Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 34

‘Our Love was New, and then but in the Spring.’

Henley Regatta was over. It had passed like a tale that is told; like Epsom and Ascot, and all the other glories of the London season. Happy those for whom the glory of Henley, the grace of Ascot, the fever of Epsom, are not as weary as a twice-told tale, bringing with them only bitterest memories of youth that has fled, of hopes that have withered, of day-dreams that have never been realised. There are some to whom that mad hastening from pleasure to pleasure, that rush from scene to scene of excitement, that eager crowding into one day and night of gaieties which might fairly relieve the placid monotony of a month’s domesticity, a month’s professional work — some there are to whom this Vanity Fair is as a treadmill or the turning of a crank, the felon’s deepest humiliation, purposeless, unprofitable, labour.

The regatta was over, and Lady Kirkbank and her charge hastened back to Arlington Street. Theirs was the very first departure; albeit Mr. Smithson pleaded hard for a prolongation of their visit. The weather was exceptionally lovely, he urged. Water picnics were delightful just now — the banks were alive with the colour of innumerable wild flowers, as beautiful and more poetical than the gorgeous flora of the Amazon or the Paraguay river. And Lady Lesbia had developed a genius for punting; and leaning against her pole, with her hair flying loose and sleeves rolled up above the elbow, she was a subject for canvas or marble, Millais or Adams Acton.

‘When we are in Italy I will have her modelled, just in that attitude, and that dress,’ said Mr. Smithson. ‘She will make a lovely companion for my Reading Girl: one all repose and reverie, the other all life and action. Dear Lady Kirkbank, you really must stay for another week at least. Why go back to the smoke and sultriness of town? Here we can almost live on the water; and I will send to London for some people to make music for us in the evenings, or if you miss your little game at “Nap,” we will play for an hour or so every night. It shall not be my fault if my house is not pleasant for you.’

‘Your house is charming, and I shall be here only too often in the days to come; you will have more than enough of me then, I promise you,’ replied Georgie, with her girlish laugh, ‘but we must not stop a day longer now. People would begin to talk. Besides, we have engagements for every hour of the week that is coming, and for a fortnight after: and then I suppose I ought to take Lesbia to the North to see her grandmother, and to discuss all the preparations and arrangements for this very serious event in which you and Lesbia are to be the chief performers.’

‘I shall be very glad to go to Grasmere myself, and to make the acquaintance of my future grandmother-in-law,’ said Mr. Smithson.

‘You will be charmed with her. She belongs to the old school — something of a fossil, perhaps, but a very dignified fossil. She has grown old in a rustic seclusion, and knows less of our world than a mother abbess; but she has read immensely, and is wonderfully clever. I am bound to tell you that she has very lofty ideas about her granddaughter; and I believe she will only be reconciled to Lesbia’s marriage with a commoner by the notion that you are sure of a peerage. I ventured to hint as much in my letter to Lady Maulevrier yesterday.’

A shade of sullenness crept over Horace Smithson’s visage.

‘I should hope that such settlements as I am in a position to make will convince Lady Maulevrier that I am a respectable suitor for her granddaughter, ex peerage,’ he said, somewhat haughtily.

‘My dear Smithson, did I not tell you that poor Lady Maulevrier is a century behind the times,’ exclaimed Lady Kirkbank, with an aggrieved look. ‘If she were one of us, of course she would know that wealth is the paramount consideration, and that you are quite the best match of the season. But she is dreadfully arriérée, poor dear thing; and she must have amused herself with the day-dream of seeing Lesbia a duchess, or something of that kind. I shall tell her that Lesbia can be one of the queens of society without having strawberry leaves on her coach panels, and that my dear friend Horace Smithson is a much better match than a seedy duke. So don’t look cross, my dear fellow; in me you have a friend who will never desert you.’

‘Thanks,’ said Smithson, inwardly resolving that, so soon as this little transaction of his marriage were over, he would see as little of Georgie Kirkbank and her cotton frocks and schoolgirl hats as bare civility would allow.

He had promised her that she should be the richer by a neat little bundle of fat and flourishing railway stock when his happiness was secured, and he was not going to break his promise. But he did not mean to give George and Georgie free quarters at Rood Hall, or at Cowes, or Deauville; and he meant to withdraw his wife altogether from Lady Kirkbank’s pinchbeck set.

What were Lesbia’s feelings in the early morning after the last day of the regatta, as she slowly paced the lavender walk in the Ladies’ Garden, alone? — for happily Mr. Smithson was not so early a riser as the Grasmere-bred damsel, and she had this fresh morning hour to herself. Of what was she thinking as she paced slowly up and down the broad gravel walk, between two rows of tall old bushes, on which masses of purple blossom stood up from the pale grey foliage, silvery where the summer breeze touched it?

Well, she was thinking first what a grand old place Rood Hall was, and that it was in a manner hers henceforward. She was to be mistress of this house, and of other houses, each after its fashion as perfect as Rood Hall. She was to have illimitable money at her command, to spend and give away as she liked. She, who yesterday had been tortured by the idea of owing a paltry three thousand pounds, was henceforward to count her thousands by the hundred. Her senses reeled before that dazzling vision of figures with rows of ciphers after them, one cipher more or less meaning the difference between thousands and millions. Everybody had agreed in assuring her that Mr. Smithson was inordinately rich. Everybody had considered it his or her business to give her information about the gentleman’s income; clearly implying thereby that in the opinion of society Mr. Smithson’s merits as a suitor were a question of so much bullion.

Could she doubt — she who had learned in one short season to know what the world was made of and what it most valued — could she, steeped to the lips in the wisdom of Lady Kirkbank’s set, doubt for an instant that she was making a better match in the eye of society, than if she had married a man of the highest lineage in all England, a peer of the highest rank, without large means? She knew that money was power, that a man might begin life as a pot-boy or a greengrocer, a knacker or a dust contractor, and climb to the topmost pinnacles, were he only rich enough. She knew that society would eat such a man’s dinners and dance at his wife’s balls, and pretend to think him an altogether exceptional man, make believe to admire him for his own sake, to think his wife most brilliant among women, if he were only rich enough. And could she doubt that society would bow down to her as Lady Lesbia Smithson? She had learned a great deal in her single season, and she knew how society was influenced and governed, almost as well as Sir Robert Walpole knew how human nature could be moulded and directed at the will of a shrewd diplomatist. She knew that in the fashionable world every man and every woman, every child even, has his or her price, and may be bought and sold at pleasure. She had her price, she, Lesbia, the pearl of Grasmere; and the price having been fairly bidden she had surrendered to the bidder.

‘I suppose I always meant to marry him,’ she thought, pausing in her promenade to gaze across the verdant landscape, a fertile vale, against a background of low hills. All the landscape, to the edge of those hills, belonged to Mr. Smithson. ‘Yes, I must have meant to give way at last, or I should hardly have tolerated his attentions. It would have been a pity to refuse such a place as this; and, he is quite gentlemanlike; and as I have done with all romantic ideas, I do not see why I should not learn to like him very much.’

She dismissed the idea of Smithson lightly, with this conclusion, which she believed very virtuous; and then as she resumed her walk her thoughts reverted to the Park Lane Palace.

‘I hardly know whether I like it,’ she mused languidly; ‘beautiful as it is, it is only a reproduction of bygone splendour, and it is painfully excruciating now. For my own part I would much rather have the shabbiest old house which had belonged to one’s ancestors, which had come to one as a heritage, by divine right as it were, instead of being bought with newly made money. To my mind it would rank higher. Yet I doubt if anybody nowadays sets a pin’s value upon ancestors. People ask, Who is he? but they only mean, How much has he? And provided a person is not absolutely in trade, not actually engaged in selling soap, or matches, or mustard, society doesn’t care a straw how his money has been made. The only secondary question is, How long will it last? And that is of course important.’

Musing thus, wordly wisdom personified, the maiden looked up and saw her lover entering at the light little iron gate which gave entrance to this feminine Eden. She went to meet him, looking all simplicity and freshness in her white morning gown and neat little Dunstable hat. It seemed to him as he gazed at her almost as if this delicate, sylph-like beauty were some wild white flower of the woods personified.

She gave him her hand graciously, but he drew her to his breast and kissed her, with the air of a man who was exercising an indisputable right. She supposed that it was his right, and she submitted, but released herself as quickly as possible.

‘My dearest, how lovely you look in this morning light,’ he exclaimed, ‘while all the other women are upstairs making up their faces to meet the sun, and we shall see every shade of bismuth by-and-by, from pale mauve to purple.’

‘It is very uncivil of you to say such a thing of your guests,’ exclaimed Lesbia.

‘But they all indulge in bismuth — you must be quite aware of that. They call the stuff by different names — Blanc Rosati, Crême de l’Imperatrice, Milk of Beauty, Perline, Opaline, Ivorine — but it means bismuth all the same. Expose your fashionable beauty to the fumes of sewer-gas, and that dazzling whiteness would turn to a dull brown hue, or even black. Thank heaven, my Lesbia wears real lilies and roses. Have you been here long?’

‘About half an hour’

‘I only wish I had known. I should not have dawdled so long over my dressing.’

‘I am very glad you did not know,’ Lesbia answered coolly.

‘Do you suppose I never want to be alone? Life in London is perpetual turmoil; one’s eyes grow weary with ever-moving crowds, one’s ears ache with trying to distinguish one voice among the buzz of voices.’

‘Then why go back to town? Why go back to the turmoil and the treadmill? It is only a kind of treadmill, after all, though we choose to call it pleasure. Stay here, Lesbia, and let us live upon the river, and among the flowers,’ urged Smithson, with as romantic an air as if he had never heard of contango, or bulling and bearing; and yet only half an hour ago, while his valet was shaving him, he was debating within himself whether he should be bear or bull in his influence upon certain stock.

It was supposed that he never went near the city, that he had shaken the dust of Lombard Street and the House off his shoes, that his fortune was made, and he had no further need of speculation. Yet the proverb holds good with the stock-jobber. ‘He who has once drunk will drink again.’ Of that fountain there is no satiety.

‘Stay and hear the last of the nightingales,’ he murmured; ‘we are famous for our nightingales.’

‘I wonder you don’t order a fricassée of their tongues, like that loathsome person in Roman history.’

‘I hope I shall never resemble any loathsome person. Why can you not stay?’

‘Why, because it is not etiquette, Lady Kirkbank says.’

‘Lady Kirkbank, eh? la belle farce, Lady Kirkbank standing out for etiquette.’

‘Don’t laugh at my chaperon, sir. Upon what rock can a poor girl lean if you undermine her faith in her chaperon, sir.’

‘I hope you will have a better guardian before you are a month older. I mean to be a very strong rock, Lesbia. You do not know how firmly I shall stand between you and all the perils of society. You have been but poorly guarded hitherto.’

‘You talk as if you mean to be an abominable tyrant,’ said Lesbia. ‘If you don’t take care I shall change my mind, and recall my promise.’

‘Not on that account, Lesbia: every woman likes a man who stands up for his own. It is only your invertebrate husband whose wife drifts into the divorce court. I mean to keep and hold the prize I have won. When is it to be, dearest — our wedding day?’

‘Not for ages, I hope — some time next summer, at the earliest.’

‘You would not be so cruel as to keep me waiting a year?’

‘Why not?’

‘You would not ask that if you loved me.’

‘You are asking too much,’ said Lesbia, with a flash of defiance. ‘There has been nothing said about love yet. You asked me to be your wife, and I said yes — meaning that at some remote period such a thing might be.’

She knew that the man was her slave — slave to her beauty, slave to her superior rank — and she was determined not to lessen the weight of his chain by so much as a feather.

‘Did not that promise imply something like love?’ he asked, earnestly.

‘Perhaps it implied a little gratitude for your devotion, which I have neither courted nor encouraged a little respect for your talents, your perseverance — a little admiration for your wonderful success in life. Perhaps love may follow these sentiments, naturally, easily, if you are very patient; but if you talk about our being married before next year, you will simply make me hate you.’

‘Then I will say very little, except to remind you that there is no earthly reason why we should not be married next month. October and November are the best months for Rome, and I heard you say last night you were pining to see Rome.’

‘What then — cannot Lady Kirkbank take me to Rome?’

‘And introduce you to the rowdiest people in the city,’ cried Mr. Smithson. ‘Lesbia, I adore you. It is the dream of my life to be your husband: but if you are going to spend a winter in Italy with Lady Kirkbank, I renounce my right, I surrender my hope. You will not be the wife of my dreams after that.’

‘Do you assert a right to control my life during our engagement?’

‘Some little right; above all, the privilege of choosing your friends. And that is one reason why I most fervently desire our marriage should not be delayed. You would find it difficult, impossible perhaps, to get out of Lady Kirkbank’s claws while you are single; but once my wife, that amiable old person can be made to keep her distance.’

‘Lady Kirkbank’s claws! What a horrible way in which to speak of a friend. I thought you adored Lady Kirkbank.’

‘So I do. We all adore her, but not as a guide for youth. As a specimen of the elderly female of the latter half of the nineteenth century, she is perfect. Such gush, such juvenility, such broad views, such an utter absence of starch; but as a lamp for the footsteps of girlhood — no there we must pause.’

‘You are very ungrateful. Do you know that poor Lady Kirkbank has been most strenuous in your behalf?’

‘Oh, yes, I know that.’

‘And you are not grateful?’

‘I intend to be very grateful, so grateful as to entirely satisfy Lady Kirkbank.’

‘You are horribly cynical. That reminds me, there was a poor girl whom Lady Kirkbank had under her wing one season — a Miss Trinder, to whom I am told you behaved shamefully.’

‘There was a parson’s daughter who threw herself at my head in a most audacious way, and who behaved so badly, egged on by Lady Kirkbank, that I had to take refuge in flight. Do you suppose I am the kind of man to marry the first adventurous damsel who takes a fancy to my town house, and thinks it would be a happy hunting ground for a herd of brothers and sisters? Miss Trinder was shocking bad style, and her designs were transparent from the very beginning! I let her flirt as much as she liked; and when she began to be seriously sentimental I took wing for the East?’

‘Was she pretty?’ asked Lesbia, not displeased at this contemptuous summing up of poor Belle Trinder’s story.

‘If you admire the Flemish type, as illustrated by Rubens, she was lovely. A complexion of lilies and roses — cabbage roses, bien entendu, which were apt to deepen into peonies after champagne and mayonaise at Ascot or Sandown — a figure — oh — well — a tremendous figure — hair of an auburn that touched perilously on the confines of red — large, serviceable feet, and an appetite — the appetite of a ploughman’s daughter reared upon short commons.’

‘You are very cruel to a girl who evidently admired you.’

‘A fig for her admiration! She wanted to live in my house and spend my money.’

‘There goes the gong,’ exclaimed Lesbia; ‘pray let us go to breakfast. You are hideously cynical, and I am wofully tired of you.’

And as they strolled back to the house, by lavender walk and rose garden, and across the dewy lawn, Lesbia questioned herself as to whether she was one whit better or more dignified than Isabella Trinder. She wore her rue with a difference, that was all.

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