The Absentee, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 6.

The tide did not permit the packet to reach the Pigeon-house, and the impatient Lord Colambre stepped into a boat, and was rowed across the Bay of Dublin. It was a fine summer morning. The sun shone bright on the Wicklow mountains. He admired, he exulted in the beauty of the prospect; and all the early associations of his childhood, and the patriotic hopes of his riper years, swelled his heart as he approached the shores of his native land. But scarcely had he touched his mother earth, when the whole course of his ideas was changed; and if his heart swelled, it swelled no more with pleasurable sensations, for instantly he found himself surrounded and attacked by a swarm of beggars and harpies, with strange figures and stranger tones; some craving his charity, some snatching away his luggage, and at the same time bidding him “never trouble himself,” and “never fear.” A scramble in the boat and on shore for bags and parcels began, and an amphibious fight betwixt men, who had one foot on sea and one on land, was seen; and long and loud the battle of trunks and portmanteaus raged! The vanquished departed, clinching their empty hands at their opponents, and swearing inextinguishable hatred; while the smiling victors stood at ease, each grasping his booty — bag, basket, parcel, or portmanteau: “And, your honour, where will these go? — Where will we carry ’em all to for your honour?” was now the question. Without waiting for an answer, most of the goods were carried at the discretion of the porters to the custom-house, where, to his lordship’s astonishment, after this scene of confusion, he found that he had lost nothing but his patience; all his goods were safe, and a few tinpennies made his officious porters happy men and boys; blessings were showered upon his honour, and he was left in peace at an excellent hotel, in —— street, Dublin. He rested, refreshed himself, recovered his good-humour, and walked into the coffee-house, where he found several officers, English, Irish, and Scotch. One English officer, a very gentlemanlike, sensible-looking man, of middle age, was sitting reading a little pamphlet, when Lord Colambre entered: he looked up from time to time, and in a few minutes rose and joined the conversation; it turned upon the beauties and defects of the city of Dublin. Sir James Brooke (for that was the name of the gentleman) showed one of his brother officers the book which he had been reading, observing that, in his opinion, it contained one of the best views of Dublin which he had ever seen, evidently drawn by the hand of a master, though in a slight, playful, and ironical style: it was “An intercepted Letter from China.” The conversation extended from Dublin to various parts of Ireland, with all which Sir James Brooke showed that he was well acquainted. Observing that this conversation was particularly interesting to Lord Colambre, and quickly perceiving that he was speaking to one not ignorant of books, Sir James spoke of different representations and misrepresentations of Ireland. In answer to Lord Colambre’s inquiries, he named the works which had afforded him the most satisfaction; and with discriminative, not superficial celerity, touched on all ancient and modern authors on this subject, from Spenser and Davies to Young and Beaufort. Lord Colambre became anxious to cultivate the acquaintance of a gentleman who appeared so able and willing to afford him information. Sir James Brooke, on his part, was flattered by this eagerness of attention, and pleased by our hero’s manners and conversation: so that, to their mutual satisfaction, they spent much of their time together whilst they were at this hotel; and meeting frequently in society in Dublin, their acquaintance every day increased and grew into intimacy; an intimacy which was highly advantageous to Lord Colambre’s views of obtaining a just idea of the state of manners in Ireland. Sir James Brooke had at different periods been quartered in various parts of the country — had resided long enough in each to become familiar with the people, and had varied his residence sufficiently to form comparisons between different counties, their habits, and characteristics. Hence he had it in his power to direct the attention of our young observer at once to the points most worthy of his examination, and to save him from the common error of travellers — the deducing general conclusions from a few particular cases, or arguing from exceptions, as if they were rules. Lord Colambre, from his family connexions, had of course immediate introduction into the best society in Dublin, or rather into all the good society of Dublin. In Dublin there is positively good company, and positively bad; but not, as in London, many degrees of comparison: not innumerable luminaries of the polite world, moving in different orbits of fashion; but all the bright planets of note and name move and revolve in the same narrow limits. Lord Colambre did not find that either his father’s or his mother’s representations of society resembled the reality which he now beheld. Lady Clonbrony had, in terms of detestation, described Dublin such as it appeared to her soon after the Union; Lord Clonbrony had painted it with convivial enthusiasm, such as he saw it long and long before the Union, when first he drank claret at the fashionable clubs. This picture, unchanged in his memory, and unchangeable by his imagination, had remained, and ever would remain, the same. The hospitality of which the father boasted, the son found in all its warmth, but meliorated and refined; less convivial, more social; the fashion of hospitality had improved. To make the stranger eat or drink to excess, to set before him old wine and old plate, was no longer the sum of good breeding. The guest now escaped the pomp of grand entertainments; was allowed to enjoy ease and conversation, and to taste some of that feast of reason and that flow of soul so often talked of, and so seldom enjoyed. Lord Colambre found a spirit of improvement, a desire for knowledge, and a taste for science and literature, in most companies, particularly among gentlemen belonging to the Irish bar: nor did he in Dublin society see any of that confusion of ranks or predominance of vulgarity, of which his mother had complained. Lady Clonbrony had assured him, that, the last time she had been at the drawing-room at the Castle, a lady, whom she afterwards found to be a grocer’s wife, had turned angrily when her ladyship had accidentally trodden on her train, and had exclaimed with a strong brogue, “I’ll thank you, ma’am, for the rest of my tail.”

Sir James Brooke, to whom Lord Colambre, without giving up his authority, mentioned the fact, declared that he had no doubt the thing had happened precisely as it was stated; but that this was one of the extraordinary cases which ought not to pass into a general rule — that it was a slight instance of that influence of temporary causes, from which no conclusions, as to national manners, should be drawn.

“I happened,” continued Sir James, “to be quartered in Dublin soon after the Union took place; and I remember the great but transient change that appeared from the removal of both houses of parliament: most of the nobility and many of the principal families among the Irish commoners, either hurried in high hopes to London, or retired disgusted and in despair to their houses in the country. Immediately, in Dublin, commerce rose into the vacated seats of rank; wealth rose into the place of birth. New faces and new equipages appeared: people, who had never been heard of before, started into notice, pushed themselves forward, not scrupling to elbow their way even at the castle; and they were presented to my lord-lieutenant and to my lady-lieutenant; for their excellencies might have played their vice-regal parts to empty benches, had they not admitted such persons for the moment to fill their court. Those of former times, of hereditary pretensions and high-bred minds and manners, were scandalized at all this; and they complained with justice, that the whole tone of society was altered; that the decorum, elegance, polish, and charm of society was gone. And I, among the rest,” said Sir James, “felt and deplored their change. But, now it’s all over, we may acknowledge, that, perhaps, even those things which we felt most disagreeable at the time were productive of eventual benefit.

“Formerly, a few families had set the fashion. From time immemorial every thing had, in Dublin, been submitted to their hereditary authority; and conversation, though it had been rendered polite by their example, was, at the same time, limited within narrow bounds. Young people, educated upon a more enlarged plan, in time grew up; and, no authority or fashion forbidding it, necessarily rose to their just place, and enjoyed their due influence in society. The want of manners, joined to the want of knowledge, in the nouveaux riches, created universal disgust: they were compelled, some by ridicule, some by bankruptcies, to fall back into their former places, from which they could never more emerge. In the mean time, some of the Irish nobility and gentry, who had been living at an unusual expense in London — an expense beyond their incomes — were glad to return home to refit; and they brought with them a new stock of ideas, and some taste for science and literature, which, within these latter years, have become fashionable, indeed indispensable, in London. That part of the Irish aristocracy, who, immediately upon the first incursions of the vulgarians, had fled in despair to their fastnesses in the country, hearing of the improvements which had gradually taken place in society, and assured of the final expulsion of the barbarians, ventured from their retreats, and returned to their posts in town. So that now,” concluded Sir James, “you find a society in Dublin composed of a most agreeable and salutary mixture of birth and education, gentility and knowledge, manner and matter; and you see, pervading the whole, new life and energy, new talent, new ambition, a desire and a determination to improve and be improved — a perception that higher distinction can now be obtained in almost all company, by genius and merit, than by airs and address. . . . So much for the higher order. Now, among the class of tradesmen and shopkeepers, you may amuse yourself, my lord, with marking the difference between them and persons of the same rank in London.”

Lord Colambre had several commissions to execute for his English friends, and he made it his amusement in every shop to observe the manners and habits of the people. He remarked that there are in Dublin two classes of tradespeople: one, who go into business with intent to make it their occupation for life, and as a slow but sure means of providing for themselves and their families; another class, who take up trade merely as a temporary resource, to which they condescend for a few years; trusting that they shall, in that time, make a fortune, retire, and commence or re-commence gentlemen. The Irish regular men of business are like all other men of business — punctual, frugal, careful, and so forth; with the addition of more intelligence, invention, and enterprise, than are usually found in Englishmen of the same rank. But the Dublin tradesmen pro tempore are a class by themselves: they begin without capital, buy stock upon credit, in hopes of making large profits, and, in the same hopes, sell upon credit.

Now, if the credit they can obtain is longer than that which they are forced to give, they go on and prosper; if not, they break, become bankrupts, and sometimes, as bankrupts, thrive. By such men, of course, every short cut to fortune is followed: whilst every habit, which requires time to prove its advantage, is disregarded; nor, with such views, can a character for punctuality have its just value. In the head of a man, who intends to be a tradesman to-day, and a gentleman to-morrow, the ideas of the honesty and the duties of a tradesman, and of the honour and the accomplishments of a gentleman, are oddly jumbled together, and the characteristics of both are lost in the compound.

He will oblige you, but he will not obey you; he will do you a favour, but he will not do you justice; he will do anything to serve you, but the particular thing you order he neglects; he asks your pardon, for he would not, for all the goods in his warehouse, disoblige you; not for the sake of your custom, but he has a particular regard for your family. Economy, in the eyes of such a tradesman, is, if not a mean vice, at least a shabby virtue, of which he is too polite to suspect his customers, and to which he is proud of proving himself superior. Many London tradesmen, after making their thousands and their tens of thousands, feel pride in still continuing to live like plain men of business; but from the moment a Dublin tradesman of this style has made a few hundreds, he sets up his gig, and then his head is in his carriage, and not in his business; and when he has made a few thousands, he buys or builds a country house — and, then, and thenceforward, his head, heart, and soul, are in his country-house, and only his body in the shop with his customers.

Whilst he is making money, his wife, or rather his lady, is spending twice as much out of town as he makes in it. At the word country-house, let no one figure to himself a snug little box like that in which a warm London citizen, after long years of toil, indulges himself, one day out of seven, in repose — enjoying, from his gazabo, the smell of the dust, and the view of passing coaches on the London road: no, these Hibernian villas are on a much more magnificent scale; some of them formerly belonged to Irish members of parliament, who were at a distance from their country-seats. After the Union these were bought by citizens and tradesmen, who spoiled, by the mixture of their own fancies, what had originally been designed by men of good taste.

Some time after Lord Colambre’s arrival in Dublin, he had an opportunity of seeing one of these villas, which belonged to Mrs. Raffarty, a grocer’s lady, and sister to one of Lord Clonbrony’s agents, Mr. Nicholas Garraghty. Lord Colambre was surprised to find that his father’s agent resided in Dublin: he had been used to see agents, or stewards, as they are called in England, live in the country, and usually on the estate of which they have the management. Mr. Nicholas Garraghty, however, had a handsome house in a fashionable part of Dublin. Lord Colambre called several times to see him, but he was out of town, receiving rents for some other gentlemen, as he was agent for more than one property.

Though our hero had not the honour of seeing Mr. Garraghty, he had the pleasure of finding Mrs. Raffarty one day at her brother’s house. Just as his lordship came to the door, she was going, on her jaunting-car, to her villa, called Tusculum, situate near Bray. She spoke much of the beauties of the vicinity of Dublin; found his lordship was going with Sir James Brooke, and a party of gentlemen, to see the county of Wicklow; and his lordship and party were entreated to do her the honour of taking in their way a little collation at Tusculum.

Our hero was glad to have an opportunity of seeing more of a species of fine lady with which he was unacquainted.

The invitation was verbally made, and verbally accepted; but the lady afterwards thought it necessary to send a written invitation in due form, and the note she sent directed to the Most Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Colambre. On opening it he perceived that it could not have been intended for him. It ran as follows:

“MY DEAR JULIANA O’LEARY,

“I have got a promise from Colambre, that he will be with us at Tusculum on Friday, the 20th, in his way from the county of Wicklow, for the collation I mentioned; and expect a large party of officers: so pray come early, with your house, or as many as the jaunting-car can bring. And pray, my dear, be elegant. You need not let it transpire to Mrs. O’G——; but make my apologies to Miss O’G— — if she says any thing, and tell her I’m quite concerned I can’t ask her for that day; because, tell her, I’m so crowded, and am to have none that day but real quality.

“Yours ever and ever,

“ANASTASIA RAFFARTY.

“P.S. And I hope to make the gentlemen stop the night with me: so will not have beds. Excuse haste and compliments, &c.

Tusculum, Sunday 15.

After a charming tour in the county of Wicklow, where the beauty of the natural scenery, and the taste with which those natural beauties had been cultivated, far surpassed the sanguine expectations Lord Colambre had formed, his lordship and his companions arrived at Tusculum, where he found Mrs. Raffarty, and Miss Juliana O’Leary, very elegant, with a large party of the ladies and gentlemen of Bray, assembled in a drawing-room, fine with bad pictures and gaudy gilding; the windows were all shut, and the company were playing cards with all their might. This was the fashion of the neighbourhood. In compliment to Lord Colambre and the officers, the ladies left the card-tables; and Mrs. Raffarty, observing that his lordship seemed partial to walking, took him out, as she said, “to do the honours of nature and art.”

His lordship was much amused by the mixture, which was now exhibited to him, of taste and incongruity, ingenuity and absurdity, genius and blunder; by the contrast between the finery and vulgarity, the affectation and ignorance, of the lady of the villa. We should be obliged to stop too long at Tusculum were we to attempt to detail all the odd circumstances of this visit; but we may record an example or two, which may give a sufficient idea of the whole.

In the first place, before they left the drawing-room, Miss Juliana O’Leary pointed out to his lordship’s attention a picture over the drawing-room chimney-piece. “Is not it a fine piece, my lord?” said she, naming the price Mrs. Raffarty had lately paid for it at an auction. “It has a right to be a fine piece, indeed; for it cost a fine price!” Nevertheless this fine piece was a vile daub; and our hero could only avoid the sin of flattery, or the danger of offending the lady, by protesting that he had no judgment in pictures.

“Indeed! I don’t pretend to be a connoisseur or conoscenti myself; but I’m told the style is undeniably modern. And was not I lucky, Juliana, not to let that Medona be knocked down to me? I was just going to bid, when I heard such smart bidding; but, fortunately, the auctioneer let out that it was done by a very old master — a hundred years old. Oh! your most obedient, thinks I! — if that’s the case, it’s not for my money: so I bought this, in lieu of the smoke-dried thing, and had it a bargain.”

In architecture, Mrs. Raffarty had as good a taste and as much skill as in painting. There had been a handsome portico in front of the house: but this interfering with the lady’s desire to have a viranda, which she said could not he dispensed with, she had raised the whole portico to the second story, where it stood, or seemed to stand, upon a tarpaulin roof. But Mrs. Raffarty explained, that the pillars, though they looked so properly substantial, were really hollow and as light as feathers, and were supported with cramps, without disobliging the front wall of the house at all to signify.

Before she showed the company any farther, she said, she must premise to his lordship, that she had been originally stinted in room for her improvements, so that she could not follow her genius liberally; she had been reduced to have some things on a confined scale, and occasionally to consult her pocket-compass; but she prided herself upon having put as much into a tight pattern as could well be; that had been her whole ambition, study, and problem; for she was determined to have at least the honour of having a little taste of every thing at Tusculum.

So she led the way to a little conservatory, and a little pinery, and a little grapery, and a little aviary, and a little pheasantry, and a little dairy for show, and a little cottage for ditto, with a grotto full of shells, and a little hermitage full of earwigs, and a little ruin full of looking-glass, “to enlarge and multiply the effect of the Gothic.”—“But you could only put your head in, because it was just fresh painted, and though there had been a fire ordered in the ruin all night, it had only smoked.”

In all Mrs. Raffarty’s buildings, whether ancient or modern, there was a studied crookedness.

Yes, she said, she hated every thing straight, it was so formal and unpicturesque. “Uniformity and conformity,” she observed, “had their day; but now, thank the stars of the present day, irregularity and deformity bear the bell, and have the majority.”

As they proceeded and walked through the grounds, from which Mrs. Raffarty, though she had done her best, could not take that which nature had given, she pointed out to my lord “a happy moving termination,” consisting of a Chinese bridge, with a fisherman leaning over the rails. On a sudden, the fisherman was seen to tumble over the bridge into the water. The gentlemen ran to extricate the poor fellow, while they heard Mrs. Raffarty bawling to his lordship to beg he would never mind, and not trouble himself.

When they arrived at the bridge, they saw the man hanging from part of the bridge, and apparently struggling in the water; but when they attempted to pull him up, they found it was only a stuffed figure, which had been pulled into the stream by a real fish, which had seized hold of the bait.

Mrs. Raffarty, vexed by the fisherman’s fall, and by the laughter it occasioned, did not recover herself sufficiently to be happily ridiculous during the remainder of the walk, nor till dinner was announced, when she apologized for having changed the collation, at first intended, into a dinner, which she hoped would be found no bad substitute, and which she flattered herself might prevail on my lord and the gentlemen to sleep, as there was no moon.

The dinner had two great faults — profusion and pretension. There was, in fact, ten times more on the table than was necessary; and the entertainment was far above the circumstances of the person by whom it was given: for instance, the dish of fish at the head of the table had been brought across the island from Sligo, and had cost five guineas; as the lady of the house failed not to make known. But, after all, things were not of a piece; there was a disparity between the entertainment and the attendants; there was no proportion or fitness of things; a painful endeavour at what could not be attained, and a toiling in vain to conceal and repair deficiencies and blunders. Had the mistress of the house been quiet; had she, as Mrs. Broadhurst would say, but let things alone, let things take their course, all would have passed off with well-bred people; but she was incessantly apologizing, and fussing, and fretting inwardly and outwardly, and directing and calling to her servants — striving to make a butler who was deaf, and a boy who was harebrained, do the business of five accomplished footmen of parts and figure. The mistress of the house called for “plates, clean plates! — plates!”

“But none did come, when she did call.”

Mrs. Raffarty called “Lanty! Lanty! My lord’s plate, there! — James! bread to Captain Bowles! — James! port wine to the major! — James! James Kenny! James!”

“And panting James toiled after her in vain.”

At length one course was fairly got through, and after a torturing half hour, the second course appeared, and James Kenny was intent upon one thing, and Lanty upon another, so that the wine-sauce for the hare was spilt by their collision; but, what was worse, there seemed little chance that the whole of this second course should ever be placed altogether rightly upon the table. Mrs. Raffarty cleared her throat, and nodded, and pointed, and sighed, and sent Lanty after Kenny, and Kenny after Lanty; for what one did, the other undid; and at last the lady’s anger kindled, and she spoke: “Kenny! James Kenny! set the sea-cale at this corner, and put down the grass cross-corners; and match your maccaroni yonder with them puddens, set — Ogh! James! the pyramid in the middle, can’t ye?”

The pyramid, in changing places, was overturned. Then it was that the mistress of the feast, falling back in her seat, and lifting up her hands and eyes in despair, ejaculated, “Oh, James! James!”

The pyramid was raised by the assistance of the military engineers, and stood trembling again on its base; but the lady’s temper could not be so easily restored to its equilibrium. She vented her ill humour on her unfortunate husband, who happening not to hear her order to help my lord to some hare, she exclaimed loud, that all the world might hear, “Corny Raffarty! Corny Raffarty! you’re no more gud at the fut of my table than a stick of celery!”

The comedy of errors, which this day’s visit exhibited, amused all the spectators. But Lord Colambre, after he had smiled, sometimes sighed. — Similar foibles and follies in persons of different rank, fortune, and manner, appear to common observers so unlike that they laugh without scruples of conscience in one case, at what in another ought to touch themselves most nearly. It was the same desire to appear what they were not, the same vain ambition to vie with superior rank and fortune, or fashion, which actuated Lady Clonbrony and Mrs. Raffarty; and whilst this ridiculous grocer’s wife made herself the sport of some of her guests, Lord Colambre sighed, from the reflection that what she was to them, his mother was to persons in a higher rank of fashion. — He sighed still more deeply, when he considered, that, in whatever station or with whatever fortune, extravagance, that is, the living beyond our income, must lead to distress and meanness, and end in shame and ruin. In the morning as they were riding away from Tusculum and talking over their visit, the officers laughed heartily, and rallying Lord Colambre upon his seriousness, accused him of having fallen in love with Mrs. Raffarty, or with the elegant Miss Juliana. Our hero, who wished never to be nice over much, or serious out of season, laughed with those that laughed, and endeavoured to catch the spirit of the jest. But Sir James Brooke, who now was well acquainted with his countenance, and who knew something of the history of his family, understood his real feelings, and, sympathizing in them, endeavoured to give the conversation a new turn.

“Look there, Bowles,” said he, as they were just riding into the town of Bray; “look at the barouche standing at that green door, at the farthest end of the town. Is not that Lady Dashfort’s barouche?”

“It looks like what she sported in Dublin last year,” said Bowles; “but you don’t think she’d give us the same two seasons. Besides, she is not in Ireland, is she? I did not hear of her intending to come over again.”

“I beg your pardon,” said another officer; “she will come again to so good a market, to marry her other daughter. I hear she said or swore that she will marry the young widow, Lady Isabel, to an Irish nobleman.”

“Whatever she says, she swears, and whatever she swears, she’ll do,” replied Bowles.

“Have a care, my Lord Colambre; if she sets her heart upon you for Lady Isabel, she has you. Nothing can save you. Heart she has none, so there you’re safe, my lord,” said the other officer; “but if Lady Isabel sets her eye upon you, no basilisk’s is surer.”

“But if Lady Dashfort had landed I am sure we should have heard of it, for she makes noise enough wherever she goes; especially in Dublin, where all she said and did was echoed and magnified, till one could hear of nothing else. I don’t think she has landed.”

“I hope to Heaven they may never land again in Ireland!” cried Sir James Brooke: “one worthless woman, especially one worthless Englishwoman of rank, does incalculable mischief in a country like this, which looks up to the sister country for fashion. For my own part, as a warm friend to Ireland, I would rather see all the toads and serpents, and venomous reptiles, that St. Patrick carried off in his bag, come back to this island, than these two dashers. Why, they would bite half the women and girls in the kingdom with the rage for mischief, before half the husbands and fathers could turn their heads about. And, once bit, there’s no cure in nature or art.”

“No horses to this barouche!” cried Captain Bowles. —“Pray, sir, whose carriage is this?” said the captain to a servant, who was standing beside it.

“My Lady Dashfort, sir, it belongs to,” answered the servant, in rather a surly English tone; and turning to a boy who was lounging at the door, “Pat, bid them bring out the horses, for my ladies is in a hurry to get home.”

Captain Bowles stopped to make his servant alter the girths of his horse, and to satisfy his curiosity; and the whole party halted. Captain Bowles beckoned to the landlord of the inn, who was standing at his door.

“So, Lady Dashfort is here again? — This is her barouche, is not it?”

“Yes, sir, she is — it is.”

“And has she sold her fine horses?”

“Oh, no, sir — this is not her carriage at all — she is not here. That is, she is here, in Ireland; but down in the county of Wicklow, on a visit. And this is not her own carriage at all; — that is to say, not that which she has with herself, driving; but only just the cast barouche like, as she keeps for the lady’s maids.”

“For the lady’s maids! that is good! that is new, faith! Sir James, do you hear that?”

“Indeed, then, and it’s true, and not a word of a lie!” said the honest landlord. “And this minute, we’ve got a directory of five of them Abigails, sitting within our house; as fine ladies, as great dashers too, every bit, as their principals; and kicking up as much dust on the road, every grain! — Think of them, now! The likes of them, that must have four horses, and would not stir a foot with one less! — As the gentleman’s gentleman there was telling and boasting to me about now, when the barouche was ordered for them there at the lady’s house, where Lady Dashfort is on a visit — they said they would not get in till they’d get four horses; and their ladies backed them; and so the four horses was got; and they just drove out here to see the points of view for fashion’s sake, like their betters; and up with their glasses, like their ladies; and then out with their watches, and ‘Isn’t it time to lunch?’ So there they have been lunching within on what they brought with them; for nothing in our house could they touch of course! They brought themselves a pick-nick lunch, with Madeira and Champagne to wash it down. Why, gentlemen, what do you think, but a set of them, as they were bragging to me, turned out of a boarding-house at Cheltenham, last year, because they had not peach pies to their lunch! — But, here they come! shawls, and veils, and all! — streamers flying! But mum is my cue! — Captain, are these girths to your fancy now?” said the landlord, aloud: then, as he stooped to alter a buckle, he said in a voice meant to be heard only by Captain Bowles, “If there’s a tongue, male or female, in the three kingdoms, it’s in that foremost woman, Mrs. Petito.”

“Mrs. Petito!” repeated Lord Colambre, as the name caught his ear; and, approaching the barouche, in which the five Abigails were now seated, he saw the identical Mrs. Petito, who, when he left London, had been in his mother’s service.

She recognized his lordship with very gracious intimacy; and, before he had time to ask any questions, she answered all she conceived he was going to ask, and with a volubility which justified the landlord’s eulogium of her tongue.

“Yes, my lord! I left my Lady Clonbrony some time back — the day after you left town; and both her ladyship and Miss Nugent was charmingly, and would have sent their loves to your lordship, I’m sure, if they’d any notion I should have met you, my lord, so soon. And I was very sorry to part with them; but the fact was, my lord,” said Mrs. Petito, laying a detaining hand upon Lord Colambre’s whip, one end of which he unwittingly trusted within her reach, “I and my lady had a little difference, which the best friends, you know, sometimes have: so my Lady Clonbrony was so condescending to give me up to my Lady Dashfort — and I knew no more than the child unborn that her ladyship had it in contemplation to cross the seas. But, to oblige my lady, and as Colonel Heathcock, with his regiment of militia, was coming for purtection in the packet at the same time, and we to have the government-yacht, I waived my objections to Ireland. And, indeed, though I was greatly frighted at first, having heard all we’ve heard, you know, my lord, from Lady Clonbrony, of there being no living in Ireland, and expecting to see no trees, nor accommodation, nor any thing but bogs all along; yet I declare, I was very agreeably surprised; for, as far as I’ve seen at Dublin and in the vicinity, the accommodations, and every thing of that nature now, is vastly put-up-able with!”

“My lord,” said Sir James Brooke, “we shall be late.”

Lord Colambre, withdrawing his whip from Mrs. Petito, turned his horse away. She, stretching over the back of the barouche as he rode off, bawled to him, “My lord, we’re at Stephen’s Green, when we’re at Dublin.” But as he did not choose to hear, she raised her voice to its highest pitch, adding, “And where are you, my lord, to be found? — as I have a parcel of Miss Nugent’s for you.”

Lord Colambre instantly turned back, and gave his direction.

“Cleverly done, faith!” said the major.

“I did not hear her say when Lady Dashfort is to be in town,” said Captain Bowles.

“What, Bowles! have you a mind to lose more of your guineas to Lady Dashfort, and to be jockeyed out of another horse by Lady Isabel?”

“Oh, confound it — no! I’ll keep out of the way of that — I have had enough,” said Captain Bowles; “it is my Lord Colambre’s turn now; you hear that Lady Dashfort would be very proud to see him. His lordship is in for it, and with such an auxiliary as Mrs. Petito, Lady Dashfort has him far Lady Isabel, as sure as he has a heart or hand.”

“My compliments to the ladies, but my heart is engaged,” said Lord Colambre; “and my hand shall go with my heart, or not at all.”

“Engaged! engaged to a very amiable, charming woman, no doubt,” said Sir James Brooke. “I have an excellent opinion of your taste; and if you can return the compliment to my judgment, take my advice: don’t trust to your heart’s being engaged, much less plead that engagement; for it would be Lady Dashfort’s sport, and Lady Isabel’s joy, to make you break your engagement, and break your mistress’s heart; the fairer, the more amiable, the more beloved, the greater the triumph, the greater the delight in giving pain. All the time love would be out of the question; neither mother nor daughter would care if you were hanged, or, as Lady Dashfort would herself have expressed it, if you were d —— d.”

“With such women I should think a man’s heart could be in no great danger,” said Lord Colambre.

“There you might be mistaken, my lord; there’s a way to every man’s heart, which no man in his own case is aware of, but which every woman knows right well, and none better than these ladies — by his vanity.”

“True,” said Captain Bowles.

“I am not so vain as to think myself without vanity,” said Lord Colambre; “but love, I should imagine, is a stronger passion than vanity.”

“You should imagine! Stay till you are tried, my lord. Excuse me,” said Captain Bowles, laughing.

Lord Colambre felt the good sense of this, and determined to have nothing to do with these dangerous ladies: indeed, though he had talked, he had scarcely yet thought of them; for his imagination was intent upon that packet from Miss Nugent, which Mrs. Petito said she had for him. He heard nothing of it, or of her, for some days. He sent his servant every day to Stephen’s Green, to inquire if Lady Dashfort had returned to town. Her ladyship at last returned; but Mrs. Petito could not deliver the parcel to any hand but Lord Colambre’s own, and she would not stir out, because her lady was indisposed. No longer able to restrain his impatience, Lord Colambre went himself — knocked at Lady Dashfort’s door — inquired for Mrs. Petito — was shown into her parlour. The parcel was delivered to him; but, to his utter disappointment, it was a parcel for, not from Miss Nugent. It contained merely an odd volume of some book of Miss Nugent’s which Mrs. Petito said she had put up along with her things in a mistake, and she thought it her duty to return it by the first opportunity of a safe conveyance.

Whilst Lord Colambre, to comfort himself for his disappointment, was fixing his eyes upon Miss Nugent’s name, written by her own hand, in the first leaf of the book, the door opened, and the figure of an interesting-looking lady, in deep mourning, appeared — appeared for one moment, and retired.

“Only my Lord Colambre, about a parcel I was bringing for him from England, my lady — my Lady Isabel, my lord,” said Mrs. Petito.

Whilst Mrs. Petito was saying this, the entrance and retreat had been made, and made with such dignity, grace, and modesty: with such innocence, dove-like eyes had been raised upon him, fixed and withdrawn; with such a gracious bend the Lady Isabel had bowed to him as she retired; with such a smile, and with so soft a voice, had repeated “Lord Colambre!” that his lordship, though well aware that all this was mere acting, could not help saying to himself, as he left the house, “It is a pity it is only acting. There is certainly something very engaging in this woman. It is a pity she is an actress. And so young! A much younger woman than I expected. A widow before most women are wives. So young, surely she cannot be such a fiend as they described her to be!”

A few nights afterwards Lord Colambre was with some of his acquaintance at the theatre, when Lady Isabel and her mother came into the box, where seats had been reserved for them, and where their appearance instantly made that sensation, which is usually created by the entrance of persons of the first notoriety in the fashionable world. Lord Colambre was not a man to be dazzled by fashion, or to mistake notoriety for deference paid to merit, and for the admiration commanded by beauty or talents. Lady Dashfort’s coarse person, loud voice, daring manners, and indelicate wit, disgusted him almost past endurance. He saw Sir James Brooke in the box opposite to him; and twice determined to go round to him. His lordship had crossed the benches, and once his hand was upon the lock of the door; but, attracted as much by the daughter as repelled by the mother, he could move no farther. The mother’s masculine boldness heightened, by contrast, the charms of the daughter’s soft sentimentality. The Lady Isabel seemed to shrink from the indelicacy of her mother’s manners, and appeared peculiarly distressed by the strange efforts Lady Dashfort made, from time to time, to drag her forward, and to fix upon her the attention of gentlemen. Colonel Heathcock, who, as Mrs. Petito had informed Lord Colambre, had come over with his regiment to Ireland, was beckoned into their box by Lady Dashfort, by her squeezed into a seat next to Lady Isabel; but Lady Isabel seemed to feel sovereign contempt, properly repressed by politeness, for what, in a low whisper to a female friend on the other side of her, she called, “the self-sufficient inanity of this sad coxcomb.” Other coxcombs, of a more vivacious style, who stationed themselves round her mother, or to whom her mother stretched from box to box to talk, seemed to engage no more of Lady Isabel’s attention than just what she was compelled to give by Lady Dashfort’s repeated calls of, “Isabel! Isabel! Colonel G— — Isabel! Lord D—— bowing to you. Bell! Bell! Sir Harry B——. Isabel, child, with your eyes on the stage? Did you never see a play before? Novice! Major P—— waiting to catch your eye this quarter of an hour; and now her eyes gone down to her play-bill! Sir Harry, do take it from her.

“‘Were eyes so radiant only made to read?’”

Lady Isabel appeared to suffer so exquisitely and so naturally from this persecution, that Lord Colambre said to himself, “If this be acting, it is the best acting I ever saw. If this be art, it deserves to be nature.”

And with this sentiment, he did himself the honour of handing Lady Isabel to her carriage this night, and with this sentiment he awoke next morning; and by the time he had dressed and breakfasted, he determined that it was impossible all that he had seen could be acting. “No woman, no young woman, could have such art.” Sir James Brooke had been unwarrantably severe; he would go and tell him so.

But Sir James Brooke this day received orders for his regiment to march to quarters in a distant part of Ireland. His head was full of arms, and ammunition, and knapsacks, and billets, and routes; and there was no possibility, even in the present chivalrous disposition of our hero, to enter upon the defence of the Lady Isabel. Indeed, in the regret he felt for the approaching and unexpected departure of his friend, Lord Colambre forgot the fair lady. But just when Sir James had his foot in the stirrup, he stopped.

“By-the-bye, my dear lord, I saw you at the play last night. You seemed to be much interested. Don’t think me impertinent if I remind you of our conversation when we were riding home from Tusculum; and if I warn you,” said he, mounting his horse, “to beware of counterfeits — for such are abroad.” Reining in his impatient steed, Sir James turned again, and added “Deeds, not words, is my motto. Remember, we can judge better by the conduct of people towards others than by their manner towards ourselves.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/edgeworth/maria/absentee/chapter6.html

Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:01