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.