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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 1/65 -


THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE OF COOMBE

BY

FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT

NEW YORK

CHAPTER I

The history of the circumstances about to be related began many years ago--or so it seems in these days. It began, at least, years before the world being rocked to and fro revealed in the pause between each of its heavings some startling suggestion of a new arrangement of its kaleidoscopic particles, and then immediately a re-arrangement, and another and another until all belief in a permanency of design seemed lost, and the inhabitants of the earth waited, helplessly gazing at changing stars and colours in a degree of mental chaos.

Its opening incidents may be dated from a period when people still had reason to believe in permanency and had indeed many of them--sometimes through ingenuousness, sometimes through stupidity of type--acquired a singular confidence in the importance and stability of their possessions, desires, ambitions and forms of conviction.

London at the time, in common with other great capitals, felt itself rather final though priding itself on being much more fluid and adaptable than it had been fifty years previously. In speaking of itself it at least dealt with fixed customs, and conditions and established facts connected with them--which gave rise to brilliant--or dull--witticisms.

One of these, heard not infrequently, was to the effect that--in London--one might live under an umbrella if one lived under it in the right neighbourhood and on the right side of the street, which axiom is the reason that a certain child through the first six years of her life sat on certain days staring out of a window in a small, dingy room on the top floor of a slice of a house on a narrow but highly fashionable London street and looked on at the passing of motors, carriages and people in the dull afternoon grayness.

The room was exalted above its station by being called The Day Nursery and another room equally dingy and uninviting was known as The Night Nursery. The slice of a house was inhabited by the very pretty Mrs. Gareth-Lawless, its inordinate rent being reluctantly paid by her--apparently with the assistance of those "ravens" who are expected to supply the truly deserving. The rent was inordinate only from the standpoint of one regarding it soberly in connection with the character of the house itself which was a gaudy little kennel crowded between two comparatively stately mansions. On one side lived an inordinately rich South African millionaire, and on the other an inordinately exalted person of title, which facts combined to form sufficient grounds for a certain inordinateness of rent.

Mrs. Gareth-Lawless was also, it may be stated, of the fibre which must live on the right side of the street or dissolve into nothingness--since as nearly nothingness as an embodied entity can achieve had Nature seemingly created her at the outset. So light and airy was the fair, slim, physical presentation of her being to the earthly vision, and so almost impalpably diaphanous the texture and form of mind and character to be observed by human perception, that among such friends--and enemies--as so slight a thing could claim she was prettily known as "Feather". Her real name, "Amabel", was not half as charming and whimsical in its appropriateness. "Feather" she adored being called and as it was the fashion among the amazing if amusing circle in which she spent her life, to call its acquaintances fantastic pet names selected from among the world of birds, beasts and fishes or inanimate objects--"Feather" she floated through her curious existence. And it so happened that she was the mother of the child who so often stared out of the window of the dingy and comfortless Day Nursery, too much a child to be more than vaguely conscious in a chaotic way that a certain feeling which at times raged within her and made her little body hot and restless was founded on something like actual hate for a special man who had certainly taken no deliberate steps to cause her detestation.

* * * * *

"Feather" had not been called by that delicious name when she married Robert Gareth-Lawless who was a beautiful and irresponsibly rather than deliberately bad young man. She was known as Amabel Darrel and the loveliest girl in the lovely corner of the island of Jersey where her father, a country doctor, had begotten a large family of lovely creatures and brought them up on the appallingly inadequate proceeds of his totally inadequate practice. Pretty female things must be disposed of early lest their market value decline. Therefore a well-born young man even without obvious resources represents a sail in the offing which is naturally welcomed as possibly belonging to a bark which may at least bear away a burden which the back carrying it as part of its pack will willingly shuffle on to other shoulders. It is all very well for a man with six lovely daughters to regard them as capital if he has money or position or generous relations or if he has energy and an ingenious unfatigued mind. But a man who is tired and neither clever nor important in any degree and who has reared his brood in one of the Channel Islands with a faded, silly, unattractive wife as his only aid in any difficulty, is wise in leaving the whole hopeless situation to chance and luck. Sometimes luck comes without assistance but--almost invariably--it does not.

"Feather"--who was then "Amabel"--thought Robert Gareth-Lawless incredible good luck. He only drifted into her summer by merest chance because a friend's yacht in which he was wandering about "came in" for supplies. A girl Ariel in a thin white frock and with big larkspur blue eyes yearning at you under her flapping hat as she answers your questions about the best road to somewhere will not be too difficult about showing the way herself. And there you are at a first-class beginning.

The night after she met Gareth-Lawless in a lane whose banks were thick with bluebells, Amabel and her sister Alice huddled close together in bed and talked almost pantingly in whispers over the possibilities which might reveal themselves--God willing--through a further acquaintance with Mr. Gareth-Lawless. They were eager and breathlessly anxious but they were young--YOUNG in their eagerness and Amabel was full of delight in his good looks.

"He is SO handsome, Alice," she whispered actually hugging her, not with affection but exultation. "And he can't be more than twenty-six or seven. And I'm SURE he liked me. You know that way a man has of looking at you--one sees it even in a place like this where there are only curates and things. He has brown eyes--like dark bright water in pools. Oh, Alice, if he SHOULD!"

Alice was not perhaps as enthusiastic as her sister. Amabel had seen him first and in the Darrel household there was a sort of unwritten, not always observed code flimsily founded on "First come first served." Just at the outset of an acquaintance one might say "Hands off" as it were. But not for long.

"It doesn't matter how pretty one is they seldom do," Alice grumbled. "And he mayn't have a farthing."

"Alice," whispered Amabel almost agonizingly, "I wouldn't CARE a farthing--if only he WOULD! Have I a farthing--have you a farthing--has anyone who ever comes here a farthing? He lives in London. He'd take me away. To live even in a back street IN LONDON would be Heaven! And one MUST--as soon as one possibly can.--One MUST! And Oh!" with another hug which this time was a shudder, "think of what Doris Harmer had to do! Think of his thick red old neck and his horrid fatness! And the way he breathed through his nose. Doris said that at first it used to make her ill to look at him."

"She's got over it," whispered Alice. "She's almost as fat as he is now. And she's loaded with pearls and things."

"I shouldn't have to 'get over' anything," said Amabel, "if this one WOULD. I could fall in love with him in a minute."

"Did you hear what Father said?" Alice brought out the words rather slowly and reluctantly. She was not eager on the whole to yield up a detail which after all added glow to possible prospects which from her point of view were already irritatingly glowing. Yet she could not resist the impulse of excitement. "No, you didn't hear. You were out of the room."

"What about? Something about HIM? I hope it wasn't horrid. How could it be?"

"He said," Alice drawled with a touch of girlishly spiteful indifference, "that if he was one of the poor Gareth-Lawlesses he hadn't much chance of succeeding to the title. His uncle--Lord Lawdor--is only forty-five and he has four splendid healthy boys--perfect little giants."

"Oh, I didn't know there was a title. How splendid," exclaimed Amabel rapturously. Then after a few moments' innocent maiden reflection she breathed with sweet hopefulness from under the sheet, "Children so often have scarlet fever or diphtheria, and you know they say those very strong ones are more likely to die than the other kind. The Vicar of Sheen lost FOUR all in a week. And the Vicar died too. The doctor said the diphtheria wouldn't have killed him if the shock hadn't helped."

Alice--who had a teaspoonful more brain than her sister--burst into a fit of giggling it was necessary to smother by stuffing the sheet in her mouth.

"Oh! Amabel!" she gurgled. "You ARE such a donkey! You would have been silly enough to say that even if people could have heard you. Suppose HE had!"


The Head of the House of Coombe - 1/65

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