Endymion, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 38

When parliament reassembled in February, the Neuchatels quitted Hainault for their London residence in Portland Place. Mrs. Neuchatel was sadly troubled at leaving her country home, which, notwithstanding its distressing splendour, had still some forms of compensatory innocence in its flowers and sylvan glades. Adriana sighed when she called to mind the manifold and mortifying snares and pitfalls that awaited her, and had even framed a highly practical and sensible scheme which would permit her parents to settle in town and allow Myra and herself to remain permanently in the country; but Myra brushed away the project like a fly, and Adriana yielding, embraced her with tearful eyes.

The Neuchatel mansion in Portland Place was one of the noblest in that comely quarter of the town, and replete with every charm and convenience that wealth and taste could provide. Myra, who, like her brother, had a tenacious memory, was interested in recalling as fully and as accurately as possible her previous experience of London life. She was then indeed only a child, but a child who was often admitted to brilliant circles, and had enjoyed opportunities of social observation which the very youthful seldom possess. Her retrospection was not as profitable as she could have desired, and she was astonished, after a severe analysis of the past, to find how entirely at that early age she appeared to have been engrossed with herself and with Endymion. Hill Street and Wimbledon, and all their various life, figured as shadowy scenes; she could realise nothing very definite for her present guidance; the past seemed a phantom of fine dresses, and bright equipages, and endless indulgence. All that had happened after their fall was distinct and full of meaning. It would seem that adversity had taught Myra to feel and think.

Forty years ago the great financiers had not that commanding, not to say predominant, position in society which they possess at present, but the Neuchatels were an exception to this general condition. They were a family which not only had the art of accumulating wealth, but of expending it with taste and generosity — an extremely rare combination. Their great riches, their political influence, their high integrity and their social accomplishments, combined to render their house not only splendid, but interesting and agreeable, and gave them a great hold upon the world. At first the fine ladies of their political party called on them as a homage of condescending gratitude for the public support which the Neuchatel family gave to their sons and husbands, but they soon discovered that this amiable descent from their Olympian heights on their part did not amount exactly to the sacrifice or service which they had contemplated. They found their host as refined as themselves, and much more magnificent, and in a very short time it was not merely the wives of ambassadors and ministers of state that were found at the garden fetes of Hainault, or the balls, and banquets, and concerts of Portland Place, but the fitful and capricious realm of fashion surrendered like a fair country conquered as it were by surprise. To visit the Neuchatels became the mode; all solicited to be their guests, and some solicited in vain.

Although it was only February, the world began to move, and some of the ministers’ wives, who were socially strong enough to venture on such a step, received their friends. Mr. Neuchatel particularly liked this form of society. “I cannot manage balls,” he used to say, “but I like a ministerial reception. There is some chance of sensible conversation and doing a little business. I like talking with ambassadors after dinner. Besides, in this country you meet the leaders of the opposition, because, as they are not invited by the minister, but by his wife, anybody can come without committing himself.”

Myra, faithful to her original resolution, not to enter society while she was in mourning, declined all the solicitudes of her friends to accompany them to these assemblies. Mrs. Neuchatel always wished Myra should be her substitute, and it was only at Myra’s instance that Adriana accompanied her parents. In the meantime, Myra saw much of Endymion. He was always a welcome guest by the family, and could call upon his sister at all the odds and ends of time that were at his command, and chat with her at pleasant ease in her pretty room. Sometimes they walked out together, and sometimes they went together to see some exhibition that everybody went to see. Adriana became almost as intimate with Endymion as his sister, and altogether the Neuchatel family became by degrees to him as a kind of home. Talking with Endymion, Myra heard a good deal of Colonel Albert, for he was her brother’s hero — but she rarely saw that gentleman. She was aware from her brother, and from some occasional words of Mr. Neuchatel, that the great banker still saw Colonel Albert and not unfrequently, but the change of residence from Hainault to London made a difference in their mode of communication. Business was transacted in Bishopsgate Street, and no longer combined with a pleasant ride to an Essex forest. More than once Colonel Albert had dined in Portland Place, but at irregular and miscellaneous parties. Myra observed that he was never asked to meet the grand personages who attended the celebrated banquets of Mr. Neuchatel. And why not? His manners were distinguished, but his whole bearing that of one accustomed to consideration. The irrepressible curiosity of woman impelled her once to feel her way on the subject with Mr. Neuchatel, but with the utmost dexterity and delicacy.

“No,” said Mr. Neuchatel with a laughing eye, and who saw through everybody’s purpose, though his own manner was one of simplicity amounting almost to innocence, “I did not say Colonel Albert was going to dine here on Wednesday; I have asked him to dine here on Sunday. On Wednesday I am going to have the premier and some of his colleagues. I must insist upon Miss Ferrars dining at table. You will meet Lord Roehampton; all the ladies admire him and he admires all the ladies. It will not do to ask Colonel Albert to meet such a party, though perhaps,” added Mr. Neuchatel with a merry smile, “some day they may be asked to meet Colonel Albert. Who knows, Miss Ferrars? The wheel of Fortune turns round very strangely.”

“And who then is Colonel Albert?” asked Myra with decision.

“Colonel Albert is Colonel Albert, and nobody else, so far as I know,” replied Mr. Neuchatel; “he has brought a letter of credit on my house in that name, and I am happy to honour his drafts to the amount in question, and as he is a foreigner, I think it is but kind and courteous occasionally to ask him to dinner.”

Miss Ferrars did not pursue the inquiry, for she was sufficiently acquainted with Mr. Neuchatel to feel that he did not intend to gratify her curiosity.

The banquet of the Neuchatels to the premier, and some of the principal ambassadors and their wives, and to those of the premier’s colleagues who were fashionable enough to be asked, and to some of the dukes and duchesses and other ethereal beings who supported the ministry, was the first event of the season. The table blazed with rare flowers and rarer porcelain and precious candelabra of sculptured beauty glittering with light; the gold plate was less remarkable than the delicate ware that had been alike moulded and adorned for a Du Barri or a Marie Antoinette, and which now found a permanent and peaceful home in the proverbial land of purity and order; and amid the stars and ribbons, not the least remarkable feature of the whole was Mr. Neuchatel himself, seated at the centre of his table, alike free from ostentation or over-deference, talking to the great ladies on each side of him, as if he had nothing to do in life but whisper in gentle ears, and partaking of his own dainties as if he were eating bread and cheese at a country inn.

Perhaps Mrs. Neuchatel might have afforded a companion picture. Partly in deference to their host, and partly because this evening the first dance of the season was to be given, the great ladies in general wore their diamonds, and Myra was amused as she watched their dazzling tiaras and flashing rivieres, while not a single ornament adorned the graceful presence of their hostess, who was more content to be brilliant only by her conversation. As Mr. Neuchatel had only a few days before presented his wife with another diamond necklace, he might be excused were he slightly annoyed. Nothing of the sort; he only shrugged his shoulders, and said to his nephew, “Your aunt must feel that I give her diamonds from love and not from vanity, as she never lets me have the pleasure of seeing them.” The sole ornament of Adriana was an orchid, which had arrived that morning from Hainault, and she had presented its fellow to Myra.

There was one lady who much attracted the attention of Myra, interested in all she observed. This lady was evidently a person of importance, for she sate between an ambassador and a knight of the garter, and they vied in homage to her. They watched her every word, and seemed delighted with all she said. Without being strictly beautiful, there was an expression of sweet animation in her physiognomy which was highly attractive: her eye was full of summer lightning, and there was an arch dimple in her smile, which seemed to irradiate her whole countenance. She was quite a young woman, hardly older than Myra. What most distinguished her was the harmony of her whole person; her graceful figure, her fair and finely moulded shoulders, her pretty teeth, and her small extremities, seemed to blend with and become the soft vivacity of her winning glance.

“Lady Montfort looks well to-night,” said the neighbour of Myra.

“And is that Lady Montfort? Do you know, I never saw her before.”

“Yes; that is the famous Berengaria, the Queen of Society, and the genius of Whiggism.”

In the evening, a great lady, who was held to have the finest voice in society, favoured them with a splendid specimen of her commanding skill, and then Adriana was induced to gratify her friends with a song, “only one song,” and that only on condition that Myra should accompany her. Miss Neuchatel had a sweet and tender voice, and it had been finely cultivated; she would have been more than charming if she had only taken interest in anything she herself did, or believed for a moment that she could interest others. When she ceased, a gentleman approached the instrument and addressed her in terms of sympathy and deferential praise. Myra recognised the knight of the garter who had sat next to Lady Montfort. He was somewhat advanced in middle life, tall and of a stately presence, with a voice more musical even than the tones which had recently enchanted every one. His countenance was impressive, a truly Olympian brow, but the lower part of the face indicated not feebleness, but flexibility, and his mouth was somewhat sensuous. His manner was at once winning; natural, and singularly unaffected, and seemed to sympathise entirely with those whom he addressed.

“But I have never been at Hainault,” said the gentleman, continuing a conversation, “and therefore could not hear the nightingales. I am content you have brought one of them to town.”

“Nightingales disappear in June,” said Miss Ferrars; “so our season will be short.”

“And where do they travel to?” asked the gentleman.

“Ah! that is a mystery,” said Myra. “You must ask Miss Neuchatel.”

“But she will not tell me,” said the gentleman, for in truth Miss Neuchatel, though he had frequently addressed her, had scarcely opened her lips.

“Tell your secret, Adriana,” said Miss Ferrars, trying to force her to converse.

“Adriana!” said the gentleman. “What a beautiful name! You look with that flower, Miss Neuchatel, like a bride of Venice.”

“Nay,” said Myra; “the bride of Venice was a stormy ocean.”

“And have you a Venetian name?” asked the gentleman.

There was a pause, and then Miss Neuchatel, with an effort, murmured, “She has a very pretty name. Her name is Myra.”

“She seems to deserve it,” said the gentleman.

“So you like my daughter’s singing,” said Mr. Neuchatel, coming up to them. “She does not much like singing in public, but she is a very good girl, and always gives me a song when I come home from business.”

“Fortunate man!” said the gentleman. “I wish somebody would sing to me when I come home from business.”

“You should marry, my lord,” said Mr. Neuchatel, “and get your wife to sing to you. Is it not so, Miss Ferrars? By the by, I ought to introduce you to — Lord Roehampton.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19