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The Vanity Box/Chapter 3


 

CHAPTER III

The stable clock at Friars' Moat had just struck the quarter after four, as a slender woman, dressed in white, walked up the avenue toward the house. She was alone, and walked slowly, glancing about her with interest, as if she wanted to impress every feature of the place upon her mind. Five minutes after the striking of the clock, she arrived at the door, but even then she did not ring at once. She looked at the old, old stone house, and down at the water-lily leaves in the moat which still ran along one side, though elsewhere it had been filled up generations ago.

An electric bell seemed singularly unsuited to the heavy oak door, hinged and studded with iron, but it was there, though a mere inconspicuous button, and the visitor touched it after a moment's hesitation.

A young footman in a quiet livery answered her ring, and she asked for Lady Hereward.

"Her ladyship went out to lunch, with Sir Ian, and has not come back yet," said the servant. He had never seen the face of the caller before, but it was interesting and striking. It was the face of a woman whom most people would like to know, and the footman thought her a personage, though she had come on foot and was simply dressed in a short white cotton frock, with a garden hat trimmed only with a drooping wreath of ivy leaves. He had a dim idea that it might be a grievous offence in the eyes of his mistress, if he let this stranger go, without making an effort to detain her; yet on the other hand, Lady Hereward had given no instructions concerning expected visitors. Usually, when she went out, if she wished to see any one who might arrive before she came back, she mentioned the hour of her return, and directed the servants to ask possible callers to wait. She had said nothing of the sort to-day, nevertheless the footman qualified his announcement of her absence. "I believe they intended to come back to tea," he ventured. "They may be here any minute, now."

"Thank you, but I think I had better not wait," the lady answered, in one of the most beautiful voices the young man had ever heard; a voice which, if she sang, would be a creamy contralto, honey-sweet. "Please give these cards to her ladyship, but say that Mrs. Ricardo had a headache, and sent Miss Ricardo alone, lest Lady Hereward heard they meant to come, and had possibly given up some engagement."

This seemed an almost unnecessarily detailed explanation, but the lady gave it with a certain explicit earnestness which showed that she really wanted it repeated precisely as made. The footman resolved to obey strictly, for this visitor of his mistress was one of those women whom men, in all ranks of life, instinctively long to please.

The servant knew Mrs. Ricardo by name and sight, though she did not come often to Friars' Moat, but he had never heard of a Miss Ricardo. She certainly could not be a daughter who had been away for a long time—as long as his service with the Herewards; for she must be at least twenty-six or seven, and Mrs. Ricardo was not more than thirty-five. His curiosity was aroused, and he wondered almost painfully who the lady in the white dress and the garden hat could possibly be.

He had never seen such eyes as hers, although his ideal of fine eyes had been turquoise blue ones until this minute, and these eyes were gray, even a greenish gray, when you looked straight into them, though the thick dark lashes on upper and lower lids made them seem dark as shadowed trout-pools. Oh, yes, they were eyes that were eyes! Apart from them, there was perhaps nothing very extraordinary about the dusky-pale oval of the face, yet Richard, the second footman, could fancy himself doing anything for a woman like this. Up to a few minutes ago, he had imagined that he was hopelessly in love with Lady Hereward's companion, Miss Verney, but now he had suddenly recovered from that passion. He could not bear to let Miss Ricardo go.

"Would you like to see Miss Verney, madam?" he asked in desperation, even as he mechanically tendered a little silver tray for visiting-cards.

"Miss Verney?" the lady repeated after him.

"Yes, madam; her ladyship's companion, a daughter of the late vicar at Havershall, a neighbouring village. I thought perhaps——"

"No, thank you, I won t trouble Miss Verney, if you will kindly remember to give my message."

What a voice! Richard hoped that he might have the artistic pleasure of hearing it again. As he was assuring the speaker that her message should by no means be forgotten, he caught sight of Sir Ian coming toward the house, across the lawn. One came in that direction, if one had taken the short cut to Friars Moat from Riding Wood. Already Sir Ian had seen the lady's face, as she turned from the door to go away, and seeing it, Richard the footman fancied that he paused. Perhaps it was only fancy, though, for after half a second's apparent hesitation, he quickened his steps. The servant thought that he had never seen his master look so soldierly, as he walked briskly forward, head up, shoulders squared.

This settled it, of course. The visitor would not go now. She would have to wait and speak with Sir Ian, who evidently recognized her, and probably she would have to wait now until Lady Hereward's return. No doubt that would be soon. It was even a little surprising that she should not be with Sir Ian, but very likely she had gone to the village of Riding St. Mary, to see some of her pensioners.

Just as the footman expected, Miss Ricardo stopped, at sight of Sir Ian, and waited for him to join her. Richard hovered a minute or two at the door, expecting his master to bring the visitor inside, but presently he saw that which convinced him it would be more discreet to retire.

Exactly what convinced him, he could hardly have explained, for really nothing happened which would not happen between any lady and gentleman who met after an absence of some time. Perhaps it was the way they looked at one another, which banished the servant almost against his will; yet it could hardly have been that, either, for they did not smile, or appear to be particularly pleased to see each other. Indeed, they were somewhat stiff in their manner; and their voices as they spoke, though quite polite, sounded strained. Nevertheless, the fact remained that Richard the footman felt impelled to efface himself.

It was the lady who spoke first, and held out her hand, saying in her sweet voice which quivered just perceptibly: "How do you do, Sir Ian? I wonder if I've changed so much that you don't remember me?"

"You have changed scarcely at all," he answered; and certainly there was no ring of gladness in his tone. Possibly it hid feeling, rather than expressed it.

They shook hands, and looked in each other's faces, as if half-afraid of what they might see there. Yet there was nothing that either need have feared. No colour showed through the ineradicable South African tan which had permanently bronzed the soldier's face; and the bright rose which stained the cheeks of the young woman made her look far prettier and more youthful than she had done five minutes before. She now appeared to be no more than twenty-five.

For an instant she forgot to draw her hand from Sir Ian's and naturally he could not let it drop, so he held it firmly in his, till it occurred to her that it would be well for her to take it away. She blushed deeply as she did so, though not in offence; otherwise her gray eyes would not have been so kind, so gentle, as they rested on the man s brown face, and seemed to count the silver threads on his temples.

"You have changed," she said, "but only as I have liked to think you would change, with the years. The South African War——

"Yes, that changed all of us," he caught her up.

"It gave you glory."

"Nonsense!" he exclaimed, then reddened a little. "I beg your pardon," he went on, "but glory is a very big word, and I did no more than almost any other man did. I had some luck, that's all."

"I'm very, very glad that you had luck, and that you were spared to enjoy it," said Miss Ricardo. "It is—pleasant to see you again."

 
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"They did not smile, or appear to be particularly
pleased to see each other"

 
"Thank you," he answered. But he did not return the compliment. A look of hopeless weariness and illness sharpened his face. His shoulders were not squared now. His head drooped. If a man as sunburnt as Sir Ian could turn pale, he was pale.

Perhaps his abruptness pained her. At all events she moved as if to go. "I'd just left Maud's card and mine for—Milly" (she brought the name out with a slight effort), "when I saw you. I wouldn't have come, as Maud had a headache, but she was sure Mrs. Forestier would have told Milly that she meant to bring me over to-day; and we both thought——

"Mrs. Forestier did tell us, but only when we were lunching there just now," Sir Ian said quickly, as she paused.

"I was sure you knew, the moment I saw you, for you didn't look a bit surprised."

"I'd got over my surprise."

"Maud thought it would be rather horrid for neither of us to come, if Milly had heard. She might——"

"She did say at once, that we would come home early, not to miss you and Mrs. Ricardo. She—we started soon after three, but—we parted in the woods, and I—came on ahead. I should think—she won't be long."

"Then—shall I wait? Would you like me to wait?"

"Yes. Yes, I would like it," he said. There was no doubt of his pained embarrassment now. It was plain that he was very deeply moved, even, it would seem, in almost unbearable distress. Miss Ricardo saw it only too clearly, and thought that she knew the cause. She grew pale.

"Ian, don't be unhappy," she said suddenly, in a very frank, sweet tone. "Please don't. Believe me, there's no reason why you should. Everything's over and forgotten, and I should like to be your friend. Why, do you think if I'd had any stupid feelings, I should come to visit my cousin Norman's wife, so near this—place? I knew I should be close to you and Milly, for I'd heard all about Friars' Moat, of course, from Maud, when you came in for your uncle's title; and I knew you had been living here for about seven years. I had to come to England, you see but—maybe you don't see; for perhaps nobody's told you of my brother-in-law's marriage? And the children need me no longer——Well, there was no home for me in India—no home I wanted—and I felt I should like to see dear England again, even if I should find myself a little 'out' of things after so many years. Maud asked me to visit her, and I didn't care to refuse. I thought—I thought I should like to meet you and Milly. Can't you understand, and let us be friends, as if there had never been any foolishness?"

"Foolishness!" echoed Sir Ian. "Oh, God—Terry!"

"Don't!" exclaimed the woman. "It's all so far in the past, when I was a child, almost; and if I ever thought there was anything to forgive, I forgave it long ago."

"If I could only tell you!" he groaned. "But I can't, I'm bound——

"Hush, don't try to tell me anything," she said hurriedly. "I wouldn't have come if I hadn't forgotten everything but our friendship, and my friendship with Milly, who used to be so good—so very good to me when I was a child—and she no more than a girl. I don't want to be reminded of anything except happy memories, and though you have made me rather foolish and tearful—oh, without meaning to, I know!—I do think it would be better if I stayed now, and waited for your wife to come home. I—I made up my mind to pay this visit, you know, though—it wasn't quite easy; and Maud never heard—anything disagreeable, I hope, so you see——Yes, I am almost sure I had better stay, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am sure. Stay!" answered Sir Ian. "Shall we go into the house?"

There was agony in his eyes and voice, but Teresina Ricardo would not seem to hear. She had known that the first meeting would be difficult, though she had not expected him to show such remorse as this. She had thought often that perhaps he felt none. With her heart beating so hard that she was half afraid he might hear it, she talked about the beauty of the old house, and of the whole place and the country round. She had walked from Maud's, she said. She had wanted to walk, and Maud directed her so well that it would have been impossible to lose the way. "Only a mile and a half, and straight along, after the first turn. How lovely the Surrey lanes are! I didn't come out into the blazing sunlight once, till I'd got within six yards of your lodge, then into your shady avenue. I don't look very hot, do I?"

"You look just as you used to look when we rode together——" he began, but she stopped him, laughing.

"Now!—It's my turn to cry 'nonsense,' and I won't beg your pardon, as you did mine. I was eighteen then—if there ever was such a time, which seems impossible—and now I'm thirty-one, looking every day of my age. Yes, of course we'll go into the house where I'm sure it's beautifully cool, and wait for Milly. Did you say you thought she wouldn't be long?"

"I suppose she will come home—soon," Sir Ian replied heavily.

"Maud says she's as devoted to good works as ever."

"Oh, yes, very devoted."

"She was always the most unselfish mortal."

"I—yes."

"I don't wonder a bit, you know, Sir Ian, that you fell in love with her. Don't answer, please! There's nothing to say. I wanted to tell you that. I've felt so about—it almost from the first."

"Oh, God!" he said again, half under his breath.

They had moved away from the front door, as they talked, but now Miss Ricardo hastily walked through a long open window, which led into a room unmistakably a drawing-room. "May we go in here?" she threw over her shoulder, brightly, as if she had not heard the stifled cry of the man's soul.

He followed, without speaking, but the look on his stricken face made her ask by way of changing the subject: "Who is Miss Verney? I don't remember Maud's writing about her; but then Maud writes so seldom, and only puts into her letters what she thinks the most important things. Is Miss Verney important? Your footman wanted to call her down to see me, but I wouldn't let him."

"Yes, Miss Verney is important, in this house, anyhow," Sir Ian answered.

"Shall I see her?"

"You mean you want her to come in?"

"Why not? Yes, I should like to see her, if she's a nice girl."

"She is a very nice girl—though not very cheerful just now. She's had a lot of trouble." Sir Ian spoke as if he had been wound up to speak, like an automaton. And like an automaton he went to the bell and rang it.

"Say to Miss Verney that I should be glad if she would come down and meet an old friend of mine, who has called," he said, when Richard the footman appeared.

"By George, catch me sending for any one, even if it was Miss Verney, if I was alone with a lady like that," thought the young man, as he went dutifully off upon his errand. But presently he came back, full of apologies.

"If you please, Sir Ian, I can't find Miss Verney anywheres," he said. "I made sure she was in her own sitting-room, ever since I took her up her lunch there, but she must have slipped out. I looked in the summer-house, too, Sir Ian, where she goes sometimes of an afternoon, but she isn't there, nor in the arbour by the pond. She must have gone for a walk, I'm afraid."

"Never mind. When she returns, you can give her the message."

"Yes, Sir Ian. And would you like me to serve tea, sir, or wait till her ladyship's return?"

Sir Ian hesitated, as if in doubt what to say, and before he had made up his mind, a girl who had been about to pass the window, turned, and looked from the lawn into the drawing-room.

"Oh, come in, Nora," called Sir Ian. "I have just sent and asked for you."

The girl obeyed, but with visible reluctance. She was a very pretty girl, dressed in half-mourning, and the white-dotted black muslin she wore gave great value to her almost startlingly fair skin, turquoise eyes, and bright auburn hair. But the eyes were clouded, and the fair skin blurred with crying. Her long white throat was uncovered, and a pulse beat in it. Her hand, with which she was nervously grasping the back of a chair near the window, was trembling. It was painful to the stranger to see the girl's embarrassment at being caught like this, on her way into the house; but she could not seem to notice her pitiful state.

Sir Ian, absorbed in his own thoughts, did not appear to see that Miss Verney was in trouble.

"Richard has been searching the house for you, and your favourite haunts out of doors," he said. "Have you been taking a walk?"

"Yes, I—have been taking a walk," she answered. "I thought, if I came back in time for tea——

"Of course. Why shouldn't you take walks?" Sir Ian broke in kindly. "I have been telling Miss Ricardo about you. Miss Ricardo is—an old friend of ours, and a cousin of Mrs. Ricardo, whom you know. She has just come back from India."

The visitor put out her hand to the girl, who was looking deadly white, as if she might faint, and the slim, childish hand which responded to hers, was cold. Miss Verney did not speak, and Miss Ricardo was sure it was because she could not. She wished she were able to think of some pretext to fling the girl, some excuse to leave the room.

"Yes, I'm just back from India," she said. "But I feel the weather very oppressive. How much more, then, you must feel it, who aren't accustomed to a Turkish-bath climate. I'm sure you must be tired after your walk, at the hottest part of the day."

"I am tired." The girl snatched eagerly at the straw held out to her. "I——"

"Were you in the woods?" asked Sir Ian, as if he were saying the first thing that came into his head. It was necessary to say something.

The question seemed for some reason to add to Miss Verney's embarrassment. "No—yes. I—was in the woods—for a while," she stammered.

"I didn't see you there," said Sir Ian. "Did you meet——" he paused for an instant, and the girl grew red and white. "Did you meet—my wife?"

"No," she said so faintly that at last Sir Ian's eyes were opened. "You are tired!" he exclaimed. "You've walked too far. I think we had better have tea without—waiting."

Miss Verney rang the bell, which gave her a chance to turn her back to Miss Ricardo and Sir Ian for a few seconds. When the footman appeared she asked for tea, as Sir Ian evidently expected her to do, and then said she would go and take off her hat. She was so warm that her head ached. (So warm, though her hands might have been in an iced bath!) In five minutes she would come down again. And she slipped away, as if in fear of being detained.

More than five minutes passed before she returned, but she appeared just in time to pour tea, and it was plain that she had spent the time of her absence in trying to wash the tear stains from her face. She had succeeded indifferently, but was more composed, and Terry Ricardo found Miss Verney's efforts at entertaining the guest very pathetic.

There were a great many nice things to eat; several kinds of tiny sandwiches, hot buttered muffins, little iced cakes, and strawberries, but nobody could eat, and seldom had there been less interesting talk between three intelligent people. As soon as she dared, Miss Ricardo rose.

"I'm afraid I must go," she said. "Maud will be wanting me. Milly has been detained, evidently; and if she is doing something for somebody, there's no telling when she may be back. You must say to her that I waited as long as I could; and give her Maud's love. Of course, we both hope that she'll soon come to White Fields."

This time Sir Ian did not urge Miss Ricardo to stay.

"I'll go with you as far as the lodge," he said.

They had not much to say to each other, as they walked together, and Terry kept her eyes on the ground. She could not look up and risk seeing again the agony she had seen in the man's eyes, for she felt that it was there, still; such agony as a man's eyes might betray, if he were enduring in grim silence the torture of the rack. She could not look until the instant of parting came, and then she said good-bye hurriedly, almost running away from him, lest he should suggest going farther.

Not once did she glance back, but if she had, she would not have found him gazing after her. He stood still as if stricken, for a few seconds, and then he turned hastily. Not, however, to go into the house. He struck off toward the short cut which would land him again into Riding Wood.