In a Winter City/Chapter 2
"They say," the great assassin who slays as many thousands as ever did plague or cholera, drink or warfare; "they say," the thief of reputation, who steals, with stealthy step and coward's mask, to filch good names away in the dead dark of irresponsible calumny; "they say," a giant murderer, iron-gloved to slay you, a fleet, elusive, vaporous will-o'-the-wisp, when you would seize and choke it; "they say," mighty Thug though it be which strangles from behind the purest victim, had not been ever known to touch the Lady Hilda.
She seemed very passionless and cold; and no one ever whispered that she was not what she seemed. Possibly she enjoyed so unusual an immunity, first, because she was so very rich; secondly, because she had many male relations; thirdly, because women, whilst they envied, were afraid of her. Anyway, her name was altogether without reproach; the only defect to be found in her in the estimate of many of her adorers.
Married without any wish of her own being consulted, and left so soon afterwards mistress of herself and of very large wealth, she had remained altogether indifferent and insensible to all forms of love. Other women fell in love in all sorts of ways, feebly or forcibly, according to their natures, but she never.
The passions she excited broke against her serene contempt, like surf on a rocky shore. She was the despair of all the "tueurs de femmes" of Europe.
"Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," she said to her brother once, when she had refused the hereditary Prince of Deutschland; "I can do exactly as I like; I have everything I want; I can follow all my own whims; I am perfectly happy; why ever should I alter all this? What could any man ever offer me that would he better?"
Lord Clairvaux was obliged to grumble that he did not know what any man could.
"Unless you were to care for the man," he muttered shamefacedly.
"Oh!—h!—h!" said the Lady Hilda, with the most prolonged delicate and eloquent interjection of amazed scorn.
Lord Clairvaux felt that he had been as silly and rustic as if he were a ploughboy. He was an affectionate creature himself, in character very like a Newfoundland dog, and had none of his sister's talent and temperament; he loved her dearly, but he was always a little afraid of her.
"Hilda don't say much to you, but she just gives you a look; and don't you sink into your shoes!" he said once to a friend.
He stood six feet three without the shoes, to whose level her single glance could so pathetically reduce him.
But except before herself, Lord Clairvaux, in his shoes or out of them, was the bravest and frankest gentleman that ever walked the earth; and the universal recollection of him and of his unhesitating habit of "setting things straight," probably kept so in awe the calumny-makers, that he produced the miracle of a woman who actually was blameless getting the credit of being so. Usually snow is deemed black, and coal is called swans-down, with that refreshing habit of contrariety which alone saves society from stagnation.
It never occurred to her what a tower of strength for her honour was that good-looking, good-tempered, stupid, big brother of her's, who could not spell a trisyllable were it ever so, and was only learned in racing stock and greyhound pedigrees; but she was fond of him in a cool and careless way, as she might have been of a big dog, and was prodigal in gifts to him of great winners and brood mares.
She never went to stay with him at Broomsdon; she disliked his wife, her sister-in-law, and she was always bored to death in English country houses, where the men were out shooting all day, and half asleep all the evening. The country people, the salt of the earth in their own eyes, were infinitesimal as ants in hers. She detested drives in pony-carriages, humdrum chit chat, and afternoon tea in the library; she did not care in the least who had bagged how many brace; the details of fast runs with hounds were as horribly tiresome to her as the boys home from Eton; and she would rather have gone a pilgrimage to Lourdes than have descended to the ball, where all sorts of nondescripts had to be asked, and the dresses positively haunted her like ghosts.
Five years before, at Broomsden, she had taken up her candlestick after three nights of unutterable boredom between her sister-in-law and a fat duchess, and had mentally vowed never to return there. The vow she had kept, and she had always seen Clairvaux in Paris, in London, in Baden—anywhere rather than in the home of their childhood, towards which she had no tenderness of sentiment, but merely recollections of the fierce tyrannies of many German governesses.
She would often buy him a colt out of the Lagrange or Lafitte stables; and always send half Boissier's and Siraudin's shops to his children at Christmas time. That done, she considered nothing more could be expected of her: it was certainly not necessary that she should bore herself.
To spend money was an easy undemonstrative manner of acknowledging the ties of nature, which pleased and suited her. Perhaps she would have been capable of showing her affection in nobler and more self-sacrificing ways; but then there was nothing in her circumstances to call for that kind of thing; no trouble ever came nigh her; and the chariot of her life rolled as smoothly as her own victoria à huit ressorts.
For the ten years of her womanhood the Lady Hilda had had the command of immense wealth. Anything short of that seemed to her abject poverty. She could theorise about making herself into Greuze or Gainsboro' pictures in serge or dimity; but, in fact, she could not imagine herself without all the black sables and silver fox, the velvets and silks, the diamonds and emeralds, the embroideries and laces that made her a thing which Titian would have worshipped.
She could not imagine herself for an instant without power of limitless command, limitless caprice, ceaseless indulgence, boundless patronage, and all the gratifications of whim and will which go with the possession of a great fortune and the enjoyment of an entire irresponsibility.
She was bored and annoyed very often indeed because Pleasure is not as inventive a god as he ought to be, and his catalogue is very soon run through; but it never by any chance occurred to her that it might be her money which bored her.
When, on a very dreary day early in November, Lady Hilda, known by repute all over Europe as the proudest, handsomest, coldest woman in the world, and famous as an élégante in every fashionable city, arrived at the Hôtel Murat, in the town of Floralia, and it was known that she had come to establish herself there for the winter (unless, indeed, she changed her mind, which was probable), the stir in the city was extraordinary. She brought with her several servants, several carriage horses, immense jewel cases, and a pug dog. She was the great arrival of the season.
There was a Grand Duchess of Dresden, indeed, who came at the same time, but she brought no horses; she hired her coupé from, a livery-stable, and her star, notwithstanding its royalty, paled in proportion. Besides, the Grand Duchess was a very little, shabby, insignificant person, who wore black stuff dresses, and a wig without any art in it. She was music-mad, and Wagner was her prophet. The Club took no account of her.
There is a club in Floralia, nay, it is the Club;—all other clubs being for purposes gymnastic, patriotic, theatric, or political, and out of society altogether.
The Club is very fond of black-balling, and gives very odd reasons for doing so, instead of the simple and true one, that it wants to keep itself to itself. It has been known to object to one man because his hair curled, and to another because he was the son of a king, and to another because his boots were not made in Paris. Be its reasons, however, good, bad, or indifferent, it pleases itself; by its fiat newly-arrived women are exalted to the empyrean, or perish in obscurity, and its members are the cream of masculine Floralia, and spend all fine afternoons on the steps and the pavement, blocking up the passage way in the chief street, and criticising all equipages and their occupants.
When the Lady Hilda's victoria, with the two blacks, and the white and black liveries, swept past the Club, there was a great stir in these philosophers of the stones. Most knew her by sight very well; two or three knew her personally, and these fortunate few, who had the privilege to raise their hats as that carriage went by, rose immediately in the esteem of their fellows.
"Je n'ai jamais rien connu de si épâtant," said the French Duc de St. Louis, who belongs to a past generation, but is much more charming and witty than anything to be found in the present one.
"Twelve hundred and fifty thousand francs a-year," murmured the Marchese Sampierdareno, with a sigh. He was married himself.
"Here is your 'affaire,' Paolo," said Don Carlo Maremma to a man next him.
The Duca della Rocca, to whom he spoke, stroked his moustache, and smiled a little.
"She is a very beautiful person," he answered; "I have seen her before at the Tuileries and at Trouville, but I do not know her at all. I was never presented."
"That will arrange itself easily," said the Duc de St. Louis, who was one of those who had raised their hats; "Maremma is perfectly right; it is in every way the very thing for you. Moi, je m'en charge."
The Duca della Rocca shrugged his shoulders a very little, and lighted a fresh cigar. But his face grew grave, and he looked thoughtfully after the black horses, and the white and black liveries.
At the English reception that night, which the Lady Hilda disdainfully likened in her own mind to a penal settlement, M. de St. Louis, whom she knew very well, begged to be permitted to present to her his friend the Duca della Rocca.
She was dressed like a mediæval saint of a morning; at night she was a mediæval princess.
She had feuille morte velvet slashed with the palest of ambers; a high fraise; sleeves of the renaissance; pointed shoes, and a great many jewels. Della Rocca thought she might have stepped down out of a Giorgione canvas, and ventured to tell her so. He gave her the carte du pays of the penal settlement around her, and talked to her more seriously for some considerable time. Himself and the Duc de St. Louis were the only people she deigned to take any notice of; and she went away in an hour, or rather less, leaving a kind of flame from her many jewels behind her, and a frozen sense of despair in the hearts of the women, who had watched her, appalled yet fascinated.
"Mais quelle femme impossible!" said Della Rocca, as he went out into the night air.
"Impossible! mais comment donc?" said the Duc de St. Louis, with vivacity and some anger.
The Duc de St. Louis worshipped her, as every year of his life he worshipped three hundred and sixty-five ladies.
"Impossible!" echoed Della Rocca, with a cigar in his mouth.
Nevertheless, the next day, when the rain was falling in such torrents that no female creature was likely to be anywhere but before her fire, he called at the Hôtel Murat, and inquired if Miladi were visible, and being admitted, as better than nothing, as she would have admitted the bric-à-brac man, followed the servant upstairs, and walked into an atmosphere scented with some three hundred pots of tea roses, lilies of the valley, and hothouse heliotrope.
"Ah, ah! you have been to see her. Quite right," said the Duc de St. Louis, meeting him as he came down the steps of the hotel in the rain, when it was half-past five by the clock. "I am going also so soon as I have seen Salvareo at the Club about the theatricals; it will not take me a moment; get into my cab, you are going there too? How is Miladi? You found her charming?"
"She was in a very bad humour," replied Della Rocca, closing the cab door on himself.
"The more interesting for you to put her in a good one."
"Would either good or bad last ten minutes?—you know her: I, do not, but I should doubt it."
The Duc arranged the fur collar of his coat.
"She is a woman, and rich; too rich, if one can say so. Of course she has her caprices———"
Della Rocca shrugged his shoulders.
"She is very handsome. But she does not interest me."
The Duc smiled, and glanced at him.
"Then you probably interested her. It is much better you should not be interested. Men who are interested may blunder."
"She is vain—she is selfish—she is arrogant," said Della Rocca, with great decision.
"Oh ho!—all that you find out already? You did not amuse her long?———"
"C'est une femme exagérée en tout," pursued Della Rocca, disregarding.
"No! Exaggeration is vulgar—is bad taste. Her taste is excellent—unexceptionable———"
"Exagérée en tout!" repeated Della Rocca, with much emphasis. "Dress—jewels—habits—temper—everything. She had three hundred pots of flowers in her room!"
"Flower-pots, pooh!———that is English. It is very odd," pursued the Duc pensively, "but they really do like the smell of flowers."
"Only because they cost so much to rear in their fogs. If they were common as with us, they would throw them out of the window as we do."
"Nevertheless, send her three hundred pots more. Il faut commencer la cour, mon cher."
Della Rocca looked out into the rain.
"I have no inclination—I dislike a woman of the world."
The Duc chuckled a little.
"Ah, ah! since when, caro mio?"
"There is no simplicity—there is no innocence—there is no sincerity"———
'Bah!" said the Duc, with much disdain; "I do not know where you have got those new ideas, nor do I think they are your own at all. Have you fallen in love with a 'jeune Mees' with apple-red cheeks and sweatmeats in her pocket? Simplicity—innocence—sincerity. Very pretty. Our old friend of a million vaudevilles, L'Ingénue. We all know her. What is she in real truth?—A swaddled bundle of Ignorance. Cut the swaddling band—ugh! and Ignorance flies to Knowledge as Eve did, only Ignorance does not want to know good and evil: the evil contents her: she stops short at that. Yes—yes, L'Ingénue will marry you that she may read Zola and Belot; that she may go to La Biche au Bois; that she may smoke cigars with young men; that she may have her dresses cut half-way down her spine; that she may romp like a half drunk harlot in all the cotillons of the year! Whereas your woman of the world, if well chosen———"
"Will have done all these things beforehand at some one else's expense, and will have tired of them,—or not have tired———; of the display of spine and of the cotillon she will certainly never have tired unless she be fifty———"
"That is not precisely what I mean," said the Duc, caressing his small white moustache. "No; I said well chosen—well chosen. What it can matter to you whether your wife smokes with young men, or reads bad novels, or romps till breakfast, I do not see myself. There is a natural destiny for husbands. The unwise fret over it—the wise profit by it. But considering that you dislike these things in your own wife, however much you like and admire them in the wives of other persons, I would still say, avoid our friend of a million vaudevilles—la petite Mees de seize ans. Ignorance is not innocence, it is a great mistake to suppose that it even secures it. Your Mees would seize Belot and Zola à la reveille des noces———. Miladi yonder, for instance, when they come to her from her book-seller's, throws them aside, unread———"
"There was a book of Zola's on her table today———"
"I would bet ten thousand francs that she had not gone beyond the title-page," interrupted the Duc, with petulance. "Taste, mon cher Della Rocca, is the only sure guarantee in these matters. Women, believe me, never have any principle. Principle is a backbone, and no woman—except bodily—ever possesses any backbone. Their priests and their teachers and their mothers fill them with doctrines and conventionalities—all things of mere word and wind. No woman has any settled principles; if she have any vague ones, it is the uttermost she ever reaches, and those can always be overturned by any man who has any influence over her. But Taste is another matter altogether. A woman whose taste is excellent is preserved from all eccentricities and most follies. You never see a woman of good sense afficher her improprieties or advertise her liaisons as women of vulgarity do. Nay, if her taste be perfect, though she have weaknesses, I doubt if she will ever have vices. Vice will seem to her like a gaudy colour, or too much gold braid, or very large plaids, or buttons as big as saucers, or anything else such as vulgar women like. Fastidiousness, at any rate, is very good postiche for modesty: it is always decent, it can never be coarse. Good taste, inherent and ingrained, natural and cultivated, cannot alter. Principles—ouf!—they go on and off like a slipper; but good taste is indestructible; it is a compass that never errs. If your wife have it—well, it is possible she may be false to you; she is human, she is feminine; but she will never make you ridiculous, she will never compromise you, and she will not romp in a cotillon till the morning sun shows the paint on her face washed away in the rain of her perspiration. Virtue is, after all, as Mme. de Montespan said, une chose tout purement géographique. It varies with the hemisphere like the human skin and the human hair; what is vile in one latitude is harmless in another. No philosophic person can put any trust in a thing which merely depends upon climate; but, Good Taste———"
The cab stopped at the club, and the Duc in his disquisition.
"Va faire la cour," he said, paternally, to his companion as they went through the doors of their Cercle. "I can assure you, mon cher, that the taste of Miladi is perfect."
"In dress, perhaps," assented Della Rocca.
"In everything. Va faire la cour."
Paolo, Duca della Rocca, was a very handsome man, of the finest and the most delicate type of beauty; he was very tall, and he carried himself with stateliness and grace; his face was grave, pensive, and poetic; in the largest assembly people who were strangers to him always looked at him, and asked, "Who is that?"
He was the head of a family, very ancient and distinguished, but very impoverished; in wars and civil war all their possessions had drifted away from them piece by piece, hence, he was a great noble on a slender pittance. It had always been said to him, and of him, as a matter of course, that he would mend his position by espousing a large fortune, and he had been brought up to regard such a transaction in the light of a painful but inevitable destiny.
But although he was now thirty-eight years of age, he had never seen, amongst the many young persons pointed out to him as possessing millions, anyone to whom he could prevail upon himself to sell his old name and title.
The Great Republic inspires, as it is well known, a passion for social and titular distinctions in its enterprising sons and daughters, which is, to the original flunkeyism of the mother country, as a Gloire de Dijon to a dog-rose, as a Reine Claude to a common blue plum. Nor are the pretty virgins whom the Atlantic wafts across, in any way afflicted with delicacy or hesitation if they can but see their way to getting what they want; and they strike the bargain, or their mothers do so for them, with a cynical candour as to their object which would almost stagger the manager of a Bureau de Mariage.
Many and various were the gold-laden damsels of the West, who were offered, or offered themselves, to him. But he could not induce himself;—his pride, or his taste, or his hereditary instincts, were too strong for him to be able to ally himself with rag and bone merchants from New York, or oil-strikers from Pennsylvania, or speculators from Wall Street.
No doubt it was very weak of him; a dozen men of the great old races of Europe married thus every year, but Paolo della Rocca loved his name, as a soldier does his flag, and he could not brave the idea of possibly transmitting to his children traits and taints of untraceable or ignoble inherited influences.
Over and over again he allowed himself to be the subject of discussion amongst those ladies whose especial pleasure it is to arrange this sort of matters; but when from discussion it had been ready to pass into action, he had always murmured to his match-making friend—
"A little more time!—next year."
"Bah! ce n'est qu'une affaire de notaire," said his special protectress in these matters, a still charming Russian ex-ambassadress, who constantly wintered in Floralia, and who, having had him as a lover when he was twenty and she was thirty, felt quite a maternal interest in him still as to his marriage and prospects.
Della Rocca was too much a man of the world and of his country not to be well aware that she spoke the truth; it was only an affair for the notaries, like any other barter; still he put it off; it would have to be done one day, but there was no haste,—there would always be heiresses willing and eager to become the Duchess della Rocca, Princess of Palmarola, and Marchioness of Tavignano, as his roll of old titles ran.
And so year by year had gone by, and he vaguely imagined that he would in time meet what he wanted without any drawbacks: a delusion common to everyone, and realised by no one.
Meanwhile, the life he led, if somewhat purposeless, was not disagreeable; being an Italian, he could live like a gentleman, with simplicity, and no effort to conceal his lack of riches; nor did he think his dignity imperilled because he did not get into debt for the sake of display; he would dine frugally without thinking himself dishonoured; refuse to join in play without feeling degraded; and look the finest gentleman in Europe without owing his tailor a bill.
For other matters he was somewhat déscœuvré. He had fought, like most other young men of that time, in the campaign of '59, but the result disappointed him; and he was at heart too honest and too disdainful to find any place for himself in that struggle between cunning and corruption, of which the political life of our regenerated Italy is at present composed. Besides, he was also too indolent. So for his amusement he went to the world, and chiefly to the world of great ladies; and for his duties made sufficient for himself out of the various interests of the neglected old estates which he had inherited; for the rest he was a man of the world; that he had a perfect manner, all society knew; whether he had character as well, nobody cared; that he had a heart at all, was only known to himself, his peasantry, and a few women.