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"You must forgive me this once: I cannot help-will you give me permission to make a difficult remark?" said Lord Mountclere, in an impatient voice.
"Well, then, the business I meant was-was-an engagement to be married."
Had it been possible for a woman to be perpetually on the alert she might now have supposed that Lord Mountclere knew all about her; a mechanical deference must have restrained such an allusion had he seen her in any other light than that of a distracting slave. But she answered, quietly, "So did I."
"But how does he know-dear me, dear me! I beg pardon," said the viscount.
She looked at him curiously, as if to imply that he was seriously out of his reckoning in respect of her if he supposed that he would be allowed to continue this little play at love-making as long as he chose, when she was offered the position of wife by a man so good as Neigh.
They stood in silence side by side till, much to her ease, Cornelia appeared at the corner waiting. At the last moment he said, in somewhat agitated tones, and with what appeared to be a renewal of the respect which had been imperceptibly dropped since they crossed the Channel, "I was not aware of your engagement to Mr. Neigh. I fear I have been acting mistakenly on that account."
"There is no engagement as yet," said she.
Lord Mountclere brightened like a child. "Then, may I have a few words in private"
"Not now-not to-day," said Ethelberta, with a certain irritation at she knew not what. "Believe me, Lord Mountclere, you are mistaken in many things. I mean, you think more of me than you ought. A time will come when you will despise me for this day's work, and it is madness in you to go further."
Lord Mountclere, knowing what he did know, may have imagined what she referred to; but Ethelberta was without the least suspicion that he had the key to her humour. "Well, well, I'll be responsible for the madness," he said. "I know you to be a famous woman, at all events; and that's enough. I would say more, but I cannot here. I call upon you?"
"When shall I ?"
"If you must, let it be a month hence, at my house in town," she said indifferently. Yes, call upon us then, and I will tell you everything that may remain to be told, if you should be inclined to listen. A rumour is afloat which will undeceive you in much, and depress me to death. And now I will walk back; pray excuse me." She entered the street, and joined Cornelia.
Lord Mountclere paced irregularly along, turned the corner, and
went towards his inn, nearing which his tread grew lighter, till he scarcely seemed to touch the ground. He became gleeful, and said to himself, nervously palming his hip with his left hand, as if previous to plunging it into hot water for some prize: "Upon my life I've a good mind! Upon my life I have! .... I must make a straightforward thing of it, and at once; or he will have her. But he shall not, and I will-hee-hee !" The fascinated man, screaming inwardly with the excitement, glee, and agony of his position, entered the hotel, wrote a hasty note and dispatched it by hand, looked to his dress and appearance, ordered a carriage, and in a quarter of an hour was being driven towards the Hôtel Beau Séjour, whither his note had preceded him.
THE HOTEL, continued, AND THE QUAY IN FRONT.
ETHELBERTA, having arrived there some time earlier, had gone straight to her aunt, whom she found sitting behind a large ledger in the office, making up the accounts with her husband, a large-framed reflective man with a grey beard. M. Moulin bustled, waited for her remarks and replies, and made much of her in a general way, when Ethelberta said, what she had wanted to say instantly, "Has a gentleman called Mr. Neigh been here?"
"Oh yes-I think it is Neigh-there's a card upstairs," replied her aunt. "I told him you were alone at the cathedral, and I believe he walked that way. Besides that one, another has come for you—a Mr. Ladywell, and he is waiting."
"Not for me."
"Yes, indeed. I thought he seemed so anxious, under a sort of assumed calmness, that I recommended him to remain till you came in."
"Goodness, aunt; why did you?" Ethelberta said, and thought how much her mother's sister resembled her mother in doings of that sort.
"I thought he had some good reason for seeing you. Are these men intruders, then ?"
"Oh no-a woman who attempts a public career must expect to be treated as public property: what would be an intrusion on a domiciled gentlewoman is a tribute to me. You cannot have celebrity and sexprivilege both." Thus Ethelberta laughed off the awkward conjuncture, inwardly deploring the unconscionable maternal meddling which had led to this, though not resentfully, for she had too much staunchness of heart to blame a parent's misdirected zeal. Had the clanship feeling been universally as strong as in the Chickerel family, the fable of the wellbonded fagot might have remained unwritten.
Ladywell had sent her a letter about getting his picture of herself engraved for an illustrated paper, and she had not replied, considering that she had nothing to do with the matter, her form and feature having
been given in the painting as no portrait at all, but as those of an ideal. To see him now would be vexatious; and yet it was chilly and formal to an ungenerous degree to keep aloof from him, sitting lonely in the same house. "A few weeks hence," she thought," when Menlove's disclosures make me ridiculous, he may slight me as a lackey's girl, an upstart, an adventuress, and hardly return my bow in the street. Then I may wish I had given him no personal cause for additional bitterness." So, putting off the fine lady, Ethelberta thought she would see Ladywell at
Ladywell was unaffectedly glad to meet her; so glad, that Ethelberta wished heartily, for his sake, there could be warm friendship between herself and him, as well as all her lovers, without that insistent courtship and marriage question, which sent them all scattering like leaves in a pestilent blast, at enmity with one another. She was less pleased when she found that Ladywell, after saying all there was to say about his painting, gently signified that he had been misinformed, as he believed, concerning her future intentions, which had led to his absenting himself entirely from her; the remark being, of course, a natural product of her mother's injudicious message to him.
She cut him short with terse candour. "Yes," she said, " a false report is in circulation. I am not yet engaged to be married to any one, if that is your meaning."
Ladywell looked cheerful at this frank answer, and said, tentatively, "Am I forgotten?"
"No; you are exactly as you always were in my mind."
"Then I have been cruelly deceived. I was guided too much by appearances, and they were very delusive. I am beyond measure glad I came here to-day. I called at your house and learnt that you were here; and as I was going out of town, in any indefinite direction, I settled then to come this way. What a happy idea it was! To think of you now- -and I may be permitted to
'Assuredly you may not. How many times I have told you that!" "But I do not wish for any formal engagement," said Ladywell, quickly, fearing she might commit herself to some expression of positive denial, which he could never surmount. "I'll wait-I'll wait any length of time. Remember, you have never absolutely forbidden myfriendship. Will you delay your answer till some time hence, when you have thoroughly considered; since I fear it may be a hasty one now?" "Yes, indeed; it may be hasty."
"You will delay it?" "Yes."
"When shall it be?"
"Say a month hence. I suggest that, because by that time you will have found an answer in your own mind: strange things may happen before then. She shall follow after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them; then shall
she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now.""
"What did you?" Ladywell began, altogether bewildered by this. "It is a passage in Ezekiel which came to my mind, as possibly applicable to myself some day," she bitterly answered. "It was mere impulse."
"Ha-ha!—a jest one of your romances broken loose. There is no law for impulse: that is why I am here."
Ladywell soon after left her, and retired to a sitting-room, in which he had been writing letters before she came in. Immediately upon this her aunt, who began to suspect that something peculiar was in the wind, came to tell her that Mr. Neigh had been inquiring for her again.
"Send him in," said Ethelberta.
require an answer."
Neigh's footsteps approached, and the well-known figure entered. Ethelberta received him smilingly, for she was getting so used to awkward juxtapositions that she treated them quite as a natural situation. Neigh scarcely said anything as a beginning: she knew his errand perfectly; and, unaccountable as it was to her, the strange and unceremonious relationship between them, that had originated in the peculiar conditions of their first close meeting, was continued now as usual.
"Have you been able to bestow a thought on the question between us? I hope so," said Neigh.
"It is no use," said Ethelberta.
"Wait a month, and you will not
"Why will that be?"
"I might say; but let us speak of something else."
"I don't see how we can," said Neigh brusquely. "I had no other reason on earth for calling here. I wished to get the matter settled, and I could not be satisfied without seeing you. I hate writing on matters of this sort. In fact I can't do it, and that's why I am here."
He was still speaking when an attendant entered with a note.
"Will you excuse me one moment," said Ethelberta, stepping to the window and opening the missive. It contained these words only, in a scrawl so full of deformities that she could hardly piece its meaning together.
"I must see you again to-day unless you absolutely deny yourself to me, which I shall take as a refusal to meet me any more. I will arrive, punctually, five minutes after you receive this note. Do pray be alone if you can, and eternally gratify
"If anything has happened I shall be pleased to wait," said Neigh, seeing her concern when she had closed the note.
"Oh no, it is nothing," said Ethelberta precipitately. "Yet I think I will ask you to wait," she added, not liking to dismiss Neigh in a hurry ; for she was not insensible to his perseverance in seeking her over all
these miles of sea and land; and secondly, she feared that if he were to leave on the instant he might run into the arms of Lord Mountclere.
"I shall be only too happy to stay till you are at leisure," said Neigh, in the unimpassioned delivery he used whether his meaning were a trite compliment or the expression of his most earnest feeling.
"I may be rather a long time," said Ethelberta dubiously. "My time is yours."
Ethelberta left the room and hurried to her aunt, exclaiming, aunt Charlotte, I hope you have rooms enough to spare for my visitors, for they are like the fox, the goose, and the corn, in the riddle; I cannot leave them together, and I can only be with one at a time. I want the nicest drawing-room you have for an interview of a bare two minutes with an old gentleman. I am so sorry this has happened, but it is not altogether my fault. I only arranged to see one of them; but the other was sent to me by mother, in a mistake, and the third met with me on my journey; that's the explanation. There's the oldest of them just come." She looked through the glass partition, and under the arch of the court-gate, as the wheels of a carriage were heard outside. Ethelberta ascended to a room on the first floor, Lord Mountclere was shown up, and the door closed upon them.
At this time Neigh was very comfortably lounging in an arm-chair in Ethelberta's room on the second floor. This was a pleasant enough way of passing the minutes with such a tender interview in prospect; and as he leant he looked with languid and luxurious interest through the open casement at the spars and rigging of some luggers on the Seine, the pillars of the suspension bridge, and the scenery of the Faubourg St. Sever on the other side of the river. How languid his interest might ultimately have become there was no knowing, had there not arisen upon his ear the accents of Ethelberta in low distinctness from somewhere outside the room.
"Yes; the scene is pleasant to-day," she said. "I like a view over a river."
"I should think the steam-boats are objectionable when they stop here," said another person.
Neigh's face closed in to an aspect of perplexity. "Surely that cannot be Lord Mountclere?" he muttered.
Had he been certain that Ethelberta was only talking to a stranger, Neigh would probably have felt their conversation to be no business of his, much as he might have been surprised to find her giving audience to another man at such a place. But his impression that the voice was that of his acquaintance, Lord Mountclere, coupled with doubts as to its possibility, was enough to lead him to rise from the chair and put his head out of the window. Looking right and left, he saw projecting from the next window the head of his friend Ladywell, looking right and left likewise, apparently just drawn out by the same voice which had attracted himself.