The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Bundle of Life/Chapter 4

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IV.

Sir Ventry had been trying since noon to exchange a few words of immense importance with his sister. At last, in the drawing-room after luncheon, he found the moment. Teresa was playing the piano: Van Huyster and Felicia were within sight on the lawn. Lady Mallinger was cooing to some love-birds in a gilt cage which hung near the window. Lady Twacorbie sat at a little distance from the others, embroidering an altar-cloth. She was a being about five- and-thirty, dressed with elegance, but with no attempt at individuality. No doubt eleven out of every dozen women in her own station were wearing gowns of the same hue, make, and texture. Her hair was flaxen and arranged in the artificial, half-grotesque style commanded by Court hairdressers: at a first glance she looked like a wax doll—the unchanging expression, the neat, set features, the unseeing eyes, had not the divine impress. Yet she lived and was a woman: without her false curls, her whale-bones, and her stare, she was even beautiful: in unguarded moments, she was witty. She was not accomplished, however, and had no force of will; the winds of opinion blew her feather-like round the four corners of her boudoir. But in her way she was perfectly happy: she sighed for no new experiences and wept over no old ones: life presented no enigmas, and, feeling neither sorrow nor wonder, she had no need of philosophy. She read nothing, but was extraordinarily observant, and had a most tenacious memory for little things. For instance, she could quote whole conversations, and describe to a half-turn just how this one entered a room, that one shook hands, and the other sat down: she delighted afternoon callers by remembering how each liked his or her tea—A. never took sugar, B. liked three large lumps or four small ones, C. only drank hot water, D. could not bear the sight of cream, and so on. This was the lighter side of her character: she had a certain amount of sentiment, and would have made a devoted wife and mother of the primitive type. But the creatures of her world were bored by devotion, so she flirted in the most religious manner possible, and had an Infants' Bible Class.

"My dear Charlotte," said Sir Ventry, "has it never occurred to you that Van Huyster is deeply interested in Felicia ? I have observed it for days."

" You are always making unnecessary discoveries," replied his sister. " You know my plans with regard to Felicia. Wiche will certainly speak to her either to-day or to-morrow."

Van Huyster is a far more desirable match; he is not only richer, but more tractable," said Sir Ventry. " If he were to speak first——"

"As you say," murmured her ladyship, "he is enormously rich."

"Precisely: that is my point. And he goes everywhere."

"But then Wiche is such a power in politics," said Lady Twacorbie; " think what good we could do by our influence over him!"

"The country would be far more grateful," said Sir Ventry, "if we helped Van Huyster to spend his money in a gentlemanly manner. However, it is your affair not mine. I have made a suggestion: act on it or not, as you please," and he strutted magnificently from her presence.

For some moments Lady Twacorbie did not ply her needle, but unpicked the stitches she had taken during the preceding conversation. At last she called Lilian. "Come and talk to me, my dear," she said; "I have not had a word with you since breakfast. You see I drove Harold to the station"—(Lord Twacorbie had gone to town for a few days)—"He was so sorry to leave us." She glanced at Van Huyster and Felicia who passed the window. "We are so anxious about Felicia," she said; "young girls are so flighty—is it reasonable to suppose that they are competent to select the right sort of man? Ah, if women would only choose their husbands as carefully as they do their bonnets, how much brighter life would be!"

"But, my dear Lady Twacorbie, what would you call the right sort of a husband?"

"A man," she replied, "with means, position, a good digestion, and sound principles: such a person, for instance, as this excellent, kind-hearted, and deserving Van Huyster!"

"Van Huyster!" said Lady Mallinger, in surprise. "Yes. Have you observed how extremely attentive he is to Felicia?"

"Perhaps I have, now you speak of it," said Lilian, "but I thought Mr. Wiche——"

"Ah!" said Lady Twacorbie, "Mr. Wiche is all very well in his proper place. I have the greatest respect for his undeniable merits. I hope, however—I earnestly hope that he will not do anything rash. In fact, I may as well confess that I am in a difficulty. As Harold was obliged to go to town to-day, and as Ventry is not well, I asked Mr. Wiche if he would escort Felicia and myself to the Bishop's Bazaar this afternoon. I see now that it might cause gossip in the neighbourhood; people make such absurd remarks. Besides, I fear it is scarcely kind to throw the poor man so frequently in the dear child's society. Do you think you could keep him amused in some way until we have left the house: we can pretend that there was some blunder and perhaps take Mr. Van Huyster....These things are difficult to explain."

"I think I understand," said Lady Mallinger: "of course, I will do anything to make myself useful. But I must at least change my gown: I heard him say he liked my blue muslin!" She went out laughing so gaily, that Teresa, who was playing mournful music, left the piano and came down to her cousin.

"What is the joke?" she asked.

Lady Twacorbie did not hesitate over her reply. She had made up her mind that Teresa was dying of love for the elegant Ventry and would therefore have no interest in the matrimonial schemes with regard to Sidney Wiche.

"Ventry has convinced me with regard to Van Huyster and Felicia," she said, at once."Obstinacy is not one of my faults, and I am never deaf to reason. I have arranged everything in the most charming way: Lilian has agreed to distract Mr. Wiche's attention. Of course, dear, I would have asked you, but you are much too clever! One can only trust a fool to carry out a plot of this kind with success. She is such a simpleton—just the silly creature to hoodwink a man of genius!"

"Oh, this is too much!" said Teresa. "I assure you a more accomplished actress never lived. She is far cleverer than either of us."

"Absurd! Impossible!" said Lady Twacorbie.

"There is nothing easier than the impossible—for Lady Mallinger. But I am sure that Sidney will see through her nonsense at once; you must remember that he is my friend and I have known him for years: your plan will not succeed."

"But he admires her extremely," said Lady Twacorbie.

"Has he ever told you so?"

"Of course not: it is because he has never said so, that I am certain of it. Men are dreadfully discreet, my dear Teresa. I only believe in what they do not say. But come, we must leave the coast clear, come!"

Teresa followed her slowly.