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- The Head of the House of Coombe - 4/65 -
"You mustn't make me laugh," she said holding up her hand. "I am having my hair done to match that quakery thin pale mousey dress with the tiny poke bonnet--and I want to try my face too. I must look sweet and demure. You mustn't really laugh when you wear a dress and hat like that. You must only smile."
Some months earlier Bob would have found it difficult to believe that she said this entirely without any touch of humour but he realized now that it was so said. He had some sense of humour of his own and one of his reasons for vaguely feeling that she might become a bore was that she had none whatever.
It was at the garden party where she wore the thin quakery mousey dress and tiny poke bonnet that the Head of the House of Coombe first saw her. It was at the place of a fashionable artist who lived at Hampstead and had a garden and a few fine old trees. It had been Feather's special intention to strike this note of delicate dim colour. Every other woman was blue or pink or yellow or white or flowered and she in her filmy coolness of unusual hue stood out exquisitely among them. Other heads wore hats broad or curved or flopping, hers looked like a little nun's or an imaginary portrait of a delicious young great-grandmother. She was more arresting than any other female creature on the emerald sward or under the spreading trees.
When Coombe's eyes first fell upon her he was talking to a group of people and he stopped speaking. Someone standing quite near him said afterwards that he had for a second or so become pale--almost as if he saw something which frightened him.
"Who is that under the copper beech--being talked to by Harlow?" he inquired.
Feather was in fact listening with a gentle air and with her eyelids down drooped to the exact line harmonious with the angelic little poke bonnet.
"It is Mrs. Robert Gareth-Lawless--'Feather' we call her," he was answered. "Was there ever anything more artful than that startling little smoky dress? If it was flame colour one wouldn't see it as quickly."
"One wouldn't look at it as long," said Coombe. "One is in danger of staring. And the little hat--or bonnet--which pokes and is fastened under her pink ear by a satin bow held by a loose pale bud! Will someone rescue me from staring by leading me to her. It won't be staring if I am talking to her. Please."
The paleness appeared again as on being led across the grass he drew nearer to the copper beech. He was still rather pale when Feather lifted her eyes to him. Her eyes were so shaped by Nature that they looked like an angel's when they were lifted. There are eyes of that particular cut. But he had not talked to her fifteen minutes before he knew that there was no real reason why he should ever again lose his colour at the sight of her. He had thought at first there was. With the perception which invariably marked her sense of fitness of things she had begun in the course of the fifteen minutes--almost before the colour had quite returned to his face--the story of her husband's idea of her soul, as a balloon of pink and blue gauze spangled with paillettes. And of her own inspiration of wearing it floating from her shoulder or her hair by the light sparkling chain--and with delicate ribbon streamers. She was much delighted with his laugh--though she thought it had a rather cracked, harsh sound. She knew he was an important person and she always felt she was being a success when people laughed.
"Exquisite!" he said. "I shall never see you in the future without it. But wouldn't it be necessary to vary the colour at times?"
"Oh! Yes--to match things," seriously. "I couldn't wear a pink and blue one with this--" glancing over the smoky mousey thing "--or paillettes."
"Oh, no--not paillettes," he agreed almost with gravity, the harsh laugh having ended.
"One couldn't imagine the exact colour in a moment. One would have to think," she reflected. "Perhaps a misty dim bluey thing--like the edge of a rain-cloud--scarcely a colour at all."
For an instant her eyes were softly shadowed as if looking into a dream. He watched her fixedly then. A woman who was a sort of angel might look like that when she was asking herself how much her pure soul might dare to pray for. Then he laughed again and Feather laughed also.
Many practical thoughts had already begun to follow each other hastily through her mind. It would be the best possible thing for them if he really admired her. Bob was having all sorts of trouble with people they owed money to. Bills were sent in again and again and disagreeable letters were written. Her dressmaker and milliner had given her most rude hints which could indeed be scarcely considered hints at all. She scarcely dared speak to their smart young footman who she knew had only taken the place in the slice of a house because he had been told that it might be an opening to better things. She did not know the exact summing up at the agency had been as follows:
"They're a good looking pair and he's Lord Lawdor's nephew. They're bound to have their fling and smart people will come to their house because she's so pretty. They'll last two or three years perhaps and you'll open the door to the kind of people who remember a well set-up young fellow if he shows he knows his work above the usual."
The more men of the class of the Head of the House of Coombe who came in and out of the slice of a house the more likely the owners of it were to get good invitations and continued credit, Feather was aware. Besides which, she thought ingenuously, if he was rich he would no doubt lend Bob money. She had already known that certain men who liked her had done it. She did not mind it at all. One was obliged to have money.
This was the beginning of an acquaintance which gave rise to much argument over tea-cups and at dinner parties and in boudoirs--even in corners of Feather's own gaudy little drawing-room. The argument regarded the degree of Coombe's interest in her. There was always curiosity as to the degree of his interest in any woman--especially and privately on the part of the woman herself. Casual and shallow observers said he was quite infatuated if such a thing were possible to a man of his temperament; the more concentrated of mind said it was not possible to a man of his temperament and that any attraction Feather might have for him was of a kind special to himself and that he alone could explain it--and he would not.
Remained however the fact that he managed to see a great deal of her. It might be said that he even rather followed her about and more than one among the specially concentrated of mind had seen him on occasion stand apart a little and look at her--watch her--with an expression suggesting equally profound thought and the profound intention to betray his private meditations in no degree. There was no shadow of profundity of thought in his treatment of her. He talked to her as she best liked to be talked to about herself, her successes and her clothes which were more successful than anything else. He went to the little but exceedingly lively dinners the Gareth-Lawlesses gave and though he was understood not to be fond of dancing now and then danced with her at balls.
Feather was guilelessly doubtless concerning him. She was quite sure that he was in love with her. Her idea of that universal emotion was that it was a matter of clothes and propinquity and loveliness and that if one were at all clever one got things one wanted as a result of it. Her overwhelming affection for Bob and his for her had given her life in London and its entertaining accompaniments. Her frankness in the matter of this desirable capture when she talked to her husband was at once light and friendly.
"Of course you will be able to get credit at his tailor's as you know him so well," she said. "When I persuaded him to go with me to Madame Helene's last week she was quite amiable. He helped me to choose six dresses and I believe she would have let me choose six more."
"Does she think he is going to pay for them?" asked Bob.
"It doesn't matter what she thinks"; Feather laughed very prettily.
"Not a bit. I shall have the dresses. What's the matter, Rob? You look quite red and cross."
"I've had a headache for three days," he answered, "and I feel hot and cross. I don't care about a lot of things you say, Feather."
"Don't be silly," she retorted. "I don't care about a lot of things you say--and do, too, for the matter of that."
Robert Gareth-Lawless who was sitting on a chair in her dressing-room grunted slightly as he rubbed his red and flushed forehead.
"There's a--sort of limit," he commented. He hesitated a little before he added sulkily "--to the things one--SAYS."
"That sounds like Alice," was her undisturbed answer. "She used to squabble at me because I SAID things. But I believe one of the reasons people like me is because I make them laugh by SAYING things. Lord Coombe laughs. He is a very good person to know," she added practically. "Somehow he COUNTS. Don't you recollect how before we knew him--when he was abroad so long--people used to bring him into their talk as if they couldn't help remembering him and what he was like. I knew quite a lot about him--about his cleverness and his manners and his way of keeping women off without being rude--and the things he says about royalties and the aristocracy going out of fashion. And about his clothes. I adore his clothes. And I'm convinced he adores mine."
She had in fact at once observed his clothes as he had crossed the grass to her seat under the copper beech. She had seen that his fine thinness was inimitably fitted and presented itself to the eye as that final note of perfect line which ignores any possibility of comment. He did not wear things--they were expressions of his mental subtleties. Feather on her part knew that she wore her clothes--carried them about with her--however beautifully.
"I like him," she went on. "I don't know anything about political parties and the state of Europe so I don't understand the things he says which people think are so brilliant, but I like him. He isn't really as old as I thought he was the first day I saw him.
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