“We had best be quite frank,” said she, as Ruth came back and stood before her.
“If you please.”
“Of course it is all very scandalous and—er—nauseating, though I dare say you are unable to see it in that light. I merely mention it in justice to myself, lest you should mistake me as underrating or even condoning Sir Oliver’s conduct. You will guess, at any rate, how it must shock my daughter.”
“Yes,” said Ruth; and added, “Why did you bring her?”
The girl’s attitude—erect before her, patient, but unflinching—had already gone some way to discompose Lady Caroline. This straight question fairly disconcerted her; the worse because she could not quarrel with the tone of it.
“I wish,” she answered, “my Diana to face the facts of life, ugly though they may be.” As if aware that this hardly carried conviction—for, despite herself, something in Ruth began to impress her—she shifted ground and went on, “But we will not discuss my daughter, please. The point is, this state of things cannot continue. It may be hard for you—I am trying to take your view of it—but what may pass in a young man of blood cannot be permitted when he succeeds to a title and the— er—headship of his family. It becomes then his duty to give that family clean heirs. I put it plainly?”
Ruth bent her head for assent.
“Oliver Vyell, as no doubt you know, has already been mixed up in one entanglement, and has a child for reminder.”
“Oh, but Dicky is the dearest child! The sweetest-natured, the cleanest-minded! Have you not seen him yet?”
Lady Caroline stared. As little as royalty did she understand being cross-questioned. It gave her a quite unexpected sense of helplessness.
“I fear you do not at all grasp the position,” she said severely. “After all, I had done better to disregard your feelings, whatever they may be, and come to terms at once.”
“No,” answered Ruth, musing; “I do not understand the position; but I want to, more than I can say—and your ladyship must help me, please.” She paused a moment. “In New England we prize good birth, good breeding, and what we too call ‘family’; but I think the word must mean something different to you who live at home in England.”
“I should hope so!” breathed Lady Caroline.
“It must be mixed up somehow with the great estates you have held for generations and the old houses you have lived in. No,” she went on, as Lady Caroline would have interrupted; “please let me work it out in my own way, and then you shall correct me where I am wrong. . . . I have often thought how beautiful it must be to live in such an old house, one that has all its corners full of memories—the nurseries most of all— of children and grandchildren, that have grown up in gentleness and courtesy and honour—”
“Good Lord!” Lady Caroline interjected. “You mean”—Ruth smiled— “that I am talking like a book? That is partly my fault and partly our New England way; because, you see, we have to get at these things from books. Does it, after all, matter how—if only we get it right? . . . There’s a tradition—what, I believe, you call an ’atmosphere’—and you are proud of it and very jealous.”