Chapter VIII

A Bombshell for Lady Barbara

“By gad, Barbara, I never saw you look handsomer. What’s the gaiety to-night?”

“Almack’s, of course.”

Lady Barbara’s tone was a little scornful. She hated being questioned as to her movements, and was rather inclined to snub her ducal papa, as daughters impatient of control are wont.

“Oh, of course,” rejoined the duke dryly. He was quite conscious of the snub, but with the servants moving about he was not going to engage in an altercation with her ladyship.

He was dining tête-a-tête with his daughter. There were but their two selves, but the etiquette was as formal as though a score of guests had assembled. The ceremony was all the more noticeable because of the vastness of the apartment. The doors were of unusual width and height, to permit the comfortable entrance of the ladies of ton in the days of the second George, with their prodigious hoops and head-dresses of preposterous height. The ceiling was gorgeously decorated, Sir James Thornhill’s sprawling nymphs and cupids displaying themselves with languorous grace amid blue clouds and gilt borderings. Portraits of past Endsleighs in the picturesque dress of the Stuarts, the full bottom wigs and ample skirts of the early Hanoverians, and the affected cravats and roll collared coats of the Regency, filled the panelled walls, against which were ranged buhl and console tables of florid design, gilt chairs and other furnitures of French design​—​the fashion which set in after the occupation of Paris by our troops following the battle of Waterloo.

The room would have been imposing enough could it have been properly lighted. But his Grace. like the Duke of Devonshire, hated lamps​—​no doubt they were smoky and smelly enough​—​and the new illuminant​—​coal gas​—​was far too vulgar to be thought of. Nothing but wax candles was endurable. A hundred candles would not have been too many; the candelabra on the table held but twenty. The expanse of white napery, the glittering cutlery, the polished silver and glass caught all the light. The servants moved about in the surrounding gloom like shadows.

The duke sat at one end of the table and Lady Barbara at the other. Anything like connected conversation was very difficult. But this did not matter much. Neither father nor daughter was inclined to talk. It was not until the dinner was over and the servants had quitted the room that his Grace, eyeing his glass critically, remarked:

“I suppose you’re in no violent hurry. It’s but eight o’clock, and I take it that the quadrilles and waltzes aren’t in full swing until ten. If you’re anything like me you won’t care to be troubled by preliminaries. You’ll prefer to be on the top of the tide.”

“I hate ennui,” said Lady Barbara languidly.

“By all means. To avoid ennui is the one aim of life. But at the risk of boring you to death, Barbara, I want to talk to you. We can’t shout at each other across the table. Come to the fire.”

An arm-chair was on one side of the large fire-place and a settee on the other. His Grace took up a position with his back to the fire and pointed to the settee. Her ladyship, looking not over-pleased at the proposition, obeyed. She apprehended an unpleasant discussion and she folded her really beautiful arms, bare to the shoulder, defiantly, and pouted her full lips.

“I hope you won’t keep me long, papa,” said she. “I’ve not finished dressing yet.”

“So I perceive,” rejoined his Grace, a cold smile curving his thin lips, his eyes resting for a moment on the young lady’s daring corsage.

The duke combined the punctilious courtesy of Lord Chesterfield with the insolence of a Brummell. What he lacked in heart he made up in superficial wit. He lived entirely for himself, and professed a sort of callous philosophy which made him indifferent to the opinions and feelings of others. He hated everything which was low, vulgar and ugly, and money he regarded as a means solely to procure him pleasure.

His Grace preceded what he wished to say by taking a pinch of snuff. He had an elegant precision​—​partly natural, partly carefully educated​—​in everything he did, and he prided himself on the way he held and tapped his snuff-box with his long, white, delicate fingers, and conveyed the snuff to his thin, aquiline, high-bred nose.

“Is it true, Barbara, that you’ve broken with young Ralstone?”

“No. We’ve had a few words, but the engagement’s just the same, I believe.”

“You believe. Don’t you know?”

“Hadn’t you better ask Mr. Ralstone?” said her ladyship disdainfully.

“Hardly necessary, if his father speaks the truth. The old fellow’s a vulgar boor, but I fancy his word may be taken. Receiving a very vague and unsatisfactory​—​and I may add, illiterate​—​letter from him, I took occasion before I left Bath to ride out to his place. I discovered him in a beastly state of intoxication and smelling offensively of rum​—​a liquor which always makes me feel sick​—​but sane enough.”

“I hope your Grace didn’t go to see him on my account,” broke in Lady Barbara.

“Why not?” inquired the duke blandly. “I trust I may be pardoned for feeling some solicitude in regard to my only daughter. But you’d better hear what I have to say. It seems that he and young Ralstone had had a few words about nothing at all, but the young fellow had got his back up, and on hearing the contents of my letter to Simon Halstead, suggesting a speedy marriage——”

“A speedy marriage? Between me and Mr. Ralstone?” burst out the young lady, “you’d no business to suggest anything of the kind. I am the one to decide that​—​not you. You never told me you had written.”

“Please don’t be so impetuous. Am I not telling you now? The upshot of the thing is that Ralstone refuses to fulfil his engagement.”

At this bombshell Lady Barbara’s face went scarlet and her blue eyes blazed. She trembled with rage and her slippered foot beat a tattoo on the floor.

“It’s an intolerable slight​—​a gross insult,” she cried. “He deserves to be horsewhipped.”

“If you had a brother probably such a punishment might be inflicted, or at least attempted, for I’m told Ralstone is remarkably handy with his fists. It’s unthinkable that I can take such a step. I abominate a vulgar fracas. Of course, I might call him out, but I regard making oneself ridiculous as the greatest crime a man of my rank and position can commit. What is more to the purpose is the origin of the unpleasant imbroglio. I understood old Halstead to say that Ralstone thinks you have been rude to him.”

“It’s false. If I were rude, he gave me cause. He was abominably impertinent.”

“I see. Bad temper seems inseparable from love. I don’t recollect that I was ever guilty of such folly. My courtship with your mother went remarkably smoothly.”

“I dare say. Neither of you, probably, knew what love was,” retorted Lady Barbara hotly.

“Nor wanted to know, perhaps. Love’s another name for folly. The case of young Ralstone, for instance. He’s lost a big fortune——”

“A big fortune? Why, he hasn’t a penny of his own.”

“Exactly. He’s now stranded​—​left high and dry. The old man’s virtually cut him off with the proverbial shilling, and all because of you. I’m bound to say, however, from what Halstead told me, that the fellow stood up to his firebrand of a stepfather like a man. He wouldn’t budge an inch, and so they parted in anger.”

Lady Barbara’s face changed. She hardly knew whether to be pleased or sorry at Jack’s misfortunes. Anyhow, it was all his own fault. There was no reason why he should have broken with her. If he acted through jealousy​—​well, that was in his favour. It showed her power over him, and what is so pleasing to a woman as power of this kind? Could she have been mistaken in thinking that he was a tame cat always ready to do what he was told? But she could not decide then. Her father was going on with his talk.

“The failure of this marriage, my dear Barbara, is a profound disappointment to me. Old Halstead was prepared to hand over a sum out of which I could have given you a substantial dowry, while the balance would have relieved me from my immediate difficulties.”

“It would have made no difference. Mr. Halstead’s money would have followed where the thousands you’ve thrown away have gone​—​cards.”

“I’m not so sure. A run of ill-luck can’t continue for ever. It’s bound to turn if only I can weather the storm meanwhile. But suppose we leave my debts alone and turn to others infinitely more interesting​—​yours.”

“Mine? What have my paltry debts to do with the matter?”

“Everything, I’ve a pile of your bills​—​silks and shawls and I don’t know what from the mercer on Ludgate Hill, millinery from Cranbourne Alley, haberdashery, gloves, trinkets from Burlington Arcade, the dressmaker in Bow Street, the——”

“Pray don’t be so monstrously ridiculous, papa,” interrupted Barbara impatiently. “There’s nothing in the list that I can do without​—​nothing that every woman of fashion isn’t entitled to have. They’re all everyday necessities. I’ve been exceedingly moderate. You ought to have Lady Amersham’s bills to pay.”

“Lady Amersham is an extremely handsome woman, and knows how to dress. I should be delighted to pay her bills if I had the wherewithal, and it would afford me even greater pleasure if I could pay yours, my dear Barbara. I think, in the way of beauty, you could give points, and you have the immeasurable advantage of youth. But the real point is that your debts amount to nearly five thousand pounds, and I haven’t five thousand shillings.”

“Let the shopkeepers wait,” retorted her ladyship scornfully.

“I quite agree with you, and, saving the extremely vulgar and unpleasant letters I’m constantly receiving, I don’t know that they can do anything very serious. I suppose they couldn’t put you in King’s Bench prison.”

“Put me in prison? Me? Oh, really, you can’t know what you’re saying.”

“Indeed I do. I hate musty law, and I abominate dried-up, long-faced attorneys; but both are sometimes useful. You see, my child, those debts of yours have been incurred since you came of age, and you’re now twenty-two. You had a little money of your own——”

“It wasn’t much, and it soon went.”

“I knew it would. You haven’t the Dacre blood in you for nothing. Anticipating some contretemps, such as now has happened, I took precautions. I instructed Benson to write to your tradesmen​—​I know them all from the bills I paid for you before you came to the years of discretion​—​ahem !​—​warning them that I was no longer responsible for your debts. The scoundrels, notwithstanding, have sent their bills to me, and I had last week to get Benson to remind them of my repudiation of my liability, and that if they gave you credit they did so at their own risk. So, my dear, you see where you stand.”

Lady Barbara was disgusted, and she showed her disgust in her expression, but she said nothing. She knew her father’s egotism, his selfishness, his affected cynicism.

“But you needn’t despair. You have your youth, your beauty, your superb health​—​three most valuable assets. Failing young Ralstone​—​who, by the way, is not quite out of the running, if you’re not so foolish as to indulge in a sentimental passion for some handsome but undesirable parti.”

“Jack Ralstone isn’t out of the running, you say,” returned Barbara, after a pause. “In what way?”

“His stepfather is still keen upon you as his stepdaughter-in-law, and he admitted that if Ralstone came round and made it up with you that he would be willing to let bygones be bygones. So you still have a trump. card in your hand. If you don’t choose to play it, then you must angle for yourself. Whether any other father-in-law would be willing to help me is another matter.”

“Oh, there’s a road open to you for that purpose, papa. I wonder you haven’t thought of it.”

“And what is that road, may I ask?”

“Marry a rich widow. There’s Mrs. Coutts​—​the richest woman in Great Britain, so the newspapers say. The old banker died over a year ago, and she’s bound to marry again. I read the other day that her husband left her six hundred and seventy thousand pounds, and she has half the profits every year of the banking business. That ought to tempt you.”

“It does tempt me, but​—​but​—​Mrs. Coutts!”

“Well, she’s not much more than forty, and really not bad looking even now. She’s not to my taste, but that’s nothing. I dare say I could make myself agreeable to her.”

“Doubtless, but I prefer her as a hostess. Her dinners at Stratton Street are superb. She’ll probably try the bonds of matrimony once more, but they won’t enclose me.”

“Why not? You’re quite young looking for your age.”

Barbara had risen and was standing in front of the duke, her well-formed, if somewhat large, hands resting lightly on his shoulders. Her large swimming eyes were fixed on his face.

“My dear Barbara, what an ass young Ralstone must be, if he ever saw you as you are now. But perhaps he never did.”

“He has only himself to blame.”

Her shoulders rose and her bosom heaved slightly. One might have thought she was thinking of the man who was so blind to her charms. The thought would have been erroneous. It was Sir Phineas Tenbury whose mocking face her imagination was picturing.

“Don’t let us talk of Mr. Ralstone,” she went on irritably. “I’m curious to know your opinion of Mrs. Coutts.”

“My opinion is that she is a keen, masterful woman of business. Not to my taste at all. We should quarrel within a week. As to my age​—​she has had experience of one elderly husband; she doesn’t want another. She’ll possibly marry again, but it will be to some young fool with a handle to his name. That sort of woman generally does. Apart from that, the ugly story of her capture of old Coutts​—​the secret marriage a week or two after the funeral of the first Mrs. Coutts​—​a marriage for which she herself obtained the licence from Doctor’s Commons​—​the bribing of old Raymond, the actor, to be the only witness​—​the payment to the parson for performing the decidedly irregular ceremony and for forging two false entries in the register to hoodwink the vicar​—​no thank you. I’ll leave Mrs. Coutts alone. Very pleased to put my legs under her mahogany, seeing that royal dukes condescend to do the same, but marriage​—​it’s not to be thought of. Besides, she wouldn’t have me. A fine tale to go the rounds of White’s or Boodle’s​—​the Duke of Endsleigh rejected by the widow Coutts!”

For once the real duke was seen beneath the society veneer. Barbara was struck by his tone of acerbity, the hardening of his smooth, clean-shaven face. She wondered whether her father had really tried his luck at Stratton Street, or was it a case of the fox and the grapes?

“Oh, no doubt you’re right,” said she; “but what’s to be done?”

“It all depends upon you. I’ve told you what trumps you hold. It’s for you to play your hand skilfully. Don’t forget that Ralstone’s still a fish to be played with. He’s darted away like a restive salmon, but he’s not off the hook.”

And as a sign that the talk was at an end, his Grace walked to the table, poured himself out a glass of port, which he drank at a gulp. When he again turned towards the fire his daughter had vanished.