Part IV: The Veiled Figure
Chapter 3
 

A lady who lived at Kilburn, and entertained largely in a house not designed for large entertainment, was 'at home' this evening. At eleven o'clock the two drawing-rooms contained as many people as could sit and stand with semblance of comfort; around the hostess, on the landing, pressed a crowd, which grew constantly thicker by affluence from the staircase. In the hall below a 'Hungarian band' discoursed very loud music. Among recent arrivals appeared a troupe of nigger minstrels, engaged to give their exhilarating entertainment--if space could be found for them. Bursts of laughter from the dining-room announced the success of an American joker, who, in return for a substantial cheque, provided amusement in fashionable gatherings. A brilliant scene. The air, which encouraged perspiration, was rich with many odours; voices endeavouring to make themselves audible in colloquy, swelled to a tumultuous volume that vied with the Hungarian clangours.

In a corner of the staircase, squeezed behind two very fat women in very low dresses, stood Horace Lord. His heated countenance wore a look of fretful impatience; he kept rising upon his toes in an endeavour to distinguish faces down in the hall. At length his expression changed, and with eager eyes he began to force a way for himself between the fat women. Not unrewarded with glaring glances, and even with severe remarks, he succeeded in gaining the foot of the staircase, and came within reach of the persons for whom he had been waiting. These were Mrs. Damerel and Fanny French. The elder lady exhibited a toilet of opulence corresponding with her mature charms; the younger, as became a debutante, wore graceful white, symbol of her maiden modesty.

'You promised to be early,' said Horace, addressing Mrs. Damerel, but regarding Fanny, who stood in conversation with a florid man of uncertain age.

'Couldn't get here before, my dear boy.'

'Surely you haven't brought that fellow with you?'

'Hush! You mustn't talk in that way. We met at the door. Mrs. Dane knows him. What does it matter?'

Horace moved aside to Fanny. Flushed with excitement, her hair adorned with flowers, she looked very pretty.

'Come along,' he said, gripping her hand more violently than he intended. 'Let us get upstairs.'

'Oh, you hurt me! Don't be so silly.'

The man beside her gave Horace a friendly nod. His name was Mankelow. Horace had met him once or twice of late at Mrs. Damerel's, but did not like him, and felt still less disposed to do so now that Mankelow was acquainted with Fanny French. He suspected that the two were more familiar than Fanny pretended. With little ceremony, he interposed himself between the girl and this possible rival.

'Why didn't you make her come earlier?' he said to Fanny, as they began a slow upward struggle in the rear of Mrs. Damerel.

'It isn't fashionable to come early.'

'Nonsense! Look at the people here already.'

Fanny threw up her chin, and glanced back to see that Mankelow was following. In his vexation, Horace was seized with a cough--a cough several times repeated before he could check it.

'Your cold's no better,' said Fanny. 'You oughtn't to have come out at night.'

'It is better,' he replied sharply. 'That's the first time I've coughed to-day. Do you mean you would rather not have found me here?'

'How silly you are! People will hear what you're saying.'

It was Fanny's 'first season,' but not her first 'at home.' Mrs. Damerel seemed to be taking an affectionate interest in her, and had introduced her to several people. Horace, gratified in the beginning, now suffered from jealousy; it tortured him to observe Fanny when she talked with men. That her breeding was defective, mattered nothing in this composite world of pseudo-elegance. Young Lord, who did not lack native intelligence, understood by this time that Mrs. Damerel and her friends were far from belonging to a high order of society; he saw vulgarity rampant in every drawing-room to which he was admitted, and occasionally heard things which startled his suburban prejudices. But Fanny, in her wild enjoyment of these novel splendours, appeared to lose all self-control. She flirted outrageously, and before his very eyes. If he reproached her, she laughed at him; if he threatened to free himself, she returned a look which impudently bade him try. Horace had all her faults by heart, and no longer tried to think that he respected her, or that, if he married such a girl, his life could possibly be a happy one; but she still played upon his passions, and at her beck he followed like a dog.

The hostess, Mrs. Dane, a woman who looked as if she had once been superior to the kind of life she now led, welcomed him with peculiar warmth, and in a quick confidential voice bade him keep near her for a few minutes.

'There's some one I want to introduce you to--some one I'm sure you will like to know.'

Obeying her, he soon lost sight of Fanny; but Mrs. Dane continued to talk, at intervals, in such a flattering tone, that his turbid emotions were soothed. He had heard of the Chittles? No? They were very old friends of hers, said Mrs. Dane, and she particularly wanted him to know them. Ah, here they came; mother and daughter. Horace observed them. Mrs. Chittle was a frail, worn, nervous woman, who must once have been comely; her daughter, a girl of two-and-twenty, had a pale, thin face of much sweetness and gentleness. They seemed by no means at home in this company; but Mrs. Chittle, when she conversed, assumed a vivacious air; the daughter, trying to follow her example, strove vainly against an excessive bashfulness, and seldom raised her eyes. Why he should be expected to pay special attention to these people, Horace was at a loss to understand; but Mrs. Chittle attached herself to him, and soon led him into familiar dialogue. He learnt from her that they had lived for two or three years in a very quiet country place; they had come up for the season, but did not know many people. She spoke of her daughter, who stood just out of earshot,--her eyes cast down, on her face a sad fixed smile,--and said that it had been necessary almost to force her into society. 'She loves the country, and is so fond of books; but at her age it's really a shame to live like a nun--don't you think so, Mr. Lord?' Decidedly it was, said Horace. 'I'm doing my best,' pursued Mrs. Chittle, 'to cure her of her shyness. She is really afraid of people--and it's such a pity. She says that the things people talk about don't interest her; but all people are not frivolous--are they, Mr. Lord?' Horace hoped not; and presently out of mere good-nature he tried to converse with the young lady in a way that should neither alarm her shyness nor prove distasteful to her intelligence. But with very little success. From time to time the girl glanced at him with strange timidity, yet seemed quite willing to listen as long as he chose to talk.

Fanny, being at a considerable distance from home, was to return to the boarding-house where her chaperon now lived, and have a room there for the night. Horace disliked this arrangement, for the objectionable Mankelow lived in the same house. When he was able to get speech with Fanny, he tried to persuade her to go with him all the way home to Camberwell in a cab. Miss. French would not listen to the suggestion.

'Who ever heard of such a thing? It wouldn't be proper.'

'Proper! Oh, I like that!' he replied, with scathing irony.

'You can either like it or not. Mrs. Damerel wouldn't dream of allowing it. I think she's quite as good a judge of propriety as you are.'

They were in a corner of the dining-room. Fanny, having supped much to her satisfaction, had a high colour, and treated her lover with more than usual insolence. Horace had eaten little, but had not refrained from beverages; he was disposed to assert himself.

'It seems to me that we ought to have an understanding. You never do as I wish in a single thing. What do you mean by it?'

'Oh, if you're going to be nasty--'

She made the gesture of a servant-girl who quarrels with her young man at the street-corner.

'I can't stand the kind of treatment you've given me lately,' said Horace, with muffled anger.

'I've told you I shall do just as I like.'

'Very well. That's as much as to say that you care nothing about me. I'm not going to be the slave of a girl who has no sense of honour --not even of decency. If you wish me to speak to you again you must speak first.'

And he left her, Fanny laughing scornfully.

It drew towards one o'clock when, having exhausted the delights of the evening, and being in a decidedly limp condition, Mrs. Damerel and her protegee drove home. Fanny said nothing of what had passed between her and Horace. The elder lady, after keeping silence for half the drive, spoke at length in a tone of indulgent playfulness.

'So you talked a good deal with Mr. Mankelow?'

'Not for long. Now and then. He took me down to supper--the first time.'

'I'm afraid somebody will be a little jealous. I shall get into trouble. I didn't foresee this.'

'Somebody must treat me in a reasonable way,' Fanny answered, with a dry laugh.

'I'm quite sure he will,' said Mrs. Damerel suavely. 'But I feel myself a little responsible, you know. Let me put you on your guard against Mr. Mankelow. I'm afraid he's rather a dangerous man. I have heard rather alarming stories about him. You see he's very rich, and very rich men, if they're rather handsome as well, say and do things --you understand?'

'Is he really very rich?'

'Well, several thousands a year, and a prospect of more when relatives die. I don't mean to say that he is a bad man. He belongs to a very good family, and I believe him perfectly honourable. He would never do any one any harm--or, if he happened to, without meaning it, I'm quite sure he'd repair it in the honourable way.'

'You said he was dangerous--'

'To a young lady who is already engaged. Confess that you think him rather good-looking.'

Having inflamed the girl's imagination, Mrs. Damerel presently dropped the subject, and fell again into weary silence.

At noon of the next day she received a call from Horace, who found her over tea and toast in her private sitting-room. The young man looked bilious; he coughed, too, and said that he must have caught fresh cold last night.

'That house was like an oven. I won't go to any more such places. That isn't my idea of enjoying myself.'

Mrs. Damerel examined him with affectionate solicitude, and reflected before speaking.

'Haven't you been living rather fast lately?'

He avoided her eyes.

'Not at all.'

'Quite sure? How much money have you spent this last month?'

'Not much.'

By careful interrogation--the caressing notes of her voice seemed to convey genuine feeling--Mrs. Damerel elicited the fact that he had spent not less than fifty pounds in a few weeks. She looked very grave.

'What would our little Fanny say to this?'

'I don't care what she would say.'

And he unburdened himself of his complaints against the frivolous charmer, Mrs. Damerel listening with a compassionate smile.

'I'm afraid it's all too true, dear boy. But didn't I warn you?'

'You have made her worse. And I more than half believe you have purposely put her in the way of that fellow Mankelow. Now I tell you plainly'--his voice quivered--'if I lose her, I'll raise all the money I can and play the very devil.'

'Hush! no naughty words! Let us talk about something else till you are quieter.--What did you think of Mrs. Chittle?'

'I thought nothing of her, good or bad.'

'Of her daughter, then. Isn't she a sweet, quiet girl? Do you know that she is rich? It's perfectly true. Mrs. Chittle is the widow of a man who made a big fortune out of a kind of imitation velvet. It sold only for a few years, then something else drove it out of the market; but the money was made. I know all about it from Mrs. Dane.'

'It's nothing to me,' said Horace peevishly.

But Mrs. Damerel continued:

'The poor girl has been very unfortunate. In the last year of her father's life they lived in good style, town-house and country-house. And she fell in love with somebody who--who treated her badly; broke it off, in fact, just before the wedding. She had a bad illness, and since then she has lived as her mother told you.'

'How do you know she told me?'

'I--oh, I took it for granted. She said you had had a long talk. You can see, of course, that they're not ordinary people. Didn't Winifred--her name is Winifred--strike you as very refined and lady-like?'

'She hardly spoke half-a-dozen words.'

'That's her nervousness. She has quite got out of the habit of society. But she's very clever, and so good. I want you to see more of her. If she comes here to tea, will you--just to please me-- look in for half-an-hour?'

She bent her head aside, wistfully. Horace vouchsafed no reply.

'Dear boy, I know very well what a disappointment you are suffering. Why not be quite open with me? Though I'm only a tiresome old aunt, I feel every bit as anxious for your happiness as if I were your mother--I do indeed, Horace. You believe me, don't you?'

'You have been very kind, in many ways. But you've done harm to Fanny--'

'No harm whatever, Horace--believe me. I have only given her an opportunity of showing what she really is. You see now that she thinks of nothing at all but money and selfish pleasures. Compare her, my dear, with such a girl as Winifred Chittle. I only mean-- just to show you the difference between a lady and such a girl as Fanny. She has treated you abominably, my poor boy. And what would she bring you? Not that I wish you to marry for money. I have seen too much of the world to be so foolish, so wicked. But when there are sweet, clever, lady-like girls, with large incomes--! And a handsome boy like you! You may blush, but there's no harm in telling the truth. You are far too modest. You don't know how you look in the eyes of an affectionate, thoughtful girl--like Winifred, for instance. It's dreadful to think of you throwing yourself away! My dear, it may sound shocking to you, but Fanny French isn't the sort of girl that men marry.'

Horace showed himself startled.

'You are so young,' pursued the mature lady, with an indulgent smile. 'You need the advice of some one who knows the world. In years to come, you will feel very grateful to me. Now don't let us talk any more of that, just now; but tell me something about Nancy. How much longer does she mean to stay in Cornwall?'

He answered absently.

'She talks of another month or two.'

'But what have her guardians to say to that? Why, she has been away for nearly half a year. How can that be called living at the old house?'

'It's no business of mine.'

'Nor of mine, you mean to say. Still, it does seem rather strange. I suppose she is quite to be trusted?'

'Trusted? What harm can come to her? She's keeping out of Sam Barmby's way, that's all. I believe he plagued her to marry him. A nice husband for Nancy!'

'I wish we had taken to each other,' said Mrs. Damerel musingly. 'I think she was a little jealous of the attention I had paid to you. But perhaps we shall do better some day. And I'm quite content so long as you care a little for me, dear boy. You'll never give me up, will you?'

It was asked with unusual show of feeling; she leaned forward, her eyes fixed tenderly upon the boy's face.

'You would never let a Fanny French come between us, Horace dear?'

'I only wish you hadn't brought her among your friends.'

'Some day you will be glad of what I did. Whatever happens, I am your best friend--the best and truest friend you will ever have. You will know it some day.'

The voice impressed Horace, its emotion was so true. Several times through the day he recalled and thought of it. As yet he had felt nothing like affection for Mrs. Damerel, but before their next meeting an impulse he did not try to account for caused him to write her a letter--simply to assure her that he was not ungrateful for her kindness. The reply that came in a few hours surprised and touched him, for it repeated in yet warmer words all she had spoken. 'Let me be in the place of a mother to you, dear Horace. Think of me as if I were your mother. If I were your mother indeed, I could not love you more.' He mused over this, and received from it a sense of comfort which was quite new to him.

All through the winter he had been living as a gentleman of assured independence. This was managed very simply. Acting on Mrs. Damerel's counsel he insured his life, and straightaway used the policy as security for a loan of five hundred pounds from a friend of Mrs. Damerel's. The insurance itself was not effected without a disagreeable little episode. As a result of the medical examination, Horace learnt, greatly to his surprise, that he would have to pay a premium somewhat higher than the ordinary. Unpleasant questions were asked: Was he quite sure that he knew of no case of consumption in his family? Quite sure, he answered stoutly, and sincerely. Why? Did the doctor think him consumptive? Oh dear no, but--a slight constitutional weakness. In fine, the higher premium must be exacted. He paid it with the indifference of his years, but said nothing to Mrs. Damerel.

And thereupon began the sowing of wild oats. At two-and-twenty, after domestic restraint and occupations that he detested, he was let loose upon life. Five hundred pounds seemed to him practically inexhaustible. He did not wish to indulge in great extravagance; merely to see and to taste the world.

Ah, the rapture of those first nights, when he revelled amid the tumult of London, pursuing joy with a pocket full of sovereigns! Theatres, music-halls, restaurants and public-houses--he had seen so little of these things, that they excited him as they do a lad fresh from the country. He drew the line nowhere. Love of a worthy woman tells for chastity even in the young and the sensual; love of a Fanny French merely debauches the mind and inflames the passions. Secure in his paganism, Horace followed where the lures of London beckoned him; he knew not reproach of conscience; shame offered but thin resistance to his boiling blood. By a miracle he had as yet escaped worse damage to health than a severe cold, caught one night after heroic drinking. That laid him by the heels for a time, and the cough still clung to him.

In less than two years he would command seven thousand pounds, and a share in the business now conducted by Samuel Barmby. What need to stint himself whilst he felt able to enjoy life? If Fanny deceived him, were there not, after all, other and better Fannys to be won by his money? For it was a result of this girl's worthlessness that Horace, in most things so ingenuous, had come to regard women with unconscious cynicism. He did not think he could be loved for his own sake, but he believed that, at any time, the show of love, perhaps its ultimate sincerity, might be won by display of cash.

Midway in the month of May he again caught a severe cold, and was confined to the house for nearly three weeks. Mrs. Damerel, who nursed him well and tenderly, proposed that he should go down for change of air to Falmouth. He wrote to Nancy, asking whether she would care to see him. A prompt reply informed him that his sister was on the point of returning to London, so that he had better choose some nearer seaside resort.

He went to Hastings for a few days, but wearied of the place, and came back to his London excitements. Nancy, however, had not yet returned; nor did she until the beginning of July.