Frances Ewing was a shady name thereafter, to those "in the know". Pennycuick blood and pride notwithstanding, she seemed to lose her own sustaining self-respect when she lost the respect of the man she loved—when he showed her with such barbarous and uncompromising candour the essential difference between a mistress and a wife. Of course, she "got over" that grievous affair, which, for a time, broke whatever heart she had to break. Her freedom and her money, her youth and her beauty, were still hers, and she made the most of them; and that most was a great deal. In her cosmopolitan sets she was a popular and distinguished figure. From one fashionably rowdy Continental resort to another she carried her rich jewels and trappings, and her personal magnetism, and sat down for the season to a campaign of social stratagem and sentimental intrigue—to the indulgence of her unbridled appetite for excitement and the admiration of men. And ever at the end, when it was time to move on to another BIJOU apartment in another place, there was a fresh scalp at her girdle, and nothing, as it were, to show for it, until at last her vanity was tempted with a title, and she married an Italian count, who, if all tales were true, paid the debt that his sex owed her with heavy interest. But those tales did not reach the ears of the sisters at home. To them—with the object of suitably impressing them—she wrote an occasional note, of which half the words were titles of nobility; and the humbler relatives accepted the fact of her unapproachable elevation above them. The Breens made easy jokes upon the subject; Mr Goldsworthy's jealousy of her was overcome by his pride in the connection. "We had a letter from my sister-in-law, the Countess, the other day," he would amiably remark, and proceed to repeat and amplify the fashionable intelligence contained therein, instead of taking away her character as he had been used to do. Deborah was the only sister with whom she can be said to have corresponded, and Deborah had a shrewd suspicion that all was not gold that glittered in Francie's lot. Deborah had the best means of knowing, being herself a world-traveller, and what is called a society woman, as well known in the resorts of such as Frances herself. But although they seemed to run so closely, and so much upon the same lines, there was as wide a gap of social difference and non-intimacy between them as between any two of their family. And Deb was not one to think evil of her own flesh and blood, if it was possible to think good.
She, too, might have filled her letters to Australia with titles of nobility—nobility of a firmer standing than the Countess and her friends could boast of—had she been inclined to do so. A baronial hall, dating from the Conquest—a ducal castle, not to speak of a Royal Presence Chamber—was nothing to Deborah Pennycuick after a while.
To see her on a crowded London staircase, laughing with a prince or a prime minister, was a common object of the season for a number of years; while varnishing days and first nights would have lacked charm for the society reporter who could not place her fine figure and her French gowns in his pictures of these scenes. Goodwood and Cowes were familiar with her striking face and her expert interest in horses and yachts; Highland shooting-lodges, English hunting-fields, claimed her for their own. Southern Europe, the Nile, Bayreuth—in short, wherever social life was bright, comfortable and select, there she turned up promiscuous, as the spirit moved her, to be welcomed open-armed as a matter of course. Men, young and old, continued to pay her homage, which was not just the sort of homage they paid to Frances; proposals of marriage were, or might have been if not nipped in the bud, almost as plentiful as invitations to country houses in the autumn. And she relished it all with singular enjoyment—until she began to feel the approach of that winter and evening of life which has so sharp a chill for those who have loved the sun.
Claud Dalzell was likewise a denizen of the great world that was hers and not Francie's, and, close corporation as it is, they were never far off each other's beat, seldom in ignorance of each other's whereabouts. At the same time, they also did not touch. It was known throughout the great world, which is so small, that there was a deadly feud between them; and tactful hostesses took pains not to bring them into juxtaposition. In public places, when meetings occurred by accident, only the most frigid bows were interchanged.
For, in quite early times, when the Australian heiress, as she was improperly styled, was taking London more or less by storm, she chanced to overhear a brief colloquy not intended for her ears.
"Who is that glorious woman that came in with the duchess? I don't see her just now, but she had a red frock on, with black lace over it—dark hair and diamond stars—not half as bright and fine as her eyes, by Jove!"
"It must be Miss Pennycuick—an Australian lady. She is with the duchess's party."
"Oh, is that Miss Pennycuick? Well, now I can believe what I've heard of her being so charming. She carries it in her face."
"She WAS charming—until she came into her money. That has quite spoilt her."
It was Claud Dalzell who said it, and Deb heard him say it. She moved off out of the press that had brought her within reach of his cold voice—not to be mistaken by her for any other voice—and she vowed through clenched teeth that never again would she come within that distance of him, if she could help it.
The years as they passed only strengthened this determination. Each proud inclination of the head, each ceremonious lift of the hat, added bitterness to their mutual resentment—to his feeling that she was spoiled by her money, and to her feeling that he wilfully misjudged her. The breach was widened by their unconcealed flirtations—a description mentally applied to the most ordinary man-and-woman acquaintanceships on either side, but not inappropriate in all cases. Claud ever loved the company of handsome women who appreciated him; Deb naturally inclined to nice men in preference to the nicest women; and each liked to show the other that he or she was still of high importance to somebody. Rumours of impending marriage were continually being wafted to his ears or hers, but nothing came of them. He was confirmed in luxurious bachelorhood; she was aware of many fortune-hunters, and could not bring herself to value any of her disinterested suitors at the price of her freedom. So the one-time lovers drifted more and more apart, until somehow they lost sight of each other altogether; and meanwhile the years made them old without their knowing it.
She was unreasonably upset on one occasion by the offer of a specific for grey hair from a fashionable London hair-dresser. It was absolutely permanent, harmless and undetectable, he said. "But I am not grey," she indignantly informed him. Whereupon she saw his keen professional eye wander about her brow as he murmured something about the faint beginnings that might as well be checked. At home she studied the matter carefully in a strong light, and called Rosalie, her maid, to aid her. The little Frenchwoman assured her that a microscope was needed to detect a white thread in that beautiful mass of dark nut-brown. With a microscope, no doubt, as many as half a dozen might be discerned dimly, just where it waved back from mademoiselle's face.
That same afternoon she and Rosalie left town for one of their country-house visits. It was a weepy autumn day, and she was not as fresh as usual—the hair-dresser, combined with some troublesome shopping, had tired her—and the disquieting suspicion laid hold of her that she was more easily fatigued than she used to be. While reading her novel in the train, she counted her years, and compared herself with the women she knew whose ages were recorded in the Peerage, and who could therefore be proved to be as old as herself. Some of them were wrinkled hags. Carelessness or ill-health, doubtless, she reflected; and neither charge could be laid at her door. Heigh-ho! That horrid man!
It was dark night when they reached the little station belonging to the mansion that was their goal. A dozen other guests and their servants and baggage crowded the platform, and half-a-dozen carriages and luggage-brakes the yard behind; and Deb was at once in charge of a tall footman, Rosalie struggling through the press with jewel-case and dressing-bag, chattering French to one of her familiars in the rear. Distracted stationmaster and porters uncovered to the stately woman as she passed. It was all a matter of course to her these days.
She was too late for the big tea-party; the men had gone to the smoking-room, the women to their own firesides. After a brief but affectionate interview with her titled hostess, Deb was soon at hers, slippered and dressing-gowned, sipping the jaded woman's stimulant, warming the damp and dismalness out of her, assuring herself confidently that she was not an old woman, and had no intention of becoming one.
Certainly, when Rosalie had dressed her, she was entitled to an easy mind. The best of everything tonight, in vindication of her still unimpaired beauty and potency. Shimmering brocade of her favourite red, and lace like fairy work; and then that magnificent satin-white breast and massive throat, and the stately head crowned with the famous five stars, whose flashing made the eye wink, and which yet were dimmed by the light of her dark eyes. She surveyed herself with full content when the last touch had been given her, and her slow sweep a-down corridors and grand staircase was a triumphal march. She knew that her entrance into the crowd downstairs could no more fail of its customary effect than could the appearance of the sun next morning—or, one should rather say, the announcement of dinner to the tired and hungry shooting men.
She was met at the foot of the grand staircase by her host, and immediately surrounded. In the close press of friends she did not notice the strangers; time was too short and they were too many. A lord of her acquaintance, who still hoped to make her his lady, took her into dinner, and called upon all her powers of wit and repartee to meet his conversational tactics during the meal. It was an exhilarating encounter, and of sufficient interest to keep her "eyes in the boat". Moreover, the table was immense, and the chief of the strangers sitting on her side of it, a long way off.
After dinner there was little comedietta played on the boards of the toy theatre belonging to the house. Many of the ladies were in their places before the men, still craving repose after their hard day's work, could hoist themselves from their chairs in the dining-room. Deb, having helped to coach one of the amateur performers, was early in her seat in front. Some of her admirers did manage to squeeze in beside and behind her from time to time, but the particular stranger haughtily held aloof.
Then, when the play was over, there was an impromptu dance, for the theatre was an ANNEXE to the ball-room. It was the young folk who began it, but older ladies joined in, and all the men but the hardened sportsmen, who saw a chance to sneak to their snuggery and gun-talk before the time. The really old women, obviously past their dancing days, sat around, and looked on and gossiped to one another. And for a time Deb sat with them.
She was certainly tired—for her—and the fact struck her that she had not danced for a long time. She had shirked balls, having only too many entertainments to choose from. She thought it likely that she would be stiff and heavy on her feet from want of practice—a horrible idea to her, who had once danced like a feather in the wind. A good stone had been added to her weight since she had last waltzed with satisfaction to herself; that also was not a pleasing thought. So when her dinner lord essayed to entice her, she shook her head. A dozen other men, and the cream of them too—there was comfort in that—followed his example, and made her charming compliments when she said laughingly that she was "too old for these frivolities".
"Too old—gracious heavens!" they apostrophised space. It was heart-warming to hear them.
But they went off easily, and were soon dancing with the young girls—sylphs as airy and agile as she had once been. And by degrees she drew apart from the old ladies and their talk, which she hated to seem, even to herself, to belong to, and presently found herself in the extraordinary position of sitting alone. She leaned back in her chair, and with eyes half shut, looked at the whirling couples, and dreamed of the days—the dances—the youth—that were no more.
She saw, not this splendid saloon, but a shabby small room in an old bush house—the walls not panelled with paintings by R.A.s and starred with clusters of electric lights, but with wreaths of homely evergreens and smelly kerosene lamps. And amid the happy throng that jostled for room to dance there, a girl and a young man, newly betrothed, anticipating an immortal paradise in each other's arms.
And she looked up, and saw Claud Dalzell watching her.
He was horribly aged—illness, it seemed—and had grown quite white—that splendid lover with whom she had danced, as no girl here knew how to dance, in the golden prime of everything! Their eyes met, and there must have been in both pairs something that neither of them had seen before. He crossed to her side at once, and she did not freeze him when he got there.
"How do you do? I have been wondering if you were going to recognise me."
"How do you do? I didn't know you were here. I never saw you until this moment."
"I have been standing there for ten minutes."
"I did not notice. I was thinking—" "You were—deeply. I was trying to guess what you were thinking of."
"I wonder, did you?"
"I wonder. Was it, by any chance"—he dropped his voice—"Five Creeks?"
She was quite startled and discomposed by this extraordinary divination; having no time to decide how she would take it, she filled the embarrassed moment with a laugh.
"Goodness! I'd no idea that my face was such a tell-tale. I believe I was. That funny old room, with ridges in the floor, and the ceiling nearly on your head—how DID we manage to dance in it?"
"Well, we did manage somehow, didn't we?"
They gazed at the figures wheeling past them, blankly unresponsive to casual stares and smiles. They seemed to hear the rotten flood-gates, shut so long ago, creak on their rusty hinges.
"Heard anything of the Urquharts lately?"
"Yes. Alice was married the other day—to a widower with fourteen children. She has not been very happy at home, I fear, with Harold's wife. Harold has the place now, you know. Jim gave it up to him when he married."
"When who married?"
"What's Jim doing?"
"He is my manager at Redford."
Mr Dalzell smiled darkly. "He likes that, I suppose?"
"I don't know whether he likes it or not, I'm sure, but I do. I know that everything's right when he is there."
"Married?" "Lawks, no! The most confirmed old bachelor on the face of the earth."
They fell silent again, still gazing into the room. Deb lay back and fanned herself; Claud leaned forward and nursed his knee. He ought now to have asked news of her sisters, but he avoided mentioning any of them.
"Been back lately, Deb?"
"Not for years, I am ashamed to say."
"Anybody living at Redford?"
"Miss Keene and a few servants only. Too bad, isn't it? Oh, I must go soon and see the old place. But this European life—somehow, the longer you live it the less you feel you can live any other."
"I used to feel that. But now—one gets awfully tired of things—"
"Oh, I don't!"
"But then you keep so horribly young, don't you know."
He turned and looked at her. She flushed up like a girl.
"Thank you. That's a very pleasing compliment, although I know you cannot mean it."
"I'd like not to mean it. I'd like to have found you as old as I am myself."
"How cruel of you! Not that you are such a Methuselah as you would try to make out—"
"There are not five years between us," he broke in sharply.
Back went memory in a flash to a succession of childish birthdays, their love-tokens and festive celebrations. His was in November, and his "party" was usually a picnic. Hers was in May, and was "kept" in the house, with big fires and a tea-table crowned with a three-tiered iced cake, and blind-man's-buff and turn-the-trencher in the evening. She recalled wild contests with an imperious little boy, who could never conquer her except by stooping to it; and the self-conscious silliness of their behaviour to each other when they grew from children into boy and girl.
"Not much fun in birthdays now, Deb." He seemed to comment on her thoughts.
"Oh, well!" she sighed vaguely.
And at that instant the music stopped. Someone gave the signal to retire from the ball-room, bedwards. They were parted by the crowd that gathered about them when the dancing ceased, and he did not find her again even to say good-night.