Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 25

Carte Blanche.

Lady Kirkbank’s house in Arlington Street was known to half fashionable London as one of the pleasantest houses in town; and it was known by repute only, to the other half of fashionable London, as a house whose threshold was not to be crossed by persons with any regard for their own dignity and reputation. It was not that Lady Kirkbank had ever actually forfeited her right to be considered an honest woman and a faithful wife. People who talked of the lady and her set with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders and a dubious elevation of the eyebrows were ready, when hard pushed in argument, to admit that they knew of no actual harm in Lady Kirkbank, no overt bad behaviour.

‘But — well,’ said the punctilious half of society, the Pejinks and Pernickitys, the Picksomes and Unco–Goods, ‘Lady Kirkbank is — Lady Kirkbank; and I would not allow my girls to visit her, don’t you know.’ ‘Lady Kirkbank is received, certainly,’ said a severe dowager. ‘She goes to very good houses. She gets tickets for the Royal enclosure. She is always at private views, and privileged shows of all kinds; and she contrives to squeeze herself in at a State ball or a concert about once in two years; but any one who can consider Lady Kirkbank good style must have a very curious idea of what a lady ought to be.’ ‘Lady Kirkbank is a warm-hearted, nice creature,’ said a diplomatist of high rank, and one of her particular friends, ‘but her manners are decidedly — continental!’

About Sir George, society, adverse or friendly, was without strong opinions. His friends, the men who shot over his Scotch moor, and filled the spare rooms in his villa at Cannes, and loaded his drag for Sandown or Epsom, and sponged upon him all the year round, talked of him as ‘an inoffensive old party,’ ‘a cheery soul,’ ‘a genial old boy,’ and in like terms of approval. That half of society which did not visit in Arlington Street, in whose nostrils the semi-aristocratic, semi-artistic, altogether Bohemian little dinners, the suppers after the play, the small hours devoted to Nap or Poker, had an odour as of sulphur, the reek of Tophet — even this half of the great world was fain to admit that Sir George was harmless. He had never had an idea beyond the realms of sport; he had never had a will of his own outside his stable. To shoot pigeons at Hurlington or Monaco, to keep half a dozen leather-platers, and attend every race from the Craven to the Leger, to hunt four days a week, when he was allowed to spend a winter in England, and to saunter and sleep away all the hours which could not be given to sport, comprised Sir George’s idea of existence. He had never troubled himself to consider whether there might not possibly be a better way of getting rid of one’s life. He was as God had made him, and was perfectly satisfied with himself and the universe; save at such times as when a favourite horse went lame, or his banker wrote to tell him that his account was overdrawn.

Sir George had no children; he had never had a serious care in his life. He never thought, he never read. Lady Kirkbank declared that she had never seen him with a book in his hands since their marriage.

‘I don’t believe he would know at which end to begin,’ she said.

What was the specific charge which the very particular people brought against Lady Kirkbank? Such charges rarely are specific. The idea that the lady belonged to the fast and furious section of society, the Bohemia of the upper ten, was an idea in the air. Everybody knew it. No one could quite adequately explain it.

From thirty to fifty Lady Kirkbank had been known as a flirty matron. Wherever she went, a train of men went with her; men young and middle-aged and elderly; handsome youths from the public offices; War, Admiralty, Foreign Office, Somerset House young men; attractive men of mature years, with grey moustachios, military, diplomatic, horsey, what you will, but always agreeable. At home, abroad, Lady Kirkbank was never without her court; but the court was entirely masculine. In those days the fair Georgie did not scruple to say that she hated women, and that girls were her particular abomination. But as the years rolled on Lady Kirkbank began to find it very difficult to muster her little court, to keep her train in attendance upon her. ‘The birds were wild,’ Sir George said. Her young adorers found their official duties more oppressive than hitherto; her elderly swains had threatenings of gout or rheumatism which prevented their flocking round her as of old at race meeting or polo match. They were loyal enough in keeping their engagements at the dinner table, for Lady Kirkbank’s cook was one of the best in London; and the invited guests were rarely missing at the little suppers after opera or play: but Georgia’s box was no longer crowded with men who dropped in between the acts to see what she thought of the singer or the piece, and her swains were no longer contented to sit behind her chair all the evening, seeing an empty corner of the stage across Georgia’s ivory shoulder, and hearing the voices of invisible actors in the brief pauses of Georgie’s subdued babble.

At fifty-five, Georgina Kirkbank told herself sadly enough that her day, as a bright particular star, all-sufficient in her own radiance, was gone. She could not live without her masculine circle, men who could bring her all the news, the gossip of the clubs; where everything seemed to become known as quickly as if each club had its own Asmodeus, unroofing all the housetops of the West End for inspection every night. She could not live without her courtiers; and to keep them about her she knew that she must make her house pleasant. It was not enough to give good dinners, elegant little suppers washed down by choicest wines; she must also provide fair faces to smile upon the feast, and bright eyes to sparkle in the subdued light of low shaded lamps, and many candles twinkling under coloured shades.

‘I am an old woman now,’ Lady Kirkbank said to herself with a sigh, ‘and my own attractions won’t keep my friends about me. C’est trop connu ça.’

And now the house in Arlington Street in which feminine guests had been as one in ten, opened its doors to the young and the fair. Pretty widows, lively girls, young wives who were not too absurdly devoted to their husbands, actresses of high standing and good looks, these began to be welcomed effusively in Arlington Street. Lady Kirkbank began to hunt for beauties to adorn her rooms, as she had hitherto hunted lions to roar at her parties. She prided herself on being the first to discover this or that new beauty. That lovely girl from Scotland with the large eyes — that sweet young creature from Ireland with the long eyelashes. She was always inventing new divinities. But even this change of plan, this more feminine line of politics failed to reconcile the strict and the stern, the Queen Charlotte-ish elderly ladies, and the impeccable matrons, to Lady Kirkbank and her sea. The girls who were launched by Lady Kirkbank never took high rank in society. When they made good marriages it was generally to be observed that they dropped Lady Kirkbank soon afterwards. It was not their fault, these ingrates pleaded piteously; but Edward, or Henry, or Theodore, as the case might be, had a most cruel prejudice against dear Lady Kirkbank, and the young wives were obliged to obey.

Others there were, however, the loyal few, who having won the prize matrimonial in Lady Kirkbank’s happy hunting grounds, remained true to their friend ever afterwards, and defended her character against every onslaught.

When Lady Maulevrier told her grandson that she had entrusted Lady Kirkbank with the duty of introducing Lesbia to society, Maulevrier shrugged his shoulders and held his peace. He knew no actual harm in the matter. Lady Kirkbank’s was rather a fast set; and had he been allowed to choose it was not to Lady Kirkbank that he would have delegated his grandmother’s duty. In Maulevrier’s own phrase it was ‘not good enough’ for Lesbia. But it was not in his power to interfere. He was not told of the plan until everything had been settled. The thing was accomplished; and against accomplished facts Maulevrier was the last to protest.

His friend John Hammond had not been silent. He knew nothing of Lady Kirkbank personally; but he knew the position which she held in London society, and he urged his friend strongly to enlighten Lady Maulevrier as to the kind of circle into which she was about to entrust her young granddaughter, a girl brought up in the Arcadia of England.

‘Not for worlds would I undertake such a task,’ said Maulevrier. ‘Her ladyship never had any opinion of my wisdom, and this Lady Kirkbank is a friend of her own youth. She would cut up rough if I were to say a word against an old friend. Besides what’s the odds, if you come to think of it? all society is fast nowadays, or at any rate all society worth living in. And then again, Lesbia is just one of those cool-headed girls who would keep herself head uppermost in a maelstrom. She knows on which side her bread is buttered. Look how easily she chucked you up because she did not think you good enough. She’ll make use of this Lady Kirkbank, who is a good soul, I am told, and will make the best match of the season.’

And now the season had begun, and Lady Lesbia Haselden was circulating with other aristocratic atoms in the social vortex, with her head apparently uppermost.

‘Old Lady K— has nobbled a real beauty, this time,’ said one of the Arlington Street set to his friend as they lolled on the railings in the park, ‘a long way above any of those plain-headed ones she tried to palm off upon us last year: the South American girl with the big eyes and a complexion like a toad, the Forfarshire girl with freckles and unsophisticated carrots. “Those lovely Spanish eyes,” said Lady K—— “that Titianesque auburn hair!” But it didn’t answer. Both the girls were plain, and they have gone back to their native obscurity spinsters still. But this is a real thorough-bred one — blood, form, pace, all there.’

‘Who is she?’ drawled his friend.

‘Lord Maulevrier’s sister, Lady Lesbia Haselden. Has money, too, I believe; rich grandmother; old lady buried alive in Westmoreland; horrid old miser.’

‘I shouldn’t mind marrying a miser’s granddaughter,’ said the other. ‘So nice to know that some wretched old idiot has scraped and hoarded through a lifetime of deprivation and self-denial, in order that one may spend his money when he is under the sod.’

Lady Lesbia was accepted everywhere, or almost everywhere, as the beauty of the season. There were six or seven other girls who aspired to the same proud position, who were asserted by their own particular friends to have won it; just as there are generally four or five horses which claim to be first favourites; but the betting was all in favour of Lady Lesbia.

Lady Kirkbank told her that she was turning everyone’s head, and Lesbia was quite willing to believe her. But was Lesbia’s own head quite steady in this whirlpool? That was a question which she did not take the trouble to ask herself.

Her heart was tranquil enough, cold as marble. No shield and safeguard so secure against the fire of new love as an old love hardly cold. Lesbia told herself that her heart was a sepulchre, an urn which held a handful of ashes, the ashes of her passion for John Hammond. It was a fire quite burned out, she thought; but that extinguished flame had left death-like coldness.

This was Lesbia’s own diagnosis of her case: but the real truth was that among the herd of men she had met, almost all of them ready to fall down and worship her, there was not one who had caught her fancy. Her nature was shallow enough to be passing fickle; the passion which she had taken for love was little more than a girl’s fancy; but the man who had power to awaken that fancy as John Hammond had done had not yet appeared in Lady Kirkbank’s circle.

‘What a cold-hearted creature you must be,’ said Georgie. ‘You don’t seem to admire any of my favourite men.’

‘They are very nice,’ Lesbia answered languidly; ‘but they are all alike. They say the same things — wear the same clothes — sit in the same attitude. One would think they were all drilled in a body every morning before they go out. Mr. Nightshade, the actor, who came to supper the other night, is the only man I have seen who has a spark of originality.’

‘You are right,’ answered Lady Kirkbank, ‘there is an appalling sameness in men: only it is odd you should find it out so soon. I never discovered it till I was an old woman. How I envy Cleopatra her Caesar and her Antony. No mistaking one of those for the other. Mary Stuart too, what marked varieties of character she had an opportunity of studying in Rizzio and Chastelard, Darnley and Bothwell. Ah, child, that is what it is to live.’

‘Mary is very interesting,’ sighed Lesbia; ‘but I fear she was not a correct person.’

‘My love, what correct person ever is interesting? History draws a misty halo round a sinner of that kind, till one almost believes her a saint. I think Mary Stuart, Froude’s Mary, simply perfect.’

Lesbia had begun by blushing at Lady Kirkbank’s opinions; but she was now used to the audacity of the lady’s sentiments, and the almost infantile candour with which she gave utterance to them. Lady Kirkbank liked to make her friends laugh. It was all she could do now in order to be admired. And there is nothing like audacity for making people laugh nowadays. Lady Kirkbank was a close student of all those delightful books of French memoirs which bring the tittle-tattle of the Regency and the scandals of Louis the Fifteenth’s reign so vividly before us: and she had unconsciously founded her manners and her ways of thinking and talking upon that easy-going but elegant age. She did not want to seem better than women who had been so altogether charming. She fortified the frivolity of historical Parisian manners by a dash of the British sporting character. She drove, shot, jumped over five-barred gates, contrived on the verge of seventy to be as active us a young woman; and she flattered herself that the mixture of wit, audacity, sport, and good-nature was full of fascination.

However this might be, it is certain that a good many people liked her, chiefly perhaps because she was good-natured, and a little on account of that admirable cook.

To Lesbia, who had been weary to loathing of her old life amidst the hills and waterfalls of Westmoreland, this new life was one perpetual round of pleasure. She flung herself with all her heart and mind into the amusement of the moment; she knew neither weariness nor satiety. To ride in the park in the morning, to go to a luncheon party, a garden party, to drive in the park for half an hour after the garden party, to rush home and dress for the fourth or fifth time, and then off to a dinner, and from dinner to drum, and from drum to big ball, at which rumour said the Prince and Princess were to be present: and so, from eleven o’clock in the morning till four or five o’clock next morning, the giddy whirl went on: and every hour was so occupied by pleasure engagements that it was difficult to squeeze in an occasional morning for shopping — necessary to go to the shops sometimes, or one would not know how many things one really wants — or for an indispensable interview with the dressmaker. Those mornings at the shops were hardly the least agreeable of Lesbia’s hours. To a girl brought up in one perpetual tête-à-tête with green hill-sides and silvery watercourses, the West End shops were as gardens of Eden, as Aladdin Caves, as anything, everything that is rapturous and intoxicating. Lesbia, the clear-headed, the cold-hearted, fairly lost her senses when she went into one of those exquisite shops, where a confusion of brocades and satins lay about in dazzling masses of richest colour, with here and there a bunch of lilies, a cluster of roses, a tortoise-shell fan, an ostrich feather, or a flounce of peerless Point d’Alençon flung carelessly athwart the sheen of a wine-dark velvet or golden-hued satin.

Lady Maulevrier had said Lesbia was to have carte blanche; so Lesbia bought everything she wanted, or fancied she wanted, or that the shop-people thought she must want, or that Lady Kirkbank happened to admire. The shop-people were so obliging, and so deeply obliged by Lesbia’s patronage. She was exactly the kind of customer they liked to serve. She flitted about their showrooms like a beautiful butterfly hovering over a flower-bed — her eye caught by every novelty. She never asked the price of anything: and Lady Kirkbank informed them, in confidence, that she was a great heiress, with a millionaire grandmother who indulged her every whim. Other high born young ladies, shopping upon fixed allowances, and sorely perplexed to make both ends meet, looked with eyes of envy upon this girl.

And then came the visit to the dressmaker. It happened after all that Kate Kearney was not intrusted with Lady Lesbia’s frocks. Miss Kearney was the fashion, and could pick and choose her customers; and as she was a young lady of good business aptitudes, she had a liking for ready money, or at least half-yearly settlements; and, finding that Lady Kirkbank was much more willing to give new orders than to pay old accounts, she had respectfully informed her ladyship that a pressure of business would prevent her executing any further demands from Arlington Street, while the necessity of posting her ledger obliged her to request the favour of an immediate cheque.

The little skirmish — per letter — occurred while Lady Kirkbank was at Cannes, and Miss Kearney’s conduct was stigmatised as insolent and ungrateful, since had not she, Lady Kirkbank by the mere fact of her patronage, given this young person her chief claim to fashion?

‘I shall drop her,’ said Georgie, ‘and go back to poor old Seraphine, who is worth a cartload of such Irish adventuresses.’

So to Madame Seraphine, of Clanricarde Place, Lady Lesbia was taken as a lamb to the slaughter-house.

Seraphine had made Lady Kirkbank’s clothes, off and on for the last thirty years. Seraphine and Georgia had grown old together. Lady Kirkbank was always dropping Seraphine and taking her up again, quarrelling and making friends with her. They wrote each other little notes, in which Lady Kirkbank called the dressmaker her cher ange— her bonne chatte, her chère vielle sotte— and all manner of affectionate names — and in which Seraphine occasionally threatened the lady with the dire engines of the law, if money were not forthcoming before Saturday evening.

Lady Kirkbank within those thirty years had paid Seraphine many thousands; but she had never once got herself out of the dear creature’s debt. All her payments were payments on account. A hundred pounds; or fifty — or an occasional cheque for two hundred and fifty, when Sir George had been lucky at Newmarket and Doncaster. But the rolling nucleus of debt went rolling on, growing bigger every year until the payments on account needed to be larger or more numerous than of old to keep Seraphine in good humour.

Seraphine was a woman of genius and versatility and had more than one art at her fingers’ ends — those skinny and claw-shaped fingers, the nails whereof were not always clean. She took charge of her customer’s figures, and made their corsets, and lectured them if they allowed nature to get the upper hand.

‘If Madame’s waist gets one quarter of an inch thicker it must be that I renounce to make her gowns,’ she would tell a ponderous matron, with cool insolence, and the matron would stand abashed before the little sallow, hooked-nosed, keen eyed Jewess, like a child before a severe mother.

‘Oh, Seraphine, do you really think that I am stouter?’ the customer would ask feebly, panting in her tightened corset.

‘Is it that I think so? Why that jumps to the eyes. Madame had always that little air of Reubens, even in the flower of her youth — but now — it is a Rubens of the Fabourg du Temple.’

And horrified at the idea of her vulgarised charms the meek matron would consent to encase herself in one of Seraphine’s severest corsets, called in bitterest mockery à la santé— at five guineas — in order that the dressmaker might measure her for a forty-guinea gown.

‘A plain satin gown, my dear, with an eighteenpenny frilling round the neck and sleeves, and not so much trimming as would go round my little finger. It is positive robbery,’ the matron told her friends afterwards, not the less proud of her skin-tight high shouldered sleeves and the peerless flow of her train.

Seraphine was an artist in complexions, and it was she who provided her middle-aged and elderly customers with the lilies and roses of youth. Lady Kirkbank’s town complexion was superintended by Seraphine, sometimes even manipulated by those harpy-like claws. The eyebrows of which Lesbia complained were only eyebrows de province— eyebrows de voyage. In London Georgie was much more particular; and Seraphine was often in Arlington Street with her little morocco bag of washes and creams, and brushes and sponges, to prepare Lady Kirkbank for some great party, and to instruct Lady Kirkbank’s maid. At such times Georgie was all affection for the little dressmaker.

Ma chatte, you have made me positively adorable,’ she would say, peering at her reflection in the ivory hand-mirror, a dazzling image of rouge and bismuth, carmined lips, diamonds, and frizzy yellow hair; ‘I verily believe I look under thirty — but do not you think this gown is a thought too decolletée — un peu trop de peau, hein?

‘Not for you, Lady Kirkbank, with your fine shoulders. Shoulders are of no age —les épaules sont la vraie fontaine de jouvence pour les jolies femmes.

‘You are such a witty creature, Seraphine, Fifine. You ought to be a descendant of that wicked old Madame du Deffand. Rilboche, give Madame some more chartreuse.’

And Lady Kirkbank and the dressmaker would chink their liqueur glasses in amity before the lady gathered up her satin train and allowed her peerless shoulders to be muffled in a plush mantle to go down to her carriage, fortified by that last glass of green chartreuse.

There were always the finest chartreuse and curaçoa in a liqueur cabinet on Lady Kirkbank’s dressing-table. The cabinet formed a companion to the dressing-case, which contained all those creamy and rose-hued cosmetics, powders, brushes, and medicaments, which were necessary for the manufacture of Georgie’s complexion. The third bottle in the liqueur case held cognac, and this, as Rilboche the maid knew, was oftenest replenished. Yet nobody could accuse Lady Kirkbank of intemperate habits. The liqueur box only supplied the peg that was occasionally wanted to screw the superior mind to concert pitch.

‘One must always be at concert pitch in society, don’t you know, my dear,’ said Georgie to her young protégée.

Thus it happened that, Miss Kearney having behaved badly, Lesbia was carried off to dear old Seraphine, and delivered over to that modern witch, as a sacrifice tied to the horns of the altar.

Clanricarde Place is a little nook of Queen Anne houses — genuine Queen Anne, be it understood — between Piccadilly and St. James’s Palace, and hardly five minutes’ walk from Arlington Street. It is a quiet little cul de sac in the very heart of the fashionable world; and here of an afternoon might be seen the carriages of Madame Seraphine’s customers, blocking the whole of the carriage way, and choking up the narrow entrance to the street, which widened considerably at the inner end.

Madame Seraphine’s house was at the end, a narrow house, with tall old-fashioned windows curtained with amber satin. It was a small, dark house, and exhaled occasional odours of garlic and main sewer: but the staircase was a gem in old oak, and the furniture in the triple telescopic drawing rooms, dwindling to a closet at the end, was genuine Louis Seize.

Seraphine herself was the only shabby thing in the house — a wizened little woman, with a wicked old Jewish face, and one shoulder higher than the other, dressed in a shiny black moire gown, years after moires had been exploded, and with a rag of old lace upon her sleek black hair — raven black hair, and the only good thing about her appearance.

One ornament, and one only, had Seraphine ever been guilty of wearing, and that was an old-fashioned half-hoop ring of Brazilian diamonds, brilliants of the first water. This ring she called her yard measure; and she was in the habit of using it as her Standard of purity, and comparing it with any diamonds which her customers submitted to her inspection. For the clever little dressmaker had a feeling heart for a lady in difficulties, and was in the habit of lending money on good security, and on terms that were almost reasonable as compared with the usurious rates one reads of in the newspapers.

Lesbia’s first sensation upon having this accomplished person presented to her was one of shrinking and disgust. There was something sinister in the sallow face, the small shrewd eyes, and long hooked nose, the crooked figure, and claw-shaped hands. But when Madame Seraphine began to talk about gowns, and bade her acolytes — smartly-dressed young women with pleasing countenances — bring forth marvels of brocade and satin, embroideries, stamped velvets, bullion fringes, and ostrich feather flouncings, Lesbia became interested, and forgot the unholy aspect of the high priestess.

Lady Kirkbank and the dressmaker discussed Lesbia’s charms as calmly as if she had been out of the room.

‘What do you think of her figure?’ asked Lady Kirkbank.

‘One cannot criticise what does not exist,’ replied the dressmaker, in French. ‘The young lady has no figure. She has evidently been brought up in the country.’

And then with rapid bird-like movements, and with her head on one side, Seraphine measured Lesbia’s waist and bust, muttering little argotic expressions sotto voce as she did so.

‘Waist three inches too large, shoulders six inches too narrow,’ she said decisively, and she dictated some figures to one of the damsels, who wrote them down in an order-book.

‘What does that mean?’ asked Lesbia, not at all approving of such cavalier treatment.

‘Only that Seraphine will make your corsets the right size,’ answered Lady Kirkbank.

‘What? Three inches too small for my waist, and six too wide for my shoulders?’

‘My love, you must have a figure,’ replied Lady Kirkbank, conclusively. ‘It is not what you are, but what you ought to be that has to be considered.’

So Lesbia, the cool-headed, who was also the weak-minded, consented to have her figure adjusted to the regulation mark of absolute beauty, as understood by Madame Seraphine. It was only when her complexion came under discussion, and Seraphine ventured to suggest that she would be all the better for a little accentuation of her eyebrows and darkening of her lashes, that Lesbia made a stand.

‘What would my grandmother think of me if she heard I painted?’ she asked, indignantly.

Lady Kirkbank laughed at her naïveté.

‘My dear child, your grandmother is just half a century behind the age,’ she said. ‘I hope you are not going to allow your life in London to be regulated by an oracle at Grasmere?’

‘I am not going to paint my face,’ replied Lesbia, firmly.

‘Well, perhaps you are right. The eyebrows are a little weak and undecided, Seraphine, as you say, and the lashes would be all the better for your famous cosmetic; but after all there is a charm in what the painters call “sincerity,” and any little errors of detail will prove the genuineness of Lady Lesbia’s beauty. One may be too artistic.’

And Lady Kirkbank gave a complacent glance at her own image in one of the Marie Antoinette mirrors, pleased with the general effect of arched brows, darkened eyelids, and a daisy bonnet. The fair Georgie generally affected field-flowers and other simplicities, which would have been becoming to a beauty of eighteen.

‘One is obliged to smother one’s self in satin and velvet for balls and dinners,’ said Lady Kirkbank, when she discussed the great question of gowns; ‘but I know I always look my best in my cotton frock and straw hat.’

That first visit to Seraphine’s den — den as terrible, did one but know it, as that antediluvian hyena-cave at Torquay, where the threshold is worn by the bodies of beasts dragged across it, and the ground paved with their bones — that first visit was a serious business. Later interviews might be mere frivolities, half-an-hour wasted in looking at new fashions, an order given carelessly on the spur of the moment; but upon this occasion Lady Kirkbank had to arm her young protégée for the coming campaign, and the question was to the last degree serious.

The chaperon and the dressmaker put their heads together, looked at fashion plates, talked solemnly of Worth and his compeers, of the gowns that were being worn by Bernhardt, and Pierson, and Croisette, and other stars of the Parisian stage; and then Lady Kirkbank gave her orders, Lesbia listening and assenting.

Nothing was said about prices; but Lesbia had a vague idea that some of the things would be rather expensive, and she ventured to ask Lady Kirkbank if she were not ordering too many gowns.

‘My dear, Lady Maulevrier said you were to have carte blanche,’ replied Georgie, solemnly. ‘Your dear grandmother is as rich as Croesus, and she is generosity itself; and how should I ever forgive myself if I allowed you to appear in society in an inadequate style. You have to take a high place, the very highest place, Lesbia; and you must be dressed in accordance with that position.’

Lesbia said no more. After all it was Lady Kirkbank’s business and not hers. See had been entrusted to Lady Kirkbank as to a person who thoroughly knew the great world, and she must submit to be governed by the wisdom and experience of her chaperon. If the bills were heavy, that would be Lady Kirkbank’s affair; and no doubt dear grandmother was rich enough to afford anything Lesbia wanted. She had been told that she was to take rank among heiresses.

Lady Maulevrier had given her granddaughter some old-fashioned ornaments, topaz, amethysts, turquoise — jewels that had belonged to dead and gone Talmashes and Angersthorpes — to be reset. This entailed a visit to a Bond Street jeweller, and in the dazzling glass-cases on the counter of the Bond Street establishment Lesbia saw a good many things which she felt were real necessities to her new phase of existence, and these, with Lady Kirkbank’s approval, she ordered. They were not important matters. Half-a-dozen gold bangles of real oriental workmanship, three or four jewelled arrows, flies and beetles, and caterpillars, to pin on her laces and flowers, a diamond clasp for her pearl necklace, a dear little gold hunter to wear when she rode in the park, a diamond butterfly to light up that old-fashioned amethyst parure which the jeweller was to reset with an artistic admixture of brilliants.

‘I am sure you would not like the effect without diamonds,’ said the jeweller. ‘Your amethysts are very fine, but they are dark and heavy in tone, and want a good deal of lighting-up, especially for the present fashion of half-lighted rooms. If you will allow me to use my own discretion, and mix in a few brilliants, I shall be able to produce a really artistic parure; otherwise I would not recommend you to touch them. The present setting is clumsy and inelegant; but I really do not know that I could improve upon it, without an admixture of brilliants.’

‘Will the diamonds add very much to the expense?’ Lesbia inquired, timidly.

‘My dear child, you are perfectly safe in leaving the matter in Mr. Cabochon’s hands,’ interposed Lady Kirkbank, who had particular reasons for wishing to be on good terms with the head of the establishment. ‘Your dear grandmother gave you the amethysts to be reset; and of course she would wish it to be done in an artistic manner. Otherwise, as Mr. Cabochon judiciously says, why have the stones reset at all? Better wear them in all their present hideousness.’

Of course, after this Lesbia consented to the amethysts being dealt with according to Mr. Cabochon’s taste.

‘Which is simply perfect,’ interjected Lady Kirkbank.

And now Lesbia’s campaign began in real earnest — a life of pleasure, a life of utter selfishness and self-indulgence, which would go far to pervert the strongest mind, tarnish the purest nature. To dress and be admired — that was what Lesbia’s life meant from morning till night. She had no higher or nobler aim. Even on Sunday mornings at the fashionable church, where the women sat on one side of the nave and the men on the other, where divinest music was as a pair of wings, on which the enraptured soul flew heavenward — even here Lesbia thought more of her bonnet and gloves — the chic or non-chic of her whole costume, than of the service. She might kneel gracefully, with her bent head, just revealing the ivory whiteness of a lovely throat, between the edge of her lace frilling and the flowers in her bonnet. She might look the fairest image of devotion; but how could a woman pray whose heart was a milliner’s shop, whose highest ambition was to be prettier and better dressed than other women?

The season was six weeks old. It was Ascot week, the crowning glory of the year, and Lesbia and her chaperon had secured tickets for the Royal enclosure — or it may be said rather that Lesbia had secured them — for the Master of the Royal Buckhounds might have omitted poor old Lady Kirkbank’s familiar name from his list if it had not been for that lovely girl who went everywhere under the veteran’s wing.

Six weeks, and Lesbia’s appearance in society had been one perpetual triumph; but as yet nothing serious had happened. She had had no offers. Half a dozen men had tried their hardest to propose to her — had sat out dances, had waylaid her in conservatories and in back drawing-rooms, in lobbies while she waited for her carriage — had looked at her piteously with tenderest declarations trembling on their lips; but she had contrived to keep them at bay, to strike them dumb by her coldness, or confound them by her coquetry; for all these were ineligibles, whom Lady Lesbia Haselden did not want to have the trouble of refusing.

Lady Kirkbank was in no haste to marry her protégée— nay, it was much more to her interest that Lesbia should remain single for three or four seasons, and that she, Lady Kirkbank, might have the advantage of close association with the young beauty, and the privilege of spending Lady Maulevrier’s money. But she would have liked to be able to inform Lesbia’s grandmother of some tremendous conquest — the subjugation of a worthy victim. This herd of nobodies — younger sons with courtesy titles and empty pockets, ruined Guardsmen, briefless barristers — what was the use of telling Lady Maulevrier about such barren victories? Lady Kirkbank therefore contented herself with expatiating upon Lesbia’s triumphs in a general way: how graciously the Princess spoke to her and about her; how she had been asked to sit on the dais at the ball at Marlborough House, and had danced in the Royal quadrille.

‘Has Lesbia happened to meet Lord Hartfield?’ Lady Maulevrier asked, incidentally, in one of her letters.

No. Lord Hartfield was in London, for he had made a great speech in the Lords on a question of vital interest; but he was not going into society, or at any rate into society of a frivolous kind. He had given himself up to politics, as so many young men did nowadays, which was altogether horrid of them. His name had appeared in the list of guests at one or two cabinet dinners; but the world of polo matches and afternoon teas, dances and drums, private theatricals, and Orleans House suppers, knew him not. As a competitor on the fashionable race-course, Lord Hartfield was, in common parlance, out of the running.

And now on this glorious June day, this Thursday of Thursdays, the Ascot Cup day, for the first time since Lesbia’s début, Lady Kirkbank had occasion to smile upon an admirer whose pretensions were worthy of the highest consideration.

Mr. Smithson, of Park Lane, and Rood Hall, near Henley, and Formosa, Cowes, and Le Bouge, Deauville, and a good many other places too numerous to mention, was reputed to be one of the richest commoners in England. He was a man of that uncertain period of life which enemies call middle age, and friends call youth. That he would never see a five-and-thirtieth birthday again was certain; but whether he had passed the Rubicon of forty was open to doubt. It is possible that he was enjoying those few golden years between thirty-five and forty, which for the wealthy bachelor constitute verily the prime and summer-tide of life. Wisdom has come, experience has been bought, taste has been cultivated, the man has educated himself to the uttermost in the great school of daily life. He knows his world thoroughly, whatever that world is, and he knows how to enjoy every gift and every advantage which Providence has bestowed upon him.

Mr. Smithson was a great authority on the Stock Exchange, though he had ceased for the last three or four years to frequent the ‘House,’ or to be seen in the purlieus of Throgmorton Street. Indeed he had an air of hardly knowing his way to the City, of being acquainted with that part of London only by hearsay. He complained that his horses shied at passing Temple Bar. And yet a few years ago Mr. Smithson’s city operations had been on a very extensive scale: It was in the rise and fall of commodities rather than of stocks and shares that Horace Smithson had made his money. He had exercised occult influences upon the trade of the great city, of the world itself, whereof that city is in a manner the keystone. Iron had risen or fallen at his beck. At the breath of his nostrils cochineal had gone up in the market at an almost magical rate, as if the whole civilised world had become suddenly intent upon dyeing its garments red, nay, as if even the naked savages of the Gold Coast and the tribes of Central Africa were bent on staining their dusky skins with the bodies of the female coccus.

Favoured by a hint from Smithson, his particular friends followed his lead, and rushed into the markets to buy all the cochineal that could be had; to buy at any price, since the market was rising hourly. And then, all in a moment, as the sky clouds over on a summer day, there came a dulness in the cochineal market, and the female coccus was being sold at an enormous sacrifice. And anon it leaked out that Mr. Smithson had grown tired of cochineal, and had been selling for the last week or two; and it was noised abroad that this rise and fall in cocci had brought Mr. Smithson seventy thousand pounds.

Mr. Smithson was said to have commenced life in a very humble capacity. There were some who declared he was the very youth who stooped to pick up a pin in a Parisian banker’s courtyard, after his services as clerk had just been rejected by the firm, and who was thereupon recognised as a youth worthy of favour and taken into the banker’s office. But this touching incident of the pin was too ancient a tradition to fit Mr. Smithson, still under forty.

Some there were who remembered him eighteen years ago as an adventurer in the great wilderness of London, penniless, friendless, a Jack-of-all-trades, living as the birds of the air live, and with as little certainty of future maintenance. And then Mr. Smithson disappeared for a space — he went under, as his friends called it; to re-appear fifteen years later as Smithson the millionaire. He had been in Peru, Mexico, California. He had traded in hides, in diamonds, in silver, in stocks and shares. And now he was the great Smithson, whose voice was the voice of an oracle, who was supposed to be able to make the fortunes of other men by a word, or a wink, a nod, or a little look across the crowd, and whom all the men and women in London society — short of that exclusive circle which does not open its ranks to Smithsons — were ready to cherish and admire.

Mr. Smithson had been in Petersburg, Paris, Vienna, all over civilised Europe during the last five weeks, whether on business or on pleasure bent, nobody knew. He affected to be an elegant idler; but it was said by the initiated that wherever Smithson went the markets rose or fell, and hides, iron, copper, or tin, felt the influence of his presence.

He came back to London in time for the Cup Day, and in time to fall desperately in love with Lesbia, whom he met for the first time in the Royal enclosure.

She was dressed in white, purest ivory white, from top to toe — radiant, dazzling, under an immense sunshade fringed with creamy marabouts. Her complexion — untouched by Seraphine — her dark and glossy hair, her large violet eyes, luminous, dark almost to blackness, were all set off and accentuated by the absence of colour in her costume. Even the cluster of exotics on her shoulder were of the same pure tint, gardenias and lilies of the valley.

Mr. Smithson was formally presented to the new beauty, and received with a cool contempt which riveted his chains. He was so accustomed to be run after by women, that it was a new sensation to meet one who was not in the least impressed by his superior merits.

‘I don’t suppose the girl knows who I am,’ he said to himself, for although he had a very good idea of his intrinsic worth, he knew that his wealth ranked first among his merits.

But on after occasions when Lesbia had been told all that could be told to the advantage of Mr. Smithson, she accepted his homage with the same indifference, and treated him with less favour than she accorded to the ruined guardsmen and younger sons who were dying for her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/braddon/mary_elizabeth/phantom_fortune/chapter25.html

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