Utu: A Story of Love, Hate and Revenge
Chapter VIII. A Letter from Ireland—Uncle and Niece—Ball-Room Babble
Chapter VIII. A Letter from Ireland—Uncle and Niece—Ball-Room Babble.
It might have been a week after the foregoing incidents that the trim Belinda stepped lightly into her mistress's chamber bearing the dainty cup of chocolate without which no belle of the period could have risen from her downy couch. Drawing an antique stand to the bedside, she placed the salver upon it, saying as she did so: ‘Miss Tabitha desires her affectionate compliments, miss, and bids me say that this letter arrived for you by the mail from Dublin. She hopes its contents will afford you pleasure.’
A quick flush rose to the face of the heiress, who involuntarily raised herself upon her elbow; but instantly recovering self-possession, she, lay back with an affectation of languor, saying: ‘Leave the letter in the salver, Belinda. I will attend to it presently. Meantime, make my acknowledgments to Mistress Tabitha.’
The maid lingered, ostensibly performing little offices about the room, page 38 but really, with the curiosity of her class, hoping to see her young mistress open the letter, in order to be able to describe its effect to Miss Tabitha.
‘You are at liberty to leave me now, Belinda,’ exclaimed Eleanor at last, with ill-concealed impatience. ‘When I require you, I shall ring.’
Having no further pretext for remaining, the maid retired and having closed the door, placed her eye over the keyhole, by which means she was enabled to narrate to the elder lady a circumstantial account of how Miss Eleanor, snatching up the missive, pressed it rapturously to her lips, while murmuring unintelligible expressions of delight, etc., etc.
Later in the day, much later in fact, the young lady, who, on the plea of megrim, kept her room until her duenna40 had gone out for her daily airing, descended to the library, and finding her uncle there, locked the door and advanced to where he sat at an oaken escritoire41 writing. He looked up at her approach and forgot to lay down his pen, so startled was he by her aspect. She stood before him the very personification of wounded pride and imperious scorn. Her face was colourless, but her dark eyes shot sparks, as she said in harsh but distinct tones:
‘I have at length received a letter from Ireland, sir, and as Captain O'Halleran was ever a favourite with you. I thought you might perchance like to read it.’
‘I thank you, my child,’ replied her uncle mildly, gazing at her with puzzled eyes. ‘I shall be glad to learn tidings of Maurice, from whom, indeed, I myself expected a communication ere this. But thou art surely indisposed, my dear Eleanor. Thy complexion lacks its usual bloom. I fear me these nightly junketings are playing havoc with thy health.’
‘I am well, quite well, sir, although mayhap a trifle distraught. But read, I pray you, the letter.’
‘Be seated then, my child,’ and Mr Horace, as he was still called in the family, placed her in a cosy chair, and resting his hand for a moment earessingly on her shoulder said pleasantly:
‘It is not every maiden. I ween, who would submit her billet doux to the eyes of her guardians. Thy confidence is pleasing to me, child.’
But her face did not relax, and her voice was hard and cold as she merely replied: ‘Read, sir, read.’
Mr Horace took up the letter and read a few lines, when an expression of dismayed incredulity escaped him; a few lines further and ‘Impossible! It cannot be,’ he cried, while an angry flush overspread his face, and indignation shone in his mild blue eyes.
But Eleanor sat speechless and white, her eyes alone betokening the fiery tempest raging within. She made no sort of response to his exclamation, and refixing his eyes on the writing he read to the end. Then, he turned the missive about looked it up and down, partly page 39 re-read it, grew redder and more red, and finally burst out. ‘Damnable puppy! I would I had thee within reach!’
‘Nay, sir, then all the world would know that Eleanor Radcliffe had been jilted.’
‘Jilted!’ echoed Mr Horace as if he had been stung. ‘Nay then, Eleanor, my child, that must never be said of thee. And yet’—he cried, rising abruptly and flinging himself about the apartment ‘my fingers itch to have at him. He must not escape scathless. The infamous scoundrel to dare play fast and loose with the heiress of Radcliffe. “Transferred his affections.” forsooth. The penniless Irish beggar! The black-hearted ingrate.’ He shall not go unpunished. And yet—and yet—thy name must not be bandied from lip to lip.
‘Leave the affair to me, sir,’ said the girl, steadily. ‘Therefore have I sought you. A maid of quality may jilt, but not be jilted. Keep, as I shall, the contents of this letter secret, and if to-morrow one should ask my hand, consent—yet not too readily. Feign reluctance, indifference, what you will, but be tardy, yet never hint that this bond has been severed. Speak of it rather as an existing contract which has your approval, but say finally that I am my own mistress. As for Maurice O'Halleran, leave him to me. I should be unworthy of my mother's race if I knew not how to avenge myself.’
And so it was arranged. Eleanor, self-controlled, pale, inexplicit: Mr Horace incensed, florid, dissatisfied, but pledged to secrecy concerning the contents of the long-looked for letter.
No one who saw the heiress sweep into Lady Teazle's ballroom that same night would have recognised the pale outraged damsel of the morning. Proudly she bore herself as Juno42 might have done, yet with a gaiety and abandon somewhat unuusal. With glittering eyes and cheeks like pomegranates, she smiled and chattered and flirted her fan as one whose cup of joyousness was fairly running over. To Monsieur she was most charming, receiving his attentions with a seductive coquetry which he found quite irresistible, though every now and again entrenching herself in a kind of coy reserve, as though trying to steel her heart against his fascinations. Her acting was so perfect that he might well have been pardoned if he thought her affections in process of transfer from the affianced absentee to his courtly self. Truth to tell, they made, he and she, a very distinguished couple, and many were the comments—some of them not too good-natured—uttered upon their appearance and apparent friendly relations.
‘How well Miss Radcliffe is looking to-night!’ ‘By my troth, a splendid creature.’ ‘Magnificent woman that, by Gad, sir!’ ‘Looks as if the Count stood to win, by St. George!’ So the men, rapping their snuff-boxes.
‘What a charming dancer is the Count!’ ‘How divinely handsome!’ page 40 ‘What distinguished manners!’ ‘Think you he will wed her?’ ‘What a shameless wench to jilt the poor captain!’ Thus the womenfolk who decorated the wall and babbled behind outspread fans.
Without doubt the Frenchman was handsome. Dressed in the extreme of fashion, beruffled and bejewelled, he eclipsed, yet was not of the dandies. He wore his garments as though he had been born in them, and carried himself with a lazily assured ease indicative of patrician associations. His coal black hair, powdered and tied back in a queue, displayed fine features, and his piercing eyes were dark as night. As he bent them upon Miss Eleanor after supper that evening, while promenading the ballroom, they expressed all the ardour of a lover whose bosom burned to declare his passion.
‘Zounds! I wonder if Miss Radcliffe has really given O'Halleran his conge43,’ said one to his neighbour, as snuff-boxes in hand, they stood watching the dancers.
‘My faith, it looks like it. Poor devil! I thought that was a love match.’
‘Miss Radcliffe has doubtless found since she came to town that love is an antiquated sentiment.’
‘Marry! and so it is, betwixt husbands and wives at least. But 'twas said the nuptial day was fixed, and O'Halleran has, I know, sold his commission.’
‘Gad! It simply means a different complexioned bridegroom, and O'Halleran may go to the devil. He's only an Irishman anyway.’
‘Marry, sir! Captain O'Halleran is a right good fellow, let me tell you, and a friend of my own to boot.’ responded the other with his hand on the hilt of his small sword.
‘Prithee, be not offended. I know naught against the gallant captain. Yet were his virtues God-like they would scarce tip the balance against a coronet in the eyes of a woman of fashion.’
‘All's fair in love, 'tis said, but damme, ‘tis a scurvy trick to snatch the bride from a man's arms on the nuptial eve so to speak.’
‘Gad! a touch of cold steel should soon make the Frenchman immortal were I O'Halleran, my oath out.’
‘After all, the jilt is the chief offender. See how she languishes. My faith! I've seen her look just so at O'Halleran, and he, poor devil, just worships her.’
‘Marry then, he should have wedded here ere her humour changed, for of all unstable things commend me to a woman's favour. 'Tis yours to-day another's to-morrow. The only sure way with the dear creatures is to take them on the hop, and if you would wed a pretty heiress, do so while her fancy is at fever heat. Delays are dangerous, as we see, for if that lissom-limbed beauty's fancy has not found another object than the gallant captain, why, stap my vitals, I've yet page 41 to learn the language of an amorous eye,’ and tapping open the lid of his snuff-box, the speaker, looking very wise, besmeared his upper lip with a portion of its perfumed contents.
42 Junoesque; said of a woman: tall, stately, and imposing in appearance.
[Note added by Vicki Hughes as annotator]