In a Winter City/Chapter 3
The next morning the sun shone brilliantly; the sky was blue; the wind was a very gentle breeze from the sea; Lady Hilda's breakfast chocolate was well made; the tea-roses and the heliotrope almost hid the magenta furniture and the gilded plaster consoles, and the staring mirrors. They had sent her in a new story of Octave Feuillet; M. de St. Louis had forwarded her a new volume of charming verse by Sully Prudhomme, only sold on the Boulevards two days before, with a note of such grace and wit that it ought to have been addressed to Elysium for Mme. de Sevigne; the post brought her only one letter, which announced that her brother, Lord Clairvaux, would come thither to please her, after the Newmarket Spring Meeting, or perhaps before, since he had to see "Major Fridolin" in Paris.
On the whole, the next morning Lady Hilda, looking out of the hotel window, decided to stay in Floralia.
She ordered her carriage out early, and drove hither and thither to enjoy tranquilly the innumerable treasures of all the arts in which the city of Floralia is so rich.
A Monsignore whom she knew well, learned, without pedantry, and who united the more vivacious accomplishments of the virtuoso to the polished softness of the churchman, accompanied her. The Clairvaux people from time immemorial had been good Catholics.
Lady Hilda for her part never troubled her head about those things, but she thought unbelief was very bad form, and that to throw over your family religion was an impertinence to your ancestors. Some things in the ceremonials of her church grated on her æsthetic and artistic ideas, but then these things she attributed to the general decadence of the whole age in taste.
Her Monsignore went home to luncheon with her, and made himself as agreeable as a courtly churchman always is to every one; and afterwards she studied the Penal Settlement more closely by calling on those leaders of it whose cards lay in a heap in her anteroom, and amused herself with its mind and manners, its attributes and antecedents.
"After all, the only people in any country that one can trust oneself to know are the natives of it," she said to herself, as she went to the weekly "day" of the infinitely charming Marchesa del Trasimene, nata Da Bolsena, where she met Della Rocca and M. de St. Louis, as everybody meets everybody else, morning, afternoon, and evening, fifty times in the twenty-four hours in Floralia, the results being antipathy or sympathy in a fatal degree.
In her girations she herself excited extreme attention and endless envy, especially in the breasts of those unhappy outsiders whom she termed the Penal Settlement.
There was something about her!—Worth Pingât and La Ferrière dressed the Penal Settlement, or it said they did. Carlo Maremma always swore that there was a little dressmaker who lived opposite his stable who could have told sad truths about many of these Paris-born toilettes; but no doubt Maremma was wrong, because men know nothing about these things, and are not aware that a practised eye can tell the sweep of Worth's scissors under the shoulder-blades as surely as a connoisseur recognises the hand of Boule or Vernis Martin on a cabinet or an étui. At any rate, the Penal Settlement swore it was adorned by Worth, Pingât and La Ferrière in all the glories and eccentricities imaginable of confections, unies and mélangées, Directoire and Premier Empire, Juive and Louis Quinze; and if talking about a theory could prove it, certainly they proved that they bore all Paris on their persons.
But there was something about her—it was difficult to say what; perhaps it was in the tip of her Pompadour boot, or perhaps it hid in the back widths of her skirt, or perhaps it lurked in the black sable fur of her dolman, but a something that made them feel there was a gulf never to be passed between them and this world-famed élégante.
Lady Hilda would have said her secret lay in her always being just a quarter of an hour in advance of the fashion. She was always the first person to be seen, in what six weeks afterwards was the rage: and when the rage came, then Lady Hilda had dropped the fashion. Hence she was the perpetual despair of all her sex—a distinction which she was quite human enough to enjoy in a contemptuous sort of way; as contemptuous of herself as of others; for she had a certain vague generosity and largeness of mind which lifted her above mean and small emotions in general.
She had been steeped in the world, as people call that combination of ennui, excitement, selfishness, fatigue, and glitter, which forms the various delights of modern existence, till it had penetrated her through and through, as a petrifying stream does the supple bough put in it. But there were little corners in her mind which the petrifaction had not reached.
This morning—it was half-past five o'clock in a November afternoon, and pitch dark, but of course it was morning still as nobody had dined, the advent of soup and sherry bringing the only meridian recognised in society—the Lady Hilda refreshed with a cup of tea from the samovar of her friend the Princess Olga Schouvaloff, who came yearly to her palace in the historical river-street of historical Floralia, and having been assured by Princess Olga, that if they kept quite amongst themselves, and never knew anybody else but the Floralian Russian and German nobility, and steadfastly refused to allow anybody else to be presented to them, Floralia was bearable—nay, even really agreeable,—she got into her coupé, and was driven through the gloom to her hotel.
Her head servant made her two announcements:—Madame de Caviare had arrived that morning, and hoped to see her before dinner.
Lady Hilda's brows frowned a little.
The Duca della Rocca had sent these flowers.
Lady Hilda's eyes smiled a little.
They were only some cyclamens fresh from the country, in moss. She had regretted to him the day before that those lovely simple wood flowers could not be found at florists' shops nor in flower women's baskets.
After all, she said to herself, it did not matter that Mila had come; she was silly and not very proper, and a nuisance altogether; but Mila was responsible for her own sins, and sometimes could be amusing. So the Lady Hilda, in a good-humoured and serene frame of mind, crossed the corridor to the apartments her cousin had taken just opposite to her own.
"He is certainly very striking looking—like a Vandyke picture," she thought to herself irrelevantly, as she tapped at her cousin's door; those cyclamens had pleased her; yet she had let thousands of the loveliest and costliest bouquets wither in her anteroom every year of her life, without deigning to ask or heed who were even the senders of them.
"Come in, if it's you, dear," said Madame Mila, ungrammatically and vaguely, in answer to the tap.
The Countess de Caviare was an English-woman, and a cousin, one of the great West country Trehillyons whom everybody knows, her mother having been a Clairvaux. She had been grandly married in her first season to a very high and mighty and almost imperial Russian, himself a most good-humoured and popular person, who killed all his horses with fast driving, gambled very heavily, and never amused himself anywhere so well as in the little low dancing places round Paris.
Madame Mila, as her friends always called her, was as pretty a little woman as could be imagined, who enamelled herself to such perfection that she had a face of fifteen, on the most fashionable and wonderfully costumed of bodies; she was very fond of her cousin Hilda, because she could borrow so much money of her, and she had come to Floralia this winter because in Paris there was a rumour that she had cheated at cards—false, of course, but still odious.
If she had made a little pencil mark on some of the aces, where was the harm in that?
She almost always played with the same people, and they had won heaps of money of her. Whilst those horrid creatures in the city and on the bourse were allowed to "rig the market," and nobody thought the worse of them for spreading false news to send their shares up or down, why should not one poor little woman try to help on Chance a little bit at play?
She was always in debt, though she admitted that her husband allowed her liberally. She had eighty thousand francs a year by her settlements to spend on herself, and he gave her another fifty thousand to do as she pleased with: on the whole about one half what he allowed to Blanche Souris, of the Château Gaillard theatre.
She had had six children, three were living and three were dead; she thought herself a good mother, because she gave her wet-nurses ever so many silk gowns, and when she wanted the children for a fancy ball or a drive, always saw that they were faultlessly dressed, and besides she always took them to Trouville.
She had never had any grief in her life, except the loss of the Second Empire, and even that she got over when she found that flying the Red Cross flag had saved her hotel, without so much as a teacup being broken in it, that MM. Worth and Offenbach were safe from all bullets, and that society, under the Septennate, promised to be every bit as leste as under the Empire.
In a word, Madame Mila was a type of the women of her time.
The women who go semi-nude in an age which has begun to discover that the nude in sculpture is very immoral; who discuss 'Tue-la' in a generation which decrees Molière to be coarse, and Beaumont and Fletcher indecent; who have the Journal pour Rire on their tables in a day when no one who respects himself would name the Harlot's Progress; who read Beaudelaire and patronise Térésa and Schneider in an era which finds 'Don Juan' gross, and Shakespeare far too plain; who strain all their energies to rival Mlles. Rose Thé and La Petite Boulotte in everything; who go shrimping or oyster-hunting on fashionable sea-shores, with their legs bare to the knee; who go to the mountains with confections, high heels, and gold-tipped canes, shriek over their gambling as the dawn reddens over the Alps, and know no more of the glories of earth and sky, of sunrise and sunset, than do the porcelain pots that hold their paint, or the silver dressing-box that carries their hair-dye.
Women who are in convulsions one day, and on the top of a drag the next; who are in hysterics for their lovers at noon-day, and in ecstacies over baccarat at midnight; who laugh in little nooks together over each other's immoralities, and have a moral code so elastic that it will pardon anything except innocence; who gossip over each other's dresses, and each other's passions, in the self-same, self-satisfied chirp of contentment, and who never resent anything on earth, except any eccentric suggestion that life could be anything except a perpetual fête à la Watteau in a perpetual blaze of lime-light.
Pain?—Are there not chloral and a flattering doctor? Sorrow?—Are there not a course at the Baths, play at Monte Carlo, and new cases from Worth? Shame?—Is it not a famine fever which never comes near a well laden table? Old Age?—Is there not white and red paint, and heads of dead hair, and even false bosoms? Death?—Well, no doubt there is death, but they do not realise it; they hardly believe in it, they think about it so little.
There is something unknown somewhere to fall on them some day that they dread vaguely, for they are terrible cowards. But they worry as little about it as possible. They give the millionth part of what they possess away in its name to whatever church they belong to, and they think they have arranged quite comfortably for all possible contingencies hereafter.
If it make things safe, they will head bazaars for the poor, or wear black in holy week, turn lottery-wheels for charity, or put on fancy dresses in the name of benevolence, or do any little amiable trifle of that sort. But as for changing their lives,—pas si bête!
A bird in the hand they hold worth two in the bush; and though your birds may be winged on strong desire, and your bush the burning parterre of Moses, they will have none of them.
These women are not all bad; oh, no! they are like sheep, that is all. If it were fashionable to be virtuous, very likely they would be so. If it were chic to be devout, no doubt they would pass their life on their knees. But, as it is, they know that a flavour of vice is as necessary to their reputation as great ladies, as sorrel-leaves to soup à la bonne femme. They affect a license if they take it not.
They are like the barber, who said, with much pride, to Voltaire, "Je ne suis qu'un pauvre diable de perruquier, mais je ne crois pas en Dieu plus que les autres."
They may be worth very little, but they are desperately afraid that you should make such a mistake as to think them worth anything at all. You are not likely, if you know them. Still, they are apprehensive.
Though one were to arise from the dead to preach to them, they would only make of him a nine days' wonder, and then laugh a little, and yawn a little, and go on in their own paths. Out of the eater came forth meat, and from evil there may be begotten good; but out of nullity there can only come nullity. They have wadded their ears, and though Jeremiah wailed of desolation, or Isaiah thundered the wrath of heaven, they would not hear,—they would go on looking at each other's dresses.
What could Paul himself say that would change them?
You cannot make saw-dust into marble; you cannot make sea-sand into gold. "Let us alone," is all they ask; and it is all that you could do, though the force and flame of Horeb were in you.
Mila, Countess de Caviare having arrived early in the morning and remained invisible all day, had awakened at five to a cup of tea, an exquisite dressing-gown, and her choicest enamel; she now gave many bird-like kisses to her cousin, heaped innumerable endearments upon her, and hearing there was nothing to do, sent out for a box at the French Theatre.
"It is wretched acting," said the Lady Hilda; "I went the other night but I did not stay half-an-hour."
"That of course, ma chère," said Madame Mila; "but we shall be sure to see people we know,—heaps of people."
"Such as they are," said the Lady Hilda.
"At any rate it is better than spending an evening alone. I never spent an evening alone in my life," said Mme. de Caviare, who could no more live without a crowd about her than she could sleep without chlorodyne, or put on a petticoat without two or three maids' assistance.
The French company in Floralia is usually about the average of the weakly patchwork troops of poor actors that pass on third rate little stages in the French departments; but Floralia, feminine and fashionable, flocks to the French company because it can rely on something tant soit peu hazardé, and is quite sure not to be bored with decency, and if by any oversight or bad taste the management should put any serious sort of piece on the stage, it can always turn its back to the stage and whisper to its lovers, or chatter shrilly to its allies.
They went into their box as the second act ended of Mme. de Scabreuse; a play of the period, written by a celebrated author; in which the lady married her nephew, and finding out that he was enamoured of her daughter, the offspring of a first marriage, bought poison for them both, and then suddenly changing her mind, with magnificent magnanimity drank it herself, and blessed the lovers as she died in great agonies.
It had been brought out in Paris with enormous success, and as Lady Hilda and the Countess had both seen it half-a-dozen times they could take no interest in it.
"You would come!" said the former, raising her eyebrows and seating herself so as to see nothing whatever of the stage and as little as possible of the house.
"Of course," replied Madame Mila, whose lorgnon was ranging hither and thither, like a general's spy-glass before a battle. "There was nothing else to do—at least you said there was nothing. Look! some of those women have actually got the œuf de Pâques corsage—good heaven!—those went out last year, utterly, utterly! Ah, there is Lucia San Luca—what big emeralds—and there is Maria Castelfidardo, how old she is looking. That is Lady Featherleigh—you remember that horrid scandal?—Yes, I hear they do visit her here. How handsome Luisa Ottoseccoli looks; powder becomes her so; her son is a pretty boy—oh, you never stoop to boys; you are wrong; nothing amuses you like a boy; how they believe in one! There is that Canadian woman who tried to get into notice in Paris two seasons ago—you remember?—they make her quite Crême in this place—the idea! She is dressed very well, I dare say if she were always dumb she might pass. She never would have been heard of even here, only Attavante pushed her right and left, bribed the best people to her parties, and induced all his other tendresses to send her cards. In love! of course not! Who is in love with a face like a Mohican squaw's, and a squeak like a goose's? But they are immensely rich; at least they have mountains of ready money; he must have suffered dreadfully before he made her dress well. Teach her grammar, in any language, he never will. There is the old Duchess—why, she was a centenarian when we were babies—but they say she plays every atom as keenly as ever—nobody can beat her for lace either—look at that Spanish point. There are a few decent people here this winter; not many though; I think it would have been wiser to have stopped at Nice. Ah mon cher, comment ça va?—tell me, Maurice, who is that woman in black with good diamonds, there, with Sampierdareno and San Marco?"
'Maurice,' pressing her pretty hand, sank down on to the hard bench behind her armchair, and insinuated gracefully that the woman in black with good diamonds was not "d'une vertu assez forte," to be noticed by or described to such ladies as Mila, Countess de Caviare; but since identification of her was insisted on, proceeded to confess that she was no less a person than the wild Duke of Stirling's Gloria.
"Ah! is that Gloria!" said Madame, with the keenest interest, bringing her lorgnon to bear instantly. "How curious! I never chanced to see her before. How quiet she looks, and how plainly she is dressed."
"I am afraid we have left Gloria and her class no other way of being singular!" said the Lady Hilda, who had muttered her welcome somewhat coldly to Maurice.
Maurice, Vicomte des Gommeux, was a young Parisian, famous for leading cotillons and driving piebalds; he followed Mme. de Caviare with the regularity of her afternoon shadow; was as much an institution with her as her anodynes; and much more useful than her courier. To avoid all appearances that might set a wicked world talking, he generally arrived in a city about twenty-four hours after her, and, as she was a woman of good-breeding who insisted on les mœurs, always went to another hotel. He had held his present post actually so long as three years, and there were as yet no signs of his being dismissed and replaced, for he was very devoted; very obedient, very weak, saw nothing that he was intended not to see, and was very adroit at rolling cigarettes.
"Il est si bon enfant!" said the Count de Caviare, to everybody; he really was grateful to the young man, some of whose predecessors had much disturbed his wife's temper and his own personal peace.
"Bon soir, Mesdames," said the Duc de St. Louis, entering the box. "Comtesse, charmé de vous voir—Miladi à vos pieds. What a wretched creature that is playing Julie de Scabreuse. I blush for my country. When I was a young man, the smallest theatre in France would not have endured that woman. There was a public then with proper feeling for the histrionic as for every other art; a bad gesture or a false intonation was hissed by every audience, were that audience only composed of workmen and work girls; but now ———"
"May one enter, Mesdames?" asked his friend, Della Rocca.
"One may—if you will only shut the door. Thanks for the cyclamens," said the Lady Hilda, with a little of the weariness going off her delicate, proud face.
Della Rocca took the seat behind her, as the slave Maurice surrendered his to M. de St. Louis.
"Happy flowers! I found them in my own woods this morning," he said, as he took his seat. "You do not seem much amused, Madame."
"Amused! The play is odious. Even poor Desclée's genius could only give it a horrible fascination."
"It has the worst fault of all, it is unnatural."
"Yes; it is very curious, but the French will have so much vice in the drama, and the English must have so much virtue, that a natural or possible play is an impossibility now upon either stage."
"You looked more interested in the Majolica this morning———"
"How, did you see me?"
"I was passing through the tower of the Podestà on business. Is it not wonderful our old pottery? It is intensely to be regretted that Ginori and Carocci imitate it so closely; it vulgarises a thing whose chief beauty after all is association and age."
"Yes; what charm there is in a marriage plate of Maestro Giorgio's, or a sweetmeat dish of your Orazio Fontana's! But there is very scanty pleasure in reproductions of them, however clever these may be, such as Pietro Gay sends out to Paris and Vienna Exhibitions."
"You mean, there can be no mind in an imitation?"
"Of course; I would rather have the crudest original thing than the mere galvanism of the corpse of a dead genius. I would give a thousand paintings by Froment, Damousse, or any of the finest living artists of Sevres, for one piece by old Van der Meer of Delft; but I would prefer a painting on Sevres done yesterday by Froment or Damousse, or even any much less famous worker, provided only it had originality in it, to the best reproduction of a Van der Meer that modern manufacturers could produce."
"I think you are right; but I fear our old pottery painters were not very original. They copied from the pictures and engravings of Mantegna, Raffaelle, Marcantonio, Marco di Ravenna, Beatricius, and a score of others."
"The application was original, and the sentiment they brought to it. Those old artists put so much heart into their work."
"Because when they painted a stemma on the glaze they had still feudal faith in nobility, and when they painted a Madonna or Ecce Homo they had still child-like belief in divinity. What does the pottery painter of to-day care for the coat of arms or the religious subject he may be commissioned to execute for a dinner service or a chapel? It maybe admirable painting—if you give a very high price—but it will still be only manufacture."
"Then what pleasant lives those pottery painters of the early days must have led! They were never long stationary. They wandered about decorating at their fancy, now here and now there; now a vase for a pharmacy, and now a stove for a king. You find German names on Italian ware, and Italian names on Flemish grès; the Nuremberger would work in Venice, the Dutchman would work in Rouen."
"Sometimes however they were accused of sorcery; the great potter, Hans Kraut, you remember, was feared by his townsmen as possessed by the devil, and was buried ignominiously outside the gates, in his nook of the Black Forest. But on the whole they were happy, no doubt: men of simple habits and of worthy lives."
"You care for art yourself, M. Della Rocca?"
There came a gleam of interest in her handsome, languid hazel eyes, as she turned them upon him.
"Every Italian does," he answered her. "I do not think we are ever, or I think, if ever, very seldom connoisseurs in the way that your Englishman and Frenchman is so. We are never very learned as to styles and dates; we cannot boast the huckster's eye of the northern bric-à-brac hunter; it is quite another thing with us; we love art as children their nurses' tales and cradle songs; it is a familiar affection with us, and affection is never very analytical; the Bobbia over the chapel-door, the apostle-pot that the men in the stables drink out of; the Sodoma or the Beato Angelico that hangs before our eyes daily as we dine; the old bronze secchia that we wash our hands in as boys in the Loggia—these are all so homely and dear to us that we grow up with a love for them all as natural as our love for our mothers. You will say the children of all rich people see beautiful and ancient things from their birth; so they do, but not as we see them—here they are too often degraded to the basest household uses, and made no more account of than the dust which gathers on them; but that very neglect of them makes them the more kindred to us. Art elsewhere is the guest of the salon—with us she is the play-mate of the infant and the serving-maid of the peasant: the mules may drink from an Etruscan sarcophagus, and the pigeons be fed from a patina of the twelfth century."
Lady Hilda listened with the look of awakened interest still in her large eyes; he spoke in his own tongue, and with feeling and grace; it was new to her to find a man with whom art was an emotion instead of an opinion.
The art world she had met with was one that was very positive, very eclectic, very hyper-critical, very highly cultured; it had many theories and elegant phrases; it laid down endless doctrines, and found pleasure in endless disputations. Whenever she had tired of the world of fashion, this was the world she had turned to; it had imbued her with knowledge of art, and immeasurable contempt for those to whom art was a dead letter; but art had remained with her rather an intellectual dissipation than a tenderness of sentiment.
"As you care for these things, Madame," continued Della Rocca, with hesitation, "might I one day hope that you would honour my poor villa? It has little else left in it; but there are still a few rare pieces of Gubbio and Urbino and Faenza, and I have a Calvary which, if not by Lucca himself, is certainly by Andrea della Robbia.'
"I shall be glad to see them. Your villa is near?"
"About ten miles' distance, up in the hills. It was once a great stronghold as well as palace. Now it can boast no interest save such as may go with fallen fortunes. For more than a century we have been too poor to be able to do any more than keep wind and water out of it; and it had been cleared before my time of almost everything of value. Happily, however, the chestnut woods outside it have not been touched. They shroud its nakedness."
"Your villa, Della Rocca?" cried Madame de Caviare, who had known him for several years. "I have never seen it; we will drive out there some day when the cold winds are gone———"
"Vous me comblez de bontés," he answered, with a low bow. "Alas, Madame, there is very little that will repay you: it is hardly more than a ruin. But if you and Miladi will indeed honour it———"
"It is a very fine place still," said the Duc de St. Louis, a little impatiently. "It has suffered in sieges; and is by so much the more interesting. For myself, I endure very much pain from having a whole house, and one built no later than 1780. My great grandfather pulled down the noble old castle, built at the same time as Château Gaillard—imagine the barbarism!—and employed the ponderous rocaille of Oppenord to replace it. It is very curious, but loss of taste in the nobles has always been followed by a revolution of the mob. The décadence always ushers in the democracy."
"We may well be threatened then in this day with universal equality!" said the Lady Hilda, hiding a very small yawn behind her fan.
"Nay, Madame," said Della Rocca. "In this day the nobles do not even do so much as to lead a wrong taste; they accept and adopt every form of it, as imposed on them by their tailors, their architects, their clubs, and their municipalities, as rocaille was imposed by the cabinet-makers."
"How fearfully serious you all are!" said Madame de Caviare. "There is that dreadful Canadian woman standing up—what rubies! how fond vulgar women always are of rubies. That passe-partout of hers is rather pretty; gold thread on blondine satin, is it not, Hilda? My glass is not very strong———"
Lady Hilda looked through her glass, and decided the important point in the affirmative.
"How she is rouged!" pursued the Countess. "I am sure Altavante did not lay that on; he is much too artistic. Maurice, have you a cigarette?"
"It is not allowed, ma chère," said the Lady Hilda.
"Pooh!" said Madame de Caviare, accepting a little delicate paper roll. "It was very kind of you, Hilda, to remind me of that; you wished me to enjoy it. Won't you have one too?"
Lady Hilda said "No" with her fan.
"If the Rocaille brought the Revolution, Duc," she asked, "what will our smoking bring?—the end of the world?"
"It will bring animosity of the sexes, abolition of the marriage laws, and large increase of paralysis," replied M. de St. Louis with great decision.
"You have answered me without a compliment—what flattery to my intelligence."
"Miladi, I never flatter you. I am not in the habit of imitating all the world."
"You look severe, Della Rocca," said Madame Mila. " Do you disapprove of women smoking?"
"Madame, a woman of grace lends grace to all she does, no doubt."
"That is to say, you don't approve it?"
"Madame, I merely doubt whether Lionardo would have painted Mona Lisa had she smoked."
"What a good idea you give me!—I will be painted by Millais or Cabanel, smoking. It will be novel. The cigar shall be in my mouth. I will send you the first photograph. Ah! there is Nordlingen; he will come over here, and he is the greatest bore in Europe. You know what your King here said, when Nordlingen had bored him at three audiences about heaven knows what.—'I never knew the use of sentinels before; let that man be shot if he ask audience again!' We cannot shoot him; let us go to supper. Duc, you will follow us, with M. des Gommeux?—and you, too, Della Rocca? There is that odious Canadian woman going; let us make haste; I should like to see that blondine cloak close; I shall know whether it looks like Worth or Pingât."
She passed out on the Duc's arm, and the Lady Hilda accepted Della Rocca's, while the well-trained Maurice, who knew his duties, rushed to find the footmen in the vestibule, and to arrest another gilded youth and kindred spirit, a M. des Poisseux, whom Madame Mila had espied in the crowd, and charged him to bring with him to supper. Madame Mila preferred, to all the world, the young men of her world of five and twenty or less; they had no mind whatever, they had not character enough to be jealous, and they were as full of the last new scandals as any dowager of sixty.
"They talk of the progress of this age: contrast M. de St. Louis with M. des Gommeux and M. des Poisseux!" said the Lady Hilda, with her little contemptuous smile.
Della Rocca laughed.
"You make me for the first time, Madame, well content to belong to what the Gommeux and the Poisseux would call a past generation. But there are not many like our friend the Duc; he has stepped down to us from the terraces of Marly; I am certain he went to sleep one night after a gavotte with Montespan, and has only just awakened."
The supper was gay and bright; Lady Hilda, rejecting chicken and champagne, and accepting only ice-water and cigarettes, deigned to be amusing, though sarcastic, and Madame Mila was always in one of the two extremes—either syncope, sal volatile, and hysterics, or laughter, frolic, smoke and risqué stories.
She and her sisterhood spend their lives in this see-saw; the first state is for the mornings, when they remember their losses at play, their lovers' looks at other women, the compromising notes they have written, and how much—too much to be safe—their maids knew of them; the second state is for the evenings, when they have their war-paint on, have taken a little nip of some stimulant at afternoon tea, are going to half-a-dozen houses between midnight and dawn, and are quite sure their lovers never even see that any other women exist.
"He could not have a better illustration of the difference between a woman with taste and a woman without it," thought the Duc de St. Louis, surveying the two; the Countess had a million or two of false curls in a tower above her pretty tiny face, was almost as decolletée as a Greuze picture, chirped the fashionable slang of the boulevards and salons in the shrillest and swiftest of voices, and poured forth slanders that were more diverting than decorous.
Lady Hilda was dressed like a picture of Marie Antoinette, in 1780; her rich hair was lifted from her low fair forehead in due keeping with her costume, she swept aside her cousin's naughty stories with as much tact as contempt, and spoke a French which Marie Antoinette could have recognised as the language in which Voltaire once scoffed, and André Chénier sighed. To be sure, she did smoke a little, but then even the most perfect taste cannot quite escape the cachet of its era.
"It was not necessary, my friend, to say that your place was so poor," said M. de St. Louis, as they went out of the hotel together; he had known his companion from boyhood.
"I am not ashamed of my poverty," said Della Rocca, somewhat coldly. "Besides," he added, with a laugh which had not much mirth in it, "our poverty is as well known as that of the city. I think the most dishonest Della Rocca could not conceal it by any adroitness, any more than Floralia could conceal her public debt."
"That may be, but neither you nor the town need proclaim the state of your affairs," said the Duc, who never gave up an opinion. "You should let her be interested in you before you make it so evident; such silence is quite permissible. You need say nothing; you need hide nothing; you need only let things alone."
"My dear Duc," said Della Rocca, with a laugh that had melancholy in it and some irritation, "think for one moment of that woman's position, and say could anything ever induce her to change it—except one thing? Riches could add nothing to her; the highest rank could scarcely be any charm to her; she has everything she can want or wish for;—if she had the power of wishing left, which I doubt. The only spell that might enchain her would be love, if she have any capacity to feel it, which I doubt also. Well—granted love aroused,—what would poverty or riches in her lover matter to one who has secured for ever a golden pedestal of her own from which to survey the woes of the world? She refused the Prince of Deutchsland; that I know, since he told me himself; and men do not boast of rejections;—what position, pray, would ever tempt her since she refused Deutchsland? and he has all personal attractions, too, as well as his future crown."
"Still, granting all that, to make your lack of fortune so very conspicuous is to render your purpose conspicuous also, and to draw her attention to it unwisely," said the Duc, who viewed all these matters calmly, as a kind of mixture of diplomacy and business.
"Caro mio!" said Della Rocca lightly, as he descended the last step. "Be very sure that if I ever have such a purpose, your Lady Hilda has too much wit not to perceive it in a day. But I have not such a purpose. I do not like a woman who smokes."
And with a good night he walked away to his own house, which was a street or two distant. The Duc chuckled, no wise discomfited.
"An Italian always swears he will never do the thing he means to do in an hour," the Duc reflected as he got in his cab.
The Della Rocca Palace was let to many tenants and in various divisions; he himself retained only a few chambers looking upon the old quiet green garden, high walled, dark with ilex, and musical with fountains.
He crossed the silent courts, mounted the vast black stairways, and entered his solitary rooms. There was a lamp burning; and his dog got up and welcomed him. He slipped on an old velvet smoking coat, lighted a cigar, and sat down: the councils and projects of M. de St. Louis were not so entirely rejected by him as he had wished the Duc to suppose.
He admired her; he did not approve her; he was not even sure that he liked her in any way; but he could not but see that here at last was the marriage which would bring the resurrection of all his fortunes.
Neither did he feel any of the humility which he had expressed to M. de St. Louis. Though she might be as cold as people all said she was, he had little fear, if he once endeavoured, that he would fail in making his way into her graces. With an Italian, love is too perfect a science for him to be uncertain of its results.
Besides, he believed that he detected a different character in her to what the world thought, and she also thought was her own. He thought men had all failed with her because they had not gone the right way to work. After all, to make a woman in love with you was easy enough. At least he had always found it so.
She was a woman, too, of unusual beauty, and of supreme grace, and a great alliance; her money would restore him to the lost power of his ancestors, and save a mighty and stainless name from falling into that paralysis of poverty and that dust of obscurity, which are, sooner or later, its utter extinction. She seemed cast across his path by a caress of Fortune, from which it would be madness to turn aside. True, he had a wholly different ideal for his wife; he disliked those world-famous élégantes; he disliked women who smoked, and knew their Paris as thoroughly as Houssaye or Dumas; he disliked the extravagant, artificial, empty, frivolous life they led; their endless chase after new excitements, and their insatiable appetite for frissons nouveaux; he disliked their literature, their habits, their cynicism, their ennui, their sensuality, and their dissipations; he knew them well, and disliked them in all things; what he desired in his wife were natural emotions, unworn innocence, serenity, simplicity, and freshness of enjoyment; though he was of the world, he did not care very much for it; he had a meditative, imaginative temperament, and the whirl of modern society was soon wearisome to him; on the other hand, he knew the world too well to want a woman beside him who knew it equally well.
On the whole, the project of M. de St. Louis repelled as much as it attracted him. Yet his wisdom told him that it was the marriage beyond all others which would best fulfil his destiny in the way which from his earliest years he had been accustomed to regard as inevitable; and, moreover, there was something about her which charmed his senses, though his judgment feared and in some things his taste disapproved her.
Besides, to make so self-engrossed a woman love;—he smiled as he sat and smoked in the solitude of his great dim vaulted room, and then he sighed impatiently.
After all, it was not a beau role to woo a woman for the sheer sake of her fortune; and he was too true a gentleman not to know it. And what would money do for him if it were hers and not his?—it would only humiliate him,—he felt no taste for the position of a prince consort,—it would pass to his children certainly after him, and so raise up the old name to its olden dignity; but for himself———
He got up and walked to the window; the clear winter stars, large before morning, were shining through the iron bars and lozenged panes of the ancient casement; the fountain in the cortile was shining in the moonlight; the ducal coronet, carved in stone above the gateway, stood out whitely from the shadows.
"After all, she would despise me, and I should despise myself," he thought; the old coronet had been sadly battered in war, but it had never been chaffered and bought.