Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 20

Lady Maulevrier’s Letter-Bag.

Although Maulevrier had assured his grandmother that John Hammond would take flight at the first warning of Lesbia’s return, Lady Maulevrier’s dread of any meeting between her granddaughter and that ineligible lover determined her in making such arrangements as should banish Lesbia from Fellside, so long as there seemed the slightest danger of such a meeting. She knew that Lesbia had loved her fortuneless suitor; and she did not know that the wound was cured, even by a season in the little-great world of Cannes. Now that she, the ruler of that household, was a helpless captive in her own apartments, she felt that Lesbia at Fellside would be her own mistress, and hemmed round with the dangers that beset richly-dowered beauty and inexperienced youth.

John Hammond might be playing a very deep game, perhaps assisted by Maulevrier. He might ostensibly leave Fellside before Lesbia’s return, yet lurk in the neighbourhood, and contrive to meet her every day. If Maulevrier encouraged this folly, they might be married and over the border, before her ladyship — fettered, impotent as she was — could interfere.

Lady Maulevrier felt that Georgie Kirkbank was her strong rock. So long as Lesbia was under that astute veteran’s wing there could be no danger. In that embodied essence of worldliness and diplomacy, there was an ever-present defence from all temptations that spring from romance and youthful impulses. It was a bitter thing, perhaps, to steep a young and pure soul in such an atmosphere, to harden a fresh young nature in the fiery crucible of fashionable life; but Lady Maulevrier believed that the end would sanctify the means. Lesbia, once married to a worthy man, such a man as Lord Hartfield, for instance, would soon rise to a higher level than that Belgravian swamp over which the malarian vapours of falsehood, and slander, and self-seeking, and prurient imaginings hang dense and thick. She would rise to the loftier table-land of that really great world which governs and admonishes the ruck of mankind by examples of noble deeds and noble thoughts; the world of statesmen, and soldiers, and thinkers, and reformers; the salt wherewithal society is salted.

But while Lesbia was treading the tortuous mazes of fashion, it was well for her to be guided and guarded by such an old campaigner as Lady Kirkbank, a woman who, in the language of her friends, ‘knew the ropes.’

Lesbia’s last letter had been to the effect that she was to go back to London with the Kirkbanks directly after Easter, and that directly they arrived she would set off with her maid for Fellside, to spend a week or a fortnight with her dearest grandmother, before going back to Arlington Street for the May campaign.

‘And then, dearest, I hope you will make up your mind to spend the season in London,’ wrote Lesbia. ‘I shall expect to hear that you have secured Lord Porlock’s house. How dreadfully slow your poor dear hand is to recover! I am afraid Horton is not treating the case cleverly. Why do you not send for Mr. Erichsen? It is a shock to my nerves every time I receive a letter in Mary’s masculine hand, instead of in your lovely Italian penmanship. Strange — isn’t it? — how much better the women of your time write than the girls of the present day! Lady Kirkbank receives letters from stylish girls in a hand that would disgrace a housemaid.’

Lady Maulevrier allowed a post to go by before she answered this letter, while she deliberated upon the best and wisest manner of arranging her granddaughter’s future. It was an agony to her not to be able to write with her own hand, to be obliged to so shape every sentence that Mary might learn nothing which she ought not to know. It was impossible with such an amanuensis to write confidentially to Lady Kirkbank. The letters to Lesbia were of less consequence; for Lesbia, albeit so intensely beloved, was not in her grandmother’s confidence, least of all about those schemes and dreams which concerned her own fate.

However, the letters had to be written, so Mary was told to open her desk and begin.

The letter to Lesbia ran thus:—

‘My dearest Child,

‘This is a world in which our brightest day-dreams generally end in mere dreaming. For years past I have cherished the hope of presenting you to your sovereign, to whom I was presented six and forty years ago, when she was so fair and girlish a creature that she seemed to me more like a queen in a fairy tale than the actual ruler of a great country. I have beguiled my monotonous days with thoughts of the time when I should return to the great world, full of pride and delight in showing old friends what a sweet flower I had reared in my mountain home; but, alas, Lesbia, it may not be.

‘Fate has willed otherwise. The maimed hand does not recover, although Horton is very clever, and thoroughly understands my case. I am not ill, I am not in danger; so you need feel no anxiety about me; but I am a cripple; and I am likely to remain a cripple for months; so the idea of a London season this year is hopeless.

‘Now, as you have in a manner made your début at Cannes, it would never do to bury you here for another year. You complained of the dullness last summer; but you would find Fellside much duller now that you have tasted the elixir of life. No, my dear love, it will be well for you to be presented, as Lady Kirkbank proposes, at the first drawing-room after Easter; and Lady Kirkbank will have to present you. She will be pleased to do this, I know, for her letters are full of enthusiasm about you. And, after all, I do not think you will lose by the exchange. Clever as I think myself, I fear I should find myself sorely at fault in the society of to-day. All things are changed: opinions, manners, creeds, morals even. Acts that were crimes in my day are now venial errors — opinions that were scandalous are now the mark of “advanced thought.” I should be too formal for this easy-going age, should be ridiculed as old-fashioned and narrow-minded, should put you to the blush a dozen times a day by my prejudices and opinions.

‘It is very good of you to think of travelling so long a distance to see me; and I should love to look at your sweet face, and hear you describe your new experiences; but I could not allow you to travel with only the protection of a maid; and there are many reasons why I think it better to defer the meeting till the end of the season, when Lady Kirkbank will bring my treasure back to me, eager to tell me the history of all the hearts she has broken.’

The dowager’s letter to Lady Kirkbank was brief and business-like. She could only hope that her old friend Georgie, whose acuteness she knew of old, would divine her feelings and her wishes, without being explicitly told what they were.

‘My dear Georgie,

‘I am too ill to leave this house; indeed I doubt if I shall ever leave it till I am taken away in my coffin; but please say nothing to alarm Lesbia. Indeed, there is no ground for fear, as I am not dangerously ill, and may drag out an imprisonment of long years before the coffin comes to fetch me. There are reasons, which you will understand, why Lesbia should not come here till after the season; so please keep her in Arlington Street, and occupy her mind as much as you can with the preparations for her first campaign. I give you carte blanche. If Carson is still in business I should like her to make my girl’s gowns; but you must please yourself in this matter, as it is quite possible that Carson is a little behind the times.

‘I must ask you to present my darling, and to deal with her exactly as if she were a daughter of your own. I think you know all my views and hopes about her; and I feel that I can trust to your friendship in this my day of need. The dream of my life has been to launch her myself, and direct her every step in the mazes of town life; but that dream is over. I have kept age and infirmity at a distance, have even forgotten that the years were going by; and now I find myself an old woman all at once, and my golden dream has vanished.’

Lady Kirkbank’s reply came by return of post, and happily this gushing epistle had not to be submitted to Mary’s eye.

‘My dearest Di,

‘My heart positively bleeds for you. What is the matter with your hand, that you talk of being a life-long prisoner to your room? Pray send for Paget or Erichsen, and have yourself put right at once. No doubt that local simpleton is making a mess of your case. Perhaps while he is dabbing with lint and lotions the real remedy is the knife. I am sure amputation would be less melancholy than the despondent state of feeling which you are now suffering. If any limb of mine went wrong, I should say to the surgeon, “Cut it off, and patch up the stump in your best style; I give you a fortnight, and at the end of that time I expect to be going to parties again.” Life is not long enough for dawdling surgery.

‘As regards Lesbia, I can only say that I adore her, and I am enchanted at the idea that I am to run her myself. I intend her to be the beauty of the season — not one of the loveliest debutantes, or any rot of that kind — but just the girl whom everybody will be crazy about. There shall be a mob wherever she appears, Di, I promise you that. There is no one in London who can work a thing of that kind better than your humble servant. And when once the girl is the talk of the town, all the rest is easy. She can choose for herself among the very best men in society. Offers will pour in as thickly as circulars from undertakers and mourning warehouses after a death.

‘Lesbia is so cool-headed and sensible that I have not the least doubt of her success. With an impulsive or romantic girl there is always the fear of a fiasco. But this sweet child of yours has been well brought up, and knows her own value. She behaved like a queen here, where I need not tell you society is just a little mixed; though, of course, we only cultivate our own set. Your heart would swell with pride if you could see the way she puts down men who are not quite good style; and the ease with which she crushes those odious American girls, with their fine complexions and loud manners.

‘Be assured that I shall guard her as the apple of my eye, and that the detrimental who circumvents me will be a very Satan of schemers.

‘I can but smile at your mention of Carson, whose gowns used to fit us so well in our girlish days, and whose bills seem moderate compared with the exorbitant accounts I get now.

‘Carson has long been forgotten, my dear soul, gone with the snows of last year. A long procession of fashionable French dressmakers has passed across the stage since her time, like the phantom kings in Macbeth; and now the last rage is to have our gowns made by an Englishman who works for the Princess, and who gives himself most insufferable airs, or an Irishwoman who is employed by all the best actresses. It is to the latter, Kate Kearney, I shall entrust our sweet Lesbia’s toilettes.’

The same post brought a loving letter from Lesbia, full of regret at not being allowed to go down to Fellside, and yet full of delight at the prospect of her first season.

‘Lady Kirkbank and I have been discussing my court dress,’ she wrote, ‘and we have decided upon a white cut-velvet train, with a border of ostrich feathers, over a satin petticoat embroidered with seed pearl. It will be expensive, but we know you will not mind that. Lady Kirkbank takes the idea from the costume Buckingham wore at the Louvre the first time he met Anne of Austria. Isn’t that clever of her? She is not a deep thinker like you; is horribly ignorant of science, metaphysics, poetry even. She asked me one day who Plato was, and whether he took his name from the battle of Platoea; and she says she never could understand why people make a fuss about Shakespeare; but she has read all the secret histories and memoirs that ever were written, and knows all the ins and outs of court life and high life for the last three hundred years; and there is not a person in the peerage whose family history she has not at her fingers’ ends, except my grandfather. When I asked her to tell me all about Lord Maulevrier and his achievements as Governor of Madras, she had not a word to say. So, perhaps, she draws upon her invention a little in talking about other people, and felt herself restrained when she came to speak of my grandfather.’

This passage in Lesbia’s letter affected Lady Maulevrier as if a scorpion had wriggled from underneath the sheet of paper. She folded the letter, and laid it in the satin-lined box on her table, with a deep sigh.

‘Yes, she is in the world now, and she will ask questions. I have never warned her against pronouncing her grandfather’s name. There are some who will not be so kind as Georgie Kirkbank; some, perhaps, who will delight in humiliating her, and who will tell her the worst that can be told. My only hope is that she will make a great marriage, and speedily. Once the wife of a man with a high place in the world, worldlings will be too wise to wound her by telling her that her grandfather was an unconvicted felon.’

The die was cast. Lady Maulevrier might dread the hazard of evil tongues, of slanderous memories; but she could not recall her consent to Lesbia’s début. The girl was already launched; she had been seen and admired. The next stage in her career must be to be wooed and won by a worthy wooer.

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