The Lamp of Fate and
The Clever Woman of the Family
From The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter I. The Ninth Generation
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The house was very silent. An odour of disinfectants pervaded the atmosphere. Upstairs hushed, swift steps moved to and fro.
Hugh Vallincourt stood at the window of his study, staring out with unseeing eyes at the smooth, shaven lawns and well-kept paths with their background of leafless trees. It seemed to him that he had been standing thus for hours, waiting--waiting for someone to come and tell him that a son and heir was born to him.
He never doubted that it would be a son. By some freak of chance the first-born of the Vallincourts of Coverdale had been, for eight successive generations, a boy. Indeed, by this time, the thing had become so much a habit that no doubts or apprehensions concerning the sex of the eldest child were ever entertained. It was accepted as a foregone conclusion, and in the eyes of the family there was a certain gratifying propriety about such regularity. It was like a hall-mark of heavenly approval.
Hugh Vallincourt, therefore, was conscious at this critical moment of no questionings on that particular score. He was merely a prey to the normal tremors and agitations of a husband and prospective father.
For an ageless period, it seemed to him, his thoughts had clung about that upstairs room where his wife lay battling for her own life and another's. Suddenly they swung back to the time, a year ago, when he had first met her--an elusive feminine thing still reckoning her age in teens--beneath the glorious blue and gold canopy of the skies of Italy.
Their meeting and brief courtship had been pure romance--romance such as is bred in that land of mellow warmth and colour, where the flower of passion sometimes buds and blooms within the span of a single day.
In like manner had sprung to life the love between Hugh Vallincourt and Diane Wielitzska, and rarely has the web of love enmeshed two more dissimilar and ill-matched people--Hugh, a man of seven-and-thirty, the strict and somewhat self-conscious head of a conspicuously devout old English family, and Diane, a beautiful dancer of mixed origin, the illegitimate offspring of a Russian grand-duke and of a French artist's model of the Latin Quarter.
The three dread Sisters who determine the fate of men must have laughed amongst themselves at such an obvious mismating, knowing well how inevitably it would tangle the threads of many other lives than the two immediately concerned.
Vallincourt had been brought up on severely conventional lines, reared in the narrow tenets of a family whose salient characteristics were an overweening pride of race and a religious zeal amounting almost to fanaticism, while Diane had had no up-bringing worth speaking of. As for religious views, she hadn't any.
Yet neither the one nor the other had counted in the scale when the crucial moment came.
Perhaps it was by way of an ironical set-off against his environment that Fate had dowered Hugh with his crop of ruddy hair--and with the ardent temperament which usually accompanies the type. Be that as it may, he was swept completely off his feet by the dancer's magic beauty. The habits and training of a lifetime went by the board, and nothing was allowed to impede the swift (not to say violent) course of his love-making. Within a month from the day of their first meeting, he and Diane were man and wife.
The consequences were almost inevitable, and Hugh found that his married life speedily resolved itself into an endless struggle between the dictates of inclination and conscience. Everything that was man in him responded passionately to the appeal and charm of Diane's personality, whilst everything that was narrow and censorious disapproved her total inability to conform to the ingrained prejudices of the Vallincourts.
Not that Diane was in any sense of the word a bad woman. She was merely beautiful and irresponsible--a typical cigale of the stage-- lovable and kind-hearted and pagan, and possessing but the haziest notions of self-control and self-discipline. Even so, left to themselves, husband and wife might ultimately have found the road to happiness across the bridge of their great love for one another.
But such freedom was denied them. Always at Hugh's elbow stood his sister, Catherine, a rigidly austere woman, in herself an epitome of all that Vallincourts had ever stood for.
Since the death of their parents, twenty years previously, Catherine had shared her brother's home, managing his house--and, on the strength of her four years' seniority in age, himself as well--with an iron hand. Nor had she seen fit to relinquish the reins of government when he married.
Privately, Hugh had hoped she might consider the propriety of withdrawing to the dower house attached to the Coverdale estates, but if the idea had occurred to her, she had never given it utterance, and Hugh himself had lacked the courage to propose such an innovation.
So it followed that Catherine was ever at hand to criticise and condemn. She disapproved of her brother's marriage wholly and consistently. In her eyes, he had committed an unpardonable sin in allying himself with Diane Wielitzska. It was his duty to have married a woman of the type conventionally termed "good," whose blood--and religious outlook--were alike unimpeachable; and since he had lamentably failed in this respect, she never ceased to reproach him. Diane she regarded with chronic disapprobation, exaggerating all her faults and opposing her joy-loving, butterfly nature with an aloofly puritanical disdain.
Amid the glacial atmosphere of disapproval into which marriage had thrust her, Diane found her only solace in Virginie, a devoted French servant who had formerly been her nurse, and who literally worshipped the ground she walked on. Conversely, Virginie's attitude towards Miss Vallincourt was one of frank hostility. And deep in the hearts of both Diane and Virginie lurked a confirmed belief that the birth of a child --a son--would serve to bring about a better understanding between husband and wife, and in the end assure Diane her rightful place as mistress of the house.
"Vois-tu, Virginie," the latter would say hopefully. "When I have a little baby, I shall have done my duty as the wife of a great English milord. Even Miss Catherine will no longer regard me as of no importance."
And Virginie would reply with infinite satisfaction:
"Of a certainty, when madame has a little son, Ma'moiselle Catherine will be returned to her place."
And now at last the great moment had arrived, and upstairs Catherine and Virginie were in attendance--both ousted from what each considered her own rightful place of authority by a slim, capable, and apparently quite unconcerned piece of femininity equipped against rebellion in all the starched panoply of a nurse's uniform, while downstairs Hugh stared dumbly out at the frosted lawns, with their background of bare, brown trees swaying to the wind from the north.
The opening of Clever Woman of the Family, by Charlotte Yonge
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"It is very kind of the dear mother."
"But--what, Rachel? Don't you like it! She so enjoyed choosing it for you."
"Oh yes, it is a perfect thing in its way. Don't say a word to her; but if you are consulted for my next birthday present, Grace, couldn't you suggest that one does cease to be a girl."
"Only try it on, Rachel dear, she will be pleased to see you in it."
"Oh yes, I will bedizen myself to oblige her. I do assure you I am not ungrateful. It is beautiful in itself, and shows how well nature can be imitated; but it is meant for a mere girl, and this is the very day I had fixed for hauling down the flag of youth."
"Ah, ha! If Rachel be an old maid, what is Grace? Come, my dear, resign yourself! There is nothing more unbecoming than want of perception of the close of young-ladyhood."
"Of course I know we are not quite young girls now," said Grace, half perplexed, half annoyed.
"Exactly, from this moment we are established as the maiden sisters of Avonmouth, husband and wife to one another, as maiden pairs always are."
"Then thus let me crown, our bridal," quoth Grace, placing on her sister's head the wreath of white roses.
"Treacherous child!" cried Rachel, putting up her hands and tossing her head, but her sister held her still.
"You know brides always take liberties. Please, dear, let it stay till the mother has been in, and pray don't talk, before her of being so very old."
"No, I'll not be a shock to her. We will silently assume our immunities, and she will acquiesce if they come upon her gradually."
Grace looked somewhat alarmed, being perhaps in some dread of immunities, and aware that Rachel's silence would in any one else have been talkativeness.
"Ah, mother dear, good morning," as a pleasant placid-looking lady entered, dressed in black, with an air of feeble health, but of comely middle age.
Birthday greetings, congratulations, and thanks followed, and the mother looked critically at the position of the wreath, and Rachel for the first time turned to the glass and met a set of features of
an irregular, characteristic cast, brow low and broad, nose retrousse, with large, singularly sensitive nostrils quivering like those of a high-bred horse at any emotion, full pouting lips, round cheeks glowing with the freshest red, eyes widely opened, dark deep
grey and decidedly prominent, though curtained with thick black lashes. The glossy chestnut hair partook of the redundance and vigour of the whole being, and the roses hung on it gracefully though not in congruity with the thick winter dress of blue and black
tartan, still looped up over the dark petticoat and hose, and stout high-heeled boots, that like the grey cloak and felt hat bore witness to the early walk. Grace's countenance and figure were in the same
style, though without so much of mark or animation; and her dress was of like description, but less severely plain.
"Yes, my dear, it looks very well; and now you will oblige me by not wearing that black lace thing, that looks fit for your grandmother."
"Poor Lovedy Kelland's aunt made it, mother, and it was very expensive, and wouldn't sell."
"No wonder, I am sure, and it was very kind in you to take it off their hands; but now it is paid for, it can't make much difference whether you disfigure yourself with it or not."
"Oh yes, dear mother, I'll bind my hair when you bid me do it and really these buds do credit to the makers. I wonder whether they cost them as dear in health as lace does," she added, taking off the
flowers and examining them with a grave sad look.
"I chose white roses," proceeded the well-pleased mother, "because I thought they would suit either of the silks you have now, though I own I should like to see you in another white muslin."
"I have done with white muslin," said Rachel, rousing from her reverie. "It is an affectation of girlish simplicity not becoming at our age."
"Oh Rachel!" thought Grace in despair; but to her great relief in at that moment filed the five maids, the coachman, and butler, and the mother began to read prayers.