Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 26

‘Proud Can i Never Be of what i Hate.’

It was a Saturday afternoon, and even in that great world which has no occupation in life except to amuse itself, whose days are all holidays, there is a sort of exceptional flavour, a kind of extra excitement on Saturday afternoons, distinguished by polo matches at Hurlingham, just as Saturday evenings are by the production of new plays at fashionable theatres. There was a great military polo match for this particular Saturday — Lancers against Dragoons. It was a lovely June afternoon, and Hurlingham would be at its best. The cool greensward, the branching trees, the flowing river, would afford an unspeakable relief after the block of carriages in Bond Street and the heated air of London, where even the parks felt baked and arid; and to Hurlingham Lady Kirkbank drove directly after luncheon.

Lesbia leaned back in the barouche listening calmly, while her chaperon expatiated upon the wealth and possessions of Horace Smithson. It was now ten days since the meeting at Ascot, and Mr. Smithson had contrived to see a great deal of Lesbia in that short time. He was invited almost everywhere, and he had haunted her at afternoon and evening parties; he had supped in Arlington Street after the opera; he had played cards with Lesbia, and had enjoyed the felicity of winning her money. His admiration was obvious, and there was a seriousness in his manner of pursuing her which showed that, in Lady Kirkbank’s unromantic phraseology, ‘the man meant business.’

‘Smithson is caught at last, and I am glad of it,’ said Georgie.

‘The creature is an abominable flirt, and has broken more hearts than any man in London. He was all but the death of one of the dearest girls I know.’

‘Mr. Smithson breaks hearts!’ exclaimed Lesbia, languidly. ‘I should not have thought that was in his line. Mr. Smithson is not an Adonis, nor are his manners particularly fascinating.’

‘My child how fresh you are! Do you suppose it is the handsome men or the fascinating men for whom women break their hearts in society? It is the rich men they all want to marry — men like Smithson, who can give them diamonds, and yachts, and a hunting stud, and half a dozen fine houses. Those are the prizes — the blue ribbons of the matrimonial race-course — men like Smithson, who pretend to admire all the pretty women, who dangle, and dangle, and keep off other offers, and give ten guinea bouquets, and then at the end of the season are off to Hombourg or the Scotch moors, without a word. Do you think that kind of treatment is not hard enough to break a penniless girl’s heart? She sees the golden prize within her grasp, as she believes; she thinks that she and poverty have parted company for ever; she imagines herself mistress of town house and country houses, yachts and stables; and then one fine morning the gentleman is off and away! Do not you think that is enough to break a girl’s heart?’

‘I can imagine that girl steeped to the lips in poverty might be willing to marry Mr. Smithson’s houses and yachts,’ answered Lesbia, in her low sweet voice, with a faint sneer even amidst the sweetness, ‘but, I think it must have been a happy release for any one to be let off the sacrifice at the last moment.’

‘Poor Belle Trinder did not think so.’

‘Who was Belle Trinder?’

‘An Essex parson’s daughter whom I took under my wing five years ago — a splendid girl, large and fair, and just a trifle coarse — not to be spoken of in the same day with you, dearest; but still a decidedly handsome creature. And she took remarkably well. She was a very lively girl, “never ran mute,” Sir George used to say. Sir George was very fond of her. She amused him, poor girl, with her rather brainless rattle.’

‘And Mr. Smithson admired her?’

‘Followed her about everywhere, sent her whole flower gardens in the way of bouquets and Japanese baskets, and floral parures for her gowns, and opera boxes and concert tickets. Their names were always coupled. People used to call them Bel and the Dragon. The poor child made up her mind she was to be Mrs. Smithson. She used to talk of what she would do for her own people — the poor old father, buried alive in a damp parsonage, and struggling every winter with chronic bronchitis; the four younger sisters pining in dulness and penury; the mother who hardly knew what it was to rest from the continual worries of daily life.’

‘Poor things!’ sighed Lesbia, gazing admiringly at the handle of her last new sunshade.

‘Belle used to talk of what she would do for them all,’ pursued Lady Kirkbank. ‘Father should go every year to the villa at Monte Carlo; mother and the girls should have a month in Park Lane every season, and their autumn holiday at one of Mr. Smithson’s country houses. I knew the world well enough to be sure that this kind of thing would never answer with a man like Smithson. It is only one man in a thousand — the modern Arthur, the modern Quixote — who will marry a whole family. I told Belle as much, but she laughed. She felt so secure of her power over the man. “He will do anything I ask him,” she said.’

‘Miss Trinder must be an extraordinary young person,’ observed Lesbia, scornfully. ‘The man had not proposed, had he?’

‘No; the actual proposal hung fire, but Belle thought it was a settled thing all the same. Everybody talked to her as if she were engaged to Smithson, and those poor, ignorant vicarage girls used to write her long letters of congratulation, envying her good fortune, speculating, about what she would do when she was married. The girl was too open and candid for London society — talked too much, “gave the view before she was sure of her fox,” Sir George said. All this silly talk came to Smithson’s ears, and one morning we read in the Post that Mr. Smithson had started the day before for Algiers, where he was to stay at the house of the English Consul, and hunt lions. We waited all day, hoping for some letter of explanation, some friendly farewell which would mean à revoir. But there was nothing, and then poor Belle gave way altogether. She shut herself up in her room, and went out of one hysterical fit into another. I never heard a girl sob so terribly. She was not fit to be seen for a week, and then she went home to her father’s parsonage in the flat swampy country on the borders of Suffolk, and eat her heart, as Byron calls it. And the worst of it was that she had no actual justification for considering herself jilted. She had talked, and other people had talked, and among them they had settled the business. But Smithson had said hardly anything. He had only flirted to his heart’s content, and had spent a few hundreds upon flowers, gloves, fans, and opera tickets, which perhaps would not have been accepted by a girl with a strong sense of her own dignity.’

‘I should think not, indeed,’ interjected Lesbia.

‘But which poor Belle was only too delighted to get.’

‘Miss Trinder must be very bad style,’ said Lesbia, with languid scorn, ‘and Mr. Smithson is an execrable person. Did she die?’

‘No, my dear, she is alive poor soul!’

‘You said she broke her heart.’

‘“The heart may break, yet brokenly live on,”’ quoted Lady Kirkbank. ‘The disappointed young women don’t all die. They take to district visiting, or rational dressing, or china painting, or an ambulance brigade. The lucky ones marry well-to-do widowers with large families, and so slip into a comfortable groove by the time they are five-and-thirty. Poor Belle is still single, still buried in the damp parsonage, where she paints plates and teacups, and wears out my old gowns, just as she is wearing out her own life, poor creature!’

‘The idea of any one wanting to marry Mr. Smithson,’ said Lesbia. ‘It seems too dreadful.’

‘A case of real destitution, you think. Wait till you have seen Smithson’s house in Park Lane — his team, his yacht, his orchid houses in Berkshire.’

Lesbia sighed. Her knowledge of London society was only seven weeks old; and yet already the day of disenchantment had begun! She was having her eyes opened to the stern realities of life. A year ago when her appearance in the great world was still only a dream of the future, she had pictured to herself the crowd of suitors who would come to woo, and she had resolved to choose the worthiest.

What would he be like, that worthiest among the wooers, that King Arthur among her knights?

First and foremost, he would be of rank higher than her own — duke, a marquis, or one of the first and oldest among earls. Title and lofty lineage were indispensable. It would be a fall, a failure, a disappointment, were she to marry a commoner, however distinguished.

The worthy one must be noble, therefore, and of the old nobility. He must be young, handsome, intellectual. He must stand out from among his peers by his gifts of mind and person. He must have won distinction in the arena of politics or diplomacy, arms or letters. He must be ‘somebody.’

She had been seven weeks in society, and this modern Arthur had not appeared. So far as she had been able to discover, there was no such person. The dukes and marquises were mostly men of advanced years. The young unmarried nobility were given over to sport, play, and foolishness. She had heard of only one man who at all corresponded with her ideal, and he was Lord Hartfield. But Lord Hartfield had given himself up to politics, and was no doubt a prig. Lady Kirkbank spoke of him with contempt, as an intolerable person. But then Lord Hartfield was not in Lady Kirkbank’s set. He belonged to that serious circle to which Lady Kirkbank’s house appeared about as reputable a place of gathering as a booth on a race-course.

And now Lady Kirkbank told Lesbia that this Mr. Smithson, a nobody with a great fortune, was a man whose addresses she, the sister of Lord Maulevrier, ought to welcome. Mr. Smithson, who claimed to be a lineal descendant of that Sir Michael Carrington, standard-bearer to Coeur de Lion in the Holy Land, whose descendants changed their name to Smith during the Wars of the Roses. Mr. Smithson bodily proclaimed himself a scion of this good old county family, and bore on his plate and his coach panels the elephant’s head and the three demi-griffins of the Hertfordshire Smiths, who only smiled and shrugged their shoulders when they were complimented upon the splendid surroundings of their cousin. Who could tell? Some lateral branch of the standard-bearer’s family tree might have borne this illustrious twig.

Lady Kirkbank and all Lady Kirkbank’s friends seemed to have conspired to teach Lesbia Haselden one lesson, and that lesson meant that money was the first prize in the great game of life. Money ranked before everything — before titles, before noble lineage, genius, fame, beauty, courage, honour. Money was Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Mr. Smithson, whose antecedents were as cloudy as those of Aphrodite, was a greater man than a peer whose broad acres only brought him two per cent., or half of whose farms were tenantless, and his fields growing cockle instead of barley.

Yes, one by one, Lady Lesbia’s illusions were reft from her. A year ago she had fancied beauty all-powerful, a gift which must ensure to its possessor dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. Rank, intellect, fame would bow down before that magical diadem. And, behold, she had been shining upon London society for seven weeks, and only empty heads and empty pockets had bowed down — the frivolous, the ineligible — and Mr. Smithson.

Another illusion which had been dispelled was Lesbia’s comfortable idea of her own expectations. Her grandmother had told her that she might take rank among heiresses; and she had held herself accordingly, deeming that her place was among the wealthiest. And now, since Mr. Smithson’s appearance upon the scene, Lady Kirkbank had informed her young friend with noble candour that Lady Maulevrier’s fortune, however large it might seem at Grasmere, would be a poor thing in London; and that Lady Maulevrier’s ideas about money were as old-fashioned as her notions about morals.

‘Life is about six times as expensive as it was in your grandmother’s time.’ said Lady Kirkbank, as the carriage rolled softly along the shabby road between Knightsbridge and Fulham. ‘It is the pace that kills. Society, which used to jog along comfortably, like the old Brighton stage, at ten miles an hour, now goes as fast as the Brighton express. In my mother’s time poor Lord Byron was held up to the execration of respectable people as the type of cynical profligacy; in my own time people talked about Lord Waterford; but, my dear, the young men now are all Byrons and Waterfords, without the genius of the one or the generosity of the other. We are all going at steeplechase rate. Social success without money is impossible. The rich Americans, the successful Jews, will crowd us out unless we keep pace with them. Ah, Lesbia, my dear girl, there would be a great future before you if you could only make up your mind to accept Mr. Smithson.’

‘How do you know that he means to propose to me?’ asked Lesbia, mockingly. ‘Perhaps he is only going to behave as he did to Miss Trinder.’

‘Lady Lesbia Haselden is a very different person from a country parson’s daughter,’ answered her chaperon; ‘Smithson told me all about it afterwards. He was really taken with Belle’s fine figure and good complexion; but one of her particular friends told him of her foolish talk about her sisters, and how well she meant to get them married when she was Mrs. Smithson. This disgusted him. He went down to Essex, reconnoitered the parsonage, saw one of the sisters hanging out cuffs and collars in the orchard — another feeding the fowls — both in shabby gowns and country-made boots; one of them with red hair and freckles. The mother was bargaining for fish with a hawker at the kitchen door. And these were the people he was expected to import into Park Lane, under ceilings painted by Leighton. These were the people he was to exhibit on board his yacht, to cart about on his drag. “I had half made up my mind to marry the girl, but I would sooner have hung myself than marry her mother and sisters so I took the first train for Dover, en route for Algiers,” said Smithson, and upon my word I could hardly blame the man,’ concluded Lady Kirkbank.

They were driving up the narrow avenue to the gates of Hurlingham by this time. Lesbia shock out her frock and looked at her gloves, tan-coloured mousquetaires, reaching up to the elbow, and embroidered to match her frock.

To-day she was a study in brown and gold. Brown satin petticoat embroidered with marsh marigolds; little bronze shoes, with marsh marigolds tied on the lachets; brown stockings with marsh marigold clocks; tunic brown foulard smothered with quillings of soft brown lace; Princess bonnet of brown straw, with a wreath of marsh marigold and a neat little buckle of brown diamonds; parasol brown satin, with an immense bunch of marsh marigolds on the top; fan to match parasol.

The seats in front of the field were nearly all full when Lady Kirkbank and Lesbia left their carriage; but their interests had been protected by a gentleman who had turned down two chairs and sat between them on guard. This was Mr. Smithson.

‘I have been sitting here for an hour keeping your chairs,’ he said, as he rose to greet them. ‘You have no idea what work I have had, and how ferociously all the women have looked at me.’

The match was going on. The Lancers were scuffling for the ball, and affording a fine display of hog-maned ponies and close-cropped young men in ideal boots. But Lesbia cared very little about the match. She was looking along the serried ranks of youth and beauty to see if anybody’s frock was smarter than her own.

No. She could see nothing she liked so well as her brown satin and buttercups. She sat down in a perfectly contented frame of mind, pleased with herself and with Seraphine — pleased even with Mr. Smithson, who had shown himself devoted by his patient attendance upon the empty chairs.

After the match was over the two ladies and their attendant strolled about the gardens. Other men came and fluttered round Lesbia, and women and girls exchanged endearing smiles and pretty little words of greeting with her, and envied her the brown frock and buttercups and Mr. Smithson at her chariot wheel. And then they went to the lawn in front of the club-house, which was so crowded that even Mr. Smithson found it difficult to get a tea-table, and would hardly have succeeded so soon as he did if it had not been for the assistance of a couple of Lesbia’s devoted Guardsmen, who ran to and fro and badgered the waiters.

After much skirmishing they were seated at a rustic table, the blue river gleaming and glancing in the distance, the good old trees spreading their broad shadows over the grass, the company crowding and chattering and laughing — an animated picture of pretty faces, smart gowns, big parasols, Japanese fans.

Lesbia poured out the tea with the prettiest air of domesticity.

‘Can you really pour out tea?’ gasped a callow lieutenant, gazing upon her with goggling, enraptured eyes. ‘I did not think you could do anything so earthly.’

‘I can, and drink it too,’ answered Lesbia, laughing. ‘I adore tea. Cream and sugar?’

‘I— I beg your pardon — how many?’ murmured the youth, who had lost himself in gazing, and no longer understood plain English.

Mr. Smithson frowned at the intruder, and contrived to absorb Lesbia’s attention for the rest of the afternoon. He had a good deal more to say for himself than her military admirers, and was altogether more amusing. He had a little cynical air which Lesbia’s recent education had taught her to enjoy. He depreciated all her female friends — abused their gowns and bonnets, and gave her to understand, between the lines, as it were, that she was the only woman in London worth thinking about.

She looked at him curiously, wondering how Belle Trinder had been able to resign herself to the idea of marrying him.

He was not absolutely bad looking — but he was in all things unlike a girl’s ideal lover. He was short and stout, with a pale complexion, and sunken faded eyes, as of a man who had spent the greater part of his life by candle light, and had pored much over ledgers and bank books, share lists and prospectuses. He dressed well, or allowed himself to be dressed by the most correct of tailors — the Prince’s tailor — but he never attempted to lead the fashion in his garments. He had no originality. Such sublime flights as that of the man who revived corduroy, or of that daring genius who resuscitated the half-forgotten Inverness coat, were unknown to him. He could only follow the lead of the highest. He had small feet, of which he was intensely proud, podgy white hands on which he wore the most exquisite rings. He changed his rings every day, like a Roman Emperor; was reported to have summer and winter rings — onyx and the coolest looking intaglios set in filagree for warm weather — fiery rubies and diamonds in massive bands of dull gold for winter. He was said to devote half-an-hour every morning to the treatment of his nails, which were perfect. All the inkstains of his youth had been obliterated, and those nails which had once been bitten to the quick during the throes of financial study were now things of beauty.

Lady Lesbia surveyed Mr. Smithson critically, and shuddered at the thought that this person was the best substitute which the season had yet offered her for her ideal knight. She thought of John Hammond, the tall, strong figure, straight and square; the head so proudly carried on a neck which would have graced a Greek arena. The straight, clearly-cut features, the flashing eyes, bright with youth and hope and the promise of all good things. Yes, there was indeed a man — a man in all the nobility of manhood, as God made him, an Adam before the Fall.

Ah, if John Hammond had only possessed a quarter of Mr. Smithson’s wealth how gladly would Lesbia have defied the world and married him. But to defy the world upon nothing a year was out of the question.

‘Why didn’t he go on the Stock Exchange and make his fortune?’ thought Lesbia, pettishly, ‘instead of talking vaguely about politics and literature.’

She felt angry with her rejected lover for having come to her empty-handed. She had seen no man in London who was, or who seemed to her, his equal. And yet she did not repent of having rejected him. The more she knew of the world and the more she knew of herself the more deeply was she convinced that poverty was an evil thing, and that she was not the right kind of person to endure it.

She was inwardly making these comparisons as they strolled back to the carriage, while Mr. Smithson and Lady Kirkbank talked confidentially at her side.

‘Do you know that Lady Kirkbank has promised and vowed three things for you?’ said Mr. Smithson.

‘Indeed! I thought I was past the age at which one can be compromised by other people’s promises. Pray what are those three things?’

‘First, that you will come to breakfast in Park Lane with Lady Kirkbank next Wednesday morning. I say Wednesday because that will give me time to ask some nice people to meet you; secondly, that you will honour me by occupying my box at the Lyceum some evening next week; and thirdly, that you will allow me to drive you down to the Orleans for supper after the play. The drive only takes an hour, and the moonlight nights are delicious at this time of the year.’

‘I am in Lady Kirkbank’s hands,’ answered Lesbia, laughing. ‘I am her goods, her chattels; she takes me wherever she likes.’

‘But would you refuse to do me this honour if you were a free agent?’

‘I can’t tell. I hardly know what it is to be a free agent. At Grasmere I did whatever my grandmother told me; in London I obey Lady Kirkbank. I was transferred from one master to another. Why should we breakfast in Park Lane instead of in Arlington Street? What is the use of crossing Piccadilly to eat our breakfast?’

This was a cool-headed style of treatment to which Mr. Smithson was not accustomed, and which charmed him accordingly. Young women usually threw themselves at his head, as it were; but here was a girl who talked to him as indifferently as if he were a tradesman offering his wares.

‘What a dreadfully practical person you are?’ he exclaimed. ‘What is the use of crossing Piccadilly? Well, in the first place, you will make me ineffably happy. But perhaps that doesn’t count. In the second place, I shall be able to show you some rather good pictures of the French school —’

‘I hate the French school!’ interjected Lesbia. ‘Tricky, flashy, chalky, shallow, smelling of the footlights and the studio.’

‘Well, sink the pictures. You will meet some very charming people, belonging to that artist world which is not to be met everywhere.’

‘I will go to Park Lane to meet your people, if Lady Kirkbank likes to take me,’ said Lesbia; and with this answer Mr. Smithson was bound to be content.

‘My pet, if you had made it the study of your life how to treat that man you could not do it better,’ said Lady Kirkbank, when they were driving along the dusty road between dusty hedges and dusty trees, past that last remnant of country which was daily being debased into London. ‘Upon my word, Lesbia, I begin to think you must be a genius.’

‘Did you see any gowns you liked better than mine?’ asked Lesbia, reclining reposefully, with her little bronze shoes upon the opposite cushion.

‘Not one — Seraphine has surpassed herself.’

‘You are always saying that. One would suppose you were a sleeping partner in the firm. But I really think this brown and buttercups is rather nice. I saw that odious American girl just now — Miss — Miss Milwaukee, that mop-stick girl people raved about at Cannes. She was in pale blue and cream colour, a milk and water mixture, and looked positively plain.’

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50