London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 19

Dido.

The armed neutrality between man and wife continued, and the domestic sky at Fareham House was dark and depressing. Lady Fareham, who had hitherto been remarkable for a girlish amiability of speech which went well with her girlish beauty, became now the height of the mode for acidity and slander. The worst of the evil speakers on her ladyship’s visiting-day flavoured the China tea with no bitterer allusions than those that fell from the rosy lips of the hostess. And, for the colouring of those lips, which once owed their vermeil tint only to nature, Lady Fareham was now dependent upon Mrs. Lewin, as well as for the carnation of cheeks that looked pallid and sunken in the glass which reflected the sad mourning face.

Mrs. Lewin brought roses and lilies in her queer little china pots and powder boxes, pencils and brushes, perfumes and washes without number. It cost as much to keep a complexion as to keep a horse. And Mrs. Lewin was infinitely useful at this juncture, since she called every day at St. James’s Street, to carry a lace cravat, or a ribbon, or a flask of essence to the invalid languishing in lodgings there, and visited by all the town, except Fareham and his wife. De Malfort had lain for a fortnight at Lady Castlemaine’s house, alternately petted and neglected by his fair hostess, as the fit took her, since she showed herself ever of the chameleon breed, and hovered betwixt angel and devil. His surgeon told him in confidence that when once his wound was healed enough to allow his removal, the sooner he quitted that feverish company the better it would be for his chance of a speedy convalescence. So, at the end of the second week, he was moved in a covered litter to his own lodgings, where his faithful valet, who had followed his fortunes since he came to man’s estate, was quite capable of nursing him.

The town soon discovered the breach between Lord Fareham and his friend — a breach commented upon with many shoulder-shrugs, and not a few coarse innuendoes. Lady Lucretia Topham insisted upon making her way to the sick man’s room, in the teeth of messages delivered by his valet, which, even to a less intelligent mind than Lady Lucretia’s, might have conveyed the fact that she was not wanted. She flung herself on her knees by De Malfort’s bed, and wept and raved at the brutality which had deprived the world of his charming company — and herself of the only man she had ever loved. De Malfort, fevered and vexed at her intrusion, and at this renewal of fires long burnt out, had yet discretion enough to threaten her with his dire displeasure if she betrayed the secret of his illness.

“I have sworn Dangerfield and Masaroon to silence,” he said. “Except servants, who have been paid to keep mute, you are the only other witness of our quarrel; and if the story becomes town talk, I shall know whose busy tongue set it going — and then — well, there are things I might tell that your ladyship would hardly like the world to know.”

“Traitor! If your purse has accommodated me once in a way when luck has been adverse ——”

“Oh, madam, you cannot think me base enough to blab of a money transaction with a lady. There are secrets more tender — more romantic.”

“Those secrets can be easily denied, wretch. However, I know you would not injure me with a husband so odious and tyrannical that I stood excused in advance for inconstancy when I stooped to wed country manners and stubborn ignorance. Indeed, mon ami, if you will but take pains to recover, I will never breathe a word about the duel; but if — if —” a sob indicated the tragic possibility which Lady Lucretia dared not put into words —“I will do all that a weak woman can do to get Fareham hanged for murder. There has never been a peer hanged in England, I believe. He should be the first.”

“Dear soul, there need be no hanging! I have been on the mending hand for a week, or my doctors would not have let you upstairs. There, go, my pretty Lucrèce; but if your milliner or your shoemaker is pressing, there are a few jacobuses in the right-hand drawer of yonder escritoire, and you may as well take them as leave them for my valet to steal. He is one of those excellent old servants who make no distinctions, and he robs me as freely as he robbed my father before me.”

“Mrs. Lewin is always pressing,” sighed Lady Lucretia. “She made me a gown like that of Lady Fareham’s, for which you were all eyes. I ordered the brocade to please you; and now I am wearing it when you are not at Whitehall. Well, as you are so kind, I will be your debtor for another trifling loan. It is wicked to leave money where it tempts a good servant to dishonesty. Ah, Henri”— she was pocketing the gold as she talked —“if ten years of my life could save you ten days of pain and fever, how gladly would I give them to you!”

“Ah, douce, if there were a market for the exchange of such commodities, what a roaring trade would be done there! I never loved a woman yet but she offered me her life, or an instalment of it.”

“I have emptied your drawer,” laughing coyly. “There is just enough to keep Lewin in good humour till you are well again, and we can be partners at basset.”

“It will be very long before I play basset in London.”

“Oh, but indeed you will soon be well.”

“Well enough to change the scene, I hope. It needs change of places and persons to make life bearable. I long to be at the Louvre again, to see a play by Molière’s company, as only they can act, instead of the loathsome translations we get here, in which all that there is of wit and charm in the original is transmuted to coarseness and vulgarity. When I leave this bed, Lucrèce, it will be for Paris.”

“Why, it will be ages before you are strong enough for such a journey.”

“Oh, I will risk that. I hate London so badly, that to escape from it will work a miraculous cure for me.”

An armed neutrality! Even the children felt the change in the atmosphere of home, and nestled closer to their aunt, who never changed to them.

“Father mostly looks angry,” Henriette complained, “and mother is always unhappy, if she is not laughing and talking in the midst of company; and neither of them ever seems to want me. I wish I was grown up, so that I could be maid of honour to the Queen or the Duchess, and live at Whitehall. Mademoiselle told me that there is always life and pleasure at Court.”

“Your father does not love the Court, dearest, and mademoiselle should be wiser than to talk to you of such things, when she is here to teach you dancing and French literature.”

“Mademoiselle” was a governess lately imported from Paris, recommended by Mademoiselle Scudéry, and full of high-flown ideas expressed in high-flown language. All Paris had laughed at Molière’s Precieuses Ridicules; but the Précieuses themselves, and their friends, protested that the popular farce was aimed only at the low-born imitators of those great ladies who had originated the school of superfine culture and romantic aspirations.

“Sapho” herself, in tracing her own portrait with a careful and elaborate pencil, told the world how shamefully she had been imitated by the spurious middle-class Saphos, who set up their salons, and vied with the sacred house of Rambouillet, and the privileged coterie of the Rue de Temple.

Lady Fareham had not ceased to believe in her dear, plain, witty Scudéry, and was delighted to secure a governess of her choosing, whereby Papillon, who loved freedom and idleness, and hated lessons of all kinds, was set down to write themes upon chivalry, politeness, benevolence, pride, war, and other abstractions; or to fill in bouts-rimés, by way of enlarging her acquaintance with the French language, which she had chattered freely all her life. Mademoiselle insisted upon all the niceties of phraseology as discussed in the Rue Saint Thomas du Louvre.

There had been a change of late in Fareham’s manner to his sister-in-law, a change refreshing to her troubled spirit as mercy, that gentle dew from heaven, to the criminal. He had been kinder; and though he spent very few of his hours with the women of his household, he had talked to Angela somewhat in the friendly tone of those fondly remembered days at Chilton, when he had taught her to row and ride, to manage a spirited palfrey and fly a falcon, and had been in all things her mentor and friend. He seemed less oppressed with gloom as time went on, but had his sullen fits still, and, after being kind and courteous to wife and sister, and playful with his children, would leave them suddenly, and return no more to the saloon or drawing-room that evening. Yet on the whole the sky was lightening. He ignored Hyacinth’s resentment, endured her pettishness, and was studiously polite to her.

It was on Lady Fareham’s visiting-day, deep in that very severe winter, that some news was told her which came like a thunder-clap, and which it needed all the weak soul’s power of self-repression to suffer without swooning or hysterics.

Lady Sarah Tewkesbury, gorgeous in velvet and fur, her thickly painted countenance framed in a furred hood, entered fussily upon a little coterie in which Masaroon, vapouring about the last performance at the King’s theatre, was the principal figure.

“There was a little woman spoke the epilogue,” he said, “a little creature in a monstrous big hat, as large and as round as a cart-wheel, which vastly amused his Majesty.”

“The hat?”

“Nay, it was woman and hat. The thing is so small it might have been scarce noticed without the hat, but it has a pretty little, insignificant, crumpled face, and laughs all over its face till it has no eyes, and then stops laughing suddenly, and the eyes shine out, twinkling and dancing like stars reflected in running water, and it stamps its little foot upon the stage in a comic passion — and —nous verrons. It sold oranges in the pit, folks tell me, a year ago. It may be selling sinecures and captaincies in a year or two, and putting another shilling in the pound upon land.”

“Is it that brazen little comedy actress you are talking of, Masaroon?” Lady Sarah asked, when she had exchanged curtsies with the ladies of the company, and established herself on the most comfortable tabouret, near Lady Fareham’s tea-table; “Mrs. Glyn — Wynn — Gwyn? I wonder a man of wit can notice such a vulgar creature, a she-jack-pudden, fit only to please the rabble in the gallery.”

“Ay, but there is a finer sort of rabble — a rabble of quality — beginning with his Majesty, that are always pleased with anything new. And this little creature is as fresh as a spring morning. To see her laugh, to hear the ring of it, clear and sweet as a skylark’s song! On my life, madam, the town has a new toy; and Mrs. Gwyn will be the rage in high quarters. You should have seen Castlemaine’s scowl when Rowley laughed, and ducked under the box almost, in an ecstasy of amusement at the huge hat.”

“Lady Castlemaine’s brow would thunder-cloud if his Majesty looked at a fly on a window-pane. But she has something else to provoke her frowns to-day.”

“What is that, chère dame?” asked Hyacinth, snatching a favourite fan from Sir Ralph, who was teasing one of the Blenheims with African feathers that were almost priceless.

“The desertion of an old friend. The Comte de Malfort has left England.”

Lady Fareham turned livid under her rouge. Angela ran to her and leant over her, upon a pretence of rescuing the fan and chiding the dogs; and so contrived to screen her sister’s change of complexion from the malignity of her dearest friends.

“Left England! Why, he is confined to his bed with a fever!” Hyacinth said faintly, when she had somewhat recovered from the shock.

“Nay, it seems that he began to go abroad last week, but would see no company, except a confidential friend or so. He left London this morning for Dover.”

“No doubt he has business in Burgundy, where his estate is, and at Paris, where he is of importance at the Court,” said Hyacinth, as lightly as she could; “but I’ll wager anything anybody likes that he will be in London again in a month.”

“I’ll take you for those black pearls in your ears, ma mie,” said Lady Sarah. “His furniture is to be sold by auction next week. I saw a bill on the house this afternoon. It is sudden! Perhaps the Castlemaine had become too exacting!”

“Castlemaine!” faltered Hyacinth, agitated beyond her power of self-control. “Why, what is she to him more than she is to other men?”

“Very little, perhaps,” said Sir Ralph, and then everybody laughed, and Hyacinth felt herself sitting among them like a child, understanding nothing of their smiles and shrugs, the malice in their sly interchange of glances.

She sat among them feeling as if her heart were turned to stone. He had left the country without even bidding her farewell — her faithful slave, upon whose devotion she counted as surely as upon the rising of the sun. Whatever her husband might do to separate her from this friend of her girlhood, she had feared no defection upon De Malfort’s part. He would always be near at hand, waiting and watching for the happier days that were to smile upon their innocent loves. She had written to him every day during his illness. Good Mrs. Lewin had taken the letters to him, and had brought her his replies. He had not written so often, or at such length, as she, and had pleaded the languor of convalescence as his excuse; but all his billets-doux had been in the same delicious hyperbole, the language of the Pays du Tendre. She sat silent while her visitors talked about him, plucking a reputation as mercilessly as a kitchen wench plucks a fowl. He was gone. He had left the country deep in debt. It was his landlord who had stuck up that notice of a sale by auction. Tailors and shoemakers, perruquiers and perfumers were bewailing his flight.

So much for the sordid side of things. But what of those numerous affairs of the heart — those entanglements which had made his life one long intrigue?

Lady Sarah sat simpering and nodding as Masaroon whispered close in her ear.

Barbara? Oh, that was almost as old as the story of Antony and Cleopatra. She had paid his debts — and he had paid hers. Their purse had been in common. And the handsome maid of honour? Ah, poor silly soul! That was a horrid, ugly business, and his Majesty’s part in it the horridest. And Mrs. Levington, the rich silk mercer’s wife? That was a serious attachment. It was said that the husband attempted poison, when De Malfort refused him the satisfaction of a gentleman. And the poor woman was sent to die of ennui and rheumatism in a castle among the Irish bogs, where her citizen husband had set up as a landed squire.

The fine company discussed all these foul stories with gusto, insinuating much more than they expressed in words. Never until to-day had they spoken so freely of De Malfort in Lady Fareham’s presence; but the story had got about of a breach between Hyacinth and her admirer, and it was supposed that any abuse of the defaulter would be pleasant in her ears. And then, he was ruined and gone; and there is no vulture’s feast sweeter than to banquet upon a departed rival’s character.

Hyacinth listened in dull silence, as if her sensations were suddenly benumbed. She felt nothing but a horrible surprise. Her lover — her platonic lover — that other half of her mind and heart — with whom she had been in such tender sympathy, in unison of spirit, so subtle that the same thoughts sprang up simultaneously in the minds of each, the same language leapt to their lips, and they laughed to find their words alike. It had been only a shallow woman’s shallow love — but trivial woes are tragedies for trivial minds; and when her guests had gradually melted away, dispersing themselves with reciprocal curtsies and airy compliments, elegant in their modish iniquity as a troop of vicious fairies — Hyacinth stood on the hearth where they had left her, a statue of despair.

Angela went to her, when the stately double doors had closed on the last of the gossips and lackeys, and they two were alone amidst the spacious splendour. The younger sister hugged the elder to her breast, and kissed her, and cried over her, like a mother comforting her disappointed child.

“Don’t heed that shameful talk, dearest. No character is safe with them. Be sure Monsieur de Malfort is not the reprobate they would make him. You have known him nearly all your life. You know him too well to judge him by the idle talk of the town.”

“No, no; I have never known him. He has always worn a mask. He is as false as Satan. Don’t talk to me — don’t kiss me, child. You have smeared my face horribly with your kisses and tears. Your pity drives me mad. How can you understand these things — you who have never loved any one? What can you know of what women feel? There, silly fool! you are trembling as if I had hit you,” as Angela withdrew her arms suddenly, and stood aloof. “I have been a virtuous wife, sister, in a town where scarce one woman in ten is true to her marriage vows. I have never sinned against my husband; but I have never loved him. Henri had my heart before I knew what the word, love meant; and in all these years we have loved each other with the purest, noblest affection — at least he made me believe my love was reciprocated. We have enjoyed a most exquisite communion of thought and feeling. His letters — you shall read his letters some day — so noble, so brilliant — all poetry, and chivalry, and wit. I lived upon his letters when fate parted us. And when he followed us to England, I thought it was for my sake that he came — only for me. And to hear that he was her lover — hers — that woman! To know that he came to me — with sweetest words upon his lips — knelt to kiss the tips of my fingers — as if it were a privilege to die for — from her arms, from her caresses — the wickedest woman in England — and the loveliest!”

“Dear Hyacinth, it was a childish dream — and you have awakened! You will live to be glad of being recalled from falsehood to truth. Your husband is worth fifty De Malforts, did you but know it. Oh, dearest, give him your heart who ought to be its only master. Indeed he is worthy. He stands apart — an honourable, nobly thinking man in a world that is full of libertines. Be sure he deserves your love.”

“Don’t preach to me, child! If you could give me a sleeping-draught that would blot out memory for ever — make me forget my childhood in the Marais — my youth at St. Germain — the dances at the Louvre — all the days when I was happiest: why, then, perhaps, you might make me in love with Lord Fareham.”

“You will begin a new life, sister, now De Malfort is gone.”

“I will never forgive him for going!” cried Hyacinth, passionately. “Never — never! To give me no note of warning! To sneak away like a thief who had stolen my diamonds! To fly for debt, too, and not come to me for money! Why have I a fortune, if not to help those I love? But — if he was that woman’s lover — I will never see his face again — never speak his name — never — from the moment I am convinced of that hellish treason — never! Her lover! Lady Castlemaine’s! We have laughed at her, together! Her lover! And there were other women those spiteful wretches talked about just now — a tradesman’s wife! Oh, how hateful, how hateful it all is! Angela, if it is true, I shall go mad!”

“Dearest, to you he was but a friend — and though you may be sorry he was so great a sinner, his sins cannot concern your happiness ——”

“What! not to know him a profligate? The man to whom I gave a chaste woman’s love! Angela, that night, in the ruined abbey, I let him kiss me. Yes, for one moment I was in his arms — and his lips were on mine. And he had kissed her — the same night perhaps. Her tainted kisses were on his lips. And it was you who saved me! Dear sister, I owe you more than life — I might have given myself to everlasting shame that night. God knows! I was in his power — her lover — judging all women, perhaps, by his knowledge of that ——”

The epithet which closed the sentence was not a word for a woman’s lips; but it was wrung from the soreness of a woman’s wounded heart.

Hyacinth flung herself distractedly into her sister’s arms.

“You saved me!” she cried, hysterically. “He wanted me to go to Dover with him — back to France — where we were so happy. He knelt to me, and I refused him; but he prayed me again and again; and if you had not come to rescue me, should I have gone on saying no? God knows if my courage would have held out. There were tears in his eyes. He swore that he had never loved any one upon this earth as he loved me. Hypocrite! Deceiver — liar! He loved that woman! Twenty times handsomer than ever I was — a hundred times more wicked. It is the wicked women that are best loved, Angela, remember that. Oh, bless you for coming to save me! You saved Fareham’s life in the plague year. You saved me from everlasting misery. You are our guardian angel!”

“Ah, dearest, if love could guard you, I might deserve that name ——”

It was late in the same evening that Lady Fareham’s maid came to her bed-chamber to inquire if she would be pleased to see Mrs. Lewin, who had brought a pattern of a new French bodice, with her humble apologies for waiting on her ladyship so late.

Her ladyship would see Mrs. Lewin. She started up from the sofa where she had been lying, her forehead bound with a handkerchief steeped in Hungary water. She was all excitement.

“Bring her here instantly!” she said, and the interval necessary to conduct the milliner up the grand staircase and along the gallery seemed an age to Hyacinth’s impatience.

“Well? Have you a letter for me?” she asked, when her woman had retired, and Mrs. Lewin had bustled and curtsied across the room.

“In truly, my lady; and I have to ask your ladyship’s pardon for not bringing it early this morning, when his honour gave it to me with his own hand out of ‘his travelling carriage. And very white and wasted he looked, dear gentleman, not fit for a voyage to France in this severe weather. And I was to carry you his letter immediately; but, eh, gud! your ladyship, there was never such a business as mine for surprises. I was putting on my cloak to step out with your ladyship’s letter, when a coach, with a footman in the royal undress livery, sets down at my door, and one of the Duchess’s women had come to fetch me to her Highness; and there I was kept in her Highness’s chamber half the morning, disputing over a paduasoy for the Shrove Tuesday masquerade — for her Highness gets somewhat bulky, and is not easy to dress to her advantage or to my credit — though she is a beauty compared with the Queen, who still hankers after her hideous Portuguese fashions ——”

“And employs your rival, Madame Marifleur ——”

“Marifleur! If your ladyship knew the creature as well as I do, you’d call her Sally Cramp.”

“I never can remember a low English name. Marifleur seems to promise all that there is of the most graceful and airy in a ruffled sleeve and a ribbon shoulder-knot.”

“I am glad to see your ladyship is in such good spirits,” said the milliner, wondering at Lady Fareham’s flushed cheeks and brilliant eyes.

They were brilliant with a somewhat glassy brightness, and there was a touch of hysteria in her manner. Mrs. Lewin thought she had been drinking. Many of her customers ended that way — took to cognac and ratafia, when choicer pleasures were exhausted and wrinkles began to show through their paint.

Hyacinth was reading De Malfort’s letter as she talked, moving about the room a little, and then stopping in front of the fireplace, where the light from two clusters of wax candles shone down upon the finely written page.

Mrs. Lewin watched her for a few minutes, and then produced some pieces of silk out of her muff.

“I made so bold as to bring your ladyship some patterns of Italian silks which only came to hand this morning,” she said. “There is a cherry-red that would become your ladyship to the T.”

“Make me a gown of it, my excellent Lewin — and good night to you.”

“But sure your ladyship will look at the colour? There is a pattern of amber with gold thread might please you better. Lady Castlemaine has ordered a Court mantua ——”

Lady Fareham rang her hand-bell with a vehemence that suggested anger.

“Show Mrs. Lewin to her coach,” she said shortly, when her woman appeared. “When you have done that you may go to bed; I want nothing more to-night.”

“Mrs. Kirkland has been asking to see your ladyship.”

“I will see no one to-night. Tell Mrs. Kirkland so, with my love.”

She ran to the door when the maid and milliner were gone, and locked it, and then ran back to the fireplace, and flung herself down upon the rug to read her letter.

“Chérie, when this is handed to you, I shall be sitting in my coach on the dull Dover road, with frost-clouded windows and a heart heavier than your leaden skies. Loveliest of women, all things must end; and, despite your childlike trust in man’s virtue, you could scarce hope for eternity to a bond that was too strong for friendship and too weak for love. Dearest, had you given yourself that claim upon love and honour which we have talked of, and which you have ever refused, no lesser power than death should have parted us. I would have dared all, conquered all, for my dear mistress. But you would not. It was not for lack of fervid prayers that the statue remained a statue; but a man cannot go on worshipping a statue for ever. If the Holy Mother did not sometimes vouchsafe a sign of human feeling, even good Catholics would have left off kneeling to her image.

“Or, shall I say, rather, that the child remains a child — fresh, and pure, and innocent, and candid, as in the days when we played our jeu de volant in your grandmother’s garden — fit emblem of the light love of our future years. You remained a child, Hyacinth, and asked childish love-making from a man. Dearest, accept a cruel truth from a man of the world — it is only the love you call guilty that lasts. There is a stimulus in sin and mystery that will fan the flame of passion and keep love alive even for an inferior object. The ugly women know this, and make lax morals a substitute for beauty. An innocent intrigue, a butterfly affection like ours, will seldom outlive the butterfly’s brief day. Indeed, I sometimes admire at myself as a marvel of constancy for having kept faith so long with a mistress who has rewarded me so sparingly.

“So, my angel, I am leaving your foggy island, my cramped London lodgings, and extortionate London tradesmen, on whom I have squandered so much of my fortune that they ought to forgive me for leaving a margin of debt, which I hope to pay the extortioners hereafter for the honour of my name. I doubt if I shall ever revisit England. I have tasted all London pleasures, till familiarity has taken the taste out of them; and though Paris may be only London with a difference, that difference includes bluer skies, brighter streets and gardens, and all the originals of which you have here the copies. There, at least, I shall have the fashion of my peruke and my speech at first hand. Here you only adopt a mode when Paris begins to tire of it.

“Farewell, then, dearest lady, but let it be no tragical or eternal parting, since your fine house in the Rue de Touraine will doubtless be honoured with your presence some day. You have only to open a salon there in order to be the top of the mode. Some really patrician milieu is needed to replace the antique court of the dear old Marquise, and to extinguish the Scudéry, whose Saturdays grow more vulgar every week. Yes, you will come to Paris, bringing that human lily, Mrs. Angela, in your train; and I promise to make you the fashion before your house has been open a month. The wits and Court favourites will go where I bid them. And though your dearest friend, Madame de Longueville, has retired from the world in which she was more queenly than the Queen, you will find Mademoiselle de Montpensier as faithful as ever to mundane pleasures, and, after having refused kings and princes, slavishly devoted to a colonel of dragoons who does not care a straw for her.

“Louise de Bourbon, a woman who can head a revolt and fire a cannon, would think no sacrifice too great for a cold-hearted schemer like Lauzun — yet you who swore you loved me, when the coach was waiting that would have carried me to paradise, and made us one for all this life, could suffer a foolish girl to separate us in the very moment of triumphant union. You were mine, Hyacinth; heart and mind were consenting, when your convent-bred sister surprised us, and all my hopes of bliss expired in a sermon. And now I can but say, with that witty rhymester, whom everybody in London quotes —

‘Love in your heart as idly burns,

As fire in antique Roman urns.’

“Good-bye, which means ‘God be with you.’ I know not if the fear of Him was in your mind when you sacrificed your lover to that icy abstraction women call virtue. The Romans had but one virtue, which meant the courage that dares; and to me the highest type of woman would be one whose bold spirit dared and defied the world for love’s sake. These are the women history remembers, and whom the men who live after them worship. Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Diana of Poictiers, Marguerite de Valois, la Chevreuse, la Montbazon! Think you that these became famous by keeping their lovers at a distance?

“‘Go, lovely rose!’

“How often I have sung those lines, and you have listened, and nothing has come of it; except time wasted, smiles, sighs, and tears, that ever promised, and ever denied. Beauty, too choice to be kind, adieu!

“DE MALFORT.”

When she had read these last words, she crushed the letter in her palm, clenching her fingers over it till the nails wounded the delicate flesh; and then she opened her hand, and employed herself in smoothing out the crumpled paper, as if her life depended on making the letter readable again. But her pains could not undo what her passion had done; and finding this, she tossed the ragged paper into the flames, and began to walk about the room in a distracted fashion, giving a little hysterical cry every now and then, and clasping her hands upon her forehead.

Anger, humiliation, wounded love, wounded vanity, disappointment, disillusion, were all in that cry, and in the passionate beating of her heart, her stifled breath, her clenched hands.

“He was laughing when he wrote that letter — I am sure he was laughing. There was not one serious moment, not one pang at leaving me! He has been laughing at me ever since he came to London. I have been his fool, his amusement. Other women have had his love, the guilty love that he praises! He has come to me straight from their wicked houses, their feasting, and riot, and drunkenness — has come and pretended to love poetry, and Scudéry’s romances, and music, and innocent conversation — come to rest himself after dissolute pleasures, bringing me the leavings of that hellish company! And I have reviled such women, and he has pretended an equal horror of them; and he was their slave all the time, and went from me to them, and made a jest of me for their amusement I know his biting raillery. And he was at the play-house day after day, where I could not go, sitting side by side with his Jezebels, laughing at filthy comedies, and at me that was forbidden to appear there. He had pleasures of which I knew nothing; and when I fancied our inmost souls moved in harmony, his thoughts were full of wanton women and their wanton jests, and he smiled at my childishness, and fooled me as children are fooled.”

The thought was distraction. She plucked out handfuls of her pale gold hair, the pretty blonde hair which had been almost as famous in Paris as Beaufort’s or Madame de Longueville’s yellow locks. The thought of De Malfort’s ridicule cut her like a whalebone whip. She had fancied herself his Beatrice, his Laura, his Stella — a being to be worshipped as reverently as the stars, to make her lover happy with smiles and kindly words, to stand for ever a little way off, like a goddess in her temple, yet near enough to be adored.

And fondly believing this to be her mission, having posed for the character, and filled it to her own fancy, she found that she had only been a dissolute man’s dupe all the time; and no doubt had been the laughing-stock of her acquaintance, who looked at the game.

“And I was so proud of his devotion — I carried my slave everywhere with me. Oh, fool, fool, fool!”

And then — the poor little brains being disordered by passionate regrets — wickedest ideas ran riot in the confusion of a mind not wide enough to hold life’s large passions. She began to be sorry that she was not like those other women — to hate the modesty that had lost her a lover.

To be like Barbara Castlemaine! That was woman’s only royalty. To rule with sovereign power over the hearts and senses of men. A King for her lover, constant in inconstancy, always going back to her from every transient fancy — her property, her chattel; and the foremost wits and dandies of the age for her servants, her Court of adorers, whom she ruled with frowns or smiles, as her humour prompted. To be daring, profuse, reckless, tyrannical; to suffer no control of heaven or men — yes, that was, indeed, to be a Queen! And compared with such empire, the poor authority of the Précieuse, dictating the choice of adjectives, condemning pronouns, theorising upon feelings and passions of which in practice she knows nothing, was a thing for scornfullest laughter.

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