London Pride, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 8

Superior to Fashion.

At Oxford Angela was so happy as to be presented to Catharine of Braganza, a little dark woman, whose attire still bore some traces of its original Portuguese heaviness; such a dress — clumsy, ugly, infinitely rich and expensive — as one sees in old portraits of Spanish and Netherlandish matrons, in which every elaborate detail of the costly fabric seems to have been devised in the research of ugliness. She saw the King also; met him casually — she walking with her brother-in-law, while Lady Fareham and her friends ran from shop to shop in the High Street — in Magdalen College grounds, a group of beauties and a family of spaniels fawning upon him as he sauntered slowly, or stopped to feed the swans that swam close by the bank, keeping pace with him, and stretching long necks in greedy solicitation.

The loveliest woman Angela had ever seen — tall, built like a goddess — walked on the King’s right hand. She carried a heap of broken bread in the satin petticoat which she held up over one white arm, while with her other hand she gave the pieces one by one to the King. Angela saw that as each hunch changed hands the royal fingers touched the lady’s tapering finger-tips and tried to detain them.

Fareham took off his hat, bowed low in a grave and stately salutation, and passed on; but Charles called him back.

“Nay, Fareham, has the world grown so dull that you have nothing to tell us this November morning?”

“Indeed, sir, I fear that my riverside hermitage can afford very little news that could interest your Majesty or these ladies.”

“A fox gone to ground, an otter killed among your reeds, or a hawk in the sulks, is an event in the country. Anything would be a relief from the weekly total of London deaths, which is our chief subject of conversation, or the General’s complaints that there is no one in town but himself to transact business, or dismal prophecies of a Nonconformist rebellion that is to follow the Five Mile Act.”

The group of ladies stared at Angela in a smiling silence, one haughtier than the rest standing a little aloof. She was older, and of a more audacious loveliness than the lady who carried broken bread in her petticoat; but she too was splendidly beautiful as a goddess on a painted ceiling, and as much painted perhaps.

Angela contemplated her with the reverence youth gives to consummate beauty, unaware that she was admiring the notorious Barbara Palmer.

Fareham waited, hat in hand, grave almost to sullenness. It was not for him to do more than reply to his Majesty’s remarks, nor could he retire till dismissed.

“You have a strange face at your side, man. Pray introduce the lady,” said the King, smiling at Angela, whose vivid blush was as fresh as Miss Stewart’s had been a year or two ago, before she had her first quarrel with Lady Castlemaine, or rode in Gramont’s glass coach, or gave her classic profile to embellish the coin of the realm — the “common drudge ‘tween man and man.”

“I have the honour to present my sister-in-law, Mistress Kirkland, to your Majesty.” The King shook hands with Angela in the easiest way, as if he had been mortal.

“Welcome to our poor court, Mistress Kirkland. Your father was my father’s friend and companion in the evil days. They starved together at Beverley, and rode side by side through the Warwickshire lanes to suffer the insolence of Coventry. I have not forgotten. If I had I have a monitor yonder to remind me,” glancing in the direction of a middle-aged gentleman, stately, and sober of attire, who was walking slowly towards them. “The Chancellor is a living chronicle, and his conversation chiefly consists in reminiscences of events I would rather forget”

“Memory is an invention of Old Nick,” said Lady Castlemaine. “Who the deuce wants to remember anything, except what cards are out and what are in?”

“Not you, Fairest. You should be the last to cultivate mnemonics for yourself or for your friends. Is your father in England, sweet mistress?”

Angela faltered a negative, as if with somebody else’s voice — or so it seemed to her. A swarthy, heavy-browed man, wearing a dark-blue ribbon and a star — a man with whom his intimates jested in shameless freedom — a man whom the town called Rowley, after some ignominious quadruped — a man who had distinguished himself neither in the field nor in the drawing-room by any excellence above the majority, since the wit men praised has resolved itself for posterity into half a dozen happy repartees. Only this! But he was a King, a crowned and anointed King, and even Angela, who was less frivolous and shallow than most women, stood before him abashed and dazzled.

His Majesty bowed a gracious adieu, yawned, flung another crust to the swans, and sauntered on, the Stewart whispering in his ear, the Castlemaine talking loud to her neighbour, Lady Chesterfield, this latter lady very pretty, very bold and mischievous, newly restored to the Court after exile with her jealous husband at his mansion in Wales.

They were gone; Charles to be button-holed by Lord Clarendon, who waited for him at the end of the walk; the ladies to wander as they pleased till the two-o’clock dinner. They were gone, like a dream of beauty and splendour, and Fareham and Angela pursued their walk by the river, grey in the sunless November.

“Well, sister, you have seen the man whom we brought back in a whirlwind of loyalty five years ago, and for whose sake we rebuilt the fabric of monarchical government. Do you think we are much the gainers by that tempest of enthusiasm which blew us home Charles the Second? We had suffered all the trouble of the change to a Republic; a life that should have been sacred had been sacrificed to the principles of liberty. While abhorring the regicides, we might have profited by their crime. We might have been a free state to-day, like the United Provinces. Do you think we are better off with a King like Rowley, to amuse himself at the expense of the nation?”

“I detest the idea of a Republic.”

“Youth worships the supernatural in anointed kings. Think not that I am opposed to a constitutional monarchy, so long as it works well for the majority. But when England had with such terrible convulsions shaken off all those shackles and trappings of royalty, and when the ship, so lightened, had sailed so steadily with no ballast but common sense, does it not seem almost a pity to undo what has been done — to begin again the long procession of good kings and bad kings, foolish or wise — for the sake of such a man as yonder saunterer?” with a glance towards the British Sultan and his harem.

“England was never better governed than by Cromwell,” he continued. “She was tranquil at home and victorious abroad, admired and feared. Mazarin, while pretending to be the faithful friend of Charles, was the obsequious courtier of Oliver. The finest form of government is a limited despotism. See how France prospered under the sagacious tyrant, Louis the Eleventh, under the soldier-statesman, Sully, under pure reason incarnate in Richelieu. Whether you call your tyrant king or protector, minister or president, matters nothing. It is the man and not the institution, the mind and not the machinery that is wanted.”

“I did not know you were a Republican, like Sir Denzil Warner.”

“I am nothing now I have left off being a soldier. I have no strong opinions about anything. I am a looker on; and life seems little more real to me than a stage play. Warner is of a different stamp. He is an enthusiastic in politics — godson of Horn’s — a disciple of Milton’s, the son of a Puritan, and a Puritan himself. A fine nature, Angela, allied to a handsome presence.”

Sir Denzil Warner was their neighbour at Chilton, and Angela had met him often enough for them to become friends. He had ridden by her side with hawk and hound, had been one of her instructors in English sport, and had sometimes, by an accident, joined her and Henriette in their boating expeditions, and helped her to perfect herself in the management of a pair of sculls.

“Hyacinth has her fancies about Warner,” Fareham said presently, as they strolled along.

There was a significance in his tone that the girl could not mistake; more especially as her sister had not been reticent about those notions to which Fareham alluded.

“Hyacinth has fancies about many things,” she said, blushing a little.

Fareham noted the slightness of the blush.

“I verily believe that handsome youth has found you adamant,” he said, after a thoughtful silence. “Yet you might easily choose a worse suitor. Your sister has often the strangest whims about marriage-making; but in this fancy I did not oppose her. It would be a very suitable alliance.”

“I hope your lordship does not begin to think me a burden on your household,” faltered Angela, wounded by his cold-blooded air in disposing of her. “When you and my sister are tired of me I can go back to my convent.”

“What! Return to those imprisoning walls; immure your sweet youth in a cloister? Not for the Indies. I would not suffer such a sacrifice. Tired of you! I— so deeply bound! I who owe you my life! I who looked up out of a burning hell of pain and madness and saw an angel standing by my bed! Tired of you! Indeed you know me better than to think so badly of me were it but in one flash of thought. You can need no protestations from me. Only, as a young and beautiful woman, living in an age that is full of peril for women, I should like to see you married to a good and true man — such as Denzil Warner.”

“I am sorry to disappoint you,” Angela answered coldly; “but Papillon and I have agreed that I am always to be her spinster aunt, and am to keep her house when she is married, and wear a linsey gown and a bunch of keys at my girdle, like Mrs. Hubbuck, at Chilton.”

“That’s just like Henriette. She takes after her mother, and thinks that this globe and all the people upon it were created principally for her pleasure. The Americas to give her chocolate, the Indian isles to sweeten it for her, the ocean tides to bring her feathers and finery. She is her own centre and circumference, like her mother.”

“You should not say such an ill thing of your wife, Fareham,” said Angela, deeply shocked. “Hyacinth is not one to look into the heart of things. She has too happy a disposition for grave backward-reaching thoughts; but I will swear that she loves you — ay — almost to reverence.”

“Yes, to reverence, to over much reverence, perhaps. She might have given a freer, fonder love to a more amiable man. I have some strain of my unhappy kinsman’s temper, perhaps — the disposition that keeps a wife at a distance. He managed to make three wives afraid of him; and it was darkly rumoured that he killed one.”

“Strafford — a murderer! No, no.”

“Not by intent. An accident — only an accident. They who most hated him pretended that he pushed her from him somewhat roughly when she was least able to bear roughness, and that the after consequences of the blow were fatal. He was one of the doomed always, you see. He knew that himself, and told his bosom friend that he was not long-lived. The brand of misfortune was upon him even at the height of his power. You may read his destiny in his face.”

They walked on in silence for some time, Angela depressed and unhappy. It seemed as if Fareham had lifted a mask and shown her his real countenance, with all the lines that tell a life history. She had suspected that he was not happy; that the joyous existence amidst fairest surroundings which seemed so exquisite to her was dull and vapid for him. She could but think that he was like her father, and that action and danger were necessary to him, and that it was only this rustic tranquillity that weighed upon his spirits.

“Do not for a moment believe that I would speak slightingly of your sister,” Fareham resumed, after that silent interval. “It were indeed an ill thing in me — most of all to disparage her in your hearing. She is lovely, accomplished, learned even, after the fashion of the Rue St. Thomas du Louvre. She used to shine among the brightest at the Scudèrys’ Saturday parties, which were the most wearisome assemblies I ever ran away from. The match was made for us by others, and I was her betrothed husband before I saw her. Yet I loved her at first sight. Who could help loving a face as fair as morning over the eastward hills, a voice as sweet as the nightingales in the Tuileries garden? She was so young — a child almost; so gentle and confiding. And to see her now with Papillon is to question which is the younger, mother or daughter. Love her? Why, of course I love her. I loved her then. I love her now. Her beauty has but ripened with the passing years; and she has walked the furnace of fine company in two cities, and has never been seared by fire. Love her! Could a man help loving beauty, and frankness, and a natural innocence which cannot be spoiled even by the knowledge of things evil, even by daily contact with sin in high places?”

Again there was a silence, and then, in a deeper tone, after a long sigh, Fareham said —

“I love and honour my wife; I adore my children; yet I am alone, Angela, and I shall be alone till death.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Oh yes, you do; you understand as well as I who suffer. My wife and I love each other dearly. If she have a fit of the vapours, or an aching tooth, I am wretched. But we have never been companions. The things that she loves are charmless for me. She is enchanted with people from whom I run away. Is it companionship, do you think, for me to look on while she walks a coranto or tosses shuttlecocks with De Malfort? Roxalana is as much my companion when I admire her on the stage from my seat in the pit. There are times when my wife seems no nearer to me than a beautiful picture. If I sit in a corner, and listen to her pretty babble about the last fan she bought at the Middle Exchange, or the last witless comedy she saw at the King’s Theatre, is that companionship, think you? I may be charmed to-day — as I was charmed ten years ago — with the silvery sweetness of her voice, with the graceful turn of her head, the white roundness of her throat. At least I am constant. There is no change in her or in me. We are just as near and just as far apart as when the priest joined our hands at St. Eustache. And it must be so to the end, I suppose; and I think the fault is in me. I am out of joint with the world I live in. I cannot set myself in tune with their new music. I look back, and remember, and regret; yet hardly know why I remember or what I regret.”

Again a silence, briefer than the last, and he went on:—

“Do you think it strange that I talk so freely — to you — who are scarce more than a child, less learned than Henriette in worldly knowledge? It is a comfort sometimes to talk of one’s self; of what one has missed as well as of what one has. And you have such an air of being wise beyond your years; wise in all thoughts that are not of the world — thoughts of things of which there is no truck at the Exchanges; which no one buys or sells at Abingdon fair. And you are so near allied to me — a sister! I never had a sister of my own blood, Angela. I was an only child. Solitude was my portion. I lived alone with my tutor and gouvernante— a poor relation of my mother’s — alone in a house that was mostly deserted, for Lord and Lady Fareham were in London with the King, till the troubles brought the Court to Christchurch, and them to Chilton. I have had few in whom to confide. And you — remember what you have been to me, and do not wonder if I trust you more than others. Thou didst go down to the very grave with me, didst pluck me out of the pit. Corruption could not touch a creature so lovely and so innocent Thou didst walk unharmed through the charnel-house. Remembering this, as I ever must remember, can you wonder that you are nearer to me than all the rest of the world?”

She had seated herself on a bench that commanded a view of the river, and her dreaming eyes were looking far away along the dim perspective of mist and water, bare pollard willows, ragged sedges. Her head drooped a little so that he could not see her face, and one ungloved hand hung listlessly at her side.

He bent down to take the slender hand in his, lifted it to his lips, and quickly let it go; but not before she had felt his tears upon it. She looked up a few minutes later, and the place was empty. Her tears fell thick and fast. Never before had she suffered this exquisite pain — sadness so intense, yet touching so close on joy. She sat alone in the inexpressible melancholy of the late autumn; pale mists rising from the river; dead leaves falling; and Fareham’s tears upon her hand.

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