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The party now at Clarendon Park consisted chiefly of young people. Among them were two cousins of Lady Cecilia's, whom Helen had known at Cecilhurst before they went abroad, while she was still almost a child. Lady Katrine Hawksby, the elder, was several years older than Cecilia. When Helen last saw her, she was tolerably well-looking, very fashionable, and remarkable for high spirits, with a love for quizzing, and for all that is vulgarly called fun, and a talent for ridicule, which she indulged at everybody's expense. She had always amused Cecilia, who thought her more diverting than really ill-natured; but Helen thought her more ill-natured than diverting, never liked her, and had her own private reasons for thinking that she was no good friend to Cecilia: but now, in consequence either of the wear and tear of London life, or of a disappointment in love or matrimony, she had lost the fresh plumpness of youth; and gone too was that spirit of mirth, if not of good humour, which used to enliven her countenance. Thin and sallow, the sharp features remained, and the sarcastic without the arch expression; still she had a very fashionable air. Her pretensions to youth, as her dress showed, were not gone; and her hope of matrimony, though declining, not set. Her many-years-younger sister, Louisa, now Lady Castlefort, was beautiful. As a girl, she had been the most sentimental, refined, delicate creature conceivable; always talking poetry—and so romantic—with such a soft, sweet, die-away voice—lips apart—and such fine eyes, that could so ecstatically turn up to heaven, or be so cast down, charmingly fixed in contemplation:—and now she is married, just the same. There she is, established in the library at Clarendon Park, with the most sentimental fashionable novel of the day, beautifully bound, on the little rose-wood table beside her, and a manuscript poem, a great secret, "Love's Last Sigh," in her bag with her smelling-bottle and embroidered handkerchief; and on that beautiful arm she leaned so gracefully, with her soft languishing expression; so perfectly dressed too—handsomer than ever.
Helen was curious to know what sort of man Lady Louisa had married, for she recollected that no hero of any novel that ever was read, or talked of, came up to her idea of what a hero ought to be, of what a man must be, whom she could ever think of loving. Cecilia told Helen that she had seen Lord Castlefort, but that he was not Lord Castlefort, or likely to be Lord Castlefort, at that time; and she bade her guess, among all she could recollect having ever seen at Cecilhurst, who the man of Louisa's choice could be. Lady Katrine, with infinite forbearance, smiled, and gave no hint, while Helen guessed and guessed in vain. She was astonished when she saw him come into the room. He was a little deformed man, for whom Lady Louisa had always expressed to her companions a peculiar abhorrence. He had that look of conceit which unfortunately sometimes accompanies personal deformity, and which disgusts even Pity's self. Lord Castlefort was said to have declared himself made for love and fighting! Helen remembered that kind-hearted Cecilia had often remonstrated for humanity's sake, and stopped the quizzing which used to go on in their private coteries, when the satirical elder sister would have it that le petit bossu was in love with Louisa.
But what could make her marry him? Was there anything within to make amends for the exterior? Nothing—nothing that could "rid him of the lump behind." But superior to the metamorphoses of love, or of fairy tale, are the metamorphoses of fortune. Fortune had suddenly advanced him to uncounted thousands and a title, and no longer le petit bossu, Lord Castlefort obtained the fair hand—the very fair hand of Lady Louisa Hawksby, plus belle que fée!
Still Helen could not believe that Louisa had married him voluntarily; but Lady Cecilia assured her that it was voluntarily, quite voluntarily. "You could not have so doubted had you seen the trousseau and the corbeille, for you know, 'Le présent fait oublier le futur.'"
Helen could scarcely smile.
"But Louisa had feeling—really some," continued Lady Cecilia; "but she could not afford to follow it. She had got into such debt, I really do not know what she would have done if Lord Castlefort had not proposed; but she has some little heart, and I could tell you a secret; but no, I will leave you the pleasure of finding it out."
"It will be no pleasure to me," said Helen.
"I never saw anybody so out of spirits," cried Lady Cecilia, laughing, "at another's unfortunate marriage, which all the time she thinks very fortunate. She is quite happy, and even Katrine does not laugh at him any longer, it is to be supposed; it is no laughing matter now."
"No indeed," said Helen.
"Nor a crying matter either," said Cecilia. "Do not look shocked at me, my dear, I did not do it; but so many do, and I have seen it so often, that I cannot wonder with such a foolish face of blame—I do believe, my dear Helen, that you are envious because Louisa is married before you! for shame, my love! Envy is a naughty passion, you know our Madame Bonne used to say; but here's mamma, now talk to her about Louisa Castlefort, pray."
Lady Davenant took the matter with great coolness, was neither shocked nor surprised at this match, she had known so many worse; Lord Castlefort, as well as she recollected, was easy enough to live with. "And after all," said she, "it is better than what we see every day, the fairest of the fair knowingly, willingly giving themselves to the most profligate of the profligate, In short, the market is so overstocked with accomplished young ladies on the one hand, and on the other, men find wives and establishments so expensive, clubs so cheap and so much more luxurious than any home, liberty not only so sweet but so fashionable, that their policy, their maxim is, 'Marry not at all, or if marriage be ultimately necessary to pay debts and leave heirs to good names, marry as late as possible;' and thus the two parties with their opposite interests stand at bay, or try to outwit or outbargain each other. And if you wish for the moral of the whole affair, here it is from the vulgar nursery-maids, with their broad sense and bad English, and the good or bad French of the governess, to the elegant inuendo of the drawing-room, all is working to the same effect: dancing-masters, music-masters, and all the tribe, what is it all for, but to prepare young ladies for the grand event; and to raise in them, besides the natural, a factitious, an abstract idea of good in being married! Every girl in these days is early impressed with the idea that she must be married, that she cannot be happy unmarried. Here is an example of what I meant the other day by strength of mind; it requires some strength of mind to be superior to such a foolish, vain, and vulgar belief."
"It will require no great strength of mind in me," said Helen, "for I really never have formed such notions. They never were early put into my head; my uncle always said a woman might be very happy unmarried. I do not think I shall ever be seized with a terror of dying an old maid."
"You are not come to the time yet, my dear," said Lady Davenant smiling. "Look at Lady Katrine; strength of mind on this one subject would have saved her from being a prey to envy, and jealousy, and all the vulture passions of the mind.
"In the old French régime," continued Lady Davenant, "the young women were at least married safely out of their convents; but our young ladies, with their heads full of high-flown poetry and sentimental novels, are taken out into the world before marriage, expected to see and not to choose, shown the most agreeable, and expected, doomed to marry the most odious. But, in all these marriages for establishment, the wives who have least feeling are not only likely to be the happiest, but also most likely to conduct themselves well. In the first place they do not begin with falsehood. If they have no hearts, they cannot pretend to give any to the husband, and that is better than having given them to somebody else. Husband and wife, in this case, clearly understand the terms of agreement, expect, imagine no more than they have, and jog-trot they go on together to the end of life very comfortably."
"Comfortably!" exclaimed Helen, "it must be most miserable."
"Not most miserable, Helen," said Lady Davenant, "keep your pity for others; keep your sighs for those who need them—for the heart which no longer dares to utter a sigh for itself, the faint heart that dares to love, but dares not abide by its choice. Such infatuated creatures, with the roots of feeling left aching within them, must take what opiates they can find; and in after-life, through all their married existence, their prayer must be for indifference, and thankful may they be if that prayer is granted."
These words recurred to Helen that evening, when Lady Castlefort sang some tender and passionate airs; played on the harp with a true Saint Cecilia air and attitude; and at last, with charming voice and touching expression, sung her favourite—"Too late for redress."
Both Mr. Churchill and Beauclerc were among the group of gentlemen; neither was a stranger to her. Mr. Churchill admired and applauded as a connoisseur. Beauclerc listened in silence. Mr. Churchill entreated for more—more—and named several of his favourite Italian airs. Her ladyship really could not. But the slightest indication of a wish from Beauclerc, was, without turning towards him, heard and attended to, as her sister failed not to remark and to make others remark.
Seizing a convenient pause while Mr. Churchill was searching for some master-piece, Lady Katrine congratulated her sister on having recovered her voice, and declared that she had never heard her play or sing since she was married till tonight.
"You may consider it as a very particular compliment, I assure you," continued she, addressing herself so particularly to Mr. Beauclerc that he could not help being a little out of countenance,—"I have so begged and prayed, but she was never in voice or humour, or heart, or something. Yesterday, even Castlefort was almost on his knees for a song,—were not you, Lord Castlefort?"
Lord Castlefort pinched his pointed chin, and casting up an angry look, replied in a dissonant voice,—"I do not remember!"
"Tout voir, tout entendre, tout oublier," whispered Lady Katrine to Mr. Churchill, as she stooped to assist him in the search for a music-book—"Tout voir, tout entendre, tout oublier, should be the motto adopted by all married people."
Lady Castlefort seemed distressed, and turned over the leaves in such a flutter that she could not find anything, and she rose, in spite of all entreaties, leaving the place to her sister, who was, she said, "so much better a musician and not so foolishly nervous." Lady Castlefort said her "voice always went away when she was at all—"
There it ended as far as words went; but she sighed, and retired so gracefully, that all the gentlemen pitied her.
There is one moment in which ill-nature sincerely repents—the moment when it sees pity felt for its victim.
Horace followed Lady Castlefort to the ottoman, on which she sank. Beauclerc remained leaning on the back of Lady Katrine's chair, but without seeming to hear what she said or sung. After some time Mr. Churchill, not finding his attentions well received, or weary of paying them, quitted Lady Castlefort but sat down by Helen; and in a voice to be heard by her, but by no one else, he said—
"What a relief!—I thought I should never get away!" Then, favoured by a loud bravura of Lady Katrine's, he went on—"That beauty, between you and me, is something of a bore—she—I don't mean the lady who is now screaming—she should always sing. Heaven blessed her with song, not sense—but here one is made so fastidious!"
He sighed, and for some moments seemed to be given up to the duet which Lady Katrine and an officer were performing; and then exclaimed, but so that Helen only could hear,—"Merciful Heaven! how often one wishes one had no ears: that Captain Jones must be the son of Stentor, and that lady!—if angels sometimes saw themselves in a looking-glass when singing—there would be peace upon earth."
Helen, not liking to be the secret receiver of his contraband good things, was rising to change her place, when softly detaining her, he said, "Do not be afraid, no danger—trust me, for I have studied under Talma."
"What can you mean?"
"I mean," continued he, "that Talma taught me the secret of his dying scenes—how every syllable of his dying words might be heard to the furthest part of the audience; and I—give me credit for my ingenuity—know how, by reversing the art, to be perfectly inaudible at ten paces' distance, and yet, I trust, perfectly intelligible, always, to you."
Helen now rose decidedly, and retreated to a table at the other side of the room, and turned over some books that lay there—she took up a volume of the novel Lady Castlefort had been reading—"Love unquestionable." She was surprised to find it instantly, gently, but decidedly drawn from her hand: she looked up—it was Beauclerc.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Stanley, but——"
"Thank you! thank you!" said Helen; "you need not beg my pardon."
This was the first time Beauclerc had spoken in his friendly, cordial, natural manner, to her, since their incomprehensible misunderstanding. She was heartily glad it was over, and that he was come to himself again. And now they conversed very happily together for some time; though what they said might not be particularly worth recording. Lady Katrine was at Helen's elbow before she perceived her "looking for her sac;" and Lady Castlefort came for her third volume, and gliding off, wished to all—"Felice, felicissima notte."
Neither of these sisters had ever liked Helen; she was too true for the one, and too good-natured for the other. Lady Katrine had always, even when she was quite a child, been jealous of Lady Cecilia's affection for Helen; and now her indignation and disappointment were great at finding her established at Clarendon Park—to live with the Clarendons, to go out with Lady Cecilia. Now, it had been the plan of both sisters, that Lady Katrine's present visit should be eternal. How they would ever have managed to fasten her ladyship upon the General, even if Helen had been out of the question, need not now be considered. Their disappointment and dislike to Helen were as great as if she had been the only obstacle to the fulfilment of their scheme.
These two sisters had never agreed—
—"Doom'd by Fate
To live in all the elegance of hate;"
and since Lady Castlefort's marriage, the younger, the beautiful being now the successful lady of the ascendant, the elder writhed in all the combined miseries of jealousy and dependance, and an everyday lessening chance of bettering her condition. Lord Castlefort, too, for good reasons of his own, well remembered, detested Lady Katrine, and longed to shake her off. In this wish, at least, husband and wife united; but Lady Castlefort had no decent excuse for her ardent impatience to get rid of her sister. She had magnificent houses in town and country, ample room everywhere—but in her heart. She had the smallest heart conceivable, and the coldest; but had it been ever so large, or ever so warm, Lady Katrine was surely not the person to get into it, or into any heart, male or female: there was the despair. "If Katrine was but married—Mr. Churchill, suppose?"
Faint was the suppose in Lady Castlefort's imagination. Not so the hope which rose in Lady Katrine's mind the moment she saw him here. "How fortunate!" Her ladyship had now come to that no particular age, when a remarkable metaphysical phenomenon occurs; on one particular subject hope increases as all probability of success decreases. This aberration of intellect is usually observed to be greatest in very clever women; while Mr. Churchill, the flattered object of her present hope, knew how to manage with great innocence and modesty, and draw her on to overt acts of what is called flirtation.
Rousseau says that a man is always awkward and miserable when placed between two women to whom he is making love. But Rousseau had never seen Mr. Churchill, and had but an imperfect idea of the dexterity, the ambiguity, that in our days can be successfully practised by an accomplished male coquette. Absolutely to blind female jealousy may be beyond his utmost skill; but it is easy, as every day's practice shows, to keep female vanity pleasantly perplexed by ocular deception—to make her believe that what she really sees she does not see, and that what is unreal is reality: to make her, to the amusement of the spectators, continually stretch out her hand to snatch the visionary good that for ever eludes her grasp, or changes, on near approach, to grinning mockery.
This delightful game was now commenced with Lady Katrine, and if Helen could be brought to take a snatch, it would infinitely increase the interest and amusement of the lookers on. Of this, however, there seemed little chance; but the evil eye of envy was set upon her, and the demon of jealousy was longing to work her woe.
Lady Castlefort saw with scornful astonishment that Mr. Beauclerc's eyes, sometimes when she was speaking, or when she was singing, would stray to that part of the room where Miss Stanley might be; and when she was speaking to him, he was wonderfully absent. Her ladyship rallied him, while Lady Katrine, looking on, cleared her throat in her horrid way, and longed for an opportunity to discomfit Helen, which supreme pleasure her ladyship promised herself upon the first convenient occasion,—convenient meaning when Lady Davenant was out of the room; for Lady Katrine, though urged by prompting jealousy, dared not attack her when under cover of that protection. From long habit, even her sarcastic nature stood in awe of a certain power of moral indignation, which had at times flashed upon her, and of which she had a sort of superstitious dread, as of an incomprehensible, incalculable power.
But temper will get the better of all prudence. Piqued by some little preference which Lady Cecilia had shown to Helen's taste in the choice of the colour of a dress, an occasion offered of signalising her revenge, which could not be resisted. It was a question to be publicly decided, whether blue, green, or white should be adopted for the ladies' uniform at an approaching fête. She was deputed to collect the votes. All the company were assembled; Lady Davenant, out of the circle, as it was a matter that concerned her not, was talking to the gentlemen apart.
Lady Katrine went round canvassing. "Blue, green, or white? say blue, pray." But when she came to Helen, she made a full stop, asked no question—preferred no prayer, but after fixing attention by her pause, said, "I need not ask Miss Stanley's vote or opinion, as I know my cousin's, and with Miss Stanley it is always 'I say ditto to Lady Cecilia;' therefore, to save trouble, I always count two for Cecilia—one for herself and one for her double."
"Right, Lady Katrine Hawksby," cried a voice from afar, which made her start; "you are quite right to consider Helen Stanley as my daughter's double, for my daughter loves and esteems her as her second self—her better self. In this sense Helen is Lady Cecilia's double, but if you mean——"
"Bless me! I don't know what I meant, I declare. I could not have conceived that Lady Davenant——Miss Stanley, I beg a thousand million of pardons."
Helen, with anxious good-nature, pardoned before she was asked, and hastened to pass on to the business of the day, but Lady Davenant would not so let it pass; her eye still fixed she pursued the quailing enemy—"One word more. In justice to my daughter, I must say her love has not been won by flattery, as none knows better than the Lady Katrine Hawksby."
The unkindest cut of all, and on the tenderest part. Lady Katrine could not stand it. Conscious and trembling, she broke through the circle, fled into the conservatory, and, closing the doors behind her, would not be followed by Helen, Cecilia, or any body.
Lady Castlefort sighed, and first breaking the silence that ensued, said, "'Tis such a pity that Katrine will always so let her wit run away with her—it brings her so continually into——for my part, in all humility I must confess, I can't help thinking that, what with its being unfeminine and altogether so incompatible with what in general is thought amiable —I cannot but consider wit in a woman as a real misfortune. What say the gentlemen? they must decide, gentlemen being always the best judges."
With an appealing tone of interrogation she gracefully looked up to the gentlemen; and after a glance towards Granville Beauclerc, unluckily unnoticed or unanswered, her eyes expected reply from Horace Churchill. He, well feeling the predicament in which he stood, between a fool and a femme d'esprit, answered, with his ambiguous smile, "that no doubt it was a great misfortune to have '_plus d'esprit qu'on ne sait mêner.'"
"This is a misfortune," said Lady Davenant, "that may be deplored for a great genius once in an age, but is really rather of uncommon occurrence. People complain of wit where, nine times in ten, poor wit is quite innocent; but such is the consequence of having kept bad company. Wit and ill-nature having been too often found together, when we see one we expect the other; and such an inseparable false association has been formed, that half the world take it for granted that there is wit if they do but see ill-nature."
At this moment Mr. Mapletofft, the secretary, entered with his face full of care, and his hands full of papers. Lady Katrine needed not to feign or feel any further apprehensions of Lady Davenant; for, an hour afterwards, it was announced that Lord and Lady Davenant were obliged to set off for town immediately. In the midst of her hurried preparations Lady Davenant found a moment to comfort Helen with the assurance that, whatever happened, she would see her again. It might end in Lord Davenant's embassy being given up. At all events she would see her again—she hoped in a few weeks, perhaps in a few days. "So no leave-takings, my dear child, and no tears—it is best as it is. On my return let me find——"
"Lord Davenant's waiting, my lady," and she hurried away.
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