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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER IV. 'LOVE'S A MIGHTY LORD.'
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CHAPTER IV. 'LOVE'S A MIGHTY LORD.'

Sir Nugent Bellingham was one of those men who are born and reared amidst pecuniary difficulties, and whose existence is spent upon the verge of ruin. Yet it seems a tolerably comfortable kind of life notwithstanding, and men of Sir Nugent's type hardly realize the meaning of the word deprivation. Sir Nugent had never known what it was to be out of debt. The Bellingham estate was mortgaged up to the hilt when he inherited it. Indeed, to be thus encumbered was the normal condition of all Bellingham property.

Of course Sir Nugent had from time to time possessed money. He hardly could have drifted on so long without some amount of specie, even in such an easy-going world as that patrician sphere in which he revolved. He had inherited a modest65 fortune from his mother, with which he had paid his creditors something handsome on account all round, and made them his bondslaves for all time to come, since they cherished the hope of something more in the future. Sir Nugent had received legacies from an aunt and uncle or two, and these afforded further sops for his Cerberus, and enabled the baronet's dainty little household to sail gaily down the stream of time for some years.

When the amelioration of manners brought bankruptcy within the reach of any gentleman, Sir Nugent Bellingham availed himself of the new code, and became insolvent in an easy, gentleman-like fashion. And what with one little help and another, the bijou house in May Fair, where Sir Nugent lived with his two motherless girls, was always kept up in the same good style. The same dinners—small and soigné—the same lively receptions after the little dinners. The best music, the newest books, the choicest hothouse flowers, were always to be found at No. 12, Cavendish Bow, May Fair. There were only a dozen houses in Cavendish Bow, and Sir Nugent Bellingham's was at the corner, squeezed66 into an angle made by the lofty wall of Lord Loamshire's garden—one of those dismal, awe-inspiring London gardens, grey and dull and blossomless, which look like a burial-ground without any graves. Seen from the street, No. 12 looked a mere doll's house, but the larger rooms were behind, abutting upon Lord Loamshire's garden. It was an irregular old house, full of corners, but, furnished after the peculiar tastes of Miss Bellingham, was one of the most charming houses in London. No upholsterer had been allowed to work his will—Madge Bellingham had chosen every item. The chairs and tables, and sofas and cabinets, were the cheapest that could be had, for they were all of unstained light woods, made after designs from Miss Bellingham's own pencil. The cabinets were mere frames for glass doors, behind which appeared the Bellingham collection of bric-a-brac, upon numerous shelves covered with dark-green silk. Madge's own clever hands had covered the deal shelves; and the bronzes, the Venetian glass, the Sèvres, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vienna, and Dresden porcelains looked all the better for so simple a setting.

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There were no draperies but chintz, the cheapest that could be bought, but always fresh. The looking-glasses had no frame save a natural garland of ivy. The floors were beeswaxed only, a Persian carpet here and there offering accommodation for the luxurious. The one costly object in the two drawing-rooms, after that bric-a-brac upon which the Bellingham race had squandered a small fortune, was the piano, a Broadwood grand, in a case made by a modern workman out of veritable Louis Seize marqueterie. The old ormolu mountings, goat's head, festoons, and masques, had been religiously preserved, and the piano was a triumph of art. It occupied the centre of the back drawing-room, the largest room in the house, and when Madge Bellingham sat before it, girl and piano made a cabinet picture of the highest school.

'People know we are out at elbows,' Madge said to her father when they began housekeeping in Cavendish Row. 'If we have expensive furniture every one will be sure we haven't paid for it; but if you let me carry out my ideas, the bills will be so light that you can pay them at once.'

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'I can give the fellows something on account, at any rate,' replied Sir Nugent.

Lady Bellingham's death, which occurred soon after the birth of Viola, the second daughter, had left Sir Nugent free to lead the life of a bachelor, for the most part in other people's houses, while his girls were in his sister's nursery or at school. When they grew to womanhood—and a very lovely womanhood, for good looks were hereditary in the Bellingham family—Sir Nugent found it incumbent upon him to provide them with a home; so he took the house in Cavendish Bow, and brought home the Bellingham bric-a-bric, which had been left him by the aforesaid aunts and uncles, and lodged at the Pantechnicon pending his settlement in life. He began housekeeping at five-and-forty years of age, and gave his little dinners at home henceforward, instead of at one or other of his clubs, and cherished high hopes of seeing his daughters splendidly established by and by.

'I think you have seen enough of what it is to be tormented by a set of harpies to teach you the value of money, Madge,' said Sir Nugent one morning,69 pointing to a small heap of letters which he had just now opened and dismissed with a glance. The harpies in question were his creditors, who expressed an unwarrantable eagerness for something more 'on account.'

'With your knowledge of life you are not likely to marry a pauper,' pursued Sir Nugent, dipping into a Strasburg pie.

'No, papa, not with my knowledge of life,' answered Madge, with ever so slight and upward curl of the firm lip. Miss Bellingham fondly loved her father, but it is possible that respect may have been somewhat lessened by her experience of that financial scramble in which his life was spent.

Two or three evenings before the night which made James Penwyn acquainted with life behind the scenes of a small provincial theatre, Sir Nugent Bellingham gave one of his snug little dinners—a dinner of eight—the guests of choicest brands, like the wines. Lady Cheshunt, one of the most exalted matrons in the great world, kept the Miss Bellinghams in countenance. Madge was her pet protegée whose praises she was never tired of sounding among70 the chosen ones of the earth. Mr. Albert Noyce, a distinguished wit and littérateur, supplied the salt of the banquet. He was a small, mild-looking man, with a pretty, unoffending wife, and dined out perpetually during the London season. Mr. Shinebar, the famous barrister, made a fourth. Lord George Bulrose, a West of England man, a gourmet, and, in so far as after-dinner talk went, a mighty hunter, was the fifth; and Sir Nugent and his two daughters completed the circle.

After dinner there was to be an evening party, and before the small hours of the morning a great many famous people would have dropped in at the corner house in Cavendish Row.

The ladies had retired, leaving Sir Nugent and his chosen friends to talk about law, and horses, and the last new burlesque actress, as they drew closer in to the dainty round table, where the glass sparkled and the deep-hued blossoms brightened under the cluster of wax lights in the central chandelier.

Viola and Lady Cheshunt went upstairs arm-in-arm,71 the girl nestling affectionately against the substantial shoulder of the portly matron. Mrs. Noyce tripped lightly after these two, and Madge followed, alone, with a grave brow, and that lofty air which so well became Sir Nugent Bellingham's elder daughter.

Barely were sisters less alike than these two. Viola was a blonde, complexion alabaster, hair the colour of raw silk—plenteous flaxen hair, which the girl wound into a crown of pale gold upon the top of her small head; eyes of turquoise blue; figure a thought too slim, but the perfection of grace in every movement and attitude; foot and hand absolutely faultless: altogether a girl to be put under a glass case.

'I should admire the younger Miss Bellingham more if she were a little less like Sèvres china,' one of the magnates of society had observed.

Madge was a brunette—hair almost black, and with a natural ripple—complexion a rich olive, eyes darkest hazel—features the true Bellingham type, clearly cut as a profile on an old Roman medal—figure tall and commanding, a woman born to rule,72 one would say, judging by externals—a woman with the stuff in her to make a general, Sir Nugent was wont to boast. But although she was of a loftier mould than the generality of women, there was no hardness about Madge Bellingham. In love or in anger she was alike strong. For hate she was too noble.

The rooms were deliciously cool, the light somewhat subdued, the windows open to the warm spring night. There were flowers enough in the small front drawing-room to make it an indoor garden.

The dowager seated herself upon the most comfortable sofa in this room, a capacious, square-backed sofa, in a dusky corner, fenced off and sheltered by a well-filled jardinière.

'Come here, Madge,' she cried, with good-natured imperiousness, 'I want to talk to you.—Viola, child, go and amuse yourself with Mrs. Noyce. Show her your photograph album, or parlez chiffons. I want Madge all to myself.'

Madge obeyed without a word, and squeezed herself into the corner of the sofa, which Lady Cheshunt and Lady Cheshunt's dress almost filled.

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'How big you are growing, child! there's hardly room enough for you!' remarked the matron. 'And now tell me the truth, Madge; what is the matter with you to-night?'

'I don't think there is anything the matter more than usual, Lady Cheshunt.'

'I know better than that. You were dull and distrait all dinner-time. True, there was no one to talk to but two married men, and that old twaddler, Bulrose; but a young lady should be always equally agreeable—that is one of the fundamental principles of good breeding.'

'If I seemed a little out of spirits you can hardly wonder. Papa's sadly involved state is enough to make me uneasy.'

'My dear, your papa has been involved ever since my first season—when my waist was only eighteen inches, and Madame Devy made my gowns. He is no worse off now than he was then, and he will go on being hopelessly involved till the end of the chapter. I don't see why you should be unhappy about it. He will be able to give you and Viola a tolerable home till you marry and make74 better homes for yourselves, which it is actually incumbent upon you to do.'

This was said with a touch of severity. Madge sighed, and the slender foot in the satin shoe tapped the ground with a nervous, impatient movement.

'Madge, I hope there is no truth in what I hear about you and Mr. Penwyn.'

A deep tell-tale glow burned in Miss Bellingham's cheek. She fanned herself vehemently.

'I cannot imagine what you have heard, Lady Cheshunt.'

'I have heard your name coupled with Mr. Penwyn's—the poor Mr. Penwyn.'

'I only know one Mr. Penwyn.'

'So much the worse for you, my dear. You know the wrong one. There is a cousin of that young man's who has a fine estate in Cornwall—the Penwyn estate. You must have heard of that.'

'Yes, I have heard Mr. Penwyn speak of his cousin's property.'

'Of course. Poor penniless young man; very natural that he should talk of it. Don't suppose75 that I have no feeling for him. He is next heir to the property, but no doubt the other young man, James Penwyn's son, will marry and have a herd of children. I knew James Penwyn, this young man's father, years ago. There were three brothers—George, the eldest, who was in the army, and was killed in a skirmish with some wild Indians in Canada—very sad story; James, who was in the church, and had a living somewhere near London; and Balfour, in the law, I believe, whose son you know.'

'Yes,' sighed Madge.

She had heard the family history from Churchill Penwyn, but the dowager liked to hear herself talk, and did not like to be interrupted.

'Now, if by any chance the present James Penwyn, who is little more than a lad, were to die unmarried, Churchill Penwyn could come into the property under his grandfather's will, which left the estate to the eldest surviving son and his children after him. George died unmarried. James left an only son. Churchill is therefore heir presumptive. But it's a very remote contingency, my love, and it76 would be madness for you to give it a thought—with your chances.'

Madge shrugged her shoulders despondently.

'I don't think my chances are particularly brilliant, Lady Cheshunt.'

'Nonsense, Madge! Everybody talks of the beautiful Bellinghams. And you refused a splendid offer only the other day—that Mr. Cardingham, the great manufacturer.'

'Who had only seen me four times when he had the impudence to ask me to marry him! He was old and ugly, too.'

'When the end is a good establishment one must not look at the means too closely. Poor dear Cheshunt was many years my senior, and no beauty, even in his wig. You must take a more serious view of things, my dear Madge. It will not do for you and your sister to hang fire. The handsomer girls are, the more vital it is for them to go off quickly. A plain little unobtrusive thing may creep through half a dozen seasons and surprise everybody by making a good match at last. But a beauty who doesn't marry soon is apt to get talked about.77 Malicious people put it down to too much flirtation. And then, my love, consider your milliner's bills; what will they be at the end of a few seasons?'

'Not very much, Lady Cheshunt. I cut out all my own dresses and Viola's too, and our maid runs them together. Viola and I help sometimes, when we can steal an hour from society. I couldn't bear to wear anything that wasn't paid for.'

'Upon my word you are an exemplary girl, Madge,' exclaimed Lady Cheshunt, astounded by such Roman virtue. 'What a wife you will make!'

'Yes, I think I might make a tolerable wife, for a poor man.'

'Don't speak of such a thing. You were born for wealth and power. You are bound to make a great marriage—if not for your own sake, for Viola's. See what a poor helpless child she is—sadly wanting in moral stamina. If you had a good establishment she would have a haven of refuge. But if you were to marry badly what will become of her? She would never be able to manage your papa.'

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Madge sighed again, and this time deeply. Love for her sister was Madge Bellingham's weakest point. She positively adored the fair fragile girl who had been given into her childish arms eighteen years ago, on that bitter day which made her an orphan. There was only four years' difference between the ages of the sisters, yet Madge's affection was always maternal in its protecting thoughtfulness. To marry well would be to secure a home for Viola. Sir Nugent was but a feeble staff to lean upon.

'I have no objection to marrying well whenever a fair opportunity arises, Lady Cheshunt,' she said, firmly; 'but I will never marry a man whom I cannot respect and like.'

'Of course not, my poor pet,' murmured the widow, soothingly; 'but, fortunately, there are so many men in the world one can like and respect. It is that foolish sentimental feeling called love which will only fit one person. In the meantime, Madge, take my advice, and don't let people talk about you and Mr. Penwyn.'

'I don't know why they should talk about us.'

'Yes, you do, Madge—in your heart of hearts.79 You know that you have sat together in corners, and that you have a knack of blushing when he comes into the room. It won't do, Madge, it won't do. That young fellow has nothing except what he can earn himself. I know his mother had a struggle to bring him up, and if he hadn't been an only son could hardly have brought him up at all. He was a Blue-coat boy, I believe, or something equally dreadful. It is not to be thought of, Madge.'

'I do not think of it, Lady Cheshunt,' replied Miss Bellingham, resolutely, 'and I wish you would not worry yourself and me about imaginary dangers.'

'Your visitors are beginning to come; go and receive them, and leave me in my corner. Mr. Penwyn is to be here, I've no doubt.'

'I don't know. He knows that Saturday is our night.'

'Mr. Churchill Penwyn!' announced a footman at the door of the larger room.

'I thought so,' said Lady Cheshunt, 'and the first to arrive, too. That looks suspicious.'


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