Lisbeth gave him a sweeping little curtsy, and looked at him sweetly, with her immense, dense eyes.
“That was very nice, indeed, in you,” she said, with a gravely obliged air. “Pray, take one of my pansies.” And selecting one from her bouquet, she held it out to him, and Hector Anstruthers, chancing to glance toward them at the moment, had the pleasure of seeing the charming bit of by-play.
It was the misfortune of Miss Crespigny’s admirers that they were rarely quite sure of her. She had an agreeable way of saying one thing, and meaning another; of speaking with the greatest gravity, and at the same time making her hearer feel extremely dubious and uncomfortable. She was a brilliant young lady, a sarcastic young lady, and this was her mode of dealing with young men and women who otherwise might have remained too well satisfied with themselves. Bertie Lyon felt himself 28 somewhat at a loss before her, always. It was not easy to resist her, when she chose to be irresistible; but he invariably grew hot and cold over her “confounded significant speeches.” And this was one of them. She was making a cut at him for his clumsy compliment, and yet he was compelled to accept her pansy, and fasten it on his coat, as if he was grateful.
Mr. Hector Anstruthers had been installed, by universal consent, that evening, as a sort of young lion, whose gentlemanly roar was worth hearing. Young ladies had heard of him from their brothers, and one or two had seen those lovely little pictures of his last season. Matrons had heard their husbands mention him as a remarkable young fellow, who had unexpectedly come into a large property, and yet wrote articles for the papers, and painted, when the mood seized him, for dear life. A really extraordinary young man, and very popular among highly desirable people. “Rather reckless,” they would say, “perhaps, and something of a cynic, as these young swells are often apt to be; but, nevertheless, a fine fellow—a fine fellow!” And Anstruthers had condescended to make himself very agreeable to the young ladies to whom he was introduced; had danced 29 a little, had talked with great politeness to the elder matrons, and, in short, had rendered himself extremely popular. Indeed, he was so well employed, that, until the latter part of the evening, Lisbeth saw very little of him. Then he appeared suddenly to remember her existence, and dutifully made his way to her side, to ask for a dance, which invitation being rather indifferently accepted, they walked through a quadrille together.
“I hope,” he said, with punctilious politeness, “that the Misses Tregarthyn are well.”
“I am sorry to say,” answered Lisbeth, staring at her vis-à-vis, “that I don’t know.”
“Then I must have mistaken you. I understood you to say that you had just received a letter from Miss Clarissa.”
“It was not a mistake,” returned Lisbeth. “I had just received one, but unfortunately they don’t write about themselves. They write about me.”
“Which must necessarily render their letters interesting,” said Anstruthers.
Lisbeth barely deigned a slight shrug of her shoulders.
“Necessarily,” she replied, “if one is so happily disposed as never to become tired of one’s self.” 30
“It would be rank heresy to suppose,” said Anstruthers, “that any of Miss Crespigny’s friends would allow it possible that any one could become tired of Miss Crespigny—even Miss Crespigny herself.”
“This is the third figure, I believe,” was Lisbeth’s sole reply, and the music striking up again, they went on with their dancing.
“He supposes,” said the young lady, scornfully, to herself, “that he can play the grand seigneur with me as he does with other women. I dare say he is congratulating himself on the prospect of making me feel sorry some day—me! Are men always simpletons? It really seems so. And it is the women whom we may blame for it. Bah! he was a great deal more worthy of respect when he was nothing but a tiresome, amiable young bore. I hate these simpletons who think they have seen the world, and used up their experience.”
She was very hard upon him, as she was rather apt to be hard upon every one but Lisbeth Crespigny. And it is not improbable that she was all the more severe, because he reminded her unpleasantly of things she would have been by no means unwilling to forget. Was she so heartless as not to have a secret remembrance of the flush of his first young passion, 31 of his innocent belief in her girlish goodness, of his generous eagerness to ignore all her selfish caprices, of his tender readiness to bear all her cruelty—for she had been cruel, and wantonly cruel, enough, God knows. Was she so utterly heartless as to have no memory of his suffering and struggles with his boyish pain, of his passionate, frantic appeal, when she had reached the climax of her selfishness and indifference to the wrong she might do? Surely, no woman could be so hard, and I will not say that she was, and that she was not inwardly stung this night by the thought that, if he had hardened and grown careless and unbelieving, the chances were that it was she herself who had helped to bring about the change for the worse.
The two young men, Lyon and his friend, spending that night together, had a little conversation on the subject of their entertainment, and it came to pass in this wise.
Accompanying Anstruthers to his chambers, Lyon, though by no means a sentimental individual, carried Miss Crespigny’s gold and purple pansy in his button-hole, and finding it there when he changed his dress coat for one of his friend’s dressing gowns, he took it out, and put it in a small slender vase upon the table. 32
Anstruthers had flung himself into an easy-chair, with his chibouque, and through the wreaths of smoke, ascending from the fragrant weed, he saw what the young man was doing.
“Where did you get that?” he demanded, abruptly.
“It is one of those things Miss Crespigny wore,” was the modestly triumphant reply. “You saw them on her dress, and in her hair, and on her fan. This is a real one, though, out of her bouquet. I believe they call them heart’s-ease.”
“Heart’s-ease be ——,” began Anstruthers, roughly, but he checked himself in time. “She is the sort of a woman to wear heart’s-ease!” he added, with a sardonic laugh. “She ought to wear heart’s-ease, and violets, and lilies, and snowdrops, and wild roses in the bud,” with a more bitter laugh for each flower he named. “Such fresh, innocent things suit women of her stamp.”
“I say,” said Lyon, staring at his sneering face, amazedly, “what is the matter? You talk as if you had a spite against her. What’s up?”
Anstruther’s sneer only seemed to deepen in its intensity.
“A spite!” he echoed. 33“What is the matter? Oh, nothing—nothing of any consequence. Only I wish she had given her heart’s-ease to me, or I wish you would give it to me, that I might show you what I advise you to do with the pretty things such creatures give you. Toss it into the fire, old fellow, and let it scorch, and blacken, and writhe, as if it was a living thing in torment. Or fling it on the ground, and set your heel upon it, and grind it out of sight.”
“I don’t see what good that would do,” said Lyon, coming to the mantelpiece, and taking down his meerschaum. “You are a queer fellow, Anstruthers. I did not think you knew the girl.”
“I know her?” with a fresh sneer. “I know her well enough.”
“By Jove!” exclaimed Lyon, suddenly, as if a thought had struck him. “Then she did mean something.”
“She generally means something,” returned the other. “Such women invariably do—they mean mischief.”
“She generally does when she laughs in that way,” Lyon proceeded, incautiously. “She is generally laughing at a man, instead of with him, as she pretends to be. And when she laughed, this evening, and looked in that odd 34 style at you, I thought there was something wrong.”
Anstruthers turned white, the dead white of suppressed passion.
“Laugh!” he said. “She laughed?”
“You see,” explained Lyon, “she had been asking about you; and when I finished telling her what I knew, she looked at you under her eyelashes, as you stood talking to Mrs. Despard, and then she laughed; and when I asked her if she was laughing at you, she said, ‘Ah, no! Not at you, but at another gentleman of the same name, whom she had known a long time ago.’”
It was not the best thing for himself, that Hector Anstruthers could have heard. He had outlived his boyish passion, but he had not lived down the sting of it. Having had his first young faith broken, he had given faith up, as a poor mockery. He had grown cynical and sneering. Bah! Why should he cling to his old ideals of truth and purity? What need that he should strive to be worthy of visions such as they had proved themselves? What was truth after all? What was purity, in the end? What had either done for him, when he had striven after and believed in them?
The accidental death of his cousin had made 35 him a rich man, and he had given himself up to his own caprices. He had seen the world, and lived a lifetime during the last few years. What had there been to hold him back? Not love. He had done with that, he told himself. Not hope of any quiet bliss to come. If he ever married, he should marry some woman who knew what she was taking when she accepted what he had to offer.
And then he had gradually drifted into his artistic and literary pursuits, and his success had roused his vanity. He would be something more than the rest; and, incited by this noble motive, and his real love for the work, he had made himself something more. He had had no higher incentive than this vanity, and a fancy for popularity. It was not unpleasant to be pointed out as a genius—a man who, having no need to labor, had the whim to labor as hard when the mood seized, as the poorest Bohemian among them, and who would be paid for his work, too. “They will give me praise for nothing,” he would say, sardonically. “They won’t give me money for nothing. As long as they will pay me, my work means something. When it ceases to be worth a price, it is not worth my time.”
The experience of this evening had been a 36 bad thing altogether for Anstruthers. It had roused in him much of sleeping evil. His meeting with Lisbeth Crespigny had been, as he told her, wholly unexpected. And because it had been unexpected, its effect had double force. He did not want to see her. If he had been aware of her presence in the house he was going to visit, he would have avoided it as he would have avoided the plague. The truth was, that in these days she had, in his mind, become the embodiment of all that was unnatural, and hard, and false. And meeting her suddenly, face to face, every bitter memory of her had come back to him with a fierce shock. When he had turned, as Mrs. Despard spoke, and had seen her standing in the doorway, framed in, as it were, with vines and flowers, and tropical plants, he had almost felt that he could turn on his heel and walk out of the room without a word of explanation. She would know well enough what it meant. Being the man he was, his eye had taken in at a glance every artistic effect about her; and she was artistic enough; for when Lisbeth Crespigny was not artistic she was nothing. He saw that the promise of her own undeveloped girlhood had fulfilled itself after its own rare, peculiar fashion, doubly and trebly. He saw 37 in her what other men seldom saw at first sight, but always learned afterward, and his sense of repulsion and anger against her was all the more intense. Having been such a girl, what might she not be as such a woman? Having borne such blossoms, what could the fruit be but hard and bitter at the core? Only his ever-ruling vanity saved him from greeting her with some insane, caustic speech. Vanity will serve both men and women a good turn, by chance, sometimes, and his saved him from making a blatant idiot of himself—barely saved him. And having got through this, it was not soothing to hear that she had stood, in her sly way, and looked at him under her eyelashes, and laughed. He knew how she would laugh. He had heard her laugh at people in that quiet fashion, when she was fifteen, and the sound had always hurt him, through its suggestion of some ungirlish satire he could not grasp, and which was not worthy of so perfect a being as he deemed her.
So, he could not help breaking out again in new fury, when Bertie Lyon explained himself. It did not matter so much, breaking out before Lyon. Men could keep each other’s secrets. He flung his pipe aside with a rough word, and began to pace the room. 38
“There is more of devil than woman in her,” he said. “There always was. I’d give a few years of my life,” clenching his hand, “to be sure that she would find her match some day.”
“I should think you would be match enough for her,” remarked Lyon, astutely. “But what has she done to make you so savage? When were you in love with a woman?”
“Never!” bitterly. “I was in love with her, and she never belonged to the race, not even at fifteen years old. I was in love with her, and she has been the ruin of me.”
“I should scarcely have thought it,” answered Lyon. “You are a pretty respectable wreck, for your age.”
The young man was not prone to heroics himself, and not seeing his friend indulge in them often, he did not regard them with enthusiasm.
This complacency checked Anstruthers. What a frantic fool he was, to let such a trifle upset his boasted cynicism? He flung out another short laugh of defiant self-ridicule. He came back to his chair as abruptly as he had left it.
“Bah!” he said. “So I am. You are a wise boy, Lyon, and I am glad you stopped me. I thought I had lived down all this sort 39 of nonsense, but—but I have seen that girl wear pansies before. Heart’s-ease, by Jove! And it gave me a twinge to think of it. Keep that one in the glass over there; keep it as long as you choose, my boy. It will last as long as your fancy for her does, I wager. Women of the Crespigny stamp don’t wear well. Here, hand me that bottle—Or stay! I’ll ring for my man, and we will have some brandy and soda, to cool our heated fancies. We are too young to stay up so late; too young and innocent! We ought to have gone to bed long ago, like good boys.”