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The Head of the House of Coombe

The Head of the House of Coombe

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1

  • The history of the circumstances about to be related began many years ago—o_o it seems in these days. It began, at least, years before the world bein_ocked to and fro revealed in the pause between each of its heavings som_tartling suggestion of a new arrangement of its kaleidoscopic particles, an_hen immediately a re-arrangement, and another and another until all belief i_ permanency of design seemed lost, and the inhabitants of the earth waited, helplessly gazing at changing stars and colours in a degree of mental chaos.
  • Its opening incidents may be dated from a period when people still had reaso_o believe in permanency and had indeed many of them—sometimes throug_ngenuousness, sometimes through stupidity of type—acquired a singula_onfidence in the importance and stability of their possessions, desires, ambitions and forms of conviction.
  • London at the time, in common with other great capitals, felt itself rathe_inal though priding itself on being much more fluid and adaptable than it ha_een fifty years previously. In speaking of itself it at least dealt wit_ixed customs, and conditions and established facts connected with them—whic_ave rise to brilliant—or dull—witticisms.
  • One of these, heard not infrequently, was to the effect that—in London—on_ight live under an umbrella if one lived under it in the right neighbourhoo_nd on the right side of the street, which axiom is the reason that a certai_hild through the first six years of her life sat on certain days staring ou_f a window in a small, dingy room on the top floor of a slice of a house on _arrow but highly fashionable London street and looked on at the passing o_otors, carriages and people in the dull afternoon grayness.
  • The room was exalted above its station by being called The Day Nursery an_nother room equally dingy and uninviting was known as The Night Nursery. Th_lice of a house was inhabited by the very pretty Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, it_nordinate rent being reluctantly paid by her—apparently with the assistanc_f those "ravens" who are expected to supply the truly deserving. The rent wa_nordinate only from the standpoint of one regarding it soberly in connectio_ith the character of the house itself which was a gaudy little kennel crowde_etween two comparatively stately mansions. On one side lived an inordinatel_ich South African millionaire, and on the other an inordinately exalte_erson of title, which facts combined to form sufficient grounds for a certai_nordinateness of rent.
  • Mrs. Gareth-Lawless was also, it may be stated, of the fibre which must liv_n the right side of the street or dissolve into nothingness—since as nearl_othingness as an embodied entity can achieve had Nature seemingly created he_t the outset. So light and airy was the fair, slim, physical presentation o_er being to the earthly vision, and so almost impalpably diaphanous th_exture and form of mind and character to be observed by human perception, that among such friends—and enemies—as so slight a thing could claim she wa_rettily known as "Feather". Her real name, "Amabel", was not half as charmin_nd whimsical in its appropriateness. "Feather" she adored being called and a_t was the fashion among the amazing if amusing circle in which she spent he_ife, to call its acquaintances fantastic pet names selected from among th_orld of birds, beasts and fishes or inanimate objects—"Feather" she floate_hrough her curious existence. And it so happened that she was the mother o_he child who so often stared out of the window of the dingy and comfortles_ay Nursery, too much a child to be more than vaguely conscious in a chaoti_ay that a certain feeling which at times raged within her and made her littl_ody hot and restless was founded on something like actual hate for a specia_an who had certainly taken no deliberate steps to cause her detestation.
  • * * * * *
  • "Feather" had not been called by that delicious name when she married Rober_areth-Lawless who was a beautiful and irresponsibly rather than deliberatel_ad young man. She was known as Amabel Darrel and the loveliest girl in th_ovely corner of the island of Jersey where her father, a country doctor, ha_egotten a large family of lovely creatures and brought them up on th_ppallingly inadequate proceeds of his totally inadequate practice. Prett_emale things must be disposed of early lest their market value decline.
  • Therefore a well-born young man even without obvious resources represents _ail in the offing which is naturally welcomed as possibly belonging to a bar_hich may at least bear away a burden which the back carrying it as part o_ts pack will willingly shuffle on to other shoulders. It is all very well fo_ man with six lovely daughters to regard them as capital if he has money o_osition or generous relations or if he has energy and an ingenious unfatigue_ind. But a man who is tired and neither clever nor important in any degre_nd who has reared his brood in one of the Channel Islands with a faded, silly, unattractive wife as his only aid in any difficulty, is wise in leavin_he whole hopeless situation to chance and luck. Sometimes luck comes withou_ssistance but—almost invariably—it does not.
  • "Feather"—who was then "Amabel"—thought Robert Gareth-Lawless incredible goo_uck. He only drifted into her summer by merest chance because a friend'_acht in which he was wandering about "came in" for supplies. A girl Ariel i_ thin white frock and with big larkspur blue eyes yearning at you under he_lapping hat as she answers your questions about the best road to somewher_ill not be too difficult about showing the way herself. And there you are a_ first-class beginning.
  • The night after she met Gareth-Lawless in a lane whose banks were thick wit_luebells, Amabel and her sister Alice huddled close together in bed an_alked almost pantingly in whispers over the possibilities which might revea_hemselves—God willing—through a further acquaintance with Mr. Gareth-Lawless.
  • They were eager and breathlessly anxious but they were young—YOUNG in thei_agerness and Amabel was full of delight in his good looks.
  • "He is SO handsome, Alice," she whispered actually hugging her, not wit_ffection but exultation. "And he can't be more than twenty-six or seven. An_'m SURE he liked me. You know that way a man has of looking at you—one see_t even in a place like this where there are only curates and things. He ha_rown eyes—like dark bright water in pools. Oh, Alice, if he SHOULD!"
  • Alice was not perhaps as enthusiastic as her sister. Amabel had seen him firs_nd in the Darrel household there was a sort of unwritten, not always observe_ode flimsily founded on "First come first served." Just at the outset of a_cquaintance one might say "Hands off" as it were. But not for long.
  • "It doesn't matter how pretty one is they seldom do," Alice grumbled. "And h_ayn't have a farthing."
  • "Alice," whispered Amabel almost agonizingly, "I wouldn't CARE a farthing—i_nly he WOULD! Have I a farthing—have you a farthing—has anyone who ever come_ere a farthing? He lives in London. He'd take me away. To live even in a bac_treet IN LONDON would be Heaven! And one MUST—as soon as one possibl_an.—One MUST! And Oh!" with another hug which this time was a shudder, "thin_f what Doris Harmer had to do! Think of his thick red old neck and his horri_atness! And the way he breathed through his nose. Doris said that at first i_sed to make her ill to look at him."
  • "She's got over it," whispered Alice. "She's almost as fat as he is now. An_he's loaded with pearls and things."
  • "I shouldn't have to 'get over' anything," said Amabel, "if this one WOULD. _ould fall in love with him in a minute."
  • "Did you hear what Father said?" Alice brought out the words rather slowly an_eluctantly. She was not eager on the whole to yield up a detail which afte_ll added glow to possible prospects which from her point of view were alread_rritatingly glowing. Yet she could not resist the impulse of excitement. "No, you didn't hear. You were out of the room."
  • "What about? Something about HIM? I hope it wasn't horrid. How could it be?"
  • "He said," Alice drawled with a touch of girlishly spiteful indifference,
  • "that if he was one of the poor Gareth-Lawlesses he hadn't much chance o_ucceeding to the title. His uncle—Lord Lawdor—is only forty-five and he ha_our splendid healthy boys—perfect little giants."
  • "Oh, I didn't know there was a title. How splendid," exclaimed Amabe_apturously. Then after a few moments' innocent maiden reflection she breathe_ith sweet hopefulness from under the sheet, "Children so often have scarle_ever or diphtheria, and you know they say those very strong ones are mor_ikely to die than the other kind. The Vicar of Sheen lost FOUR all in a week.
  • And the Vicar died too. The doctor said the diphtheria wouldn't have kille_im if the shock hadn't helped."
  • Alice—who had a teaspoonful more brain than her sister—burst into a fit o_iggling it was necessary to smother by stuffing the sheet in her mouth.
  • "Oh! Amabel!" she gurgled. "You ARE such a donkey! You would have been sill_nough to say that even if people could have heard you. Suppose HE had!"
  • "Why should he care," said Amabel simply. "One can't help thinking things. I_t happened he would be the Earl of Lawdor and—"
  • She fell again into sweet reflection while Alice giggled a little more. The_he herself stopped and thought also. After all perhaps—! One had to b_ractical. The tenor of her thoughts was such that she did not giggle agai_hen Amabel broke the silence by whispering with tremulous, soft devoutness.
  • "Alice—do you think that praying REALLY helps?"
  • "I've prayed for things but I never got them," answered Alice. "But you kno_hat the Vicar said on Sunday in sermon about 'Ask and ye shall receive'."
  • "Perhaps you haven't prayed in the right spirit," Amabel suggested with tru_iety. "Shall we—shall we try? Let us get out of bed and kneel down."
  • "Get out of bed and kneel down yourself," was Alice's sympathetic rejoinder.
  • "You wouldn't take that much trouble for ME."
  • Amabel sat up on the edge of the bed. In the faint moonlight and her whit_ight-gown she was almost angelic. She held the end of the long fair sof_lait hanging over her shoulder and her eyes were full of reproach.
  • "I think you ought to take SOME interest," she said plaintively.
  • "You know there would be more chances for you and the others—if I were not here."
  • "I'll wait until you are not here," replied the unstirred Alice.
  • But Amabel felt there was no time for waiting in this particular case. A yach_hich "came in" might so soon "put out". She knelt down, clasping her sli_oung hands and bending her forehead upon them. In effect she implored tha_ivine Wisdom might guide Mr. Robert Gareth-Lawless in the much desired path.
  • She also made divers promises because nothing is so easy as to promise things.
  • She ended with a gently fervent appeal that—if her prayer wer_ranted—something "might happen" which would result in her becoming a Countes_f Lawdor. One could not have put the request with greater tentative delicacy.
  • She felt quite uplifted and a trifle saintly when she rose from her knees.
  • Alice had actually fallen asleep already and she sighed quite tenderly as sh_lipped into the place beside her. Almost as her lovely little head touche_he pillow her own eyes closed. Then she was asleep herself—and in the faintl_oonlit room with the long soft plait trailing over her shoulder looked eve_ore like an angel than before.
  • Whether or not as a result of this touching appeal to the Throne of Grace, Robert Gareth-Lawless DID. In three months there was a wedding at the ver_ncient village church, and the flowerlike bridesmaids followed a flower of _ride to the altar and later in the day to the station from where Mr. and Mrs.
  • Robert Gareth-Lawless went on their way to London. Perhaps Alice and Oliv_lso knelt by the side of their white beds the night after the wedding, for o_hat propitious day two friends of the bridegroom's—one of them the owner o_he yacht—decided to return again to the place where there were to be foun_he most nymphlike of pretty creatures a man had ever by any chance beheld.
  • Such delicate little fair crowned heads, such delicious little tip-tilte_oses and slim white throats, such ripples of gay chatter and nonsense! When _an has fortune enough of his own why not take the prettiest thing he sees? S_lice and Olive were borne away also and poor Mr. and Mrs. Darrel breathe_ighs of relief and there were not only more chances but causes for brigh_opefulness in the once crowded house which now had rooms to spare.
  • A certain inattention on the part of the Deity was no doubt responsible fo_he fact that "something" did not "happen" to the family of Lord Lawdor. O_he contrary his four little giants of sons throve astonishingly and a fe_onths after the Gareth-Lawless wedding Lady Lawdor—a trifle effusively, as i_ere—presented her husband with twin male infants so robust that they wer_umorously known for years afterwards as the "Twin Herculeses."
  • By that time Amabel had become "Feather" and despite Robert's ingenious an_arefully detailed method of living upon nothing whatever, had many reason_or knowing that "life is a back street in London" is not a matter of beds o_oses. Since the back street must be the "right street" and its accompaniment_ust wear an aspect of at least seeming to belong to the right order o_etachment and fashionable ease, one was always in debt and forced to keep ou_f the way of duns, and obliged to pretend things and tell lies with aptnes_nd outward gaiety. Sometimes one actually was so far driven to the wall tha_ne could not keep most important engagements and the invention of plausibl_xcuses demanded absolute genius. The slice of a house between the two bi_nes was a rash feature of the honeymoon but a year of giving smart littl_inners in it and going to smart big dinners from it in a smart if smal_rougham ended in a condition somewhat akin to the feat of balancing onesel_n the edge of a sword.
  • Then Robin was born. She was an intruder and a calamity of course. Nobody ha_ontemplated her for a moment. Feather cried for a week when she firs_nnounced the probability of her advent. Afterwards however she managed t_orget the approaching annoyance and went to parties and danced to the las_our continuing to be a great success because her prettiness was delicious an_er diaphanous mentality was no train upon the minds of her admirers male an_emale.
  • That a Feather should become a parent gave rise to much wit of light weigh_hen Robin in the form of a bundle of lace was carried down by her nurse to b_xhibited in the gaudy crowded little drawing-room in the slice of a house i_he Mayfair street.
  • It was the Head of the House of Coombe who asked the first question about her.
  • "What will you DO with her?" he inquired detachedly.
  • The frequently referred to "babe unborn" could not have presented a gaze o_urer innocence than did the lovely Feather. Her eyes of larkspur bluenes_ere clear of any thought or intention as spring water is clear at it_nclouded best.
  • Her ripple of a laugh was clear also—enchantingly clear.
  • "Do!" repeated. "What is it people 'do' with babies? I suppose the nurs_nows. I don't. I wouldn't touch her for the world. She frightens me."
  • She floated a trifle nearer and bent to look at her.
  • "I shall call her Robin," she said. "Her name is really Roberta as sh_ouldn't be called Robert. People will turn round to look at a girl when the_ear her called Robin. Besides she has eyes like a robin. I wish she'd ope_hem and let you see."
  • By chance she did open them at the moment—quite slowly. They were dark liqui_rown and seemed to be all lustrous iris which gazed unmovingly at the objec_n of focus. That object was the Head of the House of Coombe.
  • "She is staring at me. There is antipathy in her gaze," he said, and stare_ack unmovingly also, but with a sort of cold interest.