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The Party at Custins is Broken Up
The message was given to Lady Mary after so solemn a fashion that she was sure that some important communication was to be made to her. Her mind at that moment had been filled with her new friend's story. She felt that she required some time to meditate before she could determine what she herself would wish; but when she was going to her own room, in order that she might think it over, she was summoned to Lady Cantrip. 'My dear,' said the Countess, 'I wish you to do something to oblige me.'
'Of course I will.'
'Lord Popplecourt wants to speak to you.'
'What can Lord Popplecourt have to say to me?'
'Can you not guess? Lord Popplecourt is a young nobleman, standing very high in the world, possessed of ample means, just in that position in which it behoves such a man to look about for a wife.' Lady Mary pressed her lips together, and clenched her two hands. 'Can you not imagine what such a gentleman may have to say?' Then there was a pause, but she made no immediate answer. 'I am to tell you, my dear, that your father would approve of it.'
'Approve of what?'
'He approves of Lord Popplecourt as a suitor for your hand.'
'How can he?'
'Why not, Mary? Of course he has made it his business to ascertain all particulars as to Lord Popplecourt's character and property.'
'Papa knows that I love somebody else.'
'My dear Mary, that is all vanity.'
'I don't think that papa can want to see me married to a man when he knows that with all my heart and soul--'
'When he knows,' continued Mary, who would not be put down, 'that I love another man with all my heart. What will Lord Popplecourt say if I tell him that? If he says anything to me, I shall tell him. Lord Popplecourt! He cares for nothing but his coal mines. Of course, if you bid me to see him I will; but it can do no good. I despise him, and if he troubles me I shall hate him. As for marrying him,--I would sooner die this minute.'
After this Lady Cantrip did not insist on the interview. She expressed her regret that things should be as they were,--explained in sweetly innocent phrases that in a certain rank of life young ladies could not always marry the gentlemen to whom their fancies might attach them, but must, not infrequently, postpone their youthful inclinations to the will of their elders,--or in less delicate language, that though they might love in one direction the must marry in another; and then expressed a hope that her dear Mary would think over these things and try to please her father. 'Why does he not try to please me?' said Mary. Then Lady Cantrip was obliged to see Lord Popplecourt, a necessity which was a great nuisance to her. 'Yes;--she understands what you mean. But she is not prepared for it yet. You must wait awhile.'
'I don't see why I am to wait.'
'She is very young,--and so are you, indeed. There is plenty of time.'
'There is somebody else I suppose.'
'Is it that Tregear?'
'I am not prepared to mention names,' said Lady Cantrip, astonished that he should know so much. 'But indeed you must wait.'
'I don't see it, Lady Cantrip.'
'What can I say more? If you think that such a girl as Lady Mary Palliser, the daughter of the Duke of Omnium, possessed of fortune, beauty, and every good gift, is to come like a bird to your call, you will find yourself mistaken. All that her friends can do for you will be done. The rest must remain with yourself.' During that evening Lord Popplecourt endeavoured to make himself pleasant to one of the FitzHoward young ladies, and on the next morning he took his leave of Custins.
'I will never interfere again in reference to anybody else's child as long as I live,' Lady Cantrip said to her husband that night.
Lady Mary was very much tempted to open her heart to Miss Boncassen. It would be delightful to have a friend; but were she to engage Miss Boncassen's sympathies on her behalf, she must of course sympathise with Miss Boncassen in return. And what if, after all, Silverbridge were not devoted to the American beauty! What if it should turn out that he was going to marry Lady Mabel Grex? 'I wish you would call me Isabel,' her friend said to her. 'It is so odd,--since I have left New York I have never heard my name from any lips except father's and mother's.'
'Has not Silverbridge ever called you by your christian-name?'
'I think not. I am sure he never has.' But he had, though it had passed by her at the moment without attention. 'It all came from him so suddenly. And yet I expected it. But it was too sudden for christian-names and pretty talk. I do not even know what his name is.'
'Plantagenet,--but we always call him Silverbridge.'
'Plantagenet is much prettier. I shall always call him Plantagenet. But I recall that. You will not remember that against me?'
'I will remember nothing that you do not wish.'
'I mean that if,--if all the grandeurs of the Pallisers could consent to put up with poor me, if heaven were opened to me with a straight gate, so that I could walk out of our republic into your aristocracy with my head erect, with the stars and stripes waving proudly will I had been accepted into the shelter of the Omnium griffins,--then I would call him--'
'There's one Palliser would welcome you.'
'Would you dear? Then I will love you dearly. May I call you Mary?'
'Of course you may.'
'Mary is the prettiest name under the sun. But Plantagenet is so grand! Which of the kings did you branch off from?'
'I know nothing about it. From none of them I should think. There is some story about a Sir Guy, who was a king's friend. I never trouble myself about it. I hate aristocracy.'
'Do you, dear?'
'Yes,' said Mary, full of her own grievances. 'It is an abominable bondage, and I do not see that it does any good at all.'
'I think it is so glorious,' said the American. 'There is no such mischievous nonsense in the world as equality. That is what father says. What men ought to want is liberty.'
'It is terrible to be tied up in a small circle,' said the Duke's daughter.
'What do you mean, Lady Mary?'
'I thought you were to call me Mary. What I mean is this. Suppose that Silverbridge loves you better than all the world.'
'I hope he does. I think he does.'
'And suppose he cannot marry you, because of his--aristocracy?'
'But he can.'
'I thought you were saying yourself--'
'Saying what? That he could not marry me! No indeed! But that under certain circumstances I would not marry him. You don't suppose that I think he would be disgraced? If so I would go away at once, and he should never again see my face or hear my voice. I think myself good enough for the best man God every made. But if others think differently, and those others are closely concerned with him and would be so closely concerned with me, as to trouble our joint lives;--then will I neither subject him to such sorrow nor will I encounter it myself.'
'It all comes from what you call aristocracy.'
'No, dear;--but from the prejudices of an aristocracy. To tell the truth, Mary, the most difficult a place is to get into, the more right of going in is valued. If everybody could be a Duchess and a Palliser, I should not perhaps think so much about it.'
'I thought it was because you loved him.'
'So I do. I love him entirely. I have said not a word of that to him;--but I do, if I know at all what love is. But if you love a star, the pride you have in your star will enhance your love. Though you know that you must die of your love, still you must love your star.'
And yet Mary could not tell her tale in return. She could not show the reverse picture:--that she being a star was anxious to dispose of herself after the fashion of poor human rushlights. It was not that she was ashamed of her love, but that she could not bring herself to yield altogether in reference to the great descent which Silverbridge would have to make.
On the day after this,--the last day of the Duke's sojourn at Custins, the last also of the Boncassen's visit,--it came to pass that the Duke and Mr Boncassen with Lady Mary and Isabel, were all walking in the woods together. And it so happened when they were at a little distance from the house, each of the girls was walking with the other girl's father. Isabel had calculated what she would say to the Duke should a time for speaking come to her. She could not tell him of his son's love. She could not ask his permission. She could not explain to him all her feelings, or tell him what she thought of her proper way of getting into heaven. That must come afterwards if it should ever come at all. But there was something that she could tell. 'We are different from you,' she said, speaking of her own country.
'And yet so like,' said the Duke, smiling;--'your language, your laws, your habits!'
'But still there is such a difference! I do not think there is a man in the whole union more respected than father.'
'I dare say not.'
'Many people think that if he would only allow himself to be put in nomination, he might be the next president.'
'The choice, I am sure, would to your country honour.'
'And yet his father was a poor labourer who earned his bread among the shipping at New York. That kind of thing would be impossible here.'
'My dear young lady, there you wrong us.'
'Certainly! A Prime Minister with us might as easily come from the same class.'
'Here you think so much of rank. You are--a Duke.'
'But a Prime Minister can make a Duke, and if a man can raise himself by his own intellect to that position, no one will think of his father or his grandfather. The sons of merchants have with us been Prime Ministers more than once, and no Englishman ever were more honoured among their countrymen. Our peerage is being continually recruited from the ranks of the people, and hence it gets its strength.'
'Is it so?'
'There is no greater mistake than to suppose that inferiority of birth is a barrier to success in this country.' She listened to this and to much more on the same subject with attentive ears--not shaken in her ideas as to the English aristocracy in general, but thinking that she was perhaps learning something of his own individual opinion. If he were more liberal than others, on that liberality might perhaps be based her own happiness and fortune.
He in all this was quite unconscious of the working of her mind. Nor in discussing such matters generally did he ever mingle his own private feelings, his own pride of race and name, his own ideas of what was due to his ancient rank with the political creed by which his conduct was governed. The peer who sat next to him in the House of Lords, whose grandmother had been a washerwoman and whose father an innkeeper, was to him every whit as good a peer as himself. And he would as soon sit in counsel with Mr Monk, whose father had risen from a mechanic to be a merchant, as with any nobleman who could count ancestors against himself. But there was an inner feeling in his bosom as to his own family, his own name, his own children, and his own personal self, which was kept altogether apart from his grand political theories. It was a subject on which he never spoke; but the feeling had come to him as a part of his birthright. And he conceived that it would pass through him to his children after the same fashion. It was this which made the idea of a marriage between his daughter and Tregear intolerable to him, and which would operate as strongly in regard to any marriage which his son might contemplate. Lord Grex was not a man with whom he would wish to form any intimacy. He was, we may say, a wretched unprincipled old man, bad all round; and such the Duke knew him to be. But the blue blood and the rank were there, and as the girl was good herself he would have been quite contented that his son should marry the daughter of Lord Grex. That one and the same man should have been in one part of himself so unlike the other part,--that he should have one set of opinions so contrary to another set,--poor Isabel Boncassen did not understand.
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