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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 2/65 -


"Why should he care," said Amabel simply. "One can't help thinking things. If it happened he would be the Earl of Lawdor and--"

She fell again into sweet reflection while Alice giggled a little more. Then she herself stopped and thought also. After all perhaps--! One had to be practical. The tenor of her thoughts was such that she did not giggle again when Amabel broke the silence by whispering with tremulous, soft devoutness.

"Alice--do you think that praying REALLY helps?"

"I've prayed for things but I never got them," answered Alice. "But you know what the Vicar said on Sunday in sermon about 'Ask and ye shall receive'."

"Perhaps you haven't prayed in the right spirit," Amabel suggested with true piety. "Shall we--shall we try? Let us get out of bed and kneel down."

"Get out of bed and kneel down yourself," was Alice's sympathetic rejoinder. "You wouldn't take that much trouble for ME."

Amabel sat up on the edge of the bed. In the faint moonlight and her white night-gown she was almost angelic. She held the end of the long fair soft plait hanging over her shoulder and her eyes were full of reproach.

"I think you ought to take SOME interest," she said plaintively. "You know there would be more chances for you and the others--if I were not here."

"I'll wait until you are not here," replied the unstirred Alice.

But Amabel felt there was no time for waiting in this particular case. A yacht which "came in" might so soon "put out". She knelt down, clasping her slim young hands and bending her forehead upon them. In effect she implored that Divine Wisdom might guide Mr. Robert Gareth-Lawless in the much desired path. She also made divers promises because nothing is so easy as to promise things. She ended with a gently fervent appeal that--if her prayer were granted--something "might happen" which would result in her becoming a Countess of Lawdor. One could not have put the request with greater tentative delicacy.

She felt quite uplifted and a trifle saintly when she rose from her knees. Alice had actually fallen asleep already and she sighed quite tenderly as she slipped into the place beside her. Almost as her lovely little head touched the pillow her own eyes closed. Then she was asleep herself--and in the faintly moonlit room with the long soft plait trailing over her shoulder looked even more like an angel than before.

Whether or not as a result of this touching appeal to the Throne of Grace, Robert Gareth-Lawless DID. In three months there was a wedding at the very ancient village church, and the flowerlike bridesmaids followed a flower of a bride to the altar and later in the day to the station from where Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gareth-Lawless went on their way to London. Perhaps Alice and Olive also knelt by the side of their white beds the night after the wedding, for on that propitious day two friends of the bridegroom's--one of them the owner of the yacht--decided to return again to the place where there were to be found the most nymphlike of pretty creatures a man had ever by any chance beheld. Such delicate little fair crowned heads, such delicious little tip-tilted noses and slim white throats, such ripples of gay chatter and nonsense! When a man has fortune enough of his own why not take the prettiest thing he sees? So Alice and Olive were borne away also and poor Mr. and Mrs. Darrel breathed sighs of relief and there were not only more chances but causes for bright hopefulness in the once crowded house which now had rooms to spare.

A certain inattention on the part of the Deity was no doubt responsible for the fact that "something" did not "happen" to the family of Lord Lawdor. On the contrary his four little giants of sons throve astonishingly and a few months after the Gareth-Lawless wedding Lady Lawdor--a trifle effusively, as it were--presented her husband with twin male infants so robust that they were humorously known for years afterwards as the "Twin Herculeses."

By that time Amabel had become "Feather" and despite Robert's ingenious and carefully detailed method of living upon nothing whatever, had many reasons for knowing that "life is a back street in London" is not a matter of beds of roses. Since the back street must be the "right street" and its accompaniments must wear an aspect of at least seeming to belong to the right order of detachment and fashionable ease, one was always in debt and forced to keep out of the way of duns, and obliged to pretend things and tell lies with aptness and outward gaiety. Sometimes one actually was so far driven to the wall that one could not keep most important engagements and the invention of plausible excuses demanded absolute genius. The slice of a house between the two big ones was a rash feature of the honeymoon but a year of giving smart little dinners in it and going to smart big dinners from it in a smart if small brougham ended in a condition somewhat akin to the feat of balancing oneself on the edge of a sword.

Then Robin was born. She was an intruder and a calamity of course. Nobody had contemplated her for a moment. Feather cried for a week when she first announced the probability of her advent. Afterwards however she managed to forget the approaching annoyance and went to parties and danced to the last hour continuing to be a great success because her prettiness was delicious and her diaphanous mentality was no train upon the minds of her admirers male and female.

That a Feather should become a parent gave rise to much wit of light weight when Robin in the form of a bundle of lace was carried down by her nurse to be exhibited in the gaudy crowded little drawing-room in the slice of a house in the Mayfair street.

It was the Head of the House of Coombe who asked the first question about her.

"What will you DO with her?" he inquired detachedly.

The frequently referred to "babe unborn" could not have presented a gaze of purer innocence than did the lovely Feather. Her eyes of larkspur blueness were clear of any thought or intention as spring water is clear at its unclouded best.

Her ripple of a laugh was clear also--enchantingly clear.

"Do!" repeated. "What is it people 'do' with babies? I suppose the nurse knows. I don't. I wouldn't touch her for the world. She frightens me."

She floated a trifle nearer and bent to look at her.

"I shall call her Robin," she said. "Her name is really Roberta as she couldn't be called Robert. People will turn round to look at a girl when they hear her called Robin. Besides she has eyes like a robin. I wish she'd open them and let you see."

By chance she did open them at the moment--quite slowly. They were dark liquid brown and seemed to be all lustrous iris which gazed unmovingly at the object in of focus. That object was the Head of the House of Coombe.

"She is staring at me. There is antipathy in her gaze," he said, and stared back unmovingly also, but with a sort of cold interest.

CHAPTER II

The Head of the House of Coombe was not a title to be found in Burke or Debrett. It was a fine irony of the Head's own and having been accepted by his acquaintances was not infrequently used by them in their light moments in the same spirit. The peerage recorded him as a Marquis and added several lesser attendant titles.

"When English society was respectable, even to stodginess at times," was his point of view, "to be born 'the Head of the House' was a weighty and awe-inspiring thing. In fearful private denunciatory interviews with one's parents and governors it was brought up against one as a final argument against immoral conduct such as debt and not going to church. As the Head of the House one was called upon to be an Example. In the country one appeared in one's pew and announced oneself a 'miserable sinner' in loud tones, one had to invite the rector to dinner with regularity and 'the ladies' of one's family gave tea and flannel petticoats and baby clothes to cottagers. Men and women were known as 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' in those halcyon days. One Represented things--Parties in Parliament--Benevolent Societies, and British Hospitality in the form of astounding long dinners at which one drank healths and made speeches. In roseate youth one danced the schottische and the polka and the round waltz which Lord Byron denounced as indecent. To recall the vigour of his poem gives rise to a smile--when one chances to sup at a cabaret."

He was considered very amusing when he analyzed his own mental attitude towards his world in general.

"I was born somewhat too late and somewhat too early," he explained in his light, rather cold and detached way. "I was born and educated at the closing of one era and have to adjust myself to living in another. I was as it were cradled among treasured relics of the ethics of the Georges and Queen Charlotte, and Queen Victoria in her bloom. _I_ was in my bloom in the days when 'ladies' were reproved for wearing dresses cut too low at Drawing Rooms. Such training gives curious interest to fashions in which bodices are unconsidered trifles and Greek nymphs who dance with bare feet and beautiful bare legs may be one's own relations. I trust I do not seem even in the shadowiest way to comment unfavourably. I merely look on at the rapidities of change with unalloyed interest. As the Head of the House of Coombe I am not sure WHAT I am an Example of--or to. Which is why I at times regard myself in that capacity with a slightly ribald lightness."

The detachment of his question with regard to the newborn infant of the airily irresponsible Feather was in entire harmony with his attitude towards the singular incident of Life as illustrated by the World, the Flesh and the Devil by none of which he was--as far


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