The servant, who, in spite of his sealed, stamped look, appeared to have his reasons, stood there for instruction, in a manner not quite usual, after announcing the name. Mrs. Grantham, however, took it up—”Lord Gwyther?”—with a quick surprise that for an instant justified him even to the small scintilla in the glance she gave her companion, which might have had exactly the sense of the butler’s hesitation. This companion, a shortish, fairish, youngish man, clean-shaven and keen-eyed, had, with a promptitude that would have struck an observer—which the butler indeed was—sprang to his feet and moved to the chimney-piece, though his hostess herself, meanwhile, managed not otherwise to stir. “Well?” she said, as for the visitor to advance; which she immediately followed with a sharper “He’s not there?”
“Shall I show him up, ma’am?”
“But of course!” The point of his doubt made her at last rise for impatience, and Bates, before leaving the room, might still have caught the achieved irony of her appeal to the gentleman into whose communion with her he had broken. “Why in the world not———? What a way———!” she exclaimed, as Sutton felt beside his cheek the passage of her eyes to the glass behind him.
“He wasn’t sure you’d see anyone.”
“I don’t see ‘anyone’, but I see individuals.”
“That’s just it; and sometimes you don’t see them.”
“Do you mean ever because of you?” she asked as she touched into place a tendril of hair. “That’s just his impertinence, as to which I shall speak to him.”
“Don’t,” said Shirley Sutton. “Never notice anything.”
“That’s nice advice from you,” she laughed, “who notice everything!”
“Ah, but I speak of nothing.”
She looked at him a moment. “You’re still more impertinent than Bates. You’ll please not budge,” she went on.
“Really? I must sit him out?” he continued as, after a minute, she had not again spoken—only glancing about, while she changed her place, partly for another look at the glass and partly to see if she could improve her seat. What she felt was rather more than, clever and charming though she was, she could hide. “If you’re wondering how you seem, I can tell you. Awfully cool and easy.”
She gave him another stare. She was beautiful and conscious. “And if you’re wondering how you seem———”
“Oh, I’m not!” he laughed from before the fire; “I always perfectly know.”
“How you seem,” she retorted, “is as if you didn’t!”
Once more for a little he watched her. “You’re looking lovely for him—extraordinarily lovely, within the marked limits of your range. But that’s enough. Don’t be clever.”
“Then who will be?”
“There you are!” he sighed with amusement.
“Do you know him?” she asked as, through the door left open by Bates, they heard steps on the landing.
Sutton had to think an instant, and produced a “No” just as Lord Gwyther was again announced, which gave an unexpectedness to the greeting offered him a moment later by this personage—a young man, stout and smooth and fresh, but not at all shy, who, after the happiest rapid passage with Mrs. Grantham, put out a hand with a frank, pleasant “How d’ye do?”
“Mr. Shirley Sutton,” Mrs. Grantham explained.
“Oh yes,” said her second visitor, quite as if he knew; which, as he couldn’t have known, had for her first the interest of confirming a perception that his lordship would be—no, not at all, in general, embarrassed, only was now exceptionally and especially agitated. As it is, for that matter, with Sutton’s total impression that we are particularly and almost exclusively concerned, it may be further mentioned that he was not less clear as to the really handsome way in which the young man kept himself together and little by little—though with all proper aid indeed—finally found his feet. All sorts of things, for the twenty minutes, occurred to Sutton, though one of them was certainly not that it would, after all, be better he should go. One of them was that their hostess was doing it in perfection—simply, easily, kindly, yet with something the least bit queer in her wonderful eyes; another was that if he had been recognised without the least ground it was through a tension of nerves on the part of his fellow-guest that produced inconsequent motions; still another was that, even had departure been indicated, he would positively have felt dissuasion in the rare promise of the scene. This was in especial after Lord Gwyther not only had announced that he was now married, but had mentioned that he wished to bring his wife to Mrs. Grantham for the benefit so certain to be derived. It was the passage immediately produced by that speech that provoked in Sutton the intensity, as it were, of his arrest. He already knew of the marriage as well as Mrs. Grantham herself, and as well also as he knew of some other things; and this gave him, doubtless, the better measure of what took place before him and the keener consciousness of the quick look that, at a marked moment—though it was not absolutely meant for him any more than for his companion—Mrs. Grantham let him catch.
She smiled, but it had a gravity. “I think, you know, you ought to have told me before.”
“Do you mean when I first got engaged? Well, it all took place so far away, and we really told, at home, so few people.”
Oh, there might have been reasons; but it had not been quite right. “You were married at Stuttgart? That wasn’t too far for my interest, at least, to reach.”
“Awfully kind of you—and of course one knew you would be kind. But it wasn’t at Stuttgart; it was over there, but quite in the country. We should have managed it in England but that her mother naturally wished to be present, yet was not in health to come. So it was really, you see, a sort of little hole-and-corner German affair.”
This didn’t in the least check Mrs. Grantham’s claim, but it started a slight anxiety. “Will she be—a, then, German?”
Sutton knew her to know perfectly what Lady Gwyther would “be,” but he had by this time, while their friend explained, his independent interest. “Oh dear, no! My father-in-law has never parted with the proud birthright of a Briton. But his wife, you see, holds an estate in Würtemberg from her mother, Countess Kremnitz, on which, with the awful condition of his English property, you know, they’ve found it for years a tremendous saving to live. So that though Valda was luckily born at home she has practically spent her life over there.”
“Oh, I see.” Then, after a slight pause, “Is Valda her pretty name?” Mrs. Grantham asked.
“Well,” said the young man, only wishing, in his candour, it was clear, to be drawn out—”well, she has, in the manner of her mother’s people, about thirteen; but that’s the one we generally use.”
Mrs. Grantham hesitated but an instant. “Then may I generally use it?”
“It would be too charming of you; and nothing would give her—as, I assure you, nothing would give me, greater pleasure.” Lord Gwyther quite glowed with the thought.
“Then I think that instead of coming alone you might have brought her to see me.”
“It’s exactly what,” he instantly replied, “I came to ask your leave to do.” He explained that for the moment Lady Gwyther was not in town, having as soon as she arrived gone down to Torquay to put in a few days with one of her aunts, also her godmother, to whom she was an object of great interest. She had seen no one yet, and no one—not that that mattered—had seen her; she knew nothing whatever of London and was awfully frightened at facing it and at what however little might be expected of her. “She wants some one,” he said, “some one who knows the whole thing, don’t you see? and who’s thoroughly kind and clever, as you would be, if I may say so, to take her by the hand.” It was at this point and on these words that the eyes of Lord Gwyther’s two auditors inevitably and wonderfully met. But there was nothing in the way he kept it up to show that he caught the encounter. “She wants, if I may tell you so, for the great labyrinth, a real friend; and asking myself what I could do to make things ready for her, and who would be absolutely the best woman in London———”
“You thought, naturally, of me?” Mrs. Grantham had listened with no sign but the faint flash just noted; now, however, she gave him the full light of her expressive face—which immediately brought Shirley Sutton, looking at his watch, once more to his feet.
“She is the best woman in London!” He addressed himself with a laugh to the other visitor, but offered his hand in farewell to their hostess.
“I must,” he said without scruple.
“Then we do meet at dinner?”
“I hope so.” On which, to take leave, he returned with interest to Lord Gwyther the friendly clutch he had a short time before received.
They did meet at dinner, and if they were not, as it happened, side by side, they made that up afterwards in the happiest angle of a drawing-room that offered both shine and shadow and that was positively much appreciated, in the circle in which they moved, for the favourable “corners” created by its shrewd mistress. Her face, charged with something produced in it by Lord Gwyther’s visit, had been with him so constantly for the previous hours that, when she instantly challenged him on his “treatment” of her in the afternoon, he was on the point of naming it as his reason for not having remained with her. Something new had quickly come into her beauty; he couldn’t as yet have said what, nor whether on the whole to its advantage or its loss. Till he could make up his mind about that, at any rate, he would say nothing; so that, with sufficient presence of mind, he found a better excuse. If in short he had in defiance of her particular request left her alone with Lord Gwyther, it was simply because the situation had suddenly turned so exciting that he had fairly feared the contagion of it—the temptation of its making him, most improperly, put in his word.
They could now talk of these things at their ease. Other couples, ensconced and scattered, enjoyed the same privilege, and Sutton had more and more the profit, such as it was, of feeling that his interest in Mrs. Grantham had become—what was the luxury of so high a social code—an acknowledged and protected relation. He knew his London well enough to know that he was on the way to be regarded as her main source of consolation for the trick that, several months before, Lord Gwyther had publicly played her. Many persons had not held that, by the high social code in question, his lordship could have “reserved the right” to turn up in that way, from one day to another, engaged. For himself London took, with its short cuts and its cheap psychology, an immense deal for granted. To his own sense he was never—could in the nature of things never be—any man’s “successor.” Just what had constituted the predecessorship of other men was apparently that they had been able to make up their mind. He, worse luck, was at the mercy of her face, and more than ever at the mercy of it now, which meant, moreover, not that it made a slave of him, but that it made, disconcertingly, a sceptic. It was the absolute perfection of the handsome; but things had a way of coming into it. “I felt,” he said, “that you were there together at a point at which you had a right to the ease that the absence of a listener would give. I reflected that when you made me promise to stay you hadn’t guessed———”
“That he could possibly have come to me on such an extraordinary errand? No, of course, I hadn’t guessed. Who would? But didn’t you see how little I was upset by it?”
Sutton demurred. Then with a smile, “I think he saw how little.”
“You yourself didn’t, then?”
He again held back, but not, after all, to answer. “He was wonderful, wasn’t he?”
“I think he was,” she replied after a moment. To which she added: “Why did he pretend that way he knew you?”
“He didn’t pretend. He felt on the spot as if we were friends.” Sutton had found this afterwards, and found truth in it. “It was an effusion of cheer and hope. He was so glad to see me there, and to find you happy.”
“Happy. Aren’t you?”
“Because of you?“
“Well—according to the impression he received as he came in.”
“That was sudden then,” she asked, “and unexpected?”
Her companion thought. “Prepared in some degree, but confirmed by the sight of us, there together, so awfully jolly and sociable over your fire.”
Mrs. Grantham turned this round. “If he knew I was ‘happy’ then—which, by the way, is none of his business, nor of yours either—why in the world did he come?”
“Well, for good manners, and for his idea,” said Sutton.
She took it in, appearing to have no hardness of rancour that could bar discussion. “Do you mean by his idea his proposal that I should grandmother his wife? And, if you do, is the proposal your reason for calling him wonderful?”
Sutton laughed. “Pray, what’s yours?” As this was a question, however, that she took her time to answer or not to answer—only appearing interested for a moment in a combination that had formed itself on the other side of the room—he presently went on. “What’s his?—that would seem to be the point. His, I mean, for having decided on the extraordinary step of throwing his little wife, bound hands and feet, into your arms. Intelligent as you are, and with these three or four hours to have thought it over, I yet don’t see how that can fail still to mystify you.”
She continued to watch their opposite neighbours. “‘Little,’ you call her. Is she so very small?”
“Tiny, tiny—she must be; as different as possible in every way—of necessity—from you. They always are the opposite pole, you know,” said Shirley Sutton.
She glanced at him now. “You strike me as of an impudence———!”
“No, no. I only like to make it out with you.”
She looked away again and, after a little, went on. “I’m sure she’s charming, and only hope one isn’t to gather that he’s already tired of her.”
“Not a bit! He’s tremendously in love, and he’ll remain so.”
“So much the better. And if it’s a question,” said Mrs. Grantham, “of one’s doing what one can for her, he has only, as I told him when you had gone, to give me the chance.”
“Good! So he is to commit her to you?”
“You use extraordinary expressions, but it’s settled that he brings her.”
“And you’ll really and truly help her?”
“Really and truly?” said Mrs. Grantham, with her eyes again upon him. “Why not? For what do you take me?”
“Ah, isn’t that just what I still have the discomfort, every day I live, of asking myself?”
She had made, as she spoke, a movement to rise, which, as if she was tired of his tone, his last words appeared to determine. But, also getting up, he held her, when they were on their feet, long enough to hear the rest of what he had to say. “If you do help her, you know, you’ll show him that you’ve understood.”
“Why, his idea—the deep, acute train of reasoning that has led him to take, as one may say, the bull by the horns; to reflect that as you might, as you probably would, in any case, get at her, he plays the wise game, as well as the bold one, by assuming your generosity and placing himself publicly under an obligation to you.”
Mrs. Grantham showed not only that she had listened, but that she had for an instant considered. “What is it you elegantly describe as my getting at her?”
“He takes his risk, but puts you, you see, on your honour.”
She thought a moment more. “What profundities indeed then over the simplest of matters! And if your idea is,” she went on, “that if I do help her I shall show him I’ve understood them, so it will be that if I don’t———”
“You’ll show him”—Sutton took her up—”that you haven’t? Precisely. But in spite of not wanting to appear to have understood too much———”
“I may still be depended on to do what I can? Quite certainly. You’ll see what I may still be depended on to do.” And she moved away.
It was not, doubtless, that there had been anything in their rather sharp separation at that moment to sustain or prolong the interruption; yet it definitely befell that, circumstances aiding, they practically failed to meet again before the great party at Burbeck. This occasion was to gather in some thirty persons from a certain Friday to the following Monday, and it was on the Friday that Sutton went down. He had known in advance that Mrs. Grantham was to be there, and this perhaps, during the interval of hindrance, had helped him a little to be patient. He had before him the certitude of a real full cup—two days brimming over with the sight of her. He found, however, on his arrival that she was not yet in the field, and presently learned that her place would be in a small contingent that was to join the party on the morrow. This knowledge he extracted from Miss Banker, who was always the first to present herself at any gathering that was to enjoy her, and whom, moreover—partly on that very account—the wary not less than the speculative were apt to hold themselves well-advised to engage with at as early as possible a stage of the business. She was stout, red, rich, mature, universal—a massive, much-fingered volume, alphabetical, wonderful, indexed, that opened of itself at the right place. She opened for Sutton instinctively at G———, which happened to be remarkably convenient. “What she’s really waiting over for is to bring down Lady Gwyther.”
“Ah, the Gwythers are coming?”
“Yes; caught, through Mrs. Grantham, just in time. She’ll be the feature—everyone wants to see her.”
Speculation and wariness met and combined at this moment in Shirley Sutton. “Do you mean—a—Mrs. Grantham?”
“Dear no! Poor little Lady Gwyther, who, but just arrived in England, appears now literally for the first time in her life in any society whatever, and whom (don’t you know the extraordinary story? you ought to—you!) she, of all people, has so wonderfully taken up. It will be quite—here—as if she were ‘presenting’ her.”
Sutton, of course, took in more things than even appeared. “I never know what I ought to know; I only know, inveterately, what I oughtn’t. So what is the extraordinary story?”
“You really haven’t heard———?”
“Really,” he replied without winking.
“It happened, indeed, but the other day,” said Miss Banker, “yet everyone is already wondering. Gwyther has thrown his wife on her mercy—but I won’t believe you if you pretend to me you don’t know why he shouldn’t.”
Sutton asked himself then what he could pretend. “Do you mean because she’s merciless?”
She hesitated. “If you don’t know, perhaps I oughtn’t to tell you.”
He liked Miss Banker, and found just the right tone to plead. “Do tell me.”
“Well,” she sighed, “it will be your own fault———! They had been such friends that there could have been but one name for the crudity of his original procédé. When I was a girl we used to call it throwing over. They call it in French to lâcher. But I refer not so much to the act itself as to the manner of it, though you may say indeed, of course, that there is in such cases, after all, only one manner. Least said, soonest mended.”
Sutton seemed to wonder. “Oh, he said too much?”
“He said nothing. That was it.”
Sutton kept it up. “But was what?“
“Why, what she must, like any woman in her shoes, have felt to be his perfidy. He simply went and did it—took to himself this child, that is, without the preliminary of a scandal or a rupture—before she could turn round.”
“I follow you. But it would appear from what you say that she has turned round now.”
“Well,” Miss Banker laughed, “we shall see for ourselves how far. It will be what everyone will try to see.”
“Oh, then we’ve work cut out!” And Sutton certainly felt that he himself had—an impression that lost nothing from a further talk with Miss Banker in the course of a short stroll in the grounds with her the next day. He spoke as one who had now considered many things.
“Did I understand from you yesterday that Lady Gwyther’s a ‘child’?”
“Nobody knows. It’s prodigious the way she has managed.”
“The way Lady Gwyther has———?”
“No; the way May Grantham has kept her till this hour in her pocket.”
He was quick at his watch. “Do you mean by ‘this hour’ that they’re due now?”
“Not till tea. All the others arrive together in time for that.” Miss Banker had clearly, since the previous day, filled in gaps and become, as it were, revised and enlarged. “She’ll have kept a cat from seeing her, so as to produce her entirely herself.”
“Well,” Sutton mused, “that will have been a very noble sort of return———”
“For Gwyther’s behaviour? Very. Yet I feel creepy.”
“Because so much depends for the girl—in the way of the right start or the wrong start—on the signs and omens of this first appearance. It’s a great house and a great occasion, and we’re assembled here, it strikes me, very much as the Roman mob at the circus used to be to see the next Christian maiden brought out to the tigers.”
“Oh, if she is a Christian maiden———!” Sutton murmured. But he stopped at what his imagination called up.
It perhaps fed that faculty a little that Miss Banker had the effect of making out that Mrs. Grantham might individually be, in any case, something of a Roman matron. “She has kept her in the dark so that we may only take her from her hand. She will have formed her for us.”
“In so few days?”
“Well, she will have prepared her—decked her for the sacrifice with ribbons and flowers.”
“Ah, if you only mean that she will have taken her to her dressmaker———!” And it came to Sutton, at once as a new light and as a check, almost, to anxiety, that this was all poor Gwyther, mistrustful probably of a taste formed by Stuttgart, might have desired of their friend.
There were usually at Burbeck many things taking place at once; so that wherever else, on such occasions, tea might be served, it went forward with matchless pomp, weather permitting, on a shaded stretch of one of the terraces and in presence of one of the prospects. Shirley Sutton, moving, as the afternoon waned, more restlessly about and mingling in dispersed groups only to find they had nothing to keep him quiet, came upon it as he turned a corner of the house—saw it seated there in all its state. It might be said that at Burbeck it was, like everything else, made the most of. It constituted immediately, with multiplied tables and glittering plate, with rugs and cushions and ices and fruit and wonderful porcelain and beautiful women, a scene of splendour, almost an incident of grand opera. One of the beautiful women might quite have been expected to rise with a gold cup and a celebrated song.
One of them did rise, as it happened, while Sutton drew near, and he found himself a moment later seeing nothing and nobody but Mrs. Grantham. They met on the terrace, just away from the others, and the movement in which he had the effect of arresting her might have been that of withdrawal. He quickly saw, however, that if she had been about to pass into the house it was only on some errand—to get something or to call someone—that would immediately have restored her to the public. It somehow struck him on the spot—and more than ever yet, though the impression was not wholly new to him—that she felt herself a figure for the forefront of the stage and indeed would have been recognised by anyone at a glance as the prima donna assoluta. She caused, in fact, during the few minutes he stood talking to her, an extraordinary series of waves to roll extraordinarily fast over his sense, not the least mark of the matter being that the appearance with which it ended was again the one with which it had begun. “The face—the face,” as he kept dumbly repeating; that was at last, as at first, all he could clearly see. She had a perfection resplendent, but what in the world had it done, this perfection, to her beauty? It was her beauty, doubtless, that looked out at him, but it was into something else that, as their eyes met, he strangely found himself looking.
It was as if something had happened in consequence of which she had changed, and there was that in this swift perception that made him glance eagerly about for Lady Gwyther. But as he took in the recruited group—identities of the hour added to those of the previous twenty-four—he saw, among his recognitions, one of which was the husband of the person missing, that Lady Gwyther was not there. Nothing in the whole business was more singular than his consciousness that, as he came back to his interlocutress after the nods and smiles and handwaves he had launched, she knew what had been his thought. She knew for whom he had looked without success; but why should this knowledge visibly have hardened and sharpened her, and precisely at a moment when she was unprecedentedly magnificent? The indefinable apprehension that had somewhat sunk after his second talk with Miss Banker and then had perversely risen again—this nameless anxiety now produced on him, with a sudden sharper pinch, the effect of a great suspense. The action of that, in turn, was to show him that he had not yet fully known how much he had at stake on a final view. It was revealed to him for the first time that he “really cared” whether Mrs. Grantham were a safe nature. It was too ridiculous by what a thread it hung, but something was certainly in the air that would definitely tell him.
What was in the air descended the next moment to earth. He turned round as he caught the expression with which her eyes attached themselves to something that approached. A little person, very young and very much dressed, had come out of the house, and the expression in Mrs. Grantham’s eyes was that of the artist confronted with her work and interested, even to impatience, in the judgment of others. The little person drew nearer, and though Sutton’s companion, without looking at him now, gave it a name and met it, he had jumped for himself at certitude. He saw many things—too many, and they appeared to be feathers, frills, excrescences of silk and lace—massed together and conflicting, and after a moment also saw struggling out of them a small face that struck him as either scared or sick. Then, with his eyes again returning to Mrs. Grantham, he saw another.
He had no more talk with Miss Banker till late that evening—an evening during which he had felt himself too noticeably silent; but something had passed between this pair, across dinner-table and drawing-room, without speech, and when they at last found words it was in the needed ease of a quiet end of the long, lighted gallery, where she opened again at the very paragraph.
“You were right—that was it. She did the only thing that, at such short notice, she could do. She took her to her dressmaker.”
Sutton, with his back to the reach of the gallery, had, as if to banish a vision, buried his eyes for a minute in his hands. “And oh, the face—the face!”
“Which?” Miss Banker asked.
“Whichever one looks at.”
“But May Grantham’s glorious. She has turned herself out———”
“With a splendour of taste and a sense of effect, eh? “Yes.” Sutton showed he saw far.
“She has the sense of effect. The sense of effect as exhibited in Lady Gwyther’s clothes———!” was something Miss Banker failed of words to express. “Every body’s overwhelmed. Here, you know, that sort of thing’s grave. The poor creature’s lost.”
“Since on the first impression, as we said, so much depends. The first impression’s made—oh, made! I defy her now ever to unmake it. Her husband, who’s proud, won’t like her the better for it. And I don’t see,” Miss Banker went on, “that her prettiness was enough—a mere little feverish, frightened freshness; what did he see in her?—to be so blasted. It has been done with an atrocity of art———”
“That supposes the dressmaker then also a devil?”
“Oh, your London women and their dressmakers!” Miss Banker laughed.
“But the face—the face!” Sutton woefully repeated.
“The little girl’s. It’s exquisite.”
“For unimaginable pathos.”
“Oh!” Miss Banker dropped.
“She has at last begun to see.” Sutton showed again how far he saw. “It glimmers upon her innocence, she makes it dimly out what has been done with her. She’s even worse this evening—the way, my eye, she looked at dinner!—than when she came. Yes”—he was confident—”it has dawned (how couldn’t it, out of all of you?) and she knows.”
“She ought to have known before!” Miss Banker intelligently sighed.
“No; she wouldn’t in that case have been so beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” cried Miss Banker; “overloaded like a monkey in a show!”
“The face, yes; which goes to the heart. It’s that that makes it,” said Shirley Sutton. “And it’s that”—he thought it out—”that makes the other.”
“I see. Conscious?”
“You take it hard,” said Miss Banker.
Lord Gwyther, just before she spoke, had come in sight and now was near them. Sutton on this, appearing to wish to avoid him, reached, before answering his companion’s observation, a door that opened close at hand. “So hard,” he replied from that point, “that I shall be off to-morrow morning.”
“And not see the rest?” she called after him.
But he had already gone, and Lord Gwyther, arriving, amiably took up her question. “The rest of what?”
Miss Banker looked him well in the eyes. “Of Mrs. Grantham’s clothes.”