A month later the Oxford Gazette brought Lady Fareham the welcomest news that she had read for ever so long. The London death-rate had decreased, and his Majesty had gone to Hampton Court, attended by the Duke and Prince Rupert, Lord Clarendon, and his other indispensable advisers, and a retinue of servants, to be within easy distance of that sturdy soldier Albemarle, who had remained in London, unafraid of the pestilence; and who declared that while it was essential for him to be in frequent communication with his Majesty, it would be perilous to the interests of the State for him to absent himself from London; for the Dutch war had gone drivelling on ever since the victory in June, and that victory was not to be supposed final. Indeed, according to the General, there was need of speedy action and a considerable increase of our naval strength.
Windsor had been thought of in the first place as a residence for the King; but the law courts had been transferred there, and the judges and their following had overrun the town, while there was a report of an infected house there. So it had been resolved that his Majesty should make a brief residence at Hampton Court, leaving the Queen, the Duchess, and their belongings at Oxford, whither he could return as soon as the business of providing for the setting out of the fleet had been arranged between him and the General, who could travel in a day backwards and forwards between the Cockpit and Wolsey’s palace.
When this news came they were snowed up at Chilton. Sport of all kinds had been stopped, and Fareham, who, in his wife’s parlance, lived in his boots all the winter, had to amuse himself without the aid of horse and hound; while even walking was made difficult by the snowdrifts that blocked the lanes, and reduced the face of Nature to one muffled and monotonous whiteness, while all the edges of the landscape were outlined vaguely against the misty greyness of the sky.
Hyacinth spent her days half in yawning and sighing, and half in idle laughter and childish games with Henriette and De Malfort. When she was gay she was as much a child as her daughter; when she was fretful and hipped, it was a childish discontent.
They played battledore and shuttlecock in the picture-gallery, and my lady laughed when her volant struck some reverend judge or venerable bishop a rap on the nose. They sat for hours twanging guitars, Hyacinth taking her music-lesson from De Malfort, whose exquisite taste and touch made a guitar seem a different instrument from that on which his pupil’s delicate fingers nipped a wiry melody, more suggestive of finger-nails than music.
He taught her, and took all possible pains in the teaching, and laughed at her, and told her plainly that she had no talent for music. He told her that in her hands the finest lute Laux Maler ever made, mellowed by three centuries, would be but wood and catgut.
“It is the prettiest head in the world, and a forehead as white as Queen Anne’s,” he said one day, with a light touch on the ringletted brow, “but there is nothing inside. I wonder if there is anything here?” and the same light touch fluttered for an instant against her brocade bodice, at the spot where fancy locates the faculty of loving and suffering.
She laughed at his rude speeches, just as she laughed at his flatteries — as if there were safety in that atmosphere of idle mirth. Angela heard and wondered, wondering most perhaps what occupied and interested Lord Fareham in those white winter days, when he lived for the greater part alone in his own rooms, or pacing the long walks from which the gardeners had cleared the snow. He spent some of his time indoors, deep in a book. She knew as much as that. He had allowed Angela to read some of his favourites, though he would not permit any of the new comedies, which everybody at Court was reading, to enter his house, much to Lady Fareham’s annoyance.
“I am half a century behind all my friends in intelligence,” she said, “because of your Puritanism. One tires of your everlasting gloomy tragedies — your Broken Hearts and Philasters. I am all for the genius of comedy.”
“Then satisfy your inclinations, and read Molière. He is second only to Shakespeare.”
“I have him by heart already.”
The Broken Heart and Philaster delighted Angela; indeed, she had read the latter play so often, and with such deep interest, that many passages in it had engraved themselves on her memory, and recurred to her sometimes in the silence of wakeful nights.
That character of Bellario touched her as no heroine of the “Grand Cyrus” had power to move her. How elaborately artificial seemed the Scudèry’s polished tirades, her refinements and quintessences of the grand passion, as compared with the fervid simplicity of the woman-page — a love so humble, so intense, so unselfish!
Sir Denzil came to Chilton nearly every day, and was always graciously received by her ladyship. His Puritan gravity fell away from him like a pilgrim’s cloak, in the light air of Hyacinth’s amusements. He seemed to grow younger; and Henriette’s sharp eyes discovered an improvement in his dress.
“This is your second new suit since Christmas,” she said, “and I’ll swear it is made by the King’s tailor. Regardez done, madame! What exquisite embroidery, silver and gold thread intermixed with little sparks of garnets sewn in the pattern! It is better than anything of his lordship’s. I wish I had a father who dressed well. I’m sure mine must be the shabbiest lord at Whitehall. You have no right to be more modish than monsieur mon père, Sir Denzil.”
“Hold that insolent tongue, p’tit drôle!” cried the mother. “Sir Denzil is younger by a dozen years than his lordship, and has his reputation to make at Court, and with the ladies he will meet there. I hope you are coming to London, Denzil. You shall have a seat in one of our coaches as soon as the death-rate diminishes, and this odious weather breaks up.”
“Your ladyship is all goodness. I shall go where my lode-star leads,” answered Denzil, looking at Angela, and blushing at the audacity of his speech.
He was one of those modest lovers who rarely bring a blush to the cheek of the beloved object, but are so poor-spirited as to do most of the blushing themselves.
A week later Lady Fareham could do nothing but praise that severe weather which she had pronounced odious, for her husband, coming in from Oxford after a ride along the road, deep with melting snow, brought the news of a considerable diminution in the London death-rate; and the more startling news that his Majesty had removed to Whitehall for the quicker despatch of business with the Duke of Albemarle, albeit the bills of mortality recorded fifteen hundred deaths from the pestilence in the previous week, and although not a carriage appeared in the deserted streets of the metropolis except those in his Majesty’s train.
“How brave, how admirable!” cried Hyacinth, clapping her hands in the exuberance of her joy. “Then we can go to London to-morrow, if horses and coaches can be made ready. Give your orders at once, Fareham, I beseech you. The thaw has set in. There will be no snow to stop us.”
“There will be floods which may make fords impassable.”
“We can avoid every ford — there is always a détour by the lanes.”
“Have you any idea what the lanes will be like after two feet deep of snow? Be sure, my love, you are happier twanging your lute by this fireside than you would be stuck in a quagmire, perishing with cold in a windy coach.”
“I will risk the quagmires and the windy coach. Oh, my lord, if you ever loved me let us set out to-morrow. I languish for Fareham House — my basset-table, my friends, my watermen to waft me to and fro between Blackfriars and Westminster, the mercers in St. Paul’s Churchyard, the Middle Exchange. I have not bought myself anything pretty since Christmas. Let us go to-morrow.”
“And risk spoiling the prettiest thing you own — your face — by a plague-spot.”
“The King is there — the plague is ended.”
“Do you think he is a God, that the pestilence will flee at his coming?”
“I think his courage is godlike. To be the first to return to that abandoned city.”
“What of Monk and the Archbishop, who never left it?”
“A rough old soldier! A Churchman! Such lives were meant to face danger. But his Majesty! A man for whom existence should be one long holiday?”
“He has done his best to make it so; but the pestilence has shown him that there are grim realities in life. Don’t fret, dearest. We will go to town as soon as it is prudent to make the move. Kings must brave great hazards; and there is no reason that little people like us should risk our lives because the necessities of State compel his Majesty to imperil his.”
“We shall be laughed at if we do not hasten after him.”
“Let them laugh who please. I have passed through the ordeal, Hyacinth. I don’t want a second attack of the sickness; nor would I for worlds that you or your sister should run into the mouth of danger. Besides, you can lose little pleasure by being absent; for the play-houses are all closed, and the Court is in mourning for the French Queen-mother.”
“Poor Queen Anne!” sighed Hyacinth. “She was always kind to me. And to die of a cancer — after out-living those she most loved! King Louis would scarcely believe she was seriously ill, till she was at the point of death. But we know what mourning means at Whitehall — Lady Castlemaine in black velvet, with forty thousand pounds in diamonds to enliven it; a concert instead of a play, perhaps; and the King sitting in a corner whispering with Mrs. Stewart. But as for the contagion, you will see that everybody will rush back to London, and that you and I will be laughing-stocks.”
The next week justified Lady Fareham’s assertion. As soon as it was known that the King had established himself at Whitehall, the great people came back to their London houses, and the town began to fill. It was as if a God had smiled upon the smitten city, and that healing and happiness radiated from the golden halo round that anointed head. Was not this the monarch of whom the most eloquent preacher of the age had written, “In the arms of whose justice and wisdom we lie down in safety”?
London flung off her cerements — erased her plague-marks. The dead-cart’s dreadful bell no longer sounded in the silence of an afflicted city. Coffins no longer stood at every other door; the pits at Finsbury, in Tothill Fields, at Islington, were all filled up and trampled down; and the grass was beginning to grow over the forgotten dead. The Judges came back to Westminster. London was alive again — alive and healed; basking in the sunshine of Royalty.
Nowhere was London more alive in the month of March than at Fareham House on the Thames, where the Fareham liveries of green and gold showed conspicuous upon his lordship’s watermen, lounging about the stone steps that led down to the water, or waiting in the terraced garden, which was one of the finest on the river. Wherries of various weights and sizes filled one spacious boathouse, and in another handsome stone edifice with a vaulted roof Lord Fareham’s barge lay in state, glorious in cream colour and gold, with green velvet cushions and Oriental carpets, as splendid as that blue-and-gold barge which Charles had sent as a present to Madame, a vessel to out-glitter Cleopatra’s galley, when her ladyship and her friends and their singing-boys and musicians filled it for a voyage to Hampton Court.
The barge was used on festive occasions, or for country voyages, as to Hampton or Greenwich; the wherries were in constant requisition. Along that shining waterway rank and fashion, commerce and business, were moving backwards and forwards all day long. That more novel mode of transit, the hackney coach, was only resorted to in foul weather; for the Legislature had handicapped the coaching trade in the interests of the watermen, and coaches were few and dear.
If Angela had loved the country, she was not less charmed with London under its altered aspect. All this gaiety and splendour, this movement and brightness, astonished and dazzled her.
“I am afraid I am very shallow-minded,” she told Denzil when he asked her opinion of London. “It seems an enchanted place, and I can scarcely believe it is the same dreadful city I saw a few months ago, when the dead were lying in the streets. Oh, how clearly it comes back to me — those empty streets, the smoke of the fires, the wretched ragged creatures begging for bread! I looked down a narrow court, and saw a corpse lying there, and a child wailing over it; and a little way farther on a woman flung up a window, and screamed out, ‘Dead, dead! The last of my children is dead! Has God no relenting mercy?’”
“It is curious,” said Hyacinth, “how little the town seems changed after all those horrors. I miss nobody I know.”
“Nay, madam,” said Denzil, “there have only died one hundred and sixty thousand people, mostly of the lower classes; or at least that is the record of the bills; but I am told the mortality has been twice as much, for people have had a secret way of dying and burying their dead. If your ladyship could have heard the account that Mr. Milton gave me this morning of the sufferings he saw before he left London, you would not think the visitation a light one.”
“I wonder you consort with such a rebellious subject as Mr. Milton,” said Hyacinth. “A creature of Cromwell’s, who wrote with hideous malevolence and disrespect of the murdered King, who was in hiding for ever so long after his Majesty’s return, and who now escapes a prison only by the royal clemency.”
“The King lacks only that culminating distinction of having persecuted the greatest poet of the age in order to stand equal to the bigots who murdered Giordano Bruno,” said Denzil.
“The greatest poet! Sure you would not compare Milton with Waller?”
“Indeed I would not, Lady Fareham.”
“Nor with Cowley, nor Denham — dear cracked-brained Denham?”
“Nor with Denham. To my fancy he stands as high above them as the pole-star over your ladyship’s garden lamps.”
“A pamphleteer who has scribbled schoolboy Latin verses, and a few short poems; and, let me see, a masque — yes, a masque that he wrote for Lord Bridgewater’s children before the troubles. I have heard my father talk of it. I think he called the thing Comus.”
“A name that will live, Lady Fareham, when Waller and Denham are shadows, remembered only for an occasional couplet.”
“Oh, but who cares what people will think two or three hundred years hence? Waller’s verses please us now. The people who come after me can please themselves, and may read Comus to their hearts’ content. I know his lordship reads Milton, as he does Shakespeare, and all the cramped old play-wrights of Elizabeth’s time. Henri, sing us that song of Waller’s, ‘Go, lovely rose.’ I would give all Mr. Milton has written for that perfection.”
They were sitting on the terrace above the river in the golden light of an afternoon that was fair and warm as May, though by the calendar ’twas March. The capricious climate had changed from austere winter to smiling spring. Skylarks were singing over the fields at Hampstead, and over the plague-pits at Islington, and all London was rejoicing in blue skies and sunshine. Trade was awakening from a death-like sleep. The theatres were closed; but there were plays acted now and then at Court. The New and the Middle Exchange were alive with beribboned fops and painted belles.
It was Lady Fareham’s visiting-day. The tall windows of her saloon were open to the terrace, French windows that reached from ceiling to floor, like those at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, and which Hyacinth had substituted for the small Jacobean casements, when she took possession of her husband’s ancestral mansion. Saloon and terrace were one on a balmy afternoon like this; and her ladyship’s guests wandered in and out at their pleasure. Her lackeys, handing chocolate and cakes on silver or gold salvers, were so many as to seem ubiquitous; and in the saloon, presided over by Angela, there was a still choicer refreshment to be obtained at a tea-table, where tiny cups of the new China drink were dispensed to those who cared for exotic novelties.
“Prythee, take your guitar and sing to us, were it but to change the conversation,” cried Hyacinth; and De Malfort took up his guitar and began, in the sweetest of tenors, “Go, lovely rose.”
He had all her ladyship’s visitors, chiefly feminine, round him before he had finished the first verse. That gift of song, that exquisite touch upon the Spanish guitar, were irresistible.
Lord Fareham landed at the lower flight of steps as the song ended, and came slowly along the terrace, saluting his wife’s friends with a grave courtesy. He brought an atmosphere of silence and restraint with him, it seemed to some of his wife’s visitors, for the babble that usually follows the end of a song was wanting.
Most of Lady Fareham’s friends affected literature, and professed familiarity with two books which had caught the public taste on opposite sides of the Channel. In London people quoted Butler, and vowed there was no wit so racy as the wit in “Hudibras.” In Paris the cultured were all striving to talk like Rochefoucauld’s “Maxims,” which had lately delighted the Gallic mind by the frank cynicism that drew everybody’s attention to somebody else’s failings.
“Himself the vainest of men, ’tis scarce wonderful that he takes vanity to be the mainspring that moves the human species,” said De Malfort, when some one had found fault with the Duke’s analysis.
“Oh, now we shall hear nothing but stale Rochefoucauldisms, sneers at love and friendship, disparagement of our ill-used sex! Where has my grave husband been, I wonder?” said Hyacinth. “Upon my honour, Fareham, your brow looks as sombre as if it were burdened with the care of the nation.”
“I have been with one who has to carry the greater part of that burden, my lady, and my spirits may have caught some touch of his uneasiness.”
“You have been prosing with that pragmatical personage at Dunkirk — nay, I beg the Lord Chancellor’s pardon, Clarendon House. Are not his marbles and tapestries much finer than ours? And yet he began life as a sneaking lawyer, the younger son of a small Wiltshire squire ——”
“Lady Fareham, you allow your tongue too much licence ——”
“Nay, I speak but the common feeling. Everybody is tired of a Minister who is a hundred years behind the age. He should have lived under Elizabeth.”
“A pretty woman should never talk politics, Hyacinth.”
“Of what else can I talk when the theatres are closed, and you deny me the privilege of seeing the last comedy performed at Whitehall? Is it not rank tyranny in his lordship, Lady Sarah?” turning to one of her intimates, a lady who had been a beauty at the court of Henrietta Maria in the beginning of the troubles, and who from old habit still thought herself lovely and beloved. “I appeal to your ladyship’s common sense. Is it not monstrous to deprive me of the only real diversion in the town? I was not allowed to enter a theatre at all last year, except when his favourite Shakespeare or Fletcher was acted, and that was but a dozen times, I believe.”
“Oh, hang Shakespeare!” cried a gentleman whose periwig occupied nearly as much space against the blue of a vernal sky as all the rest of his dapper little person. “Gud, my lord, it is vastly old-fashioned in your lordship to taste Shakespeare!” protested Sir Ralph Masaroon, shaking a cloud of pulvilio out of his cataract of curls. “There was a pretty enough play concocted t’other day out of two of his — a tragedy and comedy —Measure for Measure and Much Ado about Nothing, the interstices filled in with the utmost ingenuity. But Shakespeare unadulterated — faugh!”
“I am a fantastical person, perhaps, Sir Ralph; but I would rather my wife saw ten of Shakespeare’s plays — in spite of their occasional coarseness — than one of your modern comedies.”
“I should revolt against such tyranny,” said Lady Sarah. “I have always appreciated Shakespeare, but I adore a witty comedy, and I never allowed my husband to dictate to me on a question of taste.”
“Plays which her Majesty patronises can scarcely be unfit entertainment for her subjects,” remarked another lady.
“Our Portuguese Queen is an excellent judge of the niceties of our language,” said Fareham. “I question if she understands five sentences in as many acts.”
“Nor should I understand anything low or vulgar,” said Hyacinth.
“Then, madam, you are best at home, for the whole entertainment would be Hebrew to you.”
“That cannot be,” protested Lady Sarah; “for all our plays are written by gentlemen. The hack writers of King James’s time have been shoved aside. It is the mark of a man of quality to write a comedy.”
“It is a pity that fine gentlemen should write foul jests. Nay, it is a subject I can scarce speak of with patience, when I remember what the English stage has been, and hear what it is; when I recall what Lord Clarendon has told me of his Majesty’s father, for whom Shakespeare was a closet companion, who loved all that was noblest in the drama of the Elizabethan age. Time, which should have refined and improved the stage, has sunk it in ignominy. We stand alone among nations in our worship of the obscene. You have seen plays enough in Paris, Hyacinth. Recall the themes that pleased you at the Marais and the Hôtel de Bourgogne; the stories of classic heroism, of Christian fortitude, of manhood and womanhood lifted to the sublime. You who, in your girlhood, were familiar with the austere genius of Corneille ——”
“I am sick of that Frenchman’s name,” interjected Lady Sarah. “St. Évremond was always praising him, and had the audacity to pronounce him superior to Dryden; to compare Cinna with the Indian Queen.”
“A comparison which makes one sorry for Mr. Dryden,” said Fareham. “I have heard that Condé, when a young man, was affected to tears at the scene between Augustus and his foe.”
“He must have been very young,” said Lady Fareham. “But I am not going to depreciate Corneille, or to pretend that the French theatre is not vastly superior to our own. I would only protest that if our laughter-loving King prefers farce to tragedy, and rhyme to blankverse, his subjects should accommodate themselves to his taste, and enjoy the plays he likes. It is a foolish prejudice that deprives me of such a pleasure. I could always go in a mask.”
“Can you put a mask upon your mind, and preserve that unstained in an atmosphere of corruption? Indeed, your ladyship does not know what you are asking for. To sit and simper through a comedy in which the filthiest subjects are discussed in the vilest language; to see all that is foolish or lascivious in your own sex exaggerated with a malignant licence, which makes a young and beautiful woman an epitome of all the vices, uniting the extreme of masculine profligacy with the extreme of feminine silliness. Will you encourage by your presence the wretches who libel your sex? Will you sit smiling to see your sisters in the pillory of satire?”
“I should smile as at a fairy tale. There are no such women among my friends ——”
“And if the satire hits an enemy, it is all the more pungent,” said Lady Sarah.
“An enemy! The man who can so write of women is your worst enemy. The day will come, perhaps, long after we are dust, when the women in Epsom Wells will be thought pictures from life. ‘Such an one,’ people will say, as they stand to read your epitaph, ‘was this Lady Sarah, whose virtues are recorded here in Latin superlatives. We know her better in the pages of Shadwell.’”
Lady Sarah paled under her rouge at that image of a tomb, as Fareham’s falcon eye singled her out in the light-hearted group of which De Malfort was the central figure, sitting on the marble balustrade, in an easy impertinent attitude, swinging his legs, and dandling his guitar. She was less concerned at the thought of what posterity might say of her morals than at the idea that she must inevitably die.
“Not a word against Shad,” protested Sir Ralph. “I have roared with laughter at his last play. Never did any one so hit the follies of town and country. His rural Put is perfection; his London rook is to the very life.”
“And if the generality of his female characters conduct themselves badly there is always one heroine of irreproachable morals,” said Lady Sarah.
“Who talks like a moral dragoon,” said Fareham.
“Oh, dem, we must have the play-houses!” cried Masaroon. “Consider how dull town is without them. They are the only assemblies that please quality and riffraff alike. Sure ’tis the nature of wit to bubble into licentiousness, as champagne foams over the rim of a glass; and, after all, who listens to the play? Half the time one is talking to some adventurous miss, who will swallow a compliment from a stranger if he offer it with a china orange. Or, perhaps, there is quarrelling; and all our eyes and ears are on the scufflers. One may ogle a pretty actress on the stage; but who listens to the play, except the cits and commonalty?”
“And even they are more eyes than ears,” said Lady Sarah, “and are gazing at the King and Queen, or the Duke and Duchess, when they should be ‘following an intrigue by Shadwell or Dryden.”
“Pardieu!” exclaimed De Malfort, “there are tragedies and comedies in the boxes deeper and more human than anything that is acted on the stage. To watch the Queen, sitting silent and melancholy, while Madame Barbara lolls across half a dozen people to talk to his Majesty, dazzling him with her brilliant eyes, bewildering him by her daring speech. Or, on other nights to see the same lady out of favour, sitting apart, with an ivory shoulder turned towards Royalty, scowling at the audience like a thunder-cloud.”
“Well, it is but natural, perhaps, that such a Court should inspire such a stage,” returned Fareham, “and that for the heroic drama of Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Massinger, and Ford, we should have a gross caricature of our own follies and our own vices. Nay, so essential is foulness to the modern stage that when the manager ventures a serious play, he takes care to introduce it with some filthy prologue, and to spice the finish with a filthier epilogue.”
“Zounds, Fareham!” cried Masaroon, “when one has yawned or slept through five acts of dull heroics, one needs to be stung into wakefulness by a high-spiced epilogue. For my taste your epilogue can’t be too pungent to give a flavour to my oysters and Rhenish. Gud, my lord, we must have something to talk about when we leave the play-house!”
“His lordship is spoilt; we are all spoilt for London after having lived in the most exquisite city in the world,” drawled Mrs. Danville, one of Lady Fareham’s particular friends, who had been educated at the Visitandines with the Princess Henrietta, now Duchess of Orleans. “Who can tolerate the coarse manners and sea-coal fires of London after the smokeless skies and exquisite courtesies of Parisian good company in the Rue St. Thomas du Louvre — a society so refined that a fault in grammar shocks as much as a slit nose at Charing Cross? I shudder when I recall the Saturdays in the Rue du Temple, and compare the conversations there, the play of wit and fancy, the elaborate arguments upon platonic love, the graceful raillery, with any assembly in London — except yours, Hyacinth. At Fareham House we breathe a finer air, although his lordship’s esprit moqueur will not allow us any superiority to the coarse English mob.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Danville, even your prejudice cannot deny London fine gentlemen and wits,” remonstrated Sir Ralph. “A court that can boast a Buckhurst, a Rochester, an Etherege, a Sedley ——”
“There is not one of them can compare with Voiture or Godeau, with Bussy or St. Évremond, still less with Scarron or Molière,” said De Malfort. “I have heard more wit in one evening at Scarron’s than in a week at Whitehall. Wit in France has its basis in thought and erudition. Here it is the sparkle and froth of empty minds, a trick of speech, a knack of saying brutal things under a pretence of humour, varnishing real impertinence with mock wit. I have heard Rowley laugh at insolences which, addressed to Louis, would have ensured the speaker a year in the Bastille.”
“I would not exchange our easy-tempered King for your graceful despot,” said Fareham. “Pride is the mainspring that moves Louis’ self-absorbed soul. His mother instilled it into his mind almost before he could speak. He was bred in the belief that he has no more parallel or fellow than the sun which he has chosen for his emblem. And then, for moral worth, he is little better than his cousin, Louis has all Charles’s elegant vices, plus tyranny.”
“Louis is every inch a King. Your easy-tempered gentleman at Whitehall is only a tradition,” answered De Malfort. “He is but an extravagantly paid official, whose office is a sinecure, and who sells something of his prerogative every session for a new grant of money. I dare adventure, by the end of his reign, Charles will have done more than Cromwell to increase the liberty of the subject and to demonstrate the insignificance of kings.”
“I doubt the easy-tempered sinecurist who trusts the business of the State to the nation’s representatives will wear longer than your officious tyrant, who wants to hold all the strings in his own fingers.”
“He may do that safely, so long as he has men like Colbert for puppets ——”
“Men!” cried Fareham. “A man of so rare an honesty must not be thought of in the plural. Colbert’s talent, probity, and honour constitute a phoenix that appears once in a century; and, given those rare qualities in the man, it needs a Richelieu to inspire the minister, and a Mazarin to teach him his craft, and to prepare him for double-dealing in others which his own direct mind could never have imagined. Trained first by one of the greatest, and next by one of the subtlest statesmen the world has ever seen, the provincial woollen-draper’s son has all the qualities needed to raise France to the pinnacle of fortune, if his master will but give him a free hand.”
“At any rate, he will make Jacques Bonhomme pay handsomely for his Majesty’s new palaces and new loves,” said De Malfort. “Colbert adores the King, and is blind to his follies, which are no more economical than the vulgar pleasures of your jovial Rowley.”
“Who takes four shillings in every country gentleman’s pound to spend on the pleasures of London,” interjected Masaroon. “Royalty is plaguey expensive.”
The company sighed a melancholy assent.
“And one can never tell whether the money they squeeze out of us goes to build a new ship, or to pay Lady Castlemaine’s gambling debts,” said Lady Sarah.
“Oh, no doubt the lady, as Hyde calls her, has her tithes,” said De Malfort. “I have observed she always flames in new jewels after a subsidy.”
“Royal accounts should be kept so that every tax-payer could look into them,” said Masaroon. “The King has spent millions. We were all so foolishly fond of him in the joyful day of his restoration that we allowed him to wallow in extravagance, and asked no questions; and for a man who had worn threadbare velvet and tarnished gold, and lived upon loans and gratuities from foreign princes and particulars, it was a new sensation to draw ad libitum upon a national exchequer.”
“The exchequer Rowley draws upon should be as deep and wide as the river Pactolus; for he is a spendthrift by instinct,” said Fareham.
“Yet his largest expenditure can hardly equal his cousin’s drain upon the revenue. Mansart is spending millions on Versailles, with his bastard Italian architecture, his bloated garlands and festoons, his stone lilies and pomegranates. Charles builds no palaces, initiates no war ——”
“And will leave neither palace nor monument; will have lived only to have diminished the dignity and importance of his country. Restored to kingdom and power as if by a miracle, he makes it his chief business to show Englishmen how well they could have done without him,” said Denzil Warner, who had been hanging over Angela’s tea-table until just now, when they both sauntered on to the terrace, the lady’s office being fulfilled, the little Chinese teapot emptied of its costly contents, and the tiny tea-cups distributed among the modish few who relished, or pretended to relish, the new drink.
“You are a Republican, Sir Denzil, fostered by an arrant demagogue!” exclaimed Masaroon, with a contemptuous shake of his shoulder ribbons. “You hate the King because he is a King.”
“No, sir, I despise him because he is so much less than a King. Nobody could hate Charles the Second. He is not big enough.”
“Oh, dem, we want no meddlesome Kings to quarrel with their neighbours, and set Europe by the ears! The treaty of the Pyrenees may be a fine thing for France; but how many noble gentlemen’s lives it cost, to say nothing of the common people! Rowley is the finest gentleman in his kingdom, and the most good-natured. Eh, gud, sirs! what more would you have?”
“A MAN— like Henry the Fifth, or Oliver Cromwell, or Elizabeth.”
“Faith, she had need possess the manly virtues, for she must have been an untowardly female — a sour, lantern-jawed spinster, with all the inclinations but none of the qualities of a coquette.”
“Greatness has the privilege of small failings, or it would scarce be human. Elizabeth and Julius Caesar might be excused some harmless vanities.”
The spring evenings were now mild enough for promenading St. James’s Park, and the Mall was crowded night after night by the finest company in London. Hyacinth walked in the Mall, and appeared occasionally in her coach in Hyde Park; but she repeatedly reminded her friends how inferior was the mill-round of the Ring to the procession of open carriages along the Cours la Reine, by the side of the Seine; the splendour of the women’s dress, outshone sometimes by the extravagant decoration of their coaches and the richness of their liveries; the crowds of horsemen, the finest gentlemen in France, riding at the coach doors, and bandying jests and compliments with Beauty, enthroned in her triumphal chariot. Gay, joyous sunsets; light laughter; delicate feasting in Renard’s garden, hard by the Tuileries. To remember that fairer and different scene was to recall the freshness of youth, the romance of a first love.
Here in the Mall there was gaiety enough and to spare. A crowd of fine people that sometimes thickened to a mob, hustled by the cits and starveling poets who came to stare at them.
Yet, since St. James’s Park was fashion’s favourite promenade, Lady Fareham affected it, and took a turn or two nearly every evening, alighting from her chair at one gate and returning to it at another, on her way to rout or dance. She took Angela with her; and De Malfort and Sir Denzil were generally in attendance upon them, Denzil’s devotion stopping at nothing except a proposal of marriage, for which he had not mustered courage in a friendship that had lasted half a year.
“Because there was one so favoured as Endymion, am I to hope for the moon to come down and give herself to me?” he said one day, when Lady Fareham rebuked him for his reticence. “I know your sister does not love me; yet I hang on, hoping that love will come suddenly, like the coming of spring, which is ever a surprise. And even if I am never to win her, it is happiness to see her and to talk with her. I will not spoil my chance by rashness; I will not hazard banishment from her dear company.”
“She is lucky in such an admirer,” sighed Hyacinth. “A silent, respectful passion is the rarest thing nowadays. Well, you deserve to conquer, Denzil; and if my sister were not of the coldest nature I ever met in woman she would have returned your passion ages ago, when you were so much in her company at Chilton.”
“I can afford to wait as long as the Greeks waited before Troy,” said Denzil; “and I will be as constant as they were. If I cannot be her lover I can be her friend, and her protector.”
“Protector! Nay, surely she needs no protector out-of-doors, when she has Fareham and me within!”
“Beauty has always need of defenders.”
“Not such beauty as Angela’s. In the first place, her charms are of no dazzling order; and in the second, she has a coldness of temper and an old-fashioned wisdom which would safeguard her amidst the rabble rout of Comus.”
“There I believe you are right, Lady Fareham. Temptation could not touch her. Sin, even the subtlest, could not so disguise itself that her purity would not take alarm. Yes; she is like Milton’s lady. The tempter could not touch the freedom of her mind. Sinful love would wither at a look from those pure eyes.”
He turned away suddenly and walked to the window.
“Denzil! Why, what is the matter? You are weeping!”
“Forgive me!” he said, recovering himself. “Indeed, I am not ashamed of a tributary tear to virtue and beauty like your sister’s.”
“Dear friend, I shall not be happy till I call you brother.”
She gave him both her hands, and he bent down to kiss them.
“I swear you are losing all your Anabaptist stiffness,” she said, laughingly. “You will be ruffling it in Covent Garden with Buckhurst and his crew before long.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05