Ancestors: A Novel. 1907 Ancestors: A Novel. 1907
Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

Ancestors: A Novel. 1907

2024 Edition

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Beschreibung des Verlags




Miss Thangue, who had never seen her friend's hand tremble among the teacups before, felt an edge on her mental appetite, stimulating after two monotonous years abroad. It was several minutes, however, before she made any effort to relieve her curiosity, for of all her patron-friends Victoria Gwynne required the most delicate touch. Flora had learned to be audacious without taking a liberty, which, indeed, was one secret of her success; but although she prided herself upon her reading of this enigma, whom even the ancestral dames of Capheaton looked down upon inspectively, she was never quite sure of her ground. She particularly wished to avoid mistakes upon the renewal of an intimacy kept alive by a fitful correspondence during her sojourn on the Continent. Quite apart from self-interest, she liked no one as well, and her curiosity was tempered by a warm sympathy and a genuine interest. It was this capacity for friendship, and her unlimited good-nature, that had saved her, penniless as she was, from the ignominious footing of the social parasite. The daughter of a clergyman in a Yorkshire village, and the playmate in childhood of the little girls of the castle near by, she had realized early in life that although pretty and well-bred, she was not yet sufficiently dowered by either nature or fortune to hope for a brilliant marriage; and she detested poverty. Upon her father's death she must earn her bread, and, reasoning that self-support was merely the marketing of one's essential commodity, and as her plump and indolent body was disinclined to privations of any sort, she elected the rôle of useful friend to fashionable and luxurious women. It was not an exalted niche to fill in life, but at least she had learned to fill it to perfection, and her ambitions were modest. Moreover, a certain integrity of character and girlish enthusiasm had saved her from the more corrosive properties of her anomalous position, and she was not only clever enough to be frankly useful without servility, but she had become so indispensable to certain of her friends, that although still blooming in her early forties, she would no more have deserted them for a mere husband than she would have renounced her comfortable and varied existence for the no less varied uncertainties of matrimony.

It was not often that a kindly fate had overlooked her for so long a period as two years, and when she had accepted the invitation of one of the old castle playmates to visit her in Florence, it had been with a lively anticipation that made dismay the more poignant in the face of hypochondria. Nevertheless, realizing her debt to this first of her patrons, and with much of her old affection revived, she wandered from one capital and specialist to the next, until death gave her liberty. She was not unrewarded, but the legacy inspired her with no desire for an establishment beyond her room at the Club in Dover Street, the companionship of friends not too exacting, the agreeable sense of indispensableness, and a certain splendor of environment which gave a warmth and color to life; and which she could not have commanded had she set up in middle years as an independent spinster of limited income. She had received many impatient letters while abroad, to which she had replied with fluent affection and picturesque gossip, never losing touch for a moment. When release came she had hastened home to book herself for the house-parties, and with Victoria Gwynne, although one of the least opulent of her friends, first on the list. She had had several correspondents as ardent as herself, and there was little gossip of the more intimate sort that had not reached her sooner or later, but she found subtle changes in Victoria for which she could not as yet account. She had now been at Capheaton and alone with her friend for three days, but there had been a stress of duties for both, and the hostess had never been more silent. To-day, as she seemed even less inclined to conversation, although manifestly nervous, Miss Thangue merely drank her tea with an air of being too comfortable and happy in England and Capheaton for intellectual effort, and patiently waited for a cue or an inspiration. But although she too kept silence, memory and imagination held rendezvous in her circumspect brain, and she stole more than one furtive glance at her companion.

Lady Victoria Gwynne, one of the tallest women of her time and still one of the handsomest, had been extolled all her life for that fusion of the romantic and the aristocratic ideals that so rarely find each other in the same shell; and loved by a few. Her round slender figure, supple with exercise and ignorant of disease, her black hair and eyes, the utter absence of color in her smooth Orientally white skin, the mouth, full at the middle and curving sharply upward at the corners, and the irregular yet delicate nose that seemed presented as an afterthought to save that brilliant and subtle face from classic severity, made her look—for the most part—as if fashioned for the picture-gallery or the poem, rather than for the commonplaces of life. Always one of those Englishwomen that let their energy be felt rather than expressed, for she made no effort in conversation whatever, her once mobile face had of late years, without aging, composed itself into a sort of illuminated mask. As far as possible removed from that other ideal, the British Matron, and still suggesting an untamed something in the complex centres of her character, she yet looked so aloof, so monumental, that she had recently been painted by a great artist for a world exhibition, as an illustration of what centuries of breeding and selection had done for the noblewomen of England.

Some years before, a subtle Frenchman had expressed her in such a fashion that while many vowed he had given to the world an epitome of romantic youth, others remarked cynically that his handsome subject looked as if about to seat herself on the corner of the table and smoke a cigarette. The American artist, although habitually cruel to his patrons, had, after triumphantly transferring the type to the canvas, drawn to the surface only so much of the soul of the woman as all that ran might admire. If there was a hint of bitterness in the lower part of the face, from the eyes there looked an indomitable courage and much sweetness. Only in the carnage of the head, the tilt of the chin, was the insolence expressed that had made her many enemies. Some of the wildest stories of the past thirty years had been current about her, and rejected or believed according to the mental habit or personal bias of those that tinker with reputations. The late Queen, it was well known, had detested her, and made no secret of her resentment that through the short-sighted loyalty of one of the first members of her Household, the dangerous creature had been named after her. But whatever her secrets, open scandal Lady Victoria had avoided: imperturbably, without even an additional shade of insolence, never apologizing nor explaining; wherein, no doubt, lay one secret of her strength. And then her eminently respectable husband, Arthur Gwynne, second son of the Marquess of Strathland and Zeal, had always fondly alluded to her as "The Missus," and lauded her as a repository of all the unfashionable virtues. To-day, presiding at the tea-table in her son's country-house, an eager light in her eyes, she looked like neither of her portraits: more nearly approached, perhaps, poor Arthur Gwynne's ideal of her; not in the least the frozen stoic of the past three days. When she finally made an uncontrollable movement that half-overturned the cream-jug, Flora Thangue's curiosity overcame her, and she murmured, tentatively:

"If I had ever seen you nervous before, Vicky—"

"I am not nervous, but allowances are to be made for maternal anxiety."

"Oh!" Miss Thangue drew a deep breath. She continued, vaguely, "Oh, the maternal rôle—"

"Have I ever failed as a mother?" asked Lady Victoria, dispassionately.

"No, but you are so many other things, too. Somehow, when I am away from you I see you in almost every other capacity."

"Jack is thirty and I am forty-nine."

"You look thirty," replied Flora, with equal candor.

"I am thankful that my age is in Lodge; I can never be tempted to enroll myself with the millions that were married when just sixteen."

"Oh, you never could make a fool of yourself," murmured her friend. Then, as Victoria showed signs of relapsing into silence, she plunged in recklessly; "Jack is bound to be elected. When has he ever failed to get what he wanted? But you, Vicky dear—is there anything wrong? You had a bulky letter from California the day I arrived. I do hope that tiresome property is not giving you trouble. What a pity it is such a long way off."

"The San Francisco lease runs out shortly. Half of that, and the southern ranch, are my only independent sources of income. The northern ranch belongs to Jack. All three are getting less and less easy to let in their entirety, my agents write me, and I feel half a pauper already."

"This is not so bad," murmured Flora.

"Strathland would bundle me out in ten minutes if anything happened to Jack."

"It would be a pity; it suits you." She was not referring to the hall, which was somewhat too light and small for the heroic mould of its chatelaine, but to the noble proportions of the old house itself, and the treasures that had accumulated since the first foundations were laid in the reign of Henry VI. There were rooms hung with ugly brocades and velvets never duplicated, state bed-chambers and boudoirs sacred to the memory of personages whose dust lay half-forgotten in their marbles; but above all, Capheaton was famous for its pictures. Not only was there an unusually large number of portraits by masters scattered about the twenty rooms that lay behind and on either side of the hall, but many hundreds of those portraits and landscapes from the brushes of artists fashionable in their day, unknown in the annals of art, but seeming to emit a faint scent of lavender and rose leaves from the walls of England's old manor-houses and castles. In the dining-room there was a full-length portrait of Mary Tudor, black but for the yellow face and hands and ruff; and another, the scarlet coat and robust complexion still fresh, of the fourth George, handsome, gay, devil-may-care; both painted to commemorate visits to Capheaton, historically hospitable in the past. But Lord Strathland, besides having been presented with six daughters and an heir as extravagant as tradition demanded, was poor as peers go, and had more than once succumbed to the titillating delights of speculation, less cheering in the retrospect. Having a still larger estate to keep up, he had been glad to lend Capheaton to his second son, who, being an excellent manager and assisted by his wife's income, had lived very comfortably upon its yield. Upon his death Elton Gwynne had assumed possession as a matter of course; and a handsome allowance from his doting grandfather supplementing his inheritance, the mind of the haughty and promising young gentleman was free of sordid anxieties.

Lady Victoria's satirical gaze swept the simpering portraits of her son's great-aunts and grandmothers, with which the hall was promiscuously hung.

"Of course I am as English as if the strain had never been crossed, if you mean that. But I'd rather like to get away for a while. I really ought to visit my California estates, and I have always wanted to see that part of America. I started for it once, but never even reached the western boundaries of New York. One of us should spend a year there, at least; and of course it is out of the question for Jack to leave England again."

"You would not spend six months out of Curzon Street. You are the most confirmed Londoner I know."

"Do you think so?"

Miss Thangue replied, impulsively, "I have often wondered if you numbered satiety among your complexities!"

This was as far as she had ever adventured into the mysterious backwaters of Victoria's soul, and she dropped her eyelids lest a deprecating glance meet the contempt it deserved; both with a due regard for the limit imposed by good taste, despised the faint heart.

"I hate the sight of London!" Her tone had changed so suddenly that Flora winked. "If it were not for Jack I would leave—get out. I am sick of the whole game."

"Oh, be on your guard," cried her friend, sharply. "That sort of thing means the end of youth."

"Youth after fifty depends upon your doctor, your masseuse, and your dressmaker. I do not say that my present state of mind is sown with evergreens and immortelles, but the fact remains that for the present I have come to the end of myself and am interested in no one on earth but Jack."

Miss Thangue stared into her teacup, recalling the gossip of a year ago, although she had given it little heed at the time: Victoria had been transiently interested so often! But all the world knew that when Arthur Gwynne was killed Sir Cadge Vanneck had been off his head about Victoria; and that when obvious restrictions vanished into the family vault he had left abruptly for Rhodesia to develop his mines, and had not found time to return since. Sir Cadge was about the same age as the famous beauty, and rose quite two inches above her lofty head. People had grown accustomed to the fine appearance they made when together—"Artie" was ruddy and stout—and although Victoria reinforced her enemies, for Vanneck was one of the most agreeable and accomplished men in London, the artistic sense of that lenient world was tickled at their congruities and took their future mating for granted; Arthur Gwynne was sure to meet his death on the hunting-field, for he was far too heavy for a horse and rode vilely. When he fulfilled his destiny and Vanneck fled, the world was as much annoyed as amused. But they were amused, and Flora Thangue knew that this gall must have bitten deeper than the loss of Vanneck, who may or may not have made an impression on this woman too proud and too spoiled to accept homage in public otherwise than passively, whatever may have been the unwritten tale of her secret hours. The excuses hazarded by Vanneck's friends were neither humorous nor sentimental, but no one denied that they were eminently sensible: his first wife had died childless, his estates were large, his title was one of the oldest in England. But although no one pitied Victoria Gwynne, many were annoyed at having their mental attitude disarranged, and this no doubt had kept the gossip alive and been a constant source of irritation to a woman whose sense of humor was as deep as her pride.

Flora replied at random. "Jack couldn't very well get on without you."

His mother's eyes flashed. "I flatter myself he could not—at present. If Julia Kaye would only marry him!"

"She won't," cried Flora, relieved at the change of tone. "And why do you wish it? She is two years older, of quite dreadful origin—and—well—I don't like her; perhaps my opinion is a little biased."

"She is immensely rich, one of the ablest political women in London, and Jack is desperately in love with her."

"I cannot picture Jack in extremities about any one, although I don't deny that he has his sentimental seizures. He even made love to me when he was cutting his teeth. But he doesn't need a lot of money, you rank higher than she among the political women, and—well, I believe her to be bad-tempered, and more selfish than any woman I have ever known."

"He loves her. He wants her. He would dominate any woman he married. He is such a dear that no woman who lived with him could help loving him. Moreover, she is inordinately ambitious, and Jack's career is the most promising in England."

"Jack is far too good for her, and I am glad that he will not get her. I happen to know that she has made up her mind to marry Lord Brathland."

"Bratty is a donkey."

"She would be the last to deny it, but he is certain to be a duke if he lives, and she would marry a man that had to be led round with a string for the sake of being called 'your grace' by the servants. She'll never be anything but a third-rate duchess, and people that tolerate her now will snub her the moment she gives herself airs. But I suppose she thinks a duchess is a duchess."

"Money goes pretty far with us," said Lady Victoria, dryly.

"Doesn't it? Nevertheless—you know it as well as I do—among the people that really count other things go further, and duchesses have been put in their place before this—you have done it yourself. Julia Kaye has kept her head so far because she has been hunting for strawberry leaves, and there is no denying she's clever; but once she is in the upper air—well, I have seen her as rude as she dares be, and if she became a duchess she would cultivate rudeness as part of the rôle."

"We can be rude enough."

"Yes, and know how to be. A parvenu never does."

"She is astonishingly clever."

"Duchesses are born—even the American ones. Julia Kaye has never succeeded in being quite natural; she has always the effect of rehearsing the part of the great lady for amateur theatricals. Poor Gussy Kaye might have coached her better. The moment she mounts she'll become wholly artificial, she'll patronize, she'll give herself no end of ridiculous airs; she won't move without sending a paragraph to the Morning Post. The back of her head will be quite in line with her charming little bust, and I for one shall walk round and laugh in her face. She is the only person that could inspire me to such a vicious speech, but I am human, and as she so ingenuously snubs me as a person of no consequence, my undazzled eyes see her as she is."

Lady Victoria, instead of responding with the faint, absent, somewhat irritating smile which she commonly vouchsafed those that sought to amuse her, lit another cigarette and leaned back among the cushions of the sofa behind the tea-table. She drew her eyelids together, a rare sign of perturbation. The only stigma of time on her face was a certain sharpness of outline and leanness of throat. But the throat was always covered, and her wardrobe reflected the most fleeting of the fashions, assuring her position as a contemporary, if driving her dressmaker to the verge of bankruptcy. When her bright, black, often laughing eyes were in play she passed with the casual public, and abroad, as a woman of thirty, but with her lids down the sharpness of the lower part of the face arrested the lover of detail.

"Are you sure of that?" she asked, in a moment.


"I am sorry. It will be a great blow to Jack. I hoped she would come round in time."

"She will marry Brathland. I saw Cecilia Spence in town. She was at Maundrell Abbey with them both last week. You may expect the announcement any day—she'll write it herself for the Morning Post. How on earth can Jack find time to think about women with the immense amount of work he gets through?—and his really immodest ambitions! By-the-way—isn't this polling-day? I wonder if he has won his seat? But as I said just now I do not associate Jack with defeat. His trifling set-backs have merely served to throw his manifest destiny into higher relief."

"The telegram should have come an hour ago. I have few doubts—and yet he has so many enemies. I wonder if we shall be born into a world, after we have been sufficiently chastened here, where one can get one's head above the multitude without rousing some of the most hideous qualities in human nature? It is a great responsibility! But there has been no such speaker, nor fighter, for a quarter of a century." Her eyes glowed again. "And heaven knows I have worked for him."

"What a pity he is not a Tory! He could have a dozen boroughs for the asking. I wish he were. The whole Liberal party makes me sick. And it is against every tradition of his family—"

"As if that mattered. Besides, he is a born fighter. He'd hate anything he could have for the asking. And he's far too modern, too progressive, for the Conservative party—even if there were anything but blue-mould left in it."

"Well, you know I am not original, and my poor old dad brought us up on the soundest Tory principles; he never would even compromise on the word Conservative. But considering that Jack is as Liberal as if the taint were in the marrow of his bones, what a blessing that poor Artie did not happen to be the oldest son. Cecilia says they were all talking of it at Maundrell Abbey, where of course it is a peculiarly interesting topic. That ornamental and conscientious peer, Lord Barnstable, has never ceased to regret his father's death, for reasons far removed from sentimental. He told Cecilia that Lord Strathland almost confessed to him that he would give his right eye to hand over his old shoes to Jack, not only because he detests Zeal, but because it would take the backbone out of his Liberalism—"

"And ruin his career. Thank heaven Zeal is engaged at last. They will marry in the spring, and then the only cloud on Jack's horizon will vanish."

"What if there were no children?"

"There are so much more often than not—that is the least of my worries. He had five girls by his first wife; there is no reason why this splendid cow I have picked out should not produce a dozen boys. I never worked so hard over one of Jack's elections—not only to overcome Zeal's misogyny, which he calls scruples, but I had to fight Strathland every inch of the way. When I think of Jack's desperation if he were pitchforked up into the Peers—you do not know him as I do."

"Well, he is safe for a time, I fancy. There has been consumption in the family before, and always the slowest sort—"

A footman entered with a yellow envelope on a tray.

Lady Victoria opened it without haste or change of color.

"Jack is returned," she said.

"How jolly," replied the other, with equal indifference.

5. März
Rectory Print

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