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Vanitas. Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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page: 21

II.

“TAL?” asked Marion.

“Tal. Her name's Atalanta, Lady Atalanta Walkenshaw—but everyone calls her Tal—Lady Tal. She's the daughter of Lord Ossian, you know.”

“And who is or was Walkenshaw?—is, I presume, otherwise she'd have married somebody else by this time.”

“Poor Tal!” mused Miss Vanderwerf. “I'm sure she would have no difficulty in finding another husband to make up for that fearful old Walkenshaw creature. But she's in a very sad position for so young a creature, poor girl.”

“Ah!” ejaculated Marion, familiar with ladies thus to be commiserated, and remembering his friend's passion for romance, unquenchable by many serio-comic disenchantments, “separated from her husband—that sort of thing! I thought so.”

“Now, why did you think that, you horrid creature?” asked his hostess eagerly. “Well, now, there's no page: 22 saying that you're not real psychological, Jervase. Now do tell what made you think of such a thing.”

“I don't know, I'm sure,” answered Marion, suppressing a yawn. He hated people who pried into his novelist consciousness, all the more so that he couldn't in the least explain its contents. “Something about her—or nothing about her—a mere guess, a stupid random shot that happens to have hit right.”

“Why, that's just the thing, that you haven't hit quite right. That is, it's right in one way, and wrong in another. Oh, my! how difficult it is just to explain, when one isn't a clever creature like you? Well, Lady Tal isn't separated from her husband, but it's just the same as if she were—”

“I see. Mad? Poor thing!” exclaimed Marion with that air of concern which always left you in doubt whether it was utterly conventional, or might not contain a grain of sympathy after all.

“No, he's not mad. He's dead—been dead ever so long. She's one and thirty, you know—doesn't look it, does she?—and was married at eighteen. But she can't marry again, for all that, because if she marries all his money goes elsewhere, and she's not a penny to bless herself with.”

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“Ah—and why didn't she have proper settlements made?” asked Marion.

“That's just it. Because old Walkenshaw, who was a beast—just a beast—had a prejudice against settlements, and said he'd do much better for his wife than that—leave her everything, if only they didn't plague him. And then, when the old wretch died, after they'd been married a year or so, it turned out that he had left her everything, but only on condition of her not marrying again. If she did, it would all go to the next of kin. He hated the next of kin, too, they say, and wanted to keep the money away from him as long as possible, horrid old wretch! So there poor Tal is a widow, but unable to marry again.”

“Dear me!” ejaculated Marion, looking at the patterns which the moonlight, falling between the gothic balcony balustrade, was making on the shining marble floor; and reflecting upon the neat way in which the late Walkenshaw had repaid his wife for marrying him for his money; for of course she had married him for his money. Marion was not a stoic, or a cynic, or a philosopher of any kind. He fully accepted the fact that the daughters of Scotch lords should marry for money, he even hated all sorts of sentimental twaddle about human dignity. But he page: 24 rather sympathised with this old Walkenshaw, whoever Walkenshaw might have been, who had just served a mercenary young lady as was right.

“I don't see that it's so hard, aunt,” said Miss Vanderwerf's niece, who was deeply in love with Bill Nettle, a penniless etcher. “Lady Tal might marry again if she'd learn to do without all that money.”

“If she would be satisfied with only a little less,” interrupted the sharp-featured Parisian-American whom Mrs. Vanderwerf wanted for a nephew-in-law. “Why, there are dozens of men with plenty of money who have been wanting to marry her. There was Sir Titus Farrinder, only last year. He mayn't have had as much as old Walkenshaw, but he had a jolly bit of money, certainly.”

“Besides, after all,” put in the millionaire in distraction about the sideboard, “why should Lady Tal want to marry again? She's got a lovely house at Rome.”

“Oh, come, come, Clarence!” interrupted Kennedy horrified; “why, it's nothing but Japanese leather paper and Chinese fans.”

“I don't know,” said Clarence, crestfallen. “Perhaps it isn't lovely. I thought it rather pretty—don't you really think it rather nice, Miss Vanderwerf?”

page: 25

“Any house would be nice enough with such a splendid creature inside it,” put in Marion. These sort of conversations always interested him; it was the best way of studying human nature.

“Besides,” remarked the Roumanian Princess, “Lady Tal may have had enough of the married state. And why indeed should a beautiful creature like that get married? She's got every one at her feet. It's much more amusing like that—”

“Well, all the same, I do think it's just terribly sad, to see a creature like that condemned to lead such a life, without anyone to care for or protect her, now poor Gerald Burne's dead.”

“Oh, her brother—her brother—do you suppose she cared for him?” asked the niece, pouring out the iced lemonade and Cyprus wine. She always rebelled against her aunt's romanticalness.

“Gerald Burne!” said Marion, collecting his thoughts, and suddenly seeing in his mind a certain keen-featured face, a certain wide curl of blond hair, not seen for many a long year. “Gerald Burne! Do you mean an awfully handsome young Scotchman, who did something very distinguished in Afghanistan? You don't mean to say he was any relation of Lady Atalanta's? I never heard of his being page: 26 dead, either. I thought he must be somewhere in India.”

“Gerald Burne was Lady Tal's half-brother—her mother had married a Colonel Burne before her marriage with Lord Ossian. He got a spear-wound or something out in Afghanistan,” explained one of the company.

“I thought it was his horse,” interrupted another.

“Anyhow,” resumed Miss Vanderwerf, “poor Gerald was crippled for life—a sort of spinal disease, you know. That was just after old Sir Thomas Walkenshaw departed, so Tal and he lived together and went traveling from one place to another, consulting doctors, and that sort of thing, until they settled in Rome. And now poor Gerald is dead—he died two years ago—Tal's all alone in the world, for Lord Ossian's a wretched, tipsy, bankrupt old creature, and the other sisters are married. Gerald was just an angel, and you've no idea how devoted poor Tal was to him—he was just her life, I do believe.”

The young man called Ted looked contemptuously at his optimistic hostess.

“Well,” he said, “I don't know whether Lady Tal cared much for her brother while he was alive. My belief is she never cared a jackstraw for anyone. Any- Anyway page: 27 way, if she did care for him you must admit she didn't show it after his death. I never saw a woman look so utterly indifferent and heartless as when I saw her a month later. She made jokes, I remember, and asked me to take her to a curiosity shop. And she went to balls in London not a year afterwards.”

The niece nodded. “Exactly. I always thought it perfectly indecent. Of course Aunt says it's Tal's way of showing her grief, but it's a very funny one, anyhow.”

“I'm sure Lady Tal must regret her brother,” said the Roumanian Princess. “Just think how convenient for a young widow to be able to say to all the men she likes: ‘Oh, do come and see poor Gerald.’”

“Well, well!” remarked Miss Vanderwerf. “Of course she did take her brother's death in a very unusual way. But still I maintain she's not heartless for all that.”

“Hasn't a pretty woman a right to be heartless, after all?” put in Marion.

“Oh, I don't care a fig whether Lady Tal is heartless or not,” answered Ted brusquely. “Heartlessness isn't a social offence. What I object to most in Lady Tal is her being so frightfully mean.”

“Mean?”

page: 28

“Why, yes; avaricious. With all those thousands, that woman manages to spend barely more than a few hundreds.”

“Well, but if she's got simple tastes?” suggested Marion.

“She hasn't. No woman was ever further from it. And of course it's so evident what her game is! She just wants to feather her nest against a rainy day. She's putting by five-sixths of old Walkenshaw's money, so as to make herself a nice little dot, to marry someone else upon one of these days.”

“A judicious young lady!” observed Marion.

“Well, really, Mr. Kennedy,” exclaimed the Roumanian Princess, “you are ingenious and ingenuous! Do you suppose that our dear Tal is putting by money in order to marry some starving genius, to do love in a cottage with? Why, if she's not married yet, it's merely because she's not met a sufficient parti. She wants something very grand—a Pezzo Grosso, as they say here.”

“She couldn't marry as long as she had Gerald to look after,” said Miss Vanderwerf, fanning herself in the moonlight. “She was too fond of Gerald.”

“She was afraid of Gerald, that's my belief, too,” corrected the niece. “Those big creatures are page: 29 always cowards. And Gerald hated the notion of her making another money marriage, though he seems to have arranged pretty well to live on old Walkenshaw's thousands.”

“Of course Gerald wanted to keep her all for himself; that was quite natural,” said Miss Vanderwerf; “but I think that as long as he was alive she did not want anyone else. She thought only of him, poor creature—”

“And of a score of ball and dinner-parties and a few hundred acquaintances,” put in Ted, making rings with the smoke of his cigarette.

“And now,” said the Princess, “she's waiting to find her Pezzo Grosso. And she wants money because she knows that a Pezzo Grosso will marry a penniless girl of eighteen, but won't marry a penniless woman of thirty; she must make up for being a little passée by loving him for his own sake, and for that, she must have money.”

“For all that, poor Tal's very simple,” wheezed the old peeress, apparently awakening from a narcotic slumber. “She always reminds me of an anecdote poor dear Palmerston used to tell—”

“Anyhow,” said Kennedy, “Lady Tal's a riddle, and I pity the man who tries to guess it. Good- page: 30 night, dear Miss Vanderwerf—good-night, Miss Bessy. It's all settled about dining at the Lido, I hope. And you'll come, too, I hope, Mr. Marion.”

“I'll come with pleasure, particularly if you ask the enigmatic Lady Tal.”

“Much good it is to live in Venice,” thought Jervase Marion, looking out of his window on to the canal, “if one spends two hours discussing a young woman six foot high looking out for a duke.”

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