"Engaged to Miss Armytage," murmured Mrs. Vereker despairingly, when she found her voice. "A most incredible thing! I think you must be joking, and that you are really engaged to Miss Chantrey."
"I assure you that I am not," replied Sir Percy. "Give me another cup of tea, please, Isabella."
"Mamma," said Isabella, without paying the slightest attention to Sir Percy's request, "he is simply teasing us. He certainly is engaged to Miss Chantrey. I have heard it suggested a dozen times in the last month."
"But I am not," said Sir Percy, helping himself to tea, which no one else was sufficiently composed to give him.
Mrs. Vereker shook her head hopelessly. "I am sure it is Miss Chantrey."
This view of the matter acted upon Lord Baudesert's smouldering rage like a stone in front of a rushing railway train, which is at once derailed and helpless. Lord Baudesert exploded into a short laugh.
"No such luck," he said; "Miss Chantrey has a fortune; Miss Armytage has not."
Sir Percy, having finished his tea, put down his cup and rose.
"I shall be very much obliged to you, Aunt Susan, if you will do as I ask. Lord Baudesert, of course, will call to-morrow."
Lord Baudesert growled something between his clenched teeth, which nobody could make out, and Sarah cried:
"Oh, Cousin Percy, how many times have I heard you say that you would never marry an American;" and Jane chimed in, "No one would have minded in the least if it had been Eleanor Chantrey."
"Perhaps," remarked Sir Percy to Jane, meanwhile looking Lord Baudesert full in the eye, "you may yet have the pleasure of being allied with the Chantreys. Common report has it that Lord Baudesert and Mrs. Chantrey are to be married shortly. Good-afternoon." And leaving this bomb behind him, he escaped into the street.
Only to one other did he feel the necessity of imparting the news himself. This was to General Talbott, and through him to Alicia Vernon. He walked to their hotel and was shown to their sitting-room to await their return from a drive. He went to the window and looked down on the street embowered with trees, and with sidewalks full of gaily dressed people, and smart carriages dashing to and fro in the sunny spring afternoon. He had heard that day, as had everybody else, the announcement of Alicia Vernon's engagement, and it brought him no surprise, but only that strange feeling as if such a thing could not be: that Alicia Vernon should become the wife of an honourable man. While he was watching, the carriage with General Talbott and Alicia drove up, and the General, with his own portly grace, assisted his daughter to alight. In a moment or two they entered the room together, and General Talbott grasped Sir Percy's hand and congratulated him from the bottom of an honest and generous heart.
"We, too, have news for you," he said, smiling; "I will leave it to Alicia to tell you, as it is her affair."
Alicia fixed her violet eyes on Sir Percy Carlyon, and in them was the light of triumph. "I think, papa," she said, in the sweet, affectionate voice which she always addressed her father, "if you will leave me with Sir Percy for ten minutes it would be kind. I want to tell so old a friend all about it. So here is your newspaper, and go into your own room for ten minutes and then we shall be delighted to see you."
She took the afternoon newspaper off the table and, thrusting it into General Talbott's hand with an air of tender familiarity, led him to the door and closed it after him, and then she came back to where Sir Percy stood near the window and began to pull off her long gloves.
"Have you told Miss Armytage about that summer at the hill station?" she asked calmly, with a sidelong glance. Sir Percy remained silent, but it won for him no mercy. "I see that you haven't," she said. "Yet you think it right to marry that innocent girl without telling her all? Very well, I shall marry Senator March, but neither shall I tell him all."
It occurred to Sir Percy to ask her if she meant, like himself, to be so true, so devoted in her marriage that she might have some little ground upon which to ask forgiveness. But although he by no means adopted the specious view that the law has no variation for men and women, yet he felt that no one who had violated the law in any part could rebuke his fellow-sinner, and, therefore, remained obstinately silent. Mrs. Vernon had encountered this mood before, but it made the situation rather easier for her, as Sir Percy never contradicted anything she said. After a moment or two she spoke again.
"It is a curious thing that people like Senator March, who have never been tempted, put all poor sinners in the wrong. I feel it every moment that I am with him. I never had this feeling with Guy Vernon, because from the day I married him his wickedness and his weakness were plain to me. But there is a compelling honesty about a man like Senator March from which one can't get away; it is like my father's. Senator March thinks I am marrying him for love; you think I am marrying him for money. This last is true, and I can't deny it, but I also have a disinterested motive--it will make my father happy and put him at ease concerning me. I have a good many debts of which my father knows nothing, and which he would pay, if he knew of them, with his last shilling. I couldn't keep them from him much longer and I dreaded to tell him. Now he is spared all that. I had the satisfaction of dealing honestly with Senator March when I told him that I must still give a part of my life to my father. He kissed my hand and told me he loved me the better because I loved my father so well."
Yes, it was the only redeeming love which Alicia Vernon had ever known, and it had in it a strange element of nobility and perfidy.
"I hope sincerely you may be happy," was all that Sir Percy Carlyon said.
"I don't know whether I wish you to be happy or not," Alicia replied in the same low voice.
"At least the past is now a closed book between us."
"Is the past ever a closed book? Certainly not to a woman. There are some things which are bloodstains upon the page of life and sink through and through its pages until at the very last there is still a red stain. Anyway, I don't hate Senator March and I don't wish to make him unhappy. That is as much as I can feel for any man now, but I could chop him to pieces for my father's sake or for--" The sentence remained unfinished.
Alicia's wild, unreasoning passion, mingled with revenge, regret and chagrin, died hard. There had never been a moment in which she would not have considered a marriage with Sir Percy Carlyon as imprudent and even disastrous. But there had never been a moment, not even the present, when she would not have rushed into this joyous madness. She turned and walked up and down the room once or twice, saddened, as all sentient beings are, when looking down an abyss in which they long to throw themselves, struggling fiercely against the restraining hand. Sir Percy, quite immovable, stood in the same place until Alicia turned towards him and spoke in her usual, quiet tones.
"But I have this to say to you: if, after you are married, you assume that your wife is too good to breathe the same air with me, you may expect me to resent it. We may be in Washington together, remember, for some time, and if I am unjustly treated there will be a catastrophe, and this you may count upon."
Just then General Talbott's bedroom door opened and he walked in.
"The ten minutes are up," he said; "now sit down, Carlyon, and let us talk about coming events. Alicia and I will call to see Miss Armytage to-morrow, taking the privilege of old friends."
"Thank you," said Sir Percy, and could not force himself to say more.
"How strangely things fall out," continued the General pleasantly. "I had no thought when I came to Washington that I should leave Alicia behind me."
"You won't leave me for long, papa," replied Alicia, "because I know in two or three months' time I shall ask Senator March to take me to England and then we will bring you back."
"Oh, yes!" replied General Talbott, smiling, "there will be an eternal fetching and carrying, and some day I shall be a rickety old fellow; then you and March will probably throw me over."
Alicia only answered him with a look which was eloquent.
General Talbott did not think Sir Percy's silence strange; Englishmen are not likely to be talkative under such circumstances; so General Talbott, full of sympathy and kindliness, kept on:
"After having seen Miss Armytage, my dear fellow, one can safely congratulate you. The newspapers say the wedding comes off in the middle of June."
"The newspapers are right for once," answered Sir Percy. "The wedding is to take place in Kentucky, so I am afraid I sha'n't have the pleasure of Mrs. Vernon's presence and yours."
"No; we shall have our own affairs to attend to at that time. We are to be married ourselves, you know," answered General Talbott, laughing, and then Sir Percy said good-bye and went out.
When he was gone General Talbott said to his daughter:
"Miss Armytage is indeed a charming girl, but it is a pity she has not fortune and prestige such as Miss Chantrey has, and fortune and prestige are what Carlyon needs in a wife."
Alicia Vernon made no reply and General Talbott, taking up a batch of newly arrived English newspapers, retired to his own room to read them.
Alicia Vernon, lying back in the depths of a deep arm-chair, sat quite still, looking straight before her. From the street below came the sound of voices, of traffic; outside her window black and white sparrows were wheeling and chattering, and a linden tree in full leaf close by the broad window waved softly in the breeze, making delicate green shadows pass over the room and Alicia's pale face. The phase of existence on which she had entered was as strange to her as if it were that of another planet. Senator March's offer of marriage had not taken her by surprise; she had seen it coming for weeks and had made up her mind from the first to accept it. Nevertheless, when it came she was overwhelmed with the strangeness of her new position. Of all of those who had ever made love to her, he was the first man who believed her to be the soul of truth and purity. It produced in her a faint stirring of a wish to be a little like what Roger March thought her to be. If only she could put Sir Percy Carlyon out of her mind! But his presence, when he came to tell her of his engagement to another woman, had agitated her more than Senator March had been able to do, even in the moment of asking her love.
Suddenly the door opened, and a boy ushered in the person farthest from Alicia Vernon's mind at that moment--Nicholas Colegrove. His personality was so strong that he could not come and go anywhere unnoticed. The sight of his handsome, iron-grey head, the grasp of his firm hand, brought Alicia Vernon to her feet and dispelled instantly the strange, benumbing dream into which she had fallen. Colegrove was saying in his rich voice:
"I took the liberty of a friend, albeit a new one, in coming to offer you my felicitations on what I heard this morning."
Alicia Vernon, now quite herself, smiled and thanked him prettily and asked him to be seated.
"Marriage is a very different thing between men and women and between boys and girls," he said in a tone of good-humoured cynicism. "When a full-grown man and woman marry, I have often noticed they assume a defensive attitude, one to the other; it is best in the long run. Of course, they don't admit it--everything in this blessed country is on the basis of the slightest sentiment--but it is a fact just the same."
Alicia smiled and answered:
"I don't think that American men have ever been on the defensive with women."
"Quite true in a way," answered Colegrove. "My interest in the subject is purely academic. I was married at nineteen to a pink-cheeked girl three years older than myself. We found out our mistake at the end of a few years. I am not a brute and I am willing to give her everything she wants, but she doesn't know what she wants. Sometimes she thinks it's a divorce, but as soon as I agree to it she finds out that she doesn't want it at all. Of course," continued Colegrove, rising and walking about the room, "the time may come when I shall meet a woman who will mean a good deal to me. So far, however, not one of them has been able to make any impression on me as deep as the action of the Board of Directors of the A.F.& O. Railroad. If you don't mind my saying it, however, now that it is too late, I was very much impressed by you. Your type, you know, is very unusual."
Yes; Alicia Vernon knew that her type was very unusual and never in her life had her pride and self-love been more flattered than by Colegrove's frank and debonair admission.
"However," he said, coming and standing before her, "it won't keep me from being friends with Senator March; he is a very strong man in every way, and I hope you will let me be a friend of yours, too. Recollect, if you ever get into a financial tangle, I can give you some good advice."
"I have been in a financial tangle all my life," murmured Alicia, "but now that is past."
"Not if you have been in it all your life, my dear lady; those things are matters of temperament and bear a very indirect relation to the rise and fall of one's income. That's one thing in which I have been always very indulgent towards women. Very few of them have any real idea of the value of money, and the charming and beautiful among them should have it just as they should have plenty of air and sunlight."
This sentiment was peculiarly acceptable to Alicia Vernon.
Colegrove remained twenty minutes longer, and when he left Alicia reflected that in him was embodied that American type of which she had heard so much--men who can deny nothing to women.
The next day Lord Baudesert, cursing and swearing, and Mrs. Vereker, sighing and lamenting, while Jane, Sarah and Isabella sighed and lamented at home, went to call upon Lucy Armytage as the fianc�e of Sir Percy Carlyon. Luckily Lucy was not at home, for which mercy Mrs. Vereker was humbly thankful. The visit, however, had to be returned, and within the week Mrs. Armytage and Lucy drove in a hired carriage to the British Embassy and were shown into the drawing-room. Never was there a meeting with greater elements of danger. Besides Mrs. Vereker and the three girls, they had General Talbott, Alicia Vernon and Senator March. It was enough to disconcert a trained woman of the world, but Lucy Armytage, with the natural tact and self-control which was her heritage, bore herself beautifully. She had long since divined that the three Vereker girls followed their mother as if she were a bell cow, while Lord Baudesert was the supreme arbiter of their destinies. Lucy took up the best possible strategic position--a chair next to Lord Baudesert. The Ambassador, in spite of his tendency to harass his womenkind, was a gentleman, and while cursing Lucy from the bottom of his heart, treated her with courtly attention. Something in the softness of her manner and the fearlessness of her eyes struck Lord Baudesert with a sneaking admiration. Lucy Armytage had neither great beauty, great talents, nor great fortune, but she was a conqueror of hearts and her empire was over men. No man had ever withstood her charm when she deliberately chose to exercise it. On this occasion she proceeded with infinite tact to captivate Lord Baudesert. Sir Percy, secretly diverted in spite of himself, watched Lucy serenely walking into the good graces of the Ambassador, and that by a path which few had the courage to tread--the path of polite disagreement with him. Mrs. Vereker turned pale when she heard Lucy say, smilingly, to Lord Baudesert concerning a certain public question then under discussion:
"I speak with much ignorance and more prejudice, but just the same I can't agree with you."
And Lord Baudesert, instead of eating her up in two mouthfuls on the spot, answered amiably:
"My dear young lady, you are no more ignorant and prejudiced than nine men out of ten who have discussed it."
Then Lucy told him, with quiet drollery, of her own views and opinions on the subject and the various others which she had heard expressed by the public men who discussed it, and Lord Baudesert laughed with appreciation. And then they found a book or two in common, and Lord Baudesert made the amazing discovery that a girl might browse about in a library and get hold of interesting odds and ends of knowledge, which she knew how to use without pedantry or affectation. Lucy's information about the Indian Mutiny was a mine of gold to her. Lord Baudesert had been a cornet in the days when there were still cornets, and had been both at Delhi and Lucknow, and sewn upon the breast of his court costume was the medal of the Alighur, which he would not have exchanged for the blue ribbon of the Garter. Lucy was the first woman he had met in America who even knew the date of the Mutiny, and Lord Baudesert therefore soon reckoned her above and beyond the rest of the nation.
The visit was to Lucy a little triumph of her own, which was not lost upon any one present, least of all Alicia Vernon. The manner between these two women was perfect. Lucy had not forgotten Sir Percy Carlyon's word of warning. She knew not why he had no desire for her to be intimate with Mrs. Vernon, but his wishes were respected. Each was carefully polite to the other, and the little shade of reserve was too delicate to be noticed by any one present except Sir Percy Carlyon; Senator March did not notice it in the least, but came up to Lucy as she was leaving, and said in a low voice:
"I hope that you and Mrs. Vernon will become great friends. I owe Sir Percy a debt of gratitude: it was through him, you know, I met Mrs. Vernon."
"Thank you," replied Lucy. "Sir Percy is always laying people under obligations to him," and she turned away smiling.
When, after a short visit, Mrs. Armytage rose to go, Lord Baudesert tried to pin Lucy down. Lucy stayed a little longer, but not even Lord Baudesert's blandishments made her commit the blunder of staying too long.
Lord Baudesert's first remark on finding himself alone in the bosom of his family was to Mrs. Vereker:
"Have her to dinner as soon as you can. Delightful girl, she is. After all, perhaps Percy didn't make any blunder."
Mrs. Vereker shook her heard like a Chinese mandarin, and sighed; she had been shaking her head and sighing ever since the engagement was announced.
The dinner two weeks later was another and greater triumph for Lucy Armytage. Sir Percy had expected her to be frightened out of her wits at the thought of sitting next Lord Baudesert during the whole of the dinner, and he could not quite bring himself to believe that Lucy's calm courage was not foolhardiness. But where men were concerned, Lucy Armytage knew what to say and do as well as any woman that ever lived. As she sat next to Lord Baudesert at the long and glittering dinner-table, she talked with him so prettily, controlling her natural effervescence, but occasionally sparkling into brilliance, that Lord Baudesert found himself captivated as he had never been before in his life. Senator March and Alicia Vernon were present also; it seemed to Sir Percy as if the Fates were still at their terrible work between Alicia Vernon and him.
Mrs. Vereker was sadly polite to Lucy, wondering all the time what Lord Baudesert saw in her to delight him so obviously. When the last guest had departed, Lord Baudesert, standing in front of the fire in the hereditary attitude of the Englishman, with his feet wide apart and his hands behind his back, remarked coolly:
"I think, Susan, when you go home this summer, you may as well arrange to remain during the winter. I intend to take the future Lady Carlyon in hand and show her a few things, and I can't do it as well with you here. I shall ask her to preside here."
Mrs. Vereker gasped. The intimation was not wholly displeasing to her after three years of trial with Lord Baudesert, but the idea of an American woman doing the honours of Lord Baudesert's Embassy was enough to stagger anybody, certainly a person so easily staggered as Mrs. Vereker.
On a June morning in a small church in Bardstown, Kentucky, Lucy Armytage became Lady Carlyon. It was the simplest little wedding imaginable, without any token that Lucy was making a splendid marriage. She was a charming and unaffected bride, and looked all happiness. Sir Percy, however, after the manner of an Englishman who has attained his heart's desire, was silent, and looked somewhat bored.
On the same day, at a fashionable church in Washington, Alicia Vernon became Alicia March. The first news she heard of Sir Percy Carlyon was that he was promoted, and appointed Minister at a small Continental court. Thus Lady Carlyon and Mrs. March had separate orbits many thousand miles apart.
Four years and a half afterwards, on a mild, sunny December afternoon, Senator March, whilst walking through the still fashionable, fine old street in which his house was, saw a beautiful victoria, superbly horsed, drawn up to the sidewalk. In it sat a lady and gentleman, whom he instantly recognised as Sir Percy Carlyon, recently appointed Ambassador to Washington, and Lady Carlyon. They had stopped for a moment to speak to two beautiful little boys, three and two years of age, in the care of a stately nursemaid and her assistant. Senator March's eyes rested with longing upon the charming little children. He was passionately fond of children, and they were the only gift of Heaven which seemed denied to him. When the nurse moved away with her charges Senator March stepped up and grasped Sir Percy's hand, and then Lady Carlyon laid her little white-gloved hand in his.
"I didn't know you had arrived," said Senator March. "I watched the newspapers, and so has Mrs. March, thinking that we would not let twenty-four hours go by without seeing you."
"We reached town only last night," said Sir Percy; "and we were speaking of you five minutes ago when we drove past your house."
While Sir Percy was speaking, Senator March, man-like, kept his eyes fixed upon Lady Carlyon. One glance showed to him that she had found herself; she was far prettier than she had ever been before, and there was a new meaning and intelligence in her black eyes and added charm in her agreeable and well-cultivated voice. She seemed to have grown taller, and she had a sweet, unaffected dignity of wifehood and motherhood. The dainty, high-bred girl had become a woman, had developed into an Ambassadress worthy of the name. It was she who said to Senator March:
"I hope Mrs. March is well, and of course she is happy?"
"She appears to be both," replied Senator March, smiling; "perhaps it is only her British pluck which enables her to stand the American husband."
"I shall hope to see her very soon," said Lady Carlyon, and then Sir Percy inquired about General Talbott.
"We are expecting him in the spring. As you may imagine, Mrs. March does not let any long interval pass between her visits to General Talbott in England and his visits to us. By the way, what an odd fatality has always interfered with our seeing you and Lady Carlyon when we have been in Europe. We seemed to be playing a game of hide-and-seek, but now there will be no escaping each other, and we must see as much as we can of you and Lady Carlyon."
"Thank you," answered Sir Percy, with the utmost cordiality, but it was Lady Carlyon who added: "Yes, pray remember us to Mrs. March, and we shall look forward to seeing General Talbott as soon as he arrives. We shall expect to see you very shortly."
Then after a few moments more of conversation the carriage drove away.
A victoria, with a coachman and footman in hearing, is no place for a private conversation, and nothing was said about Senator March and his wife until Sir Percy and Lady Carlyon had reached home and were alone in Sir Percy's library.
"Dearest," said Lady Carlyon, laying her little hand upon his sleeve, "there is but one attitude to take: we must be friendly with her. Remember Senator March's position and how you stand with General Talbott."
"I know it all," answered Sir Percy doggedly.
They were standing together, and Sir Percy took his wife's hand and kissed it.
"You are the better diplomatist of the two," he said; "I could not bring myself to mention Alicia March's name. If it hadn't been for your readiness Senator March must have suspected something. It must be hard for you?"
"Very! But I have been preparing myself for this complication ever since you told me that story. After all, it is quite natural that Mrs. March should make a fight for her position in the world. It isn't every woman who has it in her to be a Louise la Valli�re."
"It is certainly not in Alicia March; however, there is nothing so cowardly as for a man to complain of a woman. I should be glad to take all the pain of my own wrongdoing, but you, poor, innocent child, must suffer too."
"Let us not think of it," said Lady Carlyon, drawing her husband's lips to hers.
Sir Percy said nothing, but his kiss and his eyes were eloquent of love and gratitude. Then Lady Carlyon went into the drawing-room and Sir Percy followed her. Deep in his heart he was a sentimentalist, and he loved his wife with single-hearted devotion. He could not but compare her, as she moved about the room, her white cloth gown trailing upon the floor, with the slim, pretty and inconsequent young girl whose waltzing had first charmed him. She was still slim and pretty, but she had grown wise with soft, sweet wisdom. It was she, now, who thought for him, smoothed over the rough places, practised an easy and graceful self-control, and was all that the wife of an Ambassador should be.
The tea-tray was brought in, and Lady Carlyon gave Sir Percy his tea, a thing comforting in itself, with the same gracious air that she would have handed it to the Ambassador of France.
"It was in the ball-room that I first saw you, waltzing with young Stanley, the naval officer," said Sir Percy, drinking his tea with calm deliberation, "and it was in the library that Lord Baudesert warned me that a diplomat should never marry an American, and I swore to him I never would."
"It is all wrong in principle," replied Lady Carlyon, making a pretty little grimace--she retained for Sir Percy's benefit alone all the little roguish tricks and airs which made Lucy Armytage so charming, but would scarcely have been becoming in Lady Carlyon--"I never thought that anything would induce me to marry any man outside of Kentucky. I have often been shocked by your want of knowledge of horses."
Sir Percy tweaked her ear. The form and ceremony with which horses were treated in England had been a revelation to Lady Carlyon, and Sir Percy himself was no mean judge of a horse. Nevertheless, Lady Carlyon, when she chose to be once more Lucy Armytage, would give herself supercilious