The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXXIII
In pain, wrath, and mortification Liftore rode home. What would the men at his club say if they knew that he had been thrashed by a scoundrel of a groom for kissing his mistress? The fact would soon be out: he must do his best to have it taken for what it ought to be — namely, fiction. It was the harder upon him that he knew himself no coward. He must punish the rascal somehow — he owed it to society to punish him — but at present he did not see how, and the first thing was to have the first word with Florimel: he must see her before she saw the ruffian. He rode as hard as he dared to Curzon Street, sent his groom to the stables, telling him he should want the horses again before lunch, had a hot bath, of which he stood in dire need, and some brandy with his breakfast, and then, all unfit for exercise as he was, walked to Portland Place.
Mistress and maid rode home together in silence. The moment Florimel heard Malcolm's voice she had left the house. Caley, following, had heard enough to know that there was a scuffle at least going on in the study, and her eye witnessed against her heart that Liftore could have no chance with the detested groom if the respect of the latter gave way; would MacPhail thrash his lordship? If he did, it would be well she should know it. In the hoped event of his lordship's marrying her mistress, it was desirable not only that she should be in favor with both of them, but that she should have some hold upon each of a more certainly enduring nature: if she held secrets with husband and wife separately, she would be in clover for the period of her natural existence.
As to Florimel, she was enraged at the liberties Liftore had taken with her. But, alas! was she not in some degree in his power? He had found her there, and in tears! How did he come to be there? If Malcolm's judgment of her was correct, Caley might have told him. Was she already false? She pondered within herself, and cast no look upon her maid until she had concluded how best to carry herself toward the earl. Then glancing at the hooded cobra beside her, "What an awkward thing that Lord Liftore, of all moments, should appear just then!" she said. "How could it be?"
"I am sure I haven't an idea, my lady," returned Caley. "My lord has always been kind to Mr. Lenorme, and I suppose he had been in the way of going to see him at work. Who would have thought my lord was such an early riser? There are not many gentlemen like him nowadays, my lady. Did your ladyship hear the noise in the studio after you left it?"
"I heard high words," answered her mistress — "nothing more. How on earth did MacPhail come to be there as well? From you, Caley, I will not conceal that his lordship behaved indiscreetly; in fact, he was rude; and I can quite imagine that MacPhail thought it his duty to defend me. It is all very awkward for me. Who could have imagined him there, and sitting behind amongst the pictures! It almost makes me doubt whether Mr. Lenorme be really gone."
"It seems to me, my lady," returned Caley, "that the man is always just where he ought not to be, always meddling with something he has no business with. I beg your pardon, my lady," she went on, "but wouldn't it be better to get some staid elderly man for a groom — one who has been properly bred up to his duties and taught his manners in a gentleman's stable? It is so odd to have a groom from a rough seafaring set — one who behaves like the rude fisherman he is, never having had to obey orders of lord or lady! The worst of it is, your ladyship will soon be the town's talk if you have such a groom on such a horse after you everywhere."
Florimel's face flushed. Caley saw she was angry, and held her peace.
Breakfast was hardly over when Liftore walked in, looking pale, and, in spite of his faultless get-up, somewhat disreputable; for shame, secret pain, and anger do not favor a good carriage or honest mien. Florimel threw herself back in her chair — an action characteristic of the boldfaced countess — and held out her left hand to him in an expansive, benevolent sort of way. "How dare you come into my presence looking so well pleased with yourself, my lord, after giving me such a fright this morning?" she said. "You might at least have made sure that there was — that we were ——" She could not bring herself to complete the sentence.
"My dearest girl," said his lordship, not only delighted to get off so pleasantly, but profoundly flattered by the implied understanding, "I found you in tears, and how could I think of anything else? It may have been stupid, but I trust you will think it pardonable."
Caley had not fully betrayed her mistress to his lordship, and he had, entirely to his own satisfaction, explained the liking of Florimel for the society of the painter as the mere fancy of a girl for the admiration of one whose employment, although nothing above the servile, yet gave him a claim something beyond that of a milliner or hairdresser to be considered a judge in matters of appearance. As to anything more in the affair — and with him in the field — of such a notion he was simply incapable: he could not have wronged the lady he meant to honor with his hand by regarding it as within the bounds of the possible.
"It was no wonder I was crying," said Florimel. "A seraph would have cried to see the state my father's portrait was in."
"Your father's portrait?"
"Yes. Did not you know? Mr. Lenorme has been painting one from a miniature I lent him — under my supervision of course; and just because I let fall a word that showed I was not altogether satisfied with the likeness, what should the wretched man do but catch up a brush full of filthy black paint, and smudge the face all over!"
"Oh, Lenorme will soon set it to rights again. He's not a bad fellow, though he does belong to the genus irritabile. I will go about it this very day."
"You'll not find him, I'm sorry to say. There's a note I had from him yesterday. And the picture's quite unfit to be seen — utterly ruined. But I can't think how you could miss seeing it."
"To tell the truth, Florimel, I had a bit of a scrimmage after you left me in the studio." Here his lordship did his best to imitate a laugh. "Who should come rushing upon me out of the back regions of paint and canvas but that mad groom of yours! I don't suppose you knew he was there?"
"Not I. I saw a man's feet: that was all."
"Well, there he was, for what reason the devil knows, perdu amongst the painter's litter; and when he heard your little startled cry — most musical, most melancholy — what should he fancy but that you were frightened, and he must rush to the rescue! And so he did with a vengeance: I don't know when I shall quite forget the blow he gave me." And again Liftore laughed, or thought he did.
"He struck you!" exclaimed Florimel, rather astonished, but hardly able for inward satisfaction to put enough of indignation into her tone.
"He did, the fellow! But don't say a word about it, for I thrashed him so unmercifully that, to tell the truth, I had to stop because I grew sorry for him; I am sorry now. So I hope you will take no notice of it. In fact, I begin to like the rascal; you know I was never favorably impressed with him. By Jove! it is not every mistress that can have such a devoted attendant. I only hope his overzeal in your service may never get you into some compromising position. He is hardly, with all his virtues, the proper servant for a young lady to have about her; he has had no training — no proper training at all — you see. But you must let the villain nurse himself for a day or two anyhow. It would be torture to make him ride after what I gave him."
His lordship spoke feelingly, with heroic endurance indeed; and if Malcolm should dare give his account of the fracas, he trusted to the word of a gentleman to outweigh that of a groom.
Not all to whom it may seem incredible that a nobleman should thus lie are themselves incapable of doing likewise. Any man may put himself in training for a liar by doing things he would be ashamed to have known. The art is easily learned, and to practise it well is a great advantage to people with designs. Men of ability, indeed, if they take care not to try hard to speak the truth, will soon become able to lie as truthfully as any sneak that sells grease for butter to the poverty of the New Cut.
It is worth remarking to him who can, from the lie actual, carry his thought deeper to the lie essential, that all the power of a lie comes from the truth: it has none in itself. So strong is the truth that a mere resemblance to it is the source of strength to its opposite, until it be found that like is not the same.
Florimel had already made considerable progress in the art, but proficiency in lying does not always develop the power of detecting it. She knew that her father had on one occasion struck Malcolm, and that he had taken it with the utmost gentleness, confessing himself in the wrong. Also, she had the impression that for a menial to lift his hand against a gentleman, even in self-defence, was a thing unheard of. The blow Malcolm had struck Liftore was for her, not himself. Therefore, while her confidence in Malcolm's courage and prowess remained unshaken, she was yet able to believe that Liftore had done as he said, and supposed that Malcolm had submitted. In her heart she pitied without despising him.
Caley herself took him the message that he would not be wanted. As she delivered it she smiled an evil smile and dropped a mocking curtsey, with her gaze well fixed on his two black eyes and the great bruise between them.
When Liftore mounted to accompany Lady Lossie, it took all the pluck that belonged to his high breed to enable him to smile and smile with twenty counsellors in different parts of his body feelingly persuading him that he was at least a liar. As they rode Florimel asked him how he came to be at the studio that morning. He told her that he had wanted very much to see her portrait before the final touches were given it. He could have made certain suggestions, he believed, that no one else could. He had indeed, he confessed — and felt absolutely virtuous in doing so, because here he spoke a fact — heard from his aunt that Florimel was to be there that morning for the last time: it was therefore his only chance; but he had expected to be there hours before she was out of bed. For the rest, he hoped he had been punished enough, seeing her rascally groom — and once more his lordship laughed peculiarly — had but just failed of breaking his arm: it was all he could do to hold the reins.