Lord Montairy was passionately devoted to croquet. He flattered himself that he was the most accomplished male performer existing. He would have thought absolutely the most accomplished, were it not for the unrivalled feats of Lady Montairy. She was the queen of croquet. Her sisters also used the mallet with admirable skill, but not like Georgina. Lord Montairy always looked forward to his summer croquet at Brentham. It was a great croquet family, the Brentham family; even listless Lord St. Aldegonde would sometimes play, with a cigar never out of his mouth. They did not object to his smoking in the air. On the contrary, “they rather liked it.” Captain Mildmay, too, was a brilliant hand, and had written a treatise on croquet — the best going.
There was a great croquet-party one morning at Brentham. Some neighbors had been invited who loved the sport. Mr. Blenkinsop a grave young gentleman, whose countenance never relaxed while he played, and who was understood, to give his mind entirely up to croquet. He was the owner of the largest estate in the county, and it was thought would have very much liked to have allied himself with one of the young ladies of the house of Brentham; but these flowers were always plucked so quickly, that his relations with the distinguished circle never grew more intimate than croquet. He drove over with some fine horses, and several cases and bags containing instruments and weapons for the fray. His sister came with him, who had forty thousand pounds, but, they said, in some mysterious manner dependent on his consent to her marriage; and it was added that Mr. Blenkinsop would not allow his sister to marry because he would miss her so much in his favorite pastime. There were some other morning visitors, and one or two young curates in cassocks.
It seemed to Lothair a game of great deliberation and of more interest than gayety, though sometimes a cordial cheer, and sometimes a ringing laugh of amiable derision, notified a signal triumph or a disastrous failure. But the scene was brilliant: a marvellous lawn, the duchess’s Turkish tent with its rich hangings, and the players themselves, the prettiest of all the spectacle, with their coquettish hats, and their half-veiled and half-revealed under-raiment scarlet and silver, or blue and gold, made up a sparkling and modish scene.
Lothair, who had left the players for a while, and was regaining the lawn, met the duchess.
“Your grace is not going to leave us, I hope?” he said, rather anxiously.
“For a moment. I have long promised to visit the new dairy; and I think this a good opportunity.”
“I wish I might be your companion,” said Lothair; and, invited, he was by her grace’s side.
They turned into a winding walk of thick and fragrant shrubs, and, after a while, they approached a dell, surrounded with, high trees that environed it with perpetual shade; in the centre of the dell was apparently a Gothic shrine, fair in design and finished in execution, and this was the duchess’s new dairy. A pretty sight is a first-rate dairy, with its flooring of fanciful tiles, and its cool and shrouded chambers, its stained windows and its marble slabs, and porcelain pans of cream, and plenteous platters of fantastically-formed butter.
“Mrs. Woods and her dairy-maids look like a Dutch picture,” said the duchess. “Were you ever in Holland?”
“I have never been anywhere,” said Lothair.
“You should travel,” said the duchess.
“I have no wish,” said Lothair.
“The duke has given me some Coreean fowls,” said the duchess to Mrs. Woods, when they had concluded their visit. “Do you think you could take care of them for me?”
“Well, Grace, I am sure I will do my best; but then they are very, troublesome, and I was not fortunate with my Cochin. I had rather they were sent to the aviary, Grace, if it were all the same.”
“I should so like to see the aviary,” said Lothair.
“Well, we will go.”
And this rather extended their walk, and withdrew them more from the great amusement of the day.
“I wish your grace would do me a great favor,” said Lothair, abruptly breaking a rather prolonged silence.
“And what is that?” said the duchess.
“It is a very great favor,” repeated Lothair.
“If it be in my power to grant it, its magnitude would only be an additional recommendation.”
“Well,” said Lothair, blushing deeply, and speaking with much agitation, “I would ask your grace’s permission to offer my hand to your daughter.”
The duchess I looked amazed. “Corisande!” she exclaimed.
“Yes, to Lady Corisande.”
“Corisande,” replied the duchess, after a pause, “has absolutely not yet entered the world. Corisande is a child; and you — you, my dear friend — I am sure you will pardon me If I say, so — you are not very much older than Corisande.”
“I have no wish to enter the world,” said Lothair, with much decision.
“I am not an enemy to youthful marriages,” said the duchess. “I married early myself, and my children married early; and I am very happy, and I hope they are; but some experience of society before we settle is most desirable, and is one of the conditions, I cannot but believe, of that felicity which we all seek.”
“I hate society,” said Lothair. “I would never go out of my domestic circle, if it were the circle I contemplate.”
“My dear young friend,” said the duchess, “you could hardly have seen enough of society to speak with so much decision.”
“I have seen quite enough of it,” said Lothair. “I went to an evening party last season — I came up from Christchurch on purpose for it — and if ever they catch me at another, they shall inflict any penalty they please.”
“I fear it was a stupid party,” said the duchess, smiling, and glad to turn, if possible, the conversation into a lighter vein.
“No, it was a very grand party, I believe, and not exactly stupid — it was not, that; but I was disgusted with all I saw and all I heard. It seemed to me a mass of affectation, falsehood, and malignity.”
“Oh! dear,” said the duchess, “how very dreadful! But I did not mean merely going to parties for society; I meant knowledge of the world, and that experience which enables us to form sound opinions on the affairs of life.”
“Oh! as for that,” said Lothair, “my, opinions are already formed on every subject; that is to say, every subject of importance; and, what is more, they will never change.”
“I could not say that of Corisande,” said the duchess.
“I think we agree on all the great things,” said Lothair, musingly. “Her church views may be a little higher than mine, but I do not anticipate any permanent difficulty on that head. Although my uncle made me go to kirk, I always hated it and always considered myself a churchman. Then, as to churches themselves, she is in favor of building churches, and so am I; and schools — there is no quantity of schools I would not establish. My opinion is, you cannot have too much education, provided it be founded on a religious basis. I would sooner renounce the whole of my inheritance than consent to secular education.”
“I should be sorry to see any education but a religious education,” remarked the duchess.
“Well, then,” said Lothair, “that is our life, or a great part of it. To complete it, here is that to which I really wish to devote my existence, and in which I instinctively feel Lady Corisande would sympathize with me — the extinction of pauperism.”
“That is a vast subject;” said the duchess.
“It is the terror of Europe and the disgrace of Britain,” said Lothair; “and I am resolved to grapple with it. It seems to me that pauperism is not an affair so much of wages as of dwellings. If the working-classes were properly lodged, at their present rate of wages, they would be richer. They would be healthier and happier at the same cost. I am so convinced of this, that the moment I am master, I shall build two thousand cottages on any estates. I have the designs already.”
“I am much in favor of improved dwellings for the poor,” said the duchess; “but then you must take care that your dwellings are cottages, and not villas like my cousin’s, the Duke of Luton.”
“I do not think I shall make that mistake,” replied Lothair. “It constantly engages my thought. I am wearied of hearing of my wealth, and I am conscious it has never brought me any happiness. I have lived a great deal alone, dearest duchess, and thought much of these things, but I feel now I should be hardly equal to the effort, unless I had a happy home to, fall back upon.”
“And you will have a happy home in due time,” said the duchess; “and with such good and great thoughts you deserve one. But take the advice of one who loved your mother, and who would extend to you the same affection as to her own children; before you take a step which cannot be recalled, see a little more of the world.”
Lothair shook his head. “No,” he said, after a pause. “My idea of perfect society is being married as I propose, and paying visits to Brentham; and when the visits to Brentham ceased, then I should like you and the duke to pay visits to us.”
“But that would be a fairy-tale,” said the duchess.
So they walked on in silence.
Suddenly and abruptly Lothair turned to the duchess and said, “Does your grace see objection to my speaking to your daughter?”
“Dear friend, indeed, yes. What you would say would only agitate and disturb Corisande. Her character is not yet formed, and its future is perplexing, at least to me,” murmured the mother. “She has not the simple nature of her sisters. It is a deeper and more complicated mind, and I watch its development with fond, but anxious interest.” Then, in a lighter tone, she added, “You do not know very much of us. Try to know more. Everybody under this roof views you with regard, and you are the brother friend of our eldest son. Wherever we are, you will always find a home; but do not touch again upon this subject, at least at present, for it distresses me.” And then she took his arm, and pressed it, and by this time they had gained the croquet-ground.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53