Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 29

‘Swift Subtle Post, Carrier of Grisly Care.’

Maulevrier called in Arlington Street before twelve o’clock next day, and found Lesbia just returning from her early ride, looking as fresh and fair as if there had been no such thing as Nap or late hours in the story of her life. She was reposing in a large easy chair by the open window, in habit and hat, just as she had come from the Row, where she had been laughing and chatting with Mr. Smithson, who jogged demurely by her side on his short-legged hunter, dropping out envenomed little jokes about the passers by. People who saw him riding by her side upon this particular morning fancied there was something more than usual in the gentleman’s manner, and made up their minds that Lady Lesbia Haselden was to be mistress of the fine house in Park Lane. Mr. Smithson had fluttered and fluttered for the last five seasons; but this time the flutterer was caught.

In her newly-awakened anxiety about money matters, Lesbia had forgotten Mary’s engagement: but the sight of Maulevrier recalled the fact.

‘Come over here and sit down,’ she said, ‘and tell me this nonsense about Mary. I am expiring with curiosity. The thing is too absurd.’

‘Why absurd?’ asked Maulevrier, sitting where she bade him, and studiously perusing the name in his hat, as if it were a revelation.

‘Oh, for a thousand reasons,’ answered Lesbia, switching the flowers in the balcony with her light little whip. ‘First and foremost it is absurd to think of any one so buried alive as poor Mary is finding an admirer; and secondly — well — I don’t want to be rude to my own sister — but Mary is not particularly attractive.’

‘Mary is the dearest girl in the world.’

‘Very likely. I only said that she is not particularly attractive.’

‘And do you think there is no attraction in goodness, in freshness and innocence, candour, generosity —?’

‘I don’t know. But I think that if Mary’s nose had been a thought longer, and if she had kept her skin free from freckles she would have been almost pretty.’

‘Do you really? Luckily for Mary the man who is going to marry her thinks her lovely.’

‘I suppose he likes freckles. I once heard a man say he did. He said they were so original — so much character about them. And, pray, who is the man?’

‘Your old adorer, and my dear friend, John Hammond.’

Lesbia turned as pale as death — pale with rage and mortification. It was not jealousy, this pang which rent her shallow soul. She had ceased to care for John Hammond. The whirlpool of society had spun that first fancy out of her giddy brain. But that a man who had loved the highest, who had worshipped her, the peerless, the beautiful, should calmly transfer his affections to her younger sister, was to the last degree exasperating.

‘Your friend Mr. Hammond must be a fickle fool,’ she exclaimed, ‘who does not know his own mind from day to day.’

‘Oh, but it was more than a day after you rejected him that he engaged himself to Molly. It was all my doing, and I am proud of my work. I took the poor fellow back to Fellside last March, bruised and broken by your cruel treatment, heartsore and depressed. I gave him over to Molly, and Molly cured him. Unconsciously, innocently, she won that noble heart. Ah, Lesbia, you don’t know what a heart it is which you so nearly broke.’

‘Girls in our rank of life can’t afford to marry noble hearts,’ said Lesbia, scornfully. ‘Do you mean to tell me that Lady Maulevrier consented to the engagement?’

‘She cut up rather rough at first; but Molly held her own like a young lioness — and the grandmother gave way. You see she has a fixed idea that Molly is a very second-rate sort of person compared with you, and that a husband who was not nearly good enough for you might pass muster for Molly; and so she gave way, and there isn’t a happier young woman in the three kingdoms than Mary Haselden.’

‘What are they to live upon?’ asked Lesbia, with an incredulous air.

‘Mary will have her five hundred a year. And Hammond is a very clever fellow. You may be sure he will make his mark in the world.’

‘And how are they to live while he is making his mark? Five hundred a year won’t do more than pay for Mary’s frocks, if she goes into society.’

‘Perhaps they will live without society.’

‘In some horrid little hovel in one of those narrow streets off Ecclestone Square,’ suggested Lesbia, shudderingly. ‘It is too dreadful to think of — a young woman dooming herself to life-long penury, just because she is so foolish as to fall in love.’

‘Your days for falling in love are over, I suppose, Lesbia?’ said Maulevrier, contemplating his sister with keen scrutiny.

The beautiful face, so perfect in line and colour, curiously recalled that other face at Fellside; the dowager’s face, with its look of marble coldness, and the half-expressed pain under that, outward calm. Here was the face of one who had not yet known pain or passion. Here was the cold perfection of beauty with unawakened heart.

‘I don’t know; I am too busy to think of such things.’

‘You have done with love; and you have begun to think of marriage, of establishing yourself properly. People tell me you are going to marry Mr. Smithson.’

‘People tell you more about me than I know about myself.’

‘Come now, Lesbia, I have a right to know the truth upon this point. Your brother — your only brother — should be the first person to be told.’

‘When I am engaged, I have no doubt you will be the first person, or the second person,’ answered Lesbia, lightly. ‘Lady Kirkbank, living on the premises, is likely to be the first.’

‘Then you are not engaged to Smithson?’

‘Didn’t I tell you so just now? Mr. Smithson did me the honour to make me an offer yesterday, at about this hour; and I did myself the honour to reject him.’

‘And yet you were whispering together in the box last night, and you were riding in the Row with him this morning. I just met a fellow who saw you together. Do you think it is right, Lesbia, to play fast and loose with the man — to encourage him, if you don’t mean to marry him?’

‘How can you accuse me of encouraging a person whom I flatly refused yesterday morning? If Mr. Smithson likes my society as a friend, must I needs deny him my friendship, ask Lady Kirkbank to shut her door against him? Mr. Smithson is very pleasant as an acquaintance; and although I don’t want to marry him, there’s no reason I should snub him.’

‘Smithson is not a man to be trifled with. You will find yourself entangled in a web which you won’t easily break through.’

‘I am not afraid of webs. By-the-bye, is it true that Mr. Smithson is likely to get a peerage?’

‘I have heard people say as much. Smithson has spent no end of money on electioneering, and is a power in the House, though he very rarely speaks. His Berkshire estate gives him a good deal of influence in that county; at the last general election he subscribed twenty thou to the Conservative cause; for, like most men who have risen from nothing, your friend Smithson is a fine old Tory. He was specially elected at the Carlton six years ago, and has made himself uncommonly useful to his party. He is supposed to be great on financial questions, and comes out tremendously on colonial railways or drainage schemes, about which the House in general is in profound ignorance. On those occasions Smithson scores high. A man with immense wealth has always chances. No doubt, if you were to marry him, the peerage would be easily managed. Smithson’s money, backed by the Maulevrier influence, would go a long way. My grandmother would move heaven and earth in a case of that kind. You had better take pity on Smithson.’

Lesbia laughed. That idea of a possible peerage elevated Smithson in her eyes. She knew nothing of his political career, as she lived in a set which ignored politics altogether. Mr. Smithson had never talked to her of his parliamentary duties; and it was a new thing for her to hear that he had some kind of influence in public affairs.

‘Suppose I were inclined to accept him, would you like him as a brother-in-law?’ she asked lightly. ‘I thought from your manner last night that you rather disliked him.’

‘I don’t quite like him or any of his breed, the newly rich, who go about in society swelling with the sense of their own importance, perspiring gold, as it were. And one has always a faint suspicion of men who have got rich very quickly, an idea that there must be some kind of juggling. Not in the case of a great contractor, perhaps, who can point to a viaduct and docks and railways, and say, “I built that, and that, and that. These are the sources of my wealth.” But a man who gets enormously rich by mere ciphering! Where can his money come from, except out of other people’s pockets? I know nothing against your Mr. Smithson, but I always suspect that class of men,’ concluded Maulevrier shaking his head significantly.

Lesbia was not much influenced by her brother’s notions, she had never been taught to think him an oracle. On the contrary, she had been told that his life hitherto had been all foolishness.’

‘When are Mary and Mr. Hammond to be married?’ she asked, ‘Grandmother says they must wait a year. Mary is much too young — and so on, and so forth. But I see no reason for waiting.’

‘Surely there are reasons — financial reasons. Mr. Hammond cannot be in a position to begin housekeeping.’

‘Oh, they will risk all that. Molly is a daring girl. He proposed to her on the top of Helvellyn, in a storm of wind and rain.’

‘And she never wrote me a word about it. How very unsisterly!’

‘She is as wild as a hawk, and I daresay she was too shy to tell you anything about it.’

‘Pray when did it all occur?’

‘Just before I came to London.’

‘Two months ago. How absurd for me to be in ignorance all this time! Well, I hope Mary will be sensible, and not marry till Mr. Hammond is able to give her a decent home. It would be so dreadful to have a sister muddling in poverty, and clamouring for one’s cast-off gowns.’

Maulevrier laughed at this gloomy suggestion.

‘It is not easy to foretell the future,’ he said, ‘but I think I may venture to promise that Molly will never wear your cast-off gowns.’

‘Oh, you think she would be too proud. You don’t know, perhaps, how poverty — genteel poverty — lowers one’s pride. I have heard stories from Lady Kirkbank that would make your hair stand on end. I am beginning to know the world.’

‘I am glad of that. If you are to live in the world it is better that you should know what it is made of. But if I had a voice or a choice in the matter I had rather my sisters stayed at Grasmere, and remained ignorant of the world and all its ways.’

‘While you enjoy your life in London. That is just like the selfishness of a man. Under the pretence of keeping his sisters or his wife secure from all possible contact with evil, he buries them alive in a country house, while he has all the wickedness for his own share in London. Oh, I am beginning to understand the creatures.’

‘I am afraid you are beginning to be wise. Remember that knowledge of evil was the prelude to the Fall. Well, good-bye.’

‘Won’t you stay to lunch?’

‘No, thanks, I never lunch — frightful waste of time. I shall drop in at the Haute Gomme and take a cup of tea later on.’

The Haute Gomme was a new club in Piccadilly, which Maulevrier and some of his friends affected.

Lesbia went towards the drawing-room door with her brother, and just as he reached the door she laid her hand caressingly upon his shoulder. He turned and stared at her, somewhat surprised, for he and she had never been given to demonstrations of affection.

‘Maulevrier, I want you to do me a favour,’ she said, in a low voice, blushing a little, for the thing she was going to ask was a new thing for her to ask, and she had a deep sense of shame in making her demand. ‘I— I lost money at Nap last night. Only seventeen pounds. Mr. Smithson and I were partners, and he paid my losses. I want to pay him immediately, and ——’

‘And you are too hard up to do it. I’ll write you a cheque this instant,’ said Maulevrier goodnaturedly; but while he was writing the cheque he took occasion to remonstrate with Lesbia on the foolishness of card playing.

‘I am obliged to do as Lady Kirkbank does,’ she answered feebly. ‘If I were to refuse to play it would be a kind of reproach to her.’

‘I don’t think that would kill Lady Kirkbank,’ replied Maulevrier, with a touch of scorn. ‘She has had to endure a good many implied reproaches in her day, and they don’t seem to have hurt her very much. I wish to heaven my grandmother had chosen any one else in London for your chaperon.’

‘I’m afraid Lady Kirkbank’s is rather a rowdy set,’ answered Lesbia, coolly; ‘and I sometimes feel as if I had thrown myself away. We go almost everywhere — at least, there are only just a few houses to which we are not asked. But those few make all the difference. It is so humiliating to feel that one is not in quite the best society. However, Lady Kirkbank is a dear, good old thing, and I am not going to grumble about her.’

‘I’ve made the cheque for five-and-twenty. You can cash it at your milliner’s,’ said Maulevrier. ‘I should not like Smithson to know that you had been obliged to ask me for the money.’

Apropos to Mr. Smithson, do you know if he is in quite the best society?’ asked Lesbia.

‘I don’t know what you mean by quite the best. A man of Smithson’s wealth can generally poke his nose in anywhere, if he knows how to behave himself. But of course there are people with whom money and fine houses have no weight. The Conservatives are all civil to Smithson because he comes down handsomely at General Elections, and is useful to them in other ways. I believe that Smithson’s wife, if she were a thorough-bred one, could go into any society she liked, and make her house one of the most popular in London. Perhaps that is what you really wanted to ask.

‘No, it wasn’t,’ answered Lesbia, carelessly; ‘I was only talking for the sake of talking. A thousand thanks for the cheque, you best of brothers.’

‘It is not worth talking about; but, Lesbia, don’t play cards any more. Believe me, it is not good form.’

‘Well, I’ll try to keep out of it in future. It is horrid to see one’s sovereigns melting away; but there’s a delightful excitement in winning.’

‘No doubt,’ answered Maulevrier, with a remorseful sigh.

He spoke as a reformed plunger, and with many a bitter experience of the race-course and the card-room. Even now, though he had steadied himself wonderfully, he could not get on without a little mild gambling — half-crown pool, whist with half-guinea points — but when he condescended to such small stakes he felt that he had settled down into a respectable middle-aged player, and had a right to rebuke the follies of youth.

Lesbia flew to the piano and sang one of her little German ballads directly Maulevrier was gone. She felt as if a burden had been lifted from her soul, now that she was able to pay Mr. Smithson without waiting to ask Lady Maulevrier for the money. And as she sang she meditated upon Maulevrier’s remarks about Smithson. He knew nothing to the man’s discredit, except that he had grown rich in a short space of time. Surely no man ought to be blamed for that. And he thought that Mr. Smithson’s wife might make her house the most popular in London. Lesbia, in her mind’s eye, beheld an imaginary Lady Lesbia Smithson giving dances in that magnificent mansion, entertaining Royal personages. And the doorways would be festooned with roses, as she had seen them the other night at a ball in Grosvenor Square; but the house in Grosvenor Square was a hovel compared with the Smithsonian Palace.

Lesbia was beginning to be a little tired of Lady Kirkbank and her surroundings. Life taken prestissimo is apt to pall, Lesbia sighed as she finished her little song. She was beginning to look upon her existence as a problem which had been given to her to solve, and the solution just it present was all dark.

As she rose from the piano a footman came in with two letters on a salver — bulky letters, such packages as Lesbia had never seen before. She wondered what they could be. She opened the thickest envelope first. It was Seraphine’s bill — such a bill, page after page on creamy Bath post, written in an elegant Italian hand by one of Seraphine’s young women.

Lesbia looked at it aghast with horror. The total at the foot of the first page was appalling, ever so much more than she could have supposed the whole amount of her indebtedness; but the total went on increasing at the foot of every page, until at sight of the final figures Lesbia gave a wild shriek, like a wretched creature who has received a telegram announcing bitterest loss.

The final total was twelve hundred and ninety-three pounds seventeen and sixpence!

Thirteen hundred pounds for clothes in eight weeks!

No, the thing was a cheat, a mistake. They had sent her somebody else’s bill. She had not had half these things.

She read the first page, her heart beating violently as she pored over the figures, her eyes dim and clouded with the trouble of her brain.

Yes, there was her court dress. The description was too minute to be mistaken; and the court dress, with feathers, and shoes, and gloves, and fan, came to a hundred and thirty pounds. Then followed innumerable items. The very simplest of her gowns cost five-and-twenty pounds — frocks about which Seraphine had talked so carelessly, as if two or three more or less could make no difference. Bonnets and hats, at five or seven guineas apiece, swelled the account. Parasols and fans were of fabulous price, as it seemed to Lesbia; and the shoes and stockings to match her various gowns occurred again and again between the more important items, like the refrain of an old ballad. All the useless and unnessary things which she had ordered, because she thought them pretty or because she was told they were fashionable, rose up against her in the figures of the bill, like the record of forgotten sins at the Day of Judgment.

She sank into a chair, pallid with consternation, and sat with the bill in her lap, turning the pages listlessly, and staring at the figures.

‘It cannot be so much,’ she cried to herself. ‘It must be added up wrong;’ and then she feebly tried to cast up a column; but arithmetic not being one of those accomplishments which Lady Maulevrier deemed necessary to a patrician beauty’s success in life, Lesbia’s education had been somewhat neglected upon this point, and she flung the bill from her in a rage, unable to hold the figures in her brain.

She opened the second envelope, her jeweller’s account. At the very first item she gave another scream, fainter than the first, for her mind was getting hardened against such shocks.

‘To re-setting a suite of amethysts, with forty-four finest Brazilian brilliants, three hundred and fifteen pounds.’

Then followed the trifles she had bought at different visits to the shop — casual purchases, bought on the impulse of the moment. These swelled the account to a little over eight hundred pounds. Lesbia sat like a statue, numbed by despair, appalled at the idea of owing over two thousand pounds.

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