It was known to all the world that Mrs Montacute Jones’s first great garden-party was to come off on Wednesday, the sixteenth of June, at Roehampton. Mrs Montacute Jones, who lived in Grosvenor Place and had a country house in Gloucestershire, and a place for young men to shoot at in Scotland, also kept a suburban elysium in Roehampton, in order that she might give two garden-parties every year. When it is said that all these costly luxuries appertained to Mrs Montacute Jones, it is to be understood that they did in truth belong to Mr Jones, of whom nobody heard much. But of Mrs Jones — that is, Mrs Montacute Jones — everybody heard a great deal. She was an old lady who devoted her life to the amusement of — not only her friends, but very many who were not her friends. No doubt she was fond of Lords and Countesses, and worked very hard to get round her all the rank and fashion of the day. It must be acknowledged that she was a worldly old woman. But no more good-natured old woman lived in London, and everybody liked to be asked to her garden-parties. On this occasion there was to be a considerable infusion of royal blood — German, Belgian, French, Spanish, and of native growth. Everybody, who was asked would go, and everybody had been asked — who was anybody. Lord Silverbridge had been asked, and Lord Silverbridge intended to be there. Lady Mary his sister, could even be asked, because her mother was hardly more than three months dead; but it is understood in the world that women mourn longer than men.
Silverbridge had mounted a private hansom cab in which he could be taken about rapidly — and, as he said himself, without being shut up in a coffin. In this vehicle he had himself taken to Roehampton, purporting to kill two birds with one stone. He had not as yet seen his sister since she had been with Lady Cantrip. He would on this day come back by the Horns.
He was well aware that Lady Mab would be at the garden-party. What place could be better for putting the question he had to ask! He was by no means so confident as the heir to so many good things might perhaps have been without overdue self-confidence.
Entering through the house into the lawn he encountered Mrs Montacute Jones, who, with a seat behind her on the terrace, surrounded by flowers, was going through the immense labour of receiving her guests.
‘How very good of you to come all this way, Lord Silverbridge, to eat my strawberries.’
‘How very good of you to ask me! I did not come to eat your strawberries but to see your friends.’
‘You ought to have said you came to see me, you know. Have you met Miss Boncassen yet?’
‘The American beauty? No. Is she here?’
‘Yes; and she particularly wants to be introduced to you; you won’t betray me, will you?’
‘Certainly not; I am true as steel.’
‘She wanted, she said, to see if the eldest son of the Duke of Omnium really did look like any other man.’
‘Then I don’t want to see her,’ said Silverbridge, with a look of vexation.
‘There you are wrong, for there was a real downright fun in the way she said it. There they are, and I shall introduce you.’ Then Mrs Montacute Jones absolutely left her post for a minute or two, and taking the young lord down the steps of the terrace did introduce him to Mr Boncassen, who was standing there amidst a crowd, and to Miss Boncassen.
Mr Boncassen was an American who had lately arrived in England with the object of carrying out certain literary pursuits in which he was engaged within the British Museum. He was an American who had nothing to do with politics and nothing to do with trade. He was a man of wealth and a man of letters. And he had a daughter who was said to be the prettiest young woman either in Europe or America at the present time.
Isabel Boncassen was certainly a very pretty girl. I wish that my reader would believe my simple assurance. But no such simple assurance was ever believed, and I doubt even whether any description will procure for me from the reader that amount of faith which I desire to achieve. But I must make the attempt. General opinion generally considered Miss Boncassen to be small, but she was in truth something above the average height of English women. She was slight, without that look of slimness which is common to girls, and especially to American girls. That her figure was perfect the reader may believe my word, as any detailed description of her arms, feet, bust, and waist, would be altogether ineffective. Her hair was dark brown and plentiful; but it added but little to her charms, which depended on other matters. Perhaps what struck the beholder first was the excessive brilliancy of her complexion. No pink was every pinker, no alabaster whiteness was ever more like alabaster; but under and around and through it all there was a constant changing hue which gave a vitality to her countenance which no fixed colours can produce. Her eyes, too, were full of life and brilliancy, and even when she was silent her mouth would speak. Nor was there a fault within the oval of her face upon which the hypercritics of mature age could set a finger. Her teeth were excellent both in form and colour, but were seen seldom. Who does not know that look of ubiquitous ivory produced by teeth which are too perfect in a face which is otherwise poor? Her nose at the base spread a little — so that it was not purely Grecian. But who has ever seen a nose to be eloquent and expressive, which did not spread? It was, I think, the vitality of her countenance — the way in which she could speak with every feature, the command which she had of pathos, of humour, of sympathy, of satire, the assurance which she gave by every glance of her eye, every elevation of her brow, every curl of her lip, that she was alive to all that was going on — it was all this rather than those feminine charms which can be catalogued and labelled that made all acknowledge that she was beautiful.
‘Lord Silverbridge,’ said Mr Boncassen, speaking a little through his nose, ‘I am proud to make your acquaintance, sir. Your father is a man for whom we in our country have a great respect. I think, sir, you must be proud of such a father.’
‘Oh yes — no doubt,’ said Silverbridge awkwardly. Then Mr Boncassen continued his discourse with the gentlemen around him. Upon this our friend turned to the young lady. ‘Have you been long in England, Miss Boncassen?’
‘Long enough to have heard about you and your father,’ she said, speaking with no slightest twang.
‘I hope you have not heard evil of me.’
‘I’m sure you can’t have heard much good.’
‘I know you didn’t win the Derby.’
‘You’ve been long enough to hear that.’
‘Do you suppose we don’t interest ourselves about the Derby in New York? Why, when we arrived at Queenstown I was leaning over the taffrail so that I might ask the first man on board the tender whether the Prime Minister had won.’
‘And he said he hadn’t.’
‘I can’t conceive why you of all men should call your horse by such a name. If my father had been President of the United States, I don’t think I’d call a horse President.’
‘I didn’t name the horse.’
‘I’d have changed it. But is it not very impudent of me to be finding fault with you the first time I have ever met you? Shall you have a horse at Ascot?’
‘There will be something going, I suppose. Nothing that I care about.’ Lord Silverbridge had made up his mind that he would not go to the races with Tifto before the Leger. The Leger would be an affair of such moment as to demand his presence. After that should come the complete rupture between him and Tifto.
Then there was movement among the elders, and Lord Silverbridge soon found himself walking alone with Miss Boncassen. It seemed to her to be quite natural to do so, and there certainly was no reason why he should decline anything so pleasant. It was thus that he had intended to walk with Mabel Grex; — only as yet he had not found her. ‘Oh, yes,’ said Miss Boncassen, when they had been together about twenty minutes; ‘we shall be here all the summer, and the fall, and all the winter. Indeed father means to read every book in the British Museum before he goes back.’
‘He’ll have something to do.’
‘He reads by steam, and he has two or three young men with him to take it all down and make other books out of it; — just as you’ll see a lady take a lace shawl and turn it all about till she has trimmed a petticoat with it. It is the same lace all through — and so I tell father it’s the same knowledge.’
‘But he puts it where more people will find it.’
‘The lady endeavours to do the same with the lace. That depends on whether people look up or down. Father however is a very learned man. You mustn’t suppose that I am laughing at him. He is going to write a very learned book. Only everybody will be dead before it can be half finished.’ They still went on together, and then he gave her his arm and took her into the place where the strawberries and cream were prepared. As he was going in he saw Mabel Grex walking with Tregear, and she bowed to him pleasantly and playfully. ‘Is that lady a great friend of yours?’ asked Miss Boncassen.
‘A very great friend indeed.’
‘She is very beautiful.’
‘And clever as well — and good as gold.’
‘Dear me! Do tell me who it is that owns all these qualities.’
‘Lady Mabel Grex. She is daughter of Lord Grex. That man with her is my particular friend. His name is Frank Tregear, and they are cousins.’
‘I am so glad they are cousins.’
‘Because his being with her won’t make you unhappy.’
‘Supposing I was in love with her — which I am not — do you suppose it would make me jealous to see her with another man?’
‘In our country it would not. A young lady may walk about with a young gentleman just as she might with another young lady; but I thought it was different here. Do you know, by judging English ways, I believe I am behaving very improperly in walking about with you so long. Ought I not to tell you to go away?’
‘Pray do not.’
‘As I am going to stay here so long I wish to behave well in English eyes.’
‘People know who you are, and discount all that.’
‘If the difference be very marked they do. For instance, I needn’t wear a hideous long bit of cloth over my face in Constantinople because I am a woman. But when the discrepancies are small, then they have to be attended to. So I shan’t walk about with you any more.’
‘Oh yes you will,’ said Silverbridge, who began to think that he liked walking about with Miss Boncassen.
‘Certainly not. There is Mr Sprottle. He is father’s Secretary. He will take me back.’
‘Can not I take you back as well as Mr Sprottle?’
‘Indeed no; — I am not going to monopolise such a man as you. Do you think that I don’t understand that everybody will be making remarks upon that American girl who won’t leave the son of the Duke of Omnium alone? There is your particular friend Lady Mabel, and here is my particular friend Mr Sprottle.’
‘May I come and call?’
‘Certainly. Father will only be too proud — and I shall be prouder. Mother will be the proudest of all. Mother very seldom goes out. Till we get a house we are at The Langham. Thank you, Mr Sprottle. I think we’ll go and find father.’
Lord Silverbridge found himself close to Lady Mabel and Tregear, and also to Miss Cassewary, who had now joined Lady Mabel. He had been much struck with the American beauty, but was not on that account the less anxious to carry out his great plan. It was essentially necessary that he should do so at once, because the matter had been settled between him and his father. He was anxious to assure her that if she would consent, then the Duke would be ready to pour out all kinds of paternal blessings on their heads. ‘Come and take a turn among the haycocks,’ he said.
‘Frank declares,’ said Lady Mabel, ‘that the hay is hired for the occasion. I wonder whether that is true?’
‘Anybody can see,’ said Tregear, ‘that it has not been cut off the grass it stands upon.’
‘If I could find Mrs Montacute Jones I’d ask her where she got it,’ said Lady Mabel.
‘Are you coming?’ asked Silverbridge impatiently.
‘I don’t think I am. I have been walking round the haycocks till I am tired of them.’
‘Anywhere else then?’
‘There isn’t anywhere else. What have you done with your American beauty? The truth is, Lord Silverbridge, you ask me for my company when she won’t give you hers any longer. Doesn’t it look like it, Miss Cassewary?’
‘I don’t think Lord Silverbridge is the man to forget an old friend for a new one.’
‘Not though the new friend be as lovely as Miss Boncassen?’
‘I don’t know that I ever saw a prettier girl,’ said Tregear.
‘I quite admit it,’ said Lady Mabel. ‘But that is no salve for my injured feelings. I have heard so much talk about Miss Boncassen’s beauty for the last week, that I mean to get up a company of British females, limited, for the express purpose of putting her down. Who is Miss Boncassen that we are all to be put on one side for her?’
Of course he knew that she was joking, but he hardly knew how to take her joke. There is a manner of joking which carries with it much serious intention. He did feel that Lady Mabel was not gracious to him because he had spent half an hour with this new beauty, and he was half inclined to be angry with her. Was it fitting that she should be cross with him, seeing that he was resolved to throw at her feet all the good things that he had in the world? ‘Bother Miss Boncassen,’ he said; ‘you might as well come and take a turn with a fellow.’
‘Come along, Miss Cassewary,’ said she. ‘We will go around the haycocks yet once again.’ So they turned and the two ladies accompanied Lord Silverbridge.
But this was not what he wanted. He could not say what he had to say in the presence of Miss Cassewary — nor could he ask her to take herself off in another direction. Nor could he take himself off. Now that he had joined himself to these two ladies he must make with them the tour of the gardens. All this made him cross. ‘These kind of things are a great bore,’ he said.
‘I dare say you would rather be in the House of Commons; — or, better still, at the Beargarden.’
‘You mean to be ill-natured when you say that, Lady Mab.’
‘You ask me to come and walk with you, and then you tell us that we are bores!’
‘I did nothing of the kind.’
‘I should have thought that you would be particularly pleased with yourself for coming here today, seeing that you have made Miss Boncassen’s acquaintance. To be allowed to walk half and hour alone with the acknowledged beauty of the two hemispheres ought to be enough even for Lord Silverbridge.’
‘That is nonsense, Lady Mab.’
‘Nothing give so much zest to admiration as novelty. A republican charmer must be exciting after all the blasees habituees of the London drawing-room.’
‘How can you talk such nonsense, Mabel?’ said Miss Cassewary.
‘But it is so. I feel that people must be sick of seeing me. I know I am very often sick of seeing them. Here is something fresh — and not only unlike, but so much more lovely. I quite acknowledge that I may be jealous, but no one can say that I am spiteful. I wish that some republican Adonis or Apollo would crop up — so that we might have our turn. But I don’t think the republican gentlemen are equal to the republican ladies. Do you, Lord Silverbridge?
‘I haven’t thought about it.’
‘Mr Sprottle for instance.’
‘I have not the pleasure of knowing Mr Sprottle.’
‘Now we’ve been around the haycocks, and really, Lord Silverbridge, I don’t think we have gained much by it. Those forced marches never do any good.’ And so they parted.
He was thinking with a bitter spirit of the ill-result of the morning’s work when he again found himself close to Miss barbarian in the crowd of departing people on the terrace. ‘Mind you keep your word,’ she said. And then she turned to her father, ‘Lord Silverbridge has promised to call.’
‘Mrs Boncassen will be delighted to make his acquaintance.’
He got into his cab and was driven off before Richmond. As he went he began to think of the two young women with whom he had passed his morning. Mabel had certainly behaved badly to him. Even if she suspected nothing of his object, did she not owe it to their friendship to be more courteous to him than she had been? And if she suspected that object, should she not at any rate given him that opportunity?
Or could it be that she was really jealous of the American girl? No; — that idea he rejected instantly. It was not compatible with the innate modesty of his disposition. But no doubt the American girl was very lovely. Merely as a thing to be looked at she was superior to Mabel. He did feel that as to mere personal beauty she was in truth superior to anything he had ever seen before. And she was clever too; — and good-humoured; — whereas Mabel had been both ill-natured and unpleasant.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01