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“After all,” sighed the marchioness, as she conveyed a three-cornered piece of muffin from the silver chafing-dish to her mouth, and nibbled delicately at one of the corners—“after all, what are we but slaves of society?”

Mr. Despencer extended a hand almost as white and slender as the marchioness’s own, and abstracted a small cube of sugar from the porcelain basin, of the thinness and transparency of a sea-shell, on the marchioness’s silver tray, while he meditated a becoming response.

[2]“Yes,” he exclaimed, giving his head a slow, mournful movement from side to side, “you are right. We are no better off than prisoners on the treadmill. Even you are but a bird of paradise held captive in a gilded cage.”

The bird of paradise removed the piece of muffin from its beak to turn a pair of bright, steel-blue eyes on the speaker, gazing at him for some moments as though in doubt whether to accept this beautiful sentiment as a tribute or to rebuke it as a familiarity.

The cage so feelingly referred to was one of a set of drawing-rooms on the first floor of a mansion in Berkeley Square—that is to say, in the heart of that restricted area within which society requires its bond-servants to reside during the spring and early summer. The gilding consisted in a mural decoration of the very latest and most artistic design, representing a number of Japanese dragons going through a kind of dragon drill, apparently adapted to develop their tail muscles[3] according to the system of Mr. Sandow; in curtains of lemon-colored silk on each side of the window and other curtains of lemon-colored plush across the doorways; in a carpet of that rich but chaotic pattern which has been compared to the poetical style of the late Robert Montgomery, and in a thicket of fantastic and inconvenient chairs, of china-laden cabinets and palms in Satsuma jars, which would have rendered it extremely hazardous for the gymnastic dragons to have come down from the walls and transferred their exercises to the floor of the apartment.

The inhabitant of this dungeon was a handsome young woman of forty, or possibly forty-five, with the fresh complexion and vivacious expression of a girl, united with a certain massiveness of outline, the inseparable distinction of the British matron. Just at this moment, moreover, her features were hardened into that business-like aspect which the British matron assumes when she is engaged in doing that duty which England[4] expects of her no less than of its sea-faring population.

Her companion looked even younger than the marchioness. A rather pale face, set off by a carefully cultivated black mustache, gave him that air of concealed wickedness which women find so interesting. His attire was a little too elegant to be in perfect taste. His bow was tied with an artistic grace repugnant to the feelings of an English gentleman. He was a typical specimen of that class of man whom men instinctively taboo and women instinctively confide in; who are blackballed in the best clubs and invited to all the best country-houses, who have no male friends, and are on intimate terms with half our peeresses. Sometimes these men end by getting found out, and sometimes they marry a dowager countess with money—and a temper. As yet neither fate had overtaken Mr. Despencer.

The marchioness decided that her companion had been familiar.

[5]“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said, with some sharpness. “I sent for you because I want your assistance.”

Despencer meekly submitted to the reproof.

“You know I am always at your disposal,” he murmured.

The marchioness glanced at him with a questioning air, much as King John may be supposed to have glanced at Hubert before proceeding to introduce the subject of Prince Arthur’s eyes.

“They tell me you are horribly wicked,” she remarked, in the tone of one who pays a distinguished compliment, “so I feel I can rely on you.”

“In that case I must positively ask you to go into another room,” returned Despencer, with his best smile. “In your presence I find my better instincts overpower me.”

The marchioness leaned back in her chair, and half closed her eyes with an expression of well-bred fatigue.

“Please don’t begin to say clever things.[6] I want to talk sensibly.” She reopened her eyes. “You see, I can’t speak to the marquis because—well, he is rather old-fashioned in some of his ideas; so I have to fall back on you.”

Despencer slightly shrugged his shoulders.

“Lord Severn is certainly a trifle out of date. He belongs to the solid-tire period.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed the marchioness, with some eagerness. The next moment she recollected herself and frowned. Even the fireside cat will sometimes protrude its claws from under their velvet caps, and the marchioness was not quite sure that she had not felt a scratch. She frowned beautifully—the marchioness’s frown was celebrated. Then she observed: “Though I think it is extremely impertinent of you to say so. Please to remember that the marquis is my husband.”

“Ah! to be sure he is. I apologize. It is so difficult to keep in mind these legal distinctions.”

[7]This time the marchioness felt certain she had been scratched. She glanced furtively at her companion, who preserved the composure of entire innocence as he set down his empty teacup on a small ebony stool, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and made himself more at ease by drawing back into his chair and crossing his superbly trousered legs. After a little pause, she asked suddenly:

“You know Mr. Hammond?”

“No.” The word was spoken with a touch of disdain.

“Not know Mr. Hammond! Why, I thought Hammond’s ales were drunk in all the clubs?”

“It doesn’t follow that you know a man because you drink his beer. But I have heard of him. Isn’t he rather an outsider?”

The marchioness looked indignant.

“He is run after by all the best people,” she remonstrated.

“Yes, but is he worth it?” returned Despencer.

[8]“He is worth two millions,” retorted the marchioness.

Despencer sat up in his chair and glanced at her.

“Rather a loud kind of man, they tell me,” he observed.

“They tell me it is the thing to be loud now,” said his companion.

“The sort of man that takes ballet-girls to Richmond?”

“The sort of man that every mother in England would welcome as a son-in-law.”

Despencer smiled compassionately and leaned back in his chair again.

“Oh, quite so. There could be no possible objection to him as a son-in-law. I thought you meant as an acquaintance.”

“Don’t be so insolent,” said the marchioness; “but listen. A man like that ought to marry, and to marry well. If he were to fall into the clutches of some vulgar adventuress, I should regard it as a misfortune for society.”

[9]“This is very noble of you,” murmured her companion.

She went on: “We are all so wretchedly poor in society now that we can’t afford to lose two millions. Besides, with his money and a seat in Parliament, they are sure to make him a peer.”

“I should think that very likely. The House of Lords is the one club in London where you can’t be blackballed.”

The marchioness condescended to smile.

“How wretchedly jealous and spiteful you are to-day! To come to the point. I have determined to do my duty to society by marrying Victoria to this man.”

“Congratulations! Let me see, ought I to call you a Spartan mother, or a Roman one? I really forget.”

The marchioness raised her hand in languid remonstrance.

“I begged you just now not to be clever. Unfortunately, there is an obstacle in the way.”

[10]“Ah! I think I have heard something about a gallant cousin?” Despencer suggested.

“No, no. Victoria has far too much sense for that sort of thing. Besides, I don’t allow Gerald here now. No, the obstacle I mean is not a man, but a woman.”

“Ah! now I see it is going to be serious. Who is she?”

“Belle Yorke.”

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