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Beyond measure was Churchill provoked to find Lady Davenant against him and on the same side as Granville Beauclerc—all unused to contradiction in his own society, where he had long been supreme, he felt a difference of opinion so sturdily maintained as a personal insult.
For so young a man as Beauclerc, yet unknown to fame, not only to challenge the combat but to obtain the victory, was intolerable; and the more so, because his young opponent appeared no ways elated or surprised, but seemed satisfied to attribute his success to the goodness of his cause.
Churchill had hitherto always managed wisely his great stakes and pretensions in both the fashionable and literary world. He had never actually published any thing except a clever article or two in a review, or an epigram, attributed to him but not acknowledged. Having avoided giving his measure, it was believed he was above all who had been publicly tried—it was always said—"If Horace Churchill would but publish, he would surpass every other author of our times."
Churchill accordingly dreaded and hated all who might by possibility approach the throne of fashion, or interfere with his dictatorship in a certain literary set in London, and from this moment he began cordially to detest Beauclerc—he viewed him with a scornful, yet with jealous eyes; but his was the jealousy of vanity, not of love; it regarded Lady Davenant and his fashionable reputation in the first place—Helen only in the second.
Lady Davenant observed all this, and was anxious to know how much or how little Helen had seen, and what degree of interest it excited in her mind. One morning, when they were alone together, looking over a cabinet of cameos, Lady Davenant pointed to one which she thought like Mr. Beauclerc. Helen did not see the likeness.
"People see likenesses very differently," said Lady Davenant. "But you and I, Helen, usually see characters, if not faces, with the same eyes. I have been thinking of these two gentlemen, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Beauclerc—which do you think the most agreeable?"
"Mr. Churchill is amusing certainly," said Helen, "but I think Mr. Beauclerc's conversation much more interesting—though Mr. Churchill is agreeable, sometimes—when—"
"When he flatters you," said Lady Davenant.
"When he is not satirical—I was going to say," said Helen.
"There is a continual petty brilliancy, a petty effort too," continued Lady Davenant, "in Mr. Churchill, that tires me—sparks struck perpetually, but then you hear the striking of the flints, the clink of the tinder-box."
Helen, though she admitted the tinder-box, thought it too low a comparison. She thought Churchill's were not mere sparks.
"Well, fireworks, if you will," said Lady Davenant, "that rise, blaze, burst, fall, and leave you in darkness, and with a disagreeable smell too; and it's all feu d'artifice after all. Now in Beauclerc there is too little art and too ardent nature. Some French friends of mine who knew both, said of Mr. Churchill, 'De l'esprit on ne peut pas plus même à Paris,' the highest compliment a Parisian can pay, but they allowed that Beauclerc had 'beaucoup plus d'ame.'"
"Yes," said Helen; "how far superior!"
"It has been said," continued Lady Davenant, "that it is safer to judge of men by their actions than by their words, but there are few actions and many words in life; and if women would avail themselves of their daily, hourly, opportunities of judging people by their words, they would get at the natural characters, or, what is of just as much consequence, they would penetrate through the acquired habits; and here Helen, you have two good studies before you."
Preoccupied as Helen was with the certainty of Beauclerc being an engaged, almost a married man, and looking, as she did, on Churchill as one who must consider her as utterly beneath his notice, she listened to Lady Davenant's remarks as she would have done to observations about two characters in a novel or on the stage.
As Churchill could not immediately manifest his hatred of Beauclerc, it worked inwardly the more. He did not sleep well this night, and when he got up in the morning, there was something the matter with him. Nervous, bilious—cross it could not be;—journalier (a French word settles everything)—journalier he allowed he was; he rather gloried in it, because his being permitted to be so proved his power,—his prerogative of fortune and talent combined.
In the vast competition of the London world, it is not permitted to every man to be in his humour or out of his humour at pleasure; but, by an uncommon combination of circumstances, Churchill had established his privilege of caprice; he was allowed to have his bad and his good days, and the highest people and the finest smiled, and submitted to his "cachet de faveur et de disgrace;" and when he was sulky, rude, or snappish, called it only Horace Churchill's way. They even prided themselves on his preferences and his aversions. "Horace is always charming when he is with us."—"With me you have no idea how delightful he is."—"Indeed I must do him the justice to say, that I never found him otherwise."—While the less favoured permitted him to be as rude as he pleased, and only petted him, and told of his odd ways to those who sighed in vain to have him at their parties. But Lady Davenant was not a person to pet or spoil a child of any age, and to the general, Mr. Churchill was not particularly agreeable—not his sort; while to Lady Cecilia, secure in grace, beauty, and fashion, his humours were only matter of amusement, and she bore with him pleasantly and laughingly.
"Such weather!" cried he in a querulous tone; "how can a man have any sense in such weather? Some foreigner says, that the odious climate of England is an over-balance for her good constitution. The sun of the south is in truth well worth the liberty of the north. It is a sad thing," said he, with a very sentimental air, "that a free-born Briton should be servile to these skyey influences;" and, grumbling on, he looked out of the window as cross as he pleased, and nobody minded him. The aide-de-camp civilly agreed with him that it was horrid weather, and likely to rain, and it did rain; and every one knows how men, like children, are in certain circumstances affected miserably by a rainy day. There was no going out; horses at the door, and obliged to be dismissed. Well, since there could be no riding, the next best thing the aide-de-camp thought, was to talk of horses, and the officers all grew eager, and Churchill had a mind to exert himself so far as to show them that he knew more of the matter than they did; that he was no mere book-man; but on this unlucky day, all went wrong. It happened that Horace fell into some grievous error concerning the genealogy of a famous race-horse, and, disconcerted more than he would have been at being convicted of any degree of moral turpitude, vexed and ashamed, he talked no more of Newmarket or of Doncaster, left the race-ground to those who prided themselves on the excellences of their four-footed betters, and lounged into the billiard-room.
He found Lady Cecilia playing with Beauclerc; Miss Stanley was looking on. Churchill was a famous billiard-player, and took his turn to show how much better than Beauclerc he performed, but this day his hand was out, his eye not good; he committed blunders of which a novice might have been ashamed. And there was Miss Stanley and there was Beauclerc by to see! and Beauclerc pitied him!
O line extreme of human misery!
He retreated to the book-room, but there the intellectual Horace, with all the sages, poets, and novelists of every age within his reach, reached them not; but, with his hands in his pockets, like any squire or schoolboy under the load of ignorance or penalties of idleness, stood before the chimney-piece, eyeing the pendule, and verily believing that this morning the hands went backward. Dressing-time at last came, and dinner-time, bringing relief how often to man and child ill-tempered; but, this day to Churchill dinner brought only discomfiture worse discomfited.
Some of the neighbouring families were to dine at Clarendon Park. Mr. Churchill abhorred country neighbours and country gentlemen. Among these, however, were some not unworthy to be perceived by him; and besides these, there were some foreign officers; one in particular, from Spain, of high rank and birth, of the sangre azul, the blue blood, who have the privilege of the silken cord if they should come to be hanged. This Spaniard was a man of distinguished talent, and for him Horace might have been expected to shine out; it was his pleasure, however, this day to disappoint expectations, and to do "the dishonours of his country." He would talk only of eating, of which he was privileged not only to speak but to judge, and pronounce upon en dernier ressort, though this was only an air, for he was not really a gourmand; but after ogling through his glass the distant dishes, when they with a wish came nigh, he, after a cursory glance or a close inspection, made them with a nod retire.
At last he thought an opportunity offered for bringing in a well-prepared anecdote which he had about Cambaçeres, and a hot blackbird and white feet, but unluckily a country gentleman would tell some history of a battle between poachers and gamekeepers, which fixed the attention of the company till the moment for the anecdote was past.
Horace left his tale untold, and spoke word never more till a subject was started on which he thought he could come out unrivalled. General Clarendon had some remarkably good wines. Churchill was referred to as a judge, and he allowed them to be all good, but he prided himself on possessing a certain Spanish wine, esteemed above all price, because not to be had for money—amontillado is its name. Horace appealed to the Spanish officer, who confirmed all he said of this vinous phenomenon. "No cultivator can be certain of producing it. It has puzzled, almost to death, all the growers of Xeres:—it is a variety of sherry, almost as difficult to judge of as to procure."
But Mr. Churchill boasted he had some, undoubtedly genuine; he added, "that Spanish judges had assured him his taste was so accurate he might venture to pronounce upon the difficult question of amontillado or not!"
While he yet spoke, General Clarendon, unawares, placed before him some of this very fine wine, which, as he finished speaking, Churchill swallowed without knowing it from some other sherry which he had been drinking. He would have questioned that it was genuine, but the Spaniard, as far as he could pretend to judge, thought it unquestionable.
Churchill's countenance fell in a manner that quite surprised Helen, and exceedingly amused Lady Cecilia. He was more mortified and vexed by this failure than by all the rest, for the whole table smiled.
The evening of this day of misfortune was not brighter than the morning, everything was wrong—even at night—at night when at last the dinner company, the country visitors, relieved him from their presence, and when some comfort might be had, he thought, stretched in a good easy-chair—Lord Davenant had set him the example. But something had happened to all the chairs,—there was a variety of fashionable kinds; he tried them by turns, but none of them this night would suit him. Yet Lady Cecilia maintained (for the general had chosen them) that they were each and all of them in their way comfortable, in the full English spirit of the word, and according to the French explanation of comfortable, given to us by the Duchess d'Abrantes, convenablement bon; but in compassion to Mr. Churchill's fastidious restlessness, she would now show him a perfection of a chair which she had just had made for her own boudoir. She ordered that it should be brought, and in it rolled, and it was looked at in every direction and sat in, and no fault could be found with it, even by the great faultfinder; but what was it called? It was neither a lounger, nor a dormeuse, nor a Cooper, nor a Nelson, nor a kangaroo: a chair without a name would never do; in all things fashionable the name is more than half. Such a happy name as kangaroo Lady Cecilia despaired of finding for her new favourite, but she begged some one would give it a good one; whoever gave her the best name should be invited to the honours and pleasures of the sitting in this chair for the rest of the night.
Her eyes, and all eyes, turned upon Mr. Churchill, but whether the occasion was too great, or that his desire to satisfy the raised expectation of the public was too high strained, or that the time was out of joint, or that he was out of sorts, the fact was, he could find no name.
Beauclerc, who had not yet tried the chair, sank into its luxurious depth, and leaning back, asked if it might not be appropriately called the "Sleepy-hollow."
"Sleepy-hollow!" repeated Lady Cecilia, "excellent!" and by acclammation "Sleepy-hollow" was approved; but when Beauclerc was invited to the honours of the sitting, he declined, declaring that the name was not his invention, only his recollection; it had been given by a friend of his to some such easy chair.
This magnanimity was too much for Horace; he looked at his watch, found it was bed-time, pushed the chair out of his way, and departed; Beauclerc, the first and last idea in this his day of mortifications.
Seeing a man subject to these petty irritations lowers him in the eyes of woman. For that susceptibility of temper arising from the jealousy of love, even when excited by trifles, woman makes all reasonable, all natural allowance; but for the jealousy of self-love she has no pity. Unsuited to the manly character!—so Helen thought, and so every woman thinks.
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