The Countess de Berrmann Part III
THE COUNTESS DE BERRMANN
BY THE AUTHOR OF “TWO HEROINES,” “NEVER ALONE,” “A STRANGE COINCIDENCE,” &c., &c
CHAPTER III – A SUDDEN ILLNESS
In the bustle and confusion of their sudden departure Lily had no time for reflection, but when on their arrival in Venice, her father announced his intention of immediately making all the necessary arrangments for his marriage with the Countess de Berrmann, she felt a more decided aversion than ever to the prospect of having that lady for her stepmother. In vain she tried to reason herself into liking the marriage. She conned all the widow’s good qualities over and over, reproached herself with inconsistency, in objecting to her father having fallen in love with her when she herself had taken such a fancy to her; but with no success. Her dislike to the match was as firmly rooted as ever, and the haste with which it was to be completed filled her with dismay. She was powerless, however, to avert what she had come to regard as a calamity, and there was no one at hand to help her. All she could do was to write to Mrs Clifford, her mother’s sister, who had brought her up, and ask her advice; but Mrs Clifford was travelling, and the letter did not reach her for several days.
Meanwhile the Countess was busy replacing her weeds with garments more suitable for a bride; and as the General would hear of no delay, these had to be procured with all possible speed. Shopping, however, is not a rapid process with some ladies, and in Venice it is perhaps more tedious than elsewhere, for the Venetians do not care to hurry themselves for anyone or anything. The General found his time hanging rather heavily on his hands, for fiancee declared she would not “bore” him by letting him accompany her, but insisted on having Lily with her, so as to have the advantage of her taste and advice. But Lily could not discover how she could be of much use, for when she once hinted she thought it was a pity to purchase so many handsome dresses at one time, the Countess playfully gave her to understand that “a child of her age could not be expected to know what was necessary for a trousseau,” Lily naturally did not offer her opinion again.
The evening before the wedding-day came at length, greatly to the General’s satisfaction, for he had grumbled considerably at having so little of his fiancee’s company. All the purchases having been made, he had been allowed to accompany them for a fow in a gondola; and on their return the General’s servant handed him a telegram he had brought from the poste restant with the letters.
It was from Mrs Clifford, announcing that her son and his bride would be in Venice that evening, and giving the name of the hotel they intended to stay at.
“Cousin Daer and his bride here! Oh, papa, do let us go to them at once. It will be so strange to see Haidee Dalrymple as a married woman!”
“Haidee Dalrymple! that was the school friend your letters were always full of?”
“Yes, you know Daer fell in love with her when she came to stay with me at aunt’s, after we left school. Oh, papa, do come, I am longing to see her and Daer again.”
“Come away then you wild child, and you will come too, will you not, Antoinette? – but, my darling, you are ill!” he added, as he saw that the Countess, pale and breathless, was leaning against the wall for support.
“It is nothing – nothing, only my old pain here,” and she pressed her hand to her heart. I am a little over-tired, that is all, indeed it is. I shall be quite well after an hour’s rest.”
“You have been over exerting yourself, my poor darling; let me help you.”
“Yes, yes, please help me to my room; and Lily, dear, will you come too, you are such a kind nurse, I shall never be able to do without you now,” and the Countess tried to smile, but she could not control her trembling lips.
The General was only too delighted to stay by her side, and he sat down beside her couch with evident pleasure. Not so Lily, who longed to hurry off to see her friend and cousin, but the Countess could not spare her for a moment. She kept her employed for some time in trying one remedy after another, and when all failed to give relief, she coaxed her to brush her hair, which always soothed her nerves. Lily could not refuse to do anything that would help the poor sufferer to bear the terrible agony she had to endure, and very gently and patiently she smoothed the long fair hair till her own arms ached with the exertion.
At length the hour for the table d’hote approached, and Lily hoped her patient would be well enough to be left. A fresh paroxysm of pain, however, put that out of the question, for while it lasted the Countess required all her attention and care, since every moment seemed likely to be her last. The poor General’s distress was piteous to witness, and at length he determined to start off in search of a doctor, in spite of his fiancee’s eagre protests that it was useless to have any other advice when she had had the best that Paris could afford. Before he succeeded in persuading her to let him leave her for even the few minutes he would have required to make inquiries about a doctor, the pain had abated, and in another half-hour a doctor’s assistance was unnecessary. It was then ten o’clock; and a good night’s rest was all she needed to restore her completely, the Countess said, in answer to the General’s anxious question as to whether she would be well enough to go through the marriage ceremony the following day. Lily proposed to stay with her all night, but the widow would not hear of it.
“I have worn you out already, my poor dear,” she said, “with all my many requirements, and you will look quite pale to-morrow if you do not have a good night’s rest, and that would never, never do! Don’t look so anxious, dearest,” she continued, noticing the look of anxiety which the General bent on her, “the attack is quite over. If it were not, I would be the last to propose being left, for I am a ad coward when I am suffering. Well, well, if it will satisfy you I shall make Stephanie sleep with me, and then she can fetch Lily if I should be taken ill again.”
With this concession the General had to be contented, and saying he would not keep her up any longer, he rose and wished her good-night.
“Good-night, and a thousand, thousand thanks for all your loving care; and darling Lily, too, how good you have been. Ah! and I have been selfish enough to keep you all this time from your cousin and his bride. How thoughtless of me! Do forgive me, dear, that terrible pain makes me forget everything.”
“Oh, it is not too late for me to go now. It is only a little after ten o’clock, and I needn’t stand on ceremony with Daer and Haidee.”
“You dear little eager thing, you do need someone to look after you,” said the Countess, playfully tapping Lily’s cheek as she spoke. “Only a little after ten, indeed! Why you would most likely find Mrs Daer Clifford sound asleep after her journey. No, no, I think papa must persuade you to wait until to-morrow.”
“Of course, of course, Lily dear, you must curb your impatience. You know you cannot be a child always,” said the General rather peremptorily.
Lily pouted for a moment. She had been curbing her impatience for some hours, and it seemed rather hard to be told she must wait nine or ten hours longer, ere she could see the cousin who had been a brother to her all her life, and his wife.
“Oh, papa, do let us ask for them at any rate. Their hotel is almost next door, and we need not go in if they have gone to their roms.”
The General was about to consent to this proposal when the widow hastily interposed, exclaiming, “My dear Lily, I could not hear of such a thing.”
Lily looked as though she was inclined to resent this premature assumption of authority on the part of her future stepmother, and the General hastened to allay the storm he saw impending.
“If you wait until to-morrow morning you can go as early as you like, and bring Daer and Haidee back with you for the wedding.”
“Oh, impossible!” the widow ejaculated.
“Impossible, my dear Antoinette, what do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing, dearest, only-only-you promised our wedding should be quite private,” said the widow, looking hot and confused.
“Quite private! My dear, you must have misunderstood me. I am doing nothing I am ashamed of, and I certainly shall not act as though I were,” said the old man a little haughtily.
“Oh, darling. I did not mean that. It is only my nervousness. Of course it would be very nice to have your nephew and his wife at our wedding, but they are Protestants, are they not, and they would not understand our service.”
“Why, Aunt Clifford is a Catholic, and Daer is only a Protestant to please his father and Haidee, but he often came to church with me, and so did Haidee,” said Lily.
“Then perhaps it is only a whim on my part to wish to be married with only dear Lily and Stephanie present. But still, darling, you will gratify me in this one thing, will you not?” said the Countess, laying her hand on his arm, and looking up at him coaxingly.
“It will look exactly as though we wanted to get it over before Daer and Haidee knew,” said Lily bluntly.
“Lily is right, dearest,” said the General, “and I will never give the Cliffords cause to say I acted in any way clandestinely. In fact it is probable Daer has had a telegram from his mother, and may have come here on purpose.”
“And you think more of what the Cliffords will say than of my wish,” said the widow, reproachfully.
“Anything else you wish shall be my law,” said the poor General, fairly bewildered at his fiancee’s persistency; “but it is so strange to object to having my nephew present. My darling!” he exclaimed, suddenly breaking off, “can it be you are ashamed of marrying an old man?”
“Oh, how could you think anything of the kind?” and the Countess burst into tears. General Vernon comforted her by lavishing upon her every term of endearment he could think of. But being of a somewhat obstinate disposition, he did not yield the point in dispute; and though he bid her good night with the utmost tenderness, he quitted the field as victor.
CHAPTER IV – THE SEQUEL
Early the following morning Lily repaired to the Countess’s room, intending to visit her cousin and his wife, as soon as she had learned how the invalid was. To her amazement she found the room empty. But she soon remembered the widow had probably gone to early mass, and would of course be back in a few minutes. Reproaching herself for her own less fervent devotion she sat down, impatiently waiting her return. As the time for the wedding ceremony drew near, and bride elect did not appear, Lily grew seriously alarmed, and at length went in search of her father.
“Gone to mass did you say,” he exclaimed, when he heard Lily’s account of what had passed. “How very imprudent, when she was so ill last night.”
“But papa. something must have happened. It is more than an hour since I went to her room, and she was out then.”
“She may have been detained longer than usual in the church; but I wish I had gone with her. Venice is not a fit place for a lady to go about in alone. Stay! did you ask how long it was since she had gone out?”
“No, I didn’t think of doing that.” Lily rang the bell as she spoke, and on the waiter appearing she received the startling intelligence that the Countess and her little girl had left by the midnight mail. The waiter was astonished that lily did not know, as the lady had said the gentleman would of course settle her bill.
Neither the General nor Lily could answer. They were literally stunned by this announcement; and the waiter, finding that nothing further was required from him, withdrew to discuss the affair with his fellows. After a few minutes the General rose and walked slowly to the Countess’s room. There he found a note addressed to himself. It was very brief, but very much to the point. It ran as follows :-
Dear General Vernon,-On thinking the matter over, I have decided it would be a mistake to marry you. Kindly settle the bills I have incurred on your account. I have directed the tradesmen to send the m to you. Lily can tell if they are correct, as she was with me when I made my purchases. Thank her for her jewels. I have taken them with me as a keepsake to remind me of the pleasant month we have spent together. Yours, with many thanks, ANTIONETTE DE BERRMANN.
The General read this document twice over with great deliberation. Then he held out his arms to his daughter, and said quietly, “Lily, dear, you and I have had rather a bitter lesson. Never let us mention this subject again.”
Lily threw her arm round her father’s neck, and pressed a long kiss on his cheek by way of sealing the compact. Then she gently drew him out of the room, and, thinking he would prefer to be alone, left him in the sitting room while she hurried off to her own apartment.
The cause of the Countess’s hurried departure was not far to seek. It turned out that some years previously she had been lady’s-maid to Mrs Dalrymple-Mrs Daer Clifford’s mother-but had been dismissed for dishonesty.
She had a considerable talent for acting, and soon after quitting Mrs Dalrymple’s service, she had made her debut at a second-rate provincial theatre. She might have had a successful career as an actress; but, unfortunately for herself, she made another mistake respecting other people’s property. On this occasion she underwent a year’s imprisonment, and on her release she preferred the Continent to England. She had ever since led the life of an adventuress, assuming one disguise after another. In this career she was ably assisted by her daughter – a very diminutive but very precocious damsel of twelve, who, from the ease with which she played the various roles she assumed had evidently inherited a considerable portion of her mother’s histrionic talent. In attempting to marry General Vernon, the soi-disante Countess had played a bolder game than usual; but, finding her scheme likely to be frustrated, like a wise general she beat a prudent retreat, preferring to carry off her spoils in safety rather than risk all by striving for too much. On the whole she had cause for satisfaction. Besides Lily’s jewel case, containing the late Mrs Vernon’s diamonds, she had carried off all the General’s cash, to say nothing of the very handsome trousseau she had obtained at his expense.
Her plot had been cleverly planned, and as skillfully executed. She had seen the Vernon’s in Munich while she was acting as an extra chambermaid in the hotel in which they were staying, and had picked up a good deal of information concerning them by the aid of the letters, which her humble position gave her an opportunity of perusing, and had formed her scheme accordingly.
Finding that the General was an ardent Roman Catholic, and a veritable knight-errant in his chivalry towards the weaker sex, she determined to play upon these points in his character, and, as our readers have seen, succeeded only too well. She trusted that the united influence of his kind heart, and his natural unwillingness to expose himself to public ridicule, would enable her to escape prosecution for her theft, and the result proved her calculation correct.
Lily fully agreed with her father that it would be better to submit to the loss of her diamonds than have a public esclandre, and her satisfaction at having escaped a stepmother almost reconciled her to losing her jewels.
The Countess de Berrmann is still at large. The last time she was heard of she had become an earnest Protestant, but she was once more posing as the interesting widow of a General who had died for his country.
COUNTESS DE BERRMANN .
Aberdeen Weekly Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), Saturday, April 30, 1881; Issue 6954
Gale Document Number: BA3205744211