In a Winter City/Chapter 6
"I think Italians are like Russian tea; they spoil you for any other———" wrote Lady Hilda to her brother Clairvaux. It was not a very clear phrase, nor very grammatical; but she knew what she meant herself, which is more than all writers can say they do.
Russian tea, or rather tea imported through Russia, is so much softer and of so much sweeter and subtler a flavour, that once drinking it you will find all other tea after it seem flat or coarse. When she had written this sentiment, however, she tore up the sheet of note paper which contained it, and tossed it in the fire; after all, Clairvaux would not understand—he never understood anything, dear old fellow—and he would be very likely to say all sorts of foolish things while there was not the slightest reason for any one's supposing.
"Do come out here as soon as you can," she wrote instead. "Of course it will all depend on your racing engagements; but if you do go to Paris to see Charles Lafitte, as you say, pray come on here. Not that you will care for Floralia at all; you never do care for these art cities, and it is its art, and its past, and its people that make its irresistible charm. Floralia is so graceful and so beautiful and so full of noble memories that one cannot but feel the motley society of our own present day as a sort of desecration to it; the cocottes and cocodettes, the wheel-skaters and poker-players, the smokers and the baigneuses, the viveurs and the viveuses of our time suit it sadly ill; it wants the scholars of Academe, the story-tellers of Boccaccio; it wants Sordello and Stradella, Desdemona and Giulietta.
"One feels oneself not one half good enough for the stones one treads upon; life here should be a perpetual Kyrie Eleison; instead of which it is only a chorus of Offenbach's. Not that society anywhere, now, ever does rise higher than that; only here it jars on one more than elsewhere, and seems as profane as if one 'played ball with Homer's skull.'
"Floralia is a golden Ostensoir filled with great men's bones, and we choke it up with cigar ashes and champagne dregs. It cannot be helped, I suppose. The destiny of the age seems to be to profane all that have preceded it. It creates nothing—it desecrates everything. Society does not escape from the general influence; its kings are all kings of Brentford.
"Mila—who is here and happy as a bird—thinks Jack Cade and the Offenbach chorus the perfection of delight at all times.
"For myself, I confess, neither entertain me; I fail to see the charm of a drawing-room democracy décolleté and décousu; and I never did appreciate ladies who pass their lives in balancing themselves awkwardly on the bar of Dumas's famous Triangle; but that may be a prejudice—Mila says that it is.
"By-the-by, that odious young Des Gommeux has followed her here—I make myself disagreeable to him. I cannot do more, Spiridion has never interfered, and 'on ne peut pas être plus royaliste que le roi.' But you will skip all this, or give it to your wife. I know I never read letters myself, so why should I expect you to do so? I am so sorry to hear of Vieille Garde's sprain; it is too vexing for you, just as he was so high in the betting. I hope Sister to Simonides turns out worth all we gave for her. There will be racing here in April, but it would only make you laugh—which would be rude; or swear—which would be worse. So please come long before it."
She folded up her letter, wrote "Pray try and come soon" across the top of it, and directed the envelope to the Earl of Clairvaux, Broomsden, Northampton, and then was provoked to think that she did not want good, clumsy, honest Clairvaux to come at all—not in her heart of hearts, because Clairvaux was always asking questions, and going straight to the bottom of things in his own simple, sturdy fashion, and never understood anything that was in the very least complex.
And then again she was more irritated still with herself, for admitting even to her own thoughts that there was anything complex, or that she did not want to examine too closely—just yet. And then she sat and looked into the fire, and thought of Palestrina, with its sweet faint scent of Parma violets, and its dim noble frescoes, and its mountain solitudes, under the clear winter moon.
She sat dreaming about it a long time—for her, because she was not a person that dreamed at all usually. Her life was too brilliant, and too much occupied, and too artificial. She was thinking, with a great deal of money, without desecrating it by "restoration;" but by bringing all the art knowledge in the world to its enrichment, it would be possible to make it as great as it had been in the days of its cardinal. What a pastime it would be, what an interest, what an occupation almost for a lifetime to render that grand old palace once more the world's wonder it had been in the sixteenth century!
Then she rose suddenly with an impatient sigh, and went into her bedroom, and found fault with her maids: they had put Valenciennes on her petticoats, and she hated Valenciennes—no other lace had been so cheapened by imitation; they had put out her marron velvet with the ostrich feathers for that day's wearing, when they should have laid out the silver-grey cloth with the Genoa buttons; they were giving her glacé gloves instead of peau de Suède; they had got out Pompadour boots, and she required Paysanne shoes; it was a fine dry day. In point of fact, everything was wrong, and they were idiots, and she told them so as strongly as a high-bred lady can demean herself to speak. Each costume was put all together—dress, bonnet, boots, gloves—everything; what business had they to go and mix them all up and make everything wrong?
Her maids were used to her displeasure; but she was very generous, and if they were ill or in sorrow she was kind, so that they bore it meekly, and contented themselves with complaining of her in all directions to their allies.
"If she would only have her petites affaires like other ladies she would be much easier to content," said her head maid, who had served the aristocracy ever since the earliest days of the Second Empire.
When there were no lovers, there were much fewer douceurs and perquisites; however, they endured that deprivation because Miladi was so very rich, and so easily plundered.
Miladi, now, arrayed in the silver-grey cloth with the Genoa buttons and the marabout feather trimming, went out to her victoria, en route to the galleries, of which she never tired, and the visits which immeasurably bored her. She had been in the great world for ten years, and the great world is too small to divert one for very long, unless one be as Madame Mila.
Nevertheless, the Lady Hilda found that Floralia interested her more than she would have believed that anything would do.
After all, Floralia was charming by the present, not only by the past.
If it had its kings of Brentford, with its Offenbach choruses, so had every other place; if it had a pot pourri of nationalties, it had some of the most agreeable persons of every nation; if trying to be very naughty it generally only became very dull—that was the doom of modern society everywhere.
There were charming houses in it, where there were real wit, real music, and real welcome. If people saw each other too often, strong friendships could come out of such frequency as well as animosities; and there was a great charm in the familiar, easy, pleasant intimacies which so naturally grew out of the artistic idling under these sombre and noble walls, and in the palaces where all the arts once reigned.
She had begun to take the fair city into her heart, as everyone who has a heart must needs do, having once dwelt within the olive girdle of its pure pale hills, and seen its green waters wash the banks erst peopled with the gorgeous splendours of the Renaissance.
She even began to like her daily life in it; the mornings dreamed away before some favourite Giorgione or Veronese, or spent in dim old shops full of the oddest mingling of rubbish and of treasure; the twilights spent in picture-like old chambers, where dames of high degree had made their winter-quarters, fragrant with flowers and quaint with old tapestries and porcelains; the evenings passed in a society which, too motley to be intimate, yet too personal to dare be witty, was gradually made more than endurable to her, by the sound of one voice for which she listened more often than she knew, by the sight of one face which grew more necessary to her than she was aware.
"If one could be only quite alone here it would be too charming," she thought, driving this morning, while the sun shone on the golden reaches of the river, and the softly-coloured marbles caught the light, and the picturesque old shops gleamed many-hued as harlequin under the beetling brows of projecting roofs, and the carved stone of dark archways.
But if she had looked close into her own heart she would have seen that the solitude of her ideal would have been one like the French poet's—solitude à deux.
She did not go, after all, to her visits; she went instead, in and out of the studios whose artists adored her, though she was terribly hard to please, and had much more acquaintance with art than is desirable in a purchaser.
In one of the studios she chanced to meet the master of Palestrina; and he went with her to another atelier, and another and another.
She had her Paysanne shoes on, and her gold-headed cane, and let her victoria stand still while she walked from one to the other of those sculptors' and painters' dens, which lie so close together, like beavers' work in the old grey quarters of the city.
Up and down the dark staircases, and in and out the gloomy vaulted passages, her silver-grey cloth with the marabout ruches gleamed and glistened, and to many of the artists proved as beneficent as a silvery cloud to the thirsty fields in summer.
She was surprised to find how much she liked it. There was not much genius, and there was a great deal of bad drawing, and worse modelling, and she had educated herself in the very strictest and coldest canons of art, and really cared for nothing later than Luca Signorelli, and abhorred Canova and everything that has come after him.
But there were some little figures in marble of young children that she could conscientiously buy; and the little Meissonier and Fortuny-like pictures were clever, if they were mere trick-work and told no story; and the modern oak carvings were really good; and on the whole she enjoyed her morning unusually; and her companion looked pleased, because she found things to praise.
As she walked, with Della Rocca beside her, in and out the dusky passage ways, with the obnoxious Valenciennes under her skirts sweeping the stones, and her silvery marabouts glancing like hoar-frost in the shadows of the looming walls, the Lady Hilda felt very happy, and on good terms with herself and the world. No doubt, she thought, it was the fresh west wind blowing up the river from the sea which had done her so much good.
The golden Ostensoir, to which she had likened Floralia, no longer seemed filled with cigar-ash and absinthe dregs; but full of the fragrant rose-leaves of an imperishable Past, and the shining sands of a sweet unspent Time.
She made a poor sculptor happy for a year; she freed a young and promising painter from a heavy debt; she was often impatient with their productions, but she was most patient with their troubles.
She was only a woman of the world, touched for a day into warmer sympathies, but the blessings she drew down on her sank somehow into her heart, and made her half ashamed, half glad.
What was the use of writing fine contemptuous things of society unless one tried to drop oneself some little holy relic into the golden Ostensoir? She went home contented, and was so gentle with her maids that they thought she must be going to be unwell.
Her friend the Princess Olga came to chat with her, and they had their tea cosily in her dressing-room; and at eight o'clock she went to dine with Mrs. Washington, an American Parisienne or Parisian American, known wherever the world of fashion extended, and was taken into dinner by the Duca della Rocca.
After dinner there was a new tenor, who was less of a delusion than most new tenors are; and there was a great deal of very æsthetic and abstruse talk about music; she said little herself, but sat and listened to Della Rocca, who spoke often and eloquently, with infinite grace and accurate culture. To a woman who has cared for no one all her life, there is the strangest and sweetest pleasure in finding at last one voice whose mere sound is melody to her.
On the whole she went to bed still with that dreamful content which had come on her in the day—no doubt with the fresh sea wind. She knew that she had looked at her best in a dress of pale dead gold, with old black Spanish lace; and she had only one regret—that in too soft a mood she had allowed an English person, a Lady Featherleigh, of whom she did not approve, to be presented to her.
She was habitually the one desire and the one despair of all her countrywomen.
Except so far as her physical courage, her skill in riding, and her beautiful complexion, which no cold could redden, and no heat could change, might be counted as national characteristics, the Lady Hilda was a very un-English Englishwoman in everything.
Indeed your true élégante is raised high above all such small things as nationalities; she floats serenely in an atmosphere far too elevated to be coloured by country; a neutral ground on which the leaders of every civilized land meet far away from all ordinary mortality.
In Floralia she found a few such choice spirits accustomed to breathe the same æther as herself, and with those she lived, carefully avoiding the Penal Settlement as she continued to call the cosmopolitan society which was outside the zone of her own supreme fashion.
She saw it, indeed, in ball-rooms and morning receptions; it sighed humbly after her, pined for her notice, and would have been happy if she would but even have recompensed it by an insolence, but she merely ignored its existence, and always looked over its head innocently and cruelly with that divine serenity of indifference and disdain with which Nature had so liberally endowed her.
"Why should I know them? They wouldn't please me," she would say to those who ventured to remonstrate, and the answer was unanswerable.
"I can't think how you manage, Hilda, to keep so clear of people," said Madame Mila, enviously. "Now, I get inundated with hosts of the horridest———"
"Because you cheapen yourself," said Lady Hilda, very coolly.
"I never could keep people off me," pursued the Comtesse. "When Spiridion had the Embassy in London, it was just the same; I was inundated! It's good nature, I suppose. Certainly, you haven't got too much of that."
Lady Hilda smiled; she thought of those six or eight thousands which had gone for Madame Mila's losses at play.
"Good nature is a very indifferent sort of quality," she answered. "It is compounded of weakness, laziness, and vulgarity. Generally speaking, it is only a desire for popularity, and there is nothing more vulgar than that."
"I don't see that it is vulgar at all," said Madame Mila, with some sharpness. "I like to think I am popular; to see a mob look after me; to have the shop-boys rush out to get a glimpse of me; to hear the crowd on a race-day call out 'ain't she a rare 'un! my eye, ain't she fit!' just as if I were one of the mares. I often give a crossing-sweeper a shilling in London, just to make him 'bless my pretty eyes.' Why, even when I go to that beastly place of Spiridion's in Russia, I make the hideous serfs in love with me; it puts one on good terms with oneself. I often think when the people in the streets don't turn after me as I go—then I shall know that I'm old!"
Lady Hilda's eyebrows expressed unutterable contempt; these were sentiments to her entirely incomprehensible.
"How very agreeable—to make the streets the barometer of one's looks—'fair or foul.' So you live in apprehension of a railway porter's indifference, and only approve of yourself if a racing tout smiles! My dear Mila, I never did believe you would have gone lower in the scale of human adorers than your Gommeux and Poisseux."
"At all events I am not so vain as you are, Hilda," retorted the Comtesse. "You approve of yourself eternally, whether all the world hates you or not. I remember Charlie Barrington saying of you once—'I wonder why that woman keeps straight—why should she? She don't care a hang what anybody says of her.'"
"How discerning of Lord Barrington! If people only 'keep straight' for the sake of what other people say of them, I think they may just as well 'go off the rails' in any manner they like. Certainly, what I chose to do, I should do, without reference to the approbation of the mob—either of the streets or of the drawing-rooms."
"Exactly what Barrington said," returned Madame Mila; "but then why do you—I mean, why don't you—amuse yourself?"
The Lady Hilda laughed.
"My dear! the Gommeux and the Poisseux would not amuse me. I am not so happily constituted as you are."
Madame Mila coloured.
"That's all very fine talk, but you know it isn't natural———"
"To live decently?—no, I suppose it is not now-a-days. Perhaps it never was. But, my dear Mila, you needn't be too disquieted about me. If it make you any more comfortable as to my sanity, I can assure you it is not virtue; no one knows such a word; it is only indifference."
"You are very queer, Hilda," said Madame Mila, impatiently; "all I know is, I should like to see you in love, and see what you'd say then."
The Lady Hilda, who was never more moved by her feather-headed cousin's words than a rock by a butterfly, felt a sudden warmth on her face—perhaps of anger.
"In love!" she echoed, with less languor and more of impetuosity than she had ever displayed, "are you ever in love, any of you, ever? You have senses and vanity and an inordinate fear of not being in the fashion—and so you take your lovers as you drink your stimulants and wear your wigs and tie your skirts back—because everybody else does it, and not to do it is to be odd, or prudish, or something you would hate to be called. Love! it is an unknown thing to you all. You have a sort of miserable hectic passion, perhaps, that is a drug you take as you take chlorodyne—just to excite you and make your jaded nerves a little alive again, and yet you are such cowards that you have not even the courage of passion, but label your drug Friendship, and beg Society to observe that you only keep it for family uses like arnica or like glycerine. You want notoriety; you want to indulge your fancies, and yet keep your place in the world. You like to drag a young man about by a chain, as if he were the dancing monkey that you depended upon for subsistence. You like other women to see that you are not too passée to be every whit as improper as if you were twenty. You like to advertise your successes as it were with drum and trumpet, because if you did not, people might begin to doubt that you had any. You like all that, and you like to feel there is nothing you do not know and no length you have not gone, and so you ring all the changes on all the varieties of intrigue and sensuality, and go over the gamut of sickly sentiment and nauseous license as an orchestra tunes its strings up every night! That is what all you people call love; I am content enough to have no knowledge of it———"
"Good gracious, Hilda!" said Madame Mila, with wide-open eyes of absolute amazement; "you talk as if you were one of the angry husbands in a comedy of Feuillet or Dumas. I don't think you know anything about it at all; how should you? You only admire yourself, and like art and all that kind of thing, and are as cold as ice to everybody. 'À la place du cœur, vous n'avez qu'un caillou;' I've read that somewhere."
"'Elle n'a qu'un écusson,'" corrected Lady Hilda, her serenity returning. "If Hugo had known much about women he would have said—'qu'un chiffon;' but perhaps a dissyllable wouldn't have scanned———"
"You never will convince me," continued Madame de Caviare, "that you would not be a happier woman if you had what you call senses and the rest of it. One can't live without sensations and emotions of some sort. You never feel any except before a bit of Kronenthal china or a triptych of some old fogey of a painter. You do care awfully about your horses to be sure, but then as you don't bet on anything, I don't see what excitement you can get out of them. You won't play—which is the best thing to take to of all, because it will last; the older they grow, the wilder women get about it; look at Spiridion's aunt Seraphine—over eighty—as keen as a ferret over her winnings, and as fierce as a tom-cat over her losses. Now, that is a thing that can't hurt any one, let you say what you like; everybody plays, why won't you? If you lost half your income in one night, it wouldn't ruin you, and you have no idea how delicious it is to get dizzy over the cards; you know one bets even at poker to any amount———"
"Thanks; it won't tempt me," answered Lady Hilda. "I have played at Baden, to see if it would amuse me, and it didn't amuse me in the least; no more than M. des Gommeux does! My dearest Mila, I am sure that you people who do excite yourselves over baccarat and poker, and can feel really flattered at having a Maurice always in attendance, and can divert yourselves with oyster suppers and masked balls and cotillon riots, are the happy women of this world, that I quite grant you: oysters and Maurices and cotillon and poker are so very easy to be got———"
"And men like women who like them!"
"That I grant too; poker and cotillons don't exact any very fine manners, and men nowadays always like to be, metaphorically, in their smoking-coats. Only you see we are not always all constituted of the same fortunate disposition; poker and cotillons only bore me. You should think it my misfortune not my fault. I am sure it must be charming to drink a quantity of champagne, and whirl round like a South-sea islander, and play pranks that pass in a palace though the police would interfere in a dancing garden, and be found by the sun drinking soup at a supper-table: I am sure it must be quite delightful. Only you see it doesn't amuse me;—no more than scrambling amongst a pack of cards flung on their faces, which you say is delightful too; or keeping a Maurice in your pocket, like your cigar-case and your handkerchief, which you say is most delightful of all. But good bye, my dear, we shall quarrel if we talk much longer like this; and we must not quarrel till to-morrow morning; because your Dissimulée dress will look nothing without my Austraisienne one. What time shall I call for you? Make it as late as you can. I shall only just show myself."
"Three o'clock, then—that is quite early enough," muttered Madame Mila, somewhat sulkily; but she had teazed and prayed her cousin into accompanying her in Louis Seize costumes, most carefully compiled by Worth from engravings and pictures of the period, to the Trasimene costume ball, and would not fall out with her just on the eve of it, because she knew their entrance would be the effect of the night, accompanied as they would be by the Duc de St. Louis and M. des Gommeux as Grand Ecuyer de France, and as Petit Maître en chenille, of the same century.
"Say half-past," answered the Lady Hilda, as she closed the door and went into her own rooms on the opposite side of the staircase.
"I really begin to think she is jealous of Maurice and in love with him!" thought Madame Mila, in whose eyes Maurice was irresistible, though with the peculiar optimism of ladies in her position she was perfectly certain that he was adamant also to all save herself. And the idea of her fastidious cousin's hopeless passion so tickled her fancy that she laughed herself into a good humour as her maids disrobed her; and she curled herself up in her bed to get a good night's sleep out before donning the Dissimulée costume for the Trasimene ball, so that she should go at half-past three "as fresh as paint," in the most literal sense of the word, to all the joyous rioting of the cotillon which Maurice was to lead.
"You shine upon us late, Madame," said Della Rocca, advancing to meet the Lady Hilda, when they reached, at four o'clock in the morning, the vast and lofty rooms glittering with fancy dresses.
"I only came at all to please Mila, and she only comes for the cotillon," she answered him, and she thought how well he looked as she glanced at him. He wore a white Louis Treize Mousquetaire dress, and he had the collar of the Golden Fleece about his throat, for, amongst his many useless titles, and barren dignities, he was, like many an Italian noble, also a grandee of Spain.
"You do not dance, Madame?" he asked.
"Very seldom," she answered, as she accepted his arm to move through the rooms. "When mediæval dresses came in, dancing should have been banished. Who could dance well in a long close clinging robe tightly tied back, and heavy with gold thread and bullion fringes; they should revive the minuet; we might go through that without being ridiculous. But if they will have the cotillon instead, they should dress like the girls in Offenbach's pieces, as many of them happen to be to-night. I do not object to a mixture of epochs in furniture, but romping in a rénaissance skirt!—that is really almost blasphemy enough to raise the ghost of Titian!"
"I am afraid Madama Pampinet and the Fiammina must have romped sometimes," said Della Rocca with a smile. "But then you will say the Decadence had already cast its shadow before it."
"Yes; but there never was an age so vulgar as our own," said the Lady Hilda. "That I am positive of;—look, even peasants are vulgar now: they wear tall hats and tawdry bonnets on Sundays; and, as for our society, it is 'rowdy:' there is no other word for it, if you understand what that means."
"Yes, Canaille. M. de St. Louis says, the 'femme comme il faut' of his youth is extinct as the dodo: language is slang, society is a mob, dress is display, amusement is riot, people are let into society who have no other claim to be there but money and impudence, and are as ignorant as our maids and our grooms, and more so. It is all as bad as it can be, and I suppose it will only go on getting worse. You Italians are the only people with whom manner is not a lost art."
"You do us much honour. Perhaps we too shall be infected before long. We are sending our lads to public schools in your country: they will probably come back unable to bow, ashamed of natural grace, and ambitious to emulate the groom model in everything. This is thought an advanced education."
Lady Hilda laughed.
"The rich Egyptians go to English universities, and take back to the Nile a passion for rat-hunting and brandy, and the most hideous hats and coats in the universe; and then think they have improved on the age of the Pharaohs. I hope Italy will never be infected, but I am afraid; you have gasworks, tramways, and mixed marriages, and your populace has almost entirely abandoned costume."
"And in the cities we have lost the instinct of good taste in the most fatal manner. Perhaps it has died out with the old costumes. Who knows? Dress is after all the thermometer of taste. Modern male attire is of all others the most frightful, the most grotesque, the most gloomy, and, to our climate, the most unsuitable."
"Yes. Tall hats and tail coats appear to me to be like the locusts, wherever they spread they bear barrenness in their train. But the temper of your people will always procure to you some natural grace, some natural elegance."
"Let us hope so; but in all public works our taste already is gone. One may say, without vanity, that in full sense of beauty and of proportion, Italy surpassed of old all the world: how is it, I often ask myself, that we have lost so much of this? Here in Floralia, if we require gas-works we erect their chimneys on the very bank of our river, ruining one of the loveliest views in the world, and one that has been a tradition of beauty for ages. If it be deemed necessary to break down and widen our picturesque old bridges, we render them hideous as any railway road, by hedging them with frightful monotonous parapets of cast-iron, the heaviest, most soulless, most hateful thing that is manufactured. Do we make a fine hill-drive, costing us enormously, when we have no money to pay for it, we make one, indeed, as fine as any in Europe; and having made it, then we ruin it by planting at every step cafes, and guinguettes, and guard houses, and every artificial abomination and vulgarity in stucco and brick-work that can render its noble scenery ridiculous. Do we deem it advisable, for sanitary or other purposes, to turn the people out of the ancient market where they keep their stalls under the old palace walls happily enough, summer and winter, like so many Dutch pictures, we build a cage of iron and glass like an enormous cucumber frame, inexpressibly hideous, and equally incommodious, and only adapted to grill the people in June and turn them to ice in January. What is the reason? We have liberal givers such as your countryman Sloane, such as my countryman Galliera, yet what single modern thing worth producing can we show? We have destroyed much that will be as irreparable a loss to future generations as the art destroyed in the great siege is to us. But we have produced nothing save deformity. Perhaps, indeed, we might not have any second Michael Angelo to answer if we called on him; but it is certain that we must have architects capable of devising something in carven stone to edge a bridge; we must have artists who, were they consulted, would say, 'do not insult a sublime panorama of the most poetic and celebrated valley in the world by putting into the foreground a square guards' box, a stucco drinking-house, and the gilded lamps of a dancing-garden.' We must have men capable of so much as that—yet they are either never employed or never listened to; the truth I fear is that a public work now-a-days with us is like a plant being carried to be planted in a city square, of which every one who passes it plucks off a leaf: by the time it reaches its destination the plant is leafless. The public work is the plant, and the money to be got from it is the foliage; provided each one plucks as much foliage as he can, no one cares in what state the plant reaches the piazza."
Lady Hilda looked at him as he spoke with an eloquence and earnestness which absorbed him for the moment, so that he forgot that he was talking to a woman, and a woman whose whole life was one of trifling, of languor, and of extravagance.
"All that is very true," she said, with some hesitation; "but why then do you hold yourself aloof—why do you do nothing to change this state of public things? You see the evil, but you prescribe no remedy."
"The only remedy will be Time," he answered her. "Corruption has eaten too deeply into the heart of this nation to be easily eradicated. The knife of war has not cut it out; we can only hope for what the medicines of education and of open discussion may do; the greatest danger lies in the inertia of the people; they are angry often, but they do not move———"
"Neither do you move, though you are angry."
He smiled a little sadly.
"If I were a rich man I would do so. Poor as I am I could not embrace public life without seeming to seek my own private ends from office. A man without wealth has no influence, and his motives will always be suspected—at least here."
"But one should be above suspicion———"
"Were one certain to do good—yes."
"But why should you despair? You have a country of boundless resources, a people affectionate, impressionable, infinitely engaging, and much more intelligent naturally than any other populace, a soil that scarce needs touching to yield the richest abundance, and in nearly every small town or obscure city some legacy of art or architecture, such as no other land can show———"
"Despair! God forbid that I should despair. I think there is infinite hope, but I cannot disguise from myself that there are infinite dangers also. An uneducated peasantry has had its religion torn away from it, and has no other moral landmark set to cling to; old ways and old venerations are kicked aside and nothing substituted; public business means almost universally public pillage; the new text placed before the regenerated nation is, 'make money, honestly if you can—but make money!' haste, avarice, accumulation, cunning, neglect of all loveliness, desecration of all ancientness—these, the modern curses which accompany 'progress'—are set before a scarcely awakened people as the proper objects and idols of their efforts. We, who are chiefly to be moved by our affections and our imaginations, are only bidden to be henceforth inspired by a joyless prosperity and a loveless materialism. We, the heirs of the godhead of the Arts, are only counselled to emulate the mechanical inventions and the unscrupulous commerce of the American genius, and are ordered to learn to blush with shame because our ancient cities, sacred with the ashes of heroes, are not spurious brand-new lath and plaster human ant-hills of the growth of yesterday!——— Forgive me, Madame," he said, interrupting himself, with a little laugh, "I forget that I am tedious to you. With the taxes at fifty-two per cent., a poor landowner like myself may incline to think that all is not as well as it should be."
"You interest me," said the Lady Hilda, and her eyes dwelt on him with a grave, musing regard that they had given to no man, "and on your own lands, with your own people—how is it there?"
His face brightened.
"My people love me," he said, softly. "As for the lands—when one is poor, one cannot do much; but every one is content on them—that is something."
"Is it not everything?" said the Lady Hilda, with a little sigh; for she herself, who could gratify her every wish, had never yet quite known what content could mean. "Let us go and look at the ball-room; Mila will be coming to know if we have heard of MacMahon's death, that we talk so seriously,"
She walked, on his arm, to the scene of tumult, where being hemmed in by lookers-on till the pressure left them scarcely any space to perform upon, the dancers were going through a quadrille with exceeding vivacity, and with strong reminiscences in it of some steps of the cancan; Madame Mila and Lady Featherleigh particularly distinguishing themselves by their imitations of the Chimpanzee dance, as performed in the last winter's operetta of Ching-aring-aring-ching,
They were of course being watched and applauded very loudly by the ring of spectators as if they were really the actors in the Ching-aring-aring-ching, which afforded them the liveliest pleasure possible, great ladies being never so happy now-a-days as when they are quite sure that they might really be taken for comedians or courtezans.
It was hard upon Madame Mila that just as she had jumped so high that La Petite Boulotte herself could scarcely have jumped higher, the lookers-on turned their heads to see the Lady Hilda in the doorway on the arm of her white Mousquetaire. Lady Hilda was beyond all dispute the most beautiful woman of the rooms, she threw them all into the shade as a rose diamond throws stars of strass; and many of the men were so dazzled by her appearance there, that they actually lost the sight of Madame Mila's rose-coloured stockings twinkling in the air.
"Paolo fait bonne fortune," they said to one another, and began to make wagers that she would marry him, or, on the other hand, that she was only playing with him: opinion varied, and bets ran high.
Society bets on everything—peace and love, and honour and happiness, are only "staying" horses or "non-stayers," on whose running the money is piled. It is fortunate indeed and rare when the betting is "honest," and if the drinking waters of peace be not poisoned on purpose, or the smooth turf of a favourite's career be not sprinkled with glass, by those who have laid the odds heavily against it. So that they land their bets, what do they care whether or no the subject of their speculations be lamed for life and destined to drag out its weary days between the cab-shafts till the end comes in the knacker's yard?
As for the Lady Hilda, she was so used to be the observed of all observers wherever she went, that she never heeded who looked at her, and never troubled herself what anybody might say.
She walked about with Della Rocca, talked with him, and let him sit by her in little sheltered camellia-filled velvet-hung nooks, because it pleased her, and because he looked like an old Velasquez picture in that white Louis Treize dress. Of what anybody might think she was absolutely indifferent; she was not mistress of herself and of fifty thousand a year to care for the tittle-tattle of a small winter city.
It was very pleasant to be mistress of herself—to do absolutely as she chose—to have no earthly creature to consult—to go to bed in Paris and wake up in St. Petersburg if the fancy took her—to buy big diamonds till she could outblaze Lady Dudley—to buy thoroughbred horses and old pictures and costly porcelains and all sorts of biblots, ancient and curious, that might please her taste—to obey every caprice of the moment and to have no one to be responsible to for its indulgence—to write a cheque for a large amount if she saw any great distress that was painful to look upon—to adorn her various houses with all that elegance of whim and culture of mind could gather together from the treasures of centuries—to do just as she pleased, in a word, without any one else to ask, or any necessity to ponder whether the expense were wise. It was very agreeable to be mistress of herself, and yet———
There is a capitalist in Europe who is very unhappy because all his wealth cannot purchase the world-famous Key of the Strozzi Princes.
Lady Hilda was never unhappy, but she was not quite content.
Out of the very abundance of her life she was weary, and there was a certain coldness in it all; it was too like one of her own diamonds.
She sighed a little to-night when her white Mousquetaire had led her to her carriage, and she was rolling across the bridge homeward, whilst Madame Mila's gossamer skirts were still twirling, and her rosy stockings still twinkling in all the intricacies and diversions with which the Vicomte Maurice would keep the cotillon going until nine o'clock in the morning.
In the darkness of her carriage, as it went over the stones through the winding ill-lit streets, she saw soft amorous eyes looking at her under their dreamy lids; she could not forget their look; she was haunted by it—it had said so much.
The tale it had told was one she had heard indeed twenty times a year for ten long years, and it had never moved her; it had bored her—nothing more.
But now—a sudden warmth, a strange emotion, thrilled in her, driving through the dark with the pressure of his hand still seeming to linger upon hers.
It was such an old old tale that his eyes had told, and yet for once it had touched her somehow and made her heart quicken, her colour rise.
"It is too ridiculous!" she said to herself. "I am dreaming. Fancy my caring!"
And she was angry with herself, and when she reached her own rooms looked a moment at her full reflection in the long mirrors, diamonds and all, before she rang for her maid to come to her.
It was a brilliant and beautiful figure that she saw there in the gorgeous colours copied from a picture by Watteau le Jeune, and with the great stones shining above her head and on her breast like so many little dazzling suns.
She had loved herself very dearly all her life, lived for herself, and in a refined and lofty way had been as absolutely self-engrossed and amorous of her own pleasure and her own vanities as the greediest and cruellest of ordinary egotists.
"Am I a fool?" she said, angrily, to her own image. "It is too absurd! Why should he move me more than anyone of all the others?"
And yet suddenly all the life which had so well satisfied her seemed empty—seemed cold and hard as one of her many diamonds.
She rang with haste and impatience for her maid; and all they did, from the hot soup they brought to the way they untwisted her hair, was wrong; and when she lay down in her bed she could not sleep, and when the bright forenoon came full of the sound of pealing bells and gay street songs and hurrying feet, she fell into feverish dreams, and, waking later, did not know what ailed her.
From that time Della Rocca ceased to avoid the Hotel Murat; he was received there oftener than on her "day;" he went about with her on various pilgrimages to quaint old out-of-the-way nooks of forgotten art which he could tell her of knowing every nook and corner of his native city; she almost always invited him when she had other people to dine with her; her cousin did the same, and he was usually included in all those manifold schemes for diversions which women like Madame Mila are always setting on foot, thinking with Diderot's vagabond that it is something at any rate to have got rid of Time.
Sometimes he availed himself of these opportunities of Fortune, sometimes he did not. His conduct had a variableness about it which did more than anything else would have done to arrest the attention of a woman sated with homage as the Lady Hilda had been all her days. She missed him when he was absent; she was influenced by him when he was present. Beneath the softness of his manner there was a certain seriousness which had its weight with her. He made her feel ashamed of many things.
Something in his way of life also attracted her. There are a freedom and simplicity in all the habits of an Italian noble that are in strong contrast with the formal conventionalism of the ways of other men; there is a feudal affectionateness of relation between him and his dependants which is not like anything else; when he knows anything of agriculture, and interests himself personally in his people, the result is an existence which makes the life of the Paris flaneurs and the London idlers look very poor indeed.
Palestrina often saw its lord drive thither by six in the morning, walk over his fields, hear grievances and redress them, mark out new vine-walks with his bailiff, watch his white oxen turn the sods of the steep slopes, and plan trench-cuttings to arrest the winter-swollen brooks, long before the men of his degree in Paris or in London opened their heavy eyes to call for their morning taste of brandy, and awoke to the recollection of their night's gaming losses, or their wagers on coming races.
The finest of fine gentlemen, the grandest of grand seigneurs, in court or drawing-room or diplomatic circle, Paolo della Rocca, amongst his own grey olive orchards and the fragrance of his great wooden storehouses, was as simple as Cincinnatus, laughed like a boy with his old steward, caressed like a woman the broad heads of his beasts at the plough, and sat under a great mulberry to break his bread at noonday, hearkening to the talk of his peasants as though he were one of them.
The old Etrurian gentleness and love of the rural life are still alive in this land; may they never perish, for they are to the nation, as the timely rains to the vine, as the sweet strong sun to the harvest.
This simplicity, this naturalness, which in the Italian will often underlie the highest polish of culture and of ceremony, had a curious fascination for a woman in whose own life there had been no place for simplicity and no thought for nature.
She had been in the bonds of the world always, as a child in its swaddling bands; none the less so because she had been one of its leaders in those matters of supreme fashion wherein she had reigned as a goddess. Her life had been altogether artificial; she had always been a great garden lily in a hothouse, she had never known what it was to be blown by a fresh breeze on a sun-swept moorland like a heather flower. The hothouse shelters from all chills and is full of perfume, but you can see no horizon from it; that alone is the joy of the moorland. Now and then, garden lily in a stove-heated palace though she was, some vague want, some dim unfulfilled wish, had stirred in her; she began to think now that it had been for that unknown horizon.
"Men live too much in herds, in crowded rooms, amongst stoves and gas jets," he said to her once. "There are only two atmospheres that do one morally any good—the open air and the air of the cloister."
"You mean that there are only two things that are good—activity and meditation?"
"I think so. The fault of society is that it substitutes for those, stimulants and stagnation."
He made her think—he influenced her more than she knew. Under the caressing subserviency to her as of a courtier, she felt the power of a man who discerned life more clearly and more wisely than herself.
The chief evil of society lies in the enormous importance which it gives to trifles. She began to feel that with all her splendour she had been only occupied with trifles. Nature had been a sealed book to her, and she began to doubt that she had even understood Art.
"If you can be pleased with this," says a great art-critic, 'this' being a little fresco of St. Anne, "you can see Floralia. But if not,—by all means amuse yourself there, if you find it amusing, as long as you like; you can never see it."
The test may be a little exaggerated, but the general meaning of his words is correct. Cosmopolitan and Anglo-American Floralia, for the main part, do not see the city they come to winter in; see nothing of its glories, of its sanctities, of its almost divinities; see only their own friends, their own faces, their own fans, flirtations, and fallals, reflected as in mirrors all around them, and filling up their horizon.
"A Dutchman can be just as solemnly and entirely contemplative of a lemon-pip and a cheese-paring as an Italian of the Virgin in glory."
Cosmopolitan and Anglo-American Floralia is in love with its lemon-pips, and has no eyes for the Glory. When it has an eye, indeed, it is almost worse, because it is bent then on buying the Glory for its drawing-room staircase, or worse yet, on selling it again at a profit.
The Lady Hilda, who did not love lemon-pips, but who yet had never seen the Glory with that simplicity, as of a child's worship, which alone constitutes the true sight, began to unlearn many of her theories, and to learn very much in emotion and vision, as she carried her delicate disdainful head into the little dusky chapels and the quiet prayer-worn chauntries of Floralia.
Her love of Art had after all been a cold, she began to think a poor, passion. She had studied the philosophy of Art, had been learned in the contemplative and the dramatic schools, had known the signs manual of this epoch and the other, had discoursed learnedly of Lombard and Byzantine, of objective and subjective, of archaic and naturalistic; but all the while it had been not very much more than a scholarly jargon, a graceful pedantry, which had served to make her doubly scornful of those more ignorant. Art is a fashion in some circles, as religion is in some, and license is in others; and Art had been scarcely deeper than a fashion with her, or cared for more deeply than as a superior kind of furniture.
But here, in this, the sweetest, noblest, most hallowed city of the world, which has been so full of genius in other times, that the fragrance thereof remains, as it were, upon the very stones, like that Persian attar, to make one ounce of which a hundred thousand roses die, here something much deeper yet much simpler came upon her.
Her theories melted away into pure reverence, her philosophies faded into tenderness; new revelations of human life came to her before those spiritual imaginings of men to whom the blue sky had seemed full of angels, and the watches of the night been stirred by the voice of God: before those old panels and old frescoes, often so simple, often so pathetic, always so sincere in faith and in work, she grew herself simpler and of more humility, and learned that art is a religion for whose right understanding one must needs become "even as a little child."
She had been in great art cities before; in the home of Tintoretto and the Veronese, in the asylum of the Madonna de San Sisto, in the stone wilderness of Ludwig where the Faun sleeps in exile, in mighty Rome itself; but she had not felt as she felt now. She had been full of appreciation of their art, but they had left her as they had found her, cold, vain, self-engrossed, entirely shut in a Holy of Holies of culture and of criticism; she had covered her Cavalcaselle with pencil notes, and had glanced from a predella or a pietà to the pages of her Ruskin with a serene smile of doubt.
But here and now Art ceased to be science, and became emotion in her. Why was it?—she did not care to ask herself.
Only all her old philosophies seemed falling about her like shed leaves, and her old self seemed to her but a purposeless frivolous chilly creature. The real reason she would not face, and indeed as yet was not conscious of; the reason that love had entered into her, and that love, if it be worth the name, has always two handmaidens: swift sympathy, and sad humility, keeping step together.