The Tales of John Oliver Hobbes/A Study in Temptations/Chapter 9

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THE Dowager Countess of Warbeck awoke one morning at eight o'clock and discovered that she could not fall asleep again. She rang for her maid, complained that she had passed an extremely bad night (for she usually slept till nine), and arose from her bed.

"Will your ladyship have breakfast earlier than usual?" said the maid.

"No," said her ladyship, who did not feel hungry; "but tell Dawson to sound the gong for prayers at half-past eight." She therefore put her bad night to excellent account by reading her assembled household three lessons instead of one. Would that all good Christians killed their time with so much profit—to others!

When the domestics had solemnly filed out of the big dining-room, the Dowager turned to her grandson—the one prop of her declining years—with an air of almost tragic appeal.

"I suppose," she said, "I must go to Brentmore and see this Battle—or Cattle—person?"

"It would look more friendly, if you did," said her grandson, "but I have no wish to urge anything of the kind upon you, if you feel unequal to it."

"I never allow myself to feel unequal to a duty, Warbeck. But the position is heart-breaking."

The position which her ladyship found so distressing was briefly this: she had been the second wife of the 14th Earl, by whom she had one son, the father of the present Warbeck. The late Earl, however, had had four other sons by his previous marriage, the youngest of whom (Edmund), he had disowned for marrying a yeoman's daughter. Not to detain the reader with tedious particulars it will be sufficient to say that Destiny had played many sad and unlooked-for tricks with the three elder sons and their children, and now, with the not uncommon irony of human affairs, Jane Shannon, the daughter of the cast-off Edmund, was heiress to the great estate. The Dowager's grandson had the peerage, but the cream of the property—the famous "Drawne acres " of that Anne whom we mentioned in the first chapter—had fallen to Jane. No wonder the Countess could not sleep for bitterness of spirit, and no wonder Warbeck was leaving England that very morning for the Continent.

"After all these thousands of years, to see a Warbeck reduced to poverty!" groaned the Dowager—"I repeat, poverty! Heversham Place is the sort of residence for a superior cottage hospital, and Graylands is only fit to let to some American, or to a Colonial. You cannot possibly live there. No Earl of Warbeck has had his foot inside it since 1550. Drawne estates, indeed! Who would have heard of them if Anne Drawne had not married a Shannon? Who fought for them, bled for them, died for them? No Drawnes, but the Earls of Warbeck. And now this Cattle person is to have them all—and Grosvenor Square, too!" This was her magnificent manner of referring to the town mansion, as though only one house in London could justly claim that address. "Grosvenor Square, too," she repeated; "and you with no roof over your head. Fifteen thousand a year? What is that? Far more than you need? It is not a question of need, it is a question of what you require—what is decent. And as for calling this Cattle person, Lady Jane—" Words failed her.

Her grandson smiled patiently; he knew this harangue by heart. But he never permitted himself—even in solitude—to fall below the Stoic ideal. He wore a hair-shirt under his fine linen, and took his rule of life from Sir Thomas More, but, unlike that saint, he suffered religious doubts. It was said that if he had written something touching against Christianity, or something pretty about Moll Flanders, he would have been a Superior Person. But Superior Persons do not wear hair-shirts. There are good men who yet bear on their countenance the scars of many battles lost and won; their knowledge of good is ever shadowed by their knowledge of evil; they are all things to all men that they may by all means save some. But Warbeck was not of these. Sir Launcelot may have died an holy man, but Sir Galahad lived holily also. It was the latter knight who had most fired the young peer's imagination. His was no self-conscious virtue, however; at times he even affected airs of worldly cynicism which reminded his grandmother of the Miltonic Archangel who tried to explain heavenly mysteries in earthly language—and blushed red in the attempt. He was, too, a powerful fellow—no weakling, who made a virtue of debility, but a man. "What a fish for the Church!" said a bishop, who had his eye upon him.

Warbeck had all that longing of a strong nature to help some one—to feel that he was of some use in the world; and he would have undergone any suffering or hardship if he had once persuaded himself that his pain would promote another's peace. But to suffer to no purpose; to study for hours with no other desire than the accumulation of barren knowledge; to pour weak advice into unwilling ears; to offer dumb praise to a deaf God; to spend his time, as a witty philosopher has said, milking a he-goat into a sieve—these were things he could not do. He knew that he was considered promising by those friends whose judgment he could not choose but value, and his University career had more than fulfilled their expectations. Yet the self-distrust was there—a haunting thought lest, in the end, he would not only disappoint those who were dear to him on earth, but that possible God who had a way of asserting His authority in the form of a still, small conscience. Youth is naturally impatient, and is not content to remain blind for even three days like St. Paul, nor can young enthusiasm believe readily that those also serve who only stand and wait. The impulse is to rush into the fray, to kill or be killed, but both or either without loss of time or hindrance. Vanity, too, and ambition, no less than a zeal of serving the Almighty and humanity, may have something to do with the fierceness of this desire, so easy is it to flatter the soul that the glorification of self is all to the glory of God. These and similar thoughts, while they restrained Warbeck from any active participation in public affairs, were silently working for good, strengthening his judgment, and giving him some insight into his own heart and human perplexities. perplexities. He would know his work in due season; but the time was not yet come. Already he had heard the whispers of a calling, though the voice was dim and far off, not yet to be perfectly known. So he tried to be patient.

When the Countess of Warbeck's carriage drove up to "Up-at-Battle's" that same afternoon, (Brentmore is about three hours' railway journey from London), Miss Caroline was what she called turning out the sitting-room. Both she and her niece had dusters pinned round their heads, and wore big aprons. Although the preceding night had brought a lawyer's letter telling Jane of her extraordinary change of fortune, she had not realized its full meaning—nor, indeed, had Miss Caroline. They were both simple-minded beings, and had been brought up to think that their daily tasks must be performed, even though the heavens were falling. It was the day for the parlour, and though Jane had inherited all England, the room had to be swept and garnished by some one, and as Jane was on the spot, she was, of course, the some one to do it.

Jane opened the door herself, and found the footman standing—almost gingerly, as though he were treading on very doubtful substance—on the front step.

"Is Miss Battle at home?" said he, saying Battle with difficulty, for his tongue did not take kindly to trashy syllables. (The Dowager had made up her mind that she would first ask to see the aunt, and thus avoid the unspeakable Lady Jane Shannon. "Fiddle-de-dee on courtesy!" she had told her grandson.)

The footman assisted his aged mistress out of the carriage with respectful sympathy.

"Have I the pleasure of addressing——?" began Lady Warbeck, feeling for the first time in her life, and very much against her will, that it is not the apron which makes the servant.

"I am Jane," said the girl; "will you come into the kitchen, for the sitting-room is full of dust?"

The Countess, in spite of her eccentricities, was a well-bred woman—one who had travelled much, observed much, and read much. She was, too, so absolutely sure of her own excellent social position that she suffered none of those fears so common to mushroom nobility, lest she might not be taken for the exalted being she was. She could, if necessary, adapt herself to any scene or any society; she did not look less a countess because she sat in a kitchen. Good breeding does not require a background. She always held, however, that nervousness in her august presence showed very proper feeling, so she looked at Jane very hard for seeming so unembarrassed. Jane met her look modestly, and with the respect which instinct taught her was due to one who was so many years her senior, but with no more fear than if her great relative had been—as her ladyship wrote to Warbeck—"a tabby cat on a wall."

Miss Caroline appeared from the scullery, where she had been washing her hands, and greeted her visitor with much old-fashioned grace, but, it must be owned, little style. That is to say, she neither tittered nor stared, nor assumed an unnatural voice, but spoke and acted exactly as she always did when there was no one in sight and hearing save Battle and Jane. "I suppose," said Lady Warbeck, when she had learnt that they were both quite well and did not find the weather trying—"I suppose you are making your preparations to come up to town. But Grosvenor Square is a little sombre just at present."

"It must be dreadful," said Jane, with much sympathy, "so soon after a death."

"Shocking!" said her ladyship—"Shocking! It has been a matter of national regret; the Queen sent me three telegrams."

Their thoughts were disjointed and confused; these three wondering women—one young, two simple, and one neither young nor simple—had all kind hearts, although education, experience, and rank had set very different seals on each.

Miss Caroline looked at the Countess, and saw more than an elderly lady in a bonnet and mantle.

"Poor thing!" she said, and her honest eyes filled with tears. Lady Warbeck did not know how to explain that by no possible effort of her imagination could she think of herself as a Thing. So she pretended not to hear.

"I cannot yet trust myself to speak of these painful events," she went on. "I hope I am resigned. 'Man that is born of woman——' It is not for us to question the inscrutable decrees of Providence." Then she turned to Jane. "It would give me much pleasure if you would spend a week or so with me, and I think, in the peculiar circumstances, it would be the most proper course to pursue."

"I think so too," said Miss Caroline. "I have been worrying ever since last night—when we heard —because I knew no one who could really advise her and tell her just what to do. Girls are so thoughtless."

"So much depends on one's bringing-up," murmured her ladyship. "I daresay you are looking forward with immense delight to your future life, and your first season, and your new frocks, and so on! (The Dowager was most serious when she seemed flippant.)

Jane had all a girl's love for beautiful clothes, and already she had certainly dreamt of a heavenly gown, soft-hued, with straight back seams and a train. She had also designed a black silk dolman for her Aunt Caroline. She therefore blushed a little at Lady Warbeck's question, and owned that she had thought of ordering a new dress.

"Can you return with me to-morrow ?" said Lady Warbeck, venturing a smile; "there are a great many tiresome legal matters to go through, but our man of business—he will be yours as well now," she added, with a sigh—the sigh was absolutely necessary—"is most considerate. Everything, no doubt, will adjust itself in the most satisfactory manner."

As a matter of fact, she began to see possibilities as many and great and tall as the Anakims. Warbeck, happily, was still unmarried. . . . She had decided that Jane only needed to have her hair done properly, and to be generally overhauled by a good maid. For the rest, she was even pleasing; she was uncommon, and uncommon girls were in demand; that was why those Americans married so well.

"You must keep your delightful country ideas," she said, pleasantly, remembering Lord Warbeck's love of the unaffected. "I hope London will not make you cynical. Men hate cynical girls."

"Why should London change her?" said Miss Caroline, wondering whether "cynical" was a new epidemic: something of an asthmatic nature.

"Well, I hardly know how to explain," said the Countess. "It is one of those things one takes for granted."

Miss Caroline looked anxiously at Jane. Everything in the nature of change alarmed her.

"Do you think," she said, at last, "that London will be good for Jane?"

"London is very healthy," said Lady Warbeck. "My doctor tells me that even the fogs are wholesome—if your lungs can stand them."

"It is not the fogs I fear," said Miss Caroline, "it's the folk."

"The folk?" said Lady Warbeck, "the folk? I understand. I know very little about them. They keep in the East End. Once or twice my dear stepson lent them Grosvenor Square for a meeting. But we were all out of town at the time."

"Aunt Caroline calls everybody, folk," explained Jane, colouring in her effort not to laugh.

"Really?" said the Countess. "Of course there is no such thing as everybody—that is a newspaper vulgarism. One is either a somebody or a nobody—irrespective of rank or profession. The next best thing to a somebody, is a nobody in a good set!"

She smiled as she spoke, for there were few pleasures she enjoyed so much as expounding the truths that be—as she understood them. Had she been born in a humbler sphere she would, no doubt, have been the principal of a ladies' college. Women who possess what Mr. Joe Gargery called a "master mind," like to manage men, but they like to manage other women still better: it is a greater triumph from an artistic point of view. Lady Warbeck promised herself unalloyed joy in directing the unsophisticated being Heaven had dropped in her way.

She had to endure several pangs, however, as she drove to the hotel, (where she was spending the night), for she could not persuade herself that because Jane was unassuming she was necessarily meek. And meekness in a protégé is an essential, if one is to be a patroness with any degree of comfort or satisfaction. The Dowager was by nature a kind woman. If she was approached with what she considered proper respect, she was often found even heroic. She would put herself out to do amiable things: she arranged meetings between people who wanted or were wanted to make each other's acquaintance; she found berths for younger sons; she assisted mothers with their daughters; she begged unscrupulously from the rich; she pushed young talent (she encouraged all the arts); she recommended governesses, and dressmakers, and orphan homes, and hospitals, and hotels, and deserving cases—indeed, to sum up her virtues in a sentence, she never missed an opportunity of doing something to her credit. And now she had taken a fancy to Jane—which was the highest possible credit to both of them. For her ladyship had good taste and was not easily satisfied.

"The child is neither good form nor bad," she wrote to Warbeck. "She is no form at all, and would be called original. (I do not mean that she swears like Lady Buntynge.) She is very innocent, and has, I assume, no accomplishments. But really, dear, I cannot help thinking that is an advantage. Nowadays every one wants to perform and no one will listen, and a nice quiet girl who can merely appreciate would be much sought after. She must take up some serious interest, and I shall advise Greek —it is better than philanthropy, because it does not let one in for bazaars. I shall also urge the engagement of a governess-companion—that sweet, lady-like person whom the dear Baroness was telling me of would be just the creature. In appearance your cousin (for she is your cousin, after all) is most pleasing, her features and bearing reminded me in the most painful manner of your grandfather." (The deceased peer in question had been distinguished for his moral rather than his physical charms. His wife, however, may have discerned him spiritually.) "Imagine my boundless relief to be so agreeably disappointed. She is much handsomer than Tunborough's scraggy Lady Marian. By the bye, I hear that Lady Marian's photographs are for sale in all the shop-windows, and that they sell better than those of that Granada person, who has such fine legs and jumps. Lady Dundry, Marian's godmother, is so upset about it that she has turned Roman Catholic. Poor dear!" (Lady Warbeck divided the human race into dears, poor dears, and persons.) "I will write more fully in a day or two, but remember that I am getting old and cannot be with you much longer.

"Your affectionate grandmother,

"A. Warbeck."

"That little hint about my age," she thought, "will bring him home at the end of the month."

And she slept more soundly that night than she had for many weeks.

Jane, on the morrow, when she found herself actually seated in the train and gliding out of the little station at Brentmore, hardly knew whether to laugh or cry. She had not shed tears over her parting with her grandfather and Aunt Caroline, for she was coming back to see them again so shortly, and they had both seemed in such good spirits at her wonderful fortune. (Fortunately, Jane was not hard to deceive, for neither old Battle nor his daughter were adepts at concealing their emotions.) But now she felt lonely; the Countess had warned her that she always slept when she was travelling, and never attempted to talk, so Jane stared out of the window, and found her only comfort in thinking that now she was rich she could send De Boys anonymous bank-notes and so enjoy the rare distinction of helping a genius. For she no longer thought of him as her lover: a very dear friend, that was all, a sort of relation, almost a brother—but more interesting. If he ever married and had children she would be their godmother and try to like his wife. She might also build him a church, and in the meantime she would do all she could for poor Mr. O'Nelligan, the curate, who had been his tutor.

When she thought of herself she was at once both eager and fearful to learn what the Future would be: as if there is not always still another Future—when one Future has become a Past—to fear and yet rush into! Her personal experience of the world was slight to the point of nothingness, but from a long course of incessant and unsystematic reading she had gathered such a variety of (more or less uncertain) knowledge, from metaphysic to the Greek drama, that she was, as she told her aunt, prepared for anything. In imagination, she had walked in courts and marketplaces, in ancestral halls and suburban villas ; poets, scholars, and wits were her constant companions, not to mention kings and archbishops; for one accustomed to such company, the Dowager Countess of Warbeck, and even a row of flunkies, had no terror. When she saw the big drawing-rooms at Queen's Gate (the Dowager's town residence) she thought that the kitchen at Up-at-Battle's was more cheerful. Even the piano, which had ebony legs and was elegantly draped in an Indian shawl, seemed to cry out for a sympathetic touch. Jane in her grey alpaca felt very sorry for it. Lady Warbeck had been fully prepared to see her trip over the rugs, slide off the brocaded chairs, and dazzled by the unaccustomed splendour of her surroundings. It was disappointing in some respects that she did not, yet, on the whole, satisfactory.

"To-morrow," said her ladyship, "I suppose you would like to see Grosvenor Square?"

"Any day you think best, grandmamma!" said Jane.

The Dowager had told her that she preferred this mode of address. But, as her maid told the house-keeper, "Her lad'ship was not born yesterday—she knew what she was about, bless you!"

"Trust her," said the housekeeper, "she's got the brains of the whole family; she'll marry Lady Jane to his lordship—mark my words!"

Thus profanely do hirelings discern the hidden motives of the mighty.