Precisely

IT was at night too, a week later, that Lady Betty’s coach rumbled up
the long street at Newmarket. But no moon shone; instead, the rain
came down in torrents and the wind dashed it against the glass windows
and rattled and shook the heavy doors, while the horses slipped and
floundered, knee deep in mud; the great coach itself lurched heavily
out of one huge rut into another, and the postilions, dripping and
profane, cracked their whips and shouted. Lady Clancarty and her
attendants, Alice Lynn and the woman, Melissa Thurle, bounced about
within the vehicle, coming now and then into collision with endless
boxes and bundles, a part only of the countess’ impedimenta, the most
perishable, and therefore gathered within the carriage to save it from
the deluge, instead of being strapped on top with the heavier luggage.

Through the moist darkness lights began to twinkle. As they neared the
inn these lanterns increased in numbers, their yellow radiance dimmed
and blurred by the rain but showing in a broad circle of warmth before
the tavern door. There, too, the water flooding the kennels had poured
out, making a small lake in the courtyard. The coach went splashing
into it and halted with muddy water rising to the hubs. The inn door
was open, and the hall overflowed with noise and good cheer; lackeys
and grooms came bustling at the sound of an arrival; and at the sight
of a private carriage, with an earl’s crest emblazoned upon the door,
mine host himself came hurrying forward but stood aghast at the puddle.

“Here, you varlets,” he shouted, clapping his hands, “a plank from the
door to the carriage steps, or her ladyship cannot descend.”

Her ladyship’s roguish face was at the window as he spoke and she
watched the men placing a board for her. As they opened the coach
door the innkeeper bowed low, his broad back in the air, but stepping
carefully on the plank and tottering uneasily, for he was a stout man
and in terror of falling headlong into the flood.

“Who have I the honor to serve, my lady?” he inquired, all smiles in
spite of his perilous position.

“Venus rising from the waves, sir,” replied Lady Betty flippantly, as
she sprang lightly across the improvised bridge, scarcely touching his
shoulder with her fingers and quite regardless of his open-mouthed
astonishment.

“Look to it that my women are not drowned!” she added imperiously, as
he retreated after her, leaving her attendants to climb out unassisted.

But the man was sorely perplexed by her ladyship’s announcement of
herself, and he only stared at her, trying to place her in the gallery
of a fertile brain well stored with great ladies; but this face—albeit
one of the most charming he had ever seen—was not among them, and
he stared, perhaps a trifle rudely, for Lady Betty’s eye, suddenly
alighting on him, her chin went up.

“You will show me to my Lady Sunderland’s apartments,” she said in an
icy tone, as she waved her hand toward the stair.

In a moment the innkeeper’s supple back bent double again; he threw out
his fat hands and stammered a hundred apologies.

“Lady Sunderland did not look for your ladyship until to-morrow,” he
sputtered, hurrying on ahead, while Lady Clancarty followed, with her
chin still scornfully elevated, her two weary and dishevelled women
behind her. “The countess will be rejoiced—we are all rejoiced, your
ladyship; the storm was so heavy, the roads so fearful, we scarcely
dared to hope that your carriage would reach Newmarket to-night,”
continued the host, all smiles again, rubbing his hands and flourishing
before her ladyship.

But Lady Betty walked on in silence, scarce glancing at him as he
opened a door and, with many flourishes and bows, announced her at
the threshold and stood aside, still bowing, to let her pass into a
large, well-lighted room, where a bright fire burned upon the hearth,
great logs ablaze upon the high, polished brass andirons. The dark wood
floor was polished too, reflecting the blaze, and in a great chair
by the fire sat a woman past middle age, yet showing little of her
years, and dressed in the extreme affectation of a youthful fashion, a
petticoat of white brocade, which was short in front to show her feet
in white and gold pantoffles, and a bodice and overdress of peachblow
satin; a face that had been handsome and was now much rouged, the
eyes brightened by dark rings beneath them, while her hair—or her
periwig—was frizzed full at the sides after a fashion much in vogue in
the time of Charles the Second. Her throat was covered with jewels,
and her hands and arms; on either side of her stood two young men of
fashion, beaux of Newmarket, in gay velvet coats and ruffles of lace,
and long curled and scented French periwigs, white satin breeches and
silk stockings, and slippers with high red heels, then much in favor at
Versailles.

It was a group that amused Lady Clancarty,—the great lady and her
two youthful admirers, for Betty knew her mother well. They in their
turn stared a little at the traveller’s unexpected advent, and for a
moment no one spoke. There was a strange contrast between the painted
and bejewelled countess and her daughter: Lady Clancarty wore a long,
dark riding-coat with capes, her full skirts trailing below the coat,
and her hat—a large one with plumes—set over her brows. The cool damp
night air had brought the freshness of a rose to her cheeks and her
eyes sparkled as she viewed the party by the fire, and made her mother
a courtesy.

“I have been in the deluge, madam,” she said gayly. “Faith! I had
expected to be drowned, but lo! our ark landed here, and here am I—a
dove with an olive branch, in fact—for I come with kind messages from
Althorpe for your ladyship.”

“My dear Betty,” said Lady Sunderland, recovering from her amazement,
“I am delighted; come and kiss me, my love, and here—my Lord Savile
and Mr. Benham, this is my daughter, Lady Elizabeth Spencer.”

The young men bowed profoundly, Lord Savile’s bold eyes on Lady Betty’s
face, for he saw it flush with sudden indignation.

“My mother’s memory plays her false,” she said coldly, scarcely
acknowledging their greetings; “I am the Countess of Clancarty.”

Lady Sunderland laughed angrily but pretended to be merry.

“The child is foolish about a trifle,” she said, winking behind her fan
at young Savile. “We can afford to humor her whims, my lord; we will
call her Lady Clancarty.”

“We shall call her ladyship divine, if she wills it,” replied Lord
Savile, with a smile at Betty; “it is all one to us as long as she is
pleased.”

Lady Clancarty’s foot tapped the floor impatiently and there was a
dangerous sparkle in her eyes. Lady Sunderland observed her uneasily.

“My love, you are tired,” she said, mildly solicitous, “sit down and
let me send for a cup of tea; Mr. Benham—ah, my lord, thank you, yes,
the bell—a dish of tea for Lady Spen—Lady Clancarty. There—there, my
dear, don’t frown at me; it is all quite ridiculous! Mr. Benham will
arrange the cushions in that chair for you; I don’t know what I should
do without him! We were playing gleek, Betty, when you were announced.”

Betty was now ensconced in an armchair by the fire, her little feet
on the cushion that Mr. Benham had placed for her; and she viewed the
situation with an expression more composed.

“Yes, I take tea,” she said to Lord Savile, who was handing her a
smoking cup, “and what is this?” she added, for he had managed to drop
a flower from his buttonhole into her lap with an air of gallantry.

“A poor blossom,” he said gracefully, “to compare with such a rose as
blooms here to-night.”

Lady Betty looked at him and then at the flower curiously.

“Ah,” she said calmly sipping her tea, “it _is_ a rose—I thought ’twas
a thistle!”

Lady Sunderland coughed and dropped her fan and frowned at her
daughter; but the incorrigible countess did not glance in her
direction. She was smiling blandly at the fire and warming first one
foot and then the other.

“You are from Althorpe?” Mr. Benham asked, smiling at the beauty, for
he was not displeased at Lord Savile’s discomfiture; “and my friend,
Spencer, is there now.”

“He is indeed,” replied Betty, with a sigh, “and may he stay there!”
she added mentally; but to Mr. Benham, “Has the king come?”

“He came yesterday, and with him, Lord Albemarle; the Princess Anne is
here too, and my Lady Marlborough.”

“Dear me,” said Lady Betty, with an unconcealed yawn, “the world is
here, it seems, and I am so weary that I must crave your ladyship’s
license to retire.”

“Nay,” said Mr. Benham gallantly, “it is my lord and I who should
retire and permit your ladyship to rest.”

“I protest!” cried Lady Sunderland; “the gleek was but half played.”

But she made no great effort to detain them; indeed, she wanted an
opportunity to speak plainly to her daughter, so the beaux were allowed
to bow themselves out, with more than one lingering glance at the
beautiful, haughty face by the fireside. No sooner was the door closed,
however, than Lady Sunderland turned on her daughter.

“Your folly passes belief, Elizabeth,” she said tartly, quite oblivious
of the two attendants quietly waiting in the background; “I am tired of
the name of Clancarty; your father and I intend to divorce the rascal.
To parade the matter as you do is simply childish, my love, quite
childish.”

Lady Betty sipped her tea and looked into the fire.

“I am not divorced,” she remarked placidly, “and Lord Clancarty, being
a Romanist, may object to divorces.”

Lady Sunderland laughed unpleasantly, tapping her fan on the arm of her
chair.

“Lord Clancarty has probably never respected his marriage,” she
remarked, in a biting tone, though she smiled; “you are very childish,
Elizabeth, for your years.”

“I _am_ quite advanced,” her daughter replied, rising and setting her
cup on the table where the cards were scattered, “and perhaps I am too
old to think of divorces.”

“Nonsense,” Lady Sunderland said frowning, “your father and I mean to
see you well married when we are rid of this Irish nuisance.”

“Indeed,” said Lady Betty coldly, elevating her brows, “to whom? My
Lord Savile, for instance, or Mr. Benham?”

“You might do worse,” retorted Lady Sunderland stiffly; “they are both
fine young men and in favor at court.”

“Precisely,” said Lady Betty, “and ’tis strange that my taste is so
perverted. Dear madam, I bid you good-night. We will discuss their
excellencies later; now I am perishing with sleep,” and she dropped
her mother a courtesy and slipped out of the room, leaving the older
countess frowning and biting her lips, the rouge showing red on her
cheeks.

But once alone with Alice Lynn, Betty laughed, with tears shining in
her eyes.

“Ah, the trap is set, Alice, dear,” she said, “the trap is set, if
only this poor little mouse will nibble at the cheese!”

NIGHT and the rain departed together. The wind had swept the sky clear,
not even a white feather curled there; it was blue—blue as English
skies seldom are. Lady Betty, opening her own window shutter, looked
up and smiled, and then looked down into the courtyard of the inn. The
waters were subsiding, and the uneven flagging showed muddy, wet and
glistening in the sunlight. To the left lay the stables, where she
could occasionally hear a horse neigh or stamp an impatient foot. To
the right the court was railed off by an old balustrade of gray stone,
mossy and green with age and opening in the centre with two vases
on either side filled with geraniums and mignonette. Between these,
steps descended into an old garden, laid out in quaint flower-beds,
surrounded with rows of box that hedged in the winding gravel paths and
grew high as a man’s head. It was September, but many flowers bloomed
there besides the roses; though it was but poorly tended at this late
season, it was still a spot of beauty for the guests of the tavern
to look upon, and there was a restful air about it, a fragrance and
quaintness, with the early sunshine on it. It was so early, indeed,
that the garden was deserted, and only the stable-boys were stirring
and the servants running to and fro across the court engaged in
preparations for breakfast. Here and there was a red-coated hostler,
and one of these was leading a black horse up and down. The horse had
just been unsaddled and was heated from hard riding. There was mud on
his flanks, too, which was natural enough after the storm, and there
were flecks of foam upon his breast. Lady Betty looked at him long
and pensively, noting that the bridle was not of English make; the
man, too, who had him, was a stranger, for the other hostlers did not
speak to him, and his broad, humorous face and twinkling black eyes
were quite un-English. He was a short man, with bowed legs and a bulky
frame, plainly dressed as the plainest groom of a gentleman could be,
and yet these two, the horse and man, held Lady Betty’s attention
long—so long, indeed, that she did not notice the soft opening of a
door, or the soft tread on the floor behind her, and started to find
Melissa Thurle at her elbow.

The woman had a smooth face and pale eyes that squinted like those of
a near-sighted person, though she was not short-sighted. She moved,
too, as softly as a cat, and her manners were always apologetic, humbly
ingratiating; she cringed a little now under Lady Betty’s eye.

“Where is Alice?” Lady Clancarty demanded sharply.

“Her ladyship, your mother, sent for her,” Melissa said gently; “her
tirewoman is ill to-day, and Lady Sunderland sent to your rooms for
one.”

“Why did Alice go?” asked Lady Betty imperiously. “You know you cannot
do my hair; besides, you would suit my mother exactly. Why did you stay
here?”

Melissa looked down meekly. “My lady, the countess sent for Alice
Lynn,” she replied.

Lady Betty’s brows went up. “Strange,” she remarked; “we all know that
she will not be up until eleven,—why Alice now? I cannot do without
Alice.”

“I will do my best, my lady,” Melissa said, with a deprecating purr;
“if you will but choose your costume for the races I can surely arrange
everything for you quite as well as Alice, and indeed your ladyship
needs no very skilful tirewoman; where there is so much beauty there is
no need for much skill.”

Betty eyed the woman with a distinct feeling of repugnance and yet
thought herself unjust.

“Go fetch me a dish of tea,” she said languidly, “and I will think
about to-day. Dear me, what a bore it is to wear clothes; if only one
had feathers!”

Melissa stared but went to fetch the tea, a luxury much affected by the
rich, for tea-drinking came into fashion at the East India houses in
the time of Charles the Second.

Lady Betty did not wish the tea; however, she wanted to be rid of
Melissa, and she went back to the window and looked out eagerly. The
black horse and groom were both gone, and she turned away disappointed.

Two hours later, Alice being still with Lady Sunderland, Melissa Thurle
dressed Lady Clancarty for the gala day at the Newmarket races. And
a wonderful work it was to dress a belle in those days of brocaded
farthingales and long, narrow-waisted bodices, and heads covered
with many waves and puffs and ringlets. It was not then the fashion
to powder the hair, and Lady Betty’s beautiful glossy black tresses
curled naturally, so that Melissa’s task was not the most difficult.
The mass of soft, wavy hair was knotted low on the back of the head
and escaped in curls about the brow and cheeks and fell upon the neck,
while one or two black patches on brow and cheek were supposed to
enhance the whiteness of the complexion. Melissa was skilful enough, in
spite of her mistress’ prejudices, and her deft fingers arranged the
curls, letting some escape in coquettish waves and ringlets and binding
others back into the loose knot, which still allowed them to ripple in
a lovely confusion.

Lady Betty sat, meanwhile, before a dressing-table, furnished with a
small oval glass in which she could not only watch Melissa, but could
observe, also, every curve and dimple of her own charming face. Whether
its reflection really satisfied her, or she had other and more fruitful
sources of content, can only be conjectured, but certain it is that she
smiled a little and bore the tirewoman’s deft touches with apparent
complacence. Melissa, encouraged by her expression, began to talk to
her in a soft purring fashion as she worked.

“The house is full, my lady,” she said, “’tis all agog below stairs
now, and ’tis said there are two dukes, an earl, and five baronets
under this roof, besides the countess and your ladyship.”

“Dear me,” said Lady Betty, “who are all these great people, and when
did they come?”

“The Duke of Bedford has been here two days, my lady,” replied the
newscarrier, “and the Duke of Ormond came yesterday; Mr. Godolphin,
too, and Lord Wharton,—the others?—I know not when they came.”

“Who came this morning?” asked her mistress carelessly, at the same
moment turning her head to admire a new knot that Melissa had made of
her hair.

The tirewoman stopped, comb in hand, and admired too, her narrow eyes
more narrow than usual.

“This morning?” she repeated thoughtfully, “I cannot think,—oh, yes,
one of the housemaids told me that a stranger came late, on a black
horse that he had ridden hard.”

Lady Clancarty listened attentively, forgetting to appear indifferent,
and unconscious of the peculiar vigilance of Melissa’s pale eyes.

“The horse was in the yard this morning and showed hard riding,” she
said thoughtfully. “Who was the stranger, Melissa?”

“’Tis said he is a horse jockey from London,” purred the tirewoman.

Her mistress darted a searching look at her but read nothing in that
smooth face that was by nature as placid as a platter.

“Bring me my pale blue paduasoy petticoat, Thurle,” Lady Betty said,
sharply imperious, “and my white and silver brocaded gown, and the
mantle of silver lace, and my hat with the white plumes. Do you not
know how to fasten a petticoat?—there—so!—and, stupid, my white
silk stockings with the blue clocks, and the French slippers with blue
enamel buckles,” and she made the woman fetch garment after garment
with alacrity, and the glow in her cheeks would have warned even a less
observant person than Melissa that Lady Clancarty was out of temper.

But the woman’s smooth manner remained unruffled, and not even angry
words made her fingers quiver. She arrayed Lady Clancarty from head
to foot, deftly and swiftly, and when the task was completed, and the
beauty looked at her own reflection, a smile was forced to play about
her lips, for never had a mirror reflected a vision more charming.
Lady Betty, with her rich coloring, her full white throat, her perfect
form, clad in a marvellous gown of white and silver, ruffled and
ruffled with lace, and looped up at one side a little to show the blue
petticoat; open, too, to show a neck as white as snow,—and arms to
match were half revealed by the elbow sleeves, while her hat cast a
shadow on those sparkling eyes. She gave the vision a look and then
turned and motioned Melissa away.

“You have done very well, Thurle,” she said calmly, “and now you may
go—ah, here is Alice!” and she relented at the sight of her favorite
attendant.

Melissa, meanwhile, humble as usual, courtesied and withdrew, but not
without casting a lingering look behind her.

When the door closed, Lady Betty gave her gown a few touches, turning
around before the mirror again.

“Will I do, Alice?” she asked.

“Supremely well, madam,” Alice replied soberly, standing off to view
her with a critical eye.

Lady Betty turned suddenly and laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Hast said thy catechism, Alice?” she asked.

The handmaid looked up at her blankly, her slower mind struggling to
understand.

“What, my lady?”

“Your catechism, goosie,” repeated Lady Clancarty laughing; “did not my
mother question you close of me?”

“She did, madam,” retorted Alice bluntly, with an ingenuous blush, “she
asked me many questions.”

“And what answer did you give?” asked her mistress smiling.

“Truthful answers, dear Lady Betty,” Alice replied earnestly,
apparently much troubled, “save when I answered not at all.”

“You did not answer!” exclaimed her mistress, in surprise, “and
wherefore?”

“Because she asked me what you said to me of—of my Lord Clancarty,”
stammered Alice, “and, madam, that I will not tell!”

Betty laughed and blushed, and suddenly she kissed the girl.

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