8. Kind Hearts Are More Than Coronets
Giddy Mounteagle's face is wreathed in smiles as she talks animatedly to Eleanor.
"Yes, my dear," she says triumphantly, "Lady MacDonald comes to me to-morrow. She is one of the smartest women in town and moves in the best circles. She will stay the night and be the belle of my 'At home' the following day. I long to introduce her to you. Such a stately, aristocratic-looking woman, a little 'difficult' sometimes, but usually charming. She takes offence if you introduce her to any one not quite
up to the mark, and, since her marriage, is very particular whom she knows. I used to see a great deal of her before she was Lady MacDonald, but lately we have drifted apart."
"Is she stuck up?" asks Eleanor bluntly.
"No, that is hardly the word. 'Proud,' shall we say? 'dignified.'"
"Because she has married an old lord? How amusing! I shall like to see her."
"I will bring her to tea with you, Eleanor," replies Mrs. Mounteagle, feeling she is conferring an immense honour on Mrs. Roche. "Mind you use that duck of a service, and wear your heliotrope gown. You look so distingué
in it, and dear Lady MacDonald notices clothes."
"Any more orders?" asks Eleanor, laughing.
Giddy's glance sweeps over the room.
"Yes. Remove that awful photograph, the one of the old people outside a farmhouse. It is not ornamental, and quite spoils the beauty of that corner. Lady MacDonald is so critical it might catch her eye."
"Then she will have to sit with her back to it or suffer," replies Eleanor staunchly. "It is my favourite picture, and I don't mean to take it down."
Giddy sighs, puts on a martyred expression, and kicks the footstool.
"Your taste is as terrible as ever," she declares sadly, shaking her head. "What would you have been, Eleanor, if I hadn't taken you in hand?"
"I don't know, dear," she cries, feeling she has been ungrateful. "You have done me no end of good turns! But I love that portrait, it is sentiment."
"An old nurse of yours and her husband?" asks Giddy.
Eleanor flushes rosy red.
She would like to say "my parents," but dreads Giddy's cynical smile. She could not bear to hear them scoffed at, even in their absence.
Instead she murmurs:
"That woman nursed me in her arms as a baby, tended me in childhood--loved me always."
Eleanor, on tiptoe, kisses the two faces in the photo.
"They are good," she says, "generous, kind-hearted; they might grace the grandest palace----"
"And smile at the claims of long descent," quotes the widow. "What a true little woman you are, Eleanor! Sometimes I half envy you, gaucheries
"I can't help being stupid, Giddy; I was not born wise, like you."
"Yet you really have developed marvellously under my training. The way you kept up the conversation at that dull luncheon party last week was admirable. I could not have done it better myself. As it was, a wretched sore throat condemned me to silence. How your badinage with Quinton astonished our hostess! She sat up so straight in her chair, I thought her fringe curls would reach the ceiling. She will never invite you there again, but it was simply splendid.
"'What do you think of Mrs. Roche?' I asked her afterwards, when Carol was bending over you in the window seat. She drew in her thin lips, and muttered: 'Most
refreshing!' in a tone that meant something very different."
"What did it mean?" cries Eleanor, with a gasp.
"I am in too great a hurry now to interpret," answers Giddy, kissing her effusively. "Ta-ta, beloved--and mind you adopt your best Society airs for Lady MacDonald to-morrow. She will swallow any amount, and may be very useful to us in town. Comprenez-vous?
Eleanor is quite in a flutter the following afternoon. Her room looks bright with flowers purchased that morning in the town, her Crown Derby tea-service is set out on a new and dainty cloth, which had been laid by for an occasion. The curtains are drawn to shut away the dreary fog, and fire-light mingles with the rosy rays from a tall lamp. Eleanor is still quite in a tremble lest the oil should smell, as Sarah frequently fails over the art of wick trimming.
"How does my heliotrope go with this chair?" she asks, settling her sleeves, and critically contrasting the yellow brocade furniture with the shade of her gown.
Sarah assures her the effect is most desirable, as she places a pink iced cake by the tray.
"Don't keep Lady MacDonald waiting on the doorstep; you might be in the hall ready to answer the bell."
"And if the fog gets denser light the gas outside."
Eleanor draws her chair to the fire, and pretends to read a Society paper, but her thoughts are far from the fashion article.
She is supremely contented with herself and her surroundings. Her hair has its prettiest wave to-day, she is wearing her smartest toilette, and a new pair of bronzed beaded shoes. Her only trial in life at this moment is the propensity shown by her diamond crescent to turn over in its bed of lace, and reveal the back, with a hairpin for a fastening. She fixes it in her fringe at night.
A little tremble of excitement rushes over Eleanor; the bell rings.
Sarah flings open the door, and Giddy Mounteagle sails into the room with Lady MacDonald. Mrs. Roche feels quite small and insignificant under the stranger's patronising smile.
Lady MacDonald raises her long-handled lorgnette
to scrutinise her surroundings.
Giddy is conscious of the offending photograph. Eleanor draws forward the largest chair. Lady MacDonald sinks gracefully back among the cushions, her head poised on one side--she always holds it so. Some admirers once told her it was like a flower bending on its stem with the weight of its own beauty.
"Oh! the fog outside," she cries, with an affected little cough, first cousin to a sigh. "I suppose it rises from the river."
"Yes, and creeps into your soul, and clogs your brain," adds Giddy, "the yellow land of mist is not attractive."
"No one will turn up at your party to-morrow," says Eleanor, "if it doesn't lift."
"I never thought of that. The professionals will be stuck on the line, perhaps, and we shall have a songless, tuneless 'musical,' with only locals to eat our cakes."
"My husband has promised to fetch me to-morrow; I must be back in town by seven, for two or three evening engagements," says Lady MacDonald.
"Then I am glad mine is an afternoon," murmurs Giddy, "or I should not have secured you. It is delightful of dear Lord MacDonald to drive down."
"Oh! he always does what I tell him," she replies, with a superior smile.
She has a quantity of jingling golden ornaments hanging from a chatelaine at her waist, a gold crown on the handle of her lorgnette
, and so many rings on her long pink fingers that they bulge over her knuckles. Her nails are manicured to appear almost crimson, her teeth are shining white under her curved lips, that look capable of bitter sayings and smiles of scorn.
"The fire is too hot," she says, laying one soft hand against a still softer cheek. Her complexion is a marvel. Eleanor hands her a painted screen.
"What a charming picture," continues Lady MacDonald. "I adore nymphs. Did you paint this, Mrs. Roche?"
"Yes," replied Giddy, "Eleanor is a perfect artist."
Eleanor raises her eyebrows, staring at Giddy in amazement, never having touched a brush in her life.
"Do you exhibit?"
Giddy again answers for Eleanor.
"Mr. Roche won't let her, he thinks any publicity infra dig.
for a woman."
"Perhaps he is right," says Lady MacDonald; "I know Edward won't allow me to pen a line for the press, though I have quite a genius for scribbling. He is so cross because people get my picture sometimes for the Society papers. I have to hide them away from him. The last one caught his eye hung up on a bookstall, and he was nearly suffocated with wrath on the spot, and could not speak for three minutes."
"The penalty of beauty," cries Giddy gaily.
"Are you one of the types of English beauty?" asks Eleanor.
"Oh! no. Nothing so common. I leave that to Irish belles, and ladies of the ballet."
She raises her delicate chin, and rests her languid eyes on Mrs. Roche.
The door opens, and Sarah's voice announces:
"Mr. and Mrs. Grebby!"
"Mr. and Mrs. Grebby!"
Eleanor starts to her feet, and rashes forward.
There they stand. Mrs. Grebby in a black satin grown, a long gold chain suspended round her neck, a Paisley shawl crossed over her chest, and a close bonnet of quilted blue satin.
Mr. Grebby, with a sparse frill of grey hair growing right round his face, his chin and long upper lip guiltless of hirsute appendages. A gorgeous suit of a very baggy cut, flowered satin waistcoat, and a basket of apples and cooking pears in his hand, as a present to his daughter.
At his heels a shaggy dog, blind in one eye and toothless--one that in its puppyhood had leaped and played with Eleanor in the green fields of Copthorne Farm.
A cry of delight breaks from her, as she hugs her parents in turn, and catches sight of her old favourite.
"Rover--my darling!" she exclaims, sinking on her knees to fondle the dog.
He springs up with his muddy feet on the shoulders of her beautiful heliotrope dress. His claws catch in the lace, but she heeds them not, only laughs gleefully as he licks her face.
"We couldn't help bringing him," says Mr. Grebby, wiping his brow with a red handkerchief, which is shining and damp from excitement. "Poor follow, he did
want to come! Black Bess will miss him, won't she?"
"We took it into our heads sudden like to visit London and surprise you, dearie," Mrs. Grebby vouchsafes.
"How lovely of you!" cries Eleanor, in her joy forgetting the guests by the fire, then she turns and faces them.
Giddy feels as if cold water is coursing down her back, the palms of her hands are icy cold. The feathers in her friend's hat seem dancing up and down before her eyes.
Lady MacDonald is positively glaring through her tortoiseshell glasses.
There is an air of offended dignity in her mien, as she looks the couple up and down freezingly.
"This is my father and mother," says Eleanor, an elated smile upon her lips, a merry sparkle in her eyes. What do these people matter, now that her parents have come to her new home? She longs to show them everything, and watch their wonder.
"Mr. and Mrs. Grebby, Lady MacDonald, Mrs. Mounteagle," she continues. "Now, Ma dear, you sit here," pulling up a chair between Giddy and Lady MacDonald. "Loosen your shawl, or you'll scorch, and I will give you some tea."
Mrs. Grebby gazes in awestruck wonder at the grandly dressed visitors, and her daughter's elaborate clothes.
Mr. Grebby stumps round the room, remarking on everything.
"Well, there! What do you say to that
for a picture," addressing his wife. "Tell Ma to come here, Eleanor, I want 'er to see this 'orse, and the lady on the moon in the next frame. I wish you could paint pictures, my girl; but maybe Mr. Roche will 'ave you taught."
Giddy flushes scarlet. Lady MacDonald fans herself violently with the screen. Mrs. Grebby takes the tiny cup Eleanor hands her, and turns it round to examine it. Then her eyes fall on the slices of thin bread and butter, the dainty biscuits, and minute squares of buttered toast.
"Don't you get 'ungry, dearie?" she asks. "I thought you'd be sure to have a knife-and-fork tea, living in this style."
Her daughter laughs heartily. A wicked desire to shock Lady MacDonald, as Giddy has so often excited her to do on previous occasions, seizes Eleanor.
, Ma! We have big dinners at eight o'clock. Five courses and serviettes. You ask Lady MacDonald."
"I don't call this a cup," declares Mr. Grebby, grinning broadly as Eleanor hands him his tea. "It's more like an acorn!" He takes half a dozen slices of bread and butter and munches them hungrily.
"I'm a bit peckish, my girl," he says. "But then we've had a long day, and fastin' don't agree with me. We went to the Tower, Madame Tussaud's, and the Exhibition of Tortures in Leicester Square. We liked that best of all."
"But what did you do with Rover?" asks Eleanor, exciting the dog to jump on the sofa and patting his wet nose.
"We left him at Cousin Harriett's. We can stay the night here with you, and after that we are going to put up a bit at her lodging-house in Bloomsbury. Ma was set on bringing old Rover to see you, as we think he won't last long now."
"The dear fellow!" murmurs Eleanor, cutting the pink cake. "Some more tea, Lady MacDonald?"
, thank you," and the severity of the tone startles Eleanor.
She fears she has committed some deadly offence in offering this proud beauty a second cup. Never was there a more grotesque tea-party on the terrace than in Eleanor's boudoir that afternoon. Giddy with deepest shame, resentment and horror, raging in her heart. Lady MacDonald haughty and disdainful, eyeing the homely couple as she would the beasts at the Zoo. Mrs. Grebby, speechless in admiring silence, fingering the frills of the sofa cushions, and taking in the pattern of the wall-paper, her breast swelling with pride and gratification. Mr. Grebby, his large boots on the brightly polished fender, his red face wreathed in smiles, and slowly filling a short clay pipe, as bucolic a specimen of manhood as Copthorne could produce.
Lastly, Eleanor, looking perfectly fairy-like under the red lamp, caressing the old dog with her slim white hands, and talking first to one guest, then to the other, with supreme good nature, her father's basket of apples on her knee.
"I must send some of these pears in to you, Giddy," she says, "I can't spare the apples, but your cook may like to stew----"
She pauses, reading her friend's expression of disdain.
She stammers something unintelligible to hide her confusion, wondering what she has said to offend, and changing the subject, asks hesitatingly:
"Did--er did you put me up for the 'Butterflies?'"
Mrs. Mounteagle had only that morning requested Lady MacDonald to second Eleanor.
Now she grows crimson at the thought, for Lady MacDonald is her trump card in the club.
"Thinking it over," replies Giddy. "I am quite sure Mr. Roche won't approve of us poor little Butterflies. He will imagine that a club must necessarily be emancipated, that it will lead you into latchkey habits, and advance your ideas too rapidly. I should advise you to stay at home, my dear, and" (with a cynical little smile) "stew your pears."
Mrs. Grebby has drawn the parish magazine from the recesses of an enormous pocket in her petticoat, and hands it to her daughter.
"I thought you'd like to read the news," she says. "Mrs. King's baby was christened last Sunday, and the little Browns have spread the measles in the schools."
Lady MacDonald and Giddy exchange glances that palpably say: "Why don't we go?"
The fact is Mrs. Mounteagle has been rooted to the spot, paralysed as it were by a sense of shame and humiliation.
Lady MacDonald has watched the scene as at a play, a comedy in low-life, acted for the benefit of the stalls and boxes.
"We really must go," murmurs Giddy hastily, catching her breath as Mr. Grebby lights his pipe with a match he has rasped along his trousers. She rises, gathering up a long feather boa to wind round her neck.
Lady MacDonald follows her example, her jingling chatelaine clanks irritatingly, as if protesting at being found in such company.
She draws on a light kid glove, proffering Eleanor her finger-tips.
-bye, Mrs. Roche," she drawls. "I have so enjoyed a peep at your little coterie
to-day, but we really must
not intrude ourselves upon you longer, you will have so many home
topics to discuss."
Mrs. Mounteagle refrains from her customary caress, whereat Eleanor remarks:
"How pale you look, Giddy! Are you ill?"
"Yes," she replies, under her breath, "I have over-eaten myself--overdone with APPLES!"