On a picturesque common in the neighbourhood of Tunbridge Wells, Lady Clavering had found a pretty villa, whither she retired after her conjugal disputes at the end of that unlucky London season. Miss Amory, of course, accompanied her mother, and Master Clavering came home for the holidays, with whom Blanche’s chief occupation was to fight and quarrel. But this was only a home pastime, and the young schoolboy was not fond of home sports. He found cricket, and horses, and plenty of friends at Tunbridge. The good-natured Begum’s house was filled with a constant society of young gentlemen of thirteen, who ate and drank much too copiously of tarts and champagne, who rode races on the lawn, and frightened the fond mother, who smoked and made themselves sick, and the dining-room unbearable to Miss Blanche. She did not like the society of young gentlemen of thirteen.
As for that fair young creature, any change as long as it was change was pleasant to her; and for a week or two she would have liked poverty and a cottage, and bread-and-cheese; and, for a night, perhaps, a dungeon and bread-and-water, and so the move to Tunbridge was by no means unwelcome to her. She wandered in the woods, and sketched trees and farmhouses; she read French novels habitually; she drove into Tunbridge Wells pretty often, and to any play, or ball, or conjurer, or musician who might happen to appear in the place; she slept a great deal; she quarrelled with Mamma and Frank during the morning; she found the little village school and attended it, and first fondled the girls and thwarted the mistress, then scolded the girls and laughed at the teacher; she was constant at church, of course. It was a pretty little church, of immense antiquity — a little Anglo-Norman bijou, built the day before yesterday, and decorated with all sorts of painted windows, carved saints’ heads, gilt scripture texts, and open pews. Blanche began forthwith to work a most correct high-church altar-cover for the church. She passed for a saint with the clergyman for a while, whom she quite took in, and whom she coaxed, and wheedled, and fondled so artfully, that poor Mrs. Smirke, who at first was charmed with her, then bore with her, then would hardly speak to her, was almost mad with jealousy. Mrs. Smirke was the wife of our old friend Smirke, Pen’s tutor and poor Helen’s suitor. He had consoled himself for her refusal with a young lady from Clapham whom his mamma provided. When the latter died, our friend’s views became every day more and more pronounced. He cut off his coat collar, and let his hair grow over his back. He rigorously gave up the curl which he used to sport on his forehead, and the tie of his neckcloth, of which he was rather proud. He went without any tie at all. He went without dinner on Fridays. He read the Roman Hours, and intimated that he was ready to receive confessions in the vestry. The most harmless creature in the world, he was denounced as a black and most dangerous Jesuit and Papist, by Muffin of the Dissenting chapel, and Mr. Simeon Knight at the old church. Mr. Smirke had built his chapel-of-ease with the money left him by his mother at Clapham. Lord! lord! what would she have said to hear a table called an altar! to see candlesticks on it! to get letters signed on the Feast of Saint So-and-so, or the Vigil of Saint What-do-you-call-’em! All these things did the boy of Clapham practise; his faithful wife following him. But when Blanche had a conference of near two hours in the vestry with Mr. Smirke, Belinda paced up and down on the grass, where there were only two little grave-stones as yet; she wished that she had a third there: only, only he would offer very likely to that creature, who had infatuated him in a fortnight. No, she would retire; she would go into a convent, and profess and leave him. Such bad thoughts had Smirke’s wife and his neighbours regarding him; these, thinking him in direct correspondence with the Bishop of Rome; that, bewailing errors to her even more odious and fatal; and yet our friend meant no earthly harm. The post-office never brought him any letters from the Pope; he thought Blanche, to be sure, at first, the most pious, gifted, right-thinking, fascinating person he had ever met; and her manner of singing the Chants delighted him — but after a while he began to grow rather tired of Miss Amory, her ways and graces grew stale somehow; then he was doubtful about Miss Amory; then she made a disturbance in his school, lost her temper, and rapped the children’s fingers. Blanche inspired this admiration and satiety, somehow, in many men. She tried to please them, and flung out all her graces at once; came down to them with all her jewels on, all her smiles, and cajoleries, and coaxings, and ogles. Then she grew tired of them and of trying to please them, and never having cared about them, dropped them: and the men grew tired of her, and dropped her too. It was a happy night for Belinda when Blanche went away; and her husband, with rather a blush and a sigh, said “he had been deceived in her; he had thought her endowed with many precious gifts, he feared they were mere tinsel; he thought she had been a right-thinking person, he feared she had merely made religion an amusement — she certainly had quite lost her temper to the schoolmistress, and beat Polly Rucker’s knuckles cruelly.” Belinda flew to his arms, there was no question about the grave or the veil any more. He tenderly embraced her on the forehead. “There is none like thee, my Belinda,” he said, throwing his fine eyes up to the ceiling, “precious among women!” As for Blanche, from the instant she lost sight of him and Belinda, she never thought or cared about either any more.
But when Arthur went down to pass a few days at Tunbridge Wells with the Begum, this stage of indifference had not arrived on Miss Blanche’s part or on that of the simple clergyman. Smirke believed her to be an angel and wonder of a woman. Such a perfection he had never seen, and sate listening to her music in the summer evenings, open-mouthed, rapt in wonder, tea-less, and bread-and-butter-less. Fascinating as he had heard the music of the opera to be — he had never but once attended an exhibition of that nature (which he mentioned with a blush and a sigh — it was on that day when he had accompanied Helen and her son to the play at Chatteris)— he could not conceive anything more delicious, more celestial, he had almost said, than Miss Amory’s music. She was a most gifted being: she had a precious soul: she had the most remarkable talents — to all outward seeming, the most heavenly disposition, etc. etc. It was in this way that, being then at the height of his own fever and bewitchment for Blanche, Smirke discoursed to Arthur about her.
The meeting between the two old acquaintances had been very cordial. Arthur loved anybody who loved his mother; Smirke could speak on that theme with genuine feeling and emotion. They had a hundred things to tell each other of what had occurred in their lives. “Arthur would perceive,” Smirke said, “that his — his views on Church matters had developed themselves since their acquaintance.” Mrs. Smirke, a most exemplary person, seconded them with all her endeavours. He had built this little church on his mother’s demise, who had left him provided with a sufficiency of worldly means. Though in the cloister himself, he had heard of Arthur’s reputation. He spoke in the kindest and most saddened tone; he held his eyelids down, and bowed his fair head on one side. Arthur was immensely amused with him; with his airs; with his follies and simplicity; with his blank stock and long hair; with his real goodness, kindness, friendliness of feeling. And his praises of Blanche pleased and surprised our friend not a little, and made him regard her with eyes of particular favour.
The truth is, Blanche was very glad to see Arthur; as one is glad to see an agreeable man in the country, who brings down the last news and stories from the great city; who can talk better than most country-folks, at least can talk that darling London jargon, so dear and indispensable to London people, so little understood by persons out of the world. The first day Pen came down, he kept Blanche laughing for hours after dinner. She sang her songs with redoubled spirit. She did not scold her mother; she fondled and kissed her, to the honest Begum’s surprise. When it came to be bedtime, she said, “Deja!” with the prettiest air of regret possible; and was really quite sorry to go to bed, and squeezed Arthur’s hand quite fondly. He on his side gave her pretty palm a very cordial pressure. Our young gentleman was of that turn, that eyes very moderately bright dazzled him.
“She is very much improved,” thought Pen, looking out into the night, “very much. I suppose the Begum won’t mind my smoking with the window open. She’s a jolly good old woman, and Blanche is immensely improved. I liked her manner with her mother tonight. I liked her laughing way with that stupid young cub of a boy, whom they oughtn’t to allow to get tipsy. She sang those little verses very prettily; they were devilish pretty verses too, though I say it who shouldn’t say it.” And he hummed a tune which Blanche had put to some verses of his own. “Ah! what a fine night! How jolly a cigar is at night! How pretty that little Saxon church looks in the moonlight! I wonder what old Warrington’s doing? Yes, she’s a dayvlish nice little thing, as my uncle says.”
“Oh, heavenly!” Here broke out a voice from a clematis-covered casement near — a girl’s voice: it was the voice of the author of ‘Mes Larmes.’
Pen burst into a laugh. “Don’t tell about my smoking,” he said, leaning out of his own window.
“Oh! go on! I adore it,” cried the lady of ‘Mes Larmes.’ “Heavenly night! heavenly, heavenly moon! but I must shut my window, and not talk to you on account of les moeurs. How droll they are, les moeurs! Adieu.” And Pen began to sing the Goodnight to Don Basilio.
The next day they were walking in the fields together, laughing and chattering — the gayest pair of friends. They talked about the days of their youth, and Blanche was prettily sentimental. They talked about Laura, dearest Laura — Blanche had loved her as a sister: was she happy with that odd Lady Rockminster? Wouldn’t she come and stay with them at Tunbridge? Oh, what walks they would take together! What songs they would sing — the old, old songs! Laura’s voice was splendid. Did Arthur — she must call him Arthur — remember the songs they sang in the happy old days, now he was grown such a great man, and had such a succes? etc. etc.
And the day after, which was enlivened with a happy ramble through the woods to Penshurst, and a sight of that pleasant park and hall, came that conversation with the curate which we have narrated, and which made our young friend think more and more.
“Is she all this perfection?” he asked himself. “Has she become serious and religious? Does she tend schools, and visit the poor? Is she kind to her mother and brother? Yes, I am sure of that, I have seen her.” And walking with his old tutor over his little parish, and going to visit his school, it was with inexpressible delight that Pen found Blanche seated instructing the children, and fancied to himself how patient she must be, how good-natured, how ingenuous, how really simple in her tastes, and unspoiled by the world.
“And do you really like the country?” he asked her, as they walked together.
“I should like never to see that odious city again. O Arthur — that is, Mr. — well, Arthur, then — one’s good thoughts grow up in these sweet woods and calm solitudes, like those flowers which won’t bloom in London, you know. The gardener comes and changes our balconies once a week. I don’t think I shall bear to look London in the face again — its odious, smoky, brazen face! But, heigho!”
“Why that sigh, Blanche?”
“Never mind why.”
“Yes, I do mind why. Tell me, tell me everything.”
“I wish you hadn’t come down;” and a second edition of ‘Mes Soupirs’ came out.
“You don’t want me, Blanche?”
“I don’t want you to go away. I don’t think this house will be very happy without you, and that’s why I wish that you never had come.”
‘Mes Soupirs’ were here laid aside, and ‘Mes Larmes’ had begun.
Ah! What answer is given to those in the eyes of a young woman? What is the method employed for drying them? What took place? O ringdoves and roses, O dews and wildflowers, O waving greenwoods and balmy airs of summer! Here were two battered London rakes, taking themselves in for a moment, and fancying that they were in love with each other, like Phillis and Corydon!
When one thinks of country houses and country walks, one wonders that any man is left unmarried.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00