Read CHAPTER VII of April's Lady A Novel , free online book, by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, on ReadCentral.com.

Ils n’employent les paroles que pour déguiser leurs
pensees.”VOLTAIRE.

Even the most dyspeptic of the guests had acknowledged at breakfast, some hours ago now, that a lovelier day could hardly be imagined. Lady Baltimore, with a smile, had agreed with him. It was, indeed, impossible not to agree with him. The sun was shining high in the heavens, and a soft, velvetty air blew through the open windows right on to the table.

“What shall we do to-day?” Lady Swansdown, one of the guests, had asked, addressing her question to Lord Baltimore, who just then was helping his little son to porridge.

Whatever she liked.

“Then nothing!” says she, in that soft drawl of hers, and that little familiar imploring, glance of hers at her hostess, who sat behind the urn, and glanced back at her ever so kindly.

“Yes, it was too warm to dream of exertion; would Lady Swansdown like, to remain at home then, and dream away the afternoon in a hammock?”

“Dreams were delightful; but to dream alone

“Oh, no; they would all, or at least most of them, stay with her.” It was Lady Baltimore who had said this, after waiting in vain for her husband to speakto whom, indeed, Lady Swansdown’s question had been rather pointedly addressed.

So at home they all had stayed. No one being very keen about doing anything on a day so sultry.

Yet now, when luncheon is at an end, and the day still heavy with heat, the desire for action that lies in every breast takes fire. They are all tired of doing nothing. The Tennis-courts lie invitingly empty, and rackets thrust themselves into notice at every turn; as for the balls, worn out from ennui, they insert themselves under each arched instep, threatening to bring the owners to the ground unless picked up and made use of.

“Who wants a beating?” demands Mr. Browne at last, unable to pretend lassitude any longer. Taking up a racket he brandishes it wildly, presumably to attract attention. This is necessary. As a rule nobody pays any attention to Dicky Browne.

He is a nondescript sort of young man, of the negative order; with no features to speak of, and a capital opinion of himself. Income vague. Age unknown.

“Well! That’s one way of putting it,” says Miss Kavanagh, with a little tilt of her pretty chin.

“Is it a riddle?” asks Dysart. “If so I know it. The answer isDicky Browne.”

“Oh, I like that!” says Mr. Browne unabashed. “See here, I’ll give you plus fifteen, and a bisque, and start myself at minus thirty, and beat you in a canter.”

“Dear Mr. Browne, consider the day! I believe there are such things as sunstrokes,” says Lady Swansdown, in her sweet treble.

“There are. But Dicky’s all right,” says Lord Baltimore, drawing up a garden chair close to hers, and seating himself upon it. “His head is safe. The sun makes no impression upon granite!”

“Ah, granite! that applies to a heart not a head,” says Lady Swansdown, resting her blue eyes on Baltimore’s for just a swift second.

It is wonderful, however, what her eyes can do in a second. Baltimore laughs lightly, returns her glance four-fold, and draws his chair a quarter of an inch closer to hers. To move it more than that would have been an impossibility. Lady Swansdown makes a slight movement. With a smile seraphic as an angel’s, she pulls her lace skirts a little to one side, as if to prove to Baltimore that he has encroached beyond his privileges upon her domain. “People should not crush people. And why do you want to get so very close to me?” This question lies within the serene eyes she once more raises to his.

She is a lovely woman, blonde, serene, dangerous! In each glance she turns upon the man who happens at any moment to be next to her, lies an entire chapter on the “Whole Art of Flirtation.” Were she reduced to penury, and the world a little more advanced in its fashionable ways, she might readily make a small fortune in teaching young ladies “How to Marry Well.” No man could resist her pupils, once properly finished by her and turned out to prey upon the stronger sex. “The Complete Angler” would be a title they might filch with perfect honor and call their own.

She is a tall beauty, with soft limbs, graceful as a panther, or a cat. Her eyes are like the skies in summer time, her lips sweet and full. The silken hair that falls in soft masses on her Grecian brow is light as corn in harvest, and she has hands and feet that are absolutely faultless. She has even more than all thesea most convenient husband, who is not only now but apparently always in a position of trust abroad. Very much abroad. The Fiji, or the Sandwich Islands for choice. One can’t hear from those centres of worldly dissipation in a hurry. And after all, it really doesn’t very much matter where he is!

There had been a whisper or two in the County about her and Lord Baltimore. Everybody knew the latter had been a little wild since his estrangement with his wife, but nothing to signify very muchnothing that one could lay one’s finger on, until Lady Swansdown had come down last year to the Court. Whether Baltimore was in love with her was uncertain, but all were agreed that she was in love with him. Not that she made an esclandre of any sort, but one could see! And still! she was such a friend of Lady Baltimore’san old friend. They had been girls togetherthat was what was so wonderful! And Lady Baltimore made very much of her, and treated her with the kindliest observances, and But one had often heard of the serpent that one nourished in one’s bosom only that it might come to life and sting one! The County grew wise over this complication; and perhaps when Mrs. Monkton had hinted to Joyce of the “odd people” the Baltimores asked to the Court, she had had Lady Swansdown in her mind.

“Whose heart?” asks Baltimore, a propos of her last remark. “Yours?”

It is a leading remark, and something in the way it is uttered strikes unpleasantly on the ears of Dysart. Baltimore is bending over his lovely guest, and looking at her with an admiration too open to be quite respectful. But she betrays no resentment. She smiles back at him indeed in that little slow, seductive way of hers, and makes him an answer in a tone too low for even those nearest to her to hear. It is a sort of challenge, a tacit acknowledgment that they two are alone even in the midst of all these tiresome people.

Baltimore accepts it. Of late he has grown a little reckless. The battling against circumstances has been too much for him. He has gone under. The persistent coldness of his wife, her refusal to hear, or believe in him, has had its effect. A man of a naturally warm and kindly disposition, thrown thus back upon himself, he has now given a loose rein to the carelessness that has been a part of his nature since his mother gave him to the world, and allows himself to swim or go down with the tide that carries his present life upon its bosom.

Lady Swansdown is lovely and kind. Always with that sense of injury full upon him, that half-concealed but ever-present desire for revenge upon the wife who has so coldly condemned and cast him aside, he flings himself willingly into a flirtation, ready made to his hand, and as dangerous as it seems light.

His life, he tells himself, is hopelessly embittered. The best things in it are denied him; he gives therefore the more heed to the honeyed words of the pretty creature near him, who in truth likes him too well for her own soul’s good.

That detested husband of hers, out there somewhere, the only thought she ever gives him is when she remembers with horror how as a young girl she was sold to him. For years she had believed herself heartlessof all her numerous love affairs not one had really touched her until now, and now he is the husband of her oldest friend; of the one woman whom perhaps in all the world she really respects.

At times her heart smites her, and a terrible longing to go awayto dieto make an end of ittakes possession of her at other times. She leans towards Baltimore, her lovely eyes alight, her soft mouth smiling. Her whispered words, her only half-averted glances, all tell their tale. Presently it is clear to everyone that a very fully developed flirtation is well in hand.

Lady Baltimore coming across the grass with a basket in one hand and her little son held fondly by the other, sees and grasps the situation. Baltimore, leaning over Lady Swansdown, the latter lying back in her lounging chair in her usual indolent fashion, swaying her feather fan from side to side, and with white lids lying on the azure eyes.

Seeing it all, Lady Baltimore’s mouth hardens, and a contemptuous expression destroys the calm dignity of her face. For the moment only. Another moment, and it is gone: she has recovered herself. The one sign of emotion she has betrayed is swallowed up by her stern determination to conceal all pain at all costs, and if her fingers tighten somewhat convulsively on those of her boy’s, why, who can be the wiser of that? No one can see it.

Dysart, however, who is honestly fond of his cousin, has mastered that first swift involuntary contraction of the calm brow, and a sense of indignant anger against Baltimore and his somewhat reckless companion fires his blood. He springs quickly to his feet.

Lady Baltimore, noting the action, though not understanding the motive for it, turns and smiles at himso controlled a smile that it quiets him at once.

“I am going to the gardens to try and cajole McIntyre out of some roses,” says she, in her sweet, slow way, stopping near the first group she reaches on the lawnthe group that contains, amongst others, her husband, and her friend. She would not willingly have stayed where they were, but she is too proud to pass them by without a word. “Who will come with me? Oh! no,” as several rise to join her, laughing, though rather faintly. “It is not compulsoryeven though I go alone, I shall feel that I am equal to McIntyre.”

Lord Baltimore had started as her first words fell upon his ears. He had been so preoccupied that her light footfalls coming over the grass had not reached him, and her voice, when it fell upon the air, gave him a shock. He half rises from his seat:

“Shall I?” he is beginning, and then stops short, something in her face checking him.

You!” she conquers herself a second later; all the scorn and contempt is crushed, by sheer force of will, out of look and tone, and she goes on as clearly, and as entirely without emotion, as though she were a mere machinea thing she has taught herself to be. “Not you,” she says gaily, waving him lightly from her. “You are too useful here”as she says this she gives him the softest if fleetest smile. It is a masterpiece. “You can amuse one here and there, whilst III want a girl, I think,” looking round. “Bertie,”with a fond, an almost passionate glance at her little son“always likes one of his sweethearts (and they are many) to accompany him when he takes his walks abroad.”

“Like father, like son, I daresay. Ha, ha!” laughs a fatuous youtha Mr. Courtenaywho lives about five miles from the Court, and has dropped in this afternoon, very unfortunately, it must be confessed, to pay his respects to Lady Baltimore. Fools always hit on the truth! Why, nobody knows, except the heavens above usbut so it is. Young Courtenay, who has heard nothing of the unpleasant relations existing between his host and hostess, and who would be quite incapable of understanding them if he had heard, now springs a remark upon the assembled five or six people present that almost reduces them to powder.

Dysart casts a murderous glance at him.

“A clever old proverb,” says Lady Baltimore lightly. She is apparently the one unconcerned person amongst them. “I always like those old sayings. There is so much truth in them.”

She has forced herself to say this; but as the words pass her lips she blanches perceptibly. As if unable to control herself she draws her little son towards her; her arms tighten round him. The boy responds gladly to the embrace, and to those present who know nothing, it seems the simplest thing in the world. The mother,the child; naturally they would caress each other on each and every occasion. The agony of the mother is unknown to them; the fear that her boy, her treasure, may inherit something of his father, and in his turn prove unfaithful to the heart that trusts him.

It is a very little scene, scarcely worth recording, yet the anguish of a strong heart lies embodied in it.

“If you are going to the gardens, Lady Baltimore, let me go with you,” says Miss Maliphant, rising quickly and going toward her. She is a big, loud girl, with money written all over her in capital letters, but Dicky Browne watching her, tells himself she has a good heart. “I should love to go there with you and Bertie.”

“Come, then,” says Lady Baltimore graciously. She makes a step forward; little Bertie, as though he likes and believes in her, thrusts his small fist into the hand of the Birmingham heiress, and thus united, all three pass out of sight.