THE HERO TAKES HIS RANK IN THE ORCHESTRA
The Countess was not in her dressing-room when Evan presented himself. She was in attendance on Mrs. Bonner, Conning said; and the primness of Conning was a thing to have been noticed by any one save a dreamy youth in love. Conning remained in the room, keeping distinctly aloof. Her duties absorbed her, but a presiding thought mechanically jerked back her head from time to time: being the mute form of, ‘Well, I never!’ in Conning’s rank of life and intellectual capacity. Evan remained quite still in a chair, and Conning was certainly a number of paces beyond suspicion, when the Countess appeared, and hurling at the maid one of those feminine looks which contain huge quartos of meaning, vented the cold query:
‘Pray, why did you not come to me, as you were commanded?’
‘I was not aware, my lady,’ Conning drew up to reply, and performed with her eyes a lofty rejection of the volume cast at her, and a threat of several for offensive operations, if need were.
The Countess spoke nearer to what she was implying ’You know I object to this: it is not the first time.’
‘Would your ladyship please to say what your ladyship means?’
In return for this insolent challenge to throw off the mask, the Countess felt justified in punishing her by being explicit. ’Your irregularities are not of yesterday,’ she said, kindly making use of a word of double signification still.
‘Thank you, my lady.’ Conning accepted the word in its blackest meaning. ’I am obliged to you. If your ladyship is to be believed, my character is not worth much. But I can make distinctions, my lady.’
Something very like an altercation was continued in a sharp, brief undertone; and then Evan, waking up to the affairs of the hour, heard Conning say:
‘I shall not ask your ladyship to give me a character.’
The Countess answering with pathos: ’It would, indeed, be to give you one.’
He was astonished that the Countess should burst into tears when Conning had departed, and yet more so that his effort to console her should bring a bolt of wrath upon himself.
’Now, Evan, now see what you have done for us-do, and rejoice at it. The very menials insult us. You heard what that creature said? She can make distinctions. Oh! I could beat her. They know it: all the servants know it: I can see it in their faces. I feel it when I pass them. The insolent wretches treat us as impostors; and this Conning—to defy me! Oh! it comes of my devotion to you. I am properly chastized. I passed Rose’s maid on the stairs, and her reverence was barely perceptible.’
Evan murmured that he was very sorry, adding, foolishly: ’Do you really care, Louisa, for what servants think and say?’
The Countess sighed deeply: ’Oh! you are too thickskinned! Your mother from top to toe! It is too dreadful! What have I done to deserve it? Oh, Evan, Evan!’