“Another party?” said Mrs. Despard.
“Oh yes!” said Lisbeth. “And, of course, a little music, and then a little supper, and a little dancing, and all that sort of thing.” And she frowned impatiently.
Mrs. Despard looked at her in some displeasure.
“You are in one of your humors, again, Lisbeth,” she said, sharply.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” answered Miss Crespigny, not a whit awed by her patroness. “People’s humors are their privileges. I would not help mine if I could. I like them because they are my own private property, and no one else can claim them.”
“I should hardly think any one would want to claim yours,” said Mrs. Despard, dryly, but 8 at the same time regarding the girl with a sort of curiosity.
Lisbeth Crespigny shrugged her shoulders—those expressive shoulders of hers. A “peculiar girl,” even the mildest of people called her, and as to her enemies, what did they not say of her? And her enemies were not in the minority. But “peculiar” was not an unnatural term to apply to her. She was “peculiar.” Seeing her kneeling close before the fender this winter evening, one’s first thought would have been that she stood apart from other girls. Her very type was her own, and no one had ever been heard to say of any other woman, “she is like Lisbeth Crespigny.” She was rather small of figure, she had magnificent hair; her black brows and lashes were a wonder of beauty; her eyes were dark, mysterious, supercilious. She often frightened people. She frightened modest people with her nerve and coolness, bold people with her savage sarcasms, quiet people with her moods. She had alarmed Mrs. Despard, occasionally, when she had first come to live with her; but after three years, Mrs. Despard, who was strong of nerve herself, had become used to her caprices, though she had not got over being curious and interested in spite of herself. 9
She was a widow, this Mrs. Despard. She had been an ambitious nobody in her youth, and having had the luck to marry a reasonably rich man, her ambition had increased with her good fortune. She was keen, like Lisbeth, quick-witted and restless. She had no children, no cares, and thus having no particular object in life, formed one for herself in making herself pleasingly conspicuous in society.
It was her whim to be conspicuous; not in a vulgar way, however; she was far too clever for that. She wished to have a little social court of her own, and to reign supreme in it. It was not rich people she wanted at her entertainments, nor powerful people; it was talented people—people, shall it be said, who would admire her æsthetic soirées, and talk about her a little afterward, and feel the distinction of being invited to her house. And it was because Lisbeth Crespigny was “peculiar” that she had picked her up.
During a summer visit to a quaint, picturesque, village on the Welsh coast, she had made the acquaintance of the owners of a cottage, whose picturesqueness had taken her fancy. Three elderly maiden ladies were the Misses Tregarthyn, and Lisbeth was their niece, and the apple of each gentle spinster’s 10 eye. “Poor, dear Philip’s daughter,” and poor, dear Philip, who had been their half-brother, and the idol of their house, had gone abroad, and “seen the world,” and, after marrying a French girl, who died young, had died himself, and left Lisbeth to them as a legacy. And then they had transferred their adoration and allegiance to Lisbeth, and Lisbeth, as her manner was, had accepted it as her right, and taken it rather coolly. Mrs. Despard had found her, at seventeen years old, a restless, lawless, ambitious young woman, a young woman when any other girl would have been almost a child. She found her shrewd, well-read, daring, and indifferent to audacity; tired of the picturesque little village, secretly a trifle tired of being idolized by the three spinsters, inwardly longing for the chance to try her mettle in the great world. Then, too, she had another reason for wanting to escape from the tame old life. In the dearth of excitement, she had been guilty of the weakness of drifting into what she now called an “absurd” flirtation, which had actually ended in an equally absurd engagement, and of which she now, not absurdly, as she thought, was tired.
“I scarcely know how it happened,” she said, with cool scorn, to Mrs. Despard, when 11 they knew each other well enough to be confidential. “It was my fault, I suppose. If I had let him alone, he would have let me alone. I think I am possessed of a sort of devil, sometimes, when I have nothing to do. And he is such a boy,” with a shrug, “though he is actually twenty-three. And then my aunts knew his mother when she was a girl. And so when he came to Pen’yllan, he must come here and stayy with them, and they must encourage him to admire me. And I should like to know what woman is going to stand that.” (“Woman, indeed!” thought Mrs. Despard.) “And then, of course, he has some sense of his own, or at least he has what will be sense some day. And he began to be rather entertaining after a while; and we boated, and walked, and talked, and read, and at last I was actually such a little fool as to let it end in a sort of promise, for which I was sorry the minute it was half made. If he had kept it to himself, it would not have been so bad; but, of course, being such a boyish animal, he must confide in Aunt Millicent, and Aunt Millicent must tell the others; and then they must all gush, and cry, and kiss me, as if everything was settled, and I was to be married in ten minutes, and bid them all an everlasting farewell in fifteen. So I began to 12 snub him that instant, and have snubbed him ever since, in hopes he would get as tired of me as I am of him. But he won’t. He does nothing but talk rubbish, and say he will bear it for my sake. And the fact is, I am beginning to hate him; and it serves me right.”
She had always interested Mrs. Despard, but she interested her more than ever after this explanation. She positively fascinated her; and the end of it all was, that when the lady left Pen’yllan, she carried Lisbeth with her. The Misses Tregarthyn wept, and appealed, and only gave in, under protest, at last, because Lisbeth was stronger than the whole trio. She wanted to see the world, she said. Mrs. Despard was fond of her. She had money enough to make her so far independent, that she could return when the whim seized her; and she was tired of Pen’yllan. So, why should she not go? She might only stay a month, or a week, but, however that was, she had made up her mind to see life. While the four fought their battle out, Mrs. Despard looked on and smiled. She knew Lisbeth would win, and of course Lisbeth did. She packed her trunk, and went her way. But the night before her departure she had an interview with poor Hector Anstruthers, who came to the garden to speak to 13 her, his boyish face pale and haggard, his sea-blue eyes wild and hollow with despair; and, like the selfish, heartless, cool little wretch that she was, she put an end to his pleadings peremptorily.
“No!” she said. “I would rather you would not write to me. I want to be let alone; and it is because I want to be let alone that I am going away from Pen’yllan. I never promised one of the things you are always insisting that I promised. You may call me as many hard names as you like, but you can’t deny that——”
“No!” burst forth the poor lad, in a frenzy. “You did not promise, but you let me understand——”
“Understand!” echoed his young tyrant. “I tried hard enough to make you understand that I wanted to be let alone. If you had been in your right senses, you might have seen what I meant. You have driven me almost out of my mind, and you must take the consequences.” And then she turned away and left him, stunned and helpless, standing, watching her as she trailed over the grass between the lines of rose-bushes, the moonlight falling on her white dress and the little light-blue scarf she had thrown over her long, loose, dusky hair. 14
Three years ago all this had happened, and she was with Mrs. Despard still, though of course she had visited Pen’yllan occasionally. She had not tired her patroness, if patroness she could be called. She was not the sort of girl to tire people of their fancy for her. She was too clever, too cool, too well-poised. She interested Mrs. Despard as much to-day as she had done in the first week of their acquaintance. She was just as much of a study for her, even in her most vexatious moods.
“Have you a headache?” asked Mrs. Despard, after a while.
“No,” answered Lisbeth.
“Have you had bad news from Pen’yllan?”
Lisbeth looked up, and answered Mrs. Despard, with a sharp curiousness.
“How did you know I had heard from Pen’yllan?” she demanded.
“Oh!” said Mrs. Despard, “I guessed so, from the fact that you seemed to have no other reason for being out of humor; and lately that has always been a sufficient one.”
“I cannot see why it should be,” said Lisbeth, tartly. “What can Pen’yllan have to do with my humor?”
“But you have had a letter?” said Mrs. Despard. 15
“Yes; from Aunt Clarissa. There is no bad news in it, however. Indeed, no news at all. How did I ever exist there?” her small face lowering.
“You would not like to go back?” suggested Mrs. Despard.
Lisbeth shrugged her shoulders.
“Would you like me to go back?” she questioned.
“I?” in some impatience. “You know, as well as I do, that I cannot do without you. You would never miss me, Lisbeth, as I should miss you. It is not your way to attach yourself to people.”
“How do you know?” interposed Lisbeth. “What can you know about me? What can any one man or woman know of another? That is nonsense.”
“It is the truth, nevertheless,” was the reply. “Whom were you ever fond of? Were you fond of the Misses Tregarthyn, who adored you? Were you fond of that poor boy, who was so madly in love with you? Have you been fond of any of the men who made simpletons of themselves, because you had fine eyes, and a soft voice, and knew, better than any other woman in the world, how to manage them? No; you know you have not.” 16
Lisbeth shrugged her shoulders again.
“Well, then, it is my way, I suppose,” she commented; “and my ways are like my humors, as you call them. So, we may as well let them rest.”
There was a pause after this; then Lisbeth rose, and going to the table, began to gather together the parcels she had left there when she returned from her shopping expedition.
“You have not seen the dress?” she said.
“It is a work of art. The pansies are as real as any that ever bloomed. They might have been just gathered. How well that woman understands her business!”