A ROMANCE OF WASHINGTON SOCIETY
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY HARRISON FISHER AND B. MARTIN JUSTICE
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD & COMPANY 1909
COPYRIGHT, 1907 BY THE WASHINGTON HERALD COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1909 BY DODD, MEAD & COMPANY
Published, May, 1909
"Her glance, quick yet soft, was much the prettiest thing of the sort Sir Percy had ever seen" (page 33) (missing from book) . . . . . . Frontispiece
"'It is the old story. You are worthy to marry her, but I am not worthy to speak to her'"
"'I shall leave this house to-morrow morning, never to re-enter it'"
Few men have the goal of their ambition in sight at thirty-eight years of age. But Sir Percy Carlyon had, when he was appointed First Secretary of the British Embassy at Washington, with a very well-arranged scheme worked out by which, at the end of four years, he was to succeed his uncle, Lord Baudesert, the present Ambassador. This realisation of his dreams came to Sir Percy on a December afternoon dark and sharp, as he tramped over the frozen ground through the stark and leafless woods, which may yet be found close to Washington.
He was a great walker, this thin, sinewy Englishman with a sun-browned skin, burnt by many summers in India and weather-beaten by many winters in the snowbound depths of the Balkans. He had the straight features and clear, scintillant eyes which are the marks of race among his kind, but no one would have been more surprised than Sir Percy if he had been called handsome. Within him, on this bleak December afternoon, was a sensation strange to him after many years: the feeling of hope and almost of joy. He stopped in the silent heart of the woods, and, leaning against the gnarled trunk of a live oak, thrust his hands into his pockets and glanced, with brightening eyes, towards the west. A faint, rosy line upon the horizon was visible through the naked woods; all else in sky and earth was dun-coloured.
To Sir Percy Carlyon this thread of radiance was a promise of the future. This was, to him, almost the first moment of retrospection since the day, two months before, when, in the Prime Minister's rooms in Downing Street, a new life in a new country opened before him. Since then--amid the official and personal preparations necessary to take up his post, his seven days on the Atlantic, during which he worked hard on pressing business, the necessary first visits upon his arrival--Sir Percy had scarcely enjoyed an hour to himself. He had found the Embassy overwhelmed with affairs, about which his uncle, Lord Baudesert, coolly refused to bother himself, but which Sir Percy, as a practical man, felt obliged to take up and carry through. That day, only, had he, by hard and systematic work, caught up what was called by Lord Baudesert, with a grin, the "unfinished business" at the British Embassy, but which really meant the neglected business of a lazy, clever old diplomatist who never did to-day what he could put off until to-morrow.
Lord Baudesert had been many years at Washington, and had a thorough knowledge not only of the affairs of the American people, but of their temper, their prejudices and their passions. In an emergency his natural abilities, and a kind of superhuman adroitness which he possessed, together with the vast fund of knowledge that he had accumulated, but rarely used, made him a valuable person to the Foreign Office. However, as soon as the emergency passed Lord Baudesert returned to his usual occupation of studying the American newspapers and anything else which could add to the already vast stock of knowledge which he possessed, but rarely condescended to use.
The Embassy was presided over by Lord Baudesert's widowed sister, Mrs. Vereker, an amiable old sheep of the early Victorian type. Then there were three lamb-like Vereker girls, Jane, Sarah and Isabella, all likewise early Victorian, who regarded their uncle as a combination of Bluebeard and Solomon, and altogether the most important and the most terrifying person on this planet. Lord Baudesert's favourite instrument of torture to the ladies of his family was the threat to marry an American widow with billions of money. How this would have unfavourably affected her the excellent Mrs. Vereker could not have told to save her life--but the mere hint always gave her acute misery.
The secretaries of the Embassy were very well-meaning young men, who attended to their work as well as they knew how, but as Lord Baudesert seldom took the trouble to read a document, and would not sign his name to anything which he had not read, it was difficult to get business transacted. When Sir Percy Carlyon was getting his instructions from the Prime Minister concerning his post of First Secretary at Washington the Premier had remarked:
"Your uncle, you know, is the laziest man God ever made, but he is also one of the cleverest. No living Englishman knows as much about American affairs as Lord Baudesert, or has ever made himself so acceptable to the American people, but when he isn't doing us the greatest service in the world, he lets everything go hang. We are sending you to Washington to get some work done. I hear you can bully Lord Baudesert in every particular."
"Except one," Sir Percy had replied. "Neither I, nor anybody else, nor the devil himself, could make Lord Baudesert work when he doesn't want to."
Sir Percy, on this December afternoon in the woods, reviewed in his own mind his whole diplomatic career up to the point of that interview. His first beginnings had been as a minor civil servant on the Indian frontier twelve years before. It is not uncommon, however, for those clever youngsters who are sent out to India to govern, negotiate, threaten and subdue a vast and deceitful people to find themselves entrusted with responsibilities which might appal older representatives of the British Empire.
Far removed from Western civilisation, and out of the field of newspapers, young Sir Percy Carlyon was in effect ruler and lord of a million people, whose united word counted less with their English masters than one sentence from this sahib of twenty-six years of age. His post was on the Afghanistan frontier, where he had to circumvent Afghans and Russians and out-general all of them. The times were difficult, and in spite of young Carlyon's great and even splendid gifts of insight, temper and diplomacy, he would hardly have succeeded in his work but for one man. This was General Talbott, who was in military command of the district, and an admirable type of the soldier-diplomatist. He had stood by Sir Percy with a vigour and generosity, and a fatherly kindness, which no man not an utter ingrate could ever forget. They had gone together through stormy and tragic days, and when the reports had reached the Indian Office it was Sir Percy to whom General Talbott gave the largest share of the credit, and even the glory, which had resulted from their joint efforts.
Thanks to this extraordinary generosity on General Talbott's part, Sir Percy's efforts had received prompt recognition. His first two years in India were brilliantly successful, and marked him as a rising man among his fellows. From that time onwards he had been what is called lucky--that is to say, when two courses were opened to him he took the sensible one. After a brief but distinguished service in India he was transferred to the diplomatic corps, and good fortune followed him.
But the greatest stroke of his life had come two years before, in the Balkans, that line upon which, as Lord Beaconsfield said, "England fights." The Foreign Office happened not to be as judicious in a certain juncture as its young representative; in fact, the Premier committed the most astounding blunder, which, if it had become known, would have sent him out of office amid the inextinguishable laughter of mankind. This blunder, however, was known only to four persons--the Prime Minister himself, his private secretary, a telegraph operator and Sir Percy Carlyon. What Sir Percy did was to wire back to the head of the Government:
"Message received, but unintelligible owing to telegraph operator's ignorance of English."
Then he proceeded to act upon his own account. Three days later the Russian envoy was on his way to St. Petersburg on an indefinite leave of absence and Sir Percy was domiciled with the reigning sovereign at his country place, and was in the saddle to stay.
Six months after he had an interview with the Prime Minister. Not much was said, but Sir Percy was asked in diplomatic language to name what he wanted. He named it, and it was to be First Secretary at Washington when his promotion was due, then service at some smaller European court as Minister, and to succeed Lord Baudesert on his retirement.
The Prime Minister was not startled at the proposition. He knew Sir Percy to be a man of lofty ambition and not likely to underrate himself. The scheme, moreover, had in it elements of fitness and common-sense. The Prime Minister was heartily tired of gouty old gentlemen in great diplomatic positions, and thought it rather a good idea to make a man an Ambassador before he got too old. Besides, nothing that Sir Percy Carlyon could have asked in reason would have been too much, considering from what the Premier had been saved. So it was arranged that he should go to Washington as First Secretary, and the rest of the plan was likely to be carried out even if there should be a change in the party in power. Eighteen months afterwards the appointment was made and the first step in the programme taken.
In looking back upon his career, Sir Percy saw nothing but good fortune--great and exceptional good fortune; so much so, that he began to ask himself whether, like the old Greeks, a price would not be demanded from him for all that had been given him. The idea, however, was unpleasing, and he began, Alnaschar-like, to plan what he should do when he became Ambassador. Then a thought stole into his mind which made his somewhat grim face relax; there ought to be an Ambassadress. He could see her in his mind's eye, a beautiful, stately English girl, looking like the elder sister of the tall, white lilies. She must be grave and dignified, and very reticent--a talkative Ambassadress would be a horror. He would like her to be of some great English home. Himself one of the best born men in England, he had a fancy, even a weakness, for distinguished birth. He had a strong prejudice against members of the diplomatic corps marrying outside of their countries, and especially he disapproved of diplomats rushing pell-mell into marriage with American girls. He had known a few of these feminine American diplomatists in his time, and there was not one he considered well fitted for her position. Most of them talked too much; and all of them dressed too much. Then many of them had shoals of relatives, whom they insisted on dragging around with them to the various European capitals, and these relations generally involved them in social battles which were anything but dignified. On the whole, Sir Percy had fully made up his mind to marry none but an Englishwoman.
By the time he had reached this point in his reverie he was striding fast through the woods in the bitter winter dusk towards the town. Suddenly a woman's face, like a face in a dream, passed before his mind. The thought of her brought his rapid walk to a dead stop, like a dagger thrust into his heart. The image of Alicia Vernon rose before him--Alicia, who was tall and fair, and had a flute-like voice and the deepest and darkest blue eyes he had ever seen--Alicia, the only child of the man who had befriended him more than all the men in the world--General Talbott.
True, he had been but twenty-six years of age when he met Alicia, who was two years his senior. True, that older and stronger men than he had succumbed to her beauty, her charm, her courage, her fitness, and her wantonness. Not one of them, however, but had better excuse than himself, so thought Sir Percy, his eyes involuntarily cast down with shame.
When he first met her, Alicia was already married to Guy Vernon, weak, worthless and rich. Sir Percy remembered, with a flush of self-abasement, how ready, nay, how eager, he had been to listen to the plausible stories Alicia told him of Guy Vernon's ill-treatment and neglect of her. But she had omitted to mention that she had squandered half of Guy Vernon's fortune within the first three years of their married life, and had compromised herself with at least half-a-dozen men since her marriage. True, also, that Alicia and Sir Percy were at a lonely post among the hills on the Afghan frontier, and that he and Guy Vernon's wife had been thrown together in an intimacy impossible anywhere else on the face of the globe. True, again, was it that Alicia Vernon's flattery had been insidious beyond words. Money was what she had heretofore required more than anything else on earth except the enslavement of men. Sir Percy's fortune, however, was only a modest patrimony, which would scarcely have sufficed for six months for what Alicia Vernon considered her actual needs.
As she had in reality seduced Sir Percy's honour, so, in a way, was she herself seduced by his powerful intelligence, by his brilliance and by his success, which, with a woman's prescience, she felt sure was only the presage of greater things. She inherited from her father a clear and trenchant mind, and she readily foresaw that the time would come when this young Indian civil servant would be heard of by all his world. She, however, was his first courtier.
It was impossible that a woman so gifted, so complex, so courageous as Alicia Vernon should not have at least one virtue in excess. That was her love for her father. False she was to him in many ways, but true she ever was in love of him. By the exercise of all her intelligence, and by eternal vigilance, she had succeeded in making General Talbott believe her the purest, the most injured woman alive. He always called her "my poor Alicia," and hated her husband with a mortal hatred, thinking him to have injured the gentlest and sweetest of women.
Sir Percy's infatuation for Alicia Vernon lasted but a few months, and, through Alicia's woman's wit, was unsuspected by the world, least of all by General Talbott, who adored his daughter. Then Sir Percy awoke once more to honour, and pitied the woman and hated himself for the brief downfall.
It is not every man who beats his breast and throws ashes on his head who is a true penitent. But no man felt bitterer remorse for his wrongdoing than did Sir Percy Carlyon. He applied the same judgment to himself that he did to other men, and while reckoning his fault at its full wickedness, also reckoned that sincere penitence was not entirely worthless. He had lived his life to that time of remorse in cheerful ignorance and a silent defiance of the Great First Cause; but upon the darkness of his soul stole a ray of light. He began to believe a little in a personal God, a father, a judge and a school-master who required justice and obedience of mankind. Sir Percy became secretly a religious man. He did not go to church any oftener than before, nor did he take refuge in Bible texts, but the prayer of the publican was often in his heart, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
After a pause of a minute or two he resumed his quick, swinging walk. The December night was upon him, although it was not yet six o'clock, and he had still five miles to tramp before reaching Washington. That night the initial ball of the season was to be given at the British Embassy, and Sir Percy was, for the first time, to see the kaleidoscopic Washington society. His rapid walk stimulated him and enabled him to put out of his mind that painful and humiliating recollection of his early lapse, which had lain in hiding for him by night and day, by land and sea, for ten years past. So long as he had been in Europe Alicia had not allowed him to forget her, but had tracked him from place to place. How well he remembered the anger and disgust he felt when she would suddenly appear--beautiful, charmingly dressed, smiling and composed--on the terrace at Homburg and challenge him with her eyes! How hateful became the Court balls at Buckingham Palace when Alicia Vernon, leaning upon her father's arm, would greet Sir Percy in her seductive, well-modulated voice, of which he knew and hated every note! How wearisome became the visits to great country houses when Alicia, as it so often happened, floated into the drawing-room on the evening of his arrival, and was generally the most beautiful and most gifted woman there, with more knowledge of what she should not know than any other woman present! At least, thought Sir Percy, his spirits rising, he would be free in Washington from Alicia Vernon's presence. There was not much here to attract a woman of her type.
By the time the lights of Washington studded the darkness and the tall apartment-houses, sparkling with electric lights, loomed against the black sky, Sir Percy was himself again, cheerful, courageous--ready to meet life with a smile, a sword or a shield, as might be demanded.
The British Embassy was blazing with light, and the musicians were tuning their instruments in the ball-room, when Sir Percy came in, a little before ten o'clock. Lord Baudesert, a handsome, black-eyed and white-haired man, his breast covered with decorations, was critically inspecting Mrs. Vereker and the three Vereker girls, Jane, Sarah and Isabella. All were panic-stricken as Lord Baudesert's keen eyes travelled from the top of their sandy, abundant hair down to their large feet encased in white satin slippers.
"I swear, Susan," Lord Baudesert was saying to Mrs. Vereker, a large, patient, soft-voiced woman, "I believe that black velvet gown you wear figured at the old Queen's coronation."
"I have only had it ten years, brother," murmured Mrs. Vereker; "and it is the very best quality of black silk velvet, at thirty shillings the yard. A black velvet gown never goes out of fashion."
"Not if it belongs to you," answered Lord Baudesert, laughing. "And why don't you three girls dress like American girls? Your gowns look as if they had been hung out in the rain and dried before the kitchen fire and then thrown at you."
Jane, Sarah and Isabella, accustomed to these compliments, only smiled faintly but Sir Percy, looking Lord Baudesert squarely in the eye, remarked:
"They don't dress like American girls because they are English girls; and, for my part, I never could understand how any sane man could prefer an American to an English girl. As for Aunt Susan's gown, it is very handsome and appropriate, and she should not pay any attention to your views on the subject."
Mrs. Vereker looked apprehensively at Sir Percy, whom she regarded as a superserviceable champion, likely to get her into additional trouble.
"Oh, my dear Percy!" she hastened to say, "Lord Baudesert's taste in dress is perfect. I am sure I would be as smart as any one if I only knew how, but we are at the mercy of the dressmakers, and Lord Baudesert can't understand that."
"Lord Baudesert can understand anything he wants to," answered Sir Percy, laughing.
Then Lord Baudesert laughed too. Sir Percy's determination not to be bullied by him was an agreeable sensation to Lord Baudesert, accustomed as he was to be approached on all fours by the ladies of his family.
The occasion to worry his womankind, however, was too good for Lord Baudesert, and he began again to his nephew:
"I hope, my dear boy, you will meet a friend of mine to-night--Mrs. Chantrey--a widow, very handsome, fine old Boston family, with something like a billion of money."
Mrs. Vereker sighed. Mrs. Chantrey was her rod of scourging, which Lord Baudesert freely applied. Then, taking his nephew's arm, the Ambassador walked into the next room, and out of Mrs. Vereker's hearing expressed his true sentiments.
"You will see American women in full force to-night," he said. "They are strange creatures, full of esprit, and they have brought the art of dress to the level of a fine art. Be sure to look at their shoes and their handkerchiefs. I am told that their stockings are works of art. Don't mind their screeching at you, you will get used to it. There is great talk of their wonderful adaptability, nevertheless I never saw one of them whom I really thought was fitted to be the wife of a diplomat. You needn't pay any attention to the way I talk about Mrs. Chantrey; I wouldn't marry that woman if she were made of radium at two million dollars the pound, but it amuses me to worry Susan on the subject."
"That's nice for Aunt Susan," answered Sir Percy--"but on one point my mind is made up: I shall never marry an American."
"I can tell you one thing," continued Lord Baudesert: "marrying an American heiress is about the poorest investment any man can make, if he has an eye to business. In this singular country money is never mentioned by the bridegroom. That one word 'settlement' would be enough to make an American father kick any man out of the house. The father, however, is certain to mention money to his prospective son-in-law. He demands that everything his daughter's husband has should be settled on the wife, and generally requires that his future son-in-law's life be insured for the wife's benefit. Then, whatever the American father has to give his daughter he ties up as tight as a drum, so that the son-in-law can't touch it, and everything else the son-in-law may get depends on his good behaviour. The American girl, having been accustomed to regard herself as a pearl beyond price, expects her husband to be a sort of coolie at her command. If he isn't she flies back to her father, and the father proceeds to cut off supplies from the son-in-law. Oh, it is a great game, the American marriage, when it is for high stakes. I take it that it is impossible for any European, even an Englishman, to get at the point of view of an American father concerning his daughter."
Then the first violin among the musicians played a few bars of a waltz. Sarah and Isabella, seeing Lord Baudesert's back turned, waltzed around together in a corner of the drawing-room. As soon, however, as they caught Lord Baudesert's eye they left off dancing and scuttled back under the wing of their mother.
"You seem to have terrorised those girls pretty successfully," remarked Sir Percy; "why don't you let the poor things have a little independence?"
"My dear fellow, they wouldn't know what to do with independence if they had it. They have behind them a thousand years of a civilisation based upon the submission of an Englishwoman to an Englishman. They would be like overfed pheasants trying to fly, if they had a will of their own, and they are happy as they are. They always sing when I am not by. I annoy Susan occasionally by talking about Mrs. Chantrey. When that lady is in full canonicals, with all her diamonds, she looks like the Queen of Sheba in Goldmark's opera. She looks worse than a new duchess at her first Court."
At that moment the great hall door was opened, and the first guest, a tall, slight, well-made man, with a trim grey moustache, entered, and was shown into the dressing-room. Lord Baudesert then took his stand, or rather his seat, near the door of the drawing-room, with Mrs. Vereker at his side.
"I always have the gout," he explained to Sir Percy, "at balls. It is tiresome to stand, and, besides, an Ambassador is entitled to have some kind of gentlemanly disease of which he can make use upon occasions."
"I am so sorry," said Mrs. Vereker sympathetically to Lord Baudesert, "that the gout is troubling you this evening. I have not heard you speak of it for months."
"Haven't had a touch since the last ball," calmly replied Lord Baudesert, and then he stood up to greet the early guest, who entered without showing any awkwardness at his somewhat premature arrival.
"Delighted to see you," said Lord Baudesert, with the greatest cordiality. "It is not often you honour a ball. Let me introduce my nephew and new Secretary of the Embassy to you--Sir Percy Carlyon, Senator March."
The two men shook hands, and instantly each received a good impression of the other.
"The Ambassador must have his joke," said Senator March. "It is true that I seldom go to balls, nor am I often asked. You see how little I know of them by my turning up ahead of time. The card said ten o'clock, and to my rude, untutored mind it seemed as if I were expected at ten o'clock, and here I am, the sole guest. I don't suppose the smart people will show up for an hour yet."
"So much the better, for it gives me the chance to talk to you," replied Lord Baudesert.
Then the three men sat down together and chatted. The conversation was chiefly between the Ambassador and the Senator. A question concerning international affairs had been up that day in the Senate, and Senator March, who was Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, had spoken upon it. He gave a brief resum� of what he had said, and Lord Baudesert, in a few incisive sentences, threw a flood of light upon the subject. Sir Percy listened with interest to what Senator March had to say. It was his first informal conversation with an American public man, and he admired the ease, the simplicity and the sublime common sense with which Senator March handled the complicated question, and so expressed himself.
"There is no excuse for our treating any question except in the most sensible, practical manner," answered Senator March. "In Europe you are shackled with the traditions and customs of a thousand years. You can't take down even a tottering wall without endangering the whole structure. With us it is all experimental. Nevertheless, our affairs are no better managed than yours in England."
Sir Percy at every moment felt more and more the charm of Roger March's manner and conversation. It was so simple, so manly and so breezy. Nor was Senator March without appreciation of this clean-limbed, clear-eyed Englishman. Half an hour passed quickly in animated conversation before there was another arrival; but then the stream became a torrent. In twenty minutes the rooms were full and the dancers were skimming around the ballroom to the thrilling strains of music. Mrs. Chantrey was easily identified by Sir Percy. She was a big, handsome woman, with an enormous gown of various fabrics and colours, who so blazed with diamonds that she looked like a lighthouse.
Sir Percy was not a dancing man, nor did he ever admire dancing as an art until he saw the soft, slow, rhythmical waltz as danced by Americans. His duties as assistant host kept him busy, but, like a born diplomat, he could see a number of things at once and pursue more than one train of thought at the same time. As he talked to men and women of many different nationalities, ages and conditions, his eyes wandered toward the ball-room, where the waltzers floated around. Never in his life had he seen so many good dancers, particularly among the women. One girl in particular caught his eye. Her figure was of medium height, and her black evening gown showed off her exquisite slenderness, the beautiful moulding of her arms and the graceful poise of her head. Her face he scarcely noticed, except that she had milk-white skin contrasted with very dark hair and eyes. She danced slowly, with a motion as soft as the zephyr at evening time. Sir Percy's eyes dwelt with pleasure upon her half a dozen times while the waltz lasted. Then came the rapid two-step, which reminded Sir Percy of a graceful romp. But the black-haired, white-skinned girl was not then taking part.
The drawing-room grew crowded, and Sir Percy, moving from group to group, did not go into the ball-room. He was introduced to a great number of ladies, young, old and middle-aged, and the general impression made upon him was what he expected of the American woman en masse. Prettiness was almost universal, but beauty of a high order was rare. One girl alone he reckoned strictly beautiful--Eleanor Chantrey, the only child of the lady like the lighthouse, but totally unlike her. Eleanor was tall and fair, and Sir Percy thought he had never seen a more classic face and nobler bust and shoulders. Her voice, too, was well modulated, and delicious to hear after the peacock screams of most of the women around him. Miss Chantrey had both read and travelled much, and had the peculiar advantage of knowing the best people everywhere, quite irrespective of the smart set. It soon developed that she and Sir Percy had mutual friends in England, and had even stayed at the same great country house, although not at the same time. Her manner was full of grace and dignity, but with a touch of coldness like a New England August day. It was quite unlike the English. Eleanor was the highly prized American daughter, whose value is impressed upon her by that most insidious form of flattery--the being made much of from the hour of her birth. Nothing, however, could be farther from assumption than Eleanor's calm, grave sweetness, with a little touch of pride. Sir Percy, smiling inwardly, could not but be reminded by this gentle and graceful American beauty of some royal princess before whom the world has ever bowed. She was well worth seeking out, however, and Sir Percy, thinking he was doing the thoroughly American thing, asked Miss Chantrey if he might, in the name of their mutual friends, call upon her.
"My mother will be very glad to see you, I am sure. We receive on Tuesdays," she answered, and named a house in the most fashionable quarter.
A little later Sir Percy found himself standing among a fringe of men around the ballroom door. The lancers quadrille was being danced, and once more he noticed the black-haired girl dancing, and this time he was surprised to see that her partner was Senator March. The Senator went through the square dance with the gravity and exactness with which he had learned his steps at a dancing school forty years before. His partner was no less graceful in the square dance than in the waltz, and was more unrestrained, making pretty little steps and curtsies and movements of quick grace, which made her dancing the most exquisite thing of the kind Sir Percy had ever seen. When the quadrille was over he suddenly found her standing almost in front of him, laughing and clinging to Senator March's arm. Her profile, clear cut as a cameo, but not in the least classic, was directly in front of Sir Percy, and he was forced to admire her sparkling face. She had not much regular beauty, but her white skin, contrasted with her black hair, dark eyes and long, black lashes, was charming. Her mouth was made for laughter and on the left side was an elusive dimple. Sir Percy hated dimpled women, but he found himself looking at the girl's mobile face and watching the appearance and disappearance of this little hiding place of laughter upon her cheek. And, wonderful to say, she did not screech, but spoke in a voice that was singularly clear and musical. Some experience of the American methods of introducing right and left had been Sir Percy's, and he was not surprised when Senator March laid a hand upon his arm and whispered:
"May I introduce you to this young friend of mine, Miss Lucy Armytage of Bardstown, Kentucky? You have heard of Kentucky horses, haven't you?"
"Yes," answered Sir Percy, with the recollection of Iroquois and the Derby in his mind.
"Very well, the Kentucky horses are not a patch on the Kentucky women."
"In that case," replied Sir Percy, laughing, "may I beg you to introduce me to Miss Armytage at once?"
Senator March introduced him in due form, and Miss Armytage, holding out a slim hand, cast down her eyes demurely and murmured that she was glad to meet him.
"Sir Percy has only lately arrived in America," explained Senator March.
"And has probably never heard of Bardstown, Kentucky," responded Miss Armytage, suddenly lifting her eyes and fixing them full upon Sir Percy. "I am afraid," she said meditatively, "that I follow the example of St. Paul. You know he was always bragging about being Paul of Tarsus, and I am always bragging that I am Miss Armytage of Bardstown, Kentucky."
"Pray tell me all about Bardstown," said Sir Percy gravely, and Miss Armytage, in her clear, sweet voice, and with equal gravity, proceeded to a statistical and historical account of Bardstown, the dimple in her cheek meanwhile coming and going.
Sir Percy listened, surprised and amused. The affected dryness of what Miss Armytage was telling was illuminated with little turns and sparkles of wit; and from Bardstown she proceeded to give, with the utmost seriousness, a brief synopsis of the history and resources of the State of Kentucky. Sir Percy grew more and more amused. He perceived that she was diverting herself with him, a thing no woman had ever done before. He had heard of American humour, but he did not know that the women possessed it. He felt sure that Miss Armytage was a real humourist, and also a sentimentalist when she said, presently:
"I was at a great dinner in New York last week, and as we were sitting at the table I heard an organ grinder in the street outside playing 'My Old Kentucky Home,' and while I was listening, and thinking about Bardstown, two tears dropped into my soup. I never was so ashamed in my life."
She looked into Sir Percy's eyes with an appealing air, like a child who knows not whether it is to be rebuked or praised. Her whole air and manner radiated interest in Sir Percy as she asked softly:
"What do you suppose the other people at the table thought of me?"
Sir Percy answered her as any other man would:
"That you had a very tender heart."
He was charmed with her simplicity, combined with her natural grace. A moment after a young naval officer came up and claimed Miss Armytage for a dance. She turned to go with him, but looked backward at Sir Percy with a glance such as Clytie might have given the departing lord of the unerring bow. Her glance, quick yet soft, was much the prettiest thing of the sort Sir Percy had ever seen. He perceived that Miss Armytage was the typical American girl. However, he was much disgusted, as his eyes followed Lucy, to see her glancing up into the eyes of Stanley, the young naval man, with precisely the same look of appealing confidence with which she had bewitched himself two minutes before. He hated a coquette with an Englishman's hatred of being trifled with by a woman, and immediately classified Miss Armytage, of Bardstown, Kentucky, as a very finished coquette, and concluded not to trouble himself further about her.
The ball went on merrily, and it was one o'clock in the morning before the carriages began to drive away from the porte-coch�re. Among the last guests to go was Lucy Armytage. Sir Percy was standing in the hall when Lucy tripped down the stairs and joined an elderly, grey-bearded man standing near Sir Percy. A long white evening cloak enveloped her slender figure and a white gauze scarf was upon her soft black hair. She joined the grey-bearded man, who had on his overcoat and his hat under his arm, and then she, glancing toward Sir Percy, cried softly:
"I am so glad I met you. May I introduce my uncle? Colonel Armytage, of Kentucky, Sir Percy Carlyon. My uncle is a member of Congress; in Kentucky that makes him a colonel, though I can't explain why."
"My dear sir," responded Colonel Armytage, extending a cordial hand, "I am extremely pleased to meet you, extremely so! I am of unmixed English descent myself, and quite naturally I look upon our country as the mother of us all."
Sir Percy tried to imagine a member of Parliament meeting an American as Colonel Armytage met him, but his imagination was not equal to anything so extraordinary. He understood, however, and appreciated the frank, unconventional good-will which animated Colonel Armytage, and replied with sincere courtesy:
"I am always glad to hear that sentiment from an American, and be assured we feel the tie of blood as much as you do."
"Some of you do," answered Lucy oracularly, "but some of you don't. I can tell you a harrowing tale of a little upstart Englishman. Pray excuse me."
Colonel Armytage scowled at Lucy.
"You must forgive her, my dear sir," he said to Sir Percy; "this child has a charter to say and to do as she pleases, and Mrs. Armytage and myself are under bond to obey her. I shall have much pleasure in seeing you if you will honour me with a call. That, I believe, is the custom in Washington, but I assure you, sir, in the State of Kentucky, it would be the native who would call first, and such would be my desire if it were not for this infernal official etiquette which forbids it. Mrs. Armytage and my niece receive on Tuesdays," and he named a large down-town hotel, which had ceased to be fashionable about forty years before, but still was frequented by Southern and Western representatives.
Then Lucy nodded and smiled and took Colonel Armytage's arm and was gone in a moment.
Sir Percy followed Lord Baudesert to the library and joined him in a cigar and a whisky and soda.
"What do you think of 'em?" asked Lord Baudesert knowingly, and Sir Percy, understanding that the American ladies were meant, answered:
"Very pretty and very well dressed and very much spoiled, I should judge. I can't quite make out how much real and how much apparent cleverness they have."
"No, neither can any one else," replied Lord Baudesert; "they are the most complex creatures alive. You must readjust all your ideas concerning the sex when it comes to studying this particular variety. They are not like Englishwomen, nor Frenchwomen, nor Spanish women, nor German women, nor Hindoo women, that ever I heard, yet they have some of the characteristics of all. Having been afraid of women all my life--except, of course, Susan and her brood--I am more afraid of American women than any others. Don't marry one, my boy. That's my advice--but don't tell Susan I say so."
"Trust me," replied Sir Percy confidently, lighting another cigar.
Sir Percy Carlyon had declined to be domiciled at the British Embassy, as Lord Baudesert urged, but took modest chambers close at hand. He found plenty to do, and although he was supposed to be capable of bullying Lord Baudesert, it was impossible to force the Ambassador to a regular course of work every day. Sir Percy, however, watched the chances, and succeeded in getting more out of Lord Baudesert than any one else had ever done. Moreover, Sir Percy was a persona grata to Mrs. Vereker and the three girls, not that this mattered to Lord Baudesert, who, as far as women were concerned, was a natural and incurable bully and buccaneer. Lord Baudesert was neither bad-tempered nor bad-hearted, but it cannot be denied that he was a trying person domestically. It was in vain that Sir Percy reminded his aunt and cousins that Lord Baudesert had no power of life or death over them and could not eat them. Mrs. Vereker was horrified at the suggestion that she should exercise a little personal liberty, and the three girls thought Sir Percy slightly cracked when he advised them to assert themselves boldly in the presence of their uncle. On the whole, however, Sir Percy liked his new outlook upon the world, and considered that he was now in the sunshine of good fortune.
Mrs. Vereker, Jane, Sarah and Isabella worked hard in the society grind, and Lord Baudesert was less lazy in social than in official life. Sir Percy, up to the evening of the ball, had not paid a single visit, except of an official nature, but on the Tuesday afternoon following he put on a frock-coat and started out armed with his card case. In front of his own door he hesitated a moment to think whether he should call on the Chantreys or the Armytages. Ridiculous to say, Sir Percy had been haunted by the remembrance of the airy grace, the seductive eyes of this provincial coquette--for so he classified Lucy Armytage; and, calling himself a great fool, he turned his steps first towards the down-town hotel where the Armytages lived. He began to reckon what Lucy's age might be. She had a peculiar guilelessness of look and voice and manner which seldom lasts beyond a girl's twenty-first birthday; yet he judged her to be not less than twenty-five. One thing about her, he admitted, was adorable--an obvious ignorance of evil, a lovely innocence, which revealed itself readily to the experienced eyes of a man of the world. Sir Percy hated knowing women, and that recalled Alicia Vernon. He doubted if she, even as a young girl, had ever been truly innocent in mind.
The afternoon was warm and bright, though it was December, and carriages full of elaborately dressed women were dashing about the streets and standing in long lines before houses which were open on that day. Sir Percy found, when he reached the down-town hotel, that visitors were plentiful there also, and thronged the halls and staircases. He was shown up to the great public drawing-room, in which lights were already blazing, and where a bevy of Congressmen's wives and daughters were holding a joint reception. The huge room was well filled, the ladies being in the majority. Sir Percy, standing in the doorway, was searching for Lucy Armytage when a hand was laid upon his arm.
"I am delighted to see you, Sir Percy," said Colonel Armytage. "Lucy will be delighted, too. She has talked about you incessantly since she met you."
If the uncle of an English girl had confided to Sir Percy that she had talked about him incessantly since their first meeting Sir Percy would have thought it time to ask for leave to hunt big game in the Rockies. But, being a man of brains, he recognised the mental attitude of Colonel Armytage, and found himself rather pleased at the thought that this dark-eyed girl had chatted about him. Probably he was the first Englishman of his kind she had ever met. The next moment he was being introduced to Mrs. Armytage, a motherly soul, in a black velvet gown, which was the twin of Mrs. Vereker's robe of state. A little way off, Lucy, in a white gown, was talking earnestly with a group of plain, elderly persons. She turned her head and caught sight of Sir Percy, but with a little nod and a glint of a smile she continued her conversation, and even escorted the little group to the door, where she said good-bye. Then she came up to Sir Percy.
"They were constituents," she said. "They are very nice people at home, but they are not much accustomed to society, and naturally they feel a little awkward in a room full of strangers like this. If one takes them in hand, and is a little pleasant, they are eternally grateful, and will stand by Uncle Armytage through thick and thin when the nominating convention is on."
"I see you are a politician," said Sir Percy, looking down at her and trying to determine whether white or black were more becoming to her piquant and irregular beauty.
"No; I am a diplomatist, like yourself," replied Lucy, looking up with laughing, unabashed dark eyes into his face. "My uncle, you see, is not a diplomatist at all, and neither his worst enemy nor his best friend could call him a politician. I call him a statesman. He is the dearest man on earth, but he always acts on his impulses, and that, you know, is very unwise."
The gravity with which she said this made Sir Percy smile, but Lucy kept on with the air of an instructress:
"Of course, it is unwise. Imagine Lord Baudesert bolting out the truth upon every occasion! And that is just what my uncle does. My aunt thinks him the wisest person in the world, so you see I am the only one in the family who is capable of any diplomacy at all. Now, as I am twenty-five years old----"
"So old as that?" said Sir Percy, pretending surprise.
"Twenty-six next birthday," gravely responded Lucy, "and I have learned a great deal. One thing is, that constituents never forgive one if they are not shown attention in Washington. I assure you my attentions to Bardstown people in Washington got my uncle his last nomination. I took a grocer's daughter round with me sight-seeing, and I gave nine teas in one month for Bardstown girls. I didn't commit the folly of asking for invitations for them. Nobody thanks you for introducing the superfluous girl, and I can't see why one should expect other people to pay one's social debts. But I paid all my own debts, and made Uncle Armytage do a lot of things for the Bardstown men who were here, which he said he hadn't time to do. But I made him find the time. Isn't that diplomacy?"
"Diplomacy and good sense combined," answered Sir Percy.
He thought he had never seen so expressive a face as Lucy Armytage's. Every word she uttered seemed to have a corresponding expression of the eye. Her cheeks were colourless, like the leaves of a white rose, but her lips were scarlet and showed beautiful and regular teeth. A charming English girl always reminded Sir Percy of a beautiful rose in bloom, but this girl was like the star-like jessamine, which grows not in every garden, its white, mysterious flowers hiding in the depths of its green leaves and casting its delicious perfume afar. Then Lucy said, suddenly changing the subject:
"I have been in a dream all day. This morning I went for a walk far into the country, as I often do, and I took Omar with me."
"Omar?" asked Sir Percy, not quite understanding her.
"'The Rubaiyat,' I mean. Everybody reads it here. It always takes me into another world. Our life is so vivid, so full of action, so concerned with to-day, and Omar's world is all peace and dreaming. I daresay you can read Omar in the original?"
"A little; but I didn't know that Americans liked peace and dreaming."
"Wait until you see more of us. There is Senator March; I must speak to him."
She turned and went up to Senator March, who had come in and was standing talking with Mrs. Armytage. Sir Percy remained some minutes looking at the sight before him. He was reminded of those meetings of the Primrose League which bring together all manner of men and women. Meanwhile he was acutely conscious of Lucy's presence, although half the room separated them. She was indeed like the jessamine flower whose languorous sweet odour forces one to seek it.
Sir Percy found a few acquaintances, and while talking with them Senator March made his adieux and came up.
"Come," he said, "my brougham is below; let us take a turn together round the speedway."
Sir Percy liked the simple friendliness of Senator March's tone and manner, and readily accepted. As the two men passed along the corridor of the hotel another man was entering who came up and shook hands with Roger March. The new-comer carried a satin-lined overcoat on his arm and his hat in his hand. His appearance was so striking that to see him once was to remember him. He was of medium height, rather handsome, with dark hair slightly streaked with grey, a thin-lipped, well-cut mouth, and eyes of peculiar keenness--the eyes that see everything and tell nothing. A few pleasant words were exchanged and Senator March and Sir Percy passed on. Outside, a handsome brougham, with a pair of impatient horses, was waiting. The two men entered and in a little while were whirling along the level curve of the boulevard which skirts the river. The sun was sinking redly, and the water was wine-coloured, in the old Homeric phrase. The air was like champagne, with a sharpness in it brought by the breeze from the inland sea a hundred miles away.
"Did you observe," asked Senator March, "the man I spoke to coming out of the hotel? It was Nicholas Colegrove, one of those thoroughly American types that are worth observing. He is the son of a Congregationalist minister somewhere up in New England. He managed to pay his boy's way through a small college. Then Colegrove went into a railway office as clerk; by sheer force of intellect he has forced his way upward until he is the strongest man in railway circles in this country. Not that everybody knows it--oh, no! Colegrove is one of those men who avoids the shadow of power as much as he loves its substance. He keeps sedulously in the background; but there isn't a railway president in this country who would like to antagonise Nicholas Colegrove."
"One sees at a glance," replied Sir Percy, "that he is a strong man."
"A very strong man. He shows a sort of good will for me, but as I am Chairman of the Committee on Railroads I don't cultivate the intimacy of Nicholas Colegrove. I am a little afraid of the man."
"There are wonderful and diverse American types," said Sir Percy, "of men and women, who are so distinctively American that they seem to belong to this continent as much as Indian corn and the giant trees of California."
"Perhaps so, and our friends the Armytages, for example, are a very distinctive American type. Armytage himself is a sensible man, a good lawyer, and a hard worker in the House, but he is rashly outspoken and fiery tempered. His wife is a good creature, devoted and domestic, but of no particular value to Armytage in his public life, as she always approves of everything he does. The charming Miss Armytage is the real political manager of the family. She is a born diplomatist, if ever I saw one, and manages to conciliate the enemies whom Armytage makes by this hasty temper and unguarded tongue. I admire Lucy Armytage very much, and have often thought, if ever I had a daughter, I would wish her to be like her. I have known her ever since she was a schoolgirl, and often call her by her first name."
"I thought," said Sir Percy, "that American women took no share in public life?"
"Not openly, but every official position in this country, including that of the Presidency, has some time or other been determined by a woman. I know of a Presidential convention where, at midnight, a train was chartered and the party managers, making a run of one hundred and fifty miles in one hundred and sixty-seven minutes, knocked up a possible candidate at two o'clock in the morning and asked if he would consent to have his name presented to the convention. 'Wait until I talk with my wife,' was his answer. He went upstairs, remained fifteen minutes, and came down and said: 'No, gentleman; my wife has the doctor's opinion that my heart is weak, and she refuses to consent that I shall run.' It turned out afterward that the nomination would have been equivalent to an election. Oh, no! our American women, as a rule, carefully avoid any appearance of meddling with politics, but they have a great deal to do with it, nevertheless, just as the Roman ladies had in their time."
As they rolled along in the handsome, well-hung brougham, each man felt a growing regard for the other. Sir Percy, after the English manner, rarely brought a name into conversation, while Senator March, like an American, spoke names freely, and presently mentioned that he was due at Mrs. Chantrey's for a dinner call.
"Come with me," he said to Sir Percy; "the Chantreys will be glad to see you. I know that Mrs. Chantrey dearly loves a member of the diplomatic corps, and the daughter is charming--she is, in her way, as typically American as Lucy Armytage--I often call the child by her first name involuntarily."
"Miss Chantrey was kind enough to ask me to call," said Sir Percy, and after a while the two men were entering together a fine house in one of the best avenues of the town.
Sir Percy might have imagined himself in an English house. The large pink and white footman at the door was unmistakably English, and the quietness of the atmosphere and repose, which became at once obvious, were as English as the footman. In the beautiful drawing-room Eleanor Chantrey sat beside a tea-table drawn close to the fire. Mrs. Chantrey almost embraced Senator March when he mentioned the liberty he had taken in asking Sir Percy to come with him, and Sir Percy was figuratively invited to rest on Mrs. Chantrey's bosom--like the poor stricken deer.
Mrs. Chantrey had a hidden romance, a heart's dream, a secret aspiration, to be one day an ambassadress, to share Lord Baudesert's title and position. To say that Lord Baudesert's sharp old eyes had seen this, from its first budding, is putting it mildly. In fact, the wily old gentleman had, himself, planted the notion in Mrs. Chantrey's innocent, susceptible, elderly mind, and carefully cultivated it. Every season, for ten years past, Mrs. Chantrey had confidently expected to be asked to preside over the British Embassy, and every season she had been disappointed, yet not without hope. It was one of Lord Baudesert's chief delights in Washington to play upon the hopes and fears of various enormously rich widows, of whom Mrs. Chantrey was the first. And Lord Baudesert, having something like fifty years' experience as an accomplished flirt, managed to keep these ambitious ladies dancing to a very lively tune. Hence the advent of Lord Baudesert's nephew was to Mrs. Chantrey a delightful and encouraging sign, and she was ready to be an aunt to him at a moment's notice.
Only three or four persons were sitting around the tea-table, all of whom Sir Percy had before met. There were no introductions, and when Eleanor Chantrey handed Sir Percy his tea he could scarcely persuade himself that he was not in Mayfair. Eleanor Chantrey, with ten times her mother's brains, had not an atom of coquetry in her being; she was perfectly graceful, and with a sort of cool kindness which suggested sincerity. Instead of being the same to all men, she was different in her manner to each person present, according to her degree of acquaintanceship. To one infirm old gentleman, who was plainly uninteresting at his best, Sir Percy noticed that Eleanor was extremely kind and even cordial in her manner, and pressed him to remain when he made a feeble motion to go.
After a pleasant visit, Senator March and Sir Percy left at the same time; it seemed as if the two could not see too much of each other. When they parted, at Sir Percy's door, it was with the understanding that they should dine together at the club the next evening.
The clear December twilight was at hand and a new moon trembled in the heavens as Sir Percy, instead of going indoors, started for his invariable walk before dinner. He made straight towards the west and soon found himself on a wide avenue recently laid out, with young trees in boxes on each side. A quarter of a mile away from the houses it soon ran into the open fields, with clumps of trees and little valleys on either hand. Nothing quieter, more remote or deserted could be imagined, and yet Sir Percy was but fifteen minutes from his own door. Not a person was in sight, until, after a time, he saw, at some distance ahead, and rapidly approaching, the slight figure of a woman muffled in furs and walking rapidly. Something in the grace of her movements attracted Sir Percy as she came nearer. She held up her muff to her face in an attitude which reminded Sir Percy of Vig�e le Brun's picture in the Louvre, "The Lady with the Muff." As the girl flashed past him in the grey twilight he recognised Lucy Armytage. A strange and almost uncontrollable desire suddenly rose within him to join her, but, with the hereditary caution of an Englishman, he turned his head the other way. The next moment Lucy faced around, and, coming up to him, cried breathlessly:
"How glad I am to meet you here! Pray walk with me as far as the car."
There was no help for it, and Sir Percy, with the feeling of delight which follows when a man is forced to do what he wishes to do, replied:
"With the utmost pleasure. Is it not rather late for you to be in so lonely a place?"
"Decidedly so. Our reception closed at five o'clock, just when other people's are beginning, and a friend asked me to drive out in this direction for a little air. She left me on a lighted street, but I wanted to feel the earth under my feet so I walked around this way. I didn't realise how late it was until a few minutes ago, and I was scurrying home half frightened to death."
As she said this, Sir Percy would have liked to open his arms wide and hold her to his breast like a timid bird, but Lucy dispelled this idea by saying:
"Afraid of my uncle, I mean. He makes such a terrible row when I am out late. I am not in the least afraid of anything else."
Her timidity had seemed charming, but her girlish courage was more charming still. Sir Percy's head was in a whirl. No woman had ever impressed him so quickly and so deeply as this black-eyed girl, and he was staggered at the intensity of his own pleasure in being with her. Meanwhile Lucy thought him the most impassive of men, and felt a curious feminine desire to disturb that cool placidity which was so like a lake covered with a thin skin of ice.
"I saw you and Senator March going into the Chantreys'," she said, as they walked rapidly along in the deepening dusk. "I admire Miss Chantrey more than any girl in Washington. At first I thought her a little cold, but her very coldness is a sort of sincerity. I should like to have a house exactly like the Chantreys', except that I would make the atmosphere a little warmer."
She rippled out a laugh, and her eyes, under their long lashes, sought Sir Percy's in the half gloom.
"I am afraid that you would find our English houses a little chilly, and they are not always redeemed by such grace as Miss Chantrey's."
"Oh, one expects a little British chilliness in an English house! You admit, you know, that your reserve is nothing but shyness after all. Now I am not in the least shy, and so I have managed to get on beautifully with the few English people I have met. My uncle, you must know, is an Anglomaniac of the deepest dye, and claims relationship with all the peerage and half the baronetage. He is the most prejudiced man! If it were not for me I don't know what would become of him."
Sir Percy was extremely diverted at the notion of a slip of a girl taking care of a member of that great body which had its origin at Runnymede in the far-off days.
The stars were coming out in the wintry sky and it was yet some little distance to the streets where the gas lamps flared. It was an enchanting walk to Sir Percy, and without a word being spoken concerning a street car, or a cab, Sir Percy and Lucy Armytage walked together along the quieter streets to the very door of the big hotel.
Lucy Armytage went upstairs to her room, the typical hotel bedroom, but which she had transformed into something resembling herself. She had been proud of the bower-like air she had given the large square room, and had regarded with confident admiration the spotless muslin curtains and the thin white draperies over her little bed. Now she looked about her with dissatisfaction. How unlike it was to Eleanor Chantrey's beautiful and artistic room! And then Eleanor had an exquisite yellow boudoir, in which Lucy once had tea with her. How much beauty and ornament and luxury was in Eleanor's life! For the first time Lucy Armytage began to wish for something which could not be furnished in Bardstown, Kentucky.
"At least," she said, rising and speaking to herself, "I know I'm provincial. It is a great thing to know the limitations of one's horizon. What a narrow, uncultivated, inartistic, uninteresting person Sir Percy Carlyon must find me after Eleanor Chantrey!"
Then she went to her constant and usually faithful consoler--her mirror. But to-night even the mirror seemed not in a flattering mood, and Lucy only saw a disconsolate girl who, to her mind, could stand no comparison with that fine flower of civilisation--Eleanor Chantrey.
At the same moment Sir Percy was smoking fiercely as he made his way back to his chambers. From the first moment his eyes rested upon Lucy Armytage she had commanded his attention. He had tried to escape from the enchanting spell she had thrown over him, but all in vain. What was the meaning of that stirring of all his pulses, that sudden joy, when he met her in the twilight? He reminded himself that he was thirty-eight years old, quite old enough to know better; that he was the First Secretary of the British Embassy and that he had firmly resolved never to allow himself to become in the least interested in an American woman. He determined to avoid Lucy Armytage in the future as a disturbing element; in short, he resolved to take up arms against his destiny.
Sir Percy Carlyon kept his word to himself, and did not go near Lucy Armytage. Nevertheless he could not avoid seeing her. One dull afternoon he was taking tea with Mrs. Vereker and the three girls, who were all so much alike that only their names differentiated them. In the midst of the deadly dullness with which Mrs. Vereker invested this function visitors were announced. Lucy Armytage with her aunt arrived to pay their call of ceremony after the ball. Mrs. Vereker and Mrs. Armytage were birds, or rather fowls, of a feather, as each of them was distinctly of the barnyard variety. They sat and talked commonplaces comfortably together, like a couple of old sheep browsing side by side, the lady from Bardstown and the lady from the greatest metropolis in the world, and found each other thoroughly companionable. Not so Lucy Armytage and the three Vereker girls. Lucy's manner of saying the unexpected thing, her gravity, which was really her method of trifling, her quick, incisive humour, puzzled Jane, Sarah and Isabella. So also it puzzled Sir Percy Carlyon, who for that reason found Lucy Armytage the most interesting woman he had ever known. She had odd scraps, and even whole volumes, of knowledge upon the most unexpected subjects. She knew nothing about art or music, but she confessed her ignorance with a sweet humility which bewitched Sir Percy more than all the knowledge that Minerva carried under her helmet. Lucy had, however, read much and indiscriminately about the East, could discuss occultism intelligently, knew Omar, and had the Indian Mutiny at her finger tips.
"The truth is," she said to Sir Percy, holding her muff to shield her face from the fire and reminding him once again of the picture in the Louvre, "we are very old-fashioned in Bardstown. At home we have a great many old books, but not many new ones. My uncle hates modern books, as he does most modern things, and our library is a haphazard collection of antiques."
Then Lord Baudesert entered, and his appearance created the same flutter among the ladies of his family as if a vulture had descended upon a dovecote. Mrs. Vereker hastened to give him tea, while Jane, Sarah and Isabella fell over each other in their efforts to provide him with thin bread and butter. Mrs. Armytage, too, was somewhat awed by the appearance of a live Ambassador and, except Sir Percy, Lucy alone remained tranquil. Lord Baudesert talked with her a little, and was pleased to find that she could give a connected answer without fear or embarrassment. And then an untoward thing occurred--the door opened, and at almost the same moment two South American diplomats, between whom a frantic controversy and charges and counter-charges were raging, entered the room. Mrs. Vereker looked frightened to death, and the Vereker girls could think of nothing else to say but to invite the belligerents half-a-dozen times over each to have tea. Lord Baudesert's manner was perfect in its evenly matched courtesy, and Sir Percy Carlyon was not a whit behind. Lucy Armytage, however, who knew how the land lay, calmly engaged one of the sultry-eyed South Americans in conversation, and even got him off in a corner to look at a picture. Then Sir Percy, seeing a way out of the situation, went up to Lucy and her diplomat and asked them to come into the next room to see a portrait lately added to the Embassy. With perfect tact and grace Lucy managed to take the South American, with Sir Percy escorting them, into the adjoining room--a service for which Sir Percy thanked her with a meaning glance. They were absent only five minutes, but that gave time for the other belligerent to take his departure. Then Lucy's diplomat, after five minutes' talk with Lord Baudesert, went out, and Lucy and Mrs. Armytage began to make their adieux. As Lucy offered her hand to Lord Baudesert he said, smiling:
"I am glad I happened to be here when you called, and more glad that you were here when our South American friends called."
Lucy gave him a roguish glance, which brought a smile to his handsome, saturnine old face.
When she was gone Lord Baudesert, alone in the bosom of his family, remarked:
"That might have been a deuced awkward thing. Miss Armytage stood in the breach and helped to save the situation. She has a great deal of natural tact--looks simple, but is really very artful."
Sir Percy Carlyon sat soberly drinking his tea like a true-born Briton, but inwardly he was not at peace. Lucy Armytage always moved and interested and disturbed him. He glanced toward the low chair in which she had sat and saw her again as "The Lady with the Muff." He heard her voice, gentle yet ringing, and the perfume of the lilies of the valley she had worn pinned upon her breast still pervaded the room. He remained silent while Mrs. Vereker and the three girls discussed Lucy. Mrs. Vereker and Jane thought her very pretty, Sarah and Isabella thought her not pretty at all. Lord Baudesert decided that she was extremely pretty; then they all agreed with him. When the ladies of the family went away to dress for dinner Lord Baudesert asked Sir Percy:
"Did you ever know three such idiots as my nieces?"
"They are not idiots at all," responded his dutiful nephew; "they are afraid of you--that's all."
"Oh, yes, that's all! But that's enough. However, with all their dulness, they are better fitted to be the wives of diplomats than women like that sparkling little Armytage girl. She is clever enough at getting people out of a tight place, but, mark my words, the cleverer women are in getting out of trouble the readier they are to get into it. That's why they are not suited to the diplomatic corps."
"I quite agree with you," answered his nephew, with vigour.
Sir Percy found himself overwhelmed with dinner invitations, which he accepted partly as a duty and partly as a pleasure. He enjoyed the Washington dinners hugely, and after a while grew accustomed to the shrill, and often untrained, voices of the American women. He liked the naturalness and simplicity both of the men and women he met, and the absence of the young-lady-anxious-to-be-married was pleasing to him. He also liked the wives and daughters of his colleagues, and often thought, if dinners were the sum of man's existence on this planet, Washington was the ideal spot in which to live. Besides his work at the Embassy, which was not light, he was making a thorough study of American public affairs--no small undertaking. Then Lord Baudesert was continually clamouring for his nephew's company, so that Sir Percy's days and evenings were full. So full, indeed, was his time, that he ought, in the natural course of events, to have forgotten Lucy Armytage, of whom he only caught stray glimpses during the next month.
Colonel Armytage promptly returned Sir Percy's visit, and Sir Percy, by the exercise of all his will power, managed to call at the hotel one day just after having seen Lucy drive off in a hansom. He was rewarded--or punished, as the case might be--by meeting her face to face at the White House reception that night. She was again talking with Stanley, the handsome young naval officer, dazzling in his uniform. Lucy stood under the branching leaves of a huge palm, in the east room, which made a background for her delicate and spirituelle head. She wore the same black gown in which Sir Percy had first seen her, and carried a fan, which she used for the purpose for which it was designed--to accentuate and set off her own charms. Sir Percy passed her with a bow and a word, which she returned with one of those brilliant smiles that transformed her soft and elusive beauty into something vivid, palpitating and star-like. Unconsciously to himself, Sir Percy kept a furtive watch upon her. He saw other men come up to drive Stanley off, and they in their turn were driven off by other enterprising gentlemen. Some of them were ridiculously young, and others were obviously old; but Lucy contrived to make a beardless ensign feel as if he were a full admiral, and a dry-as-dust senator forget the burden of his years and drink once more of the draught of youth. Sir Percy fully determined not to seek Lucy Armytage out, and just as this decision was fixed in his mind he saw her pass upon the arm of Colonel Armytage. He went up to her, and, being a close observer, saw Lucy's mobile face suddenly light up, and the little dimple come and go in her cheek.
"Delighted to see you," said Colonel Armytage; "my niece is dragging me away just as I was beginning to enjoy myself. She has been sending me to bed every night at ten o'clock because I have had a touch of rheumatism, and half-past ten, she has just informed me, is too dissipated for me."
"I believe Miss Armytage claims entire authority over you, doesn't she?" asked Sir Percy, smiling.
"Absolute jurisdiction. She has taken charge of my person and estate, and also Mrs. Armytage, and she manages us both according to her own ideas."
Colonel Armytage said this with a note of pride in his voice, which an American uses when he proclaims he is ruled by his womankind.
They talked together a few minutes, and then Lucy and Colonel Armytage passed on to the cloak-room. When Lucy Armytage was gone the crowded rooms seemed empty to Sir Percy Carlyon. He walked home through the still and quiet streets at midnight and then smoked savagely for an hour before his study fire. No man was ever more surprised, annoyed and chagrined than was Sir Percy Carlyon to find himself bewitched by this captivating, provincial girl, and one amazing thing had happened--she had driven away the image--the hateful image--of Alicia Vernon. Alicia was the only woman who had ever deeply impressed herself upon Sir Percy Carlyon, until he met Lucy Armytage. There was warfare between these two ideals. It seemed to Sir Percy as if Alicia's wantonness had, in a way, cast a shade over all women. If a creature outwardly so modest, so refined, so high-bred, could be at heart a wanton, how could he ever believe in the purity of any woman's heart and mind? He dallied with the false suggestion that, if a woman were dull, she might be good, but if she were clever, her mind might range afar into the forbidden paths. Lucy Armytage, however, from the moment he met her, seemed to restore his shattered ideal of women. He had not reasoned, and could not reason, upon this, but he felt deeply the strong, unconscious and unacknowledged influence of this girl.
Sir Percy, sitting before his fire, repeated to himself that, in spite of Lucy's charm, there was every conceivable reason why he should not seek to marry her. She was an American to begin with, she had never seen a European capital, she was not a linguist, and her only accomplishment, as far as he had seen, was that of dancing, which was scarcely what an Ambassadress, as his wife would become, would find the most useful accomplishment in the world. He was a poor man for his position, and there was no indication that Lucy had a fortune. Then it suddenly occurred to him that, even if he gave rein to his passion, Lucy might scorn him. She had not been trained to appreciate what he had to offer, and she might classify him with Stanley and the other youngsters whom he had seen dancing attendance upon her.
He called himself an ass, and then, his cigar being out, he lay back in his chair and fell into a delicious reverie. Supposing that Lucy might marry him, what charming, piquant beauty was hers; what insinuating grace; with what na�vet� did she admit her imperfections! How unerringly did she divine the best way of making herself acceptable, and how singularly and completely did she possess that art of arts--the art of pleasing! Soon his reverie merged into a soft dream. He was with Lucy Armytage in the winter twilight and they were walking together through the cold, bare, winter woods, and Lucy's slim hand was in his and her eyes were downcast. He awoke suddenly and found his fire out and the clock striking one, and he marched off to bed swearing at himself for his folly and determining that the time had come when he must put Lucy absolutely out of his mind.
The next night Sir Percy Carlyon was to dine at the Chantreys'. Lord Baudesert and Mrs. Vereker were also of the party. Mrs. Chantrey thought a member of the British Embassy but a little lower than the angels, and to this was added the stimulus that she confidently expected to be Lady Baudesert before the year was out. Lord Baudesert encouraged this harmless delusion in every possible way, short of actually proposing, and if he had not been the ablest of diplomatists Mrs. Chantrey would certainly have married him when he was not looking. She had, in her own mind, already rearranged all the furniture in the British Embassy, decided whom she would invite to dinner and whom she would leave out, and intended to be very civil to Mrs. Vereker. However much Lord Baudesert might be outwardly diverted by Mrs. Chantrey's elderly coquetry, he was forced, cynic though he was, to admire Eleanor Chantrey. He even went so far as to concede that, if it were possible for an American woman to be fitted for an Ambassadress, Eleanor Chantrey was that woman. Beauty, distinction and many other accomplishments were hers, and she would have adorned the highest position.
The first person Sir Percy's eyes rested upon as he entered the drawing-room was Lucy Armytage, and to his rage and delight she was given to him to take in to dinner. Every moment thereafter he felt himself falling more and more in love with her.
Senator March was among the guests, and after the ladies had departed and the men were smoking he said to Sir Percy:
"Next month I'm having a little house-party at a country place I have in the Maryland mountains. I go there occasionally for a few days' rest. I hope you will be of the party."
Sir Percy accepted with pleasure. He had never met a man for whom he felt a stronger inclination towards friendship than Roger March.
When the men returned to the drawing-room Lucy Armytage and Eleanor Chantrey were standing together on the hearthrug and talking with animation. Eleanor was resplendent in her beauty, but to Sir Percy Carlyon the slim, black-haired Lucy Armytage seemed to outshine her as a scintillant star, set high in the heavens, outshines the great, round, common-place moon.
Later, driving back to the Embassy in the big, comfortable coach, Lord Baudesert said to Sir Percy:
"Magnificent girl, Miss Chantrey. She has everything: beauty, breeding and fortune. If she were not an American I should advise you to pay your court in that direction."
"But she is an American," replied Sir Percy, laughing, "and that is the unpardonable sin, according to my view of a diplomat's career."
That day two weeks Sir Percy Carlyon found himself at Senator March's country place for the week end. The party was small but brilliant. Eleanor Chantrey, her mother and Lucy Armytage were the only ladies. Their amusements were simple, and consisted chiefly in the enjoyment of the country, open in winter, after a siege in town. Young Stanley, a personable, pleasant fellow, was among the guests, and his frank adoration of Lucy Armytage made everybody smile, except one person, the other man who was in love with her--Sir Percy Carlyon. Sir Percy was too well trained and well balanced to show the chagrin he felt and the Fates, and the exigencies of a house party, threw him more with Eleanor Chantrey. He was forced to admire her, but his admiration was cool and discriminating. On Eleanor's part sprung up a strong admiration for Sir Percy Carlyon. She was not incapable of love, but her will and intellect were always dominant over her heart. And then the daughter repeated her mother's dream of ambition, marked, however, by the enormous difference between the dream of a woman and the sense of a simpleton. Her beauty, her intelligence, her wealth, her prestige, had inspired her with what Sir Percy called "the princess attitude of mind," which looks around and chooses the man upon whom to bestow her hand. Sir Percy Carlyon was well fitted to please her, and she understood perfectly the really splendid position which would be his in time. She knew, also, he was a man of small estate, and it occurred to her, in her half-laughing, half-serious speculations, that her fortune would be well applied in maintaining the position of an Ambassadress. The idea that if she should indicate the slightest preference for Sir Percy she could not bring him to her feet did not occur to her. Her imagination, stimulated by her ambition, took hold of her, that Sir Percy would be eminently suitable for her, and she played with it, as women of the world do with such ideas quite as much as the veriest country lass.
On the afternoon before the party broke up a walk was proposed. As the case always is, the party paired off, and Eleanor Chantrey considered herself ridiculously mismated with Stanley, who was equally dissatisfied. Sir Percy Carlyon found himself walking with Lucy Armytage through the winter woods in the red February afternoon. The dead leaves were thick underfoot and drowned the sound of footfalls. Unconsciously the two voices grew low, and it was like the fulfilment of Sir Percy's dream. An impulse, stronger than himself, made him try all his powers on this girl, with her innocent guile, her unworldly coquetry. Suddenly he found she vibrated to him as a violin answers the bow. That was too much for the resolution of Sir Percy Carlyon, or for any other man with red blood in his veins.
They were the last to return, and at dinner that night Lucy Armytage's usually pale cheeks were flooded with a deep colour. She had promised to be Sir Percy Carlyon's wife.
Sir Percy Carlyon's mystification with his American fianc�e began within twenty-four hours of the time she had given him her first kiss.
"Above all things," she said earnestly, as they were supposed to be exchanging commonplaces in the train, "nothing must be said of this, not one word to a soul. After a while I will break it to my uncle and aunt."
Sir Percy stared at her, and wondered whether he were dreaming or she raving. He expected, after the English custom, to announce the engagement immediately to Colonel and Mrs. Armytage, and what did Lucy mean by "breaking" it to them? His name, his position and his prospects were such that the greatest match in England might not have been reckoned unequal for him, and here was a girl from Bardstown, Kentucky, who proposed to wait for an auspicious moment when she could "break" this direful news to her aunt and uncle! Something of his involuntary surprise showed in his face, and Lucy studied it gravely and then suddenly laughed.
"I see," she whispered, "you don't understand. This is our secret: the world has nothing to do with it."
"I thought," answered Sir Percy, infatuated, but still retaining some of the vestiges of conventionality, "that marriages were quite public affairs. One has to get a license and be married in church."
"But this isn't being married," explained Lucy; "this is only being engaged."
Then the two looked at each other with adoring but uncomprehending eyes. Lucy's woman's wit, however, came to her rescue.
"I think," she said gravely, "that perhaps you know more about the ways of the world than I do, and, after all, there are other ways than those of Bardstown, Kentucky. So that it shall be as you wish."
She said this with such a pretty lowering of her long lashes, and so much deep feeling visible under her coquetry, that Sir Percy was more than ever charmed. Nor was the sound sense at the bottom of Lucy's remark lost upon him. A compromise was effected, by which Colonel and Mrs. Armytage were to be informed immediately, and the rest of the world was to remain in ignorance until within one month of the wedding day.
There was no suspicion among the others of the party concerning what had occurred, and least of all with Eleanor Chantrey and Stanley, both of whom might be said to have contingent interests in the matter.
The morning after Lucy's return she was awakened to receive a bouquet of roses and a letter from Sir Percy Carlyon. There was also a note for Colonel Armytage asking for a private interview. This precipitated matters.
"I should like to know," said Colonel Armytage, standing with his back to the fire in his own room, with Sir Percy's letter in one hand and The Congressional Record of the day before in the other, "what this means--'a private interview.'"
"Perhaps," ventured Mrs. Armytage, "he wants to ask you for a copy of your speech of yesterday. There is an editorial in the newspaper about it this morning."
Lucy, dressed in a delicious pink n�glig�e, was standing by the window, holding the roses in her hands.
"No," she said, coming forward with cheeks matching the pale beauty of the roses; "he wants to ask you, uncle--we were together, you know--and--and----"
A light dawned upon Colonel Armytage.