A tall bony woman, in the autumn of life, with sunken eyes and iron-grey hair, rose stiffly from her chair, and saluted the ladies with stern submission as they opened the door. A person of unblemished character, evidently--but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.
'Are you pretty well, Mrs. Rolland?'
'I am as well as I can expect to be, my lady, at my time of life.'
'Is there anything I can do for you?'
'Your ladyship can do me a great favour, if you will please speak to my character while I was in your service. I am offered a place, to wait on an invalid lady who has lately come to live in this neighbourhood.'
'Ah, yes--I have heard of her. A Mrs. Carbury, with a very pretty niece I am told. But, Mrs. Rolland, you left my service some time ago. Mrs. Carbury will surely expect you to refer to the last mistress by whom you were employed.'
A flash of virtuous indignation irradiated Mrs. Rolland's sunken eyes. She coughed before she answered, as if her 'last mistress' stuck in her throat.
'I have explained to Mrs. Carbury, my lady, that the person I last served-- I really cannot give her her title in your ladyship's presence!-- has left England for America. Mrs. Carbury knows that I quitted the person of my own free will, and knows why, and approves of my conduct so far. A word from your ladyship will be amply sufficient to get me the situation.'
'Very well, Mrs. Rolland, I have no objection to be your reference, under the circumstances. Mrs. Carbury will find me at home to-morrow until two o'clock.'
'Mrs. Carbury is not well enough to leave the house, my lady. Her niece, Miss Haldane, will call and make the inquiries, if your ladyship has no objection.'
'I have not the least objection. The pretty niece carries her own welcome with her. Wait a minute, Mrs. Rolland. This lady is Miss Lockwood--my husband's cousin, and my friend. She is anxious to speak to you about the courier who was in the late Lord Montbarry's service at Venice.'
Mrs. Rolland's bushy eyebrows frowned in stern disapproval of the new topic of conversation. 'I regret to hear it, my lady,' was all she said.
'Perhaps you have not been informed of what happened after you left Venice?' Agnes ventured to add. 'Ferrari left the palace secretly; and he has never been heard of since.'
Mrs. Rolland mysteriously closed her eyes--as if to exclude some vision of the lost courier which was of a nature to disturb a respectable woman. 'Nothing that Mr. Ferrari could do would surprise me,' she replied in her deepest bass tones.
'You speak rather harshly of him,' said Agnes.
Mrs. Rolland suddenly opened her eyes again. 'I speak harshly of nobody without reason,' she said. 'Mr. Ferrari behaved to me, Miss Lockwood, as no man living has ever behaved--before or since.'
'What did he do?'
Mrs. Rolland answered, with a stony stare of horror:--
'He took liberties with me.'
Young Lady Montbarry suddenly turned aside, and put her handkerchief over her mouth in convulsions of suppressed laughter.
Mrs. Rolland went on, with a grim enjoyment of the bewilderment which her reply had produced in Agnes: 'And when I insisted on an apology, Miss, he had the audacity to say that the life at the palace was dull, and he didn't know how else to amuse himself!'