Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 28

‘Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in Wild Disorder Seen.’

Lady Kirkbank had considerable difficulty in smoothing Lesbia’s ruffled plumage. She did all in her power to undo the effect of her rash words — declared that she had been carried away by temper — she had spoken she knew not what — words of no meaning. Of course Lesbia’s grandfather had been a great man — Governor of Madras; altogether an important and celebrated person — and Lady Kirkbank had meant nothing, could have meant nothing to his disparagement.

‘My dearest girl, I was beside myself, and talked sheer nonsense,’ said Georgie. ‘But you know really now, dearest, any woman of the world would be provoked at your foolish refusal of that dear good Smithson. Only think of that too lovely house in Park Lane, a palace in the style of the Italian Renaissance — such a house is in itself equivalent to a peerage — and there is no doubt Smithson will be offered a peerage before he is much older. I have heard it confidently asserted that when the present Ministry retires Smithson will be made a Peer. You have no idea what a useful man he is, or what henchman’s service he has done the Ministry in financial matters. And then there is his villa at Deauville — you don’t know Deauville — a positively perfect place, the villa, I mean, built by the Duke de Morny in the golden days of the Empire — and another at Cowes, and his palace in Berkshire, a manor, my love, with a glorious old Tudor manor-house; and he has a pied à terre in Paris, in the Faubourg, a ground-floor furnished in the Pompeian style, half-a-dozen rooms opening one out of the other, and surrounding a small garden, with a fountain in the middle. Some of the greatest people in Paris occupy the upper part of the house, and their rooms of course are splendid; but Smithson’s ground-floor is the gem of the Faubourg. However, I suppose there is no use in talking any more; for there is the gong for luncheon.’

Lesbia was in no humour for luncheon.

‘I would rather have a cup of tea in my own room,’ she said. ‘This Smithson business has given me an abominable headache.’

‘But you will go to hear Metzikoff?’

‘No, thanks. You detest the Duchess of Lostwithiel, and you don’t care for pianoforte recitals. Why should I drag you there?’

‘But, my dearest Lesbia, I am not such a selfish wretch as to keep you at home, when I know you are passionately fond of good music. Forget all about your headache, and let me see how that lovely little Catherine of Aragon bonnet suits you. I’m so glad I happened to see it in Seraphine’s hands yesterday, just as she was going to send it to Lady Fonvielle, who gives herself such intolerable airs on the strength of a pretty face, and always wants to get the primeures in bonnets and things.’

‘Another new bonnet!’ replied Lesbia. ‘What an infinity of things I seem to be having from Seraphine. I’m afraid I must owe her a good deal of money.’

This was a vague way of speaking about actual facts. Lady Lesbia might have spoken with more certainty. Her wardrobes and old-fashioned hanging closets and chests of drawers in Arlington Street were crammed to overflowing with finery; and then there were all the things that she had grown tired of, or had thought unbecoming, and had given away to Kibble, her own maid, or to Rilboche, who had in a great measure superseded Kibble on all important occasions; for how could a Westmoreland girl know how to dress a young lady for London balls and drawing-rooms?

‘If you had only accepted Mr. Smithson it would not matter how much money you owed people,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘You had better come down to lunch. A glass of Heidseck will bring you up to concert pitch.’

Champagne was Lady Kirkbank’s idea of a universal panacea; and she had gradually succeeded in teaching Lesbia to believe in the sovereign power of Heidseck as a restorative for shattered nerves. At Fellside Lesbia had drunk only water; but then at Fellside she had never known that feeling of exhaustion and prostration which follows days and nights spent in society, the wear and tear of a mind forever on the alert, and brilliant spirits which are more often forced than real. For her chief stimulant Lesbia had recourse to the teapot; but there were occasions when she found that something more than tea was needed to maintain that indispensable vivacity of manner which Lady Kirkbank called concert pitch.

To-day she allowed herself to be persuaded. She went down to luncheon, and took a couple of glasses of dry champagne with her cutlet, and, thus restored, was equal to putting on the new bonnet, which was so becoming that her spirits revived as she contemplated the effect in her glass. So Lady Kirkbank carried her off to the musical matinée, beaming and radiant, having forgotten all about that dark hint of evil glancing at the name of her long dead grandfather.

The duchess was not on view when Lady Kirkbank and her protégée arrived, and a good many people belonging to Georgie’s own particular set were scattered like flowers among those real music-lovers who had come solely to hear the new pianiste. The music-lovers were mostly dowdy in their attire, and seemed a race apart. Among them were several young women of the Blessed Damozel school, who wore flowing garments of sap-green or orche, or puffed raiment of Venetian red, and among whom the cartwheel hat, the Elizabethan sleeve, and the Toby frill were conspicuous.

There were very few men except the musical critics in this select assemblage, and Lesbia began to think that it was going to be very dreary. She had lived in such an atmosphere of masculine adulation while under Lady Kirkbank’s wing that it was a new thing to find herself in a room where there were none to love and very few to praise her. She felt out in the cold, as it were. Those ungloved critics, with their shabby coats and dubious shirts, snuffy, smoky, everything they ought not to be, seemed to her a race of barbarians.

Finding herself thus cold and lonely in the midst of the duchess’s splendour of peacock-blue velvet and peacock-feather decoration, Lesbia was almost glad when in the middle of Madame Metzikoff’s opening gondolied — airy, fairy music, executed with surpassing delicacy — Mr. Smithson crept gently into the fauteuil just behind hers, and leant over the back of the chair to whisper an inquiry as to her opinion of the pianist’s style.

‘She is exquisite,’ Lesbia murmured softly, but the whispered question and the murmured answer, low as they were, provoked indignant looks from a brace of damsels in Venetian red, who shook their Toby frills with an outraged air.

Lesbia felt that Mr. Smithson’s presence was hardly correct. It would have been ‘better form’ if he had stayed away; and yet she was glad to have him here. At the worst he was some one — nay, according to Lady Kirkbank, he was the only one amongst all her admirers whose offer was worth having. All Lesbia’s other conquests had counted as barren honour; but if she could have brought herself to accept Mr. Smithson she would have secured the very best match of the season.

To marry a plain Mr. Smithson — a man who had made his money in iron — in cochineal — on the Stock Exchange — had seemed to her absolute degradation, the surrender of all her lofty hopes, her golden dreams. But Lady Kirkbank had put the question in a new light when she said that Smithson would be offered a peerage. Smithson the peer would be altogether a different person from Smithson the commoner.

But was Lady Kirkbank sure of her facts, or truthful in her statement? Lesbia’s experience of her chaperon’s somewhat loose notions of truth and exactitude made her doubtful upon this point.

Be this it might she was inclined to be civil to Smithson, albeit she was inwardly surprised and offended at his taking her refusal so calmly.

‘You see that I am determined not to lose the privilege of your society, because I have been foolish!’ he said presently, in the pause after the first part of the recital. ‘I hope you will consider me as much your friend to-day as I was yesterday.’

‘Quite as much,’ she answered sweetly, and then they talked of Raff, and Rubenstein, and Henselt, and all the composers about whom it is the correct thing to discourse nowadays.

Before they left Belgrave Square Lady Kirkbank had offered Mr. Smithson Sir George’s place in her box at the Gaiety that evening, and had invited him to supper in Arlington Street afterwards.

It was Sarah Bernhardt’s first season in London — the never-to-be-forgotten season of the Comédie Française.

‘I should love of all things to be there,’ said Mr. Smithson, meekly. He had a couple of stalls in the third row for the whole of the season. ‘But how can I be sure that I shall not be turning Sir George out of doors?’

‘Sir George can never sit out a serious play. He only cares for Chaumont or Judie. The Demi-monde is much too prosy for him.’

‘The Demi-monde is one of the finest plays in the French language,’ said Smithson. ‘You know it, of course, Lady Lesbia?’

‘Alas! no. At Fellside I was not allowed to read French plays or novels: or only a novel now and then, which my grandmother selected for me.’

‘And now you read everything, I suppose — including Zola?’

‘The books are lying about, and I dip into them sometimes while I am having my hair brushed,’ answered Lesbia, lightly.

‘I believe that is the only time ladies devote to literature during the season,’ said Mr. Smithson. ‘Well, I envy you the delight of seeing the Demi-monde without knowing what it is all about beforehand.’

‘I daresay there are a good many people who would not take their girls to see a play by Dumas,’ said Lady Kirkbank, ‘but I make a point of letting my girls see everything. It widens their minds and awakens their intelligence.’

‘And does away with a good many silly prejudices,’ replied Mr. Smithson.

Lady Kirkbank and Lesbia were due at a Kensington garden-party after the recital, and from the garden-party, for which any hour sufficed, they went to show themselves in the Park, then back to Arlington Street to dress for the play. Then a hurried dinner, and they were in their places at the theatre in time for the rising of the curtain.

‘If it were an English play we would not care for being punctual,’ said Lady Kirkbank; ‘but I should hate to lose a word of Dumas. In his plays every speech tells.’

There were Royalties present, and the house was good; but not so full as it had been on some other nights, for the English public had been told that Sarah Bernhardt was the person to admire, and had been flocking sheep-like after that golden-haired enchantress, whereby many of these sheep — fighting greedily for Sarah’s nights, and ignoring all other talent — lost some of the finest acting on the French stage, notably that of Croizette, Delaunay and Febvre, in this very Demi-monde. Lesbia, who, in spite of her affectations, was still fresh enough to be charmed with fine acting and a powerful play, was enthralled by the stage, so wrapt in the scene that she was quite unaware of her brother’s presence in a stall just below Lady Kirkbank’s box. He too had a stall at the Gaiety. He had come in very late, when the play was half over. Lesbia was surprised when he presented himself at the door of the box, after the fourth act.

Maulevrier and his sister had met very seldom since the young lady’s début. The young Earl did not go to many parties, and the society he cultivated was chiefly masculine; and as he neither played polo nor shot pigeons his masculine pursuits did not bring him in his sister’s way. Lady Kirkbank had asked him to her house with that wide and general invitation which is so easily evaded. He had promised to go, and he had not gone. And thus Lesbia and he had pursued their several ways, only crossing each other’s paths now and then at a race meeting or in a theatre.

‘How d’ye do, Lady Kirkbank? — how d’ye do, Lesbia? Just caught sight of you from below as the curtain was going down,’ said Maulevrier, shaking hands with the ladies and saluting Mr. Smithson with a somewhat supercilious nod. ‘Rather surprised to see you and Lesbia here to-night, Lady Kirkbank. Isn’t the Demi-monde rather strong meat for babes, eh? Not exactly the play one would take a young lady to see.’

‘Why should a young lady be forbidden to see a fine play, because there are some hard and bitter truths told in it?’ asked Lady Kirkbank. ‘Lesbia sees Madame d’Ange and all her sisterhood in the Park and about London every day of her life. Why should not she see them on the stage, and hear their history, and understand how cruel their fate is, and learn to pity them, if she can? I really think this play is a lesson in Christian charity; and I should like to see that Oliver man strangled, though Delaunay plays the part divinely. What a voice! What a manner! How polished! How perfect! And they tell me he is going to leave the stage in a year or two. What will the world do without him?’

Maulevrier did not attempt to suggest a solution of this difficulty. He was watching Mr. Smithson as he leant against the back of Lesbia’s chair and talked to her. The two seemed very familiar, laughingly discussing the play and the actors. Smithson knew, or pretended to know, all about the latter. He told Lesbia who made Croizette’s gowns — the upholsterer who furnished that lovely house of hers in the Bois — the sums paid for her horses, her pictures, her diamonds. It seemed to Lesbia, when she had heard all, that Croizette was a much-to-be-envied person.

Mr. Smithson had unpublished bon-mots of Dumas at his finger ends; he knew Daudet, and Sarcey, and Sardou, and seemed to be thoroughly at home in Parisian artistic society. Lesbia began to think that he would hardly be so despicable a person as she had at first supposed. No wonder he and his wealth had turned poor Belle Trinder’s head. How could a rural vicar’s daughter, accustomed to poverty, help being dazzled by such magnificence?

Maulevrier stayed in the box only a short time, and refused Lady Kirkbank’s invitation to supper. She did not urge the point, as she had surprised one or two very unfriendly glances at Mr. Smithson in Maulevrier’s honest eyes. She did not want an antagonistic brother to interfere with her plans. She had made up her mind to ‘run’ Lesbia according to her own ideas, and any counter influence might be fatal. So, when Maulevrier said he was due at the Marlborough after the play she let him go.

‘I might as well be at Fellside and you in London, for anything I see of you,’ said Lesbia.

‘You are up to your eyes in engagements, and I don’t suppose you want to see any more of me.’ Maulevrier answered, bluntly.

‘But I’ll call to-morrow morning, if I am likely to find you at home. I’ve some news for you.’

‘Then I’ll stay at home on purpose to see you. News is always delightful. Is it good news, by-the-bye?’

‘Very good; at least, I think so.’

‘What is it about?’

‘Oh! that’s a long story, and the curtain is just going up. The news is about Mary.’

‘About Mary!’ exclaimed Lesbia, elevating her eyebrows. ‘What news can there possibly be about Mary?’

‘Such news as there generally is about every nice jolly girl, at least once in her life.’

‘You don’t mean that she is engaged — to a curate?’

‘No, not to a curate. There goes the curtain. “I’ll see you later,” as the Yankee President used to say when people bothered him, and he didn’t like to say no.’

Engaged: Mary engaged! The idea of such an altogether unexpected event distracted Lesbia’s mind all through the last act of the Demi-monde. She hardly knew what the actors were talking about. Mary, her younger sister! Mary, a good looking girl enough, but by no means a beauty, and with manners utterly unformed. That Mary should be engaged to be married, while she, Lesbia, was still free, seemed an obvious absurdity.

And yet the fact was, on reflection, easily to be accounted for. These unattractive girls are generally the first to bind themselves with the vows of betrothal. Lady Kirkbank had told her of many such cases. The poor creatures know that their chances will be few, and therefore gratefully welcome the first wooer.

‘But who can the man be?’ thought Lesbia. ‘Mary has been kept as secluded as a cloistered nun. There are so few families we have ever been allowed to mix with. The man must be a curate, who has taken advantage of grandmother’s illness to force his way into the family circle at Fellside — and who has made love to Mary in some of her lonely rambles over the hills, I daresay. It is really very wrong to allow a girl to roam about in that way.’

Sir George and a couple of his horsey friends were waiting for supper when Lady Kirkbank and her party arrived in Arlington Street. The dining-room looked a picture of comfort. The oval table, the low lamps, the clusters of candles under coloured shades, the great Oriental bowl of wild flowers — eglantine, honeysuckle, foxglove, all the sweet hedge flowers of midsummer, made a central mass of colour and brightness against the subdued and even sombre tones of walls and curtains. The room was old, the furniture old. Nothing had been altered since the time of Sir George’s great grandfather; and the whirligig of time had just now made the old things precious. Yes, those chairs and tables and sideboards and bookcases and wine-coolers against which Georgie’s soul had revolted in the early years of her wedded life were now things of beauty, and Georgie’s friends envied her the possession of indisputable Chippendale furniture.

Mr. Mostyn, a distinguished owner of race-horses, with his pretty wife, made up the party. The gentleman was full of his entries for Liverpool and Chester, and discoursed mysteriously with Sir George and the horsey bachelors all supper time. The lady had lately taken up science as a new form of excitement, not incompatible with frocks, bonnets, Hurlingham, the Ranelagh, and Sandown. She raved about Huxley and Tyndall, and was perpetually coming down upon her friends with awful facts about the sun, and startling propositions about latent heat, or spontaneous generation. She knew all about gases, and would hardly accept a glass of water without explaining what it was made of. Drawn by Mr. Smithson for Lesbia’s amusement, the scientific matron was undoubtedly ‘good fun.’ The racing men were full of talk. Lesbia and Lady Kirkbank raved about the play they had just been seeing, and praised Delaunay with an enthusiasm which was calculated to make the rest of mankind burst with envy.

‘Do you know you are making me positively wretched by your talk about that man?’ said Colonel Delville, one of Sir George’s racing friends, and an ancient adorer of the fair Georgie’s. ‘No, I tell you there was never anything offered higher than five to four on the mare,’ interjectionally, to Sir George. ‘There was a day when I thought I was your idea of an attractive man. Yes, George, a clear case of roping,’ again interjectionally. ‘And to hear you raving about this play-acting fellow — it is too humiliating.’

Lady Kirkbank simpered, and then sighed.

‘We are getting old together,’ she murmured. ‘I have come to an age when one can only admire the charm of manner in the abstract — the Beautiful for the sake of the Beautiful. I think if I were lying in my grave, the music of Delaunay’s voice would thrill me, under six feet of London clay. Will no one take any more wine? No. Then we may as well go into the next room and begin our little Nap.’

The adjoining room was Sir George’s snuggery; and it was here that the cosy little round games after supper were always played. Sir George was not a studious person. He never read, and he never wrote, except an occasional cheque on account, for an importunate tradesman. His correspondence was conducted by the telegraph or telephone; and the room, therefore, was absorbed neither by books nor writing desks. It was furnished solely with a view to comfort. There was a round table in the centre, under a large moderator lamp which gave an exceptionally brilliant light. A divan covered with dark brown velvet occupied three sides of the room. A few choice pieces of old blue Oriental ware in the corners enlivened the dark brown walls. Three or four easy chairs stood about near the broad, old-fashioned fireplace, which had been improved with a modern-antique brass grate and a blue and white tiled hearth.

‘There isn’t a room in my house that looks half as comfortable as this den of yours, George,’ said Mr. Smithson, as he seated himself by Lesbia’s side at the card table.

They had agreed to be partners. ‘Partners at cards, even if we are not to be partners for life,’ Smithson had whispered, tenderly; and Lesbia’s only reply had been a modest lowering of lovely eyelids, and a faint, faint blush. Lesbia’s blushes were growing fainter every day.

‘That is because everything in your house is so confoundedly handsome and expensive,’ retorted Sir George, who did not very much care about being called George, tout court, by a person of Mr. Smithson’s obscure antecedents, but who had to endure the familiarity for reasons known only to himself and Mr. Smithson. ‘No man can expect to be comfortable in a house in which every room has cost a small fortune. My wife re-arranged this den half-a-dozen years ago when we took to sittin’ here of an evenin’. She picked up the chairs and the blue pots at Bonham’s, had everythin’ covered with brown velvet — nice subdued tone, suit old people — hung up that yaller curtain, just for a bit of colour, and here we are.’

‘It’s the cosiest room in town,’ said Colonel Delville, whereupon Mrs. Mostyn, while counters were being distributed, explained to the company on scientific principles why the room was comfortable, expatiating upon the effect of yellow and brown upon the retina, and some curious facts relating to the optic machinery of water-fleas, as lately discovered by a great naturalist.

Unfortunately for science, the game had now begun, and the players were curiously indifferent as to the visual organs of water-fleas.

The game went on merrily till the pearly lights of dawn began to creep through the chinks of Lady Kirkbank’s yellow curtain. Everybody seemed gay, yet everybody could not be winning. Fortune had not smiled upon Lesbia’s cards, or on those of her partner. The Smithson and Haselden firm had come to grief. Lesbia’s little ivory purse had been emptied of its three or four half-sovereigns, and Mr. Smithson had been capitalising a losing concern for the last two hours. And the play had been fast and furious, although nominally for small stakes.

‘I am afraid to think of how much I must owe you,’ said Lesbia, when Mr. Smithson bade her good night.

‘Oh, nothing worth speaking of — sixteen or seventeen pounds, at most.’

Lesbia felt cold and creepy, and hardly knew whether it was the chill of new-born day, or the sense of owing money to Horace Smithson. Those three or four half-sovereigns to-night were the end of her last remittance from Lady Maulevrier. She had had a great many remittances from that generous grandmother; and the money had all gone, somehow. It was gone, and yet she had paid for hardly anything. She had accounts with all Lady Kirkbank’s tradesmen. The money had melted away — it had oozed out of her pockets — at cards, on the race-course, in reckless gifts to servants and people, at fancy fairs, for trifles bought here and there by the way-side, as it were, for the sake of buying. If she had been suddenly asked for an account of her stewardship she could not have told what she had done with half of the money. And now she must ask for twenty pounds more, and immediately, to pay Mr. Smithson.

She went up to her room in the clear early light, and stood like a statue, with fixed thoughtful eyes, while Kibble took off her finery, the pretty pale yellow gown which set off her dark brown hair, her violet eyes. For the first time in her life she felt the keen pang of anxiety about money matters — the necessity to think of ways and means. She had no idea how much money she had received from her grandmother since she had begun her career in Scotland last autumn. The cheques had been sent her as she asked for them; sometimes even before she asked for them; and she had kept no account. She thought her grandmother was so rich that expenditure could not matter. She supposed that she was drawing upon an inexhaustible supply. And now Lady Kirkbank had told her that Lady Maulevrier was not rich, as the world reckons nowadays. The savings of a dowager countess even in forty years of seclusion could be but a small fund to draw upon for the expenses of life at high pressure.

‘The sums people spend nowadays are positively appalling,’ said Lady Kirkbank. ‘A man with five or six thousand a year is an absolute pauper. I’m sure our existence is only genteel beggary, and yet we spend over ten thousand.’

Enlightened thus by the lips of the worldly-wise, Lesbia thought ruefully of the bills which her grandmother would have to pay for her at the end of the season, bills of the amount whereof she could not even make an approximate guess. Seraphine’s charges had never been discussed in her hearing — but Lady Kirkbank had admitted that the creature was dear.

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