Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 35

‘All Fancy, Pride, and Fickle Maidenhood.’

The return to Arlington Street meant a return to the ceaseless whirl of gaiety. Even at Rood Hall life had been as near an approach to perpetual motion as one could hope for in this world; but the excitement and the hurrying and scampering in Berkshire had a rustic flavour; there were moments that were almost repose, a breathing space between the blue river and the blue sky, in a world that seemed made of green fields and hanging woods, the plashing of waters, and the song of the lark. But in London the very atmosphere was charged with hurry and agitation; the freshness was gone from the verdure of the parks; the glory of the rhododendrons had faded; the Green Park below Lady Kirkbank’s mansion was baked and rusty; the towers of the Houses of Parliament yonder were dimly seen in a mist of heat. London air tasted of smoke and dust, vibrated with the incessant roll of carriages, and the trampling of multitudinous feet.

There are women of rank who can take the London season quietly, and live their own lives in the midst of the whirl and the riot — women for whom that squirrel-like circulation round and round the fashionable wheel has no charm — women who only receive people they like, only go into society that is congenial. But Lady Kirkbank was not one of these. The advance of age made her only more keen in the pursuit of pleasure. She would have abandoned herself to despair had the glass over the mantelpiece in her boudoir ceased to be choked and littered with cards — had her book of engagements shown a blank page. Happily there were plenty of people — if not all of them the best people — who wanted Sir George and Lady Kirkbank at their parties. The gentleman was sporting and harmless, the lady was good-natured, and just sufficiently eccentric to be amusing without degenerating into a bore. And this year she was asked almost everywhere, for the sake of the beauty who went under her wing. Lesbia had been as a pearl of price to her chaperon, from a social point of view; and now that she was engaged to Horace Smithson she was likely to be even more valuable.

Mr. Smithson had promised Lady Kirkbank, sportively as it were, and upon the impulse of the moment, as he would have offered to wager a dozen of gloves, that were he so happy as to win her protégée’s hand he would find her an investment for, say, a thousand, which would bring her in twenty per cent.; nay, more, he would also find the thousand, which would have been the initial difficulty on poor Georgie’s part. But this little matter was in Georgie’s mind a detail, compared with the advantages to accrue to her indirectly from Lesbia’s union with one of the richest men in London.

Lady Kirkbank had brought about many good matches, and had been too often rewarded with base ingratitude upon the part of her protégées, after marriage; but there was a touch of Arcady in the good soul’s nature, and she was always trustful. She told herself that Lesbia would not be ungrateful, would not basely kick down the ladder by which she had mounted to heights empyrean, would not cruelly shelve the friend who had pioneered her to high fortune. She counted upon making the house in Park Lane as her own house, upon being the prime mover of all Lesbia’s hospitalities, the supervisor of her visiting list, the shadow behind the throne.

There were balls and parties nightly, dinners, luncheons, garden-parties; and yet there was a sense of waning in the glory of the world — everybody felt that the fag-end of the season was approaching. All the really great entertainments were over — the Cabinet dinners, the Reception at the Foreign Office, the last of the State balls and concerts. Some of the best people had already left town; and senators were beginning to complain that they saw no prospect of early deliverance. There was Goodwood still to look forward to; and after Goodwood the Deluge — or rather Cowes Regatta, about which Lady Kirkbank’s set were already talking.

Lady Lesbia was to be at Cowes for the Regatta week. That was a settled thing. Mr. Smithson’s schooner-yacht, the Cayman, was to be her hotel. It was to be Lady Kirkbank and Lady Lesbia’s yacht for the nonce; and Mr. Smithson was to live on shore at his villa, and at that aristocratic club to which, by Maulevrier’s influence, and on the score of his approaching marriage with an earl’s daughter, he had been just selected. He would be only Lady Kirkbank’s visitor on board the Cayman. The severe etiquette of the situation would therefore not be infringed; and yet Mr. Smithson would have the happiness of seeing his betrothed sole and sovereign mistress of his yacht, and of spending the long summer days at her feet. Even to Lady Lesbia this idea of the yacht was not without its charm. She had never been on board such a yacht as the Cayman; she was a good sailor, as testified by many an excursion, in hired sailing boats, at Tynemouth, and St. Bees; and she knew that she would be the queen of the hour. She accepted Mr. Smithson’s invitation for the Cowes week more graciously than she was wont to receive his attentions, and was pleased to say that the whole thing would be rather enjoyable.

‘It will be simple enchantment,’ exclaimed the more enthusiastic Georgie Kirkbank. ‘There is nothing so rapturous as life on board a yacht; there is a flavour of adventure, a sansgêne, a — in short everything in the world that I like. I shall wear my cotton frocks, and give myself up to enjoyment, lie on the deck and look up at the blue sky, too deliciously idle even to read the last horrid thing of Zola’s.’

But the Cowes Regatta was nearly three weeks ahead; and in the meantime there was Goodwood, and the ravelled threads of the London season had to be wound up. And by this time it was known everywhere that the affair between Mr. Smithson and Maulevrier’s sister was really on. ‘It’s as settled a business as the entries and bets for next year’s Derby,’ said one lounger to another in the smoking-room of the Haute Gomme. ‘Play or pay, don’t you know.’

Lady Kirkbank and Lesbia had both written to Lady Maulevrier, Lesbia writing somewhat coldly, very briefly, and in a half defiant tone, to the effect that she had accepted Mr. Smithson’s offer, and that she hoped her grandmother would be pleased with a match which everybody supposed to be extremely advantageous. She was going to Grasmere immediately after the Cowes week to see her dear grandmother, and to be assured of her approval. In the meanwhile she was awfully busy; there were callers driving up to the door at that very moment, and her brain was racked by the apprehension that she might not get her new gown in time for the Bachelor’s Ball, which was to be quite one of the nicest things of the year, so dearest grandmother must excuse a hurried letter, etc., etc., etc.

Georgie Kirkbank was more effusive, more lengthy. She expatiated upon the stupendous alliance which her sweetest Lesbia was about to make; and took credit to herself for having guided Lesbia’s footsteps in the right way.

‘Smithson is a most difficult person,’ she wrote. ‘The least error of taste on your dear girl’s part would have froisséd him. Men with that immense wealth are always suspicious, ready to imagine mercenary motives, on their guard against being trapped. But Lesbia had me at her back, and she managed him perfectly. He is positively her slave; and you will be able to twist him round your little finger in the matter of settlements. You may do what you like with him, for the ground has been thoroughly prepared by me.’

Lady Maulevrier’s reply was not enthusiastic. She had no doubt Mr. Smithson was a very good match, according to the modern estimate of matrimonial alliances, in which money seemed to be the Alpha and Omega. But she had cherished views of another kind. She had hoped to see her dear granddaughter wear one of those noble and historic names which are a badge of distinction for all time. She had hoped to see her enter one of those grand old families which are a kind of royalty. And that Lesbia should marry a man whose sole distinction consisted of an immense fortune amassed heaven knows how, was a terrible blow to her pride.

‘But it is not the first,’ wrote Lady Maulevrier. ‘My pride has received crushing blows in days past, and I ought to be humbled to the dust. But there is a stubborn resistance in some natures which stands firm against every shock. You and Lesbia will both be surprised to hear that Mary, from whom I expected so little, has made a really great match. She was married yesterday afternoon in my morning room, by special licence, to the Earl of Hartfield, the lover of her choice, whom we at Fellside have all known as plain John Hammond. He is an admirable young man, and sure to make a great figure in the world, as no doubt you know better than I do, for you are in the way of hearing all about him. His courtship of Mary is quite an idyll; and the happy issue of this romantic love-affair has cheered and comforted me more than anything that has happened since Lesbia left me.’

This letter, written in Fräulein’s niggling little hand, Lady Kirkbank handed to Lesbia, who read it through in silence; but when she came to that part of the letter which told of her sister’s marriage, her cheek grew ashy pale, her brow contracted, and she started to her feet and stared at Lady Kirkbank with wild, dilated eyes, as if she had been stung by an adder.

‘A strange mystification, wasn’t it?’ said Lady Kirkbank, almost frightened at the awful look in Lesbia’s face, which was even worse than Belle Trinder’s expression when she read the announcement of Mr. Smithson’s flight.

‘Strange mystification! It was base treachery — a vile and wicked lie!’ cried Lesbia, furiously. ‘What right had he to come to us under false colours, to pretend to be poor, a nobody — with only the vaguest hope of making a decent position in the future? — and to offer himself under such impossible conditions to a girl brought up as I had been — a girl educated by one of the proudest and most ambitious of women — to force me to renounce everything except him? How could he suppose that any girl, so placed, could decide in his favour? If he had loved me he would have told me the truth — he would not have made it impossible for me to accept him.’

‘I believe he is a very high flown young man,’ said Lady Kirkbank, soothingly; ‘he was never in my set, you know, dear. And I suppose he had some old Minerva-press idea that he would find a girl who would marry him for his own sake. And your sister, no doubt, eager to marry anybody, poor child, for the sake of getting away from that very lovely dungeon of Lady Maulevrier’s, snapped at the chance; and by a mere fluke she becomes a countess.’

Lesbia ignored these consolatory remarks. She was pacing the room like a tigress, her delicate cambric handkerchief grasped between her two hands, and torn and rent by the convulsive action of her fingers. She could have thrown herself from the balcony on to the spikes of the area railings, she could have dashed herself against yonder big plate-glass window looking towards the Green Park, like a bird which shatters his little life against the glass barrier which he mistakes for the open sky. She could have flung herself down on the floor and grovelled, and torn her hair — she could have done anything mad, wicked, desperate, in the wild rage of this moment.

‘Loved me!’ she exclaimed; ‘he never loved me. If he had he would have told me the truth. What, when I was in his arms, my head upon his breast, my whole being surrendered to him, adoring him, what more could he want? He must have known that this meant real love. And why should he put it upon me to fight so hard a fight — to brave my grandmother’s anger — to be cursed by her — to face poverty for his sake? I never professed to be a heroine. He knew that I was a woman, with all a woman’s weakness, a woman’s fear of trial and difficulty in the future. It was a cowardly thing to use me so.’

‘It was,’ said Lady Kirkbank, in the same soothing tone; ‘but if you liked this Hammond–Hartfield creature — a little in those old days, I know you have outlived that liking long ago.’

‘Of course; but it is a hard thing to know one has been fooled, cheated, weighed in the balance and found wanting,’ said Lesbia, scornfully.

She was taming down a little by this time, ashamed of that outbreak of violent passion, feeling that she had revealed too much to Lady Kirkbank.

‘It was a caddish thing to do,’ said Georgie; ‘and this Hartfield is just what I always thought him — an insufferable prig. However, my sweetest girl, there is really nothing to lament in the matter. Your sister has made a good alliance, which will score high in your favour by-and-by, and you are going to marry a man who is three times as rich as Lord Hartfield.’

‘Rich, yes; and nothing but rich; while Lord Hartfield is a man of the very highest standing, belongs to the flower of English nobility. Rich, yes; Mr. Smithson is rich; but, as Lady Maulevrier says, He has made his money heaven knows how.’

‘Mr. Smithson has not made his money heaven knows how,’ answered Lady Kirkbank, indignantly. ‘He has made it in cochineal, in iron, in gunpowder, in coal, in all kinds of commodities. Everybody in the City knows how he has made his money, and that he has a genius for turning everything into gold. If the gold changes back into one of the baser metals, it is only when Mr. Smithson has made all he wanted to make. And now he has quite done with the City. The House is the only business of his life; and he is becoming a power in the House. You have every reason to be proud of your choice, Lesbia.’

‘I will try to be proud of it,’ said Lesbia, resolutely. ‘I will not be scorned and trampled upon by Mary.’

‘She seemed a harmless kind of girl,’ said Lady Kirkbank, as if she had been talking of a housemaid.

‘She is a designing minx,’ exclaimed Lesbia, ‘and has set her cap at that man from the very beginning.’

‘But she could not have known that he was Lord Hartfield.’

‘No; but he was a man; and that was enough for her.’

From this time forward there was a change in Lady Lesbia’s style and manner — a change very much for the worse, as old-fashioned people thought; but to the taste of some among Lady Kirkbank’s set, the change was an improvement. She was gayer than of old, gay with a reckless vivacity, intensely eager for action and excitement, for cards and racing, and all the strongest stimulants of fashionable life. Most people ascribed this increased vivacity, this electric manner, to the fact of her engagement to Horace Smithson. She was giddy with her triumph, dazzled by a vision of the gold which was soon to be hers.

‘Egad, if I saw myself in a fair way of being able to write cheques upon such an account as Smithson’s I should be as wild as Lady Lesbia,’ said one of the damsel’s military admirers at the Rag. ‘And I believe the young lady was slightly dipped.’

‘Who told you that?’ asked his friend.

‘A mother of mine,’ answered the youth, with an apologetic air, as if he hardly cared to own such a humdrum relationship. ‘Seraphine, the dressmaker, was complaining — wanted to see the colour of Lady Lesbia Haselden’s money — vulgar curiosity — asked my old mother if she thought the account was safe, and so on. That’s how I came to know all about it.’

‘Well, she’ll be able to pay Seraphine next season.’

Lord Maulevrier came back to London directly after his sister’s wedding. The event, which came off so quietly, so happily, filled him with unqualified joy. He had hoped from the very first that his Molly would win the cup, even while Lesbia was making all the running, as he said afterwards. And Molly had won, and was the wife of one of the best young men in England. Maulevrier, albeit unused to the melting-mood, shed a tear or two for very joy as the sister he loved and the friend of his boyhood and youth stood side by side in the quiet room at Grasmere, and spoke the solemn words that made them one for ever.

The first news he heard after his return to town was of Lesbia’s engagement, which was common talk at the clubs. The visitors at Rood Hall had come back to London full of the event, and were proud of giving a detailed account of the affair to outsiders.

They all talked patronisingly of Smithson, and seemed to think it rather a wonderful fact that he did not drop his aspirates or eat peas with a knife.

‘A man of stirling metal,’ said the gossips, ‘who can hold his own with many a fellow born in the purple.’

Maulevrier called in Arlington Street, but Lady Kirkbank and her protégée were out; and it was at a cricket match at the Orleans Club that the brother and sister met for the first time after Lord Hartfield’s wedding, which by this time had been in all the papers; a very simple announcement:

‘On the 29th inst., at Grasmere, by the Reverend Douglass Brooke, the Earl of Hartfield to Mary, younger daughter of the ninth Earl of Maulevrier.’

Lesbia was the centre of a rather noisy little court, in which Mr. Smithson was conspicuous by his superior reserve.

He did not exert himself as a lover, paid no compliments, was not sentimental. The pearl was won, and he wore it very quietly; but wherever Lesbia went he went; she was hardly ever out of his sight.

Maulevrier received the coolest possible greeting. Lesbia turned pale with anger at sight of him, for his presence reminded her of the most humiliating passage in her life; but the big red satin sunshade concealed that pale angry look, and nothing in Lesbia’s manner betrayed emotion.

‘Where have you been hiding yourself all this time, and why were you not at Henley?’ she asked.

‘I have been at Grasmere.’

‘Oh, you were a witness of that most romantic marriage. The Lady of Lyons reversed, the gardener’s son turning out to be an earl. Was it excruciatingly funny?’

‘It was one of the most solemn weddings I ever saw.’

‘Solemn! what, with my Tomboy sister as bride! Impossible!’

‘Your sister ceased to be a Tomboy when she fell in love. She is a sweet and womanly woman, and will make an adorable wife to the finest fellow I know. I hear I am to congratulate you, Lesbia, upon your engagement with Mr. Smithson.’

‘If you think I am the person to be congratulated, you are at liberty to do so. My engagement is a fact.’

‘Oh, of course, Mr. Smithson is the winner. But as I hope you intend to be happy, I wish you joy. I am told Smithson is a really excellent fellow when one gets to know him; and I shall make it my business to be better acquainted with him.’

Smithson was standing just out of hearing, watching the bowling. Maulevrier went over to him and shook hands, their acquaintance hitherto having been of the slightest, and very shy upon his lordship’s part; but now Smithson could see that Maulevrier meant to be cordial.

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