About the time that the ladies rose from the dinner-table in Hill Street, Mr. Sidney Wilton entered the hall of the Clarendon Hotel, and murmured an inquiry of the porter. Whereupon a bell was rung, and soon a foreign servant appeared, and bowing, invited Mr. Wilton to ascend the staircase and follow him. Mr. Wilton was ushered through an ante-chamber into a room of some importance, lofty and decorated, and obviously adapted for distinguished guests. On a principal table a desk was open and many papers strewn about. Apparently some person had only recently been writing there. There were in the room several musical instruments; the piano was open, there was a harp and a guitar. The room was rather dimly lighted, but cheerful from the steady blaze of the fire, before which Mr. Wilton stood, not long alone, for an opposite door opened, and a lady advanced leading with her left hand a youth of interesting mien, and about twelve years of age. The lady was fair and singularly thin. It seemed that her delicate hand must really be transparent. Her cheek was sunk, but the expression of her large brown eyes was inexpressibly pleasing. She wore her own hair, once the most celebrated in Europe, and still uncovered. Though the prodigal richness of the tresses had disappeared, the arrangement was still striking from its grace. That rare quality pervaded the being of this lady, and it was impossible not to be struck with her carriage as she advanced to greet her guest; free from all affectation and yet full of movement and gestures, which might have been the study of painters.
“Ah!” she exclaimed as she gave him her hand, which he pressed to his lips, “you are ever faithful.”
Seating themselves, she continued, “You have not seen my boy since he sate upon your knee. Florestan, salute Mr. Wilton, your mother’s most cherished friend.”
“This is a sudden arrival,” said Mr. Wilton.
“Well, they would not let us rest,” said the lady. “Our only refuge was Switzerland, but I cannot breathe among the mountains, and so, after a while, we stole to an obscure corner of the south, and for a time we were tranquil. But soon the old story: representations, remonstrances, warnings, and threats, appeals to Vienna, and lectures from Prince Metternich, not the less impressive because they were courteous, and even gallant.”
“And had nothing occurred to give a colour to such complaints? Or was it sheer persecution?”
“Well, you know,” replied the lady, “we wished to remain quiet and obscure; but where the lad is, they will find him out. It often astonishes me. I believe if we were in the centre of a forest in some Indian isle, with no companions but monkeys and elephants, a secret agent would appear — some devoted victim of our family, prepared to restore our fortunes and renovate his own. I speak the truth to you always. I have never countenanced these people; I have never encouraged them; but it is impossible rudely to reject the sympathy of those who, after all, are your fellow-sufferers, and some of who have given proof of even disinterested devotion. For my own part, I have never faltered in my faith, that Florestan would some day sit on the throne of his father, dark as appears to be our life; but I have never much believed that the great result could be occasioned or precipitated by intrigues, but rather by events more powerful than man, and led on by that fatality in which his father believed.”
“And now you think of remaining here?” said Mr. Wilton.
“No,” said the lady, “that I cannot do. I love everything in this country except its climate and, perhaps, its hotels. I think of trying the south of Spain, and fancy, if quite alone, I might vegetate there unnoticed. I cannot bring myself altogether to quit Europe. I am, my dear Sidney, intensely European. But Spain is not exactly the country I should fix upon to form kings and statesmen. And this is the point on which I wish to consult you. I want Florestan to receive an English education, and I want you to put me in the way of accomplishing this. It might be convenient, under such circumstances, that he should not obtrude his birth — perhaps, that it should be concealed. He has many honourable names besides the one which indicates the state to which he was born. But, on all these points, we want your advice.” And she seemed to appeal to her son, who bowed his head with a slight smile, but did not speak.
Mr. Wilton expressed his deep interest in her wishes, and promised to consider how they might best be accomplished, and then the conversation took a more general tone.
“This change of government in your country,” said the lady, “so unexpected, so utterly unforeseen, disturbs me; in fact, it decided my hesitating movements. I cannot but believe that the accession of the Duke of Wellington to power must be bad, at least, for us. It is essentially reactionary. They are triumphing at Vienna.”
“Have they cause?” said Mr. Wilton. “I am an impartial witness, for I have no post in the new administration; but the leading colleagues of Mr. Canning form part of it, and the conduct of foreign affairs remains in the same hands.”
“That is consoling,” said the lady. “I wonder if Lord Dudley would see me. Perhaps not. Ministers do not love pretenders. I knew him when I was not a pretender,” added the lady, with the sweetest of smiles, “and thought him agreeable. He was witty. Ah! Sidney, those were happy days. I look back to the past with regret, but without remorse. One might have done more good, but one did some;” and she sighed.
“You seemed to me,” said Sidney with emotion, “to diffuse benefit and blessings among all around you.”
“And I read,” said the lady, a little indignant, “in some memoirs the other day, that our court was a corrupt and dissolute court. It was a court of pleasure, if you like; but of pleasure that animated and refined, and put the world in good humour, which, after all, is good government. The most corrupt and dissolute courts on the continent of Europe that I have known,” said the lady, “have been outwardly the dullest and most decorous.”
“My memory of those days,” said Mr. Wilton, “is of ceaseless grace and inexhaustible charm.”
“Well,” said the lady, “if I sinned I have at least suffered. And I hope they were only sins of omission. I wanted to see everybody happy, and tried to make them so. But let us talk no more of ourselves. The unfortunate are always egotistical. Tell me something of Mr. Wilton; and, above all, tell me why you are not in the new government.”
“I have not been invited,” said Mr. Wilton. “There are more claimants than can be satisfied, and my claims are not very strong. It is scarcely a disappointment to me. I shall continue in public life; but, so far as political responsibility is concerned, I would rather wait. I have some fancies on that head, but I will not trouble you with them. My time, therefore, is at my command; and so,” he added smilingly, “I can attend to the education of Prince Florestan.”
“Do you hear that, Florestan?” said the lady to her son; “I told you we had a friend. Thank Mr. Wilton.”
And the young Prince bowed as before, but with a more serious expression. He, however, said nothing.
“I see you have not forgotten your most delightful pursuit,” said Mr. Wilton, and he looked towards the musical instruments.
“No,” said the lady; “throned or discrowned, music has ever been the charm or consolation of my life.”
“Pleasure should follow business,” said Mr. Wilton, “and we have transacted ours. Would it be too bold if I asked again to hear those tones which have so often enchanted me?”
“My voice has not fallen off,” said the lady, “for you know it was never first-rate. But they were kind enough to say it had some expression, probably because I generally sang my own words to my own music. I will sing you my farewell to Florestan,” she added gaily, and took up her guitar, and then in tones of melancholy sweetness, breaking at last into a gushing burst of long-controlled affection, she expressed the agony and devotion of a mother’s heart. Mr. Wilton was a little agitated; her son left the room. The mother turned round with a smiling face, and said, “The darling cannot bear to hear it, but I sing it on purpose, to prepare him for the inevitable.”
“He is soft-hearted,” said Mr. Wilton.
“He is the most affectionate of beings,” replied the mother. “Affectionate and mysterious. I can say no more. I ought to tell you his character. I cannot. You may say he may have none. I do not know. He has abilities, for he acquires knowledge with facility, and knows a great deal for a boy. But he never gives an opinion. He is silent and solitary. Poor darling! he has rarely had companions, and that may be the cause. He seems to me always to be thinking.”
“Well, a public school will rouse him from his reveries,” said Mr. Wilton.
“As he is away at this moment, I will say that which I should not care to say before his face,” said the lady. “You are about to do me a great service, not the first; and before I leave this, we may — we must — meet again more than once, but there is no time like the present. The separation between Florestan and myself may be final. It is sad to think of such things, but they must be thought of, for they are probable. I still look in a mirror, Sidney; I am not so frightened by what has occurred since we first met, to be afraid of that — but I never deceive myself. I do not know what may be the magical effect of the raisins of Malaga, but if it saves my life the grape cure will indeed achieve a miracle. Do not look gloomy. Those who have known real grief seldom seem sad. I have been struggling with sorrow for ten years, but I have got through it with music and singing, and my boy. See now — he will be a source of expense, and it will not do for you to be looking to a woman for supplies. Women are generous, but not precise in money matters. I have some excuse, for the world has treated me not very well. I never got my pension regularly; now I never get it at all. So much for the treaties, but everybody laughs at them. Here is the fortune of Florestan, and I wish it all to be spent on his education,” and she took a case from her bosom. “They are not the crown jewels, though. The memoirs I was reading the other day say I ran away with them. That is false, like most things said of me. But these are gems of Golconda, which I wish you to realise and expend for his service. They were the gift of love, and they were worn in love.”
“It is unnecessary,” said Mr. Wilton, deprecating the offer by his attitude.
“Hush!” said the lady. “I am still a sovereign to you, and I must be obeyed.”
Mr. Wilton took the case of jewels, pressed it to his lips, and then placed it in the breast pocket of his coat. He was about to retire, when the lady added, “I must give you this copy of my song.”
“And you will write my name on it?”
“Certainly,” replied the lady, as she went to the table and wrote, “For Mr. Sidney Wilton, from AGRIPPINA.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07