London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

Revelations.

Lord Fareham stayed in his own house by the Thames, and nobody interfered with his liberty, though Henri de Malfort lay for nearly a fortnight between life and death, and it was only in the beginning of December that he was pronounced out of danger, and was able to be removed from Lady Castlemaine’s luxurious rooms to his own lodgings. Scandal-mongers might have made much talk of his lying ill in her ladyship’s house, and being tenderly nursed by her, had not Lady Castlemaine outlived the possibility of slander. It would have been as difficult for her name to acquire any blacker stain as for a damaged reputation to wash itself white. The secret of the encounter had been faithfully kept by principals and seconds, De Malfort behaving with a chivalrous generosity. He appeared, indeed, as anxious for his antagonist’s safety as for his own recovery.

“It was a mistake,” he said, when Masaroon pressed him with home questions. “Every man is mad once in his life. Fareham’s madness took an angry turn against an old friend. Why, we slept under the same blanket in the trenches before Dunkirk; we rode shoulder to shoulder through the rain of bullets at Chitillon; and to pick a trumpery quarrel with a brother-in-arms!”

“I wonder the quarrel was not picked earlier,” Masaroon answered bluntly. “Your courtship of the gentleman’s wife has been notorious for the last five years.”

“Call it not courtship, Ralph. Lady Fareham and I are old playfellows. We were reared in the pays du tendre, Loveland — the kingdom of innocent attachments and pure penchants, that country of which Mademoiselle Scudéry has given us laws and a map. Your vulgar London lover cannot understand platonics — the affection which is satisfied with a smile or a madrigal. Fareham knows his wife and me better than to doubt us.”

“And yet he acted like a man who was madly jealous. His rudeness at the card-table was obvious malice afore-thought. He came resolved to quarrel.”

“Ay, he came to quarrel — but not about his wife.”

Pressed to explain this dubious phrase, De Malfort affected a fit of languor, and would talk no more.

The town was told that the Comte de Malfort was ill of a quartain fever, and much was said about his sufferings during the Fronde, his exposure to damp and cold in the sea-marshes by Dunkirk, his rough fare and hard riding through the war of the Princes. This fever, which hung about him so long, was an after-consequence of hardship suffered in his youth — privations faced with a boyish recklessness, and which he had paid for with an impaired constitution. Fine ladies in gilded chairs, and vizard-masks in hackney coaches, called frequently at his lodgings in St. James’s Street to inquire about his progress. Lady Fareham’s private messenger was at his door every morning, and brought a note, or a book, or a piece of new music from her ladyship, who had been sternly forbidden to visit her old friend in person.

“You grow every day a gloomier tyrant!” Hyacinth protested, with more passion in her voice and mien than ever her husband had known. “Why should I not go to him when he is ill — dangerously ill — dying perhaps? He is my old, old friend. I remember no joy in life that he did not share. Why should I not go to him in his sorrow?”

“Because you are my wife, and I forbid you. I cannot understand this passion. I thought you suffered the company of that empty-headed fop as you suffered your lap-dogs — the trivial appendage of a fine lady’s state. Had I supposed that there was anything serious in your liking — that you could think him worth anger or tears — should have ordered your life differently, and he would have had no place in it.”

“Tyrant! tyrant!”

“You astound me, Hyacinth! Would you dispute the favours of a fop with your young sister?”

“With my sister!” she cried, scornfully.

“Ay, with your sister, whom he has courted assiduously; but with no honourable motive! I have seen his designs.”

“Well, perhaps you are right. He may care for Angela — and think her too poor to marry.”

“He is a traitor and a villain ——”

“Oh, what fury! Marry my sister to Sir Denzil, and then she will be safe from all pursuit! He will bury her alive in Oxfordshire — withdraw her for ever from this wicked town — like poor Lady Yarborough in Cornwall.”

“I will never ask her to marry a man she cannot love.”

“Why not? Are not you and I a happy couple? And how much love had we for each other before we married? Why I scarce knew the colour of your eyes; and if I had met you in the street, I doubt if I should have recognised you! And now, after thirteen years of matrimony, we are at our first quarrel, and that no lasting one. Come, Fareham, be pleasant and yielding. Let me go and see my old playfellow. I am heartbroken for lack of his company, for fear of his death.”

She hung upon him coaxingly, the bright blue eyes looking up at him — eyes that had so often been compared to Madame de Longueville’s, eyes that had smiled and beamed in many a song and madrigal by the parlour poets of the Hôtel de Rambouillet. She was exquisitely pretty in her youthful colouring of lilies and roses, blue eyes, and pale gold hair, and retained at thirty almost all the charms and graces of eighteen.

Fareham took her by both hands and held her away from him, severely scrutinising a face which he had always been able to admire as calmly as if it had been on canvas.

“You look like an innocent woman,” he said, “and I have always believed you a good woman; and have trusted my honour in your keeping — have seen that man fawning at your feet, singing and sighing in your ear, and have thought no evil. But now that you have told me, as plainly as woman can speak to man, that this is the man you love, and have loved all your life, there must needs come an end to the sighing and singing. You and Henri de Malfort must meet no more. Nay, look not such angry scorn. I impute no guilt; but between innocence and guilt there need be but one passionate hour. The wife goes out an honest woman, able to look her husband in the face as you are looking at me; the wanton comes home, and the rest of her life is a shameful lie. And the husband awakes some day from his dream of domestic peace to discover that he has been long the laughing-stock of the town. I will be no such fatuous husband, Hyacinth. I will wait for no second warning.”

Lady Fareham submitted in silence, and with deep resentment. She had never before experienced a husband’s authority sternly exercised. She had been forbidden the free run of London play-houses, and some of the pleasures of Court society; but then she had been denied with all kindness, and had been allowed so many counterbalancing extravagances, pleasures, and follies, that it would have been difficult for her to think herself ill-used.

She submitted angrily, passionately regretting the man whose presence had long been the brightest element in her life. Her cheek paled; she grew indifferent to the amusements which had been her sole occupation; she sulked in her rooms, equally avoiding her children and their aunt; and, indeed, seemed to care for no one’s society except Mrs. Lewin’s. The Court milliner had business with her ladyship every day, and was regaled with cakes and liqueurs in her ladyship’s dressing-room.

“You must be very busy about new gowns, Hyacinth,” her husband said to her one day at dinner. “I meet the harridan from Covent Garden on the stairs every morning.”

“She is not a harridan, whatever that elegant word may mean. And as for gowns, it would be wiser for me to order no new ones, since it is but likely I shall soon have to wear mourning for an old friend.”

She looked at her husband, defying him. He rose from the table with a sigh, and walked out of the room. There was war between them, or at best an armed neutrality. He looked back, and saw that he had been blind to the things he should have seen, dull and unobservant where he should have had sense and understanding.

“I did not care enough for my honour,” he thought. “Was it because I cared too little for my wife? It is indifference, and not love, that is blind.”

Angela saw the cloud that overshadowed Fareham House with deepest distress; and yet felt herself powerless to bring back sunshine. Her sister met her remonstrances with scorn.

“Do you take the part of a tyrant against your own flesh and blood?” she asked. “I have been too tame a slave. To keep me away from the Court while I was young and worth looking at — to deny me amusements and admiration which are the privilege of every woman of quality — to forbid me the play-house, and make a country cousin of me by keeping me ignorant of modern wit. I am ashamed of my compliance.”

“Nay, dearest, was it not an evidence of his love that he should desire you to keep your mind pure as well as your face fair?”

“No, he has never loved me. It is only a churlish jealousy that would shut me up in a harem like a Turk’s wife, and part me from the friend I like best in the world — with the purest platonic affection.”

“Hyacinth, don’t be angry with me for being out of the fashion; but indeed I cannot think it right for a wife to care for the company of any other man but her husband.”

“And my husband is so entertaining! Sure any woman might be content with such gay company — such flashes of wit — such light raillery!” cried Hyacinth, scornfully, walking up and down the room, plucking at the lace upon her sleeves with restless hands, her bosom heaving, her eyes steel-bright with anger. “Since his sickness last year, he has been the image of melancholy; he has held himself aloof from me as if I had had the pestilence. I was content that it should be so. I had my children and you, and one who loved me better, in his light way, than any of you — and I could do without Lord Fareham. But now he forbids me to see an old friend that is dangerously ill, and every drop of blood in my veins boils in rebellion against his tyranny!”

It was in the early dusk, an hour or so after dinner. Angela sat silent in the shadow of a bay window, quite as heavy-hearted as her sister — sorry for Hyacinth, but still sorrier for Hyacinth’s husband, yet feeling that there was treachery and unkindness in making him first in her thoughts. But surely, surely he deserved a better wife than this! Surely he deserved a wife’s love — this man who stood alone among the men she knew, hating all evil things, honouring all things good and noble! He had been unkind to her — cold and cruel — since that fatal night. He had let her understand that all friendship between them was at an end for ever, and that she had become despicable in his sight; and she had submitted to be scorned by him, since it was impossible that she should clear herself. She had made her sisterly sacrifice for a sister who regarded it very lightly; to whose light fancy that night and all it involved counted but as a scene in a comedy; and she could not unmake it. But having so sacrificed his good opinion whose esteem she valued, she wanted to see some happy result, and to save this splendid home from shipwreck.

Suddenly, with a passionate impulse, she went to her sister, and put her arms round her and kissed her.

“Hyacinth, you shall not continue in this folly,” she cried, “to fret for that shallow idler, whose love is lighter than thistledown, whose element is the ruelle of one of those libertine French duchesses he is ever talking about. To rebel against the noblest gentleman in England! Oh, sister, you must know him better than I do; and yet I, who am nothing to him, am wretched when I see him ill-used. Indeed, Hyacinth, you are acting like a wicked wife. You should never have wished to see De Malfort again, after the peril of that night. You should have known that he had no esteem for you, that he was a traitor — that his design was the wickedest, cruellest ——”

“I don’t pretend to know a man’s mind as well as you — neither De Malfort’s nor my husband’s. You have needed but the experience of a year to make you wise enough in the world’s ways to instruct your elders. I am not going to be preached to —— Hark!” she cried, running to the nearest window, and looking out at the river, “that is better than your sermons.”

It was the sound of fiddles playing the symphony of a song she knew well — one of De Malfort’s, a French chanson, her latest favourite, the words adapted from a little poem by Voiture, “Pour vos beaux yeux.”

She opened the casement, and Angela stood beside her looking down at a boat in which several muffled figures were seated, and which was moored to the terrace wall.

There were three violins and a ‘cello, and a quartette of singing-boys with fair young faces smiling in the light of the lamps that hung in front of Fareham’s house.

The evening was still, and mild as early autumn, and the plash of oars passing up and down the river sounded like a part of the music —

“Love in her sunny eyes doth basking play,

Love walks the pleasant mazes of her hair,

Love does on both her lips for ever stray,

And sows and reaps a thousand kisses there;

In all her outward parts love’s always seen;

But, oh, he never went within.”

It was a song of Cowley’s, which De Malfort had lately set to music, and to a melody which Hyacinth especially admired.

“A serenade! Only De Malfort could have thought of such a thing. Lying ill and alone, he sends me the sweetest token of his regard — my favourite air, his own setting — the last song I ever heard him sing. And you wonder that I value so pure, so disinterested a love!” protested Hyacinth to her sister, in the silence at the end of the song.

“Sing again, sweet boys, sing again!” she cried, snatching a purse from her pocket, and flinging it with impetuous aim into the boat.

It hit one of the fiddlers on the head, and there was a laugh, and in a trice the largesse was divided and pocketed.

“They are from his Majesty’s choir; I know their voices,” said Hyacinth, “so fresh, and pure. They are the prettiest singers in the chapel. That little monkey with the cherub’s voice is Purcell — Dr. Blow’s favourite pupil — and a rare genius.”

They sang another song from De Malfort’s repertoire, an Italian serenade, which Hyacinth had heard in the brilliant days before her marriage, when the Italian Opera was still a new thing in Paris. The melody brought back the memory of her happy girlhood with a rush of sudden tears.

The little concert lasted for something less than an hour, with intervals of light music, dances and marches, between the singing. Boats passed and repassed. Strange voices joined in a refrain now and then, and the sisters stood at the open window enthralled by the charm of the music and the scene. London lay in ruins yonder to the east, and Sir Matthew Hale and other judges were sitting at Clifford’s Inn to decide questions of title and boundary, and the obligation to rebuild; but here in this western London there were long ranges of lighted windows shining through the wintry mists, wherries passing up and down with lanterns at their prows, an air of life and gaiety hanging over that river which had carried so many a noble victim to his doom yonder, where the four towers stood black against the starlit greyness, unscathed by fire, and untouched by time.

The last notes of a good-night song dwindled and died, to the accompaniment of dipping oars, as the boat moved slowly along the tideway, and lost itself among other boats — jovial cits going eastward, from an afternoon at the King’s theatre, modish gallants voyaging westward from play-house or tavern, some going home to domesticity, others intent upon pleasure and intrigue, as the darkness came down, and the hour for supper and deeper drinking drew near. And who would have thought, watching the lighted windows of palace and tavern, hearing those joyous sounds of glee or catch trolled by voices that reeked of wine — who would have thought of the dead-cart, and the unnumbered dead lying in the pest pits yonder, or the city in ruins, or the King enslaved to a foreign power, and pledged to a hated Church? London, gay, splendid, and prosperous, the queen-city of the world as she seemed to those who loved her — could rise glorious from the ashes of a fire unparalleled in modern history, and to Charles and Wren it might be given to realise a boast which in Augustus had been little more than an imperial phrase.

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