Speaking personally, I do not like the Countess of —. She is not the type of woman I could love. I hesitate the less giving expression to this sentiment by reason of the conviction that the Countess of — would not be unduly depressed even were the fact to reach her ears. I cannot conceive the Countess of —’s being troubled by the opinion concerning her of any being, human or divine, other than the Countess of —.
But to be honest, I must admit that for the Earl of — she makes an ideal wife. She rules him as she rules all others, relations and retainers, from the curate to the dowager, but the rod, though firmly held, is wielded with justice and kindly intent. Nor is it possible to imagine the Earl of —’s living as contentedly as he does with any partner of a less dominating turn of mind. He is one of those weak-headed, strong-limbed, good-natured, childish men, born to be guided in all matters, from the tying of a neck-cloth to the choice of a political party, by their women folk. Such men are in clover when their proprietor happens to be a good and sensible woman, but are to be pitied when they get into the hands of the selfish or the foolish. As very young men, they too often fall victims to bad-tempered chorus girls or to middle-aged matrons of the class from which Pope judged all womankind. They make capital husbands when well managed; treated badly, they say little, but set to work, after the manner of a dissatisfied cat, to find a kinder mistress, generally succeeding. The Earl of — adored his wife, deeming himself the most fortunate of husbands, and better testimonial than such no wife should hope for. Till the day she snatched him away from all other competitors, and claimed him for her own, he had obeyed his mother with a dutifulness bordering on folly. Were the countess to die to-morrow, he would be unable to tell you his mind on any single subject until his eldest daughter and his still unmarried sister, ladies both of strong character, attracted towards one another by a mutual antagonism, had settled between themselves which was to be mistress of him and of his house.
However, there is little fear (bar accidents) but that my friend the countess will continue to direct the hereditary vote of the Earl of — towards the goal of common sense and public good, guide his social policy with judgment and kindness, and manage his estates with prudence and economy for many years to come. She is a hearty, vigorous lady, of generous proportions, with the blood of sturdy forebears in her veins, and one who takes the same excellent good care of herself that she bestows on all others dependent upon her guidance.
“I remember,” said the doctor—we were dining with the doctor in homely fashion, and our wives had adjourned to the drawing-room to discuss servants and husbands and other domestic matters with greater freedom, leaving us to the claret and the twilight—“I remember when we had the cholera in the village—it must be twenty years ago now—that woman gave up the London season to stay down here and take the whole burden of the trouble upon her own shoulders. I do not feel any call to praise her; she liked the work, and she was in her element, but it was good work for all that. She had no fear. She would carry the children in her arms if time pressed and the little ambulance was not at hand. I have known her sit all night in a room not twelve feet square, between a dying man and his dying wife. But the thing never touched her. Six years ago we had the small-pox, and she went all through that in just the same way. I don’t believe she has ever had a day’s illness in her life. She will be physicking this parish when my bones are rattling in my coffin, and she will be laying down the laws of literature long after your statue has become a familiar ornament of Westminster Abbey. She’s a wonderful woman, but a trifle masterful.”
He laughed, but I detected a touch of irritation in his voice. My host looked a man wishful to be masterful himself. I do not think he quite relished the calm way in which this grand dame took possession of all things around her, himself and his work included.
“Did you ever hear the story of the marriage?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “whose marriage? The earl’s?”
“I should call it the countess’s,” he answered. “It was the gossip of the county when I first came here, but other curious things have happened among us to push it gradually out of memory. Most people, I really believe, have quite forgotten that the Countess of — once served behind a baker’s counter.”
“You don’t say so,” I exclaimed. The remark, I admit, sounds weak when written down; the most natural remarks always do.
“It’s a fact,” said the doctor, “though she does not suggest the shop-girl, does she? But then I have known countesses, descended in a direct line from William the Conqueror, who did, so things balance one another. Mary, Countess of —, was, thirty years ago, Mary Sewell, daughter of a Taunton linen-draper. The business, profitable enough as country businesses go, was inadequate for the needs of the Sewell family, consisting, as I believe it did, of seven boys and eight girls. Mary, the youngest, as soon as her brief schooling was over, had to shift for herself. She seems to have tried her hand at one or two things, finally taking service with a cousin, a baker and confectioner, who was doing well in Oxford Street. She must have been a remarkably attractive girl; she’s a handsome woman now. I can picture that soft creamy skin when it was fresh and smooth, and the West of England girls run naturally to dimples and eyes that glisten as though they had been just washed in morning dew. The shop did a good trade in ladies’ lunches—it was the glass of sherry and sweet biscuit period. I expect they dressed her in some neat-fitting grey or black dress, with short sleeves, showing her plump arms, and that she flitted around the marble-topped tables, smiling, and looking cool and sweet. There the present Earl of —, then young Lord C—, fresh from Oxford, and new to the dangers of London bachelordom, first saw her. He had accompanied some female relatives to the photographer’s, and, hotels and restaurants being deemed impossible in those days for ladies, had taken them to Sewell’s to lunch. Mary Sewell waited upon the party; and now as many of that party as are above ground wait upon Mary Sewell.”
“He showed good sense in marrying her,” I said, “I admire him for it.” The doctor’s sixty-four Lafitte was excellent. I felt charitably inclined towards all men and women, even towards earls and countesses.
“I don’t think he had much to do with it,” laughed the doctor, “beyond being, like Barkis, ‘willing.’ It’s a queer story; some people profess not to believe it, but those who know her ladyship best think it is just the story that must be true, because it is so characteristic of her. And besides, I happen to know that it is true.”
“I should like to hear it,” I said.
“I am going to tell it you,” said the doctor, lighting a fresh cigar, and pushing the box towards me.
* * * * *
I will leave you to imagine the lad’s suddenly developed appetite for decantered sherry at sixpence a glass, and the familiar currant bun of our youth. He lunched at Sewell’s shop, he tea’d at Sewell’s, occasionally he dined at Sewell’s, off cutlets, followed by assorted pastry. Possibly, merely from fear lest the affair should reach his mother’s ears, for he was neither worldly-wise nor vicious, he made love to Mary under an assumed name; and to do the girl justice, it must be remembered that she fell in love with and agreed to marry plain Mr. John Robinson, son of a colonial merchant, a gentleman, as she must have seen, and a young man of easy means, but of a position not so very much superior to her own. The first intimation she received that her lover was none other than Lord C—, the future Earl of —, was vouchsafed her during a painful interview with his lordship’s mother.
“I never knew it, madam,” asserted Mary, standing by the window of the drawing-room above the shop, “upon my word of honour, I never knew it”
“Perhaps not,” answered her ladyship coldly. “Would you have refused him if you had?”
“I cannot tell,” was the girl’s answer; “it would have been different from the beginning. He courted me and asked me to be his wife.”
“We won’t go into all that,” interrupted the other; “I am not here to defend him. I do not say he acted well. The question is, how much will compensate you for your natural disappointment?”
Her ladyship prided herself upon her bluntness and practicability. As she spoke she took her cheque-book out of her reticule, and, opening it, dipped her pen into the ink. I am inclined to think that the flutter of that cheque-book was her ladyship’s mistake. The girl had common sense, and must have seen the difficulties in the way of a marriage between the heir to an earldom and a linen-draper’s daughter; and had the old lady been a person of discernment, the interview might have ended more to her satisfaction. She made the error of judging the world by one standard, forgetting there are individualities. Mary Sewell came from a West of England stock that, in the days of Drake and Frobisher, had given more than one able-bodied pirate to the service of the country, and that insult of the cheque-book put the fight into her. Her lips closed with a little snap, and the fear fell from her.
“I am sorry I don’t see my way to obliging your ladyship,” she said.
“What do you mean, girl?” asked the elder woman.
“I don’t mean to be disappointed,” answered the girl, but she spoke quietly and respectfully. “We have pledged our word to one another. If he is a gentleman, as I know he is, he will keep his, and I shall keep mine.”
Then her ladyship began to talk reason, as people do when it is too late. She pointed out to the girl the difference of social position, and explained to her the miseries that come from marrying out of one’s station. But the girl by this time had got over her surprise, and perhaps had begun to reflect that, in any case, a countess-ship was worth fighting for. The best of women are influenced by such considerations.
* * * * *
“I am not a lady, I know,” she replied quietly, “but my people have always been honest folk, well known, and I shall try to learn. I am not wishing to speak disrespectfully of my betters, but I was in service before I came here, ma’am, as lady’s maid, in a place where I saw much of what is called Society. I think I can be as good a lady as some I know, if not better.”
The countess began to grow angry again. “And who do you think will receive you?” she cried, “a girl who has served in a pastry-cook’s shop!”
“Lady L— came from behind the bar,” Mary answered, “and that’s not much better. And the Duchess of C—, I have heard, was a ballet girl, but nobody seems to remember it. I don’t think the people whose opinion is worth having will object to me for very long.” The girl was beginning rather to enjoy the contest.
“You profess to love my son,” cried the countess fiercely, “and you are going to ruin his life. You will drag him down to your own level.”
The girl must have looked rather fine at that moment, I should dearly love to have been present.
“There will be no dragging down, my lady,” she replied, “on either side. I do love your son very dearly. He is one of the kindest and best of gentlemen. But I am not blind, and whatever amount of cleverness there may be between us belongs chiefly to me. I shall make it my duty to fit myself for the position of his wife, and to help him in his work. You need not fear, my lady, I shall be a good wife to him, and he shall never regret it. You might find him a richer wife, a better educated wife, but you will never find him a wife who will be more devoted to him and to his interests.”
That practically brought the scene to a close. The countess had sense enough to see that she was only losing ground by argument. She rose and replaced her cheque-book in her bag.
“I think, my good girl, you must be mad,” she said; “if you will not allow me to do anything for you, there’s an end to the matter. I did not come here to quarrel with you. My son knows his duty to me and to his family. You must take your own course, and I must take mine.”
“Very well, my lady,” said Mary Sewell, holding the door open for her ladyship to pass out, “we shall see who wins.”
But however brave a front Mary Sewell may have maintained before the enemy, I expect she felt pretty limp when thinking matters calmly over after her ladyship’s departure. She knew her lover well enough to guess that he would be as wax in the firm hands of his mother, while she herself would not have a chance of opposing her influence against those seeking to draw him away from her. Once again she read through the few schoolboy letters he had written her, and then looked up at the framed photograph that hung above the mantelpiece of her little bedroom. The face was that of a frank, pleasant-looking young fellow, lightened by eyes somewhat large for a man, but spoiled by a painfully weak mouth. The more Mary Sewell thought, the more sure she felt in her own mind that he loved her, and had meant honestly by her. Did the matter rest with him, she might reckon on being the future Countess of —, but, unfortunately for her, the person to be considered was not Lord C—, but the present Countess of —. From childhood, through boyhood, into manhood it had never once occurred to Lord C— to dispute a single command of his mother’s, and his was not the type of brain to readily receive new ideas. If she was to win in the unequal contest it would have to be by art, not by strength. She sat down and wrote a letter which under all the circumstances was a model of diplomacy. She knew that it would be read by the countess, and, writing it, she kept both mother and son in mind. She made no reproaches, and indulged in but little sentiment. It was the letter of a woman who could claim rights, but who asked only for courtesy. It stated her wish to see him alone and obtain from his own lips the assurance that he wished their engagement to cease. “Do not fear,” Mary Sewell wrote, “that I shall be any annoyance to you. My own pride would not let me urge you to marry me against your desire, and I care for you too much to cause you any pain. Assure me with your own lips that you wish our engagement to be at an end, and I shall release you without another word.”
The family were in town, and Mary sent her letter by a trusty hand. The countess read it with huge satisfaction, and, re-sealing it, gave it herself into her son’s hands. It promised a happy solution of the problem. In imagination, she had all the night been listening to a vulgar breach of promise case. She herself had been submitted to a most annoying cross-examination by a pert barrister. Her son’s assumption of the name of Robinson had been misunderstood and severely commented upon by the judge. A sympathetic jury had awarded thumping damages, and for the next six months the family title would be a peg on which music-hall singers and comic journalists would hang their ribald jokes. Lord C— read the letter, flushed, and dutifully handed it back to his mother. She made pretence to read it as for the first time, and counselled him to accord the interview.
“I am so glad,” she said, “that the girl is taking the matter sensibly. We must really do something for her in the future, when everything is settled. Let her ask for me, and then the servants will fancy she’s a lady’s maid or something of that sort, come after a place, and won’t talk.”
So that evening Mary Sewell, addressed by the butler as “young woman,” was ushered into the small drawing-room that connects the library of No. — Grosvenor Square with the other reception rooms. The countess, now all amiability, rose to meet her.
“My son will be here in a moment,” she explained, “he has informed me of the purport of your letter. Believe me, my dear Miss Sewell, no one can regret his thoughtless conduct more than I do. But young men will be young men, and they do not stop to reflect that what may be a joke to them may be taken quite seriously by others.”
“I don’t regard the matter as a joke, my lady,” replied Mary somewhat curtly.
“Of course not, my dear,” added the countess, “that’s what I’m saying. It was very wrong of him altogether. But with your pretty face, you will not, I am sure, have long to wait for a husband; we must see what we can do for you.”
The countess certainly lacked tact; it must have handicapped her exceedingly.
“Thank you,” answered the girl, “but I prefer to choose my own.”
Fortunately—or the interview might have ended in another quarrel—the cause of all the trouble at this moment entered the room, and the countess, whispering a few final words of instruction to him as she passed out, left them together.
Mary took a chair in the centre of the room, at equal distance from both doors. Lord C—, finding any sort of a seat uncomfortable under the circumstances, preferred to stand with his back to the mantelpiece. Dead silence was maintained for a few seconds, and then Mary, drawing the daintiest of handkerchiefs from her pocket, began to cry. The countess must have been a poor diplomatist, or she might have thought of this; or she may have remembered her own appearance on the rare occasions when she herself, a big, raw-boned girl, had attempted the softening influence of tears, and have attached little importance to the possibility. But when these soft, dimpled women cry, and cry quietly, it is another matter. Their eyes grow brighter, and the tears, few and far between, lie like dewdrops on a rose leaf.
Lord C— was as tender-hearted a lout as ever lived. In a moment he was on his knees with his arm round the girl’s waist, pouring out such halting words of love and devotion as came to his unready brain, cursing his fate, his earldom, and his mother, and assuring Mary that his only chance of happiness lay in his making her his countess. Had Mary liked to say the word at that moment, he would have caught her to his arms, and defied the whole world—for the time being. But Mary was a very practical young woman, and there are difficulties in the way of handling a lover, who, however ready he may be to do your bidding so long as your eyes are upon him, is liable to be turned from his purpose so soon as another influence is substituted for your own. His lordship suggested an immediate secret marriage. But you cannot run out into the street, knock up a clergyman, and get married on the spot, and Mary knew that the moment she was gone his lordship’s will would revert to his mother’s keeping. Then his lordship suggested flight, but flight requires money, and the countess knew enough to keep his lordship’s purse in her own hands. Despair seized upon his lordship.
“It’s no use,” he cried, “it will end in my marrying her.”
“Who’s she?” exclaimed Mary somewhat quickly.
His lordship explained the position. The family estates were heavily encumbered. It was deemed advisable that his lordship should marry Money, and Money, in the person of the only daughter of rich and ambitious parvenus, had offered itself—or, to speak more correctly, had been offered.
“What’s she like?” asked Mary.
“Oh, she’s nice enough,” was the reply, “only I don’t care for her and she doesn’t care for me. It won’t be much fun for either of us,” and his lordship laughed dismally.
“How do you know she doesn’t care for you?” asked Mary. A woman may be critical of her lover’s shortcomings, but at the very least he is good enough for every other woman.
“Well, she happens to care for somebody else,” answered his lordship, “she told me so herself.”
That would account for it.
“And is she willing to marry you?” inquired Mary.
His lordship shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, well, you know, her people want it,” he replied.
In spite of her trouble, the girl could not help a laugh. These young swells seemed to have but small wills of their own. Her ladyship, on the other side of the door, grew nervous. It was the only sound she had been able to hear.
“It’s deuced awkward,” explained his lordship, “when you’re—well, when you are anybody, you know. You can’t do as you like. Things are expected of you, and there’s such a lot to be considered.”
Mary rose and clasped her pretty dimpled hands, from which she had drawn her gloves, behind his neck.
“You do love me, Jack?” she said, looking up into his face.
For answer the lad hugged her to him very tightly, and there were tears in his eyes.
“Look here, Mary,” he cried, “if I could only get rid of my position, and settle down with you as a country gentleman, I’d do it to-morrow. Damn the title, it’s going to be the curse of my life.”
Perhaps in that moment Mary also wished that the title were at the bottom of the sea, and that her lover were only the plain Mr. John Robinson she had thought him. These big, stupid men are often very loveable in spite of, or because of their weakness. They appeal to the mother side of a woman’s heart, and that is the biggest side in all good women.
Suddenly however, the door opened. The countess appeared, and sentiment flew out. Lord C—, releasing Mary, sprang back, looking like a guilty school-boy.
“I thought I heard Miss Sewell go out,” said her ladyship in the icy tones that had never lost their power of making her son’s heart freeze within him. “I want to see you when you are free.”
“I shan’t be long,” stammered his lordship. “Mary—Miss Sewell is just going.”
Mary waited without moving until the countess had left and closed the door behind her. Then she turned to her lover and spoke in quick, low tones.
“Give me her address—the girl they want you to marry!”
“What are you going to do?” asked his lordship.
“I don’t know,” answered the girl, “but I’m going to see her.”
She scribbled the name down, and then said, looking the boy squarely in the face:
“Tell me frankly, Jack, do you want to marry me, or do you not?”
“You know I do, Mary,” he answered, and his eyes spoke stronger than his words. “If I weren’t a silly ass, there would be none of this trouble. But I don’t know how it is; I say to myself I’ll do, a thing, but the mater talks and talks and—”
“I know,” interrupted Mary with a smile. “Don’t argue with her, fall in with all her views, and pretend to agree with her.”
“If you could only think of some plan,” said his lordship, catching at the hope of her words, “you are so clever.”
“I am going to try,” answered Mary, “and if I fail, you must run off with me, even if you have to do it right before your mother’s eyes.”
What she meant was, “I shall have to run off with you,” but she thought it better to put it the other way about.
Mary found her involuntary rival a meek, gentle little lady, as much under the influence of her blustering father as was Lord C— under that of his mother. What took place at the interview one can only surmise; but certain it is that the two girls, each for her own ends, undertook to aid and abet one another.
Much to the surprised delight of their respective parents, there came about a change in the attitude hitherto assumed towards one another by Miss Clementina Hodskiss and Lord C—. All objections to his lordship’s unwilling attentions were suddenly withdrawn by the lady. Indeed, so swift to come and go are the whims of women, his calls were actually encouraged, especially when, as generally happened, they coincided with the absence from home of Mr. and Mrs. Hodskiss. Quite as remarkable was the new-born desire of Lord C— towards Miss Clementina Hodskiss. Mary’s name was never mentioned, and the suggestion of immediate marriage was listened to without remonstrance. Wiser folk would have puzzled their brains, but both her ladyship and ex-Contractor Hodskiss were accustomed to find all things yield to their wishes. The countess saw visions of a rehabilitated estate, and Clementina’s father dreamed of a peerage, secured by the influence of aristocratic connections. All that the young folks stipulated for (and on that point their firmness was supernatural) was that the marriage should be quiet, almost to the verge of secrecy.
“No beastly fuss,” his lordship demanded. “Let it be somewhere in the country, and no mob!” and his mother, thinking she understood his reason, patted his cheek affectionately.
“I should like to go down to Aunt Jane’s and be married quietly from there,” explained Miss Hodskiss to her father.
Aunt Jane resided on the outskirts of a small Hampshire village, and “sat under” a clergyman famous throughout the neighbourhood for having lost the roof to his mouth.
“You can’t be married by that old fool,” thundered her father—Mr. Hodskiss always thundered; he thundered even his prayers.
“He christened me,” urged Miss Clementina.
“And Lord knows what he called you. Nobody can understand a word he says.”
“I’d like him to marry me,” reiterated Miss Clementina.
Neither her ladyship nor the contractor liked the idea. The latter in particular had looked forward to a big function, chronicled at length in all the newspapers. But after all, the marriage was the essential thing, and perhaps, having regard to some foolish love passages that had happened between Clementina and a certain penniless naval lieutenant, ostentation might be out of place.
So in due course Clementina departed for Aunt Jane’s, accompanied only by her maid.
Quite a treasure was Miss Hodskiss’s new maid.
“A clean, wholesome girl,” said of her Contractor Hodskiss, who cultivated affability towards the lower orders; “knows her place, and talks sense. You keep that girl, Clemmy.”
“Do you think she knows enough?” hazarded the maternal Hodskiss.
“Quite sufficient for any decent woman,” retorted the contractor. “When Clemmy wants painting and stuffing, it will be time enough for her to think about getting one of your ‘Ach Himmels’ or ‘Mon Dieus’.”
“I like the girl myself immensely,” agreed Clementina’s mother. “You can trust her, and she doesn’t give herself airs.”
Her praises reached even the countess, suffering severely at the moment from the tyranny of an elderly Fraulein.
“I must see this treasure,” thought the countess to herself. “I am tired of these foreign minxes.”
But no matter at what cunning hour her ladyship might call, the “treasure” always happened for some reason or other to be abroad.
“Your girl is always out when I come,” laughed the countess. “One would fancy there was some reason for it.”
“It does seem odd,” agreed Clementina, with a slight flush.
Miss Hodskiss herself showed rather than spoke her appreciation of the girl. She seemed unable to move or think without her. Not even from the interviews with Lord C— was the maid always absent.
The marriage, it was settled, should be by licence. Mrs. Hodskiss made up her mind at first to run down and see to the preliminaries, but really when the time arrived it hardly seemed necessary to take that trouble. The ordering of the whole affair was so very simple, and the “treasure” appeared to understand the business most thoroughly, and to be willing to take the whole burden upon her own shoulders. It was not, therefore, until the evening before the wedding that the Hodskiss family arrived in force, filling Aunt Jane’s small dwelling to its utmost capacity. The swelling figure of the contractor, standing beside the tiny porch, compelled the passer-by to think of the doll’s house in which the dwarf resides during fair-time, ringing his own bell out of his own first-floor window. The countess and Lord C— were staying with her ladyship’s sister, the Hon. Mrs. J—, at G— Hall, some ten miles distant, and were to drive over in the morning. The then Earl of — was in Norway, salmon fishing. Domestic events did not interest him.
Clementina complained of a headache after dinner, and went to bed early. The “treasure” also was indisposed. She seemed worried and excited.
“That girl is as eager about the thing,” remarked Mrs. Hodskiss, “as though it was her own marriage.”
In the morning Clementina was still suffering from her headache, but asserted her ability to go through the ceremony, provided everybody would keep away, and not worry her. The “treasure” was the only person she felt she could bear to have about her. Half an hour before it was time to start for church her mother looked her up again. She had grown still paler, if possible, during the interval, and also more nervous and irritable. She threatened to go to bed and stop there if she was not left quite alone. She almost turned her mother out of the room, locking the door behind her. Mrs. Hodskiss had never known her daughter to be like this before.
The others went on, leaving her to follow in the last carriage with her father. The contractor, forewarned, spoke little to her. Only once he had occasion to ask her a question, and then she answered in a strained, unnatural voice. She appeared, so far as could be seen under her heavy veil, to be crying.
“Well, this is going to be a damned cheerful wedding,” said Mr. Hodskiss, and lapsed into sulkiness.
The wedding was not so quiet as had been anticipated. The village had got scent of it, and had spread itself upon the event, while half the house party from G— Hall had insisted on driving over to take part in the proceedings. The little church was better filled than it had been for many a long year past.
The presence of the stylish crowd unnerved the ancient clergyman, long unaccustomed to the sight of a strange face, and the first sound of the ancient clergyman’s voice unnerved the stylish crowd. What little articulation he possessed entirely disappeared, no one could understand a word he said. He appeared to be uttering sounds of distress. The ancient gentleman’s infliction had to be explained in low asides, and it also had to be explained why such an one had been chosen to perform the ceremony.
“It was a whim of Clementina’s,” whispered her mother. “Her father and myself were married from here, and he christened her. The dear child’s full of sentiment. I think it so nice of her.”
Everybody agreed it was charming, but wished it were over. The general effect was weird in the extreme.
Lord C— spoke up fairly well, but the bride’s responses were singularly indistinct, the usual order of things being thus reversed. The story of the naval lieutenant was remembered, and added to, and some of the more sentimental of the women began to cry in sympathy.
In the vestry things assumed a brighter tone. There was no lack of witnesses to sign the register. The verger pointed out to them the place, and they wrote their names, as people in such cases do, without stopping to read. Then it occurred to some one that the bride had not yet signed. She stood apart, with her veil still down, and appeared to have been forgotten. Encouraged, she came forward meekly, and took the pen from the hand of the verger. The countess came and stood behind her.
“Mary,” wrote the bride, in a hand that looked as though it ought to have been firm, but which was not.
“Dear me,” said the countess, “I never knew there was a Mary in your name. How differently you write when you write slowly.”
The bride did not answer, but followed with “Susannah.”
“Why, what a lot of names you must have, my dear!” exclaimed the countess. “When are you going to get to the ones we all know?”
“Ruth,” continued the bride without answering.
Breeding is not always proof against strong emotion. The countess snatched the bride’s veil from her face, and Mary Susannah Ruth Sewell stood before her, flushed and trembling, but looking none the less pretty because of that. At this point the crowd came in useful.
“I am sure your ladyship does not wish a scene,” said Mary, speaking low. “The thing is done.”
“The thing can be undone, and will be,” retorted the countess in the same tone. “You, you—”
“My wife, don’t forget that, mother,” said Lord C— coming between them, and slipping Mary’s hand on to his arm. “We are both sorry to have had to go about the thing in this roundabout way, but we wanted to avoid a fuss. I think we had better be getting away. I’m afraid Mr. Hodskiss is going to be noisy.”
* * * * *
The doctor poured himself out a glass of claret, and drank it off. His throat must have been dry.
“And what became of Clementina?” I asked. “Did the naval lieutenant, while the others were at church, dash up in a post-chaise and carry her off?”
“That’s what ought to have happened, for the whole thing to be in keeping,” agreed the doctor. “I believe as a matter of fact she did marry him eventually, but not till some years later, after the contractor had died.”
“And did Mr. Hodskiss make a noise in the vestry?” I persisted. The doctor never will finish a story.
“I can’t say for certain,” answered my host, “I only saw the gentleman once. That was at a shareholders’ meeting. I should incline to the opinion that he did.”
“I suppose the bride and bridegroom slipped out as quietly as possible and drove straight off,” I suggested.
“That would have been the sensible thing for them to do,” agreed the doctor.
“But how did she manage about her travelling frock?” I continued. “She could hardly have gone back to her Aunt Jane’s and changed her things.” The doctor has no mind for minutiæ.
“I cannot tell you about all that,” he replied. “I think I mentioned that Mary was a practical girl. Possibly she had thought of these details.”
“And did the countess take the matter quietly?” I asked.
I like a tidy story, where everybody is put into his or her proper place at the end. Your modern romance leaves half his characters lying about just anyhow.
“That also I cannot tell you for certain,” answered the doctor, “but I give her credit for so much sense. Lord C— was of age, and with Mary at his elbow, quite knew his own mind. I believe they travelled for two or three years. The first time I myself set eyes on the countess (née Mary Sewell) was just after the late earl’s death. I thought she looked a countess, every inch of her, but then I had not heard the story. I mistook the dowager for the housekeeper.”