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“What--you, Neigh how strange," came from Ladywell's lips before he had time to recollect that great coolness existed between himself and Neigh on Ethelberta's account, which had led to the reduction of their intimacy to the most attenuated of nods and good-mornings ever since the afternoon at Cripplegate.
“Yes; it is rather strange," said Neigh, with saturnine evenness. “Still a fellow must be somewhere."
Each then looked over his window-sill downwards; and upon a balcony beneath them were the speakers who had attracted them thither.
Lord Mountclere uttered something in a low tone which did not reach the young men ; to which Ethelberta replied, “As I have said, Lord Mountclere, I cannot give you an answer now. It is too sudden for me to decide at once. I could not do so until I have got home to England, when I will write you a letter, stating frankly my affairs and those of my relatives. I shall not consider that you have addressed me on the subject of marriage until, having received my letter you-"
“Repeat my proposal," said Lord Mountclere. " Yes.”
• My dear Mrs. Petherwin, it is as good as repeated ! But I have no right to assume anything you don't wish me to assume, and I will wait. How long is it that I am to suffer in this uncertainty ?”.
“ A month."
Ethelberta had returned inside the window, and her answer was inaudible. Ladywell and Neigh looked up, and their eyes met. Both had been reluctant to remain where they stood, but they were too fascinated to instantly retire. Neigh moved now, and Ladywell did the same. Each saw that the face of his companion was flushed.
“Come in and see me,” said Ladywell, quickly, before quite withdrawing his head. “I am staying in this room.”
"I will," said Neigh; and taking his hat he left Ethelberta's apartment forthwith.
On entering the quarters of his friend he found him seated at a table whereon writing materials were strewn. Ah, just let me write a note, Ladywell, and then I'm your man," he said with the freedom of an old acquaintance.
"I was going to do the same thing," said Ladywell.
Neigh then sat down, and for a minute or two nothing was to be heard but the scratching of a pair of pens, ending on the one side with a more boisterous scratch, as the writer shaped "Eustace Ladywell," and on the other with slow firmness in the characters “ Alfred Neigh."
“ There's for you, my fair one,” said Neigh, closing and directing his letter.
“Yours is for Mrs. Petherwin? So is mine," said Ladywell, grasping the bell-pull. “Shall I direct it to be put on her table with this one?”
“ Thanks.” And the two letters went off to Ethelberta's sittingroom which she had left to receive Lord Mountelere in an empty one beneath. Neigh's was simply a pleading of a sudden call away which prevented his waiting till she should return; Ladywell's, though stating the same reason for leaving, was more of an upbraiding nature, and might almost have told its reader, were she to take the trouble to guess, that he knew of the business of Lord Mountclere with her to-day.
“Now, let us get out of this place," said Neigh. He proceeded at once down the stairs, followed by Ladywell, who—settling his account at the bureau without calling for a bill, and directing his portmanteau to be sent to the Right-bank railway-station—went with Neigh into the street.
They had not walked fifty yards up the quay when two British workmen, in holiday costume, who had just turned the corner of Rue Jeanne d'Arc, approached them. Seeing him to be an Englishman, one of the two addressed Neigh, saying, “ Can you tell us the way, sir, to the Hotel Bold Soldier ?"
Neigh pointed out the place he had just come from to the tall young men, and continued his walk with Ladywell.
Ladywell was the first to break silence. “I have been considerably misled, Neigh," he said; “and I imagine from what has just happened that you
bave been misled, too." “Just a little,” said Neigh, bringing abstracted lines of meditation into his face. “But it was my own fault; for I ought to have kuown that these stage and platform women have what they are pleased to call Bohemianisın so thoroughly engrained with their natures that they are no more constant to usage in their sentiments than they are in their way of living. Good Lord, to think she has caught Lord Mountclere! She is sure to have him if she does not dally with him so long that he gets cool again."
“A beautiful creature like her to think of marrying such an infatnated idiot as he !"
“He can give her a title as well as younger men. It will not be the first time that such matches have been made.”
“I can't believe it,” said Ladywell vehemently. “She has too much poetry in her—too much good sense; her nature is the essence of all that's romantic. I can't help saying it, though she has treated me cruelly."
“She has good looks, certainly. I'll own to that. As for her romance and good-feeling, that I leave to you. I think she has treated you no more cruelly, as you call it, than she has me, come to that."
“She told me she would give me an answer in a month," said Ladywell emotionally.
“So she told me," said Neigh.
“And I have no doubt she will keep her word to him in her usual precise manner.”
“But see what she implied to me! I understood from her that the answer would be favourable."
“ So did I.”
“So does he. And he is sure to be the one who gets it, since only one of us can. For God's sake let's sit down here and have something to drink."
They drew up a couple of chairs to one of the tables of a wine-shop close by, and shouted to the waiter with the vigour of persons going to the dogs. Here, behind the horizontal headed trees that dotted this part of the quay, they sat over their bottles denouncing womankind till the sun got low down upon the river, and the houses on the farther side began to be toned by a blue mist. At last they rose from their seats and departed, Neigh to dine and consider his route, and Ladywell to take the train for Dieppe.
While these incidents had been in progress the two workmen had found their way into the hotel where Ethelberta was staying. Passing through the entrance, they stood at gaze in the court, much perplexed as to the door to be made for; the difficulty was solved by the appearance of Cornelia, who in expectation of them had been for the last half-hour leaning over the sill of her bedroom-window, which looked into the interior, amusing berself by watching the movements to and fro in the court beneath.
After coi ng awhile in undertones as if they had no real right there at all, Cornelia told them she would call their sister, if an old gentleman who had been to see her were gone again. Cornelia tben ran away, and Sol and Dan stood aloof, till they had seen the old gentleman alluded to go to the door and drive off, shortly after which Ethelberta ran down to meet them.
“Whatever have you got as your luggage?” she said, after hearing a few words about their journey, and looking at a curious object like a huge extended accordion with bellows of gorgeous-patterned carpeting.
“Well, I thought to myself,” said Sol, “ 'tis a terrible bother, about carrying our things. So what did I do but turn to and make a carpetbag that would hold all mine and Dan's too. This you see, Berta, is a deal top and bottom out of three-quarter stuff, stained and varnished. Well, then you see I've got carpet sides tacked on with these brass nails, which make it look very handsome; and so when my bag is empty 'twill shut up and be only a couple of boards under yer arm, and when 'tis open it will hold aʼmost anything you like to put in it. That portmantle didn't cost more than three halfcrowns altogether, and ten pound wouldn't ha' got anything so strong from a portmantle maker, would it, Dan ?"
“ And then you see, Berta," Sol continued in the same earnest tone, and further exhibiting the article; “I've made this trap-door in the top with hinges and a padlock complete, so that"
“I am afraid it is tiring you after your journey to explain all this to me," said Ethelberta gently, noticing that a few Gallic smilers were gathering round. “Aunt has found a nice room for you at the top of the staircase in that corner—'Escalier D' you'll see painted at the bottom—and when you have been up come across to me at number thirty-four on this side, and we'll talk about everything."
“Look here, Sol,” said Dan, who had left his brother and gone on to the stairs. “What a rum staircase—the treads all in little blocks, and painted chocolate, as I am alive!"
“I am afraid I shall not be able to go on to Paris with you after all," Ethelberta continued to Sol. “Something has just happened which makes it desirable for me to return at once to England. But I will write a list of all you are to see, and where you are to go, so that it will make little difference I hope."
Ten minutes before this time Ethelberta had been frankly and earnestly asked by Lord Mountclere to become his bride; not only so, but he had pressed her to consent to have the ceremony performed before they returned to England. Ethelberta had unquestionably been much surprised; and barring the fact that the viscount was somewhat ancient in comparison with herself, the temptation to close with his offer was strong, and would have been felt as such by any woman in the position of Ethelberta, now a little reckless by stress of circumstances, and tinged with a bitterness of spirit against herself and the world generally. But she was experienced enough to know what heaviness might result from a basty marriage entered into with a mind full of concealment and suppressions which, if told, might have hindered the marriage altogether; and after trying to bring herself to speak of her family and situation to Lord Mountclere as he stood, a certain caution triumphed, and she concluded that it would be better to postpone her reply till she could consider which of two courses it would be advisable to adopt; to write and explain to him, or to explain nothing and refuse him. The third course, to explain nothing and hasten the wedding, she rejected without hesitation. With a pervading sense of her own obligations in forming this compact it did not occur to her to ask if Lord Mountclere might not have duties of explanation equally with herself, though bearing rather on the moral than the social aspects of the case.
Her resolution not to go on to Paris was formed simply because Lord Mountclere himself was proceeding in that direction, which might lead to other unseemly rencounters with him had she, too, persevered in her journey. She accordingly started with Cornelia the next day to return again to Knollsea, and to decide finally and for ever what to do in the vexed question at present agitating her.
Never before in her life had she treated marriage in such a terribly cool and cynical spirit as she had done that day; she was almost frightened at herself in thinking of it. How far any known system of ethics might excuse her on the score of those curious pressures which had been brought
to bear upon her life, or whether it could excuse her at all, she had no spirit to inquire. English society appeared a gloomy concretion enough to abide in as she contemplated it on this journey home; yet, since its gloominess was less an essential quality than an accident of her point of view, that point of view she had determined to change. There lay open to her two directions in which to move. She might annex herself to the easy-going high by wedding an old nobleman, or she might join for good and all the easy-going low, by plunging back to the level of her family, giving up all her ambitions for them, settling as the wife of a provincial music-master named Julian, with a little shop of fiddles and flutes, a couple of old pianos, a few sheets of stale music pinned to a string, and a narrow back parlour, wherein she would wait for the phenomenon of a customer. And each of these divergent grooves had its fascinations, till she reflected with regard to the first that even though she were a legal and indisputable Lady Mountelere, she might be despised by my Lord's circle, and left lone and lorn. The intermediate path of accepting Neigh or Ladywell had no more attractions for her taste than the fact of disappointing them had qualms for her conscience; and how few these were may be inferred from her opinion, true or false, that two words about the spigot on her escutcheon would sweep her lovers' affections to the antipodes. She had now and then imagined that her previous intermarriage with the Petherwin family might efface much besides her surname, but experience proved that the having been wife for a few weeks to a minor who died in his father's lifetime did not weave such a tissue of glory about her course as would resist a speedy undoing by startling confessions on her station before her marriage, and her environments now.
THE HOUSE IN Town.
RETURNING by way of Knollsea, where she remained a week or two, Ethelberta appeared one evening at the end of September before her house in Connaught Crescent, accompanied by a pair of cabs with the children and luggage; but Picotee was left at Knollsea, for reasons which Ethelberta explained when the family assembled in conclave. Her father was there, and began telling her of a surprising change in Menlove-an unasked-for concession to their cause, and a vow of secrecy which he could not account for, unless any friend of Ethelberta's had bribed her.
“Oh, no—that cannot be," said she. Any influence of Lord Mountclere to that effect was the last thing that could enter her thoughts. “However, what Menlove does makes little difference to me now.” And she proceeded to state that she had almost come to a decision which would entirely alter their way of living.
“I hope it will not be of the sort your last decision was,” said her mother.