The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXX

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXX
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXX.

A QUARREL.

When the door opened and Florimel glided in the painter sprang to his feet to welcome her, and she flew softly, soundless as a moth, into his arms; for, the study being large and full of things, she was not aware of the presence of Malcolm. From behind a picture on an easel he saw them meet, but shrinking from being an open witness to their secret, and also from being discovered in his father's clothes by the sister who knew him only as a servant, he instantly sought escape. Nor was it hard to find, for near where he stood was a door opening into a small intermediate chamber, communicating with the drawing-room, and by it he fled, intending to pass through to Lenorme's bedroom and change his clothes. With noiseless stride he hurried away, but could not help hearing a few passionate words that escaped his sister's lips before Lenorme could warn her that they were not alone — words which, it seemed to him, could come only from a heart whose very pulse was devotion.

"How can I live without you, Raoul?" said the girl as she clung to him.

Lenorme gave an uneasy glance behind him, saw Malcolm disappear, and answered, "I hope you will never try, my darling."

"Oh, but you know this can't last," she returned with playfully affected authority. "It must come to an end. They will interfere."

"Who can? Who will dare?" said the painter with confidence.

"People will. We had better stop it ourselves — before it all comes out and we are shamed," said Florimel, now with perfect seriousness.

"Shamed!" cried Lenorme. "Well, if you can't help being ashamed of me — and perhaps, as you have been brought up, you can't — do you not then love me enough to encounter a little shame for my sake? I should welcome worlds of such for yours."

Florimel was silent. She kept her face hidden on his shoulder, but was already halfway to a quarrel.

"You don't love me, Florimel," he said after a pause, little thinking how nearly true were the words.

"Well, suppose I don't!" she cried, half defiantly, half merrily; drawing herself from him, she stepped back two paces, and looked at him with saucy eyes, in which burned two little flames of displeasure, that seemed to shoot up from the red spots glowing upon her cheeks. Lenorme looked at her. He had often seen her like this before, and knew that the shell was charged and the fuse lighted. But within lay a mixture even more explosive than he suspected; for not merely was there more of shame and fear and perplexity mingled with her love than he understood, but she was conscious of having now been false to him, and that rendered her temper dangerous. Lenorme had already suffered severely from the fluctuations of her moods. They had been almost too much for him. He could endure them, he thought, to all eternity if he had her to himself, safe and sure; but the confidence to which he rose every now and then that she would one day be his just as often failed him, rudely shaken by some new symptom of what almost seemed like cherished inconstancy. If, after all, she should forsake him! It was impossible, but she might. If even that should come, he was too much of a man to imagine anything but a stern encounter of the inevitable, and he knew he would survive it; but he knew also that life could never be the same again, that for a season work would be impossible — the kind of work he had hitherto believed his own rendered forever impossible perhaps, and his art degraded to the mere earning of a living. At best, he would have to die and be buried and rise again before existence could become endurable under the new squalid conditions of life without her. It was no wonder, then, if her behavior sometimes angered him, for even against a will-o'-the-wisp that has enticed us into a swamp a glow of foolish indignation will spring up. And now a black fire in his eyes answered the blue flash in hers; and the difference suggests the diversity of their loves: hers might vanish in fierce explosion, his would go on burning like a coal-mine. A word of indignant expostulation rose to his lips, but a thought came that repressed it. He took her hand, and led her — the wonder was that she yielded, for she had seen the glow in his eyes, and the fuse of her own anger burned faster; but she did yield, partly from curiosity, and followed where he pleased — her hand lying dead in his. It was but to the other end of the room he led her, to the picture of her father, now all but finished. Why he did so he would have found it hard to say. Perhaps the genius that lies under the consciousness forefelt a catastrophe, and urged him to give his gift ere giving should be impossible.

Malcolm stepped into the drawing-room, where the table was laid as usual for breakfast; there stood Caley, helping herself to a spoonful of honey from Hymettus. At his entrance she started violently, and her sallow face grew earthy. For some seconds she stood motionless, unable to take her eyes off the apparition, as it seemed to her, of the late marquis, in wrath at her encouragement of his daughter in disgraceful courses. Malcolm, supposing she was ashamed of herself, took no further notice of her, and walked deliberately toward the other door. Ere he reached it she knew him. Burning with the combined ires of fright and shame, conscious also that by the one little contemptible act of greed in which he had surprised her she had justified the aversion which her woman-instinct had from the first recognized in him, she darted to the door, stood with her back against it and faced him flaming. "So!" she cried: "this is how my lady's kindness is abused! The insolence! Her groom goes and sits for his portrait in her father's courtdress!"

As she ceased all the latent vulgarity of her nature broke loose, and with a protracted pff she seized her thin nose between her thumb and forefinger, to indicate that an evil odor of fish interpenetrated her atmosphere, and must at the moment be defiling the garments of the dead marquis. "My lady shall know this," she concluded, with a vicious clenching of her teeth and two or three small nods of her neat head.

Malcom stood regarding her with a coolness that yet inflamed her wrath. He could not help smiling at the reaction of shame in indignation. Had her anger been but a passing flame, that smile would have turned it into enduring hate. She hissed in his face.

"Go and have the first word," he said; "only leave the door and let me pass."

"Let you pass, indeed! What would you pass for? — the bastard of old Lord James and a married woman! I don't care that for you." And she snapped her fingers in his face.

Malcolm turned from her and went to the window, taking a newspaper from the breakfast-table as he passed, and there sat down to read until the way should be clear. Carried beyond herself by his utter indifference, Caley darted from the room, and went straight into the study.

Lenorme led Florimel in front of the picture. She gave a great start, and turned and stared pallid at the painter. The effect upon her was such as he had not foreseen, and the words she uttered were not such as he could have hoped to hear. "What would he think of me if he knew? "she cried, clasping her hands in agony.

That moment Caley burst into the room, her eyes lamping like a cat's. "My lady," she shrieked, "there's MacPhail the groom, my lady, dressed up in your honored father's bee-utiful clo'es as he always wore when he went to dine with the prince! And please, my lady, he's that rude I could 'ardly keep my 'ands off him."

Florimel flashed a dagger of question in Lenorme's eyes. The painter drew himself up. "It was at my request, Lady Lossie," he said.

"Indeed!" returned Florimel, in high scorn, and glanced again at the picture. "I see," she went on. "How could I be such an idiot! It was my groom's, not my father's likeness you meant to surprise me with!" Her eyes flashed as if she would annihilate him.

"I have worked hard in the hope of giving you pleasure, Lady Lossie," said the painter with wounded dignity.

"And you have failed," she adjoined cruelly.

The painter took the miniature after which he had been working from a table near, handed it to her with a proud obeisance, and the same moment dashed a brushful of dark paint across the face of the picture.

"Thank you, sir," said Florimel, and for a moment felt as if she hated him.

She turned away and walked from the study. The door of the drawing-room was open, and Caley stood by the side of it. Florimel, too angry to consider what she was about, walked in; there sat Malcolm in the window, in her father's clothes and his very attitude, reading the newspaper. He did not hear her enter. He had been waiting till he could reach the bedroom unseen by her, for he knew from the sound of the voices that the study-door was open. Her anger rose yet higher at the sight. "Leave the room," she said.

He started to his feet, and now perceived that his sister was in the dress of a servant. He took one step forward and stood — a little mazed — gorgeous in dress and arms of price, before his mistress in the cotton gown of a housemaid.

"Take those clothes off instantly," said Florimel slowly, replacing wrath with haughtiness as well as she might.

Malcolm turned to the door without a word. He saw that things had gone wrong where most he would have wished them go right.

"I'll see to them being well aired, my lady," said Caley, with sibilant indignation.

Malcolm went to the study. The painter sat before the picture of the marquis, with his elbows on his knees and his head between his hands. "Mr. Lenorme," said Malcolm, approaching him gently.

"Oh, go away," said Lenorme without raising his head; "I can't bear the sight of you yet."

Malcolm obeyed, a little smile playing about the corners of his mouth. Caley saw it as he passed, and hated him yet worse. He was in his own clothes, booted and belted, in two minutes. Three sufficed to replace his father's garments in the portmanteau, and in three more he and Kelpie went plunging past his mistress and her maid as they drove home in their lumbering vehicle.

"The insolence of the fellow!" said Caley, loud enough for her mistress to hear notwithstanding the noise of the rattling windows. "A pretty pass we are come to!"

But already Florimel's mood had begun to change. She felt that she had done her best to alienate men on whom she could depend, and that she had chosen for a confidante one whom she had no ground for trusting.

She got safe and unseen to her room; and Caley believed she had only to improve the advantage she had now gained.