People dined earlier forty years ago than they do now. Even that salt of the earth, the elect of society, represented by that little great world which lies between the narrow circle bounded by Bryanstone Square on the north and by Birdcage Walk on the south, did not consider seven o’clock too early an hour for a dinner party which was to be followed by routs, drums, concerts, conversazione, as the case might be. It was seven o’clock on a lovely June evening, and the Park was already deserted, and carriages were rolling swiftly along all the Westend squares, carrying rank, fashion, wealth, and beauty, political influence, and intellectual power, to the particular circle in which each was destined to illumine upon that particular evening.
Stateliest among London squares, Grosvenor — in some wise a wonder to the universe as newly lighted with gas — grave Grosvenor, with its heavy old Georgian houses and pompous porticoes, sparkled and shone, not alone with the novel splendour of gas, but with the light of many wax candles, clustering flower-like in silver branches and girandoles, multiplying their flame in numerous mirrors; and of all the houses in that stately square none had a more imposing aspect than Lord Denyer’s dark red brick mansion, with stone dressings, and the massive grandeur of an Egyptian mausoleum.
Lord Denyer was an important personage in the political and diplomatic world. He had been ambassador at Constantinople and at Paris, and had now retired on his laurels, an influence still, but no longer an active power in the machine of government. At his house gathered all that was most brilliant in London society. To be seen at Lady Denyer’s, evening parties was the guinea stamp of social distinction; to dine with Lord Denyer was an opening in life, almost as valuable as University honours, and more difficult of attainment.
It was during the quarter of an hour before dinner that a group of persons, mostly personages, congregated round Lord Denyer’s chimney-piece, naturally trending towards the social hearth, albeit it was the season for roses and lilies rather than of fires, and the hum of the city was floating in upon the breath of the warm June evening through the five tall windows which opened upon Lord Denyer’s balcony.
The ten or twelve persons assembled seemed only a sprinkling in the large lofty room, furnished sparsely with amber satin sofas, a pair of Florentine marble tables, and half an acre or so of looking glass. Voluminous amber draperies shrouded the windows, and deadened the sound of rolling wheels, and the voices and footfalls of western London. The drawing rooms of those days were neither artistic nor picturesque — neither Early English nor Low Dutch, nor Renaissance, nor Anglo–Japanese. A stately commonplace distinguished the reception rooms of the great world. Upholstery stagnated at a dead level of fluted legs, gilding, plate glass, and amber satin.
Lady Denyer stood a little way in advance of the group on the hearthrug, fanning herself, with her eye on the door, while she listened languidly to the remarks of a youthful diplomatist, a sprig of a lordly tree, upon the last début at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
‘My own idea was that she screamed,’ said her ladyship. ‘But the new Rosinas generally do scream. Why do we have a new Rosina every year, whom nobody ever hears of afterwards? What becomes of them? Do they die, or do they set up as singing mistresses in second-rate watering-places?’ hazarded her ladyship, with her eye always on the door.
She was a large woman in amethyst satin, and a gauze turban with a diamond aigrette, a splendid jewel, which would not have misbeseemed the head-gear of an Indian prince. Lady Denyer was one of the last women who wore a turban, and that Oriental head-dress became her bold and massive features.
Infinitely bored by the whiskerless attaché, who had entered upon a disquisition on the genius of Rossini as compared with this new man Meyerbeer, her ladyship made believe to hear, while she listened intently to the confidential murmurs of the group on the hearthrug, the little knot of personages clustered round Lord Denyer. Hi ‘Indian mail in this morning,’ said one —‘nothing else talked of at the club. Very flagrant case! A good deal worse than Warren Hastings. Quite clear there must be a public inquiry — House of Lords — criminal prosecution.’
‘I was told on very good authority, that he has been recalled, and is now on his passage home,’ said another man.
Lord Denyer shrugged his shoulders, pursed up his lips, and looked ineffably wise, a way he had when he knew very little about the subject under discussion.
‘How will she take it, do you think?’ inquired Colonel Madison, of the Life Guards, a man about town, and an inveterate gossip, who knew everybody, and everybody’s family history, down to the peccadilloes of people’s great grandmothers.
‘You will have an opportunity of judging,’ replied his lordship, coolly. ‘She’s to be here this evening.’
‘But do you think she’ll show?’ asked the Colonel. ‘The mail must have brought the news to her, as well as to other people — supposing she knew nothing about it beforehand. She must know that the storm has burst. Do you think she’ll ——’
‘Come out in the thunder and lightning?’ interrupted Lord Denver; ‘I’m sure she will. She has the pride of Lucifer and the courage of a lion. Five to one in ponies that she is here before the clock strikes seven!’
‘I think you are right. I knew her mother, Constance Talmash. Pluck was a family characteristic of the Talmashes. Wicked as devils, and brave as lions. Old Talmash, the grandfather, shot his valet in a paroxysm of delirium tremens,’ said Colonel Madison. ‘She’s a splendid woman, and she won’t flinch. I’d rather back her than bet against her.’
‘Lady Maulevrier!’ announced the groom of the chambers; and Lady Denyer moved at least three paces forward to meet her guest.
The lady who entered, with slow and stately movements and proudly balanced head, might have served for a model as Juno or the Empress Livia. She was still in the bloom of youth, at most seven-and-twenty, but she had all the calm assurance of middle-age. No dowager, hardened by the varied experiences of a quarter of a century in the great world, could have faced society with more perfect coolness and self-possession. She was beautiful, and she let the world see that she was conscious of her beauty, and the power that went along with it. She was clever, and she used her cleverness with unfailing tact and unscrupulous audacity. She had won her place in the world as an acknowledged beauty, and one of the leaders of fashion. Two years ago she had been the glory and delight of Anglo–Indian society in the city of Madras, ruling that remote and limited kingdom with a despotic power. Then all of a sudden she was ordered, or she ordered her physician to order her, an immediate departure from that perilous climate, and she came back to England with her three-year-old son, two Ayahs, and four European servants, leaving her husband, Lord Maulevrier, Governor of the Madras Presidency, to finish the term of his service in an enforced widowhood.
She returned to be the delight of London society. She threw open the family mansion in Curzon Street to the very best people, but to those only. She went out a great deal, but she was never seen at a second-rate party. She had not a single doubtful acquaintance upon her visiting list. She spent half of every year at the family seat in Scotland, was a miracle of goodness to the poor of her parish, and taught her boy his alphabet.
Lord Denyer came forward while his wife and Lady Maulevrier were shaking hands, and greeted her with more than his usual cordiality. Colonel Madison watched for the privilege of a recognising nod from the divinity. Sir Jasper Paulet, a legal luminary of the first brilliancy, likely to be employed for the Crown if there should be an inquiry into Lord Maulevrier’s conduct out yonder, came to press Lady Maulevrier’s hand and murmur a tender welcome.
She accepted their friendliness as a matter of course, and not by the faintest extra quiver of the tremulous stars which glittered in a circlet above her raven hair did she betray her consciousness of the cloud that darkened her husband’s reputation. Never had she appeared gayer, or more completely satisfied with herself and the world in which she lived. She was ready to talk about anything and everything — the newly-wedded queen, and the fortunate Prince, whose existence among us had all the charm of novelty — of Lord Melbourne’s declining health — and Sir Robert Peel’s sliding scale — mesmerism — the Oxford Tracts — the latest balloon ascent — the opera — Macready’s last production at Drury lane — Bulwer’s new novel — that clever little comic paper, just struggling into popularity — what do you call the thing —Punch?— yes, Punch, or the London Charivari— a much more respectable paper than its Parisian prototype.
Seated next Lord Denyer, who was an excellent listener, Lady Maulevrier’s vivacity never flagged throughout the dinner, happily not so long as a modern banquet, albeit more ponderous and not less expensive. From the turtle to the pines and strawberries, Lady Maulevrier held her host or her right-hand neighbour in interested conversation. She always knew the particular subjects likely to interest particular people, and was a good listener as well as a good talker. Her right-hand neighbour was Sir Jasper Paulet, who had been allotted to the pompous wife of a court physician, a lady who had begun her married life in the outer darkness of Guildford Street, Bloomsbury, with a household consisting of a maid-of-all-work and a boy in buttons, with an occasional interregnum of charwoman; and for whom all the length and breadth of Harley Street was now much too small.
Sir Jasper was only decently civil to this haughty matron, who on the strength of a card for a ball or a concert at the palace once in a season affected to be on the most intimate terms with Royalty, and knew everything that happened, and every fluctuation of opinion in that charmed circle. The great lawyer’s left ear was listening greedily for any word of meaning that might fall from the lips of Lady Maulevrier; but no such word fell. She talked delightfully, with a touch-and-go vivacity which is the highest form of dinner-table talk, not dwelling with a heavy hand upon any one subject, but glancing from theme to theme with airy lightness. But not one word did she say about the governor of Madras; and at this juncture of affairs it would have been the worst possible taste to inquire too closely after his lordship’s welfare.
So the dinner wore on to its stately close, and just as the solemn procession of flunkeys, long as the shadowy line of the kings in ‘Macbeth,’ filed off with the empty ice-dishes, Lady Maulevrier said something which was as if a shell had exploded in the middle of the table.
‘Perhaps you are surprised to see me in such good spirits,’ she said, beaming upon her host, and speaking in those clear, perfectly finished syllables which are heard further than the louder accents of less polished speakers, ‘but you will not wonder when I let you into the secret. Maulevrier is on his way home.’
‘Indeed!’ said Lord Denyer, with the most benignant smile he could command at such short notice. He felt that the muscles round his eyes and the corners of his mouth were betraying too much of his real sentiments. ‘You must be very glad.’
‘I am gladder than I can say,’ answered Lady Maulevrier, gaily. ‘That horried climate — a sky like molten copper — an atmosphere that tastes of red-hot sand — that flat barren coast never suited him. His term of office would expire in little more than a year, but I hardly think he could have lived out the year. However, I am happy to say the mail that came in to-day — I suppose you know the mail is in?’ (Lord Denyer bowed)—‘brought me a letter from his Lordship, telling me that he has sent in his resignation, and taken his passage by the next big ship that leaves Madras. I imagine he will be home in October.’
‘If he have a favourable passage,’ said Lord Denyer. ‘Favoured by your good wishes the winds and the waves ought to deal gently with him.’
‘Ah, we have done with the old days of Greek story, when Neptune was open to feminine influence,’ sighed her ladyship. ‘My poor Ulysses has no goddess of wisdom to look after him.’
‘Perhaps not, but he has the most charming of Penelopes waiting for him at home.’
‘A Penelope who goes to dinners, and takes life pleasantly in his absence. That is a new order of things, is it not?’ said her ladyship, laughingly. ‘I hope my poor Ulysses will not come home thoroughly broken in health, but that our Sutherlandshire breezes will set him up again.’
‘Rather an ordeal after India, I should think,’ said Lord Denyer.
‘It is his native air. He will revel in it.’
‘Delicious country, no doubt,’ assented, his lordship, who was no sportsman, and who detested Scotland, grouse moors, deer forests, salmon rivers included.
His only idea of a winter residence was Florence or Capri, and of the two he preferred Capri. The island was at that time little frequented by Englishmen. It had hardly been fashionable since the time of Tiberius, but Lord Denyer went there, accompanied by his French chef, and a dozen other servants, and roughed it in a native hotel; while Lady Denyer wintered at the family seat among the hills near Bath, and gave herself over to Low Church devotion, and works of benevolence. She made herself a terror to the neighbourhood by the strictness of her ideas all through the autumn and winter; and in the spring she went up to London, put on her turban and her diamonds, and plunged into the vortex of West–End society, where she revolved among other jewelled matrons for the season, telling herself and her intimates that this sacrifice of inclination was due to his lordship’s position. Lady Denyer was not the less serious-minded because she was seen at every aristocratic resort, and wore low gowns with very short sleeves, and a great display of mottled arm and dimpled elbow.
Now came her ladyship’s smiling signal for the withdrawal of that fairer half of the assembly which was supposed to be indifferent to Lord Denyer’s famous port and Madeira. She had been throwing out her gracious signals unperceived for at least five minutes before Lady Maulevrier responded, so entirely was that lady absorbed in her conversation with Lord Denyer; but she caught the look at last, and rose, as if moved by the same machinery which impelled her hostess, and then, graceful as a swan sailing with the current, she drifted down the room to the distant door, and headed the stately procession of matronly velvet and diamonds, herself at once the most regal and the most graceful figure in that bevy of fair woman.
In the drawing-room nobody could be gayer than Lady Maulevrier, as she marked the time of Signor Paponizzi’s saltarello, exquisitely performed on the Signor’s famed Amati violin — or talked of the latest scandal — always excepting that latest scandal of all which involved her own husband — in subdued murmurs with one of her intimates. In the dining-room the men drew closer together over their wine, and tore Lord Maulevrier’s character to rags. Yea, they rent him with their teeth and gnawed the flesh from his bones, until there was not so much left of him as the dogs left of Jezebel.
He had been a scamp from his cradle, a spendthrift at Eton and Oxford, a blackleg in his manhood. False to men, false to women. Clever? Yes, undoubtedly, just as Satan is clever, and as unscrupulous as that very Satan. This was what his friends said of him over their wine. And now he was rumoured to have sold the British forces in the Carnatic provinces to one of the native Princes. Yes, to have taken gold, gold to an amount which Clive in his most rapacious moments never dreamt of, for his countrymen’s blood. Tidings of dark transactions between the Governor and the native Princes had reached the ears of the Government, tidings so vague, so incredible, that the Government might naturally be slow to believe, still slower to act. There were whispers of a woman’s influence, a beautiful Ranee, a creature as fascinating and as unscrupulous as Cleopatra. The scandal had been growing for months past, but it was only in the letters received to-day that the rumour had taken a tangible shape, and now it was currently reported that Lord Maulevrier had been recalled, and would have to answer at the bar of the House of Lords for his misdemeanours, which were of a much darker colour than those acts for which Warren Hastings had been called to account fifty years before.
Yet in the face of all this, Lady Maulevrier bore herself as proudly as if her husband’s name were spotless, and talked of his return with all the ardour of a fond and trusting wife.
‘One of the finest bits of acting I ever saw in my life,’ said the court physician. ‘Mademoiselle Mars never did anything better.’
‘Do you really think it was acting?’ inquired Lord Denyer, affecting a youthful candour and trustfulness which at his age, and with his experience, he could hardly be supposed to possess.
‘I know it,’ replied the doctor. ‘I watched her while she was talking of Maulevrier, and I saw just one bead of perspiration break out on her upper lip — an unmistakable sign of the mental struggle.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05