London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 15

Falcon and Dove.

“Has your ladyship any commands for Paris?” Lord Fareham asked, one August afternoon, when the ghost party at Millbank was almost forgotten amid a succession of entertainments on land and river; a fortnight at Epsom to drink the waters; and a fortnight at Tunbridge — where the Queen and Court were spending the close of summer — to neutralise the bad effects of Epsom chalybeates with a regimen of Kentish sulphur. If nobody at either resort drank deeper of the medicinal springs than Hyacinth — who had ordered her physician to order her that treatment — the risk of harm or the possibility of benefit was of the smallest. But at Epsom there had been a good deal of gay company, and a greater liberty of manners than in London; for, indeed, as Rochester assured Lady Fareham, “the freedom of Epsom allowed almost nothing to be scandalous.” And at Tunbridge there were dances by torchlight on the common. “And at the worst,” Lady Fareham told her friends, “a fortnight or so at the Wells helps to shorten the summer.”

It was the middle of August when they went back to Fareham House, hot, dry weather, and London seemed to be living on the Thames, so thick was the throng of boats going up and down the river, so that with an afternoon tide running up it seemed as if barges, luggers, and wherries were moving in one solid block into the sunset sky.

De Malfort had been attached to her ladyship’s party at Epsom, and at Tunbridge Wells. He had his own lodgings, but seldom occupied them, except in that period between four or five in the morning and two in the afternoon, which Rochester and he called night. His days were passed chiefly in attendance upon Lady Fareham — singing and playing, fetching and carrying combing her favourite spaniel with the same ivory pocket-comb that arranged his own waterfall curls; or reading a French romance to her, or teaching her the newest game of cards, or the last dancing-step imported from Fontainebleau or St. Cloud, or some new grace or fashion in dancing, the holding of the hand lower or higher; the latest manner of passaging in a bransle or a coranto, as performed by the French King and Madame Henriette, the two finest dancers in France; Condé, once so famous for his dancing, now appearing in those gay scenes but seldom.

“Have you any commands for Paris, Hyacinth?” repeated Lord Fareham, his wife being for the moment too surprised to answer him. “Or have you, sister? I am starting for France to-morrow. I shall ride to Dover — lying a night at Sittingbourne, perhaps — and cross by the Packet that goes twice a week to Calais.”

“Paris! And pray, my lord, what business takes you to Paris?”

“There is a great collection of books to be sold there next week. The library of your old admirer, Nicolas Fouquet, whom you knew in his splendour, but who has been a prisoner at Pignerol for a year and a half.”

“Poor wretch!” cried De Malfort, “I was at the Chamber with Madame de Sévigné very often during his long tedious trial. Mon dieu! what courage, what talent he showed in defending himself! Every safeguard of the law was violated in order to silence him and prove him guilty; his papers seized in his absence, no friend or servant allowed to protect his interest, no inventory taken — documents suppressed that might have served for his defence, forgeries inserted by his foes. He had an implacable enemy, and he the highest in the land. He was the scapegoat of the past, and had to answer for a system of plunder that made Mazarin the richest man in France.”

“I don’t wonder that Louis was angry with a servant who had the insolence to entertain his Majesty with a splendour that surpassed his own,” said Lady Fareham. “I should like to have been at those fêtes at Vaux. But although Fareham talks so lightly of travelling to Paris to choose a few dusty books, he has always discouraged me from going there to see old friends, and my own house — which I grieve to think of — abandoned to the carelessness of servants.”

“Dearest, the cleverest woman in the world cannot be in two places at once; and it seems to me you have ever had your days here so full of agreeable engagements that you can have scarcely desired to leave London,” answered Fareham, with his grave smile.

“To leave London — no! But there have been long moping months in Oxfordshire when it would have been a relief to change the scene.”

“Then, indeed, had you been very earnest in wanting such a change, I am sure you would have taken it. I have never forbidden your going to Paris, nor refused to accompany you there. You may go with me to-morrow, if you can be ready.”

“Which you know I cannot, or you would scarce make so liberal an offer.”

“Très chère, you are pleased to be petulant. But I repeat my question. Is there anything you want at Paris?”

“Anything? A million things! Everything! But they are things which you would not be able to choose — except, perhaps, some of the new lace. I might trust you to buy that, though I’ll wager you will bring me a hideous pattern — and some white Cypress powder — and a piece of the ash-coloured velvet Madame wore last winter. I have friends who can choose for you, if I write to them; and you will have but to bring the goods, and see they suffer no harm on the voyage. And you can go to the Rue de Tourain and see whether my servants are keeping the house in tolerable order.”

“With your ladyship’s permission I will lodge there while I am in Paris, which will be but long enough to attend the sale of books, and see some old friends. If I am detained it will be by finding my friends out of town, and having to make a journey to see them. I shall not go beyond Fontainebleau at furthest.”

“Dear Fontainebleau! It is of all French palaces my favourite. I always envy Diana of Poitiers for having her cypher emblazoned all over that lovely gallery — Henri and Diane! Diane and Henri! Ah, me!”

“You envy her a kind of notoriety which I do not covet for my wife!”

“You always take one au pied de la lettre; but seriously, Madame de Brézé was an honest woman compared with the lady who lodges by the Holbein Gate.”

“I admit that sin wears a bolder front than it did in the last century. Angela, can I find nothing for you in Paris?”

“No; I thank your lordship. You and sister are both so generous to me that I have lost the capacity to wish for anything.”

“And as Lewin crosses the Channel three or four times a year, I doubt we positively have the Paris fashions as soon as the Parisians themselves,” added Hyacinth.

“That is an agreeable hallucination with which Englishwomen have ever consoled themselves for not being French,” said De Malfort, who sat lolling against the marble balustrade, nursing the guitar on which he had been playing when Fareham interrupted their noontide idleness; “but your ladyship may be sure that London milliners are ever a twelvemonth in the rear of Paris fashions. It is not that they do not see the new mode. They see it, and think it hideous; and it takes a year to teach them that it is the one perfect style possible.”

“I was not thinking of kerchiefs or petticoats,” said Fareham. “You are a book-lover, sister, like myself. Can I bring you no books you wish for?”

“If there were a new comedy by Molière; but I fear it is wrong to read him, since in his late play, performed before the King at Versailles, he is so cruel an enemy to our Church.”

“A foe only to hypocrites and pretenders, Angela. I will bring you his Tartuffe, if it is printed; or still better, Le Misanthrope, which I am told is the finest comedy that was ever written; and the latest romance, in twenty volumes or so, by one of those lady authors Hyacinth so admires, but which I own to finding as tedious as the divine Orinda’s verses.”

“You can jeer at that poor lady’s poetry, yet take pleasure in such balderdash as Hudibras!”

“I love wit, dearest; though I am not witty. But as for your Princesse de Cleves, I find her ineffably dull.”

“That is because you do not take the trouble to discover for whom the characters are meant. You lack the key to the imbroglio,” said his wife, with a superior air.

“I do not care for a book that is a series of enigmas. Don Quixote needs no such guess-work. Shakespeare’s characters are painted not from the petty models of yesterday and to-day, but from mankind in every age and every climate. Molière’s and Calderon’s personages stand on as solid a basis. In less than half a century your ‘Grand Cyrus’ will be insufferable jargon.”

“Not more so than your Hamlet or Othello. Shakespeare was but kept in fashion during the late King’s reign because his Majesty loved him — and will soon be forgotten, now that we have so many gayer and brisker dramatists.”

“Whoever quotes Shakespeare, nowadays?” asked Lady Sarah Tewkesbury, who had been showing a rustic niece the beauties of the river, as seen from Fareham House. “Even Mr. Taylor, whose sermons bristle with elegant allusions, never points one of his passionate climaxes with a Shakespearian line. And yet there are some very fine lines in Hamlet and Macbeth, which would scarce sound amiss from the pulpit,” added her ladyship, condescendingly. “I have read all the plays, some of them twice over. And I doubt that though Shakespeare cannot hold the stage in our more enlightened age, and will be less and less acted as the town grows more refined, his works will always be tasted by scholars; among whom, in my modest way, I dare reckon myself.”

Lord Fareham left London on horseback, with but one servant, in the early August dawn, before the rest of the household were stirring. Hyacinth lay nearly as late of a morning as Henrietta Maria, whom Charles used sometimes to reproach for not being up in time for the noonday office at her own chapel. Lady Fareham had not Portuguese Catherine’s fervour, who was often at Mass at seven o’clock; but she did usually contrive to be present at High Mass at the Queen’s chapel; and this was the beginning of her day. By that time Angela and her niece and nephew had spent hours on the river, or in the meadows at Chiswick, or on Putney Heath, ever glad to escape from the great overgrown city, which was now licking up every stretch of green sward, and every flowery hedgerow west of St. James’s Street. Soon there would be no country between the Haymarket and “The Pillars of Hercules.”

Denzil sometimes enjoyed the privilege of accompanying Angela, children, and gouvernante, on these rural expeditions by the great waterway; and on such occasions he and Angela would each take an oar and row the boat for some part of the voyage, while the watermen rested, and in this manner Angela, instructed by Sir Denzil, considerably advanced her power as an oarswoman. It was an exercise she loved, as indeed she loved all out-of-door exercises, from riding with hawks and hounds to battledore and shuttlecock. But most of all, perhaps, she loved the river, and the rhythmical dip of oars in the fresh morning air, when every curve of the fertile shores seemed to reveal new beauty.

It had been a hot, dry summer, and the grass in the parks was burnt to a dull brown — had, indeed, almost ceased to be grass — while the atmosphere in town had a fiery taste, and was heavy with the dust which whitened all the roadways, and which the faintest breath of wind dispersed. Here on the flowing tide there was coolness, and the long rank grass upon those low sedgy shores was still green.

Lady Fareham supported the August heats sitting on her terrace, with a cluster of friends about her, and her musicians and singing-boys grouped in the distance, ready to perform at her bidding; but Henriette and her brother soon tired of that luxurious repose, and would urge their aunt to assist in a river expedition. The gouvernante was fat and lazy and good-tempered, had attended upon Henriette from babyhood, and always did as she was told.

“Her ladyship says I must have some clever person instead of Priscilla before I am a year older,” Henriette told her aunt; “but I have promised poor old Prissy to hate the new person consumedly.”

Angela and Denzil laughed as they rowed past the ruined abbey, seen dimly across the low water-meadow, where cows of the same colour were all lying in the same attitude, chewing the cud.

“I think Mr. Spavinger’s trick must have cured your sister’s fine friends of all belief in ghosts,” he said.

“I doubt they would be as ready to believe — or to pretend to believe — to-morrow,” answered Angela. “They think of nothing from morning till night but how to amuse themselves; and when every pleasure has been exhausted, I suppose fear comes in as a form of entertainment, and they want the shock of seeing a ghost.”

“There have been no more midnight parties since Lady Sarah’s assembly, I think?”

“Not among people of quality, perhaps; but there have been citizens’ parties. I heard Monsieur de Malfort telling my sister about a supper given by a wealthy wine-cooper’s lady from Aldersgate. The city people copy everything that their superiors wear or do.”

“Even to their morals,” said Denzil. “’Twere happy if the so-called superiors would remember that, and upon what a fertile ground they sow the seed of new vices. It is like the importation of a new weed or a new insect, which, beginning with an accident, may end in ruined crops and a country’s famine.”

Without deliberate disobedience to her husband, Lady Fareham made the best use of her time during his absence in Paris. The public theatres had not yet re-opened after the horror of the plague. Whitehall was a desert, the King and his chief following being at Tunbridge. It was the dullest season of the year, and the recrudescence of the contagion in the low-lying towns along the Thames — Deptford, Greenwich, and the neighbourhood — together with some isolated cases in London, made people more serious than usual, despite of the so-called victory over the Dutch, which, although a mixed benefit, was celebrated piously by a day of General Thanksgiving.

Hyacinth, disgusted at the dulness of the town, was for ordering her coaches and retiring to Chilton.

“It is mortal dull at the Abbey,” she said, “but at least we have the hawks, and breezy hills to ride over, instead of this sickly city atmosphere, which to my nostrils smells of the pestilence.”

Henri de Malfort argued against such a retreat.

“It were a deliberate suicide,” he said. “London, when everybody has left — all the bodies we count worthy to live, par exemple— is a more delightful place than you can imagine. There are a host of vulgar amusements which you would not dare to visit when your friends are in town; and which are ten times as amusing as the pleasures you know by heart. Have you ever been to the Bear Garden? I’ll warrant you no, though ’tis but across the river at Bankside. We’ll go there this afternoon, if you like, and see how the common people taste life. Then there are the gardens at Islington. There are mountebanks, and palmists, and fortune-tellers, who will frighten you out of your wits for a shilling. There’s a man at Clerkenwell, a jeweller’s journeyman from Venice, who pretends to practise the transmutation of metals, and to make gold. He squeezed hundreds out of that old miser Denham, who was afraid to have the law of him for imposture, lest all London should laugh at his own credulity and applaud the cheat. And you have not seen the Italian puppet-play, which is vastly entertaining. I could find you novelty and amusement for a month.”

“Find anything new, even if it fail to amuse me. I am sick of everything I know.”

“And then there is our midnight party at Millbank, the ghost-party, at which you are to frighten your dearest friends out of their poor little wits.”

“Most of my dearest friends are in the country.”

“Nay, there is Lady Lucretia Topham, whom I know you hate; and Lady Sarah and the Dubbins are still in Covent Garden.”

“I will have no Dubbin — a toping wretch — and she is a too incongruous mixture, with her Edinburgh lingo and her Whitehall arrogance. Besides, the whole notion of a mock ghost was vulgarised by Wilmot’s foolery, who ought to have been born a saltimbanque, and spent his life in a fair. No, I have abandoned the scheme.”

“What! after I have been taxing my invention to produce the most terrible illusion that was ever witnessed? Will you let a clown like Spavinger — a well-born stable-boy — baulk us of our triumph? I am sending to Paris for a powder to burn in a corner of the room, which will throw the ghastliest pallor upon your countenance. When I devise a ghost, it shall be no impromptu spectre in yellow riding-boots, but a vision so awful, so true an image of a being returned from the dead, that the stoutest nerves will thrill and tremble at the apparition. The nun’s habit is coming from Paris. I have asked my cousin, Madame de Fiesque, to obtain it for me at the Carmelites.”

“You are taking a vast deal of trouble. But what kind of assembly can we muster at this dead season?” “Leave all in my hands. I will find you some of the choicest spirits. It is to be my party. I will not even tell you what night I fix upon, till all is ready. So make no engagements for your evenings, and tell nobody anything.”

“Who invented that powder?”

“A French chemist. He has it of all colours, and can flood a scene in golden light, or the rose of dawn, or the crimson of sunset, or a pale silvery blueness that you would swear was moonshine. It has been used in all the Court ballets. I saw Madame once look as ghastly as death itself, and all the Court was seized with terror. Some blundering fool had burnt the wrong powder, which cast a greenish tint over the faces, and Henriette’s long thin features had a look of death. It seemed the forecast of an early grave; and some of us shuddered, as at a prophecy of evil.”

“You might expect the worst in her case, knowing the wretched life she leads with Monsieur.”

“Yes, when she is with him; but that is not always. There are compensations.”

“If you mean scandal, I will not hear a word. She is adorable. The most sympathetic person I know — good even to her enemies — who are legion.”

“You had better not say that, for I doubt she has only one kind of enemy.”

“As how?”

“The admirers she has encouraged and disappointed. Yes, she is adorable, wofully thin, and, I fear, consumptive, but royal: and adorable, ‘douceur et lumière,’ as Bossuet calls her. But to return to my ghost-party.”

“If you were wise, you would abandon the notion. I doubt that in spite of your powders your friends will never believe in a ghost.”

“Oh yes, they will. It shall be my business to get them in the proper temper.”

That idea of figuring in a picturesque habit, and in a halo of churchyard light, was irresistible. Hyacinth promised to conform to Malfort’s plans, and to be ready to assume her phantom rôle whenever she was called upon.

Angela knew something of the scheme, and that there was to be another assembly at Millbank; but her sister had seemed disinclined to talk of the plan in her presence — a curious reticence in one whose sentiments and caprices were usually given to the world at large with perfect freedom. For once in her life Hyacinth had a secret air, and checked herself suddenly in the midst of her light babble at a look from De Malfort, who had urged her to keep her sister out of their midnight party.

“I pledge my honour that there shall be nothing to offend,” he told her, “but I hope to have the wittiest coxcombs in London, and we want no prudes to strangle every jest with a long-drawn lip and an alarmed eye. Your sister has a pale, fragile prettiness which pleases an eye satiated with the exuberant charms of your Rubens and Titian women; but she is not handsome enough to give herself airs; and she is a little inclined that way. By the faith of a gentleman, I have suffered scowls from her that I would scarce have endured from Barbara!”

“Barbara! You are vastly free with her ladyship’s name.”

“Not freer than she has ever been with her friendship.”

“Henri, if I thought ——”

“What, dearest?”

“That you had ever cared for that — wanton ——”

“Could you think it, when you know my life in England has been one long tragedy of loving in vain — of sighing only to be denied — of secret tears — and public submission.”

“Do not talk so,” she exclaimed, starting up from her low tabouret, and moving hastily to the open window, to fresh air and sunshine, rippling river and blue sky, escaping from an atmosphere that had become feverish.

“De Malfort, you know I must not listen to foolish raptures.”

“I know you have been refusing to hear for the last two years.”

They were on the terrace now, she leaning on the broad marble balustrade, he standing beside her, and all the traffic of London moving with the tide below them.

“To return to our party,” she said, in a lighter tone, for that spurt of jealousy had betrayed her into seriousness. “It will be very awkward not to invite my sister to go with me.”

“If you did she would refuse, belike, for she is under Fareham’s thumb; and he disapproves of everything human.”

“Under Fareham’s thumb! What nonsense! Indeed I must invite her. She would think it so strange to be omitted.”

“Not if you manage things cleverly. The party is to be a surprise. You can tell her next morning you knew nothing about it beforehand.”

“But she will hear me order the barge — or will see me start.”

“There will be no barge. I shall carry you to Millbank in my coach, after your evening’s entertainment, wherever that may be.”

“I had better take my own carriage at least, or my chair.”

“You can have a chair, if you are too prudish to use my coach, but it shall be got for you at the moment. We won’t have your own chairman and links to chatter and betray you before you have played the ghost. Remember you come to my party not as a guest, but as a performer. If they ask why Lady Fareham is absent I shall say you refused to take part in our foolery.”

“Oh, you must invent some better excuse. They will never believe anything rational of me. Say I was disappointed of a hat or a mantua. Well, it shall be as you wish. Angela is apt to be tiresome. I hate a disapproving carriage, especially in a younger sister.”

Angela was puzzled by Hyacinth’s demeanour. A want of frankness in one so frank by nature aroused her fears. She was puzzled and anxious, and longed for Fareham’s return, lest his giddy-pated wife should be guilty of some innocent indiscretion that might vex him.

“Oh! if she but valued him at his just worth she would value his opinion second only to the approval of conscience,” she thought, sadly, ever regretful of her sister’s too obvious indifference towards so kind a husband.

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