She went up stairs, after this, to her own room, a comfortable, luxurious little place, near Mrs. Despard’s own apartment. A clear, bright fire burned in the grate, and her special sleepy-hollow chair was drawn before it; and when she had laid aside her hat, and disposed of her purchases, she came to this chair, and seated herself in it. Then she drew the Pen’yllan letter from her pocket, and laid it on her lap, and left it there, while she folded her hands, and leaned back, looking at the fire dreamily, and thinking to herself.
The truth is, that letter, that gentle, sweet-tempered, old-fashioned letter of Miss Clarissa’s, stung the girl, worldly and selfish as she was. Three years ago she would not have cared much, but “seeing the world”—ah! the world had taught her a lesson. She had seen a great deal of this world, under Mrs. Despard’s guidance. She had ripened marvelously; she had grown half a score of years older; she had learned to be bitter and clear-sighted; and now 18 a curious mental process was going on with her.
“We shall never cease to feel your absence, my dear,” wrote Miss Tregarthyn. “Indeed, we sometimes say to each other, that we feel it more every day; but, at the same time, we cannot help seeing that our life is not the life one so young and attractive ought to live. It was not a congenial life for our poor dear old Philip, and how could it seem congenial to his daughter? And if, by a little sacrifice, we can make our dear Lisbeth happy, ought we not to be more than willing to submit to it? We are so proud of you, my dear, and it delights us so to hear that you are enjoying yourself, and being so much admired, that when we receive your letters, we forget everything else. Do you think you can spare us a week in the summer? If you can, you know how it will rejoice us to see you, even for that short time,” etc., etc., through half a dozen pages.
And this letter now lay on Lisbeth’s lap, as we have said, while she pondered over the contents moodily.
“I do not see,” she said, at last, “I do not see what there is in me for people to be so fond of.”
A loosened coil of her hair hung over her 19 shoulder and bosom, and she took this soft and thick black tress, and began to twist it round and round her slender mite of a wrist with a sort of vindictive force. “Where is the fascination in me?” she demanded, of the fire, one might have thought. “It is not for my amiability, it is not for my ‘odd fine eyes, and odd soft voice,’ as Mrs. Despard puts it, that those three women love me, and lay themselves under my feet. If they were men,” with scorn, “one could understand it. But women! Is it because they are so much better than I am, that they cannot help loving something—even me? Yes it is!” defiantly. “Yes it is!”
She was angry, and all her anger was against herself, or at least against the fate which had made her what she was. Lisbeth knew herself better than other people knew her. It was a fate, she told herself. She had been born cold-blooded and immovable, and it was not to be helped. But she never defended herself thus, when others accused her; she would have scorned to do it. It was only against her own secret, restless, inner accusations that she deigned to defend herself. It was characteristic of her that she should brave the opinions of others, and feel rebellious under her own. 20 What Lisbeth Crespigny thought in secret of Lisbeth Crespigny must have its weight.
At last she remembered the dress lying upon the bed—the dress Lecomte had just sent home. She was passionately fond of dress, especially fond of a certain striking, yet artistic style of setting, for her own unusually effective face and figure. She turned now to this new dress, as a refuge from herself.
“I may as well put it on now,” she said. “It is seven o’clock, and it is as well to give one’s self plenty of time.”
So she got up, and began her toilet leisurely. She found it by no means unpleasant to watch herself grow out of chrysalis form. She even found a keen pleasure in standing in the brilliant light before the mirror, working patiently at the soft, cloud-like masses of her hair, until she had wound and twisted it into some novel, graceful fancifulness. And yet even this scarcely arose from a vanity such as the vanity of other women.
She went down to the drawing-room, when she was dressed. She knew she was looking her best, without being told. The pale gray tissue, pale as a gray sea-mist, the golden-hearted, purple pansies with which it was lightly sown, and which were in her hair, and 21 on her bosom, and in her hands, suited her entirely. Her eyes, too, soft, dense, mysterious under their sweeping, straight black lashes—well, Lisbeth Crespigny’s eyes, and no other creature’s.
“A first glance would tell me who had designed that dress,” said Mrs. Despard. “It is not Lecomte; it is your very self, in every touch and tint.”
Lisbeth smiled, and looking down the length of the room, where she stood reflected in a mirror at the end of it, unfurled her fan, a gilded fan, thickly strewn with her purple pansies; but she made no reply.
A glass door, in the drawing-room, opened into a conservatory all aglow with light and bloom, and in this conservatory she was standing half an hour later, when the first arrivals came. The door, a double one, was wide open, and she, in the midst of the banks and tiers of flowers, was bending over a vase of heliotrope, singing a low snatch of song.
“The fairest rose blooms but a day, The fairest Spring must end with May, And you and I can only say, Good-by, good-by, good-by!”
She just sang this much, and stopped. One of the two people who had arrived was speaking to Mrs. Despard. She lifted her head, and listened. She could not see the speaker’s face, because a tall, tropical-leaved lily interposed itself. But the voice startled her uncomfortably.
“Who is that man?” she said, to herself. “Who is that man?” And then, without waiting another moment, she left the heliotrope, and made her way to the glass door.
Mrs. Despard looked first, and saw her standing there.
“Ah, Lisbeth,” she said, and then turned, with a little smile, toward the gentleman who stood nearest to her. “Here is an old friend,” she added, as Lisbeth advanced. “You are indebted to Mr. Lyon for the pleasure of seeing Mr. Anstruthers again.”
Lisbeth came forward, feeling as if she was on the verge of losing her amiable temper. What was Hector Anstruthers doing here? What did he want? Had he been insane enough to come with any absurd fancy that—that he could—that—. But her irritated hesitance carried her no farther than this. The young man met her halfway, with the greatest self-possession imaginable.
“This is an unexpected pleasure,” he said, 23 holding out his hand frankly. “I was not aware, when Lyon brought me to his friend’s, that I should find you here.”
All this, as complacently, be it observed, as if he had been addressing any other woman in the world; as if that little affair of a few years ago had been too mere a bagatelle to be remembered; as if his boyish passion, and misery, and despair, had faded utterly out of his mind.
Mrs. Despard smiled again, and watched her young friend closely. But if Lisbeth was startled and annoyed by the too apparent change, she was too clever to betray herself. She was a sharp, secretive young person, and had her emotions well under control. She held out her hand with a smile of her own—a slow, well-bred, not too expressive affair, not an effusive affair, by any means.
“Delighted, I am sure?” she said. “I have just been reading a letter from Aunt Clarissa, and naturally it has prepared me to be doubly glad to see one of her special favorites.”
After that the conversation became general, Anstruthers somehow managing to take the lead. Lisbeth opened her eyes. Was this the boy she had left in the moonlight at Pen’yllan? The young simpleton who had been at 24 her feet on the sands, spouting poetry, and adoring her, and making himself her grateful slave? The impetuous, tiresome lad, who had blushed, and raved, and sighed, and, in the end, had succeeded in wearying her so completely? Three years had made a difference. Here was a sublime young potentate, wondrously altered, and absolutely wondrously well-looking. The mustache she had secretly sneered at in its budding youth, was long, silken, brown; the slight, long figure had developed into the fairest of proportions; the guileless freshness of color had died away, and left an interesting, if rather significant pallor. Having been a boy so long, he seemed to have become a man all at once; and as he stood talking to Mrs. Despard, and occasionally turning to Lisbeth, his serenity of manner did him credit. Was it possible that he knew what to say? It appeared so. He did not blush; his hands and feet evidently did not incommode him. He was talking vivaciously, and with the air of a man of the world. He was making Mrs. Despard laugh, and there was every now and then a touch of daring, yet well-bred sarcasm in what he was saying. Bah! He was as much older as she herself was. And yet, incongruous as the 25 statement may appear, she hardly liked him any the better.
“How long,” she asked, abruptly, of Bertie Lyon, “has Mr. Anstruthers been in London?” Lyon, that radiant young dandy, was almost guilty of staring at her amazedly.
“Beg pardon,” he said. “Did you say ‘how long!’”
The young man managed to recover himself. Perhaps, after all, she was as ignorant about Anstruthers as she seemed to be, and it was not one of her confounded significant speeches. They were nice enough people, of course, and Mrs. Despard was the sort of woman whose parties a fellow always liked to be invited to; but then they were not exactly in the set to which Anstruthers belonged, and of which he himself was a shining member.
“Well, you see,” he said, “he has spent the greater part of his life in London; but it was not until about three years ago that he began to care much about society. He came into his money then, when young Scarsbrook shot himself accidentally, in Scotland, and he has lived pretty rapidly since,” with an innocent faith in Miss Crespigny’s ability to comprehend even a modest bit of slang. “He is a tremendously 26 talented fellow, Anstruthers—paints, and writes, and takes a turn at everything. He is the art-critic on the Cynic; and people talk about what he does, all the more because he has no need to do anything; and it makes him awfully popular.”
Lisbeth laughed; a rather savage little laugh.
“What is it that amuses you?” asked Lyon. “Not Anstruthers, I hope.”
“Oh, no!” answered the young lady. “Not this Anstruthers, but another gentleman of the same name, whom I knew a long time ago.”
“A long time ago?” said the young man, gallantly, if not with wondrous sapience. “If it is a long time ago, I should think you must have been so young that your acquaintance would be hardly likely to make any impression upon you, ludicrous or otherwise.” For he was one of the victims, too, and consequently liked to make even a stupidly polite speech.