Lady Knollys pursued her enquiries.
'And why does not Madame make your dresses, my dear? I wager a guinea the woman's a milliner. Did not she engage to make your dresses?'
'I—I really don't know; I rather think not. She is my governess—a finishing governess, Mrs. Rusk says.'
'Finishing fiddle! Hoity-toity! and my lady's too grand to cut out your dresses and help to sew them? And what does she do? I venture to say she's fit to teach nothing but devilment—not that she has taught you much, my dear—yet at least. I'll see her, my dear; where is she? Come, let us visit Madame. I should so like to talk to her a little.'
'But she is ill,' I answered, and all this time I was ready to cry for vexation, thinking of my dress, which must be very absurd to elicit so much unaffected laughter from my experienced relative, and I was only longing to get away and hide myself before that handsome Captain returned.
'Ill! is she? what's the matter?'
'A cold—feverish and rheumatic, she says.'
'Oh, a cold; is she up, or in bed?'
'In her room, but not in bed.'
'I should so like to see her, my dear. It is not mere curiosity, I assure you. In fact, curiosity has nothing on earth to do with it. A governess may be a very useful or a very useless person; but she may also be about the most pernicious inmate imaginable. She may teach you a bad accent, and worse manners, and heaven knows what beside. Send the housekeeper, my dear, to tell her that I am going to see her.'
'I had better go myself, perhaps,' I said, fearing a collision between Mrs. Rusk and the bitter Frenchwoman.
'Very well, dear.'
And away I ran, not sorry somehow to escape before Captain Oakley returned.
As I went along the passage, I was thinking whether my dress could be so very ridiculous as my old cousin thought it, and trying in vain to recollect any evidence of a similar contemptuous estimate on the part of that beautiful and garrulous dandy. I could not—quite the reverse, indeed. Still I was uncomfortable and feverish—girls of my then age will easily conceive how miserable, under similar circumstances, such a misgiving would make them.
It was a long way to Madame's room. I met Mrs. Rusk bustling along the passage with a housemaid.
'How is Madame?' I asked.
'Quite well, I believe,' answered the housekeeper, drily. 'Nothing the matter that I know of. She eat enough for two to-day. I wish I could sit in my room doing nothing.'
Madame was sitting, or rather reclining, in a low arm-chair, when I entered the room, close to the fire, as was her wont, her feet extended near to the bars, and a little coffee equipage beside her. She stuffed a book hastily between her dress and the chair, and received me in a state of langour which, had it not been for Mrs. Rusk's comfortable assurances, would have frightened me.
'I hope you are better, Madame,' I said, approaching.
'Better than I deserve, my dear cheaile, sufficiently well. The people are all so good, trying me with every little thing, like a bird; here is café—Mrs. Rusk-a, poor woman, I try to swallow a little to please her.'
'And your cold, is it better?'
She shook her head languidly, her elbow resting on the chair, and three finger-tips supporting her forehead, and then she made a little sigh, looking down from the corners of her eyes, in an interesting dejection.
'Je sens des lassitudes in all the members—but I am quaite 'appy, and though I suffer I am console and oblige des bontés, ma chère, que vous avez tous pour moi;' and with these words she turned a languid glance of gratitude on me which dropped on the ground.
'Lady Knollys wishes very much to see you, only for a few minutes, if you could admit her.'
'Vous savez les malades see never visitors,' she replied with a startled sort of tartness, and a momentary energy. 'Besides, I cannot converse; je sens de temps en temps des douleurs de tête—of head, and of the ear, the right ear, it is parfois agony absolutely, and now it is here.'
And she winced and moaned, with her eyes closed and her hand pressed to the organ affected.
Simple as I was, I felt instinctively that Madame was shamming. She was over-acting; her transitions were too violent, and beside she forgot that I knew how well she could speak English, and must perceive that she was heightening the interest of her helplessness by that pretty tessellation of foreign idiom. I there-fore said with a kind of courage which sometimes helped me suddenly—
'Oh, Madame, don't you really think you might, without much inconvenience, see Lady Knollys for a very few minutes?'
'Cruel cheaile! you know I have a pain of the ear which makes me 'orribly suffer at this moment, and you demand me whether I will not converse with strangers. I did not think you would be so unkain, Maud; but it is impossible, you must see—quite impossible. I never, you know, refuse to take trouble when I am able—never—never.'
And Madame shed some tears, which always came at call, and with her hand pressed to her ear, said very faintly,
'Be so good to tell your friend how you see me, and how I suffer, and leave me, Maud, for I wish to lie down for a little, since the pain will not allow me to remain longer.'
So with a few words of comfort which could not well be refused, but I dare say betraying my suspicion that more was made of her sufferings than need be, I returned to the drawing-room.
'Captain Oakley has been here, my dear, and fancying, I suppose, that you had left us for the evening, has gone to the billiard-room, I think,' said Lady Knollys, as I entered.
That, then, accounted for the rumble and smack of balls which I had heard as I passed the door.
'I have been telling Maud how detestably she is got up.'
'Very thoughtful of you, Monica!' said my father.
'Yes, and really, Austin, it is quite clear you ought to marry; you want some one to take this girl out, and look after her, and who's to do it? She's a dowdy—don't you see? Such a dust! And it is really such a pity; for she's a very pretty creature, and a clever woman could make her quite charming.'
My father took Cousin Monica's sallies with the most wonderful good-humour. She had always, I fancy, been a privileged person, and my father, whom we all feared, received her jolly attacks, as I fancy the grim Front-de-Boeufs of old accepted the humours and personalities of their jesters.
'Am I to accept this as an overture?' said my father to his voluble cousin.
'Yes, you may, but not for myself, Austin—I'm not worthy. Do you remember little Kitty Weadon that I wanted you to marry eight-and-twenty years ago, or more, with a hundred and twenty thousand pounds? Well, you know, she has got ever so much now, and she is really a most amiable old thing, and though you would not have her then, she has had her second husband since, I can tell you.'
'I'm glad I was not the first,' said my father.
'Well, they really say her wealth is absolutely immense. Her last husband, the Russian merchant, left her everything. She has not a human relation, and she is in the best set.'
'You were always a match-maker, Monica,' said my father, stopping, and putting his hand kindly on hers. 'But it won't do. No, no, Monica; we must take care of little Maud some other way.'
I was relieved. We women have all an instinctive dread of second marriages, and think that no widower is quite above or below that danger; and I remember, whenever my father, which indeed was but seldom, made a visit to town or anywhere else, it was a saying of Mrs. Rusk—
'I shan't wonder, neither need you, my dear, if he brings home a young wife with him.'
So my father, with a kind look at her, and a very tender one on me, went silently to the library, as he often did about that hour.
I could not help resenting my Cousin Knollys' officious recommendation of matrimony. Nothing I dreaded more than a step-mother. Good Mrs. Rusk and Mary Quince, in their several ways, used to enhance, by occasional anecdotes and frequent reflections, the terrors of such an intrusion. I suppose they did not wish a revolution and all its consequences at Knowl, and thought it no harm to excite my vigilance.
But it was impossible long to be vexed with Cousin Monica.
'You know, my dear, your father is an oddity,' she said. 'I don't mind him—I never did. You must not. Cracky, my dear, cracky—decidedly cracky!'
And she tapped the corner of her forehead, with a look so sly and comical, that I think I should have laughed, if the sentiment had not been so awfully irreverent.
'Well, dear, how is our friend the milliner?'
'Madame is suffering so much from pain in her ear, that she says it would be quite impossible to have the honour—'
'Honour—fiddle! I want to see what the woman's like. Pain in her ear, you say? Poor thing! Well, dear, I think I can cure that in five minutes. I have it myself, now and then. Come to my room, and we'll get the bottles.
So she lighted her candle in the lobby, and with a light and agile step she scaled the stairs, I following; and having found the remedies, we approached Madame's room together.
I think, while we were still at the end of the gallery, Madame heard and divined our approach, for her door suddenly shut, and there was a fumbling at the handle. But the bolt was out of order.
Lady Knollys tapped at the door, saying—'we'll come in, please, and see you. I've some remedies, which I'm sure will do you good.'
There was no answer; so she opened the door, and we both entered. Madame had rolled herself in the blue coverlet, and was lying on the bed, with her face buried in the pillow, and enveloped in the covering.
'Perhaps she's asleep?' said Lady Knollys, getting round to the side of the bed, and stooping over her.
Madame lay still as a mouse. Cousin Monica set down her two little vials on the table, and, stooping again over the bed, began very gently with her fingers to lift the coverlet that covered her face. Madame uttered a slumbering moan, and turned more upon her face, clasping the coverlet faster about her.
'Madame, it is Maud and Lady Knollys. We have come to relieve your ear. Pray let me see it. She can't be asleep, she's holding the clothes so fast. Do, pray, allow me to see it.'