London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 13

The Sage of Sayes Court.

One of Angela’s letters to her convent companion, the chosen friend and confidante of childhood and girlhood, Léonie de Ville, now married to the Baron de Beaulieu, and established in a fine house in the Place Royale, will best depict her life and thoughts and feelings during her first London season.

“You tell me, chère, that this London, which I have painted in somewhat brilliant colours, must be a poor place compared with your exquisite city; but, indeed, despite all you say of the Cours la Reine, and your splendour of gilded coaches, fine ladies, and noble gentlemen, who ride at your coach windows, talking to you as they rein in their spirited horses, I cannot think that your fashionable promenade can so much surpass our Ring in Hyde Park, where the Court airs itself daily in the new glass coaches, or outvie for gaiety our Mall in St. James’s Park, where all the world of beauty and wit is to be met walking up and down in the gayest, easiest way, everybody familiar and acquainted, with the exception of a few women in masks, who are never to be spoken to or spoken about. Indeed, my sister and I have acquired the art of appearing neither to see nor to hear objectionable company, and pass close beside fine flaunting masks, rub shoulders with them even — and all as if we saw them not. It is for this that Lord Fareham hates London. Here, he says, vice takes the highest place, and flaunts in the sun, while virtue blushes, and steals by with averted head. But though I wonder at this Court of Whitehall, and the wicked woman who reigns empress there, and the neglected Queen, and the ladies of honour, whose bad conduct is on every one’s lips, I wonder more at the people and the life you describe at the Louvre, and St. Germain, and Fontainebleau, and your new palace of Versailles.

“Indeed, Léonie, the world must be in a strange way when vice can put on all the grace and dignity of virtue, and hold an honourable place among good and noble women. My sister says that Madame de Montausier is a woman of stainless character, and her husband the proudest of men; yet you tell me that both husband and wife are full of kindness and favours for that unhappy Mlle. de la Vallière, whose position at Court is an open insult to your Queen. Have Queens often been so unhappy, I wonder, as her Majesty here, and your own royal mistress? One at least was not. The martyred King was of all husbands the most constant and affectionate, and, in the opinion of many, lost his kingdom chiefly through his fatal indulgence of Queen Henrietta’s caprices, and his willingness to be governed by her opinions in circumstances of difficulty, where only the wisest heads in the land should have counselled him. But how I am wandering from my defence of this beautiful city against your assertion of its inferiority! I hope, chère, that you will cross the sea some day, and allow my sister to lodge you in this house where I write; and when you look out upon our delightful river, with its gay traffic of boats and barges passing to and fro, and its palaces, rising from gardens and Italian terraces on either side of the stream; when you see our ancient cathedral of St. Paul; and the Abbey of St. Peter, lying a little back from the water, grand and ancient, and somewhat gloomy in its massive bulk; and eastward, the old fortress-prison, with its four towers; and the ships lying in the Pool; and fertile Bermondsey with its gardens; and all the beauty of verdant shores and citizens’ houses between the bridge and Greenwich, you will own that London and its adjacent villages can compare favourably with any metropolis in the world.

“The only complaint one hears is of its rapid growth, which is fast encroaching upon the pleasant fields and rustic lanes behind the Lambs Conduit and Southampton House; and on the western side spreading so rapidly that there will soon be no country left between London and Knightsbridge.

“How I wish thou couldst see our river-terrace on my sister’s visiting-day, when De Malfort is lolling on the marble balustrade, singing one of your favourite chansons to the guitar which he touches so exquisitely, and when Hyacinth’s fine lady friends and foppish admirers are sitting about in the sunshine! Thou wouldst confess that even Renard’s garden can show no gayer scene.

“It was only last Tuesday that I had the opportunity of seeing more of the city than I had seen previously — and at its best advantage, as seen from the river. Mr. Evelyn, of Sayes Court, had invited my sister and her husband to visit his house and gardens. He is a great gardener and arboriculturist, as you may have heard, for he has travelled much on the Continent, and acquired a world-wide reputation for his knowledge of trees and flowers.

“We were all invited — the Farehams, and my niece Henriette; and even I, whom Mr. Evelyn had seen but once, was included in the invitation. We were to travel by water, in his lordship’s barge, and Mr. Evelyn’s coach was to meet us at a landing-place not far from his house. We were to start in the morning, dine with him, and return to Fareham House before dark. Henriette was enchanted, and I found her at prayers on Monday night praying St. Swithin, whom she believes to have care of the weather, to allow no rain on Tuesday.

“She looked so pretty next morning, dressed for the journey, in a light blue cloth cloak embroidered with silver, and a hood of the same; but she brought me bad news — my sister had a feverish headache, and begged us to go without her. I went to Hyacinth’s room to try to persuade her to go with us, in the hope that the fresh air along the river would cure her headache; but she had been at a dance overnight, and was tired, and would do nothing but rest in a dark room all day — at least, that was her resolve in the morning; but later she remembered that it was Lady Lucretia Topham’s visiting-day, and, feeling better, ordered her chair and went off to Bloomsbury Square, where she met all the wits, full of a new play which had been acted at Whitehall, the public theatres being still closed on account of the late contagion.

“They do not act their plays here as often as Molière is acted at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The town is constant in nothing but wanting perpetual variety, and the stir and bustle of a new play, which gives something for the wits to dispute about. I think we must have three play-wrights to one of yours; but I doubt if there is wit enough in a dozen of our writers to equal your Molière, whose last comedy seems to surpass all that has gone before. His lordship had a copy from Paris last week, and read the play to us in the evening. He has no accent, and reads French beautifully, with spirit and fire, and in the passionate scenes his great deep voice has a fine effect.

“We left Fareham House at nine o’clock on a lovely morning, worthy this month of May. The lessening of fires in the city since the warmer weather has freed our skies from sea-coal smoke, and the sky last Tuesday was bluer than the river.

“The cream-coloured and gold barge, with twelve rowers in the Fareham green velvet liveries, would have pleased your eyes, which have ever loved splendour; but you might have thought the master of this splendid barge too sombre in dress and aspect to become a scene which recalled Cleopatra’s galley. To me there is much that is interesting in that severe and serious face, with its olive complexion and dark eyes, shadowed by the strong, thoughtful brow. People who knew Lord Stafford say that my brother-in-law has a look of that great, unfortunate man — sacrificed to stem the rising flood of rebellion, and sacrificed in vain. Fareham is his kinsman on the mother’s side, and may have perhaps something of his powerful mind, together with the rugged grandeur of his features and the bent carriage of his shoulders, which some one the other day called the Stratford stoop.

“I have been reading some of Lord Stafford’s letters, and the account of his trial. Indeed he was an ill-used man, and the victim of private hatred — from the Vanes and others — as much as of public faction. His trial and condemnation were scarce less unfair — though the form and tribunal may have been legal — than his master’s, and indeed did but forecast that most unwarrantable judgment. Is it not strange, Léonie, to consider how much of tragical history you and I have lived through that are yet so young? But to me it is strangest of all to see the people in this city, who abandon themselves as freely to a life of idle pleasures and sinful folly — at least, the majority of them — as if England had never seen the tragedy of the late monarch’s murder, or been visited by death in his most horrible aspect, only the year last past. My sister tells every one, smiling, that she misses no one from the circle of her friends. She never saw the red cross on almost every door, the coffins, and the uncoffined dead, as I saw them one stifling summer day, nor heard the shrieks of the mourners in houses where death was master. Nor does she suspect how near she was to missing her husband, who was hanging between life and death when I found him, forsaken and alone. He never talks to me of those days of sickness and slow recovery; yet I think the memory of them must be in his mind as it is in mine, and that this serves as a link to draw us nearer than many a real brother and sister. I am sending you a little picture which I made of him from memory, for he has one of those striking faces that paint themselves easily upon the mind. Tell me how you, who are clever at reading faces, interpret this one.

“Hélas, how I wander from our excursion! My pen winds like the river which carried us to Deptford. Pardon, chèrie, sije m’oublie trop; mais c’est si doux de causer avec une amie d’enfance.

“At the Tower stairs we stopped to take on board a gentleman in a very fine peach-blossom suit, and with a huge periwig, at which Papillon began to laugh, and had to be chid somewhat harshly. He was a very civil-spoken, friendly person, and he brought with him a lad carrying a viol. He is an officer of the Admiralty, called Pepys, and, Fareham tells me, a useful, indefatigable person. My sister met him at Clarendon House two years ago, and wrote to me about him somewhat scornfully; but my brother respects him as shrewd and capable, and more honest than such persons usually are. We were to fetch him to Sayes Court, where he also was invited by Mr. Evelyn; and in talking to Henriette and me, he expressed great regret that his wife had not been included, and he paid my niece compliments upon her grace and beauty which I could but think very fulsome and showing want of judgment in addressing a child. And then, seeing me vexed, he hoped I was not jealous; at which I could hardly command my anger, and rose in a huff and left him. But he was a person not easy to keep at a distance, and was following me to the prow of the boat, when Fareham took hold of him by his cannon sleeve and led him to a seat, where he kept him talking of the navy and the great ships now a-building to replace those that have been lost in the Dutch War.

“When we had passed the Pool, and the busy trading ships, and all the noise of sailors and labourers shipping or unloading cargo, and the traffic of small boats hastening to and fro, and were out on a broad reach of the river with the green country on either side, the lad tuned his viol, and played a pretty, pensive air, and he and Mr. Pepys sang some verses by Herrick, one of our favourite English poets, set for two voices —

“‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time still is a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles to-day,

To-morrow will be dying.”

The boy had a voice like Mere Ursule’s lovely soprano, and Mr. Pepys a pretty tenor; and you can imagine nothing more silvery sweet than the union of the two voices to the staccato notes of the viol, dropping in here and there like music whispered. The setting was Mr. Pepys’ own, and he seemed overcome with pride when we praised it. When the song was over, Fareham came to the bench where Papillon and I were sitting, and asked me what I thought of this fine Admiralty gentleman, whereupon I confessed I liked the song better than the singer, who at that moment was strutting on the deck like a peacock, looking at every vessel we passed as if he were Neptune, and could sink navies with a nod.

“Misericorde! how my letter grows! But I love to prattle to you. My sister is all goodness to me; but she has her ideas and I have mine; and though I love her none the less because our fancies pull us in opposite directions, I cannot talk to her as I can write to you; and if I plague you with too much of my own history you must not fear to tell me so. Yet if I dare judge by my own feelings, who am never weary of your letters — nay, can never hear enough of your thoughts and doings — I think you will bear with my expatiations, and not deem them too impertinent.

“Mr. Evelyn’s coach was waiting at the landing-stage; and that good gentleman received us at his hall door. He is not young, and has gone through much affliction in the loss of his dear children — one, who died of a fever during that wicked reign of the Usurper Cromwell, was a boy of gifts and capacities that seemed almost miraculous, and had more scholarship at five years old than my poor woman’s mind could compass were I to live till fifty. Mr. Evelyn took a kind of sad delight in talking to Henriette and me of this gifted child, asking her what she knew of this and that subject, and comparing her extensive ignorance at eleven with his lamented son’s vast knowledge at five. I was more sorry for him than I dared to say; for I could but think this dear overtaught child might have died from a perpetual fever of the brain as likely as from a four days’ fever of the body; and afterwards when Mr. Evelyn talked to us of a manner of forcing fruits to grow in strange shapes — a process in which he was greatly interested — I thought that this dear infant’s mind had been constrained and directed, like the fruits, into a form unnatural to childhood. Picture to yourself, Léonie, at an age when he should have been chasing butterflies or making himself a garden of cut-flowers stuck in the ground, this child was labouring over Greek and Latin, and all his dreams must have been filled with the toilsome perplexities of his daily tasks. It is happy for the bereaved father that he takes a different view, and that his pride in the child’s learning is even greater than his grief at having lost him.

“At dinner the conversation was chiefly of public affairs — the navy, the war, the King, the Duke, and the General. Mr. Evelyn told Fareham much of his embarrassments last year, when he had the Dutch prisoners, and the sick and wounded from the fleet, in his charge; and when there was so terrible a scarcity of provision for these poor wretches that he was constrained to draw largely on his own private means in order to keep them from starving.

“Later, during the long dinner, Mr. Pepys made allusions to an unhappy passion of his master and patron, Lord Sandwich, that had diverted his mind from public business, and was likely to bring him to disgrace. Nothing was said plainly about this matter, but rather in hints and innuendoes, and my brother’s brow darkened as the conversation went on; and then, at last, after sitting silent for some time while Mr. Evelyn and Mr. Pepys conversed, he broke up their discourse in a rough, abrupt way he has when greatly moved.

“‘He is a wretch — a guilty wretch — to love where he should not, to hazard the world’s esteem, to grieve his wife, and to dishonour his name! And yet, I wonder, is he happier in his sinful indulgence than if he had played a Roman part, or, like the Spartan lad we read of, had let the wild-beast passion gnaw his heart out, and yet made no sign? To suffer and die, that is virtue, I take it, Mr. Evelyn; and you Christian sages assure us that virtue is happiness. A strange kind of happiness!’

“‘The Christian’s law is a law of sacrifice,’ Mr. Evelyn said, in his melancholic way. ‘The harvest of surrender here is to be garnered in a better world.’

“‘But if Sandwich does not believe in the everlasting joys of the heavenly Jerusalem — and prefers to anticipate his harvest of joy!’ said Fareham.

“‘Then he is the more to be pitied,’ interrupted Mr. Evelyn.

“‘He is as God made him. Nothing can come out of a man but what his Maker put in him. Your gold vase there will not turn vicious and produce copper — nor can all your alchemy turn copper to gold. There are some of us who believe that a man can live only once, and love only once, and be happy only once in that pitiful span of infirmities which we call life; and that he is wisest who gathers his roses while he may — as Mr. Pepys sang to us this morning.’

“Mr. Evelyn sighed, and looked at my brother with mild reproof.

“‘If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable,’ he said. ‘My lord, when those you love people the Heavenly City, you will begin to believe and hope as I do.’

“I have transcribed this conversation at full length, Léonie, because it gives you the keynote to Fareham’s character, and accounts for much that is strange in his conduct. Alas, that I must say it of so noble a man! He is an infidel! Bred in our Church, he has faith neither in the Church nor in its Divine Founder. His favourite books are metaphysical works by Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza. I have discovered him reading those pernicious writings whose chief tendency is to make us question the most blessed truths our Church has taught us, or to confuse the mind by leading us to doubt even of our own existence. I was curious to know what there could be in books that so interested a man of his intelligence, and asked to be allowed to read them; but the perusal only served to make me unhappy. This daring attempt to reduce all the mysteries of life to a simple sum in arithmetic, and to make God a mere attribute in the mind of man, disturbed and depressed me. Indeed, there can be no more unhappy moment in any life than that in which for the first time a terrible ‘if’ flashes upon the mind. If God is not the God I have worshipped, and in whose goodness I rest all my hopes of future bliss; if in the place of an all-powerful Creator, who gave me my life and governs it, and will renew it after the grave, there is nothing but a quality of my mind, which makes it necessary to me to invent a Superior Being, and to worship the product of my own imagination! Oh, Léonie, beware of these modern thinkers, who assail the creed that has been the stronghold and comfort of humanity for sixteen hundred years, and who employ the reason which God has given them to disprove the existence of their Maker. Fareham insists that Spinoza is a religious man — and has beautiful ideas about God; but I found only doubt and despair in his pages; and I ascribe my poor brother’s melancholic disposition in some part to his study of such philosophers.

“I wonder what you would think of Fareham, did you see him daily and hourly, almost, as I do. Would you like or dislike, admire or scorn him? I cannot tell. His manners have none of the velvet softness which is the fashion in London — where all the fine gentlemen shape themselves upon the Parisian model; yet he is courteous, after his graver mode, to all women, and kind and thoughtful of our happiness. To my sister he is all beneficence; and if he has a fault it is over-much indulgence of her whims and extravagances — though Hyacinth, poor soul, thinks him a tyrant because he forbids her some places of amusement to which other women of quality resort freely. Were he my husband, I should honour him for his desire to spare me all evil sounds and profligate company; and so would Hyacinth, perhaps, had she leisure for reflection. But in her London life, surrounded ever with a bevy of friends, moving like a star amidst a galaxy of great ladies, there is little time for the free exercise of a sound judgment, and she can but think as others bid her, who swear that her husband is a despot.

“Mrs. Evelyn was absent from home on a visit; so after dinner Henriette and I, having no hostess to entertain us, walked with our host, who showed us all the curiosities and beauties of his garden, and condescended to instruct us upon many interesting particulars relating to trees and flowers, and the methods of cultivation pursued in various countries. His fig trees are as fine as those in the convent garden at Louvain; and, indeed, walking with him in a long alley, shut in by holly hedges of which he is especially proud, and with orchard trees on either side, I was taken back in fancy to the old pathway along which you and I have paced so often with Mother Agnes, talking of the time when we should go out into the world. You have been more than three years in that world of which you then knew so little, but it lacks still a quarter of one year since I left that quiet and so monotonous life; and already I look back and wonder if I ever really lived there. I cannot picture myself within those walls. I cannot call back my own feelings or my own image at the time when I had never seen London, when my sister was almost a stranger to me, and my sister’s husband only a name. Yet a day of sorrow might come when I should be fain to find a tranquil retreat in that sober place, and to spend my declining years in prayer and meditation, as my dear aunt did spend nearly all her life. May God maintain us in the true faith, sweet friend, so that we may ever have that sanctuary of holy seclusion and prayer to fly to — and, oh, how deep should be our pity for a soul like Fareham’s, which knows not the consolations nor the strength of religion, for whom there is no armour against the arrows of death, no City of Refuge in the day of mourning!

“Indeed he is not happy. I question and perplex myself to find a reason for his melancholy. He is rich in money and in powerful friends; has a wife whom all the world admires; houses which might lodge Royalty. Perhaps it is because his life has been over prosperous that he sickens of it, like one who flings away from a banquet table, satiated by feasting. Life to him may be like the weariness of our English dinners, where one mountain of food is carried away to make room on the board for another; and where after people have sat eating and drinking for over an hour comes a roasted swan, or a peacock, or some other fantastical dish, which the company praise as a pretty surprise. Often, in the midst of such a dinner, I recall our sparing meals in the convent; our soup maigre and snow eggs, our cool salads and black bread — and regret that simple food, while the reeking joints and hecatombs of fowl nauseate my senses.

“It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the barge, for Mr. Pepys had business to transact with our host, and spent an hour with him in his study, signing papers, and looking at accounts, while Papillon and I roamed about the garden with his lordship, conversing upon various subjects, and about Mr. Evelyn, and his opinions and politics.

“‘The good man has a pretty trivial taste that will keep him amused and happy till he drops into the grave — but, lord! what insipid trash it all seems to the heart on fire with passion!’ Fareham said in his impetuous way, as if he despised Mr. Evelyn for taking pleasure in bagatelles.

“The sun was setting as we passed Greenwich, and I thought of those who had lived and made history in the old palace — Queen Elizabeth, so great, so lonely; Shakespeare, whom his lordship honours; Bacon, said to be one of the wisest men who have lived since the Seven of Greece; Raleigh, so brave, so adventurous, so unhappy! Surely men and women must have been made of another stuff a century ago; for what will those who come after us remember of the wits and beauties of Whitehall, except that they lived and died?

“Mr. Pepys was somewhat noisy on the evening voyage, and I was very glad when he left the barge. He paid me ridiculous compliments mixed with scraps of French and Spanish, and, finding his conversation distasteful, he insisted upon attempting several songs — not one of which he was able to finish, and at last began one which for some reason made his lordship angry, who gave him a cuff on his head that scattered all the scented powder in his wig; on which, instead of starting up furious to return the blow, as I feared to see him, Mr. Pepys gave a little whimpering laugh, muttered something to the effect that his lordship was vastly nice, and sank down in a corner of the cushioned seat, where he almost instantly fell asleep.

“Henriette and I were spectators of this scene at some distance, I am glad to say, for all the length of the barge divided us from the noisy singer.

“The sun went down, and the stars stole out of the deep blue vault, and trembled between us and those vast fields of heaven. Papillon watched their reflection in the river, or looked at the houses along the shore, few and far apart, where a solitary candle showed here and there. Fareham came and seated himself near us, but talked little. We drew our cloaks closer, for the air was cold, and Papillon nestled beside me and dropped asleep. Even the dipping of the oars had a ghostly sound in the night stillness; and we seemed so melancholy in this silence, and so far away from one another, that I could but think of Charon’s boat laden with the souls of the dead.

“Write to me soon, dearest, and as long a letter as I have written to you.

“À toi de coeur,

“ANGELA.”

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