Zenobia was the queen of London, of fashion, and of the Tory party. When she was not holding high festivals, or attending them, she was always at home to her intimates, and as she deigned but rarely to honour the assemblies of others with her presence, she was generally at her evening post to receive the initiated. To be her invited guest under such circumstances proved at once that you had entered the highest circle of the social Paradise.
Zenobia was leaning back on a brilliant sofa, supported by many cushions, and a great personage, grey-headed and blue-ribboned, who was permitted to share the honours of the high place, was hanging on her animated and inspiring accents. An ambassador, in an armed chair which he had placed somewhat before her, while he listened with apparent devotion to the oracle, now and then interposed a remark, polished and occasionally cynical. More remote, some dames of high degree were surrounded by a chosen band of rank and fashion and celebrity; and now and then was heard a silver laugh, and now and then was breathed a gentle sigh. Servants glided about the suite of summer chambers, occasionally with sherbets and ices, and sometimes a lady entered and saluted Zenobia, and then retreated to the general group, and sometimes a gentleman entered, and pressed the hand of Zenobia to his lips, and then vanished into air.
“What I want you to see,” said Zenobia, “is that reaction is the law of life, and that we are on the eve of a great reaction. Since Lord Castlereagh’s death we have had five years of revolution — nothing but change, and every change has been disastrous. Abroad we are in league with all the conspirators of the Continent, and if there were a general war we should not have an ally; at home our trade, I am told, is quite ruined, and we are deluged with foreign articles; while, thanks to Mr. Huskisson, the country banks, which enabled Mr. Pitt to carry on the war and saved England, are all broken. There was one thing, of which I thought we should always be proud, and that was our laws and their administration; but now our most sacred enactments are questioned, and people are told to call out for the reform of our courts of judicature, which used to be the glory of the land. This cannot last. I see, indeed, many signs of national disgust; people would have borne a great deal from poor Lord Liverpool — for they knew he was a good man, though I always thought a weak one; but when it was found that his boasted Liberalism only meant letting the Whigs into office — who, if they had always been in office, would have made us the slaves of Bonaparte — their eyes were opened. Depend upon it, the reaction has commenced.”
“We shall have some trouble with France,” said the ambassador, “unless there is a change here.”
“The Church is weary of the present men,” said the great personage. “No one really knows what they are after.”
“And how can the country be governed without the Church?” exclaimed Zenobia. “If the country once thinks the Church is in danger, the affair will soon be finished. The King ought to be told what is going on.”
“Nothing is going on,” said the ambassador; “but everybody is afraid of something.”
“The King’s friends should impress upon him never to lose sight of the landed interest,” said the great personage.
“How can any government go on without the support of the Church and the land?” exclaimed Zenobia. “It is quite unnatural.”
“That is the mystery,” remarked the ambassador. “Here is a government, supported by none of the influences hitherto deemed indispensable, and yet it exists.”
“The newspapers support it,” said the great personage, “and the Dissenters, who are trying to bring themselves into notice, and who are said to have some influence in the northern counties, and the Whigs, who are in a hole, are willing to seize the hand of the ministry to help them out of it; and then there is always a number of people who will support any government — and so the thing works.”
“They have got a new name for this hybrid sentiment,” said the ambassador. “They call it public opinion.”
“How very absurd!” said Zenobia; “a mere nickname. As if there could be any opinion but that of the Sovereign and the two Houses of Parliament.”
“They are trying to introduce here the continental Liberalism,” said the great personage. “Now we know what Liberalism means on the continent. It means the abolition of property and religion. Those ideas would not suit this country; and I often puzzle myself to foresee how they will attempt to apply Liberal opinions here.”
“I shall always think,” said Zenobia, “that Lord Liverpool went much too far, though I never said so in his time; for I always uphold my friends.”
“Well, we shall see what Canning will do about the Test and Corporation Acts,” said the great personage. “I understand they mean to push him.”
“By the by, how is he really?” said the ambassador. “What are the accounts this afternoon?”
“Here is a gentleman who will tell us,” said Zenobia, as Mr. Ferrars entered and saluted her.
“And what is your news from Chiswick?” she inquired.
“They say at Brookes’, that he will be at Downing Street on Monday.”
“I doubt it,” said Zenobia, but with an expression of disappointment.
Zenobia invited Mr. Ferrars to join her immediate circle. The great personage and the ambassador were confidentially affable to one whom Zenobia so distinguished. Their conversation was in hushed tones, as become the initiated. Even Zenobia seemed subdued, and listened; and to listen, among her many talents, was perhaps her rarest. Mr. Ferrars was one of her favourites, and Zenobia liked young men who she thought would become Ministers of State.
An Hungarian Princess who had quitted the opera early that she might look in at Zenobia’s was now announced. The arrival of this great lady made a stir. Zenobia embraced her, and the great personage with affectionate homage yielded to her instantly the place of honour, and then soon retreated to the laughing voices in the distance that had already more than once attracted and charmed his ear.
“Mind; I see you tomorrow,” said Zenobia to Mr. Ferrars as he also withdrew. “I shall have something to tell you.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07