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greeted each other, and the hostess had seen Lady Thwaite established in close proximity to the glowing embers in the grate.
Lady Thwaite did not seem to notice the fire, or the thunderstorm, which had come on at last, though it had only partially discharged its artillery, leaving the air close and oppressive. But it was no wonder that her fair complexion looked heated almost to blowsiness. She was come on a trying errand. She had debated with herself, over and over again, in driving along whether she could not throw up the self-imposed commission and turn back.
'It is all the fault of this wicked old woman and that silly child Iris. Why should I put myself about to break the miserable catastrophe to Lady Fermor? She would not let him alone; she would take him away from his natural friends and protectors. If he had been left to my guidance—but, no; honestly I do not think I could have made anything of a man who has ended like this; who has deceived us all, down to Mr. Mills, as Sir William has done; whose taste for low life has proved so pronounced and hopeless. But it is very hard on me, coming forward as I did, acting as the lady of the house-poor, dear old house !—at that detestable haymaking, which was all Lady Fermor's doing. I wish with all my heart I had gone abroad at once, after poor Sir John died, and remained away till I had some grounds to go on, with regard to the new man.' • But wishes were even more unavailing for the past than for the future. Here was Lady Thwaite, sitting all but suffocated in Lady Fermor's dressing-room. She had taken upon herself a thankless task. She was indignantly conscious of her own innocence, and yet she dreaded to tell the sinner the result of her machinations.
Lady Fermor, on the contrary, was coolly cracking her finger-joints, and asking what was in the wind. The next moment she behaved still more abominably. Having, unfortunately, established a 'way' of saying with impunity what nobody else would have said, she proceeded to remark—with a most objectionably sardonic flavour in her objectionable jocularity, as if the explanation suggested were far removed from the list of possible events :
You ain't going to be married again, Lady Thwaite ?
Good heavens, no ļ cried poor Lady Thwaite, provoked out of her usual assured composure and seasoned agreeability. Have you forgotten that Sir John is not yet a year dead ? Everybody is not so—-' she stopped in time.
So fond of a second husband as I am.' The terrible old woman took up the sentence without hesitation, and with a chuckle. But you have only to try; very likely you will find, like me, that your second bargain is a great improvement on the first. If Fermor were to slip away now, who knows but I might venture on a third ? Only I am too stiff to be troubled seeking another trousseau.'
To do Lady Thwaite justice she shuddered. She did not even feel inclined, though she had dared, to retort with the taunt that it might not be necessary to wait for Lord Fermor's slipping away ; Lady Fermor had not always stayed for that preliminary, or stood out for a trousseau.
Lady Thwaite could have her revenge in another fashion. But she was a practical woman, and revenge would not compensate for the awkward position in which she found herself, with the substantial losses it involved. If anything could yet be tried—she did not believe it would be of any avail—still, everything ought to be tried to arrest such a calamity.
Lady Thwaite, being fallible, did permit herself to say coldly :
'The same example would scarcely suit us all,' while she still meant to make common cause with Lady Fermor, so far as inducing the intrepid, hardened old offender to enter the lists and take the bull by the horns. But you are not altogether wrong,' began the bringer of bad tidings. It is a marriage I am come to announce-a dreadful marriage, which calls for no congratulations.'
Lady Fermor sat up in her chair with a little start; it might have been the tremor of age, however, for her hands remained perfectly still, and she said nothing.
'Do you remember a woman in the hayfield the other day? proceeded Lady Thwaite falteringly.
'Who was the woman?' demanded Lady Fermor, with as much sharpness as if she had been an adverse counsel cross-examining a shrinking witness.
“A woman, not like the others, rather fine
looking, in a coarse, masculine style. I think she wore a black gown and a red handkerchief shading her head.' · Yes l' snapped Lady Fermor ; 'go on.'
Do you remember Sir William taking notice of her, and talking to her more than once? I think people observed it, though he did nothing very much out of the way.'
• Well ?
*Their banns are given in to be published next Sunday,' said Lady Thwaite, driven by her companion's manner to make haste and tell her tale in its naked simplicity.
You are mad, Lady Thwaite-stark, staring mad ! cried Lady Fermor, rising to her feet, grasping the arms of her chair, while a thin, pallid red came into her cadaverous face.
'I almost wish I were, for the moment,' said Lady Thwaite, with a groan. “But it is too true, too disgracefully, ruinously true.
' And have you done nothing ? Lady Fermor broke out furiously, instinctively seeking the relief which a scapegoat affords. ‘Have you stood by and seen this scandal, this outrage against common-sense and good feeling, and the propriety you are all so fond