Nothing could have been more cordial than Lady Fareham’s welcome to her sister, nor were it easy to imagine a life more delightful than that at Chilton Abbey in that autumnal season, when every stage of the decaying year clothed itself with a variety and brilliancy of colouring which made ruin beautiful, and disguised the approach of winter, as a court harridan might hide age and wrinkles under a yellow satin mask and flame-coloured domino. The Abbey was one of those capacious, irregular buildings in which all that a house was in the past and all that it is in the present are composed into a harmonious whole, and in which past and present are so cunningly interwoven that it would have been difficult for any one but an architect to distinguish where the improvements and additions of yesterday were grafted on to the masonry of the fourteenth century. Here, where the spacious plate-room and pantry began, there were walls massive enough for the immuring of refractory nuns; and this corkscrew Jacobean staircase, which wound with carved balusters up to the garret story, had its foundations in a flight of Cyclopean stone steps that descended to the cellars, where the monks kept their strong liquors and brewed their beer. Half of my lady’s drawing-room had been the refectory, and the long dining-parlour still showed the groined roof of an ancient cloister; while the music-room, into which it opened, had been designed by Inigo Jones, and built by the last Lord Fareham. All that there is of the romantic in this kind of architectural patchwork had been enhanced by the collection of old furniture that the present possessors of the Abbey had imported from Lady Fareham’s château in Normandy, and which was more interesting though less splendid than the furniture of Fareham’s town mansion, as it was the result of gradual accumulation in the Montrond family, or of purchase from the wreck of noble houses, ruined in the civil war which had distracted France before the reign of the Béarnais.
To Angela the change from an enclosed convent to such a house as Chilton Abbey, was a change that filled all her days with wonder. The splendour, the air of careless luxury that pervaded her sister’s house, and suggested costliness and waste in every detail, could but be distressing to the pupil of Flemish nuns, who had seen even the trenchers scraped to make soup for the poor, and every morsel of bread garnered as if it were gold dust. From that sparse fare of the convent to this Rabelaisian plenty, this plethora of meat and poultry, huge game pies and elaborate confectionery, this perpetual too much of everything, was a transition that startled and shocked her. She heard with wonder of the numerous dinner tables that were spread every day at Chilton. Mr. Manningtree’s table, at which the Roman Priest from Oxford dined, except on those rare occasions when he was invited to sit down with the quality; and Mrs. Hubbock’s table, where the superior servants dined, and at which Henriette’s dancing-master considered it a privilege to over-eat himself; and the two great tables in the servants’ hall, twenty at each table; and the gouvernante, Mrs. Priscilla Goodman’s table in the blue parlour upstairs, at which my lady’s English and French waiting-women, and my lord’s gentlemen ate, and at which Henriette and her brother were supposed to take their meals, but where they seldom appeared, usually claiming the right to eat with their parents. She wondered as she heard of the fine-drawn distinctions among that rabble of servants, the upper ranks of whom were supplied by the small gentry — of servants who waited upon servants, and again other servants who waited on those, down to that lowest stratum of kitchen sluts and turnspits, who actually made their own beds and scraped their own trenchers. Everywhere there was lavish expenditure — everywhere the abundance which, among that uneducated and unthoughtful class, ever degenerates into wanton waste.
It sickened Angela to see the long dining-table loaded, day after day, with dishes that were many of them left untouched amidst the superabundance, while the massive Cromwellian sideboard seemed to need all the thickness of its gouty legs to sustain the “regalia” of hams and tongues, pasties, salads and jellies. And all this time The Weekly Gazette from London told of the unexampled distress in that afflicted city, which was but the natural result of an epidemic that had driven all the well-to-do away, and left neither trade nor employment for the lower classes.
“What becomes of that mountain of food?” Angela asked her sister, after her second dinner at Chilton, by which time she and Hyacinth had become familiar and at ease with each other. “Is it given to the poor?”
“Some of it, perhaps, love; but I’ll warrant that most of it is eaten in the offices — with many a handsome sirloin and haunch to boot.”
“Oh, sister, it is dreadful to think of such a troop! I am always meeting strange faces. How many servants have you?”
“I have never reckoned them. Manningtree knows, no doubt; for his wages book would tell him. I take it there may be more than fifty, and less than a hundred. Anyhow, we could not exist were they fewer.”
“More than fifty people to wait upon four!”
“For our state and importance, chérie. We are very ill-waited upon. I nearly died last week before I could get any one to bring me my afternoon chocolate. The men had all rushed off to a bull-baiting, and the women were romping or fighting in the laundry, except my own women, who are too genteel to play with the under-servants, and had taken a holiday to go and see a tragedy at Oxford. I found myself in a deserted house. I might have been burnt alive, or have expired in a fit, for aught any of those over-fed devils cared.”
“But could they not be better regulated?”
“They are, when Manningtree is at home. He has them all under his thumb.”
“And he is an honest, conscientious man?”
“Who knows? I dare say he robs us, and takes a pot de vin wherever ’tis offered. But it is better to be robbed by one than by an army; and if Manningtree keeps others from cheating he is worth his wages.”
“And you, dear Hyacinth. Do you keep no accounts?”
“Keep accounts! Why, my dearest simpleton, did you ever hear of a woman of quality keeping accounts — unless it were some lunatic universal genius like her Grace of Newcastle, who rises in the middle of the night to scribble verses, and who might do anything preposterous. Keep accounts! Why, if you was to tell me that two and two make five I couldn’t controvert you, from my own knowledge.”
“It all seems so strange to me,” murmured Angela.
“My aunt supervised all the expenditure of the convent, and was unhappy if she discovered waste in the smallest item.”
“Unhappy! Yes, my dear innocent. And do you think if I was to investigate the cost of kitchen and cellar, and calculate how many pounds of meat each of our tall lackeys consumes per diem, I should not speedily be plagued into grey hairs and wrinkles? I hope we are rich enough to support their wastefulness. And if we are not — why, vogue la galère— when we are ruined the King must do something for Fareham — make him Lord Chancellor. His Majesty is mighty sick of poor old Clarendon and his lectures. Fareham has a long head, and would do as well as anybody else for Chancellor if he would but show himself at Court oftener, and conform to the fashion of the time, instead of holding himself aloof, with a Puritanical disdain for amusements and people that please his betters. He has taken a leaf out of Lord Southampton’s book, and would not allow me to return a visit Lady Castlemaine paid me the other day, in the utmost friendliness: and to slight her is the quickest way to offend his Majesty.”
“But, sister, you would not consort with an infamous woman?”
“Infamous! Who told you she is infamous? Your innocency should be ignorant of such trumpery tittle-tattle. And one can be civil without consorting, as you call it.”
Angela took her sister’s reckless speech for mere sportiveness. Hyacinth might be careless and ignorant of business, but his lordship doubtless knew the extent of his income, and was too grave and experienced a personage to be a spendthrift. He had confessed to seven and thirty, which to the girl of twenty seemed serious middle-age.
There were musicians in her ladyship’s household — youths who played lute and viol, and sang the dainty, meaningless songs of the latest ballad-mongers very prettily. The warm weather, which had a bad effect upon the bills of mortality, was so far advantageous that it allowed these gentlemen to sing in the garden while the family were at supper, or on the river while the family were taking their evening airing. Their newest performance was an arrangement of Lord Dorset’s lines —“To all you ladies now on land,” set as a round. There could scarcely be anything prettier than the dying fall of the refrain that ended every verse:—
“With a fa, la, la,
Perhaps permit some happier man
To kiss your hand or flirt your fan,
With a fa, la, la.”
The last lines died away in the distance of the moonlit garden, as the singers slowly retired, while Henri de Malfort illustrated that final couplet with Hyacinth’s fan, as he sat beside her.
“Music, and moonlight, and a garden. You might fancy yourself amidst the grottoes and terraces of St. Germain.”
“I note that whenever there is anything meritorious in our English life Malfort is reminded of France, and when he discovers any obnoxious feature in our manners or habits he expatiates on the vast difference between the two nations,” said his lordship.
“Dear Fareham, I am a human being. When I am in England I remember all I loved in my own country. I must return to it before I shall understand the worth of all I leave here — and the understanding may be bitter. Call your singers back, and let us have those two last verses again. ’Tis a fine tune, and your fellows perform it with sweetness and brio.”
The song was new. The victory which it celebrated was fresh in the minds of men. The disgrace of later Dutch experiences — the ships in the Nore ravaging and insulting — was yet to come. England still believed her floating castles invincible.
To Angela’s mind the life at Chilton was full of change and joyous expectancy. No hour of the day but offered some variety of recreation, from battledore and shuttlecock in the plaisance to long days with the hounds or the hawks. Angela learnt to ride in less than a month, instructed by the stud-groom, a gentleman of considerable importance in the household; an old campaigner, who had groomed Fareham’s horses after many a battle, and many a skirmish, and had suffered scant food and rough quarters without murmuring; and also with considerable assistance and counsel from Lord Fareham, and occasional lectures from Papillon, who was a Diana at ten years old, and rode with her father in the first flight. Angela was soon equal to accompanying her sister in the hunting-field, for Hyacinth liked following the chase after the French rather than the English fashion, affecting no ruder sport than to wait at an opening of the wood, or on the crest of a common, to see hounds and riders sweep by; or, favoured by chance now and then, to signal the villain’s whereabouts by a lace handkerchief waved high above her head. This was how a beautiful lady who had hunted in the forests of St. Germain and Fontainebleau understood sport; and such performances as this Angela found easy and agreeable. They had many cavaliers who came to talk with them for a few minutes, to tell them what was doing or not doing yonder where the hounds were hidden in thicket or coppice; but Henri de Malfort was their most constant attendant. He rarely left them, and dawdled through the earlier half of an October day, walking his horse from point to point, or dismounting at sheltered corners to stand and talk at Lady Fareham’s side, with a patience that made Angela wonder at the contrast between English headlong eagerness, crashing and splashing through hedge and brook, and French indifference.
“I have not Fareham’s passion for mud,” he explained to her, when she remarked upon his lack of interest in the chase, even when the music of the hounds was ringing through wood and valley, now close beside them, anon diminishing in the distance, thin in the thin air. “If he comes not home at dark plastered with mire from boots to eyebrows he will cry, like Alexander, ‘I have lost a day.’”
Partridge-hawking in the wide fields between Chilton and Nettlebed was more to Malfort’s taste, and it was a sport for which Lady Fareham expressed a certain enthusiasm, and for which she attired herself to the perfection of picturesque costume. Her hunting-coats were marvels of embroidery on atlas and smooth cloth; but her smartest velvet and brocade she kept for the sunny mornings, when, with hooded peregrine on wrist, she sallied forth intent on slaughter, Angela, Papillon, and De Malfort for her cortége, an easy-paced horse to amble over the grass with her, and the Dutch falconer to tell her the right moment at which to slip her falcon’s hood.
The nuns at the Ursuline Convent would scarcely have recognised their quondam pupil in the girl on the grey palfrey, whose hair flew loose under a beaver hat, mingling its tresses with the long ostrich plume, whose trimly fitting jacket had a masculine air which only accentuated the womanliness of the fair face above it, and whose complexion, somewhat too colourless within the convent walls, now glowed with a carnation that brightened and darkened the large grey eyes into new beauty.
That open-air life was a revelation to the cloister-bred girl. Could this earth hold greater bliss than to roam at large over spacious gardens, to cross the river, sculling her boat with strong hands, with her niece Henriette, otherwise Papillon, sitting in the stern to steer, and scream instructions to the novice in navigation; and then to lose themselves in the woods on the further shore, to wander in a labyrinth of reddening beeches, and oaks on which the thick foliage still kept its dusky green; to emerge upon open lawns where the pale gold birches looked like fairy trees, and where amber and crimson toadstools shone like jewels on the skirts of the dense undergrowth of holly and hawthorn? The liberty of it all, the delicious feeling of freedom, the release from convent rules and convent hours, bells ringing for chapel, bells ringing for meals, bells ringing to mark the end of the brief recreation — a perpetual ringing and drilling which had made conventual life a dull machine, working always in the same grooves.
Oh, this liberty, this variety, this beauty in all things around and about her! How the young glad soul, newly escaped from prison, revelled and expatiated in its freedom! Papillon, who at ten years old, had skimmed the cream off all the simple pleasures, appointed herself her aunt’s instructress in most things, and taught her to row, with some help from Lord Fareham, who was an expert waterman; and, at the same time, tried to teach her to despise the country, and all rustic pleasures, except hunting — although in her inmost heart the minx preferred the liberty of Oxfordshire woods to the splendour of Fareham House, where she was cooped in a nursery with her gouvernante for the greater part of her time, and was only exhibited like a doll to her mother’s fine company, or seated upon a cushion to tinkle a saraband and display her precocious talent on the guitar, which she played almost as badly as Lady Fareham herself, at whose feeble endeavours even the courteous De Malfort laughed.
Never was sister kinder than Hyacinth, impelled by that impulsive sweetness which was her chief characteristic, and also, it might be, moved to lavish generosity by some scruples of conscience with regard to her grandmother’s will. Her first business was to send for the best milliner in Oxford, a London Madam who had followed her court customers to the university town, and to order everything that was beautiful and seemly for a young person of quality.
“I implore you not to make me too fine, dearest,” pleaded Angela, who was more horrified at the milliner’s painted face and exuberant figure than charmed by the contents of the baskets which she had brought with her in the spacious leather coach — velvets and brocades, hoods and gloves, silk stockings, fans, perfumes and pulvilios, sweet-bags and scented boxes — all of which the woman spread out upon Lady Fareham’s embroidered satin bed, for the young lady’s admiration. “I pray you remember that I am accustomed to have only two gowns — a black and a grey. You will make me afraid of my image in the glass if you dress me like — like —”
She glanced from her sister’s décolleté bodice to the far more appalling charms of the milliner, which a gauze kerchief rather emphasised than concealed, and could find no proper conclusion for her sentence.
“Nay, sweetheart, let not thy modesty take fright. Thou shalt be clad as demurely as the nun thou hast escaped being —
‘And sable stole of Cyprus lawn
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.’
We will have no blacks, but as much decency as you choose. You will mark the distinction between my sister and your maids of honour, Mrs. Lewin. She is but a débutante in our modish world, and must be dressed as modestly as you can contrive, to be consistent with the fashion.”
“Oh, my lady, I catch your ladyship’s meaning, and your ladyship’s instructions shall be carried out as far as can be without making a savage of the young lady. I know what some young ladies are when they first come to Court. I had fuss enough with Miss Hamilton before I could persuade her to have her bodice cut like a Christian. And even the beautiful Miss Brooks were all for high tuckers and modesty-pieces when I began to make for them; but they soon came round. And now with my Lady Denham it is always, ‘Gud, Lewin, do you call that the right cut for a bosom? Udsbud, woman, you haven’t made the curve half deep enough.’ And with my Lady Chesterfield it is, ‘Sure, if they say my legs are thick and ugly, I’ll let them know my shoulders are worth looking at. Give me your scissors, creature,’ and then with her own delicate hand she will scoop me a good inch off the satin, till I am fit to swoon at seeing the cold steel against her milk-white flesh.”
Mrs. Lewin talked with but little interruption for the best part of an hour while measuring her new customer, showing her pattern-book, and exhibiting the ready-made wares she had brought, the greater number of which Hyacinth insisted on buying for Angela — who was horrified at the slanderous innuendoes that dropped in casual abundance from the painted lips of the milliner; horrified, too, that her sister could loll back in her armchair and laugh at the woman’s coarse and malignant talk.
“Indeed, sister, you are far too generous, and you have overpowered me with gifts,” she said, when the milliner had curtsied herself out of the room; “for I fear my own income will never pay for all these costly things. Three pounds, I think she said, was the price of the Mazarine hood alone — and there are stockings and gloves innumerable.”
“Mon Ange, while you are with me your own income is but for charities and vails. I will have it spent for nothing else. You know how rich the Marquise has made me — while I believe Fareham is a kind of modern Croesus, though we do not boast of his wealth, for all that is most substantial in his fortune comes from his mother, whose father was a great merchant trading with Spain and the Indies, all through James’s reign, and luckier in the hunt for gold than poor Raleigh. Never must you talk to me of obligation. Are we not sisters, and was it not a mere accident that made me the elder, and Madame de Montrond’s protegée?”
“I have no words to thank you for so much kindness. I will only say I am so happy here that I could never have believed there was such full content on this sinful earth.”
“Wait till we are in London, Angélique. Here we endure existence. It is only in London that we live.”
“Nay, I believe the country will always please me better than the town. But, sister, do you not hate that Mrs. Lewin — that horrid painted face and evil tongue?”
“My dearest child, one hates a milliner for the spoiling of a bodice or the ill cut of a sleeve — not for her character. I believe Mrs. Lewin’s is among the worst, and that she has had as many intrigues as Lady Castlemaine. As for her painting, doubtless she does that to remind her customers that she sells alabaster powder and ceruse.”
“Nay, if she wants to disgust them with painted faces she has but to show her own.”
“I grant she lays the stuff on badly. I hope, if I live to have as many wrinkles, I shall fill them better than she does. Yet who can tell what a hideous toad she might be in her natural skin? It may be Christian charity that induces her to paint, and so to spare us the sight of a monster. She will make thee a beauty, Ange, be sure of that. For satin or velvet, birthday or gala gowns, nobody can beat her. The wretch has had thousands of my money, so I ought to know. But for thy riding-habit and hawking-jacket we want the firmer grip of a man’s hand. Those must be made by Roget.”
“Yes, child. One only accepts British workmanship when a Parisian artist is not to be had. Clever as Lewin is, if I want to eclipse my dearest enemy on any special occasion I send Manningtree across the Channel, or ask De Malfort to let his valet — who spends his life in transit like a king’s messenger — bring me the latest confection from the Rue de Richelieu.”
“What infinite trouble about a gown — and for you who would look lovely in anything!”
“Tush, child! You have never seen me in ‘anything.’ If ever you should surprise me in an ill gown you will see how much the feathers make the bird. Poets and play-wrights may pretend to believe that we need no embellishment from art; but the very men who write all that romantic nonsense are the first to court a well-dressed woman. And there are few of them who could calculate with any exactness the relation of beauty to its surroundings. That is why women go deep into debt to their milliners, and would sooner be dead in well-made graveclothes than alive in an old-fashioned mantua.”
Angela could not be in her sister’s company for a month without discovering that Lady Fareham’s whole life was given up to the worship of the trivial. She was kind, she was amiable, generous, even to recklessness. She was not irreligious, heard Mass and went to confession as often as the hard conditions of an alien and jealously treated Church would allow, had never disputed the truth of any tenet that was taught her — but of serious views, of an earnest consideration of life and death, husband and children, Hyacinth Fareham was as incapable as her ten-year-old daughter. Indeed, it sometimes seemed to Angela that the child had broader and deeper thoughts than the mother, and saw her surroundings with a shrewder and clearer eye, despite the natural frivolity of childhood, and the exuberance of a fine physique.
It was not for the younger sister to teach the elder, nor did Angela deem herself capable of teaching. Her nature was thoughtful and earnest: but she lacked that experience of life which can alone give the thinker a broad and philosophic view of other people’s conduct. She was still far from the stage of existence in which to understand all is to pardon all.
She beheld the life about her with wonder and bewilderment. It was so pleasant, so full of beauty and variety; yet things were said and done that shocked her. There was nothing in her sister’s own behaviour to alarm her modesty; but to hear her sister talk of other women’s conduct outraged all her ideas of decency and virtue. If there were really such wickedness in the world, women so shameless and vile, was it right that good women should know of them, that pure lips should speak of their iniquity?
She was still more shocked when Hyacinth talked of Lady Castlemaine with a good-humoured indulgence.
“There is something fine about her,” Lady Fareham said one day, “in spite of her tempers and pranks.”
“What!” cried Angela, aghast, having thought these creatures unrecognised by any honest woman, “do you know her — that Lady Castlemaine of whom you have told me such dreadful things?”
“C’est vrai. J’en ai dit des raides. Mon Ange, in town one must needs know everybody, though I doubt that after not returning her visit t’other day, I shall be in her black books, and in somebody else’s. She has never been one of my intimates. If I were often at Whitehall, I should have to be friends with her. But Fareham is jealous of Court influences; and I am only allowed to appear on gala nights — perhaps not a half-dozen times in a season. There is a distinction in not showing one’s self often; but it is provoking to hear of the frolics and jollities which go on every day and every night, and from which I am banished. It mattered little while the Queen-mother was at Somerset House, for her Court ranked higher — and was certainly more refined in its splendour — than her son’s ragamuffin herd. But now she is gone, I shall miss our intellectual milieu, and wish myself in the Rue St. Thomas du Louvre, where the Hôtel du Rambouillet, even in its decline, offers a finer style of company than anything you will see in England.”
“Sister, I fear you left half your heart in France.”
“Nay, sweet; perhaps some of it has followed me,” answered Hyacinth, with a blush and an enigmatic smile. “Peste! I am not a woman to make a fuss about hearts! There is not a grain of tragedy in my composition. I am like that girl in the play we saw at Oxford t’other day. Fletcher’s was it, or Shakespeare’s? ‘A star danced, and under that was I born.’ Yes, I was born under a dancing star; and I shall never break my heart — for love.”
“But you regret Paris?”
“Hélas! Paris means my girlhood; and were you to take me back there to-morrow you could not make me seventeen again — and so where’s the use? I should see wrinkles in the faces of my friends; and should know that they were seeing the same ugly lines in mine. Indeed, Ange, I think it is my youth I sigh for rather than the friends I lived with. They were such merry days: battles and sieges in the provinces, parliaments disputing here and there; Condé in and out of prison — now the King’s loyal servant, now in arms against him; swords clashing, cannon roaring under our very windows; alarm bells pealing, cries of fire, barricades in the streets; and amidst it all, lute and theorbo, bouts rimés and madrigals, dancing and play-acting, and foolish practical jests! One could not take the smallest step in life but one of the wits would make a song about it. Oh, it was a boisterous time! And we were all mad, I think; so lightly did we reckon life and death, even when the cannon slew some of our noblest, and the finest saloons were hung with black. You have done less than live, Angélique, not to have lived in that time.”
Hyacinth loved to ring the changes on her sister’s name. Angela was too English, and sounded too much like the name of a nun; but Angélique suggested one of the most enchanting personalities in that brilliant circle on which Lady Fareham so often rhapsodised. This was the beautiful Angélique Paulet, whose father invented the tax called by his name, La Paulette — a financial measure, which was the main cause of the first Fronde war.
“I only knew her when she was between fifty and sixty,” said Lady Fareham, “but she hardly looked forty; and she was still handsome, in spite of her red hair. Trop doré, her admirers called it; but, my love, it was as red as that scullion’s we saw in the poultry yard yesterday. She was a reigning beauty at three Courts, and had a crowd of adorers when she was only fourteen. Ah, Papillon, you may open your eyes! What will you be at fourteen? Still playing with your babies, or mad about your shock dogs, I dare swear!”
“I gave my babies to the housekeeper’s grand-daughter last year,” said Papillon, much offended, “when father gave me the peregrine. I only care for live things now I am old.”
“And at fourteen thou wilt be an awkward, long-legged wench that will frighten away all my admirers, yet not be worth the trouble of a compliment on thine own account.”
“I want no such stuff!” cried Papillon. “Do you think I would like a French fop always at my elbow as Monsieur de Malfort is ever at yours? I love hunting and hawking, and a man that can ride, and shoot, and row, and fight, like father or Sir Denzil Warner — not a man who thinks more of his ribbons and periwig and cannon-sleeves than of killing his fox or flying his falcon.”
“Oh, you are beginning to have opinions!” sighed Hyacinth. “I am indeed an old woman! Go and find yourself something to play with, alive or dead. You are vastly too clever for my company.”
“I’ll go and saddle Brownie. Will you come for a ride, Aunt Angy?”
“Yes, dear, if her ladyship does not want me at home.”
“Her ladyship knows your heart is in the fields and woods. Yes, sweetheart, saddle your pony, and order your aunt’s horse and a pair of grooms to take care of you.”
The child ran off rejoicing.
“Precocious little devil! She will pick up all our jargon before she is in her teens.”
“Dear sister, if you talk so indiscreetly before her ——”
“Indiscreet! Am I really so indiscreet? That is Fareham’s word. I believe I was born so. But I was telling you about your namesake, Mademoiselle Paulet. She began to reign when Henri was king, and no doubt he was one of her most ardent admirers. Don’t look frightened! She was always a model of virtue. Mademoiselle Scudèry has devoted pages to painting her perfections under an Oriental alias. She sang, she danced, she talked divinely. She did everything better than everybody else. Priests and Bishops praised her. And after changes and losses and troubles, she died far from Paris, a spinster, nearly sixty years old. It was a paltry finish to a life that began in a blaze of glory.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05