Mary Braddon.

Mount Royal: A Novel. Volume 2 of 3

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"Leonard, I don't think I have been wanting in affection. You have done a great deal to repel my liking Ц yes Ц since you force me to speak plainly Ц you have made my duty as a wife more difficult than it need have been. But, have I ever forgotten that you are my husband, and the father of my child? Is there any act of my life which has denied or made light of your authority? When you asked me to marry you I kept no secrets from you: I was perfectly frank."

"Devilish frank," muttered Leonard.

"You knew that I could not feel for you as I had felt for another. These things can come only once in a lifetime. You were content to accept my affection Ц my obedience Ц knowing this. Why do you make what I told you then a reproach against me now?"

He could not dispute the justice of this reproof.

"Well, Christabel, I was wrong, I suppose. It would have been more gentlemanlike to hold my tongue. I ought to know that your first girlish fancy is a thing of the past Ц altogether gone and done with. It was idiotic to harp upon that worn-out string, wasn't it?" he asked, laughing awkwardly; "but when a man feels savage he must hit out at some one."

This was the only occasion on which husband and wife had ever spoken plainly of the past; but Leonard let fly those venomed arrows of his on the smallest provocation. He could not forget that his wife had loved another man better than she had ever loved or even pretended to love him. It was her candour which he felt most keenly. Had she been willing to play the hypocrite, to pretend a little, he would have been ever so much better pleased.

To the outside world, even to that narrow world which encircles an old family seat in the depths of the country, Mr. and Mrs. Tregonell appeared a happy couple, whose union was the most natural thing in the world, yet not without a touch of that romance which elevates and idealizes a marriage.

Were they not brought up under the same roof, boy and girl together, like, and yet not like, brother and sister. How inevitable that they must become devotedly attached. That little episode of Christabel's engagement to another man counted for nothing. She was so young Ц had never questioned her own heart. Her true love was away Ц and she was flattered by the attention of a man of the world like Angus Hamleigh Ц and so, and so Ц almost unawares, perhaps, she allowed herself to be engaged to him, little knowing the real bent of his character and the gulf into which she was about to plunge: for in the neighbourhood of Mount Royal it was believed that a man who had once lived as Mr. Hamleigh had lived was a soul lost for ever, a creature given over to ruin in this world and the next. There was no hopefulness in the local mind for the after career of such an offender.

At this autumn season, when Mount Royal was filled with visitors, all intent upon taking life pleasantly, it would have been impossible for a life to seem more prosperous and happy to the outward eye than that of Christabel Tregonell.

The centre of a friendly circle, the ornament of a picturesque and perfectly appointed house, the mother of a lovely boy whom she worshipped, with the overweening love of a young mother for her firstborn Ц admired, beloved by all her little world, with a husband who was proud of her and indulgent to her Ц who could deny that Mrs. Tregonell was a person to be envied.

Mrs. Fairfax Torrington, a widow, with a troublesome son, and a limited income Ц an income whose narrow boundary she was continually over-stepping Ц told her hostess as much one morning when the men were all out on the hills in the rain, and the women made a wide circle round the library fire, some of them intent upon crewel work, others not even pretending to be industrious, the faithful Randie lying at his mistress's feet, as she sat in her favourite chair by the old carved chimney-piece Ц the chair which had been her aunt Diana's for so many peaceful years.

"There is a calmness Ц an assured tranquillity about your life which makes me hideously envious," said Mrs. Fairfax Torrington, waving the Society paper which she had been using as a screen against the fire, after having read the raciest of its paragraphs aloud, and pretended to be sorry for the dear friends at whom the censor's airy shafts were aimed. "I have stayed with duchesses and with millionaires Ц but I never envied either. The duchess is always dragged to death by the innumerable claims upon her time, her money, and her attention. Her life is very little better than the fate of that unfortunate person who stabbed one of the French Kings Ц forty wild horses pulling forty different ways. It doesn't make it much better because the horses are called by pretty names, don't you know. Court, friends, flower-shows, balls, church, opera, Ascot, fancy fairs, seat in Scotland, place in Yorkshire, Baden, Monaco. It is the pull that wears one out, the dreadful longing to be allowed to sit in one's own room by one's own fire, and rest. I know what it is in my small way, so I have always rather pitied duchesses. At a millionaire's house one is inevitably bored. There is an insufferable glare and glitter of money in everything, unpleasantly accentuated by an occasional blot of absolute meanness. No, Mrs. Tregonell," pursued the agreeable rattle, "I don't envy duchesses or millionaires' wives: but your existence seems to me utterly enviable, so tranquil and easy a life, in such a perfect house, with the ability to take a plunge into the London vortex whenever you like, or to stay at home if you prefer it, a charming husband, an ideal baby, and above all that sweet equable temperament of yours, which would make life easy under much harder circumstances. Don't you agree with me, now, Miss Bridgeman?"

"I always agree with clever people," answered Jessie, calmly.

Christabel went on with her work, a quiet smile upon her beautiful lips.

Mrs. Torrington was one of those gushing persons to whom there was no higher bliss, after eating and drinking, than the indulgence in that lively monologue which she called conversation, and a happy facility for which rendered her, in her own opinion, an acquisition in any country-house.

"The general run of people are so dull," she would remark in her confidential moments; "there are so few who can talk, without being disgustingly egotistical. Most people's idea of conversation is autobiography in instalments. I have always been liked for my high spirits and flow of conversation."

High spirits at forty-five are apt to pall, unless accompanied by the rare gift of wit. Mrs. Torrington was not witty, but she had read a good deal of light literature, kept a commonplace book, and had gone through life believing herself a Sheridan or a Sidney Smith, in petticoats.

"A woman's wit is like dancing in fetters," she complained sometimes: "there are so many things one must not say!"

Christabel was more than content that her acquaintance should envy her. She wished to be thought happy. She had never for a moment posed as victim or martyr. In good faith, and with steady purpose of well-doing, she had taken upon herself the duties of a wife, and she meant to fulfil them to the uttermost.

"There shall be no shortcoming on my side," she said to herself. "If we cannot live peaceably and happily together it shall not be my fault. If Leonard will not let me respect him as a husband, I can still honour him as my boy's father."

In these days of fashionable agnosticism and hysterical devotion Ц when there is hardly any middle path between life spent in church and church-work and the open avowal of unbelief Ц something must be said in favour of that old-fashioned sober religious feeling which enabled Christabel Tregonell to walk steadfastly along the difficult way, her mind possessed with the ever-present belief in a Righteous Judge who saw all her acts and knew all her thoughts.

She studied her husband's pleasure in all things Ц yielding to him upon every point in which principle was not at stake. The house was filled with friends of his choosing Ц not one among those guests, in spite of their surface pleasantness, being congenial to a mind so simple and unworldly, so straight and thorough, as that of Christabel Tregonell. Without Jessie Bridgeman, Mrs. Tregonell would have been companionless in a house full of people. The vivacious widow, the slangy young ladies, with a marked taste for billiards and shooting parties, and an undisguised preference for masculine society, thought their hostess behind the age. It was obvious that she was better informed than they, had been more carefully educated, played better, sang better, was more elegant and refined in every thought, and look, and gesture; but, in spite of all these advantages, or perhaps on account of them, she was "slow: " not an easy person to get on with. Her gowns were simply perfect Ц but she had no chic. Nous autres, with ever so much less money to spend on our toilettes, look more striking Ц stand out better from the ruck. An artificial rose here Ц a rag of old lace Ц a fan Ц a vivid ribbon in the mazes of our hair Ц and the effect catches every eye Ц while poor Mrs. Tregonell, with her lovely complexion, and a gown that is obviously Parisian, is comparatively nowhere.

This is what the Miss Vandeleurs Ц old campaigners Ц told each other as they dressed for dinner, on the second day after their arrival at Mount Royal. Captain Vandeleur Ц otherwise Poker Vandeleur, from a supposed natural genius for that intellectual game Ц was Mr. Tregonell's old friend and travelling companion. They had shared a good deal of sport, and not a little hardship in the Rockies Ц had fished, and shot, and toboggined in Canada Ц had played euchre in San Francisco, and monte in Mexico Ц and, in a word, were bound together by memories and tastes in common. Captain Vandeleur, like Byron's Corsair, had one virtue amidst many shortcomings. He was an affectionate brother, always glad to do a good turn to his sisters Ц who lived with a shabby old half-pay father, in one of the shabbiest streets in the debatable land between Pimlico and Chelsea Ц by courtesy, South Belgravia. Captain Vandeleur rarely had it in his power to do much for his sisters himself Ц a five-pound note at Christmas or a bonnet at Midsummer was perhaps the furthest stretch of his personal benevolence Ц but he was piously fraternal in his readiness to victimize his dearest friend for the benefit of Dopsy and Mopsy Ц these being the poetic pet names devised to mitigate the dignity of the baptismal Adolphine and Margaret. When Jack Vandeleur had a pigeon to pluck, he always contrived that Dopsy and Mopsy should get a few of the feathers. He did not take his friends home to the shabby little ten-roomed house in South Belgravia Ц such a nest would have too obviously indicated his affinity to the hawk tribe Ц but he devised some means of bringing Mopsy and Dopsy and his married friends together. A box at the Opera Ц stalls for the last burlesque Ц a drag for Epsom or Ascot Ц or even afternoon tea at Hurlingham Ц and the thing was done. The Miss Vandeleurs never failed to improve the occasion. They had a genius for making their little wants known, and getting them supplied. The number of their gloves Ц the only shop in London at which wearable gloves could be bought Ц how na?vely these favourite themes for girlish converse dropped from their cherry lips. Sunshades, fans, lace, flowers, perfumery Ц all these luxuries of the toilet were for the most part supplied to Dopsy and Mopsy from this fortuitous source.

Some pigeons lent themselves more kindly to the plucking than others; and the Miss Vandeleurs had long ago discovered that it was not the wealthiest men who were most lavish. Given a gentleman with a settled estate of fourteen thousand a year, and the probabilities were that he would not rise above a dozen gloves or a couple of bouquets. It was the simple youth who had just come into five or ten thousand, and had nothing but the workhouse ahead of him when that was gone, who spent his money most freely. It is only the man who is steadfastly intent upon ruining himself, who ever quite comes up to the feminine idea of generosity. The spendthrift, during his brief season of fortune, leads a charmed life. For him it is hardly a question whether gloves cost five or ten shillings a pair Ц whether stephanotis is in or out of season. He offers his tribute to beauty without any base scruples of economy. What does it matter to him whether ruin comes a few months earlier by reason of this lavish liberality, seeing that the ultimate result is inevitable.

With the Miss Vandeleurs Leonard Tregonell ranked as an old friend. They had met him at theatres and races; they had been invited to little dinners at which he was host. Jack Vandeleur had a special genius for ordering a dinner, and for acting as guide to a man who liked dining in the highways and byways of London; it being an understood thing that Captain Vandeleur's professional position as counsellor exempted him from any share in the reckoning. Under his fraternal protection, Dopsy and Mopsy had dined snugly in all manner of foreign restaurants, and had eaten and drunk their fill at Mr. Tregonell's expense. They were both gourmands, and they were not ashamed of enjoying the pleasures of the table. It seemed to them that the class of men who could not endure to see a woman eat had departed with Byron, and Bulwer, and D'Orsay, and De Musset. A new race has arisen, which likes a "jolly" girl who can appreciate a recherch? dinner, and knows the difference between good and bad wine.

Mr. Tregonell did not yield himself up a victim to the fascinations of either Dopsy or Mopsy. He had seen too much of that class of beauty during his London experiences, to be caught by the auricomous tangles of one or the flaxen fringe of the other. He talked of them to their brother as nice girls, with no nonsense about them; he gave them gloves, and dinners, and stalls for "Madame Angot;" but his appreciation took no higher form.

"It would have been a fine thing for one of you if you could have hooked him," said their brother, as he smoked a final pipe, between midnight and morning, in the untidy little drawing-room in South Belgravia, after an evening with Chaumont. "He's a heavy swell in Cornwall, I can tell you. Plenty of money Ц fine old place. But there's a girl down there he's sweet upon Ц a cousin. He's very close; but I caught him kissing and crying over her photograph one night in the Rockies Ц when our rations had run short, and two of our horses gone dead, and our best guide was down with ague, and there was an idea that we'd lost our track, and should never see England again. That's the only time I ever saw Tregonell sentimental. 'I'm not afraid of death,' he said, 'but I should like to live to see home again, for her sake;' and he showed me the photo Ц a sweet, fresh, young face, smiling at us with a look of home and home-affection, and we poor beggars not knowing if we should ever see a woman's face again."

"If you knew he was in love with his cousin, what's the use of talking about his marrying us?" asked Mopsy petulantly, speaking of herself and her sister as if they were a firm.

"Oh, there's no knowing," answered Jack, coolly, as he puffed at his meerschaum. "A man may change his mind. Girls with your experience ought to be able to twist a fellow round your little finger. But though you're deuced keen at getting things out of men, you're uncommonly slow at bringing down your bird."

"Look at our surroundings," said Dopsy bitterly. "Could we ever dare to bring a man here; and it is in her own home that a man gets fond of a girl."

"Well, a fellow would have to be very far gone to stand this," Captain Vandeleur admitted, with a shrug of his shoulders, as he glanced round the room, with its blotchy paper, and smoky ceiling, its tawdry chandelier, and dilapidated furniture, flabby faded covers to chairs and sofa, side-table piled with shabby books and accumulated newspapers, the half-pay father's canes and umbrellas in the corner, his ancient slippers by the fender, his easy-chair, with its morocco cover indented with the greasy imprint of his venerable shoulders, and over all the rank odours of yesterday's dinner and stale tobacco-smoke.

"A man in the last stage of spooniness will stand anything Ц you remember the opening chapter of 'Wilhelm Meister?'" said Captain Jack, meditatively Ц "but he'd need be very far gone to stand this," he repeated, with conviction.

Six months after this conversation, Mopsy read to Dopsy the announcement of Mr. Tregonell's marriage with the Cornish cousin.

"We shall never see any more of him, you may depend," said Dopsy, with the air of pronouncing an elegy on the ingratitude of man. But she was wrong, for two years later Leonard Tregonell was knocking about town again, in the height of the season, with Poker Vandeleur, and the course of his diversions included a little dinner given to Dopsy and Mopsy at a choice Italian restaurateur's not very far from South Belgravia.

They both made themselves as agreeable as in them lay. He was married. All matrimonial hopes in that quarter were blighted. But marriage need not prevent his giving them dinners and stalls for the play, or being a serviceable friend to their brother.

"Poor Jack's friends are his only reliable income," said Mopsy. "He had need hold them fast."

Mopsy put on her lively Madame Chaumont manner, and tried to amuse the Benedict. Dopsy was graver, and talked to him about his wife.

"She must be very sweet," she said, "from Jack's account of her."

"Why, he's never seen her," exclaimed Mr. Tregonell, looking puzzled.

"No; but you showed him her photograph once in the Rockies. Jack never forgot it."

Leonard was pleased at this tribute to his good taste.

"She's the loveliest woman I ever saw, though she is my wife," he said; "and I'm not ashamed to say I think so."

"How I should like to know her," sighed Dopsy; "but I'm afraid she seldom comes to London."

"That makes no difference," answered Leonard, warmed into exceptional good humour by the soft influences of Italian cookery and Italian wines. "Why should not you both come to Mount Royal? I want Jack to come for the shooting. He can bring you, and you'll be able to amuse my wife, while he and I are out on the hills."

"It would be quite too lovely, and we should like it of all things; but do you think Mrs. Tregonell would be able to get on with us?" asked Dopsy, diffidently.

It was not often she and her sister were asked to country houses. They were both fluttered at the idea, and turned their thoughts inward for a mental review of their wardrobes.

"We could do it," decided Mopsy, "with a little help from Jack."

Nothing more was said about the visit that night, but a month later, when Leonard had gone back to Mount Royal, a courteous letter from Mrs. Tregonell to Miss Vandeleur confirmed the Squire's invitation, and the two set out for the West of England under their brother's wing, rejoicing at this stroke of good luck. Christabel had been told that they were nice girls, just the kind of girls to be useful in a country house Ц girls who had very few opportunities of enjoying life, and to whom any kindness would be a charity Ц and she had done her husband's bidding without an objection of any kind. But when the two damsels appeared at Mount Royal tightly sheathed in sage-green merino, with limp little capes on their shoulders, and picturesque hats upon picturesque heads of hair, Mrs. Tregonell's heart failed her at the idea of a month spent in such company. Without caring a straw for art, without knowing more of modern poetry than the names of the poets and the covers of their books, Mopsy and Dopsy had been shrewd enough to discover that for young women with narrow means the ?sthetic style of dress was by far the safest fashion. Stuff might do duty for silk Ц a sunflower, if it were only big enough, might make as startling an effect as a blaze of diamonds Ц a rag of limp tulle or muslin serve instead of costly lace Ц hair worn after the ideal suffice instead of expensive headgear, and home dressmaking pass current for originality. Christabel speedily found, however, that these damsels were not exacting in the matter of attention from herself. So long as they were allowed to be with the men they were happy. In the billiard-room, or the tennis-court, in the old Tudor hall, which was Leonard's favourite tabagie, in the saddle-room, or the stable-yard, on the hills, or on the sea, wherever the men would suffer their presence, Dopsy and Mopsy were charmed to be. On those rare occasions when the out-of-door party was made up without them they sat about the drawing-room in hopeless, helpless idleness Ц turning over yesterday's London papers, or stumbling through German waltzes on the iron-framed Kirkman grand, which had been Leonard's birthday gift to his wife. At their worst the Miss Vandeleurs gave Christabel very little trouble, for they felt curiously shy in her society. She was not of their world. They had not one thought or one taste in common. Mrs. Torrington, who insisted upon taking her hostess under her wing, was a much more troublesome person. The Vandeleur girls helped to amuse Leonard, who laughed at their slang and their mannishness, and who liked the sound of girlish voices in the house Ц albeit those voices were loud and vulgar. They made themselves particularly agreeable to Jessie Bridgeman, who declared that she took the keenest interest in them Ц as natural curiosities.

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