The Absentee, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 7.

Our hero was quite convinced of the good sense of his friend’s last remark, that it is safer to judge of people by their conduct to others than by their manners towards ourselves; but as yet, he felt scarcely any interest on the subject of Lady Dashfort’s or Lady Isabel’s characters: however, he inquired and listened to all the evidence he could obtain respecting this mother and daughter.

He heard terrible reports of the mischief they had done in families; the extravagance into which they had led men; the imprudence, to say no worse, into which they had betrayed women. Matches broken off, reputations ruined, husbands alienated from their wives, and wives made jealous of their husbands. But in some of these stories he discovered exaggeration so flagrant as to make him doubt the whole; in others, it could not be positively determined whether the mother or daughter had been the person most to blame.

Lord Colambre always followed the charitable rule of believing only half what the world says, and here he thought it fair to believe which half he pleased. He farther observed, that, though all joined in abusing these ladies in their absence, when present they seemed universally admired. Though every body cried “shame!” and “shocking!” yet every body visited them. No parties so crowded as Lady Dashfort’s; no party deemed pleasant or fashionable where Lady Dashfort or Lady Isabel was not. The bon-mots of the mother were every where repeated; the dress and air of the daughter every where imitated. Yet Lord Colambre could not help being surprised at their popularity in Dublin, because, independently of all moral objections, there were causes of a different sort, sufficient, he thought, to prevent Lady Dashfort from being liked by the Irish, indeed by any society. She in general affected to be ill-bred, and inattentive to the feelings and opinions of others; careless whom she offended by her wit or by her decided tone. There are some persons in so high a region of fashion, that they imagine themselves above the thunder of vulgar censure. Lady Dashfort felt herself in this exalted situation, and fancied she might

“Hear the innocuous thunder roll below.”

Her rank was so high that none could dare to call her vulgar: what would have been gross in any one of meaner note, in her was freedom or originality, or Lady Dashfort’s way. It was Lady Dashfort’s pleasure and pride to show her power in perverting the public taste. She often said to those English companions with whom she was intimate, “Now see what follies I can lead these fools into. Hear the nonsense I can make them repeat as wit.” Upon some occasion, one of her friends ventured to fear that something she had said was too strong. “Too strong, was it? Well, I like to be strong — woe be to the weak!” On another occasion she was told that certain visitors had seen her ladyship yawning. “Yawn, did I? — glad of it — the yawn sent them away, or I should have snored; — rude, was I? they won’t complain. To say I was rude to them, would be to say, that I did not think it worth my while to be otherwise. Barbarians! are not we the civilized English, come to teach them manners and fashions? Whoever does not conform, and swear allegiance too, we shall keep out of the English pale.”

Lady Dashfort forced her way, and she set the fashion: fashion, which converts the ugliest dress into what is beautiful and charming, governs the public mode in morals and in manners; and thus, when great talents and high rank combine, they can debase or elevate the public taste.

With Lord Colambre she played more artfully: she drew him out in defence of his beloved country, and gave him opportunities of appearing to advantage; this he could not help feeling, especially when the Lady Isabel was present. Lady Dashfort had dealt long enough with human nature to know, that to make any man pleased with her, she should begin by making him pleased with himself.

Insensibly the antipathy that Lord Colambre had originally felt to Lady Dashfort wore off; her faults, he began to think, were assumed; he pardoned her defiance of good-breeding, when he observed that she could, when she chose it, be most engagingly polite. It was not that she did not know what was right, but that she did not think it always for her interest to practise it.

The party opposed to Lady Dashfort affirmed that her wit depended merely on unexpectedness; a characteristic which may be applied to any impropriety of speech, manner, or conduct. In some of her ladyship’s repartees, however, Lord Colambre now acknowledged there was more than unexpectedness; there was real wit; but it was of a sort utterly unfit for a woman, and he was sorry that Lady Isabel should hear it. In short, exceptionable as it was altogether, Lady Dashfort’s conversation had become entertaining to him; and though he could never esteem, or feel in the least interested about her, he began to allow that she could be agreeable.

“Ay, I knew how it would be,” said she, when some of her friends told her this. “He began by detesting me, and did I not tell you that, if I thought it worth my while to make him like me, he must, sooner or later? I delight in seeing people begin with me as they do with olives, making all manner of horrid faces, and silly protestations that they will never touch an olive again as long as they live; but, after a little time, these very folk grow so desperately fond of olives, that there is no dessert without them. Isabel, child, you are in the sweet line — but sweets cloy. You never heard of any body living on marmalade, did ye?”

Lady Isabel answered by a sweet smile.

“To do you justice, you play Lydia Languish vastly well,” pursued the mother; “but Lydia, by herself, would soon tire; somebody must keep up the spirit and bustle, and carry on the plot of the piece, and I am that somebody — as you shall see. Is not that our hero’s voice which I hear on the stairs?”

It was Lord Colambre. His lordship had by this time become a constant visitor at Lady Dashfort’s. Not that he had forgotten, or that he meant to disregard his friend Sir James Brooke’s parting words. He promised himself faithfully, that if any thing should occur to give him reason to suspect designs, such as those to which the warning pointed, he would be on his guard, and would prove his generalship by an able retreat. But to imagine attacks where none were attempted, to suspect ambuscades in the open country, would be ridiculous and cowardly.

“No,” thought our hero; “Heaven forefend I should be such a coxcomb as to fancy every woman who speaks to me has designs upon my precious heart, or on my more precious estate!” As he walked from his hotel to Lady Dashfort’s house, ingeniously wrong, he came to this conclusion, just as he ascended the stairs, and just as her ladyship had settled her future plan of operations.

After talking over the nothings of the day, and after having given two or three cuts at the society of Dublin, with two or three compliments to individuals, who she knew were favourites with his lordship, she suddenly turned to him. “My lord, I think you told me, or my own sagacity discovered, that you want to see something of Ireland, and that you don’t intend, like most travellers, to turn round, see nothing, and go home content.”

Lord Colambre assured her ladyship that she had judged him rightly, for that nothing would content him but seeing all that was possible to be seen of his native country. It was for this special purpose he came to Ireland.

“Ah! — well — very good purpose — can’t be better; but now how to accomplish it. You know the Portuguese proverb says, ‘You go to hell for the good things you intend to do, and to heaven for those you do.’ Now let us see what you will do. Dublin, I suppose, you’ve seen enough of by this time; through and through — round and round — this makes me first giddy, and then sick. Let me show you the country — not the face of it, but the body of it — the people. — Not Castle this, or Newtown that, but their inhabitants. I know them; I have the key, or the pick-lock to their minds. An Irishman is as different an animal on his guard and off his guard, as a miss in school from a miss out of school. A fine country for game, I’ll show you; and if you are a good marksman, you may have plenty of shots ‘at folly as it flies.’”

Lord Colambre smiled.

“As to Isabel,” pursued her ladyship, “I shall put her in charge of Heathcock, who is going with us. She won’t thank me for that, but you will. Nay, no fibs, man; you know, I know, as who does not that has seen the world? that, though a pretty woman is a mighty pretty thing, yet she is confoundedly in one’s way, when any thing else is to be seen, heard — or understood.”

Every objection anticipated and removed, and so far a prospect held out of attaining all the information he desired, with more than all the amusement he could have expected, Lord Colambre seemed much tempted to accept the invitation; but he hesitated, because, as he said, her ladyship might be going to pay visits where he was not acquainted.

“Bless you! don’t let that be a stumbling-block in the way of your tender conscience. I am going to Killpatricks-town, where you’ll be as welcome as light. You know them, they know you; at least you shall have a proper letter of invitation from my Lord and my Lady Killpatrick, and all that. And as to the rest, you know a young man is always welcome every where, a young nobleman kindly welcome — I won’t say such a young man, and such a young nobleman, for that might put you to your bows or your blushes — but nobilitas by itself, nobility is virtue enough in all parties, in all families, where there are girls, and of course balls, as there are always at Killpatricks-town. Don’t be alarmed; you shall not be forced to dance, or asked to marry. I’ll be your security. You shall be at full liberty; and it is a house where you can do just what you will. Indeed, I go to no others. These Killpatricks are the best creatures in the world; they think nothing good or grand enough for me. If I’d let them, they would lay down cloth of gold over their bogs for me to walk upon. Good-hearted beings!” added Lady Dashfort, marking a cloud gathering on Lord Colambre’s countenance. “I laugh at them, because I love them. I could not love any thing I might not laugh at — your lordship excepted. So you’ll come — that’s settled.”

And so it was settled. Our hero went to Killpatricks-town.

“Every thing here sumptuous and unfinished, you see,” said Lady Dashfort to Lord Colambre, the day after their arrival. “All begun as if the projectors thought they had the command of the mines of Peru, and ended as if the possessors had not sixpence. Luxuries enough for an English prince of the blood: comforts not enough for an English yeoman. And you may be sure that great repairs and alterations have gone on to fit this house for our reception, and for our English eyes! — Poor people! — English visitors, in this point of view, are horribly expensive to the Irish. Did you ever hear, that in the last century, or in the century before the last, to put my story far enough back, so that it shall not touch any body living; when a certain English nobleman, Lord Blank A— — sent to let his Irish friend, Lord Blank B— — know that he and all his train were coming over to pay him a visit; the Irish nobleman, Blank B— — knowing the deplorable condition of his castle, sat down fairly to calculate whether it would cost him most to put the building in good and sufficient repair, fit to receive these English visitors, or to burn it to the ground. He found the balance to be in favour of burning, which was wisely accomplished next day.1 Perhaps Killpatrick would have done well to follow this example. Resolve me which is worst, to be burnt out of house and home, or to be eaten out of house and home. In this house, above and below stairs, including first and second table, housekeeper’s room, lady’s maids’ room, butler’s room, and gentleman’s, one hundred and four people sit down to dinner every day, as Petito informs me, besides kitchen boys, and what they call char-women, who never sit down, but who do not eat or waste the less for that; and retainers and friends, friends to the fifth and sixth generation, who ‘must get their bit and their sup;’ for ‘sure, it’s only Biddy,’ they say;” continued Lady Dashfort, imitating their Irish brogue. “And ‘sure, ’tis nothing at all, out of all his honour my lord has. How could he feel it2? — Long life to him! — He’s not that way: not a couple in all Ireland, and that’s saying a great dale, looks less after their own, nor is more off-handeder, or open-hearteder, or greater openhouse-keeper, nor3 my Lord and my Lady Killpatrick.’ Now there’s encouragement for a lord and a lady to ruin themselves.”

1 Fact.]

2 Feel it, become sensible of it, know it.]

3 Nor, than.]

Lady Dashfort imitated the Irish brogue in perfection; boasted that “she was mistress of fourteen different brogues, and had brogues for all occasions.” By her mixture of mimicry, sarcasm, exaggeration, and truth, she succeeded continually in making Lord Colambre laugh at every thing at which she wished to make him laugh; at every thing, but not at every body: whenever she became personal, he became serious, or at least endeavoured to become serious; and if he could not instantly resume the command of his risible muscles, he reproached himself.

“It is shameful to laugh at these people, indeed, Lady Dashfort, in their own house — these hospitable people, who are entertaining us.”

“Entertaining us! true, and if we are entertained, how can we help laughing?”

All expostulation was thus turned off by a jest, as it was her pride to make Lord Colambre laugh in spite of his better feelings and principles. This he saw, and this seemed to him to be her sole object; but there he was mistaken. Off-handed as she pretended to be, none dealt more in the impromptu fait à loisir; and, mentally short-sighted as she affected to be, none had more longanimity for their own interest.

It was her settled purpose to make the Irish and Ireland ridiculous and contemptible to Lord Colambre; to disgust him with his native country; to make him abandon the wish of residing on his own estate. To confirm him an absentee was her object, previously to her ultimate plan of marrying him to her daughter. Her daughter was poor, she would therefore be glad to get an Irish peer for her; but would be very sorry, she said, to see Isabel banished to Ireland; and the young widow declared she could never bring herself to be buried alive in Clonbrony Castle.

In addition to these considerations, Lady Dashfort received certain hints from Mrs. Petito, which worked all to the same point.

“Why, yes, my lady; I heard a great deal about all that, when I was at Lady Clonbrony’s,” said Petito, one day, as she was attending at her lady’s toilette, and encouraged to begin chattering. “And I own I was originally under the universal error that my Lord Colambre was to be married to the great heiress, Miss Broadhurst; but I have been converted and reformed on that score, and am at present quite in another way of thinking.”

Petito paused, in hopes that her lady would ask what was her present way of thinking? But Lady Dashfort, certain that she would tell her without being asked, did not take the trouble to speak, particularly as she did not choose to appear violently interested on the subject.

“My present way of thinking,” resumed Petito, “is in consequence of my having, with my own eyes and ears, witnessed and overheard his lordship’s behaviour and words, the morning he was coming away from Lunnun for Ireland; when he was morally certain nobody was up, nor overhearing nor overseeing him, there did I notice him, my lady, stopping in the antechamber, ejaculating over one of Miss Nugent’s gloves, which he had picked up. ‘Limerick!’ said he, quite loud enough to himself; for it was a Limerick glove, my lady —‘Limerick! — dear Ireland! she loves you as well as I do!’— or words to that effect; and then a sigh, and down stairs and off. So, thinks I, now the cat’s out of the bag. And I wouldn’t give much myself for Miss Broadhurst’s chance of that young lord, with all her Bank stock, scrip, and omnum. Now, I see how the land lies, and I’m sorry for it; for she’s no fortin; and she’s so proud, she never said a hint to me of the matter: but my Lord Colambre is a sweet gentleman; and —”

“Petito! don’t run on so; you must not meddle with what you don’t understand: the Miss Killpatricks, to be sure, are sweet girls, particularly the youngest.”

Her ladyship’s toilette was finished; and she left Petito to go down to my Lady Killpatrick’s woman, to tell, as a very great secret, the schemes that were in contemplation, among the higher powers, in favour of the youngest of the Miss Killpatricks.

“So Ireland is at the bottom of his heart, is it?” repeated Lady Dashfort to herself: “it shall not be long so.”

From this time forward, not a day, scarcely an hour passed, but her ladyship did or said something to depreciate the country, or its inhabitants, in our hero’s estimation. With treacherous ability, she knew and followed all the arts of misrepresentation; all those injurious arts which his friend, Sir James Brooke, had, with such honest indignation, reprobated. She knew how, not only to seize the ridiculous points, to make the most respectable people ridiculous, but she knew how to select the worst instances, the worst exceptions; and to produce them as examples, as precedents, from which to condemn whole classes, and establish general false conclusions respecting a nation.

In the neighbourhood of Killpatrick’s-town, Lady Dashfort said, there were several squireens, or little squires; a race of men who have succeeded to the buckeens, described by Young and Crumpe. Squireens are persons who, with good long leases, or valuable farms, possess incomes from three to eight hundred a year, who keep a pack of hounds; take out a commission of the peace, sometimes before they can spell (as her ladyship said), and almost always before they know any thing of law or justice. Busy and loud about small matters; jobbers at assizes; combining with one another, and trying upon every occasion, public or private, to push themselves forward, to the annoyance of their superiors, and the terror of those below them.

In the usual course of things, these men are not often to be found in the society of gentry except, perhaps, among those gentlemen or noblemen who like to see hangers-on at their, tables: or who find it for their convenience to have underling magistrates, to protect their favourites, or to propose and carry jobs for them on grand juries. At election times, however, these persons rise into sudden importance with all who have views upon the county. Lady Dashfort hinted to Lord Killpatrick, that her private letters from England spoke of an approaching dissolution of parliament: she knew that, upon this hint, a round of invitations would be sent to the squireens; and she was morally certain that they would be more disagreeable to Lord Colambre, and give him a worse idea of the country, than any other people who could be produced. Day after day some of these personages made their appearance; and Lady Dashfort took care to draw them out upon the subjects on which she knew that they would show the most self-sufficient ignorance, and the most illiberal spirit. They succeeded beyond her most sanguine expectations.

“Lord Colambre! how I pity you, for being compelled to these permanent sittings after dinner!” said Lady Isabel to him one night, when he came late to the ladies from the dining-room.

“Lord Killpatrick insisted upon my staying to help him to push about that never-ending, still-beginning electioneering bottle,” said Lord Colambre.

“Oh! if that were all; if these gentlemen would only drink:— but their conversation!” “I don’t wonder my mother dreads returning to Clonbrony Castle, if my father must have such company as this. But, surely, it cannot be necessary.”

“Oh, indispensable! positively indispensable!” cried Lady Dashfort; “no living in Ireland without it. You know, in every country in the world, you must live with the people of the country, or be torn to pieces: for my part, I should prefer being torn to pieces.”

Lady Dashfort and Lady Isabel knew how to take advantage of the contrast between their own conversation, and that of the persons by whom Lord Colambre was so justly disgusted: they happily relieved his fatigue with wit, satire, poetry, and sentiment; so that he every day became more exclusively fond of their company; for Lady Killpatrick and the Miss Killpatricks were mere commonplace people. In the mornings, he rode or walked with Lady Dashfort and Lady Isabel: Lady Dashfort, by way of fulfilling her promise of showing him the people, used frequently to take him into the cabins, and talk to their inhabitants. Lord and Lady Killpatrick, who had lived always for the fashionable world, had taken little pains to improve the condition of their tenants: the few attempts they had made were injudicious. They had built ornamented, picturesque cottages, within view of their park; and favourite followers of the family, people with half a century’s habit of indolence and dirt, were promoted to these fine dwellings. The consequences were such as Lady Dashfort delighted to point out: every thing let to go to ruin for the want of a moment’s care, or pulled to pieces for the sake of the most surreptitious profit: the people most assisted always appearing proportionally wretched and discontented. No one could, with more ease and more knowledge of her ground, than Lady Dashfort, do the dishonours of a country. In every cabin that she entered, by the first glance of her eye at the head, kerchiefed in no comely guise, or by the drawn-down corners of the mouth, or by the bit of a broken pipe, which in Ireland never characterizes stout labour, or by the first sound of the voice, the drawling accent on “your honour,” or, “my lady,” she could distinguish the proper objects of her charitable designs, that is to say, those of the old uneducated race, whom no one can help, because they will never help themselves. To these she constantly addressed herself, making them give, in all their despairing tones, a history of their complaints and grievances; then asking them questions, aptly contrived to expose their habits of self-contradiction, their servility and flattery one moment, and their litigious and encroaching spirit the next: thus giving Lord Colambre the most unfavourable idea of the disposition and character of the lower class of the Irish people. Lady Isabel the while standing by, with the most amiable air of pity, with expressions of the finest moral sensibility, softening all her mother said, finding ever some excuse for the poor creatures, and following, with angelic sweetness, to heal the wounds her mother inflicted.

When Lady Dashfort thought she had sufficiently worked upon Lord Colambre’s mind to weaken his enthusiasm for his native country; and when Lady Isabel had, by the appearance of every virtue, added to a delicate preference, if not partiality for our hero, ingratiated herself into his good opinion, and obtained an interest in his mind, the wily mother ventured an attack of a more decisive nature; and so contrived it was, that if it failed, it should appear to have been made without design to injure, and in total ignorance.

One day, Lady Dashfort, who, in fact, was not proud of her family, though she pretended to be so, was herself prevailed on, though with much difficulty, by Lady Killpatrick, to do the very thing she wanted to do, to show her genealogy, which had been beautifully blazoned, and which was to be produced in evidence in the lawsuit that brought her to Ireland. Lord Colambre stood politely looking on and listening, while her ladyship explained the splendid intermarriages of her family, pointing to each medallion that was filled gloriously with noble, and even with royal names, till at last she stopped short, and covering one medallion with her finger, she said, “Pass over that, dear Lady Killpatrick. You are not to see that, Lord Colambre — that’s a little blot in our scutcheon. You know, Isabel, we never talk of that prudent match of great uncle John’s: what could he expect by marrying into that family, where, you know, all the men were not sans peur, and none of the women sans reproche?”

“Oh, mamma!” cried Lady Isabel, “not one exception!”

“Not one, Isabel,” persisted Lady Dashfort: “there was Lady — — and the other sister, that married the man with the long nose; and the daughter again, of whom they contrived to make an honest woman, by getting her married in time to a blue riband, and who contrived to get herself into Doctors’ Commons the very next year.”

“Well, dear mamma, that is enough, and too much. Oh! pray don’t go on,” cried Lady Isabel, who had appeared very much distressed during her mother’s speech. “You don’t know what you are saying: indeed, ma’am, you don’t.”

“Very likely, child; but that compliment I can return to you on the spot, and with interest; for you seem to me, at this instant, not to know either what you are saying, or what you are doing. Come, come, explain.”

“Oh, no, ma’am — Pray say no more; I will explain myself another time.”

“Nay, there you are wrong, Isabel; in point of good-breeding, any thing is better than hints and mystery. Since I have been so unlucky as to touch upon the subject, better go through with it, and, with all the boldness of innocence, I ask the question, Are you, my Lord Colambre, or are you not, related to or connected with any of the St. Omars?”

“Not that I know of,” said Lord Colambre; “but I really am so bad a genealogist, that I cannot answer positively.”

“Then I must put the substance of my question into a new form. Have you, or have you not, a cousin of the name of Nugent?”

“Miss Nugent! — Grace Nugent! — Yes,” said Lord Colambre, with as much firmness of voice as he could command, and with as little change of countenance as possible; but, as the question came upon him so unexpectedly, it was not in his power to answer with an air of absolute indifference and composure.

“And her mother was —” said Lady Dashfort.

“My aunt, by marriage; her maiden name was Reynolds, I think. But she died when I was quite a child. I know very little about her. I never saw her in my life; but I am certain she was a Reynolds.”

“Oh, my dear lord,” continued Lady Dashfort; “I am perfectly aware that she did take and bear the name of Reynolds; but that was not her maiden name — her maiden name was —; but perhaps it is a family secret that has been kept, for some good reason, from you, and from the poor girl herself; the maiden name was St. Omar, depend upon it. Nay, I would not have told this to you, my lord, if I could have conceived that it would affect you so violently,” pursued Lady Dashfort, in a tone of raillery; “you see you are no worse off than we are. We have an intermarriage with the St. Omars. I did not think you would be so much shocked at a discovery, which proves that our family and yours have some little connexion.”

Lord Colambre endeavoured to answer, and mechanically said something about “happy to have the honour.” Lady Dashfort, truly happy to see that her blow had hit the mark so well, turned from his lordship without seeming to observe how seriously he was affected; and Lady Isabel sighed, and looked with compassion on Lord Colambre, and then reproachfully at her mother. But Lord Colambre heeded not her looks, and heard none of her sighs; he heard nothing, saw nothing, though his eyes were intently fixed on the genealogy, on which Lady Dashfort was still descanting to Lady Killpatrick. He took the first opportunity he could of quitting the room, and went out to take a solitary walk.

“There he is, departed, but not in peace, to reflect upon what has been said,” whispered Lady Dashfort to her daughter. “I hope it will do him a vast deal of good.”

“None of the women sans reproche! None! — without one exception,” said Lord Colambre to himself; “and Grace Nugent’s mother a St. Omar! — Is it possible? Lady Dashfort seems certain. She could not assert a positive falsehood — no motive. She does not know that Miss Nugent is the person to whom I am attached — she spoke at random. And I have heard it first from a stranger — not from my mother. Why was it kept secret from me? Now I understand the reason why my mother evidently never wished that I should think of Miss Nugent — why she always spoke so vehemently against the marriages of relations, of cousins. Why not tell me the truth? It would have had the strongest effect, had she known my mind.”

Lord Colambre had the greatest dread of marrying any woman whose mother had conducted herself ill. His reason, his prejudices, his pride, his delicacy, and even his limited experience were all against it. All his hopes, his plans of future happiness, were shaken to their very foundation; he felt as if he had received a blow that stunned his mind, and from which he could not recover his faculties. The whole of that day he was like one in a dream. At night the painful idea continually recurred to him; and whenever he was fallen asleep, the sound of Lady Dashfort’s voice returned upon his ear, saying the words, “What could he expect when he married one of the St. Omars? None of the women sans reproche.”

In the morning he rose early; and the first thing he did was to write a letter to his mother, requesting (unless there was some important reason for her declining to answer the question) that she would immediately relieve his mind from a great uneasiness (he altered the word four times, but at last left it uneasiness). He stated what he had heard, and besought his mother to tell him the whole truth without reserve.

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