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I Don't Think She is a Snake
On the following day, Tuesday, the Boncassens went, and then there were none of the guests left but Mrs Finn and Lady Mabel Grex,-- with of course Miss Cassewary. The Duke had especially asked both Mrs Finn and Lady Mabel to remain, the former, through his anxiety to show his repentance for the injustice he had formerly done her, and the latter in the hope that something might be settled as soon as the crowd of visitors should have gone. He had so spoken as to make Lady Mabel quite aware of his wish. He would not have told her how sure he was that Silverbridge would keep no more racehorses, how he trusted that Silverbridge had done with betting, how he believed that the young member would take a real interest in the House of Commons, had he not intended that she should take a special interest in the young man. And then he had spoken about the house in London. It was to be made over to Silverbridge as soon as Silverbridge should marry. And then there was Gatherum Castle. Gatherum was rather a trouble than otherwise. He had ever felt it to be so, but had nevertheless always kept it open perhaps for a month in the year. His uncle had always resided there for a fortnight at Christmas. When Silverbridge was married it would become the young man's duty to do something of the same kind. Gatherum was the White Elephant of the family, and Silverbridge must enter it upon his share of the trouble. He did not know that in saying all this he was offering his son as a husband to Lady Mabel, but she understood it as thoroughly as though he had spoken the words.
But she knew the son's mind also. He had indeed himself told her all his mind. 'Of course I love her best of all,' he had said. When he told her of it she had been so overcome that she had wept in her despair;--had wept in his presence. She had declared to him her secret,--that it had been her intention to become his wife, and then he had rejected her! It had all been shame, and sorrow, and disappointment to her. And she could not but remember that there had been a moment when she might have secured him by a word. A look would have done it; a touch of her finger on that morning. She had known then that he had intended to be in earnest,--that he only waited for encouragement. She had not given it because she had not wish to grasp too eagerly for the prize,--and now the prize was gone! She had said that she had spared him;--but then she could afford to joke, thinking that he would surely come back to her.
She had begun her world with so fatal a mistake! When she was quite young, when she was little more than a child but still not a child, she had given all her love to a man whom she soon found that it would be impossible she should ever marry. He had offered to face the world with her, promising to do the best to smooth the rough places, and to soften the stones for her feet. But she, young as she was, had felt that both he and she belonged to a class which could hardly endure poverty with contentment. The grinding need for money, the absolute necessity of luxurious living, had been pressed upon her from her childhood. She had seen it and acknowledged it, and had told him with precocious wisdom, that that which he offered to do for her sake would be a folly for them both. She had not stinted the assurance of her love, but had told him that they must both turn aside and learn to love elsewhere. He had done so, with too complete a readiness! She had dreamed of a second love, which should obliterate the first,-- which might still leave to her the memory of the romance of her earlier passion. Then this boy had come her way! With him all her ambition might have been satisfied. She desired high rank and great wealth. With him she might have had it all. And then, too, though there would always be the memory of that early passion, yet she could in another fashion love this youth. He was pleasant to her, and gracious;--and she had told herself that if it should be so that this great fortune might be hers, she would atone to him fully for that past romance by the wife-like devotion of her life. The cup had come within the reach of her fingers, but she had not grasped it. Her happiness, her triumphs, her great success had been there, present to her, and she had dallied with her fortune. There had been a day on which he had been all but at her feet, and on the next he had been prostrate at the feet of another. He had even dared to tell her so,--saying of that American that 'of course he loved her the best'!
Over and over again since that she had asked herself whether there was no chance. Though he had loved that other one best she would take him if it were possible. When the invitation came from the Duke she would not lose a chance. She had told him that it was impossible that he, the heir of the Duke of Omnium, should marry an American. All his family, all his friends, all his world would be against him. And then he was so young,--and, as she thought, so easily led. He was lovable and prone to love,--but surely his love could not be very strong, or he would not have changed so easily.
She did not hesitate to own to herself that this American was very lovely. She too, herself, was beautiful. She too had a reputation for grace, loveliness, and feminine high-bred charm. She knew all that, but she knew also that her attractions were not so bright as those of her rival. She could not smile or laugh or throw sparks of brilliance around her as did the American girl. Miss Boncassen could be graceful as a nymph in doing the awkwardest thing! When she had pretended to walk stiffly along, to some imaginary marriage ceremony, with her foot stuck before her, with her chin in the air, and one arm akimbo, Silverbridge had been all afire with admiration. Lady Mabel understood it all. The American girl must be taken away,--from out of the reach of the young man's senses,-- and then the struggle must be made.
Lady Mabel had not been long at Matching before she learned that she had much in her favour. She perceived that the Duke himself had not suspicion of what was going on, and that he was strongly disposed in her favour. She unravelled it all in her own mind. There must have been some agreement, between the father and the son, when the son had all but made his offer to her. More than once she was half-minded to speak openly to the Duke, to tell him all that Silverbridge had said to her and all that he had not said, and to ask the father's help in scheming against that rival. But she could not find the words with which to begin. And then, might he not despise her, and despising reject her, were she to declare her desire to marry a man who had given his heart to another woman? And so, when the Duke asked her to remain after the departure of the other guests, she decided that it would be best to bide her time. The Duke, as she assented, kissed her hand, and she knew that this sign of grace was given to his intended daughter-in-law.
In all this she half-confided her thoughts and her prospects to her old friend Miss Cassewary. 'That girl has gone at last,' she said to Miss Cassewary.
'I fear she has left her spells behind her, my dear.'
'Of course she has. The venom out of the snake's tooth will poison all the blood; but still the poor bitten wretch does not always die.'
'I don't think she is a snake.'
'Don't be moral, Cass. She is a snake in my sense. She has got her weapons, and of course it is natural enough that she should use them. If I want to be the Duchess of Omnium, why shouldn't she?'
'I hate to hear you talk of yourself in that way.'
'Because you have enough of the old school about you to like conventional falsehood. This young man did in fact ask me to be his wife. Of course I meant to accept him,--but I didn't. Then comes this convict's granddaughter.'
'Not a convict's!'
'You know what I mean. Had he been a convict it would have been all the same. I take upon myself to say that, had the world been informed that an alliance had been arranged between the eldest son of the Duke of Omnium and the daughter of Earl Grex,--the world would have been satisfied. Every unmarried daughter of every peer in England would have envied me,--but it would have been comme il faut.'
'Certainly, my dear.'
'But what would be the feeling as to the convict's granddaughter?'
'You don't suppose that I would approve it;--but it seems to me that in these days young men do just as they please.'
'He shall do what he pleases, but he must be made to be pleased with me.' So much she said to Miss Cassewary; but she did not divulge any plan. The Boncassens had just gone off to the station, and Silverbridge was out shooting. If anything could be done here at Matching, it must be done quickly, as Silverbridge would soon take his departure. She did not know it, but, in truth, he was remaining in order that he might, as he said, 'have all this out with the governor'.
She tried to realise for herself some plan, but when the evening came nothing was fixed. For a quarter of an hour, just as the sun was setting, the Duke joined her in the gardens,--and spoke to her more plainly than he had ever spoken before. 'Has Silverbridge come home?' he asked.
'I have not seen him.'
'I hope you and Mary get on well together.'
'I think so, Duke. I am sure we should if we saw more of each other.'
'I sincerely hope you may. There is nothing I wish for Mary so much as that she should have a sister. And there is no one whom I would be so glad to hear her call by that name as yourself.' How could he have spoken plainer?
The ladies were all together in the drawing-room when Silverbridge came bursting in rather late. 'Where's the governor?' he asked, turning to his sister.
'Dressing I should think; but what is the matter?'
'I want to see him. I must be off to Cornwall tomorrow morning.'
'To Cornwall!' said Miss Cassewary. 'Why to Cornwall?' asked Lady Mabel. But Mary, connecting Cornwall with Frank Tregear, held her peace.
'I can't explain it all now, but I must start very early tomorrow.' Then he went off to his father's study, and finding the Duke still there explained the cause of his intended journey. The member for Polpenno had died, and Frank Tregear had been invited to stand for the borough. He had written to his friend to ask him to come and assist in the struggle. 'Years ago there used to be always a Tregear in for Polpenno,' said Silverbridge.
'But he is a younger son.'
'I don't know anything about it,' said Silverbridge,' but as he has asked me to go I think I ought to do it.' The Duke, who was by no means the man to make light of the political obligations of friendship, raised no objection.
'I wish that something could have been arranged between you and Mabel before you went.' The young man stood in the gloom of the dark room aghast. This was certainly not the moment for explaining everything to his father. 'I have set my heart very much upon it, and you ought to be gratified by knowing that I quite approve your choice.'
All that had been years ago,--in last June,--before Mrs Montacute Jones's garden-party, before that day in the rain at Maidenhead, before the brightness of Killancodlem, before the glories of Miss Boncassen had been revealed to him. 'There's no time for that kind of thing now,' he said weakly.
'I thought that when you were here together--'
'I must dress now, sir; but I will tell you about it when I get back from Cornwall. I will come back direct to Matching, and will explain everything.' So he escaped.
It was clear to Lady Mabel that there was no opportunity now for any scheme. Whatever might be possible must be postponed till after this Cornish business had been completed. Perhaps it might be better so. she had thought that she would appeal to himself, that she would tell him of his father's wishes, of her love for him,--of the authority which he had once given her for loving him,-- and of the absolute impossibility of his marriage with the American. She thought that she could do it, if not efficiently at any rate effectively. But it could not be done on the very day on which the American had gone.
It came out in the course of the evening that he was going to assist Frank Tregear in his canvass. The matter was not spoken of openly, as Tregear's name could hardly be mentioned. But everybody knew it, and it gave occasion to Mabel for a few words apart to Silverbridge. 'I am so glad you are going to him,' she said in a little whisper.
'Of course I go when he wishes me. I don't know whether I can do him any good.'
'The greatest good in the world. Your name will go so far! It will be everything to him to be in Parliament. And when are we to meet again?'
'I shall turn up somewhere,' he replied as he gave her his hand to wish her good-bye.
On the following morning the Duke said to Lady Mabel that she would stay at Matching for yet another fortnight,--or even for a month if it might be possible. Lady Mabel, whose father was still abroad, was not sorry to accept the invitation.
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