Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

Babes in the Wood, an electronic edition

by B. M. Croker [Croker, B.M. (Bithia Mary), d.1920]

date: 1914
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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POOR Mrs. Vernon Trafford had been sorely disappointed in her husband; to her intimates--and these were many--she made no secret of this distressing fact. It is true that there were certain, ill-natured people who suggested another side to the picture (handsome and successful women are not without their detractors), but if this were the case, it had been buried with the dead man, and whatever the reverse represented, its outline had long been effaced.

Captain Trafford was introduced to pretty Miss Valeria Lennox when she and her aunt were spending a season in Folkestone--his regiment, the Hussars, being quartered at Shorncliffe. He was a good-looking young fellow, an only child, fairly well off and popular. Valeria Lennox, a tall, well-bred girl of twenty, with charming manners, and right bewitching eyes, attracted him on the spot, and he succumbed to her fascinations within one week, followed her up to town, and before a month had elapsed the engagement was announced. 'Happy, the wooing that is not long a-doing!' Miss Lennox was considered to have done well for herself; indeed some critics (mothers of daughters) marvelled to one another how a girl with a nose so large, and a fortune so small, could have drawn such a prize in the matrimonial lucky-bag.

The bride was distinctly pleased with her husband, herself, her French maid, and her stepping cobs. She enjoyed perfect health, youth, and an unusual share of beauty; the criticism of her nose was merely the blunted shaft of envy. She, however, lacked one attribute--the lady had been born without a heart. Terrible events, or emotions that | | 171 stirred others to a white heat of pity, anger, love, or sympathy, left Mrs. Vernon Trafford cold and unmoved as a rock beneath the sea. She had nevertheless a taking and even impulsive manner to those she met in daily life; and they little guessed at the amount of fierce ambition, and callous selfishness, that charming manner concealed. By and by, Valeria and Freddy began, so to speak, to 'find one another out.' Her servants (those clever people) had discovered the real Mrs. Trafford within a few days. He realized that, though always even-tempered and unruffled, enchanting to behold, a clever manager, a radiant hostess, she did not care--as he mentally expressed it--'a tuppenny dam' for him or the kids'!-- These she joyfully abandoned to nurses, or to certain motherly friends, and when they were with her--their own beautiful fairy-like mamma--she punished their insignificant misdoings with ruthless severity, with the result, that the Trafford children were in those days two little models of deportment, as well as dress.

On her side, Valeria Trafford considered the good-looking cavalry officer to be slow-witted, halting of speech, and even dull; never advertising or pushing himself to the front, and even suffering others to reap where he had sown. This was intolerable, and should end. Freddy was keen about his profession; he had invented a wonderful new horseshoe, and with this proverbially lucky omen in her hand she saw herself entering a splendid field for her nascent ambition. She would carve out Freddy's career, and become one of the noble band of women whose task it is 'to advance their husbands.' Her undaunted mind even strayed into the region of political and diplomatic appointments, for with ripening years her beauty had developed, also the knowledge of its effect on others,--more especially highly placed elders; in short, her audacity and her hopes were boundless.

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Freddy was now a major, and his wife had obtained the secret promise of a post--when an opening should occur; it was a position that held the key to a somewhat important future, but unhappily it was Freddy himself who made a vacancy, and gave a step in the 28th Hussars. At Aldershot, during an exhausting field-day in the Long Valley, his tired horse fell and rolled over him; Major Trafford was mortally injured, and only survived two days. He had time to dictate his will and confer with his mother--a strong-minded Irish woman--to whom he committed the care of his children, Phil and Milly.

'They will be a comfort to you, grannie,' he said; 'and poor Valeria does not care for kids--and--and--' he would have added, 'is bound to marry again,' but loyally held his peace.

Every one felt profound pity for the bereaved young widow--with perhaps the exception of one or two of Fred's brother-officers. She, however, was left comfortably off, and immediately repaired to the Continent, there to hide and indulge her grief. Two years later the beautiful Mrs. Vernon Trafford arose in a certain quarter of the London firmament, where she established herself and her little retinue in a fashionable part of Mayfair. The house was small--there was no space for her family, merely room for self and servants--guests were entirely out of the question.

The new occupant was a capital woman of business; she had bought 300 Queen Street cheap, but dilapidated, and exercised her wonderful taste in doing it up to perfection--being endowed with originality, imagination, and money. For instance, the stuffy little butler's pantry behind the dining-room was now transformed into a delicious smoking-lounge. Stolen in the same way, a dingy bedroom at the back of the drawing-room above was, by means of a cunning arrangement of mirrors, delicate silk panels, and draperies, changed into a bower of delight-- | | 173 just the restful luxurious little nest where two might enjoy a 'heart-to-heart' talk! The front drawing-room was a good-sized apartment, with a few choice pictures, a couple of rare Spanish cabinets; there was an Aubusson carpet on the polished floor, and ample space for three card-tables. If the little sitting-room was dedicated to dreams and confidences, the other, with its piles of books, magazines, and open bureau, spoke of the outer and more practical world.

Owing to the confiscation of one apartment, bed-chambers were scarce. There was a large luxurious chamber, directly over the drawing-room--with one adjoining for a maid--two women occupied the attics, and the man slept out. It will, it is hoped, be clearly understood from this description, that the space in No. 300 Queen Street, W., was most strictly limited. Mrs. Trafford, when she had settled in--assured her acquaintances, with plaintive and appealing eyes, that 'the little house was just big enough for her alone. Old Mrs. Trafford was so devoted to the children, that she really dared not remove them; it would be positively cruel even to hint at such a step; so, for her part, she made the best of things, and ran down to visit them often. Philip and Milly were such dears! the boy a splendid little fellow--such a separation nearly broke her heart.'

By and by Phil went to school, and the girl remained in the country--she was too delicate to live in London, and as, unfortunately, the country never agreed with her mother, they must exist apart! Mrs. Trafford was almost a stranger to her offspring, though, from afar, they admired and adored, with heart-whole admiration, the lovely, exquisitely dressed parent, who was always much sought after, and full of engagements, and who, when she did give them a day, made them delightful speeches, delightful presents, and carried them to matinées and | | 174 restaurants (and subsequently to Waterloo station) with such affectionate alacrity. The two poor innocents never understood that their idol was a true Society woman of the time, with all its elegance and modernity: breathing the spirit of the age, the spirit of material things and the rule of money. The beautiful widow had not lacked admirers or offers of marriage, but so far the suitors had not been of sufficient importance; she preferred to be her own mistress--free to roam hither and thither; to yacht in Norway, to winter in Egypt or the West Indies, as the whim took her--always one of a gay party, and invariably attended by a clever maid.

When at home she entertained her own particular and exclusive set to bridge teas and dinners; she was fond of the theatre, and 'raced' in an unobtrusive fashion; in fact, the clever lady knew more about 'Ruff,' and the odds on events, than the political history of the day, and was a constant attendant at Sandown, Newmarket, and Kempton. She replenished her wardrobe in Paris, and never failed to spend three weeks at Aix. Now, alas! time and circumstance stood hand in hand athwart her rosy path. Milly, her daughter, was past nineteen, nearly twenty, in fact, and certain disagreeable people (women) had been asking detestable questions. What has become of your little girl? When are we going to see her?'

Unfortunately there was nothing for it but to make the best of the matter, to introduce Milly into her conversation, and give her a little preliminary boom; praising her sweet disposition, declaring her to be a real darling, and proclaiming her own passionate longing for the child's company. She resolved to install Milly in the attic (at present a box-room), present her, take her about, marry the girl, and have done with her!

It must be understood, that Mrs. Trafford had not seen her daughter for more than three years; then | | 175 she was a silent, thin young creature, with great wondering eyes, and a foolish way of blushing whenever her mother addressed her--but three years make a wonderful difference at sixteen!

. . . . . . .

It was half-past seven o'clock on a chilly April evening and Mrs. Trafford stood by the fire in the front drawing-room talking to a pretty little woman in an elaborate tea-gown--who sat coiled up on the polar-bear-skin hearth-rug,--and occasionally glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece, or at her own charming reflection in the tall Empire mirror. Amazing to relate, she was almost as handsome as her photograph! She carried her head nobly, and had retained her graceful figure; although forty-five last birthday, this fortunate lady appeared to be at least ten years younger. To-night she wore an admirably fitting grey-blue velvet gown, a diamond bandeau glittered in her hair, her long gloves lay on the mantelpiece.

'I wonder what she will be like?' murmured her companion, gazing into the fire with a dreamy expression on her small dark face.

'I wonder when she will be here?' amended Ms. Trafford. 'You know I'm dining with the Foxrocks to meet Prince Hertenstein, and Dolly will be crazy if I keep them waiting!' As she spoke she tapped her velvet sipper impatiently on the rug.

'The last time I saw Milly she was a shy, lanky creature, all legs, like a young foal,' resumed Mrs. Wallingford, 'but without the foal's airy self-confidence.'

'That will be easily acquired,' remarked her mother serenely. 'What a bore that she should pitch on this night to arrive! and how noble of you, to take my place!'

'Won't you feel funny, Valeria, with an absolutely strange young woman a fixture in the house?' asked | | 176 the lady on the floor, raising a pair of very knowing dark eyes to her friend's beautiful impassive face. I do hope she won't be like Lucy Greville's infliction--a red-armed gawk, with a great gaping mouth that is always asking the most awful questions.'

'Not at all likely, I venture to predict,' rejoined Mrs. Trafford, with a significant tightening of her lips. 'I expect I shall be rather proud of Milly, though she is not a bit like me--quite a Trafford. Lally, I'm afraid I must go, and leave you to do the maternal! You will dine with her, see her to bed, and wait up for me, like a darling. I 'll be home by twelve. There's a novel--don't let her see it--that will make you sit up in real earnest!'

'All right, Valeria. I 'll play your part, and be your understudy to the best of my ability.'

'Well, dear, you will make my excuses,' touching the bell as she spoke. 'I really dare not wait any longer. I must go. Dolly Foxrock is such a vixen--it is as much as my position is worth to keep her dinner cooling. The brougham, Ross,' to an impassive figure in the doorway, who instantly retired.

'Dear me, what a mask that man wears!' exclaimed Mrs. Wallingford.

'Nothing would ever put him out, not even an earthquake. I can see him entering in his quiet way and announcing, "If you please, ma'am, the cook has murdered the kitchenmaid, and I should like to add that the house is on fire"!'

Her friend gave a little low laugh, and began to draw on her gloves. The next moment the door was suddenly flung wide, and Ross, the unmoved, announced--

'Miss Trafford.'

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