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The time is winter, in the year eighteen hundred and seventy.
The persons are: Julian Gray, Horace Holmcroft, Lady Janet Roy, Grace Roseberry and Mercy Merrick.
CHAPTER THE SIXTH.
Lady Janet's Companion.
It is a glorious winter's day. The sky is clear, the frost is hard, the ice bears for skating.
The dining-room of the ancient mansion, called Mablethorpe House, situated in the London suburb of Kensington, is famous among grtists and other persons of taste for the carved wood-work, of Italian origin, which covers the walls on three sides. On the fourth side, the march of modern improvement has broken in, and has varied and brightened the scene by means of a conservatory, forming an entrance to the room, through a winter garden of rare plants and flowers. On your right hand, as you stand fronting the conservatory, the monotony of the panelled wall is relieved by a quaintly-patterned door of old inlaid wood, leading into the library, and thence, across the great hall, to the other reception rooms of the house. A corresponding door on the left hand gives access to the billiard-room, to the smoking-room next to it, and to a smaller hall commanding one of the secondary entrances to the building. On the left side also is the ample fire-place, surmounted by its marble mantelpiece, carved in the profusely and confusedly ornate style of eighty years since. To the educated eye, the dining-room, with its modern furniture and conservatory, its ancient walls and doors, and its lofty mantelpiece (neither very old nor very new) presents a startling, almost a revolutionary mixture of the decorative workmanship of widely-differing schools. To the ignorant eye, the one result produced is an impression of perfect luxury and comfort, united in the friendliest combination, and developed on the largest scale.
The clock has just struck two. The table is spread for luncheon.
The persons seated at the table are three in number. First, Lady Janet Roy. Second, a young lady who is her reader and companion. Third, a guest staying in the house, who has already appeared in these pages under the name of Horace Holmcroft—attached to the German army as war-correspondent of an English newspaper.
Lady Janet Roy needs but little introduction. Everybody with the slightest pretension to experience in London society knows Lady Janet Roy.
Who has not heard of her old lace and her priceless rubies? Who has not admired her commanding figure, her beautifully-dressed white hair, her wonderful black eyes, which still preserve their youthful brightness, after first opening on the world seventy years since? Who has not felt the charm of her frank easily-flowing talk, her inexhaustible spirits, her good-humoured gracious sociability of manner? Where is the modern hermit who is not familiarly acquainted, by hearsay at least, with the fantastic novelty and humour of her opinions; with her generous encouragement of rising merit of any sort, in all ranks, high or low; with her charities, which know no distinction between abroad and at home; with her large indulgence, which no ingratitude can discourage and no servility pervert? Everybody has heard of the popular old lady—the childless widow of a long-forgotten lord. Everybody knows Lady Janet Roy.
But who knows the handsome young woman sitting on her right hand, playing with her luncheon instead of eating it? Nobody really knows her.
She is prettily dressed in grey poplin, trimmed with grey velvet, and set off by a ribbon of deep red tied in a bow at the throat. She is nearly as tall as Lady Janet herself, and possesses a grace and beauty of figure not always seen in women who rise above the medium height. Judging by a certain innate grandeur in the carriage of her head, and in the expression of her large melancholy grey eyes, believers in blood and breeding will be apt to guess that this is another noble lady. Alas ! she is nothing but Lady Janet's companion and reader. Her head, crowned with its lovely light brown hair, bends with a gentle respect when Lady Janet speaks. Her fine firm hand is easily and incessantly watchful to supply Lady Janet's slightest wants. The old lady— affectionately familiar with her—speaks to her as she might speak to an adopted child. But the gratitude of the beautiful companion has always the same restraint in its acknowledgment of kindness; the smile of the beautiful companion has always the same underlying sadness when it responds to Lady Janet's hearty laugh. Is there something wrong here, under the surface? Is she suffering in mind, or suffering in body? What is the matter with her?