MoboReader> Literature > Fallen Fortunes

   Chapter 8 A STARTLING DISCOVERY.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 21375

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As Grey Dumaresq drifted downstream with the tide that sunny July morning, he felt as though something new and wonderful had come into his life, as though some great and marvellous change had fallen upon him, which, for good or ill, must leave its mark upon his life.

He did not try to analyze the strange feelings which possessed him. For a time he did not even consciously think. He seemed to be drifting along a shining pathway-drifting, he scarce knew whither, and did not care to ask. His heart was strangely heavy, and yet strangely light. A curious loathing and shame at himself was blended with a sense of exultant triumph, which held him in a mood of ecstasy. For a long while he drifted onwards, scarce thinking or knowing whither he went, till a sudden consciousness that he was passing Lord Sandford's house brought him to himself with a sense of shock. He had left that house only two hours before; yet it might have been as many years that had rolled over his head, so different were his feelings, so changed was his outlook upon life.

He moored his boat, and went up to his room. Before long he would be expected to drink coffee or chocolate at his friend's levee, meet all those of his comrades who had energy to pay their customary devoirs to their patron, and discuss the plans for the ensuing day and night. Grey dashed some cold water over his hot head, and sat down to think.

What would Lord Sandford say if he suddenly expressed his intention of giving up gambling in all its many insidious forms, in order to enter upon a life totally different from that of the past weeks? It was not as though he had any alternative plan to unfold to him. He was as ignorant how his fortune was to be made now, after several weeks in gay London town, as he had been on his first approach to that city. He could almost hear the great guffaw of laughter with which Lord Sandford would greet his confession. He half feared the powerful personality and the imperious temper of the man who had been a good friend to him, and who had the reputation of being a dangerous enemy when his will was crossed. Grey knew that this man liked him-went near to loving him-would not easily let him go. He knew that he would appear both ungrateful and capricious; and the young man writhed at the thought of seeming either the one or the other. But yet he must break away. Pacing up and down the room, he seemed to see the soft earnest eyes of the Lady Geraldine bent upon him. He had pledged his word to her, and in spirit to his dead mother. From that pledge there was no drawing back. Yet how could the break best be made?

He thought over the engagements already entered into. Was it needful that these should be kept? He thought not-at least not those which were but promises to meet at such and such clubs or coffee-houses for the purposes of card-playing and similar recreations. But there was one engagement that Grey did not see his way honourably to break. He had promised to ride Don Carlos the following Saturday in a course against three other picked horses, and heavy wagers, he knew, had been laid upon or against his steed. This engagement he felt he could not break; but the rest he would. He might even make the excuse that Don Carlos wanted attention, and that he was going to take him into the country for purposes of training; and, once away from Sandford House, he ought to be able to pen a letter to the master which might excuse his return, and explain the nature of the change which had come over him.

Yes, that would be the way. He would not go open-mouthed to him this morning, to be perhaps scoffed or cajoled into some rash compromise. Grey knew that his ability to see both sides of a question often led him into difficulties and the appearance of vacillation. Surely he could keep his pledge if he made the break with a certain diplomatic skill. Not only would it be easier to himself, but it might prove the safer method also.

When he saw Lord Sandford in the midst of his friends, laughing at the last bit of scandal, passing jokes over the latest repartee of the redoubtable Duchess of Marlborough to the meek Queen, discussing the rivalries of the ministers, and the other rivalries (to them more important) of the reigning beauties of the gay world, Grey felt that it would indeed be impossible to speak in this company of any of those things which were in his mind. He contented himself by standing aloof, looking out of the window and sipping his chocolate, whilst the gay flood of talk surged around him, and he caught a word here and a phrase there, but always heard when Lord Sandford's resonant tones dominated those of all others.

"Talk of rival beauties; we shall see sport to-night. Lady Romaine and Lady Saltire-dearest friends and dearest foes-are to go to Vauxhall Gardens to-night, each in a new toilet specially designed and ordered for the occasion. It will be a ladies' battle, in very truth; and public opinion must needs decide which of the rival queens is fairest to look upon. I have promised both the dear creatures to be there, to give my admiration to both alike. Shall I risk the undying enmity of either by giving the palm to one? No such fool, gentlemen-no such fool is Sandford. I vow I will have ready such a pretty speech or couplet for each that she shall go away with a better opinion of me than ever! Ha, ha, ha! I love to see the pretty dears, tricked out in their finery, and ready to tear each other's eyes out! So, gentlemen, I cancel all previous engagements for to-night. I am for Vauxhall, and Heaven only knows how late we shall be detained there by the battle of beauty."

"We will all be there!" cried the young bloods, who were at all times ready to follow Lord Sandford to whatever place of entertainment he elected to go; and one voice followed with a laughing question,-

"Will the snow maiden be there in the train of her mother?"

Grey felt himself start, and was glad his face was turned away. He would not for worlds that the sharp mocking eyes of Lord Sandford should see him at this moment, albeit he had no notion of any sort that he had special interest in his spotless Lady Geraldine.

He stood quite still to watch Lord Sandford lead away the fair Geraldine (page 155).

"I trow so," was the carelessly-spoken reply of Lord Sandford, as he adjusted his wig and suffered his valet to spray some delicate perfume over his person, as a finishing touch to his toilet. "The Lady Geraldine is no longer to lead the life of a nun. It has been decreed that she is to show her lovely face abroad, and add thereby a lustre to her mother's charms."

"A lustre her ladyship would well dispense with," laughed another. "She would sooner pose as the stepmother than the mother of a grown-up daughter-ha, ha! How comes it that this young beauty hath never been shown before to the world? Other damsels make their début at sixteen; but the Lady Geraldine can scarce be less than twenty, and has the dignity of matronhood."

"A vast deal more dignity than the most part of our matrons do show forth," spoke Lord Sandford incisively. "Doubtless she learned it from her grandam, her mother's mother and her father's aunt; for my Lord and my Lady Romaine are cousins, and Mrs. Adair was trusted and revered by both. Young children are in the way of such gay ladies of fashion, wherefore the babe was sent to its grandam, and remained with her till the virtuous and discreet old lady died, having bequeathed her store of wisdom and discretion to the beautiful maid she had reared."

"And her fortune too," sniggered one gay dandy. "Do not forget that item, my lord. It is whispered that it will make the biggest of her charms. What is the figure? Doth anybody know?"

All disclaimed any precise information, and Lord Sandford spoke no word; his brow was slightly furrowed, and there was a subdued gleam in his eye which warned those who saw it that something in the conversation was not to his mind. They therefore hastened to change it, and many of them said adieu and sauntered away. Only a small knot remained with their patron, discussing the plans for the day; and Grey stood still in the embrasure of the window, his heart still beating with curious violence and rapidity. When those men were speaking of Geraldine, he had scarce been able to keep his fingers from their throats. What business had they taking her pure name upon their lips? And why had they spoken of her fortune? Could it be true that she was so great an heiress? He hated to believe it; yet what was it to him? He was wakened from his reverie by a quick question from Lord Sandford, which he heard as through the mists of a dream, and answered,-

"'Tis true I am not quite myself. I slept not at all last night, and have been on the river well-nigh since sunrise to rid me of the vapours. Methinks I will seek some sleep in mine own rooms ere night. Reckon not on me for to-day's pastime."

"Ay, you have the air of a man squeamish and in need of rest. Go get thee a good sleep, friend Grey, for we must keep you in fettle for the match on Saturday. Man and beast must come to the field strong and robust, with nerve and wind and muscle true and taut. But you must make one of our party to Vauxhall to-night. There will be many bright eyes on the lookout for the gay cavalier, as the ladies call you for your love-locks. You must not fail us there."

For a moment Grey hesitated, prudence and passion fighting together for mastery. But the overwhelming desire to see Geraldine again-perhaps to speak a word of farewell-overcame him, and he answered briefly as he strolled through the room on his way out,-

"I shall be ready enough for that; you can reckon on me."

How the day passed Grey never knew, and it was still broad daylight when he and his comrades started for the gardens of Vauxhall, where it was the fashion to spend the evening hours when nothing more attractive offered, and where such music and such illuminations as the times had to offer were to be enjoyed, and where ladies and their attendant beaux fluttered about like so many gay butterflies, and found opportunity as the dusk fell for walks and talks of a more private nature in the bosky alleys and shady paths than they could hope to gain in crowded routs and card-parties. Supper could be obtained too, and pleasant little parties made up; and the fashionable world found it agreeable on these hot summer nights to take their pleasure out in the open air.

Grey detached himself from his friends upon the first opportunity, and wandered alone through the gardens, avoiding encounters with persons he knew, though often accosted

with laugh and jest and challenge by masked ladies, or young bloods eager to make friends with one whose face and figure began to be known, owing to his successes in horsemanship with Don Carlos, and his friendship with Lord Sandford. But Grey made small response to overtures, quickly shook himself free, and pursued his solitary ramble, till at length a sound of gay voices, laughter, and almost uproarious mirth, in which the tones of Lord Sandford could plainly be heard, drew him to a wide open space where an illuminated fountain seemed to have drawn a great concourse of people; and there, amid a tossing crowd of gaudy gallants, and ladies with towering heads, mincing, giggling, uttering little shrieks, little jests, or playing off an infinitude of coquetries and artifices to attract admiration, he beheld the stately white-robed figure around which his thoughts and fancies had been playing all through the long hours of the day.

He saw not the rival queens of beauty in their gorgeous apparel. He saw not the surging crowd that eddied around them, appraising, flattering, admiring, laughing. He only saw one white figure, standing aloof and for the moment alone, the moonbeams glimmering upon the shining whiteness of her dress, the fair face bent, as though in some sort of sorrow or shame. He saw it, and he was instantly at her side.

Whether or not he spoke, he knew not. He offered his arm, and the next moment he was leading her away from that giddy, mocking crowd; and he felt the clinging clasp of her fingers thrilling him to his heart's core. He heard the breath of relief as the chorus of flippant merriment died away in the distance. He paused, and a quick exclamation escaped his lips.

"This is no place for you, Lady Geraldine. Why do they bring you hither?"

She answered not, but turned her gaze for a moment towards him, and then dropped her eyes. With an impulse for which he could not account, he covered the fingers which lay upon his arm with his own disengaged hand, and passionate words sprang to his lips.

"Give me only the right, fair lady, and I will save you from them all. I ask only to live and die as your knight-your champion-without wages-without reward!"

Then he was silent. His breath came thick and fast. He felt the quiver of the hand he held. He knew not how long the silence lasted, it was so strangely sweet, so full of mysterious meaning.

"I thank you, sir. I trow that you speak truth, and that your words are not idle froth-gone in a moment-as the words of so many of yonder gallants. But it may not be. I may not give you such a right. A maiden is not free to choose her friends; and the knights of chivalry are long since vanished from the earth. I would that I might call you friend, that sometimes we might meet and hold converse together. I trust that I may learn a good report of you, that one day I may speak with pride of having known you in your youth. But that must suffice us. Let it be enough for both. I may not-"

She hesitated, and her voice died into silence. She spoke with a repressed emotion which he scarcely understood. The tumult of his own heart was such that he could not seek to gauge the depths of her feelings.

"If I may not be your knight, let me at least be your friend-your servant!" he pleaded. "And if there is anything wherein I can serve you-"

She seemed struck by the phrase. She lifted her bent head and gazed earnestly at him; but the words she spoke seemed strange.

"You are the friend of Lord Sandford; is it not so?"

"I have been his comrade these many weeks. He has shown me much kindness and good-fellowship. I owe him gratitude."

"And you must know him well, I doubt not. Tell me, Sir Grey-and I pray you deceive me not-what kind of a man is this same Lord Sandford? Is he leal and true, faithful, loving, and loyal? Is he better than the crowd who follow at his heels and ape his manners, use his name as a watchword, and fawn upon his favour? Tell me, what think you of him? A friend must needs speak sooth."

"Lady, you have asked a hard question, inasmuch as I know but little of the man, albeit I have lived with him above a month. He attracts me, and yet there be moments when he repels me too. He is a good friend-I would not speak a word against him; yet it is said that he can be a bitter and an unscrupulous enemy; and those who have lost his favour withdraw themselves as speedily as possible from his notice, fearful lest some evil may befall them."

"Is he then cruel and rancorous?"

"I can believe that he might be, were his passions roused. He has that forceful nature which tends to vehement liking and bitter hatred. I have experienced the one; I have not tasted of the other. For the rest, he is a man of parts, and can do all well to which he puts his hand. Methinks he would be strong enough to break off his reckless and vicious habits, had he but motive sufficient to make him! desire to do so. But for the nonce he floats with the current, and lives as the world lives. More I cannot say."

At that moment a swift, firm tread was heard approaching along the dim alley; and Geraldine looked hastily round, her hand dropping from Grey's arm.

"It is he!" she whispered, and there was a catch in her voice which the young man heard without understanding. He faced round, and beheld the towering figure of Lord Sandford beside them.

"Well chanced upon!" quoth he in his resonant tones. "I was sent by your mother in search of you, Lady Geraldine. The court of beauty has sat. To her has been adjudged the prize. She now desires the presence of her daughter, to share her triumph. We shall sup anon, and the table will not be complete without one gracious and lovely presence. Lady Geraldine, honour me by accepting my escort.-Grey, will you join us?"

He spoke the last words over his shoulder, and there was a note in his voice which the young man had never heard before, and which he did not fully understand. It seemed to sting him, but he knew not why.

"I thank you-no," he answered. "I am going home."

And then he stood quite still to watch Lord Sandford lead away the fair Geraldine, who threw him one strange, half-appealing glance over her shoulder, but spoke no word of farewell.

Grey had meant to go home, but somehow he could not bring himself to do so. His brain seemed on fire, and his heart with it. He knew not what ailed him, but a fever was consuming him. He left the gardens, but walked on and on, not knowing or caring whither he went. The night was far spent, and the dawn was beginning to blush in the eastern sky, before he found himself in the region of Sandford House again.

The place was still and deserted. The revellers and roisterers seemed all at home. A watchman dozed at his post, thankful for the peace of the streets, and Grey met no interruption, till suddenly, round a corner, he came face to face with his host, who gave him a look, uttered a short laugh, and linked his arm within his.

"Well met, friend Grey! You too have had no desire to woo the somnolent god? We find metal more attractive elsewhere. Say now, what think you of the future Lady Sandford? Methought you had eyes but for her to-night. Will she not queen it right royally here-the beautiful stately creature? You have taste, Grey, and I am well pleased that you have. Those painted, patched, and powdered Jezebels, smirking and ogling and running all over the town for the adulation of the crowd, are as little to your mind as to mine. We can flatter and fool and make mock with the best; but when it comes to marriage! Faugh! one's soul sickens at the thought. What man in his senses would trust his happiness or his honour in the hands of that tawdry crew? Gilt and tinsel do very well to play with; but when one desires to purchase, one asks for gold."

Grey's heart seemed to stand still within him. He felt growing numb and cold. As they passed beneath the gateway, and the lamp shone upon his face, Lord Sandford saw that it was white as death, and a strange gleam came into his own eyes.

"Come, my friend, you do not answer. What think you of the wife that I have chosen? What think you of the Lady Geraldine Adair? Is she not a matchless creature? Who would have believed such a sport could come from such a tree?"

Grey commanded himself by a great effort.

"Is the Lady Geraldine Adair, then, your affianced wife?"

"That, or next door to it. My suit is approved of her parents. We shall be betrothed ere long. I thought you might be learning as much from her own lips to-night. Did I not hear my name pass between you twain?"

"She did ask some question anent you," answered Grey, who had no desire to fence or parry-he felt too stunned and bewildered; "but she spoke not of any troth-plight. Why should she?"

"True, why should she? She is not one of your empty-headed chatterers. She wears not her heart upon her sleeve. And your acquaintance is of the slightest; is it not so? Have you met before, since that evening in the water theatre when I did first present you to each other?"

"I have seen her but once between," answered Grey, still in the same quiet, stunned fashion; and when they had entered the house, he made excuse to go at once to his room, declining all proffer of refreshment or further converse.

Lord Sandford looked after him with an intent look upon his face, which slowly clouded over, till there was something almost malignant and ferocious in his aspect.

"So it is as I thought. He has been hit, and hard hit. Where can he have seen her in the interim? They would not have been standing thus, talking thus, if some bond had not been established between them. Yet I thought I had kept an eye upon him. I knew there might be danger. I saw it the first moment that they met. There is something akin in their natures. They feel it themselves. Hr-r-r-rr! that must be put a stop to. I will have no rival in Geraldine's heart. She does not love me yet; but she fears me a little, and she thinks of me. That is no bad basis to build upon. I shall win her yet, if I have a fair field. But a rival-no, that must not be! And yet I read somewhat in her eyes to-night which had not been there before. The fiend take all false friends! I must rid myself of this one, and that speedily. I have liked him; but he shall not stand in my way. Well, 'tis I have made him: I can quickly unmake him. Let me but think of the way and the means. Grey Dumaresq, you are a pretty fellow and a pleasant comrade; but you shall never be suffered to stand in the light of Sandford's hopes and plans and desires. Look to yourself, my friend; for evil is abroad for you!"

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