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'Don't You Think-?'
It was pretty to see the Duke's reception of Lady Mabel. 'I knew your mother many years ago,' he said, 'when I was young myself. Her mother and my mother were first cousins and dear friends.' He held her hand as he spoke and looked at her as though he meant to love her. Lady Mabel saw that it was so. could it be possible that the Duke had heard anything;--that he should wish to receive her? She had told herself and had told Miss Cassewary that though she had spared Silverbridge, yet she knew that she would make him a good wife. If the Duke thought so also, then surely she need not doubt.
'I knew we were cousins,' she said, 'and have been so proud of the connection! Lord Silverbridge does come and see us sometimes.'
Soon after that Silverbridge and Popplecourt came in. If the story of the old woman in the portrait may be taken as evidence of a family connection between Lady Cantrip and Lord Popplecourt, everybody there was more or less connected with everybody else. Nidderdale had been a first cousin of Lady Glencora, and he had married a daughter of Lady Cantrip. They were manifestly a family party,--thanks to the old woman in the picture.
It is a point of conscience among the--perhaps not ten thousand, but say one thousand of bluest blood,--that everybody should know who everybody is. Our Duke, though he had not given his mind much to the pursuit, had nevertheless learned his lesson. It is a knowledge which the possession of the blue blood itself produces. There are countries with bluer blood than our own in which to be without such knowledge is a crime.
When the old lady in the portrait had been discussed, Popplecourt was close to Lady Mary. They two had no idea why such vicinity had been planned. The Duke knew of course, and Lady Cantrip. Lady Cantrip had whispered to her daughter that such a marriage would be suitable, and the daughter had hinted it to her husband. Lord Cantrip of course was not in the dark. Lady Mabel had expressed a hint on the matter to Miss Cass, who had not repudiated it. Even Silverbridge had suggested to himself that something of the kind might be in the wind, thinking that, if so, none of them knew very much about his sister Mary. But Popplecourt himself was divinely innocent. His ideas of marriage had as yet gone no farther than a conviction that girls generally were things which would be pressed on him, and against which he must arm himself with some shield. Marriage would have to come, no doubt, but not the less was it his duty to live as though it were a pit towards which he would be tempted by female allurements. But that a net should be spread over him here he was much too humble-minded to imagine.
'Very hot,' he said to Lady Mary.
'We found it warm in church today.'
'I dare say. I came down here with your brother in his hansom cab. What a very odd thing to have a hansom cab!'
'I should like one.'
'Should you indeed?'
'Particularly if I could drive it myself. Silverbridge does, at night, when he thinks people won't see him.'
'Drive the cab in the streets! What does he do with his man?'
'Puts him inside. He was out once without the man and took up a fare,--an old woman, he said. And when she was going to pay him he touched his hat and said he never took money from ladies.'
'Do you believe that?'
'Oh yes. I call that good fun, because it did no harm. He had his lark. The lady was taken where she wanted to go, and she saved her money.'
'Suppose he had upset her,' said Lord Popplecourt, looking as an old philosopher might have looked when he had found something clenching answer to another philosopher's argument.
'The real cabman might have upset her worse,' said Lady Mary.
'Don't you feel it odd that we should meet here?' said Lord Silverbridge to his neighbour Lady Mabel.
'Anything unexpected is odd,' said Lady Mabel. It seemed to her to be very odd,--unless certain people had made up their minds as to the expediency of a certain event.
'That is what you call logic;--isn't it? Anything unexpected is odd?'
'Lord Silverbridge, I won't be laughed at. You have been at Oxford and ought to know what logic is.'
'That at any rate is ill-natured,' he replied, turning very red in the face.
'You don't think I meant it. Oh, Lord Silverbridge, say that you don't think I meant it. You cannot think I would willingly wound you. Indeed, indeed, I was not thinking.' It had, in truth been an accident. She could speak aloud because they were closely surrounded by others, but she looked up in his face to see whether he were angry with her. 'Say that you do not think I meant it.'
'I do not think you meant it.'
'I would not say a word to hurt you,--oh for more than I can tell you.'
'It is all bosh of course,' said he laughing, 'but I do not like to hear the old place named. I have always made a fool of myself, some men do it and don't care about it. But I do it, and yet it makes me miserable.'
'If that be so you will soon give over making--what you call a fool of yourself, for my self I like the idea of wild oats. I look upon them like measles. Only you should have a doctor ready when the disease shows itself.'
'What sort of doctor should I have?'
'Ah;--you must find that out for yourself. That sort of feeling which makes you feel miserable;--that is a doctor itself.'
'Or a wife?'
'Or a wife,--if you can find a good one. There are wives, you know, who aggravate the disease. If I had a fast husband I should make him faster by being fast myself. There is nothing I envy so much as the power of doing half-mad things.'
'Women can do that too.'
'But they go to the dogs. We are dreadfully restricted. If you like champagne you can have a bucketful. I am obliged to pretend that I only want a very little. You can bet thousands. I must confine myself to gloves. You can flirt with any woman you please. I must wait till somebody comes,--and put up with it if nobody does come.'
'Plenty come no doubt.'
'But I want to pick and choose. A man turns the girls over one after another as one does the papers when one if fitting up a room, or rolls them out as one rolls out the carpets. A very careful young man like Lord Popplecourt might reject a young woman because her hair didn't suit the colour of his furniture.'
'I don't think that I shall choose my wife as I would papers and carpets.'
The Duke, who sat between Lady Cantrip and her daughter, did his best to make himself agreeable. The conversation had been semi- political,--political to the usual feminine extent, and had consisted chiefly of sarcasms from Lady Cantrip against Sir Timothy Beeswax. 'That England should put up with such a man,' Lady Cantrip had said, 'is to me shocking! There used to be a feeling in favour of gentlemen.' To this the Duke had responded by asserting that Sir Timothy had displayed great aptitudes for parliamentary life, and knew the House of Commons better than most men. He said nothing against his foe, and very much in his foe's praise. But Lady Cantrip perceived that she had succeeded in pleasing him.
When the ladies were gone the politics became more serious. 'That unfortunate quarrel is to go on the same as ever I suppose,' said the Duke, addressing himself to the two young men who had seats in the House of Commons. They were both on the Conservative side in politics. The three peers were all Liberals.
'Till next session, I think, sir,' said Silverbridge.
'Sir Timothy, though he did lose his temper, has managed it well,' said Lord Cantrip.
'Phineas Finn lost his temper worse than Sir Timothy,' said Lord Nidderdale.
'But yet I think he had the feeling of the House with him,' said the Duke. 'I happened to be present in the gallery at the time.'
'Yes,' said Nidderdale, 'because he "owned up". The fact is if you "own up" in a genial sort of way the House will forgive anything. If I were to murder my grandmother, and when questioned about it were to acknowledge that I had done it--' Then Lord Nidderdale stood up and made his speech as he might have made it in the House of Commons. 'I regret to say, sir, that the old woman did get in my way when I was in a passion. Unfortunately I had a heavy stick in my hand and I did strike her over the head. Nobody can regret it so much as I do! Nobody can feel so acutely the position in which I am placed! I have sat in this House for many years, and many gentlemen know me well. I think, sir, that they will acknowledge that I am a man not deficient in filial piety or general humanity. Sir, I am sorry for what I did in a moment of heat. I have now spoken the truth, and I shall leave myself in the hands of the House. My belief is that I should get such a round of applause as I certainly shall never achieve in any other way. It is not only that a popular man may do it,--like Phineas Finn,--but the most unpopular man in the House may make himself liked by owning freely that he has done something that he ought to be ashamed of.' Nidderdale's unwonted eloquence was received in good part by the assembled legislators.
'Taking it altogether,' said the Duke, 'I know of no assembly in any country in which good-humour prevails so generally, in which the members behave to each other so well, in which the rules are so universally followed, or in which the president is so thoroughly sustained by the feeling of the members.
'I hear men say that it isn't quite what it used to be,' said Silverbridge.
'Nothing will ever be quite what it used to be.'
'Changes for the worse, I mean. Men are doing all kinds of things, just because the rules of the House allow them.'
'If they be within the rule,' said the Duke, 'I don't know who is to blame them. In my time, if any man stretched a rule too far the House would not put up with it.'
'That's just it,' said Nidderdale. 'The House puts up with anything now. There is a great deal of good feeling no doubt, but there's no earnestness about anything. I think you are more earnest than we; but then you are such horrid bores. And each earnest man is in earnest about something that nobody else cares for.'
When they were again in the drawing-room, Lord Popplecourt was seated next to Lady Mary. 'Where are you going this autumn?' he asked.
'I don't know in the least. Papa said something about going abroad.'
'You won't be at Custins?' Custins was Lord Cantrip's country seat in Dorsetshire.
'I know nothing about myself as yet. But I don't think I shall go anywhere unless papa goes too.'
'Lady Cantrip has asked me to be at Custins in the middle of October. They say it is about the best pheasant shooting in England.'
'Do you shoot much?'
'A great deal. I shall be in Scotland on the Twelfth. I and Reginald Dobbs have a place together. I shall get to my own partridges on the first of September. I always manage that. Popplecourt is in Suffolk, and I don't think any man in England can beat me for partridges.'
'What do you do with all you slay?'
'Leadenhall Market. I make it pay,--or very nearly. Then I shall run back to Scotland for the end of the stalking, and I can easily manage to be at Custins by the middle of October. I never touch my own pheasants till November.'
'Why are you so abstemious?'
'The birds are heavier and it answer better. But if I thought you would be at Custins it would be much nicer.' Lady Mary again told him that as yet she knew nothing of her father's autumn movements.
But at the same time the Duke was arranging his autumn movements, or at any rate those of his daughter. Lady Cantrip had told him that the desirable son-in-law had promised to go to Custins, and suggested that he and Mary should also be there. In his daughter's name he promised, but he would not bind himself. Would it not be better that he should be absent? Now that the doing of the thing was brought nearer to him so that he could see and feel its details, he was disgusted by it. And yet it had answered so well with his wife!
'Is Lord Popplecourt intimate with her?' Lady Mabel asked her friend, Lord Silverbridge.
'I don't know. I am not.'
'Lady Cantrip seems to think a great deal about him.'
'I daresay. I don't.'
'Your father seems to like him.'
'That's possible too. They're going back to London together in the governor's carriage. My father will talk high politics all the way, and Popplecourt will agree with everything.'
'He isn't intended to--to--? You know what I mean.'
'I can't say that I do.'
'To cut out poor Frank.'
'It is quite possible.'
'You had a great deal better say poor Popplecourt!-or poor governor, or poor Lady Cantrip.'
'But a hundred countesses can't make your sister marry a man she doesn't like.'
'Just that. They don't go the right way about it.'
'What would you do?'
'Leave her alone. Let her find out gradually that what she wants can't be done.'
'And so linger on for years,' said Lady Mabel reproachfully.
'I say nothing about that. The man is my friend.'
'And you ought to be proud of him.'
'I never knew anybody yet who was proud of his friends. I like him well enough, but I can quite understand that the governor should object.'
'Yes, we all know that,' said she sadly.
'What would your father say if you wanted to marry someone who hadn't a shilling?'
'I should object myself,--without waiting for my father. But then,-- neither have I a shilling. If I had money, do you think I wouldn't like to give it to the man I loved?'
'But this is a case of giving somebody else's money. They won't make her give it up by bringing such a young ass as that down here. If my father has persistency enough to let her cry her eyes out, he'll succeed.'
'And break her heart. Could you do that?'
'Certainly not. But then I'm soft. I can't refuse.'
'Not if the person who asks me is in my good books. You try me.'
'What shall I ask for?'
'Give me the ring off your finger,' she said. He at once took it off his hand. 'Of course you know I am in joke. You don't imagine that I would take it from you.' He still held it towards her. 'Lord Silverbridge, I expect that with you I may say a foolish thing without being brought to sorrow by it. I know that that ring belonged to your great uncle,--and to fifty Pallisers before.'
'What would it matter?'
'And it would be wholly useless to me, as I would not wear it.'
'Of course it would be too big,' said he, replacing the ring on his own finger. 'But when I talk of anyone being in my good books, I don't mean a thing like that. Don't you know there is nobody on earth I--' there he paused and blushed, and she sat motionless, looking at him, expecting, with her colour too somewhat raised,-- 'whom I like so well as I do you?' It was a lame conclusion. She felt it to be lame. But as regarded him, the lameness of the moment had come from a timidity which forbade him to say the word 'love' even though he had meant to say it.
She recovered herself instantly. 'I do believe it,' she said. 'I do think that we are real friends.'
'Not that ring;--nor a ring at all after I had asked for it in joke. You understand it all. But to go back to what we were talking about,--if you can do anything for Frank, pray do. You know it will break his heart. A man of course bears it better, but he does not perhaps suffer the less. It is all his life to him. He can do nothing while this is going on. Are you not true enough to your friendship to exert yourself for him?' Silverbridge put his hand up and rubbed his head as though he were vexed. 'Your aid would turn everything in his favour.'
'You do not know my father.'
'Is he so inexorable?' 'It is not that, Mabel. But he is so unhappy. I cannot add to his unhappiness by taking part against him.'
In another part of the room Lady Cantrip was busy with Lord Popplecourt. She had talked about pheasants, and had talked about grouse, had talked about moving the address in the House of Lords in some coming session, and the great value of political alliances early in life, till the young Peer began to think that Lady Cantrip was the nicest of women. Then after a short pause she changed the subject. 'Don't you think Lady Mary very beautiful?'
'Uncommon,' said his lordship.
'And her manners so perfect. She has all her mother's ease without any of that--You know what I mean.'
'Quite so,' said his lordship.
'And then she has got so much in her.'
'Has she though?'
'I don't know of any girl her age so thoroughly well educated. The Duke seems to take to you.'
'Well yes;--the Duke is very kind.'
'Don't you think-?'
'You have heard of her mother's fortune?'
'She will have, I take it, quite a third of it. Whatever I say I'm sure you will take in confidence; but she is a dear girl; and I am anxious for her happiness almost as though she belonged to me.'
Lord Popplecourt went back into town in the Duke's carriage, but was unable to say a word about politics. His mind was altogether filled with the wonderful words that had been spoken to him. Could it be that Lady Mary had fallen violently in love with him? He would not at once give himself up to the pleasing idea, having so thoroughly grounded himself in the belief that female nets were to be avoided. But when he got home he did think favourably of it. The daughter of a Duke,--and such a Duke! So lovely a girl, and with such gifts! And then a fortune which would make a material addition to his own large property!
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