Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 85

They say there is a skeleton in every house; it may be doubted. What is more certain are the sorrow and perplexity which sometimes, without a warning and preparation, suddenly fall upon a family living in a world of happiness and ease, and meriting their felicity by every gift of fortune and disposition.

Perhaps there never was a circle that enjoyed life more, and deserved to enjoy life more, than the Brentham family. Never was a family more admired and less envied. Nobody grudged them their happy gifts and accidents, for their demeanor was so winning, and their manners so cordial and sympathetic, that every one felt as if he shared their amiable prosperity. And yet, at this moment, the duchess, whose countenance was always as serene as her soul, was walking with disturbed visage and agitated step up and down the private room of the duke; while his grace, seated, his head upon his arm, and with his eyes on the ground, was apparently in anxious thought.

Now, what had happened? It seems that these excellent parents had become acquainted, almost at the same moment, with two astounding and disturbing facts: their son wanted to marry Euphrosyne Cantacuzene, and their daughter would not marry the Duke of Brecon.

“I was so perfectly unprepared for the communication,” said the duke, looking up, “that I have no doubt I did not express myself as I ought to have done. But I do not think I said any thing wrong. I showed surprise, sorrow — no anger. I was careful not to say any thing to hurt his feelings — that is a great point in these matters — nothing disrespectful of the young lady. I invited him to speak to me again about it when I had a little got over my surprise.”

“It is really a catastrophe,” exclaimed the duchess; “and only think, I came to you for sympathy in my sorrow, which, after all, though distressing, is only a mortification!”

“I am very sorry about Brecon,” said the duke, “who is a man of honor, and would have suited us very well; but, my dear Augusta, I never took exactly the same view of this affair as you did — I was never satisfied that Corisande returned his evident, I might say avowed, admiration of her.”

“She spoke of him always with great respect,” said the duchess, “and that is much in a girl of Corisande’s disposition. I never heard her speak of any of her admirers in the same tone — certainly not of Lord Carisbrooke; I was quite prepared for her rejection of him. She never encouraged him.”

“Well,” said the duke, “I grant you it is mortifying — infinitely distressing; and Brecon is the last man I could have wished that it should occur to; but, after all, our daughter must decide for herself in such affairs. She is the person most interested in the event. I never influenced her sisters in their choice, and she also must be free. The other subject is more grave.”

“If we could only ascertain who she really is,” said the duchess.

“According to Bertram, fully our equal; but I confess I am no judge of Levantine nobility,” his grace added, with a mingled expression of pride and despair.

“That dreadful travelling abroad!” exclaimed the duchess. “I always had a foreboding of something disastrous from it. Why should he have gone abroad, who has never been to Ireland, or seen half the counties of his own country?”

“They all will go,” said the duke; “and I thought, with St. Aldegonde, he was safe from getting into any scrape of this kind.”

“I should like to speak to Granville about it,” said the duchess. “When he is serious, his judgment is good.”

“I am to see St. Aldegonde before I speak to Bertram,” said the duke. “I should not be surprised if he were here immediately.”

One of the social mysteries is, “how things get about!” It is not the interest of any of the persons immediately connected with the subject that society should be aware that the Lady Corisande had declined the proposal of the Duke of Brecon. Society had no right even to assume that such a proposal was either expected or contemplated. The Duke of Brecon admired Lady Corisande, so did many others; and many others were admired by the Duke of Brecon. The duchess even hoped that, as the season was waning, it might break up, and people go into the country or abroad, and nothing be observed. And yet it “got about.” The way things get about is through the Hugo Bohuns. Nothing escapes their quick eyes and slow hearts. Their mission is to peer into society, like professional astronomers ever on the watch to detect the slightest change in the phenomena. Never embarrassed by any passion of their own, and their only social scheming being to maintain their transcendent position, all their life and energy are devoted to the discovery of what is taking place around them; and experience, combined with natural tact, invests them with almost a supernatural skill in the detection of social secrets. And so it happened that scarcely a week had passed before Hugo began to sniff the air, and then to make fine observations at balls, as to whom certain persons danced with, or did not dance with; and then he began the curious process of what he called putting two and two together, and putting two and two together proved in about a fortnight that it was all up between Lady Corisande and the Duke of Brecon.

Among others he imparted this information to Lothair, and it set Lothair a thinking; and he went to a ball that evening solely with the purpose of making social observations like Hugo Bohun. But Lady Corisande was not there, though the Duke of Brecon was, apparently in high spirits, and waltzing more than once with Lady Grizell Falkirk. Lothair was not very fortunate in his attempts to see Bertram. He called more than once at Crecy House too, but in vain. The fact is, Bertram was naturally entirely engrossed with his own difficulties, and the duchess, harassed and mortified, could no longer be at home in the morning.

Her grace, however, evinced the just appreciation of character for which women are remarkable, in the confidence which she reposed in the good sense of Lord St. Aldegonde at this crisis. St. Aldegonde was the only one of his sons-in-law whom the duke really considered and a little feared. When St. Aldegonde was serious, his influence over men was powerful. And he was serious now. St. Aldegonde, who was not conventional, had made the acquaintance of Mr. Cantacuzene immediately on his return to England, and they had become friends. He had dined in the Tyburnian palace of the descendant of the Greek emperors more than once, and had determined to make his second son, who was only four years of age, a Greek merchant. When the duke therefore consulted him on “the catastrophe,” St. Aldegonde took high ground, spoke of Euphrosyne in the way she deserved, as one equal to an elevated social position, and deserving it. “But if you ask me my opinion, sir,” he continued, “I do not think, except for Bertram’s sake, that you have any cause to fret yourself. The family wish her to marry her cousin, the eldest son of the Prince of Samos. It is an alliance of the highest, and suits them much better than any connection with us. Besides, Cantacuzene will give his children large fortunes, and they like the money to remain in the family. A hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand pounds — perhaps more — goes a great way on the coasts of Asia Minor. You might buy up half the Archipelago. The Cantacuzenes are coming to dine with us next week. Bertha is delighted with them. Mr. Cantacuzene is so kind as to say he will take Clovis into his counting-house. I wish I could induce your grace to come and meet him: then you could judge for yourself. You would not be in the least shocked were Bertram to marry the daughter of some of our great merchants or bankers. This is a great merchant and banker, and the descendant of princes, and his daughter one of the most beautiful and gifted of women and worthy to be a princess.”

“There is a good deal in what St. Aldegonde says,” said the duke afterward to his wife. “The affair takes rather a different aspect. It appears they are really people of high consideration, and great wealth too. Nobody could describe them as adventurers.”

“We might gain a little time,” said the duchess. “I dislike peremptory decisions. It is a pity we have not an opportunity of seeing the young lady.”

“Granville says she is the most beautiful woman he ever met, except her sister.”

“That is the artist’s wife?” said the duchess.

“Yes,” said the duke, “I believe a most distinguished man, but it rather adds to the imbroglio. Perhaps things may turn out better than they first promised. The fact is, I am more amazed than annoyed. Granville knows the father, it seems, intimately. He knows so many odd people. He wants me to meet him at dinner. What do you think about it? It is a good thing sometimes to judge for one’s self. They say this Prince of Samos she is half betrothed to is attach to the Turkish embassy at Vienna, and is to visit England.”

“My nervous system is quite shaken,” said the duchess. “I wish we could all go to Brentham. I mentioned it to Corisande this morning, and I was surprised to find that she wished to remain in town.”

“Well, we will decide nothing, my dear, in a hurry. St. Aldegonde says that, if we decide in that sense, he will undertake to break off the whole affair. We may rely on that. We need consider the business only with reference to Bertram’s happiness and feelings. That is an important issue, no doubt, but it is a limited one. The business is not of so disagreeable a nature as it seemed. It is not an affair of a rash engagement, in a discreditable quarter, from which he cannot extricate himself. There is no doubt they are thoroughly reputable people, and will sanction nothing which is not decorous and honorable. St. Aldegonde has been a comfort to me in this matter; and you will find out a great deal when you speak to him about it. Things might be worse. I wish I was as easy about the Duke of Brecon. I met him this morning and rode with him — to show there was no change in my feelings.”

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