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Chapter 26

"My dear Helen, there is an end of every thing!" cried Lady Cecilia, the next day, bursting into Helen's room, and standing before her with an air of consternation. "What has brought things to this sad pass, I know not," continued she, "for, but an hour before, I left every body in good-humour with themselves—all in good train. But now——"

"What?" said Helen, "for you have not given me the least idea of what has happened."

"Because I have not the least idea myself, my dear. All I know is, that something has gone wrong, dreadfully! between my mother and Lady Bearcroft. Mamma would not tell me what it is; but her indignation is at such a height she declares she will not see that woman, again:—positively will not come forth from her chamber as long as Lady Bearcroft remains in the house. So there is a total break up—and I wish I had never meddled with any thing. O that I had never brought together these unsuitabilities, these incompatibilities! Oh, Helen! what shall I do?"

Quite pale, Lady Cecilia stood, really in despair; and Helen did not know what to advise.

"Do you know any thing about it, Helen, for you look as if you did?"

An abrupt knock at the door interrupted them, and, without waiting for permission, in came Lady Bearcroft, as if blown by a high wind, looking very red: half angry, half frightened, and then laughing, she exclaimed—" A fine boggle-de-botch, I have made of it!" But seeing Lady Cecilia, she stopped short—"Beg pardon—thought you were by yourself, Miss Hanley."

Lady Cecilia instantly offered to retire, yet intimated, as she moved towards the door, a wish to stay, and, if it were not too much, to ask what was meant by——

"By boggle-de-botch, do you mean?" said Lady Bearcroft. "I am aware it is not a canonical word—classical, I mean; nor in nor out of any dictionary, perhaps—but when people are warm, they cannot stand picking terms." "Certainly not," said Lady Cecilia; "but what is the matter? I am sorry any thing unpleasant has occurred."

"Unpleasant indeed!" cried Lady Bearcroft; "I have been treated actually like a dog, while paying a compliment too, and a very handsome compliment, beyond contradiction. Judge for yourself, Lady Cecilia, if this Sevigné is to be sneezed at?"

She opened the case; Lady Cecilia said the diamonds were certainly very handsome, but——

"But!" repeated Lady Bearcroft, "I grant you there may be a but to everything in life; still it might be said civilly, as you say it, Lady Cecilia, or looked civilly, as you look it, Miss Hanley: and if that had been done, instead of being affronted, I might after all have been well enough pleased to pocket my diamonds; but nobody can without compunction pocket an affront."

Lady Cecilia was sure her mother could not mean any affront.

"Oh, I do not know what she could or could not mean; but I will tell you what she did—all but threw the diamonds in my face."

"Impossible!" cried Helen.

"Possible—and I will show you how, Miss Hanley. This way: just shut down the case—snap!—and across the table she threw it, just as you would deal a card in a passion, only with a Mrs. Siddons' air to boot. I beg your pardons, both ladies, for mimicking your friend and your parent, but flesh and blood could not stand that sort of style, you know, and a little wholesome mimicry breaks no bones, and is not very offensive, I hope?" The mimicry could not indeed be very offensive, for the imitation was so utterly unlike the reality, that Lady Cecilia and Helen with difficulty repressed their smiles. "Ladies may smile, but they would smile on the wrong sides of their pretty little mouths if they had been treated as I have been—so ignominiously. I am sure I wish I had taken your advice, Miss Hanley; but the fact was, last night I did not quite believe you: I thought you were only saying the best you could to set off a friend; for, since I have been among the great, and indeed even when I lived with the little, I have met with so many fair copies of false countenances, that I could not help suspecting there might he something of that sort with your Lady Davenant, but I am entirely convinced all you told me is true, for I peeped quite close at her, lifted up the hood, and found there were not two faces under it—only one very angry one for my pains. But I declare I would rather see that than a double one, like my Lady Masham's, with her spermaceti smile. And after all, do you know," continued Lady Bearcroft in a right vulgarly-cordial tone—"Do you know now, really, the first anger over, I like Lady Davenant—I protest and vow, even her pride I like—it well became her—birth and all, for I hear she is straight from Charlemagne! But I was going to mention, now my recollection is coming to me, that when I began talking to her ladyship of Sir Ben's gratitude about that place she got for him, she cut me short with her queer look, and said she was sure that Lord Davenant (and if he had been the king himself, instead of only her husband, and your father, Lady Cecilia, she could not have pronounced his name with more distinction)—she was sure, she said, that Lord Davenant would not have been instrumental in obtaining that place for Sir Benjamin Bearcroft if he had known any man more worthy of it, which indeed I did not think at the time over and above civil—for where, then, was the particular compliment to Sir Ben?"

But when Lady Bearcroft saw Lady Cecilia's anxiety and real distress at her mother's indignant resolution, she, with surprising good-humour said,—"I wish I could settle it for you, my dear. I cannot go away directly, which would be the best move, because Sir Benjamin has business here to-day with Lord Davenant—some job of his own, which must take place of any movements of mine, he being the more worthy gender.. But I will tell you what I can do, and will, and welcome. I will keep my room instead of your mother keeping hers; so you may run and tell Lady Davenant that she is a prisoner at large, with the range of the whole house, without any danger of meeting me, for I shall not stir till the carriage is at the door to-morrow morning, when she will not be up, for we will have it at six. I will tell Sir Benjamin, he is in a hurry back to town, and he always is. So all is right on my part. And go you to your mother, my dear Lady Cecilia, and settle her. I am glad to see you smile again; it is a pity you should ever do any thing else." It was not long before Cecilia returned, proclaiming, "Peace, peace!" She had made such an amusing report to her mother of all that Lady Bearcroft had said and done, and purposed to do, that Lady Davenant could not help seeing the whole in a ludicrous light, felt at once that it was beneath her serious notice, and that it would be unbecoming to waste indignation upon such a person. The result was, that she commissioned Helen to release Lady Bearcroft as soon as convenient, and to inform her that an act of oblivion was passed over the whole transaction.

There had been a shower, and it had cleared up. Lady Cecilia thought the sky looked bluer, and birds sang sweeter, and the air felt pleasanter than before the storm. "Nothing like a storm," said she, "for clearing the air; nothing like a little honest hurricane. But with Lady Masham there never is anything like a little honest hurricane. It is all still and close with an indescribable volcano-like feeling; one is not sure of what one is standing upon. Do you know, Helen," continued she, "I am quite afraid of some explosion between mamma and Lady Masham. If we came to any difficulty with her, we could not get out of it quite so well as with Lady Bearcroft, for there is no resource of heart or frankness of feeling with her. Before we all meet at dinner, I must sound mamma, and see if all is tolerably safe." And when she went this day at dressing-time with a bouquet, as was her custom, for her mother, she took Helen with her.

At the first hint of Lady Cecilia's fears, that Lady Masham could do her any mischief, Lady Davenant smiled in scorn. "The will she may have, my dear, but she has not the power."

"She is very foolish, to be sure," said Lady Cecilia; "still she might do mischief, and there is something monstrously treacherous in that smile of hers."

"Monstrously!" repeated Lady Davenant. "No, no, my dear Cecilia; nothing monstrous. Leave to Lady Bearcroft the vulgar belief in court-bred monsters; we know there are no such things. Men and women there, as everywhere else, are what nature, education, and circumstances have made them. Once an age, once in half-a-dozen ages, nature may make a Brinvilliers, or art allow of a Zeluco; but, in general, monsters are mere fabulous creatures—mistakes often, from bad drawings, like the unicorn." "Yes, mamma, yes; now I feel much more comfortable. The unicorn has convinced me," said Lady Cecilia, laughing and singing

''Tis all a mere fable; there's nothing to fear.'

"And I shall think of her henceforth as nothing but what she appears to be, a well-dressed, well-bred, fine lady. Ay—every inch a fine lady; every word, look, motion, thought, suited to that metier."

"That vocation," said Lady Davenant; it is above a trade; with her it really is a sacred duty, not merely a pleasure, to be fine. She is a fine lady of the first order; nothing too professional in her manner—no obvious affectation, for affectation in her was so early wrought into habit as to have become second nature, scarcely distinguishable from real—all easy."

"Just so, mamma; one gets on so easy with her."

"A curious illusion," continued Lady Davenant, "occurs with every one making acquaintance with such persons as Lady Masham, I have observed; perhaps it is that some sensation of the tread-mill life she leads, communicates itself to those she is talking to; which makes you fancy you are always getting on, but you never do get beyond a certain point."

"That is exactly what I feel," said Helen, "while Lady Masham speaks, or while she listens, I almost wonder how she ever existed without me."

"Yes, and though one knows it is all an illusion," said Lady Cecilia, "still one is pleased, knowing all the time that she cannot possibly care for one in the least; but then one does not expect every body to care for one really; at least I know I cannot like all my acquaintance as much as my friends, much less can I love all my neighbours as myself—"

"Come, come! Cecilia!" said her mother.

"By 'come, come!' mamma means, don't go any further, Cecilia," said she, turning to Helen. "But now, mamma, I am not clear whether you really think her your friend or your enemy, inclined to do you mischief or not. Just as it may be for her interest or not, I suppose."

"And just as it may be the fashion or not," said Lady Davenant. "I remember hearing old Lady —-, one of the cleverest women of the last century, and one who had seen much of the world, say, 'If it was the fashion to burn me, and I at the stake, I hardly know ten persons of my acquaintance who would refuse to throw on a faggot.'"

"Oh mamma!—Oh Lady Davenant!" exclaimed Helen and Cecilia.

"It was a strong way of putting the matter," said Lady Davenant, laughing:—"but fashion has, I assure you, more influence over weak minds, such as Lady Masham's, than either party or interest. And since you do not like my illustration by fire, take one by water—She is just a person to go out with, on a party of pleasure, on the smooth surface of a summer sea, and if a slight shower comes on would pity your bonnet sincerely, but if a serious squall arose and all should be in danger——"

"Then, of course, every body would take care of themselves," interrupted Lady Cecilia, "excepting such a simpleton as Helen, who would take care of you first, mamma, of me next and of herself last."

"I believe it—I do believe it," cried Lady Davenant, and, her eyes and thoughts fixing upon Helen, she quite forgot what further she was going to say of Lady Masham.

The perfectly unimpassioned tone, in which her mother had discussed this lady's character, even the candour, convinced Lady Cecilia as well as Helen, that nothing further could be done as to drawing them together. No condescension of manner, no conciliation, could be expected from Lady Davenant towards Lady Masham, but at the same time there was no fear of any rupture. And to this humble consolation was Lady Cecilia brought. She told Helen that she gave up all hope of doing any good, she would now be quite content if she avoided doing harm, and if this visit ended without coming to any further outrage on the part of Lady Bearcroft, and without her mother's being guilty of contempt to Lady Masham. She had done some little service, however, with respect to the ambassadress, and her mother knew it. It was well known that the ambassadress governed the ambassador, and Lady Cecilia had quite won her heart, "so that he will be assuredly a friend to papa. Indeed, this has been almost promised. Madame l'Ambassadrice assured me that her husband looks upon Lord Davenant as one of the first sages of England, that is to say, of Europe; and she says he is well acquainted with all Lord Davenant's works—and it is my belief," concluded Lady Cecilia, "that all Sir William Davenant's works go with her to papa's credit, for as she spoke she gave a polite glance towards the bookcase where she saw their gilded backs, and I found the ambassador himself, afterwards, with 'Davenant on Trade' in his hand! Be it so: it is not, after all, you know, robbing the dead, only inheriting by mistake from a namesake, which with foreigners is allowable, because impossible to avoid, from the time of 'Monsieur Robinson parent apparemment de Monsieur Crusoe?' to the present day."

By dint of keeping well asunder those who would not draw well together, Lady Cecilia did contrive to get through the remaining morning of this operose visit; some she sent out to drive with gallant military outriders to see places in the neighbourhood famed for this or that; others walked or boated, or went through the customary course of conservatories, pheasantry, flower-garden, pleasure-grounds, and best views of Clarendon Park—and billiards always. The political conferences were held in Lord Davenant's apartment: to what these conferences tended we never knew and never shall; we consider them as matters of history, and leave them with due deference to the historian; we have to do only with biography. Far be it from us to meddle with politics—we have quite enough to do with manners and morality.

Maria Edgeworth