The studio of that popular and fortunate young man, Mr. Hector Anstruthers, was really a most gorgeous and artistic affair. It was beautifully furnished and wondrously fitted up, and displayed, in all its arrangements, the fact that its owner was a young man of refined and luxurious tastes, and was lucky enough to possess the means to gratify them to their utmost. People admired this studio, and talked about it almost as much as they talked about Anstruthers himself. Indeed, it had become a sort of fashion to visit it. The most exclusive of mammas, ladies who were so secure in their social thrones, that they were privileged to dictate to fashion, instead of being dictated to by that fickle goddess—ladies who made much of Anstruthers, and petted him, often stopped their carriages at his door on fine mornings, and descended therefrom with their marriageable girls, went up to the charming room, and loitered through half an hour, or even more, talking to the young potentate, 41 admiring his pictures, and picturesque odds and ends, and rarities, and making themselves very agreeable. He was an extravagant creature, and needed some one to control him, these ladies told him; but really it was all very pretty, and exquisitely tasteful; and, upon the whole, they could hardly blame him as much as it was their duty to do. Anstruthers received these delicate attentions with quite a grace.
He listened and smiled amiably, replying with friendly deprecation of their reproaches. Was he not paid a thousand-fold by their kind approval of his humble efforts? What more could he ask than that they should grace the little place with their presence, and condescend to admire his collection? Most men had their hobbies, and art was his—art and the artistic—a harmless, if extravagant one. And then he would beg his fair visitors and their escort to honor his small temple, by partaking of the luncheon his man would bring in. And then the little luncheon would appear, as if by magic—a marvelous collation, as much a work of art as everything else; and this being set out upon some carven wonder of a table, the ladies would deign to partake, and would admire more than ever, until, in course of time, to visit Mr. Hector Anstruthers, among his pictures, 42 and carvings, and marbles, and be invited to enjoy his dandified little feasts, became the most fashionable thing the most exclusive of people could do. So it was by no means extraordinary that, one sunny morning in April, my lord, while chatting with his usual condescending amiability to one party of visitors, should receive another. There were three in this last party, an elderly beau, a young lady of uncertain age, and Mrs. Despard. Anstruthers, who was standing by the side of a pretty girl with bright eyes, started a little on the entrance of this lady, and the bright eyes observed it.
“Who is that?” asked their owner. “She is a very distingué sort of person.” And then she smiled. It was quite certain that he could not be enamored of such mature charms as these, distingué though they might be.
“That is Mrs. Despard, Miss Esmond,” answered Anstruthers. “Excuse me, one moment.” And then he advanced to meet his guests, with the cordiality of the most graceful of hosts.
This was indeed a pleasure, he said, blandly. He had been half afraid that Mrs. Despard had forgotten her kind promise.
That lady shook hands with him in a most friendly manner. She rather shared the universal 43 tendency people had to admire the young man. Were not all young men extravagant? And at least this one had money enough to afford to be extravagant honestly, and attractions enough to render even conceit a legitimate article.
“You must thank Mr. Estabrook and his sister for bringing me,” she said. “They have been before and knew the way. We met them as they were coming here, and they asked us to come with them. Lisbeth would not get out of the carriage. She was either lazy or ill-humored. She was driven round to the library, and is to call for us in half an hour.”
Her eyes twinkled a little as she told him this. As I have said before, Lisbeth always interested her, and she was interested now in her mode of managing this old love affair. It was so plain that it rasped her to be brought in contact with him and that she would have preferred very much to keep out of his way, that the fact of her being thrown in his path against her will could not fail to have its spice, and afford Mrs. Despard a little malicious amusement. In secret, she was obliged to confess that, ill-natured as it seemed, she would not have been very sorry to see Lisbeth at bay. Of Anstruthers’ sentiments she was not quite sure, 44 as yet, but she was very sure of Lisbeth’s. Lisbeth knew that she had acted atrociously in the past, and hating herself in private for her weak wickedness, hated Anstruthers too for his share in it. It was not Lisbeth’s way to be either very just or very generous. All her pangs of self-reproach were secret ones, of which she had taught herself to be ashamed, and which she would have died rather than confess. She let her caprices rule her wholly, and did her best to make them rule other people. If she was angry, she made vicious speeches; if she was pleased, she behaved like an angel, or an angelic creature without a fault. She did not care enough for other people to mold her moods to their taste. The person of most consequence to her was Lisbeth Crespigny.
Mrs. Despard found her visit to her young friend’s studio very entertaining. She saw things to admire, and things to be amused at. She discovered that his own efforts were really worth looking at, and that the fixtures he had collected were both valuable and exquisite. He had bought no costly lots of ugliness, he had bought beauty. As to the appurtenances of the room, a woman could not have chosen them better—most women would not have chosen them so well. Indeed, a touch of effeminate 45 fancifulness in the general arrangement of things made her smile more than once. He had arranged a sort of miniature conservatory in a wide, deep bay-window, filled it with tiers of flowers growing in fanciful vases, and hanging baskets full of delicate, long vines, and bright bloom.
“What a dandy we are!” she said, smiling, when she drew aside the sweeping lace curtain which cut this pretty corner off from the rest of the apartment. “And what fine tastes we display!”
Anstruthers blushed a little. He had accompanied her on her tour of exploration, and had been secretly flattered by her evident admiration and surprise.
“Is that a compliment, or is it not?” he answered. “I like to hear that I have fine taste, but I don’t like to be called a dandy.”
“Isn’t it a trifle dandified to know how to do all these things so well?” she asked. “It is a man’s province to be clumsy and ignorant about the small graces.”
“Isn’t it better than doing them ill?” he said. “Pray let me give you two or three pale rosebuds and a few sweet violets.”
“If you bribe me with violets and rosebuds, I shall say it is better that you should be 46 æsthetic enough to care to cultivate them, than that I should not have the pleasure of receiving them as a gift. It is very pretty of you to do such things.”
There was no denying that they had become excellent friends. There were not many people to whom his lordship would have offered his rosebuds and violets, but for some reason or other he had taken a sudden fancy to Mrs. Despard, and was anxious to show himself to advantage. He was even ready to answer her questions, and once or twice they were somewhat close ones, it must be confessed.
“Tell me something about that nice girl,” she said, glancing at Miss Esmond, who was talking to the rest of the party. “What a pretty creature she is, and how bright her eyes and her color are! There are very few girls who look like that in these days.”
“Very few,” answered Anstruthers. “That nice girl is Miss Georgie Esmond, and she is one of the few really nice girls who have the luck to take public fancy by storm, as they ought to. She has not been ‘out’ long, and she is considered a belle and a beauty. And yet I assure you, Mrs. Despard, that I have seen that girl playing with a troop of little 47 brothers and sisters, as if she was enjoying herself, helping a snuffy old French governess to correct exercises, and bringing a light for the old colonel’s pipe, as if she had never seen a ball-room in her life.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Despard, “then I suppose you have seen her in the bosom of her family,” a trifle slyly.
“I know them very well,” replied the young man, with a grave air. “I have known Georgie Esmond since she wore pinafores. My poor cousin, who died, has played blindman’s buff with us at Scarsbrook Park, when we were children, many a time. The fact is, I believe we are distant relations.”
“I congratulate you on the distance of the relationship,” said Mrs. Despard. “She is a fresh, bright, charming girl.”
“She is a good girl,” said Anstruthers. “Congratulate her on that, and congratulate her father, and her mother, and her brothers and sisters, and the snuffy old governess, whose life she tries to make less of a burden to her.”
It was at this moment that the carriage in which Lisbeth had driven away returned. It drove by the window, and drew up at the door, and Mrs. Despard saw her young friend’s face alter its expression when he caught sight of it, 48 with its prancing bays and faultless accompaniments, and Lisbeth Crespigny leaning back upon the dove-colored cushions, with a book in her little dove-colored hand. She saw Mrs. Despard among the flowers, but did not see her companion; and being in an amiable humor, she gave her a smile and a nice little gesture of greeting. Her eyes looked like midnight in the sunshine, and with a marvel of a cream-colored rose in her hat, and in perfect toilet, she was like a bit of a picture, dark, and delicate, and fine; she struck Anstruthers in an instant, just as anything else artistic would have struck him, and held his attention.
“I wonder if she would come up,” Mrs. Despard said. “I wish she would. She ought to see this. It would suit her exactly.”
“Allow me to go down and ask her if she will do us the honor,” said Anstruthers. “Colonel Esmond and his daughter have promised to take luncheon, and I was in hopes that I could persuade your party to join us. It will be brought on almost immediately.”
“That is as novel as the rest,” said Mrs. Despard, by no means displeased. “However, if you can induce Lisbeth to come up, I am not sure that I shall refuse.”
“I wonder what he will say to her,” was her 49 mental comment, when he left the room, and she looked out of her window with no small degree of interest.
She saw him standing upon the pavement, by the carriage, a moment or so later, his face slightly upturned, as he spoke to the girl, the spring wind playing softly with his loose, fair hair, and the spring sunshine brightening it; and something in his manner, she scarcely knew what, brought back to her a sudden memory of the frank, boyish young fellow he had been when Lisbeth first amused herself, with her cool contempt for his youth and impetuousness, at Pen’yllan. And just as suddenly it occurred to her, what a wide difference she found in him now. How ready he was to say caustic things, to take worldly views, and indulge in worldly sneers; and she recollected the stories she had drifted upon; stories which proved him a life’s journey from the boy whose record had been pure, whose heart had been fresh, whose greatest transgression might have been easily forgiven; and remembering all this, she felt a sharp anger against Lisbeth, an anger sharper than she had ever felt toward her in the whole of her experience.
When Anstruthers appeared upon the pavement, and advanced toward the carriage side, 50 Lisbeth turned toward him with a feeling of no slight displeasure. Since she had made an effort to keep out of his way, must he follow her up?
“Is not Mrs. Despard coming?” she asked, somewhat abruptly.
“Mrs. Despard was so kind as to say, that if I could induce you to leave the carriage and join our little party, she would not refuse to take luncheon with us.” And then he stood and waited for her reply.
“I was not aware that she thought of staying,” said Lisbeth. “If I had known——”
Then she checked herself. “If I refuse,” she said, in secret, “he will think I am afraid of him.” And she regarded him keenly. But he was quite immovable, and merely appeared politely interested.
“If you will be so good as to let me help you down,” he said, opening the low door himself, and extending his hand courteously, “we shall be delighted to have such an addition to our number,” he added.
“You are very kind,” answered Lisbeth, rising. He should not think his presence could influence her one way or the other. She made up her mind to face this position, since it was unavoidable, as if it had been the most 51 ordinary one in the world. She entered the room up stairs as if she had expected to lunch there. Miss Esmond, who was always good-naturedly ready to be enthusiastic, turned to look at her with a smile of pleasure.
“What an unusual type!” she said, to her father. “Do look, papa! She is actually exquisite!” And being introduced to her, her frank, bright eyes became brighter than ever. She was one of those lovable, trusting young creatures, who are ready to fall in love with pleasant people or objects on the shortest notice; and she was captivated at once by Lisbeth’s friendly air. Her age and Lisbeth’s were about the same, but by nature and experience they were very wide apart, Miss Crespigny being very much the older and more worldly-wise of the two. If it had come to a matter of combat between them, Miss Georgie would have had no chance whatever.