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   Chapter 30 CONGRATULATIONS

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 16024

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


In the afternoon of the same day Armorel received a visit from a certain Lady Frances, of whom mention has already been made. She was sitting in her own room, alone. The excitements of the last night and of the morning were succeeded by a gentle melancholy. These things had not been expected when she took her rooms and plunged into London life. Besides, after these excitements the afternoon was flat.

Lady Frances came in, dressed beautifully, gracious and cordial; she took both Armorel's hands in her own, and looked as if she would have kissed her but for conscientious scruples: she was five-and-forty, or perhaps fifty, fat, comfortable, and rosy-cheeked. And she began to talk volubly. Not in the common and breathless way of volubility which leaves out the stops; but steadily and irresistibly, so that her companion should not be able to get in one single word. Well-bred persons do not leave out their commas and their full stops: but they do sometimes talk continuously, like a cataract or a Westmoreland Force, at least.

'My dear,' she said, 'I told your maid that I wanted to see you alone, and in your own room. She said Mrs. Elstree was out. So I came in. It is a very pretty little room. They tell me you play wonderfully. This is where you practise, I suppose.' She put up her glasses and looked round, as if to see what impression had been produced on the walls by the music. 'And I hear also that you paint and draw. My dear, you are the very person for him.' Again she looked round. 'A very pretty room, really-wonderful to observe how the taste for decoration and domestic art has spread of late years!' A doubtful compliment, when you consider it. 'Well, my dear, as an old friend of his-at all events, a very useful friend of his-I am come to congratulate you.'

'To congratulate me?'

'Yes. I thought I would be one of the first. I asked him two or three days ago if it was settled, and he confessed the truth, but begged me not to spread it abroad, because there were lawyers and people to see. Of course, his secrets are mine. And, except my own very intimate friends and one or two who can be perfectly trusted, I don't think I have mentioned the thing to a soul. I dare say, however, the news is all over the town by this time. Wonderful how things get carried-a bird of the air-the flying thistledown--'

'I do not understand, Lady Frances.'

'My dear, you need not pretend, because he confessed. And I think you are a very lucky girl to catch the cleverest man in all London, and he certainly is a lucky man to catch such a pretty girl as you. They say that he has got through all his money-men of genius are always bad men of business-but your own fortune will set him up again-a hundred thousand, I am told-mind you have it all settled on yourself. No one knows what may happen. I could tell you a heartrending story of a girl who trusted her lover with her money. But your lawyers will, of course, look after that.'

'I assure you--'

'He tells me,' the lady went on, without taking any notice of the interruption, 'that the thing will not come off for some time yet. I wouldn't keep it waiting too long, if I were you. Engagements easily get stale. Like buns. Well, I suppose you have learned all his secrets by this time: of course he is madly in love, and can keep nothing from you.'

'Indeed--'

'Has he told you yet who writes his stories for him? Eh? Has he told you that?' The lady bent forward and lowered her voice, and spoke earnestly. 'Has he told you?'

'I assure you that he has told me nothing-and--'

'That is in reality what I came about. Because, my dear, there must be a little plain speaking.'

'Oh! but let me speak-I--'

'When I have said what I came to say'-Lady Frances motioned with her hand gently but with authority-'then you shall have your turn. Men are so foolish that they tell their sweethearts everything. The chief reason why they fall in love, I believe, is a burning desire to have somebody to whom they can tell everything. I know a man who drove his wife mad by constantly telling her all his difficulties. He was always swimming in difficulties. Well, Alec is bound to tell you before long, even if he has not told you yet, which I can hardly believe. Now, my dear child, it matters very little to him if all the world knew the truth. All the world, to be sure, credits him with those stories, though he has been very careful not to claim them. He knows better. I say to such a clever man as Alec a few stories, more or less, matter nothing. But it matters a great deal to me'-what was this person talking about?-'because, you see, if it were to come out that I had been putting together old family scandals and forgotten stories, and sending them to the papers-there would be-there would be-Heaven knows what there would be! Yes, my dear-you can tell Alec that you know-I am the person who has written those stories. I wrote them, every one. They are all family stories-every good old family has got thousands of stories, and I have been collecting them-some of my own people, some of my husband's, and some of other people-and writing them down, changing names, and scenes, and dates, so that they should not be identified except by the few who knew them.'

Armorel made no further attempt to stem the tide of communication.

'I have come to make you understand clearly, young lady, that it is not his secret alone, but mine. You would do him a little harm, perhaps-I don't know-by letting it out, but you would do me an infinity of harm. I write them down, you see, and I take them to Alec, and he alters them-puts the style right-or says he does-though I never see any difference in them when they come out in the paper. And everybody who knows the story asks how in the name of wonder he got it.'

'Oh! But I do assure you that I know nothing at all of this.'

'Don't you? Well, never mind. Now you do know. And you know also that you can't talk about it, because it is his secret as well as mine. Why, you don't suppose that the man really does all he says he does, do you? Nobody could. It isn't in nature. Everybody who knows anything at all agrees that there must be a ghost-perhaps more than one. I'm the story ghost. I dare say there's a picture ghost, and a poetry ghost. He's a wonderful clever man, no doubt-it's the cleverest thing in the world to make other people work for you; but don't imagine, pray, that he can write stories of society. Bourgeois stories-about the middle class-his own class-perhaps; but not stories about Us. My stories belong to quite another level. Well, my dear, that is off my mind. Remember that this secret would do a great deal of harm to him as well as to me if it were to get about.'

'Oh! You are altogether-wholly-wrong--'

'My dear, I really do not care if I am wrong. You will not, however, damage his reputation by letting out his secrets? A wife can help her husband in a thousand ways, and especially in keeping up the little deceptions. Thousands of wives, I am told, pass their whole lives in the pretence that they and their husbands are gentlefolk. Alec has been received into a few good houses; and though it is, of course, more difficult to get a woman in than a man, I will really do what I can for you. With a good face, good eyes, a good figure, and a little addition of style, you ought to get on very well by degrees. Or you might take the town by storm, and become a professional beauty.'

'Thank you-but--'

'And there's another thing. As an old friend of Alec's, I feel that I can give advice to you. Let me advise you earnestly, my dear, to make all the haste you can to get rid of your companion. I know all about it. She was sent to your lawyer's by Alec himself. Why? Well, it is an old story, and I suppose he wanted to place her comfortably-or he had some other reason. He's always been a crafty man. You can see that in his eyes.'

'Oh! But I cannot listen to this!' cried Armorel.

'Nonsense, my dear. You do not

expect your husband to be an angel, I suppose. Only silly middle-class girls who read novels do that. It will do you no harm to know that the man is no better than his neighbours. And I am sure he is no worse. I am speaking, in fact, for your own good. My dear child, Alec ran after the woman years ago. She was rich then, and used to go about. Certain houses do not mind who enter within their gates. They lived in Palace Gardens, and Monsieur le Papa was rich-oh! rich à millions-and the daughter was sugar-sweet and as innocent as an angel-fluffy hair, all tangled and rebellious-you know the kind-and large blue, wondering eyes, generally lowered until the time came for lifting them in the faces of young men. It was deadly, my dear. I believe she might have married anybody she pleased. There was the young Earl of Silchester-he wanted her. What a fool she was not to take him! No; she was spoony on Alec Feilding--'

'Oh! I must not!' cried Armorel again.

'My dear, I'm telling you. Her papa went smash-poor thing!-a grand, awful, impossible smash; other people's money mixed up in it. A dozen workhouses were filled with the victims, I believe. That kind of smash out of which it is impossible to pull yourself anyhow. Killed himself, therefore. Went out of the world without invitation by means of a coarse, vulgar, common piece of two-penny rope, tied round his great fat neck. I remember him. What did the girl do? Ran away from society: went on the stage as one of a travelling company. Why, I saw her myself three years ago at Leamington. I knew her instantly. "Aha!" I said, "there's Miss Fluffy, with the appealing, wondering eyes. Poor thing! Here is a come down in the world!" Now I find her here-your companion-a widow-widow of one Jerome Elstree deceased-artist, I am told. I never heard of the gentleman, and I confess I have my doubts as to his existence at all.'

Armorel ceased to offer any further opposition to the stream.

'The innocent, appealing blue eyes: the childish face: oh! I remember. My dear, I hope you will not have any reason to be jealous of Mrs. Elstree. But take care. There were other girls, too, now I come to think about it. There was his cousin, Philippa Rosevean. Everybody knows that he went as far with her as a man can go, short of an actual engagement. Canon Langley, of St. Paul's, wants to marry her. She's an admirable person for an ecclesiastical dignitary's wife-beautiful, cold, and dignified. But, as yet, she has not accepted him. They say he will be a bishop. And they say she loves her cousin Alec still. Women are generally dreadful fools about men. But I don't know. I don't think, if I were you, I should be jealous of Philippa. There's another little girl, too, I have seen coming out of his studio. But she's only a model, or something. If you begin to be jealous about the models, there will be no end. Then, there are hundreds of girls about town-especially those who can draw and paint a little, or write a silly little song-who think they are greatly endowed with genius, and would give their heads to get your chance. You are a lucky girl, Miss Armorel Rosevean; but I would advise you, in order to make the most of your good fortune, to change your companion quickly. Persuade her to try the climate of Australia. Else, there may be family jars.'

Here she stopped. She had said what was in her mind. Whether she came to say this out of the goodness of her heart; or whether she intended to make a little mischief between the girl and her lover; or whether she supposed Armorel to be a young lady who accepts a lover with no illusions as to imaginary perfections, so that a new weakness discovered here and there would not lower him in her opinion, I cannot say. Lady Frances was generally considered a good-natured kind of person, and certainly she had no illusions about perfection in any man.

'May I speak now?' asked Armorel.

'Certainly, my dear. It was very good of you to hear me patiently. And I've said all I wanted to. Keep my secret, and get rid of your companion, and I'll take you in hand.'

'Thank you. But you would not suffer me to explain that you are entirely mistaken. I am not engaged to Mr. Feilding at all.'

'But he told me that you were.'

'Yes; but he also tells the world, or allows the world to believe, that he writes your stories. I am not engaged to Mr. Feilding, Lady Frances, and, what is more, I never shall be engaged to that man-never!'

'Have you quarrelled already?'

'We have not quarrelled, because before people quarrel they must be on terms of some intimacy. We have never been more than acquaintances.'

'Well-but-child-he has been seen with you constantly. At theatres, at concerts, in the park, in galleries-everywhere, he has been walking with you as if he had the right.'

'I could not help that. Besides, I never thought--'

'Never thought? Why, where were you brought up? Never thought? Good gracious! what do young ladies go into society for?'

'I am not a young lady of society, I am afraid.'

'Well-but-what was your companion about, to allow-- Oh!'-Lady Frances nodded her head-'oh! now I understand. Now one can understand why he got her placed here. Now one understands her business. My dear, you have been placed in a very dangerous position-most dangerous. Your guardians or lawyers are very much to blame. And you really never suspected anything?'

'How should I suspect? I was always told that Mr. Feilding was not the man to begin that kind of thing.'

'Were you? Your companion told you that, I suppose?'

'Oh! I suppose so. There seems a horrid network of deception all about me, Lady Frances.' Armorel rose, and her visitor followed her example. 'You have put a secret into my hands. I shall respect it. Henceforth, I desire but one more interview with this man. Oh! he is all lies-through and through. There is no part of him that is true.'

'Nonsense, my dear; you take things too seriously. We all have our little reservations, and some deceptions are necessary. When you get to my age you will understand. Why won't you marry the man? He is young: his manners are pretty good: he is a man of the world: he is really clever: he is quite sure to get on, particularly if his wife help him. He means to get on. He is the kind of man to get on. You see he is clever enough to take the credit of other people's work: to make others work for you is the first rule in the art of getting on. Oh! he will do. I shall live to see him made a baronet, and in the next generation his son will marry money, and go up into the Lords. That is the way. My dear, you had better take him. You will never get a more promising offer. You seem to me rather an unworldly kind of girl. You should really take advice of those who know the world.'

'I could never-never-marry Mr. Feilding.

'Wealth, position, society, rank, consideration-these are the only things in life worth having, and you are going to throw them away! My dear, is there actually nothing between you at all? Was it all a fib?'

'Actually nothing at all, except that he offered himself to me this very morning, and he received an answer which was, I hope, plain enough.'

'Ah! now I see.' Lady Frances laughed. 'Now I understand, my dear, the vanity of the man! The creature, when he told me that fib, thought it was the truth because he had made up his mind to ask you, and, of course, he concluded that no one could say "No" to him. Now I understand. You need not fall into a rage about it, my dear. It was only his vanity. Poor dear Alec! Well, he'll get another pretty girl, I dare say; but, my dear, I doubt whether-- Rising men are scarce, you know. Good-bye, child! Keep that little secret, and don't bear malice. The vanity-the vanity of the men! Wonderful! wonderful!'

* * *

'And now,' cried Armorel, alone-'now there is nothing left. Everything has been torn from him. He can do nothing-nothing. The cleverest man-the very cleverest man in all London!'

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