Ancestors a novel, p.1
Ancestors: A Novel, p.1
Produced by Mark C. Orton, Linda McKeown, Mary Meehan andthe Online Distributed Proofreading Team athttps://www.pgdp.net
By Gertrude Atherton
Copyright, 1907, by HARPER & BROTHERS.New York and London
_All rights reserved._
Published September, 1907.
TOEmma Beatrice Brunner
Miss Thangue, who had never seen her friend's hand tremble among theteacups before, felt an edge on her mental appetite, stimulating aftertwo monotonous years abroad. It was several minutes, however, before shemade any effort to relieve her curiosity, for of all her patron-friendsVictoria Gwynne required the most delicate touch. Flora had learned tobe audacious without taking a liberty, which, indeed, was one secret ofher success; but although she prided herself upon her reading of thisenigma, whom even the ancestral dames of Capheaton looked down uponinspectively, she was never quite sure of her ground. She particularlywished to avoid mistakes upon the renewal of an intimacy kept alive by afitful correspondence during her sojourn on the Continent. Quite apartfrom self-interest, she liked no one as well, and her curiosity wastempered by a warm sympathy and a genuine interest. It was this capacityfor friendship, and her unlimited good-nature, that had saved her,penniless as she was, from the ignominious footing of the socialparasite. The daughter of a clergyman in a Yorkshire village, and theplaymate in childhood of the little girls of the castle near by, she hadrealized early in life that although pretty and well-bred, she was notyet sufficiently dowered by either nature or fortune to hope for abrilliant marriage; and she detested poverty. Upon her father's deathshe must earn her bread, and, reasoning that self-support was merely themarketing of one's essential commodity, and as her plump and indolentbody was disinclined to privations of any sort, she elected the role ofuseful friend to fashionable and luxurious women. It was not an exaltedniche to fill in life, but at least she had learned to fill it toperfection, and her ambitions were modest. Moreover, a certain integrityof character and girlish enthusiasm had saved her from the morecorrosive properties of her anomalous position, and she was not onlyclever enough to be frankly useful without servility, but she had becomeso indispensable to certain of her friends, that although still bloomingin her early forties, she would no more have deserted them for a merehusband than she would have renounced her comfortable and variedexistence for the no less varied uncertainties of matrimony.
It was not often that a kindly fate had overlooked her for so long aperiod as two years, and when she had accepted the invitation of one ofthe old castle playmates to visit her in Florence, it had been with alively anticipation that made dismay the more poignant in the face ofhypochondria. Nevertheless, realizing her debt to this first of herpatrons, and with much of her old affection revived, she wandered fromone capital and specialist to the next, until death gave her liberty.She was not unrewarded, but the legacy inspired her with no desire foran establishment beyond her room at the Club in Dover Street, thecompanionship of friends not too exacting, the agreeable sense ofindispensableness, and a certain splendor of environment which gave awarmth and color to life; and which she could not have commanded had sheset up in middle years as an independent spinster of limited income. Shehad received many impatient letters while abroad, to which she hadreplied with fluent affection and picturesque gossip, never losing touchfor a moment. When release came she had hastened home to book herselffor the house-parties, and with Victoria Gwynne, although one of theleast opulent of her friends, first on the list. She had had severalcorrespondents as ardent as herself, and there was little gossip of themore intimate sort that had not reached her sooner or later, but shefound subtle changes in Victoria for which she could not as yet account.She had now been at Capheaton and alone with her friend for three days,but there had been a stress of duties for both, and the hostess hadnever been more silent. To-day, as she seemed even less inclined toconversation, although manifestly nervous, Miss Thangue merely drank hertea with an air of being too comfortable and happy in England andCapheaton for intellectual effort, and patiently waited for a cue or aninspiration. But although she too kept silence, memory and imaginationheld rendezvous in her circumspect brain, and she stole more than onefurtive glance at her companion.
Lady Victoria Gwynne, one of the tallest women of her time and still oneof the handsomest, had been extolled all her life for that fusion of theromantic and the aristocratic ideals that so rarely find each other inthe same shell; and loved by a few. Her round slender figure, supplewith exercise and ignorant of disease, her black hair and eyes, theutter absence of color in her smooth Orientally white skin, the mouth,full at the middle and curving sharply upward at the corners, and theirregular yet delicate nose that seemed presented as an afterthought tosave that brilliant and subtle face from classic severity, made herlook--for the most part--as if fashioned for the picture-gallery or thepoem, rather than for the commonplaces of life. Always one of thoseEnglishwomen that let their energy be felt rather than expressed, forshe made no effort in conversation whatever, her once mobile face had oflate years, without aging, composed itself into a sort of illuminatedmask. As far as possible removed from that other ideal, the BritishMatron, and still suggesting an untamed something in the complex centresof her character, she yet looked so aloof, so monumental, that she hadrecently been painted by a great artist for a world exhibition, as anillustration of what centuries of breeding and selection had done forthe noblewomen of England.
Some years before, a subtle Frenchman had expressed her in such afashion that while many vowed he had given to the world an epitome ofromantic youth, others remarked cynically that his handsome subjectlooked as if about to seat herself on the corner of the table and smokea cigarette. The American artist, although habitually cruel to hispatrons, had, after triumphantly transferring the type to the canvas,drawn to the surface only so much of the soul of the woman as all thatran might admire. If there was a hint of bitterness in the lower part ofthe face, from the eyes there looked an indomitable courage and muchsweetness. Only in the carnage of the head, the tilt of the chin, wasthe insolence expressed that had made her many enemies. Some of thewildest stories of the past thirty years had been current about her, andrejected or believed according to the mental habit or personal bias ofthose that tinker with reputations. The late Queen, it was well known,had detested her, and made no secret of her resentment that through theshort-sighted loyalty of one of the first members of her Household, thedangerous creature had been named after her. But whatever her secrets,open scandal Lady Victoria had avoided: imperturbably, without even anadditional shade of insolence, never apologizing nor explaining;wherein, no doubt, lay one secret of her strength. And then hereminently respectable husband, Arthur Gwynne, second son of the Marquessof Strathland and Zeal, had always fondly alluded to her as "TheMissus," and lauded her as a repository of all the unfashionablevirtues. To-day, presiding at the tea-table in her son's country-house,an eager light in her eyes, she looked like neither of her portraits:more nearly approached, perhaps, poor Arthur Gwynne's ideal of her; notin the least the frozen stoic of the past three days. When she finallymade an uncontrollable movement that half-overturned the cream-jug,Flora Thangue's curiosity overcame her, and she murmured, tentatively:
"If I had ever seen you nervous before, Vicky--"
"I am not nervous, but allowances are to be made for maternal anxiety."
"Oh!" Miss Thangue drew a deep breath. She continued, vaguely, "Oh, thematernal role--"
"Have I ever failed as a mother?" asked Lady Victoria, dispassionately.
"No, but you are so many other things, too. Somehow, when I am away fromyou I see you in almost every other capacity."
"Jack is thirty and I am forty-nine."
"_You_ look thirty," replied Flora, with equal candor.
"I am thankful that my age is in Lodge; I can never be tempted to enrollmyself with the millions that were married when just sixteen."
"Oh, you never could make a fool of yourself," murmured her friend.Then, as Victoria showed signs of relapsing into silence, she plunged inrecklessly; "Jack is bound to be elected. When has he ever failed to getwhat he wanted? But you, Vicky dear--is there anything wrong? You had abulky letter from California the day I arrived. I do hope that tiresomeproperty is not giving you trouble. What a pity it is such a long wayoff."
"The San Francisco lease runs out shortly. Half of that, and thesouthern ranch, are my only independent sources of income. The northernranch belongs to Jack. All three are getting less and less easy to letin their entirety, my agents write me, and I feel half a pauperalready."
"This is not so bad," murmured Flora.
"Strathland would bundle me out in ten minutes if anything happened toJack."
"It would be a pity; it suits you." She was not referring to the hall,which was somewhat too light and small for the heroic mould of itschatelaine, but to the noble proportions of the old house itself, andthe treasures that had accumulated since the first foundations were laidin the reign of Henry VI. There were rooms hung with ugly brocades andvelvets never duplicated, state bed-chambers and boudoirs sacred to thememory of personages whose dust lay half-forgotten in their marbles; butabove all, Capheaton was famous for its pictures. Not only was there anunusually large number of portraits by masters scattered about thetwenty rooms that lay behind and on either side of the hall, but manyhundreds of those portraits and landscapes from the brushes of artistsfashionable in their day, unknown in the annals of art, but seeming toemit a faint scent of lavender and rose leaves from the walls ofEngland's old manor-houses and castles. In the dining-room there was afull-length portrait of Mary Tudor, black but for the yellow face andhands and ruff; and another, the scarlet coat and robust complexionstill fresh, of the fourth George, handsome, gay, devil-may-care; bothpainted to commemorate visits to Capheaton, historically hospitable inthe past. But Lord Strathland, besides having been presented with sixdaughters and an heir as extravagant as tradition demanded, was poor aspeers go, and had more than once succumbed to the titillating delightsof speculation, less cheering in the retrospect. Having a still largerestate to keep up, he had been glad to lend Capheaton to his second son,who, being an excellent manager and assisted by his wife's income, hadlived very comfortably upon its yield. Upon his death Elton Gwynne hadassumed possession as a matter of course; and a handsome allowance fromhis doting grandfather supplementing his inheritance, the mind of thehaughty and promising young gentleman was free of sordid anxieties.
Lady Victoria's satirical gaze swept the simpering portraits of herson's great-aunts and grandmothers, with which the hall waspromiscuously hung.
"Of course I am as English as if the strain had never been crossed, ifyou mean that. But I'd rather like to get away for a while. I reallyought to visit my California estates, and I have always wanted to seethat part of America. I started for it once, but never even reached thewestern boundaries of New York. One of us should spend a year there, atleast; and of course it is out of the question for Jack to leave Englandagain."
"You would not spend six months out of Curzon Street. You are the mostconfirmed Londoner I know."
"Do you think so?"
Miss Thangue replied, impulsively, "I have often wondered if younumbered satiety among your complexities!"
This was as far as she had ever adventured into the mysteriousbackwaters of Victoria's soul, and she dropped her eyelids lest adeprecating glance meet the contempt it deserved; both with a due regardfor the limit imposed by good taste, despised the faint heart.
"I hate the sight of London!" Her tone had changed so suddenly thatFlora winked. "If it were not for Jack I would leave--get out. I am sickof the whole game."
"Oh, be on your guard," cried her friend, sharply. "That sort of thingmeans the end of youth."
"Youth after fifty depends upon your doctor, your masseuse, and yourdressmaker. I do not say that my present state of mind is sown withevergreens and immortelles, but the fact remains that for the present Ihave come to the end of myself and am interested in no one on earth butJack."
Miss Thangue stared into her teacup, recalling the gossip of a year ago,although she had given it little heed at the time: Victoria had beentransiently interested so often! But all the world knew that when ArthurGwynne was killed Sir Cadge Vanneck had been off his head aboutVictoria; and that when obvious restrictions vanished into the familyvault he had left abruptly for Rhodesia to develop his mines, and hadnot found time to return since. Sir Cadge was about the same age as thefamous beauty, and rose quite two inches above her lofty head. Peoplehad grown accustomed to the fine appearance they made whentogether--"Artie" was ruddy and stout--and although Victoria reinforcedher enemies, for Vanneck was one of the most agreeable and accomplishedmen in London, the artistic sense of that lenient world was tickled attheir congruities and took their future mating for granted; ArthurGwynne was sure to meet his death on the hunting-field, for he was fartoo heavy for a horse and rode vilely. When he fulfilled his destiny andVanneck fled, the world was as much annoyed as amused. But they wereamused, and Flora Thangue knew that this gall must have bitten deeperthan the loss of Vanneck, who may or may not have made an impression onthis woman too proud and too spoiled to accept homage in publicotherwise than passively, whatever may have been the unwritten tale ofher secret hours. The excuses hazarded by Vanneck's friends were neitherhumorous nor sentimental, but no one denied that they were eminentlysensible: his first wife had died childless, his estates were large, histitle was one of the oldest in England. But although no one pitiedVictoria Gwynne, many were annoyed at having their mental attitudedisarranged, and this no doubt had kept the gossip alive and been aconstant source of irritation to a woman whose sense of humor was asdeep as her pride.
Flora replied at random. "Jack couldn't very well get on without you."
His mother's eyes flashed. "I flatter myself he could not--at present.If Julia Kaye would only marry him!"
"She won't," cried Flora, relieved at the change of tone. "Andwhy do you wish it? She is two years older, of quite dreadfulorigin--and--well--I don't like her; perhaps my opinion is a littlebiased."
"She is immensely rich, one of the ablest political women in London, andJack is desperately in love with her."
"I cannot picture Jack in extremities about any one, although I don'tdeny that he has his sentimental seizures. He even made love to me whenhe was cutting his teeth. But he doesn't need a lot of money, you rankhigher than she among the political women, and--well, I believe her tobe bad-tempered, and more selfish than any woman I have ever known."
"He loves her. He wants her. He would dominate any woman he married. Heis such a dear that no woman who lived with him could help loving him.Moreover, she is inordinately ambitious, and Jack's career is the mostpromising in England."
"Jack is far too good for her, and I am glad that he will not get her. Ihappen to know that she has made up her mind to marry Lord Brathland."
"Bratty is a donkey."
"She would be the last to deny it, but he is certain to be a duke if helives, and she would marry a man that had to be led round with a stringfor the sake of being called 'your grace' by the servants. She'll neverbe anything but a third-rate duchess, and people that tolerate her nowwill snub her the moment she gives herself airs. But I suppose shethinks a duchess is a duchess."
"Money goes pretty far with us," said Lady Victoria, dryly.
"Doesn't it? Nevertheless--you know it as well as I do--among the peoplethat really count other things go further, and duchesses have been putin their place before this--you have done it yourself. Julia Kaye haskept her head so far because she has been hunting for strawberry leaves,and there is no denying she's clever; but once she is in the upperair--well, I have seen her as rude as she dares be, and if she became aduchess she would cultivate rudeness as part of the role."
"We can be rude enough."
"Yes, and know how to be. A parvenu never does."
"She is astonishingly clever."
"Duchesses are born--even the American ones. Julia Kaye has neversucceeded in being quite natural; she has always the effect ofrehearsing the part of the great lady for amateur theatricals. PoorGussy Kaye might have coached her better. The moment she mounts she'llbecome wholly artificial, she'll patronize, she'll give herself no endof ridiculous airs; she won't move without sending a paragraph to the_Morning Post_. The back of her head will be quite in line with hercharming little bust, and I for one shall walk round and laugh in herface. She is the only person that could inspire me to such a viciousspeech, but I am human, and as she so ingenuously snubs me as a personof no consequence, my undazzled eyes see her as she is."
Lady Victoria, instead of responding with the faint, absent, somewhatirritating smile which she commonly vouchsafed those that sought toamuse her, lit another cigarette and leaned back among the cushions ofthe sofa behind the tea-table. She drew her eyelids together, a raresign of perturbation. The only stigma of time on her face was a certainsharpness of outline and leanness of throat. But the throat was alwayscovered, and her wardrobe reflected the most fleeting of the fashions,assuring her position as a contemporary, if driving her dressmaker tothe verge of bankruptcy. When her bright, black, often laughing eyeswere in play she passed with the casual public, and abroad, as a womanof thirty, but with her lids down the sharpness of the lower part of theface arrested the lover of detail.
"Are you sure of that?" she asked, in a moment.
"I am sorry. It will be a great blow to Jack. I hoped she would comeround in time."
"She will marry Brathland. I saw Cecilia Spence in town. She was atMaundrell Abbey with them both last week. You may expect theannouncement any day--she'll write it herself for the _Morning Post_.How on earth can Jack find time to think about women with the immenseamount of work he gets through?--and his really immodest ambitions!By-the-way--isn't this polling-day? I wonder if he has won his seat? Butas I said just now I do not associate Jack with defeat. His triflingset-backs have merely served to throw his manifest destiny into higherrelief."
"The telegram should have come an hour ago. I have few doubts--and yethe has so many enemies. I wonder if we shall be born into a world, afterwe have been sufficiently chastened here, where one can get one's headabove the multitude without rousing some of the most hideous qualitiesin human nature? It is a great responsibility! But there has been nosuch speaker, nor fighter, for a quarter of a century." Her eyes glowedagain. "And heaven knows I have worked for him."
"What a pity he is not a Tory! He could have a dozen boroughs for theasking. I wish he were. The whole Liberal party makes me sick. And it isagainst every tradition of his family--"
"As if that mattered. Besides, he is a born fighter. He'd hate anythinghe could have for the asking. And he's far too modern, too progressive,for the Conservative party--even if there were anything but blue-mouldleft in it."
"Well, you know I am not original, and my poor old dad brought us up onthe soundest Tory principles; he never would even compromise on the wordConservative. But considering that Jack is as Liberal as if the taintwere in the marrow of his bones, what a blessing that poor Artie did nothappen to be the oldest son. Cecilia says they were all talking of it atMaundrell Abbey, where of course it is a peculiarly interesting topic.That ornamental and conscientious peer, Lord Barnstable, has neverceased to regret his father's death, for reasons far removed fromsentimental. He told Cecilia that Lord Strathland almost confessed tohim that he would give his right eye to hand over his old shoes to Jack,not only because he detests Zeal, but because it would take the backboneout of his Liberalism--"
"And ruin _his_ career. Thank heaven Zeal is engaged at last. They willmarry in the spring, and then the only cloud on Jack's horizon willvanish."
"What if there were no children?"
"There are so much more often than not--that is the least of my worries.He had five girls by his first wife; there is no reason why thissplendid cow I have picked out should not produce a dozen boys. I neverworked so hard over one of Jack's elections--not only to overcome Zeal'smisogyny, which he calls scruples, but I had to fight Strathland everyinch of the way. When I think of Jack's desperation if he werepitchforked up into the Peers--you do not know him as I do."
"Well, he is safe for a time, I fancy. There has been consumption in thefamily before, and always the slowest sort--"
A footman entered with a yellow envelope on a tray.
Lady Victoria opened it without haste or change of color.
"Jack is returned," she said.
"How jolly," replied the other, with equal indifference.
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