The quiet days went by, and grew into years, and time was only marked by the gradual failure of the reverend mother’s health; so gradual, so gentle a decay, that it was only when looking back on St. Sylvester’s Eve that her great-niece became aware how much of strength and activity had been lost since the Superior knelt in her place near the altar, listening to the solemn music of the midnight Mass that sanctified the passing of the year. This year the reverend mother was led to her seat between two nuns, who sustained her feeble limbs. This year the meek knees, which had worn the marble floor in long hours of prayer during eighty pious years, could no longer bend. The meek head was bowed, the bloodless hands were lifted up in supplication, but the fingers were wasted and stiffened, and there was pain in every movement of the joints.
There was no actual malady, only the slow death in life called old age. All the patient needed was rest and tender nursing. This last her great-niece supplied, together with the gentlest companionship. No highly trained nurse, the product of modern science, could have been more efficient than the instinct of affection had made Angela. And then the patient’s temper was so amiable, her mind, undimmed after eighty-three years of life, was a mirror of God. She thought of her fellow-creatures with a Divine charity; she worshipped her Creator with an implicit faith. For her in many a waking vision the heavens opened and the spirits of departed saints descended from their abode in bliss to hold converse with her. Eighty years of her life had been given to religious exercises and charitable deeds. Motherless before she could speak, she had entered the convent as a pupil at three years of age, and had taken the veil at seventeen. Her father had married a great heiress, whose only child, a daughter, was allowed to absorb all the small stock of parental affection; and there was no one to dispute Anastasia’s desire for the cloister. All she knew of the world outside those walls was from hearsay. A rare visit from her lovely half-sister, the Marquise de Montrond, had astonished her with the sight of a distinguished Parisienne, and left her wondering. She had never read a secular book. She knew not the meaning of the word pleasure, save in the mild amusements permitted to the convent children — till they left the convent as young women — on the evening of a saint’s day; a stately dance of curtsyings and waving arms; a little childish play, dramatising some incident in the lives of the saints. So she lived her eighty years of obedience and quiet usefulness, learning and teaching, serving and governing. She had lived through the Thirty Years’ War, through the devastations of Wallenstein, the cruelties of Bavarian Tilly, the judicial murder of Egmont and Horn. She had heard of villages burnt, populations put to the sword, women and children killed by thousands. She had conversed with those who remembered the League; she had seen the nuns weeping for Edward Campion’s cruel fate; she had heard Masses sung for the soul of murdered Mary Stuart. She had heard of Raleigh’s visions of conquest and of gold, setting his prison-blanched face towards the West, in the afternoon of life, to encounter bereavement, treachery, sickening failure, and go back to his native England to expiate the dreams of genius with the blood of a martyr. And through all the changes and chances of that eventful century she had lived apart, full of pity and wonder, in a charmed circle of piety and love.
Her room, in these peaceful stages of the closing scene, was a haven of rest. Angela loved the seclusion of the panelled chamber, with its heavily mullioned casement facing the south-west, and the polished oak floor, on which the red and gold of the sunset were mirrored, as on the dark stillness of a moorland tarn. For her every object in the room had its interest or its charm. The associations of childhood hallowed them all. The large ivory crucifix, yellow with age, dim with the kisses of adoring lips; the delf statuettes of Mary and Joseph, flaming with gaudy colour; the figure of the Saviour and St. John the Baptist, delicately carved out of boxwood, in a group representing the baptism in the river Jordan, the holy dove trembling on a wire over the Divine head; the books, the pictures, the rosaries: all these she had gazed at reverently when all things were new, and the convent passages places of shuddering, and the service of the Mass an unintelligible mystery. She had grown up within those solemn walls; and now, seeing her kinswoman’s life gently ebbing away, she could but wonder what she would have to do in this world when another took the Superior’s place, and the tie that bound her to Louvain would be broken.
The lady who would in all probability succeed Mother Anastasia as Superior was a clever, domineering woman, whom Angela loved least of all the nuns — a widow of good birth and fortune, and a thorough Fleming; stolid, bigoted, prejudiced, and taking much credit to herself for the wealth she had brought to the convent, apt to talk of the class-room and the chapel her money had helped to build and restore as “my class-room,” or “my chapel.”
No; Angela had no desire to remain in the convent when her dear kinswoman should have vanished from the scene her presence sanctified. The house would be haunted with sorrowful memories. It would be time for her to claim that home which her father had talked of sharing with her in his old age. She could just faintly remember the house in which she was born — the moat, the fish-pond, the thick walls of yew, the peacocks and lions cut in box, of which the gardener who clipped them was so proud. Faintly, faintly, the picture of the old house came back to her; built of grey stone, and stained with moss, grave and substantial, occupying three sides of a quadrangle, a house of many windows, few of which were intended to open, a house of dark passages, like these in the convent, and flights of shallow steps, and curious turns and twistings here and there. There were living birds that sunned their spreading tails and stalked in slow stateliness on the turf terraces, as well as those peacocks clipped out of yew. The house lay in a Buckinghamshire valley, shut round and sheltered by hills and coppices, where there was an abundance of game. Angela had seen the low, cavern-like larder hung with pheasants and hares.
Her heart yearned towards the old house, so distinctly pictured by memory, though perchance with some differences from the actual scene. The mansion would seem smaller to her, doubtless, beholding it with the eyes of womanhood, than childish memory made it. But to live there with her father, to wait upon him and tend him, to have Hyacinth’s children there, playing in the gardens as she had played, would be as happy a life as her fancy could compass.
All that she knew of the march of events during those tranquil years in the convent came to her in letters from her sister, who was a vivacious letter-writer, and prided herself upon her epistolary talent — as indeed upon her general superiority, from a literary standpoint, to the women of her day.
It was a pleasure to Lady Fareham in some rare interval of solitude — when the weather was too severe for her to venture outside the hall door, even in her comfortable coach, and when by some curious concatenation she happened to be without visitors — to open her portfolio and prattle with her pen to her sister, as she would have prattled with her tongue to the visitors whom snow or tempest kept away. Her letters written from London were apt to be rare and brief, Angela noted; but from his lordship’s mansion near Oxford, or at the Grange between Fareham and Winchester — once the property of the brothers of St. Cross — she always sent a budget. Few of these lengthy epistles contained anything bearing upon Angela’s own existence — except the oft-repeated entreaty that she would make haste and join them — or even the flippant suggestion that Mother Anastasia should make haste and die. They were of the nature of news-letters; but the news was tinctured by the feminine medium through which it came, and there was a flavour of egotism in almost every page. Lady Fareham wrote as only a pretty woman, courted, flattered, and indulged by everybody about her, ever since she could remember, could be forgiven for writing. People had petted her and worshipped her with such uniform subservience that she had grown to thirty years of age without knowing that she was selfish, accepting homage and submission as a law of the universe, as kings and princes do.
Only in one of those letters was there that which might be called a momentous fact, but which Angela took as easily as if it had been a mere detail, to be dismissed from her thoughts when the letter had been laid aside.
It was a letter with a black seal, announcing the death of the Marquise de Montrond, who had expired of an apoplexy at her house in the Marais, after a supper party at which Mademoiselle, Madame de Longueville, Madame de Montausier, the Duchesse de Bouillon, Lauzun, St. Evremond, cheery little Godeau, Bishop of Vence, and half a dozen other famous wits had been present, a supper bristling with royal personages. Death had come with appalling suddenness while the lamps of the festival were burning, and the cards were still upon the tables, and the last carriage had but just rolled under the porte cochère.
“It is the manner of death she would have chosen,” wrote Hyacinth. “She never missed confession on the first Sunday of the month; and she was so generous to the Church and to the poor that her director declared she would have been too saintly for earth, but for the human weakness of liking fine company. And now, dearest, I have to tell you how she has disposed of her fortune; and I hope, if you should think she has not used you generously, you will do me the justice to believe that I have neither courted her for her wealth nor influenced her to my dear sister’s disadvantage. You will consider, très chère, that I was with her from my eighth year until the other day when Fareham brought me to England. She loved me passionately in my childhood, and has often told me since that she never felt towards me as a grandmother, but as if she had been actually my mother, being indeed still a young woman when she adopted me, and by strangers always mistaken for my mother. She was handsome to the last, and young in mind and in habits long after youth had left her. I was said to be the image of what she was when she rivalled Madame de Hautefort in the affections of the late King. You must consider, sweetheart, that he was the most moral of men, and that with him love meant a passion as free from sensual taint as the preferences of a sylph. I think my good grandmother loved me all the better for this fancied resemblance. She would arrange her jewels about my hair and bosom, as she had worn them when Buckingham came wooing for his master; and then she would bid her page hold a mirror before me and tell me to look at the face of which Queen Anne had been jealous, and for which Cinq Mars had run mad. And then she would shed a tear or two over the years and the charms that were gone, till I brought the cards and cheered her spirits with her favourite game of primero.
“She had her fits of temper and little tantrums sometimes, Ange, and it needed some patience to restrain one’s tongue from insolence; but I am happy to remember that I ever bore her in profound respect, and that I never made her seriously angry but once — which was when I, being then almost a child, went out into the streets of Paris with Henri de Malfort and a wild party, masked, to hear Beaufort address the populace in the market-place, and when I was so unlucky as to lose the emerald cross given her by the great Cardinal, for whom, I believe, she had a sneaking kindness. Why else should she have so hated his Eminence’s very much favoured niece, Madame de Combalet?
“But to return to that which concerns my dear sister. Regarding me as her own daughter, the Marquise has lavished her bounties upon me almost to the exclusion of my own sweet Angela. In a word, dearest, she leaves you a modest income of four hundred louis — or about three hundred pounds sterling — the rental of two farms in Normandy; and all the rest of her fortune she bequeaths to me, and Papillon after me, including her house in the Marais — sadly out of fashion now that everybody of consequence is moving to the Place Royale — and her château near Dieppe; besides all her jewels, many of which I have had in my possession ever since my marriage. My sweet sister shall take her choice of a carcanet among those old-fashioned trinkets. And now, dearest, if you are left with a pittance that will but serve to pay for your gloves and fans at the Middle Exchange, and perhaps to buy you an Indian night-gown in the course of the year — for your Court petticoats and mantuas will cost three times as much — you have but to remember that my purse is to be yours, and my home yours, and that Fareham and I do but wait to welcome you either to Fareham House, in the Strand, or to Chiltern Abbey, near Oxford. The Grange near Fareham I never intend to re-enter if I can help it. The place is a warren of rats, which the servants take for ghosts. If you love water you will love our houses, for the river runs near them both; indeed, when in London, we almost think ourselves in Venice, save that we have a spacious garden, which I am told few of the Venetians can command, their city being built upon an assemblage of minuscule islets, linked together by innumerable bridges.”
Angela smiled as she looked down at her black gown — the week-day uniform of the convent school, exchanged for a somewhat superior grey stuff on Sundays and holidays — smiled at the notion of spending the rent of two farms upon her toilet. And how much more ridiculous seemed the assertion that to appear at King Charles’s Court she must spend thrice as much! Yet she could but remember that Hyacinth had described trains and petticoats so loaded with jewelled embroidery that it was a penance to wear them — lace worth hundreds of pounds — plumed hats that cost as much as a year’s maintenance in the convent.
Mother Anastasia expressed considerable displeasure at Madame de Montrond’s disposal of her wealth.
“This is what it is to live in a Court, and to care only for earthly things!” she said. “All sense of justice is lost in that world of vanity and self-love. You are as near akin to the Marquise as your sister; and yet, because she was familiar with the one and not with the other — and because her vain, foolish soul took pleasure in a beauty that recalled her own perishable charms, she leaves one sister a great fortune and the other a pittance!”
“Dear aunt, I am more than content ——”
“But I am not content for you, Angela. Had the estate been divided equally you might have taken the veil, and succeeded to my place in this beloved house, which needs the accession of wealth to maintain it in usefulness and dignity.”
Angela would not wound her aunt’s feelings by one word of disparagement of the house in which she had been reared; but, looking along the dim avenue of the future, she yearned for some wider horizon than the sky, barred with tall poplars which rose high above the garden wall that formed the limit of her daily walks. Her rambles, her recreations, had all been confined within that space of seven or eight acres, and she thought sometimes with a sudden longing of those hills and valleys of fertile Buckinghamshire, which lay so far back in the dawn of her mind, and were yet so distinctly pictured in her memory.
And London — that wonderful city of which her sister wrote in such glowing words! the long range of palaces beside the swift-flowing river, wider than the Seine where it reflects the gloomy bulk of the Louvre and the Temple! Were it only once in her life, she would like to see London — the King, the two Queens, Whitehall, and Somerset House. She would like to see all the splendour of Court and city; and then to taste the placid retirement of the house in the valley, and to be her father’s housekeeper and companion.
Another letter from Hyacinth announced the death of Mazarin.
“The Cardinal is no more. He died in the day of success, having got the better of all his enemies. A violent access of gout was followed by an affection of the chest which proved fatal. His sick-room was crowded with courtiers and sycophants, and he was selling sinecures up to the day of his death. Fareham says his death-bed was like a money-changer’s counter. He was passionately fond of hocca, the Italian game which he brought into fashion, and which ruined half the young men about the Court. The counterpane was scattered with money and playing cards, which were only brushed aside to make room for the last Sacraments. My Lord Clarendon declares that his spirits never recovered from the shock of his Majesty’s restoration, which falsified all his calculations. He might have made his favourite niece Queen of England; but his Italian caution restrained him, and the beautiful Hortense has to put up with a new-made duke — a title bought with her uncle’s money — to whom the Cardinal affianced her on his death-bed. He was a remarkable man, and so profound a dissembler that his pretended opposition to King Louis’ marriage with his niece Olympe Mancini would have deceived the shrewdest observer, had we not all known that he ardently desired the union, and that it was only his fear of Queen Anne’s anger which prevented it. Her Spanish pride was in arms at the notion, and she would not have stopped short at revolution to prevent or to revenge such an alliance.
“This was perhaps the only occasion upon which she ever seriously opposed Mazarin. With him expires all her political power. She is now as much a cypher as in the time of the late King, when France had only one master, the great Cardinal. He who is just dead, Fareham says, was but a little Richelieu; and he recalls how when the great Cardinal died people scarce dared tell one another of his death, so profound was the awe in which he was held. He left the King a nullity, and the Queen all powerful. She was young and beautiful then, you see; her husband was marked for death, her son was an infant. All France was hers — a kingdom of courtiers and flatterers. And now she is old and ailing; and Mazarin being gone, the young King will submit to no minister who claims to be anything better than a clerk or a secretary. Colbert he must tolerate — for Colbert means prosperity — but Colbert will have to obey. My friend, the Duchesse de Longueville, who is now living in strict retirement, writes me the most exquisite letters; and from her I hear all that happens in that country which I sometimes fancy is more my own than the duller climate where my lot is now cast. Fifteen years at the French Court have made me in heart and mind almost a Frenchwoman; nor can I fail to be influenced by my maternal ancestry. I find it difficult sometimes to remember my English, when conversing with the clod-hoppers of Oxfordshire, who have no French, yet insist, for finery’s sake, upon larding their rustic English with French words.
“All that is most agreeable in our court is imitated from the Palais Royal and the Louvre.
“‘Whitehall is but the shadow of a shadow,’ says Fareham, in one of his philosophy fits, preaching upon the changes he has seen in Paris and London. And, indeed, it is strange to have lived through two revolutions, one so awful in its final catastrophe that it dwarfs the other, yet both terrible; for I, who was a witness of the sufferings of Princes and Princesses during the two wars of the Fronde, am not inclined to think lightly of a civil war which cost France some of the flower of her nobility, and made her greatest hero a prisoner and an exile for seven years of his life.
“But oh, my dear, it was a romantic time! and I look back and am proud to have lived in it. I was but twelve years old at the siege of Paris; but I was in Madame de Longueville’s room, at the Hôtel de Ville, while the fighting was going on, and the officers, in their steel cuirasses, coming in from the thick of the strife. Such a confusion of fine ladies and armed men — breast-plates and blue scarves — fiddles squeaking in the salon, trumpets sounding in the square below!”
In a letter of later date Lady Fareham expatiated upon the folly of her sister’s spiritual guides.
“I am desolated, ma mie, by the absurd restriction which forbids you to profit by my New Year’s gift. I thought, when I sent you all the volumes of la Scudèry’s enchanting romance, I had laid up for you a year of enjoyment, and that, touched by the baguette of that exquisite fancy, your convent walls would fall, like those of Jericho at the sound of Jewish trumpets, and you would be transported in imagination to the finest society in the world — the company of Cyrus and Mandane — under which Oriental disguise you are shown every feature of mind and person in Condé and his heroic sister, my esteemed friend, the Duchesse de Longueville. As I was one of the first to appreciate Mademoiselle Scudèry’s genius, and to detect behind the name of the brother the tender sentiments and delicate refinement of the sister’s chaster pen, so I believe I was the first to call the Duchesse ‘Mandane,’ a sobriquet which soon became general among her intimates.
“You are not to read ‘Le Grand Cyrus,” your aunt tells you, because it is a romance! That is to say, you are forbidden to peruse the most faithful history of your own time, and to familiarise yourself with the persons and minds of great people whom you may never be so fortunate as to meet in the flesh. I myself, dearest Ange, have had the felicity to live among these princely persons, to revel in the conversations of the Hôtel de Rambouillet — not, perhaps, as our grandmother would have told you, in its most glorious period — but at least while it was still the focus of all that is choicest in letters and in art. Did we not hear M. Poquelin read his first comedy before it was represented by Monsieur’s company in the beautiful theatre at the Palais Royal, built by Richelieu, when it was the Palais Cardinal? Not read ‘Le Grand Cyrus,’ and on the score of morality! Why, this most delightful book was written by one of the most moral women in Paris — one of the chastest — against whose reputation no word of slander has ever been breathed! It must, indeed, be confessed that Sapho is of an ugliness which would protect her even were she not guarded by the aegis of genius. She is one of those fortunate unfortunates who can walk through the furnace of a Court unscathed, and leave a reputation for modesty in an age that scarce credits virtue in woman.
“I fear, dear child, that these narrow-minded restrictions of your convent will leave you of a surpassing ignorance, which may cover you with confusion when you find yourself in fine company. There are accomplishments without which youth is no more admired than age and grey hairs; and to sparkle with wit or astonish with learning is a necessity for a woman of quality. It is only by the advantages of education that we can show ourselves superior to such a hussy as Albemarle’s gutter-bred duchess, who was the faithless wife of a sailor or barber — I forget which — and who hangs like a millstone upon the General’s neck now that he has climbed to the zenith. To have perfect Italian and some Spanish is as needful as to have fine eyes and complexion nowadays. And to dance admirably is a gift indispensable to a lady. Alas! I fear that those little feet of yours — I hope they are small — have never been taught to move in a coranto or a contre-danse, and that you will have to learn the alphabet of dancing at an age when most women are finished performers. The great Condé, while winning sieges and battles that surpassed the feats of Greeks and Romans, contrived to make himself the finest dancer of his day, and won more admiration in high-bred circles by his graceful movements, which every one could understand and admire, than by prodigies of valour at Dunkirk or Nordlingen.”
The above was one of Lady Fareham’s most serious letters. Her pen was exercised, for the most part, in a lighter vein. She wrote of the Court beauties, the Court jests — practical jokes some of them, which our finer minds of to-day would consider in execrable taste — such jests as we read of in Grammont’s memoirs, which generally aimed at making an ugly woman ridiculous, or an injured husband the sport and victim of wicked lover and heartless wife. No sense of the fitness of things constrained her ladyship from communicating these Court scandals to her guileless sister. Did they not comprise the only news worth anybody’s attention, and relate to the only class of people who had any tangible existence for Lady Fareham? There were millions of human beings, no doubt, living and acting and suffering on the surface of the earth, outside the stellary circles of which Louis and Charles were the suns; but there was no interstellar medium of sympathy to convey the idea of those exterior populations to Hyacinth’s mind. She knew of the populace, French or English, as of something which was occasionally given to become dangerous and revolutionary, which sometimes starved and sometimes died of the plague, and was always unpleasing to the educated eye.
Masquerades, plays, races at Newmarket, dances, duels, losses at cards — Lady Fareham touched every subject, and expatiated on all; but she had usually more to tell of the country she had left than of that in which she was living.
“Here everything is on such a small scale, si mesquin!” she wrote. “Whitehall covers a large area, but it is only a fine banqueting hall and a labyrinth of lodgings, without suite or stateliness. The pictures in the late King’s cabinet are said to be the finest in the world, but they are a kind of pieces for which I care very little — Flemish and Dutch chiefly — with a series of cartoons by Raphael, which connoisseurs affect to admire, but which, did they belong to me, I would gladly exchange for a set of Mortlake tapestries.
“His Majesty here builds ships, while the King of France builds palaces. I am told Louis is spending millions on the new palace at Versailles, an ungrateful site — no water, no noble prospect as at St. Germain, no population. The King likes the spot all the better, Madame tells me, because he has to create his own landscape, to conjure lakes and cataracts out of dry ground. The buildings have been but two years in progress, and it must be long before these colossal foundations are crowned with the edifice which Louis and his architect, Mansart, have planned. Colbert is furious at this squandering of vast sums on a provincial palace, while the Louvre, the birthplace and home of dynasties, remains unfinished.
“The King’s reason for disliking St. Germain — a château his mother has always loved — has in it something childish and fantastic, if, as my dear duchess declares, he hates the place only because he can see the towers of St. Denis from the terrace, and is thus hourly reminded of death and the grave. I can hardly believe that a being of such superior intelligence could be governed by any such horror of man’s inevitable end. I would far sooner attribute the vast expenditure of Versailles to the common love of monarchs and great men for building houses too large for their necessities. Indeed, it was but yesterday that Fareham took me to see the palace — for I can call it by no meaner name — that Lord Clarendon is building for himself in the open country at the top of St. James’s Street. It promises to be the finest house in town, and, although not covering so much ground as Whitehall, is judged far superior to that inchoate mass in its fine proportions and the perfect symmetry of its saloons and galleries. There is a garden a-making, projected by Mr. Evelyn, a great authority on trees and gardens. A crowd of fine company had assembled to see the newly finished hall and dining parlour, among them a fussy person, who came in attendance upon my Lord Sandwich, and who was more voluble than became his quality as a clerk in the Navy Office. He was periwigged and dressed as fine as his master, and, on my being civil to him, talked much of himself and of divers taverns in the city where the dinners were either vastly good or vastly ill. I told him that as I never dined at a tavern the subject was altogether beyond the scope of my intelligence, at which Sandwich and Fareham laughed, and my pertinacious gentleman blushed as red as the heels of his shoes. I am told the creature has a pretty taste in music, and is the son of a tailor, but professes a genteel ancestry, and occasionally pushes into the best company.
“Shall I describe to you one of my latest conquests, sweetheart? ’Tis a boy — an actual beardless boy of eighteen summers; but such a boy! So beautiful, so insolent, with an impudence that can confront Lord Clarendon himself, the gravest of noblemen, who, with the sole exception of my Lord Southampton, is the one man who has never crossed Mrs. Palmer’s threshold, or bowed his neck under that splendid fury’s yoke. My admirer thinks no more of smoking these grave nobles, men of a former generation, who learnt their manners at the court of a serious and august King, than I do of teasing my falcon. He laughs at them, jokes with them in Greek or in Latin, has a ready answer and a witty quip for every turn of the discourse; will even interrupt his Majesty in one of those anecdotes of his Scottish martyrdom which he tells so well and tells so often. Lucifer himself could not be more arrogant or more audacious than this bewitching boy-lover of mine, who writes verses in English or Latin as easy as I can toss a shuttlecock. I doubt the greater number of his verses are scarce proper reading for you or me, Angela; for I see the men gather round him in corners as he murmurs his latest madrigal to a chosen half-dozen or so; and I guess by their subdued tittering that the lines are not over modest; while by the sidelong glances the listeners cast round, now at my Lady Castlemaine, and anon at some other goddess in the royal pantheon, I have a shrewd notion as to what alabaster breast my witty lover’s shafts are aimed at.
“This youthful devotee of mine is the son of a certain Lord Wilmot, who fought on the late King’s side in the troubles. This creature went to the university of Oxford at twelve years old — as it were, straight from his go-cart to college, and was master of arts at fourteen. He has made the grand tour, and pretends to have seen so much of this life that he has found out the worthlessness of it. Even while he woes me with a most romantic ardour, he affects to have outgrown the capacity to love.
“Think not, dearest, that I outstep the bounds of matronly modesty by this airy philandering with my young Lord Rochester, or that my serious Fareham is ever offended at our pretty trifling. He laughs at the lad as heartily as I do, invites him to our table, and is amused by his monkeyish tricks. A woman of quality must have followers; and a pert, fantastical boy is the safest of lovers. Slander itself could scarce accuse Lady Fareham, who has had soldier-princes and statesmen at her feet, of an unworthy tenderness for a jackanapes of seventeen; for, indeed, I believe his eighteenth birthday is still in the womb of time. I would with all my heart thou wert here to share our innocent diversions; and I know not which of all my playthings thou wouldst esteem highest, the falcon, my darling spaniels, made up of soft silken curls and intelligent brown eyes, or Rochester. Nay, let me not forget the children, Papillon and Cupid, who are truly very pretty creatures, though consummate plagues. The girl, Papillon, has a tongue which Wilmot says is the nearest approach to perpetual motion that he has yet discovered; and the boy, who was but seven last birthday, is full of mischief, in which my admirer counsels and abets him.
“Oh, this London, sweetheart, and this Court! How wide those violet eyes would open couldst thou but look suddenly in upon us after supper at Basset, or in the park, or at the play-house, when the orange girls are smoking the pretty fellows in the pit, and my Lady Castlemaine is leaning half out of her box to talk to the King in his! I thought I had seen enough of festivals and dances, stage-plays and courtly diversions beyond sea; but the Court entertainments at Paris or St. Germain differed as much from the festivities of Whitehall as a cathedral service from a dance in a booth at Bartholomew Fair. His Majesty of France never forgets that he is a king. His Majesty of England only remembers his kingship when he wants a new subsidy, or to get a Bill hurried through the Houses. Louis at four-and-twenty was serious enough for fifty. Charles at thirty-four has the careless humour of a schoolboy. He is royal in nothing except his extravagance, which has squandered more millions than I dare mention since he landed at Dover.
“I am growing almost as sober as my solemn spouse, who will ever be railing at the King and the Duke, and even more bitterly at the favourite, his Grace of Buckingham, who is assuredly one of the most agreeable men in London. I asked Fareham only yesterday why he went to Court, if his Majesty’s company is thus distasteful to him. ‘It is not to his company I object, but to his principles,’ he answered, in that earnest fashion of his which takes the lightest questions au grand serieux. ‘I see in him a man who, with natural parts far above the average, makes himself the jest of meaner intellects, and the dupe of greedy courtesans; a man who, trained in the stern school of adversity, overshadowed by the great horror of his father’s tragical doom, accepts life as one long jest, and being, by a concatenation of circumstances bordering on the miraculous, restored to the privileges of hereditary monarchy, takes all possible pains to prove the uselessness of kings. I see a man who, borne back to power by the irresistible current of the people’s affections, has broken every pledge he gave that people in the flush and triumph of his return. I see one who, in his own person, cares neither for Paul nor Peter, and yet can tamely witness the persecution of his people because they do not conform to a State religion — can allow good and pious men to be driven out of the pulpits where they have preached the Gospel of Christ, and suffer wives and children to starve because the head of the household has a conscience. I see a king careless of the welfare of his people, and the honour and glory of his reign; affecting to be a patriot, and a man of business, on the strength of an extravagant fancy for shipbuilding; careless of everything save the empty pleasure of an idle hour. A king who lavishes thousands upon wantons and profligates, and who ever gives not to the most worthy, but to the most importunate.’
“I laughed at this tirade, and told him, what indeed I believe, that he is at heart a Puritan, and would better consort with Baxter and Bunyan, and that frousy crew, than with Buckhurst and Sedley, or his brilliant kinsman, Roscommon.”
From her father directly, Angela heard nothing, and her sister’s allusions to him were of the briefest, anxiously as she had questioned that lively letter-writer. Yes, her father was well, Hyacinth told her; but he stayed mostly at the Manor Moat. He did not care for the Court gaieties.
“I believe he thinks we have all parted company with our wits,” she wrote. “He seldom sees me but to lecture me, in a sidelong way, upon my folly; for his railing at the company I keep hits me by implication. I believe these old courtiers of the late King are Puritans at heart; and that if Archbishop Laud were alive he would be as bitter against the sins of the town as any of the cushion-thumping Anabaptists that preach to the elect in back rooms and blind alleys. My father talks and thinks as if he had spent all his years of exile in the cave of the Seven Sleepers. And yet he fought shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest gentlemen in France — Condé, Turenne, Gramont, St. Evremond, Bussy, and the rest of them. But all the world is young, and full of wit and mirth, since his Majesty came to his own; and elderly limbs are too stiff to trip in our new dances. I doubt my father’s mind is as old-fashioned, and of as rigid a shape as his Court suit, at sight of which my best friends can scarce refrain from laughing.”
This light mention of a parent whom she reverenced wounded Angela to the quick; and that wound was deepened a year later, when she was surprised by a visit from her father, of which no letter had forewarned her. She was walking in the convent garden, in her hour of recreation, tasting the sunny air, and the beauty of the many-coloured tulips in the long narrow borders, between two espalier rows trained with an exquisite neatness, and reputed to bear the finest golden pippins and Bergamot pears within fifty miles of the city. The trees were in blossom, and a wall of pink and white bloom rose up on either hand above the scarlet and amber tulips.
Turning at the end of the long alley, where it met a wall that in August was flushed with the crimson velvet of peaches and nectarines, Angela saw a man advancing from the further end of the walk, attended by a lay sister. The high-crowned hat and pointed beard, the tall figure in a grey doublet crossed with a black sword-belt, the walk, the bearing, were unmistakable. It might have been a figure that had stepped out of Vandyke’s canvas. It had nothing of the fuss and flutter, the feathers and ruffles, the loose flow of brocade and velvet, that marked the costume of the young French Court.
Angela ran to receive her father, and could scarce speak to him, she was so startled, and yet so glad.
“Oh, sir, when I prayed for you at Mass this morning, how little I hoped for so much happiness! I had a letter from Hyacinth only a week ago, and she wrote nothing of your intentions. I knew not that you had crossed the sea.”
“Why, sweetheart, Hyacinth sees me too rarely, and is too full of her own affairs, ever to be beforehand with my intentions; and, although I have been long heartily sick of England, I only made up my mind to come to Flanders less than a week ago. No sooner thought of than done. I came by our old road, in a merchant craft from Harwich to Ostend, and the rest of the way in the saddle. Not quite so fast as they used to ride that carried his Majesty’s post from London to York, in the beginning of the troubles, when the loyal gentlemen along the north road would galop faster with despatches and treaties than ever they rode after a stag. Ah, child, how hopeful we were in those days; and how we all told each other it was but a passing storm at Westminster, which could all be lulled by a little civil concession here and there on the King’s part! And so it might, perhaps, if he would but have conceded the right thing at the right time — yielded but just the inch they asked for when they first asked — instead of shilly-shallying till they got angry, and wanted ells instead of inches. ’Tis the stitch in time, Angela, that saves trouble, in politics as well as in thy petticoat.”
He had flung his arm round his daughter’s neck as they paced slowly side by side.
“Have you come to stay at Louvain, sir?” she asked, timidly.
“Nay, love, the place is too quiet for me. I could not stay in a town that is given over to learning and piety. The sound of their everlasting carillon would tease my ear with the thought, ‘Lo, another quarter of an hour gone of my poor remnant of days, and nothing to do but to doze in the sunshine or fondle my spaniel, fill my pipe, or ride a lazy horse on a level road, such as I have ever hated.’”
“But why did you tire of England, sir? I thought the King would have wanted you always near him. You, his father’s close friend, who suffered so much for Royal friendship. Surely he loves and cherishes you! He must be a base, ungrateful man if he do not.”
“Oh, the King is grateful, Angela, grateful enough and to spare. He never sees me at Court but he has some gracious speech about his father’s regard for me. It grows irksome at last, by sheer repetition. The turn of the sentence varies, for his Majesty has a fine standing army of words, but the gist of the phrase is always the same, and it means, ‘Here is a tiresome old Put to whom I must say something civil for the sake of his ancient vicissitudes.’ And then his phalanx of foppery stares at me as if I were a Topinambou; and since I have seen them mimic Ned Hyde’s stately speech and manners, I doubt not before I have crossed the ante-room I have served to make sport for the crew, since their wit has but two phases — ordure and mimickry. Look not so glum, daughter. I am glad to be out of a Court which is most like — such places as I dare not name to thee.”
“But to have you disrespected, sir; you, so brave, so noble! You who gave the best years of your life to your royal master!”
“What I gave I gave, child. I gave him youth — that never comes back — and fortune, that is not worth grieving for. And now that I have begun to lose the reckoning of my years since fifty, I feel I had best take myself back to that roving life in which I have no time to brood upon losses and sorrows.”
“Dear father, I am sure you must mistake the King’s feelings towards you. It is not possible that he can think lightly of such devotion as yours.”
“Nay, sweetheart, who said he thinks lightly? He never thinks of me at all, or of anything serious under God’s sky. So long as he has spending money, and can live in a circle of bright eyes, and hear only flippant tongues that offer him a curious incense of flattery spiced with impertinence, Charles Stuart has all of this life that he values. And for the next — a man who is shrewdly suspected of being a papist, while he is attached by gravest vows to the Church of England, must needs hold heaven’s rewards and hell’s torments lightly.”
“But Queen Catherine, sir — does not she favour you? My aunt says she is a good woman.”
“Yes, a good woman, and the nearest approach to a cypher to be found at Hampton Court or Whitehall. Young Lord Rochester has written a poem upon ‘Nothing.’ He might have taken Queen Catherine’s name as a synonym. She is nothing; she counts for nothing. Her love can benefit nobody; her hatred, were the poor soul capable of hating persistently, can do no one harm.”
“And the King — is he so unkind to her?”
“Unkind! No. He allows her to live. Nay, when for a few days — the brief felicity of her poor life — she seemed on the point of dying, he was stricken with remorse for all that he had not been to her, and was kind, and begged her to live for his sake. The polite gentleman meant it for a compliment — one of those pious falsehoods that men murmur in dying ears — but she took him at his word and recovered; and she is there still, a little dark lady in a fine gown, of whom nobody takes any notice, beyond the emptiest formality of bent knees and backward steps. There are long evenings at Hampton Court in which she is scarce spoken to, save when she fawns upon the fortunate lady whom she began by hating. Oh, child, I should not talk to you of these things; but some of the disgust that has made my life bitter bubbles over in spite of me. I am a wanderer and an exile again, dear heart. I would sooner trail a pike abroad than suffer neglect at home. I will fight under any flag so long as it flies not for my country’s foe. I am going back to my old friends at the Louvre, to those few who are old enough to care for me; and if there come a war with Spain, why my sword may be of some small use to young Louis, whose mother was always gracious to me in the old days at St. Germain, when she knew not in the morning whether she would go safe to bed at night. A golden age of peace has followed that wild time; but the Spanish king’s death is like to light the torch and set the war-dogs barking. Louis will thrust his sword through the treaty of the Pyrenees if he see the way to a throne t’other side of the mountains.”
“But could a good man violate a treaty?”
“Ambition knows no laws, sweet, nor ever has since Hannibal.”
“Then King Louis is no better a man than King Charles?”
“I cannot answer for that, Angela; but I’ll warrant him a better king from the kingly point of view. Scarce had death freed him from the Cardinal’s leading-strings than he snatched the reins of power, showed his ministers that he meant to drive the coach. He has a head as fit for business as if he had been the son of a woollen-draper. Mazarin took pains to keep him ignorant of everything that a king ought to know; but that shrewd judgment of his taught him that he must know as much as his servants, unless he wanted them to be his masters. He has the pride of Lucifer, with a strength of will and power of application as great as Richelieu’s. You will live to see that no second Richelieu, no new Mazarin, will arise in his reign. His ministers will serve him, and go down before him, like Nicolas Fouquet, to whom he has been implacable.”
“Poor gentleman! My aunt told me that when his judges sentenced him to banishment from France, the King changed the sentence to imprisonment for life.”
“I doubt if the King ever forgave those fêtes at Vaux, which were designed to dazzle Mademoiselle la Vallière, whom this man had the presumption to love. One may pity so terrible a fall, yet it is but the ruin of a bold sensualist, who played with millions as other men play with tennis balls, and who would have drained the exchequer by his briberies and extravagances if he had not been brought to a dead stop. The world has been growing wickeder, dearest, while this fair head has risen from my knee to my shoulder; but what have you to do with its wickedness? Here you are happy and at peace ——”
“Not happy, father, if you are to hazard your life in battles and sieges. Oh, sir, that life is too dear to us, your children, to be risked so lightly. You have done your share of soldiering. Everybody that ever heard your name in England or in France knows it is the name of a brave captain — a leader of men. For our sakes, take your rest now, dear sir. I should not sleep in peace if I knew you were with Condé‘s army. I should dream of you wounded and dying. I cannot bear to think of leaving my aunt now that she is old and feeble; but my first duty is to you, and if you want me I will go with you wherever you may please to make your home. I am not afraid of strange countries.”
“Spoken like my sweet daughter, whose baby arms clasped my neck in the day of despair. But you must stay with the reverend mother, sweetheart. These bones of mine must be something stiffer before they will consent to rest in the chimney corner, or sit in the shade of a yew hedge while other men throw the bowls. When I have knocked about the world a few years longer, and when Mother Anastasia is at rest, thou shalt come to me at the Manor, and I will find thee a noble husband, and will end my days with my children and grandchildren. The world has so changed since the forties, that I shall think I have lived centuries instead of decades, when the farewell hour strikes. In the mean time I am pleased that you should be here. The Court is no place for a pure maiden, though some sweet saints there be who can walk unsmirched in the midst of corruption.”
“And Hyacinth? She can walk scatheless through that Court furnace. She writes of Whitehall as if it were Paradise.”
“Hyacinth has a husband to take care of her; a man with a brave headpiece of his own, who lets her spark it with the fairest company in the town, but would make short work of any fop who dared attempt the insolence of a suitor. Hyacinth has seen the worst and the best of two Courts, and has an experience of the Palais Royal and St. Germain which should keep her safe at Whitehall.”
Sir John and his daughter spent half a day together in the garden and the parlour, where the traveller was entertained with a collation and a bottle of excellent Beaujolais before his horse was brought to the door. Angela saw him mount, and ride slowly away in the melancholy afternoon light, and she felt as if he were riding out of her life for ever. She went back to her aunt’s room with an aching heart. Had not that kind lady, her mother in all the essentials of maternal love, been so near the end of her days, and so dependent on her niece’s affection, the girl would have clung about her father’s neck, and implored him to go no more a-soldiering, and to make himself a home with her in England.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50