London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 2

Within Convent Walls.

More than ten years had come and gone since that bleak February evening when Sir John Kirkland carried his little daughter to a place of safety, in the old city of Louvain, and in all those years the child had grown like a flower in a sheltered garden, where cold winds never come. The bud had matured into the blossom in that mild atmosphere of piety and peace; and now, in this fair springtide of 1660, a girlish face watched from the convent casement for the coming of the father whom Angela Kirkland had not looked upon since she was a child, and the sister she had never seen.

They were to arrive to-day, father and sister, on a brief visit to the quiet Flemish city. Yonder in England there had been curious changes since the stern Protector turned his rugged face to the wall, and laid down that golden sceptre with which he had ruled as with a rod of iron. Kingly title would he none; yet where kings had chastised with whips, he had chastised with scorpions. Ireland could tell how the little finger of Cromwell had been heavier than the arm of the Stuarts. She had trembled and had obeyed, and had prospered under that scorpion rule, and England’s armaments had been the terror of every sea while Cromwell stood at the helm; but now that strong brain and bold heart were in the dust, and it had taken England little more than a year to discover that Puritanism and the Rump were a mistake, and that to the core of her heart she was loyal to her hereditary King.

She asked not what manner of man this hereditary ruler might be; asked not whether he were wise or foolish, faithful or treacherous. She forgot all of tyranny and of double-dealing she had suffered from his forbears. She forgot even her terror of the scarlet spectre, the grim wolf of Rome, in her disgust at Puritan fervour which had torn down altar-rails, usurped church pulpits, destroyed the beauty of ancient cathedrals. Like a woman or a child, she held out her arms to the unknown, in a natural recoil from that iron rule which had extinguished her gaiety, silenced her noble liturgy, made innocent pleasures and elegant arts things forbidden. She wanted her churches, and her theatres, her cock-pits and taverns, and bear-gardens and maypoles back again. She wanted to be ruled by the law, and not by the sword; and she longed with a romantic longing for that young wanderer who had fled from her shores in a fishing-boat, with his life in his hand, to return in a glad procession of great ships dancing over summer seas, eating, drinking, gaming, in a coat worth scarce thirty shillings, and with empty pockets for his loyal subjects to make haste and fill.

Angela had the convent parlour all to herself this fair spring morning. She was the favourite pupil of the nuns, had taken no vows, pledged herself to no noviciate, ever mindful of her promise to her father. She had lived as happily and as merrily in that abode of piety as she could have lived in the finest palace in Europe. There were other maidens, daughters of the French and Flemish nobility, who were taught and reared within those sombre precincts, and with them she had played and worked and laboured at such studies as became a young lady of quality. Like that fair daughter of affliction, Henrietta of England, she had gained in education by the troubles which had made her girlhood a time of seclusion. She had been first the plaything of those elder girls who were finishing their education in the convent, her childishness appealing to their love and pity; and then, after being the plaything of the nuns and the elder pupils, she became the favourite of her contemporaries, and in a manner their queen. She was more thoughtful than her class-fellows, in advance of her years in piety and intelligence; and they, knowing her sad story — how she was severed from her country and kindred, her father a wanderer with his King, her sister bred up at a foreign Court — had first compassionated and then admired her. From her twelfth year upwards her intellectual superiority had been recognised in the convent, alike by the nuns and their pupils. Her aptitude at all learning, and her simple but profound piety, had impressed everybody. At fourteen years of age they had christened her “the little wonder;” but later, seeing that their praises embarrassed and even distressed her, they had desisted from such loving flatteries, and were content to worship her with a silent adulation.

Her father’s visits to the Flemish city had been few and far apart, fondly though he loved his motherless girl. He had been a wanderer for the most part during those years, tossed upon troubled seas, fighting with Condé against Mazarin and Anne of Austria, and reconciled with the Court later, when peace was made, and his friends the Princes were forgiven; an exile from France of his own free will when Louis banished his first cousin, the King of England, in order to truckle to the triumphant usurper. He had led an adventurous life, and had cared very little what became of him in a topsy-turvy world. But now all things were changed. Richard Cromwell’s brief and irresolute rule had shattered the Commonwealth, and made Englishmen eager for a king. The country was already tired of him whose succession had been admitted with blank acquiescence; and Monk and the army were soon to become masters of the situation. There was hope that the General was rightly affected, and that the King would have his own again; and that such of his followers as had not compounded with the Parliamentary Commission would get back their confiscated estates; and that all who had suffered in person or pocket for loyalty’s sake would be recompensed for their sacrifices.

It was five years since Sir John’s last appearance at the convent, and Angela’s heart beat fast at the thought that he was so near. She was to see him this very day; nay, perhaps this very hour. His coach might have passed the gate of the town already. He was bringing his elder daughter with him, that sister whose face she had never seen, save in a miniature, and who was now a great lady, the wife of Baron Fareham, of Chilton Abbey, Oxon, Fareham Park, in the County of Hants, and Fareham House, London, a nobleman whose estates had come through the ordeal of the Parliamentary Commission with a reasonable fine, and to whom extra favour had been shown by the Commissioners, because he was known to be at heart a Republican. In the mean time, Lady Fareham had a liberal income allowed her by the Marquise, her grandmother, and she and her husband had been among the most splendid foreigners at the French Court, where the lady’s beauty and wit had placed her conspicuously in that galaxy of brilliant women who shone and sparkled about the sun of the European firmament — Le roi soleil, or “the King,” par excellence, who took the blazing sun for his crest. The Fronde had been a time of pleasurable excitement to the high-spirited girl, whose mixed blood ran like quicksilver, and who delighted in danger and party strife, stratagem and intrigue. The story of her courage and gaiety of heart in the siege of Paris, she being then little more than a child, had reached the Flemish convent long after the acts recorded had been forgotten at Paris and St. Germain.

Angela’s heart beat fast at the thought of being restored to these dear ones, were it only for a short span. They were not going to carry her away from the convent; and, indeed, seeing that she so loved her aunt, the good reverend mother, and that her heart cleaved to those walls and to the holy exercises which filled so great a part of her life, her father, in replying to a letter in which she had besought him to release her from her promise and allow her to dedicate herself to God, had told her that, although he could not surrender his daughter, to whom he looked for the comfort of his closing years, he would not urge her to leave the Ursulines until he should feel himself old and feeble, and in need of her tender care. Meanwhile she might be a nun in all but the vows, and a dutiful niece to her kind aunt, Mother Anastasia, whose advanced years and failing health needed all consideration.

But now, before he went back to England, whither he hoped to accompany the King and the Princes ere the year was much older, Sir John Kirkland was coming to visit his younger daughter, bringing Lady Fareham, whose husband was now in attendance upon His Majesty in Holland, where there were serious negotiations on hand — negotiations which would have been full of peril to the English messengers two years ago, when that excellent preacher and holy man, Dr. Hewer, of St. Gregory, was beheaded for having intelligence with the King, through the Marquess of Ormond.

The parlour window jutted into the square over against the town hall, and Angela could see the whole length of the narrow street along which her father’s carriage must come.

The tall, slim figure and the fair, girlish face stood out in full relief against the grey stone mullion, bathed in sunlight. The graceful form was undisguised by courtly apparel. The soft brown hair fell in loose ringlets, which were drawn back from the brow by a band of black ribbon. The girl’s gown was of soft grey woollen stuff, relieved by a cambric collar covering the shoulders, and by cambric elbow-sleeves. A coral and silver rosary was her only ornament; but face and form needed no aid from satins or velvets, Venetian lace or Indian filagree.

The sweet, serious face was chiefly notable for eyes of darkest grey, under brows that were firmly arched and almost black. The hair was a dark brown, the complexion somewhat too pale for beauty. Indeed, that low-toned colouring made some people blind to the fine and regular modelling of the high-bred face; while there were others who saw no charm in a countenance which seemed too thoughtful for early youth, and therefore lacking in one of youth’s chief attractions — gladness.

The face lighted suddenly at this moment, as four great grey Flanders horses came clattering along the narrow street and into the square, dragging a heavy painted wooden coach after them. The girl opened the casement and craned out her neck to look at the arrival The coach stopped at the convent door, and a footman alighted and rang the convent bell, to the interested curiosity of two or three loungers upon the steps of the town hall over the way.

Yes, it was her father, greyer but less sad of visage than at his last visit. His doublet and cloak were handsomer than the clothes he had worn then, though they were still of the same fashion, that English mode which he had affected before the beginning of the troubles, and which he had never changed.

Immediately after him there alighted a vision of beauty, the loveliest of ladies, in sky-blue velvet and pale grey fur, and with a long white feather encircling a sky-blue hat, and a collar of Venetian lace veiling a bosom that scintillated with jewels.

“Hyacinth!” cried Angela, in a flutter of delight.

The portress peered at the visitors through her spy-hole, and being satisfied that they were the expected guests, speedily opened the iron-clamped door.

There was no one to interfere between father and daughter, sister and sister, in the convent parlour. Angela had her dear people all to herself, the Mother Superior respecting the confidences and outpourings of love, which neither father nor children would wish to be witnessed even by a kinswoman. Thus, by a rare breach of conventual discipline, Angela was allowed to receive her guests alone.

The lay-sister opened the parlour door and ushered in the visitors, and Angela ran to meet her father, and fell sobbing upon his breast, her face hidden against his velvet doublet, her arms clasping his neck.

“What, mistress, hast thou so watery a welcome, now that the clouds have passed away, and every loyal English heart is joyful?” cried Sir John, in a voice that was somewhat husky, but with a great show of gaiety.

“Oh, sir, I have waited so long, so long for this day. Sometimes I thought it would never come, that I should never see my dear father again.”

“Poor child! it would have been only my desert hadst thou forgotten me altogether. I might have come to you sooner, pretty one; indeed, I would have come, only things went ill with me. I was down-hearted and hopeless of any good fortune in a world that seemed given over to psalm-singing scoundrels; and till the tide turned I had no heart to come nigh you. But now fortunes are mended, the King’s and mine, and you have a father once again, and shall have a home by-and-by, the house where you were born, and where your angel-mother made my life blessed. You are like her, Angela!” holding back the pale face in his strong hands, and gazing upon it earnestly. “Yes, you favour your mother; but your face is over sad for your years. Look at your sister here! Would you not say a sunbeam had taken woman’s shape and come dancing into the room?”

Angela looked round and greeted the lady, who had stood aside while father and daughter met. Yes, such a face suggested sunlight and summer, birds, butterflies, all things buoyant and gladsome. A complexion of dazzling fairness, pearly, transparent, with ever-varying carnations; eyes of heavenliest blue, liquid, laughing, brimming with espiéglerie; a slim little nose with an upward tilt, which expressed a contemptuous gaiety, an inquiring curiosity; a dimpled chin sloping a little towards the full round throat; the bust and shoulders of a Venus, the waist of a sylph, set off by the close-fitting velvet bodice, with its diamond and turquoise buttons; hair of palest gold, fluffed out into curls that were traps for sunbeams; hands and arms of a milky whiteness emerging from the large loose elbow-sleeves — a radiant apparition which took Angela by surprise. She had seen Flemish vraus in the richest attire, and among them there had been women as handsome as Helena Forment; but this vision of a fine lady from the court of the “roi soleil” was a revelation. Until this moment, the girl had hardly known what grace and beauty meant.

“Come and let me hug you, my dearest Puritan,” cried Hyacinth, holding out her arms. “Why do you suffer your custodians to clothe you in that odious grey, which puts me in mind of lank-haired psalm-singing scum, and all their hateful works? I would have you sparkling in white satin and silver, or blushing in brocade powdered with forget-me-nots and rosebuds. What would Fareham say if I told him I had a Puritan in grey woollen stuff for my sister? He sends you his love, dear, and bids me tell you there shall be always an honoured place in our home for you, be it in England or France, in town or country. And why should you not fill that place at once, sister? Your education is finished, and to be sure you must be tired of these stone walls and this sleepy town.”

“No, Hyacinth, I love the convent and the friends who have made it my home. You and Lord Fareham are very kind, but I could not leave our reverend mother; she is not so well or so strong as she used to be, and I think she likes to have me with her, because though she loves us all, down to the humblest of the lay-sisters, I am of her kin, and seem nearest to her. I don’t want to forsake her; and if it was not against my father’s wish I should like to end my days in this house, and to give my thoughts to God.”

“That is because thou knowest nought of the world outside, sweetheart,” protested Hyacinth. “I admire the readiness with which folks will renounce a banquet they have never tasted. A single day at the Louvre or the Palais Royal would change your inclinations at once and for ever.”

“She is too young for a court life, or a town life either,” said Sir John. “And I have no mind to remove her from this safe shelter till the King shall be firm upon his throne, and our poor country shall have settled into a stable and peaceful condition. But there must be no vows, Angela, no renunciation of kindred and home. I look to thee for the comfort of my old age!”

“Dear father, I will never disobey you. I shall remember always that my first duty is to you; and when you want me, you have but to summon me; and whether you are at home or abroad, in wealth and honour, or in exile and poverty, I will go to you, and be glad and happy to be your daughter and your servant.”

“I knew thou wouldst, dearest. I have never forgotten how the soft little arms clung about my neck, and how the baby lips kissed me, in this same parlour, when my heart was weighed down by a load of iron, and there seemed no ray of hope for England or me. You were my comforter then, and you will be my comforter in the days to come. Hyacinth here is of the butterfly breed. She is fair to look upon, and tender and loving; but she is ever on the wing. And she has her husband and her children to cherish, and cannot be burdened with the care of a broken-down greybeard.”

“Broken-down! Why, you are as brave a gallant as the youngest cavalier in the King’s service,” cried Hyacinth. “I would pit my father against Montagu or Buckingham, Buckhurst or Roscommon — against the gayest, the boldest of them all, on land or sea. Broken-down, forsooth! We will hear no such words from you, sir, for a score of years. And now you will want all your wits to take your proper place at Court as sage counsellor and friend of the new King. Sure he will need his father’s friends about him to teach him state-craft — he who has led such a gay, good-for-nothing life as a penniless rover, with scarce a sound coat to his back.”

“Nay, Hyacinth, the King will have no need of us old Malignants. We have had our day. He has shrewd Ned Hyde for counsellor, and in that one long head there is craft enough to govern a kingdom. The new Court will be a young Court, and the fashion of it will be new. We old fellows, who were gallant and gay enough in the forties, when we fought against Essex and his tawny scarves, would be but laughable figures at the Court of a young man bred half in Paris, and steeped in French fashions and French follies. No, Hyacinth, it is for you and your husband the new day dawns. If I get back to my old meads and woods and the house where I was born, I will sit quietly down in the chimney corner, and take to cattle-breeding, and a pack of harriers, for the diversion of my declining years. And when my Angela can make up her mind to leave her good aunt she shall keep house for me.”

“I should love to be your housekeeper, dearest father. If it please Heaven to restore my aunt to health and strength, I will go to you with a heart full of joy,” said the girl, hanging caressingly upon the old cavalier’s shoulder.

Hyacinth flitted about the room with a swift, birdlike motion, looking at the sacred images and prints, the tableau over the mantelpiece, which told, with much flourish of penmanship, the progress of the convent pupils in learning and domestic virtues.

“What a humdrum, dismal room!” she cried. “You should see our convent parlours in Paris. At the Carmelites, in the Rue Saint Jacques, par exemple, the Queen-mother’s favourite convent, and at Chaillot, the house founded by Queen Henrietta — such pictures, and ornaments, and embroidered hangings, and tapestries worked by devotees. This room of yours, sister, stinks of poverty, as your Flemish streets stink of garlic and cabbage. Faugh! I know not which is worse!”

Having thus delivered herself of her disgust, she darted upon her younger sister, laid her hands upon the girl’s shoulders, and contemplated her with mock seriousness.

“What a precocious young saint thou art, with no more interest in the world outside this naked parlour than if thou wert yonder image of the Holy Mother. Not a question of my husband, or my children, or of the last fashion in hood and mantle, or of the new laced gloves, or the French King’s latest divinity.”

“I should dearly like to see your children, Hyacinth,” answered her sister.

“Ah! they are the most enchanting creatures, the girl a perpetual sunbeam, ethereal, elfish, a being of life and movement, and with a loquacity that never tires; the boy a lump of honey, fat, sleek, lazily beautiful. I am never tired of admiring them, when I have time to see them. Papillon — an old friend of mine has surnamed her Papillon because she is never still — was five years old on March 19. We were at St. Germain on her birthday. You should have seen the toys and trinkets and sweetmeats which the Court showered upon her — the King and Queen, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, the Princess Henrietta, her godmother — everybody had a gift for the daughter of La folle Baronne Fareham. Yes, they are lovely creatures, Angela; and I am miserable to think that it may be half a year before I see their sweet faces again.”

“Why so long, sister?”

“Because they are at the Château de Montrond, grandmother’s place near Dieppe, and because Fareham and I are going hence to Breda to meet the King, our own King Charles, and help lead him home in triumph. In London the mob are shouting, roaring, singing, for their King; and Montagu’s fleet lies in the Downs, waiting but the signal from Parliament to cross to Holland. He who left his country in a scurvy fishing-boat will go back to England in a mighty man-of-war, the Naseby— mark you, the Naseby— christened by that Usurper, in insolent remembrance of a rebel victory; but Charles will doubtless change that hated name. He must not be put in mind of a fight where rebels had the better of loyal gentlemen. He will sail home over those dancing seas, with a fleet of great white-winged ships circling round him like a flight of silvery doves. Oh, what a turn of fortune’s wheel! I am wild with rapture at the thought of it!”

“You love England better than France, though you must be almost a stranger there,” said Angela, wonderingly, looking at a miniature which her sister wore in a bracelet.

“Nay, love, ’tis in Paris I am an insignificant alien, though they are ever so kind and flattering to me. At St Germain I was only Madame de Montrond’s grand-daughter — the wife of a somewhat morose gentleman who was cleverer at winning battles than at gaining hearts. At Whitehall I shall be Lady Fareham, and shall enjoy my full consequence as the wife of an English nobleman of ancient lineage and fine estate, for, I am happy to tell you, his lordship’s property suffered less than most people’s in the rebellion, and anything his father lost when he fought for the good cause will be given back to the son now the good cause is triumphant, with additions, perhaps — an earl’s coronet instead of a baron’s beggarly pearls. I should like Papillon to be Lady Henrietta.”

“And you will send for your children, doubtless, when you are sure all is safe in England?” said Angela, still contemplating the portrait in the bracelet, which her sister had unclasped while she talked. “This is Papillon, I know. What a sweet, kind, mischievous face!”

“Mischievous as a Barbary ape — kind, and sweet as the west wind,” said Sir John.

“And your boy?” asked Angela, reclasping the bracelet on the fair, round arm, having looked her fill at the mutinous eyes, the brown, crisply curling hair, dainty, pointed chin, and dimpled cheeks. “Have you his picture, too?”

“Not his; but I wear his father’s likeness somewhere betwixt buckram and Flanders lace,” answered Hyacinth, gaily, pulling a locket from amidst the splendours of her corsage. “I call it next my heart; but there is a stout fortification of whalebone between heart and picture. You have gloated enough on the daughter’s impertinent visage. Look now at the father, whom she resembles in little, as a kitten resembles a tiger.”

She handed her sister an oval locket, bordered with diamonds, and held by a slender Indian chain; and Angela saw the face of the brother-in-law whose kindness and hospitality had been so freely promised to her.

She explored the countenance long and earnestly.

“Well, do you think I chose him for his beauty?” asked Hyacinth. “You have devoured every lineament with that serious gaze of yours, as if you were trying to read the spirit behind that mask of flesh. Do you think him handsome?”

Angela faltered: but was unskilled in flattery, and could not reply with a compliment.

“No, sister; surely none have ever called this countenance handsome; but it is a face to set one thinking.”

“Ay, child, and he who owns the face is a man to set one thinking. He has made me think many a time when I would have travelled a day’s journey to escape the thoughts he forced upon me. He was not made to bask in the sunshine of life. He is a stormy petrel. It was for his ugliness I chose him. Those dark stern features, that imperious mouth, and a brow like the Olympian Jove. He scared me into loving him. I sheltered myself upon his breast from the thunder of his brow, the lightning of his eye.”

“He has a look of his cousin Wentworth,” said Sir John. “I never see him but I think of that murdered man — my father’s friend and mine — whom I have never ceased to mourn.”

“Yet their kin is of the most distant,” said Hyacinth. “It is strange that there should be any likeness.”

“Faces appear and reappear in families,” answered her father. “You may observe that curiously recurring likeness in any picture-gallery, if the family portraits cover a century or two. Louis has little in common with his grandfather; but two hundred years hence there may be a prince of the royal house whose every feature shall recall Henry the Great”

The portrait was returned to its hiding-place, under perfumed lace and cobweb lawn, and the reverend mother entered the parlour, ready for conversation, and eager to hear the history of the last six weeks, of the collapse of that military despotism which had convulsed England and dominated Europe, and was now melting into thin air as ghosts dissolve at cock-crow, of the secret negotiations between Monk and Grenville, now known to everybody; of the King’s gracious amnesty and promise of universal pardon, save for some score or so of conspicuous villains, whose hands were dyed with the Royal Martyr’s blood.

She was full of questioning: and, above all, eager to know whether it was true that King Charles was at heart as staunch a papist as his brother the Duke of York was believed to be, though even the Duke lacked the courage to bear witness to the true faith.

Two lay-sisters brought in a repast of cakes and syrups and light wines, such delicate and dainty food as the pious ladies of the convent were especially skilled in preparing, and which they deemed all-sufficient for the entertainment of company; even when one of their guests was a rugged soldier like Sir John Kirkland. When the light collation had been tasted and praised, the coach came to the door again, and swallowed up the beautiful lady and the old cavalier, who vanished from Angela’s sight in a cloud of dust, waving hands from the coach window.

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