Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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Who was responsible for the reform of the summer-house? The new tenant at Windygates was responsible.
And who was the new tenant?
Come, and see.
In the spring of eighteen hundred and sixty-eight the summer-house had been the dismal dwelling-place of a pair of owls. In the autumn of the same year the summer-house was the lively gathering-place of a crowd of ladies and gentlemen, assembled at a lawn party -the guests of the tenant who had taken Windygates.
The scene--at the opening of the party--was as pleasant to look at as light and beauty and movement could make it.
Inside the summer-house the butterfly-brightness of the women in their summer dresses shone radiant out of the gloom shed round it by the dreary modern clothing of the men. Outside the summer-house, seen through three arched openings, the cool green prospect of a lawn led away, in the distance, to flower-beds and shrubberies, and, farther still, disclosed, through a break in the trees, a grand stone house which closed the view, with a fountain in front of it playing in the sun.
They were half of them laughing, they were all of them talking--the comfortable hum of their voices was at its loudest; the cheery pealing of the laughter was soaring to its highest notes--when one dominant voice, rising clear and shrill above all the rest, called imperatively for silence. The moment after, a young lady stepped into the vacant space in front of the summer-house, and surveyed the throng of guests as a general in command surveys a regiment under review.
She was young, she was pretty, she was plump, she was fair. She was not the least embarrassed by her prominent position. She was dressed in the height of the fashion. A hat, like a cheese-plate, was tilted over her forehead. A balloon of light brown hair soared, fully inflated, from the crown of her head. A cataract of beads poured over her bosom. A pair of cock-chafers in enamel (frightfully like the living originals) hung at her ears. Her scanty skirts shone splendid with the blue of heaven. Her ankles twinkled in striped stockings. Her shoes were of the sort called "Watteau." And her heels were of the height at which men shudder, and ask themselves (in contemplating an otherwise lovable woman), "Can this charming person straighten her knees?"
The young lady thus presenting herself to the general view was Miss Blanche Lundie-once the little rosy Blanche whom the Prologue has introduced to the reader. Age, at the present time, eighteen. Position, excellent. Money, certain. Temper, quick. Disposition, variable. In a word, a child of the modern time--with the merits of the age we live in, and the failings of the age we live in--and a substance of sincerity and truth and feeling underlying it all.
"Now then, good people," cried Miss Blanche, "silence, if you please! We are going to choose sides at croquet. Business, business, business!"
Upon this, a second lady among the company assumed a position of prominence, and answered the young person who had just spoken with a look of mild reproof, and in a tone of benevolent protest.
The second lady was tall, and solid, and five-and-thirty. She presented to the general observation a cruel aquiline nose, an obstinate straight chin, magnificent dark hair and eyes, a serene splendor of fawn-colored apparel, and a lazy grace of movement which was attractive at first sight, but inexpressibly monotonous and wearisome on a longer acquaintance. This was Lady Lundie the Second, now the widow (after four months only of married life) of Sir Thomas Lundie, deceased. In other words, the step-mother of Blanche, and the enviable person who had taken the house and lands of Windygates.
"My dear," said Lady Lundie, "words have their meanings--even on a young lady's lips. Do you call Croquet, 'business?' "
"You don't call it pleasure, surely?" said a gravely ironical voice in the back-ground of the summer-house.
The ranks of the visitors parted before the last speaker, and disclosed to view, in the midst of that modern assembly, a gentleman of the bygone time.
The manner of this gentleman was distinguished by a pliant grace and courtesy unknown to the present generation. The attire of this gentleman was composed of a many-folded white cravat, a close-buttoned blue dress-coat, and nankeen trousers with gaiters to match, ridiculous to the present generation. The talk of this gentleman ran in an easy flow--revealing an independent habit of mind, and exhibiting a carefully-polished capacity for satirical retort--dreaded and disliked by the present generation. Personally, he was little and wiry and slim--with a bright white head, and sparkling black eyes, and a wry twist of humor curling sharply at the corners of his lips. At his lower extremities, he exhibited the deformity which is popularly known as "a club-foot." But he carried his lameness, as he carried his years, gayly. He was socially celebrated for his ivory cane, with a snuff-box artfully let into the knob at the top--and he was socially dreaded for a hatred of modern institutions, which expressed itself in season and out of season, and which always showed the same, fatal knack of hitting smartly on the weakest place. Such was Sir Patrick Lundie; brother of the late baronet, Sir Thomas; and inheritor, at Sir Thomas's death, of the title and estates.
Miss Blanche--taking no notice of her step-mother's reproof, or of her uncle's commentary on it--pointed to a table on which croquet mallets and balls were laid ready, and recalled the attention of the company to the matter in hand.
"I head one side, ladies and gentlemen," she resumed. "And Lady Lundie heads the other. We choose our players turn and turn about. Mamma has the advantage of me in years. So mamma chooses first."
With a look at her step-daughter--which, being interpreted, meant, "I would send you back to the nursery, miss, if I could!"--Lady Lundie turned and ran her eye over her guests. She had evidently made up her mind, beforehand, what player to pick out first.
"I choose Miss Silvester," she said--with a special emphasis laid on the name. At that there was another parting among the crowd. To us (who know her), it was Anne who now appeared. Strangers, who saw her for the first time, saw a lady in the prime of her life--a lady plainly dressed in unornamented white--who advanced slowly, and confronted the mistress of the house.
A certain proportion--and not a small one--of the men at the lawn-party had been brought there by friends who were privileged to introduce them. The moment she appeared every one of those men suddenly became interested in the lady who had been chosen first.
"That's a very charming woman," whispered one of the strangers at the house to one of the friends of the house. "Who is she?"
The friend whispered back.
"Miss Lundie's governess--that's all."
The moment during which the question was put and answered was also the moment which brought Lady Lundie and Miss Silvester face to face in the presence of the company.
The stranger at the house looked at the two women, and whispered again.
"Something wrong between the lady and the governess," he said.
The friend looked also, and answered, in one emphatic word:
There are certain women whose influence over men is an unfathomable mystery to observers of their own sex. The governess was one of those women. She had inherited the charm, but not the beauty, of her unhappy mother. Judge her by the standard set up in the illustrated gift-books and the print-shop windows--and the sentence must have inevitably followed. "She has not a single good feature in her face."
There was nothing individually remarkable about Miss Silvester, seen in a state of repose. She was of the average height. She was as well made as most women. In hair and complexion she was neither light nor dark, but provokingly neutral just between the two. Worse even than this, there were positive defects in her face, which it was impossible to deny. A nervous contraction at one corner of her mouth drew up the lips out of the symmetrically right line, when, they moved. A nervous uncertainty in the eye on the same side narrowly escaped presenting the deformity of a "cast." And yet, with these indisputable drawbacks, here was one of those women--the formidable few--who have the hearts of men and the peace of families at their mercy. She moved--and there was some subtle charm, Sir, in the movement, that made you look back, and suspend your conversation with your friend, and watch her silently while she walked. She sat by you and talked to you--and behold, a sensitive something passed into that little twist at the corner of the mouth, and into that nervous uncertainty in the soft gray eye, which turned defect into beauty--which enchained your senses--which made your nerves thrill if she touched you by accident, and set your heart beating if you looked at the same book with her, and felt her breath on your face. All this, let it be well understood, only happened if you were a man.
If you saw her with the eyes of a woman, the results were of quite another kind. In that case you merely turned to your nearest female friend, and said, with unaffected pity for the other sex, "What can the men see in her!"
The eyes of the lady of the house and the eyes of the governess met, with marked distrust on either side. Few people could have failed to see what the stranger and the friend had noticed alike--that there was something smoldering under the surface here. Miss Silvester spoke first.
"Thank you, Lady Lundie," she said. "I would rather not play."
Lady Lundie assumed an extreme surprise which passed the limits of good-breeding.
"Oh, indeed?" she rejoined, sharply. "Considering that we are all here for the purpose of playing, that seems rather remarkable. Is any thing wrong, Miss Silvester?"
A flush appeared on the delicate paleness of Miss Silvester's face. But she did her duty as a woman and a governess. She submitted, and so preserved appearances, for that time.
"Nothing is the matter," she answered. "I am not very well this morning. But I will play if you wish it."
"I do wish it," answered Lady Lundie.
Miss Silvester turned aside toward one of the entrances into the summer-house. She waited for events, looking out over the lawn, with a visible inner disturbance, marked over the bosom by the rise and fall of her white dress.
It was Blanche's turn to select the next player .
In some preliminary uncertainty as to her choice she looked about among the guests, and caught the eye of a gentleman in the front ranks. He stood side by side with Sir Patrick--a striking representative of the school that is among us--as Sir Patrick was a striking representative of the school that has passed away.
The modern gentleman was young and florid, tall and strong. The parting of his curly Saxon locks began in the center of his forehead, traveled over the top of his head, and ended, rigidly-central, at the ruddy nape of his neck. His features were as perfectly regular and as perfectly unintelligent as human features can be. His expression preserved an immovable composure wonderful to behold. The muscles of his brawny arms showed through the sleeves of his light summer coat. He was deep in the chest, thin in the flanks, firm on the legs--in two words a magnificent human animal, wrought up to the highest pitch of physical development, from head to foot. This was Mr. Geoffrey Delamayn-commonly called "the honorable;" and meriting that distinction in more ways than one. He was honorable, in the first place, as being the son (second son) of that once-rising solicitor, who was now Lord Holchester. He was honorable, in the second place, as having won the highest popular distinction which the educational system of modern England can bestow--he had pulled the stroke-oar in a University boat-race. Add to this, that nobody had ever seen him read any thing but a newspaper, and that nobody had ever known him to be backward in settling a bet--and the picture of this distinguished young Englishman will be, for the present, complete.
Blanche's eye naturally rested on him. Blanche's voice naturally picked him out as the first player on her side.
"I choose Mr. Delamayn," she said.
As the name passed her lips the flush on Miss Silvester's face died away, and a deadly paleness took its place. She made a movement to leave the summer-house--checked herself abruptly--and laid one hand on the back of a rustic seat at her side. A gentleman behind her, looking at the hand, saw it clench itself so suddenly and so fiercely that the glove on it split. The gentleman made a mental memorandum, and registered Miss Silvester in his private books as "the devil's own temper."
Meanwhile Mr. Delamayn, by a strange coincidence, took exactly the same course which Miss Silvester had taken before him. He, too, attempted to withdraw from the coming game.
"Thanks very much," he said. "Could you additionally honor me by choosing somebody else? It's not in my line."
Fifty years ago such an answer as this, addressed to a lady, would have been considered inexcusably impertinent. The social code of the present time hailed it as something frankly amusing. The company laughed. Blanche lost her temper.
"Can't we interest you in any thing but severe muscular exertion, Mr. Delamayn?" she asked, sharply. "Must you always be pulling in a boat-race, or flying over a high jump? If you had a mind, you would want to relax it. You have got muscles instead. Why not relax them?"
The shafts of Miss Lundie's bitter wit glided off Mr. Geoffrey Delamayn like water off a duck's back.
"Just as you please," he said, with stolid good-humor. "Don't be offended. I came here with ladies--and they wouldn't let me smoke. I miss my smoke. I thought I'd slip away a bit and have it. All right! I'll play."
"Oh! smoke by all means!" retorted Blanche. "I shall choose somebody else. I won't have you!"
The honorable young gentleman looked unaffectedly relieved. The petulant young lady turned her back on him, and surveyed the guests at the other extremity of the summerhouse.
"Who shall I choose?" she said to herself.
A dark young man--with a face burned gipsy-brown by the sun; with something in his look and manner suggestive of a roving life, and perhaps of a familiar acquaintance with the sea--advanced shyly, and said, in a whisper:
Blanche's face broke prettily into a charming smile. Judging from appearances, the dark young man had a place in her estimation peculiarly his own.
"You!" she said, coquettishly. "You are going to leave us in an hour's time!"
He ventured a step nearer. "I am coming back," he pleaded, "the day after to-morrow."
"You play very badly!"
"I might improve--if you would teach me."
"Might you? Then I will teach you!" She turned, bright and rosy, to her step-mother. "I choose Mr. Arnold Brinkworth," she said.
Here, again, there appeared to be something in a name unknown to celebrity, which nevertheless produced its effect--not, this time, on Miss Silvester, but on Sir Patrick. He looked at Mr. Brinkworth with a sudden interest and curiosity. If the lady of the house had not claimed his attention at the moment he would evidently have spoken to the dark young man.
But it was Lady Lundie's turn to choose a second player on her side. Her brother-in-law was a person of some importance; and she had her own motives for ingratiating herself with the head of the family. She surprised the whole company by choosing Sir Patrick.
"Mamma!" cried Blanche. "What can you be thinking of? Sir Patrick won't play. Croquet wasn't discovered in his time."
Sir Patrick never allowed "his time" to be made the subject of disparaging remarks by the younger generation without paying the y ounger generation back in its own coin.
"In my time, my dear," he said to his niece, "people were expected to bring some agreeable quality with them to social meetings of this sort. In your time you have dispensed with all that. Here," remarked the old gentleman, taking up a croquet mallet from the table near him, "is one of the qualifications for success in modern society. And here," he added, taking up a ball, "is another. Very good. Live and learn. I'll play! I'll play!"
Lady Lundie (born impervious to all sense of irony) smiled graciously.
"I knew Sir Patrick would play," she said, "to please me,"
Sir Patrick bowed with satirical politeness.
"Lady Lundie," he answered, "you read me like a book." To the astonishment of all persons present under forty he emphasized those words by laying his hand on his heart, and quoting poetry. "I may say with Dryden," added the gallant old gentleman:
" 'Old as I am, for ladies' love unfit, The power of beauty I remember yet.' "
Lady Lundie looked unaffectedly shocked. Mr. Delamayn went a step farther. He interfered on the spot--with the air of a man who feels himself imperatively called upon to perform a public duty.
"Dryden never said that," he remarked, "I'll answer for it." Sir Patrick wheeled round with the help of his ivory cane, and looked Mr. Delamayn hard in the face.
"Do you know Dryden, Sir, better than I do?" he asked.
The Honorable Geoffrey answered, modestly, "I should say I did. I have rowed three races with him, and we trained together."
Sir Patrick looked round him with a sour smile of triumph.
"Then let me tell you, Sir," he said, "that you trained with a man who died nearly two hundred years ago."
Mr. Delamayn appealed, in genuine bewilderment, to the company generally:
"What does this old gentleman mean?" he asked. "I am speaking of Tom Dryden, of Corpus. Every body in the University knows him."
"I am speaking," echoed Sir Patrick, "of John Dryden the Poet. Apparently, every body in the University does not know him!"
Mr. Delamayn answered, with a cordial earnestness very pleasant to see:
"Give you my word of honor, I never heard of him before in my life! Don't be angry, Sir. I'm not offended with you." He smiled, and took out his brier-wood pipe. "Got a light?" he asked, in the friendliest possible manner.
Sir Patrick answered, with a total absence of cordiality:
"I don't smoke, Sir."
Mr. Delamayn looked at him, without taking the slightest offense:
"You don't smoke!" he repeated. "I wonder how you get through your spare time?"
Sir Patrick closed the conversation:
"Sir," he said, with a low bow, "you may wonder."
While this little skirmish was proceeding Lady Lundie and her step-daughter had organized the game; and the company, players and spectators, were beginning to move toward the lawn. Sir Patrick stopped his niece on her way out, with the dark young man in close attendance on her.
"Leave Mr. Brinkworth with me," he said. "I want to speak to him."
Blanche issued her orders immediately. Mr. Brinkworth was sentenced to stay with Sir Patrick until she wanted him for the game. Mr. Brinkworth wondered, and obeyed.
During the exercise of this act of authority a circumstance occurred at the other end of the summer-house. Taking advantage of the confusion caused by the general movement to the lawn, Miss Silvester suddenly placed herself close to Mr. Delamayn. "In ten minutes," she whispered, "the summer-house will be empty. Meet me here."
The Honorable Geoffrey started, and looked furtively at the visitors about him.
"Do you think it's safe?" he whispered back.
The governess's sensitive lips trembled, with fear or with anger, it was hard to say which.
"I insist on it!" she answered, and left him.
Mr. Delamayn knitted his handsome eyebrows as he looked after her, and then left the summer-house in his turn. The rose-garden at the back of the building was solitary for the moment. He took out his pipe and hid himself among the roses. The smoke came from his mouth in hot and hasty puffs. He was usually the gentlest of masters--to his pipe. When he hurried that confidential servant, it was a sure sign of disturbance in the inner man.