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   Chapter 14 No.14

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 25733

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


But, although Mrs. Barton had bidden the captain away, Olive's sorrowful looks haunted the house.

A white weary profile was seen on the staircase, a sigh was heard when she left the room; and when, after hours of absence, she was sought for, she was found lying at full length, crying upon her bed.

'My dear, it distresses me to see you in this state. You really must get up; I cannot allow it. There's nothing that spoils one's good looks like unhappiness. Instead of being the belle of the season, you'll be a complete wreck. I must insist on your getting up, and trying to interest yourself in something.'

'Oh! mamma, don't, don't! I wish I were dead; I am sick of everything!'

'Sick of everything?' said Mrs. Barton, laughing. 'Why, my dear child, you have tasted nothing yet. Wait until we get to the Castle; you'll see what a lot of Captain Hibberts there will be after this pretty face; that's to say if you don't spoil it in the meantime with fretting.'

'But, mamma,' she said, 'how can I help thinking of him?-there's nothing to do here, one never hears of anything but that horrid Land League-whether the Government will or will not help the landlords, whether Paddy So-and-so will or will not pay his rent. I am sick of it. Milord comes to see you, and Alice likes reading-books, and papa has his painting; but I have nothing since you sent Captain Hibbert away.'

'Yes, yes, my beautiful Olive flower, it is a little dull for you at present, and to think that this wicked agitation should have begun the very season you were coming out! Who could have foreseen such a thing? But come, my pet, I cannot allow you to ruin your beautiful complexion with foolish tears; you must get up; unfortunately I can't have you in the drawing-room, I have to talk business with Milord, but you can go out for a walk with Alice-it isn't raining to-day.'

'Oh! no; I couldn't go out to walk with Alice, it would bore me to death. She never talks about anything that interests me.'

Vanished the sweet pastel-like expression of Mrs. Barton's features, lost in a foreseeing of the trouble this plain girl would be. Partners would have to be found, and to have her dragging after her all through the Castle season would be intolerable. And all these airs of virtue, and injured innocence, how insupportable they were! Alice, as far as Mrs. Barton could see, was fit for nothing. Even now, instead of helping to console her sister, and win her thoughts away from Captain Hibbert, she shut herself up to read books. Such a taste for reading and moping she had never seen in a girl before-voilà un type de vieille fille. Whom did she take after? Certainly not after her mother, nor yet her father. But what was the good of thinking of the tiresome girl? There were plenty of other things far more important to consider, and the first thing of all was-how to make Olive forget Captain Hibbert? On this point Mrs. Barton was not quite satisfied with the manner in which she had played her part. Olive's engagement had been broken off by too violent means, and nothing was more against her nature than (to use her own expression) brusquer les choses. Early in life Mrs. Barton discovered that she could amuse men, and since then she had devoted herself assiduously to the cultivation of this talent, and the divorce between herself and her own sex was from the first complete. She not only did not seek to please, but she made no attempt to conceal her aversion from the society of women, and her preference for those forms of entertainment where they were found in fewest numbers. Balls were, therefore, never much to her taste; at the dinner-table she was freer, but it was on the racecourse that she reigned supreme. From the box-seat of a drag the white hands were waved, the cajoling laugh was set going; and fashionably-dressed men, with race-glasses about their shoulders, came crowding and climbing about her like bees about their queen. Mrs. Barton had passed from flirtation to flirtation without a violent word. With a wave of her hands she had called the man she wanted; with a wave of her hands, and a tinkle of the bell-like laugh, she had dismissed him. As nothing had cost her a sigh, nothing had been denied her. But now all was going wrong. Olive was crying and losing her good looks. Mr. Barton had received a threatening letter, and, in consequence, had for a week past been unable to tune his guitar; poor Lord Dungory was being bored to death by policemen and proselytizing daughters. Everything was going wrong. This phrase recurred in Mrs. Barton's thoughts as she reviewed the situation, her head leaned in the pose of the most plaintive of the pastels that Lord Dungory had commissioned his favourite artist to execute in imitation of the Lady Hamilton portraits. And now, his finger on his lip, like harlequin glancing after columbine, the old gentleman, who had entered on tiptoe, exclaimed:

'"Avez vous vu, dans Barcelone

Une Andalouse au sein bruni?

Pale comme un beau soir d' Automne;

C'est ma ma?tresse, ma lionne!

La Marquesa d' Amal?qui."'

Instantly the silver laugh was set a-tinkling, and, with delightful gestures, Milord was led captive to the sofa.

'C'est l'aurore qui vient pour dissiper les brumes du matin,' Mrs. Barton declared as she settled her skirts over her ankles.

'"_Qu'elle est superbe en son désordre

Quand elle tombe. . . ."'

'Hush, hush!' exclaimed Mrs. Barton, bursting with laughter; and, placing her hand (which was instantly fervently kissed) upon Milord's mouth, she said: 'I will hear no more of that wicked poetry.'

'What! hear no more of the divine Alfred de Musset?' Milord answered, as if a little discouraged.

'Hush, hush!'

Alice entered, having come from her room to fetch a book, but seeing the couple on the sofa she tried to retreat, adding to her embarrassment and to theirs by some ill-expressed excuses.

'Don't run away like that,' said Mrs. Barton; 'don't behave like a charity-school girl. Come in. I think you know Lord Dungory.'

'Oh! this is the studious one,' said Milord, as he took Alice affectionately with both hands, and drew her towards him. 'Now look at this fair brow; I am sure there is poetry here. I was just speaking to your mother about Alfred de Musset. He is not quite proper, it is true, for you girls; but oh, what passion! He is the poet of passion. I suppose you love Byron?'

'Yes; but not so much as Shelley and Keats,' said Alice enthusiastically, forgetting for the moment her aversion to the speaker in the allusion to her favourite pursuit.

'The study of Shelley is the fashion of the day. You know, I suppose, the little piece entitled Love's Philosophy-"The fountains mingle with the river; the river with the ocean." You know "Nothing in the world is single: all things, by a law divine, in one another's being mingle. Why not I with thine?"'

'Oh yes, and the Sensitive Plant. Is it not lovely?'

'There is your book, my dear; you must run away now. I have to talk with

Milord about important business.'

Milord looked disappointed at being thus interrupted in his quotations; but he allowed himself to be led back to the sofa. 'I beg your pardon for a moment,' said Mrs. Barton, whom a sudden thought had struck, and she followed her daughter out of the room.

'Instead of wasting your time reading all this love-poetry, Alice, it would be much better if you would devote a little of your time to your sister; she is left all alone, and you know I don't care that she should be always in Barnes' society.'

'But what am I to do, mamma? I have often asked Olive to come out with me, but she says I don't amuse her.'

'I want you to win her thoughts away from Captain Hibbert,' said Mrs. Barton; 'she is grieving her heart out and will be a wreck before we go to Dublin. Tell her you heard at Dungory Castle that he was flirting with other girls, that he is not worth thinking about, and that the Marquis is in love with her.'

'But that would be scarcely the truth, mamma,' Alice replied hesitatingly.

Mrs. Barton gave her daughter one quick look, bit her lips, and, without another word, returned to Milord. Everything was decidedly going wrong; and to be annoyed by that gawk of a girl in a time like the present was unbearable. But Mrs. Barton never allowed her temper to master her, and in two minutes all memory of Alice had passed out of her mind, and she was talking business with Lord Dungory. Many important questions had to be decided. It was known that mortgages, jointures, legacies, and debts of all kinds had reduced the Marquis's income to a minimum, and that he stood in urgent need of a little ready money. It was known that his relations looked to an heiress to rehabilitate the family fortune. Mrs. Barton hoped to dazzle him with Olive's beauty, but it was characteristic of her to wish to bait the hook on every side, and she hoped that a little gilding of it would silence the chorus of scorn and dissent that she knew would be raised against her when once her plans became known. Four thousand pounds might be raised on the Brookfield property, but, if this sum could be multiplied by five, Mrs. Barton felt she would be going into the matrimonial market armed to the teeth, and prepared to meet all comers. And, seeking the solution of this problem, Milord and Mrs. Barton sat on the sofa, drawn up close together, their knees touching; he, although gracious and urbane as was his wont, seemed more than usually thoughtful. She, although as charmful and cajoling as ever, in the pauses of the conversation allowed an expression of anxiety to cloud her bright face. Fifteen thousand pounds requires a good deal of accounting for, but, after many arguments had been advanced on either side, it was decided that she had made, within the last seven years, many successful investments. She had commenced by winning five hundred pounds at racing, and this money had been put into Mexican railways. The speculation had proved an excellent one, and then, with a few airy and casual references to Hudson Bay, Grand Trunks, and shares in steamboats, it was thought the creation of Olive's fortune could be satisfactorily explained to a not too exacting society.

Three or four days after, Mrs. Barton surprised the young ladies by visiting them in the sitting-room. Barnes was working at the machine, Olive stood drumming her fingers idly against the window-pane.

'Just fancy seeing you, mamma! I was looking out for Milord; he is a little late to-day, is he not?' said Olive.

'I do not expect him to-day-he is suffering from a bad cold; this weather is dreadfully trying. But how snug you are in your little room; and Alice is absolutely doing needlework.'

'I wonder what I am doing wrong now,' thought the girl.

Barnes left the room. Mrs. Barton threw some turf upon the fire, and she looked round. Her eyes rested on the cardboard boxes-on the bodice left upon the work-table-on the book that Alice had laid aside, and she spoke of these things, evidently striving to interest herself in the girl's occupation. At length she said:

'If the weather clears up I think we might all go for a drive; there is really no danger. The Land League never has women fired at. We might go and see the Brennans. What do you think, Olive?'

'I don't care to go off there to see a pack of women,' the girl replied, still drumming her fingers on the window-pane.

'Now, Olive, don't answer so crossly, but come and sit down here by me;' and, to make room for her, Mrs. Barton moved nearer to Alice. 'So my beautiful Olive doesn't care for a pack of women,' said Mrs. Barton-'Olive does not like a pack of women; she would prefer a handsome young lord, or a duke, or an earl.'

Olive turned up her lips contemptuously, for she guessed her mother's meaning.

'What curious lives those girls do lead, cooped up there by themselves, with their little periodical trip up to the Shelbourne Hotel. Of course the two young ones never could have done much; they never open their lips, but Gladys is a nice girl in her way, and she has some money of her own, I wonder she wasn't picked up.'

'I should like to know who would care for her?'

'She had a very good chance once; but she wouldn't say yes, and she wouldn't say no, and she kept him hanging after her until at last off he went and married someone else. A Mr. Blake, I think.'

'Yes, that was his name; and why wouldn't she marry him?'

'Well, I don't know-folly, I suppose. He was, of course, not so young as Harry Renley, but he had two thousand a year, and he would have made her an excellent husband; kept a carriage for her, and a house in London: whereas you see she has remained Miss Brennan, goes up every year to the Shelbourne Hotel to buy dresses, and gets older and more withered every day

.'

'I know they lead a stupid life down here, but mightn't they go abroad and travel?' asked Alice; 'they are no longer so very young.'

'A woman can do nothing until she is married,' Mrs. Barton answered decisively.

'But some husbands treat their wives infamously; isn't no husband better than a bad husband?'

'I don't think so,' returned Mrs. Barton, and she glanced sharply at her daughter. 'I would sooner have the worst husband in the world than no husband.' Then settling herself like a pleader who has come to the incisive point of his argument, she continued: 'A woman is absolutely nothing without a husband; if she doesn't wish to pass for a failure she must get a husband, and upon this all her ideas should be set. I have always found that in this life we can only hope to succeed in what we undertake by keeping our minds fixed on it and never letting it out of sight until it is attained. Keep on trying, that is my advice to all young ladies: try to make yourselves agreeable, try to learn how to amuse men. Flatter them; that is the great secret; nineteen out of twenty will believe you, and the one that doesn't can't but think it delightful. Don't waste your time thinking of your books, your painting, your accomplishments; if you were Jane Austens, George Eliots, and Rosa Bonheurs, it would be of no use if you weren't married. A husband is better than talent, better even than fortune-without a husband a woman is nothing; with a husband she may rise to any height. Marriage gives a girl liberty, gives her admiration, gives her success; a woman's whole position depends upon it. And while we are on the subject it is as well to have one's say, and I speak for you both. You, Alice, are too much inclined to shrink into the background and waste your time with books; and you too, Olive, are behaving very foolishly, wasting your time and your complexion over a silly girlish flirtation.'

'There's no use talking about that. You have forbidden him the house; you can't do any more.'

'No, Olive, all I did was to insist that he should not come running after you until you had had time to consider the sacrifices you were making for him. I have no one's interest in the world, my dear girl, but your interests. Officers are all very well to laugh, talk, and flirt with-pour passer le temps-but I couldn't allow you to throw yourself away on the first man you meet. You will meet hundreds of others quite as handsome and as nice at the Castle.'

'I never could care for anyone else.'

'Wait until you have seen the others. Besides, what do you want? to be engaged to him? And I should like to know what is the use of my taking an engaged girl up to the Castle? No one would look at you.'

Olive raised her eyes in astonishment; she had not considered the question from this point of view, and the suggestion that, if engaged, she might as well stop at home, for no one would look at her, filled her with alarm.

'Whereas,' said Mrs. Barton, who saw that her words had the intended effect, 'if you were free you would be the season's beauty; nothing would be thought of but you; you would have lords, and earls, and marquesses dancing attendance on you, begging you to dance with them; you would be spoken of in the papers, described as the new beauty, and what not, and then if you were free-' Here Mrs. Barton heaved a deep sigh, and, letting her white hand fall over the arm of her chair, she seemed to abandon herself to the unsearchable decrees of destiny.

'Well, what then, mamma?' asked Olive excitedly. 'I am free, am I not?'

'Then you could outstrip the other girls, and go away with the great prize. They are all watching him; he will go to one of you for certain. I hear that Mrs. Scully-that great, fat, common creature, who sold bacon in a shop in Galway-is thinking of him for her daughter. Of course, if you like to see Violet become a marchioness, right under your nose, you can do so.'

'But what do you want me to do?' exclaimed the coronet-dazzled girl.

'Merely to think no more of Captain Hibbert. But I didn't tell you;-he was very impertinent to me when I last saw him. He said he would flirt with you, as long as you would flirt with him, and that he didn't see why you shouldn't amuse yourself. That's what I want to warn you against-losing your chance of being a marchioness to help an idle young officer to while away his time. If I were you, I would tell him, when I next saw him, that he must not think about it any more. You can put it all down to me; say that I would never hear of it; say that you couldn't think of disobeying me, but that you hope you will always remain friends. You see, that's the advantage of having a mother;-poor mamma has to bear everything.'

Olive made no direct answer, but she laughed nervously, and in a manner that betokened assent; and, having so far won her way, Mrs. Barton determined to conclude. But she could not invite Captain Hibbert to the house! The better plan would be to meet on neutral ground. A luncheon-party at Dungory Castle instantly suggested itself; and three days after, as they drove through the park, Mrs. Barton explained to Olive, for the last time, how she should act if she wished to become the Marchioness of Kilcarney.

'Shake hands with him just as if nothing had happened, but don't enter into conversation; and after lunch I shall arrange that we all go out for a walk on the terrace. You will then pair off with him, Alice; Olive will join you. Something will be sure to occur that will give her an opportunity of saying that he must think no more about her-that I would never consent.'

'Oh! mamma, it is very hard, for I can never forget him.'

'Now, my dear girl, for goodness' sake don't work yourself up into a state of mind, or we may as well go back to Brookfield. What I tell you to do is right; and if you see nobody at the Castle that you like better-well, then it will be time enough. I want you to be, at least, the beauty of one season.'

This argument again turned the scales. Olive laughed, but her laugh was full of the nervous excitement from which she suffered.

'I shan't know what to say,' she exclaimed, tossing her head, 'so I hope you will help me out of my difficulty, Alice.'

'I wish I could be left out of it altogether,' said the girl, who was sitting with her back to the horses. 'It seems to me that I am being put into a very false position!'

'Put into a false position!' said Mrs. Barton. 'I'll hear no more of this! If you won't do as you are told, you had better go back to St. Leonards-such wicked jealousy!'

'Oh, mamma!' said Alice, wounded to the quick, 'how can you be so unjust?

And her eyes filled with tears, for since she had left school she had experienced only a sense of retreating within herself, but so long as she was allowed to live within herself she was satisfied. But this refuge was no longer available. She must take part in the scuffle; and she couldn't. But whither to go? There seemed to be no escape from the world into which she had been thrust, and for no purpose but to suffer. But the others didn't suffer. Why wasn't she like them?

'I am sorry, Alice dear, for having spoken so crossly; but I am sorely tried. I really am more to be pitied than blamed; and if you knew all, you would, I know, be the first to try to help me out of my difficulties, instead of striving to increase them.' 'I would do anything to help you,' exclaimed Alice, deceived by the accent of sorrow with which Mrs. Barton knew how to invest her words.

'I am sure you would, if you knew how much depends-But dry your eyes, my dear, for goodness' sake dry them. Here we are at the door. I only want you to be with Olive when she tells Captain Hibbert that she cannot-and, now mind, Olive, you tell him plainly that he must not consider himself engaged to you.'

In the ceremonious drawing-room, patched with fragments of Indian drapery, Lady Jane and Lady Sarah sat angularly and as far from their guests as possible, for they suspected that their house was being made use of as a battle-ground by Mrs. Barton, and were determined to resent the impertinence as far as lay in their power. But Milord continued to speak of indifferent things with urbanity and courtly gestures; and as they descended the staircase, he explained the beauty of his marble statues and his stuffed birds.

'But, Lady Jane, where is Cecilia? I hope she is not unwell?'

'Oh no; Cecilia is quite well, thank you. But she never comes down when there is company-she is so very sensitive. But that reminds me. She told me to tell you that she is dying to see you. You will find her waiting for you in her room when we have finished lunch.'

'Cecilia is not the only person to be thought of,' said Milord. 'I will not allow Alice to hide herself away upstairs for the rest of the afternoon. I hear, Alice, you are a great admirer of Tennyson's Idylls. I have just received a new edition of his poems, with illustrations by Doré: charming artist, full of poetry, fancy, sweetness, imagination. Do you admire Doré, Captain Hibbert?'

The Captain declared that he admired Doré far more than the old masters, a point of taste that Milord ventured to question; and until they rose from table he spoke of his collection of Arundel prints with grace and erudition. Then they all went out to walk on the terrace. But as their feet echoed in the silence of the hall, Cecilia, in a voice tremulous with expectancy, was heard speaking:

'Alice, come upstairs; I am waiting for you.'

Alice made a movement as if to comply, but, stepping under the banisters, Lord Dungory said:

'Alice cannot come now, she is going out to walk with us, dear. She will see you afterwards.'

'Oh! let me go to her,' Alice cried.

'There will be plenty of time to see her later on,' whispered Mrs.

Barton. 'Remember what you promised me; 'and she pointed to Captain

Hibbert, who was standing on the steps of the house, his wide decorative

shoulders defined against a piece of grey sky.

In despair at her own helplessness, and with a feeling of loathing so strong that it seemed like physical sickness, Alice went forward and entered into conversation with Captain Hibbert. Lord Dungory, Mrs. Barton, and Olive walked together; Lady Jane and Lady Sarah followed at a little distance. In this order the party proceeded down the avenue as far as the first gate; then they returned by a side-walk leading through the laurels, and stood in a line facing the wind-worn tennis-ground, with its black, flowerless beds, and bleak vases of alabaster and stone. From time to time remarks anent the Land League were made; but all knew that a drama even as important as that of rent was being enacted. Olive had joined her sister, and the girls moved forward on either side of the handsome Captain; and, as a couple of shepherds directing the movements of their flock, Lord Dungory and Mrs. Barton stood watching. Suddenly her eyes met Lady Jane's. The glance exchanged was tempered in the hate of years; it was vindictive, cruel, terrible; it shone as menacingly as if the women had drawn daggers from their skirts, and Jane, obeying a sudden impulse, broke away from her sister, and called to Captain Hibbert. Fortunately he did not hear her, and, before she could speak again, Lord Dungory said:

'Jane, now, Jane, I beg of you-'

Mrs. Barton smiled a sweet smile of reply, and whispered to herself:

'Do that again, my lady, and you won't have a penny to spend this year.'

'And now, dear, tell me, I want to hear all about it,' said Mrs. Barton, as the carriage left the steps of Dungory Castle. 'What did he say?'

'Oh! mamma, mamma, I am afraid I have broken his heart,' replied Olive dolorously.

'It doesn't do a girl any harm even if it does leak out that she jilted a man; it makes the others more eager after her. But tell me, dear, I hope there was no misunderstanding; did you really tell him that it was no use, that he must think of you no more?'

'Mamma dear, don't make me go over it again, I can't, I can't; Alice heard all I said-she'll tell you,'

'No, no, don't appeal to me; it's no affair of mine,' exclaimed the girl more impetuously than she had intended.

'I am surprised at you, Alice; you shouldn't give way to temper like that. Come, tell me at once what happened.'

The thin, grey, moral eyes of the daughter and the brown, soft, merry eyes of the mother exchanged a long deep gaze of inquiry, and then Alice burst into an uncontrollable fit of tears. She trembled from too much grief, and could not answer; and when she heard her mother say to Olive, 'Now that the coast is clear, we can go in heart and soul for the marquess,' she shuddered inwardly and wished she might stay at home in Galway and be spared the disgrace of the marriage-market.

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