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Chapter 27

The next day, as Helen was going across the hall, she saw the members of the last political conclave coming out of Lord Davenant's room, each looking as if the pope had not been chosen according to his wish—dark and disappointed; even Mr. Harley's radiant countenance was dimmed, and the dry symptomatic cough which he gave after taking leave of Lady Davenant, convinced Helen that all was not well within. He departed, and there seemed to be among those who remained a greater constraint than ever. There appeared to be in each an awakened sense that there were points on which they could never agree; all seemed to feel how different it would have been if Mr. Harley had remained. True, the absence or presence of a person of genius makes as much difference in the whole appearance of things, as sunshine or no sunshine on the landscape.

Dinner, however, was got through, for time and the hour, two hours, or three, will get through the roughest dinner or the smoothest. "Never saw a difficult dinner-party better, bothered!" was Lady Bearcroft's compliment, whispered to Cecilia as they went into the drawing-room; and Helen, notwithstanding Lady Bearcroft's vulgarity, could not help beginning absolutely to like her for her good nature and amazingly prompt sympathy; but, after all, good nature without good manners is but a blundering ally, dangerous to its best friend.

This evening, Lady Cecilia felt that every one was uncomfortable, and, flitting about the room, she touched here and there to see how things were going on. They were not going on well, and she could not make them better; even her efforts at conciliation were ineffectual; she had stepped in between her mother, some of the gentlemen, and the general, in an argument in which she heard indications of strife, and she set about to explain away contradictions, and to convince every body that they were really all of the same opinion. With her sweet voice and pretty persuasive look, this might have done for the general, as a relaxing smile seemed to promise; but it would not do at all with Lady Davenant, who, from feelings foreign to the present matter, was irritated, and spoke, as Helen thought, too harshly:—"Cecilia, you would act Harmony in the comedy to perfection; but, unfortunately, I am not one of those persons who can be persuaded that when I say one thing I mean quite another—probably because it is not my practice so to do. That old epigram, Sir Benjamin, do you know it," continued she, "which begins with a bankrupt's roguish 'Whereas?'

  "Whereas the religion and fate of three nations
  Depend on th' importance of our conversations:
  Whereas some objections are thrown in our way,
  And words have been construed to mean what they say,—
  Be it known from henceforth to each friend and each brother,
  When'er we say one thing we mean quite another."

Sir Benjamin gravely remarked that it was good law practice. The courts themselves would be shut up if some such doctrine were not understood in the practice there, subaudito, if not publicly proclaimed with an absolute "Whereas be it known from henceforth." Whether this was dry humour of Sir Benjamin's, or plain matter of fact and serious opinion, the gravity with which it was delivered indicated not; but it produced the good effect of a smile, a laugh, at him or with him. Lady Cecilia did not care which, the laugh was good at all events; her invincible goodnature and sweetness of temper had not been soured or conquered even by her mother's severity; and Lady Davenant, observing this, forgave and wished to be forgiven.

"My dearest Cecilia," said she, "clasp this bracelet for me, will you? It would really be a national blessing, if, in the present times, all women were as amiable as you,'Fond to spread friendships, but to cover heat Then, turning to a French gentleman, she spoke of the change she had observed when she was last at Paris, from the overwhelming violence of party spirit on all sides.

"Dreadfully true," the French gentleman replied—"party spirit, taking every Proteus form, calling itself by a hundred names and with a thousand devices and watchwords, which would be too ridiculous, if they were not too terrible—domestic happiness destroyed, all society disordered, disorganised—literature not able to support herself, scarcely appearing in company—all precluded, superseded by the politics of the day."

Lady Davenant joined with him in his regrets, and added, that she feared society in England would soon be brought to the same condition.

"No," said the French gentleman, "English ladies will never be so vehement as my countrywomen; they will never become, I hope, like some of our lady politicians, 'qui heurlent comme des demons.'"

Lady Cecilia said that, from what she had seen at Paris, she was persuaded that if the ladies did bawl too loud it was because the gentlemen did not listen to them; that above half the party-violence which appeared in Parisian belles was merely dramatic, to produce a sensation, and draw the gentlemen, from the black pelotons in which they gathered, back to their proper positions round the fauteuils of the fair ladies.

The foreigner, speaking to what he saw passing in Lady Davenant's mind, went on;—"Ladies can do much, however, in this as in all other dilemmas where their power is, and ought to be, omnipotent."

"Female influence is and ought to be potent," said the general, with an emphasis on influence, contradistinguishing it from power, and reducing the exaggeration of omnipotent by the short process of lopping off two syllables.

"So long as ladies keep in their own proper character," said Lady Davenant, "all is well; but, if once they cease to act as women, that instant they lose their privilege—their charm: they forfeit their exorcising power; they can no longer command the demon of party nor themselves, and he transforms them directly, as you say," said she to the French gentleman, "into actual furies."

"And, when so transformed, sometimes unconscious of their state," said the general, drily, his eye glancing towards the other end of the room, and lighting upon Lady Bearcroft, who was at the instant very red and very loud; and Lady Cecilia was standing, as if watchful for a moment's pause, in which to interpose her word of peace. She waited for some time in vain, for when she hastened from the other end of the room to this—the scene of action, things had come to such a pass between the ladies Masham and Bearcroft, that mischief, serious mischief, must have ensued, had not Lady Cecilia, at utmost need, summoned to her aid the happy genius of Nonsense—the genius of Nonsense, in whose elfin power even Love delights; on whom Reason herself condescends often to smile, even when Logic frowns, and chops him on his block: but cut in twain, the ethereal spirit soon unites again, and lives, and laughs. But mark him well—this little happy genius of Nonsense; see that he be the true thing—the genuine spirit. You will know him by his well-bred air and tone, which none can counterfeit; and by his smile; for while most he makes others laugh, the arch little rogue seldom goes beyond a smile himself! Graceful in the midst of all his pranks, he never goes too far—though far enough he has been known to go—he has crept into the armour of the great hero, convulsed the senate in the wig of a chancellor, and becomingly, decorously, put on now and then the mitre of an archbishop. "If good people," said Archbishop Usher, "would but make goodness agreeable, and smile, instead of frowning in their virtue, how many they would win to the good cause!" Lady Cecilia in this was good at need, and at her utmost need, obedient to her call, came this happy little genius, and brought with him song and dance, riddle and charade, and comic prints; and on a half-opened parcel of books Cecilia darted, and produced a Comic Annual, illustrated by him whom no risible muscles can resist. All smiled who understood, and mirth admitted of her crew all who smiled, and party-spirit fled. But there were foreigners present. Foreigners cannot well understand our local allusions; our Cruikshank is to them unintelligible, and Hood's "Sorrows of Number One" quite lost upon them. Then Lady Bearcroft thought she would do as much as Lady Cecilia, and more—that she would produce what these poor foreigners could comprehend. But not at her call came the genius of lively nonsense, he heard her not. In his stead came that counterfeit, who thinks it witty to be rude:

  "And placing raillery in railing,
  Will tell aloud your greatest failing—"

that vulgar imp yclept Fun—known by his broad grin, by his loud tone, and by his rude banter. Head foremost forcing himself in, came he, and brought with him a heap of coarse caricatures, and they were party caricatures.

"Capital!" Lady Bearcroft, however, pronounced them, as she spread all upon the table for applause—but no applause ensued.

Not such, these, as real good English humour produces and enjoys, independently of party—these were all too broad, too coarse. Lady Davenant despised, the general detested. Helen turned away, and Lady Cecilia threw them under the table, that they might not be seen by the foreigners. "For the honour of England, do not let them be spread abroad, pray, Lady Bearcroft."

"The world is grown mighty nice!" said Lady Bearcroft; "for my part, give me a good laugh when it is to be had."

"Perhaps we shall find one here," said Lady Cecilia, opening a portfolio of caricatures in a different style, but they were old, and Lady Bearcroft would have thrown them aside; but Lord Davenant observed that, if they have lasted so long,—they must be good, because their humour only can ensure their permanence; the personality dies with the person: for instance, in the famous old print of the minister rat-catcher, in the Westminster election, the likeness to each rat of the day is lost to us, but the ridicule on placemen ratters remains. The whole, however, is perfectly incomprehensible to foreigners. "Rats! rat!" repeated one of the foreigners, as he looked at and studied the print. It was amusing to see the gravity with which this foreign diplomatist, quite new to England, listened to Lady Bearcroft's explanation of what is meant in English by a rat political. She was at first rather good on this topic, professing a supernatural acuteness of the senses, arising from an unconquerable antipathy, born with her, to the whole race of rats. She declared that she could see a rat a mile off in any man—could, from the moment a man opened his mouth in parliament, or on the hustings, prophesy whether he would turn into a rat at last, or not. She, moreover, understood the language of rats of every degree, and knew even when they said "No," that they meant "Yes,"—two monosyllables, the test of rats, which betray them all sooner or later, and transform the biped into the quadruped, who then turns tail, and runs always to the other side, from whatever side he may be of.

The chargé-d'affaires stood in half bow, lending deferential ear and serious attention the whole time of this lecture upon rats, without being able from beginning to end to compass its meaning, and at the close, with a disconsolate shrug, he exclaimed, "Ah! Je renonce à ça—"

Lady Bearcroft went on—"Since I cannot make your excellency understand by description what I mean by an English rat-political, I must give you an example or two, dead and living—living best, and I have more than one noted and branded rat in my eye."

But Lady Cecilia, anxious to interrupt this perilous business, hastily rang for wine and water; and as the gentlemen went to help themselves she gave them a general toast, as sitting down to the piano-forte, to the tune of— "Here's to the maiden of blushing fifteen"—

She sang—

 "Here's to rats and ratcatchers of every degree,
  The rat that is trapped, and the rat that is free,
  The rat that is shy, sir, the rat that is bold, sir,
  The rat upon sale, sir, the rat that is sold, sir.
  Let the rats rat! Success to them all,
  And well off to the old ones before the house fall!"

Maria Edgeworth