Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge
Chapter VII. A Devoted Suitor—Au Mieux with the Chaperon—True or False
Chapter VII. A Devoted Suitor—Au Mieux with the Chaperon—True or False.
The good opinion of Monsieur le Comte de Pignerolles formed by Miss Tabitha was deepened at Lady Buttercup's ball, where, spite of her mask, he discovered her identity, and devoted himself to the task of making her evening pass agreeably. One dance only could he win from Eleanor, who had resolved to dislike him, all the more for her elderly cousin's open championship. But he really was so courteous and wellbred, danced so well and looked so distinguished, that despite her prejudice she found him not absolutely detestable. He seemed quite unconscious of her cold looks, but neither did he push himself officiously, though he failed not from that evening to avail himself of page 33 Mistress Tabitha's leave to make a daily morning call, which he always took care to precede by a floral tribute of the costliest exotics prourable.
‘La politesse de l'ancienne noblesse Française31 was now a staple topic with Mistress Tabitha, who dwelt upon it with more zeal than discretion, at the imminent risk, which she failed to perceive, of utterly disgusting her wilful charge—a result calculated to disarrange a scheme she had formed, which included the damsel's rescue from the arms of the ‘Irish ogre, whose addresses Mr Radcliffe should never have permitted,’ and her bestowal upon a courtly foreigner, who, with the elderly spinster's connivance, soon became almost a fixture in the family-followed his flowers into the morning room soon after the midday sun had brought out the ladies, scarce recovered from midnight revelries, escorted them to Park or Mall, and made himself generally useful as agreeable.
Eleanor, although quite resolved never to like him, got by degrees to tolerate a presence she could not without absolute rudeness avoi, and as the days wore on began to find his deferential and always well-timed attentions less and less obnoxious; while at the gay assemblies where they nightly met she could not be insensible to the marked though respectful homage of her courtly admirer, whose attentions were vainly ogled for by a score of disengaged beauties. Quick to mark her waning reserve, Monsieur carefully refrained from seeming to profit by it, lest any such indication should alarm her, and be followed by his relegation to the cold shades of her disfavour, for he was wary, this Frenchman, and as he had in his heart sworn a great oath to oust the handsome Captain and appropriate the heiress, so he determined by no overhaste to mar his prospects of success. He had not been reared in the highest school of morals, and inwardly scouted the idea of female constancy as a virtue rarer, if possible, than chastity, in which he did not believe at all. As for love, well, love with him was simply unbridled passion. He knew nothing of the pure ennobling sentiment—in its integrity the sweetest, best thing on earth and so he mis-appropriated the ill-used name. ‘I love her,’ he said, ‘celte belle, panthére32. She shall be mine, she and her gold.’
He had carefully followed Lady Glossop's advice to make himself au mieux33 with the straight-laced duenna—if his and her confidential demeanour during an early interview some two months after Captain O'Halleran's departure might be taken as any criterion. The ancient spinster was seated near a cheerful fire, and Monsieur leaning in an elegant attitude against the high chimney piece, bent over her so caressingly that she felt her pulses tingling with a feeling almost of juvenility, and could fain have wished herself young again, once more to enjoy the delights of coquetry. Knowing very well, however, that page 34 her day was over, she did not misinterpret the plausible foreigner's pleasant attentions, yet his crafty deference was incense to her virgin soul. He had played his cards admirably so far as she was concerned, and she was unreservedly in his interest.
‘You think then, Mees Tabitha, that matters are ripe for the grande coup34?’ he queried, in dulcet accents.
‘Such is my conviction, Count, although I would warn you, my fair cousin is scarce to be judged by the rules which apply to ordinary gentlewomen. She has ever been a spoiled child, and sooth, it is hard to foretell how she may demean herself.’
‘There is an English proverb, Mees, which says, “He naught shall have who ventures naught,” With your support, ma chere amie, I am prepared to venture, if you think the time propitious.’
‘In good sooth then. Monsieur, you have but little to lose. She chafes alarmingly at lack of news from Ireland. My doubts of Celtic constancy incense her highly, and fancying her Irish barbarian sick, she threatens to cross the Channel to see him. She has been allowed such ridiculous liberties that she is quite capable of such an outrageous proceeding, and sooth, I am dismayed at the very thought of what the world would say of such unmaidenly conduct.’
‘Ma foi! you have reason, Mees Tabitha. But your ingenuity, your ready wit, your wealth of resource, will certainly prevent such an esclandre. I assure you I feel the utmost confidence in your good management. But—this—barbarian—this Irlandais—when say you she expects his return?’
‘In three or four weeks. But I trust, Monsieur, you will both be far enough away by that time,’ said Miss Tabitha, adding, as she covered her tearless eyes, ‘The mere thought of my sweet cousin in the power of a blood-thirsty Irishman rends my heart, I protest.’
‘Be at ease, Mees Tabitha,’ purred the Count. ‘You shall not be so afflicted. I promise von.’
The object of this kindly discourse lay meanwhile fast buried in the heavy matutinal slumber which results upon a wakeful night, a disturbed expression, combined with unusual pallor, betokening, even in sleep, unrest of mind. She had returned somewhat earlier than usual from the previous night's rout, and summoning her tire-woman35, bade her unbind her hair and disrobe her for the night, complaining at the same time of intolerable megrim36. The woman's voluble sympathy and stream of tattle were checked with a peremptoriness which took her somewhat aback, but smothering her resentment, she proceeded with deft fingers to the performance of her duties, only venturing now and again to disturb the current of her young mistress's thoughts by little flatteries, apparently unstudied, conveyed in oily, insinuating murmurs.
‘Welladay, such a pretty head may well be excused for the megrim page 35 once in a way, with such a weight to carry above it, for of all the “shevloors”37 I've ever dressed, God wot, this is the finest.’ So she purred softly as she brushed the shining tresses.
‘Hist! I would thy fingers were but as fleet as thy tongue!’ exclaimed Eleanor, irritably. ‘Haste thee, and leave me.’
‘With submission, mistress, I have served titled personages in my time, and never was accused of slackness in the performance of my duties.’
‘Prithee bridle thy tongue, Belinda. I desire not words and would be alone.’
But the irrepressible waiting woman began again, presently: ‘Right bravely a coronet would crown these raven tresses, and of a truth the Count is a handsome gentleman.’
‘I have already said, Belinda, the Count is naught to me.’
‘Yet withal, sweet mistress, he worships the earth beneath your feet. All the world wots that.’
‘Silence, wench! And now begone. Yet stay one moment. Hand me yon miniature. And now away.’
‘Good-even, mistress. God give you sweet rest.’
But her mistress heard her not, being already lost in contemplation of the pictured face beneath her eyes. Fresh and fair, and glowing with the ruddy bloom of healthy manhood, it looked up at her, the frank eyes meeting her own, as their originals had ever done, in an open steadfast gaze. The sunny hair, its warmer tints powdered down, was gathered back from the broad brow and tied behind in the fashion then affected by younger men. The mouth, shaven about, was well-cut and firmly closed, although a smile, in keeping with the general expression of the whole countenance, appeared to be just dawning on the full red lips. Altogether it was a pleasant face to look upon, and one which any woman might have been proud to claim as that of her lover.
Eleanor Radcliffe's own was a study as she gazed at it. Megrim or mental disquietude had driven all colour from her cheeks, and dark rings surrounded the lustrous eyes. Her hair still fell around her like an ebony mantle, contrasting well with the rich crimson of her peignoir38, which increased by its vivid tint the pallor of her complexion. She gazed at the miniature intently, as though seeking through the smiling ivory to read the heart of the distant original.
‘The old dye said the sky-eyed were fickle,’ at length she murmured. ‘Fickle! Fickle! Who said he was fickle? 'Tis false! A base calumny39!’ And starting up with flashing eyes and cheeks aglow, she paced the long floor of the bedchamber in agitation. Presently she stopped, catching sight of her reflection in a mirror. Moving up to it she stood and surveyed her double.
‘Miss Tabitha desires her affectionate compliments, Miss, and bids me say that this letter arrived for you by the mail from Dublin.’
‘So, Maurice,’ she apostrophised, you have not written me one line since you left two months agone—or is it two years? God wot, we be fools, we women. We count the hours of our loved one's absence; we scarce can breathe, or eat, or play, while we await with quivering pulses their return; while they in their new-found pleasures forget even our very existence. Have you forgotten. Maurice, you, who professed such love? Even my letter, which Dame Tabby said ‘twas over free to write, you have not answered. Think you the act unmaidenly? Or are you sick, my beloved? My heart would fain have news. Fore God, if you write not soon I shall seek you, and then—if as they say the sky-eyed are fickle—if (as they say) the Celt is inconstant—if other eyes enthral thee, and other lips respond to thine—then—eternal infamy be mine if I wreak not a deadly vengeance!’
Her eyes fairly blazed, and her fingers closed over the miniature in a clasp which would have crushed a frailer thing. Again she started to her feet and paced the floor. ‘But they lie, my beloved,’ she resumed tremulously, sinking again into her cushions. ‘Thou couldst not be false to me. Wherefore, let those beware who would come betwixt us.’
So had passed her night. Small wonder that the noon-tide found the heavy eyelids still closed above bloodless cheeks.
38 A woman’s loose negligee or dressing gown. (French, literally translates as a ‘garment worn while combing the hair’.)
[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]