The Duke of Omnium was, as we have said, a bachelor. Not the less on that account did he on certain rare gala days entertain the beauty of the county in his magnificent rural seat, or the female fashion of London in Belgrave Square; but on this occasion the dinner at Gatherum Castle—for such was the name of his mansion—was to be confined to the lords of the creation. It was to be one of those days on which he collected round his board all the notables of the county, in order that his popularity might not wane, or the established glory of his hospitable house become dim.
On such an occasion it was not probable that Lord de Courcy would be one of the guests. The party, indeed, who went from Courcy Castle was not large, and consisted of the Honourable George, Mr Moffat, and Frank Gresham. They went in a tax-cart, with a tandem horse, driven very knowingly by George de Courcy; and the fourth seat on the back of the vehicle was occupied by a servant, who was to look after the horses at Gatherum.
The Honourable George drove either well or luckily, for he reached the duke’s house in safety; but he drove very fast. Poor Miss Dunstable! what would have been her lot had anything but good happened to that vehicle, so richly freighted with her three lovers! They did not quarrel as to the prize, and all reached Gatherum Castle in good-humour with each other.
The castle was new building of white stone, lately erected at an enormous cost by one of the first architects of the day. It was an immense pile, and seemed to cover ground enough for a moderate-sized town. But, nevertheless, report said that when it was completed, the noble owner found that he had no rooms to live in; and that, on this account, when disposed to study his own comfort, he resided in a house of perhaps one-tenth of the size, built by his grandfather in another county.
Gatherum Castle would probably be called Italian in its style of architecture; though it may, I think, be doubted whether any such edifice, or anything like it, was ever seen in any part of Italy. It was a vast edifice; irregular in height—or it appeared to be—having long wings on each side too high to be passed over by the eye as mere adjuncts to the mansion, and a portico so large as to make the house behind it look like another building of a greater altitude. This portico was supported by Ionic columns, and was in itself doubtless a beautiful structure. It was approached by a flight of steps, very broad and very grand; but, as an approach, by a flight of steps hardly suits an Englishman’s house, to the immediate entrance of which it is necessary that his carriage should drive, there was another front door in one of the wings which was commonly used. A carriage, however, could on very stupendously grand occasions—the visits, for instance, of queens and kings, and royal dukes—be brought up under the portico; as the steps had been so constructed as to admit of a road, with a rather stiff ascent, being made close in front of the wing up into the very porch.
Opening from the porch was the grand hall, which extended up to the top of the house. It was magnificent, indeed; being decorated with many-coloured marbles, and hung round with various trophies of the house of Omnium; banners were there, and armour; the sculptured busts of many noble progenitors; full-length figures of marble of those who had been especially prominent; and every monument of glory and wealth, long years, and great achievements could bring together. If only a man could but live in his hall and be for ever happy there! But the Duke of Omnium could not live happily in his hall; and the fact was, that the architect, in contriving this magnificent entrance for his own honour and fame, had destroyed the duke’s house as regards most of the ordinary purposes of residence.
Nevertheless, Gatherum Castle is a very noble pile; and, standing as it does an eminence, has a very fine effect when seen from many a distant knoll and verdant-wooded hill.
At seven o’clock, Mr de Courcy and his friends got down from their drag at the smaller door—for this was no day on which to mount up under the portico; nor was that any suitable vehicle to have been entitled to such honour. Frank felt some excitement a little stronger than that usual to him at such moments, for he had never yet been in company with the Duke of Omnium; and he rather puzzled himself to think on what points he would talk to the man who was the largest landowner in that county in which he himself had so great an interest. He, however, made up his mind that he would allow the duke to choose his own subjects; merely reserving to himself the right of pointing out how deficient in gorse covers was West Barsetshire—that being the duke’s division.
They were soon divested of their coats and hats, and, without entering on the magnificence of the great hall, were conducted through rather a narrow passage into rather a small drawing-room—small, that is, in proportion to the number of gentlemen there assembled. There might be about thirty, and Frank was inclined to think that they were almost crowded. A man came forward to greet them when their names were announced; but our hero at once knew that he was not the duke; for this man was fat and short, whereas the duke was thin and tall.
There was a great hubbub going on; for everybody seemed to be talking to his neighbour; or, in default of a neighbour, to himself. It was clear that the exalted rank of their host had put very little constraint on his guests’ tongues, for they chatted away with as much freedom as farmers at an ordinary.
‘Which is the duke?’ at last Frank contrived to whisper to his cousin.
‘Oh;—he’s not here,’ said George; ‘I suppose he’ll be in presently. I believe he never shows till just before dinner.’
Frank, of course, had nothing further to say; but he already began to feel himself a little snubbed: he thought that the duke, duke though he was, when he asked people to dinner should be there to tell them that he was glad to see them.
More people flashed into the room, and Frank found himself rather closely wedged in with a stout clergyman of his acquaintance. He was not badly off, for Mr Athill was a friend of his own, who had held a living near Greshamsbury. Lately, however, at the lamented decease of Dr Stanhope—who had died of apoplexy at his villa in Italy—Mr Athill had been presented with the better preferment of Eiderdown, and had, therefore, removed to another part of the county. He was somewhat of a bon-vivant, and a man who thoroughly understood dinner-parties; and with much good nature he took Frank under his special protection.
‘You stick to me, Mr Gresham,’ he said, ‘when we go into the dining-room. I’m an old hand at the duke’s dinners, and know how to make a friend comfortable as well as myself.’
‘But why doesn’t the duke come in?’ demanded Frank.
‘He’ll be here as soon as dinner is ready,’ said Mr Athill. ‘Or, rather, the dinner will be ready as soon as he is here. I don’t care, therefore, how soon he comes.’
He was beginning to be impatient, for the room was now nearly full, and it seemed evident that no other guests were coming; when suddenly a bell rang, and a gong was sounded, and at the same instant a door that had not yet been used flew open, and a very plainly dressed, plain, tall man entered the room. Frank at once knew that he was at last in the presence of the Duke of Omnium.
But his grace, late as he was in commencing the duties as host, seemed in no hurry to make up for lost time. He quietly stood on the rug, with his back to the empty grate, and spoke one or two words in a very low voice to one or two gentlemen who stood nearest to him. The crowd, in the meanwhile, became suddenly silent. Frank, when he found that the duke did not come and speak to him, felt that he ought to go and speak to the duke; but no one else did so, and when he whispered his surprise to Mr Athill, that gentleman told him that this was the duke’s practice on all such occasions.
‘Fothergill,’ said the duke—and it was the only word he had yet spoken out loud —‘I believe we are ready for dinner.’ Now Mr Fothergill was the duke’s land-agent, and he it was who had greeted Frank and his friends at their entrance.
Immediately the gong was again sounded, and another door leading out of the drawing-room into the dining-room was opened. The duke led the way, and then the guests followed. ‘Stick close to me, Mr Gresham,’ said Athill, ‘we’ll get about the middle of the table, where we shall be cosy—and on the other side of the room, out of this dreadful draught—I know the place well, Mr Gresham; stick to me.’
Mr Athill, who was a pleasant, chatty companion, had hardly seated himself, and was talking to Frank as quickly as he could, when Mr Fothergill, who sat at the bottom of the table, asked him to say grace. It seemed to be quite out of the question that the duke should take any trouble over his guests whatever. Mr Athill consequently dropped the word he was speaking, and uttered a prayer—if it was a prayer—that they might all have grateful hearts for which God was about to give them.
If it was a prayer! As far as my own experience goes, such utterances are seldom prayers, seldom can be prayers. And if not prayers, what then? To me it is unintelligible that the full tide of glibbest chatter can be stopped at a moment in the midst of profuse good living, and the Given thanked becomingly in words of heartfelt praise. Setting aside for the moment what one daily hears and sees, may not one declare that a change so sudden is not within the compass of the human mind? But then, to such reasoning one cannot but add what one does hear and see; one cannot but judge of the ceremony by the manner in which one sees it performed—uttered, that is—and listened to. Clergymen there are—one meets them now and then—who endeavour to give to the dinner-table grace some of the solemnity of a church ritual, and what is the effect? Much the same as though one were to be interrupted for a minute in the midst of one of our church liturgies to hear a drinking-song.
And it will be argued, that a man need be less thankful because, at the moment of receiving, he utters not thanksgiving? or will it be thought that a man is made thankful because what is called a grace is uttered after dinner? It can hardly be imagined that any one will so argue, or so think.
Dinner-graces are, probably, the last remaining relic of certain daily services which the Church in olden days enjoined: nones, complines, and vespers were others. Of the nones and complines we have happily got quit; and it might be well if we could get rid of the dinner-grace also. Let any man ask himself whether, on his own part, they are acts of prayer and thanksgiving—and if not that, what then? It is, I know, alleged that graces are said before dinner, because our Saviour uttered a blessing before his last supper. I cannot say that the idea of such analogy is pleasing to me.
When the large party entered the dining-room one or two gentlemen might be seen to come in from some other door and set themselves at the table near to the duke’s chair. These were guests of his own, who were staying in the house, his particular friends, the men with whom he lived: the others were strangers whom he fed, perhaps once a year, in order that his name might be known in the land as that of one who distributed food and wine hospitably through the county. The food and wine, the attendance also, and the view of the vast repository of plate he vouchsafed willingly to his county neighbours;—but it was beyond his good nature to talk to them. To judge by the present appearance of most of them, they were quite as well satisfied to be left alone.
Frank was altogether a stranger there, but Mr Athill knew every one at the table.
‘That’s Apjohn,’ said he: ‘don’t you know, Mr Apjohn, the attorney from Barchester? he’s always here; he does some of Fothergill’s law business, and makes himself useful. If any fellow knows the value of a good dinner, he does. You’ll see that the duke’s hospitality will not be thrown away on him.’
‘It’s very much thrown away on me, I know,’ said Frank, who could not at all put up with the idea of sitting down to dinner without having been spoken to by his host.
‘Oh, nonsense!’ said his clerical friend; ‘you’ll enjoy yourself amazingly by and by. There is not much champagne in any other house in Barsetshire; and then the claret —’ And Mr Athill pressed his lips together, and gently shook his head, meaning to signify by the motion that the claret of Gatherum Castle was sufficient atonement for any penance which a man might have to go through in his mode of obtaining it.
‘Who is that funny little man sitting there, next but one to Mr de Courcy? I never saw such a queer fellow in my life.’
‘Don’t you know old Bolus? Well, I thought every one in Barsetshire knew Bolus; you especially should do so, as he is such a dear friend of Dr Thorne.’
‘A dear friend of Dr Thorne?’
‘Yes; he was apothecary at Scarington in the old days, before Dr Fillgrave came into vogue. I remember when Bolus was thought to be a very good sort of doctor.’
‘Is he—is he —’ whispered Frank, ‘is he by way of a gentleman?’
‘Ha! ha! ha! Well, I suppose we must be charitable, and say that he is quite as good, at any rate, as many others there are here —’ and Mr Athill, as he spoke, whispered into Frank’s ear, ‘You see there’s Finnie here, another Barchester attorney. Now, I really think where Finnie goes, Bolus may go too.’
‘The more the merrier, I suppose,’ said Frank.
‘Well, something a little like that. I wonder why Thorne is not here? I’m sure he was asked.’
‘Perhaps he did not particularly wish to meet Finnie and Bolus. Do you know, Mr Athill, I think he was quite right not to come. As for myself, I wish I was anywhere else.’
‘Ha! ha! ha! You don’t know the duke’s ways yet; and what’s more, you’re young, you happy fellow! But Thorne should have more sense; he ought to show himself here.’
The gormandizing was now going on at a tremendous rate. Though the volubility of their tongues had been for a while stopped by the first shock of the duke’s presence, the guests seemed to feel no such constraint upon their teeth. They fed, one may almost say, rabidly, and gave their orders to the servants in an eager manner; much more impressive than that usual at smaller parties. Mr Apjohn, who sat immediately opposite to Frank, had, by some well-planned manoeuvre, contrived to get before him the jowl of a salmon; but, unfortunately, he was not for a while equally successful in the article of sauce. A very limited portion—so at least thought Mr Apjohn—had been put on his plate; and a servant, with a huge sauce tureen, absolutely passed behind his back inattentive to his audible requests. Poor Mr Apjohn in his despair turned round to arrest the man by his coat-tails; but he was a moment too late, and all but fell backwards on the floor. As he righted himself he muttered an anathema, and looked with a face of anguish at his plate.
‘Anything the matter, Apjohn?’ said Mr Fothergill, kindly, seeing the utter despair written on the poor man’s countenance; ‘can I get anything for you?’
‘The sauce!’ said Mr Apjohn, in a voice that would have melted a hermit; and as he looked at Mr Fothergill, he point at the now distant sinner, who was dispensing his melted ambrosia at least ten heads upwards, away from the unfortunate supplicant.
Mr Fothergill, however, knew where to look for balm for such wounds, and in a minute or two, Mr Apjohn was employed quite to his heart’s content.
‘Well,’ said Frank to his neighbour, ‘it may be very well once in a way; but I think that on the whole Dr Thorne is right.’
‘My dear Mr Gresham, see the world on all sides,’ said Mr Athill, who had also been somewhat intent on the gratification of his own appetite, though with an energy less evident than that of the gentleman opposite. ‘See the world on all sides if you have an opportunity; and, believe me, a good dinner now and then is a very good thing.’
‘Yes; but I don’t like eating with hogs.’
‘Whish-h! softly, softly, Mr Gresham, or you’ll disturb Mr Apjohn’s digestion. Upon my word, he’ll want it all before he has done. Now, I like this kind of thing once in a way.’
‘Do you?’ said Frank, in a tone that was almost savage.
‘Yes; indeed I do. One sees so much character. And after all, what harm does it do?’
‘My idea is that people should live with those whose society is pleasant to them.’
‘Live—yes, Mr Gresham—I agree with you there. It wouldn’t do for me to live with the Duke of Omnium; I shouldn’t understand, or probably approve, his ways. Nor should I, perhaps, much like the constant presence of Mr Apjohn. But now and then—once in a year or so—I do own I like to see them both. Here’s the cup; now, whatever you do, Mr Gresham, don’t pass the cup without tasting it.’
And so the dinner passed on, slowly enough as Frank thought, but all too quickly for Mr Apjohn. It passed away, and the wine came circulating freely. The tongues again were loosed, the teeth being released from their labours, and under the influence of the claret the duke’s presence was forgotten.
But very speedily the coffee was brought. ‘This will soon be over now,’ said Frank, to himself, thankfully; for, though he be no means despised good claret, he had lost his temper too completely to enjoy it at the present moment. But he was much mistaken; the farce as yet was only at its commencement. The duke took his cup of coffee, and so did the few friends who sat close to him; but the beverage did not seem to be in great request with the majority of the guests. When the duke had taken his modicum, he rose up and silently retired, saying no word and making no sign. And then the farce commenced.
‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Mr Fothergill, cheerily, ‘we are all right. Apjohn, is there claret there? Mr Bolus, I know you stick to the Madeira; you are quite right, for there isn’t too much of it left, and my belief is there’ll never be more like it.’
And so the duke’s hospitality went on, and the duke’s guests drank merrily for the next two hours.
‘Shan’t we see any more of him?’ asked Frank.
‘Any more of whom?’ said Mr Athill.
‘Of the duke?’
‘Oh, no; you’ll see no more of him. He always goes when the coffee comes. It’s brought in as an excuse. We’ve had enough of the light of his countenance to last till next year. The duke and I are excellent friends; and have been so these fifteen years; but I never see more of him than that.’
‘I shall go away,’ said Frank.
‘Nonsense. Mr de Courcy and your other friend won’t stir for this hour yet.’
‘I don’t care. I shall walk on, and they may catch me. I may be wrong; but it seems to me that a man insults me when he asks me to dine with him and never speaks to me. I don’t care if he be ten times Duke of Omnium; he can’t be more than a gentleman, and as such I am his equal.’ And then, having thus given vent to his feelings in somewhat high-flown language, he walked forth and trudged away along the road towards Courcy.
Frank Gresham had been born and bred a Conservative, whereas the Duke of Omnium was well known as a consistent Whig. There is no one so devoutly resolved to admit of no superior as your Conservative, born and bred, no one so inclined to high domestic despotism as your thoroughgoing consistent old Whig.
When he had proceeded about six miles, Frank was picked up by his friends; but even then his anger had hardly cooled.
‘Was the duke as civil as ever when you took your leave of him?’ said he to his cousin George, as he took his seat on the drag.
‘The juke was jeuced jude wine—lem me tell you that, old fella,’ hiccupped out the Honourable George, as he touched up the leader under the flank.
Last updated Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 20:41