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In the large liberty of an English country-house Isabel might have found the long morning tedious had she been of a more sociable habit. Lady Victoria, Mrs. Throfton, and Lady Cecilia Spence went to church; all three, as great ladies, having a dutiful eye to the edification of humbler folk. Flora Thangue spent the greater part of the morning writing letters for her hostess, the men fled to the golf-links, and the rest of the women not engaged in vehement political discussion, or Bridge, were striding across country. Isabel, tempted by the charmingly fitted writing-table in her room, although an indolent correspondent, wrote a long and amply descriptive letter to her sister, which her brother-in-law, being more than usually hard up at the moment of its arrival, transposed into fiction and illustrated delightfully for a local newspaper. Then she roamed about looking at the pictures, testing her European education by discovering for herself the Lelys and Mores, the Hoppners, Ketels, Holbeins, Knellers, Dahls, and Romneys. She had a quick instinct for the best in all things, but cared less for pictures than for other treasures of the past: marbles, the architecture in old streets, hard brown schlosses on their lonely heights, the Gothic spaces of cathedrals, the high and fervent imaginations, immortal yet nameless, in the carvings on stone; the jewelled fašades of Orvieto and Siena, the romantic grandeur of the Alhambra.
She opened a door at the back of the central hall and found herself in a pillared corridor with a door at either end. Both rooms were open, and as a blue cloud hung about the entrance to the left, she turned to what proved to be the library of Capheaton. It was a square light apartment, with the orthodox number of books, but with so many desks and writing-tables that it looked more like the business corner of the mansion. Here, indeed, as Isabel was to learn, Lady Victoria held daily conference with her housekeeper and stewards, interviewed the women of the tenantry, and those active and philanthropic ladies of every district that aspire to carry the burdens of others. Here Gwynne kept his Blue Books and thought out his speeches, but it was not a favorite room with the guests.
Isabel had found many books scattered about the house, solid and flippant, old and new, but nothing by her host. She rightly assumed that his works would be disposed for posterity in the family library, and found them on a shelf above one of the large orderly tables. As a matter of fact she had read but two of his books, and she selected another at random and carried it to a comfortable chair by the window. The work was an exposition of conditions in one of the South African colonies, containing much criticism that had been defined by the Conservative press as youthful impertinence, but surprisingly sound to the unprejudiced. What had impressed Isabel in his other books and claimed her admiration anew was his maturity of thought and style; she saw that this volume had been published when he was twenty-four, written, doubtless, when he was a year or two younger. She felt a vague pity for a man that seemed to have had no youth. Since his graduation from Balliol in a blaze of glory he had worked unceasingly, for he appeared to have found little of ordinary recreation in travel. She wondered if he would take his youth in his bald-headed season, like the self-made American millionaire.
His style, pure, lucid, virile, distinguished, might have been the outcome of midnight travail, or, like his eloquence on the platform, a direct flight from the quickened brain. It certainly bore no resemblance to his amputated table talk. But in a moment she dismissed her speculations, for she had discovered a quality, overlooked before, but arresting in the recent light of his cold arrogance and haughty self-confidence. Behind his strict regard for facts and the keen insight and large grasp of his subject, which, without his evident care for the graces, would have distinguished his work from the dry report of equally conscientious but less gifted men, was the lonely play of a really lofty imagination, and a noble human sympathy. As she read on, this warm full-blooded quality, tempered always by reason, grew more and more visible to her alert sense; and when the fires in his mind blazed forth into a revelation of a passionate love of beauty, both in nature and in human character, Isabel realized what such a man's power over his audience must be; when this second self, so effectually concealed, suddenly burst into being.
"It is too bad a woman would have to live with the other!" she thought, as she raised her eyes and saw Gwynne emerge from the woods with Mrs. Kaye. "I cannot say that I envy her."
"By Jove, they have an engaged look!"
Isabel turned with a start, but greeted Lord Hexam with a smile. He was as yet her one satisfactory experience of the young English nobleman, whom, like most American girls, she had unconsciously foreshadowed in doublet and hose. Hexam was quite six feet, with a fine military carriage; he had been in the Guards and had not left the army until after two years of active service; his blue eyes were both honest and intelligent, and he was generally clean cut and highly bred.
He drew up a chair beside Isabel and reflected that she was even handsomer than he had thought, with the sunlight warming the ivory whiteness of her skin, although it contracted the mobile pupils of her eyes; and that little black moles when rightly placed were more attractive than he had thought possible. They gave a sort of daring unconscious eighteenth-century coquetry to what was otherwise a somewhat severe style of beauty. But he was a man for whom a woman's hair had a peculiar fascination, and while they were uttering commonplaces at random his eyes wandered to the soft yet massive coils encircling Isabel's shapely head, and lingered there.
"Pardon me!" he said, boyishly. "But I always thought—don't you know?—that hair like that was only in novels and poems and that sort of thing. Is it all your own?" he asked, with sudden suspicion.
"You would think so if you had to carry it for a day. I should have had it cut off long ago if it had happened to be coarse hair. It is an inherited evil of which I am too vain to rid myself. The early Spanish women of my family all had hair that touched the ground when they stood up. I have an old sketch of a back view of three of them taken side by side; you see nothing but billows of fine silky hair. But I have put it out of sight, as it looks rather like an advertisement for a famous hair restorer."
"I'd give a lot to see yours down. It's wonderful—wonderful!"
"Well, I have promised a private view to some of the women. If Lady Victoria thinks it quite proper perhaps I'll admit you."
"I'll ask her for a card directly she comes home. Let it be this afternoon just after tea."
"I wonder if they really are engaged," said Isabel, who had been told that Englishmen never paid compliments, and was growing embarrassed under the round-eyed scrutiny. Gwynne and Mrs. Kaye had paused by a sundial.
"Who? Oh yes, I should think so, although there was some talk that poor Bratty—but no doubt that was mere rumor, or Mrs. Kaye wouldn't be on with Jack like that. By Jove, he is engaged. I never saw him look so—so—well, I hardly know what."
"Do you approve of the match?"
"If my consent is asked I shall give them my blessing. He is the salt of the earth, although a bit lumpy now and then; and she is such a jolly little thing, full of genuine affection—just the wife for Jack."
"You believe in her, then?" Isabel wondered, as many another has done, at the miasma that seems to rise and dim a man's perceptive faculties when he is called upon to estimate the worth of a fascinating woman.
"Rather! Don't you?"
"She struck me as being one of the few people without a redeeming virtue. To be sure that has a distinction of its own."
"Oh!" He wondered if so handsome a girl shared the common rancor of her age and sex against charming young widows.
"And the worst mannered," continued Isabel, who knew exactly what he thought. "And plebeian in her marrow. I wish my cousin had chosen Miss Thangue or any one else."
"But he couldn't marry Flora," said the literal young nobleman. "She hasn't a penny, and is the friend of all our mothers. But I'm sorry you've such a bad opinion of Mrs. Kaye. She's tremendously popular with us. I'm not one of her circle—retinue would be more like it; but I've always thought her the brightest little thing going, and I'm sure she wouldn't harm a fly."
"I'm sure she would do nothing so little worth her while. Well, there is no need for your eyes to be opened; but I wish that my cousin's might be. I suppose that you have the same faith in him that so many others—himself included—seem to have."
"Rather!—You are a most critical person. Haven't you?"
"I think I have. In fact I am sure of it. That is the reason I have been wishing he were an American."
He laughed boyishly. "That is a good one! But we need him over here. You haven't the slightest idea how much. We get into a blue funk every time Zeal takes a cold on his chest. To quote Mrs. Kaye, 'A Liberal peer is as useful as a fifth wheel to a coach, and as ornamental as whitewash.' Clever, ain't it?"
"I think people are touchingly easy to satisfy! I have been treated to several of Mrs. Kaye's epigrams and heard as many more quoted. It seems to me that nothing could be easier than the manufacture of that popular superfluity."
"Perhaps—with time to think them out beforehand. Anyhow, it's rather jolly to hear things you can remember."
"I should be the last to deny her cleverness," said Isabel, dryly. But being by no means desirous that he should find her too acid, she dropped her eyes for a moment, then raised two dazzling wells of innocence. "I am tired of the subject of my cousin and Mrs. Kaye," she murmured. "Are you as ambitious as Jack?"
"No use." He stared helplessly down into the blue flood. "There is no escape from the 'Peers' for me, although my father, I am happy to say, is as healthy as I am. But after the brain cells become brittle—one never knows. I too am a Liberal, and am getting in all the good work of which I am capable while there is yet time. I don't go as far as Jack—don't want to see the 'Peers' chucked. I have a strong reverence for traditions, and no taste whatever for democracy—that would be too long a step. And I think a man should be content to be useful, do the best he can, in his own class; and be loyal to that class whatever happens. Of course I understand Jack's point of view, because I understand him so well, and know that he would be the most maimed and wretched man on earth in the Upper House; but personally, I think one should be prepared to accept inherited responsibilities."
And then, as they were both young, and mutually attracted, they found many subjects of common interest to keep them in the library until the gong summoned them to luncheon.
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