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 THE first time that the Black Duke saw her she was laughing—and the last time that he saw her she was laughing, too.  
He and a ruddy-faced companion had fared forth doggedly into the long summer twilight in quest of some amusement to dispel the memory of the extravagantly gloomy little dinner that they had shared at the club, followed by a painful hour over admirable port and still more admirable cigars. It was August, and London was empty as a drum of the pretty faces and pretty hats and pretty voices that made it tolerable at times—it was as dry and dusty as life itself, and John Saint Michael Beauclerc, ninth Duke of Bolingham, tramping along the dull street beside a dull comrade, thought to himself with a sudden alien passion that youth was a poor thing to look back on, and age an ugly thing to look forward to, and middle age worse than either. He scowled down magnificently from his great height at the once-gregarious Banford, whose flushed countenance bore the consternation of one who has made a bad231 bargain and sees no way out of it—no duke lived who was worth such an evening, said Gaddy Banford’s hunted eyes. This particular duke eyed him sardonically.
“Close on to nine,” he said. “Well, then, what time does this holy paragon do her turn?”
“About nine,” replied his unhappy host. “But, I say, you know, I don’t want to drag you around if you’d rather not. She’s frightfully good in her line, but if dancing bores you——”
“You’re dashed considerate all at once,” remarked his guest. “If I haven’t cracked by now, I fancy I’ll live through the best dancing of the century. That’s what you called it, wasn’t it? Here, you!”
He waved an imperious hand at a forlorn hansom clattering down the silent street, and it jolted to a halt under one of the gas lamps. For it was not in this century that the Duke of Bolingham met Miss Biddy O’Rourke. No, it was in a century when hansom cabs and gas lamps were commonplaces—when ladies wore bonnets like butterflies on piled-up ringlets, and waltzed for hours in satin slippers and kid gloves two sizes too small for them—when gentlemen cursed eloquently but noiselessly because maidens whisked yards of tulle and tarlatan behind them when they danced—a century of faded flowers and fresh sentiments and232 enormous sleeves—of conservatories and cotillions and conventions—of long, long letters and little perfumed notes—of intrigues over tea tables, and coaching parties to the races, and Parma violets, and pretty manners, and broken hearts. A thousand years ago, you might think, but after all it was only around the corner of the last century that the Duke of Bolingham stepped into the decrepit hansom closely followed by his unwilling retainer, and in no uncertain tones bade the driver proceed to the Liberty Music Hall.
He sat cloaked in silence while they drove, his heavy shoulders hunched up, his eyes half closed, brooding like a despoiled monarch and a cheated child over the sorry trick that life had played him. He had had everything—and he had found nothing worth having. He had the greatest fortune in England—and one of the greatest names. He had Beaton House, the Georgian miracle that was all London’s pride—and Gray Courts, that dream of sombre beauty, that was all England’s pride—Gray Courts that even now held his three tall, black-browed sons who could shoot and hunt and swear as well as any in the country—yes, even fourteen-year Roddy. That held, too, a collection of Spanish and Portuguese armour second to none, and a collection of Van Dykes first of any, and the finest clipped yew hedge in a thousand miles.233 That held the ladies Pamela, Clarissa, Maud, and Charlotte, his good sisters, too acidulous to find a husband between them, for all their great dowers and name and accomplishments. That for six long years had held the Lady Alicia Honoria Fortescue, a poor, sad, dull little creature, married in a moment of pity and illusion when they were both young enough to know better, who had gone in mortal terror of him from the night that they crossed the threshold of the Damask Room to the day that they laid her away under the kind marble in the little chapel.
He sat huddled in the corner of the hansom, remembering with the same shock of sick amazement his despair at the discovery of her fear of him; it still haunted every tapestried corridor of Gray Courts—every panelled hall in Beaton House—he set his teeth and turned his head, and swore that he would take the next boat to France and drink himself to death in Cannes. And the hansom cab stopped.
Gaddy Banford had two seats in the first row of stalls; had ’em for every night that the lady danced, he informed the duke with chastened pride. The duke, trampling over the outraged spectators with more than royal indifference, eyed him grimly.
“Spend the rest of your valuable time hanging round the stage door, what?” he inquired audibly.
234 Five of the outraged spectators said “Sh-s-h,” and the duke, squaring about in his seat, favoured them with so black a glance that the admonitions died on their lips and apologies gathered in their eyes. Banford smiled nervously and ingratiatingly.
“Oh, rather not—no, no, nothing of that kind whatever. She doesn’t go in for stage-door meetings, you know. I’ve had the honour of meeting the lady twice and she’s most frightfully jolly and all that, but——”
“Sh-h-h,” enjoined one rebellious spirit, studiously avoiding the duke’s eye. That gentleman remarked “Ha!” with derisive inflection and turned a contemptuous eye on the stage. A very large and apparently intoxicated mouse was chasing a small and agitated cat with rhythmic zest, the two having concluded the more technical portion of their programme, in which they had ably defended against all comers their engaging title of the “Jolly Joralomons, Europe, Asia, Africa, and America’s Most Unique and Mirth Compelling Acrobats, Tumblers, and Jugglers.” The Jolly Joralomons scampered light-heartedly off, rolling their equipment of bright balls before them with dexterous paws, and capered back even more light-heartedly to blow grateful kisses off the tips of their whiskers to an enraptured audience, with which the Duke of Bolingham was all too obviously not in accord.
235 “Gad!” he remarked with appalled conviction. “Death’s too good for them! Here, let’s get out of this while I’ve got strength——”
Banford lifted a pleading hand. There was a warning roll of drums, a preliminary lilt of violins, and the orchestra swung triumphantly into the “Biddy Waltz”—the waltz that all London had revolved to for three good months. The house sighed like a delighted child, and far up in the gallery an ecstatic voice called “Ah, there, lassie!” And another echoed “Come ahn, Biddy—Alf and me’s ’ere!”
And onto a stage that was black as night, with one great bound as though she had leapt through infinite space from a falling star into the small safe circle of the spotlight, came Biddy O’Rourke, straight on the tips of her silver toes, with laughter for a dark world in both her outstretched hands—and the piece of the world that faced her rose to its feet and shouted a welcome. All but one.
The Black Duke of Bolingham sat square in the centre in the first row of seats in the Liberty Music Hall as still as though he had been struck down by lightning, with the “Biddy Waltz” rising and falling about him unheeded, his eyes fixed incredulously on the Vision in the spotlight. The Vision had already fixed the eyes and turned the heads and broken the hearts of half the masculine population236 of London (the other half not having seen her!) but nothing that the duke had heard had prepared him for this.
Who could have told him that a music hall dancer called Biddy O’Rourke, late of Dublin, no taller than a child and seventeen years old to the day, could look like a fairy and an angel and an imp and a witch and a dream? Not Gaddy Banford, of a certainty—not Gaddy, who, in a burst of lyric enthusiasm, had confided to his duke that she was little and blonde and light on her feet. “Little”—you who were more fantastically minute than any elf, Biddy! Blonde—oh, sacrilege, to dismiss thus that foam and froth of curls cresting and bubbling about your gay head like champagne, with the same pure glitter of pale gold—that skin of pearl beneath which danced little flames of rose fire—those eyes, bluer than anything on earth—blue as the skies and seas and flowers that haunt our dreams. Light on your feet—oh, Biddy, you, who soared and floated and drifted like a feather in the wind, like a butterfly gone mad—like a flying leaf and a dancing star! Had he said that you had a nose tilted as a flower petal, and a mouth that tilted, too? Had he said that when you blew across the dark stage that you would be arrayed in silver brighter than foam and white more airy than clouds? Had he said that you would dance not237 only with those miraculous toes but with your curls and with your lashes and with your lips and with your heart? Had he said that you would come laughing, little Biddy?
High on the tips of those incredible toes she came—nearer and nearer, so swift and light and sure that it seemed to Bolingham’s dazzled eyes that it would take less than a breath to blow her over that barrier of light straight into his arms—straight into his heart—into his tired and lonely heart. He leaned forward, and the vision of gold and silver stared back at him, faltered, tilted forward on her toes, and flung down to him the airy music of her mirth.
“Oh, I couldn’t any more dance with you looking like that than I could grow feathers!” cried the Vision. “No, not if Saint Patrick himself were to bid me. Whatever in the whole world’s the matter?”
The audience stopped howling its delirious approval at their Biddy’s appearance in order to revel in their Biddy’s chaff. No one could chaff like Biddy—no one nearer than Cork, at any rate. It was better than seeing her dance to listen to her laugh, gentle as a lamb, and pert as a monkey, and gay as a Bank Holiday. Free as air, too; if any of those Johnnies in the stalls tried any of their nonsense, it was a fair treat to hear her give ’em what238 for! The audience stood on tiptoes and shoved and elbowed in riotous good humour in their efforts to locate her latest victim—that great black fellow with shoulders like a prize-fighter, likely. The great black fellow promptly gratified their fondest expectations by falling into the silver net of Biddy’s laughter and answering her back.
“Thanks,” he replied distinctly. “Nothing in the whole world’s the matter—now.”
“Whatever were you thinkin’ to make you scowl the big black ogre himself then?”
And the Black Duke replied as clearly as though he were addressing the lady in the hush of the rose garden at Gray Courts instead of in the presence of the largest and most hilarious audience in London.
“I was wondering how in God’s name I was going to get to you quickly enough to tell you what I was thinking before I burst with it.”
The transfixed Gaddy tottered where he stood, and the audience howled unqualified approval, even while they waited for her to pin him to the wall with her reply. But Biddy only came a step nearer, staring down at him with the strangest look of wonder and delight and enchanted mischief.
“Oh, whatever must you think of me, not knowing you at all?” she cried to him over the muted239 lilt of her waltz. “’Twas the lights in my eyes, maybe—or maybe the lights in yours. It’s the foolish creature I am anyway you put it. Would you be waiting for ten minutes?”
“No,” said His Grace firmly.
“It’ll kill me,” said His Grace. “Where will you be?”
“There’s a wee door over beyond the red curtain,” said Biddy. “You go through that, and you’re in an alley as black as a pit, and you take three steps—no, with the legs you have you can do it in two with no trouble at all—and there’ll be another door with a fine big light over it, and I’ll be under the light. Don’t die.”
“No,” said His Grace. “I won’t.”
“Play it faster than that,” Biddy cried to her stupefied musicians, once more poised high on her silver toes. “Ah, it’s the poor, slow, thumb-fingered creatures you are, the lot of you! Play it fast as my Aunt Dasheen’s spotted kitten chasin’ its tail or I’ll dance holes in your drums for you—weren’t you after hearin’ that I have five minutes to do three great dances? It’s black-hearted fiends you are, with your dawdlin’ and your ditherin’. Ah, darlin’s, come on now—spin it faster than that for the poor dyin’ gentleman and the girl that’s goin’ to save him!”
240 And with a flash and a dip and a swirl she was off, and the Black Duke was off, too. Gaddy Banford put up a feeble clamour as his guest swept by him toward the aisle.
“Oh, but my dear fellow—no, but I say, wait a bit—she’s simply chaffing you, you know; she’ll never in the world be there for a minute——”
“Hand over my stick, will you?” inquired the duke affably. “You’ve no earthly use for two. And don’t come trotting along after me, either. She’s not expecting you, you know—rather not.” He swung buoyantly off toward the red curtain, bestowing a benign nod on the now deliriously diverted audience.
“Take a chair along, matey!” “Want a mornin’ paper? Come in ’andy to pass away the time!” “Fetch ’im ’is tea at nine, Bertie—’e’ll need it bad.” “Don’t you wait for her no more than twenty-four hours, ole dear—promise us that, now——”
“Bolingham, I say——” panted the unfortunate Gaddy. “I say, someone must have tipped her off, you know!”
“Tipped her off?”
“Told her who you were, you know?”
The duke laughed aloud and Gaddy Banford, who had never heard him do this, jumped badly.
“D’you know what I’ve been wondering,241 Gaddy? I’ve been wondering how the deuce I was going to own up to her—a duke’s such a damn potty thing, when you come down to it. Why the devil didn’t someone make me Emperor of Russia?”
He brushed aside the red curtain, grinned once more into Banford’s stunned countenance, and passed with one great stride through the door into the black alley. The door swung to behind him, and he stood leaning against it for a minute, savouring the wonder and the magic that he had fallen heir to. There was a drift of music in the alley—the sky was powdered thick with stars—the air was sweet as flowers against his face. He drew a deep breath, and turned his head; and there she stood beneath the light, with a black scarf over her golden head and a black cloak over her silver dress—and it took him two strides to reach her, as she had said. She had one hand to her heart and was breathing quickly in little light gasps, as though she had come running.
“Were you waitin’ long?” she asked. “I never stopped at all to change a stitch and dear knows ’twas a sin how I cheated on that last one—no more than a flout and a spin, and not that maybe; only I was afraid for my soul you’d be gone. Was it long you waited?”
“Forty-two years,” said His Grace. “Forty-two years and three days.”
242 He watched the rose flood up to her lashes at that, but the joyous eyes never swerved from his.
“Ah, well,” she murmured, “I waited seventeen my own self, and I not half the size of you—no higher than your pocket, if you come to look. I can’t think at all what you’ve been doing with yourself all that time.”
“Don’t think—ever,” he said. “I’ve done nothing worth a moment’s thought but miss you.”
“Have you missed me then, truly?” she whispered. “Oh, it’s from farther than Cork I’d come to hear you say that; I’d come from Heaven itself, may the Saints there forgive me. Say it again, quick!”
“I’ve missed you since the day I drew breath,” he told her, and his voice shook. “Every day that I’ve lived has been black and bare and cold without you—blackest because I never knew I’d find you. Biddy, is it true? Things don’t happen like this, do they? No one out of a dream ever had such hair—no one out of a fairy tale such eyes! Biddy, would you laugh like that if it were a dream?”
“I would that,” she remarked with decision. “It’s a fine dream and a grand fairy tale and the truest truth you ever heard in your life. I knew ’twas you even when you were scowlin’, but those243 lights were in my eyes, so I couldn’t be sure till you smiled.”
“Biddy, how did you know?”
She pushed the scarf back from those golden bubbles with a gay gesture of impatience.
“Well, why wouldn’t I know? That’s a queer way to talk to a bright girl! Didn’t my own Aunt Dasheen, she that was all the family I had till I ran off and took London for one, tell me that I’d be the grandest dancer that ever leapt, and marry the finest gentleman that ever walked, as big as a giant and black as a devil and handsome as a king? And she ought to know, surely, what with reading in tea and clear water as quick as you and me in the Good Book. It was the wicked, cunning old thing she was, God rest her soul.”
“Is she dead?”
“She is that,” replied Aunt Dasheen’s niece cheerfully. “Or I’d never be here to tell it. She kept tight hold of me as if I were a bit of gold, for all that she sorrowed and sang how I was more trouble to her than any monkey from Egypt. If Tim Murphy and his brothers hadn’t been coming to show the Londoners how to juggle glass balls and brought me along to hold the things, I’d be in the wee room tending the fire and the kitten this minute, instead of standing under a light in a silver dress with my heart in my hands.”
244 “I wish I could thank her,” said the duke.
“It’s little enough you have to thank her for,” replied his Biddy blithely. “She was crosser than most and cooler than any, God help her. ’Twas that spotted kitten she loved; if she hadn’t seen the bit about me in the tea, she’d have dropped me straight out of the window. But there was my grand gentleman and the rest of it to give her patience. ‘Wed at seventeen, dead at——’” She caught back the words as deftly as Tim Murphy’s glass balls, with a triumphant shake of her curls. “‘Death to your dancing,’ she’d keep saying. You could thank her for that, maybe—or perhaps ’twas because I danced you stopped scowling, and you’ll not want me to leave off?”
“Biddy, it’s true then—you’re only seventeen?” His voice was touched with a strange pain and wonder.
“Hear him, now—only, indeed! I’m seventeen the day.”
“And I past forty-two!”
“Are you no more than that?” she asked softly. “However in all the world could you get so great and grand and fine in that little while?”
“Oh,” he cried. “Does laughter take the sting from all that’s ugly? Laugh again then; there’s worse still. Lord help us, darling—I’m a duke!”
“Is that all?” she inquired regretfully. “I’d245 have thought a king at the least. Well, come, there’s no helping it—’tis not all of us get our deserts in this wicked world.”
“Biddy,” he begged. “Laugh at this, too, will you? Try, try, dear, before it hurts us. I have three sons, Biddy. I’ve been married before.”
She put her other hand to her heart at that, but she kept her lips curved.
“It’s small wonder,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you have been? I’m the shameless one to say it, but if I’d been ten girls instead of one, it’s ten times you’d have been married.”
He put his arms about her then, and something broke in his heart—something cold and hard and bitter. He wanted to tell her that, but he could find no words, because he was only a duke, and not a very articulate one at that. But the small shining creature in his arms had words enough for two.
“Were you thinking of wedding again, maybe?”
“Oh, Biddy,” he cried, “let’s hurry!”
“If you’re asking me,” she said, “I’d say we were hurrying fast and free. I can hear the air whistlin’ in my ears, I can that. Was she a fine lady, darling?”
“Who?” he asked—and remembered—and forgot her for all time. “Oh, she was a very fine lady, and good, and gentle, too. She died long ago.”
246 “Did she, poor thing?” whispered the future Duchess of Bolingham softly, the cloud in the blue, blue eyes gone for ever. “And me no good at all. I wonder at you! Are they little young things, your sons?”
“The smallest’s big enough to put you in his pocket,” he said. “Biddy, let’s hurry. I know an Archbishop that we could have fix it to-night—I know two, if it comes to that. One of ’em was my godfather.”
“Well, you could know six, and ’twould be all the good it would do you,” commented his Biddy serenely. “I know one old priest, and his name’s Father Leary, and ’twill be a bitter grief to him, but he may do it, since he’s one of the Saints themselves and terrible fond of a bad girl. Archbishop, indeed!”
“Let’s find him, then, and tell him. I’ll——”
“We’ll not,............
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