BY FRANCES ELEANOR TROLLOPE.
HOW IT STRIKES A CONTEMPORARY.
But this case is so plain … that nothing can obscure it, but to use too many words about it.—Jeremy Taylor.
Lord Castleton, doubtless, did not literally believe that he could tell his friend "all about" that woman. But he probably was possessed with the conviction that when he should have said what he had to say, there would remain little more worth telling. We smile with a kind of fatigued contempt at the venerable classical joke of the fool who, wishing to sell his house, carried about a brick from it as a specimen. We know better how to judge of houses. But we are willing—sometimes—to pick off a very small fragment of human life, and to exclaim knowingly, "Look here, I'll tell you what it is made of!"
Lord Castleton's well-meant offer was not received with gratitude.
"What woman?" growled Jacynth, taking one hand out of his pocket to tilt his hat a little more over his eyes.
"Why, Mrs.—Miss—Lady—by Jove, I scarcely know what to call her!"
"That's a good beginning," said Jacynth sardonically.
"No, no, my dear fellow, I really do know all about her; only it's—it's a little puzzling where to begin."
The fat little gentleman reddened and frowned. Then his good nature, and his sense of obligation to the other man, and his pity for him (which, perhaps, rendered the sense of obligation easier to bear) conquered the momentary irritation.
"The fact is, Jacynth," he said, "I consider it my duty to tell you the story of Fenella Ffrench. No one knows it better than I do. You may hear it told by a score of men in town, who will be a deuced deal harder on the girl than I am. I have no animosity against her, poor little fool—none in the world. In fact, I rather like her."
"Very gratifying to the lady; but—excuse me—not of palpitating interest to me. Good-by. I think I shall go for a long spin."
"Stop a moment, Jacynth! Did you never hear of Lady Francis Onslow?"
Jacynth turned round sharply and looked at him. "Lady Francis Onslow?" he repeated, putting his hand to his forehead and looking as though he were trying to recall some half-effaced recollections.
"Lady Francis Onslow. She was a daughter of Colonel Fortescue Ffrench, of Crimean celebrity, and she married Frank Onslow when she was only seventeen, and three years afterward they were separated."
"Is that the woman?"
"That is the woman."
"She looks such a child!"
"I told you she was married when she was only seventeen."
"But he—Lord Francis—he is alive?"
"Very much so! At least he looked alive enough when I saw him about half an hour ago."
"He is here?"
"Yes. Look here, Jacynth; just let us take a turn somewhere; here, this is a quiet path, and——"
"No; not there!" said Jacynth, drawing back roughly, as Lord Castleton laid his hand on his arm. It was the pathway where he had just been speaking with Fenella. "I don't know why I should listen to you at all. What does it matter? Nothing you can say will do any good."
Nevertheless, he did listen. What man would not have listened? That he should believe it when it was told was another matter. Jacynth was a clever man, a man of brilliant talents and rising reputation in his profession. He had also certain special gifts which were not so generally recognized. He had a keen and almost intuitive insight into character, and a steady power of incredulity as to a vast proportion of the stories circulated in the "best society" on the "best authority."
At first sight this may seem no very extraordinary power. And perhaps it is not extraordinary, but it is certainly not common. The gossip of the smoking room, the little tattle of the clubs, penetrate, as a fine drizzling rain penetrates one's clothing, into the consciousness of most men.
Men may declare that they give no heed to that sort of gossip; but, as a rule, their minds are porous, and do not resist it. With persons who pride themselves on knowing the world, credulity has almost come to signify believing good of men's neighbors. But Jacynth had often been cynically amused by the childish credulity with which a knot of men at his club would swallow evil stories, intrinsically improbable, and supported by no tittle of evidence that he would have dared to offer to the least enlightened of juries, merely because they were evil. For these gentlemen "knew the world." Something he dimly remembered hearing of the separation which had taken place between Lord and Lady Francis Onslow; but nothing clearly. He had not lived in their world; he did not now live in it.
He had a poor opinion of Lord Castleton's intellect, but he believed him to be as truthful as he knew how to be. Jacynth was quite capable of disbelieving a story against a woman, even though she were young, beautiful, full of impulsive high spirit, and separated from her husband, and even although he had not happened to be in love with her. He did not intend to break a lance on her behalf. He was not given to such breaking of lances, for he also "knew the world." But neither was he going to accept Lord Castleton's statements with the undoubting faith that Lord Castleton seemed to expect. Nevertheless he listened.
"She was an only child, you know," said Lord Castleton, hooking himself on to his companion's arm, so as to speak confidentially in his ear as they walked up and down, "idolized by her father. Her mother died when she was a small child, so she was left to take pretty much her own way ever since she was six years old. Ffrench got some old woman or other to look after her as she grew older—a kind of duenna, you know. But as to controlling her, it was a mere farce. Fenella did as she pleased with the colonel, and the colonel did as he pleased with everybody else, for he was a Tartar, and never allowed any member of his household to contradict him—always with the one exception, you know; and so the end of it was that every man, woman, and child about the place had to be Miss Fenella's very humble servant, or had to go. She was the wildest little beggar; used to go tearing about the country on a little Arab horse she had. Once she took it into her head to ride to hounds, and, by George, sir, she went flying over everything that came in her way and was in at the death! The only woman there; just think of that! A child not fifteen riding to hounds quite alone, for the old groom who used to trot about after her could no more keep up with her than if he'd been mounted on a tortoise."
A vision of the slight, straight, fearless young creature, with a wave of tawny hair floating behind her, the wonderful hazel eyes shining, and the delicate cheeks glowing like roses, came vividly before Mr. Jacynth's mind as he listened.
"I know that story's true," continued Castleton. "Old Lord Furzeby, who was Master at that time, and had been hunting the county for twenty years, told me it himself; and said he'd never seen anything like it. However, he called next day on her father, and then Ffrench did put a stop to the hunting. He wouldn't quite stand that."
"Well?" said Jacynth, after a pause.
"Well, that's just a specimen of the way she was brought up. But there were worse things than the hunting, a deuced sight."
"What things?" growled Jacynth, flashing a dark side glance at his companion's round rubicund face.
"I—upon my soul, I think they may be all summed up in one word—flirtation! Of all the outrageous, audacious, insatiable little flirts that ever were born for the botheration of mankind, I suppose Fenella Ffrench is about the completest specimen."
"Poor mankind!" sneered Jacynth, drawing down the corners of his mouth.
"My dear fellow, she began when she was in short frocks. I've no doubt the man where she bought her hoops and dolls was in love with her. And when she began to grow up it was a general massacre."
"Not of the innocents, however," muttered Jacynth.
"Ffrench's place was in Hampshire, not quite out of reach by a drive from Portsmouth, although it was a long pull by road. And before she was sixteen, Fenella had bowled over the whole garrison. I believe the local chemist expected a wholesale order for prussic acid the day her engagement to Frank Onslow was announced," said his fat little lordship, chuckling at his own wit.
"Where did she meet him?"
"At a garrison ball in Portsmouth. It was supposed to be a case of love at first sight. Regular Romeo and Juliet business, don't you know?"
"Oh! she loved him?" said Jacynth, between his set teeth.
"God knows! she said she did, any way; and made him believe it. As for him, he was desperately mashed."
"And so—and so they married, but didn't live happy ever after."
"No, by George! It didn't last long. For the first year or two, it was all billing and cooing. They took a little place in Surrey, and gave themselves up to rurality and domestic affection. Old Ffrench used to spend half his time there with 'em. And when Fenella's boy was born, they had a story that the colonel was seen wheeling a perambulator about the garden, and administering a feeding-bottle. It did seem as though Fenella had begun to put a good deal of water in her wine, as the Italians say. They hadn't been married three years when Colonel Ffrench died suddenly. I was not in England at the time. I was in a very low state—all to pieces! In fact. Sir Abel Adamson has since confessed that he thought my nervous system—however, that will probably not interest you. I set off on a long sea voyage, which they said was my best chance. And, in point of fact, I prowled about for more than a year and a half. It was in Japan that I got hold of an old Times with the announcement of Ffrench's death. Oho! thought I to myself. My Lady Francis Onslow will come in for a nice little pile. She had something when she married. And, of course, Ffrench left her everything he had in the world."
"Then Lord Francis Onslow hadn't made a bad thing of it?"
"A very good thing of it!—from the financial point of view, that is. He was a duke's son; but I needn't tell you that a duke's fifth son——"
"Can't expect to marry a lady from Chicago or New York with millions of dollars in pigs or petroleum. Of course not! That's reserved for his seniors," said Jacynth.
Lord Castleton laughed. But he did not quite like this little speech. He considered himself the least bumptious of men about his rank. But there was something in Jacynth's words—a twang, not only of bitterness, but of contempt—which Lord Castleton inwardly pronounced to be "bad form." But Jacynth was sore, poor wretch! Terribly sore! However, his lordship compressed his narrative somewhat, as being very doubtful what venomed criticism might be lurking in the barrister's mind.
"Well, the main point of the story is what happened after the colonel's death, and when Frank Onslow and his wife went up to town. Only I thought it well to give you a glimpse of the madcap sort of life the girl had been allowed to lead, because it, to some degree, explains a good deal of her reckless way of carrying on."
Lord Castleton fancied he heard Jacynth mutter under his breath, "Poor child!" But the clean-shaven, firmly molded jaw looked set and grim when he glanced at it; and a countenance less expressive of any "compunctious visitings" of sentiment than the countenance of Clitheroe Jacynth, barrister-at-law, as it appeared in that moment, it would be difficult to imagine.
"Lady Francis made one of the biggest sensations I can remember, when she began to get into the swing of London society. She had been presented on her marriage, of course. But then Frank had carried her off to the cottage in Surrey, and the world had seen no more of her, so that now she appeared as a novelty. And she is—well, you know what she is to look at. I know dozens of women handsomer by line and rule. But there's something fetching about Fenella that I never saw equaled. And then the old game began again. Fellows were mad about her, and she flirted in the wildest way."
"The Romeo-and-Juliet passion having meanwhile died a natural death?" said Jacynth, staring straight before him.
"Oh, I suppose' so. The fact is, she is a butterfly kind of creature that no man ought ever to have taken seriously."
"And the husband——"
"Frank was—well, the fact is, Frank acted like a fool. He was very young, too, you know. They were like a couple of children together, and used to squabble, and kiss, and make it up like children. Frank never had the least suspicion of jealousy about her, though. Never—until—"
"Exactly!" exclaimed Jacynth, with a nod of the head.
"Well, whether his aunt, old Lady Grizel, put it into his head, or whether he saw something for himself that he didn't like—the fact is, Frank made a scene one night when they came home from a ball at the Austrian Embassy, and Fenella—who is the Tartar's own daughter when she's roused, I can tell you, dynamite isn't in it!—flared up tremendously, and there was, in short, the devil to pay. Fenella, it seems, had been secretly bottling up a little private jealousy on her own part. There was a certain Madame—her name don't matter; and she has returned to Mongolia or wherever she came from long ago—a certain woman, pretty nearly old enough to be Frank's mother, but a fascinating sort of Jezebel, whom you met about everywhere that season. And Fenella turned round and declared that Frank had been making her miserable by his goings-on with that vile woman!"
"All her foolish fancy, of course!" said Jacynth, suddenly looking at the other man with a penetrating gaze from beneath his frowning black brows.
"Oh—well—you know—oh, I dare say Frank had, to some extent, been making an ass of himself. But, of course, the case was totally different."
"Oh, of course."
"Fenella talked like a wild Indian, you know. It couldn't be supposed that because Lord Francis Onslow kicked up his heels rather more than was exactly pretty. Lady Francis Onslow was to be allowed to follow suit. He had taken exception to a certain man—military attaché to one of the Embassies—and forbade Fenella to dance with him or receive him in her drawing room. Needless to say that Fenella made a point of waltzing with him the next night, and of giving him a standing invitation to five o'clock tea. More rows. Family consultations. Aunt Grizel volunteering as peace-maker; I think that was the last straw. Fenella insisted on a separation; she was as obstinate as possible. She would take her boy and leave him. As to the money, he might keep it all. And that sort of wild nonsense."
"But she carried her point? She left him? How was it possible that he let her go?"
"My dear friend, the idea of talking of 'letting' or not letting Fenella Onslow do anything she had set her will on is refreshingly naïf. She threatened them that if they did not consent to an amicable arrangement she would bring legal proceedings (on account of the Mongolian fascinator!) and make a scandal. Well, the Onslows hate the name of a scandal as a mad dog hates water."
"Or as a burnt child dreads the fire," put in Jacynth.
"At any rate, among them they cobbled up the deed of separation; and there is poor Frank with a wife and no wife, and the boy—he was devoted to the little chap—taken away from him, at any rate for some years."
"And there is Lady Francis Onslow with a husband and no husband."
"Upon my soul I believe she's happier without him, upon my soul I do! All she cares for in life is to flirt; to decoy some wretched fellow into a desperate state about her, and then to turn him off with an impudent little assumption of innocence, and declare she meant nothing. People said there was more in that affair of the military attaché, than her usual coquetries. But I don't know. I don't believe she has it in her power to care for any man. However, very few of those who saw the little drama being acted before their eyes take a lenient view of Fenella's conduct. I felt bound to open your eyes, Jacynth. The woman is as dangerous as a rattlesnake. Of course she's gone and made a hideous hash of her own life; but she has done worse than that to other people's lives, and she'll go on doing it. I saw her just now sitting up on the box-seat of the coach beside her husband, and——"
"Beside her husband, Frank Onslow. There's nothing she hasn't impudence enough for! It wouldn't surprise me if they were to come together again."
"And that," said Jacynth, walking away by himself, "is what Castleton calls telling me 'all about that woman!' I don't know whom she loves, nor whether she loves anyone at this present moment. But that there are depths of feeling in that girl of which old Castleton is about as well able to judge as a mole of the solar system—but what's the good of it! I have played my stake and lost it. I—I must get out of this place if I'm to keep any hold over myself at all. How could a raw lad like Frank Onslow value her or understand her? Of course, he was selfish and unreasonable and dull to all the finer part of her nature, like a boy as he is—or was, at any rate, when he married her!" He went up to his room and dragged out a portmanteau. He must get away. There was no use in parleying or delay. Flight, instant flight, was the only thing for him. But when he had opened the portmanteau, and dragged out a few clothes from the chest of drawers, he sat down by the bedside and buried his face in the pillow. "I love her! I love her!" he moaned out. And then he hated himself for his folly.
At this moment a little childish footstep was heard tramping up the stairs; tap—tap—tap—tap, climbing up with much exertion, but with eager haste, and then a sweet little childish voice said, "Mr. Jacymf, Mr. Jacymf, are you there?"
Jacynth opened the door with a wildly beating heart. Could she have sent him a message? "What is it, Ronny, my man?" he said, looking down upon the child's curly, tawny hair and bright, innocent, hazel eyes that were so like his mother's.
"Hulloa!" cried Ronny, surveying the portmanteau and the litter of clothes on the floor, "are you going away?"
"Yes, old boy."
"Is Grandison going too?"
"No; not Grandison. What do you want, Ronny?"
"I want you not to go away!"
"Yes. Why can't you come with us, if you are going away?"
"Come with you? Where?"
"With me and Mummy. Mummy says we shall go to a nicer place than this. And I may play cricket. I wanted you to come and play with me and Grandison. But I s'pose you can't if you're packing your clothes. Aint they in a jolly mess?"
Jacynth lifted the child up in his arms and kissed him. "Good-by, Ronny," he said, in a queer, choking voice; and then he set the little fellow outside the door and shut it.
Ronny prepared to make the descent of the staircase, holding tight to the banisters. He put one little chubby finger up to his cheek and looked at it. "Hulloa!" said he very gravely, "my face is all wet!"