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ride beside her; and attributed her steed's unruffled docility, and the consequent pleasantness of the expedition, to the close neighbourhood of so efficient a protector.
Florence, meanwhile, as she began to appreciate the full difficulty of her position, became more than ever resolved upon success. Any rival would have roused her: such a rival as Nelly was simply maddening. Margaret's antagonism would have been at any rate respectable; but it was past human endurance to be defeated by a child-a child, moreover, whom nothing but a babyish kind of prettyness and the conventional romance of juvenile widowhood rescued from being entirely commonplace-a child whom she had loaded with favours, encouraged, petted, very nearly loved, and was prepared even now to compassionate. She bit her lip with vexation, as once and again Ansstruther, who in former days would have thought a single smile good wages for a whole evening's manoeuvring, seized the right moment for escape from beside her, and found himself, by some invariable accident, by the sofa where Nelly was awaiting the resumption of a confidential chat. Again and again, through Anstruther's friendly air and Erle's punctilious civility, she arrived at the humiliating conviction that she was de trop. Everybody-torturing thought!—was polite, because everybody saw that she was in danger of neglect. Nelly quite declined the reconciliation which she tacitly offered her, and was evidently alienated beyond possibility of recovery. Once, as they left the room together, Florence twined her arm caressingly about her former friend, and strove to look especially affectionate. Nelly rather endured than acquiesced in the familiarity, and shifted uneasily from unwelcome contact with a foe none the less real and fierce because amicably insidious. This tender creature could, then, Florence found, be obdurate, resolved, unforgiving; she rejected the proffered peace-what easier than internecine war? She fascinated where the mistress-magician's spell was power
less-could Charity herself endure it? Sad, desolate, conscience-stung, baffled in her favourite scheme, maddened with her own impotence to charm, weary as never before, but insatiable as at first, the trifler with others' hearts felt a new passion take possession of her own. Hate began to seethe and boil, contempt lashed itself into a fury, revenge clamoured demon-like for indulgence; and Florence seemed to herself to understand how murderesses feel. Was there nothing, was there nobody to give relief, to slake this feverish thirst, to sweep away this little fatal obstacle to her desires, to crush this foe, as anything so contemptible and yet so exasperating deserves to be crushed?
No one to flirt a venom in her eyes,
No spell to bring one at least of her admirers back to their old allegiance? Life were too miserable a degradation if it were so. In the safe seclusion of her own room she threw off the mask of cheerfulness, worn so painfully all day, and let the bitter tears of disappointment and vexation flow. Her liking for Anstruther had grown into a despairing want; her contempt for Nelly into restless ferocity. Love, anger, pride, all made surrender worse than the worst defeat. Welcome then the battle, though at any odds! The gong that summoned her from her retirement might as well have been sounding the tocsin of some death-struggle of infuriated Amazons. She rose sternly to obey it, smoothed her brow, banished the fierceness from her lips with a smile, reassured herself by a last glance at the mirror of the faultlessness of her attire, and resolved, for one night more at any rate, to be as beautiful
Nelly, meanwhile, in happy unconsciousness of the storm she had provoked, had for days past been experiencing the pleasantest of all possible changes in her state of mind. Life seemed suddenly filled for her with a new radiance. Whence came it? She knew not, nor wished to know. But it lit up all her
being with joy, energy, hopefulness. She had been at Sharingham but half a single week, and yet between her old and her present self there seemed already a gulf-wide, deep, impassable. Her old home life, how far away it seemed; how grave, monotonous, and sad; how could she ever have borne it! how could she bring herself to bear it once again? A sudden light-heartedness, springing to life, assured her of her unimpaired capacity for mirth, and of the unnatural depression which for months past had been her normal mood. Existence was not after all the serious, melancholy, halfterrifying affair which she had been of late accustomed to depict it. She turned to her journal, where night by night she had been used to pour out a little dolorous tale of saddening experience the secret indulgence of a melancholy mood-and its records seemed strangely out of tune with the high spirits which rose and rose unbidden, and seemed sometimes to threaten the overthrow of all restraint. More than once, when people were chatting soberly downstairs, she had made some pretence to effect escape, and, overflowing with happiness, had rushed away to the nursery for a romp, which was quite as much for her own sake as her baby's. Florence's ill-concealed contempt, Erle's sarcastic politeness, Mrs. Vivien's chilling condescension-what was there in any of them to alarm her?
'Do you know, Margaret,' she said, 'I have been reading how Malibran used to have to leap over the chairs and tables to escape suffocation. I shall be suffocated too unless I have a jump. Now, see me clear the ottoman!' And yet a fortnight ago her private records assured her that her spirit was irremediably wounded, that melancholy had marked her for its own, and that unhappiness and she were bosom friends for life; she had ransacked her poetry-books, and copied out the most afflicting passages. How true, how expressive, how sweet, and yet how harrowing, they seemed! And now they meant less than nothing to her. There stood the lines; she had wept as she wrote
them down, and thanked the poet's art that gave her grief so exact, so welcome an utterance. 'O rosy light,' the verses ran,
O rosy light, beyond the eastern hill,
O life that was so sweet! O joys divine!
And still the lark trills-high from these fair things,
Their joy will not depart;
Life, life on land and sea, in the fine air,
There were marks on the page where Nelly's tears had fallen, as each sad phrase touched some new spring of sorrow in herself; but she read the lines now and smiled to think that they could ever have so wrought upon her melancholy. She turned the leaf, and was confronted by a fresh utterance of sadnessequally sincere once, she knew; equally unintelligihle now:
Let mirth, let music, gild the mask of care, But ask not thou if happiness be there.
Had the inquiry been put to herself, and 'there' referred to her own mind, Nelly must, if the truth was to be known, have answered in the affirmative. 'Death in her heart" indeed? Say rather excitement, delight, the rapture of unexplained good spirits. She shut up the book, seized a garden-hat, danced gaily across the passage into Margaret's room, and assured her that nothing but an instantaneous game of croquet would save her from the natural ill effects of a whole morning dedevoted to sedentary occupations. Before they had been playing ten minutes Nelly laughed so heartily at her sister's unsuccessful performance, that Erle, who was closeted with the Squire, discussing the merits of superphosphate of lime, and Anstruther, who was reading last week's Saturday Review to the ladies in the drawing-room-both overheard the sound, and both, like hypocrites as they were, found excuse to bring their employment to a speedy close, and to enjoy the luxury of a stroll upon the lawn. gave up ignominiously about the lime; Anstruther had the effrontery to declare that the Saturday Review contained no other readable article;
and half an hour afterwards Nelly came in to lunch ten times more in love with life than ever.
That night the dinner party was dignified by several important additions. Lady Dangerfield felt a maternal interest in the new arrangements at Sharingham, while Sir Agricola thought it neither undignified nor impolitic to accept the hospitality of a destined colleague; and the two young ladies caught with a half-despairing eagerness at a new opportunity of pushing forward the attack upon the beleaguered citadel of Lord Adolphus's affections. Lady Dangerfield, though she made up her mind to meet the Viviens, had forgotten none of the old animosity, and talked to Erle at dinner about the Royal Boilers with an ostentatious explicitness, evidently intended as a proclamation of contempt for the enemy, and readiness for war. That week, unfortunately, there had appeared in Punch a parody of some favourite air, for which Slap's unremitting partizanship had no doubt to be thanked. A Royal Boiler was the spokesman, and of course said everything that was disparaging about itself, its proprietors, and its companions in disgrace. My parents,' so ran one verse of this nefarious jest—
My parents, partial to a joke,
Lest for another's I should pass, Formed me, a thing of noise and smoke,
With, like their own, a face of brass. Like them, my powers of words are small; Like them, my palmiest days are past; I shall explode, I know I shall—
I know I shall explode at last.
Lady Dangerfield, at any rate, very nearly exploded with wrath and indignation as the passage caught her eye; and her daughter, who had devoted the last ten days to mastering the original, and had meant to produce it at this very party, felt naturally aggrieved at so impertinent an adaptation of a serious performance. The young lady deplored a dishonoured song, the old one an endangered institution. Both sympathized in aversion to the common foe. The daughter looked meek, as injured merit should; the mother wore a sterner air, and, as Florence observed to her mother that night,
loomed majestically in the distance, like a three-decker prepared for action.
'Indeed, Mr. Erle,' she said, 'the scurrility, now-a-days the fashion, is perfectly unbearable. Sir Agricola says it is the Paper Duty being taken off. What do you think?'
'The worst of any great institution,' said Lord Adolphus, from the other side, 'is that every fool thinks he has a right to spill some nonsense over it.'
'Yes,' said Erle, trembling for the turn the conversation might take, 'there ought to be a general proclamation to scribblers, "No rubbish to be shot here."
'Yes,' said the other, and "Billstickers beware!" as they have on the hoardings.'
"And "No admission except on business," cried Lady Dangerfield, 'to keep off improper intruders—all the Radicals and Dissenters, 'and that sort of people—who never know their places.'
'Avaunt! profane, 'tis hallowed ground!' cried Erle with a laugh; but then you know, Lady Dangerfield, we are all Radicals in turn; and the grandsons of good Tories have to carry Reform Bills.'
‘That,' said the lady, falling back upon theology for an explanation of so grievous a lapse, 'can only be owing to the Fall.'
To the-I beg your pardon?' said Lord Adolphus, who was always on the look-out for political news, and was delighted to hear anybody account for anything.
To man being what he is,' replied his companion, in a sepulchral tone reserved for occasions of especial gravity.
Neither of her companions were prepared with a reply, and a solemn pause ensued, which so instantaneously infected all one end of the table that Anstruther, who was talking the greatest nonsense to Nelly at the other, was detected in the act, and made to feel extremely modest. Florence, who sat midway, and had a faculty for listening, caught enough of both conversations to assure herself that neither one nor the other were taking a turn at all propitious to the dignity of her family or her own self-love.
On this side and that the enemy were entrenched in force-the position was critical, defence a serious task, and victory only to be achieved by some daring coup. Where, when, and how best to effect it?
Little did Sir Agricola, who was dining innocently beside her, guess at the moral tempest that was raging in his neighbourhood, or the secret agitations of a female breast. To do something, quick, vigorous, efficacious; to turn the ebbing tide of fortune; to strike one more blow for the success that had once been hers without an effort-if possible to affront Lady Dangerfield, but, at any rate to humiliate Nelly; such were the necessities which pressed on Florence's mind, and refused any longer to remain unsatisfied. She entrapped her companion into a good long, prosy dissertation which needed no replies, and set herself resolutely to think how vengeance might be best achieved, or defeat most gracefully be undergone.
Erle in the meantime had caught up the dwindling thread of conversation, and was steering the way skilfully out of the shoals upon which Lady Dangerfield seemed disposed to run aground.
'Yes,' he said, 'it is a desperate thing to think that (if one has views about anything) one's son will probably rush off in precisely the opposite direction. Here have I been busy for the last two years in doing everything my poor uncle most disliked.'
'Ah!' cried the lady, 'he used to refuse most pertinaciously to subscribe to my washerwomen.'
'You mean,' said the other, 'that I ought to have carried out my rule of contraries with them. Well, in one point at any rate, you see, I pay my predecessor the compliment of imitation.'
'In one point!' cried Lord Adolphus; 'in a hundred and fifty! Depend upon it, Lady Dangerfield, we are an imitative race, and catch each other's faults as little children do the chicken-pox.'
'Naturally,' groaned his companion, in a world like ours.'
'Yes,' put in Erle, hurrying, in defiance of politeness, to the rescue
of his guests, 'people are such dreadful plagiarists, and then so shockingly thankless. Governments, you know, are always copies; and rival churches carry off each other's doctrines and ceremonies without the least compunction.'
'There are some which I sincerely wish we had left at Rome,' Lady Dangerfield observed truculently.
And others,' answered Erle, 'that, if everybody had their rights, ought to be sent back to Jerusalem. Nothing, they say, can exceed the ingratitude of Protestants to Catholics except the ingratitude of Catholics to Jews.'
"Talking of Catholics,' said the Major, who had taken Margaret in to dinner, and was beginning to find it a little dull. 'Did you hear the answer of the old French abbé at Bath? Some idiot was passing just at mass time, and thought to be facetious. "Ah! monsieur," he said,
est-ce que la comédie a déjà commencé ?" "Pas encore," said the priest, "on attend le fou. Entrez, s'il vous plait!"'
'Served him right,' cried his lordship, washing down the witticism with a glass of champagne; a good answer indeed.' While Lady Dangerfield, who was sceptical as to anything good coming out of a priest's mouth, and had not the least intention of laughing at anything that came out of Major Vivien's, maintained a dignified composure, as gravely imperturbable as though an army of Sydney Smiths might have in vain essayed to tempt her to a smile. Major Vivien, however, did not in the least care whether she laughed or no, and fell back upon silence and a partridge's wing with the equanimity of a man who has contributed his due share to the public entertainment, and whose conscience is thenceforth at rest.
The ladies rose to depart, and Florence, as she watched the exchange of glances with which Nelly and Anstruther consoled each other for a temporary separation, confessed to herself that the moment for decisive action, if it had not already passed, was fully come. Not a moment must be lost, if Nelly was not to be left triumphant mistress of a
bloodless field. Anstruther was already attracted-in another day he might be caught. At present it was mere fancy; but it might at any moment become infatuation. To-day it was a whim-to-morrow it might be a master passion. Nelly's pretty eyes had bewitched him. Florence must set a counter-spell at work. Was he not worth a little ingenuity? Surely, if human art could do it, it was well to bring him to a sounder frame of mind. She bent over a picture-book at Nelly's side, and all her nature seemed to revolt from the idea of repulse at the hands of so slight an antagonist. Woe to the little nature whom ill-luck had brought between a vehement daring woman and the man she chose to love! What were a school-girl's fondness, a sentimental mood, a passing disappointment, an Aprilshower of soon-forgotten tears, to the soul-compelling want, the fierce strong determination that Florence felt nerving her to any cruel act. Nelly no doubt was, or thought she was, in love. But so she would have been with the first handsome fop who chose to court her. She would fret perhaps, and weep a little, as any child might whose toy was taken from it; but her sorrows were too infantile to move compassion; and anyhow Florence's mood was not just then compassionate. Before the men had joined them her mind was made up; and Nelly, as she sat innocently turning over the leaves and chatting to Florence of each new view, was being doomed, in her companion's mind, the necessary victim of an obstinate purpose and unrelenting will.
Anstruther led the vanguard from the dining-room, saw the two sitting together, and forthwith took up his position beside them.
'We fancied that we heard some music,' he said, 'and were afraid of having lost a song.'
'You lost no song,' said Florence. "The Miss Dangerfields were playing a duet; but, and she turned to Nelly, 'you must sing to us, dear, to-night. Will you not?'
'I can sing Excelsior,' said Nelly simply, forgetful by this time of its former non-success.
'The very thing,' cried Florence. 'Here comes Mr. Erle, I know, to make me set you the example. Remember now, no faltering at last!'
Florence went away to the pianoforte, and relieved her turgid spirits by a wild, fierce recitative from Lucrezia. Anstruther, evidently delighted to be rid of her, was lingering still beside her rival. O! for the poisoned cup, or sudden steel, or the dark deep water, safe guardian of inconvenient secrets! 'How was it,' thought the singer, as her glance crept round the room and rested on the delinquents-'how could it ever have been that deeds of bloodthe fitting counterpart of human thoughts-went out of fashion?'
Anstruther called out a careless Bravissima, and forthwith, as if weary of the interruption, resumed a confidential talk. Everybody else, however, declared-and with perfect justice that the song was magnificent, and Florence's conception of the music a master-piece of operatic insight.
Then followed Nelly's turn; and Florence, traitress as she was, sent her away with smiles and words of encouragement; and before Anstruther could decently escape took possession of her deserted seat. Nelly's performance of Excelsior must, to an impartial observer, have seemed extremely tame, or escaped tameness only by conspicuous shortcomings. Tastes however, especially men's tastes, are capricious; and while she was cheerfully floundering about the slippery heights, and committing all sorts of musical outrages upon the mountain's top, Anstruther sat, with honest, lover-like satisfaction, nodding time to the recurring cadence, pleased and more than pleased with all he heard. What angel, striking an immortal strain from golden wires, could have charmed him more? Florence saw that the shrill, untuneful piping possessed some secret melodiousness for him; and as he burst into commendation at the ballad's close, forced herself to acknowledge that his case was almost hopeless. One effort, however-and it was a desperate oneshe resolved to make. Anstruther's soft heart might cool beneath a