The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXIX

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXIX
by George MacDonald



Florimel was beginning to understand that the shield of the portrait was not large enough to cover many more visits to Lenorme's studio. Still, she must and would venture, and should anything be said, there at least was the portrait. For some weeks it had been all but finished, was never off its easel, and always showed a touch of wet paint somewhere: he kept the last of it lingering, ready to prove itself almost yet not altogether finished. What was to follow its absolute completion neither of them could tell. The worst of it was, that their thoughts about it differed discordantly. Florimel not unfrequently regarded the rupture of their intimacy as a thing not undesirable — this chiefly after such a talk with Lady Bellair as had been illustrated by some tale of misalliance or scandal between high and low, of which kind of provision for age the bold-faced countess had a large store: her memory was little better than an ash-pit of scandal. Amongst other biographical scraps one day she produced the case of a certain earl's daughter, who, having disgraced herself by marrying a low fellow — an artist, she believed — was as a matter of course neglected by the man whom, in accepting him, she had taught to despise her, and before a twelvemonth was over — her family finding it impossible to hold communication with her — was actually seen by her late maid scrubbing her own floor.

"Why couldn't she leave it dirty?" said Florimel.

"Why, indeed," returned Lady Bellair, "but that people sink to their fortunes! Blue blood won't keep them out of the gutter."

The remark was true, but of more general application than she intended, seeing she herself was in the gutter, and did not know it. She only spoke of what followed on marriage beneath one's natal position, than which, she declared, there was nothing worse a woman of rank could do.

"She may get over anything but that," she would say, believing, but not saying, that she spoke from experience.

Was it part of the late marquis's purgatory to see now, as the natural result of the sins of his youth, the daughter whose innocence was dear to him exposed to all the undermining influences of this good-natured but low-moraled woman, whose ideas of the most mysterious relations of humanity were in no respect higher than those of a class which must not even be mentioned in my pages? At such tales the high-born heart would flutter in Florimel's bosom, beat itself against its bars, turn sick at the sight of its danger, imagine it had been cherishing a crime, and resolve — soon — before very long — at length — finally — to break so far at least with the painter as to limit their intercourse to the radiation of her power across a dinner-table, the rhythmic heaving of their two hearts at a dance, or the quiet occasional talk in a corner, when the looks of each would reveal to the other that they knew themselves the martyrs of a cruel and inexorable law. It must be remembered that she had had no mother since her childhood, that she was now but a girl, and that the passion of a girl to that of a woman is "as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine." Of genuine love she had little more than enough to serve as salt to the passion; and passion, however bewitching — yea, entrancing — a condition, may yet be of little more worth than that induced by opium or hashish, and a capacity for it may be conjoined with anything or everything contemptible and unmanly or unwomanly. In Florimel's case, however, there was chiefly much of the childish in it. Definitely separated from Lenorme, she would have been merry again in a fortnight; and yet, though she half knew this herself, and at the same time was more than half ashamed of the whole affair, she did not give it up — would not — only intended by-and-by to let it go, and meantime gave — occasionally — pretty free flutter to the half-grown wings of her fancy.

Her liking for the painter had therefore, not unnaturally, its fits. It was subject in a measure to the nature of the engagements she had — that is, to the degree of pleasure she expected from them: it was subject, as we have seen, to skilful battery from the guns of her chaperone's intrenchment; and more than to either was it subject to those delicate changes of condition which in the microcosm are as frequent and as varied both in kind and degree as in the macrocosm. The spirit has its risings and settings of sun and moon, its clouds and stars, its seasons, its solstices, its tides, its winds, its storms, its earthquakes — infinite vitality in endless fluctuation. To rule these changes Florimel had neither the power that comes of love nor the strength that comes of obedience. What of conscience she had was not yet conscience toward God, which is the guide to freedom, but conscience toward society, which is the slave of a fool. It was no wonder then that Lenorme, believing, hoping, she loved him, should find her hard to understand. He said hard, but sometimes he meant impossible. He loved as a man loves who has thought seriously, speculated, tried to understand — whose love, therefore, is consistent with itself, harmonious with his nature and history, changing only in form and growth, never in substance and character. Hence, the idea of Florimel became in his mind the centre of perplexing thought; the unrest of her being, metamorphosed on the way, passed over into his, and troubled him sorely. Neither was his mind altogether free of the dread of reproach. For self-reproach he could find little or no ground, seeing that to pity her much for the loss of consideration her marriage with him would involve would be to undervalue the honesty of his love and the worth of his art; and indeed her position was so independently based that she could not lose it even by marrying one who had not the social standing of a brewer or a stockbroker; but his pride was uneasy under the foreseen criticism that his selfishness had taken advantage of her youth and inexperience to work on the mind of an ignorant girl — criticism not likely to be the less indignant that those who passed it would, without a shadow of compunction, have handed her over, body, soul and goods, to one of their own order had he belonged to the very canaille of the race.

The painter was not merely in love with Florimel: he loved her. I will not say that he was in no degree dazzled by her rank, or that he felt no triumph, as a social nomad camping on the no-man's-land of society, at the thought of the justification of the human against the conventional, in his scaling of the giddy heights of superiority, and, on one of its topmost peaks, taking from her nest that rare bird in the earth, a landed and titled marchioness. But such thoughts were only changing hues on the feathers of his love, which itself was a mighty bird with great and yet growing wings.

A day or two passed before Florimel went again to the studio, accompanied, notwithstanding Lenorme's warning and her own doubt, yet again by her maid, a woman, unhappily, of Lady Bellair's finding. At Lossie House, Malcolm had felt a repugnance to her, both moral and physical. When first he heard her name, one of the servants speaking of her as Miss Caley, he took it for Scaley, and if that was not her name, yet scaly was her nature.

This time Florimel rode to Chelsea with Malcolm, having directed Caley to meet her there; and, the one designing to be a little early, and the other to be a little late, two results naturally followed — first, that the lovers had a few minutes alone; and second, that when Caley crept in, noiseless and unannounced as a cat, she had her desire, and saw the painter's arm round Florimel's waist and her head on his bosom. Still more to her contentment, not hearing, they did not see her, and she crept out again quietly as she had entered; it would of course be to her advantage to let them know that she had seen, and that they were in her power, but it might be still more to her advantage to conceal the fact so long as there was a chance of additional discovery in the same direction. Through the success of her trick it came about that Malcolm, chancing to look up from Honor's back to the room where he always breakfasted with his new friend, saw in one of the windows, as in a picture, a face radiant with such an expression as that of the woman-headed snake might have worn when he saw Adam take the apple from the hand of Eve.

Caley was of the common class of servants in this, that she considered service servitude, and took her amends in selfishness; she was unlike them in this, that while false to her employers she made no common cause with her fellows against them — regarded and sought none but her own ends. Her one thought was to make the most of her position; for that, to gain influence with, and, if it might be, power over, her mistress; and thereto, first of all, to find out whether she had a secret: she had now discovered not merely that she had one, but the secret itself. She was clever, greedy, cunning — equally capable according to the faculty with which she might be matched, of duping or of being duped. She rather liked her mistress, but watched her in the interests of Lady Bellair. She had a fancy for the earl, a natural dislike to Malcolm, which she concealed in distant politeness, and for all the rest of the house indifference. As to her person she had a neat oval face, thin and sallow, in expression subacid; a lithe, rather graceful figure, and hands too long, with fingers almost too tapering — of which hands and fingers she was very careful, contemplating them in secret with a regard amounting almost to reverence: they were her sole witnesses to a descent in which she believed, but of which she had no other shadow of proof.

Caley's face, then, with its unsaintly illumination, gave Malcolm something to think about as he sat there upon Honor, the new horse. Clearly, she had had a triumph; what could it be? The nature of the woman was not altogether unknown to him even from the first, and he could not for months go on meeting her occasionally in passages and on stairs without learning to understand his own instinctive dislike: it was plain the triumph was not in good. It was plain too that it was in something which had that very moment occurred, and could hardly have to do with any one but her mistress. Then her being in that room revealed more. They would never have sent her out of the study, and so put themselves in her power. She had gone into the house but a moment before, a minute or two behind her mistress, and he knew with what a cat-like step she went about: she had surprised them — discovered how matters stood between her mistress and the painter. He saw everything almost as it had taken place. She had seen without being seen, and had retreated with her prize! Florimel was then in the woman's power: what was he to do? He must at least let her gather what warning she could from the tale of what he had seen.

Once arrived at a resolve, Malcolm never lost time. They had turned but one corner on their way home when he rode up to her. "Please, my lady," he began. But the same instant Florimel was pulling up. " Malcolm," she said, "I have left my, pocket-handkerchief: I must go back for it."

As she spoke she turned her horse's head. But Malcolm, dreading lest Caley should yet be lingering, would not allow her to expose herself to a greater danger than she knew. "Before you go, my lady, I must tell you something I happened to see while I waited with the horses," he said.

The earnestness of his tone struck Florimel. She looked at him with eyes a little wider, and waited to hear.

"I happened to look up at the drawing-room windows, my lady, and Caley came to one of them with such a look on her face! I can't exactly describe it to you, my lady, but ——"

"Why do you tell me?" interrupted his mistress with absolute composure and hard, questioning eyes. But she had drawn herself up in the saddle. Then, before he could reply, a flash of thought seemed to cross her face with a quick single motion of her eyebrows, and it was instantly altered and thoughtful. She seemed to have suddenly perceived some cause for taking a mild interest in his communication. "But it cannot be, Malcolm," she said in quite a changed tone. "You must have taken some one else for her. She never left the studio all the time I was there."

"It was immediately after her arrival, my lady. She went in about two minutes after your ladyship, and could not have had much more than time to go up-stairs when I saw her come to the window. I felt bound to tell your ladyship."

"Thank you, Malcolm," returned Florimel kindly. " You did right to tell me, — but — it's of no consequence. Mr. Lenorme's housekeeper and she must have been talking about something."

But her eyebrows were now thoughtfully contracted over her eyes. "There had been no time for that, I think, my lady," said Malcolm.

Florimel turned again and rode on, saying no more about the handkerchief. Malcolm saw that he had succeeded in warning her, and was glad. But had he foreseen to what it would lead he would hardly have done it.

Florimel was indeed very uneasy. She could not help strongly suspecting that she had betrayed herself to one who, if not an intentional spy, would yet be ready enough to make a spy's use of anything she might have picked up. What was to be done? It was now too late to think of getting rid of her: that would be but her signal to disclose whatever she had seen, and so not merely enjoy a sweet revenge, but account with clear satisfactoriness for her dismissal. What would not Florimel now have given for some one who could sympathize with her and yet counsel her! She was afraid to venture another meeting with Lenorme, and besides was not a little shy of the advantage the discovery would give him in pressing her to marry him. And now first she began to feel as if her sins were going to find her out.

A day or two passed in alternating physical flaws and fogs, with poor glints of sunshine between. She watched her maid, but her maid knew it, and discovered no change in her manner or behavior. Weary of observation, she was gradually settling into her former security when Caley began to drop hints that alarmed her. Might it not be altogether the safest thing to take her into confidence? It would be such a relief, she thought, to have a woman she could talk to! The result was that she began to lift a corner of the veil that hid her trouble; the woman encouraged her, and at length the silly girl threw her arms round the scaly one's neck, much to that person's satisfaction, and told her that she loved Mr. Lenorme. She knew, of course, she said, that she could not marry him. She was only waiting a fit opportunity to free herself from a connection which, however delightful, she was unable to justify. How the maid interpreted her confession I do not care to inquire very closely, but anyhow it was in a manner that promised much to her after-influence. I hasten over this part of Florimel's history, for that confession to Caley was perhaps the one thing in her life she had most reason to be ashamed of, for she was therein false to the being she thought she loved best in the world. Could Lenorme have known her capable of unbosoming herself to such a woman, it would almost have slain the love he bore her. The notions of that odd-and-end sort of person, who made his livelihood by spreading paint, would have been too hideously shocked by the shadow of an intimacy between his love and such as she.

Caley first comforted the weeping girl, and then began to insinuate encouragement. She must indeed give him up — there was no help for that — but neither was there any necessity for doing so all at once. Mr. Lenorme was a beautiful man, and any woman might be proud to be loved by him. She must take her time to it. She might trust her. And soon and on, for she was as vulgar-minded as the worst of those whom ladies endure about their persons, handling their hair and having access to more of their lock-fast places than they would willingly imagine.

The first result was that, on the pretext of bidding him farewell, and convincing him that he and she must meet no more, fate and fortune, society and duty, being all alike against their happiness — I mean on that pretext to herself, the only one to be deceived by it — Florimel arranged with her woman one evening to go the next morning to the studio; she knew the painter to be an early riser, and always at his work before eight o'clock. But although she tried to imagine she had persuaded herself to say farewell, certainly she had not yet brought her mind to any ripeness of resolve in the matter. At seven o'clock in the morning, the marchioness habited like a housemaid, they slipped out by the front door, turned the corners of two streets, found a hackney-coach waiting for them, and arrived in due time at the painter's abode.