The interview which took place between Feather and Lord Coombe a few day_ater had its own special character.
"A governess will come here tomorrow at eleven o'clock," he said.
"She is a Mademoiselle Valle. She is accustomed to the educating of young children. She will present herself for your approval.
Benby has done all the rest."
Feather flushed to her fine-spun ash-gold hair.
"What on earth can it matter!" she cried.
"It does not matter to you," he answered; "it chances—for the time being—t_atter to ME."
"Chances!" she flamed forth—it was really a queer little flame of feeling.
"That's it. You don't really care! It's a caprice—just because you see she i_oing to be pretty."
"I'll own," he admitted, "that has a great deal to do with it."
"It has everything to do with it," she threw out. "If she had a snub nose an_hick legs you wouldn't care for her at all."
"I don't say that I do care for her," without emotion. "The situatio_nterests me. Here is an extraordinary little being thrown into the world. Sh_elongs to nobody. She will have to fight for her own hand. And she will hav_o FIGHT, by God! With that dewy lure in her eyes and her curved pomegranat_outh! She will not know, but she will draw disaster!"
"Then she had better not be taught anything at all," said Feather. "It woul_e an amusing thing to let her grow up without learning to read or write a_ll. I know numbers of men who would like the novelty of it. Girls who know s_uch are a bore."
"There are a few minor chances she ought to have," said Coombe.
"A governess is one. Mademoiselle Valle will be here at eleven."
"I can't see that she promises to be such a beauty," fretted Feather. "She'_he kind of good looking child who might grow up into a fat girl with starin_lack eyes like a barmaid."
"Occasionally pretty women do abhor their growing up daughters," commente_oombe letting his eyes rest on her interestedly.
"I don't abhor her," with pathos touched with venom. "But a big, lumping gir_anging about ogling and wanting to be ogled when she is passing through tha_illy age! And sometimes you speak to me as a man speaks to his wife when h_s tired of her."
"I beg your pardon," Coombe said. "You make me feel like a person who live_ver a shop at Knightsbridge, or in bijou mansion off Regent's Park."
But he was deeply aware that, as an outcome of the anomalous position h_ccupied, he not infrequently felt exactly this.
That a governess chosen by Coombe—though he would seem not to appear in th_atter—would preside over the new rooms, Feather knew without a shadow o_oubt.
A certain almost silent and always high-bred dominance over her existence sh_ccepted as the inevitable, even while she fretted helplessly. Without him, she would be tossed, a broken butterfly, into the gutter. She knew her London.
No one would pick her up unless to break her into smaller atoms and toss he_way again. The freedom he allowed her after all was wonderful. It was becaus_e disdained interference.
But there was a line not to be crossed—there must not even be an attempt a_rossing it. Why he cared about that she did not know.
"You must be like Caesar's wife," he said rather grimly, after an interview i_hich he had given her a certain unsparing warning.
"And I am nobody's wife. What did Caesar's wife do?" she asked.
"Nothing." And he told her the story and, when she had heard him tell it, sh_nderstood certain things clearly.
Mademoiselle Valle was an intelligent, mature Frenchwoman. She presente_erself to Mrs. Gareth-Lawless for inspection and, in ten minutes, realize_hat the power to inspect and sum up existed only on her own side. This prett_oman neither knew what inquiries to make nor cared for such replies as wer_iven. Being swift to reason and practical in deduction, Mademoiselle Vall_id not make the blunder of deciding that this light presence argued that sh_ould be under no supervision more serious. The excellent Benby, one was mad_ware, acted and the excellent Benby, one was made aware, acted under clearl_efined orders. Milord Coombe—among other things the best dressed and perhap_he least comprehended man in London—was concerned in this, though on wha_rounds practical persons could not explain to themselves. His connection wit_he narrow house on the right side of the right street was entirel_omprehensible. The lenient felt nothing blatant or objectionable about it.
Mademoiselle Valle herself was not disturbed by mere rumour. The education, manner and morals of the little girl she could account for. These alone wer_o be her affair, and she was competent to undertake their superintendence.
Therefore, she sat and listened with respectful intelligence to the birdlik_hatter of Mrs. Gareth-Lawless. (What a pretty woman! The silhouette of _eune fille!)
Mrs. Gareth-Lawless felt that, on her part, she had done all that was require_f her.
"I'm afraid she's rather a dull child, Mademoiselle," she said in farewell.
"You know children's ways and you'll understand what I mean. She has a tric_f staring and saying nothing. I confess I wish she wasn't dull."
"It is impossible, madame, that she should be dull," said Mademoiselle, wit_n agreeably implicating smile. "Oh, but quite impossible! We shall see."
Not many days had passed before she had seen much. At the outset, sh_ecognized the effect of the little girl with the slender legs and feet an_he dozen or so of points which go to make a beauty. The intense eyes firs_nd the deeps of them. They gave one furiously to think before making up one'_ind. Then she noted the perfection of the rooms added to the smartl_nconvenient little house. Where had the child lived before the addition ha_een built? Thought and actual architectural genius only could have done this.
Light and even as much sunshine as London will vouchsafe, had been arrange_or. Comfort, convenience, luxury, had been provided. Perfect colour an_xcellent texture had evoked actual charm. Its utter unlikeness to th_uarters London usually gives to children, even of the fortunate class, struc_ademoiselle Valle at once. Madame Gareth-Lawless had not done this. Who then, had?
The good Dowson she at once affiliated with. She knew the excellence of he_ype as it had revealed itself to her in the best peasant class. Trustworthy, simple, but of kindly, shrewd good sense and with the power to observe. Dowso_as not a chatterer or given to gossip, but, as a silent observer, she woul_now many things and, in time, when they had become friendly enough to b_ully aware that each might trust the other, gentle and careful talk would en_n unconscious revelation being made by Dowson.
That the little girl was almost singularly attached to her nurse, she ha_arked early. There was something unusual in her manifestations of he_eeling. The intense eyes followed the woman often, as if making sure of he_resence and reality. The first day of Mademoiselle's residence in the plac_he saw the little thing suddenly stop playing with her doll and look a_owson earnestly for several moments. Then she left her seat and went to th_ind creature's side.
"I want to KISS you, Dowie," she said.
"To be sure, my lamb," answered Dowson, and, laying down her mending, she gav_er a motherly hug. After which Robin went back contentedly to her play.
The Frenchwoman thought it a pretty bit of childish affectionateness.
But it happened more than once during the day, and at night Mademoiselle commented upon it.
"She has an affectionate heart, the little one," she remarked. "Madame, he_other, is so pretty and full of gaieties and pleasures that I should not hav_magined she had much time for caresses and the nursery."
Even by this time Dowson had realized that with Mademoiselle she was upon saf_round and was in no danger of betraying herself to a gossip. She quietly lai_own her sewing and looked at her companion with grave eyes.
"Her mother has never kissed her in her life that I am aware of," she said.
"Has never—!" Mademoiselle ejaculated. "Never!"
"Just as you see her, she is, Mademoiselle," Dowson said. "Any sensible woma_ould know, when she heard her talk about her child. I found it all out bit b_it when first I came here. I'm going to talk plain and have done with it. He_irst six years she spent in a sort of dog kennel on the top floor of thi_ouse. No sun, no real fresh air. Two little holes that were dingy and gloom_o dull a child's senses. Not a toy or a bit of colour or a picture, bu_lothes fine enough for Buckingham Palace children—and enough for six. Fed an_ashed and taken out every day to be shown off. And a bad nurse, Miss—a ba_ne that kept her quiet by pinching her black and blue."
"Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! That little angel!" cried Mademoiselle, covering he_yes.
Dowson hastily wiped her own eyes. She had shed many a motherly tear over th_hild. It was a relief to her to open her heart to a sympathizer.
"Black and blue!" she repeated. "And laughing and dancing and all sorts o_ast fun going on in the drawing-rooms." She put out her hand and touche_ademoiselle's arm quite fiercely. "The little thing didn't know she HAD _other! She didn't know what the word meant. I found that out by her innocen_alk. She used to call HER 'The Lady Downstairs'."
"Mon Dieu!" cried the Frenchwoman again. "What a woman!"
"She first heard of mothers from a little boy she met in the Square Gardens.
He was the first child she had been allowed to play with. He was a nice chil_nd he had a good mother. I only got it bit by bit when she didn't know ho_uch she was telling me. He told her about mothers and he kissed her—for th_irst time in her life. She didn't understand but it warmed her little heart.
She's never forgotten."
Mademoiselle even started slightly in her chair. Being a clever Frenchwoman she felt drama and all its subtle accompaniments.
"Is that why——" she began.
"It is," answered Dowson, stoutly. "A kiss isn't an ordinary thing to her. I_eans something wonderful. She's got into the way of loving me, bless her, an_very now and then, it's my opinion, she suddenly remembers her lonely day_hen she didn't know what love was. And it just wells up in her little hear_nd she wants to kiss me. She always says it that way, 'Dowie, I want to KIS_ou,' as if it was something strange and, so to say, sacred. She doesn't kno_t means almost nothing to most people. That's why I always lay down my wor_nd hug her close."
"You have a good heart—a GOOD one!" said Mademoiselle with strong feeling.
Then she put a question:
"Who was the little boy?"
"He was a relation of—his lordship's."
"His lordship's?" cautiously.
"The Marquis. Lord Coombe."
There was a few minutes' silence. Both women were thinking of a number o_hings and each was asking herself how much it would be wise to say.
It was Dowson who made her decision first, and this time, as before, she lai_own her work. What she had to convey was the thing which, above all others, the Frenchwoman must understand if she was to be able to use her power to it_est effect.
"A woman in my place hears enough talk," was her beginning. "Servants ar_iven to it. The Servants' Hall is their theatre. It doesn't matter whethe_ales are true or not, so that they're spicy. But it's been my way to credi_ust as much as I see and know and to say little about that. If a woman take_ place in a house, let her go or stay as suits her best, but don't let he_tay and either complain or gossip. My business here is Miss Robin, and I'v_ound out for myself that there's just one person that, in a queer, unfeelin_ay of his own, has a fancy for looking after her. I say 'unfeeling' becaus_e never shows any human signs of caring for the child himself. But if there'_ thing that ought to be done for her and a body can contrive to let him kno_t's needed, it'll be done. Downstairs' talk that I've seemed to pay n_ttention to has let out that it was him that walked quietly upstairs to th_ursery, where he'd never set foot before, and opened the door on Andrew_inching the child. She packed her box and left that night. He inspected th_urseries and, in a few days, an architect was planning these rooms,—for Mis_obin and for no one else, though there was others wanted them. It was hi_hat told me to order her books and playthings—and not let her know it becaus_he hates him. It was him I told she needed a governess. And he found you."
Mademoiselle Valle had listened with profound attention. Here she spoke.
"You say continually 'he' or 'him'. He is—?"
"Lord Coombe. I'm not saying I've seen much of him. Considering—" Dowso_aused—"it's queer how seldom he comes here. He goes abroad a good deal. He'_ixed up with the highest and it's said he's in favour because he's satirica_nd clever. He's one that's gossiped about and he cares nothing for what'_aid. What business of mine is it whether or not he has all sorts of dens o_he Continent where he goes to racket. He might be a bishop for all I see. An_e's the only creature in this world of the Almighty's that remembers tha_hild's a human being. Just him—Lord Coombe. There, Mademoiselle,—I've said _ood deal."
More and more interestedly had the Frenchwoman listened and with an increasin_int of curiosity in her intelligent eyes. She pressed Dowson's needle- roughened fingers warmly.
"You have not said too much. It is well that I should know this of thi_entleman. As you say, he is a man who is much discussed. I myself have hear_uch of him—but of things connected with another part of his character. It i_rue that he is in favour with great personages. It is because they are awar_hat he has observed much for many years. He is light and ironic, but he tell_ruths which sometimes startle those who hear them."
"Jennings tells below stairs that he says things it's queer for a lord to say.
Jennings is a sharp young snip and likes to pick up things to repeat. H_elieves that his lordship's idea is that there's a time coming when the hig_nes will lose their places and thrones and kings will be done away with. _ouldn't like to go that far myself," said Dowson, gravely, "but I must sa_hat there's not that serious respect paid to Royalty that there was in m_oung days. My word! When Queen Victoria was in her prime, with all her youn_amily around her,—their little Royal Highnesses that were princes in thei_ighland kilts and the princesses in their crinolines and hats with droopin_strich feathers and broad satin streamers—the people just went wild when sh_ent to a place to unveil anything!"
"When the Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial appeared, it was the sam_hing," said Mademoiselle, a trifle sadly. "One recalls it now as a drea_assed away—the Champs Elysees in the afternoon sunlight—the imperial carriag_nd the glittering escort trotting gaily—the beautiful woman with the alway_eautiful costumes—her charming smile—the Emperor, with his waxed moustach_nd saturnine face! It meant so much and it went so quickly. One moment," sh_ade a little gesture, "and it is gone—forever! An Empire and all th_plendour of it! Two centuries ago it could not have disappeared so quickly.
But now the world is older. It does not need toys so much. A Republic is th_eople—and there are more people than kings."
"It's things like that his lordship says, according to Jennings," said Dowson.
"Jennings is never quite sure he's in earnest. He has a satirical way—And th_ompany always laugh."
Mademoiselle had spoken thoughtfully and as if half to her inner self instea_f to Dowson. She added something even more thoughtfully now.
"The same kind of people laughed before the French Revolution," she murmured.
"I'm not scholar enough to know much about that—that was a long time ago, wasn't it?" Dowson remarked.
"A long time ago," said Mademoiselle.
Dowson's reply was quite free from tragic reminiscence.
"Well, I must say, I like a respectable Royal Family myself," she observed.
"There's something solid and comfortable about it—besides the coronations an_eddings and procession with all the pictures in the Illustrated London News.