It suited Lisbeth to be charming this morning, and she was really very agreeable indeed. She knew enough of art to appear to advantage among pictures, and she had, withal, a certain demure and modest way of admitting her ignorance, which was by no means unattractive. She was bright, amiable, and, as it seemed, in the best of spirits. She made friends with Miss Georgie, and delighted Colonel Esmond; she propitiated Miss Estabrook, and rendered that inflammable elderly beau, her brother, supremely happy by her friendly condescension; she treated Anstruthers as if there had been no other event in their two lives but this one morning and this one nice little party. She made the luncheon even more entertaining than such small feasts usually were; in short, she was Lisbeth Crespigny at her best, her spiciest, and in her most engaging mood.
“Oh!” said that open-hearted Georgie, when she shook hands with her as they parted—“Oh, I have enjoyed myself so much! I am so glad 53 to have met you. I hope we shall see each other again. Please ask me to call, Mrs. Despard,” laughing prettily. “I should like it so much. I do so hate to lose people whom I like.”
“Does that mean that you are so good as to like me a little?” said Lisbeth, in her sweetest tone, wondering, at the same time, how on earth the girl could have lived so long, and yet have retained that innocent, believing air and impulsive way. “I hope it does.”
Georgie quite blushed with innocent fervor.
“Indeed it does,” she answered. “I should not say it, if it did not. And I am sure that, if I see you more, I shall like you better and better. It is so delightful to meet somebody one is sure one can be fond of.”
It was an odd thing, but as Lisbeth looked at her for a moment, she positively felt that she blushed faintly herself, blushed with a sense of being a trifle ashamed of Lisbeth Crespigny. It would be dreadful to have such a girl as this find her out; see her just as she was; read her record just as the past had left it. She was half inclined to put such a thing beyond the pale of possibility by drawing back.
“I want mamma to know you,” said Georgie. “Mamma is so fond of clever people, that it 54 makes me wish, often enough, that I was not such an ordinary sort of girl.”
“We shall be delighted to see you, my dear,” said Mrs. Despard. “You may be sure of that. Come as soon, and as often as possible.”
And so the matter was decided, and Lisbeth had not the power to draw back, if she had determined to do so.
“You must have known Miss Crespigny quite a long time,” Georgie Esmond said, cheerfully, to Anstruthers, before she went away with her father. “Mrs. Despard said something about your having met her at that little Welsh place, Pen’yllan wasn’t it? And you haven’t been at Pen’yllan to stay for two or three years.”
“You ought not to have kept such a charming creature to yourself for three years, my boy,” said the old colonel.
“I should think not, indeed,” chimed in Miss Georgie. “It was selfish, and we are never selfish with him, are we, papa? We show him all our nice people, don’t we?”
“But,” said Anstruthers, “I have not seen Miss Crespigny once during the three years. After leaving Pen’yllan, we lost sight of each other, somehow or other, and did not meet again until a short time ago, and then it was quite by accident.” 55
“It was very careless of you to lose her then,” protested Miss Georgie. “I would not have lost her for the world. Gentlemen are so cold in their friendships. I don’t believe you ever really loved any of your friends in your life, Mr. Hector.”
Anstruthers smiled a satirical smile.
“Ought I to have loved Miss Crespigny?” he demanded. “Ought I to begin to love her now? If you think it is my duty, I will begin to do it at once, Georgie.”
The girl shook her pretty head reproachfully.
“Oh!” she said, “that is always the way you talk, you grand young gentlemen. It is the fashion to be sarcastic, and not to admire anybody very much, or anything but yourselves,” saucily. “And you would sneer at your best friends rather than not be in the fashion. I am sure I don’t know what the world is coming to.”
“Who is sarcastic now, I should like to know?” said Anstruthers. “I think it is Miss Georgie Esmond, who out-Herods Herod. Admire ourselves, indeed! We only do what we are taught to do. What women themselves teach us——”
“What!” exclaimed Georgie. “Do we 56 teach you to admire yourselves, and nothing else?”
“No,” was his answer. “You do not teach us that, but you do worse. Not you, my kind, honest Georgie, but women who would have us believe they are as honest and tender. They teach us that if we cling to our first beliefs, we are fools, and deserve to be laughed at; they teach us to sneer, and then scold us prettily for sneering; they leave us nothing to believe in, and then make sad, poetic speeches about our want of faith. There are men in the world for whom it would have been better if they had never seen a woman.”
Georgie Esmond’s eyes opened wider and wider. She did not understand such bitterness. She was a simple, healthful-minded girl, and had seen very little of the world but its pleasant side.
“Why!” she said, “this is dreadful. And you say it as if you actually meant it. I shall have to talk to mamma about you, Hector. Such cases as yours are too much for me to deal with. What good is all your money, and your genius, and your popularity, and—and good looks?” making a charming, mischievous bow. “What pleasure can you derive from your pretty rooms, and lovely pictures, and 57 fine articles of vertu, if you have such wicked thoughts as those? Somebody ought to take your things from you, as we do Harry’s toys, when he is willful; and they ought to be locked up in a cupboard, until you are in a frame of mind to enjoy them.”
Anstruthers looked at her sweet, bright face with a kind of sad admiration. Why had he not fallen in love with this girl, instead of with the other? It was a hard fate which had led or driven him. What a different man he might have been, if, three years ago, Georgie Esmond had stood in Lisbeth Crespigny’s place!
“You don’t quite understand, Georgie,” he said, in a low, rather tender tone. “You are too good and kind, my dear, to quite comprehend what makes people hard, and bitter, and old before their time.”
And Colonel Esmond coming into the room to take her away, at this moment, he gave her nice little hand the ghost of an affectionate pressure, when she offered it to him in farewell.
And while Mr. Hector Anstruthers was railing, in this exalted strain, at the falseness of womankind, the fair cause of his heresy was driving home in a rather unpleasant frame of mind. It is never pleasant to find that one has lost power, and it was a specially galling 58 thing to Lisbeth Crespigny to find herself at any time losing influence of any kind. She did not find it agreeable to confront the fact that one of her slaves had purchased his freedom, with his experience. Petty as the emotion was, she had felt something akin to anger this morning, when she had been compelled to acknowledge, as once or twice she had been, that her whilom victim could address her calmly, meet her glance with polite indifference, regard her, upon the whole, as he would have regarded any far less accomplished woman.
“Less than four years ago,” she said to herself, with scorn, “if I had trampled upon him, he would have kissed my feet. To-day, he only sees in me an unpleasant young woman, whom he overrated, and accordingly cherishes a grudge against. I have no doubt he looked at that pretty, fresh, Esmond girl, as we sat together, and drew invidious comparisons between us.”
Let us give her credit for one thing, however. She felt no anger against the girl, who she fancied had taken her place. Somehow Georgie Esmond, with her bright eyes, and her roses, and her ready good-nature, had found a soft spot in Lisbeth’s rather hard heart. Miss 59 Crespigny could not have explained why it was, but she had taken a fancy to Georgie Esmond. She liked her, and she wanted the feeling to be a mutual one. She would have experienced something very like a pang, even thus early in their acquaintance, if she had thought that the sweet, honest young creature would ever see her with Hector Anstruthers’ eyes.
“Men are always disproportionately bitter,” she said, to herself. “It is their way to make themselves heard when they are hurt. They seem to have a kind of pride in their pain. Any ordinarily clever woman could see that my lord of the studio had a grievance.”
“Lisbeth,” said Mrs. Despard, breaking in upon her reverie, “isn’t it rather astonishing how that boy has improved?”
“He has improved,” said Lisbeth, “because he has ceased to be a boy. He is a man in these days.”
“And a very personable and entertaining man, I must say,” returned Mrs. Despard, nodding her head, in approval of him. “He is positively handsome. And that luncheon was a very pretty, graceful affair, and quite unique. I shall pay him a visit again one of these fine days.” 60
Being thus installed as one of Mrs. Despard’s favorites, it was not at all singular that they should see a great deal of the young gentleman. And they did see him pretty often. Gradually he forgot his objection to meeting Lisbeth, and rather sneered in secret at the violence of that first shock of repulsion. It was all over, now, he said, and why should such a woman trouble him? Indeed, what greater proof of his security could he give himself than the fact that he could meet her almost daily, and still feel indifferent? It must be confessed that he rather prided himself upon his indifference. He was drawn also into greater familiarity with the household through Georgie Esmond. For, in expressing her wish to make friends with Lisbeth, Georgie had been sincere, as was her habit. A very short time after the luncheon her first visit was made, and the first visit was the harbinger of many others. “Mamma,” who was her daughter’s chief admiration, came with her, and “mamma” was as much charmed, in her way, as Georgie had been in hers. It was impossible for Lisbeth to help pleasing people when she was in the right mood; and Mrs. Esmond and Georgie invariably put her in the right mood. She could not help showing her best side to these two sweet natures.