The Private Life, Lord Beaupré, The Visits/Lord Beaupré/Chapter 1
Some reference had been made to Northerley, which was within an easy drive, and Firminger described how he had dined there the night before and had found a lot of people. Mrs. Ashbury, one of the two visitors, inquired who these people might be, and he mentioned half a dozen names, among which was that of young Raddle, which had been a good deal on people's lips, and even in the newspapers, on the occasion, still recent, of his stepping into the fortune, exceptionally vast even as the product of a patent glue, left him by a father whose ugly name on all the vacant spaces of the world had exasperated generations of men.
"Oh, is he there?" asked Mrs. Ashbury, in a tone which might have been taken as a vocal rendering of the act of pricking up one's ears. She didn't hand on the information to her daughter, who was talking—if a beauty of so few phrases could have been said to talk—with Mary Gosselin, but in the course of a few moments she put down her teacup with a failure of suavity, and, getting up, gave the girl a poke with her parasol. "Come, Maud, we must be stirring."
"You pay us a very short visit," said Mrs. Gosselin, intensely demure over the fine web of her knitting. Mrs. Ashbury looked hard for an instant into her bland eyes, then she gave poor Maud another poke. She alluded to a reason and expressed regrets; but she got her daughter into motion, and Guy Firminger passed through the garden with the two ladies, to put them into their carriage. Mrs. Ashbury protested particularly against any further escort. While he was absent the other parent and child, sitting together on their pretty lawn in the yellow light of the August afternoon, talked of the frightful way Maud Ashbury had "gone off," and of something else as to which there was more to say when their third visitor came back.
"Don't think me grossly inquisitive if I ask you where they told the coachman to drive," said Mary Gosselin, as the young man dropped near her into a low wicker chair, stretching his long legs as if he had been one of the family.
Firminger stared. "Upon my word, I didn't particularly notice; but I think the old lady said 'Home.'"
"There, mamma dear!" the girl exclaimed triumphantly.
But Mrs. Gosselin only knitted on, persisting in profundity. She replied that "Home" was a feint, that Mrs. Ashbury would already have given another order, and that it was her wish to hurry off to Northerley that had made her keep them from going with her to the carriage, in which they would have seen her take a suspected direction. Mary explained to Guy Firminger that her mother had perceived poor Mrs. Ashbury to be frantic to reach the house at which she had heard that Mr. Raddle was staying. The young man stared again, and wanted to know what she desired to do with Mr. Raddle. Mary replied that her mother would tell him what Mrs. Ashbury desired to do with poor Maud.
"What all Christian mothers desire," said Mrs. Gosselin. "Only she doesn't know how."
"To marry the dear child to Mr. Raddle," Mary added, smiling.
Firminger's vagueness expanded with the subject. "Do you mean you want to marry your dear child to that little cad?" he asked, of the elder lady.
"I speak of the general duty—not of the particular case," said Mrs. Gosselin.
"Mamma does know how," Mary went on.
"Then, why ain't you married?"
"Because we're not acting, like the Ashburys, with injudicious precipitation. Is that correct?" the girl demanded, laughing, of her mother.
"Laugh at me, my dear, as much as you like—it's very lucky you've got me," Mrs. Gosselin declared.
"She means I can't manage for myself," said Mary, to the visitor.
"What nonsense you talk!" Mrs. Gosselin murmured, counting stitches.
"I can't, mamma, I can't; I admit it," Mary continued.
"But injudicious precipitation and—what's the other thing?—creeping prudence, seem to come out in very much the same place," the young man objected.
"Do you mean since I too wither on the tree?"
"It only comes back to saying how hard it is nowadays to marry one's daughters," said the lucid Mrs. Gosselin, saving Firminger, however, the trouble of an ingenious answer. "I don't contend that, at the best, it's easy."
But Guy Firminger would not have struck you as capable of much conversational effort as he lounged there in the summer softness, with ironic familiarities, like one of the old friends who rarely deviate into sincerity. He was a robust but loose-limbed young man, with a well-shaped head and a face smooth, fair, and kind. He was in knickerbockers, and his clothes, which had seen service, were composed of articles that didn't match. His laced boots were dusty—he had evidently walked a certain distance; an indication confirmed by the lingering, sociable way in which, in his basket-seat, he tilted himself towards Mary Gosselin. It pointed to a pleasant reason for a long walk. This young lady, of five-and-twenty, had black hair and blue eyes; a combination often associated with the effect of beauty. The beauty in this case, however, was dim and latent, not vulgarly obvious, and if her height and slenderness gave that impression of length of line which, as we know, is the fashion, Mary Gosselin had, on the other hand, too much expression to be generally admired. Every one thought her intellectual; a few of the most simple-minded even thought her plain. What Guy Firminger thought—or rather what he took for granted, for he was not built up on depths of reflection—will probably appear from this narrative.
"Yes, indeed; things have come to a pass that's awful for us," the girl announced.
"For us, you mean," said Firminger. "We're hunted like the ostrich; we're trapped and stalked and run to earth. We go in fear—I assure you we do."
"Are you hunted, Guy?" Mrs. Gosselin asked, with an inflection of her own.
"Yes, Mrs. Gosselin, even moi qui vous parle, the ordinary male of commerce, inconceivable as it may appear. I know something about it."
"And of whom do you go in fear?" Mary Gosselin took up an uncut book and a paper-knife which she had laid down on the advent of the other visitors.
"My dear child, of Diana and her nymphs, of the spinster at large. She's always out with her rifle. And it isn't only that; you know there's always a second gun, a walking arsenal, at her heels. I forget, for the moment, who Diana's mother was, and the genealogy of the nymphs; but not only do the old ladies know the younger ones are out—they distinctly go with them."
"Who was Diana's mother, my dear?" Mrs. Gosselin inquired of her daughter.
"She was a beautiful old lady with pink ribbons in her cap and a genius for knitting," the girl replied, cutting her book.
"Oh, I'm not speaking of you two dears; you're not like any one else; you're an immense comfort," said Guy Firminger. "But they've reduced it to a science, and I assure you that if one were any one in particular, if one were not protected by one's obscurity, one's life would be a burden. Upon my honor, one wouldn't escape. I've seen it, I've watched them. Look at poor Beaupré—look at little Raddle over there. I object to him, but I bleed for him."
"Lord Beaupré won't marry again," said Mrs. Gosselin, with an air of conviction.
"So much the worse for him!"
"Come—that's a concession to our charms!" Mary laughed.
But the ruthless young man explained away his concession. "I mean that to be married's the only protection—or else to be engaged."
"To be permanently engaged—wouldn't that do?" Mary Gosselin asked.
"Beautifully—I would try it if I were a parti."
"And how's the little boy?" Mrs. Gosselin presently inquired.
"What little boy?"
"Your little cousin—Lord Beaupré's child; isn't it a boy?"
"Oh, poor little beggar, he isn't up to much. He was awfully cut up by scarlet fever."
"You're not the rose indeed, but you're tolerably near it," the elder lady presently continued.
"What do you call near it? Not even in the same garden—not in any garden at all, alas!"
"There are three lives—but after all!"
"Dear lady, don't be homicidal!"
"What do you call the 'rose?'" Mary asked of her mother.
"The title," said Mrs. Gosselin, promptly but softly.
Something in her tone made Firminger laugh aloud. "You don't mention the property."
"Oh, I mean the whole thing."
"Is the property very large?" said Mary Gosselin.
"Fifty thousand a year," her mother responded; at which the young man laughed out again.
"Take care, mamma, or we shall be thought to be out with our guns!" the girl interposed; a recommendation that drew from Guy Firminger the just remark that there would be time enough for that when his prospects should be worth speaking of. He leaned over to pick up his hat and stick, as if it were his time to go; but he didn't go for another quarter of an hour, and during these minutes his prospects received some frank consideration. He was Lord Beaupré's first cousin, and the three intervening lives were his lordship's own, that of his little sickly son, and that of his uncle the Major, who was also Guy's uncle, and with whom the young man was at present staying. It was from homely Trist, the Major's house, that he had walked over to Mrs. Gosselin's. Frank Firminger, who had married in youth a woman with something of her own, and eventually left the army, had nothing but girls, but he was only of middle age, and might possibly still have a son. At any rate, his life was a very good one. Beaupré might marry again, and, marry or not, he was barely thirty-three, and might live to a great age. The child, moreover, poor little devil, would doubtless, with the growing consciousness of an incentive (there was none like feeling you were in people's way), develop a capacity for duration; so that altogether Guy professed himself, with the best will in the world, unable to take a rosy view of the disappearance of obstacles. He treated the subject with a jocularity that, in view of the remoteness of his chance, was not wholly tasteless, and the discussion, between old friends and in the light of this extravagance, was less crude than perhaps it sounds. The young man quite declined to see any latent brilliancy in his future. They had all been lashing him up, his poor dear mother, his uncle Frank, and Beaupré as well, to make that future political; but even if he should get in (he was nursing—oh, so languidly!—a possible opening), it would only be into the shallow edge of the stream. He would stand there like a tall idiot, with the water up to his ankles. He didn't know how to swim in that element; he didn't know how to do anything.
"I think you're very perverse, my dear," said Mrs. Gosselin. "I'm sure you have great dispositions."
"For what—except for sitting here and talking with you and Mary? I revel in this sort of thing, but I scarcely like anything else."
"You'd do very well, if you weren't so lazy," Mary said. "I believe you're the very laziest person in the world."
"So do I—the very laziest in the world," the young man contentedly replied. "But how can I regret it, when it keeps me so quiet, when (I might even say) it makes me so amiable?"
"You'll have, one of these days, to get over your quietness, and perhaps even a little over your amiability," Mrs. Gosselin sagaciously stated.
"I devoutly hope not."
"You'll have to perform the duties of your position."
"Do you mean keep my stump of a broom in order and my crossing irreproachable?"
"You may say what you like; you will be a parti," Mrs. Gosselin continued.
"Well, then, if the worst comes to the worst, I shall do what I said just now: I shall get some good plausible girl to see me through."
"The proper way to 'get' her will be to marry her. After you're married you won't be a parti."
"Dear mamma, he'll think you're already levelling your rifle!" Mary Gosselin laughingly wailed.
Guy Firminger looked at her a moment. "I say, Mary, wouldn't you do?"
"For the good plausible girl? Should I be plausible enough?"
"Surely—what could be more natural? Everything would seem to contribute to the suitability of our alliance. I should be known to have known you for years—from childhood's sunny hour; I should be known to have bullied you, and even to have been bullied by you, in the period of pinafores. My relations from a tender age with your brother, which led to our school-room romps in holidays, and to the happy footing on which your mother has always been so good as to receive me here, would add to all the presumptions of intimacy. People would accept such a conclusion as inevitable."
"Among all your reasons you don't mention the young lady's attractions," said Mary Gosselin.
Firminger stared a moment, his clear eye lighted by his happy thought. "I don't mention the young man's. They would be so obvious, on one side and the other, as to be taken for granted."
"And is it your idea that one should pretend to be engaged to you all one's life?"
"Oh no; simply till I should have had time to look round. I'm determined not to be hustled and bewildered into matrimony—to be dragged to the shambles before I know where I am. With such an arrangement as the one I speak of I should be able to take my time, to keep my head, to make my choice."
"And how would the young lady make hers?"
"How do you mean, hers?"
"The selfishness of men is something exquisite. Suppose the young lady—if it's conceivable that you should find one idiotic enough to be a party to such a transaction—suppose the poor girl herself should happen to wish to be really engaged?"
Guy Firminger thought a moment, with his slow but not stupid smile. "Do you mean to me?"
"To you—or to some one else."
"Oh, if she'd give me notice, I'd let her off."
"Let her off till you could find a substitute?"
"Yes; but I confess it would be a great inconvenience. People wouldn't take the second one so seriously."
"She would have to make a sacrifice; she would have to wait till you should know where you were," Mrs. Gosselin suggested.
"Yes, but where would her advantage come in?" Mary persisted.
"Only in the pleasure of charity; the moral satisfaction of doing a fellow a good turn," said Firminger.
"You must think people are keen to oblige you!"
"Ah, but surely I could count on you, couldn't I?" the young man asked.
Mary had finished cutting her book; she got up and flung it down on the tea-table. "What a preposterous conversation!" she exclaimed with force, tossing the words from her as she tossed her book; and, looking round her vaguely a moment, without meeting Guy Firminger's eyes, she walked away to the house.
Firminger sat watching her; then he said serenely to her mother: "Why has our Mary left us?"
"She has gone to get something, I suppose."
"What has she gone to get?"
"A little stick, to beat you, perhaps."
"You don't mean I've been objectionable?"
"Dear, no—I'm joking. One thing is very certain," pursued Mrs. Gosselin; "that you ought to work—to try to get on exactly as if nothing could ever happen. Oughtn't you?" She threw off the question mechanically as her visitor continued silent.
"I'm sure she doesn't like it!" he exclaimed, without heeding her appeal.
"Doesn't like what?"
"My free play of mind. It's perhaps too much in the key of our old romps."
"You're very clever; she always likes that," said Mrs. Gosselin. "You ought to go in for something serious, for something honorable," she continued, "just as much as if you had nothing at all to look to."
"Words of wisdom, dear Mrs. Gosselin," Firminger replied, rising slowly from his relaxed attitude. "But what have I to look to?"
She raised her mild, deep eyes to him as he stood before her—she might have been a fairy godmother. "Everything!"
"But you know I can't poison them!"
"That won't be necessary."
He looked at her an instant; then, with a laugh, "One might think you would undertake it!"
"I almost would—for you. Good-bye."
"Take care—if they should be carried off!" But Mrs. Gosselin only repeated her good-bye, and the young man departed before Mary had come back.