Later that day, Amelia called at Glenfayre to convey all her news to Maud; “only that I do not have time to do so,” she declared, “for there are such an hundred things to tell you, and I have but a few moments before I must run away again.” Despite which she managed to claim three-quarters of an hour of Maud’s day, consume four cups of tea and two small cakes, and between bites inform her friend that there was to be a dance in Hadway in four weeks’ time, and that Amelia would use the occasion to select which of her suitors was to be her husband.
“But you must promise me, Maud,” she said when at last she rose to her feet and pulled on her gloves, “that you will not breathe a word of this to your brother; for while I know you must hope for his success, I cannot allow that he should have any advantage over his rival. I am determined to see both gentlemen at their most natural and unaffected, so that I might best assess whose nature truly suits me. Do me the courtesy of assuring me of your confidence, Maud; I shall not quit you until you do,” she insisted, even as she bustled towards the door.
“Of course I shall say nothing to George,” Maud reassured her as she saw her out. But in fact Amelia had no sooner turned onto the lane than Maud went in search of her brother, with the intention of telling him all; for she was well enough acquainted with Amelia to know that that young lady’s admonitions to secrecy were in fact designed to promote its opposite—as witness a famous incident in which Amelia had forbidden Maud to tell anyone that her new hat had cost the shocking sum of two pounds seven, then been quite put out to discover some days later that Maud had taken her entirely at her word.
Maud found her brother in the garden, in his shirtsleeves, brushing the coat of his greyhound, Fulmino. Before George had gone off to Oxford the dog had been known as Duke, and George had been rather indifferent to him; but since his return, George had decided—on what evidence, Maud was uncertain—that the animal was in fact an Italian greyhound, which both required a new name and inspired a new level of devotion in his master. Indeed, since his return, George had shown himself to have acquired a somewhat disconcerting enthusiasm for all things Italian.
Alas, Fulmino was not so capacious in intellect as to be able to grasp that he had been rechristened, nor so intuitive as to respond to a sudden shift in his training to commands issued in a foreign tongue. So when George set aside the brush and ordered the dog to “Non mouvere” while he spoke to Maud, the bewildered creature saw no reason why it should not amble off, and did so, pursued by a volley of angry invective in the Roman dialect.
“Never mind, he can’t go far,” said George, brushing his hands against his thighs to clear them of Fulmino’s loosened bristles. “What besets you, Maud? You look very nearly feverish.”
Rebuked, Maud took a moment to compose herself; then said, “I have just seen Miss Webster, and she has told me something that will be of material interest to you.”
George’s face took on a wary cast. “And what would that be?”
“Why, that her father is to host a dance in four weeks’ time; and she means to use the occasion to make her choice between yourself and Mr. Bar.”
When her brother did not immediately gratify her with the look of ecstatic comprehension she had anticipated, she felt obliged to elucidate the significance of the revelation. “Mr. Bar will have no foreknowledge of this; so you may easily outdo him by being all the more charming and attentive to Miss Webster, and in the process secure her affection. I have no doubt that if you are sufficiently diligent, she will reward you at the evening’s end with all the encouragement you require to propose yourself.”
George continued to bewilder her by saying nothing.
“Do you not consider this an estimable opportunity?” Maud added, prodding him.
“Indeed,” he said, “very much so; thank you for apprising me of it, Maud.” But as he said this, his gaze drifted in the direction of Fulmino’s departure, as if he were weighing whether what he had just heard were really worth the trouble of having let slip his dog in mid-grooming.
Maud was disappointed, but she felt no inclination to pursue the matter further. She had planted a seed, and might return to water it as required over the succeeding weeks; but for the moment she considered that she had done all she reasonably could.
And in fact her intelligence’s effect on George was more considerable than she knew; for it told him that the long daydream of his return from abroad was now to give way to a brusque awakening. It had been five months since he had come back to Rovedon and to Glenfayre, during which time his mother had doted on him and he had entertained his father with rude tales of the barbaric east and the luxurious continent. But of late the novelty of his being once more at home had somewhat paled for Mrs. Hervey, who complained of his being always underfoot, and Mr. Hervey had allowed himself several very pointed remarks on what George ought to do next—which was, in his opinion, to find a position at a respectable firm in town and build himself a reputation, and with it a fortune of his own. George had been able to forestall any serious discussion of such a future, largely by engaging in his charade of a courtship with Miss Webster; for his father considered that a well-connected wife would be a signal advantage to a young law clerk seeking employment, and that the time it took to win Miss Webster was therefore well spent.
But George did not want to win Miss Webster. Nor, for that matter, did he want to go to London and take his place at the bar. He was not entirely certain what it was he did want; but when he allowed himself to contemplate the matter, his mind inevitably returned to the six golden weeks he had spent in Venice, where he had been stirred by the prospect of so many scenic tableaux that he had turned his hand to painting—which he persuaded himself was an unobjectionable pastime for a gentleman, if a trifle romantic. The hours he had spent at the widow of his pensione, poised before an easel, palette in one hand and brush in the other, attempting to capture both the glory and the squalor of that most remarkable city, had been the happiest of his life; and also the most riveting, for at a window directly across the canal there occasionally appeared a dark-hued beauty, who would lean across the sill and begin languidly to brush her hair. Inevitably, after a dozen or so strokes, her arm would droop, and she would abandon her ablutions to gaze disconsolately out onto the lagoon. George had dubbed her “la signorina dolorosa” and invented for himself a series of histories for her that explained both her loneliness and her tragic beauty; she became for him a minor fixation, to the point that he had even attempted twice or thrice to paint her.
He was, however, easily distracted by the merry and obliging girls he encountered everywhere else in Venice—indeed everywhere else in Italy—and it was not in fact until he had come home and unpacked his trunks and found among his canvases his attempted portraits of la signorina dolorosa that he had been reminded of her. And subsequently, as the pretty laughter and sparkling gaiety of all the Elviras and Katerinas and Alessandras had begun to dim in his memory, la dolorosa signorina remained fixed. Possibly this was because it was she and she alone who George had attempted to capture in oils; although none of his attempts, he now saw to his dismay, did her justice. He found himself wondering whether he might take up his brush again, and—with the added advantage of perspective and ample hours of leisure—perfect and complete his imperfect first endeavors.
It was no more than a whim; the certainty of what his father would say, were he to come across George daubing at a canvas—and not only that, a canvas depicting a loosely-clad beauty with her hair unpinned—was enough to dissuade George from any serious inclination to pursue it.
But neither was he inclined to marry some spoiled English country girl and carry her off to a life of respectability in town, which would be purchased for her by his own dreary and tireless labors. And this news that Maud had brought him—that he might indeed be fast approaching such a fate—alarmed him.
His one hope at present was that Miss Webster might choose Mr. Bar over him; but this he did not seriously credit. Mr. Bar might be the imminent heir to a vast fortune (and tall, for that matter), but he was also a humorless bore. And even were those strikes against him negligible, there was the added stain of his having been previously attentive to George’s own sister, Sally. It was inconceivable that Miss Webster would choose for herself a man who was known to have been previously attached elsewhere.
What to do, then? George supposed he might behave badly at the dance, and in some series of small ways (or one large one) sufficiently offend Miss Webster so that at its end she would have none of him. But that would not do; for Maud would call him to account, and his parents as well. Beyond that lay the fact that George was a gentleman; it was simply beyond him to offer deliberate offense to a lady, no matter the stakes. Were it otherwise, he would not have come so far in his tiresome suit for Miss Webster’s hand, for every moment of the enterprise had been contrary to his liking.
All these thoughts crested and broke upon the beachhead of his consciousness while he searched the grounds for Fulmino, whom he now found worrying a piece of dead branch that had fallen from a nearby buckthorn. As Fulmino, maddeningly, would not respond to George’s entreaty to “Andiamo, andiamo,” George resorted instead to hurling the length of bark in the house’s direction, over and over again—Fulmino being only too happy to follow and retrieve it and thus draw nearer to the house by degrees—until at last they found themselves at the front door.
George doffed his hat and gave it to the valet, Horton, then loped up to his room and threw himself onto a divan, with one leg hooked over its armrest and another lightly grazing the floor. Fulmino crept up and slid his neck beneath George’s dangling hand, then curled into a position of repose.
It was in this attitude that George spent the next quarter-hour, casting again and again over the width and breadth of his native ingenuity for some answer to his dilemma, and finding none. With a sigh—and a scratch behind Fulmino’s ears that the canine welcomed with a luxurious groan—he sat up and resolved to return to the matter after he had first cleared his head by the undertaking of some unrelated endeavor.
And there on his desk he espied the letter he had just written to his great friend, Henry Beverley, which he had yet to seal and post. And even as he rose with the intention of doing so, he was struck by an idea of such unexpected genius that he fairly flung himself into his chair, and skimmed over what he had written.
My dear Beverley,
Since last we met I have seen much of the world and tasted many of its delights, of which the sole criticism I am able to offer is that they did not include your society. Since March I have been at my father’s house, where I have occupied myself with little more than rising, dining, and retiring; which I account as my due after our long years of study and the rigors imposed by my subsequent travels. Yet I am shy of confessing as much to you, for fear that you have in the months since our parting been driven by ambition and become so great a success that my idleness will brand me in your eyes a ne’er-do-well no longer worthy of your good opinion.
But in the event that you have likewise found yourself paused on the precipice of a brilliant future, let me entreat you to come to Hertfordshire and spend some span of time with me. While not a large house, Glenfayre is most accommodating, and your presence here would allow me to regale you with an account of my travels that I would not wish to commit to foolscap. As an additional enticement, let me add that in the interval of my absence, my two sisters, young girls when I left them, have surprised me by becoming rather a pair of beauties, and it would give me pleasure to see their attractions reflected in your cultivated regard.
I encourage you to accept this invitation, my dear friend; and I look forward to welcoming you here, whenever it best suits you to arrive.
Yr faithful servant
Satisfied, he now dipped his quill in ink and provided a supplementary entreaty:
A codicil, appended in some haste: I have learned that there is to be a dance here the second week of September. If you are at all able, please time your visit to correspond. I cannot promise you pleasure in it, but I do require your particular talents to serve me in a matter of some urgency on the night in question. I will say no more, in the hope that this is sufficient to intrigue you and draw you forth. In the meanwhile, I remain yrs., etc.