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Chapter 18

"But all this time," said Lady Davenant, "you have not told me whether you have any of you found out what changed Granville's mind about this falconry scheme—why he so suddenly gave up the whole to Mr. Churchill. Such a point-blank weathercock turn of fancy in most young men would no more surprise me than the changes of those clouds in the sky, now shaped and now unshaped by the driving wind; but in Granville Beauclerc there is always some reason for apparent caprice, and the reason is often so ingeniously wrong that it amuses me to hear it; and even as a study in human nature, I am curious to know the simple fact."

But no one could tell the simple fact, no one could guess his reason, and from him it never would have been known—never could have been found out, but from a mistake—from a letter of thanks coming to a wrong person.

One morning, when Helen was sitting in Lady Davenant's room with her, Lord Davenant came in, reading a letter, like one walking in his sleep.

"What is all this, my dear? Can you explain it to me? Some good action of yours, I suppose, for which I am to be thanked."

Lady Davenant looked at the letter. She had nothing to do with the matter, she said; but, on second thoughts, exclaimed, "This is Granville Beauclerc's doing, I am clear!"

The letter was from Count Polianski, one of the poor banished Poles; now poor, but who had been formerly master of a property estimated at about one hundred and sixty-five thousand available individuals. In attempting to increase the happiness and secure the liberty of these available individuals, the count had lost every thing, and had been banished from his country—a man of high feeling as well as talents, and who had done all he could for that unhappy country, torn to pieces by demagogues from within and tyrants from without.

Lady Davenant now recollected that Beauclerc had learned from her all this, and had heard her regretting that the circumstances in which Lord Davenant was placed at this moment, prevented the possibility of his affording this poor count assistance for numbers of his suffering fellow-countrymen who had been banished along with him, and who were now in London in the utmost distress. Lady Davenant remembered that she had been speaking to Granville on this subject the very day that he had abandoned his falconry project. "Now I understand it all," said she; "and it is like all I know and all I have hoped of him. These hundreds a-year which he has settled on these wretched exiles, are rather better disposed of in a noble national cause, than in pampering one set of birds that they may fly at another set."

"And yet this is done," said Lord Davenant, "by one of the much reviled, high-bred English gentlemen—among whom, let the much reviling, low-bred English democrats say what they will, we find every day instances of subscription for public purposes from private benevolence, in a spirit of princely charity to be found only in our own dear England—England with all her faults.'"

"But this was a less ordinary sort of generosity of Granville's," said Lady Davenant,—"the giving up a new pleasure, a new whim with all its gloss fresh upon it, full and bright in his eye."

"True," said Lord Davenant; "I never saw a strong-pulling fancy better thrown upon its haunches."

The white dove, whose life Helen had saved, was brought home by Beauclerc, and was offered to her and accepted. Whether she had done a good or a bad action, by thus saving the life of a pigeon at the expense of a heron, may be doubted, and will be decided according to the several tastes of ladies and gentlemen for herons or doves. As Lady Davenant remarked, Helen's humanity (or dove-anity, as Churchill called it,) was of that equivocal sort which is ready to destroy one creature to save another which may happen to be a greater favourite.

Be this as it may, the favourite had a friend upon the present occasion, and no less a friend than General Clarendon, who presented it with a marble basin, such as doves should drink out of, by right of long prescription.

The general feared, he said, "that this vase might be a little too deep—dangerously perhaps——."

But Helen thought nothing could be altogether more perfect in taste and in kindness—approving Beauclerc's kindness too—a remembrance of a day most agreeably spent. Churchill, to whom she looked, as she said the last words, with all becoming politeness, bowed and accepted the compliment, but with a reserve of jealousy on the brow; and as he looked again at the dove, caressing and caressed, and then at the classic vase—he stood vexed, and to himself he said,—

"So this is the end of all my pains—hawking and all 'quite chivalrous!' Beauclerc carries off the honours and pleasures of the day, and his present and his dove are to be all in all. Yet still," continued he to himself in more consolatory thought—"she is so open in her very love for the bird, that it is plain she has not yet any love for the man. She would be somewhat more afraid to show it, delicate as she is. It is only friendship—honest friendship, on her side; and if her affections be not engaged somewhere else—she may be mine: if—if I please—if—I can bring myself fairly to propose—we shall see—I shall think of it."

And now he began to think of it seriously.—Miss Stanley's indifference to him, and the unusual difficulty which he found in making any impression, stimulated him in an extraordinary degree. Helen now appeared to him even more beautiful than he had at first thought her—"Those eyes that fix so softly," thought he, "those dark eyelashes—that blush coming and going so beautifully—and there is a timid grace in all her motions, with that fine figure too—and that high-bred turn of the neck!—altogether she is charming! and she will be thought so!—she must be mine!"

She would do credit to his taste; he thought she would, when she had a little more usage du monde, do the honours of his house well; and it would be delightful to train her!—If he could but engage her affections, before she had seen more of the world, she might really love him for his own sake—and Churchill wished to be really loved, if possible, for his own sake; but of the reality of modern love he justly doubted, especially for a man of his fortune and his age; yet, with Helen's youth and innocence he began to think he had some chance of disinterested attachment, and he determined to bring out for her the higher powers of his mind—the better parts of his character.

One day Lady Davenant had been speaking of London conversation. "So brilliant," said she, "so short-lived, as my friend Lady Emmeline K—— once said, 'London wit is like gas, which lights at a touch, and at a touch can be extinguished;'" and Lady Davenant concluded with a compliment to him who was known to have this "touch and go" of good conversation to perfection.

Mr. Churchill bowed to the compliment, but afterwards sighed, and it seemed an honest sigh, from the bottom of his heart. Only Lady Davenant and Helen were in the room, and turning to Lady Davenant he said,

"If I have it, I have paid dearly for it, more than it is worth, much too dearly, by the sacrifice of higher powers; I might have been a very different person from what I am."

Helen's attention was instantly fixed; but Lady Davenant suspected he was now only talking for effect. He saw what she thought—it was partly true, but not quite. He felt what he said at the moment; and besides, there is always a sincere pleasure in speaking of one's self when one can do it without exposing one's self to ridicule, and with a chance of obtaining real sympathy.

"It was my misfortune," he said, "to be spoiled, even in childhood, by my mother."

As he pronounced the word "mother," either his own heart or Helen's eyes made him pause with a look of respectful tenderness. It was cruel of a son to blame the fond indulgence of a mother; but the fact was, she brought him too forward early as a clever child, fed him too much with that sweet dangerous fostering dew of praise. The child—the man—must suffer for it afterwards.

"True, very true," said Lady Davenant; "I quite agree with you."

"I could do nothing without flattery," continued he, pursuing the line of confession which he saw had fixed Lady Davenant's attention favourably. "Unluckily, I came too early into possession of a large fortune, and into the London world, and I lapped the stream of prosperity as I ran, and it was sweet with flattery, intoxicating, and I knew it, and yet could not forbear it. Then in a London life every thing is too stimulating—over-exciting. If there are great advantages to men of science and literature in museums and public libraries, the more than Avicenna advantages of having books come at will, and ministering spirits in waiting on all your pursuits—there is too much of every thing except time, and too little of that. The treasures are within our reach, but we cannot clutch; we have, but we cannot hold. We have neither leisure to be good, nor to be great: who can think of living for posterity, when he can scarcely live for the day? and sufficient for the day are never the hours thereof. From want of time, and from the immense quantity that nevertheless must be known, comes the necessity, the unavoidable necessity of being superficial."

"Why should it be unavoidable necessity?" asked Lady Davenant.

"Because should waits upon must, in London always, if not elsewhere," said Churchill.

"A conversation answer," replied Lady Davenant.

"Yes, I allow it; it is even so, just so, and to such tricks, such playing upon words, do the bad habits of London conversation lead;" and Lady Davenant wondered at the courage of his candour, as he went on to speak of the petty jealousies, the paltry envy, the miserable selfish susceptibility generated by the daily competition of London society. Such dissensions, such squabbles—an ignoble but appropriate word—such deplorable, such scandalous squabbles among literary, and even among scientific men. "And who," continued he, "who can hope to escape in such a tainted atmosphere—an atmosphere overloaded with life, peopled with myriads of little buzzing stinging vanities! It really requires the strength of Hercules, mind and body, to go through our labours, fashionable, political, bel esprit, altogether too much for mortal. In parliament, in politics, in the tug of war you see how the strongest minds fail, come to untimely——"

"Do not touch upon that subject," cried Lady Davenant, suddenly agitated. Then, commanding herself, she calmly added—"As you are not now, I think, in parliament, it cannot affect you. What were you saying?—your health of mind and body, I think you said, you were sensible had been hurt by——"

"These straining, incessant competitions have hurt me. My health suffered first, then my temper. It was originally good, now, as you have seen, I am afraid"—glancing at Helen, who quickly looked down, "I am afraid I am irritable."

There was an awkward silence. Helen thought it was for Lady Davenant to speak; but Lady Davenant did not contradict Mr. Churchill. Now, the not contradicting a person who is abusing himself, is one of the most heinous offences to self-love that can be committed; and it often provokes false candour to pull off the mask and throw it in your face; but either Mr. Horace Churchill's candour was true, or it was so well guarded at the moment that no such catastrophe occurred.

"Worse than this bad effect on my temper!" continued he, "I feel that my whole mind has been deteriorated—my ambition dwindled to the shortest span—my thoughts contracted to the narrow view of mere effect; what would please at the dinner-table or at the clubs—what will be thought of me by this literary coterie, or in that fashionable boudoir. And for this reputation de salon I have sacrificed all hope of other reputation, all power of obtaining it, all hope of "——(here he added a few words, murmured down to Lady Davenant's embroidery frame, yet still in such a tone that Helen could not help thinking he meant she should hear)—"If I had a heart such as—" he paused, and, as if struck with some agonising thought, he sighed deeply, and then added—"but I have not a heart worth such acceptance, or I would make the offer."

Helen was not sure what these words meant, but she now pitied him, and she admired his candour, which she thought was so far above the petty sort of character he had at first done himself the injustice to seem, and she seized the first opportunity to tell Beauclerc all Mr. Churchill had said to Lady Davenant and to her, and of the impression it had made upon them both. Beauclerc had often discussed Mr. Churchill's character with her, but she was disappointed when she saw that what she told made no agreeable impression on Beauclerc: at first he stood quite silent, and when she asked what he thought, he said—"It's all very fine, very clever."

"But it is all true," said Helen, "And I admire Mr. Churchill's knowing the truth so well and telling it so candidly."

"Every thing Mr. Churchill has said may be true—and yet I think the truth is not in him."

"You are not usually so suspicious," said Helen. "If you had heard Mr. Churchill's voice and emphasis, and seen his look and manner at the time, I think you could not have doubted him."

The more eager she grew, the colder Mr. Beauclerc became. "Look and manner, and voice and emphasis," said he, "make a great impression, I know, on ladies."

"But what is your reason, Mr. Beauclerc, for disbelief? I have as yet only heard that you believe every thing that Mr. Churchill said was true, and yet that you do not believe in his truth," said Helen, in a tone of raillery.

And many a time before had Beauclerc been the first to laugh when one of his own paradoxes stared him in the face; but now he was more out of countenance than amused, and he looked seriously about for reasons to reconcile his seeming self-contradiction.

"In the first place, all those allusions and those metaphorical expressions, which you have so wonderfully well remembered, and which no doubt were worth remembering, all those do not give me the idea of a man who was really feeling in earnest, and speaking the plain truth about faults, for which, if he felt at all, he must be too much ashamed to talk in such a grand style; and to talk of them at all, except to most intimate friends, seems so unnatural, and quite out of character in a man who had expressed such horror of egotists, and who is so excessively circumspect in general."

"Yes, but Mr. Churchill's forgetting all his little habits of circumspection, and all fear of ridicule, is the best proof of his being quite in earnest—that all he said was from his heart."

"I doubt whether he has any heart," said Beauclerc.

"Poor man, he said——" Helen began, and then recollecting the words, 'or I would make the offer,' she stopped short, afraid of the construction they might bear, and then, ashamed of her fear, she coloured deeply.

"Poor man, he said——" repeated Beauclerc, fixing his eyes upon her, "What did he say, may I ask?"

"No,—" said Helen, "I am not sure that I distinctly heard or understood Mr. Churchill."

"Oh, if there was any mystery!" Beauclerc begged pardon.

And he went away very quickly. He did not touch upon the subject again, but Helen saw that he never forgot it; and, by few words which she heard him say to Lady Davenant about his dislike to half-confidences, she knew he was displeased, and she thought he was wrong. She began to fear that his mistrust of Churchill arose from envy at his superior success in society; and, though she was anxious to preserve her newly-acquired good opinion of Churchill's candour, she did not like to lose her esteem for Beauclerc's generosity. Was it possible that he could be seriously hurt at the readiness with which Mr. Churchill availed himself of any idea which Beauclerc threw out, and which he dressed up, and passed as his own? Perhaps this might be what he meant by "the truth is not in him." She remembered one day when she sat between him and Beauclerc, and when he did not seem to pay the least attention to what Mr. Beauclerc was saying to her, yet fully occupied as he had apparently been in talking for the company in general, he had through all heard Granville telling the Chinese fable of the "Man in the Moon, whose business it is to knit together with an invisible silken cord those who are predestined for each other." Presently, before the dessert was over, Helen found the "Chinese Man in the Moon," whom she thought she had all to herself, figuring at the other end of the table, and received with great applause. And was it possible that Beauclerc, with his abundant springs of genius, could grudge a drop thus stolen from him? but without any envy in the case, he was right in considering such theft, however petty, as a theft, and right in despising the meanness of the thief. Such meanness was strangely incompatible with Mr. Churchill's frank confession of his own faults. Could that confession be only for effect?

Her admiration had been sometimes excited by a particular happiness of thought, beauty of expression, or melody of language in Mr. Churchill's conversation. Once Beauclerc had been speaking with enthusiasm of modern Greece, and his hopes that she might recover her ancient character; and Mr. Churchill, as if admiring the enthusiasm, yet tempering it with better judgment, smiled, paused, and answered.

"But Greece is a dangerous field for a political speculator; the imagination produces an illusion resembling the beautiful appearances which are sometimes exhibited in the Sicilian straits; the reflected images of ancient Grecian glory pass in a rapid succession before the mental eye; and, delighted with the captivating forms of greatness and splendour, we forget for a moment that the scene is in reality a naked waste."

Some people say they can distinguish between a written and a spoken style, but this depends a good deal on the art of the speaker. Churchill could give a colloquial tone to a ready-written sentence, and could speak it with an off-hand grace, a carelessness which defied all suspicion of preparation; and the look, and pause, and precipitation—each and all came in aid of the actor's power of perfecting the illusion. If you had heard and seen him, you would have believed that, in speaking this passage, the thought of the Fata Morgana rose in his mind at the instant, and that, seeing it pleased you, and pleased with it himself, encouraged by your look of intelligence, and borne along by your sympathy, the eloquent man followed his own idea with a happiness more than care, admirable in conversation. A few days afterwards, Helen was very much surprised to find her admired sentence word for word in a book, from which Churchill's card fell as she opened it.

Persons without a name Horace treated as barbarians who did not know the value of their gold; and he seemed to think that, if they chanced to possess rings and jewels, they might be plucked from them without remorse, and converted to better use by some lucky civilised adventurer. Yet in his most successful piracies he was always haunted by the fear of discovery, and he especially dreaded the acute perception of Lady Davenant; he thought she suspected his arts of appropriation, and he took the first convenient opportunity of sounding her opinion on this point.

"How I enjoy," said he to Lady Cecilia "telling a good story to you, for you never ask if it is a fact. Now, in a good story, no one sticks to absolute fact; there must be some little embellishment. No one would send his own or his friend's story into the world without 'putting a hat on its head, and a stick into its hand,'" Churchill triumphantly quoted; this time he did not steal.

"But," said Lady Davenant, "I find that even the pleasure I have in mere characteristic or humorous narration is heightened by my dependence on the truth—the character for truth—of the narrator."

Not only Horace Churchill, but almost every body present, except Helen, confessed that they could not agree with her. The character for truth of the story-teller had nothing to do with his story, unless it was historique, or that he was to swear to it.

"And even if it were historique," cried Horace, buoyed up at the moment by the tide in his favour, and floating out farther than was prudent—"and even if it were historique, how much pleasanter is graceful fiction than grim, rigid truth; and how much more amusing in my humble opinion!"

"Now," said Lady Davenant, "for instance, this book I am reading—(it was Dumont's 'Mémoires de Mirabeau')—this book which I am reading, gives me infinitely increased pleasure, from my certain knowledge, my perfect conviction of the truth of the author. The self-evident nature of some of the facts would support themselves, you may say, in some instances; but my perceiving the scrupulous care he takes to say no more than what he knows to be true, my perfect reliance on the relater's private character for integrity, gives a zest to every anecdote he tells—a specific weight to every word of conversation which he repeats—appropriate value to every trait of wit or humour characteristic of the person he describes. Without such belief, the characters would not have to me, as they now have, all the power, and charm, and life, of nature and reality. They are all now valuable as records of individual varieties that have positively so existed. While the most brilliant writer could, by fiction, have produced an effect, valuable only as representing the general average of human nature, but adding nothing to our positive knowledge, to the data from which we can reason in future."

Churchill understood Lady Davenant too well to stand quite unembarrassed as he listened; and when she went on to say how differently she should have felt in reading these memoirs if they had been written by Mirabeau himself; with all his brilliancy, all his talents, how inferior would have been her enjoyment as well as instruction! his shrinking conscience told him how this might all be applied to himself; yet, strange to say, though somewhat abashed, he was nevertheless flattered by the idea of a parallel between himself and Mirabeau. To Mirabeauder was no easy task; it was a certain road to notoriety, if not to honest fame.

But even in the better parts of his character, his liberality in money matters, his good-natured patronage of rising genius, the meanness of his mind broke out. There was a certain young poetess whom he had encouraged; she happened to be sister to Mr. Mapletofft, Lord Davenant's secretary, and she had spoken with enthusiastic gratitude of Mr. Churchill's kindness. She was going to publish a volume of Sonnets under Mr. Churchill's patronage, and, as she happened to be now at some country town in the neighbourhood, he requested Lady Cecilia to allow him to introduce this young authoress to her. She was invited for a few days to Clarendon Park, and Mr. Churchill was zealous to procure subscriptions for her, and eager to lend the aid of his fashion and his literary reputation to bring forward the merits of her book. "Indeed," he whispered, "he had given her some little help in the composition," and all went well till, in an evil hour, Helen praised one of the sonnets rather too much—more, he thought, than she had praised another, which was his own. His jealousy wakened—he began to criticise his protegée's poetry. Helen defended her admiration, and reminded him that he had himself recommended these lines to her notice.

"Well!—yes—I did say the best I could for the whole thing, and for her it is surprising—that is, I am anxious the publication should take. But if we come to compare—you know this cannot stand certain comparisons that might be made. Miss Stanley's own taste and judgment must perceive—when we talk of genius—that is quite out of the question, you know."

Horace was so perplexed between his philanthropy and his jealousy, his desire to show the one and his incapability of concealing the other, that he became unintelligible; and Helen laughed, and told him that she could not now understand what his opinion really was. She was quite ready to agree with him, she said, if he would but agree with himself: this made him disagree still more with himself and unluckily with his better self, his benevolence quite gave way before his jealousy and ill-humour, and he vented it upon the book; and, instead of prophecies of its success, he now groaned over "sad careless lines,"—"passages that lead to nothing,"—"similes that will not hold when you come to examine them."

Helen pointed out in the dedication a pretty, a happy thought.

Horace smiled, and confessed that was his own.

What! in the dedication to himself?—and in the blindness of his vanity he did not immediately see the absurdity.

The more he felt himself in the wrong, of course the more angry he grew, and it finished by his renouncing the dedication altogether, declaring he would have none of it. The book and the lady might find a better patron. There are things which no man of real generosity could say or do, or think, put him in ever so great a passion. He would not be harsh to an inferior—a woman—a protegée on whom he had conferred obligations; but Mr. Churchill was harsh—he showed neither generosity nor feeling; and Helen's good opinion of him sank to rise no more.

Of this, however, he had not enough of the sympathy or penetration of feeling to be aware.

Maria Edgeworth