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'Dear, if you would go down to Dartrey to-morrow. He knows:--it is over the Clubs there; he will tell you, before a word to Nesta. Innocent, yes! Mr. Sowerby has not to be a.s.sured of that. Ignorant of the character of the dreadful woman? Ah, if I could ever in anything think her ignorant! She frightens me. Mr. Sowerby is indulgent. He does me justice. My duty to her--I must defend myself--has been my first thought. I said in my prayers--she at least!... We have to see the more than common reasons why she, of all girls, should--he did not hint it, he was delicate: her name must not be public.'
'Yes, yes, Dudley is without parallel as a gentleman,' said Victor. 'It does not suit me to hear the word "indulgent." My dear, if you were down there, you would discover that the talk was the talk of two or three men seeing our girl ride by--and she did ride with a troop: why, we've watched them along the parade, often. Clear as day how it happened! I'll go down early to-morrow.'
He fancied Nataly was appeased. And even out of this annoyance, there was the gain of her being won to favour Dudley's. .h.i.therto but tolerated suit.
Nataly also had the fancy, that the calm following on her anguish, was a moderation of it. She was kept strung to confide in her girl by the recent indebtedness to her for words heavenly in the strengthening comfort they gave. But no sooner was she alone than her torturing perplexities and her abas.e.m.e.nt of the hours previous to Victor's coming returned.
For a girl of Nesta's head could not be deceived; she had come home with a woman's intelligence of the world, hard knowledge of it--a knowledge drawn from foul wells, the unhappy mother imagined: she dreaded to probe to the depth of it. She had in her wounded breast the world's idea, that corruption must come of the contact with impurity.
Nataly renewed her cry of despair: 'The mother!--the daughter!'--her sole revelation of the heart's hollows in her stammered speaking to Victor.
She thanked heaven for the loneliness of her bed, where she could repeat: 'The mother!--the daughter!' hearing the world's words:--the daughter excused, by reason of her having such a mother; the mother unpitied for the bruiting of her brazen daughter's name: but both alike consigned to the corners of the world's dust-heaps. She cried out, that her pride was broken. Her pride, her last support of life, had gone to pieces. The tears she restrained in Victor's presence, were called on to come now, and she had none. It might be, that she had not strength for weeping. She was very weak. Rising from bed to lock her door against Nesta's entry to the room on her return at night, she could hardly stand: a chill and a clouding overcame her. The quitted bed seemed the haven of a drifted wreck to reach.
Victor tried the handle of a locked door in the dark of the early winter morning. 'The mother!--the daughter!' had swung a pendulum for some time during the night in him, too. He would rather have been subjected to the spectacle of tears than have heard that toneless voice, as it were the dry torrent-bed rolling blocks instead of melodious, if afflicting, waters.
He told Nesta not to disturb her mother, and murmured of a headache: 'Though, upon my word, the best cure for mama would be a look into Fredi's eyes!' he said, embracing his girl, quite believing in her, just a little afraid of her.
CHAPTER x.x.xVIII. NATALY, NESTA, AND DARTREY FENELLAN
Pleasant things, that come to us too late for our savour of the sweetness in them, toll ominously of life on the last walk to its end.
Yesterday, before Dudley Sowerby's visit, Nataly would have been stirred where the tears we shed for happiness or repress at a flattery dwell when seeing her friend Mrs. John Cormyn enter her boudoir and hearing her speak repentantly, most tenderly. Mrs. John said: 'You will believe I have suffered, dear; I am half my weight, I do think': and she did not set the smile of responsive humour moving; although these two ladies had a key of laughter between them. Nataly took her kiss; held her hand, and at the parting kissed her. She would rather have seen her friend than not: so far she differed from a corpse; but she was near the likeness to the dead in the insensibility to any change of light shining on one who best loved darkness and silence. She cried to herself wilfully, that her pride was broken: as women do when they spurn at the wounding of a dignity they cannot protect and die to see bleeding; for in it they live.
The cry came of her pride unbroken, sore bruised, and after a certain s.p.a.ce for recovery combative. She said:
Any expiation I could offer where I did injury, I would not refuse; I would humble myself and bless heaven for being able to pay my debt--what I can of it. All I contend against is, injustice. And she sank into sensational protests of her anxious care of her daughter, too proud to phrase them.
Her one great affliction, the scourging affliction of her utter loneliness;--an outcast from her family; daily, and she knew not how, more shut away from the man she loved; now shut away from her girl;--seemed under the hand of the angel of G.o.d. The abandonment of her by friends, was merely the light to show it.
Midday's post brought her a letter from Priscilla Graves, entreating to be allowed to call on her next day.--We are not so easily cast off!
Nataly said, bitterly, in relation to the lady whose offending had not been so great. She wrote: 'Come, if sure that you sincerely wish to.'
Having fasted, she ate at lunch in her dressing-room, with some taste of the food, haunted by an accusation of gluttony because of her eating at all, and a vile confession, that she was enabled to eat, owing to the receipt of Priscilla's empty letter: for her soul's desire was to be doing a deed of expiation, and the macerated flesh seemed her a.s.surance to herself of the courage to make amends.--I must have some strength, she said wearifully, in apology for the morsel consumed.
Nesta's being in the house with her, became an excessive irritation.
Doubts of the girl's possible honesty to speak a reptile truth under question; amazement at her boldness to speak it; hatred of, the mouth that could: and loathing of the words, the theme; and abomination of herself for conjuring fict.i.tious images to rouse real emotions; all ran counterthreads, that produced a mad pattern in the mind, affrighting to reason: and then, for its preservation, reason took a superrational leap, and ascribed the terrible injustice of this last cruel stroke to the divine scourge, recognized divine by the selection of the mortal spot for chastis.e.m.e.nt. She clasped her breast, and said: It is mortal.
And that calmed her.
She said, smiling: I never felt my sin until this blow came! Therefore the blow was proved divine. Ought it not to be welcomed?--and she appearing no better than one of those, the leprous of the s.e.x! And brought to acknowledgement of the likeness by her daughter!
Nataly drank the poison distilled from her exclamations and was ice. She had denied herself to Nesta's redoubled pet.i.tion. Nesta knocking at the door a third time and calling, tore the mother two ways: to have her girl on her breast or snap their union in a word with an edge. She heard the voice of Dartrey Fenellan.
He was admitted. 'No, dear,' she said to Nesta; and Nesta's, 'My own mother,' consentingly said, in tender resignation, as she retired, sprang a stinging tear to the mother's eyelids.
Dartrey looked at the door closing on the girl.
'Is it a very low woman?' Nataly asked him in a Church whisper, with a face abashed.
'It is not,' said he, quick to meet any abruptness.
'She must be cunning.'
'In the ordinary way. We say it of Puss before the hounds.'
'To deceive a girl like Nesta!'
'She has done no harm.'
'Dartrey, you speak to a mother. You have seen the woman? She is?--ah!'
'She is womanly, womanly.'
'Quite one of those...?'
'My dear soul! You can't shake them off in that way. She is one of us.
If we have the cla.s.s, we can't escape from it. They are not to bear all the burden because they exist. We are the bigger debtors. I tell you she is womanly.'
'It sounds like horrid cynicism.'
'Friends of mine would abuse it for the reverse.'
'Do not make me hate your chivalry. This woman is a rod on my back.
Provided only she has not dropped venom into Nesta's mind!'
'Can you tell me you think she has done no harm to my girl?'
'To Nesta herself?--not any: not to a girl like your girl.'
'To my girl's name? Speak at once. But I know she has. She induced Nesta to go to her house. My girl was insulted in this woman's house.'
Dartrey's forehead ridged with his old fury and a gust of present contempt. 'I can tell you this, that the fellow who would think harm of it, knowing the facts 's not worthy of touching the tips of the fingers of your girl.'
'She is talked of!'
'A good-looking girl out riding with a handsome woman on a parade of idlers!'
'The woman is notorious.' Nataly said it shivering.
He shook his head. 'Not true.'
'She has an air of a lady?'
'She sits a horse well.'