The Dutchess of Wrexe, Her Decline and Death - Hugh Walpole - ebook

The Dutchess of Wrexe, Her Decline and Death ebook

Hugh Walpole

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An energetic girl enters society and must choose between her rebellious and exiled cousin or an ordinary young man. Rachel chooses an ordinary young man, but when their marriage begins to degenerate, she again comes into contact with her cousin. She falls in love with him – will she leave her husband and run away with her romantic but weak lover?

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Contents

BOOK I

THE DUCHESS

CHAPTER I. Felix Brun, Dr. Christopher, Rachel Beaminster—They Are Surveyed by the Portrait

CHAPTER II. Rachel

CHAPTER III. Lady Adela

CHAPTER IV. The Pool

CHAPTER V. She Comes Out

CHAPTER VI. Fans

CHAPTER VII. In the Heart of the House

CHAPTER VIII. The Tiger

CHAPTER IX. The Golden Cage

CHAPTER X. Lizzie and Breton

CHAPTER XI. Her Grace's Day

CHAPTER XII. Defiance of the Tiger—I

CHAPTER XIII. Defiance of the Tiger—II

BOOK II

RACHEL

CHAPTER I. The Pool and the Snow

CHAPTER II. A Little House

CHAPTER III. First Sequel to Defiance

CHAPTER IV. Rachel—and Christopher and Roddy

CHAPTER V. Lizzie's Journey—I

CHAPTER VI. All the Beaminsters

CHAPTER VII. Rachel and Breton

CHAPTER VIII. Christopher's Day

CHAPTER IX. The Darkest Hour

CHAPTER X. Lizzie's Journey—II

CHAPTER XI. Roddy Is Master

CHAPTER XII. Lizzie's Journey—III

BOOK III

RODDY

CHAPTER I. Regent's Park—Breton and Lizzie

CHAPTER II. The Duchess Moves

CHAPTER III. Roddy Moves

CHAPTER IV. March 13th: Breton's Tiger

CHAPTER V. March 13th: Rachel's Heart

CHAPTER VI. March 13th: Roddy Talks to the Devil and the Duchess Denies God

CHAPTER VII. Chamber Music—A Trio

CHAPTER VIII. A Quartette

CHAPTER IX. Rachel and Roddy

CHAPTER X. Lizzie Becomes Miss Rand Again

CHAPTER XI. The Last View from High Windows

CHAPTER XII. Rachel, Roddy, Lord John, Christopher

CHAPTER XIII. Epilogue—Prologue

BOOK I

THE DUCHESS

CHAPTER I

I

Felix Brun, perched like a little bird, on the steps of the Rede Art Gallery, gazed up and down Bond Street, with his sharp eyes for someone to whom he might show Yale Ross’s portrait of the Duchess of Wrexe. The afternoon was warm, the date May of the year 1898, and the occasion was the Young Portrait Painters’ first show with Ross’s “Duchess” as its principal attraction.

Brun was thrilled with excitement, with emotion, and he must have his audience. There must be somebody to whom he might talk, to whom he might explain exactly why this occasion was of so stirring an importance.

His eyes lighted with satisfaction. Coming towards him was a tall, gaunt man with a bronzed face, loose ill-fitting clothes, a stride that had little of the town about it. This was Arkwright, the explorer, a man who had been lost in African jungles during the last five years, the very creature for Brun’s purposes.

Here was someone who, knowing nothing about Art, would listen all the more readily to Brun’s pronouncement upon it, a homely simple soul, fitted for the killing of lions and tigers, but pliable as wax in the hands of a master of civilization like Brun. At the same time Arkwright was no fool; a psychologist in his way, he had written two books about the East that had aroused considerable interest.

No fool, Arkwright... He would be able to appreciate Brun’s subtleties and perhaps add some of his own.

He had, however, been away from England for so long a time that anything that Brun had to tell him about the London world would be pleasantly fresh and stimulating.

Brun, round and neat, and a citizen of the world from the crown of his head to the top of his shining toes, tapped Arkwright on his shoulder:

“Hallo! Brun. How are you? It is good to see you! Haven’t seen a soul I know for the last ever so long.”

“Good–good. Excellent. Come along in here.”

“In there? Pictures? What’s the use of me looking at pictures?”

“We can talk in here. I’ll tell you all the news. Besides, there’s something that even you will appreciate.”

“Well?” Arkwright laughed good-humouredly and moved towards the door. “What is it?”

“The Duchess,” Brun answered him. “Yale Ross’s portrait of the Duchess of Wrexe. At last,” he triumphantly cried, “at last we’ve got her!”

II

The Duchess had a small corner wall for her own individual possession. The thin glowing May sunlight fell about her and the dull gold of her frame received it and gave it back with a rich solemnity as though it had said, “You have been gay and unrestrained enough with all those crowds, but here, let me tell you, is something that requires a very different attitude.”

The Duchess received the colour and the sunlight, but made no response. She sat, leaning forward a little, bending with one of her dry wrinkled hands over a black ebony cane, a high carved chair supporting and surrounding her. She seemed, herself, to be carved there, stone, marble, anything lifeless save for her eyes, the tense clutch of her fingers about the cane, and the dull but brooding gleam that a large jade pendant, the only colour against the black of her dress, flung at the observer. Her mouth was a thin hard line, her nose small but sharp, her colour so white that it seemed to cut into the paper, and the skin drawn so tightly over her bones that a breath, a sigh, might snap it.

Her little body was, one might suppose, shrivelled with age, with the business and pleasure of the world, with the pursuit of some great ambition or prize, with the battle, unceasing and unyielding, over some weakness or softness.

Indomitable, remorseless, unhumorous, proud, the pose of the body was absolutely, one felt, the justest possible.

On either side of the chair were two white and green Chinese dragons, grotesque with open mouths and large flat feet; a hanging tapestry of dull gold filled in the background.

Out upon these dull colours the little body, with the white face, the shining eyes, the clenched hand, was flung, poised, sustained by its very force and will.

Nothing in the world could be so fierce as that determined absence of ferocity, nothing so energetic as that negation of all energy, nothing so proud as that contemptuous rejection of all that had to do with pride.

It was as though she had said: “They shall see nothing of me, these people. I will give them nothing”... and then the green jade on her bosom had betrayed her.

Maliciously the dragons grinned behind her back.

III

Arkwright, as he watched, was conscious suddenly of an overwhelming curiosity. He had in earlier days seen her portrait, and always it had been interesting, suggestive, provocative; but now, as he stood there, he was aware that something quite definite, something uncomfortably disconcerting had occurred; life absurdly seemed to warn him that he must prepare for some new development.

The Duchess had, he was aware, taken notice of him for the first time.

Little Felix Brun watched Arkwright with interest. They were, at that moment, the only persons in the room, and it was as though they had begged for a private interview and had been granted it. The other portraits of the exhibition had vanished into the mild May afternoon.

“She doesn’t like us,” Brun said, laughing. “She’d turn the dragons on to us if she could.”

“It’s wonderful.” Arkwright moved back a little. “Young Ross has done it this time. No other portrait has ever given one the least idea of her. She must be that.”

Brun stood regarding her. “There’ll never be anything like her again. As far as your England is concerned she’s the very, very last, and when she goes a heap of things will go with her. There’ll be other Principalities and Powers, but never that Power.”

“She’s asked us to come,” said Arkwright, “or, at any rate, asked me. I wonder what she wants.”

“She’s only asked you,” said Brun, “to tell you how she hates you. And doesn’t she, my word!”

There were voices behind him; Brun turned, and Arkwright heard him exclaim beneath his breath. Then in a moment the little man was received with: “Why, Mr. Brun! How fortunate! We’ve come to see my mother’s portrait.”

Arkwright caught these words, and knew that the lady standing there must be Lady Adela Beaminster, the Duchess’s only daughter. He had never seen Lady Adela before, but it amused him now that she should resemble so exactly the figure that he had imagined–it showed, after all, that one could take the world’s verdict about these things.

The world’s verdict about Lady Adela was that she was dull, but important, bearing her tall dried body as a kind of flag for the right people to range themselves behind her–and range themselves they did. Standing now, with Felix Brun in front of her demanding a display of graciousness, she extended her patronage. Thin, with her sharp nose and tight mouth, she was like an exclamation mark that had left off exclaiming, and it was only her ability to be gracious, and the sense that she conveyed of having any number of rights and possessions to stand for, that gave her claim to attention.

Her black hat was harsh, her hair iron-grey, her eyes cold with lack of intelligence. Arkwright thought her unpleasant.

Standing a little behind her was a tall thin girl who was obviously determined to be as ungracious as a protest against her companion’s amiability should require. The girl’s thinness was accentuated by her rather tightly clinging white dress, and beneath her long black gloves her hands moved a little awkwardly, as though she were not quite sure what she should do with them. A large black hat overshadowed her face, but Arkwright could see that her eyes, large and dark, were more beautiful than anything else about her. Her nose was too thin, her mouth too large, her face too white and pinched.

Her body as she stood there was graceful, but not yet disciplined, so that she made movements and then checked them, giving the impression that she wished to do a number of things, but was uncertain of the correctness of any of them.

She was of foreign blood Arkwright decided–much too black and white for England. But it was her expression that demanded his attention. As she watched Felix Brun talking to Lady Adela, she seemed to be longing to express the contempt that she felt for both of them, and yet to have behind that desire a pathetic hesitation as to whether she had a right to be contemptuous of anyone.

It was the pathos, Arkwright decided, that one ultimately felt concerning her. She looked lonely, she looked frightened, and she looked “in the devil of a temper.” Her black eyes would be beautiful, whether they were filled with tears or with anger, and it seemed that they must very often be filled with both. “I wouldn’t like to have the handling of her,” thought Arkwright, and then instantly after, “I’d like to take away some of that loneliness.”

“She’ll have a fine old time,” he thought, “if she isn’t too sensitive.”

Lady Adela had now moved forward with Brun to look at the picture, but the girl did not move with them. She did not look at the portrait nor did she appear to take any interest in the other pictures. She stood there, making, every now and again, little nervous movements with her black gloves.

Arkwright moved about the gallery by himself a little, and he was conscious that the girl’s large black eyes followed him. He fancied, as, for an instant he glanced back, that the Duchess from her high wall leaned forward on her cane just a little further, so that she might force the girl to give her attention. “That girl’s got plenty of spirit,” thought Arkwright, “I’d like to see a battle between her and the old lady. It would be tooth and nail.”

Then once again the door opened–there was again an addition to the company. Arkwright was, at that moment, facing the girl, and as he heard the sharp closing of the door he saw in her eyes the welcome that the new-comer had received.

She was transformed. The pallor of her face was now flooded with colour, and she seemed almost beautiful as the hostility left her, and her mouth curved in a smile of so immense a relief that it emphasized indeed her earlier burden. Her whole body expressed the intensity of her pleasure; her awkwardness had departed; she was suddenly in possession of herself. Arkwright’s gaze went past her to the door. The man who stood there was greeting the girl with a smile that had in it both surprise and intimacy, as though they were the two oldest friends in the world, and yet he was astonished to see her there. The man was large, roughly built, with big limbs and a face that, without being good-looking, beamed kindness and good-nature. His eyes and mouth were sensitive and less ragged than the rest of him, his nose the plainest thing about him, was square and too large for his mouth. His hair was white, although he looked between forty and fifty years of age. His dress was correct, but he obviously did not give his clothes more consideration than the feelings of his friends required of him. Ruddy of face, with his white hair and large limbs and smiling good-humour, he was pleasant to look upon, and Arkwright did not wonder at the girl’s welcome; he would be, precisely, the kind of friend that she would need–benevolent, understanding, strong.

They greeted one another, and then they moved forward and spoke to Lady Adela and Brun.

Arkwright watched them. There they all were, gathered together under the sharp eyes of the Duchess, and she seemed, so Arkwright fancied, to hold them with her gaze. Little Brun was neater than ever, and Lady Adela drier than ever by the side of the stranger. They talked; they were discussing the picture–their eyes travelled up to it, and for an instant there was silence as though they were all charging it with their challenge or surrender, as the case might be. The girl’s eyes moved up to it with a sudden sharpened, thinning of the face that brought back the gleam of hostility that it had worn before. Then her eyes fell, and, with a smile, they sought her friend.

Arkwright did not know any reason for his interest, but he watched them breathlessly, and the sense that he had had, on first entering the room, of being on the verge of some new experience, deepened with him.

Brun was apparently suddenly conscious that he had left his friend alone long enough, for he detached himself from the group, shook hands with Lady Adela and the girl, bowed stiffly to the man and joined Arkwright.

“Seen enough?” he said.

“Yes,” said Arkwright.

They went out together.

IV

Felix Brun and Arkwright were not intimate friends. No one was intimate with Brun, and the little man came and disappeared, was there and was not there, was absent for a year, and then back again as though he had been away a week, was, indeed, simply a succession of explanatory footnotes to the social history of Europe.

It was for the social history of Europe that he lived, for the eager penetrating gaze into this capital and that, something suddenly noted, some case examined and dismissed. Life is discovered most accurately by those who learn to watch for its accidents rather than its intentions, and it was always the things that occurred by change that gave Brun his discoveries. He was a cosmopolitan of a multitude of acquaintances, no friends, no occupation, an enthusiasm only for cynical and pessimistic observation, invaluable as a commentator, useless as a human being.

When, as was now the case, some chance meeting had assisted his theories his neat little body shone like a celluloid ball. If, having made his discovery, he might also have his audience to whom he might declare it, then his very fingers quivered with the excitement of it. His hands, white and thin and tapering, waved now. His eyes were on fire. As they walked up Bond Street one might have imagined air-bladders at his armpits, Mercury’s wings at his heels. The quiet evening air was charged with him.

“Well,” said Arkwright, smiling and looking down at his companion. “Who are they all?”

“Lady Adela Beaminster, Rachel Beaminster, Christopher–”

“Christopher?”

“Dr. Christopher, the Harley Street man. He’s the Duchess’ doctor, has been for years. The girl was the Duchess’ granddaughter–Lady Adela’s niece.”

“Well?”

“The girl’s coming out in three days’ time. They’re giving a ball in Portland Place for her. Nobody knows much about her. She’s been educated abroad, and always kept very close when she’s here. I shouldn’t think the old Duchess loves her much. She loved the girl’s father, but he married a Russian actress, bolted to Russia with her, and the old lady never forgave him. He and the actress were both killed in a Petersburg fire, and the child was sent home–only tiny then–”

“Ah! that explains the foreign air she had. She didn’t look as though she loved her aunt very much either.”

“No–don’t suppose she does. But that’s not it–that’s not it.”

They had arrived now at the top of Bond Street, and they paused for a moment to allow the Oxford Street traffic to sweep past them.

It was an hour of stir and clatter–hansoms, carts, lumbering omnibuses, bicycles, all were hurled along as though by some impatient hand, and the evening light crept higher and higher along the walls of the street, leaving grey-purple shadows beneath it.

They crossed over, and were instantly in a dim, golden, voiceless square. It was as though a door had been closed.

Brun still held Arkwright’s arm. “Now we can talk–no noise. Francis Breton has come back.”

To Arkwright this name, unfortunately, conveyed nothing.

“You don’t know?” Brun was disappointed.

“Never heard of him.”

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