One’s life changes in a moment. Half a month ago, Lothair, without an acquaintance, was meditating his return to Oxford. Now he seemed to know everybody who was anybody. His table was overflowing with invitations to all the fine houses in town. First came the routs and the balls; then, when he had been presented to the husbands, came the dinners. His kind friends the Duchess and Lady St. Jerome were the fairies who had worked this sudden scene of enchantment. A single word from them, and London was at Lothair’s feet.
He liked it amazingly. He quite forgot the conclusion at which he had arrived respecting society a year ago, drawn from his vast experience of the single party which he had then attended. Feelings are different when you know a great many persons, and every person is trying to please you; above all, when there are individuals whom you want to meet, and whom, if you do not meet, you become restless.
Town was beginning to blaze. Broughams whirled and bright barouches glanced, troops of social cavalry cantered and caracolled in morning rides, and the bells of prancing ponies, lashed by delicate hands, gingled in the laughing air. There were stoppages in Bond Street, which seems to cap the climax of civilisation, after crowded clubs and swarming parks.
But the great event of the season was the presentation of Lady Corisande. Truly our bright maiden of Brenthani woke and found herself famous. There are families whom everybody praises, and families who are treated in a different way. Either will do; all the sons and daughters of the first succeed, all the sons and daughters of the last are encouraged in perverseness by the prophetic determination of society. Half a dozen married sisters, who were the delight and ornament of their circles, in the case of Lady Corisande were good precursors of popularity; but the world would not be content with that: they credited her with all their charms and winning qualities, but also with something grander and beyond comparison; and from the moment her fair cheek was sealed by the gracious approbation of Majesty, all the critics of the Court at once recognised her as the cynosure of the Empyrean.
Monsignore Catesby, who looked after Lothair, and was always breakfasting with him without the necessity of an invitation (a fascinating man, and who talked upon all subjects except High Mass), knew everything that took place at Court without being present there himself. He led the conversation to the majestic theme, and while he seemed to be busied in breaking an egg with delicate precision, and hardly listening to the frank expression of opinions which he carelessly encouraged, obtained a not insufficient share of Lothair’s views and impressions of human beings and affairs in general during the last few days, which had witnessed a Levée and a Drawing-room.
‘Ah! then you were so fortunate as to know the beauty before her début,’ said the Monsignore.
‘Intimately; her brother is my friend. I was at Brentham last summer. Delicious place! and the most agreeable visit I ever made in my life, at least, one of the most agreeable.’
‘Ah! ah!’ said the Monsignore. ‘Let me ring for some toast.’
On the night of the Drawing-room, a great ball was given at Crecy House to celebrate the entrance of Corisande into the world. It was a sumptuous festival. The palace, resonant with fantastic music, blazed amid illumined gardens rich with summer warmth.
A prince of the blood was dancing with Lady Corisande. Lothair was there, vis-à-vis with Miss Arundel.
‘I delight in this hall,’ she said to Lothair; ‘but how superior the pictured scene to the reality!’
‘What! would you like, then, to be in a battle?’
‘I should like to be with heroes, wherever they might be. What a fine character was the Black Prince! And they call those days the days of superstition!’
The silver horns sounded a brave flourish. Lothair had to advance and meet Lady Corisande. Her approaching mien was full of grace and majesty, but Lothair thought there was a kind expression in her glance, which seemed to remember Brentham, and that he was her brother’s Mend.
A little later in the evening he was her partner. He could not refrain from congratulating her on the beauty and the success of the festival.
‘I am glad you are pleased, and I am glad you think it successful; but, you know, I am no judge, for this is my first ball!’
‘Ah! to be sure; and yet it seems impossible,’ he continued, in a tone of murmuring admiration.
‘Oh! I have been at little dances at my sisters;’ half behind the door,’ she added, with a slight smile. ‘But to-night I am present at a scene of which I have only read.’
‘And how do you like balls?’ said Lothair.
‘I think I shall like them very much,’ said Lady Corisande; ‘but to-night, I will confess, I am a little nervous.’
‘You do not look so.’
‘I am glad of that.’
‘Is it not a sign of weakness?’
‘Can feeling be weakness?’
‘Feeling without sufficient cause is, I should think.’ And then, and in a tone of some archness, she said, ‘And how do you like balls?’
‘Well, I like them amazingly,’ said Lothair. ‘They seem to me to have every quality which can render an entertainment agreeable: music, light, flowers, beautiful faces, graceful forms, and occasionally charming conversation.’
‘Yes; and that never lingers,’ said Lady Corisande, ‘for see, I am wanted.’
When they were again undisturbed, Lothair regretted the absence of Bertram, who was kept at the House.
‘It is a great disappointment,’ said Lady Corisande; ‘but he will yet arrive, though late. I should be most unhappy though, if he were absent from his post on such an occasion I am sure if he were here I could not dance.’
‘You are a most ardent politician,’ said Lothair.
‘Oh! I do not care in the least about common politics, parties and office and all that; I neither regard nor understand them,’ replied Lady Corisande. ‘But when wicked men try to destroy the country, then I like my family to be in the front.’
As the destruction of the country meditated this night by wicked men was some change in the status of the Church of England, which Monsignore Catesby in the morning had suggested to Lothair as both just and expedient and highly conciliatory, Lothair did not pursue the theme, for he had a greater degree of tact than usually falls to the lot of the ingenuous.
The bright moments flew on. Suddenly there was a mysterious silence in the hall, followed by a kind of suppressed stir. Everyone seemed to be speaking with bated breath, or, if moving, walking on tiptoe. It was the supper hour?
Soft hour which wakes the wish and melts the heart.
Royalty, followed, by the imperial presence of ambassadors, and escorted by a group of dazzling duchesses and paladins of high degree, was ushered with courteous pomp by the host and hostess into a choice saloon, hung with rose-coloured tapestry and illumined by chandeliers of crystal, where they were served from gold plate. But the thousand less favoured were not badly off, when they found themselves in the more capacious chambers, into which they rushed with an eagerness hardly in keeping with the splendid nonchalance of the preceding hours.
‘What a perfect family,’ exclaimed Hugo Bohun, as he extracted a couple of fat little birds from their bed of aspic jelly; ‘everything they do in such perfect taste. How safe you were here to have ortolans for supper!’
All the little round tables, though their number was infinite, were full. Male groups hung about; some in attendance on fair dames, some foraging for themselves, some thoughtful and more patient and awaiting a satisfactory future. Never was such an elegant clatter.
‘I wonder where Carisbrooke is,’ said Hugo Bohun. ‘They say he is wonderfully taken with the beauteous daughter of the house.’
‘I will back the Duke of Brecon against him,’ said one of his companions. ‘He raved about her at White’s yesterday.’
‘The end is not so near as all that,’ said a third wassailer.
‘I do not know that,’ said Hugo Bohun. ‘It is a family that marries off quickly. If a fellow is obliged to marry, he always likes to marry one of them.’
‘What of this new star?’ said his friend, and he mentioned Lothair.
‘Oh! he is too young; not launched. Besides he is going to turn Catholic, and I doubt whether that would do in that quarter.’
‘But he has a greater fortune than any of them.’
‘Immense! A man I know, who knows another man ——’ and then he began a long statistical story about Lothair’s resources.
‘Have you got any room here, Hugo?’ drawled out Lord St. Aldegonde.
‘Plenty, and here is my chair.’
‘On no account; half of it and some soup will satisfy me.’
‘I should have thought you would have been with the swells,’ said Hugo Bohun.
‘That does not exactly suit me,’ said St. Aldegonde. ‘I was ticketed to the Duchess of Salop, but I got a first-rate substitute with the charm of novelty for her Grace, and sent her in with Lothair.’
St. Aldegonde was the heir apparent of the wealthiest, if not the most ancient, dukedom in the United Kingdom. He was spoiled, but he knew it. Had he been an ordinary being, he would have merely subsided into selfishness and caprice, but having good abilities and a good disposition, he was eccentric, adventurous, and sentimental. Notwithstanding the apathy which had been engendered by premature experience, St. Aldegonde held extreme opinions, especially on political affairs, being a republican of the reddest dye. He was opposed to all privilege, and indeed to all orders of men, except dukes, who were a necessity. He was also strongly in favour of the equal division of all property, except land. Liberty depended on land, and the greater the landowners, the greater the liberty of a country. He would hold forth on this topic even with energy, amazed at anyone differing from him; ‘as if a fellow could have too much land,’ he would urge with a voice and glance which defied contradiction. St. Aldegonde had married for love, and he loved his wife, but he was strongly in favour of woman’s rights and their extremest consequences. It was thought that he had originally adopted these latter views with the amiable intention of piquing Lady St. Aldegonde; but if so, he had not succeeded. Beaming with brightness, with the voice and airiness of a bird, and a cloudless temper, Albertha St. Aldegonde had, from the first hour of her marriage, concentrated her intelligence, which was not mean, on one object; and that was never to cross her husband on any conceivable topic. They had been married several years, and she treated him as a darling spoiled child. When he cried for the moon, it was promised him immediately; however irrational his proposition, she always assented to it, though generally by tact and vigilance she guided him in the right direction. Nevertheless, St. Aldegonde was sometimes in scrapes; but then he always went and told his best friend, whose greatest delight was to extricate him from his perplexities and embarrassments.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07