- CHAPTER IX THE DUKE'S OPINION
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THE DUKE'S OPINION
FINDING that her own and her mother's continuous charges of argumentative artillery had no effect whatsoever upon her misguided sister, the Duchess decided to bring her most powerful ally to help her in the field of battle. Underneath her somewhat frivolous manner she concealed a thoroughly kind heart and warm affections, and it distressed her more than she would admit to see Esther's life being spoiled by what her Grace regarded as an absurd and unnecessary sacrifice.
Therefore it came to pass that as the Duke of Mershire was comfortably reading his Times in his own special sanctum at Stoneham Abbey on the following morning, in bounced the Duchess and perched herself on the arm of her husband's easy chair. Like many women of strong vitality and good animal spirits, her Grace—though not particularly young in figure—was remarkably youthful in her movements. Her form might be that of a woman of five-and-forty, but her actions were those of a girl of fifteen.
"Tammy, I've got something most frightfully important to say to you," she began.
"Well, what is it?" asked the Duke, looking up with a smile and putting his arm round her comely waist. "Something gone wrong with the herbaceous border, or the last new frock from Paris; or only the final collapse of thirteenth-century masonry, and the Abbey tumbling down about our ears?"| | 127
"Don't be foolish, Tammy. It's something you've got to do at once. You've got to motor over to the Dower House with me this morning and tell Esther to marry Westerham."
"It's no use saying 'Good heavens!' You've got to come, whether you like it or not. I thought I could pull it off without you, but I find I can't."
"But, my dear, it's not at all a job in my line. I'm no hand at match-making: I leave all that to you."
"You don't know what you can do till you try," was the Duchess's wise remark.
"You likewise don't know what you can't do till you try," was the Duke's still wiser answer. "And I think that is the more common form of education," he added.
"Well, at any rate, you've got to come with me to the Dower House and manage Esther's love-affair for her. You see, she has never had one before, and she doesn't know how to conduct it properly herself."
"But with such an expert for her sister I should have thought she could have dispensed with my feeble assistance."
"And so I should have thought, too; but, strange to say, I've failed!"
"Then if such an expert as yourself has failed, where would an ignoramus like me come in?" asked the Duke, who had been led by his better half through all the labyrinths of Esther's scruples, in so far as her Grace was capable of comprehending and describing them.
"Oh! you've got a great deal of influence, Tammy—more than you've any idea of. It often surprises | | 128 me what a lot of importance people attach to your opinion!"
"Thank you, my dear. How succinctly you put things! I often envy you your turn of expression." The Duke was one of those big solid men who inspire with confidence everybody who sees them. His strength and solidity were typically English: as were also his large, heavy frame, his square, clean-shaven face, and his ruddy and fresh complexion. Being typically English, there was perhaps a strain of ponderousness in his appearance; but when he was amused he had a habit of gurgling audibly and shaking inwardly, which was highly infectious and wholly delightful, and which made all those who had ever witnessed and shared his mirth (the two being synonymous) forget from that moment that his Grace had ever struck them as either solemn or ponderous.
He gurgled now, and the Duchess felt the armchair shake with his suppressed laughter. But she was not to be turned from her point. "You are very good at persuading people to do things when you take the trouble," she said; "you know you are. You look so big and sensible and important that anything you advise seems as if it must be the right and wise course to take."
"You yourself are often singularly strong in resisting that impression." And the Duke gurgled again.
"Oh! I know you so well, you see."
"Moreover, given that your too-flattering estimate of the impression that my appearance creates in the minds of strangers is correct," continued the Duke, "it doesn't follow that they would regard me as an authority in matters of the heart. They would be more inclined to consult me about land-taxes than about love-affairs, I should imagine."| | 129
The Duchess laughed. "They'd consult you about anything, you look so awfully reliable I'm sure when I see you making a speech in the House of Lords—one of those dull, wise sort of speeches, you know, with columns of figures on bits of paper in your hat I feel you are quite a father of the State."
"That may be; but fathers are not the sort of people whom we consult first as to our love-affairs. We generally consult them last; and then the consultation is usually a matter of necessity rather than of choice."
"Well, anyhow you persuaded me to marry you: and if you did that, I am sure you can persuade Esther to marry Westerham."
"Come, come, Nell, you are drawing it a bit too strong there! I asked you to marry me, I confess; but I can't for the life of me see where the persuasion came in."
"Don't be so horrid!" The Duchess was enjoying herself immensely. She always loved a battle of words with a foeman worthy of her steel. "You are sadly under-estimating my last powers of attraction."
"Not at all. It is you, my dear child, who are over-estimating my present powers of persuasion."
The lady tossed her head. "All the same, you were very much in love with me."
"I both was and am: I never attempted to disown the soft impeachment. But that didn't prevent you from being very much in love with me. In fact, I rather think it tended to increase your affection. Understand me, I am not for one moment denying that had it been necessary, my powers of persuasion would have been exerted to their uttermost in order to you for my wife; but fortunately, thanks to | | 130 your kindness, the necessity never arose." And the Duke drew his wife down to him and kissed her.
But she soon wriggled herself upright again on her perch. "I wish you'd talk sense, Tammy, instead of telling horrible untrue fibs about my running after you."
"In one moment. But first explain, please, what a true fib is if mine are untrue ones."
"Don't be silly! Tell me what we can say to Esther to convince her of her folly. You must help me: you really must!"
The Duke's genial face grew grave. "Well, first of all, I am not quite as certain as you are that it is such folly: it seems to me very much like sense—although sense obtained at a tremendous cost. If you want me to be perfectly candid with you, Nell—much as I love and respect Esther—I am not altogether sure that she is not sensible in refusing to marry Westerham."
The Duchess exclaimed "Et tu, Brute!" or words to that effect; the exact words she used being, "Oh dear, oh dear, you too! I never thought you'd turn against me, Tammy!"
"Neither did—nor do—I. But we must try to be sensible, my dear, and enter into Esther's feelings on this matter."
"Nothing would induce me to enter into anything so silly! I'd as soon enter into a lunatic asylum! And I think it is horrid to let such a thing as sensibleness come into the question of falling in love and getting married. It is like studying eugenics, or some detestable modern thing like that!"
The Duke smiled. "I am sure Esther is incapable of understanding, or even of wishing to understand, such a subject as eugenics; but, all the same, people | | 131 must be sensible in dealing with an event so important as marriage. You are so delighted—and not unnaturally so—at Westerham's having fallen in love with Esther, that you have rather lost your sense of proportion. And, of course, you look at it solely from her point of view and not from his. You would not be the good sister you are if you did not. But Esther with an unselfishness as rare as it is admirable—looks at the matter from Westerham's side of the question, and upon my life I cannot say that she has come to a wrong conclusion!"
The Duchess was as much surprised as she was annoyed. Her husband so rarely disagreed with her that when he did she resented it as she would have resented an earthquake or a volcanic eruption.
"Nobody loves and admires Esther more than I do, as you know," the Duke continued; "but I cannot truthfully say that I consider her a suitable wife for a young fellow like Westerham. She isn't lively enough, to begin with. Now supposing it was Jocko who wanted to marry a woman almost old enough to be his mother. You know you'd be dreadfully disappointed."
"No, I shouldn't. I made up my mind ages ago that Jocko is sure to marry a girl out of the first row of the Gaiety chorus; so that anything else would be a pleasant surprise. At any rate, he can't disappoint me."
"Unless he marries a girl out of the second row."
The Duchess bent down and imprinted a kiss on the top of her husband's sparsely covered crown. Tammy dear, you really are delightful to talk-to, even when you are driving me to the verge of madness. But, you know, in your way you are just as stupid and tiresome as Esther. It's funny how all | | 132 my life I've had to do with stupid people! Papa was very stupid at times; and though I adore Mamma, I have now and again come across traces of stupidity even in her."
"Poor old Nell! Still, it has proved a most wholesome discipline in producing the opposite result in your charming self."
"Oh, I'm all right: not much stupidity in me!" retorted her Grace. Then she disengaged herself from her husband's encircling arm, and got up from her somewhat precarious seat and stood sternly in front of him. "Why didn't you say all this before?" she demanded. "I've done nothing but talk about Esther's folly for the last fortnight, and you never once told me that you are as idiotic as she is! I thought all the time that I was talking to a sensible man."
The Duke stretched himself lazily in his easy chair, and looked up at his avenging goddess with amusement. "Well, to begin with, you didn't give me much chance of telling you anything, if you remember: you were talking yourself hard all the time. Besides, what was the good of interrupting your eloquent and instructive soliloquy? I was enjoying and profiting by it too much. But when you come and ask me actively to interfere, it is a totally different matter. I cannot go over to the Dower House and deliberately advise your sister to take a step which I consider would eventually lead to misery both for herself and Westerham. Now can I?"
The Duchess wrung her hands. "My poor, dear Tammy, I believe you are developing a conscience, too!"
"Hardly as bad as that; but I confess to the inward stirring of certain rough and rude principles."| | 133
"Then there is not any use in your going to the Dower House: not an atom of use at all!" exclaimed the Duchess, with an air of finality.
"Not the slightest use, my dear; that is what I have been saying all the time."
"You'd be like that man in the Bible—Balaam, wasn't it?—who was sent to curse the people, and upset everything by blessing them instead."
"Very like him, and in more ways than one," replied the Duke enigmatically.
"I suppose you are going to say because he took his ass with him, and the ass was an exceptionally great talker?"
The Duke rose slowly from his chair. "I was not going to say anything of the kind. I never say the obvious thing. I was merely going to remark—had you given me time and opportunity—that I was like Balaam in so far as that, when he went on that particular journey, there was an angel in the way."
The merry blue eyes twinkled. "Quite the right answer, Tammy. But stop a bit. Which do you mean is the angel—Esther or me?"
The big man stooped and kissed his wife. "I repeat, I never say the obvious thing," he replied, as he strolled leisurely out of the room.
The Duchess looked after him with love in her eyes. "I wonder which he did really mean," she said to herself. "I believe it was Esther, after all."
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