The Highwayman (Bailey)/Chapter XVI
The irruption of Mrs. Oliver Boyce could not easily have been foretold. That the past life of Colonel Boyce was likely to throw shadows over his son Harry might have considered, but the nature of the lady and her care and the successful opportunity of her malice were hardly to be calculated. There is less excuse for him in the affair of Sir George Anville. Given the conditions of that hasty marriage and the state into which it had brought them and the society about them, some Sir George or other was a natural consequence.
The ugly quarrel which Mrs. Oliver Boyce had made for them was never composed. When they met again in the morning they were coldly and haughtily civil, and so they chose to remain. Mrs. Weston, not being blind, saw that something was amiss and tried with blundering motherly affection to push them back into one another's arms. She hardened, as is usual, their hostility. Each was mortally afraid of weakening, each suspected the other at once of softness and of guile and so held aloof and fed upon scorn. They had both enough of that pride of sex which gives one pleasure in the sufferings of the other. And of course the quarrel was poisoned with a sordid taint. The colder, the haughtier Harry was, the more Alison inclined to believe that he had wanted nothing of her but her money. The haughtier, the colder Alison was, the more Harry raged against her for a mean creature who desired to make him feel his dependence upon her money bags.
In himself Sir George Anville was of no importance. If Harry had been comfortable he could never have taken the trouble to be angry over the man. It is certain that Alison never thought him worth any thought of hers, still less worth one finger's surrender. And yet Sir George contrived to be disastrous to the pair of them.
That was not, as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu said of him in another matter, altogether his fault. "The fool has excuses," quoth she, "which others have not. He is so great a fool that you hardly believe his folly is but folly." Sir George was a man born without impulse or capacity for anything. Lady Mary, who was fond of using him for her wit, made a grammarian's jest on him, "The creature's an anomaly: active in form, passive in meaning." He was bred in a society which made it a fashion to be vicious. He affected to follow the fashion. If vice must needs be something active, or at least, something of the will, Sir George Anville must escape punishment. But he was to a wholesome taste more offensive than sinners who did more damage. It was Harry's worst blunder in the affair that he treated Alison as if she did not feel that.
Sir George knew no other way of passing his life than in dangling about women. He was generally tolerated as a butt, and being impervious to contempt, supposed that his fascinations procured him immunity. He did—it must be reckoned the first of his two accomplishments—he did know a pretty woman from a plain one, and therefore as soon as he knew Alison much resorted to her. His other accomplishment was to dress well. He was lean and had an air of languor which was not affected, but a natural lack of vigour. It may be believed that Alison tolerated him because he made a not disagreeable decoration to her rooms. But at this era she was cynical, and perhaps told herself that Sir George was as good a man as another.
He began to come at hours when she could be found alone and was sometimes admitted. So Harry caught him once or twice, was ironically obsequious to him (which Sir George took for solemn earnest), and afterwards amused himself by congratulating Mrs. Alison on the power of her charms. "Odds fish, I can't tell where you'll stop, ma'am. You'll have a corpse on his knees to you yet. Maybe the corpse of a lord. I vow I'm proud of you." Which was not likely to get the door shut on Sir George.
So that dangling gentleman became convinced that Alison was yielding to his embraces. He was, in a limp way, gratified. A devilish fine woman to be sure. She might be a trifle exhausting to a man of ton. But what would you? Women were greedy and must be satisfied with what one could spare them. And it was pleasant to see the pretty creatures pining. He would lure madame on with a few tit-bits. In this kindly mood he went to her on a wet April day when Alison was fretting for a wild walk or a wilder ride in wind and rain. But even to herself she would not confess that she was tired of the town. It would have assimilated her to Harry.
Sir George sat himself down by Alison's side, simpered at her, sniffed, put his thin hands on his thin knees and ogled them. Alison held out to him a cup of tea. He arranged his rings before he took it and then again simpered at her. After some humming and hawing, "D'ye go to the play to-night, ma'am?" he drawled.
"What play is it?"
"Ah—some curst play or other," said Sir George; and exhausted by that effort relapsed for a while into silence.
Alison did not help him out. It is possible that she was wondering how a creature so vapid could go on existing. She looked Sir George over with an odd, close inspection. Sir George, who had some perceptions, became aware of it and according to his nature misunderstood it. He sniffed again, and "Pray, ma'am, what perfume do you use?" Alison stared at him. "I am delicate in such things," said he, and smelt his own handkerchief.
Alison hesitated between disgust and amusement. To be sure the creature was such a fool that it was not fair to think of him save as a buffoon. So unfortunately she chose amusement. "Oh, I vow, Sir George, your delicacy is rare," she laughed.
The poor creature took it for a compliment. He leered at her: "But you are exquisite, my Indamora."
"It's an amorous lady in a play," Sir George explained. "Pretty creature," he patted Alison's arm, and leaned upon her to kiss her neck.
She was so surprised that his lips had almost time to reach her. "Lord, sir, are you mad?" she cried, as she thrust him off.
"Pretty creature," Sir George giggled, and clung to her.
"Your carriage is at the door, Sir George." Harry stood over them. His face was as much a mask as ever, his voice placid.
Alison started up and stood to face him with a lowering brow. He did not appear to see her. Sir George shook down his ruffles. "Carriage? What d'ye mean?" says he. "I ha' had no carriage this year. I came in a hackney coach."
Harry turned away from him and opened the door.
"Eh? Oh, stap me!" Sir George giggled and got on to his feet, "Madame, your eternally devoted." He went out with a strut, waving his scented handkerchief in the direction of Harry.
Then Alison spoke. Her eyes were furious. "You—oh, you boor! How dare you?"
"Egad, that's very good!" Harry laughed.
She beat her foot on the floor. "Oh, you are not to be borne! To make a noise of it! To make a scandal of me and that—that creature!"
"To be sure, I came untimely. Well, ma'am, if you wanted to be quiet about it, I had rather it made a noise."
"My God!" she was white. "You dare say that to me! Be careful, Harry."
"Pray, ma'am, no heroics."
"I warn you, there are things I'll not bear."
"Is it possible?" Harry sneered.
She swept past him and away.