A Newport Aquarelle/Chapter 1

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A NEWPORT AQUARELLE


CHAPTER I.


"Who is that tall girl with Mrs. Fallow-Deer?"

"You have been in Newport twenty-four hours and don't know? Why, that is Gladys Carleton. You've heard of her, of course?"

"Can't say I have. A New York belle, I suppose, from her get-up?"

"Yes; her ambition is to be taken for an English girl, though, of course, you detected the spurious imitation of your countrywomen. At what point does the Anglo veneer fail to cover the American girl?"

"I should n't say she was veneered at all, but she's a typical New Yorker. I can't tell you exactly where the difference lies, but I could pick you out a New York girl from a crowd of specimen women from every town in England and America. They have a way of holding their elbows, and a certain half-arrogant, half-flirtatious, entirely fetching poise of the head, that beats all the other women in creation."

"I being a New Yorker, thank you for the compliment. Do you think Gladys Carleton a beauty?"

"Perhaps I should if you were not here; I can hardly tell. My eyes are rather dazzled. If Miss Carleton is your friend, won't you present me to her?"

The lady addressed seemed not altogether pleased at this request, but she answered,—

"Oh yes; I will stop her when she passes back this way. I cannot leave my seat, or I shall never get another."

The speakers were seated in the long crescent-shaped corridor of the Newport Casino. The hands of the quaint golden clock on the tower of the outer courtyard pointed to the hour of twelve. It was mid-day, and all the fashionable world of Newport was gathered within the aristocratic enclosure just named. Some of the more energetic people were playing lawn tennis in the fine grounds of the inner courtyard, which separates the semi-circle of the open corridor from the theatre and racket court. Others were lunching luxuriously in the well-appointed restaurant, and a few of the more serious-minded butterflies were sitting in the comfortable reading-room, where ladies, as well as gentlemen, are admitted to read the news, and write their impressions of the place to their less fortunate friends and relatives, broiling in town or rusticating in Maine. But the great crowd of people were assembled in the open corridor, listening to the music of the band, which at that moment was playing the exhilarating strains of the "Merry War." Seated on either side was a double row of people, who laughed and chatted with each other, criticising the less fortunate late-comers who had found no seats, these last having no other resource than to walk up and down between the two rows of well-dressed men and women. The most popular of the ladies held little courts of their own at different points of the corridor, and were surrounded by circles of men, of whom they spoke to their husbands as friends, to their lady acquaintances as beaux.

The lady who had promised to stop Miss Carleton as she passed by, had succeeded in securing for herself a seat close to the steps which led down from the corridor to the tennis courts,—a veritable coigne of vantage, from whence every eligible man who passed up or down the steps could be arrested by a smile or a word. She had hurried her toilet in order to be early on the ground and make sure of the coveted spot. It was not to be wondered at that she was not in haste to surrender it, in order to oblige Mr. Cuthbert Larkington by an introduction to Gladys Carleton. She did not intend to surrender either her seat or her cavalier, for Larkington was certainly the most stylish-looking man in the whole Casino, and was, besides, sure to become the lion of the season. He had arrived in Newport only the day before, bringing a letter to Mrs. Fallow-Deer. He had been told that the only thing necessary to open all doors in that exclusive society to an Englishman was the patronage of this distinguished lady. Mrs. Fallow-Deer had a right to the high position she held in Newport society. She was by birth a Van Schuylkill, of New York, and belonged to one of the old Dutch families, who had always stood well in Manhattan, since the days when their ancestor, Peter Van Schuylkill, came out among the earliest settlers. In her youth Miss Van Schuylkill had accompanied her father to England, whither he had been sent as American Minister, and while there she had been sought in marriage by Mr. Fallow-Deer, an English gentleman, of large fortune. After thirty years of wedded life in the mother country, Mrs. Fallow-Deer had returned to the home of her youth, a widow, and a very rich woman. She had soon made her house in New York one of the most attractive in the city. A social leader she was born to be, always had been, and was likely to die in harness. She had certain eccentricities, but was essentially conventional in thought and conversation; she had talked so much society talk that it was impossible for her to doff her worldly manner and her social vernacular, which she carried into her most intimate domestic life. From her long residence in England, she had come to be considered by the men and women of her set as a sort of oracle of les convenances.

On arriving, Mr. Larkington had called at Mrs. Fallow-Deer's to deposit his card, his letter, and a bunch of flowers, which Fadden the florist assured him was the finest bouquet he had made up that season. The result of his attention had been an invitation to dinner that very evening, which he had accepted with dignified effusion. He had taken his Anglophilic hostess down to dinner, and listened with respect and attention to her six-month-stale stories of the sayings and doings of H. R. H. the Prince of Wales, and the worshipful members of his especial set. Larkington had found a good deal of amusement during the dinner in his right-hand neighbor. She was a pretty woman of the Venus de Médicis type, which is by no means uncommon among American women.

Mrs. Craig was not beautiful, though he had told her before the dessert that she was; but she was the perfection of prettiness. Small, without being undersized, with charming curves of face and figure, a well-shaped face and head, blond hair, deep-gray eyes, and a mouth which, though well cut, was too narrow and bloodless to betoken a generous or passionate nature. She had received the Englishman's attentions with cordiality and friendliness, and had promised, as he escorted her to her carriage, to meet him at the Casino the next morning at twelve o'clock.

Mrs. Craig had found Larkington awaiting her at the entrance of the Casino, and, after one anxious glance, had become reassured, and laughed at her own fears lest he should not be "presentable by daylight."

"In the evening," Mrs. Craig had argued to herself, "any man can look swell; but it is the morning dress which really shows his social status and the club to which he belongs."

Mrs. Craig had not exaggerated the effect which her entrance with the distinguished-looking "new arrival" would make on the crowd of people at the Casino, already tired of each other's faces, though the season was but three weeks old. The women all stopped talking as she passed, and the men looked curiously at "the new Englishman Mrs. Craig had in tow." If the lady's manner had on the previous evening been cordial to Mr. Larkington, it might now have been called familiar; for, conscious that the eyes of all her friends and enemies were centred upon her, she assumed that air of condescending possession which women of her nature show to the men with whom their names are more or less connected. During the first half-hour things had gone very well, and she had remained in undisturbed possession of the new man, who was—greater triumph—an Englishman. She had introduced him to her husband, who came "clumbering" along, to use one of her coinages of language, to Mr. Belhomme, the Master of the Hounds, to the respected President of the Casino, and to the ruling spirit of the Redwood Club.

These gentlemen had all received Larkington with cordiality and consideration, and Mrs. Craig had the ineffable joy of stealing Mrs. Fallow-Deer's thunder, and playing patroness to the good-looking foreigner. But her triumph was short-lived; and when Mrs. Fallow-Deer appeared upon the scene, down with full sail to a spot where chairs were quickly placed for her and her companion, Gladys Carleton, the eyes of the prize roamed anxiously in their direction.

Mrs. Craig was on her mettle: the equivocal expression with which she looked full into the eyes of Larkington was one which she rarely allowed herself to use in society; and the laughter which babbled from her lips was silver-sweet in tone, but when she spoke her voice was sharpened by anxiety.

Mrs. Fallow-Deer, having seated her ample person, and spread out her gorgeous raiment, soon espied the group of which Mrs. Craig was the centre, and, having attracted Larkington's attention, gave him a superb, rocking-horse bow, full of consideration and sweetness. The true state of affairs at once became evident to her, and, turning to the bearer of her fan, a young aspirant to fashion, she said, "Won't you kindly ask Mrs. Craig if she can tell me the hour of the rendezvous for the picnic to-morrow?"

The move was a successful one. Mrs. Craig, turning to speak to the young myrmidon, Larkington was left untrammelled by her wooing glance, and with a hurried "Excuse me for one moment," he crossed the corridor and entered the enemy's lines.

"So glad to see you here, Mr. Larkington; is it not a pretty scene? But of course, after Coves, it seems very small to you. Still, I think it is not quite unlike the grounds of the Royal Yacht Squadron; how does it strike you?"

"I think that the Club garden never had such a compliment before, Mrs. Fallow-Deer; we have nothing in England that compares with Newport. It is really a sort of modern Pompeii, where all the rich Americans come to play at taking a rest."

"It is very good-natured of you to say such nice things, I am sure. I want to present you to Miss Carleton, who is my guest. Gladys, let me present the Hon. Mr. Cuthbert Larkington, of Oxfordshire."

The two young people bowed,—the man lifting his hat and making a deep obeisance, the girl moving her graceful head perhaps a quarter of an inch, and looking with an air of composed observance into the face of the dark, striking-looking stranger. Whether he chose to admit it to Mrs. Craig or not, Larkington was much impressed with the beauty of Gladys Carleton. He instinctively compared her to the Arab mare which had borne him many miles over the deserts of Syria, and which he had cared for rather more than for any other living creature.

She was tall, straight as an arrow, and slender, long-limbed, with a small, round waist, wide shoulders, and full, classic bust, carefully displayed by the close-fitting dress of dark-blue foulard, fastened at the throat with a pair of deep sapphire buttons. Her head was magnificently set on her shoulders, and its poise was, to quote the phrase Larkington had used, "half arrogant and wholly fetching." The head itself was small, and, if not intellectual, intelligent in shape. Her fine black hair was brushed simply back from her temples,—she could afford to show her brow. Her eyes were dark and full of fire; the thick line of the eyebrows not classic, but effective. The straight, sensitive nose, with its red nostrils, showed what her friends called her "high spirit;" her maid vulgarly referred to it as a mark of her "ugly temper." Her mouth was full and red, curved and dainty,—a beauty rarely found among the women of her race. Her tiny roseleaf ears had never been desecrated by the needle of the jeweller, and the faultless teeth showed no trace of a dentist's care. A singularly striking-looking woman, whose age might be anywhere from eighteen to twenty-eight, and was exactly a quarter of a century.

When Larkington looked at the smooth fleckless skin, he thought that she could not have passed her teens. Her assured and self-reliant bearing contradicted this supposition, and betokened much experience of the world.

"I was so sorry to miss you at dinner last evening,—I was dining at Mrs. Belhomme's. Mrs. Fallow-Deer told me how you amused them all, and has promised to ask you again very soon for my special benefit. Do you think you will like Newport?"

"I know I shall; in fact, I do. I am almost at home here already."

"You will feel yourself quite at home this afternoon, I fancy, for it is the first hunt of the season. Of course you are going?"

"If you are, Miss Carleton, I am, of course. But what sort of a hunt is it,—a butterfly hunt? Considering the season, I suppose the game must have golden wings."

"Butterflies? Oh no! we are not cannibals at Newport, and do not kill our kind. The hunt is a real hunt as far as the prey is concerned. The only sham part of it is the scent, which is that of a red herring dragged across the fields by a huntsman on the morning of the meet."

"So the route is all laid out? and how does the fox—it is a fox?—well, how does he understand that he must follow the scent of the herring? Does your system of compulsory education extend to the members of the animal kingdom?"

"Do not be satirical, Mr. Larkington. Of course, the whole thing sounds very absurd to you; but as we have no foxes in this neighborhood, we import the poor little beasts. The fox is conveyed in a leathern bag to a certain spot agreed upon, and when we have all begun to think that herring scent is a poor sort of game, out springs Mr. Reynard a field beyond, and we all take heart,—hounds, horses, and riders,—and plunge after him with renewed ardor. If the fox part of it is a sham, I can say more for the riding. Newport is the roughest country I have ever hunted in. Have you your horse with you?"

"Yes, I bought a couple of hunters in New York; they arrived yesterday, and I shall most certainly join the hunt this afternoon. Do the men wear the pink?"

"Yes; most of them. It makes the spectacle so much gayer, and the pink coats set off the dark habits very prettily. They are not always becoming, but then one ought to be willing to sacrifice one's self to the general picturesqueness of the landscape."

Catching the last part of this sentence, Mrs. Fallow-Deer, who had been occupied in scanning with half-closed eyes the groups of people scattered about the lawn, broke into the conversation.

"Yes, it is a picturesque scene, is it not? But I want to present you, Mr. Larkington, to one of its most picturesque objects, Mrs. Belhomme. I am going to take you to a reception at her house this evening. I'll be back again, Gladys; keep my seat for me."

And the great woman sailed away on the arm of her new protégé. Poor little Mrs. Craig grew pale as the couple swept past her. Her only cavalier for the moment happened to be Mr. Craig, her devoted and long-suffering husband; and this fact added gall to the wormwood of her defeat. She was somewhat soothed, however, by the approach of Count Clawski, a foreign diplomate with a high official position. This gentleman, after the formalities of the morning greeting, inquired of Mrs. Craig the name and station of the tall Englishman, who was the subject of general conversation that morning. Mrs. Craig assured him that she was in no way responsible for the gentleman, whom she had met at dinner the evening before at Mrs. Fallow-Deer's, and whom she had accidentally encountered at the entrance of the Casino. Count Clawski had lived in England, and knew of an aristocratic family of the name of Larkington.

Mrs. Craig now being quite ready to leave the Casino, the Count escorted her to her carriage, and made his most respectful obeisance to the pretty woman, who nodded a flirtatious farewell, and, saying to her footman, "Go to the Redwood Library," was rolled away in her luxurious Victoria to that venerable and stately edifice.

Entering the quaint old library, Mrs. Craig asked the custodian for a book, which was quickly brought her, and, seating herself at a table, the pretty woman soon became absorbed in the perusal of that volume which in importance ranks with the book of Common Prayer in all English households. Does not the British Peerage contain between its covers the Alpha and Omega of every true Briton's social creed, which should profess a belief in the Queen and Empress of all the important parts of the earth; a belief in the House of Lords, the aristocracy and all their friends; a faith and reverence for all the decrees of H. R. H. the Prince of Wales, and his set?