London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 11

Lighter than Vanity.

“I think father must be a witch,” Henriette said at dinner next day, “or why did he tell me of the Italian lady who was shut in the dower-chest, just before Angela and I were lost in”— she checked herself at a look from his lordship —“in the chimney?”

“It wants no witch to tell that little girls are foolish and mischievous,” answered Fareham.

“You ladies must have been vastly black when you came out of your hiding-place,” said De Malfort. “I should have been sorry to see so much beauty disguised in soot. Perhaps Mrs. Kirkland means to appear in the character of a chimney at our next Court masquerade. She would cause as great a stir as Lady Muskerry, in all her Babylonian splendour; but for other reasons. Nothing could mitigate the Muskerry’s ugliness; and no disguise could hide Mrs. Angela’s beauty.”

“What would the costume be?” asked Papillon.

“Oh, something simple. A long black satin gown, and a brick-dust velvet hat, tall and curiously twisted, like your Tudor chimney; and a cluster of grey feathers on the top, to represent smoke.”

“Monsieur le Comte makes a joke of everything. But what would father have said if we had never been found?”

“I should have said that they are right who swear there is a curse upon all property taken from the Church, and that the ban fell black and bitter upon Chilton Abbey,” answered his lordship’s grave deep voice from the end of the table, where he sat somewhat apart from the rest, gloomy and silent, save when directly addressed.

Her ladyship and De Malfort had always plenty to talk about. They had the past as well as the present for their discourse, and were always sighing for the vanished glories of their youth — at Paris, at Fontainebleau, at St. Germain. Nor were they restricted to the realities of the present and the memories of the past; they had that wider world of unreality in which to circulate; they had the Scudèry language at the tips of their tongues, the fantastic sentimentalism of that marvellous old maid who invented the seventeenth-century hero and heroine; or who crystallised the vanishing figures of that brilliant age and made them immortal. All that little language of toyshop platonics had become a natural form of speech with these two, bred and educated in the Marais, while it was still the select and aristocratic quarter of Paris.

To-day Hyacinth and her old playfellow had been chattering like children, or birds in an aviary, and with little more sense in their conversation; but at this talk of the Church’s ban, Hyacinth stopped in her prattle and was almost serious.

“I sometimes think we shall have bad luck in this house,” she said, “or that we shall see the ghosts of the wicked monks who were turned out to make room for Fareham’s great-grandfather.”

“Tush, child! what do you know of their wickedness, after a century?”

“They were very wicked, I believe, for it was one of those quiet little monasteries where the monks could do all manner of evil things, and raise the devil, if they liked, without anybody knowing. And when Henry the Eighth sent his Commissioners, they were taken by surprise; and the altar at which they worshipped Beelzebub was found in a side chapel, and a wax figure of the King stuck with arrows, like St. Sebastian. The Abbot pretended it was St. Sebastian; but nobody believed him.”

“Nobody wanted to believe him,” said Fareham. “King Henry made an example of Chilton Abbey, and gave it to my worthy ancestor, who was a fourth cousin of Jane Seymour’s, and had turned Protestant to please his royal master. He went back to the Church of Rome on his death-bed, and we Revels have been Papists ever since. I wish the Church joy of us!”

“The Church has neither profit nor honour from you,” said his wife, shaking her fan at him. “You seldom go to Mass; you never go to confession.”

“I would rather keep my sins to myself, and atone for them by the pangs of a wounded conscience. That is too easy a religion which shifts the burden of guilt on to the shoulders of a stipendiary priest, and walks away from the confessional absolved by the payment of a few extra prayers.”

“I believe you are either an infidel or a Puritan.”

“A cross between the two, perhaps — a mongrel in religion, as I am a mongrel in politics.”

Angela looked up at him with sad eyes — reproachful, yet full of pity. She remembered his wild talk, semi-delirious some of it, all feverish and excited, during his illness, and how she had listened with aching heart to the ravings of one so near death, and so unfit to die. And now that the pestilence had passed him by, now that he was a strong man again, with half a lifetime before him, her heart was still heavy for him. She who sat in the theatre of life as a spectator had discovered that her sister’s husband was not happy. The trifles that delighted Hyacinth left Fareham unamused and discontented; and his wife knew not that there was anything wanting to his felicity. She could go on prattling like a child, could be in a fever about a fan or a bunch of ribbons, could talk for an hour of a new play or the contents of the French Gazette, while he sat gloomy and apart.

The sympathy, the companionship that should be in marriage was wanting here. Angela saw and deplored this distance, scarce daring to touch so delicate a theme, fearful lest she, the younger, should seem to sermonise the elder; and yet she could not be silent for ever while duty and religion urged her to speak.

At Chilton Abbey the sisters were rarely alone. Papillon was almost always with them; and De Malfort spent more of his life in attendance upon Lady Fareham than at Oxford, where he was supposed to be living. Mrs. Lettsome and her brother were frequent guests; and coach-loads of fine people came over from the court almost every day. Indeed, it was only Fareham’s character — austere as Clarendon’s or Southampton’s — which kept the finest of all company at a distance. Lady Castlemaine had called at Chilton in her coach-and-four early in July; and her visit had not been returned — a slight which the proud beauty bitterly resented: and from that time she had lost no opportunity of depreciating Lady Fareham. Happily her jests, not over refined in quality, had not been repeated to Hyacinth’s husband.

One January afternoon the longed-for opportunity came. The sisters were sitting alone in front of the vast mediaeval chimney, where the Abbots of old had burnt their surplus timber — Angela busy with her embroidery frame, working a satin coverlet for her niece’s bed; Hyacinth yawning over a volume of Cyrus; in whose stately pages she loved to recognise the portraits of her dearest friends, and for which she was a living key. Angela was now familiar with the famous romance, which she had read with deepest interest, enlightened by her sister. As an eastern story — a record of battles and sieges evolved from a clever spinster’s brain, an account of men and women who had never lived — the book might have seemed passing dull; but the story of actual lives, of living, breathing beauty, and valour that still burnt in warrior breasts, the keen and clever analysis of men and women who were making history, could not fail to interest an intelligent girl, to whom all things in life were new.

Angela read of the siege of Dunkirk, where Fareham had fought; of the tempestuous weather; the camp in the midst of salt marshes and quicksands, and all the sufferings and perils of life in the trenches. He had been in more than one of those battles which mademoiselle’s conscientious pen depicted with such graphic power, the Gazette at her elbow as she wrote. The names of battles, sieges, Generals, had been on his lips in his delirious ravings. He had talked of the taking of Charenton, the key to Paris, a stronghold dominating Seine and Marne; of Clanleu, the brave defender of the fortress; of Châtillon, who led the charge — both killed there — Châtillon, the friend of Condé, who wept bitterest tears for a loss that poisoned victory. Read by these lights, the “Grand Cyrus” was a book to be pored over, a book to bend over in the grey winter dusk, reading by the broad blaze of the logs that flamed and crackled on wrought-iron standards. Just as merrily the blaze had spread its ruddy light over the room when it was a monkish refectory, and when the droning of a youthful brother reading aloud to the fraternity as they ate their supper was the only sound, except the clattering of knives and grinding of jaws.

Now the room was her ladyship’s drawing-room, bright with Gobelins tapestry, dazzling with Venetian mirrors, gaudy with gold and colour, the black oak floor enlivened by many-hued carpets from our new colony of Tangiers. Fareham told his wife that her Moorish carpets had cost the country fifty times the price she had paid for them, and were associated with an irrevocable evil in the existence of a childless Queen; but that piece of malice, Hyacinth told him, had no foundation but his hatred of the Duke, who had always been perfectly civil to him.

“Of two profligate brothers I prefer the bolder sinner,” said Fareham. “Bigotry and debauchery are an ill mixture.”

“I doubt if his Majesty frets for the want of an heir,” remarked De Malfort. “He is not a family man.”

“He is not a one family man, Count,” answered Fareham.

Fareham and De Malfort were both away on this January evening. Papillon was taking a dancing lesson from a wizened old Frenchman, who brought himself and his fiddle from Oxford twice a week for the damsel’s instruction. Mrs. Priscilla, nurse and gouvernante, attended these lessons, at which the Honourable Henrietta Maria Revel gave herself prodigious airs, and was indeed so rude to the poor old professor that her aunt had declined to assist at any more performances.

“Has his lordship gone to Oxford?” Angela asked, after a silence broken only by her sister’s yawns.

“I doubt he is anywhere rather than in such good company,” Hyacinth answered, carelessly. “He hates the King, and would like to preach at him, as John Knox did at his great-grandmother. Fareham is riding, or roving with his dogs, I dare say. He has a gloomy taste for solitude.”

“Hyacinth, do you not see that he is unhappy?” Angela asked, suddenly, and the pain in her voice startled her sister from the contemplation of the sublime Mandane.

“Unhappy, child! What reason has he to be unhappy?”

“Ah, dearest, it is that I would have you discover. ’Tis a wife’s business to know what grieves her husband.”

“Unless it be Mrs. Lewin’s bill — who is an inexorable harpy — I know of no act of mine that can afflict him.”

“I did not mean that his gloom was caused by any act of yours, sister. I only urge you to discover why he is so sad.”

“Sad? Sullen, you mean. He has a fine, generous nature. I am sure it is not Lewin’s charges that trouble him. But he had always a sullen temper — by fits and starts.”

“But of late he has been always silent and gloomy.”

“How the child watches him! Ma très chère, that silence is natural. There are but two things Fareham loves — the first, war; the second, sport. If he cannot be storming a town, he loves to be killing a fox. This fireside life of ours — our books and music, our idle talk of plays and dances — wearies him. You may see how he avoids us — except out-of-doors.”

“Dear Hyacinth, forgive me!” Angela began, falteringly, leaving her embroidery frame and moving to the other side of the hearth, where she dropped on her knees by her ladyship’s chair, and was almost swallowed up in the ample folds of her brocade train. “Is it not possible that Lord Fareham is pained to see you so much gayer and more familiar with Monsieur de Malfort than you ever are with him?”

“Gayer! more familiar!” cried Hyacinth. “Can you conceive any creature gay and familiar with Fareham? One could as soon be gay with Don Quixote; indeed, there is much in common between the knight of the rueful countenance and my husband. Gay and familiar! And pray, mistress, why should I not take life pleasantly with a man who understands me, and in whose friendship I have grown up almost as if we were brother and sister? Do you forget that I have known Henri ever since I was ten years old — that we played battledore and shuttlecock together in our dear garden in the Rue de Touraine, next the bowling-green, when he was at school with the Jesuit Fathers, and used to spend all his holiday afternoons with the Marquise? I think I only learnt to know the saints’ days because they brought me my playfellow. And when I was old enough to attend the Court — and, indeed, I was but a child when I first appeared there — it was Henri who sang my praises, and brought a crowd of admirers about me. Ah, what a life it was! Love in the city, and war at the gates: plots, battles, barricades! How happy we all were! except when there came the news of some great man killed, and walls were hung with black, where there had been a thousand wax candles and a crowd of dancers. Châtillon, Chabot, Laval! Hélas, those were sad losses!”

“Dear sister, I can understand your affection for an old friend, but I would not have you place him above your husband; least of all would I have his lordship suspect that you preferred the friend to the husband ——”

“Suspect! Fareham! Are you afraid I shall make Fareham jealous, because I sing duets and cudgel these poor brains to make bouts rimés with De Malfort? Ah, child, how little those watchful eyes of yours have discovered the man’s character! Fareham jealous! Why, at St. Germain he has seen me surrounded by adorers; the subject of more madrigals than would fill a big book. At the Louvre he has seen me the — what is that Mr. What’s-his-name, your friend’s old school-master, the Republican poet, calls it —‘the cynosure of neighbouring eyes.’ Don’t think me vain, ma mie. I am an old woman now, and I hate my looking-glass ever since it has shown me my first wrinkle; but in those days I had almost as many admirers as Madame Henriette, or the Princess Palatine, or the fair-haired Duchess. I was called la belle Anglaise.”

It was difficult to sound a warning-note in ears so obstinately deaf to all serious things. Papillon came bounding in after her dancing-lesson — exuberant, loquacious.

“The little beast has taught me a new step in the coranto. See, mother,” and the slim small figure was drawn up to its fullest, and the thin little lithe arms were curved with a studied grace, as Papillon slid and tripped across the room, her dainty little features illumined by a smirk of ineffable conceit.

“Henriette, you are an ill-bred child to call your master so rude a name,” remonstrated her mother, languidly.

“’Tis the name you called him last week when his dirty shoes left marks on the stairs. He changes his shoes in my presence,” added Papillon, disgustedly. “I saw a hole in his stocking. Monsieur de Malfort calls him Cut–Caper.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31