me?" she asked.
Mr. Vanborough looked back into the far corner of the room, in which the lawyer sat, impenetrably waiting for events. "Oblige me by coming here for a moment," he said.
Mr. Delamayn rose and complied with the request. Mr. Vanborough addressed himself to Lady Jane.
"I beg to refer you to my man of business. He is not interested in deceiving you."
"Am I required simply to speak to the fact?" asked Mr. Delamayn. "I decline to do more."
"You are not wanted to do more."
Listening intently to that interchange of question and answer, Mrs. Vanborough advanced a step in silence. The high courage that had sustained her against outrage which had openly declared itself shrank under the sense of something coming which she had not foreseen. A nameless dread throbbed at her heart and crept among the roots of her hair.
Lady Jane handed the certificate to the lawyer.
"In two words, Sir," she said, impatiently, "what is this?"
"In two words, madam," answered Mr. Delamayn; "waste paper."
"He is not married?"
"He is not married."
After a moment's hesitation Lady Jane looked round at Mrs. Vanborough, standing silent at her side--looked, and started back in terror. "Take me away!" she cried, shrinking from the ghastly face that confronted her with the fixed stare of agony in the great, glittering eyes. "Take me away! That woman will murder me!"
Mr. Vanborough gave her his arm and led her to the door. There was dead silence in the room as he did it. Step by step the wife's eyes followed them with the same dreadful stare, till the door closed and shut them out. The lawyer, left alone with the disowned and deserted woman, put the useless certificate silently on the table. She looked from him to the paper, and dropped, without a cry to warn him, without an effort to save herself, senseless at his feet.
He lifted her from the floor and placed her on the sofa, and waited to see if Mr. Vanborough would come back. Looking at the beautiful face--still beautiful, even in the swoon--he owned it was hard on her. Yes! in his own impenetrable way, the rising lawyer owned it was hard on her.
But the law justified it. There was no doubt in this case. The law justified it.
The trampling of horses and the grating of wheels sounded outside. Lady Jane's carriage was driving away. Would the husband come back? (See what a thing habit is! Even Mr. Delamayn still mechanically thought of him as the husband--in the face of the law! in the face of the facts!)
No. Then minutes passed. And no sign of the husband coming back.
It was not wise to make a scandal in the house. It was not desirable (on his own sole responsibility) to let the servants see what had happened. Still, there she lay senseless. The cool evening air came in through the open window and lifted the light ribbons in her lace cap, lifted the little lock of hair that had broken loose and drooped over her neck. Still, there she lay--the wife who had loved him, the mother of his child--there she lay.
He stretched out his hand to ring the bell and summon help.
At the same moment the quiet of the summer evening was once more disturbed. He held his hand suspended over the bell. The noise outside came nearer. It was again the trampling of horses and the grating of wheels. Advancing--rapidly advancing--stopping at the house.
Was Lady Jane coming back?
Was the husband coming back?
There was a loud ring at the bell--a quick opening of the house-door--a rustling of a woman's dress in the passage. The door of the room opened, and the woman appeared--alone. Not Lady Jane. A stranger--older, years older, than Lady Jane. A plain woman, perhaps, at other times. A woman almost beautiful now, with the eager happiness that beamed in her face.
She saw the figure on the sofa. She ran to it with a cry--a cry of recognition and a cry of terror in one. She dropped on her knees--and laid that helpless head on her bosom, and kissed, with a sister's kisses, that cold, white cheek.
"Oh, my darling!" she said. "Is it thus we meet again?"
Yes! After all the years that had passed since the parting in the cabin of the ship, it was thus the two school-friends met again.