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Lady Cecilia was now impatient to have the house filled with company. She gave Helen a catalogue raisonné of all who were expected at Clarendon Park, some for a fashionable three days' visit; some for a week; some for a fortnight or three weeks, be the same more or less. "I have but one fixed principle," said she, "but I have one,—never to have tiresome people when it can possibly be avoided. Impossible, you know, it is sometimes. One's own and one's husband's relations one must have; but, as for the rest, it's one's own fault if one fails in the first and last maxim of hospitality—to welcome the coming and speed the parting guest."
The first party who arrived were of Lady Davenant's particular friends, to whom Cecilia had kindly given the precedence, if not the preference, that her mother might have the pleasure of seeing them, and that they might have the honour of taking leave of her, before her departure from England.
They were political, fashionable, and literary; some of ascendency in society, some of parliamentary promise, and some of ministerial eminence—the aristocracy of birth and talents well mixed.
The aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of talents are words now used more as a commonplace antithesis, than as denoting a real difference or contrast. In many instances, among those now living, both are united in a manner happy for themselves and glorious for their country. England may boast of having among her young nobility
"The first in birth, the first in fame."
men distinguished in literature and science, in senatorial eloquence and statesmanlike abilities.
But in this party at Clarendon Park there were more of the literary and celebrated than without the presence of Lady Davenant could perhaps have been assembled, or perhaps would have been desired by the general and Lady Cecilia. Cecilia's beauty and grace were of all societies, and the general was glad for Lady Davenant's sake and proud for his own part, to receive these distinguished persons at his house.
Helen had seen some of them before at Cecilhurst and at the Deanery. By her uncle's friends she was kindly recognised, by others of course politely noticed; but miserably would she have been disappointed and mortified, if she had expected to fix general attention, or excite general admiration. Past and gone for ever are the days, if ever they were, when a young lady, on her entrance into life, captivated by a glance, overthrew by the first word, and led in triumph her train of admirers. These things are not to be done now-a-days.
Yet even when unnoticed Helen was perfectly happy. Her expectations were more than gratified in seeing and in hearing these distinguished people, and she sat listening to their conversation in delightful enjoyment, without even wanting to have it seen how well she understood.
There is a precious moment for young people, if taken at the prime, when first introduced into society, yet not expected, not called upon to take a part in it, they, as standers by, may see not only all the play, but the characters of the players, and may learn more of life and of human nature in a few months, than afterwards in years, when they are themselves actors upon the stage of life, and become engrossed by their own parts. There is a time, before the passions are awakened, when the understanding, with all the life of nature, fresh from all that education can do to develop and cultivate, is at once eager to observe and able to judge, for a brief space blessed with the double advantages of youth and age. This time once gone is lost irreparably; and how often it is lost—in premature vanity, or premature dissipation!
Helen had been chiefly educated by a man, and a very sensible man, as Dean Stanley certainly was in all but money matters. Under his masculine care, while her mind had been brought forward on some points, it had been kept back on others, and while her understanding had been cultivated, it had been done without the aid of emulation or competition; not by touching the springs of pride, but by opening sources of pure pleasure; and this pure pleasure she now enjoyed, grateful to that dear uncle. For the single inimitable grace of simplicity which she possessed, how many mothers, governesses, and young ladies themselves, willingly, when they see how much it charms, would too late exchange half the accomplishments, all the acquirements, so laboriously achieved!
Beauclerc, who had seen something of the London female world, was, both from his natural taste and from contrast, pleased with Helen's fresh and genuine character, and he sympathised with all her silent delight. He never interrupted her in her enthusiastic contemplation of the great stars, but he would now and then seize an interval of rest to compare her observations with his own; anxious to know whether she estimated their relative magnitude and distances as he did. These snatched moments of comparison and proof of agreement in their observations, or the pleasure of examining the causes of their difference of opinion, enhanced the enjoyment of this brilliant fortnight; and not a cloud obscured the deep serene.
Notwithstanding all the ultra-refined nonsense Beauclerc had talked about his wish not to see remarkable persons, no one could enjoy it more, as Helen now perceived; and she saw also that he was considered as a man of promise among all these men of performance. But there were some, perhaps very slight things, which raised him still more in her mind, because they showed superiority of character. She observed his manner towards the general in this company, where he had himself the 'vantage ground—so different now from what it had been in the Old-Forest battle, when only man to man, ward to guardian. Before these distinguished persons there was a look—a tone of deference at once most affectionate and polite.
"It is so generous," said Lady Cecilia to Helen; "is not it?" and Helen agreed.
This brilliant fortnight ended too soon, as Helen thought, but Lady Cecilia had had quite enough of it. "They are all to go to-morrow morning, and I am not sorry for it," said she at night, as she threw herself into an arm-chair, in Helen's room; and, after having indulged in a refreshing yawn, she exclaimed, "Very delightful, very delightful! as you say, Helen, it has all been; but I am not sure that I should not be very much tired if I had much more of it. Oh! yes, I admired them all amazingly, but then admiring all day long is excessively wearisome. The very attitude of looking up fatigues both body and mind. Mamma is never tired, because she never has to look up; she can always look down, and that's so grand and so easy. She has no idea how the neck of my poor mind aches this minute; and my poor eyes! blasted with excess of light. How yours have stood it so well, Helen, I cannot imagine! how much stronger they must be than mine. I must confess, that, without the relief of music now and then, and ecarté, and that quadrille, bad as it was, I should never have got through it to-night alive or awake. But," cried she, starting up in her chair, "do you know Horace Churchill stays to-morrow. Such a compliment from him to stay a day longer than he intended! And do you know what he says of your eyes, Helen?—that they are the best listeners he ever spoke to. I should warn you though, my dear, that he is something, and not a little, I believe, of a male coquette. Though he is not very young, but he well understands all the advantages of a careful toilette. He has, like that George Herbert in Queen Elizabeth's time, 'a genteel humour for dress.' He is handsome still, and his fine figure, and his fine feelings, and his fine fortune, have broken two or three hearts; nevertheless I am delighted that he stays, especially that he stays on your account."
"Upon my account!" exclaimed Helen. "Did not you see that, from the first day when Mr. Churchill had the misfortune to be placed beside me at dinner, he utterly despised me: he began to talk to me, indeed, but left his sentence unfinished, his good story untold, the instant he caught the eye of a grander auditor."
Lady Cecilia had seen this, and marvelled at a well-bred man so far forgetting himself in vanity; but this, she observed, was only the first day; he had afterwards changed his manner towards Helen completely.
"Yes, when he saw Lady Davenant thought me worth speaking to. But, after all, it was quite natural that he should not know well what to say to me. I am only a young lady. I acquit him of all peculiar rudeness to me, for I am sure Mr. Churchill really could not talk for only one insignificant hearer, could not bring out his good things, unless he felt secure of possessing the attention of the whole dinner-table, so I quite forgive him."
"After this curse of forgiveness, my dear Helen, I will wish you a good night," said Lady Cecilia, laughing; and she retired with a fear that there would not be jealousy enough between the gentlemen, or that Helen would not know how to play them one against another.
There is a pleasure in seeing a large party disperse; in staying behind when others go:—there is advantage as well as pleasure, which is felt by the timid, because they do not leave their characters behind them; and rejoiced in by the satirical, because the characters of the departed and departing are left behind, fair game for them. Of this advantage no one could be more sensible, no one availed himself of it with more promptitude and skill, than Mr. Churchill: for well he knew that though wit may fail, humour may not take—though even flattery may pall upon the sense, scandal, satire, and sarcasm, are resources never failing for the lowest capacities, and sometimes for the highest.
This morning, in the library at Clarendon Park, he looked out of the window at the departing guests, and, as each drove off, he gave to each his coup de patte. To Helen, to whom it was new, it was wonderful to see how each, even of those next in turn to go, enjoyed the demolition of those who were just gone; how, blind to fate, they laughed, applauded, and licked the hand just raised to strike themselves. Of the first who went—"Most respectable people," said Lady Cecilia; "a bonne mère de famille."
"Most respectable people!" repeated Horace—"most respectable people, old coach and all." And then, as another party drove off—"No fear of any thing truly respectable here."
"Now, Horace, how can you say so?—she is so amiable and so clever."
"So clever? only, perhaps, a thought too fond of English liberty and French dress. _Poissarde lien corfée."
"Poissarde! of one of the best born, best bred women in England!" cried Lady Cecilia; "bien coiffée, I allow."
"Lady Cecilia is si coiffée de sa belle amie, that I see I must not say a word against her, till—the fashion changes. But, hark! I hear a voice I never wish to hear."
"Yet nobody is better worth hearing——"
"Oh! yes, the queen of the Blues—the Blue Devils!"
"Hush!" cried the aide-de-camp, "she is coming in to take leave." Then, as the queen of the Blue Devils entered, Mr, Churchill, in the most humbly respectful manner, begged—"My respects—I trust your grace will do me the favour—the justice to remember me to all your party who—do me the honour to bear me in mind—" then, as she left the room, he turned about and laughed.
"Oh! you sad, false man!" cried the lady next in turn to go. "I declare, Mr. Churchill, though I laugh, I am quite afraid to go off before you."
"Afraid! what could malice or envy itself find to say of your ladyship, intacte as you are?—Intacte!" repeated he, as she drove off, "intacte!—a well chosen epithet, I flatter myself!"
"Yes, intacte—untouched—above the breath of slander," cried Lady Cecilia.
"I know it: so I say," replied Churchill: "fidelity that has stood all temptations—to which it has ever been exposed; and her husband is——"
"A near relation of mine," said Lady Cecilia. "I am not prudish as to scandal in general," continued she, laughing; "'a chicken, too, might do me good,' hut then the fox must not prey at home. No one ought to stand by and hear their own relations abused."
"A thousand pardons! I depended too much on the general maxim—that the nearer the bone the sweeter the slander."
"Nonsense!" said Lady Cecilia.
"I meant to say, the nearer the heart the dearer the blame. A cut against a first cousin may go wrong—but a bosom friend—oh! how I have succeeded against best friends; scolded all the while, of course, and called a monster. But there is Sir Stephen bowing to you." Then, as Lady Cecilia kissed her hand to him from the window, Churchill went on: "By the by, without any scandal, seriously I heard something—I was quite concerned—that he had been of late less in his study and more in the boudoir of ———. Surely it cannot be true!"
"Positively false," said Lady Cecilia.
"At every breath a reputation dies," said Beauclerc.
"'Pon my soul, that's true!" said the aide-de-camp. "Positively, hit or miss, Horace has been going on, firing away with his wit, pop, pop, pop! till he has bagged—how many brace?"
Horace turned away from him contemptuously, and looked to see whereabouts Lady Davenant might be all this time.
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