Silverbridge when he reached Brook Street that day was surprised to find that a large party was going to lunch there. Isabel had asked him to come, and he had thought her the dearest girl in the world for doing so. but now his gratitude for that favour was considerably abated. He did not care just now for the honour of eating his lunch in the presence of Mr Gotobed, the American minister, whom he found there already in the drawing-room with Mrs Gotobed, nor with Ezekiel Sevenkings, the great American poet from the far West, who sat silent and stared at him in an unpleasant way. When Sir Timothy Beeswax was announced, with Lady Beeswax, and her daughter, his gratification certainly was not increased. And the last comer — who did to arrive till they were all seated at the table — almost made him start from his chair and take his departure suddenly. That last comer was no other than Mr Adolphus Longstaff. As it happened he was seated next to Dolly, with Lady Beeswax on the other side of him. Whereas his Holy of Holies was on the other side of Dolly! The arrangement made seemed to have been monstrous. He had endeavoured to get next to Isabel; but she had so manoeuvred that there should be a vacant seat between them. He had not much regarded this because a vacant chair may be pushed on one side. But before he had made all his calculations Dolly Longstaff was sitting there! He almost thought that Dolly winked at him in triumph — that very Dolly, who an hour ago had promised to take himself upon his Asiatic travels!
Sir Timothy and the minister kept up the conversation very much between them, Sir Timothy flattering everything that was American, and the minister finding fault with very many things which were English. Now and then Mr Boncassen would put in a word to soften the severe honesty of his countryman, or to correct the euphemistic falsehoods of Sir Timothy. The poet seemed always to be biding his time. Dolly ventured to whisper a word to his neighbour. It was but to say that the frost had broken up. But Silverbridge heard it and looked daggers at everyone. Then Lady Beeswax expressed to him a hope that he was going to do great things in Parliament this session. ‘I don’t mean to go near the place,’ he said, not at all conveying any purpose to which he had really come, but driven by the stress of the moment to say something that should express his general hatred of everybody. Mr Lupton was there, on the other side of Isabel, and was soon engaged with her in a pleasant familiar conversation. Then Silverbridge remembered that he had always thought Lupton to be a most conceited prig. Nobody gave himself so many airs, or was so careful as to the dyeing of his whiskers. It was astonishing that Isabel should allow herself to be amused by such an antiquated coxcomb. When they had finished eating they moved about and changed their places. Mr Boncassen being rather anxious to stop the flood of American eloquence which came from his friend Mr Gotobed. British viands had become subject to his criticism, and Mr Gotobed had declared to Mr Lupton that he didn’t believe that London could produce a dish of squash tomatoes. He was quite sure you couldn’t have sweet corn. Then there had been a moving of seats in which the minister was shuffled off to Lady Beeswax, and the poet found himself by the side of Isabel. ‘Do you not regret our mountains and our prairies?’ said the poet; ‘our great waters and our green savannahs?’ ‘I think more perhaps of Fifth Avenue,’ said Miss Boncassen. Silverbridge, who at this moment was being interrogated by Sir Timothy, heard every word of it.
‘I was so sorry, Lord Silverbridge,’ said Sir Timothy, ‘that you could not accede to our little request.’
‘I did not quite see my way,’ said Silverbridge, with his eye upon Isabel.
‘So I understood, but I hope that things will make themselves clearer to you shortly. There is nothing that I desire so much as the support of young men such as yourself — the very cream, I may say, of the whole country. It is to the young conservative thoughtfulness and the truly British spirit of our springing aristocracy that I look for that reaction which I am sure will at last carry us safely over the rocks and shoals of communistic propensities.’
‘I shouldn’t wonder if it did,’ said Silverbridge. They didn’t think that he was going to remain down there talking politics to an old humbug like Sir Timothy when the sun and moon, and all the stars had gone up into the drawing-room! For at that moment Isabel was making her way to the door.
But Sir Timothy had buttonholed him. ‘Of course it is late now to say anything further about that address. We have arranged that. Not quite as I would have wished, for I had set my heart upon initiating you into the rapturous pleasure of parliamentary debate. But I hope that a good time is coming. And pray remember this, Lord Silverbridge; — there is no member sitting on our side of the House, and I need hardly say on the other, whom I would go farther to oblige than your father’s son.’
‘I’m sure that’s very kind,’ said Silverbridge, absolutely using a little force as he disengaged himself. Then at once he followed the ladies upstairs passing the poet on the stairs. ‘You have hardly spoken to me,’ he whispered to Isabel. He knew that to whisper to her now, with the eyes of so many upon him, with the ears of many open, was an absurdity; but he could not refrain himself.
‘There are so many to be — entertained, as people say! I don’t think I ought to have to entertain you,’ she answered, laughing. No one heard her but Silverbridge, yet she did not seem to whisper. She left him, however, at once, and was soon engaged in conversation with Sir Timothy.
A convivial lunch I hold to be altogether bad, but the worst of its many evils is that vacillating mind which does not know when to take its owner off. Silverbridge was on this occasion determined not to take himself off at all. As it was only lunch the people must go, and then he would be left with Isabel. But the vacillation of the others was distressing to him. Mr Lupton went, and poor Dolly got away apparently without a word. But the Beeswaxes and the Gotobeds would not go, and the poet sat staring immovably. In the meantime Silverbridge endeavoured to make the time pass lightly by talking to Mrs Boncassen. He had been so determined to accept Isabel with all her adjuncts that he had come almost to like Mrs Boncassen, and would certainly have taken her part violently had anyone spoke ill of her in his presence.
Then suddenly he found that the room was almost empty. The Beeswaxes and the Gotobeds were gone, and at last the poet himself, with a final glare of admiration at Isabel, had taken his departure. When Silverbridge looked round, Isabel was also gone. Then to Mrs Boncassen had left the room suddenly. At the same instant Mr Boncassen entered by another door, and the two men were alone together. ‘My dear Lord Silverbridge,’ said the father, ‘I want to have a few words with you.’ Of course there was nothing for him but to submit. ‘You remember what you said to me down at Matching?’
‘Oh yes; I remember that.’
‘You did me the great honour of expressing a wish to make my child your wife.’
‘I was asking for a very great favour.’
‘That also; — for there is no greater favour I could do to any man than to give him my daughter. Nevertheless, you were doing me a great honour — and you did it, as you do everything, with an honest grace that went far to win my heart. I am not at all surprised, sir, that you should have won hers.’ The young man as he heard this could only blush and look foolish. ‘If I know my girl, neither your money nor your title would go for anything.’
‘I think much more of her love, Mr Boncassen, than I do of anything else in the world.’
‘But love, my Lord, may be a great misfortune.’ As he said this the tone of his voice was altered, and there was a melancholy solemnity not only in his words but in his countenance. ‘I take it that young people when they love rarely think of more than the present moment. If they did so the bloom would be gone from their romance. But others have to do this for them. If Isabel had come to me saying that she loved a poor man, there would not have been much to disquiet me. A poor man may earn bread for himself and his wife, and if he failed I could have found them bread. Nor had she loved somewhat below her degree, should I have opposed her. So long as her husband had been an educated man, there might have been no future punishment to fear.’
‘I don’t think she could have done that,’ said Silverbridge.
‘At any rate she has not done so. But how am I to look upon this that she has done?’
‘I’ll do my best for her, Mr Boncassen.’
‘I believe you would. But even your love can’t make her an English-woman. You can make her a Duchess.’
‘Not that, sir.’
‘But you can’t give her a parentage fit for a Duchess; — not fit at least in the opinion of those with whom you will pass your life, with whom — or perhaps without whom — she will be destined to pass her life, if she becomes your wife! Unfortunately it does not suffice that you should think it fit. Though you loved each other as well as any man and woman that ever were brought into each other’s arms by the beneficence of God, you cannot make her happy — unless you can ensure her the respect of those around her.’
‘All the world will respect her.’
‘Her conduct; — yes. I think the world, your world, would learn to do that. I do not think it could help itself. But that would not suffice. I may respect the man who cleans my boots, but he would be a wretched man if he were thrown on me for society. I would not give him my society. Will your Duchesses and Countesses give her theirs?’
‘Certainly they will.’
‘I do not ask for it as thinking it to be of more value than that of others; but were she to become your wife she would be so abnormally placed as to require it for her comfort. She would have become a lady of high rank — not because she loves rank, but because she loves you.’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ said Silverbridge, hardly himself knowing why became impetuous.
‘But having removed herself into that position, being as she would be, a Countess, or a Duchess, or what not, how could she be happy if he were excluded from the community of Countesses and Duchesses?’
‘They are not all like that,’ said Silverbridge.
‘I will not say that they are, but I do not know. Having Anglican tendencies I have been wont to contradict my countrymen when they have told me of the narrow exclusiveness of your nobles. Having found your nobles and your commoners all alike in their courtesy — which is a cold word; in their hospitable friendships — I would now not only contradict, but would laugh to scorn any such charge,’— so far he spoke somewhat loudly, and then dropped his voice as he concluded — ‘were it anything less than the happiness of my child that is in question.’
‘What am I to say, sir? I only know this; I am not going to lose her.’
‘You are a fine fellow. I was going to say that I wished you were an American, so that Isabel need not lose you. But, my boy, I have told you that I do not know how it might be. Of all whom you know, who could best tell me the truth on such a subject? Who is there, whose age will have given him experience, whose rank will have made him familiar with this matter, who from friendship to you would be least likely to decide against your wishes, who from his own native honesty would be most likely to tell the truth?’
‘You mean my father,’ said Silverbridge.
‘I do mean your father. Happily he has taken no dislike to the girl herself. I have seen enough of him to feel that he is devoted to his own children.’
‘Indeed he is.’
‘A just and liberal man; — one whom I should say not carried away by prejudices! Well — my girl and I have just put our heads together, and we have come to a conclusion. If the Duke of Omnium will tell us that she would be safe as your wife — safe from the contempt of those around her — you shall have her. And I shall rejoice to give her to you — not because you are Lord Silverbridge, not because of your rank and wealth; but because you are — that individual human being whom I now hold by the hand.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55