Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 27

Lesbia Crosses Piccadilly.

Lady Kirkbank and Lady Lesbia drove across Piccadilly at eleven o’clock on Wednesday morning to breakfast with Mr. Smithson, and although Lesbia had questioned whether it was worth while crossing Piccadilly to eat one’s breakfast, she had subsequently considered it worth while ordering a new gown from Seraphine for the occasion; or, it may be, rather that the breakfast made a plausible excuse for a new gown, the pleasure of ordering which was one of those joys of a London life that had not yet lost their savour.

The gown, devised especially for the early morning, was simplicity itself — rusticity, even. It was a Dresden shepherdess gown, made of a soft flowered stuff, with roses and forget-me-nots on a creamy ground. There was a great deal of creamy lace, and innumerable yards of palest azure and palest rose ribbon in the confection, and there was a coquettish little hat, the regular Dresden hat, with a wreath of rosebuds.

‘Dresden china incarnate!’ exclaimed Smithson, as he welcomed Lady Lesbia on the threshold of his marble hall, under the glass marquise which sheltered arrivals at his door. ‘Why do you make yourself so lovely? I shall want to keep you in one of my Louis Seize cabinets, with the rest of my Dresden!’

Lady Kirkbank had considered the occasion suitable for one of her favourite cotton frocks and rustic hats — a Leghorn hat, with clusters Of dog-roses and honeysuckle, and a trail of the same hedge-flowers to fasten her muslin fichu.

Mr. Smithson’s house in Park Lane was simply perfect. It is wonderful what good use a parvenu can make of his money nowadays, and how rarely he disgraces himself by any marked offences against good taste. There are so many people at hand to teach the parvenu how to furnish his house, or how to choose his stud. If he go wrong it must be by sheer perversity, an arrogant insistence upon being governed by his own ignorant inclinations.

Mr. Smithson was too good a tactician to go wrong in this way. He had taken the trouble to study the market before he went out to buy his goods. He knew that taste and knowledge were to be bought just as easily as chairs and tables, and he went to the right shop. He employed a clever Scotchman, an artist in domestic furniture, to plan his house, and make drawings for the decoration and furniture of every room — and for six months he gave himself up to the task of furnishing.

Money was spent like water. Painters, decorators, cabinet-makers had a merry time of it. Royal Academicians were impressed into the service by large offers, and the final result of Mr. MacWalter’s taste and Mr. Smithson’s bullion was a palace in the style of the Italian Renaissance, frescoed ceilings, painted panels, a staircase of sculptured marble, as beautiful as a dream, a conservatory as exquisite as a jewel casket by Benvenuto Cellini, a picture gallery which was the admiration of all London, and of the enlightened foreigner, and of the inquiring American. This was the house which Lesbia had been brought to see, and through which she walked with the calmly critical air of a person who had seen so many palaces that one more or less could make no difference.

In vain did Mr. Smithson peruse her countenance in the hope of seeing that she was impressed by the splendour of his surroundings, and by the power of the man who commanded such splendour. Lesbia was as cold as the Italian sculptor’s Reading Girl in an alcove of Mr. Smithson’s picture gallery; and the stockbroker felt very much as Aladdin might have done if the fair Badroulbadour had shown herself indifferent to the hall of the jewelled windows, in that magical palace which sprang into being in a single night.

Lesbia had been impressed by that story of poor Belle Trinder and by Lady Kirkbank’s broad assertion that half the young women in London were running after Mr. Smithson; and she had made up her mind to treat the man with supreme scorn. She did not want his houses or his yachts. Nothing could induce her to marry such a man, she told herself; but her vanity fed upon the idea of his subjugation, and her pride was gratified by the sense of her power over him.

The guests were few and choice. There was Mr. Meander, the poet, one of the leading lights in that new sect which prides itself upon the cultivation of abstract beauty, and occasionally touches the verge of concrete ugliness. There were a newspaper man — the editor of a fashionable journal — and a middle-aged man of letters, playwright, critic, humourist, a man whose society was in demand everywhere, and who said sharp things with the most supreme good-nature. The only ladies whose society Mr. Smithson had deemed worthy the occasion were a fashionable actress, with her younger sister, the younger a pretty copy of the elder, both dressed picturesquely in flowing cashmere gowns of faint sea-green, with old lace fichus, leghorn hats, and a general limpness and simplicity of style which suited their cast of feature and delicate colouring. Lesbia wondered to see how good an effect could be produced by a costume which could have cost so little. Mr. Nightshade, the famous tragedian, had been also asked to grace the feast, but the early hour made the invitation a mockery. It was not to be supposed that a man who went to bed at daybreak would get up again before the sun was in the zenith, for the sake of Mr. Smithson’s society, or Mr. Smithson’s Strasbourg pie, for the manufacture whereof a particular breed of geese were supposed to be set apart, like sacred birds in Egypt, while a particular vineyard in the Gironde was supposed to be devoted wholly and solely to the production of Mr. Smithson’s claret. It was a cabinet wine, like those rare vintages of the Rhineland which are reserved exclusively for German princes.

Breakfast was served in Mr. Smithson’s smallest dining-room — there were three apartments given up to feasting, beginning with a spacious banqueting-room for great dinners, and dwindling down to this snuggery, which held about a dozen comfortably, with ample room and verge enough for the attendants. The walls were old gold silk, the curtains a tawny velvet of deeper tone, the cabinets and buffet of dark Italian walnut, inlaid with lapis-lazuli and amber. The fireplace was a masterpiece of cabinet work, with high narrow shelves, and curious recesses holding priceless jars of Oriental enamel. The deep hearth was filled with arum lilies and azalias, like a font at Easter.

Lady Kirkbank, who pretended to adore genius, was affectionately effusive to Miss Fitzherbert, the popular actress, but she rather ignored the sister. Lesbia was less cordial, and was not enchanted at finding that Miss Fitzherbert shone and sparkled at the breakfast table by the gaiety of her spirits and the brightness of her conversation. There was something frank and joyous, almost to childishness, in the actress’s manner, which was full of fascination; and Lesbia felt herself at a disadvantage almost for the first time since she had been in London.

The editor, the wit, the poet, the actress, had a language of their own; and Lesbia felt herself out in the cold, unable to catch the ball as it glanced past her, not quick enough to follow the wit that evoked those ripples of silvery laughter from the two fair-haired, pale-faced girls in sea-green cashmere. She felt as an Englishman may feel who has made himself master of academical French, and who takes up one of Zola’s novels, or goes into artistic society, and finds that there is another French, a complete and copious language, of which he knows not a word.

Lesbia began to think that she had a great deal to learn. She began to wonder even whether, in the event of her having made rather too free use of Lady Maulevrier’s carte blanche, it might not be well to make a new departure in the art of dressing, and to wear untrimmed cashmere gowns, and rags of limp lace.

After breakfast they all went to look at Mr. Smithson’s picture gallery. His pictures were, as he had told Lesbia, chiefly of the French school, and there may have been a remote period — say, in the time of good Queen Charlotte — when such pictures would hardly have been exhibited to young ladies. His pictures were Mr. Smithson’s own unaided choice. Here the individual taste of the man stood revealed.

There were two or three Geromes; and in the place of honour at the end of the gallery there was a grand Delaroche, Anne Boleyn’s last letter to the king, the hapless girl-queen sitting at a table in her gloomy cell in the Tower, a shaft of golden light from the narrow window streaming on the fair, disordered hair, the face bleached with unutterable woe, a sublime image of despair and self-abandonment.

The larger pictures were historical, classic, grand: but the smaller pictures — the lively little bits of colour dotted in here and there — were of that new school which Mr. Smithson affected. They were of that school which is called Impressionist, in which ballet dancers and jockeys, burlesque actresses, masked balls, and all the humours of the side scenes are represented with the sublime audacity of an art which disdains finish, and relies on chic, fougue, chien, flou, v’lan, the inspiration of the moment. Lesbia blushed as she looked at the ballet girls, the maskers in their scanty raiment, the demi-mondaines lolling out of their opera boxes, and half out of their gowns, with false smiles and frizzled hair. And then there came the works of that other school which lavishes the finish of a Meissonier on the most meretricious compositions. A woman in a velvet gown warming her dainty little feet on a gilded fender, in a boudoir all aglow with colour and lamplight; a cavalier in satin raiment buckling his sword-belt before a Venetian mirror; a pair of lovers kissing in a sunlit corridor; a girl in a hansom cab; a milliner’s shop; and so on, and so on.

Then came the classical subjects of the last new school. Weak imitations of Alma Tadema. Nero admiring his mother’s corpse; Claudius interrupting Messalina’s marriage with her lover Silus; Clodius disguised among the women of Caesar’s household; Pyrrha’s grotto. Lady Kirkbank expatiated upon all the pictures, and generally made unlucky guesses at the subjects of them. Classical literature was not her strong point.

Mr. Meander, the poet, discovered that all the beautiful heads were like Miss Fitzherbert. ‘It is the same line,’ he exclaimed, ‘the line of lilies and flowing waters — the gracious ineffable upward returning ripple of the true retroussé nose, the divine flou, the loveliness which has lain dormant for centuries — nay, was at one period of debased art scorned and trampled under foot by the porcine multitude, as akin to the pug and the turn-up, until discovered and enshrined on the altar of the Beautiful by the Boticelli Revivalists.’

Miss Fitzherbert simpered, and accepted these remarks as mere statements of obvious fact. She was accustomed to hear of Boticelli and the early Italian painters in connection with her own charms of face and figure.

Lesbia, whose faultless features were of the aquiline type, regarded the bard’s rhapsody as insufferable twaddle, and began to think Mr. Smithson almost a wit when he made fun of the bard.

Smithson was enchanted when she laughed at his jokelets, even although she did not scruple to tell him that she thought his favourite pictures detestable, and looked with the eye of indifference on a collection of jade that was worth a small fortune.

Mr. Meander fell into another rhapsody over those classic cups and shallow little bowls of absinthe-coloured jade.

‘Here if you like, are colour and beauty,’ he murmured, caressing one of the little cups with the roseate tips of his supple fingers. ‘These, dearest Smithson, are worth all the rest of your collection; worth vanloads of your cloisonné enamels, your dragon-jars in blood-colour and blue. This cloudy indefinable substance, not crudely transparent nor yet distinctly opaque, a something which touches the boundary line of two worlds — the real and the ideal. And then the colour! Great heaven, can anything be lovelier than this shadowy tint which is neither yellow nor green; faint, faint as the dawn of newly-awakened day? After the siege of blood-bedabbled Delhi, Baron Rothschild sent a special agent to India to buy him a little jade tea-pot which had been the joy of Eastern Kings. Only a tea-pot. Yet Rothschild deemed it worth a voyage from England to India. That is what the love of the beautiful means, in Jew or Gentile,’ concluded the bard, smiling on the company, as they gathered round the Florentine table on which the jade specimens were set out, Lady Kirkbank looking at the little cups and basins as if she thought they were going to do something, after all this fuss had been made about them. It seemed hardly credible that any reasonable being could have given thirty guineas for one of those bits of greenish-yellow clouded glass, unless the thing had some peculiar property of expansion or contraction.

After this breakfast in Park Lane Lady Lesbia and her admirer met daily. He went to all her parties; he sat out waltzes with her, in conservatories, and on staircases; for Horace Smithson was much too shrewd a man too enter himself in the race for dancing men, handicapped by his forty years and his fourteen stone. He contrived to amuse Lesbia by his conversation, which was essentially mundane, depreciating people whom all the rest of the world admired, or pretended to admire, telling her of the secret springs by which the society she saw around her was moved. He was judicious in his revelations of hidden evil, and careful to say nothing which should offend Lady Lesbia’s modesty; yet he contrived in a very short time to teach her that the world in which she lived was an utterly corrupt world, whose high priest was Satan; that all lofty aspirations and noble sentiments were out of place in society; and that the worst among the people she met were the people who laid any claim to being better than their neighbours.

‘That’s why I adore Lady Kirkbank,’ he said, confidentially. ‘The dear soul never pretends to be any better than the rest of us. She gambles, and we all know she gambles; she pegs, and we all know she pegs; and she makes rather a boast of being up to her eyes in debt. No humbug about dear old Georgie.’

Lesbia had seen enough, of her chaperon by this time to know that Mr. Smithson’s description of the lady was correct, and, this being so, she supposed that the facts and traits of character which he told her about in other people were also true. She thus adopted the Smithsonian, or fashionable-pessimist view of society in general, and resigned herself to the idea that the world was a very wicked world, as well as a very pleasant world, that the wickedest people were generally the pleasantest, and that it did not much matter.

The fact that Mr. Smithson was at Lesbia Haselden’s feet was obvious to everybody.

Lesbia, who had at first treated him with supreme hauteur, had grown more civil as she began to understand the place he held in the world, and how much social influence goes along with unlimited wealth. She was civil, but she had quite made up her mind that nothing could ever induce her to become Horace Smithson’s wife. That offer which had hung fire in the case of poor Belle Trinder, was not too long delayed on this occasion. Mr. Smithson called in Arlington Street about ten days after the breakfast in Park Lane, before luncheon, and before Lady Kirkbank had left her room. He brought tickets for a matinée d’invitation in Belgrave Square, at which a new and wonderful Russian pianiste was to make a kind of semi-official début, before an audience of critics and distinguished amateurs, and the elect of the musical world. They wore tickets which money could not buy, and were thus a meet offering for Lady Lesbia, and a plausible excuse for an early call.

Mr. Smithson succeeded in seeing Lesbia alone, and then and there, with very little circumlocution, asked her to be his wife.

Her social education had advanced considerably since that summer day in the pine-wood, when John Hammond had wooed her with passionate wooing. Mr. Smithson was a much less ardent suitor, and made his offer with the air of a man who expects to be accepted.

Lesbia’s beautiful head bent a little, like a lily on its stalk, and a faint blush deepened the pale rose tint of her complexion. Her reply was courteous and conventional. She was flattered, she was grateful for Mr. Smithson’s high opinion of her; but she was deeply grieved if anything in her manner had given him reason to think that he was more to her than a friend, an old friend of dear Lady Kirkbank’s, whom she was naturally predisposed to like, as Lady Kirkbank’s friend.

Horace Smithson turned pale as death, but if he was angry, he gave no utterance to his angry feelings. He only asked if Lady Lesbia’s answer was final — and on being told that it was so, he dismissed the subject in the easiest manner, and with a gentlemanlike placidity which very much astonished the lady.

‘You say that you regard me as your friend,’ he said. ‘Do not withdraw that privilege from me because I have asked for a higher place in your esteem. Forget all I have said this morning. Be assured I shall never offend you by repeating it.’

‘You are more than good,’ murmured Lesbia, who had expected a wild outbreak of despair or fury, rather than this friendly calm.

‘I hope that you and Lady Kirkbank will go and hear Madame Metzikoff this afternoon,’ pursued Mr. Smithson, returning to the subject of the matinée. ‘The duchess’s rooms are lovely; but no doubt you know them.’

Lesbia blushed, and confessed that the Duchess of Lostwithiel was one of those select few who were not on Lady Kirkbank’s visiting list.

‘There are people Lady Kirkbank cannot get on with,’ she said. ‘Perhaps she will hardly like to go to the duchess’s, as she does not visit her.’

‘Oh, but this affair counts for nothing. We go to hear Metzikoff, not to bow down to the duchess. All the people in town who care for music will be there, and you who play so divinely must enjoy fine professional playing.’

‘I worship a really great player,’ said Lesbia, ‘and if I can drag Lady Kirkbank to the house of the enemy, we will be there.’

On this Mr. Smithson discreetly murmured ‘au revoir,’ took up his hat and cane, and departed, without, in Sir George’s parlance, having turned a hair.

‘Refusal number one,’ he said to himself, as he went downstairs, with his leisurely catlike pace, that velvet step by which he had gradually crept into society. ‘We may have to go through refusal number two and number three; but she means to have me. She is a very clever girl for a countrybred one; and she knows that it is worth her while to be Lady Lesbia Smithson.’

This soliloquy may be taken to prove that Horace Smithson knew Lesbia Haselden better than she knew herself. She had refused him in all good faith; but even to-day, after he had left her, she fell into a day-dream in which Mr. Smithson’s houses and yachts, drags and hunters, formed the shifting pictures in a dissolving view of society; and Lesbia wondered if there were any other young woman in London who would refuse such an offer as that which she had quietly rejected half-an-hour ago.

Lady Kirkbank surprised her while she was still absorbed in this dreamy review of the position. It is just possible that the fair Georgie may have had notice of Mr. Smithson’s morning visit, and may have kept out of the way on purpose, for she was not a person of lazy habits, and was generally ready for her nine o’clock breakfast and her morning stroll in the park, however late she might have been out overnight.

‘Mr. Smithson has been here, I understand,’ said Lady Kirkbank, settling herself in an arm-chair by the open window, after she had kissed her protégée. ‘Rilboche passed him on the stairs.’

‘Rilboche is always passing people on the stairs,’ answered Lesbia rather pettishly. ‘I think she must spend her life on the landing, listening for arrivals and departures.’

‘I had a kind of vague idea that Smithson would call to-day. He was so fussy about those tickets for the Metzikoff recital. I hate pianoforte recitals, and I detest that starched old duchess, but I suppose I shall have to take you there — or poor Smithson will be miserable,’ said Lady Kirkbank, watching Lesbia keenly over the top of the newspaper.

She expected Lesbia to confide in her, to announce herself blushingly as the betrothed of one of the richest commoners in England. But Lesbia sat gazing dreamily across the flowers in the balcony at the house over the way, and said never a word; so Lady Kirkbank’s curiosity burst into speech.

‘Well, my dear, has he proposed? There was something in his manner last night when he put on your wraps that made me think the crisis was near.’

‘The crisis is come and is past, and Mr. Smithson and I are just as good friends as ever.’

‘What!’ screamed Lady Kirkbank. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you have refused him?’

‘Certainly. You know I never meant to do anything else. Did you think I was like Miss Trinder, bent upon marrying town and country houses, stables and diamonds?’

‘I did not think you were a fool,’ cried Lady Kirkbank, almost beside herself with vexation, for it had been borne in upon her, as the Methodists sometimes say, that if Mr. Smithson should prosper in his wooing it would be better for her, Lady Kirkbank, who would have a claim upon his kindness ever after. ‘What can be your motive in refusing one of the very best matches of the season — or of ever so many seasons? You think, perhaps, you will marry a duke, if you wait long enough for his Grace to appear: but the number of marrying dukes is rather small, Lady Lesbia, and I don’t think any of those would care to marry Lord Maulevrier’s granddaughter.’

Lesbia started to her feet, pale as ashes.

‘Why do you fling my grandfather’s name in my face — and with that diabolical sneer?’ she exclaimed. ‘When I have asked you about him you have always evaded my questions. Why should a man of the highest rank shrink from marrying Lord Maulevrier’s granddaughter? My grandfather was a distinguished man — Governor of Madras. Such posts are not given to nobodies. How can you dare to speak as if it were a disgrace to me to belong to him?’

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