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Lady Hilda Tregellis rang the bell resolutely. 'I shall have no more nonsense about it,' she said to herself in her most decisive and determined manner. 'Whether mamma wishes it or not, I shall go and see them this very day without another word upon the subject.'
The servant answered the bell and stood waiting for his orders by the doorway.
'Harris, will you tell Jenkins at once that I shall want the carriage at half-past eleven?'
'Yes, my lady.'
'All right then. That'll do. Don't stand staring at me there like an image, but go this minute and do as I tell you.'
'Beg pardon, my lady, but her ladyship said she wanted the carriage herself at twelve puncshual.'
'She can't have it, then, Harris. That's all. Go and give my message to Jenkins at once, and I'll settle about the carriage with my lady myself.'
'She's the rummest young lady ever I come across,' the man murmured to himself in a dissatisfied fashion, as he went down the stairs again: 'but there, it's none of my business, thank goodness. The places and the people she does go and hunt up when she's got the fit on are truly ridic'lous: blest if she didn't acshally make Mr. Jenkins drive her down into Camberwell the other mornin', to see 'ow the poor lived, she said; as if it mattered tuppence to us in our circles of society 'ow the poor live. I wonder what little game she's up to now? Well, well, what the aristocracy is coming to in these days is more'n I can fathom, as sure as my name's William 'Arris.'
The little game that Lady Hilda was up to that morning was one that a gentleman in Mr. Harris's position was certainly hardly like to appreciate or sympathise with.
The evening before, she had met Arthur Berkeley once more at a small At Home, and had learned from him full particulars as to the dire straits into which the poor Le Bretons had finally fallen. Now, Hilda Tregellis was a kind-hearted girl at bottom, and when she heard all about it, she said at once to Arthur, 'I shall go and see them myself to-morrow, Mr. Berkeley, whether mamma allows me or not.'
'What good will it do?' Arthur had answered her quickly. 'You can't find work for poor Le Breton, can you? and of course if you can't do that you can be of no earthly use in any way to the poor creatures.'
'I don't know about that,' Hilda responded warmly. 'Sympathy's always something, isn't it, Mr. Berkeley? Nobody ought to know that better than you do. Besides, there's no saying when one may happen to turn up useful. Of course, I've never been of the slightest use to anybody in all my life, myself, I know, and I dare say I never shall be, but at least there's no harm in trying, is there? I'm on speaking terms with such an awful lot of people, all of them rich and many of them influential--Parliament, and Government offices, and all that sort of nonsense, you know--people who have no end of things to give away, and can't tell who on earth they'd better give them to, for fear of offending all the others, that I might possibly hear of something or other.'
'I'm afraid, Lady Hilda,' Berkeley answered smiling, 'none of those people would have anything to offer that could possibly be of the slightest use to poor Le Breton. If he's to be saved at all, he must be saved in his own time and by his own methods. For my own part, I don't see what conceivable chance of success in life there is left for him. You can't imagine a man like him making money and living comfortably. It's a tragedy--all the dramas of real life always are tragedies; but I'm terribly afraid there's no conceivable way out of it.'
Lady Hilda only looked at him with bold good humour. 'Nonsense,' she said bravely. 'All pure rubbishing pessimistic nonsense. (I hope pessimistic's the right word--it's a very good word, anyhow, even if it isn't in the proper place.) Well, I don't agree with you at all about this question, Mr. Berkeley. I'm very fond of Mr. Le Breton, really very fond of him; and I believe there's a corner somewhere for every man if only he can jog down properly into his own corner instead of being squeezed forcibly into somebody else's. The worst of it is, all the holes are round, and Mr. Le Breton's a square man, I allow: he wants all the angles cutting down off him.'
'But you can't cut them off; that's the very trouble,' Arthur answered, with just a faint rising suspicion that he was half jealous of the interest Hilda showed even in poor lonely Ernest Le Breton. Gracious heavens! could he be playing false at last to the long-cherished memory of little Miss Butterfly? could he be really beginning to fall just a little in love, after all, with this bold beautiful Lady Hilda Tregellis? He didn't know, and yet he somehow hardly liked himself to think it. And while Edie was still so poor too!
'No, you can't cut them off; I know that perfectly well,' Hilda rejoined quickly. 'I wouldn't care twopence for him if I thought you could. It's the angles that give him all his charming delicious originality. But you can look out a square hole for him somewhere, you know, and that of course would be a great deal better. Depend upon it, Mr. Berkeley, there are square holes up and down in the world, if only we knew where to look for them; and the mistake that everybody has made in poor Mr. Le Breton's case has been that instead of finding one to suit him, they've gone on trying to poke him down anyhow by main force into one of the round ones. That goes against the grain, you know; besides which I call it a clear waste of the very valuable solid mahogany corners.'
Arthur Berkeley looked at her silently for a moment, as if a gleam of light had burst suddenly in upon him. Then he said to her slowly and deliberately, 'Perhaps you're right, Lady Hilda, though I never thought of it quite in that light before. But one thing certainly strikes me now, and that is that you're a great deal cleverer after all than I ever thought you.'
Lady Hilda made a little mock curtsey. 'It's very good of you to say so,' she answered, half-saucily. 'Only the compliment is rather double-edged, you must confess, because it implies that up to now you've had a dreadfully low opinion of my poor little intelligence.'
So after that conversation Lady Hilda made up her mind that she would certainly go the very next day and call as soon as possible upon Edie Le Breton. Nobody could tell what good might possibly come of it; but at least there could come no harm. And so, when the carriage drew up it the door at half-past eleven, Hilda Tregellis stepped into it with a vague consciousness of an important mission, and ordered Jenkins to drive at once to the side street in Holloway, whose address Arthur Berkeley had last night given her. Jenkins touched his hat with mechanical respect, but inwardly wondered what the dickens my lady would think if only she came to know of these 'ere extrornary goin's on.
At the door of the lodgings Hilda alighted and rang the bell herself. Good Mrs. Halliss opened the door, and answered quickly that Mrs. Le Breton was at home. Her woman's eye detected at once the coronet on the carriage, and she was ready to burst with delight when the tall visitor handed her a card for Edie, bearing the name of Lady Hilda Tregellis. It was almost the first time that Edie had had any lady callers; certainly the first time she had had any of such social distinction; and Mrs. Halliss made haste to usher her up in due form, and then ran down hastily to communicate the good news to honest John, who in his capacity of past coachman was already gazing out of the area window with deep interest at the carriage and horses.
'There, John dear,' she cried, with tears of joy in her eyes, forgetting in her excitement to drat the man for not being in the back kitchen, 'to think that we should see a carriage an' pair like that there a-drawin' up in front of out own very 'ouse, and Lady 'Ilder Tergellis, or summat o' the sort, a-comin' 'ere to see that dear little lady in the parlour, why, it's enough to make one's 'eart burst, nearly, just you see now if it reelly isn't. You could a' knocked me down with a feather, a'most, when that there Lady 'Ilder 'anded me 'er curd, and asked so sweet-like if Mrs. Le Breting was at 'ome. Mr. Le Breting's people is comin' round, you may be sure of it; 'is mother's a lady of title, that much we know for certing; and she wouldn't go and let 'er own flesh an' blood die 'ere of downright poverty, as they're like to do and won't let us 'elp it, pore dears, without sendin' round to inquire and assist 'em. Married against 'er will, I understand, from what that dear Mr. Berkeley, bless 'is kind 'eart, do tell me; not as I can believe 'e married beneath 'im, no, not no ways; for a sweeter, dearer, nicer little lady than our Mrs. Le Breting I never did, an' that I tell you. Sweeter manners you never did see yourself, John, for all you've lived among the aristocracy: an' I always knew 'is people 'ud come round at last, and do what was right by 'im. An' you may depend upon it, John, this 'ere Lady 'Ilder's one of his relations, an' she's come round on a message from Lady Le Breting, to begin a reconciliation. And though we should be sorry to lose 'em, as 'as stood by 'em through all their troubles, I'm glad to 'ear it, John, that I am, for I can't a-bear to see that dear young fellow a-eatin' 'is life out with care and anxiety.' And Mrs. Halliss, who had always felt convinced in her own mind that Ernest must really be the unacknowledged heir to a splendid fortune, began to wipe her eyes violently in her delight at this evident realisation of her wildest fancies and wishes.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the little parlour, Edie had risen in some trepidation as Mrs. Halliss placed in her hands Lady Hilda Tregellis's card. Ernest was out, gone to walk feebly around the streets of Holloway, and she hardly knew at first what to say to so unexpected a visitor. But Lady Hilda put her almost at her ease at once by coming up to her with both her arms outstretched, as to an old friend, and saying, with one of her pleasantest smiles:
'You must forgive me, Mrs. Le Breton, for never having come to call on you before; but I have been long meaning to, and doubting whether you would care to see me or not. You know, I'm a very old friend of your husband's--he was so kind to me always when he was down at our place in dear old Devonshire. (You're a Devonshire girl yourself, aren't you? just as I am. I thought so. I'm so glad of it. I always get on so well with the dear old Devonshire folk.) Well, I've been meaning to come for ever so long, and putting it off, and putting it off, and putting it off, as one will put things off, you know, when you're not quite sure about them, until last evening. And then our friend, Mr. Arthur Berkeley, who knows everybody, talked to me about your husband and you, and told me he thought you wouldn't mind my coming to see you, for he fancied you hadn't much society up here that you cared for or sympathised with: though, of course, I'm dreadfully afraid of coming to call upon you, because I know you're the sister of that very clever Mr. Oswald, whose sad death we were all so sorry to hear about in the papers; and naturally, as you've lived so much with him and with Mr. Le Breton, you must be so awfully learned and all that sort of thing, and no doubt despise ignorant people like myself dreadfully. But you really mustn't despise me, Mrs. Le Breton, because, you see, I haven't had all the advantages that you've had; indeed, the only clever people I've ever met in all my life are your husband and Mr. Arthur Berkeley, except, of course, Cabinet ministers and so forth, and they don't count, because they're political, and so very old, and solemn, and grand, and won't take any notice of us girls, except to sit upon us. So that's what's made me rather afraid to call upon you, because I thought you'd be quite too much in the higher education way for a girl like me; and I haven't got any education at all, except in rubbish, as your husband used always to tell me. And now I want you to tell me all about Mr. Le Breton, and the baby--Dot, you call her, Mr. Berkeley told me--and yourself, too; for, though I've never seen you before, I feel, of course, like an old friend of the family, having known your husband so very intimately.'
Lady Hilda designedly delivered all this long harangue straight off without a break, in her go-ahead, breathless, voluble fashion, because she felt sure Edie wouldn't feel perfectly at her ease at first, and she wanted to give her time to recover from the first foolish awe of that meaningless prefix, Lady. Moreover, Lady Hilda, in spite of her offhand manner was a good psychologist, and a true woman: and she had concocted her little speech on the spur of the moment with some cleverness, so as just to suit her instinctive reading of Edie's small personal peculiarities. She saw in a moment that that slight, pale, delicate girl was lost in London, far from her own home and surroundings; and that the passing allusion to their common Devonshire origin would please and conciliate her, as it always does with the clannish, warm-hearted, simple-minded West Country folk. Then again, the deft hints as to their friendship with Arthur Berkeley, as to Ernest's stay at Dunbude, and as to her own fear lest Edie should be too learned for her, all tended to bring out whatever points of interest they had together: while the casual touch about poor Harry's reputation, and the final mention of little Dot by name, completed the conquest of Edie's simple, gentle little woman's heart. So this was the great Lady Hilda Tregellis, she thought, of whom she had heard so much, and whom she had dreaded so greatly as a grand rival! Why, after all, she was exactly like any other Devonshire girl in Calcombe Pomeroy, except, perhaps, that she was easier to get on with, and smiled a great deal more pleasantly than ten out of a dozen.
'It's very kind indeed of you to come,' Edie answered, smiling back as well as she was able the first moment that Lady Hilda allowed her a chance to edge in a word sideways. 'Ernest will be so very very sorry that he's missed you when he comes in. He's spoken to me a great deal about you ever so many times.'
'No, has he really?' Lady Hilda asked quickly, with unmistakable interest and pleasure. 'Well, now, I'm so glad of that, for to tell you the truth, Mrs. Le Breton, though he was really always very kind to me, and so patient with all my stupidity, I more than half fancied he didn't exactly like me. In fact, I was dreadfully afraid he thought me a perfect nuisance. I'm so sorry he isn't in, because the truth is, I came partly to see him as well as to see you, and I should be awfully disappointed if I had to miss him. Where's he gone, if I may ask? Perhaps I may be able to wait and see him.'
'Oh, he's only out walking somewhere--ur--somewhere about Holloway,' Edie answered, half blushing at the nature of their neighbourhood, and glancing round the little room to see how it was likely to strike so grand a person as Lady Hilda Tregellis.
Hilda noticed the glance, and made as if she did not notice it. Her heart had begun to warm at once to this poor, pale, eager-looking little woman, who had had the doubtful happiness of winning Ernest Le Breton's love. 'Then I shall certainly wait and see him, Mrs. Le Breton.' she said cordially. 'What a dear cosy little room you've got here, to be sure. I do so love those nice bright little cottage parlours, with their pretty pots of flowers and cheerful furniture--so much warmer and more comfortable, you know, than the great dreary empty barns that most people go and do penance by living in. If ever I marry--which I don't suppose I ever shall do, for nobody'll have me, I'm sorry to say: at least, nobody but stupid people in the peerage, Algies and Berties and Monties I always call them--well, if I ever do marry, I shall have a cosy little house just like this one, with no unnecessary space to walk over every time you come in or out, and with a chance of keeping yourself warm without having to crone over the fire in order to get safely out of the horrid draughts. And Dot, now let me see, how old is she by this time? I ought to remember, I'm sure, for Mr. Berkeley told me all about her at the time; and I said should I write and ask if I might stand as godmother; and Mr. Berkeley laughed at me, and said what could I be dreaming of, and did I think you were going to make your baby liable to fine and imprisonment if it ever published works hereafter on philosophy or something of the sort. So delightfully original of all of you, really.'
Once started on that fertile theme of female conversation, Edie and Hilda got on well enough in all conscience to satisfy the most exacting mind. Dot was duly brought in and exhibited by Mrs. Halliss; and was pronounced to be the very sweetest, dearest, darlingest little duck ever seen on earth since the beginning of all things. Her various points of likeness to all her relations were duly discussed; and Hilda took particular pains to observe that she didn't in the very faintest degree resemble that old horror, Lady Le Breton. Then her whole past history was fully related, she had been fed on, and what illnesses she had had, and how many teeth she had got, and all the other delightful nothings so perennially interesting to the maternal heart. Hilda listened to the whole account with unfeigned attention, and begged leave to be allowed to dance Dot in her own strong arms, and tickled her fat cheek with her slender forefinger, and laughed with genuine delight when the baby smiled again at her and turned her face to be tickled a second time. Gradually Hilda brought the conversation round to Ernest's journalistic experiences, and at last she said very quietly, 'I'm sorry to learn from Mr. Berkeley, dear, that your husband doesn't get quite as much work to do as he would like to have.'
Edie's tender eyes filled at once with swimming tears. That one word 'dear,' said so naturally and simply, touched her heart at once with its genuine half unspoken sympathy. 'Oh, Lady Hilda,' she answered falteringly, 'please don't make me talk about that. We are so very, very, very poor. I can't bear to talk about it to you. Please, please don't make me.'
Hilda looked at her with the moisture welling up in her own eyes too, and said softly, 'I'm so sorry: dear, dear little Mrs. Le Breton, I'm so very, very, very sorry for you! from the bottom of my heart I'm sorry for you.'
'It isn't for myself, you know,' Edie answered quickly: 'for myself, of course, I could stand anything; but it's the trouble and privations for darling Ernest. Oh, Lady Hilda, I can't bear to say it, but he's dying, he's dying.'
Hilda took the pretty small hand affectionately in hers. 'Don't, dear, don't,' she said, brushing away a tear from her own eyes at the same time. 'He isn't, believe me, he isn't. And don't call me by that horrid stiff name, dear, please don't. Call me Hilda. I should be so pleased and flattered if you would call me Hilda. And may I call you Edie? I know your husband calls you Edie, because Mr. Ronald Le Breton told me so. I want to be a friend of yours; and I feel sure, if only you will let me, that we might be very good and helpful friends indeed together.'
Edie pressed her hand softly. How very different from the imaginary Lady Hilda she had. pictured to herself in her timid, girlish fancy! How much even dear Ernest had been mistaken as to what there was of womanly really in her. 'Oh, don't speak so kindly to me,' she said imploringly; 'don't speak so kindly, or else you'll make me cry. I can't bear to hear you speak so kindly.'
'Cry, dear,' Lady Hilda whispered in a gentle tone, kissing her forehead delicately as she spoke: 'cry and relieve yourself. There'a nothing gives one so much comfort when one's heart is bursting as a regular good downright cry.' And, suiting the action to the word, forthwith Lady Hilda laid her own statuesque head down beside Edie's, and so those two weeping women, rivals once in a vague way, and now bound to one another by a new-found tie, mingled their tears silently together for ten minutes in unuttered sympathy.
As they sat there, both tearful and speechless, with Lady Hilda soothing Edie's wan hand tenderly in hers, and leaning above her, and stroking her hair softly with a sister's fondness, the door opened very quietly, and Arthur Berkeley stood for a moment pausing in the passage, and looking in without a word upon the unexpected sight that greeted his wondering vision. He had come to call upon Ernest about some possible opening for a new writer on a paper lately started; and hearing the sound of sobs within had opened the door quietly and tentatively. He could hardly believe his own eyes when he actually saw Lady Hilda Tregellis sitting there side by side with Edie Le Breton, kissing her pale forehead a dozen times in a minute, and crying over her like a child with unwonted tears of unmistakable sympathy. For ten seconds Arthur held the door ajar in his hands, and gazed silently with the awe of chivalrous respect upon the tearful, beautiful picture. Then he shut the door again noiselessly and unperceived, and stole softly out into the street to wait alone for Ernest's return. It was not for him to intrude his unbidden presence upon the sacred sorrow of those two weeping sister-women.
He lighted a cigar outside, and walked up and down a neighbouring street feverishly till he thought it likely the call would be finished. 'Dear little Mrs. Le Breton,' he said to himself softly, 'dear little Miss Butterfly of the days that are dead; softened and sweetened still more by suffering, with the beauty of holiness glowing in your face, how I wish some good for you could unexpectedly come out of this curious visit. Though I don't see how it's possible: I don't see how it's possible. The stream carries us all down unresistingly before its senseless flood, and sweeps us at last, sooner or later, like helpless logs, into the unknown sea. Poor Ernest is drifting fast thitherwards before the current, and nothing on earth, it seems to me, can conceivably stop him!'
He paced up and down a little, with a quick, unsteady tread, and took a puff or two again at his cigar abstractedly. Then he held it thoughtfully between his fingers for a while and began to hum a few bars from his own new opera then in course of composition--a stately long-drawn air, it was. something like the rustle of Hilda Tregellis's satin train as she swept queenlike down the broad marble staircase of some great Elizabethan country palace. 'And dear Lady Hilda too,' he went on, musingly: 'dear, kind, sympathising Lady Hilda. Who on earth would ever have thought she had it in her to comfort that poor, weeping, sorrowing girl as I just now saw her doing? Dear Lady Hilda! Kind Lady Hilda! I have undervalued you and overlooked you, because of the mere accident of your titled birth, but I could have kissed you myself, for pure gratitude, that very minute, Hilda Tregellis, when I saw you stooping down and kissing that dear white forehead that looked so pale and womanly and beautiful. Yes, Hilda, I could have kissed you. I could have kissed your own grand, smooth, white marble forehead. And no very great trial of endurance, either, Arthur Berkeley, if it comes to that; for say what you will of her, she's a beautiful, stately, queenlike woman indeed; and it somehow strikes me she's a truer and better woman, too, than you have ever yet in your shallow superficiality imagined. Not like little Miss Butterfly! Oh, no, not like little Miss Butterfly! But still, there are keys and keys in music; and if every tune was pitched to the self-same key, even the tenderest, what a monotonous, dreary world it would be to live and sing in after all. Perhaps a man might make himself a little shrine not wholly without sweet savour of pure incense for beautiful, stately, queenlike Hilda Tregellis too! But no; I mustn't think of it. I have no other duty or prospect in life possible as yet while dear little Miss Butterfly still remains practically unprovided for!'
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